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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.

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  1. Threadmarks: 2-06 Ending
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    Tag


    It was after the parade that Scotty met back up with Spock and McCoy. As VIPs, they had joined Beth, as well as the Colonial delegates and others, on the main stand to watch the procession, and afterward were there to greet the Aurora crew after the float (improved by the views of some of them) returned to its proper hanger.

    The introductions were exchanged. The meeting most of the others anticipated, beyond the disappointment from Caterina having already met Spock, was Spock being introduced to Jarod. The two geniuses exchanged handshakes. "A pleasure to meet you, Mister Spock." Jarod grinned slightly. "I actually took the name 'Doctor Spock' once myself."

    Spock raised a curious eyebrow. "I see. Would this happen to have been a reference to 20th Century pediatrician Doctor Benjamin Spock?"

    Jarod nodded. "That it was. I was Pretending to be a pediatrician at the time."

    "I see. Mister Scott informs me that you learned warp mechanics after observing a systems chart for twenty seconds?"

    Jarod looked to Scotty, who grinned like a teacher showing off a prized pupil. "Give or take a second," he answered. "Although that was mechanical understanding, mostly. The underlying science was something I took a little longer to grasp."

    "I myself required seventeen seconds, but I had the advantage of prior knowledge of the scientific basis in question," Spock answered.

    Before Jarod could answer that, his multidevice let out a tone. "Excuse me," he said, looking down to check it. It was a message from Sydney. He looked to Robert and Julia. "Sydney wants to meet me at his office, we're going to dinner."

    "We'll see you back on the ship, Jarod," Robert replied. "Take care. And give him a hello from the rest of us."

    "Thank you." Jarod looked back to Spock. "It was a pleasure to meet you, Ambassador Spock. Hopefully we can meet again some time."

    "Indeed so," Spock answered. "Live long and prosper."

    "The same to you."

    After Jarod stepped away, McCoy came up beside Spock, having just finished talking with Zack and Barnes. "Hrm. I always wondered what you'd be like if you showed emotions. I reckon he's as close as we'll ever get to that."

    "Unlikely, Doctor, but an interesting thought nevertheless."

    As the rest of the Aurora crew was starting to disperse, to either go to duty stations or head on to enjoy the rest of the day, Scotty returned to them and joined them in stepping outside. There was still cheering coming from the city, distant and thunderous, as the celebrations continued into the after-parade events. "Are ye stayin' any longer?", he asked his old comrades.

    "Regrettably, I am informed that my window of opportunity to return to Romulan space in safety is starting to close," Spock answered. "I will be departing within the hour to make the necessary rendezvous to return to Romulus."

    "A damned shame," McCoy said. "But I can't do much better. The Phlox is arriving in thirty minutes to drag me back to Starfleet Medical. Seems there's been an outbreak or some other damned thing."

    "Aye, duty calls."

    "As duty always does," Spock noted. He gave Scotty a meaningful look. "I am grateful to see that you have found your own place in our century, Mister Scott."

    "It's better than babysittin' midshipmen or wastin' away at th' retirement colony," Scotty said. "An' it's good t' know that after all these years, I can still do th' job."

    "Indeed. And I look forward to hearing further reports of your achievements, Mister Scott." One might have almost thought Spock was being wistful when he continued, "Your continuation of the voyages we made long ago is… agreeable."

    "Just don't let these kids run you ragged, Scotty," McCoy insisted. "Or I might have to have a word or two with them."

    "I would surmise that these words would be among the more colorful terms in your vocabulary, Doctor?", Spock asked.

    McCoy flashed a grin in reply. "You're damned right about that, Spock."




    Jarod found a ride on the community taxi line to get him to the Medical Plaza. He entered the office building where Sydney kept his offices. It was closed down with only a single security guard visible, a light-skinned Human or Human-looking man in sunglasses. Jarod nodded to the man, who nodded back as Jarod went on into the hall toward the office.

    He entered the office waiting space. Sydney's secretary wasn't present. That didn't surprise him, and Jarod saw no problems in knocking on the closed door. "Sydney? I'm here." He opened the door after a moment.

    There was nobody in the office.

    Jarod's hand went immediately to a key on his multidevice.

    That same second, amber energy lit up the periphery of his vision. He turned in time to see the phaser beam being absorbed by the energy field his multidevice was emitting. His attacker was a humanoid, somewhat short, and mostly human-looking. Mostly save the fur-covered, cat-like ears on the top of her head, and the red tail swishing behind her. Jarod recognized her as from one of the lesser-advanced species of N2S7, a Mi'qote.

    She growled something in her native language. The auto-translator decided the best translation was "Bollocks!"

    Jarod heard the step to his left and turned to face a man in dark-colored combat gear. Dark eyes gave him a cold, intent look from a face with East Asian features.

    He moved more quickly that Jarod could anticipate and threw a punch that sent Jarod flying back into the door to Sydney's inner office. One of the hinges was torn off from the impact. A red light on Jarod's multidevice alerted him to his shield nearly failing from the blow. It had been a-near superhuman strike - Jarod figured it was cybernetic enhancement - and that told him his attacker was giving him precious little time to react.

    React he did. Julia had taught him some of her techniques, and he applied it by a quick shift to the right that caused his opponent's next punch to go through air. Jarod timed his own punch to a pressure point, at the celiac plexus, that knocked the wind out of the man for a brief second. He grabbed and pivoted, turning his attacker's weight and momentum against him to send him flying into the door Jarod had just hit, tearing it completely off its hinges.

    Another amber flash and the whine of a phaser told him the first attacker was still after him. His shield took that shot as well. But there was no guarantee his shield could take another, not from the disruption caused by that punch he'd taken. Jarod ran out into the hall.

    He nearly collided with someone else, a short man with almost pale white skin and short-cut brown hair. Jarod turned away from him and back down the way he had come in, even as the new arrival threw a kick at his feet that his shield barely resisted. The attacker cried out in pain and rage at the feedback the shield hit him with. He fell back.

    Running, Jarod finally had a moment to hit the comm key on his multidevice. "This is Jarod, emergency transport, now!"

    There was no answer.

    Jarod's mind was quick enough to consider the attack and what it meant. He could imagine the likely responsible party. It would be something to deal with when he got away. If he could get to the security desk, a hardwired line might…

    Ahead of him the security guard from before appeared at the end of the hall. Jarod looked at him, saw the look on his face, and realized he was in trouble.

    How much trouble, however, he hadn't even a chance to realize before it was too late.

    The fake guard's hand came up toward Jarod. Suddenly it was like Jarod had run into a brick wall. He slammed into nothingness and literally fell right back.

    He tried to get back up. As he did the man's hand became a fist. Invisible force grabbed Jarod by the throat and lifted him. He choked out a cry of surprise and fear while his feet flailed below him. He looked on his attacker as his free hand pulled away his sunglasses.

    His eyes were an unnatural, yellow color, almost gold, and almost gleeful.

    The force on Jarod's neck tightened. He gasped and choked, but no air could enter through the force holding his windpipe closed. Within seconds he was starting to black out.

    "Stop, or you won't get paid," a voice said. "I need him alive."

    Jarod felt the force go away and hit the floor. He tried to raise his head. A pair of hands grabbed each arm and pulled him up, holding his arms behind him until cold metal gripped his wrists. He glared at the person in front of him. "Of course it was you."

    "It doesn't take a genius to figure that one out," replied Miss Parker. She was in the kind of business casual suit Jarod had always seen her favor during their long chase. About the only change was the multidevice on her wrist and that the firearm at her hip was now an Alliance-model pulse pistol. "That's how it's always been for us. You run, I chase." She smirked as she brought a cigarette up to her mouth. Her other hand bore the lighter that, with a flick of her finger, she used to light the cigarette up. She inhaled from it for a moment, causing a red glow to further consume the cigarette. She removed it from her mouth and exhaled a breath full of smoke. "God, I needed that," she sighed, savoring the experience.

    But with that done, Miss Parker returned her attention to Jarod. "You know, I always figured I'd catch you eventually. I just never imagined it'd be like this." She gestured around her at the rest of her team.

    "Why are you doing this?" Try as he might, Jarod was being held by two of his prior assailants, and was well and truly caught. "I saved your life," Jarod reminded her, frowning. "More than once."

    "Yes, you have," replied Miss Parker. "And now, Jarod, you're going to save my father."
     
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    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    Teaser

    The planet of New Liberty continued its quiet orbit outside the window of Robert's bridge office. He stood nearby, in the black-and-command-red-trim uniform of the Alliance Navy, breathing in a sigh at the sight. New Liberty, once, had not even been a speck on the planet surface. But now he could make out the gray splotch of city, and if his vision was a bit stronger, perhaps he'd even make out the fields surrounding the city where the Colony's staples were grown.

    The thought occurred to him of one day retiring here and founding a new Dale family farm. Although Angel was, by her own repeated admission, not the type to be a farmhouse wife, he could almost imagine them in a home like his family's, kids playing in the fields as they grew old together.

    Thinking of Angel in that way felt weird. Their relationship had always floundered on one rock or another, and it was certainly rocky right now. But it wasn't like he had anyone else to think about that way?

    Except, of course, for that memory of the eagerly-shared kiss after a thrilling escape and a tumble down a collapsing hill. The pain in his ribs, the feeling of dirt and sweat mingling, the jubilant look on Julia's face before and after they shared that kiss...

    The thoughts and dreams might have become a confusing, hopeless muddle if not for the interruption when his door chime went off. "Come in," he called out, and turned in time to see Julia enter with her uniform on. "I thought I had you on leave for another two days?", he asked with a wry look.

    "Technically, you do. Technically, I'm not handing you the last shift's reports," she said. An amused grin crossed her face. "Technically this sprouted wings and flew to you."

    "Ah, technically, that sounds interesting," he replied, chuckling and taking the datapad. "So how are you going to enjoy your remaining leave-time?"

    "I'm going to tour the Colony again," she replied. "Seeing it with Zack and the others made me realize how much it had changed. I can barely find my way around it now."

    "It's a booming city now," Robert agreed. "And it makes you think, doesn't it?"

    "About how we started it? Yeah." she nodded. "Of course, that's what this anniversary is all about, isn't it?"

    He nodded quietly. "Well, I don't want to…"

    Before he could finish, there was a tone at his desk to say they had an incoming communication. He pressed the button to open the comm line. "This is Captain Dale," he said.

    The person on the other end was Jupap. "Sir, Colony Security is hailing us."

    "What for?", he asked.

    "They say something happened in the Medical Plaza. It… it involves Commander Jarod."

    Robert and Julia exchanged worried looks.




    The transporter that brought Jarod and his captors to what looked like the inside of a ship was an Alliance model transporter. Which did not narrow down the suspects as well as he might hope, unfortunately, as the subspace tunnelling-style transporter was becoming more and more widespread with every passing month.

    The room was full of chairs. One had been prearranged with restraint cuffs built into the arm. Jarod was forced into the chair and restrained with those cuffs by two of his attackers while Miss Parker watched.

    "He is still determining how to escape," said the golden-eyed man. "Give me ten minutes with him and I will crush his spirit."

    "Jarod's been conditioned to resist torture and abuse," Miss Parker replied. "And the Centre wants him back intact. Which means I want him delivered intact."

    Jarod laughed at her. "Do you really think they're going to let you walk away?"

    "Oh, I'm sure they'd still like to make an example of me," she said. "But they'll be happy with having you back. Then they'll let my father go."

    "Do you really think he's still alive?" Jarod laughed harshly and shook his head. "You should know better."

    "I know he's alive," answered Miss Parker. "And if they betray me…" She frowned at the thought, which she clearly wasn't letting herself think about. "That's why I hired these gentlemen. If the Centre kills him, or they try to double-cross me, I have the firepower to make them regret it." There was a cold look to Miss Parker's eyes as she inhaled another drag from her cigarette.

    One of Jarod's attackers, the Asian cyborg, left the room. "I would have helped you rescue your father," Jarod said. "If you'd asked."

    "Would you have, Jarod?" Miss Parker drew up a chair. She took another drag from her cigarette. "With everything my father was responsible for? What if it meant leaving your dear friends on the Aurora?"

    "I would have arranged something," he insisted.

    For several moments their eyes met, and it was clear Miss Parker was considering the sincerity of his words. During their silence, Jarod felt a steady acceleration through the ship and a sudden lurching feeling that surged and vanished. It was the familiar sensation of entering an interuniversal jump point.

    The door slid open again. The cyborg re-entered. His voice was calm when he reported, "Wolff just made the jump. It doesn't look like anyone was the wiser in orbit. We're home free."

    "Thank you, Kang." Miss Parker stood up. "Wilton, Y'tala, you'll have the first watch with him. Don't let Jarod out of your sight. In two hours I'll have you relieved."

    The Mi'qote woman and the short man in the room nodded.

    Miss Parker nodded to the man with the gold eyes, who nodded back and departed with Kang.

    "He's a corrupted Gersallian, isn't he?", Jarod asked.

    Miss Parker stopped and turned. "You mean he has the same weird magic that the Gersallians go on about? Yes, he does. And I'm paying him almost everything I have left after hiring the others."

    "You made a lot of money in a year as a 'security consultant'", he charged.

    Miss Parker smirked. "Well, as I told your friend Captain Dale last night… there's a dark side to his precious utopia. And I'm very good at finding things." She took another drag from her cigarette and blew out a puff of smoke. "Enjoy the ride, Jarod. We'll be back home soon enough."

    Without another word, she left, leaving Jarod alone with his guards.


    Undiscovered Frontier
    "Family Matters"




    Robert and Julia were met by Sydney at the office building he used in the Medical Plaza. He was accompanied by two men, an African and someone with a tanned bronze complexion. Robert recognized the second man as Luis de Almerda, a Colombian policeman whom they'd found in a FARC camp back in the old days. He was in the uniform of the New Liberty Colony Security Service and was the chief of police for the entire colony. "What happened?"

    "Mister Okonwi can explain better," said Almerda.

    The African man nodded. When he spoke, the translation systems kicked in for Robert and Julia. "We detected an unscheduled transportation from the premises approximately thirty-eight minutes ago," Okonwi explained. "Officers were dispatched to the scene and found evidence of a struggle in Dr. Sydney's office. We also located the security guard unconscious in a backroom during our search of the premises."

    "This was a trap, then." Robert looked to Sydney. "Do you know anything of what happened here?"

    "I found a message from Jarod on my device," Sydney explained, "telling me he had almost arrived at the office. Going by the message he believed I had called to meet him here. But I never did."

    "Someone lured Commander Jarod into a trap with the false message. Someone aware that he would not be on guard," observed Almerda.

    Robert felt a sick feeling in his stomach. The suspect was not too hard to guess. "Miss Parker," he muttered.

    "It would make some sense, unfortunately." Sydney shook his head. "Miss Parker was upset in being brought here, and she worries about her father's fate with the Centre. She may have taken Jarod to try and save her father by exchanging him."

    "Given what Jarod's told us about these people, I doubt they'll cooperate that well." Robert sighed and clenched his hands into fists. He thought he could actually feel it, feel the emotions Jarod had felt as he was attacked with… overwhelming power?

    A cold trickle went up his spine.

    Julia noticed the change in his expression. "Are you okay?", she asked.

    He looked to her and shook his head. "I feel like there's something… wrong here. Something nasty."

    "You are correct."

    They all turned. Meridina was walking up to them, wearing the casual robes of her Order. "Commander Meridina," said Almerda. "Thank you for coming."

    "You are most welcome. I came as quickly as I could." Meridina looked over the building. "I feel the lingering power even here." A look of deep worry came to her face. "One of the attackers was a swevyra'kse."

    The term had the familiar root word in Gersallian for Robert's growing knowledge of that language. But he'd never heard of this term before. "A what?"

    "A wielder of power from swevyra who has fallen into darkness." Meridina shuddered. "This is what Amaunet turned into when she had control of my body."

    "I thought someone like that would be little better than an out-of-control psychopathic killer?", Robert asked.

    "That is the eventual end of them all. But some resist quite well, sometimes for years. They are capable of cunning and planning. Some may serve as mercenaries, others put their efforts into growing a personal power base.' Meridina shook her head. "They are not to be underestimated."

    "Dammit," Robert breathed. He looked to Almerda. "I can assign officers to assist the investigation, if you'd like."

    Almerda nodded and understood. "Of course."

    Robert looked to Julia. "I know you're on leave…"

    "I'll direct things from here," she said. "We'll look through Miss Parker's things and see if we can find a clue on what her plans are."

    "I shall stay and assist," Meridina pledged.

    "Keep me informed." Robert sighed. "I'm going to file the official report on what happened."




    When Robert returned to his quarters, he found Angel waiting for him. And he could feel the angry tension building up within her. "Whatever happens, I want to go," Angel insisted.

    "I doubt we'll be launching the rescue mission," Robert said. "I'm not even sure what will happen. The Earth of A4P5 is still on the 'no contact' list."

    "We can't just let her get away with this!" Angel clenched her fists. "Dammit, I knew that… that bitch would do something like this. I could see it in her eyes when I saw her the last time."

    Robert stopped beside his desk and turned. "What do you mean?"

    "After Jarod found her a place to live, he visited her. I went with him." Angel frowned. Her fists were clenching and unclenching over and over. She desperately wanted to hit something. "I even told her that if she did something to Jarod I'd kill her."

    Robert sighed. "You would," he noted.

    "I want on the mission, Rob," Angel said. "Let me join Julia and Meridina."

    "Angel, I don't think I can justify that," he answered. "Two officers is a big enough commitment."

    "Dammit, I owe it to him…" Angel crossed her arms. "Rob, please, let me do this. I know people on New Liberty too. And maybe…"

    Robert plopped into his desk chair. "Angel… give me a moment."

    While she stewed, he thought on it. More accurately, he focused on it, trying to sense what the best course of action was. Whether or not Angel would be needed, if it was best to send her. Hearing her heart beating and his own, hearing the thumps as she paced around his room, was distracting.

    Whatever the future was, it wasn't something he could sense. Not this time. He had only his own instinct on the situation, versus the part in his head that said Julia and Meridina were enough for the job.

    But his heart said otherwise. Robert sympathized with Angel's sense of responsibility for what happened with Jarod. And what was the harm in giving Julia and Meridina some backup? They weren't going anywhere. So he nodded. "They're probably at Colony Security, going over Miss Parker's things."

    A look of relief came to her face. "Thank you," she said. "I'll beam down immediately."

    "If they have anything they need computer help with, don't hesitate to call Cat and Lucy," Robert added.

    "Of course not." Angel leaned over the side of the desk and gave him a kiss on the lips, which he returned. When their kiss ended after a few seconds, she smiled and said, "We'll find him, don't worry."

    "I won't," he promised, and then he watched quietly and with some contemplation on his choice while Angel picked up her bag and went to the door.




    With nothing much to do and little hope of escape for the moment, Jarod looked at his surroundings. His place of confinement had evidently been built to be the dining area of a vessel. It had been stripped to be turned into his prison, but he could make out the remaining floor braces for heavy kitchen equipment.

    As for his captors, one was the the red-furred-and-haired Mi'qote woman with a number of different guns on her main belt and on bands around her upper legs to hold more guns. The Human man beside her was wearing a simple jumpsuit of dark gray and black, with his hair cut close to his head. Quiet, calculating amber eyes were still intent upon Jarod.

    "You know I'm an Alliance officer, right?", Jarod asked.

    "What of it?", asked the Mi'qote. Y'tala was her name, presumably, given how Miss Parker had spoken. "I'll make my money and sod off to the Unaligned Worlds, same as always."

    Wilton, for his part, chuckled. "Pal, I know more boltholes and safe housessafehouses than you can imagine." He was speaking in English, but his accent was unique. "And on Solaris, I'm a drop in the bucket. I do this job and it's back to business as usual for me."

    "Are you really so certain of that?", Jarod asked them. "Because if you're…"

    He was interrupted by an explosion of pain. Wilton's fist smashed into Jarod's face. It didn't cause much in the way of damage to his body, but it still hurt. "Shut it or I'll get the tape," Wilton declared.

    Jarod glared at him and gave no other reply.




    For most of the Colony, the fall of night had merely heralded the second great run of celebrations, with grand fireworks to be seen and enjoyed by all.

    In the Security Headquarters, there was no celebratory mood. It was widely known that Jarod had been one of the "Facility crew", he had been directly involved in rescuing many of the Colony's current citizens - including some of those now with Security - and his abduction rankled them.

    Almerda and Okonwi showed Julia, Angel, and Meridina into a meeting room. Bagged belongings were gathered, including personal datapads and a noteputer system. "We've queued the contents of Miss Parker's personal data systems," said Okonwi. With a tap of a button he brought them up.

    After several minutes of looking, Julia shook her head. "This all looks legitimate," she said. "Notes and observations on the cases she was helping Security with."

    "Perhaps she did not commit any of her plans to electronic data format," mused Meridina. "Although it is interesting how often she accessed the suspicious characters list."

    "'Suspicious characters list'?", Angel asked.

    "Under Council order, we keep a list of individuals who have come to our attention, either by direct observation, by report from the populace, or reports by other government agencies," explained Almerda. "It gives us a place to start in some investigations."

    Okonwi added, "We do not do pre-emptive arrests either."

    "I would hope not," murmured Angel.

    Julia ignored that comment and continued. "Well, we know she was looking for someone to work with. Maybe she hired people from the list?"

    "The issue will be finding out which ones. There are probably dozens, maybe even hundreds, of listed persons that she could have approached." Almerda drew in an irritated sigh. "We'll do what we can, of course."

    "Of course." Julia nodded to him and hoped he understood how much his efforts were appreciated.

    "I'd like to know if there's a way Miss Parker was in touch with the Centre." Angel looked over one of the noteputers. "I mean, would she go to all of this trouble without having any guarantees?"

    "If her goal was to recover her father, perhaps she was willing to take that risk." Meridina looked over another of the noteputers. "We should try to track any vessel they departed on."

    "There have been ships coming and going all day," Almerda said. "I will confirm with Traffic Control."

    While Meridina and Julia were discussing that with Almerda, Angel was looking over the rest of the evidence. Further along the table, apart from the things found in Miss Parker's home and office, were a few more evidence bags. She looked them over. Most were debris from Jarod's abduction.

    But one…

    Angel looked to Okonwi, standing nearby. She held up the bag. "You found this on the scene?"

    Okonwi looked at her and at the bag. "Yes," he said. "The ash could have come from a number of things."

    "Like a cigarette?"

    Okonwi considered that. "Possibly."

    Angel opened up the baggie and took a sniff. "I recognize this smell," she said.

    "You are an expert on cigarette ash?"

    "No." Angel shook her head. "But I've smelled it before. Back in the Facility days. Enough that I'll never forget the damned stuff" She looked to Julia and Meridina, who were noticing the conversation now. She offered it to Julia. "Remember?"

    Julia took it and sniffed. A frown came to her face. "I think I do."

    "It's Cuban," Angel said. "The cigarette was made with Cuban tobacco."

    "From which universe, though?", asked Meridina. "Presumably you are looking for a link we can follow from this fact."

    "Do we know what Miss Parker's expenditures were like?", Angel asked. "Did she import anything from outside of our universe?"

    "I'm not seeing it on these records. But she might have made receipts private."

    Angel looked at the ash again. An idea percolated into her head, based off old memories. "Julia, I have an idea," she said softly, softly and lowly that Okonwi couldn't hear from where he was. "I think I know where Miss Parker got her cigarettes."

    "Oh? Almerda can probably…"

    "No," Angel said. "If we go in with Security, they won't cooperate. But if it's who I think it is, he might just talk to us, personally, without the law involved. But we'll have to go in as civilians, and without our multidevices and sidearms. He won't talk to us if everyone sees we've got Stellar Navy-issue tech."

    "A lot of people here would recognize us anyway."

    "Not if we go in carefully, without calling attention to ourselves."

    "And I can attempt to mentally dissuade recognition," Meridina offered.

    Julia frowned pensively over that, They were supposed to be helping Okonwi and Almerda, not hiding things from them. And without their multidevices they had no means of communicating with the Aurora for emergencies. The Aurora wouldn't even be able to track them.

    But there was an earnestness in Angel's hazel eyes that Julia couldn't ignore. If it helped them find Jarod faster, they should do it.

    "Okay," Julia said. "We'll follow you on this."




    Robert couldn't sleep. Not from nightmares, just from general nervousness and worry and a sense of frustration. Jarod was effectively a member of the family, he had saved their lives, and he had been taken by the same people that Robert and the others swore would never have a chance at him again.

    And as things stood, there wasn't a damn thing Robert could do about it. All he could do was hope Julia and the others could find out something they could use to help get Jarod back.

    "I shouldn't have laid down early," Robert muttered. He sat back up and crossed his legs. Meridina had shown him this meditative position and explained the value of using it to quiet his mind and self. By clearing his head, he could rest more easily, or be more in tune with the energy within him and its connection to everything else.

    The months of training had made it somewhat clear that he lacked the strengths Meridina and Lucy had with this. He wasn't sure he'd ever be capable of bringing a sword to a gunfight and winning. That mostly relieved him, but it did give him a tad bit of disappointment, of feeling inadequate. Meridina had counseled him not to concern himself with those feelings. "The power you wield is meant for you, whatever its comparison to others," she had insisted, and he had accepted.

    Gradually he felt like he might yet get to sleep… just to have the comms beep. Lt. Pacetti stated, "Bridge to Captain Dale. Priority message from Admiral Maran."

    Robert answered immediately. "I'll get it right now." He went to his desk, put in his code, and accepted the incoming transmission. The dark-haired Gersallian admiral appeared on the screen. Robert thought he looked tense. "Admiral, sir, good to see you."

    "The same, though we have little time for pleasantries. I received your report about Commander Jarod. We'll do what we can to locate him, I assure you. But right now we have another matter." Maran's expression was tense, and Robert could tell something big was going on. "An opportunity has presented itself, Captain, one that we must seize. It may shorten the war."

    That made Robert pay attention. "Sir?"

    "Ever since the attack on New Austria, the Reich has been dispersing its fleets carefully, ensuring it can respond quickly to another such attack by us," explained Maran. "This has hobbled them somewhat on the main fronts of the war, but it's prevented us from launching effective raids in their rear areas. But we now have a window of opportunity. The Reich's been forced to adjust after the recent fighting and in their shifting of assets, there will be a small time frame during which we can attack several facilities of strategic importance without risking a confrontation with large numbers of opposing ships. To exploit this attack to the fullest, we're throwing every available ship into the action. That includes your's."

    Robert swallowed and nodded. If Maran wasn't exaggerating, a large enough attack in Reich rear areas might completely disrupt their front lines. It would shorten the war. "I understand, sir, we'll get underway by your order."

    "You'll be making a rendezvous with the Themistocles and her battle group," Maran said. "They're gathering in Universe C5O2 as we speak. Coordinates are being transmitted on a subchannel. You must depart immediately, the window is closing steadily and we need literally every minute."

    "I understand, sir," Robert said. "I'll have our people beamed up from New Liberty immediately." He sighed. "Colony Security should still be able to do what they can for Jarod."

    "I assure you, once this is over I will personally intervene with the President to get approval for his recovery, even if it means sending strike teams to his home Earth. But I need you at that rendezvous immediately, Captain. Command out." Maran's image was replaced by a copy of his office seal, a variant on the Presidential one that depicted the Alliance torch insignia on a shining shield.

    Robert triggered his comm unit. "Dale to Bridge. All hands to Code Yellow, call up all personnel from New Liberty."

    The junior officer didn't ask why. That was good, he wasn't supposed to. "Ordering the Transporter Stations to begin now, sir."

    "Take the coordinates Admiral Maran sent in the subchannel on his communication, we need to jump there as soon as the drive is spooled."

    "Yes sir."

    Robert got dressed and replicated some coffee. He had a feeling he would be up for a while. With the coffee in hand he went to the bridge.

    When he arrived, Pacetti had vacated the command chair for Locarno, who had arrived before him. "What's going on?", Locarno asked.

    "Command's launching a special operation against enemy supply lines," he answered quickly. "We need to jump in the next few minutes just to make the rendezvous, and we have the orders for that. They need every ship." Robert got into his seat. "Have we gotten everyone back?"

    "Almost everyone." Locarno returned to the helm. "But the Transporter Stations haven't been able to lock onto Commander Andreys, Commander Meridina, or Lieutenant Delgado."

    Robert was confused by that. "What do you mean they can't lock onto them?"

    "Their multidevices have been removed," Locarno revealed. "I talked to Chief Almerda and he said they left to pursue a lead on Miss Parker's activities."

    "Dammit," Robert grumbled. As much as he wanted the investigation to continue, going into an operation like this without his XO or his Tactical Officer would not look very good, especially if things went wrong. "Is there any way we can track them?"

    "Without their multidevices to fix their locations?" At Sensors, Ensign al-Rashad shook her head. "We can't discern their life readings from any others, sir. There are dozens of Gersallians in the Colony."

    Robert looked at Locarno. "Lieutenant, we don't have time to wait for them to get in contact with us. For the duration of this operation, you're going to be acting XO."

    Locarno nodded. "I understand, sir."

    "Jump drive ready, Captain," added Jupap at Operations.

    "Jump."

    The Aurora generated an interuniversal jump point and flew right into it.




    Julia and Meridina let Angel give the directions to the cab-driver, who took them from the center of the colony toward its outer fringe. The area they found themselves in was full of modest home and buildings, once storage for colony supplies and now turned into other enterprises.

    Angel's address was for one of the smallest of these former storage facilities, which had a sign out front in Spanish. "The Cut Throat?", Julia said, frowning. "Seriously?"

    "Seriously." Angel went to the door. "This is why I wanted us to ditch the uniforms."

    And indeed they had: Angel was in a brown jacket and green-and-white shirt with blue jeans, Julia had opted for a black leather jacket over a red blouse and black trousers. Meridina looked out of place in a matching jacket to Julia's, with a brown shirt underneath and blue pants to match the jacket.

    Inside there was a number of small groupings of beings, mostly favoring drinks and muttering quietly with each other. The place had the look of a real dive of a bar, grungy and barely hygienic, the kind of atmosphere Julia would have associated with a biker bar. A low end one.

    The man at the bar was heavy set, with a light brown complexion and dark hair. Light brown eyes looked at them with a mix of amusement and wariness. "Ah, my avenging angel," he said. "Come to see me again, eh?"

    Angel looked back to Meridina and Julia. "This is Hernan de Corelo. He remembers us more than we'd remember him. He was from our third move on the Cubans."

    "Si, yes," Corelo agreed. "I was sweating and starving in that stinking prison until you sprung me."

    Angel smirked. "What he's not saying is that he wasn't a political dissident or someone in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was a black market dealer that the Cubans caught. And he's been putting his experience to work here on New Liberty."

    Meridina blinked. "And you know this because?"

    "Because two years ago, the Angry Angel here caught me selling," he answered for her. "Told me that if she caught me dealing drugs or weapons she'd tear my arms off and beat me to death with them. And she's one of the few I know who can do it."

    "So he learned, after siccing his thugs on me." Angel smiled sweetly. "They don't work thuggery anymore."

    "Just business, amiga, just business. I only deal with adult customers, and no weapons or hard drugs."

    "I turned him into security, actually," Angel continued. "But Almerda cut him loose. The evidence was skimpy." She approached the bar and leaned over it. "And there were other considerations, weren't there Hernan?"

    He could see what she meant. "Since you're here on a special occasion, how about I take you to the back?" Hernan gestured toward a door. A moderately-stout man in a dark suit was standing there quietly.

    "It would appear that these kinds of establishments are transcendental among all cultures," Meridina mused philosophically, smiling thinly at Julia.

    Julia nodded wordlessly and looked around. She'd always figured there was a dark side to New Liberty, but to go diving into it made her nervous.

    Hernan led them to the back area. There were more tables, a larger bar with more liquors on them - including several bottles of bright blue liquid that could only be highly illegal Romulan ale - and a stage.

    "Is this a theater, then?"

    Hernan smirked back at Meridina. "Of a sort, yes."

    Julia was frowning at him. "A sex show. Something like that, right? Because you wouldn't be hiding a strip club."

    "That would depend, Senorita," Hernan said, slipping behind his bar. "Some of the people who live here, they are not very tolerant of the finer pleasures of life, you know? The law may say these things are fine, but they would make trouble. It's better to not make it too obvious, yes?" He looked over to Angel, who was remaining silent but still tense. "So, I hear there was an incident earlier this evening to mar our fine anniversary celebration. I'm betting you're here over that, yes?"

    "We are." Angel took a seat at the bar. "I know you've got contacts back home, on our Earth, Hernan. You've been selling Cubans?"

    "I have a modest market," he replied.

    "Was this woman one of your customers?" Angel held up a picture of Miss Parker.

    Hernan studied it. "Hrm. Maybe."

    Julia rolled her eyes. "This is when you pull out a roll of bills and start bribing him, isn't it? Jokes about helping him jog his memory?"

    Angel chuckled. She gave Hernan a knowing look. "Are we going to be cliche, Hernan?"

    "I am being serious," he insisted. "But I do believe I have seen her, yes. She came to me for business."

    "Cigarettes?"

    Hernan smirked. "Among other things. A very ambitious planner, that woman."

    "So we've learned." Julia frowned. "So what else did she want from you besides the means to give herself lung cancer?"

    "Contacts. Names. Business arrangements." Hernan smirked. "She knew about my arrangement with Chief Almerda. That chica was cold as ice about it too. Would've ratted me out if I hadn't helped her at a bargain price."

    "With?", asked Meridina.

    "She was looking for people to hire," Hernan revealed. "And for information about the black market. To tell you the truth, I think she was using me to confirm things. I'm not the best in the Colony on these things, you see, but I've been doing it longer than most. The Mafia, the Bratva, the Orion Syndicate, they all have come through here and there, but I'm the one still here, and anyone who's anyone on this Colony comes here eventually."

    "So you're in with all the scumbags," Julia muttered.

    "A way of looking at it," Hernan said. "But I've kept my word. No drugs. No kids. No taking our people." He frowned. "Especially that. This is my home too, and nobody messes with my people, comprende? We take care of our own."

    At that, Angel put two and two together. "So you've been helping Miss Parker make good with Colony Security, feeding her intelligence to help them shut down the nastiest of the organizations and getting the rest to pony up for you and her to leave them alone." She put her arm on the bar. "Is that about right?"

    "Always nice to see you've got a brain with those muscles," Hernan replied. "A shame you're wastin' time on a ship, amiga, there are people who would pay big money to see you punch people."

    "Heh. So, do you have any idea who she hired?"

    Hernan shook his head. "Not my thing. I directed her to some people. Offworlders from other universes."

    "And they would be?"

    "Bad people, amiga. They don't have arrangements with you either. You step into their places, you might not come back out."

    "We could get warrants," Julia suggested. "Go in with Colony Security."

    Hernan chuckled. "Yeah, and maybe someone in Security is earnin' some spare dinero from them, sends them a little message, you show up and they're gone. Sorry, but you ain't finding out anything from them that directly."

    Julia frowned at that. It shouldn't surprise her that even their colony would have corruption. But it rankled regardless.

    "I believe we have learned all we can," Meridina noted. "We should return to resume contact with the Aurora."

    Julia nodded in agreement. She looked to Angel, who slid off the stool. "Thank you, Hernan." She smiled thinly. "Want me to make it look good?"

    "I would rather not be punched by you again, Angry Angel," Hernan answered. "But if you ever want to punch people for money, let me know, I'll talk to the organizers."

    At that Angel smirked. She turned and followed the others out.

    None of them seemed to noticed the hooded, cloaked figure who followed them.
     
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  3. Threadmarks: 2-07-2
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    Jarod had nodded off slightly. When he awoke, his minders had changed. A massive reptilian alien, a Krogan, was now by the door. Nearby, reclining in a chair, was a young woman in a black catsuit that emphasized all of the attractive curves of her very attractive body. Auburn hair was pulled back on her head into a severe bun. At her side was a device that made Jarod think of a cattle prod.

    "I don't suppose I could get a bathroom break?", he asked.

    The Krogan growled.

    "Shush, my dear monster," said the young woman, her voice a lilting accent that Jarod couldn't quite place. She eyed Jarod with eyes that were inhumanly gold, much like the Gersallian from before. A mischievous smirk appeared on her face. "We don't all get what we want, Mister Jarod, or I would have you screaming and begging for mercy by now. Alas, my employer doesn't want you properly broken. I do so miss the chance for playtime, but I must be a professional about these things."

    There was a coldness in the air, similar to but not the same as the coldness that radiated from the Gersallian. Between that coldness and the eye color, Jarod could see he was dealing with another powered individual like Meridina and Lucy. "I don't place the accent."

    "You wouldn't. Nor would you place this one." The second line was spoken with another strange accent, more gutteral in its sounds. "If you must know, I'm from the universe you call S0T5." She grinned. "I am so enamored with the other universes. To think that Earth still exists in them. I really did quite enjoy the visit to one of the Earths." She frowned. "Alas, the constabulary proved most cross with me. I was only playing with the transients, they really should have thanked me."

    "And where are you from specifically?", Jarod asked. He thought back to the materials on S0T5 that he had read. It would explain her strange accents.

    "Hush, dear, I musn't tell you, or I would have to kill you in a most wretched manner, and I would thus wind up having to kill my employer. And that simply wouldn't do." She leaned back in her chair. "I suggest you go back to sleep, Mister Jarod. We shan't be much longer, I think."

    Jarod went silent. The time wasn't right yet, not with this woman present, nor her hulking Krogan friend. He would have to wait for his opportunity.





    It was when Julia and the others got back that they found out about the Aurora. "He left without us?", Julia asked, horrified. "Then… whatever's going on must be really time-sensitive. I knew we should have brought along our multidevices."

    "Hernan would have thrown us out," Angel noted. "Half the room would have recognized Stellar Navy devices."

    "And how many recognized us anyway because of who we are?", Julia retorted.

    Meridina shook her head. "I suspect Hernan would have been motivated more by those who would not have recognized you."

    Almerda sighed upon hearing Hernan's name, but waited until they were done before speaking. "I was wondering if that's who you were going to. If the man wasn't so damned cooperative…"

    Meridina, sensing Julia's aggravation, set a calming hand on her shoulder. "It cannot be helped."

    "I shouldn't have gone," Julia insisted. "I should be at my post." She looked to them. "We should be at our posts, dammit. They're going into a dangerous situation and we're not there!"

    Meridina nodded. "I know, and I understand," she said, her tone gentle and quiet. "But what is done is done, Commander Andreys. You could not have known. Do not let this gnaw at you."

    It was clear Julia was not going to feel any better, however. She clenched her fists. "We've got to make the most of this," she said. "We need to find out how Miss Parker left and any clues on what she's doing, then we need to go get Jarod back."

    "Thankfully, I've received some help in that department," said Almerda. "Please, follow me."

    He led them to a computer lab in Colony Security. At the main station of said lab was a man who looked to be in his thirties, Caucasian with a balding head, wearing a civilian jacket, shirt, and pants. He was busy at work on the computers.

    "Broots," Angela said.

    The former member of Miss Parker's Jarod-chasing team turned in his chair. "Angela," he said. A soft, friendly smile crossed his face. "It's good to see you again."

    She nodded. "Given the situation, at least."

    Broots ' friendly smile faded. "Yeah." He shook his head. "I was hoping it was true. That Miss Parker was accepting our new lives here." He turned in his chair. "But she wasn't. And she's been plotting this since last year, going by her records. It took a little doing, and every trick I've learned about your computer systems, but I found hidden data in her personal computer systems. It was masquerading as a system operation file."

    "That sounds quite complex," Meridina noted. "Is Miss Parker learned enough in computers to compile such a thing?"

    "I doubt it," answered Broots. "I think someone showed her." He tapped a couple of keys and brought up a series of communication logs. "And she's been in contact with the Centre."

    "That's not possible." Julia frowned and looked intently at the communication logs. "A4P5 is strictly off limits to us, and we have long-range sensor nets arrayed around the system to prevent anyone from getting there undetected. How could she have done this?"

    "If I had to guess, she found a way around it," Broots said. "Starting about four months ago."

    "Do we know what they said?", asked Angel.

    Broots shook his head. "No, I'm afraid not. But it's not hard to guess what they were talking about."

    "Her father must be alive," Julia said. "Given everything I've heard about her, she can't be dumb enough to do all of this and not be sure of it."

    "Knowing the Centre, even if her father's alive, they would have made a hard sell." Broots shuddered involuntarily. "I do not miss working for them."

    "They seem quite dark indeed." Meridina moved forward. "Can you tell whom Miss Parker hired to help her? I know she had a swevyra'kse with her."

    "A wha…. never mind." Broots started going through the data again.

    One by one, images appeared. "It looks like she got most of them from the suspicious persons list," Broots remarked.

    Eight images popped up. Most looked Human, with one woman who had eyes hued golden. Julia recognized the odd ones out as a Mi'qote and a Krogan, the former with fiery red fur around the cat-like ears at the top of her head, the latter colored dark green with fiery red eyes.

    "I'm putting these people through the records that Colony Security's gotten from the rest of the Multiverse… and these people are bad news." Broots shook his head and read from the list. "Adam Wolff, Universe L2M1, a suspected smuggler and killer with a Rowland Ltd. Light Cargo ship called the Deadman's Hand, suspected stolen. The Krogan is Weyrloc Krel, kicked out of a mercenary group called the Blood Pack for excessive violence and discipline problems. Y'tala is another mercenary known for operating in an area called the Unaligned Worlds in N2S7. There are warrants for her arrest from the Dorei, the Gersallians, and her homeworld Ys'talla. Karl Wilton is from S0T5, a mixed martial-arts fighter who is listed as a bodyguard and mercenary for hire with contacts in the Solarian and Cevaucian underworlds. The woman was known as Denna Reynolds and Una Samson, she's also from S0T5, and is wanted by the Solarians, the Aurigans, the Cascadian Freeworlds, and a couple of other states as a known assassin." Another data point popped up. "And it looks like someone matching her description was involved in a spree of killings on M4P2 Earth. The Systems Alliance has a standing alert listed on the UAS criminal database."

    "Christ," Angel swore. "Where the hell did Parker get the money to pay for these people?!"

    "I'll look into it," Broots promised. He looked over the last entry. "And the last is for a Gersallian man, Dralan Olati."

    Angela blinked and looked to Meridina. "I thought Gersallians didn't have last names?"

    "A misconception," Meridina replied. "But they are not commonly used. We use given names and placenames, rarely family names." A pensive look came to her face. "Olati… that is a Kuneli name."

    "Kuneli?"

    "One of our ethnic groups, from our western hemisphere's tropical island region," replied Meridina. "The Kuneli have maintained a clan-based family structure. The Olati clan are from the island of Wutami and are a leading family. He undoubtedly specifies the name as a badge of pride." Meridina had a frown on her face. "This 'Denna Reynolds' also seems to be a swevyra'kse. That would mean two of them. This is most concerning."

    "We can't take all of them on," Angel noted. "We'd never stand a chance. We'll need backup."

    "That's assuming we can even get to A4P5," Julia noted. "We could be killing our careers or end up imprisoned if we try."

    "There is an alternative," Meridina pointed out. "We should take wisdom from our quarry."

    "You mean hire people for yourself," Broots said. "I'm not sure with what, though…"

    "The right people will not require financial compensation," Meridina said. "And even if we do, the reward for recovering an Alliance officer may suffice."

    "I doubt it," Angel grumbled. "But the question is still… where are we going to find people?"

    There was silence for a moment. It was broken by a laugh. Everyone turned to face Julia, who continued the laugh for a moment. A wide, brilliant grin was on her face. "We follow Miss Parker's example," Julia said. "Angel, call Hernan. Tell him we're looking for people who can fight. Heavy hitters."

    "Do you think we will find someone willing to work with us in that sort of crowd, Julia?", Angel asked, not quite able to eliminate the skepticism from her voice.

    "It's a start," Julia answered.

    "Indeed," Meridina concurred.




    It was getting late, and they were all getting tired, when the three women found themselves in an outer commercial area beyond the limits of the initial Colony, still out of uniform. Here the streets, few as they were, were unfamiliar, and Julia felt the hair on her neck stand up at looking over it all. It was profoundly uncomfortable to her to think of how places like this could exist even here, in the Colony they had built for the abused and oppressed.

    One such warehouse had an open door on one end. Angel, again, took the lead in approaching the door. A large, sunglass-wearing man looked over them.

    "Hernan says hello," Angel said. "I'm his Angry Angel."

    "You here to participate?"

    "I'm here to find someone," she answered. She held up a bill. Earth Confederacy currency. "Here's the gate for all three of us."

    The man frowned and looked over the bill. "Any trouble, and they'll never find you, understand?"

    "Understood," Angel replied. She nodded to the others and went inside.

    Low voices came from the warehouse as they entered the main part of the building through a hall. Crowds of people, some nicely dressed and some not-so-nicely dressed, were gathered here and there. More men and women in suits glared their way initially before shifting attention away. "They are quite suspicious of us," Meridina noted. "Our identities are known."

    "Then don't cause problems," Angel said.

    "They're just here to make money, right? Killing us would ruin that."

    "So let's not give them a reason to think they should make the attempt." Angel checked her civilian-make multidevice, provided by Hernan with a few names on it. "Hernan's sure our guy is here. A real badass of a mercenary. Keep looking."

    As they moved around, in the rough direction of what looked like a betting table, an MC got into the center ring. "And now for our next card!", the man, a Korean man with a decent English accent, declared. Julia ignored him announcing one fighter, a man with a Central Asian-sounding name, and kept looking for their contact.

    Nevertheless she was interested to hear the name of the second contestant, dubbed "the Blind Raptor", as an alien sounding name: Kasszas S'szrishin. She glanced back, wondering what species it was, to see that the bronze-skinned human stripped down to boxing shorts was facing a six and a half foot tall feathered reptilian humanoid, lime green scales on his lean raptor-shaped head joined with red and yellow feathers. The reptilian wore a robe-like garment of faint yellow and dark gray. His eyes were dull and unmoving, as if he wasn't seeing what was in front of him as the crowd cheered or booed his name.

    "Julia, he's over here."

    Angel calling out to her diverted Julia's attention. She turned to face an area beside the makeshift gambling kiosk. A man in a dark brown shirt and black trousers was leaning against the side of the kiosk, looking at the fight. His eyes were not matched; the left one was normal and brown, but the right one looked off-center and had a grayish, almost white coloring to it. His face was worn with age - he was rather clearly middle-aged, at least - and gruff, which was not surprising given what Hernan said about him. And it was, indeed, the face of the man that Hernan had proposed to Angel when asked.

    Since she had the superior rank, Julia stepped past Angel and up to the man. "Are you…?"

    The older man put a finger to his mouth in a "silence" gesture. "Not now, girl, the match is startin', and I put credits on this one," he said. He had an English accent and a rough tone.

    Julia frowned, but she didn't continue for the moment. No use aggravating the man when she was coming for his help. She turned her head to watch the fight.

    The Human fighter was tall, large, and muscled. He looked and moved like an MMA fighter, and Julia admired the skill he showed in the martial arts with his movements.

    But what she was surprised at was his foe. The Zigonian was clearly blind, but yet the Human couldn't land a single strike on him. Kicks and punches were dodged with deft, agile moves in all directions. The Zigonian nearly slid across the ring in avoiding the man's strikes, punches and kicks and grabs that Julia would never have evaded, even if she'd seen them coming. Nearby people were screaming in frustration at the Human, demanding he land a punch, that he do anything to end the fight with a victory (for both himself and for their wallets).

    The misses were making the other fighter frustrated and angry. His attacks were losing the grace and poise Julia had seen before. He was wasting energy in increasingly wild strikes, losing his posture, becoming so easy to read that Julia would have put him on his back by now.

    Suddenly he fell. The Zigonian hadn't raised an arm or leg to strike him. It was like he had his legs knocked out from under him… Julia "ahhed". Of course. The Zigonian had a tail.

    The fighter went to stand up. The Zigonian's foot struck his shoulder and knocked him back over. The Zigonian stood over him and then kneeled to pin the Human in place. The Human struggled, flailed, and then gave up upon seeing he couldn't move or harm his foe.

    "The Blind Raptor wins again!", the MC declared.

    People nearby threw strips of paper to the floor in disgust, grumbling and growling. The man they'd approached broke out laughing. "Serves you jackasses right," he crowed. "You see someone callin' themselves blind gettin' into a fight, you know they've got somethin' to them!"

    The people he shouted at growled further, but none dared approach. And not just from the bouncers that would stop them. Julia could see the killer instinct in the man. He was dangerous, just as Hernan had said.

    "Now, girl, you were sayin' something?", the man asked her.

    Julia nodded. "You're Zaaed Massani, right?"

    That got her a smirk and a look. "Who's askin'?"

    "I'm Julia Andreys. I'm with the Stellar Navy."

    "So, you God-amned people are finally gettin' around to considerin' my offer?", Zaeed asked. "Because I'm just about ready to head back home. Gettin' tired of this pissant little place."

    Julia frowned at that description of the Colony. But she was more interested in what he had said. "What offer?"

    Zaeed eyed her over. "Ah dammit," he growled. "So you're not here to talk about my contract offer? It was that little jackass Corelo, wasn't it? Sendin' me another shitty little job that I'm not interested in. No, sweetheart, I'm not here to do bounty huntin', not unless they've got swastikas."

    "You came to fight the Nazis?", Angel asked.

    "Damned right," Zaeed said. "Hell of a thing, havin' a universe with damned Nazis around. Beats blowing up more bastards in the Terminus Systems, and I figured you people would be payin' good credits. A man's got to eat, after all, even if he's blowin' up God-amned Nazis. But all I bloody hear is shit about God-amned regulations for private military contractors, 'where's your license', and all that shit. I told that little rat Corelo that I was only interested in people who could light a fire under your Alliance arses, and he sends me this?"

    "Mister Massani, who else wanted to hire you?", asked Meridina.

    "Some broad, long dark hair, name of Parker," Zaeed said. "Said she had a bounty. But I'm not an idiot. I'm a bounty hunter, not some God-amned kidnapper. I told her to take a hike."

    "Well, that's a coincidence," Angel said. "Because she's the one we're here about."

    Zaeed chuckled. "Ah, she got her team and what, took a friend? Well…" He crossed his arms. "What can you pay? Because it'd better be worth my God-amned time." Around them the crowd was cheering again. Another fight was underway.

    "How much are you looking for?", Julia asked.

    Zaeed eyed her. And then he shook his head. "Forget it. You ask that instead of offerin' something, I know you don't have it. Piss off."

    "We can offer you something better than credits," Angel insisted, stepping up as if to cut him off.

    There was steel and irritation in Zaeed's working eye when he looked her way. "I know you probably think you're hot shit, but I've been fightin' since you were in diapers, girlie. Move away or I'll make you move."

    Julia stepped up and back into Zaeed's sight. "You say you want a contract with the Alliance for the war. I can get you that."

    Zaeed laughed in Julia's face. "You're shittin' me, girl. What are you, some hotshot lieutenant lookin' to impress an admiral without havin' to blow him?"

    At that Julia drew closer, matching him eye for steely eye. "I'm not," she said, in a low and forceful tone. "Because I'm Commander Julia Andreys, First Officer of the Starship Aurora, under the direct and personal command of President Morgan and the Chairman of his Defense Staff. I can present your case to Admiral Maran himself with a single call."

    Zaeed narrowed his good eye. He didn't flinch away.

    Neither did Julia.

    "Well," he finally said. "I'll be damned. Looks like I finally got someone's bloody attention." He looked to the others. "So, we're after this Parker lady. Who'd she take?"

    "She hired mercenaries like you," Angel said, "and abducted our shipmate."

    "Commander Jarod is the Operations Officer on our ship," Julia added. "I'm sure helping with his recovery will go a long way when I talk to Admiral Maran about you."

    Zaeed pondered that. "I knew that lady was God-amned trouble," he growled. "Alright. What's your plan? And why do you need me? You've got a ship, and so you've got bloody Marines on it."

    "Our ship's been called away on a time-sensitive mission," Julia replied. "We got left behind because we were out of communication. So we're putting together a rescue mission of our own."

    "And you're lookin' for professionals to fight Parker's team, right?" Zaeed pondered it for a moment. "Alright, what the hell, I'm bored stiff anyway. I do this job, you present me to Admiral Maran."

    "Done," Julia vowed. "I'll personally escort you to Defense Command if I have to."

    "I'll bloody well hold you to that, Commander," Zaeed answered. "Got transportation?"

    "I've got thoughts on that," she replied. "People I know."

    Zaeed nodded. He brought up his left arm. An omnitool came to life, wrapping around the space between the elbow and wrist like a multidevice was. Angel raised her civilian-model multidevice toward him as Zaeed operated the hard-light controls that popped up. "This is my call number," he said. "I'll be back at my rooms, gearin' up. Let me know when and where to meet your ship." Once the data was transferred, he lowered his arm and the omnitool disappeared. "Now excuse me, I've got some credits to collect."

    Zaeed walked away from them. "A rather formidable individual," said Meridina. "There is rage burning deep within him that may yet lead him astray."

    "Right now, that's not our problem," Julia said. "Let's go."

    The next fight was still raging as they went to leave. They walked back into the hall leading to the front door. Only as they got close to it did they watch another guard step out from what looked like the cash office. The hall was narrow enough that he was blocking the exit.

    Julia's eyes narrowed. She glanced back and saw that two more of the guards were blocking the hall in the other direction.

    "It would appear that they want something," Meridina said.

    Another figure stepped out from the cash office, better dressed than the guards flanking him. He was Human-looking, but with dark eyes that were not normal for Humans. Betazoid, Julia thought.

    "Commander Andreys," the man said. "A surprise to find such an august presence here."

    "And you are?", Julia asked.

    "A businessman," was the reply. "I admit I was stunned when I was informed of your conversation with the mercenary. To think you would come here, to my humble little fighting ring?"

    Not having time to stretch it out, Julia asked, "Why aren't you letting us leave?"

    "As I said, I'm a businessman. And I can imagine how much someone of your rank is worth. As ransom… or not, as the case may be." He smirked. "I've heard there are certain… parties in S4W8 who would pay a Brikar's weight in gold-pressed latinum to get their hands on any member of the Aurora crew. Three of you? Even better."

    "They'll tear this place down hunting for us," Angel said. "And I know people who'll kill every Syndicate man on the planet if you try this."

    "The Syndicate isn't afraid of a few black marketeers on a two-bit planet, young lady. Now, if you make it worth my while to let you go, perhaps some business arrangements of benefit to…"

    Before he could finish speaking there was a shout from behind him. The sounds of flesh being struck, a cry of pain, made it clear someone was being attacked.

    Meridina acted next. She extended a hand to the rear and a wave of force slammed into the bodyguards behind them, sending them flying. She reached into her pants belt and pulled out her hidden lakesh, which extended to full length with a sharp metallic shriek. "I will watch from behind!", she shouted.

    Angel and Julia dashed forward. The guards to either side of the Syndicate manager moved ahead of him to intercept. One was an Andorian, one of the masculine genders, and the other was a solid-looking Human. They braced themselves for a fight.

    Angel attacked first, taking on the Andorian with a low tackle. There was no style to her follow up punch that knocked the Andorian out cold.

    The Human snarled at Julia and threw a punch that nearly connected. She pulled to her left at the last moment to avoid it and grabbed the arm in question. The move she used was based on the mok'bara Worf had taught her and Angel during his time on the Aurora, a sequence of muscle movement and weight shifting that allowed her to pull her attacker's arm behind his back and twist until he screamed and went to his knees. Julia kept the pressure up until Angel helpfully punched him across the face and knocked him out.

    Pain surged through her head a moment later. Julia screamed, as did Angel, and both put their hands to their temples. The Betazoid!, was the thought that came through the pain.

    Yes. Now…

    The pain let up, joined by another cry of surprise and pain as something wrapped across the Betazoid's head. He fell over, losing consciousness as he collapsed. Julia and Angel looked to the cloaked figure that stood behind their foe, a large metallic staff in his hand. "This way," he urged in good English, running toward the door.

    Behind them the whine of an energy weapon was joined by a cry. Someone had tried to shoot Meridina with a phaser and had the beam directed into his shoulder. Within the warehouse cries of shock and surprise came. People heard the fighting and now heard the gunfire. They would be stampeding for the exit any moment.

    "Meridina, come on!", Julia shouted, Angel already running ahead with their rescuer. She delivered a solid punch that put the troublesome door guard out completely, ensuring nobody blocked them.

    "Go!", she shouted, deflecting another energy shot at her, this one more of a pulse and from a pistol. "I will follow if I can."

    Before Julia could insist, a figure loomed behind the Syndicate bouncers shooting at Meridina. The figure twisted and a flash of green color slammed into the side of one of the bouncers, knocking him into the other.

    It took Julia a moment to process what that flash came from. It had come from a tail.

    The blind Zigonian who had been fighting in the ring entered the hall. "Go", he said firmly. "I am behind you." He resumed running. Meridina joined him.

    Nearby was an aircar, or rather an air-van, with four seats in the back. Their rescuer ran for the driver side and Julia went for the same side, with Angel already getting in the front seat on the passenger side. Meridina retracted the lakesh blade and followed Julia in, prompting her to move over to sit behind Angel. The blind Zigonian found his way into the back door and climbed into the rear.

    A crowd of people started rushing out of the front door. The suited bouncers were with them, and they were reaching for weapons.

    "Go, go!", Julia urged. The hooded, cloaked figure's hand was already reaching for the wheel. The van tilted toward one side from the weight. The Zigonian used his tail to close the rear door just as a phaser beam scoured it. The van lurched toward one side until its hovering systems compensated for the acceleration and curve, returning to a flat and level bearing by the time they were racing down the road.

    "I'm so going to slap Hernan for this," Angel growled.

    "I do not think Mister Corelo knew of the danger," the hooded man said. His voice and tone were reserved, quiet, and he seemed very calm for the situation. "Are you hurt?"

    "My head's still ringing from that telepathic attack," Angel groaned.

    "Mine too." Julia rubbed at her forehead. "He was really going to try and abduct and sell us?"

    "Damned slaver," Angel spat. "I wish I'd broken his neck before we left."

    "Given the damage he has done to the Syndicate's standing here, I do not think that would prove necessary," the hooded man said.

    Julia nodded and looked back to the Zigonian. "Thank you," she said.

    "Thanks are not necessary," he said softly in reply. His blind eyes continued to stare at nothingness. "Creation guides us to where we are meant to be, and so I was guided to you." His head nodded. "I am Kasszas S'szrishin and I am a Brother of the Harmonious Val-Drillim."

    "Commander Julia Andreys," Julia answered. "Commander Meridina, Lieutenant Angela Delgado."

    Meridina bowed her head in respect to Kasszas. She turned to the driver. "You followed us when we left Hernan de Corelo's establishment earlier this evening."

    "I believed you would run into danger eventually," the man answered. "It seemed proper to help you."

    "Why?", Angel asked.

    "Because it was, and still is, the right thing to do. Allow me to remove my hood now, as a gesture of trust." With a free hand he pulled the hood away.

    It had seemed high before to Julia, and she realized why upon seeing the bone wrapping around the crown of his head and pointing up toward the rear. "You're a Minbari," she said. She tried to place the bone's appearance and what she knew of what that marked with Minbari. "And born in the religious caste?"

    "Yes, Commander Andreys." He nodded. "My name is Lennier. And I wish to help you save your friend."





    Jarod awoke with the jolt that went through the ship. Nearby his bodyguard, the Asian man with the cybernetics, was sitting quietly. "Turbulence," he said simply. "We're making our way into the atmosphere."

    "And lighting up every radar in the hemisphere," Jarod said.

    "The ship's got stealth capability," was the reply. "Not that it matters to you."

    Jarod tested his restraints again. They were still firm. "How much did she offer you to become a fugitive?"

    "That's between me and her." The visor on his face hid his eyes when he turned to face Jarod. "If you ask me, I don't give a damn if you turn around and escape from these people. Just don't do it until we leave. Otherwise, we'll be forced to cripple you, and that'd just be a waste."

    "I'll take that under advisement," Jarod replied.

    He waited patiently while the turbulence came to an end. Shortly thereafter there was a vibration in the deck plates; they'd landed.

    The door slid open moments later. Miss Parker stepped in with the Gersallian man and the Krogan. "It's time," she said.

    "You're just going to hand me over to the Centre in exchange for your father?", Jarod asked.

    "You're the genius, Jarod, so what do you think?" She nodded to the latter, who with a growl and grunt stepped forward and bodily lifted the chair and Jarod with it. It was a tight fit getting out of the door, with the Krogan growling the whole way about it, from which they walked down what Jarod figured was the main hall of the ship. It certainly appeared to be a cargo vessel.

    The rest of Parker's team, save the unseen pilot of the ship, joined them in the cargo bay. A ramp opened up, leading to a cool autumn night. The ship had landed on a private airway stsrip. Jarod looked over the property they were on. It was somewhere in the Cascades, on the inland side in what Washingtonians called "the Inland Empire". The mountains were already blocking the setting sun, casting shadows over everything. It was probably miles to the nearest town.

    The structure was a squat, one storey building of concrete and brick. It looked like a small office building, or a station for park rangers. It might have even been the latter at one point. But knowing the Centre, it had been heavily refurbished, perhaps even with an underground level or two (or three, or even four).

    Several figures were between them and the structure. Most were in dark suits holding firearms. One was standing behind a wheelchair, in which sat a sickly, balding man that Jarod readily, and unhappily, recognized as Mister Raines.

    Another was a man of bronze coloration and Caucasian facial features. He had dark hair and a dark beard, both streaked with white, and cold gray eyes. His suit was the best of those present and his air was that of the man in charge. "Ah, Miss Parker," he said, with an English accent that was refined and hinted at an Arabic origin of the speaker. "So good of you to join us. I was beginning to worry."

    "I'm not here to say hello," she said. "Let me see him."

    The suited man nodded to someone behind him. Two men stepped up carrying a video monitor. The screen showed a barely-furnished room, more of a prison cell, in which sat an older balding man with a frumpled suit.

    "Daddy," Miss Parker breathed.

    The figure looked over and up at a screen. "Angel," the old balding man said. A smile crossed his face. "I knew you'd come back for me."

    "Did they hurt you?", she asked.

    "Not much, and that doesn't matter."

    Miss Parker nodded. And then she glared toward Raines and the suited man. "This wasn't the deal."

    "Maybe not, but there's no telling what your people are capable of." The man kept a diplomatic smile. "Understand our point of view, Miss Parker. Last year Jarod and these allies of his came and penetrated the security of the Centre. Mister Lyle told us of what he was capable of in his debriefing, as did our security teams at headquarters who personally witnessed as one of Jarod's associates disappeared in a flash of light. If we brought your father here and confirmed his location to you, you could just as easily snatch him away and leave us holding the bag. And we can't have that, can we?"

    Miss Parker frowned. "I suppose I can see the logic," she said. "But you could have shared that with me while we made the deal."

    "It was something of a last minute consideration, I assure you," the suited man said, and with just enough conviction that one could almost think he was telling the truth. "I suppose we were so eager to get Jarod back that we failed to properly consider the situation. I assure you, returning your father to you is my honest intention. The Centre has nothing to gain by needlessly antagonizing people with your evident resources. It pains me that you felt it necessary to bring so many interlopers as it is."

    "I've found trust is in short supply when it comes to certain people," Parker answered, leveling her eyes squarely on Raines.

    "That goes both ways." The sick, vicious old man returned the glare. "I could ask why she brought these people, these things." Raines looked to the Krogan, who growled in reply. "I think it was so you could take your father by force."

    "Only if you make me," she insisted. "Stick to the deal and you've got nothing to worry about."

    I'll kill the one in the wheelchair for free, a voice said in her head. It was Dralan, of course.

    "This can still work, Miss Parker," the suited man insisted. "Your father can be brought to you swiftly. We only need you to cooperate for a little while. Would you hear me out?"

    For several tense seconds there was silence. "I'm listening," answered Miss Parker, finally breaking that tension.

    "Bring some of your team and enter with us," he said. "Witness while we begin Jarod's debriefing. Once we have completed his debriefing, you walk out with your father. We're guaranteed something for our trouble and you have done your duty as a loyal daughter, free to leave with Mister Parker with the blessing of the Triumvirate. And thus everyone's happy."

    Miss Parker frowned. She didn't trust them, and that was quite obvious to everyone. But running the situation in her mind, it was the best solution that didn't risk her father being executed before she could intervene. "Agreed," she said. "But let me make something clear." She used her other hand to bring up her multidevice and tapped the call button. "Wolff? Show them your surprise."

    "With pleasure", replied a man with a strong voice, his accent from the English Midlands.

    There was a whirring sound coming from the cargo ship. A false panel slid away and a flat, wide muzzle emerged from it and pointed toward the building. "That's a 200 megawatt plasma cannon," Parker said. "If you betray me, everything here gets atomized. And then Mister Wolff moves on to the rest of the Centre with any of my people left, understand?"

    Raines frowned deeply. His superior, however, merely smiled as if he was pleased by Miss Parker's threat. "I'd expect nothing less of the daughter of Mister Parker," he said evenly. "It is a shame you have decided not to remain with the Centre."

    "I've had my fill of it."

    She looked to her team. "You know what to do."

    The Krogan put Jarod down. Miss Parker pulled her gun as Denna unlatched Jarod, winking at him in the process as if to flirt and then putting a pair of shock cuffs on his wrists. The auburn-haired woman's golden eyes flashed with malicious pleasure as she stroked the key on the small remote control in her palm, sending a low level shock that made Jarod gasp from the pain, mostly in surprise at how intense it was.

    As this was going on, Miss Parker listened to Wolff over the radio. "Sorry, luv, but I couldn't get a fix on his location. They're usin' a tight beam signal bouncin' off of satellites. Clever little buggers, aren't they?"

    "I was expecting that," she said, or rather whispered, so bare a whisper that only Jarod heard her. But it would be picked up by her transmitter regardless, and thus Wolff heard her too.

    Miss Parker held the gun to Jarod and motioned toward the men from the Centre. "After you."

    The suited man nodded and turned. Mr. Raines' assistant turned his chair. The other armed men remained long enough to cover them before joining the Centre contingent.

    "You have excited his curiosity," mumbled Dralan. "He may attempt treachery. And the sick man desires it."

    "That's to be expected." Miss Parker narrowed her eyes. "Did you sense anything about who he is?"

    "They think of him as 'His Lordship.'"

    "He's British," Jarod noted. "And he might have a peerage."

    Miss Parker quickly put two and two together. "He's one of the Triumvirate, then." She smirked at Jarod. "You should feel honored."

    "Oh, so honored," he responded sarcastically. He turned his head to face Parker. "If you had brought me in on this, I could have gotten your father out by now."

    "Maybe, maybe not. Now move, or I'll have Dralan move you."

    Jarod sighed and started walking.




    Inside the building they were brought to a flight of stairs that led underground. "Another underground base," Jarod sighed. "How shocking."

    "You should be honored, Mister Jarod," said the suited man. "We built it for you. If you hadn't run, you would have found this place a kind and loving home. Alas, it was not to be."

    Jarod said nothing while they went down sterile officer corridors, although there was no mistaking the purpose of the heavy steel security doors with electronic locks. They went to one and opened it. "We don't need him cuffed here," the suited man said to Miss Parker.

    Parker nodded and looked wordlessly to Y'tala. The Mi'qote woman nodded back and took out the device to unlock the shock cuffs. She did so without comment, putting them back on her belt.

    At this point Jarod was taken by the security men for the Centre, who pulled him inside and then shut the door. Paper and pen were laid out before him, as was a computer system loaded with advanced modeling software.

    "This doesn't look like it's meant for a simulation," Jarod said, looking toward the guards.

    "That's because we've got something new for you to do, Jarod."

    The voice was familiar, and it made Jarod frown deeply. He turned toward a darkened corner of the room, a room evidently more large than he'd realized.

    Overhead lights snapped on. Standing on the other side of the room was Mr. Lyle.

    And on either side of him were two wooden chairs, each with a figure strapped into it by wire. One chair held a woman who looked to be in her late twenties, perhaps just at thirty, and the other a man now clearly into his late fifties or even sixties, both Caucasian in complexion. The man was in a pair of trousers but otherwise barechested - the brown-haired woman was in a pair of running shorts and a sports bra, scuffed from a struggle. They had duct tape covering their mouths, keeping them from speaking.

    Jarod's heart threatened to plunge into his twisting stomach. "Dad," he muttered. "Emily."

    Mr. Lyle effected a wipe at his cheek as if to deal with a tear. "I'm so moved by family reunions," he said with full glibness. "They gave us a run, Jarod. You'd be proud. Catching them was a nice little distraction while we waited for you to be brought back." Lyle leaned over Emily. His hand stroked at her cheek and a strand of disheveled hair there. She recoiled from him. Her face was twisted into defiance and fear and anger, joined by the worry in her eyes when she looked at Jarod. "We're still looking for your precious mother," Lyle confirmed. "Although it wouldn't shock me if she's dead by now. But with your dear old Dad and your precious baby sister here, I think we have enough to work with, don't you?"

    Jarod clenched his fists. "If you harm them, Lyle, I'll…"

    "...watch helplessly, because you're not the one in control here, Jarod. I am." Lyle chuckled, and the chuckle was the kind you'd expect from a man on the cusp of losing control. Even the other guards in the room shifted uncomfortably, but they remained in a position to intercept Jarod if he tried to lunge toward Lyle. "I had so many fun plans for your debriefing, Jarod. A little taste of what I've gone through thanks to you. But His Lordship made it clear; the Centre wants you unspoiled. He's a bit of a prig, between you and me. I had so many ideas… so many..." Lyle again ran his hand along Emily's face, causing her to try and pull away in disgust. "...and he said no. Anyway, moving on, because time is money you know." Lyle went into a corner of the room and brought over a device set on wheels. Jarod swallowed at seeing what it was, and knew what Lyle was doing as he pulled leads from the machine and fixed them with clear tape to the bare arms, shoulders, and bellies of his bound captives. "Nothing near the heart, of course," Lyle cooed. "We wouldn't want to give them a heart attack, would we?"

    "What are you doing?", Jarod asked in a low, dangerous tone.

    "For a genius, you can be slow on the uptake," Lyle laughed. "Here's how it is, Jarod." He plopped into a chair facing Jarod, with the controls of the device in front of him and behind Emily and Charles. "The Centre doesn't care about your simulations now. Oh, maybe one day they will, but they've got more important things to do with you. They want your technology. Everything you showed us you can do is something the Centre wants for itself now, and you are going to give it to us. We want you to write out the science, the plans, everything so we can produce this stuff." Lyle held up a hand. "And yes, I'm sure you're about to say you'll never give it to us, the Centre can't have it, blah blah blah, but that's where your family comes in. Because if you don't start cooperating right now..."

    Jarod shouted "No!" as Lyle's hand went to the dial.

    The machine buzzed faintly. His sister and father started to tremor violently in the chairs they were bound to, muffled screams coming from underneath the tape covering their mouths. Their faces twisted into a rictus of savage agony.

    "Stop!", Jarod shouted in desperation.

    Lyle grinned devilishly. "I don't see you writing...", he said in a sing-song tone.

    Wordlessly Jarod grabbed a pen and took a paper to start scribbling. He started with something basic, something that wasn't too dangerous to write about, by laying out the foundations of subspace theory. He glanced up while he scribbled furiously.

    Lyle watched him write for several more seconds before turning the dial back to the off position. Emily and Charles were left wheezing, with tears flowing from their eyes.

    As Jarod continued to write, his mind raced. He counted the hours since his abduction and considered how long it might have taken before it was detected, and how long for an investigation to confirm Miss Parker was responsible and that he'd been brought here. After that, how long before the President would approve a rescue mission into the exclusion zone around Earth...

    Which, in turn, would tell him how long he had to stall Lyle before the Aurora crew arrived to rescue him.
     
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    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chief Almerda accepted the report of the fight club with exasperation. "We have had intelligence of the Syndicate establishing a business operation on New Liberty," he sighed. "How they manage to do so without direct Orion commercial traffic is beyond me."

    "I'm sure you're not the only police chief wondering the same," Julia said. She stood with Meridina in Almerda's office while Angel remained with the others.

    "And hiring this mercenary, this Zaeed Massani… are you sure that's wise?"

    "Given the scale of the threat Miss Parker's team poses, it is reasonable."

    A concerned look was on Detective Okonwi's face at that. "I still find it hard to believe she raised the funds to hire such individuals. She was not paid that much as a consultant, and even if she had business arrangements with Corelo, he does not move that much money. I doubt anyone does even in a black market economy, not with the size of our Colony. She must have outside help of some sort."

    "I'm afraid I have no answers." This was from Sydney, who had joined them when they returned to Colony Security. His face was withdrawn and stony. "I don't know of anyone who could have assisted Miss Parker financially."

    "Whatever happened, our next move is clear. We need a ship."

    "I cannot help you in that regard," Almerda said. "Even if I had one, it would violate the Alliance statues to travel to A4P5, and the Colony would be blamed."

    "I know. I already have some ideas in that direction," Julia said. "I just wanted to touch base with you one last time before we left. In case anything else was found." She smirked. "And to get our multidevices back." She subconsciously ran her right had over the device returned to her left wrist.

    "Of course." Almerda smiled back. "And we will conveniently forget that you stated an intention to violate the exclusion zone around A4P5 Earth."

    "Why, sir, whatever do you mean by such a thing?," Julia answered in faux-disbelief, injecting such much-needed levity into the situation. "Hopefully I'll see you again soon enough."

    "Go with God," was his reply. Okonwi gave a nod of agreement.

    After they left the office and were walking through the halls of the building, Meridina spoke up. "I have two points of concern to address."

    "Shoot," Julia replied.

    "The first is transportation. Do you have any in mind?"

    "I already have a candidate, you might say," Julia said. "Although with our new friends, it might get a bit cramped."

    "I see." Meridina nodded. "Not a runabout then?"

    "Much smaller than one, I'm afraid."

    "I think I see your intention. Hopefully Commander Adama will be able to change his traveling plans. I am somewhat intrigued that you seem ready to trust him on this endeavor, though, I do not recall you two being so cl…" Meridina stopped at sensing the very stray, much-unintended thought that crossed Julia's mind. She gave Julia a curious look. "Truly?"

    "What?", Julia asked.

    "You and Commander Adama…"

    Pink appeared on Julia's cheeks. "We understand each other, let's leave it at that?"

    "I see." Meridina nodded. "I believe I understand. I am happy that you found necessary companionship."

    "That might be putting it a bit far..." Julia turned a corner, followed by Meridina. They were approaching the main entrance of Colony Security. "And the second thing you were concerned with?"

    "Miss Parker has availed herself of the services of two swevyra'kse," Meridina pointed out. "That is, those with my abilities, but who have fallen to their dark sides. I am unaware of their levels of skill and power, but I am uncertain of my ability to protect you from both."

    "So what you're saying is that we need another one of your fellow Knights," Julia said.

    "Or someone of similar training. There are several Dorei orders who train much as we do, they may also help."

    "We'll talk about it when we get back to the others," Julia said, just as they emerged from the door.

    "Wait!"

    The voice caused them to turn back just outside the door, which remained open. Behind them came Sydney, winded from the near-jog he had sustained to catch up. "I… would like to go," he said.

    "I appreciate the thought, Sydney, but this is going to be dangerous."

    "I know. But I want to be there for Jarod." Sydney took a moment to fully regain his breath, and to work up his composure in the process. "Please."

    Meridina gave Julia a look. "This may for the best."

    "I don't know if there will be room in the Raptor for all of us," she replied. "Even with one of us acting as co-pilot."

    "Perhaps, or perhaps not, but we should at least let him have the chance to go."

    Julia pondered that. "Is this one of those 'life force' hunches like Robert gets?"

    Meridina raised an eyebrow at that terminology. "I suppose it could be said to be such."

    "Well." Julia let out a sigh. "Alright. If we have the room, you can come, Doctor Sydney."

    The aged man nodded in gratitude. "Thank you, Commander. I will assist you in any way I can."

    "Let's go meet back up with the others," Julia said. "I need to see someone about a ship."




    They found Lee Adama in the dining area of the New Liberty Visitors' Lodge, sitting with Thrace and Anders. "We heard about Commander Jarod," Lee said. "How can we help?"

    Julia, Angel, and Meridina were sitting opposite from them. Lennier was off with the van and Kasszas had returned to his own room in the lodge to get things he said he needed. "We need a ship," Julia said immediately. "A way to get to Earth. Getting someone to give us a jump to A4P5 is the easy part, the hard part is a ship that can make the trip."

    "You want to use the Raptor," Thrace said.

    "Preferably with you along as the pilot," Julia added.

    Thrace looked to Lee. "I'm all for it if you say go," she said. "It'll be cramped, especially if you're bringing extra people. Plus there's the other matter."

    "Other matter?", Angel asked.

    "Fuel," Lee explained. "Your people don't mine or refine tylium. And the Raptor only has enough fuel left for a couple of jumps at most. That was all we would have needed for the final trip home."

    Angel frowned at that. "So basically, if we have to make more than one jump either way, we're boned."

    You just had to use that word, didn't you?, Julia thought to herself. She could see a little twinkle in Lee's eye that she knew was mirrored in her own. As much as it had been a one night stand… it was the type that could easily become something more if allowed to develop. Which, of course, was the tricky part, since Julia wasn't entirely sure she wanted something like that, and she didn't think Lee was either..

    "Yep," Thrace said, her voice returning Julia to the matter at hand. "Unless you know of any refined tylium we can top the tank off from."

    "I'm afraid not," sighed Julia.

    "Now if you find us a ship to ride on, that's do-able." Thrace looked again to Lee. "If the Commander agrees."

    Lee smiled at that. "Commander Jarod helped get our people off the Colonies," he said. "I think Admiral Adama and President Baltar will agree that he deserves our help. I'll ask Miss Davis to join me in finding passage on another ship. You take the Raptor and help them in any way you can."

    "I'm going too," Anders said. "To give you backup."

    "If we can all fit in the Raptor… the more, the merrier," Julia agreed.

    "So long as we're not going far, I think we can jam quite a few people in." Thrace sipped at her drink. "Now the question is… can you get us a ship?"

    "A ship willing to breach the A4P5 perimeter," Angel added sullenly.

    "I'll think of something," Julia said. "Let's get to the spaceport."

    They stood up to leave, and were doing so when Lee called out to Julia, prompting her to come back to him. "Good luck," he said. "And…"

    "Last night was last night," she answered. And she did so with a smile. "It was special. And it was good. Don't doubt that."

    "Yeah." He nodded, smiling back. "Do you mind…"

    It was clear what he was asking for. "For good luck? Sure."

    They leaned in close and their lips met. The kiss had been intended to be a quick one, but it turned into one that lasted for several seconds before she ended it. "It's a shame you'll be gone by the time we're back," Julia lamented with a sigh. "I've still got a few days of leave."

    "Maybe we'll catch each other another time?" There was a bit, quite a bit, of hope in that sentence.

    "Maybe." Julia held his hand for a moment. "Have a safe trip home, Lee."

    "Good luck getting Jarod back, Julia," he answered.

    She walked away and to the exit of the eatery. Angel was waiting there, leaning against the door frame with her arms crossed and a wide grin on her face. "Well well," she said. "I was wondering about last night. It's about time, if you ask me."

    "Pardon me?", Julia asked.

    "We all deserve someone," Angel said. "Maybe it doesn't last, maybe it does, but why not enjoy it when it's there?" She smiled with genuine warmth. "I'm happy for you. Rob would be too."

    "Thank you," was all that Julia could say in response. "but I think we need to focus on the matter at hand now?"

    "Lead the way, O fearless leader," Angel opined with some exaggerated affectation in her voice.




    The air-van Lennier had acquired was now stuffed to capacity. He sat in the front with Meridina, the second row was for Julia, Angel, and Sydney, and the third row of seats had Thrace, Anders, and Kasszas, who now held a walking stick in his clawed hands. The two Colonials gave careful looks toward the blind Zigonian. To their surprise, he seemed to know the looks he was getting. "It is always best to remember that Creation is a varied existence, made of diversity of all forms of life. Harmony is found in acceptance."

    "Uh… works for me, I guess," Thrace said, a lopsided grin coming to her face.

    They were driving on to the spaceport when Meridina looked to Lennier. "I believe we have met, have we not?"

    "We were not directly introduced," he answered. "But I saw you briefly on Babylon-5."

    "You had come to join President Sheridan's escort to Minbar," Meridina said. "And now you are here. And no longer an anla'shok."

    "No, I am not," he answered. A distant look came to his eyes. Meridina felt the shame swelling inside of him. "I am no longer worthy of being an anla'shok."

    "And yet you have acted in the best traditions of that order," Meridina pointed out. "You came to our aid freely, without offer of compensation or reward."

    Lennier glanced her way. "It seemed the right thing to do."

    "So it did." Meridina looked away for a moment. She could see this conversation was not going anywhere. She understood it as well; Lennier's past, his feelings of shame and disgrace, were his burden, and he did not wish to discuss it. She needed to respect that.

    Julia looked up from her multidevice. "I just sent Zaeed a message to meet us at the spaceport."

    "Have you found a ship to take us yet?", Angel asked.

    Julia sighed and shook her head. "I was hoping the Shahams could help, but the Eagle is off escorting refugee convoys in S4W8."

    "What about our other friends?"

    "They're all assigned to Alliance operations." Julia shook her head. "The way things are looking, we'll need to contract a private ship."

    "You could call Beth," Angel pointed out. "She might have a ship available."

    Julia shook her head. "If I have to. But I don't want to get her in any trouble with the Alliance."

    "Creation has guided us together for this purpose," Kasszas stated. "Creation will guide us to a vessel."

    Angel looked at the Zigonian with a little confusion on her face. "I thought Zigonians were Catholic?"

    To that, Kasszas made a recurring hissing sound that seemed to be chuckling. "As a child I initially thought all Humans were soulless materialists. Creation is made up of individuals, Lieutenant, and individuals create diversity by their very existence. Such is the will of Creation and its Universe."

    "A most curious philosophy," said Meridina. She looked back at the Zigonian. "I sense you have a vibrant swevyra of your own."

    "We are all bonded to Creation in our own way." Kasszas breathed a little hiss. "The Harmonious Val-Drillim are only one of many beliefs that are in the Conciliation of Tsorra-Mahl Harmonies." The hissing sound in the name "Tsorra-Mahl" was a peculiar one, not repeatable with non-Zigonian tongues.

    "Including the Catholic ones?", Angel asked.

    "You speak of the Holy Scale Nomads," Kasszas answered. "You have met them and their great tree-ships?"

    "Uh… no," answered Angel, sharing a quizzical look with the other Humans in the van. "Never seen a tree-ship."

    "We have a Zigonian crewman on our ship," Julia explained. "He is understudying with our chaplain. And is doing good, from what Padre Mann says, except for that incident with the incense…" She shook her head. "Anyway, I need to focus on finding us a ride."

    "And I must consult about finding another swevyra'se, if possible," Meridina said. "Miss Parker has hired two mercenaries given into the darkness. I would be remiss to try and fight both."

    "I believe I may know of some assistance with that," said Lennier. "I shall leave you at the spaceport and return with further help."

    That made Meridina and Julia very curious, but they said nothing on the matter.

    Angel looked over at Sydney. "Are you okay?", she asked.

    He looked at her, a distant and haunted look in his eyes. "I am, I suppose," he said. "I'm simply concerned for Jarod. The Centre will not be gentle with him. And I'm worried about how we'll find him."

    "Knowing Jarod, we may not have to," Angel said. She attempted an encouraging grin. "We'll find him. And we'll get him back."

    What she didn't add verbally was the thought that went through her mind, causing Meridina to glance back at her with concern.

    And when I catch her, Miss Parker is a dead woman.




    Lennier left them as promised, beside the hangar where the Colonial Raptor was being kept. Julia had the feeling that their group had grown large enough that they were approaching the transport limitation for the craft. Maybe I should just send Starbuck and Anders back to Lee and find another shuttle, she thought. But she resisted it; there was no guarantee that any ship she found would have a working transporter of any kind on it. The Raptor might not be able to get to Earth by jumps, but it would provide them a working ride down, and given the sensor upgrades that had been performed on the Colonial Raptor fleet, it might even hide their presence electronically.

    It's still going to be nearly standing-room only.

    "I'm going to do preflight checks," said Thrace. She looked them over. "Anders will be my ECO for the flight, wherever we end up going."

    "I'm leaving it in your capable hands," Julia said. She looked back to the others, who were all looking at the main door, and with good reason.

    Zaeed Massani had swapped into a set of battle armor, painted with a light orange, almost yellow color, with a visible grenade pouch on his belt and more grenades strapped to the belts slung over his shoulder. A sidearm was affixed to his hip and two rifles were on his back. "So, that's our ride?", he asked. "Goin' to be a God-amned cramped trip by the look of her."

    "That's our ride down from orbit to planetside," Julia answered. "I'm still lining up a ship to get us to Earth."

    Zaeed snorted at that. "You're really doin' this by the seat of your pants, aren't you? No prep time. Doesn't look good for our operation." Zaeed looked over the others. He smirked at seeing Kasszas. "Ah, the Blind Raptor is it? I probably owe you a drink. I cleaned up good on your fight tonight."

    Kass flicked his tongue. "You need not concern yourself. I was following the path laid by Creation, as we all do."

    "Yeah. Works for me, I guess." Zaeed moved on to Sydney. "What do we have here? You don't look like you're along to fight."

    "I'm here to help find Jarod in any way we can," Sydney replied. "If that means shooting a man… I've done it before."

    Zaeed looked Sydney eye to eye. "You have, haven't you?", the mercenary finally remarked. "Suits me. Just remember the right way to point the gun when the time comes." He looked to Julia again. "Is this it?"

    "We have one, maybe two more," she answered. "I'm going to make a call now about our ship. Or rather, she is." Julia looked to Angel.

    Angel got what she meant. "Hernan again?" A frown crossed her face. "I don't like relying on him too much, Julia. I…"

    The low thrum of an electric-motor bike made everyone turn. A young African woman rode it up to them, wearing a brown leather jacket and black trousers. She looked all business as she slid off the bike. "I've been sent to find you," she said, her voice thick with an accent that Julia thought to be Central African. "Hernan de Corelo wanted you to have this." She reached into her pocket and pulled an object out, which she tossed in an underhanded throw. The object arced in the air and Julia reached out to catch it.

    It was small, a sort of dirty white in color, and eminently recognizable. "This is a phaser power pack." She looked at the indicator on the bottom. "The charge has been used up."

    "The Syndicate attempted to abduct you tonight," said the woman. "Hernan and several associates didn't take kindly to it. A message has been sent. We thought you should know." She turned back to her electric bike.

    "Can you call him?", Julia asked. "We need a ship with an FTL drive that can get us to Earth, Universe A4P5."

    "That's a no-contact Earth," the woman noted. "Not many ship captains will risk breaking the Alliance's laws."

    "I'll use my personal code when we arrive at the quarantine perimeter," Julia said. "The ship will be logged as having a legitimate reason to be present. It'll be on my responsibility."

    For a moment there was silence. "One moment," she said. "I will make the call."

    Angel was still frowning. "I don't like this, Julia," she insisted.

    "You're the one who went to him first," Julia reminded her.

    "For information. But you're accepting favors from him now," Angel pointed out. "And guys like Hernan, they keep tabs on their favors. He'll want to be repaid in the future."

    "I'll deal with that when it comes," Julia said. "But the longer we wait, the more likely something happens to Jarod. I can't let that happen."

    A minute later the woman came back up to them. "Hernan knows a captain, they owe him a favor. They'll do the job."

    "Are they landed here on the port, or do we have to fly up to them?', Julia asked.

    "Hanger 8J," the woman answered. She went back to her bike and rode off.

    As she did so, the air-van pulled back up and came to a stop. Lennier emerged from the driver side. On the opposite side another figure stepped out and rounded the front of the vehicle.

    She was a Dorei, a rich blue skin complexion with light purple spotlines running along her hairline and down her neck. Bright purple eyes looked them over and a self-assured smile crossed dark blue lips. Her face was oval-shaped and pretty in that way Dorei shared with Humans. Her clothes were a black leather jacket over a tamasa, a Dorei tube top-like garment, this one colored bright green with a cyan stripe running horizontally along the middle. The tube top started below the shoulders and stopped just above her waist. Her visible skin at the waist showed a hint of muscular definition beyond simply being flat. On each hip was a hilt pointed downward.

    The Dorei looked them over. Julia got the sense she was doing more than looking, which was somewhat confirmed when the Dorei girl nodded politely to Meridina. "Swevyra'se," she said.

    Meridina nodded back. "Fenari."

    "What's that mean?", Angel asked, bewildered.

    "It is 'Gifted' in the English Human tongue," the Dorei girl said, her accent in English sounding like a mishmash of Hawaiian and Spanish. "For many Dorei, the gifts of the swevyra'se of Gersal are seen as derived from the Eternal Goddess, or whatever god or gods they worship, and we are known as the Gifted." The young woman nodded. "I am Druni Jestani."

    "Did you belong to an Order?", asked Meridina.

    "I was a Sentinel of the Silver Moon," answered Druni. "But I felt my destiny was elsewhere. I am a Paman, though, not a Laytar, I assure you."

    "She means she was not cast out, but left her Order in good standing," Meridina explained to the others.

    "Whatever," Zaeed said. He waved a hand dismissively. He looked at Julia. "You got that ship we need, right? I'll be stowin' gear on the assault craft, call if things go tits up."

    "I will stay as well," replied Kasszas.

    "Alright." Julia motioned to the van. "We've got to visit another hanger. A ride is supposed to be waiting for us there. I hope everyone's gotten their things together."

    "Of course." Lennier nodded. "I am ready to depart at any time."

    "I carry my things with me," Druni added. "So I'm good to go."

    "You can come with us to meet this captain, then," said Julia. She looked to Angel and Meridina. "Angel, do you mind staying with the others to prep the Raptor?"

    Angel nodded. She could see the look on Julia's face and knew what she really meant: Stay with the others so you can come after us if this is a trap of some kind.

    Without another word Julia climbed into the van, this time taking the passenger seat beside Lennier while Meridina joined Druni in the back seat. They rode off to take the short trip to Hanger 8J.




    Hours of tension had built up, leaving Jarod feeling mentally and physically strained even as he continued his scribbling. He kept glancing toward his captive father and sister, still bound to chairs and wired up for Lyle to torture at his whim. Lyle still had his hands on the control device, his finger stroking the surface of the dial whenever Jarod looked.

    Lyle had always been a sociopathic monster, but the past year had made him much worse. At least before he had been in control of his impulses. Now he looked like a demented monster straining to break from his leash. Every fiber of his being seemed bent upon inflicting pain and indulging in other base emotions.

    "I'm starting to run out of patience, Jarod," Lyle remarked. "Maybe you need more incentive…"

    "That's not…"

    But it was too late. Lyle twisted the dial. Charles and Emily seized up, muffled screams coming through the duct tape placed over their lips. After several seconds Lyle turned the dial again and the shocking ended. Satisfied glee crossed his face. "I hope you've written something worthwhile," he said to Jarod.

    "It's the basics of subspace physics," Jarod answered. "Understanding of this science will put the Centre decades ahead of anything on Earth."

    Lyle looked at him with a glower. "Oh, isn't that special. Except that's not what I was asking for, was it?"

    "But you need to have this knowledge to…"

    The dial turned again. Jarod felt sick to his stomach at seeing his father and Emily suffer at Lyle's hands.

    As they tried to scream through the duct tape gags, Lyle laughed. "Oh Jarod, are you really going to do this? You're stalling for time, aren't you? Hoping for your friends to come rescue you. But let's face it, they wouldn't know where to look, would they, and even if they did… the moment they show up by that door, I'm turning this thing on full blast. Your dear sister and daddy will be dead in seconds. Now…" He turned the dial off again. Emily and Charles were slumped in their chairs, chests heaving as they caught their breath. "...we want the weapons, Jarod. We want the invisibility devices, the rayguns, whatever it is that lets you blip around. And we want them now."

    Jarod glared at Lyle, his eyes full of hatred and disgust in equal measure. His frown deepened. "Alright," he said. "I can draw plans, but I need to know what materials you have available."

    "Why?"

    "Because that's how I know what you can actually build." Jarod had forced patience dripping from every word.

    "And it's certainly not so you can build a radio or a beacon, right?" Lyle moved his hand back to the dial.

    Jarod's hand shot up, palm out and down, as if he could use the motion of his hand to bring Lyle's hand away from the dial. "This won't have any parts that can be used for something like that," Jarod insisted. "You can ask any engineer."

    Lyle snarled and was clearly in deep thought, which didn't seem as easy now he was so out of control. He about ground his teeth together before uttering a frustrated "Fine." He looked to the guards. "One of you go get the message to His Lordship. A list of all our available electronics."

    The guard nearest Lyle nodded and slipped out the door.

    Lyle's hand snaked up toward the control. "Just so you don't get any ideas, Jarod…"

    Jarod protested with a "No!", but it did nothing. The dial was turned again. Not as far this time, however, although Charles and Emily began to shake and tremble in the chairs again. They were in clear pain.

    "One wrong move, it gets turned up," Lyle warned.

    "This isn't necessary!," Jarod shouted. "You don't have to hurt them!"

    "Oh, but I do!", Lyle countered. "Because it hurts you!" He smiled widely at that. "And that's all I've wanted to do for years."

    Jarod looked to his father and sister. Their eyes were focused on him, pleading with him for help while the electric current continued to run through their bodies.

    But there was nothing he could do for them. Nothing to stop this from happening, not right now. Tears of frustration flowed down his cheeks at watching their torment and knowing he was helpless to stop it.

    Lyle saw the tears.

    And he laughed.




    One floor up, in a well-furnished conference room that fit more with an urban skyrise than a secretive facility in the middle of the northern Cascades, Miss Parker was with Mister Raines and His Lordship. And they were all watching the live feed of Jarod and Lyle. Miss Parker frowned, finishing a drag on her second cigarette since this had started. "He's gone off the deep end, hasn't he?"

    "We felt compelled to give Mister Lyle an… exhaustive debriefing," His Lordship answered, the pause in the line coming like he was trying to find the right euphemism for "prolonged torture". "His claims were outlandish until we could fully confirm them."

    "He was always a sick bastard, but now you've made him a rabid dog." Parker shook her head. "You should shoot him and put him out of our misery."

    "Perhaps." Mister Raines wheezed for a moment before continuing. "But he still has his uses. His plan for breaking Jarod's spirit is working."

    "Poor buggers," Y'tala muttered. "Killin' a man's family to get 'im to talk, I can get behind that if it's business. Torturin' the poor kittens, though? That's low."

    Dralan smirked. "On the contrary, I find it… invigorating." The Gersallian's smile was sinister. "I can feel the rage and hatred and pure terror from here."

    Not for the first time did Miss Parker regret hiring Dralan, but she said nothing on the matter. She looked over to a second monitor, showing her father sitting on a bed, waiting patiently.

    "How much longer until I can take my father and leave?", she asked.

    "Soon enough," His Lordship replied.

    "Why are you in such a hurry, Parker?", Raines asked. "Perhaps you are concerned Jarod's friends will come for him?"

    "It's always possible," she answered. "But you don't need me to tell you that."

    "We want our worth from Jarod, then your father can go free, I assure you." His Lordship frowned at Raines. "Whatever some of my subordinates may say to the contrary."

    Raines took in a raspy breath and seemed to ignore the comment.

    Miss Parker didn't care either way. She frowned at the screen showing Jarod, and hoped that this would be over soon. She'd come too far, burnt too many bridges, to fail now.




    Hanger 8J was one of the largest for the New Liberty spaceport, big enough that Julia figured the Koenig would easily fit if necessary. It was at the end of a line of similarly-sized hangers that had been built years ago, during the Facility days, to accommodate their growing fleet of cargo transports and large spaceliners.

    The main door of the hanger was closed, so they went to a secondary door. Julia hit the door chime, and then a second time before the door opened and a man with a dark complexion answered. "Yes?", he asked, his accent generally Indian in tone. "What can I do for you?"

    "I'm here to see your captain. Hernan de Corelo referred me," she answered. Behind her Lennier, Druni, and Meridina stood patiently.

    The man remained silent for a moment. "Very well," he finally said. "Come in." He opened the door fully, revealing that he was wearing a black-and-gold suit that looked to be from M4P2.

    Julia led the others into the hanger. The vessel present completed the impression created by the man's appearance; it was also clearly an M4P2-derived design, apparently a civilianized equivalent of a Systems Alliance frigate design, but now with warp nacelles affixed to the ends of the drive wings on either side. The hull was gold-and-black like the man's suit, with a configurable support brace holding the ship in place. The cargo ramp was below the main body, facing the front, again like a Systems Alliance frigate.

    Standing at the bottom of the ramp was a woman in a black and white suit. The suit was virtually a catsuit, skin tight, and doing nothing to hide her figure. Striking blue eyes looked them over while dark hair cascaded around her shoulders. Her face had been dabbed with some makeup, its features apportioned evenly around a round-shaped face.

    A slight tinge of jealousy went through Julia. This woman was stunningly, unbelievably good-looking, like she had been crafted instead of born.

    "Hello," she said to them. Her accent was Australian and her tone betrayed confidence. "Mister Corelo said you needed a lift? What specifics are there?"

    "Yes. We need to get to Earth, Universe A4P5, and back. We're recovering a friend that was taken there against his will" Julia motioned behind her. "We've got a craft that can go from orbit to the ground, and it should fit in your cargo bay."

    "I see." The woman looked them over. "Well, I have a favor owed to the man, so I'd like to discharge it. But A4P5 is a restricted world. There's a United Systems exclusion zone around the system enforced by sensor buoys tied into their local fleet control. The moment they read us going through a starship will be sent in to stop us."

    "I'll provide you the necessary code to get in without setting the alarms off," Julia promised. "You don't have to worry about prosecution."

    "Well, that does change things," the woman said. She extended a hand. "My name is Yvonne, and I'm the captain of this vessel, the Tainaron."

    Julia took the hand and shook it.

    "That is an interesting name," remarked Meridina.

    "It's from Greek, actually. It's another name for Cape Matapan." Yvonne brought her left forearm up. An omnitool flashed to life around it. Her right hand tapped something on the omnitool's controls. "Prep the ship for launch, we're going to leave."

    "Yes ma'am," a voice replied.

    "I'll get in contact with the ships in orbit, there has to be someone willing to generate a jump point for us," Yvonne said. "In the meantime, welcome aboard. We'll rendezvous with your craft once we're in orbit."

    Julia nodded. She watched Yvonne turn away and go back up the ramp before turning to face the others. "That was easy."

    "Perhaps too easy," Lennier mused.

    "Perhaps she wishes to clear her debt with Corelo?", Meridina speculated.

    "Keep your eyes open, then," Julia said. "But we've got our ship, and I'm going to take what we've been given." She held up her multidevice and keyed Angel. "We've got our ship. M4P2 design, the Tainaron. Have Starbuck fly you into orbit for the rendezvous."

    "We're on our way," Angel answered.

    The four stepped up into the cargo bay of the ship. They found seats along the side, for workbenches, and used them for the moment.

    Meridina looked to Lennier and Druni. "I am curious as to how you met each other?"

    "I was exploring in E5B1," Druni replied. "I went to a small border system near the Minbari, Human, and Centauri frontiers. It was a rough place and there was a fight." She nodded to Lennier. "Lennier came to my aid."

    "So you're traveling together/"

    "In a general sense, yes," Lennier said. "Although I do not believe we have any permanent arrangements to do so."

    "I go where it feels right," Drruni said. "Ever since I left the Silver Moon."

    Meridina nodded. "I see." She looked to Druni's belt. "Those weapons, they are runari?"

    "No. These are short-blades. Tenari." Druni drew one and flicked the trigger in the hilt. There was a sharp, metallic sound as memory metal flowed up and hardened into a curved blade about fifty centimeters long.

    Julia saw that interested Meridina. "I have not seen tenari before," she said. "So you are a practitioner of Tasa Duria?"

    Druni smiled and nodded. "I am."

    "And that is?", Julia asked.

    "It is a sword-fighting technique among some of the Dorei nations," Meridina said.

    "The rough English translation would be 'Cyclone of Fury'," Druni added. "It is a dual-handed style. From my travels, I believe you Humans have a few styles like it. I recall being on one of your Earths, in a place called Cebu, where I saw men fighting with sticks in a similar way."

    "Arnis, or eskrima," Julia said. "It's a Human martial arts style that focuses on training to fight with weapons in both hands."

    "I see. Perhaps it is similar to that, but with memory metal blades." Druni caused her tenari blade to retract and fixed it back to her hip.

    "It is a very difficult style to master," Meridina noted. "And Lennier told you of our issue?"

    "We will face Fallen Fenari." Druni nodded. "It sounds like a good challenge."

    "A deadly one," Meridina corrected.

    A smirk crossed the young Dorei woman's face. "Those are the good ones," she countered.

    Meridina's usually-stoic demeanor was broken by the flash of irritation that went through it.

    Julia sighed. A rumble in the ship told her the main engines were coming online. They were about to launch. The rescue mission was officially getting underway. Well, we've got a team. A strange team in a lot of ways, but it's a team. Let's hope it's enough.




    The relative quiet of the conference room in the Centre facility ended when the door opened. Everyone turned to see Kang enter without a word. "We told you only two," Raines rasped at Miss Parker.

    "I won't be long, I just need to speak to Miss Parker," Kang said, glancing toward the wheelchair-bound man. His voice was almost toneless, no real emotion coming from it.

    "Whatever you feel you need to say to Miss Parker, you can say to us," His Lordship stated.

    Kang gave Parker a look. She nodded. "Wolff wants to know the hold-up," Kang said. "He only has so much reactant fuel, and if he runs low on energy he won't be able to keep his stealth system active. Alliance sensor buoys would be able to detect his drives' subspace signature."

    "Then have him take the drives offline," Miss Parker replied.

    "He's reluctant to do that," Kang answered. "A drive restart could take hours."

    "Then tell him it's an order," Miss Parker hissed, getting close and glaring at Kang.

    Kang brought a hand up, his fingers spread out, and he shook his head. "He wants to hear it from you."

    Miss Parker narrowed her eyes.

    "Problems with the help?", Raines asked.

    She turned her head and glared at Raines. "A minor issue. I'll go handle it and be right back."

    "It would be an undermining of trust, I think, for you to just… disappear at this juncture," His Lordship insisted.

    "And yet you still have my father hidden away." Parker gestured to the relevant screen. "So you've got leverage. And I don't think you want Jarod's friends showing up. They've got a big damn spaceship, a lot of guns, and the technology to track the Centre across the planet. Especially if Jarod's been sharing that data he took from you last year. If that ship shows up in orbit, your only chance of surviving it will be to hand Jarod back politely with an apology and a smile."

    "You overestimate them," Raines said.

    "No, you underestimate them," Parker retorted. "I've seen the technology the Multiverse has to offer. They could have troops transporting down to every Centre safehouse, warehouse, and office location within minutes of arriving in orbit. They'll find and hack all of your satellites within five minutes, tops, of coming into range. And if you make them hunt for Jarod they're going to make you regret it. These people can and will destroy the core of the Centre in an afternoon if given the chance. I want my father back and I don't want to go to jail, so I don't want to give them that chance, Raines. And don't think they won't haul you off too."

    Raines glowered. He looked to His Lordship, who was clearly considering Parker's argument. "Ten minutes," he said. "Then I expect you back here, or we will assume treachery."

    "I'll be back before then," she insisted.

    With Kang in front, she followed him at a brisk pace out of the facility and over toward the ship. "What's the problem?", she asked once they were well out of earshot of the Centre's guards.

    "I just received a message from contacts at New Liberty," Kang said. "Jarod's friends are on the way."

    Miss Parker scowled. "Dammit, I was hoping for more time, that they'd have to wait for their President to…"

    "It's not the Aurora," Kang said. "They're gone. Called away on some mission. My contact says it's a small team, not much larger than our own. Commander Andreys from the Aurora is leading it."

    "The blonde." Miss Parker pulled out another cigarette and lit it up. "Anything else?"

    "She's bringing the Gersallian chief of security with her, and Angel Delgado. Plus help."

    "Sydney?"

    "The old man? Yes. And others they picked up. My contacts can confirm one of them is Zaeed Massani."

    Kang said the name like it meant something. It didn't to Miss Parker, and as she inhaled a drag from her cigarette her eyes made that clear. "Who?"

    "A known mercenary and bounty hunter, one of the best from M4P2. We don't know much about the others, though."

    "Still…" Miss Parker considered it. "Tell Wolff to fake shutting down his engines. We're going to have to leave in a hurry."

    "What's your plan?"

    "Find where they're keeping my father, take him, and let the Centre and the Alliance sort themselves out after we leave," she replied.

    Kang nodded. "Good plan. I'll see about giving Wolff a fix on the signal for your father's location. It'll take a few hours."

    "Just make sure it's done before they get here," Miss Parker insisted. "Now I need to get back in."

    "Of course," the man nodded. He watched quietly as Miss Parker re-entered the building.





    The moment Jarod had the list he'd demanded, he started writing and scribbling again. Making advanced technology with these parts would be just about impossible without the high quality batteries found in things like multidevices and pulse pistols. But he knew he had to give something soon, or Lyle would gleefully start torturing his sister and brother again.

    And Jarod couldn't let that happen.

    He did manage something. It would provide a reasonable energy shield generator. And if the generator itself died, the power could be diverted to other means. Means that Jarod had intentions for.

    But for now the most important thing was survival. And that meant keeping Lyle appeased.

    Lyle's intent stare was distracted by a ringing tone in his pocket. He reached in and pulled out a cell phone. "Lyle," he answered.

    Jarod intentionally paid no attention as Lyle spoke with a voice on the other end. "Are you sure?", he said. "I'll have to… alright, I understand." Lyle hung up and looked to Jarod. "I want progress on that by the time I get back," he demanded. He looked to the guards and nodded. One produced a pair of handcuffs. Jarod did nothing as the cuffs were used to secure Jarod's ankle to the chair he was sitting in. Lyle grinned and looked back to Charles and Emily. "While I'm gone, let's give you a chance to talk to your family." With rapid movements he ripped the duct tape gags off, eliciting brief cries of shock and pain from his captives. "Don't worry, I've got fresh pieces for later." Lyle brandished, from near his chair, a fresh roll of duct tape. "See you soon." With a chuckle still coming from his throat, Lyle traipsed out of the room.

    "Dad. Emily." Jarod looked up from where he was working. "I'm sorry you got caught up in this. It's all my fault for not finding you."

    "No. Jarod, no." His father's English accent was now hoarse from his state. The hours of on and off torture had done their terrible work on him most of all. "This is their fault, not your's."

    Jarod's face twisted into an expression of pain and shame. The feelings of the last few terrible hours now bubbled to the surface, the feelings of blame over his failure to find his family. He had gotten so devoted to the work on the Aurora, to what they were doing, that he hadn't given his family the attention they deserved. Tears formed in his eyes at the intensity of that thought. "No," he said. "It is mine. I should have done something about this years ago. I should have come and found you."

    "And what then?", Charles asked. "The Centre would have found you too."

    "No," Jarod said. "No, they couldn't have. I could take you somewhere that the Centre could never follow."

    "How?", Emily asked. "And… what's Lyle even talking about? Rayguns, invisibility devices… what's going on, Jarod? Are these things you made for them?"

    The bewilderment and worry in his sister's voice was evident. She'd endured the torture better than Charles, but the confusion about what was going on was worse for her.

    Jarod looked back to the schematic he was drafting. He started to work on it again. He knew, he damn well knew, that no matter what he did, Lyle would turn the damn machine back on when he got back, just for the fun of it. But he had his own reasons for completing this device as soon as it could be done.

    Once he was sure the drawing was accurate, he looked back at Emily. "You won't believe what's going on," he said. "Not until I show you."

    "Of course I'd believe you," Emily protested.

    "We know you won't lie to us, Jarod," Charles insisted.

    Jarod sighed and shook his head as he drew the illustration of where wiring should go on his schematic. Once this vital part was done he looked back up. "For over three years, I haven't even lived on this Earth," he said.

    They stared.

    "There's a Multiverse out there," he continued. "Earths centuries more advanced than our own. And a group of well-meaning people came to our world looking to help, and ended up saving me after that terrorist attack in Pasadena a few years ago." He stopped, letting them process that information while he did more drawing. "I've been working with them since. Hoping to find a way to find you without the Centre catching on." He let out a sigh. "Granted, I had no idea that the Alliance would forbid traffic to our Earth for not being advanced enough to risk contact. That's made coming back a little complicated."

    "You're… you're telling us… you've been living in outer space?"

    Hearing the disbelief in Emily's voice, Jarod nodded. "On a ship called the Aurora," he explained. "I've been serving as the ship's Operations Officer. I even helped build her." A little grin came to his face. "I'm Lieutenant Commander Jarod now."

    "You're Pretending, then?", Charles asked.

    "No, Dad, I'm not." Jarod shook his head. "I don't Pretend anymore. This is who I am now. What I do." His eyes lowered. "And it's why I'm to blame for this. I got so caught up in my new life that I could never make the time to come back and try to look for you."

    "I… I don't blame you," Charles said. "I've been on the run too long to blame you for finding a new life where you didn't have to run."

    "But I could have found you given time, and I didn't take it. I didn't insist on it like I should have!", Jarod shouted. "And now you're here at the mercy of a monster. All because of me."

    The others were temporarily speechless. So much had been said, and Jarod's claims on where he'd been were so unbelievable, that they were having trouble processing it. He could see Emily even wondering if he had gone mad.

    "These friends of yours," she finally said. "They're not going to abandon you, are they?"

    The question cut through the guilt and Jarod's attention on his schematic. Even if the truth was so pleasantly evident he didn't need to remark on it. "No," he said. "Never. They're coming, I'm sure of it. They're coming right now."

    And so he continued to work, banking on just that.
     
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  5. Threadmarks: 2-07-4
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    A quiet corner of the Tainaron's crew area served for Meridina's meditation. She sat on the floor, legs crossed and hands in her lab, quietly focused on the universe through her swevyra - her life force.

    But it wasn't like it normally was. The kernel of darkness implanted in her by Amaunet was still there, the lingering remnants of Amaunet's arrogance, rage, and hatred. Meridina kept her attention away from it lest she remember the rampage Amaunet had unleashed. With the fight to come, she couldn't afford to dwell on that right now, to let that shame and doubt enter her and degrade her strength. Not again a swevyra'kse.

    "Are you okay?"

    Meridina looked up upon hearing the accented voice. Druni stood nearby, leaning against the wall, arms crossed. Her own energy settled comfortably around her.

    "I can feel fear," Druni said. "Doubt. I've… never felt that in a swevyra'se before."

    Meridina lowered her eyes in shame. It seemed she wasn't controlling it as much as she would prefer. "I did not feel such things until recently," she admitted.

    "What happened?"

    "I was possessed by an alien parasite called a Goa'uld," Meridina answered. "It turned my swevyra toward darkness. It felt rage and hatred, and it used me to kill."

    The image in her head returned. Of her own lakesh biting into Lucy's neck, the desperate determination on her student's face as she fought to hold the blade back while blood poured from the wound on her head and the cut in her leg. She remembered Lucy's pain, her sorrow, at having to run Meridina through to stop Amaunet.

    Druni's eyes reflected her compassion for Meridina's pain. "I have heard stories of my fellow Sisters being turned against us by slavers using neural override implants. I can only imagine the suffering you endured."

    "Thank you." Meridina looked up at her. "Why did you leave the Silver Moon?"

    "I had a dispute with the Order. A doctrinal issue," Druni said.

    "I see." Meridina nodded.

    Their conversation might have gone on, but there was a call over the PA. "Commander Andreys, please report to the command deck," Yvonne said.

    "Looks like we're almost there," Druni remarked. She ceased to lean against the wall. "I will go tend to my pre-battle exercises."

    Meridina responded with another nod. She turned her attention inward yet again and resumed her meditations.




    Julia took the elevator and stairs up to the command deck. The initial area, at about the midway point of the deck, was devoted to some of the recreational space. Network communication terminals and computer systems for the crew flanked both sides. Perhaps a bit more than necessary, given the size of the crew. Julia found it all curious.

    The front of the ship was dominated by a large holographic galactic map, zoomed in on their local space. Yvonne sat in a chair in front of the map - beyond it were two crewmen. The ship's pilots, Julia figured. Crewmen also held stations to either side for, presumably, sensors and communications.

    "We're coming up on the perimeter of the Alliance exclusion zone," Yvonne said. "I need your access code."

    Julia nodded and went over to communications, where an Asian woman was seated. She nodded and turned her seat to get out, allowing Julia to sit there. The hard-light controls were similar to those she had used before and it wasn't hard for her to open a communication line to the sensor buoys. She put in her command code.

    Moments later the hardlight viewscreen showed a new display. The system had accepted the code.

    "We're clear," Julia said, turning the chair and then standing from it. As its former occupant reclaimed her place, Julia stepped up beside Yvonne. Below and in front of her, the pilot continued to monitor their systems as the ship continued on its way, warp engines thrumming through the ship. "Well, you are," she corrected. Seeing Yvonne's curious look, Julia added, "Depending how this goes, I may have just earned myself a court-martial."

    "That would be a mistake on the Alliance's part." Yvonne actually looked sympathetic. "Frankly, Commander, if they do something like that, they're just asking you to find superior employment elsewhere. There are all kinds of organizations that could use a woman of your ability."

    Julia smiled with some amusement. "You wouldn't happen to be trying to recruit me into whatever sort of underground, sometimes illegal work you normally do, would you Yvonne?"

    "You might be surprised at the opportunities out there," she said. "And at what I am normally employed at. No offense was meant, however, merely an observation. I wanted you to know that there are good causes that could use you if the Alliance turns its back on you."

    "I'll remember that," Julia said. "I'm going to get the others ready now."

    "Of course. I'll let you know when we make orbit."




    With Julia getting the others together, Angel ended up being the one to rouse Kasszas. She found the Zigonian in a spare room, sitting on the floor in a meditative pose. Remembering what had happened to poor Petty Officer Dougal when he'd entered the holodeck while Crewman Thalaz was using it, Angel had been holding her breath and took a very careful, very short breath.

    "I am not burning incense, or any other such thing," Kasszas said.

    "Just making sure."

    "Of course. I am aware of how Humans are affected by our practices." Kasszas flicked his tongue. "And I sense we are about to arrive at our destination."

    "We're about half an hour out," Angel confirmed. "I'm making sure you're ready."

    "I am always ready. And I sense your view of such a claim. It is not mere bravado." The Zigonian raised a single, taloned claw. "Through Creation I may sense such things that my eyes do not behold. I am of Creation and Creation is within me."

    Angel nearly said something about that, but stopped. Something of it kindled a thought in her. It sounded so much like the things Robert talked about, how his new powers worked.

    "Your people can.. do things, right? See things, feel them.. move objects with their minds?"

    That rapid hissing chuckle answered. "That is not the way of the Harmonious Val-Drillim, but there are others in the Tsorra-Mahl who have teachings like that." Kasszas seemed to ponder something. "I sense you have a question?"

    "Is it…" Angel sighed. She couldn't hold the question back, even though a part of herr wanted to. "...Is it possible for someone with such a… thing, such powers… to get them removed?"

    For a moment the Zigonian was silent. "Such a bizarre question. Is is like me asking you if you would like your own eyes to be plucked from your head."

    "That's not an answer."

    "True." Kasszas put his clawed hands together. "The answer is that I do not now. I have never heard of such a thing being done. I sense this answer displeases you?"

    It did, as much as Angel tried to hide it. "I was hoping to hear some way to get rid of it. So someone I care for can be free from it."

    "One is never 'free' from Creation. We are all part of it."

    "This isn't about your beliefs," Angel shot back, her voice vehement. "It's about the fact that ever since he realized he can do this stuff, it's started to take over his life. And he has enough responsibilities."

    Kasszas flicked his tongue again. "I see. And you care for him?"

    "I love him," Angel insisted.

    "No, you do not."

    That brought the Zigonian a harsh glare that he could not see. Angel's nostrils flared. "What?", she asked bluntly, with deceptive calm in the question.

    "To love is to accept. But you do not accept." It was clear the Zigonian could feel the flare of anger in her. "Your love is not for a person but a mere phantom. An idea of a person that does not actually exist. This is why you seek to take his link to Creation away, as if it could be done. Your idea of him is of the him that existed before he realized his connection to the whole of Creation. Now he has changed, and you no longer accept what he has become. You no longer love him."

    Angry silence filled the air between them. Kasszas, his observations made, simply turned inward again.

    Angel snarled and nearly barked a hot denial. It died in her throat, becoming a growl of "Crazy Goddamned lizard" as she stepped away and left Kasszas to himself.




    Jarod had finished the schematic with seconds to spare.

    It hadn't kept Lyle from turning the dial again.

    This time he didn't bother with the duct tape. Charles and Emily's cries echoed through the room then, and they were doing so again while Jarod was working with the actual parts, now brought in by Lyle's order. "This takes time!", Jarod shouted, using a soldering gun and trying not to mess up while his family screamed in agony.

    The dial turned to the off position again. "Sick bastard," Emily muttered between the deep breaths she was making.

    Jarod looked up in time to see Lyle smack her across the face. He turned and smiled at Jarod. "You can go faster than that, Jarod. We know that."

    "No, you don't," Jarod growled in response. "Given what I have to work with, this has to be done just right, or it won't work!"

    "I'm not an idiot, Jarod!", Lyle screamed, the smile again gone from his face. "I know you're stalling! You're waiting for help! And it's not coming! Now get your ass in gear, do your job, or I'll make this look easy with the things I'll do to them."

    Jarod frowned and redoubled his efforts. He still had little firm knowledge of what time it was, or how long it'd been since he was abducted, but he knew it couldn't be long. And he had to be ready.




    In the Centre conference room, Miss Parker stood with Dralan and Y'tala as they watched Raines and His Lordship watch Jarod and the others. I sense deception, Dralan communicated to Parker, mind-to-mind, a method of communication she frankly hated.

    Who? Where?

    Around us. From you, certainly.

    Any luck on finding my father?


    Dralan looked slightly toward Y'tala. The Mi'qote mercenary nodded and brought up the multidevice on her wrist. A message was written on it.

    I just found the beam transmission. It's coming from under us.

    Parker frowned. Of course. Her father had always been here. Hidden, right under her nose.

    Her mind raced, pondering what her next move would be. She gestured quietly to her own multidevice, prompting Y'tala to nod and begin a transmission to it, her findings and the approximate course of the beam and thus where it might be coming from.

    To avoid suspicion Parker put her eyes on the screen. Lyle was torturing Jarod's family again. He kept his eyes on Jarod, mostly, while one of the camera angles set behind Jarod still showed a good view of his face and the sadistic, mad gleam in his eye.

    If things went a certain way, Parker realized she would easily, gladly, shoot him between the eyes.

    Dralan grabbed her arm. Parker looked at him in irritation. "What?", she demanded.

    "I sense them," he said. "They're here. They'll find us if I use my power."

    Parker frowned. Time was running out, and she needed to make the next move count. If she left, just up and left, it would send the wrong signal. But if she waited too long…

    "Get ready to move," she whispered.




    The Tainaron was in far orbit of Earth, staying out of direct sight of satellites. Its own sensors were searching about for signs of the Deadman's Hand. Julia came to the command deck again to observe with Yvonne. "We can't detect signs of any vessels like your records show," she said. "But they could be hidden from sensors."

    "That's likely," she agreed. "So we need a different way of finding them." Julia looked back to where Meridina waited quietly. "Meridina, can you sense Jarod? Or that dark sweveera whatever?"

    Meridina shook her head. "I am afraid I sense nothing. Our quarry is hiding himself."

    "Well, we can't stay up here forever," Yvonne said. "You should launch your ship and get in closer."

    "Agreed." Julia offered a hand. "Thank you for the help."

    "Don't mention it, Captain," was the response she got. "And I've had my technicians give you a little extra help, something to deal with that vessel you're looking for. Captain Thrace already knows."

    Yvonne's remark prompted a nod from Julia, hiding her own increasing curiosity about this ship and its crew. The way they acted and moved… it wasn't military, precisely, but it wasn't what she'd expect from a band of smugglers either, or any other private cargo ship that would operate with the likes of Corelo. They almost remind me of us, before the Alliance was the thought in her head.

    But there was no time for dwelling on these thoughts, not when they had a friend to rescue. Julia and Meridina walked away at a brisk pace toward the rear of the command deck.




    Several minutes later, the Raptor emerged from the launch deck after pushing through the mass effect-generated atmospheric containment field. Thrace was at the controls and Anders was beside her, looking over the electronics for the Colonial craft. Julia stood behind them, holding a bar along the side to keep herself steady, as the Raptor's inertial dampening systems were barely operative, having never been built to accommodate them.

    The passenger area of the Raptor was nearly overloaded. Kasszas took up a disproportionate amount of room, being the big reptile, with his stick in hand; and Zaeed being loaded for bear didn't have a small profile either. Meridina was wedged in with them on a bench. The second bench had Druni, Lennier, Sydney, and Angel. Angel was checking her pulse pistol.

    "You do not want to kill her," Kasszas said. A number of eyes looked his way.

    "Excuse me?" Angel frowned at him. The last thing she wanted was more prying from the strange blind reptile-man.

    "Miss Parker," he said. "You do not want to kill her."

    "Like hell I don't. I promised to, in fact."

    Julia looked back at Angel, frowning. "What?"

    "When Jarod tried to make good with her last year, showing her the new home he'd arranged for her," Angel said. "I came with him, just in case. I could see it in her eyes then, that she wasn't giving up. And I told her I'd kill her if she hurt Jarod."

    "We still need to know how she put her team together," Julia reminded Angel. "We need her alive." Seeing the look in Angel's eyes, Julia immediately added, "That's an order."

    Angel didn't answer. She did glare at Kasszas.

    "She still has a role to play," the lizard explained.

    "And you know this because… 'Creation' tells you?", Angel asked, disbelief strong in her voice.

    All the Zigonian did in reply was make a sad noise.




    Jarod made the last internal connection on his new device. It looked like a block of metal attached to a metal colander with wires strewn everywhere, but the internals and the way the wire was arranged would create a fairly short-lived energy field.

    Lyle looked it over. "Is that it?", he asked incredulously.

    "You wanted something that works, didn't you?", Jarod asked, frowning. "It was never going to be pretty. Not with the tools you've given me."

    "And how do I know it works?"

    Jarod responded by flicking a switch. "Now try shooting me."

    Lyle chuckled. "Oh, and have it be some bizarre device that sends the bullet back into me? I don't think so." Lyle looked to one of his guards. "Shoot him. In the arm."

    The guard nodded, with maybe a little reluctance, and pulled a firearm. Jarod didn't flinch as it came up toward him. The gunshot echoed in the room, hurting his ears.

    But no bullet struck him. There was a flicker of energy in front of him and then a very slight sound from the floor. Everyone looked down to see the smashed bullet come to a stop after rolling a little on the floor.

    Emily stared, wide-eyed, at this. "That's not possible," she murmured.

    Lyle whistled. "Well!", he said. "There we go. Looks like we have a start." Lyle walked over and picked up the schematics and the device from Jarod's work area. "Next up, I want a raygun. I don't care what kind, but it'd better fire lasers or whatever you do instead of bullets."

    Jarod narrowed his eyes. "You don't have the materials."

    Lyle responded by raising his hand toward the dial.

    "Dammit Lyle, you don't have…" It was too late. The dial turned and Charles and Emily were crying out again as electricity surged into their bodies. "....that's not going to change things!", Jarod screamed. "You don't have the materials for me to build a weapon like that!"

    "Then list what we need!" Lyle stabbed a finger at the paper stack on Jarod's work area. "Do it now or I turn this up!" He turned it down, but not off, leaving Emily and Charles to suffer.

    Jarod started scribbling, trying to think of the things that would be available here, on an Earth at the start of the 21st Century.

    He couldn't afford to not cooperate. Not until he knew for sure that his plan had worked. All he could do was write and hope that someone would be in orbit soon, before the oversized battery pack on the shield generator gave out.

    Because an energy shield wasn't the only thing it was capable of generating.




    The Raptor was keeping its distance in far orbit, roughly halfway between the start of the atmosphere and the Tainaron. "Still not… wait." Anders looked at his screen. "I've got something."

    "What?" Julia looked over at his screen. A ripple was appearing on it, coming from Earth.

    Anders looked it over. "It looks like a low-level radio transmission, VHF, being transmitted into orbit on one of the Alliance short-range radio bands."

    "What's in it?", Julia asked.

    "It looks like a series of pulses… the signal keeps cutting on and off."

    Julia looked at the display. "It's not being interfered with. It's doing that on purpose…" She grinned. "It's Morse code. Of course."

    "Morse code?", Anders asked. "What's that?"

    "It's an old system for transmitting messages as electric pulses down wires," Julia explained. "So many pulses of short and long duration meant a letter in the alphabet. It's why we call ship distress signals SOSes sometimes."

    "And do you know this code?"

    She nodded. "It's part of officer training. Just in case we need to communicate something discreetly, or without normal communication methods." She watched the pulses start and stop intermittently. "It's Jarod… he's being held somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Mountain area, eastern side. And.." As the next few words came through Julia breathed a sigh. "...they've got hostages. His family."

    "Hostage rescue's always a bitch," grumbled Zaeed.

    "I don't think we can fit more than two in here, not with everyone we've got," Starbuck said.

    "Then why don't we just take their ship too?", Druni asked. "You said the pilot stole it, right? I've never had an issue with stealing from a thief."

    "Is that why you left whatever order that was?", asked Angel.

    "No," she replied.

    "Taking their vessel will be difficult if they raise shields."

    "Well, it's a good thing the Tainaron mounted a couple disruptor torpedoes on your bird," Zaeed remarked. "We've got the ordnance if they try that."

    Julia should have been happy to hear that. And she was… but it also brought back to mind her inkling that there was more to Yvonne and the Tainaron than she had expected. Angel's warning about getting too deep with Hernan echoed in her head.

    "Can you give me a direction?", Thrace asked. Hearing her brought Julia out of her thoughts. She now wanted to smack herself for getting distracted from the matter at hand upon realizing she'd left the conversation behind. "We can't stay out here forever."

    "I'm trying," Anders said. The Raptor turned toward Earth. "Wait… I think I… have it." He grinned at Julia. "I've got it. I'm using the visual sensors now…" On his screen, the dawning sun was starting to throw light over the area, although the line of dawn was just starting to reach Spokane. The screen zoomed in on the eastern side of the Cascades until it showed a facility in the middle of the countryside, built along one of the lower mountains. A little marker popped up over it. "It's definitely coming from there."

    Julia nodded. She could already see the profile of what looked to be a cargo starship on the tarmac beside the building. "And there's the ship." Julia thought on it. "Starbuck, can you land us nearby? We'll be needing to take that ship."

    "Taking us in now. ETA five minutes." At Thrace's command, the Raptor changed its direction again, moving straight for Earth.

    "Maybe the Tainaron could land and pick us up instead?" Angel was looking over it too. "Because taking the ship too is probably going to be harder."

    "I doubt Yvonne would agree to risking her vessel," said Lennier. "Especially as we already promised we would not need further help, simply transportation."

    "So it's a fight, probably against her entire team." Julia patted her hip, where her pulse pistol was holstered. "But we knew that coming in anyway."

    "Who do you plan to send into the building to get your friend out?" Kasszas kept his claws on his walking stick.

    Julia considered that, and the makeup of the foes they were facing. "Zaeed, you're in charge outside," she said, looking his way. "Meridina will be busy facing their dark life force guy…"

    "Swevyra'kse," Meridina said.

    Julia shook her head. "Sorry, but I'm not even going to bother trying to pronounce that. Meridina will take him on. Druni or Kass will be needed for the other one they've got. Zaeed will direct the rest of you while I go with Sydney into the base."

    Angel gave Julia an intent look. Julia didn't return it, especially when Angel didn't say anything.

    "Good plan, until it goes tits up anyway." Zaeed checked his sidearm pistol for a moment. "If we're takin' their ship, I'll need everyone. Our pilot too."

    "Can you secure the Raptor?"

    "I'll lock it down," Thrace said. "Just don't let it get wasted. Admiral Adama will have my ass." Nearby Anders secured his own sidearm and checked his ammunition. "And our ETA is now two minutes. We're entering atmosphere."

    The Raptor began to shake. Julia's heart picked up its beat and every muscle went tense. Everything that she'd been planning since the previous night was coming down to this.




    In the conference room, most eyes were still on the screen showing the cameras in the room where Jarod was kept. Parker looked that way as often as she could, but she was more concerned with checking the exits without alerting Raines and the others to what she was doing. A plan was forming in her head now that she knew it was only a matter of time before they were attacked.

    A cell phone rang. Raines' attendant handed him a phone, and he rasped, "Yes", into it.

    "What is it?", His Lordship asked.

    Raines listened for a moment. "I see." He turned his head to face his superior. "Air Traffic Control is picking up an aircraft entering our airspace from orbit. They will be landing within a minute."

    His Lordship turned and faced Parker. "They're not yours, are they?"

    "No," she said.

    Raines looked at her intently. Parker met the look, kept it, and inwardly cursed as she realized what that look meant.

    Raines knew. He knew she had been expecting this attack.

    But he hadn't said anything. Why?

    A sick feeling came to Parker's stomach. But first she had to deal with the situation. She turned to Dralan. "You and Y'tala go out and help the others. If they only have one assault vehicle worth of troops, you should be able to deal with them."

    Dralan nodded. Y'tala pulled a particle pulse rifle from its place holstered on her back and smirked. They walked straight out.

    Parker activated her multidevice next, opening a link right to Wolff. "Raise your shields. Shoot them out of the sky."

    "With pleasure."




    "Woh there!" Thrace jinked the Raptor to one side. A split second later a pulse of green energy whizzed by them. "We're under fire!"

    Anders looked to his screens. "It's that ship. It's got some kind of weapon mounted on it. And… I think it's raised shields."

    "It would appear to be a plasma cannon of Earth Alliance design," said Lennier.

    "Well, whatever it is, it'll blow us out of the sky. I'm changing our approach vector." Thrace began to maneuver the Raptor around. Another shot lashed out at them and barely missed.

    "Don't these things have shields now?", Angel demanded.

    "Shields for resisting Cylon raiders, Delgado, not cannons."

    "Well, this brings back unpleasant memories," Zaeed grumbled from the back.

    Druni looked up. "If you can get us close and remove the shields, I can deal with the cannon."

    "What?!", demanded Thrace. "How?"

    Meridina gave Druni a quizzical look. Druni smiled gently in response.

    "Anders, lock on the torpedoes," Thrace said.

    "I'm getting a firing solution now."

    Julia forced a calm expression that belied the fear and worry building up within her. Doubt came and was beaten back down by will. Everything she heard was that Kara Thrace was a hell of a pilot, one of the best, and so her life and the lives of her team were in Kara's hands. She would rely on the Colonial pilot to get them safely to the ground, that was it.

    The Raptor had several more shots come their way. Many were close. But none hit. The ground rushed up toward them on the cockpit window.

    As the squat facility in the middle of nowhere loomed large, so did the Deadman's Hand. It was a boxy shape, landing struts extended, and appeared to have an internal warp drive instead of a nacelle-based system. Although Julia couldn't see it, she knew that the ship was surrounded by an energy field that would fry them if they came too close.

    "Fox One!", Anders called out.

    The torpedoes dropped from the Raptor's hardpoints and flew forwrd, twin bolts of light from their mass effect drive fields. Within seconds they slammed into the the shields around the Deadman's Hand, creating a massive burst of light and an explosion along one end of the ship.

    "That did it!", Anders shouted. "Their shield is down!"

    Druni stood and opened the hatch on the side, causing a roar of wind to drown almost everything else. She drew in a breath and put her hands together, index and middle fingers extended, in a focusing gesture.

    Julia felt the hairs on her neck start to prickle. Meridina actually gasped in surprise, sensing the shifting of energy, the way Druni was using her life force energy. Druni's wound her right arm around, as if dipping her fingers into an invisible pool in the air. Electricity started to crackle and spark at her finger tips as her arms moved in sequence. Meridina could feel Druni's power splitting the air, separating energies and creating an imbalance in forces, then allowing the tremendous discharge that was building to flow around her.

    In a quick movement Druni stabbed her right hand, and the fingers there, forward. Power erupted from her in the form of a great bolt of lightning.

    The release of energy struck the plasma cannon on the Deadman's Hand directly. It couldn't resist the power Druni had channeled, exploding brilliantly.

    Julia could feel her jaw hanging in utter surprise at the act. Everyone was stunned and said nothing as Druni turned back to face them. "It is a difficult technique. We are not allowed to use it in the Silver Moon."

    "Lightning drawn from the power comes from darkness," Meridina insisted. "How can you risk…"

    "There is none," Druni insisted. "It is not the same." She saw Meridina's frown and lowered her eyes, as if she had expected this reaction.

    "Here we go!", shouted Thrace.

    Under her control the Raptor swung around and came to a landing beside the Deadman's Hand.

    Zaeed jumped out of the hatch first, a beaten up old M8 Avenger in his hands. The assault rifle opened up with a roar at the approach of the armed guards for the facility. Quick bursts of fire, expertly aimed, put them down by one one.

    The others jumped out quickly. There was no cover to be had in the tarmac all the way to the building, so their only hope was a direct attack on the armed men before they could shoot them all. Julia and Angel hit the ground firing, sending pulse pistol shots that made two more guards drop. Their suppressive fire, meager as it was, provided the extra time for Zaeed to eliminate the men with quick bursts from his rifle.

    A loud roar filled the air and made the three turn. Powerful arms lashed out and knocked Julia and Angel out of the way, one to each direction, with such force that Julia's pistol went flying from her grip. The big Krogan caught Zaeed as he tried to dodge out of the way, knocking him several feet away onto the tarmac.

    Krel unholstered a shotgun and aimed it toward Zaeed. Kasszas' tail whipped out and gripped the gun as it leveled toward the prone mercenary. The Zigonian flicked his tail away and ripped the weapon of the Krogan's hands. Krel growled and turned toward Kasszas, who held up his stick. Krel took out another gun, this one a large pistol, and began to fire it at Kasszas, who evaded with a series of spins and dodges, whirling his walking stick around and even deflecting several of the mass effect-propelled rounds.

    Sydney, a pulse pistol in hand, unloaded on another guard rounding the building. His shots missed at that range, but they made the guard take cover around the corner. He came up to the others and gripped Julia's arm. "We need to hurry!", he urged.

    "What's your hurry, old man?"

    The question didn't come early enough to give Sydney the time to dodge the punch that sent him flying. Wilton cocked a grin at him before turning his attention to where Julia and Angel were standing. Kang and Denna stepped up beside him. "Well well, looks like you ladies are in for a rough time," the fighter said.

    "Poor little kittens," Denna cooed, pulling a prod-like weapon from her belt and raising it.

    Wilton charged first, and Julia sprang to intercept him, blocking a punch and ducking a kick before throwing a palm strike that he batted away. He threw a punch at her stomach that nearly connected, causing a brief spasm of pain, but she followed it up with a snap kick to his weak side that caught him in the ribs.

    Denna charged forward, a sinister figure in her black combat leathers, and got Julia on the weak side as she evaded Wilton's strikes. The moment her weapon made contact with Julia's ribcage, white-hot agony surged through Julia's torso. She screamed and toppled, stunned by the sheer shock of the pain.

    Both of her attackers went flying, courtesy of Druni throwing out a wave of force. With the pain fading Julia was able to look up and see that Kang was now facing Lennier, the two adopting martial arts stances and waiting patiently for the other to strike first. Zaeed was still getting up and exchanging fire with what few Centre guards were left on the outside. The Krogan, Krel, was pursuing Kasszas with dogged determination, the blind Zigonian twisting and moving around his larger foe to evade his attacks. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Thrace and Anders going up the cargo ramp for the Deadman's Hand - they would go after Wolff and secure the ship for everyone to escape on. Angel had gotten back up and was checking on Sydney, who was starting to move.

    She took all of this in, their relative positions, and considered what had to be done. This was mostly going with the plan.

    Mostly, that is, save for the fact that her position meant that Angel was the better choice to go after Jarod than Julia.

    "Angel," Julia said. "You go with him. I'm staying out here."

    Angel looked back. Her hazel eyes had that intense look they got whenever Angel's blood was up and her adrenaline was pumping. "Are you sure?"

    "Yes. Go!" Julia heard the footstep behind her and ducked and spun away, barely evading the high kick that Wilton had meant for the back of her skull. She turned and caught his next strike, he caught her counter-attack, and she moved her arm to take a blow to her forearm instead of her shoulder blade, the movement acting to deflect the energy of the blow so that it didn't actually cause as much damage. Wilton backed off for a moment. "You're good," she said to Wilton.

    "The best." Wilton smirked. He brought his fists up. "Now hold still, blondie, and maybe I won't mess up that pretty face so much."

    Julia smirked and assumed a defensive posture, arms leveled and her hands balled into fists. She awaited his attack and when it came she blocked and deflected and evaded several strikes until Wilton left his side open. She went for it, then immediately whipped about, evading the trap he'd set for her in doing that intentionally, and caught him by surprise with a kick to the jaw that made him twist and fall over. The falling movement continued, Wilton using its inertia to get back to his feet. A snarl now twisted his lips. "Well, you're not half bad," he admitted. "I'm going to enjoy this."

    Julia said nothing, resuming her defensive posture. The smirk appeared on her face again and she curled her palm inward, turning the back of her hand toward Wilton and curling her fingers in a "Come here" gesture.

    He took the invitation.




    Angel and Sydney were met by Meridina as they approached the door. "Where are you going?", Angel asked Meridina. "You should be helping the others."

    "I felt it more important to help you."

    "Why?", Angel asked.

    The door ahead of them opened. A man in a dark long-sleeved suit exited, a sword already in his hand. His oval-shaped face was immediately familiar to Angel. It was the Gersallian Parker had hired. "Oh," she said. "That's why."

    "Dralan Olati," Meridina said. She raised her lakesh and extended it. "I cannot allow you to harm anyone else."

    "It's been a long time since I fought a slave of Swenya," Dralan said. "It'll be fun to kill another one of you sanctimonious drones." His golden eyes glittered with satisfaction. "Although you feel interesting. Is that.. doubt I feel? Maybe a little darkness? My my, you're not a very good slave of that whore Swenya, are you?"

    "Insulting the Grand Foundress is a petty attempt to undermine my control, don't you think?", Meridina observed. She glanced over her shoulder at Angel. "Go around. I will hold…"

    The blow was meant to take Meridina's head off her shoulders. She saw it coming even as the intention formed in Dralan's mind and had her lakesh in place to intercept the blow. The EM fields of their respective blades interacted and created a loud "whmmm!" sound in the air from the force of the impact.

    Dralan pulled his weapon back and brought his hand up. Crackling lightning erupted from it. Meridina intercepted it with her lakesh blade. It snapped at her, as if the lightning could almost on its own will go around the EM field holding it in place.

    Finally the lightning stopped. "It was no petty insult," Dralan said. "You and the others are fed lies. You worship that bitch-tyrant Swenya when she ruined our people. She made them weak and soft."

    "She gave us purpose, she showed us the Light."

    "Light is weakness. It is tyranny. It enslaves souls." Dralan snarled. "And I will never be enslaved again!"

    He tried to choke her with his power, but Meridina resisted that. He switched a moment later and lunged with his lakesh. Their blades met yet again.




    While the fighting by the others raged on around them, Kang and Lennier remained a distance from each other after their brief exchange of attempted punches and grabs. Lennier's hands were in a ready self-defense gesture, ready should the other man make a move. "Hrm," Kang finally said. "I've never faced one of your kind before."

    Lennier said nothing in reply to that.

    An eager smirk finally came to Kang's face. "Not that it matters. You're just another alien to kill." His left hand reached to his back and retrieved the sword that had been fixed there. He held it out, swapping the handhold to hold it in reverse, pommel-up, and assumed a combat stance with the blade parallel to the ground.

    "If that is how you wish to proceed." Lennier pulled his denn'bok out and triggered it to extend.

    Kang smirked and, with a confident air, charged at Lennier.




    Zaeed fired another burst from his battered old rifle, good old Jessie, felling another of the dark-suited security men with old chemical-propellant firearms. His breathing had picked up and his muscles burned. I'm getting too God-amned old to run a fight like this. And no damn cover, too.

    It seemed he'd finished the last of them off, though, which was good because it meant he could focus on helping his team put down the mercs guarding the ship. He turned toward the fight and glowered at seeing Julia, not Angel, engaged in a hand-to-hand fight. So she's still out here, eh? Who's going to be in charge? This is what I get for joining an op this rushed. I don't have time for this crap. Zaeed brought Jessie up to fire when a sudden shot from the side knocked him over. His personal shield took most of the blast and saved his life.

    Stupid mistake, God-ammit it, lettin' someone shoot me from the flank.

    That someone, it turned out, was the "Mi'qote" woman on Parker's team, Y'tala. She was perched at a window facing his way, a particle rifle up and aimed at him. Zaeed swung Jessie over and fired, full auto, letting his old gun really push her heat capacity with enough suppressive fire to drive the cat-lady back into cover. He moved toward the window, firing all the way, until Jessie grew so hot that she was smoking. Finally her safety kicked in and Jessie stopped firing, going into cooldown.

    His quarry recognized her chance and popped back up, rifle raised. Zaeed was ready for her though, and he already had a grenade in mid-air when that gun popped back up. He threw himself to one side, knowing another hit would finish his personal shield and leave him dead, while reaching for his side-arm. He hefted the M-3 Predator and fired off several shots just as Y'tala was shooting at the grenade he tossed. A number of the shots struck her shield and degraded it, forcing her to take cover as the grenade went into the window.

    As the grenade went through the window, Y'tala came out of it. She hit the ground rolling and held up a phaser pistol. Amber fire washed over Zaeed's shield. His combat gear let off the tone he hadn't wanted to hear; his shield was completely drained now.

    But now Jessie was cooled down. He picked her up from where he had to drop her and fired, full-auto, at the Mi'qote woman. She jumped back to evade but it was too late for her personal shield, as enough rounds slammed into it that it flickered and dissolved.

    With no cover and his personal shield overloaded, Zaeed couldn't let her get another bead on him. He dashed forward and, as she stood, fired off another shot. She rolled away from it and pulled a gun. Now he went down, rolling and shooting, but rolling in the right direction.

    Y'tala took a gamble; she held her ground to try and get a shot in. But Zaeed, despite his age, was too quick for her to keep a bead on him in short-range. Her shot went wide.

    Zaeed twisted Jessie in his grip and brought the stock of the gun crashing into her face. Her nose broke with an audible crack, red blood gushing from it, and a single tooth went flying from her mouth.

    The move should have won Zaeed their brief battle. But it didn't; Y'tala's leg shot out and kicked him in the knee from the side. Zaeed's knee came out from under him, causing him to go down onto it. She went for her sidearm again as Zaeed went for his, and simultaneously they each brought a free hand up to grip the other's gun, leaving them locked in place, the loser unlikely to survive the result.




    Thrace and Anders held their guns ready as they continued on down the main corridor of the Deadman's Hand, working toward the main bridge.

    They were barely a quarter of the way when Anders pulled Thrace into cover in one of the doorways, just before a sapphire pulse of energy went past where she had been.

    "Think you're hot shite to come after my ship, don't you?!", cried out Wolff, standing in cover near the bridge. "Come on if you think you're hard enough, nobody's taking my ship from me!"

    Thrace and Anders looked at each other. Being in a relationship and having fought side by side, they could read one another well enough to agree to a plan without any verbal communication. Thrace gestured and Anders nodded. He poked out slightly and went back into cover as fire came down on his position.

    Thrace slipped around the corner and returned fire, driving Wolff into cover. Anders dashed ahead, taking cover at the next door. Just as he got into the cover fire came back their way. Wolff could see the tactic they were using and was ready to take his chances to shoot one of them down.

    They would repeat the same, now Anders giving the cover fire while Thrace moved ahead, taking cover opposite from Anders to force Wolff to divide his fire. They exchanged looks that confirmed that each knew what this meant; this was going to take time. Time they might not have.




    Angel and Sydney made for the opposite end of the building. A fire exit door presented itself as an entry point. It was supposed to be one way, but with a couple shots from her pulse pistol Angel wrecked the door's closing mechanism and was able to kick it open.

    It was a stairwell, and they were on the top floor. "Okay, where do we go?", she asked Sydney.

    "We might be able to find whoever's in charge nearby. There's no telling how far down the facility is."

    "So this way, good.

    They went toward the door Just as Sydney started to go through the , the door opened and a man in a dark suit came out. The security man saw them and lifted his gun up.

    With Sydney partially in the way, Angel didn't have room to shoot without risking him. Her leg snapped up and caught him in the hand with a kick. She moved in a quick lunge, grabbing the man's gun hand and coming up with a kick that caught him in the throat, forcing him to wheeze and gag out of shock. She followed that with a punch and a throw toward the outer door, clearing him away. "Go, go!", she urged.

    Sydney kept going, as fast as his weary old legs could carry him, while Angel took up the rear.
     
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  6. Threadmarks: 2-07-5
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    The air in the conference room was growing more tense by the moment. The Centre Triumvir, "His Lordship", was talking on the phone with someone and frowning. "Send them all… well, how many…" The normally debonair man in his fancy suit was now pacing. "Get more, we have the office in Redmond… yes, by chopper if you must, we need the backup." He turned the phone off. "Can your people stop them?", he asked Parker.

    "I hope so," she replied. She looked them over. If she was fast enough that she could shoot them before they sent an alert…

    There was a loud banging noise as the door was kicked violently open. Miss Parker turned to face the newcomers as well.

    Angel and Sydney entered the room, guns drawn.

    Raines' attendant drew his weapon and leveled it at Angel.

    Miss Parker reached for her pulse pistol, but didn't draw it yet.

    "Sydney," rasped Raines.

    "Mister Raines." Sydney covered him, among the others, with a gun. "Where's Jarod?"

    Raines quietly turned his eyes to a monitor, where they could see Jarod and Lyle, not to mention Jarod's family. "You clearly aren't as capable as Miss Parker warned," he said. "We'll have this compound reinforced within hours."

    "We'll be gone by then," Angel retorted. "You idiots should be praying thanks that our ship's on special assignment, otherwise we would have sicced a company of Marines on you by now."

    "You would be the young lady who penetrated Centre security last year." His Lordship took a seat. "I respect bravery and action like that. So let's discuss the matter and find an acceptable accord." He folded his hands and gave every appearance of being the amenable, ready-to-deal English aristocrat. "The Centre fed Jarod for three decades. Clothed him. Protected him. We have a vested interest in his work, you might say. Now, if we had compensation of some sort, I can see the Centre happily permitting Jarod to move on "

    "You're nothing more than slavers," Angel spat. "I saw what you did to Angelo. Your man Lyle was holding a little girl hostage. The reason I haven't shot any of you yet," and her eyes turned to Parker with venom, "is because all I care about is getting Jarod and his family out of here."

    "Young lady, you are not in the strongest bargaining position," Raines replied. "One of you will be shot if a fight breaks out. And with a single phone call, I can have Lyle kill Jarod's family, or even Jarod himself."

    "So what 'compensation' would the Triumvirate want?", Sydney asked.

    "Your technology. The chance for the Centre to lead the world into a new era of discovery and expansion." His Lordship put his hands together.

    "There are political considerations. Rules."

    "Of course. But these things… they are bent all the time, Doctor, as I'm sure you're aware. My colleagues and I have made our careers out of such things."

    "The Alliance will never deal with you," Angel swore.

    His Lordship sighed. "Young lady, I can only be so hospitable toward such… irrational hostility. Mister Raines is correct, your position is not the best. This is a time for negotiation, before more lives are lost. We can both benefit."

    The look on Sydney's face made it clear to Angel that he didn't trust them, but saw no harm in talking for the moment. Angel, however, was pondering if she could shoot the main behind Raines before he fired.

    Her eyes wandered onto the monitor screen. She could see the two people strapped to chairs - Jarod's family - quaking and crying out. Her anger stoked. She needed to find them, now, and put an end to it.

    For the moment, however, the standoff continued.




    One floor below, Jarod was hard at work designing the necessary capacitor to use in a particle rifle, part of his "produce something" efforts to placate Lyle while he waited with baited patience to see if anything happened. Or, unfortunately, if his beacon had been found out.

    Lyle was agitated. And that meant Emily and Charles were suffering more shocks, as he played with the dial, as if their pain eased his frustrations. "Remember," he said, looking to Jarod, "if anyone outside of the Centre comes through that door, they die."

    Jarod actually felt relieved by that. He suspected Lyle was remaining in communication with his bosses, and if they had him that upset…

    You're here. Come on… please hurry. He gave a nervous look to his suffering family. Before it's too late.




    The fighting outside continued to rage. Krel was tearing up the tarmac with his gun in his attempts to shoot Kasszas. The slippery Zigonian, always moving away from where the gun was firing, was without a single blow driving Krel toward an outright blood rage.

    As Kasszas twisted away from another shot by Krel, he nearly crossed paths with Lennier and Kang. The Minbari's denn'bok continued to clash with harsh metallic ringing whenever it deflected Kang's sword. Kang's attacks were well-aimed and precise, forcing Lennier to use all of his skill to stop them.

    A grunt of pain came from Julia. She'd just misjudged Wilton slightly and opened her side up to a punishing punch from the other martial-artist. She grimaced and blocked out the pain, letting him come at her again. He was getting cocky, arrogant, and she let him as she waited for the right opening. Occasional punches and snap kicks kept Wilton somewhat honest, but she remained on the defensive waiting for the best opening.

    Gunfire continued to sound from the corner of the field where Zaeed and Y'tala were locked into hand-to-hand combat, each trying to keep the other from getting a clear shot. Y'tala delivered a wicked kick that that left a bruise growing on Zaeed's face, and Zaeed returned the favor ten seconds later with a punch that may have cracked one of her collarbones. He grabbed at her arm and twisted her weapon away. Her hand shot out and took his wrist, twisting as well, and in the mutual movement Zaeed's Predator fell away.

    Now at a disadvantage, Zaeed pulled the combat knife from his belt. Y'tala went for it and he met her movement with one of his own, bringing his knee up and smashing it into her wrist with enough force to knock the phaser pistol from her hand. Y'tala hissed in frustration while her elbow shot in at his throat. The blow was strung, nearly crushing his windpipe, and the surge of pain and reflexive panic gave Y'tala the moment she needed to go for her weapon. With a burst of will the old mercenary forced the pain out and went after her. Just as Y'tala's hand started bringing the phaser over, he drove the knife into her leg, just above the knee. The limb buckled and she cried out, red blood oozing from the wound. His hand came up and took her wrist, twisting and twisting until she dropped her weapon. Her free hand came up and slashed across the right side of his face, along the scar and near his fake eye, leaving five bloody furrows in his flesh.

    A harsh laugh came from the other side of the battlefield. The dark-clad woman known as Denna continued to try to hit Druni with her blunt weapons, each promising a world of agony if it made contact with Druni in any way. Druni's tenari swords met her blow for blow, stopping any such contact from impacting her. Occasionally Denna would mix it up, throwing a kick or a punch, that Druni would have to block as well. She launched counter-attacks of her own, resembling a whirling dynamo of sharp death once she hit her stride. Denna snarled as the tip of Druni's blade cut into her combat leather and took some of her skin off. She stabbed at Druni's ribs and barely made contact. Her weapon sent a wave of pain into Druni's body that nearly knocked her down. In desperation Druni's arm swept out and raw power forced the assassin away. Denna absorbed some of that with her own abilities, but it gave Druni a few feet of distance that gave her time to recover before Denna went at her again.

    On the Deadman's Hand, Thrace and Anders were continuing to creep forward ever so slowly, having made it halfway now to the door where Wolff was trying to hold his ship under his own power. "I could use some help here," Wolff snarled into his comm.

    "I'll be with you shortly," Kang answered.

    Outside Kang was still locked into combat with Lennier. He'd swapped his hold on his sword to pommel-down, giving him better control for meeting Lennier's attacks with the denn'bok. He kept his blade moving with swift, precise attacks that Lennier met with his weapon, then backed off to avoid the counter-attacks that Lennier gave with the opposite end. A part of him was supremely annoyed at his opponent: Lennier had not one drop of sweat on him, as if this took no effort on his part at all. Kang snarled and unleashed a flurry of attacks, strong swings of his sword to try and push the Minbari off-balance. Lennier met the furious offense with a series of blocks, bringing the ends of his staff to deflect Kang no matter how fast his sword moved.

    With his energy ebbing for the moment, Kang backed off, holding his sword level and ready to meet an attack from Lennier. Lennier moved his denn'bok into a similar defensive position. "You are quite strong," Lennier noted.

    Kang said nothing, letting his frustration and anger stew, waiting for an opening.




    Nearer to the building, there was more clanging of metal and EM fields in the fight between Meridina and Dralan. She could feel Dralan's rage and hatred, his sheer loathing of her and everything she believed in, and it made Meridina's resolve harden.

    "That darkness is part of you," Dralan said. "You should embrace it. It has the power to give you anything you want."

    "I am sworn to the Code," she replied. "That is what I want."

    Dralan snarled and tried to lash out with his power, a wave of energy to throw her back. Meridina met it with her own and resisted the strike. He followed it up with a series of cuts with his lakesh. She dodged and parried them, keeping her sword moving and letting her instincts, the conduit for her life force, guide her arms to reflect his attacks.

    "The Light is weakness, it is tyranny!", Dralan shouted as he battered away at Meridina, forcing her back and away from the others.

    Meridina let him. She would maneuver back when it was time, but for now she needed to get distance between Dralan and the others. With a swevyra'kse, there was no telling what they would or wouldn't do to get at their foes, and she didn't want the others falling to him.

    The question was whether she could hold him back long enough to wear him down or get an opening. The darkness was a terrifying force in its corruption, certainly, but the dark feelings that fueled it granted tremendous power, power like Meridina had rarely seen. Amaunet, in control of her, hadn't been this powerful as she could not fully command Meridina's life energies. Dralan could command his own, immersed in darkness as it was, and did so.

    Ultimately, her goal was to buy time. Time for Angel to get Jarod, time for the others to prevail in their battle, and she had to trust they would not be too late.




    The stand-off in the conference room had everyone remaining in place. Angel felt the sweat gathering on her forehead as she kept her pulse pistol leveled toward Raines' attendant, who had his gun on Sydney. If she pulled the trigger and didn't get the shot right, Sydney would be shot in turn. Would she be able to stop Raines or the British man in the suit from ordering Jarod and his family to be killed?

    Was she willing to risk that?

    It got to the point where she almost was. But in the end, it wasn't Angel who broke the stalemate.

    Angel was worried about the timing, but so was Parker. Moreso, as her only hope for escape with her father was the Deadman's Hand, and her ear receiver was picking up Wolff's calls for help as he faced attackers moving on his bridge. If they didn't hurry, they'd lose control of the ship.

    And so it was Parker who took the gamble. She leveled her pulse pistol and fired.

    The shot hit Raines' man square in the head. A moment later Angel's gun fired as well, mostly from reflex, and it hit the man's hand. He fired a half-second later.

    Sydney cried out as the bullet struck, grazing his neck. A spurt of blood followed its course across his flesh. He dropped his gun from shock and reached up to the wound.

    Parker was already in motion. Angel nearly moved to stop her, but went to Sydney first. He waved her off. "It's not as bad as it looks," he insisted.

    Angel scanned it. "It grazed you. You'll need medical attention."

    "We have to get Jarod first!", Sydney insisted. He pulled his bloody hand from his neck and reached for his gun with the other hand. He held the gun, one-handed, toward Raines just as Raines was reaching for his phone. "Don't!"

    Angel stepped up and ripped the phone from the wheelchair-bound man's grasp. "That won't do you any good," Raines said. "I'm supposed to remain in contact with Lyle. I haven't been, and he knows something is wrong."

    "Then where is he?"

    "Why should I tell you?", Raines asked.

    "Because if you don't…" Angel put her pulse pistol up against Raines' shoulder. Her thumb set the power level to a non-stun setting, but not powerful enough to kill. "...I'll starting shooting the crap out of you."

    "Oh. Torture." Raines smirked. "You don't have it in…"

    Angel pulled the trigger.

    A cry of pain erupted from Raines' damaged lungs. He sucked in air after it, as if by itself he had almost lost all the breath in his body.

    "Angela," Sydney began.

    "Your elbow's next, you sick old bastard!", Angel shouted. "Where is he?!"

    Raines' nostrils flared. A snarl came to his face.

    "Angel, this isn't necessary," Sydney insisted.

    The fury burning inside Angel didn't want to heed that. These bastards had attacked Jarod and his family. Jarod, who was effectively a member of her family too. And they wanted to act smug about it? She was going to wipe the smug smiles off their damned faces, and anything else necessary to get Jarod back.

    Sydney, meanwhile, was reaching for the multidevice he had picked up. "Look," he said. "I can check the monitor's signal, I think this will let me track where he is."

    Angel narrowed her eyes at Raines before looking to Sydney. "If you think it will work."

    "Yes, I'm…"

    Before he could finish, the suited man dashed for the door. They turned and Angel fired at him, but the shot was a half-inch off and he got out unscathed. "Dammit!", Angel cursed. She ran after him, leaving Sydney with Raines.

    "You… look well," Raines said.

    "And you look terrible," Sydney answered.

    "It's not quite like old times, is it?" Raines smirked. "Tell me, Sydney. How much of this is guilt? You profited from Jarod as much as we did."

    "I know," Sydney said. "And I'll take that guilt with me to my deathbed." He turned his head and eyed Raines. "How much guilt will you carry, Raines?"

    "Guilt is overrated," was the rasped reply.




    Miss Parker went for the stairs. Her destination was not the first level but the second, where secure rooms were kept. Only a single guard stood in her way, and she shot him down before he could react to her arrival at the bottom of the stairwell. Sloppy. I suppose all of the competent ones went upstairs.

    Her multidevice displayed the location of her father as straight ahead. She ran past the empty rooms, storage compartments, and to a single gray door. She grabbed the handle and pulled it open. The inside was the comfortable room she'd seen her father in. Ahead of her, as if in a hotel room, was a dresser drawer set, on which sat a television and a camera assembly.

    After she stepped in, a terrible smell hit her, the smell of human waste. As if the toilet hadn't been flushed. She took the final steps in to clear the corner and look to the bed…

    ...where her father laid, arms at his side.

    There was a hole in his forehead. He'd been dead for a while.

    For a moment denial surged strongly. She'd seen him alive just minutes ago, on the video screen. This couldn't be…

    She looked to the camera again and saw it, the recording device the camera was hooked into. Seeing it, that was when Parker knew she'd been tricked.

    The pain was almost overwhelming. "Daddy," she said, her voice hoarse with horror, rage, and guilt. She stepped up beside the bed and leaned over her father's corpse. His eyes stared back at her, empty. Miss Parker's lip quivered as she tried to close his eyes. They wouldn't close; rigor mortis had set in.

    Miss Parker started to weep. She couldn't help it. Everything, every deal she'd made, every thing she'd sacrificed, had been for nothing. They'd killed her father… why? To punish her, even though she'd brought Jarod as she'd promised?

    She almost couldn't breathe. The pain was starting to suffocate. They'd killed her father. The Centre had murdered him. They'd tricked her and she fell for it.

    The pain gave way to rage. She stormed back out of the room, just as footsteps started to come from the stairs. She made her way there, gun raised, and looked up to see His Lordship rushing down the stairs. "You killed him!," she screamed in rage.

    He looked at her. Bewildered surprise came to his expression. "What?", he asked. "Wait…"

    "You murdered my father, you bastard!"

    "No, I…"

    She didn't hear what he started to say. She didn't care. Her finger pulled the trigger. Again and again. Energy pulses of white-blue fury slammed repeatedly into his torso and neck. His death cry was drowned out by the barrage.

    With her face twisted into fury, Miss Parker ventured toward the stairs. She got up the first one, gun raised, when Angel appeared on the next flight, her weapon lowered toward Parker. Angel's eyes narrowed at her. She glanced toward His Lordship's corpse and back to Parker. "Your father's dead?", she asked.

    Parker glared up her way. "I'm going to kill Lyle," she said. "And Raines. And every other sonofabitch in the Centre." There was no smirk, no emotion, when she met Angel eye-to-eye. "Unless you want to settle this now? You're here to kill me, after all."

    Angel frowned at that. It was true... Mostly. She was planning on killing Miss Parker.

    Nevertheless, she raised the gun a little. "That can wait," she said. "Jarod's more important."

    Parker nodded. "First subbasement. I'll show you."




    The dawn light was shining on the combatants outside of the building. Wilton and Julia exchanged punches, Kang and Lennier's duel had carried them toward the building, while Druni was forcing back Denna and Kasszas continued to fluster the Krogan.

    "We're runnin' out of time, God-ammit!", Zaeed shouted, locked in ferocious combat with Y'tala. She bit at his neck, sinking her pointed teeth into his old Blue Suns tattoo. Zaeed growled in pain and brought his left arm up to elbow her across the face. Some of his flesh went with her and blood covered that side of his neck. "Bitch!"

    Y'tala spun away from him. Zaeed lunged and grabbed on just as she started to pull the phaser pistol up. Without his weapons at hand, she had the advantage, and Y'tala knew it. She brought the phaser up and nearly had it pointed at him when he got a hand on her wrist. The maneuver cost him leverage though, giving Y'tala the advantage and allowing her to shift her weight and pin him for the moment, keeping his other arm out of the way and his legs trapped. She nearly had the phaser on him, and her thumb had already set it to high. A single shot and he'd be gone. "No hard feelin's," she gasped, her voice distorted by the broken nose. The phaser drew centimeters closer, in a moment the emitter would be on him and it'd be over. "It's business."

    A moment before she could fire, Zaeed's head shot up and slammed into her face. Her broken nose broke further. The shock of the impact caused Y'tala's head to snap back.

    It also disrupted her balance. Now Zaeed could put his superior body mass to use, forcing her off of her position. His hands both gripped at the hand with the phaser and ripped it free. A look of fear crossed her green feline eyes as she felt the emitter come up against her stomach, and Zaeed knew that fear. He'd seen it a thousand times before, the fear he saw in his nightmares and in his dreams, the fear he hoped to see one day in the eyes of Vido Santiago.

    He pulled the trigger.

    There was a whine from the weapon he was gripping. Y'tala had no time to scream as amber energy consumed her body, every inch of it, until there was nothing left.

    "No hard feelings," Zaeed said, his breath hoarse. "It's business."

    It seemed like the right thing to say.

    Zaeed went over and picked up his Predator, his knife, and most importantly, Jessie. His shitty old rifle was intact and looked fine. He brought it up and sought out a target.

    Before he could fire on the assassin in the catsuit, a solid "whomp whomp whomp" came to his ears. Zaeed turned and faced the source; helicopters coming up over the mountains. "Company," he growled. They were running out of time.

    He put Jessie up. For this, he needed the other weapon on his back. The Mantis sniper rifle extended to full length by the time he brought it up. He crouched down to a knee and raised it toward the lead of the incoming helicopters. The crosshairs lined up on the pilot. Wordlessly, Zaeed pulled the trigger.

    The shot wasn't quite on, though, as he wasn't in the optimal firing position. Instead of a headshot, the bullet went low. Granted, he could still watch with satisfaction as blood erupted from the throat of the pilot, who reached for his savaged throat and was clearly gagging. The helicopter began to spin wildly out of control, nearly hitting the others.

    The other pilots weren't idiots. They began to maneuver more wildly as they approached, throwing off his aim. Zaeed put the rifle back and pulled out Jessie again. He turned back to the fight. "Put them down, dammit!" He watched the Krogan, Krel, nearly catch Kasszas in a charge. The Zigonian whirled away, his tail whipping across Krel's face and snapping it in one direction like it was a slap.

    Krel roared furiously and looked away. Not toward Kasszas, but toward Zaeed again. And Zaeed knew he was in trouble. The Krogan's eyes said everything; Krel was entering a blood rage. Even with his gun gone, that would make him the most dangerous foe on the tarmac. Zaeed began to pour fire into him with Jessie, but the Avenger didn't have nearly enough stopping power for a Krogan in the middle of a blood rage.

    Zaeed jumped clear and rolled over to a crouch. As he did so, Kasszas jumped behind him and landed on the Krogan's head. His clawed feet raked over Krel's face and left eye, which came free in a geyser of blood. Krel didn't seem to note the pain. His hand came up and grabbed at the Zigonian, who jumped free.

    Except Krel got lucky. His flailing hand caught Kasszas' tail and gripped it. Kasszas let out an involuntary hiss and, from the shock, dropped his walking stick onto the ground. An angry roar came from Krel as he pulled Kasszas back by the tail and threw him.

    Right into Zaeed.

    The impact knocked the air out of the mercenary's lungs. "Dammit," he wheezed. He looked at Krel, now preparing to stomp them.

    Druni had sensed her comrades' danger. She waited for Denna to make a lunge and, instead of cutting at her, slid to the side and then brought her foot up in a kick to Denna's throat. The assassin gasped in shock and fell over for the moment. Druni had a second with which to kill or incapacitate her, but that second would mean Krel getting to Zaeed and Kasszas. So she turned away and ran up, jumping up and landing on the Krogan's back. She drove her tenari blades into his neck and head, again and again, but the tough Krogan hide deflected the blows. Blood was everywhere, but she wasn't hitting anything critical.

    What she was doing was keeping Krel from finishing her allies off. He stumbled to the side, roaring in rage, and his arms flailed upward trying to reach at her. Druni jumped off and landed on the tarmac, blades held out and dripping with Krogan blood.

    "Go for the headplate, girl!", Zaeed shouted. He was nearly out from under Kasszas, who was still recovering his bearings. "There's a spot near the front plate, get your blade in there and you can pry the bastard's head half off!"

    Druni almost asked where, but she didn't need to. She could sense where Zaeed was thinking of. She nodded to him and returned her attention to the Krogan, now charging for her. Instead of jumping clear she ducked low, gathering her energy in with her. She released it as Krel was nearly on top of her, enough kinetic force drawn from her Gift to cause even a blood-raged Krogan to stagger. With that, she had her opening, and she used it to drive her blades into the spot. She jumped upward and pulled.

    The response was horrific. There was a terrible sucking noise, joined by a shrill scream from Krel as the top part of his head peeled up and off, leaving bloody inner flesh. Even in his blood rage Krel felt the full force of this loss. Druni could feel his pain, a pain so savage that she knew she had but one option left.

    She drove her blades into his head.

    The blow was fatal, instantly so, with the armor plate no longer protecting his skull and brain. Krel fell over and Druni skipped clear of him as he did.

    Denna struck. The assassin came in, both of her weapons forward, and pushed them both to Druni's back. The pain consumed Druni's conscious thoughts. A shrill scream expelled all of the air from her lungs.

    "Exquisite," the assassin cooed. "The pain is so…"

    Kasszas' tail whipped out and wrapped around Denna's wrists. With a yank that helped bring him to his feet, he pulled her back from Druni, who toppled to the ground, barely conscious and utterly paralyzed. Denna kicked out with her leg and sent out a wave of force that knocked the Zigonian backward, forcing him to let go of her wrists. Now the Zigonian and the assassin stood facing each other. "I've always wondered how much pain one of your kind can take," Denna said. "Although I imagine your brains are so addled by the drugs you inhale, it might not be the same."

    "I know your kind," Kasszas said. "You, who twist the gifts of Creation to selfish ends."

    "If you're talking about the Ministry of Fate, I don't particularly care for them either. It's so much more fun being on my own." Denna brought her weapons up. "Let's see how these agiels work on you, reptile."

    Kasszas extended a hand. His walking stick flew to it like metal to a magnet. The stick swept in and blocked her first blow. Her follow-up swing went high, and he deftly moved away from it.

    Zaeed pulled up Jessie just as the helicopters began to land. He opened fire on the nearest one, claiming a man with an assault rifle just before he could jump down. Quick bursts of fire from Jessie, deadly and accurate, brought down another, while the others remained in cover on their chopper.

    Zaeed reached down and jostled Druni. "Get up!", he insisted. "I can't cover you, dammit! Get up!"




    The twin martial arts fights - Julia versus Wilton and Lennier versus Kang - were still raging near the ship. The two combats were drawing closer and closer as metal continued to meet metal and blows were being dodged and parried.

    Julia was feeling the duration of the fight, but she was certain Wilton was too. His style was aggressive, forceful, and her reliance on t'ai chi had balanced that, letting him expend his energies against her defense. She could sense he had some idea what she was doing, but evidently her combat style was not one he was familiar with (although he had the same advantage; she wasn't sure if he was using kung fu, karate, or savate, or some weird mish-mash of them all.

    It was a mok'bara move that really gained her the advantage, though, or rather tying one that Worf had shown her with her other style. Finally, Wilton had extended himself, a powerful punch that Julia's relative slowing had made too tempting to pass up. She had to admit that a half second separated her from a blow that might have turned the battle against her, but it would instead work the other way, as in one fluid movement she grabbed the outstretched arm and pulled it with her. She kept turning, throwing Wilton off his balance, and twisted around until she was at his back and his arm was locked painfully behind his back. Wilton screamed in pain and anger.

    It became more pain when Julia finished her move by breaking his wrist.

    With that surge of pain taking fight out of him, Julia wrapped her arms around his throat and took him into a sleeper hold. Her legs came up and wrapped around his arms to pin them in place, his lack of balance and her weight driving him belly-down to the ground. He wheezed, gasped, and started to go silent as the lack of oxygen sent him into unconsciousness.

    Julia could hold on longer, guaranteeing he went unconscious, or until he was dead. But killing wasn't something she thought of doing when it wasn't necessary, especially not with the martial arts skilled she valued as a discipline. She let go and pulled herself away from Wilton. Her eyes quickly found her lost pulse pistol, and she went for it.

    Kang moved with the speed of a snake lunging at its foe. One moment he had been driving Lennier back, the next he was twisting around and getting into a position that would have taken Julia's head off clean. At the last moment she spun away. The weapon didn't cut across her neck, but it did slice along her belly, cutting away the cloth of her shirt and undershirt and nicking a bit of her jacket as well. Blood flew along with the blade, just as it began pouring down the wound in her belly and side.

    It brought back memories. She'd been wounded there by a blade before. Over a year ago, when the Jem'Hadar had boarded the Aurora. She briefly remembered nearly bleeding out.

    There was no time to worry about that, though.

    While she fell in the wrong direction to go for her pistol, she'd also kept Kang from killing her immediately as he'd intended. He turned back to Lennier just before the Minbari's denn'bok could find his head, parrying the blow and nearly getting Lennier's entire arm with a blow at the shoulder that barely missed.

    With Kang's attention diverted again, Julia forced herself back up, ignoring the pain and wet blood from her wound, and got to her pistol again. She swung it over at Kang and fired a wild shot.

    It didn't hit him directly, but it did graze his leg. The leg buckled under him and he dropped to a knee. Lennier's denn'bok struck him across the face, knocking two teeth out in a spurt of blood that came from Kang's mouth. He went spinning over and landed on the ground, belly-first. As he tried to stand, Julia shot him in the back with her pistol, putting him down for good.

    Lennier turned his attention to Julia. "Are you alright?" His eyes focused on the blood pouring from Julia's side.

    "I'll live," she said. She looked back at the fighting. Zaeed was desperately trying to keep the arriving Centre reinforcements suppressed. Druni was beside him, still prone on the ground. "Do what you can for her," she said. "I'm going to help Starbuck and Anders."

    "Of course."

    They split up.




    Trust only went so far, and so Angel kept her pistol ready while following Parker into the first subbasement level.

    Sydney's voice came over her multidevice, "The Centre has reinforcements landing by helicopter. We're almost out of time."

    "Parker's taking me to Jarod," Angel said.

    "I'm tracking you and I'll be with you shortly."

    "What about Raines?", Angel asked.

    "I just shot the spokes of his wheelchair. He's not going anywhere."

    "Good," Parker said. "I know where to find him."

    Angel didn't answer that. She understood what Parker was going to do, and she didn't care for the moment.

    The door they were looking for wasn't hard to spot, with the electronic security lock and the heavy steel construction. Angel brought up her multidevice and had it scan the lock, then access it. The system was purely dawn of 21st Century in sophistication, nothing to even her tactical-standard multidevice. It quickly cracked the security and undid the lock.




    Lyle and Jarod looked to the door when it opened. The appearance of Miss Parker was a surprise, and not pleasant for Jarod.

    He would have reason to reconsider that later.

    That reason, of course, was that it gave Lyle a half-second of pause before he realized what was happening and went for the dial. Just as his fingers wrapped around it to twist, Parker's gun fired. The pulse shot slammed into his chest, right on the sternum, and he fell back.

    Parker turned and elbowed one of the guards. The door opened wide enough for Angel to come in, and she caught the second guard across the face with a punch that sent him down.

    Seeing Angel made Jarod's day. He grinned with relief at her. "There you are."

    "Jarod!" Angel looked down to where his foot was chained to the chair. She knelt down and pressed the pulse pistol to the chain. A single shot delivered enough energy to break the chain in two.

    Jarod went immediately to Charles and Emily. His first act was to disconnect the device, ensuring there was no chance of an electrical shock. By that time Angel was already freeing Emily's wrists. Jarod went to work on his father's bindings.

    "Your friends came," Charles said weakly, grinning.

    "They did."

    "So your Dad's English?" Angel started removing the wrist shackles while Emily pulled off the wires that had been tormenting her.

    "His name is Charles. My sister is Emily." Jarod motioned to Angel. "This is Angel Delgado, she works with me."

    "And who's the lady…" Emily stopped.

    Jarod and Angel looked to the door.

    Parker was gone.

    Jarod quickly put it together. "They killed her father, didn't they?"

    "Yeah," Angel said. "It's why she's still breathing. She brought me to you."

    "Where are the others?" Jarod looked to the door. "Shouldn't you have a Marine team?"

    "Nope." Angel shook her head. The last of Emily's electrodes were off and she was pulling off the last on her father. "The Aurora was called away on a time sensitive mission. Angel, Meridina, and I were left behind because we were incommunicado hunting for Parker's trail. We had to put together a team of allies. They're outside fighting off Parker's people right now."

    "How are we going to get off-world?"

    "We brought a Raptor, and we're stealing Parker's ride. Now let's…"

    The door swung open and Sydney entered. "Jarod?", he asked. "Jarod, are you…"

    "I'm here," Jarod answered.

    Sydney wasted no time in embracing Jarod, who accepted it.

    "Andreys to Delgado," a voice said over the multi-device. "Please come in."

    Angela tapped her multidevice. "Julia? I'm here."

    "Have you gotten to Jarod?"

    "He's here." Angel nodded. "I got to him and to his family."

    "Then get out of there. They've got reinforcements coming, and we're still trying to take that ship."

    "Major Charles." Sydney looked over Jarod's father. "Allow me." He took Charles by the arm and hefted him on his shoulder.

    Jarod did the same with his sister. Angel pulled her gun and led the way for them.




    Julia had to take cover when she spotted the corridor to the Deadman's Hand bridge. Wolff was firing at where Thrace was in cover. She and Anders were at the last set of doors before the bridge, a quarter of the way down the hall. But they could go no further with so much remaining space, giving Wolff time to poke out of cover. "Starbuck! Anders!" Julia grimaced. Her side still hurt from where that Chinese cyborg had cut her. Blood was soaking into her pants leg. I need stitches, soon. "I'll add to your cover fire."

    "Any of you gits come any closer, you die, get it?!", Wolff shouted.

    "Wolff, I've got two life force-wielders, maybe three, behind me," Julia retorted. "We're taking that bridge. Your choice is whether you surrender or we have to shoot you."

    "I'm not goin' back to the cells, you hear me?! You'll get my ship over my dead body."

    "Suits me," Thrace retorted. She looked down the corridor to Julia, who nodded. She made a hand gesture in acceptance, and another one, presumably to Anders.

    Anders' gun began to bark. As it did, Julia stepped into the corridor and got onto one knee. She raised her pistol up, both hands level, and sighted the gun on the doorway while Thrace approached it, gun at the ready.

    Right before Thrace got beside the door, Wolff popped out, his gun raised and ready to shoot the Colonial pilot.

    Julia fired first.

    Her accuracy wasn't bad. She trained for it, even if she rarely used it, and some of the edge from her days in the Facility was still there. The shot, meant for Wolff's chest, was a little high. But it got his throat, and that was a shot she'd take.

    Thrace made it to the bridge. Julia saw her kick at something, presumably Wolff's gun, and there was a shout of "Clear!"

    Julia got back to her feet and walked up to the bridge. The pain in her side felt like it was growing worse. The wound was being aggravated by her constant movement and fighting. I'll get it checked, soon. But I've got to finish this first.

    She entered the bridge, where Thrace was securing Wolff's body. Her eyes moved over the bloody wound on Julia's left side. "Damn, Commander. We'd better get you bandaged."

    "We will when we're out of here." Julia pulled herself into the pilot seat. The controls weren't ones she normally used, but they were familiar enough. She started to run the pre-flight protocols, primarily systems checks. "Looks like Wolff didn't lock down his systems. He wanted to be able to leave in a hurry."

    "So do we." Thrace stood up and looked to Anders. "The cargo bay looks just big enough for the Raptor. I'll fly her in now."

    Julia nodded. "Go."

    "Anders, stay with her," Thrace ordered. He nodded in agreement.

    "If you can find something to bandage me with, I'd love to stop bleeding everywhere,' Julia remarked, the drollness in her voice evident.

    Anders went to work on that.



    With Lennier's help, Zaeed got Druni back to the safety of a building corner. From there he could direct fire on the men coming from the choppers, trying to keep them suppressed.

    Druni was starting to stir. "Urh."

    "We need you on your feet, girl," Zaeed insisted. "Come along, get up."

    "Where did that pain come from?", Druni asked.

    "I believe your foe attacked you from behind."

    "I've never felt so much raw pain before," Druni said. She looked back to the ship. "Look, they've done it."

    Everyone could turn and see that Thrace was coming down the cargo ramp and making for her ship.

    "But we have yet to get the ones we came for…"

    "We need to buy 'em time." Zaeed looked Druni over. "Think you can help me deal with those choppers? I can give you some cover if you can blast 'em out with that lightning."

    "I'll need several seconds."

    "You'll get 'em." Zaeed held up Jessie. "Ready?"

    "I will go to assist Commander Andreys with her injuries," Lennier said to them. "As the Humans I've known would say, 'Good luck'."

    Zaeed nodded.

    When he rolled out of the corner to one knee - thus providing a smaller target - there were at least a dozen security men advancing, all armed with the same kind of rifles. Zaeed popped off a burst that claimed one, then another burst that took the legs out from another. The rest of them scattered and went prone, looking to avoid getting shot and to then shoot back.

    Behind him Druni was already at work. She reached into the energy in the air with her gift, with the warm energy she had long felt within herself. Her arms wheeled around, splitting the energy in the air as they went, creating more and more of an imbalance between the latent positive and negative energies that existed around her.. She did so quickly, with less care than she normally managed, because she had only a second or two before she would be hit by gunfire.

    She thrust her right hand forward just as one of the gunmen turned his weapon toward her. The charges she'd split crashed back together, following the channel her power laid for it. The resulting bolt of lightning shot through the air, crackling outward as it did and shocking at least two of the gunmen.

    But the main bolt hit home: one of the helicopters, just as it was going to take off. The electricity blasted through the frame of the craft, warping and breaking it.

    It also found the fuel tank.

    A split second later, the helicopter exploded in a massive fireball that knocked down most of the remaining Centre gunmen. Some, hit by shrapnel, didn't get back up.

    More importantly, flaming debris started hitting the third and last of the choppers, and it started to back away even with two more gunmen inside.

    Zaeed followed up the attack with quick and deadly bursts from his rifle. Jessie's rounds hit home, and the attacking reinforcements were no longer a problem. "That's a God-amned impressive trick," he said, turning to Druni.

    She was frowning, though. "Not everyone sees it that way," she said. "Knowing how to do this, and being willing to use it, cost me everyone I ever cared about."

    "Their loss," Zaeed answered. "You ever want to go into merc work, I can set you up. You'll be a rich woman in months."

    Druni didn't answer that.

    Before she could act further, the door facing the Deadman's Hand opened. Angel came out and held the door open, allowing Jarod and Sydney to carry Major Charles and Emily out of the building. Emily was starting to walk more on her own power, but it was clear Charles was having trouble. "Take him," Emily insisted.

    Jarod nodded. He took Charles' other arm to bring his dad to safety.

    "Alright, let's get to the God-amned ship," Zaeed growled. "I'm not doin' this for creds, so no billin' by the hour."

    Angel nodded. Druni pulled her tenari back out. "I'll catch up with you," she said. "I'm going to help Kasszas."

    "After we get them to the ship," Zaeed said. "He's handlin' himself." Zaeed tilted his head toward the fight in question.




    Kasszas' stick effortlessly batted away another jab by Denna with one of her weapons, with a twist of the stick knocking the other hand and weapon away from him. He spun around and smacked her with his tail, sending her rolling over the tarmac until she came to a crouch. A vicious snarl crossed her face.

    "Strange how I am the blind one, but it is you who has not landed a blow," Kasszas remarked, keeping his staff level.

    "Was that a taunt," Denna challenged.

    "I thought that rather obvious." Kasszas brought his stick to a vertical position and held it. "Perhaps I should stand still for a moment and make the fight fair for you?"

    The frustrated growl that left Denna's thrown caused the rapid hissing that amounted for a chuckle from her reptilian opponent. "Your attempts to provoke me are not humorous and not at all working!"

    "But you see, I am not just trying to provoke you. I'm seeing you for what you really are, dark one." Kasszas' tail swished quietly behind him. The dawn light was now bringing some color to his light yellow and gray robes, but his dull eyes remained still and unmoving. "A spoiled child living only for transitory pleasures. No higher cause, no greater being, nothing but the moment for you, with the darkness in your heart the only way to fill the emptiness inside." Kasszas' reptilian voice took on a stronger, more hostile tone. "And I see those you have harmed. Your delight in torment and pain, all feeble efforts to fill that void. I should despise you, but I can't help but pity you."

    "Pity?" Denna snarled. "Pity?! Pity is nothing! I don't need it! You can have the pity for what I'm going to do to you, you miserable lizard!" Denna gathered her strength and reached forward. Lightning crackled at her fingertips and lashed out at Kasszas.

    But Kasszas was no longer there. The lightning struck the trees far behind him, setting them ablaze.

    Kasszas moved with the grace of a predator. In seconds he crossed the distance from where he had been to where Denna was realizing her strike missed. His stick was a blur in her vision before it slammed into her forehead. The force knocked her unconscious immediately and she was sent flying, going through the air for several feet until she hit the ground, rolled, and came to a stop. Blood started to pool from her head from the force of the blow he'd struck

    Kasszas lowered his head at the sight. "I am of Creation, and Creation is within me," he hissed, and then, with a sad sound, he turned away to rejoin the others.



    At this same time, Meridina and Dralan were still off in their side of the property, near the barbed wire fence, continuing their duel. Meridina was meeting her foe blow for blow, giving ground but no openings. She could feel his rage and anger being stoked by frustration. He wanted her dead, as painfully as possible, and by not giving him that his frustration was becoming all-consuming.

    Among those things being consumed was his control. Meridina watched his strikes lose their focus. The lakesh in his hands continued to batter at her blade, but as if it were a club and not a blade in of itself. His eyes remained locked onto her. His lips seemed to be permanently twisted into a snarl. This state gave him more power, but it cost him something more dear than power; it cost him control of the fight.

    Meridina was in control, but it didn't mean she could win whenever she wanted. It meant she was in a position to dictate its pace if she acted accordingly. She opened herself up fully to the power around her, allowing her life force to sense everything and guide her thoughts to the solution.

    "The things I'll do to you, whore of Swenya," Dralan roared. "The ways I'll make you scream, you slave of the Light!"

    "A slave?" Meridina deflected another blow and parried a second. She gathered her strength and used it to stop his power when Dralan threw it at her wildly, attempting to knock her over. "Look at yourself, Dralan. You are a slave yourself. A slave to the darkness festering inside you."

    "The dark is my strength!", Dralan shouted.

    "It is your master," Meridina retorted. She took a step back while he continued to tremble with fury, giving herself maneuvering room. "It has enslaved you completely and totally. You have no will beyond it."

    "I need no will with the darkness!"

    And with that, Dralan took a step back and then lunged forward.

    Meridina moved swiftly. She spun on her left foot, moving away and then toward Dralan just as his blade entered the space she had occupied. Her lakesh swung out with her, guided by both hands, and accompanying her spin until it found its target.

    The blade passed cleanly through Dralan Olati's neck.

    Head and body, no longer joined, toppled onto the ground. Meridina retracted her lakesh and summoned his blade to her hand with her power. She looked over his remains with contemplation, a little sorrow…

    ...and disgust. Disgust, which came a second later, because in that first second one emotion surged up from a terrible place inside her.

    Joy.

    She had felt joy, immense and gleeful satisfaction, or the taking of a life. At felling a dangerous foe who sought to kill her and people she cared for.

    She secured her hilt to her waist belt and put the hand to her mouth in horror. How could she let such a dark thought come through?

    The realization was a feeling that she was still tainted, and her doubts and fears resurfaced. If she had felt like this around others, they would see her as a swevyra'kse in the making. Her judgement would be swift and complete, and it would humiliate everyone she cared for.

    Her multidevice chimed. Julia's voice came through it. "The ship's ready. And I've got more helicopters on sensors and approaching vehicles. We need to go."

    After a moment, Angel said, "We're on our way. Don't bother waiting for Miss Parker, she's not coming."

    "Angel, did you…"

    "She didn't, Commander." The voice was Jarod's. "Miss Parker has unfinished business with the Centre. It's all she has left. And she saved my family's life.

    "I see. Get on board, then, and watch out for Starbuck, she's going to be bringing the Raptor in." After a moment Julia added, "Meridina? Are your receiving?"

    Meridina drew in a breath and looked back at Dralan's body. She considered his lakesh, the design on the hilt and the iconography engraved on it. The characters looked Gersallian, but she didn't recognize them precisely.

    She pocketed it before tapping her own multidevice. "I am coming." And she turned, heart still heavy, to walk toward the commandeered smuggler's ship.




    On the bridge of the ship, Lennier was checking over the secondary console. "The engines are ready," he said. "This vessel's anti-matter fuel is running low, but it should be sufficient for us to return to New Liberty."

    "Yeah." Julia checked her life sensors. "It looks like everyone's aboard. I'm going to fire the thrusters." She turned her head and noticed Lennier staring at her. "Yes?"

    "I believe you should let someone else pilot this vessel," he said. "You are wounded and need medical attention."

    "I know," she replied. "But we've got to lift off now." She pressed a key. The ship lurched under them slightly and began to lift off. She grimaced and glanced down at her wound. It wasn't bleeding as profusely, but her clothes would have to go straight into the replicator for re-processing. There would be no getting those bloodstains out.

    Once they reached the appropriate height Julia increased power to thrusters. She swapped to impulse drives as they reached the upper atmosphere, putting in a course to leave Earth's orbital space as quickly as possible. No cloaking device, just this emissions stealth. Dammit, there's no way the locals haven't seen us. Although I doubt they missed the ship landing too. Admiral Maran is going to be really irritated.

    Once she was sure they were home free, Julia hit a button that was labeled for the ship intercom. "I need a ship pilot up here, I'd like to get patched up before I bleed out."

    "Commander, I am getting a signal from the Tainaron."

    Julia nodded at Lennier. "Put them on."

    Yvonne's voice came over. "I see you made it."

    "Complete success," Julia said.

    "Are you okay? You sound like you've been hurt."

    "I had a cyborg try to cut my head off. I was lucky and only had him slice me below the ribs." Julia smirked. "I'll live."

    "Ah. Well, that's good. My best to you, Commander. Despite everything, it was a pleasure to meet you. Please do remember what I said, should the Alliance hold this against you."

    Julia responded with a diplomatic "I'll keep that in mind. Andreys out."

    By the time she finished saying so, the door to the bridge opened. Angel stepped in. She looked over Angel and shook her head. "So much for leave. You go off, get in a kung fu fight, and get yourself nearly sliced in half by a cyborg ninja or something."

    "Tell me about it."

    "Well, Starbuck said something about flying big bricks, Anders doesn't know a damn thing, and Druni is busy helping Jarod and Meridina tend to the wounded, i.e. you." Angel walked up to the piloting chair and gestured toward the door. "So I'm going to take over as ship's pilot. You go get that treated. I don't want to be the one to tell Robert that you bled out from being a stubborn jackass."

    Julia sighed and chuckled. "Well, I'd hate to make you do that…" She got up, still favoring her wounded side, and walked to the back of the bridge. "Do we have any prisoners to watch? Besides Wilton?"

    Angel shook her head. "No. Parker stayed behind, and aside from Wilton her team was dead."

    "Right." Julia nodded and walked out.

    Angel sighed and shook her head before taking the chair Julia had vacated. She looked over the console with something of a quizzical expression. "Okay, let's see…"

    "Perhaps I should…?"

    Angel turned her head and glowered at Lennier. "I know how to pilot a ship, okay? We all learned it."

    "Ah. Well, if you insist," Lennier said. "Please do ensure our course will not involve our vessel plowing into something at warp speed."

    Angel narrowed her eyes at the Minbari. "Are you trying to be funny?"

    Lennier kept a plain look on his face. "Of course not. I'm sure you are aware that Minbari do not generally have a sense of humor."

    "Because that sounded like you were razzing me about my ship piloting."

    "I would never call attention to any alleged lack of competence on your part."

    Now Angel was certain the Minbari was enjoying a laugh at her expense. "You know I can kick your ass, right?"

    "I'm quite sure you are capable of kicking me on the backside."

    With a look of comic exasperation on her face, Angel turned and directed her attention to plotting their course. The stolen ship jumped to warp a moment later.




    The woman who called herself Yvonne stepped into her office. She reached out and hit a key. A circular holo-display built into the wall activated. Hernan de Corelo appeared on it. "So, they did it?"

    "They did," Yvonne replied. She smiled at him. "Thank you for your assistance in this matter, Mister Corelo."

    "You're welcome, Miss Lawson," was Hernan's reply. "I trust your superior will consider my offer?"

    Miranda Lawson nodded. "Cerberus is in need of contacts in this bright new Multiverse that your people have linked us to. You'll hear from us again, Mister Corelo." She terminated the connection. The Illusive Man would indeed be pleased with the success of the operation, and of the opportunities it had presented.

    With a press of a key on her desk Miranda activated her intercom. The Tainaron had other places to be, after all, and there was more work to do, always more work to do, to protect and improve Humanity.




    Mister Raines watched sullenly as the smuggler starship lifted off, carrying Jarod and the Centre's leverage against him with it. The Centre had nothing to show for the operation now, nothing but dead sweepers, lost vehicles, and damage to the facility.

    "Hello Raines."

    Mister Raines turned the one functioning wheel on his wheelchair, allowing him to spin around and face Miss Parker. She held her gun toward him. "Ah." He put his hands together on his lap. "This is about your father, of course?"

    "Why?", Parker demanded. "Why did you kill him? I gave you Jarod!"

    "And yet you hid from us the knowledge that his friends were coming," Raines pointed out coolly. He smirked. "I know you have lived in a futuristic space age society for some time, so I suppose you forgot about directional microphones." He cackled at the look on her face. "Yes. We overheard your little conversation with your friend Kang. So I made the decision to put your father out of our misery. I decided His Lordship didn't need to know. After all, Mister Lyle was happy to do the deed."

    "I'm glad I shot the son of a bitch dead, then."

    "Did you?", Raines asked.

    Parker frowned at that, and she followed Raines' eyes to the monitor on the screen showing the room Jarod had been confined in.

    Lyle was gone.

    That moment was when pain shot through Parker. She felt the pressure in her back, the pain within her, and only then noticed the metal blade sticking out of her belly. A sucking sound accompanied the blade's disappearance. With her strength failing she tilted over and propped herself up against the conference room table. This let her turn and face her attacker. "Y… you?", she asked in confusion. "Why?"

    Kang was flicking the blood on his sword off. He looked down at her, his eyes obscured by his visor, and a slight grin crossed his face. "I couldn't let you kill Mister Raines. We have business to discuss."

    Pain and fury crossed her face. "But I… we…"

    "You've served your usefulness, Miss Parker."

    "What are…."

    Before she could finish, Kang slugged her in the jaw with enough force to break it, let alone knock her unconscious. She fell with a thump, blood still pouring from the deadly wound.

    "She might have proven useful," Raines remarked. "Although I do not mind her being dead."

    "You'd be surprised how much use a dead person can be." Kang put his sword up.

    "And this business you've mentioned?"

    Kang responded by pulling a device out of one of his pouches. A mass effect field generated around it, holding it in mid-air while a graphic displayed a bar filling up from 0% to 100% with the caption "Establishing Link".

    When it hit 100% the proper communication channels were opened. Data surged through the ether between universes and the domain of subspace, forming into a real-time and life-size image seated just five feet in front of Raines. Raines looked at the man in the chair, noting the cigarette burning in between his fingers and the look of his business suit.

    But what Raines noticed most were his eyes, his unnatural, mechanical-looking blue eyes.

    "Hello, Mister Raines." The figure set his cigarette down. "Allow me to introduce myself. I am the Illusive Man. I believe you've already met my operative, Kai Leng?"

    The man who had called himself Kang nodded slightly.

    "I'm listening," Raines said.

    "I've been aware of your organization for some time, Mister Raines," the Illusive Man continued. "I represent an organization called Cerberus. I believe that the Centre and Cerberus can be of great benefit to each other."

    Raines narrowed his eyes. "I find that hard to believe given our… technological limitations."

    "Technology isn't the only thing Cerberus looks for in picking partners, Mister Raines," the Illusive Man said. "The Centre has its own advantages. Your people can provide us with manpower, and most importantly, due to the state of your native Earth you could provide a certain degree of obscurity for special projects. And we are prepared to reward the Centre handsomely for its partnership."

    There was silence in the conference room for several seconds. Raines thought the issue through. And what it meant for him if this went somewhere.

    A small smile crossed the sickly man's face. "I believe I can say that we would be interested in your offer, Illusive Man," Raines rasped. "Very interested…"
     
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  7. Threadmarks: 2-07 Ending
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    Tag


    The ship was still several hours out from New Liberty's counterpart in A4P5. Julia, exhausted and tired, was napping away in one of the quarters. A door chime drew her attention. Having stripped her bloodied clothes off, Julia had to settle for a shirt stolen from the captain's things that, due to Wolff's smaller height and other differences, only went down to the end of her ribcage. This meant the bloody bandage over her wound was visible.

    When she got to the door, she found herself facing Zaeed. "Mister Massani?", she asked. "What can I do for you?"

    "Just checkin' in on you. Wanted to see how well you were healin'. I don't get to meet tough as nails lady Commanders every day."

    "Well, I'm glad I could fill that void for you," she replied. "I've already written up a quick report for Admiral Maran. I made sure to note your contributions and my recommendation that the Alliance Defense Command give you a contract for the war. I'll share it with Admiral Maran as soon as we return to the Aurora."

    "That's what I was hopin' to hear. You wouldn't like how I deal with broken contracts."

    "Yeah, I can imagine that. Anything else I can do for you?"

    "Nothin'. I'm goin' to take some Zs now. Best if I take the last room, ever since I broke my nose my snorin' can wake up a hungover Salarian."

    "Rest well, Mister Massani."




    In the rear cargo bay, Meridina was staring at the lakesh she recovered from Dralan. The characters engraved on the hilt intrigued her. But she would have to consult with databases before she could figure out if they were some form of Gersallian writing or not.

    "Meridina."

    She looked up as Kasszas and Druni sat across from her. "I can sense your turmoil from across the ship," the Zigonian said. "What troubles you?"

    "I killed a man."

    "So did we," Druni said. "I killed several. It's not supposed to be easy, but it feels like this deeply effects you. You've never killed before?"

    "No. I have." Meridina couldn't keep the shame from her face. "But this is the first time I felt joy in the act."

    Druni nodded. "I see. Yes, I can understand that."

    "The darkness within me… it lingers. Why? Why can't I purge myself of it, why can't I rid myself of Amaunet's taint?"

    "Darkness comes from many sources, dear Sister," Kasszas said. "Perhaps you must look inward to see where this comes from, to truly understand it, and thus to deal with it."

    "If I can't beat this darkness, I cannot be a swevyra'se any longer," Meridina said. "And I would have nothing."

    "That may be where you are going wrong. Darkness is best dealt with by understanding, not suppression."

    "My order does not feel that way."

    "Nor did mine," Druni added.

    "I see." Kasszas nodded. "And I know others who feel the same. And perhaps their ways are the best for you. I can only wish you well, Meridina, and that you find the harmony within that you seek. Should you wish it, my brothers in the Harmonious Val-Drellim will aid you in this purpose. You need only ask."

    Meridina let a small smile come to her face. "My thanks, Kasszas." She looked to them. "What shall you do when we return to New Liberty?"

    "I will do as always, and follow where Creation leads," Kasszas said.

    Druni nodded. "I'm not sure. I really like New Liberty, but I imagine I'll move on before long." She glanced toward Kasszas. "Perhaps I'll visit Kasszas' universe and his homeworld. I'm not sure if Lennier will go too, but we're not technically traveling together, and I've no idea what he intends to do in the long-term."

    "You would be welcome. Although, perhaps, you should also be careful. The ways of the Harmonies of Tsorra-Mahl can be difficult for other species to understand, or to deal with."

    "I'll keep that in mind." Druni looked to Meridina. "And you? I've never heard of a swevyra'se holding military rank before. Are you going to stay with your ship?"

    "I am," Meridina replied. "I have people who count on me. It is for their sake that I must deal with this darkness within me."

    "Then I look forward to seeing you again in the future. May the Eternal Goddess forever cast her light upon your path, both of you."

    "May Creation keep us on our intended paths," Kasszas replied. "And may they cross again."

    Meridina smiled gently at them both. "Mi rake sa swevyra iso, Kasszas, Druni."




    Julia and Angel met in the center hall and went to the bridge. Lennier was still sitting at the support station, watching over the ship's systems, and it made Julia wonder if the Minbari ever had to sleep.

    Jarod was piloting the ship now, and doing so in the company of his family. Charles and Emily had found clothing in Wolff's belongings to make use of and, given their ordeal, looked rather well. Meridina's healing abilities had apparently helped them greatly, just as they'd helped to reduce the depth of the cut in Julia's side.

    "I'm still not sure… I mean, look at this," Emily said. "I feel like I'm in a dream."

    "I felt the same way last year." Sydney was sitting at an auxiliary station in the corner. "It's hard to believe all of this is possible. But you'll get used to it."

    "Over time, it even starts to get a little mundane," Angel remarked. She leaned against the door to the bridge with her arms crossed. "And I still sometimes can't imagine how we started all of this."

    Charles nodded and looked to them. "I want to thank you for taking care of Jarod," he said. "All of you." He looked toward Sydney.

    Sydney lowered his eyes. "I don't think I deserve your thanks, Charles. I was complicit in the Centre's crimes."

    "And you've made up for them," Charles insisted. He turned his head back to Julia and Angel. "And you two. Commander, Lieutenant…"

    "We don't have to stand on ranks here." Julia smiled at him. "I'm Julia and she's Angel."

    "Well then, Julia, Angel." Charles smiled and nodded. "Thank you both very much, not just for saving us, but for giving Jarod a home. For being his family when we couldn't be with him."

    Julia nodded. She accepted the hug that the older man gave her. "We were lucky to have him." She looked past to where Jarod was looking over his instruments. There were tears in his eyes.

    "Family's important for all of us," Angel added, accepting the hug. Emily gave them hugs too. "And that goes for you two as well."

    "Thank you," Emily said. She breathed in a sigh. "Well… I guess I'm going to have to find something to do when we get to this colony of yours. Or do you have reporters in your space age civilization?"

    "Oh yes," Julia said, nodding and grinning. "We've got reporters."

    "There are two newspapers in New Liberty Colony that do live broadcasts over the planetary data net," Sydney remarked. "I'm friends with an editor of the Herald, I could get you an interview within a week or so."

    "Well, at least I'll be doing what I love," Emily remarked.

    "And I'll find something as well," Charles said. "It's going to be strange, though. I'm going to have to get used to not being on the run."

    "I can tell you that it's a great feeling," Jarod said. He turned in his chair and faced them. His expression was thoughtful. "Dad, about Mom…"

    "She's safe," Charles said. "I made sure of that. The Centre can't find her."

    "I'd still like to find her and bring her with us," Jarod said. "We can't bring back Kyle, but…" He stopped and lowered his eyes in thought. "I don't want to have her go through what you did. I don't want to abandon her."

    "You haven't. We haven't," Charles insisted. "And when we get the chance, we'll go back for her. But don't worry, son, she's completely safe where she is."

    "I can talk with President Morgan and Admiral Maran and try to see if they can get an exception made," Julia said. "Assuming I'm not court-martialed over this."

    Angel rolled her eyes. "The mission succeeded, we brought Jarod back safe and sound, and we even recovered the ship Miss Parker took to A4P5 Earth so there's no risk of the technology falling into the wrong hands. So tell me, worry wart, why would they court-martial you?"

    Julia leveled a look at Angel. Before she could speak on the matter, a tone came from Jarod's console. He turned back. "We're arriving at Harvest. Taking us out of warp."

    The cargo ship dropped out of warp near the planet Harvest, the A4P5 version of New Liberty's planet. "There's a couple of ships in orbit." Jarod looked to Lennier.

    Lennier was already activating the communications system. "I'm requesting a jump point to H1E4, set for New Liberty." After a moment he nodded. The interuniversal transport Van Sickle is preparing to open one for us. They state that the Aurora is already waiting for you on the other end."

    "Send them our thanks," Julia requested, and Lennier did so.

    "We're really going to change what universe we're in," Emily stated, almost questioned, with clear wonder and disbelief in her voice.

    "Yes, we are," Jarod said. "And then you'll get to see our ship."

    Ahead of them the jump point opened, an emerald vortex in the void of space. Jarod accelerated the Deadman's Hand and entered the point. There was that customary tremor through the ship as it made the jump and transitioned between universes. On the other side they got an immediate view of New Liberty, where night had fallen on the main colony and turned it into a small collection of bright light on the surface. "Welcome to your new home, Dad, Emily," Jarod said.

    Julia was enjoying the looks on their faces as Jarod turned the ship. "And there she is," Jarod began, "our ship, the Star…"

    Jarod stopped, as if stunned into silence. Bewildered looks appeared on the faces of Charles, Emily, and even Sydney.

    Confused, Julia turned to face the bridge window.

    The sight she saw wiped the grin off her face.

    "Mother of God…", gasped Angel.

    The Aurora hung in space before them, as they had expected.

    Her great azure hull was covered, simply covered, in blackened and charred hull armor, with the scoring of weapons impacts having obliterated parts of the green and white stripes along her starboard side. Her deflector dish, a circle of brilliant blue and gold, was charred by battle damage. Wispy clouds of plasma were still seeping from both of the starboard warp nacelles, which flickered from power failures. A great, massive gouge had been ripped from the lower primary hull, now covered in replicated armor patching.

    Nearby, equally visible, was the Koenig, blackened and battered, a visible hole toward the rear of the ship not far from the engineering spaces.

    Julia finally found her voice. "What the hell…?", she asked.

    For the moment, nobody was answering.
     
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  8. Threadmarks: 2-08 Opening
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    Teaser


    6 May 2642

    2 Hours Ago


    The system was a forgettable one, with no habitable worlds, terraformable worlds, or even asteroids or spatial bodies with valuable resources. On maps it was usually only identified as a system with a string of letters and/or numbers, regardless of the map-maker.

    But the reports had made it clear. For the last four months, the Nazi Reich had been using System S4W8-452TD as the location of a supply depot for the Raumkriegsmarine. It was one of many targets that were supporting the Reich's war effort. Its elimination would complicate Reich logistics and undermine the advantages of the Reich's shorter supply lines.

    That was why the Starship Aurora and a complete battle group of the Alliance Stellar Navy had jumped into the system, the way prepared by jump probes dropped by the Starship Albacore.

    The plan, explained to Robert by Admiral Martino on the Earth Confederacy carrier Themistocles, was a raid in the purest since. They would jump in via the probes and launch a full assault on the supply base, a space station in orbit around a planetoid-sized object along the main plane of 452TD's asteroid belt. The nearest enemy fleet unit was at least four hours away at even maximum warp, giving time to destroy even a heavily-shielded base.

    As it turned out, there was no supply base. Instead, within a pocket of local space that dampened sensor returns, there was a large Reich naval battle group waiting to commence a pre-planned warp jump to intercept them.

    On the bridge of the Aurora, Robert could do nothing as the battle swiftly turned against them. The Nazis had numbers, and more than that, they had not one but two Aryan-class dreadnoughts, as well as one of the older Lutzow-class battlecruisers, which were slamming their forces with super-disruptor fire. Sitting nearby, Locarno was reading off the incoming tactical reports. "We've just lost the Umikaze and the Ramage."

    "Status on the Themistocles," Robert said. "We've got to get them free if we can."

    Locarno shook his head. "Their impulse drives are down. Warp systems not responding."

    On the screen, the Aurora's main weapons were busy hammering one of the dreadnoughts. Through concentration of fire, they'd managed to get its shields low enough that their heaviest weapons, the pulse plasma cannons, were blasting holes into its armored hide.

    But that left the battlecruiser and the second dreadnought to come after them and the Themistocles, all while the swarms of Z-2500s and the dozen plus Dresden-class light cruisers decimated their supporting ships. And to make matters worse, without impulse drives, the Themistocles couldn't jump. It wouldn't be able to enter a jump point under fire without impulse power.

    That thought crossed Robert's mind in regards to his own ship as it rocked steadily again. At the helm, filling in for Locarno, Ensign Violeta Arterria was busy maneuvering the kilometer-long Aurora to minimize the effect of enemy fire, but even the most experienced ship pilot would have problems throwing off fire against a target as big as the Aurora. "Sir, we're losing impulse power!", she reported.

    Lucy was at Ops, filling in for Jarod, and added, "Primary and secondary shield generators are overwhelmed, tertiary generators are failing! Armor self-repair systems operating at seventy percent capacity."

    Robert keyed the intercom with his chair control. "Scotty, we're going to be sitting ducks!"

    "I'm doin' all I can about it, sir!," replied the experienced engineer. "But we're takin' tae much fire, th' shields cannae keep up!"

    On the screen a Reich cruiser exploded, courtesy of the Aurora's main battery and a torpedo run from the Koenig. Zack's ship, with the Trigger-class ships Albacore and Wahoo, moved on to attacking another target.

    "I'm picking up more ships coming out of warp!", Caterina cried out from the Science station. "Reich warships. Multiple cruisers and destroyers, attack ships… and one dreadnought." She swallowed. "Going by their profiles and ID codes… I think they're SS."

    Robert's stomach threatened to twist into the proverbial Gordian knot. "We can't win this," he muttered.

    "Command message from the Themistocles, audio only," Locarno said.

    Admiral Martino's accented voice boomed over the speaker. "All ships, break free and jump! The Themistocles is lost!"

    Robert tapped a key on his chair to open the tactical communications line to Martino. "Admiral, we can try to tractor you into a jump point."

    The Italian man's response was immediate. "Negative, Captain, you're out of position. If you come in to assist, the Aurora will be lost as well. You must go!"

    Robert hated it, but Martino was right. The carrier was a lost cause. "Acknowledged. I'm sorry, Admiral."

    "Godspeed, Captain."

    Even after the line cut, Robert wasn't quite done. "Can we beam anyone off of our crippled ships?", he asked Lucy. "Or out of our side's escape pods?"

    Lucy shook her head. "Not many. I've got all transporter stations working on it, though."

    That would have to be enough. Every survivor beamed away was one less survivor left to whatever torments the Reich had in store for them. Robert turned to face tactical. With Angel gone, Lieutenant Syrandi Luneri was manning the post. The purple-skinned, teal-spotted Dorei woman was proficient at tactical and had done what she could, but there were so many targets that she couldn't do much more. "Lieutenant, direct firepower forward. We're going to punch our way out."

    "Aye sir," Syrandi answered.

    "Nick, signal Koenig, I want Zack at our side. Recall all fighters and signal any ship in range to follow us."

    "Sending signal now," Locarno said.

    "We'd better hurry," Cat added. "Those SS ships… they're not going after the Themistocles. They're after us."




    The bridge of the Koenig had much the same atmosphere as the Aurora. Zack was focused on the tactical picture on his display and in his head as his ship, and its two half-sister ships (Cousin ships?, he mused), maneuvered closer to Aurora. A Nazi heavy cruiser moved to intercept them. "Get them out of the way, April!", he shouted.

    Lieutenant April Sherlily, his tactical officer, gave him an "Aye sir" as her first response. Her second response was a furious barrage of pulse phaser cannon fire that raked across the side of the heavy cruiser. Solar torpedoes rushed to join her shots.

    Other torpedoes and pulse cannon fire converged on the cruiser. Three attack ships might yet have failed to cut her side open like Zack had wanted, but the Aurora sent several phaser beams into the cruiser as well. Its shields degraded from the barrage and his torpedoes, and those from other ships, hit home. The explosions flowered along the port side of the cruiser. At least one hit was a lucky one, as the enemy cruiser was clearly losing main power.

    It made its mark before dying, though. The cruiser's disruptors lashed out at the Aurora. Her navigational deflector sputtered and flickered as emerald beams stabbed away at it. Another beam, one of the last before the cruiser's guns went quiet, stabbed into the Aurora's lower starboard nacelle. Flame erupted from the wound, joined by wispy plasma leaking through the injury as the nacelle itself began to flicker from power loss.

    Zack checked his tactical display. Other ships were trying to break out with them. Some weren't making it.

    But something worse loomed over his tactical display. More enemy ships had entered the system, and they were heading right for the Aurora.

    "Those aren't A-1700s," Lt. Magda Navaez observed from ops. "It looks like a new assault ship design. I'm reading larger disruptor emitters. And their shield strength is stronger."

    "A new challenge, then," Zack announced, hoping that the confidence would ease the worry he knew the others had. "Ap, don't let them get too close to the Aurora. We need to make sure they break out."

    "Aye sir," Apley said.

    Within a minute combat was rejoined. Dark-hulled SS ships loomed ahead and turned the space around them into a flurry of emerald beams and bursts. Missiles streaked out and met the Aurora's point-defense phaser banks, strobing out as thin amber lines from the ship to meet the incoming missiles. But not every missile was stopped, and those that got through blasted through the Aurora's failing shields and scoured her armor and hull.

    Apley kept them moving, evading the incoming missile fire, while Sherlily maintained phaser fire on any target that presented itself.

    This changed at the approach of the enemy assault ships. They had previously been referred to as gunboats, reflecting that they were little more than flying cannon batteries easily smashed by the Koenig. But these ships were anything but. Sherlily's phaser barrages did a number on their shields, but they did not remove them with the speed or ease they might normally enjoy. And the enemy disruptor cannons and missile fire was tremendous. The Koenig endured several hits that reduced its shields. The other ships with them were faring similarly, even as they sought to give as good as they got it.

    "We're losing dorsal shields," Magda warned.

    "Divert emergency power to shields and engines," Zack ordered.

    As he made the order, a Nazi dreadnought loomed ahead of them. The Aryan-class ship was painted black as night, save for the swastika emblem of the Reich - the Hakenkreuz of black on a white circle in a red field - and, as an SS ship, twin thunderbolts that looked like the letter "S". The ship had that same slanted look as most Reich ships, with the drive hull slanting upward to meet the blocky primary hull area.

    This ship was the most dangerous of the ones in their path because it had the largest "super-disruptors", large spinal mount disruptor cannons that could blast through even the toughest shields, along with smaller versions of the same that were multi-directional banks. If one of the spinal models hit the Koenig, even their armor wouldn't save them. It would likely be a one-hit kill.

    But they weren't aiming at the Koenig, but the Aurora.

    And Zack could do nothing as it fired.




    The entire bridge of the Aurora felt like it was going to shake to pieces. "Direct hit!", Lucy reported. "Forward shields are down! They just…" She swallowed. "They just shot a hole clear through the primary hull! All primary hull decks have taken damage, multiple sections…"

    Robert looked to Lt. Tom Barnes, Scotty's main assistant, manning the engineering station on the side of the bridge. "Divert all power to shields and impulsor drives, now!"

    "I'm on it!", Barnes answered.

    The Aurora's shields, taking in power from the rest of the ship, strengthened partially. It wouldn't last, not with the shield generators overwhelmed, but it might get them clear.

    Might.

    The weapons fire from the Aurora ceased as the weapons were denied the energies they needed, everything devoted to the Aurora's escape from the deadly Nazi trap. Disruptor shots continued to strike the hull, missiles joining them as point-defensive fire couldn't keep up with the barrage. Syrandi wisely diverted the PD weapons' fire to the much deadlier shield-disrupting torpedoes that the enemy destroyers were chucking toward them.

    It was tense and close. Robert started to feel his breath come back to him as open space cleared on the monitor. They were doing it. They were almost out.

    "Sir, we don't have any warp power," Violeta reported. "We've got three damaged nacelles."

    "Forget about the warp drive. Send to all ships, jump as soon as they're clear!"




    Main Engineering on the Koenig was in a state of surprising control, and that was mostly from the leadership of Lieutenant Karen Derbely, the ship's Chief Engineer, who had long made clear to her personnel what she expected of them in a crisis situation. "Lutal, Krrit, make sure those power conduits aren't overloading, we can't afford a short!", she cried out, looking over the Master Systems Display in the middle of Engineering. Into her communication line she added, "Hajar, I need you and a damage control team on Deck 3, Section D, the primary engine coupling is showing too much stress."

    "On our way."

    Derbely stepped away from the display and went over toward the plasma coolant conduit with a scanner. With the rest of her team already busy dealing with the increasing damage, she was the only one who could ensure the vital piece of machinery was working, keeping the power conduits handling the tremendous energy being generated by the ship's naqia reactors from melting down. Her scan confirmed her fear, that the pounding they were taking was causing stress damage to the coolant lines. I'm going to have to get a team on this, she thought, turning away from the coolant.

    Just as she was walking away, the ship rocked so violently Derbely was thrown to the floor. The intensity of the shock told her what the MSD would have if she looked toward it. The Koenig had just suffered a direct hit, not just any direct hit, but one that had blasted through the armor and…

    There was a shriek of metal and a horrible slushing noise. Derbely's heart froze in fear the moment her mind realized what it was.

    The plasma coolant line had ruptured.

    Right beside her.

    In the end, she couldn't turn in time before the coolant struck her. All she could do was scream in agony until everything went dark.




    The Koenig's bridge had rocked just as violently at the impact. Their harnesses kept them in their seats, of course, but that meant Zack was sure he'd have a bruise over his chest. "Report!"

    "Direct hit on dorsal hull, we've been hulled!", Magda answered. "Damage to Decks 1 through 3, Sections C and D!" Magda noticed the blinking warning light. "We've got a plasma coolant link in Main Engineering!"

    Zack took that news with horror. Depending on which plasma line linked… if it was the post-cycle coolant, carrying heat away to the heat exchangers… that plasma would melt anything and everything down to the bone if it hit them.

    Even worse, the ship's safety systems would kick in, shutting down any broken coolant lines to prevent further leakage, and in the process force the ship's power systems and drives to reduce output to prevent overheating.

    "I'm losing impulsor power!", Apley said.

    "Bridge, this is Engineer Lang," a man with a German accent said over the comms. "The feeding coolant lines ruptured, we have lost one-third of our coolant capacity. Automatic systems are reducing power."

    "Override them!", Zack insisted, even as the thought Where is Karen? went through his head. "We need every bit of power we can get to keep up!"

    "Engaging overrides, sir. At our current rate of power usage, we have an estimated five minutes until the power systems overheat!"

    "Understood." Zack frowned. He was worried about Derbely, but that had to wait until his ship was clear. In five minutes we'll either be safe or dead anyway.

    "Impulsor power back to enhanced level," Apley reported. "We're starting to clear them!"

    "Sir, the jump drive won't engage," Magda said. "That direct hit damaged it."

    "Signal the Aurora and get us beside her, then," Zack urged. "We'll jump out with them."

    "Yes sir," Apley and Magda said simultaneously.




    On the Aurora bridge, Robert watched with tentative relief as they seemed to clear the enemy squadron. "Engage jump drive on my mark!"

    On the screen they could already see green jump points forming around them. Individual ships, mostly the destroyers and attack ships that had evaded the overwhelming enemy fire,

    "Captain, the Koenig just signaled." Locarno looked at Robert. "Their jump drive is down. They're moving to jump alongside us."

    "How long until they're in range to enter our jump point?"

    "Fifteen seconds!"

    "Jump when they're in position."

    The ship shook again. "That dreadnought's targeting our engines," Lucy said. "I'm not sure we have fifteen seconds."

    Barnes didn't have to be asked, considering it was the Koenig. "I'm diverting all available power to the aft shield generators!"

    The aft shields of the Aurora strengthened as more disruptor fire and missiles crashed into them. With the dreadnought firing on them, it was a question of how much more they could take.

    "Aft shields at twenty-five percent," Lucy reported. The ship shuddered again. "Twenty-two… twenty… eighteen…"

    "The dreadnought is firing!", Cat added, seeking the power spike on her screens. She drew in a breath out of sheer terror at what that meant.

    The three spinal mount super-disruptors on the SS dreadnought fired at once. A last second roll of the ship by Violeta kept two from hitting the Aurora. The middle blast, however, could not be evaded.

    It speared the back of the primary hull, striking the docking port for the Koenig directly. Flame and debris erupted from the wound now carved into the Aurora as the shot carried into the hull areas adjacent to the dock and, above, to the primary shuttle bay. Further explosions went off, relatively minor, as several craft in the bay were damaged and destroyed by the blast.

    One of the misses also struck home, but not on the Aurora. Robert could only watch in horror as the Albacore, just about fly into its jump point, was hit in the rear section by the disruptor beam. With the attack ship's shields battered to near-nothingness, its armor alone couldn't resist the blast. The Trigger-class attack ship disintegrated until it was nothing but a cloud of debris. The jump point it generated closed as nothing kept it open any longer.

    A second later, Koenig was alongside the Aurora. "Activating jump drive!", Lucy shouted.

    Ahead of them space was pulled open by an emerald flash that expanded into a swirling vortex. Violeta, and Apley on the Koenig, put everything into their impulsor drives. Robert forced himself not to gulp as they came close, to within seconds, of escape, as it felt that any moment the Nazis might yet stop them, might shoot the jump point and de-stabilize it…

    Then the ship lurched below him, a familiar lurch, as it flew through the point. Koenig surged ahead, entering a split second later.

    Ahead of them, the carnage of 452 TD had disappeared from the viewscreen. Instead it was New Liberty, spinning quietly as the Colony moved toward night.

    "We made it," Cat squeaked.

    Robert nodded and swallowed. "Nick, I want damage reports and casualty reports. Lucy…" Robert drew in a breath. "Get me Admiral Maran, highest priority."

    "Yes sir."

    "How did they know we were coming?", Cat asked. "I mean, were they expecting us? Was this a trap from the start?"

    "I don't know," Robert said. "But someone's going to have to find out."



    Undiscovered Frontier
    "The Wages of Fear"





    Now



    The tension on the bridge had mostly given way to post-battle exhaustion and relief when the word came that Julia and the others had arrived at Harvest in A4P5. Robert had Jupap, now manning Operations with Lucy and Tom Barnes off helping with the repairs, relay the message to the Van Sickle to please provide the jump point, and the vessel's captain swiftly signaled agreement.

    The squad cargo ship that came out of the jump point moved toward them for several moments before Jupap confirmed they were being hailed. "Put them on."

    The screen shifted. Julia dominated the middle of it, but he could also see Angel and a Minbari in the background. "Robert, what happened?", she asked.

    "A disaster," he answered quietly. "Did you find Jarod?"

    Julia nodded. "He's right here. We got his family out too."

    "At least something went right around here," mumbled Locarno, who was still in Julia's chair.

    Julia noticed that too. "I'll be right over with Angel and Meridina. We'll transfer the ship over to our allies."

    "I'm coming too," Jarod added. "You'll need everyone to start getting the ship fixed up."

    Robert nodded. "It's good to see you're safe, Jarod. I just wish you didn't have to come home to this."

    He nodded. "It certainly wasn't the homecoming I expected."

    "I imagine you'll want to spend time with your family…"

    Jarod looked offscreen. A male voice with an English accent said, "It's fine, Jarod. Emily and I will be here when you have time."

    At that Jarod looked back to Robert and shook his head. "I'll be over with the others."

    "Alright. We'll beam you aboard as soon as you signal. Aurora out."

    The image disappeared from the screen. Once it was gone, Robert stood from his chair. "Nick, you've got the bridge. I want to go finish my full report to Admiral Maran." He looked to Jupap as he walked past, stopping briefly to face the Alakin Operations Officer. "If we get any signals from Command, let me know. Maybe… maybe the other attacks went off better."

    Jupap nodded. "Yes sir," he chirped.

    Robert nodded back, knowing his expressed optimism was sorely misplaced, and went into his office and straight to his desk.







    With the Deadman's Hand left to Lennier to land on the planet and turn over to the New Liberty police, Julia and the others made quick stops by their quarters to change into uniforms before they went on duty. Angel went off to take over Tactical, Meridina to her Security office, and Jarod was off to join up with the repair teams. That left Julia to head straight to the bridge.

    When she got there, Locarno was in the command chair. He nodded at her and gestured toward Robert's bridge office. "He's waiting for you."

    Julia nodded. "Who did we lose?"

    Locarno sighed. "Most of the crew in and around the main shuttle bay. We took casualties on most of the decks, especially in the primary hull from that shot that went straight through. Right now we're looking at about a hundred and fifty casualties confirmed. At least forty dead." Locarno looked toward the viewscreen, where the Koenig was visible. "Carrey's got eighteen casualties and at least six dead."

    Julia felt her fists clench. A sudden thought seized her. You were supposed to be here for this. If you'd been here, you could have made a difference. She brushed it off, as much as she could, and asked, "What happened?"

    "It was a trap," he replied. "Robert will fill you in."

    Julia nodded. She turned away and went for the ready room door. As she did so her wound started to sting. Whether from something wrong with her bandaging or a psychosomatic response to her feelings on the situation… she couldn't tell.

    Robert was at his desk, working the hard-light keyboard on the office's desk while looking at his screen. He looked up as she entered and stood to attention. "Julie," he said, signaling an intention to be informal. "It's good to see you. When Chief Almerda said you had left to rescue Jarod… well, given what he said about Parker's team I was a little worried."

    "I understand." She went to a chair and sat down. The suddenness of the move did more to make her wound hurt, enough that an involuntary wince came across her face.

    Robert noticed it immediately. "Are you okay? Were you hurt?"

    "I'll live," Julia answered, although she was visible favoring the side that had been cut.

    Robert could have actively sensed for her wound and known how much it had hurt, and what damage it'd done. As it was, between the fatigue in her features and the clear pain she felt, he knew Julia's wound was not insubstantial. But he couldn't bring himself to do that. It felt like it would be a violation of Julia's privacy.

    "What happened?", she asked. "Nick said it was a trap."

    "Admiral Maran had reports that the Reich's fleet movements were opening a window that would let us jump into their rear areas and hit their supply system before their fleets could respond. He threw every available ship he had into the mission, including the Aurora, and we had to leave right away." Robert frowned and set his hands on the table. "But instead of an undefended supply base, we found a Reich attack fleet waiting in ambush." Robert put a hand on his chin and shook his head. "They went right after us and the Themistocles. They crippled her, and we couldn't stop it. We were lucky to escape in the end given the beating we took."

    "Why didn't you jump to a repair yard?"

    "Lucy just used our last jump coordinate to get us out quickly." Robert shook his head. "And with the damage to our impulsors and power systems, Scotty wants a few hours to complete some repairs before we jump again." Robert gestured to his computer. "So I'm passing the time getting a report filed." He sighed. "And worrying."

    "About?"

    "it's been two hours, and no word from Portland about what's going on," Robert said. "I'm worried about what happened, and… I'm worried that Admiral Maran was leading one of the task forces. If we lost him…"

    The thought was a chilling one. Maran had become one of the most respected leaders in the Alliance. His loss would be a massive blow to Alliance morale, especially if it came with the losses this operation had caused.

    Moreso, for them personally, it would mean losing one of their biggest supporters in the Alliance military command structure. And even if President Morgan selected someone else to head his Defense Staff, Admiral Davies would gain in authority and influence, and he had made it clear he intended to strip the Aurora from them as part of his fears about the Gersallian Order of Swenya.

    "I think we would have heard something if Admiral Maran as captured or dead," Julia said. "He's probably just busy trying to deal with what happened."

    Robert frowned. "This was supposed to shorten the war. Now we might have prolonged it. We've lost the initiative we've been picking up. There's no telling how the Nazis are going to react."

    "What's more important is how we react. We can't give up over a single setback, no matter how large."

    "I hope enough people see it your way." Robert's thoughts about the politics were dark enough. Some of the Alliance states were still avoiding full application of their strength to the effort, forcing Morgan to burn political capital to cajole them into greater efforts. Now those states would be even more reluctant to expend their efforts.

    Robert looked Julia over. "There's nothing more you can do, Julie. You should go see Leo about getting that fixed." His head nodded toward forward and slightly to the side.

    "I can take over the bridge for Nick."

    "Pacetti is already on his way to do that. Right now, you need medical attention." He could have ordered her, but Robert instead added, "Please."

    Julia had a frustrated look on her face. But seeing the concerned look on Robert's and the pain still stinging in her side, she sighed and nodded. "I'll go down there right away."

    "Thank you." Robert checked his screen. "Get some rest. I know you need to be in your own bed for a night of sleep. We'll talk again in the morning."

    Julia nodded and stood from her chair. She left the room and returned to the bridge. Angela had relieved Lieutenant Luneri at Tactical and was looking over things. She caught Julia's eye, and the look they shared said it all.

    Could we have made a difference?







    The medbay was busy when Julia came on. Numerous crew were on the biobeds or stretchers, waiting for their turn to be treated for injuries sustained in the fight. Julia found it was standing room only.

    "Commander." Nasri's voiced carried over the din of moans, ponderings, and quiet conversations. She walked up, looking tired herself. "What's wrong?"

    "A cyborg with a sword tried to cut my head off," she replied. "I dodged and he cut below my ribs instead."

    "A deep cut?"

    "I figured it would need stitches. And Meridina was too tired to do anything for it."

    "Come this way." Nasri led Julia beyond some of the patients and to her examination area, now vacant. "Let me see."

    Julia pulled off her uniform jacket and the undershirt she wore beneath it, down to her undergarment. The bloodstain on the bandage had grown a little since Julia changed clothes. Julia waited for Nasri to look it over. She felt her pull the bandages back and examine the wound, which stung like hell. The bandage went back on. "It's not too deep of a cut, but deep enough that you would have needed stitches if we didn't have dermal regenerators." Nasri frowned. "But this will call for a heavy regenerator. I'll need to get you to a biobed and you'll have to wait for a unit to open up."

    "Nick told me we had a hundred and fifty casualties."

    "Closer to two hundred now," Nasri replied.

    Over a tenth of the crew, Julia thought.

    Nasri handed Julia a gown. "Put this on and bring your uniform." With the gown on and her uniform and undershirt under her left arm, Julia followed Nasri through the medbay to a group of biobeds with larger bits of medical equipment around them. The non-urgent operation ward was adjacent to the critical care ward and she could see worse cases inside.

    "You'll be seen in order," Nasri said. "It's standard procedure, you understand."

    "Yeah." Julia nodded. "I'll be fine."

    Nasri nodded and guided her to one of the unused biobeds, beside the entrance to the critical ward. Julia sat on the biobed, which immediately began displaying general physical information regarding her on its main display.

    She had only a few minutes of quiet before she saw Zack work his way in. He was in his uniform and looked much like Robert had. His eyes were focused on the door to the critical ward so much that he didn't notice her until she called out to him. "Zack." When he turned and looked her way, she asked, "Are you okay?"

    "No," he admitted. "I lost too many people."

    Julia nodded. Proportionally speaking, his casualties had been worse, eighteen in a crew of about fifty being over a third of his crew. The Aurora was just starting to approach the ten percent loss mark in contrast. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm sorry I wasn't there."

    "It wouldn't have changed anything," Zack answered, his eyes still distant. "We were betrayed. Or tricked. They were waiting for us and had us outnumbered and outgunned from the first shot." Zack shook his head. "Whoever screwed this up needs to be fired."

    "I'm sure there will be an investigation." Julia chuckled bitterly. "Hell, I'm probably going to be investigated for everything I did to get Jarod back."

    "Whatever you did, Julia, you actually succeeded. This was a complete fiasco, and it got good people killed."

    "Who are you here to see?"

    "Karen." Zack glanced in the direction of the critical ward. "When we took that direct hit that blew through our armor, the shock blew a coolant line in main engineering. The only reason she's alive is because it was the pre-cycle line."

    Julia nodded. "I'll come with you, if you want."

    The appreciation was visible on Zack's face. He accepted and they walked, together, into critical care.

    The cases here were the worst of those who had a chance to survive. Missing limbs, burns, all sorts of injuries and damage were treated here.

    There were fifty beds in this particular ward, arranged into rows of ten beds, with various pieces of medical equipment out for the use of the patients. Julia and Zack went over to one in the corner. If the name at the base of the bed hadn't read "K. Derbely", Julia would have never known it was her.

    Virtually the entirety of Derbely's head was covered in bandages. What little was visible around her closed eyes showed signs of hideous burning. Aside from the gown she had heavy bandaging visible on every other portion of her body.

    "It's a miracle she survived," Julia murmured.

    "Yeah. A miracle," Zack said. There was a bitter tone in his voice. He looked over his unconscious chief engineer with a deep frown that contrasted heavily with the smiles he'd had just a couple of days ago. "My ship's been shot up, the Nazis kicked our asses… the way things are going, we need miracles."

    "Zack." Julia touched his hand. "You look exhausted. Maybe you should get some rest."

    He turned his head and faced her. There was a look in his brown eyes, one of frustration and pain. Had he been in a better mood, he would have reacted to her clear need for rest. "I can't," he said. "I've got responsibilities."

    Julia opened her mouth to speak further, but stopped herself. If their positions were reversed, she'd be feeling terrible too.

    A treacherous voice in her head added, And at least Zack was here for them, I can't say the same can I?

    "Zack, Julia."

    Both turned to face an exhausted Leo, wearing his medical blues with a white lab coat. "We've done all we can for her now, Zack," Leo said. "Lieutenant Derbely will be transferred to a full medical station as soon as possible."

    "Will she make it?', Zack asked. His voice was hollow.

    Leo sighed and nodded slightly. "I'd give her good odds. Seventy percent for at least a partial recovery. We just have to keep the damaged tissues clean of infection until the specialists can begin a full dermal restoration on her. There may be other damage she'll need therapy for."

    Zack showed relief at that. "At least we have that." Zack looked at Julia. "Any word on how long we have until we can dock again?" When she froze for the moment, Zack caught himself. "Oh, sorry," he said. "I forgot you didn't know." His words were calm and withdrawn, as if they hadn't just unintentionally acted as a means of brutally declaring "You wouldn't know because you weren't here".

    Julia bit into her lip. Her eyes looked away from him.

    Zack was still looking at Derbely and didn't notice the reaction. Nevertheless he sighed. "Well, I'd better get back to the ship. My crew needs me."

    "Hopefully they'll have your dock fixed soon," Leo offered. "Your people need your quarters here on the Aurora to get a proper rest."

    Zack smirked at that. "Yeah, I know. So does my crew." He looked over to them and forced a smile to his face. "Thanks, Julie."

    "What for?", she asked.

    "For saving Jarod. We've lost enough friends and colleagues as it is." Zack walked past them. "I'll see you later."

    They watched him leave the ward. Leo looked back to Julia. "Alright, let's get you back to the non-urgent ward." They walked out of the critical care ward and to the bed where Julia had left her uniform. Leo looked around and stepped away long enough to pull up a large dermal regenerator unit. "Lay down and let me see that wound."

    Julia laid on her back on the bed. She raised the gown up past her belly to expose the bandaged wound. Leo pulled the bloodied bandages off and threw them in a biohazard receptacle. "Hrm. Not too deep. But deep enough. You're lucky you didn't lose more blood than you did." He scanned it. "No sign of infection. What happened anyway?"

    For several moments Julia didn't answer. She was staring at the lights above on the ceiling. Her thoughts were entirely with the circumstances of what had happened. What had been done to her ship, her crew, while she was gone.

    "Julia," Leo repeated, his voice now forceful. It snapped her out of her thoughts. "What happened?"

    "A cyborg man, some ninja or something, tried to cut my head off," she answered. "I dodged and he just got me in the side."

    "I'll say. The cut was precise. I'm surprised a sword managed such a clean cut, actually." Leo picked up a wand from the dermal regenerator unit. He pressed it around the wound. "I need to clean the wound out first, just to be on the safe side. I want to make sure you don't have any particles of your clothing left in that could lead to an infection later. Does it feel numb now?"

    "Yeah."

    "Good. Give me a little bit…"

    Julia remained still as he worked. She ended up deep in thought again, even as her eyelids tugged downward until her eyes were closed. She fell asleep without intending to.

    "Alright, all better," Leo declared.

    That jolted her awake again. Julia sat up and looked down to where she'd been cut. There was just healthy light skin there now, a little pinkish in its color.

    "You need some rest." Leo put away the dermal regenerator gear. Around them several of the people had changed.

    "Leo…" She sat up. "You didn't skip me ahead in the line, did you?"

    Leo smirked and shook his head. "No. I did defy Doctor Singh's insistence that I go get some sleep now that our immediate crisis cases are all handled. Technically I'm not supposed to be here."

    "Well, I won't tell if you won't," Julia said, smiling as she did.

    "You can change in my office," Leo offered. "And then I insist you get some rest. You lost some blood and you pushed yourself pretty hard, you need a couple of days to recuperate."

    "I've got a ship that needs fixing, Leo," Julia reminded him. Her smile seemed more brittle now. "A couple of days is too much. But I'll give you tonight."

    Leo shook his head. "I expected as much. Just take it easy."

    "As much as I can. I promise."

    Both knew that she wouldn't, that she couldn't. Not as things were. But Leo pretended to accept the promise and they walked away together, heading toward his office.







    It was running late when Robert emerged from his bridge office, all reports written and filed. The damage report from Scotty had made for sobering reading. The main shuttle bay had taken severe damage and would need reconstruction. Half of the ship's shuttles were completely destroyed or so damaged that they would have to be written off, and most of the rest would need extensive repair work. The runabouts were in similar shape: the Susquehanna, Vistula, and Rhine were utterly trashed and would have to be scrapped; every other runabout had taken major damage. Adjacent to the main shuttle bay, the docking bay for the Koenig was wrecked and would have to be rebuilt.

    The primary hull would also need weeks worth of reconstruction work at the L2M1 Earth Fleet Base, especially given the hole that had been blasted into it. Dozens of crew had lost their quarters to the blast and were being re-billeted in spare quarters or, where necessary, the holodecks. Robert had nearly even ordered that the senior staff officer quarters be opened up to them, just for Locarno to point out that it was unnecessary given the other available room on the ship.

    Six weeks repair time, minimum, Robert mused quietly. He walked toward the central chair, where a much-fatigued Locarno was still sitting. "You're relieved Lieutenant," he said.

    Locarno stood up. "Yes sir." He examined Robert's own state of post-battle exhaustion and added, "I suggest you stand down for relief as well, Captain. You need your rest."

    "I'll head down soon," Robert promised. "I'm just waiting for a call from Portland before I can rest."

    "I'll send Pacetti up," Locarno said. "So that you can stand relieved when you're ready to sleep."

    "Thank you, Nick."

    Locarno gave him a final nod and, with barely-disguised relief, went to the bridge lift. Robert settled into his command chair and watched the New Liberty Colony's lights on the screen. If he wasn't careful, he would nod off right here in his chair.

    He nearly did, in fact, and he jolted to full wakefulness when he heard the chirp from Operations that confirmed an incoming signal. Jupap turned his feathered head back enough that Robert could see his beak move. "Captain, priority call from Defense Command. Admiral Maran is on for you."

    "Put him through." Robert stood as the screen flashed. Seeing the dark-haired Gersallian admiral appear, wolfish gray along his hairline as always, was a relief. Robert had been terrified that he'd been with the attack and was lost. "Admiral."

    "Captain." Maran nodded quietly. "My apologies for taking so long. I've been in Defense Staff meetings for hours. You don't know how grateful I was to get confirmation of your survival. The President was relieved when your signal came in to Portland."

    "Thank you, sir." Robert swallowed. "How bad was it?"

    "It was a disaster, Captain, make no mistake about that. Our losses in ships went over the fifty percent mark. Three quarters of the capital ships we assigned, carriers and dreadnoughts, were lost." Maran's tone was somber. And Robert could see that, stoic as he always was, something was weighing heavily on him, in a way that it hadn't even during the dark days of the prior July when the war had just begun and the Nazis were pummeling their way through Alliance space. "Our gamble was turned against us."

    "The Nazis dangled the bait and we went for it," Robert said.

    "That is one theory. There is another one, however, and it is far more terrifying."

    Robert blinked at that. "Which is…?"

    Maran's expression turned grim. "The Defense Committee has decided to order an investigation, Captain, into the operation. We have reason to believe that this wasn't simply a random trap set by our enemies."

    "What do you mean…?"

    Maran's voice took on a hard edge to it. "I'm not at liberty to discuss the issue over a communication. Not even over a priority encrypted line. How soon can you jump again?"

    "Mister Scott needs to shore up several elements of our power systems, the battle damage and our last jump overloaded some of our systems. He's due to give me an update in the morning sometime around 0600."

    Maran nodded stiffly. "Very well. As soon as you can jump, I want Aurora back at the Fleet Base, I have a dock already set aside for her and a berth for the Koenig. Preferably I want you and a contingent of officers that you trust in Portland by 1000."

    "Yes sir," Robert replied, and he refrained from giving any voice to his immense worry over Maran's words. "We'll be there."

    "I'll be expecting you, Captain, at Defense Command. Maran out."

    The transmission ended and the view shifted back to the planet. Robert immediately wondered what Maran meant by the trap not being random.

    But first things first. He did need to get some sleep.
     
  9. Threadmarks: 2-08-2
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    It was nearly 2400 ship time when Meridina returned to her quarters. It had taken some time to go through all the reports from security, many of whom were now working to help with some of the repairs. Meridina was pleased with how well the work went without her immediate presence.

    Now that she was alone, she had time to look into her own curiosity. She went to her table and to the item she'd left there upon her return to the Aurora. Dralan Olati's lakesh waited for her scrutiny.

    It was a competently-crafted lakesh, good handiwork. The type that came from a trained swevyra'se like her, and therefore indicated training in the Order. "Computer," she said, "please connect to the Order of Swenya database on Gersal."

    "Connecting."

    As she waited for the connection to finalize, Meridina examined the rest of the weapon. Engraved on the hilt were a series of characters. An inscription, a phrase or sentence, that she did not understand. The characters did look like they were related to High Gersallian, but yet they meant nothing even if she assumed specific letters to be similar letters in HIgh Gersallian. Clearly this mysterious inscription was written in something entirely different.

    A cold feeling came to her. Dralan Olati had been a killer, driven entirely by his dark impulses with no real freedom to decide his course. She had never seen someone like him before. Not someone with a developed set of life force power.

    But she had that in her too. The darkness she had felt within her since the Goa'uld Amaunet had infested her and used her to hurt, kill, and torment. She meditated on it, she focused herself on the light, on her highest emotions or simply upon the wholesome light within… but the dark wouldn't go away. It started to feel as if had always been there and had only chosen now to come out.

    That thought was perhaps the one that scared her most of all.

    "Connection established," the computer said.

    "Search the temple archives for a man named Dralan Olati."

    "Accessing. Accessing." For several moments nothing came. Finally… "Search complete. No records found."

    Meridina frowned at that. "Computer, are you sure?"

    "All records have been scanned. There is no indication of Dralan Olati.

    That makes no sense. HoW could he have made such a lakesh without training from our Order
    "Computer, there are two things I wish to process tonight. First, expand the search for Dralan Olani to public Interdependency records. Authorization code Kul-ta-ta-je-omal te."

    "Authorization code processed. Accepted. Beginning search. Awaiting second input."

    Meridina laid the lakesh on the table and accessed her multidevice. With a few key strokes she took images of the weapon. Another two keystrokes and the images now appeared on her computer display. "Computer, cross-reference these markings. They appear to be a form of Gersallian. Please check for any Gersallian dialect that uses them."

    "Beginning search."

    "How long until the searches are complete?", Meridina asked.

    "Estimated time to completion at current data transfer rate: 16 hours thirty-five minutes."

    So that was that. There was no point staying up any longer, not when there would be a staff meeting in the morning. "Thank you," she said, rising from her chair. She began to pull off the duty uniform as she made her way to the bedroom section of her quarters.




    At 0630 the following morning, a thoroughly exhausted Aurora command staff were in their conference room, as was an equally exhausted Koenig staff.

    The most exhausted of all were those who had been involved in the repairs. Scotty looked like he was about to fall asleep at the table. Jarod, Barnes, and Lucy all had varying degrees of deep fatigue written on their expressions, fatigue that even Hargert's best coffee was having trouble dispelling. The others on the command crew were better off in appearance, but it was clear that their morale was low and everyone was tired and upset.

    Robert started the meeting with a look toward Scotty. "Mister Scott, Admiral Maran has a repair dock waiting for us at the L2M1 Earth Fleet Base. Can we jump yet?"

    "I'll need a few more hours, sir," he said. "Lt. Nesay is busy finishin' repairs on the warp nacelle struts, an' we cannae jump safely until th' power supply systems have been checked. That's goin' tae take a few hours."

    "You have until 0900," Robert replied. "We're due in Portland at 1000."

    Scotty started to protest but stopped. "I'll see what I can do, sir."

    Knowing Scotty would do just that, Robert turned his attention to Zack. "Has the Koenig regained its jump capability?"

    Zack shook his head. "The blast damaged the primary particle feed for the drive, so we can't generate a jump point until its fixed. And with our reduced Engineering staff, Ensign Hajar estimates another day worth of repairs to handle it. Half a day with every member of my crew on repair duties."

    "Hajar?", Julia asked.

    "She's the senior surviving officer assigned to engineering," Zack answered. "With Karen gone and Lieutenant Trelit dead."

    "Right. Sorry." Julia looked away, with her face showing she was deep in thought.

    "We'll jump you with us then," Robert said. "Admiral Maran has a repair berth ready for your ship too."

    "Good. With a full dock team, Koenig should be ready for duty in a couple of weeks."

    Robert looked to his digital notepad. His last item, and worst, was now up. "Do we have a final casualty count?"

    "Three hundred and seventy-six casualties of all kinds have been accounted for by the medbay staff," Leo revealed. "Sixty-one dead."

    The news hung over the room. It was stifling in its depressive strength.

    "We still have about forty-six cases in the critical care ward that I'll want to offload to fleet hospitals as soon as possible, for the best possible care," Leo continued. He glanced Zack's way; one of those forty-six was Karen Derbely. "Another thirty of the critical cases we've got are not so critical we need them taken off our hands. Most of the rest are injuries we've been able to treat. I have a listing of who is fit for full duty or must be restricted in duty. I'll forward it to Julia when we're done."

    She nodded. "I'll make sure all department heads and shift officers are made aware of who is available. Although given how long we'll be in the dockyard this time, I imagine we're going to have a lot of crew changing anyway."

    "I'll let you deal with the issue as you see fit," Robert replied. He put the notepad down. "Okay everyone, this meeting is dismissed."

    As everyone stepped out, Robert found he was looking at Julia. She hadn't slept well - then again, few of them had - and she seemed distracted. "Are you okay?", he asked.

    Julia looked at him. She remained silent for several moments before shaking her head. "No. No, I'm just thinking about things."

    "Chief Almerda sent a report last night. They finished clearing evidence from the Deadman's Hand. The people you worked with put in their statements and were free to go. Apparently Captain Thrace and Anders got a jump to N2S7 late last night, so they're already gone." Robert used his notepad to check a part of the message. "Almerda's going to turn the ship over to FedStar authorities. He found out there's an active case against the ship's former controller. By taking him down and bringing her in, you're going to be liable to part of the reward once the FedStar admiralty courts finish dealing with it."

    "I guess Zaeed will get some cash out of it after all," Julia murmured, but she still had that distant look in her eyes.

    "Julie? Are you okay?"

    "I'm alright," she said. "Anyway, I need to get to my office and start going over the personnel reviews for the battle."

    "Nick should have filed his report by now, so you don't have to worry about that."

    Immediately Robert could tell something was wrong, given the surge of shame and frustration that flared inside of Julia . "Yeah, he would be the right one to do that, wouldn't he?" She stood up. "I'll be in my office, let me know if you need anything."

    "As soon as we get to L2M1, I need to go down to Portland to see Admiral Maran," Robert said.

    "Then I'll take over repair command duties while you do. Until then." Without another word, she was gone, leaving Robert to sit, alone, to ponder Maran's message.

    Whatever was going on, he knew he wouldn't like it.




    In the end, Scotty got them jump-capable at 0842.

    The Aurora locked onto the jump anchor for Earth L2M1 and jumped through, arriving a few kilometers off of the Fleet Base's repair yards section. Numerous ships were already taking up much of the berths, some survivors of the disaster, others here due to other causes. As promised Maran had berths ready for them, in two dry-dock sections in the various wings for their appropriate sizes. He also had a shuttle waiting for Robert.

    Robert had heard the "contingent of officers you trust" and decided it meant Maran wanted people who could help with whatever was going on, presumably an investigation. With dock repair teams now present to help Scotty's engineers, he decided that meant Meridina, Jarod, and Lucy.

    The shuttle, a Gersallian-built one simply designated in Gersallian letters and numbers - roughly something like LRT-3924 - flew them down to Defense Command. The pilot was a young man, a Human with clear mixed-ethnic backgrounds who identified himself as Ensign Cloudrunner.

    Defense Command was built just west of where the Willamette River flowed into the Columbia, near Lake Vancouver, on what was once (on L2M1 anyway) the Washington State bank of the river. The six azure structures towered over the river, the five outer ones arranged in the form of a five-point star and linked to the central one by enclosed foot bridges. For Robert, who grew up with news reports about "the Pentagon" - even his father's stories of visiting there during his time in the US Navy - this towering structure was clearly the Allied Systems' equivalent of that building.

    Once they'd landed, they went off to the floors in the central building with the main offices. Admiral Maran's office was toward the middle of the 11th floor as a privilege of rank; the offices there were closer to the officer's club, the large fifth floor food court, and the eighth floor's air-car bays. The latter was a real luxury as there were no transporter stations in the Defense Command structure, and all travel to and from Command was tightly secured. More tightly, in fact, than they'd seen the last time they were nearly a year prior.

    The last time we were here, Defense Minister Hawthorne and Admiral Davies were trying to railroad us and kick us off our ship, Robert thought sullenly. Finding out later that the two had initially won, that they had convinced the Defense Committee, or at least a majority of it, to vote against Robert and the others, had been a real sting.

    Finding out that the Gersallians and several other states had threatened to leave the Alliance if the vote wasn't reversed? That had actually scared him. More than anything, Robert wanted the Alliance to succeed and to thrive. He certainly didn't want to be the cause of it being ripped apart.

    At Admiral Maran's office they were met by a young man with a dark brown complexion. "I am Commander Kanelas," he said, with an accent Robert had not heard before. Kanelas looked to Meridina and gave her a respectful bow of the head. "Swevyra'se, kima iso tuna."

    Meridina answered with a head bow of her own. "Kima iso tuna. Mi rake sa swevyra iso."

    They exchanged a few more lines before Kanelas looked to them. "My apologies, I have forgotten myself. Admiral Maran is currently in a teleconference with Admiral Relini. I will inform him you've arrived." Kanelas nodded again and walked into the next room.

    Robert turned his head to mumble, "Do you understand…?" at Jarod.

    "I don't think they're talking about tuna," Jarod replied, cutting off the question.

    "I figured you'd have learned Gersallian by now, being a Pretender and all."

    Jarod snorted. "I'm the Operations Officer of a kilometer-long starship with two thousand people always on board. I'm not going through my list of 'learn this thing' as fast as I used to. Learning Gersallian is still in the mid-40s, and I probably won't get to that for another eighteen months."

    A bemused little smile was clear on Meridina's face at their exchange. "I would be happy to assist you with such, Commander Jarod," she said. "My apologies for not translating. Commander Kanelas is from Otapil on our main southern continent. The Otapin are among the Order's strongest supporters. Their people consider it proper to show immediate reverence to a Knight of Swenya."

    "Ah." Robert nodded. "Well, as long as you're not talking about us behind our back."

    "Perish the thought." Meridina turned away, satisfied with the exchange.

    "Shouldn't you have learned this language yourself?", Jarod inquired quietly. "She's teaching you, after all."

    "I know. But while I can pronounce German well enough that I've met Germans who think I've been in America too long instead of realizing I'm actually American, I can't even say 'swevyra' without my tongue going thick."

    "It's because you try too hard," Lucy said.

    The door opened again. Kanelis emerged partially. "Admiral Maran is ready for you."

    Robert and the others stepped into the office, where Maran was standing behind his desk. The torch-and-tetracolor flag of the Allied Systems was beside his desk, as was one showing the Seal of Defense Command and it's quartered shield under the Alliance torch insignia. His work area had several digital pads upon it, presumably each secured and only containing specific and isolated classified data. A hard-light keyboard was still visible. He had been typing only moments ago.

    "Admiral, sir. I've brought Commander Jarod, Commander Meridina, and Lieutenant Lucero. I trust all of my officers, but I considered they would be the ones you wanted to have in this situation."

    "Your consideration was accurate, Captain." Maran's expression was grave. He'd clearly been up much of the night. "I'm going to make the facts plain. We were deceived. Most of the systems did not, in fact, have the sort of supply targets we had been led to expect. Instead it would appear that the enemy used electronic warfare to deceive our scouts. The apparent opening in their deployment schedule was clearly feigned to provoke an attack by us that could be ambushed."

    "How bad is it?", Robert asked.

    "Our last estimates are in. We launched four hundred and twelve ships into that attack. Only two hundred and seven returned, all damaged to varying extents. Out of twenty dreadnought-class warships, only six returned, and only ten of eighteen carriers. We also lost two-thirds of our cruisers."

    Robert couldn't help but swallow. The Aurora had been one of those lucky third to escape. "What does this mean for the war?"

    "It will not cost us the war, at least not militarily. But it has set back our time-tables for further military operations. Admiral Relini has been forced to call off her planned offensive and is preparing defensive positions."

    Robert caught that first sentence, especially its uncertain ending. "...at least not militarily." "There's more to this, isn't there?"

    Maran nodded. "There is. And I didn't dare mention it over a channel, not even one that's encrypted." Maran reached for his desk drawer and pulled out an electronic device of some sort, a small curved shape with a light on the end that he brought on with a squeeze of his fingers. The green light blinked several times before a second green light activated. "There," Maran said. "We're secure."

    "You're afraid of electronic bugs," Jarod said.

    "I have to be." Maran sat down. With a hand gesture he invited Robert and his officers to take seats in the nearby chairs and couch. "I must be blunt. The Intelligence Office has discovered signs that some of our operational planning, including the proposals for the raid we just attempted, has been compromised."

    The implications were clear. Robert's jaw fell slightly as he processed the thought. "You mean they say we've got a spy in Defense Command. That someone leaked this stuff to the Nazis and they planned the ambushes from that?"

    "I do. So does the President, and the Defense Committee, and several members of the Senate." Maran put his hands on his desk. "We need to find out the truth of this, and now. Otherwise we may be facing the end of the political willingness to continue the war."

    "You can't be serious," Lucy gasped. "They'd try to make a deal with Nazis?"

    Maran shook his head. "When people are desperate enough for peace? I can see them doing anything. Councilman Pensley has gone as far as to threaten to encourage his government to withdraw from the Alliance if we don't change how the war is prosecuted or offer peace to the Reich."

    "Pensley would be the one who is convinced that I instigated the war on purpose," Robert recalled.

    "Yes. He's argued repeatedly for your court-martial, in fact. Even Admiral Davies has grown tired of the man."

    "And here I thought Davies would back that," Lucy muttered.

    "Admiral Davies is a complicated man. But he does know the scope of the threat we're facing, and he has no illusions that any peace with the Nazi Reich is possible. He and Pensley are not allies."

    "He tried to bribe Zack into turning against us during the hearings last year," Lucy retorted. Robert winced at the surge of anger he felt within her. "He sent Commander King to spy on us, and he's using Naval Intelligence to spy on your people! Complicated, hell, he's as much a threat to the Alliance as Pensley is!"

    "Lieutenant, calm down," Maran ordered. His tone was still quiet and patient, but there was an edge to it when he said that, an edge that told Lucy (and Robert) that in this he damn well expected to be obeyed.

    Meridina gave Lucy a worried look. The angry snarl on Lucy's face faded. "I'm sorry, Admiral," she said. "I was out of line."

    "Yes, you were," was Maran's quiet reply. It was a rebuke, and Lucy took it as such. "The reason I summoned you here is that I'm compiling a task force of officers to investigate the matter and report on it to the Defense Committee. Officers who are not assigned to Defense Command and who have extensive combat experience against the Reich."

    "And who couldn't have been in a position to be the leak," Jarod noted.

    "Yes." Maran looked at Robert. "The Aurora will be spending over a month in drydock for repairs, Captain, so for the time being, I'm assigning you to oversee the investigation."

    Robert blinked at that. "Me? But… I don't have counter-intelligence experience, or investigative experience."

    "No. But I'm aware you have other potential talents to help give you insight into evidence that is discovered."

    "Admiral, is this wise?" Meridina kept her voice respectful. "Knowing how certain factions in the Alliance government feel about the Order, and anything that seems linked to them, the fact that Captain Dale has our abilities will mean that those opposed to the Order will be suspicious of his findings."

    "You are correct. That's why I'm assigning another officer to be his second in the investigation and to sign off on the final report. Someone that the Defense Minister and his supporters cannot so easily overlook."

    "Who?", Robert asked.

    Before Maran could answer, a tone came from his desk. He pressed a key on his hardlight keyboard. "Commander?"

    "The Commander has arrived as instructed," said Kanelis.

    "Excellent timing. I'm waiting with Captain Dale now."

    Moments later, the door opened. Robert and the others turned to face the new arrival. Clad in the black-with-burgundy-red trim of a command officer, and with the expected three gold strips on the collar to denote Commander rank, the new arrival cut a prim and proper figure with her brown hair pulled back into a severe bun at the back of her head. She immediately stood at attention and giving a disciplined, "Reporting as ordered, Admiral," in a crisp English accent.

    "Excellent. You're just in time to meet the rest of the team."

    Robert looked back at Maran with surprise. "This is who we're working with?"

    Maran nodded.

    "Captain Dale." Commander Elizabeth King nodded her head respectfully. "Commander Meridina, Commander Jarod, Lieutenant Lucero. It's an honor to see you again."




    Julia took a working lunch into the Lookout, where she spent more time with the "working" part than the "lunch" part. The normal views one could find from the windows were replaced by the drab gray interior of the drydock. Outside dock workers would already be zipping around in zero G to inspect the damage on the Aurora's hull. It would likely be a day or two of inspections before the dockmaster certified a comprehensive repair plan for her to sign off on, after which work would commence.

    "Your stew is getting cold," a voice admonished.

    Julia looked up from her digital reader. Hargert was standing beside her, a cup of coffee already in his hand and moving to replace her empty cup. "Oh, Hargert," she said.

    "I wanted to give you my thanks for rescuing Mister Jarod," Hargert said. "I feared the worst."

    "You're welcome," she replied.

    She went back to her work, just to realize the elderly German man hadn't moved. "You are not well, Commander."

    "My cut is healed," she replied. "I'm fine."

    "I am not speaking of wounds to the body. I fear for the other wound."

    "I'm not hurt, and I'm not mentally troubled if that's what you're implying," Julia insisted. "I wasn't here, but I had a reasonable excuse for it and it can't be held against me. I'm not responsible for what happened to the ship."

    "Indeed not."

    "I couldn't have done anything to stop it," Julia continued. "If I'd been here, nothing would have changed. We'd still have gotten our asses kicked and I'd still be here going over battle reports and reading about all the people we lost."

    Hargert nodded in agreement.

    Julia felt a sensation in her hand. She looked toward it and saw she was clenching the cup so tightly her hand was shifting color from the intensity. She forced herself to relax.

    "When you are ready, Commander, please talk. With me, with your friends, with someone." Hargert gave her a gentle pat on the shoulder. "But we are here for you."

    With that said, he walked away, leaving Julia to the feelings roiling inside of her.




    Admiral Maran took the time to escort Robert and the others, including Commander King, to the twenty-fifth level of Tower 3, the tower that pointed toward the southeast. There they found a vacant planning room with secured control stations and datapads waiting. "Inform Commander Kanelis if you have any needs and yeomen will be sent to meet them," he said upon their entry. "I've arranged for the appropriate logs to be provided to you. The Intelligence Office is overseeing the interviews of possible suspects. Transcripts and recordings will also be provided."

    "We'll get on this right away, sir," Robert pledged.

    "I'll be back in two hours," Maran said. "Then you and Commander King are due at a Defense Committee session."

    Something about that did not make Robert feel more comfortable. "That quickly?"

    Maran nodded. "A delegation from the Senate will be attending as well. They voted this morning on the matter."

    "I thought that the Defense Committee's Senators simply reported findings to the Senate?"

    "Normally. But in this situation, the Senate decided to take more active steps. Members of the Senate Committees on External Affairs and Security are going to join. Not as voters, but as observers, and Defense Minister Hawthorne will give them limited questioning privileges." Maran was evidently not happy with the decision. He hid it as well as always, butt Robert could feel his aggravation with it. "I know you won't have anything to directly show them within two hours. Your presence is merely to establish that the task force has been set up."

    "I understand," Robert answered. "I'll see you soon, sir."

    He nodded and walked out.

    "Translation: The Senate wants to do its own investigations," Jarod said. "And that only complicates things more."

    "Indeed." King found a seat. "Especially when you consider that the compromised plans were shared with both Senate Committees."

    The others looked toward her. Lucy crossed her arms. "Well, I guess you'd know something about spying, wouldn't you Commander?'

    "Indeed, Lieutenant, I served as an intelligence analyst for a time before committing to the command track." King's reaction was nonplussed, as if she didn't care about the remark one way or the other. She had spent over a month the prior year spying on the Aurora crew on behalf of Admiral Davies.

    Meridina sensed the subtle and unsubtle animosity toward King. The others were still clearly bitter about King's true purpose when she was assigned with the Sladen to the Aurora. "How is your ship, Commander?", Meridina asked.

    King looked to her. Meridina could sense the sadness that came from within. "We survived the raid. Barely. Half of my crew is dead. I wouldn't be here right now if we hadn't blown our drives with a warp jump. The Sladen will be spending a month in drydock."

    Hearing that, Robert looked to her and nodded. "You have my condolences, Commander."

    "And you have mine, Captain, for the losses you sustained. Thankfully you and I are here to find out what caused them. Not all of our colleagues were so fortunate."

    Robert could sense Lucy's severe discontent. Jarod wasn't happy either. But when he met Robert's eye, Robert could sense his feelings of acceptance on the matter. They were working with King and had a job to do, and that was that.

    "We should get started," Robert said. "In case hard questions are asked."

    "As I suspect they will be." King started to frown. "Some of this is irregular, most irregular. The Senate's rapid action implies…" She stopped.

    Robert considered her thought and finished it. "It implies they were ready for this in some way. They had delegations from those committees picked and ready."

    "It's possible that those committees have already been gunning for the Defense Committee and were ready for the opportunity," Jarod pointed out, already reading a digital pad.

    "That is the most likely explanation. Even in wartime, legislative politics can be nasty." King picked up another digital pad and looked it over. "The chambers of the Council fighting one another, and the committees of both fighting all sides, all for the control they feel they need to push their take on the war."

    That didn't surprise Robert. Even in the days of the Facility, there had been occasional fights for influence between the governing council on Liberty and the Facility Council, over things such as authority over the transport ships or the mining colonies and stations. The larger the organization, the more possible centers of power that could come into conflict with each other.

    But there was still something about it he didn't like. Something they were missing, hidden and ready to cause harm if it wasn't found.

    And there was King's presence. And that meant everything they did, everything they said, would get reported to a man who wanted to take everything from them. Mistrust was already built into this team. Lucy's constant bewilderment and anger directed toward King was proof of that.

    But if they had a spy working for the Nazis, or just looking to harm the Alliance, they had to find that spy. The war couldn't be won if a source from the top kept telling the Nazis what they had planned. Finding whether there was a spy or not and neutralizing that spy had to come before anything.

    "Commander King."

    She looked over at him. "Yes?"

    "Whatever happened last year, whatever your thoughts about the Gersallians, we can't let that get in the way of this job. The Nazis are the enemy and we have to focus on that."

    King nodded. "I concur, Captain."

    Robert looked to the others. "That goes to all of us," he said. "We can't let any animosity toward Commander King or Admiral Davies get in the way. This is a threat to the Alliance and the war effort."

    "Agreed," said Meridina.

    Jarod nodded as well.

    That left Lucy. She was looking at a pad partially, but her eyes came up and met them. Finally she nodded. "Agreed."

    "Then let's get started on this." Robert took a seat and picked up a blank pad. "Give me what you find and Commander King and I will put it together to inform the committee."




    Two hours later Robert and King walked together, and otherwise unescorted, into the Defense Committee chambers. The Committee met near the middle of the building, in a chamber of red and amber-colored wood-paneled surfaces. The Committee Members themselves sat in a semi-circle facing the middle table, where those giving evidence or testimony would sit, while behind this table were seats for observers or future participants. The room had not changed any since Robert had last been here, when he faced losing the Aurora. This time, however, he sat toward the rear of the room, and was grateful he wasn't the focus of this session.

    Not yet, anyway.

    As before, ahead of him was the seat where the Defense Minister sat. Gerald Hawthorne was a thin man with a hawkish nose and a conspiratorial look about him. How he had enough of a grip on his post that President Morgan couldn't dare fire him was something Robert wasn't sure.

    Seated nearby were Admiral Maran and Admiral Davies, in their positions as Chairman of the Defense Staff and Vice Chief of Naval Operations. General Gulinev, representing the Army, was also present. The crusty old Russian had lost hair since Robert last saw him. The stresses of war planning were clear on his weathered expression.

    A glare came his way. Councilman Pensley was not as thin as Hawthorne, and his hair still showed some dark brown color. He sat to one side of the semi-circle. Councilman Palas was nearby, wearing standard Gersallian-style robes, and the third Councilman was an African woman in a suit.

    Opposite them were the three Senators of the committee. Sriroj of the Sol Systems Republic was one he recognized immediately. The Dorei Senator was new, a man with a pale purple complexion and blue eyes that wore his long light teal hair in an elaborate series of ringlets and braids. I will never taunt Angel about her hair again, Robert thought upon seeing that. The third Senator was an Alakin, with green and yellow plumage around the neck of what Robert was sure was a female Alakin. She was in a suit of pale yellow and green trim that struck Robert as more masculine looking, at least for what he thought of such things.

    The final member of the Committee was the Intelligence Director, now General Hatcher.

    Now Robert could see the further additions, though. Tables along the sides had been set up and a number of other figures were seated. Dorei, Alakin, Gersallians, Humans of various ethnic origins. They would be the Senators Maran mentioned, from the Senate External Affairs and Security Committees. Robert scanned them for faces he knew, most of which he only knew through those news reports he actually managed to watch.

    Hawthorne, in his place, rapped his gavel. "I call this meeting of the Defense Committee to order. These are tough times for us all, so I thank you for your prompt response to the summons. And my greetings to the esteemed Senators joining us today from the External Affairs and Security Committees. This situation is one we must all get involved with solving." Hawthorne looked over everyone. "As you all know by now, our attempted rear area attack on the Reich became a fiasco. All indications is that the Reich lured us into an ambush. The Intelligence Office believes that they were made aware of our standing plans for a quick raid by a spy, or some other security leak. Regardless of whether this is true or not, we must investigate the situation thoroughly, and ensure that our war effort does not become derailed by poor leadership. Councilman Pensley?"

    Pensley had glared toward Robert again, stood to show he wanted to speak. When Hawthorne's permission came and he spoke, briefly turning to address Hawthorne, it was with a voice not quite strong enough for the ferocity behind the words. "I would argue that the real question is if we should have a war effort at all, Minister. The German Reich was clearly provoked by a certain radical clique within the Alliance government and military." He looked back toward Robert. "A clique, I am sad to say, that has won the ear of the President, and which even today shows its strength by its presence before the Committee."

    Robert said nothing. He knew he had no standing to speak as it was, not being officially called as a witness yet.

    It was Senator Sriroj who responded to Pensley. "The good Councilman's known hostility toward some of the leading lights of our Alliance are well known to all of us," the Thai woman said, some acid in her accented tone. "The fact that he persists in this ridiculous course of appeasement of one of the most vile regimes in the history of Human civilizations is ludicrous in itself."

    "The Senator ignores the fact that the Reich was clearly provoked by an incursion of their territory and the destruction of its ships by Alliance vessels," Pensley shot back. "And while I will not ignore the crimes of the Reich, the deaths caused during their invasion of our colonies in S4W8 can be laid at the feet of the radicals responsible for provoking a war we were not ready to fight."

    "And so you would have us make peace with the fascist butchers?!", Gulinev demanded. "The same fascist butchers who have slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Alliance citizens?![/i]"

    "They no longer pose a threat to us," Pensley replied. "Their fleets have been driven back. We have liberated many worlds from them and the Darglan Facility of their universe has been destroyed. We've already broken the foundation of their empire. All we have to do is make peace and let their warped little system crash down around their ears. We don't need to lose more to finish off an enemy that time will beat. The only reason we're doing it now is because of small-mindedness being led about by crazed political radicalism."

    "You make presumptions about the sustainability of the Reich that are unproven," Palas stated, rising to his feet. "And I do not believe this is rel…"

    "And this, right here, is what I speak of!", Pensley thundered. "The Gersallians and their need to judge everyone else and throw their weight around! Clearly I'm not the only one who's seen it! They've amassed undue control over…"

    "Councilmen, you are out of order!", Hawthorne cried, slamming his gavel. "Both of you are to be seated at once!"

    Palas nodded in deference and did so.

    Pensley did not at first. He glared at Hawthorne, who glared back, until finally the man sat with an audible thump.

    "The purpose of this meeting is not to discuss peace feelers. It is to examine the issue we are faced with on a possible security breach," Hawthorne declared. His eyes scanned the room until they locked onto Robert. "Captain Dale, Commander King, I am informed that Admiral Maran has placed you in charge of the investigation. Please share with the Committee what you have learned so far."

    Robert and King stood and took the central table. King nodded to Robert, signaling he would be the one speaking for them, so he brought up his digital reader. "Honored Members of the Committee, Honored Senators, we have looked over the preliminary information from the Intelligence Office." Robert drew in a breath. "It appears that at some point around five weeks ago, several anomalous access requests were logged into the Main Defense Planning Database. The database in question, for those who aren't aware, is where the secured operational plans drawn up by Defense Command planners are kept for review and alteration. Among the plans was the list of potential targets for the recent operation, or rather the list for the types of targets the raid in question was meant to eliminate."

    "You say anomalous access requests, Captain." Councilman Zoral, of the Sirian League, leaned forward. His sandy brown hair was combed back and the middle-aged man kept a business expression on his face. "Can you explain what precisely you mean?"

    "The system is designed to log all access requests by access point and personal code. Nobody is supposed to be able to look at this data anonymously," Robert explained. "These access requests had no such information. No access point was logged. No personal code. In short, we can't tell who accessed the data, or even if they managed to. All we know for sure is that someone tried without their location or identity being logged."

    "Wouldn't a failure to put in a proper access code lead to an alarm?", the Alakin Senator asked.

    "It logs the failure and alerts Defense Command security to the access attempt, yes. But we have no matching failures logged. In fact, throughout the year we only have five failures logged at all, and those have all been identified as user error by personnel with access authority." Robert looked over the notes that Jarod had compiled for him again. "The best explanation is that someone found a way to tap into the database without using a known access point. Someone physically tapped the computer cores themselves."

    "That sounds dubious," Davies said. "Those cores are kept under the highest security regime. There are multiple access restrictions that have to be bypassed just to get to them."

    "I understand that sir," Robert said. "But that is our best explanation for the moment. We'll investigate the possibility immediately."

    Maran leaned forward. "Then the question is, if someone did get our planning data, how did they deliver it to the Reich? We have no standing channels with them, and no state we know of has regular diplomatic communications that could be used for that form of covert communication."

    "They may be using long-range subspace radio keyed to specific high frequencies," Robert replied. "Or they're using another form of communication we haven't consdiered yet. We're going to look into this as well."

    "Commander King, do you concur with Captain Dale's testimony to this Committee?", Hawthorne asked.

    "I do, sir," King said. "Captain Dale and I have examined the evidence and come to these conclusions jointly."

    "Then I leave this investigation in your hands…"

    Pensley jumped to his feet. "I lodge an official protest! Captain Dale is not qualified for this sort of investigation."

    "He commands officers who are."

    "Nor can he be trusted with the conclusions, not when he is responsible for this war in the first place!", Pensley insisted. "This will become a mere cover for him to further promote the radical agenda that has already brought us war!"

    "Councilman, you are out of order," Hawthorne ruled, slamming his gavel. The defense minister turned his glared toward Robert. "Captain, the Committee concurs with Admiral Maran's decision to place you and Commander King in joint investigation of this affair. We expect immediate results. You are dismissed."

    "Yes sir." Robert stood. King stood beside him and nodded as well. The two walked briskly to the exit door.

    Once the Sergeant-at-Arms let them out into the receiving area, Robert looked to King. "So Pensley is leading the peace movement?"

    "He is." King gave Robert a look. "Although that's hardly a secret, Captain."

    "I spend so much time doing other things that I can't keep up with all of the politics around the Council, honestly."

    "I see." King consulted her multidevice. "It is past 1500 local time now. I could use a lunch, can't you?"

    "I didn't get to enjoy the officer's club the last time I was here," Robert said. "I hear they make a mean steak."

    King smiled at that. "Captain, you have no idea."




    The job of overseeing the repairs on the Aurora was divided in responsibility. As Chief Engineer, Scotty was responsible for the immediate portion of it. He was the one that would be working with the dockmaster on a repair schedule and providing the list on what was necessary.

    But the administrative side of it was all on Julia. She had to liaise with the dockmaster, with the quartermaster for both the ship and the Fleet Base, and she had to sign off on the necessary crew scheduling changes that came with shipping out crewmembers to other medical facilities.

    Looking over the latter was the hardest. The casualties the Aurora had taken were severe. Knowing she hadn't been here to fight by their side… that made it worse.

    The door chime for her office sounded. "Come in," she called out.

    Angel was the one who walked in. "Well, hello workaholic," she said. "You do know that we're in drydock, right?"

    "I do. I have the paperwork to prove it."

    "Isn't that mostly Scotty's paperwork?"

    "I told him I'd process it for him," Julia said. "That way he can focus on getting our ship fixed."

    "I don't think you saved him much time." Angel crossed her arms and leaned against the door. "So, I was thinking we could do something. When you're done and off-duty."

    "I had a pretty tight martial arts fight yesterday, Angel, I don't need to worry about honing my skills right now."

    "I'm not thinking of a bout this time. In your mood that would be begging for bruises." Angel smirked. "I was thinking you, me, maybe Cat and her new girlfriend, going down to Portland and doing something, I dunno, girly. Shopping or something."

    Julia leveled an intrigued stare at Angel. "Angel, you have never been a girly type girl. Never. That includes shopping."

    "Well, maybe it's something to try?"

    "You mean it's…" Julia stopped and blinked. "Wait. Cat and who?"

    "That purple-haired helmswoman, Ensign Arterria."

    "And she and Cat are… together?"

    Angel shrugged. "I dunno. They're playing some game on the holodecks. Well, they were, I'm not sure what they're doing now. But I know Cat's interested in her and would love to go visit the city with her."

    "Well, I'm sure you'll all have fun," Julia said. "But I've got reports to file and repairs to check on and…"

    "Yes, because that's going to make up for us not being here for the attack," Angel remarked.

    Julia stopped. She looked up and glared at Angel.

    "I'm not dumb. I wish I'd been here too," Angel said. "But we didn't know this would happen, did we? And Jarod needed us."

    "So did the others," Julia said, her voice harsh. "Our ship went into a dangerous, important operation without three of its senior officers, including its Executive Officer. That is, me."

    "We couldn't have known that would happen!"

    "We shouldn't have had to think about it! We should have stayed in communication and…"

    Angel stepped forward from the door and slammed a palm on the desk. "And where would Jarod be if we'd done that, huh?!"

    The retort brought silence to the room. "I know," Julia murmured. "But it doesn't change the fact that we weren't here when they needed us."

    "I know. But we can't do anything about that right now." A grunt of frustration came from Angel. She turned to the door. "I get it, though. No to the trip. Alright."

    "Maybe later," Julia said. "Once we've got the repairs going."

    "Yeah, maybe," Angel said, frowning. She went through the opened door and out into the hall beyond.




    In Tower 3, Jarod and Lucy were looking over the designs of the secured computer core for the Defense Planning Database. Meridina observed quietly. By her estimation, unless a swevyra'se or a disciplined swevyra'kse was responsible, the task of surreptitiously adding a device to tap the core's data seemed impossible. The security measures were simply too complex.

    Meridina quietly checked the time on her multidevice. Seeing what time it was, she stepped away from the table and tapped her device. It only took a couple moments to open a channel to the Aurora, where the results of her search awaited her.

    The search for the hilt was incomplete. Some of the symbols were simply unidentifiable. The others, however, seemed to be from a pre-Swenya dialect. And not just any, but the dialect of the Kuneli and their neighbors. The dialect and language were considered dead and forgotten by Gersallian authorities, swept away by the Rising of Kohbal after Swenya's death.

    As for Dralan Olati… that was the most surprising. The profile was from the Olati clan-family public database. Dralan was the second son of the Mastesh of the Olati's third daughter. That meant he was not of a particularly high ranking within the family. And the image was fairly accurate to what she remembered.

    But the complication was that the system claimed he was dead.

    Meridina murmured, 'how?" and continued her search. She looked back in time to see Jarod and Lucy staring at her somewhat. "Sorry," she said. "Simply an investigation I have started relating to Jarod's abduction."

    "You mean that Gersallian with the yellow eyes?", Jarod asked.

    "Yes," Meridina replied. "I killed him during our fight. I am investigating where he came from. I have… questions, you might say."

    "Yeah." Jarod rubbed at his throat. "I bet."

    "It must be hard," Lucy remarked. "I mean, he had a lakesh too, right?"

    "He did."

    "And only the Order knows how to make them. So he was one of yours."

    Meridina looked back to the image. "That is what I thought as well," she said. "But the records don't show that. By the records he was never involved with the Order."

    "Huh." Lucy's brow furrowed. "That's kind of disturbing, isn't it?"

    "Tremendously," Meridina said. Because if Dralan hadn't been in the Order, that meant terrible questions had to be considered.

    Where did he get his training? And where or how did he get his lakesh?

    "A mystery for later," she said, turning. "We should focus on the security of the Alliance first. Have you found anything?"

    "Nothing yet, we're still looking everything over," Lucy said.

    "Hrm." Meridina approached them again. "Well, allow me to continue with you, then. Perhaps there is something to find."
     
  10. Threadmarks: 2-08-3
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    The officer's club was essentially a bar with a large eating area. Alcoholic drinks from across the Multiverse were present, although Robert asked for a soda. King, however, called for a brandy. "I wouldn't see you for the kind to drink while we're on duty," Robert said to King as she took a drink of the amber liquid.

    "There are such things as detoxicants, Captain," King reminded him. "But I've found there is truth to an argument of Winston Churchill, that one drink is good for bolstering the senses."

    "Wasn't that 'courage'?"

    "Perhaps." King smiled thinly. "You are rather closer to Sir Winston chronologically than I am. Or rather to the versions of him from our respective histories." King took another sip and took on an introspective look. "I've always wondered what it'd be like to meet the man. If we could find a world where he still lived."

    "If we did, it'd be illegal unfortunately," Robert said. "The Alliance Contact Limitations would keep us from contacting anyone on that world, short of an accident."

    "I know." King took another drink, and Robert did the same. As he pondered his soda, she went on. "Of course, one could question the morality of that statute. Imagine the good we could do if we were to encounter an Earth in the 1930s, or 1940s. With our technology, the fascist powers would be crushed in days of paltry effort. All of those millions of lives saved."

    Robert set his hands on the table. "I find it interesting to hear you say that, Commander. I used to be in that business before the Alliance. And I've learned it's not always so cut and dried."

    "No, I suppose not. But then again, you didn't have the benefit of the training and organization you do now."

    "Does Admiral Davies share these thoughts?", Robert inquired, feeling curious.

    "I rather doubt it. I'm not even sure I do." King shook her head. "I believe in the chain of command and in the order of law, not your cowboy Yank heroics."

    That elicited a chuckle from Robert. "Cowboy? That's a new one. I usually get called a White Knight first."

    "Perhaps. But the point remains." King took another drink and swallowed it. "But then I think of the Nazis, those bloody bastards, and I think of worlds where their ilk still thrive, and I begin to wonder if it isn't worth it to ride in and crush them before they hurt anyone else." King looked into her glass, deep in thought. "If my ship were on patrol near such an Earth, and I picked up the radio signals from a place like Auschwitz, or the calls for help during the Warsaw Uprising or the Rape of Nanking…"

    "I understand," Robert said. "I mean, I understand where you're coming from."

    "I imagine you do." King set the glass down. "Of course, that's where the Honourable Councilman from the Tetzelian Republic would give you the dirty look like before."

    "Pensley." Robert nodded. "I'm not too familiar with L4R2, actually. Ba handled our negotiations with the Tetzelians and other governments."

    "I don't think they ever liked you, honestly. They blame your kind of politics for the destruction of Earth's biosphere in their history."

    "So that's three universes with a trashed Earth," Robert said.

    "That is true." King sighed. "Most people know bloody well what peace with Nazis means. That it's just a breather before the next round. The Tetzelians, though, they don't see that. To them history started with the evacuation of Earth, so they don't worry about Nazis the same way we would." King shook her head. "They joined the Alliance for economic benefits."

    "And now we're in a war."

    "Yes. A war that you have been blamed for. I would suggest that you avoid any vacations to Tetzel any time soon, Captain."

    Robert nodded and grinned. "Is that the famous British understatement I've heard so much about?"

    "Well, we must all keep up appearances."

    A moment later a civilian waiter came in, bearing plates that had made-to-order ribeye steaks fresh from the kitchen grills. Potatoes and carrots were on King's plate. Robert had rice and green beans with his steak.

    "Now we eat," King said. "And then we find out how much your super-savant and your mind-readers have discovered since we left them."




    Before they left, Robert - feeling guilty - secured three plates to go for Jarod, Lucy, and Meridina. King waited patiently for him to get the boxed meals before walking back to Tower 3.

    When they arrived, the three were all looking over materials. "I've brought dinner," Robert said. "Straight from the officer's club."

    "You're a lifesaver," Jarod sighed. He took the offered box. Inside was a steak, sides, and utensils all prepared. "It's been a couple days since I had a proper meal."

    "A couple of very tiring days, I imagine," Robert answered, offering Lucy her meal. He came to Meridina last. "It's a Gersallian meal. I was assured it was Maran's favorite."

    Meridina nodded and opened the container. A slight smile came to her face. "Spiced rutapi with ganaral sauce. This is quite a handsome meal." She looked to Robert, still smiling. "Thank you for this, Captain."

    "You're welcome."

    King took a seat. "Do we have anything new?"

    "The only method we can think of for gaining physical access is if someone has abilities," Jarod said. "As in the ones that the Gersallians call swevyra."

    "Ah." King looked thoughtful at that. "I see. Do you concur, Commander?"

    "Yes. It was my suggestion." Meridina gestured to the layout of the core and its protected approach. "A swevyra'se or swevyra'kse could have implanted suggestions within the guards on duty. They would have the guards open all of the access doors. Once in the core room, access could have been tapped by any number of devices attached to the main control console."

    "The console would be secured against that," King said.

    "If they're smart, they had something along to put it into a test mode," Jarod said. "Like any technician would."

    "How often do the cores get tested?", Robert asked.

    Lucy checked the schedule. "Once every ten weeks. More often if it's been called for due to technical problems."

    "Check the logs, see when the last test came," Robert said.

    "I'm doing that now," Lucy replied. She examined a log. "Looks like the last test was around April 4th."

    "That's definitely within our targeted time period. Now we need to know if the technician was behind it or if someone slipped in around that time to trick the guards."

    "Let me check the logs," Jarod said. He began operating one of the workstations. "Isolating…"

    A holographic 2D image appeared on the wall facing them. It depicted a woman in an Alliance Army duty BDU walking up to them. For a moment there was nothing between them. And then she started to wave a hand.

    At that point, the video abruptly cut out.

    "Jarod?", Robert asked.

    "Someone deleted the visual data from the file," he said.

    "At least here," King said. "Those files are backed up offsite automatically by way of a one-way data transmission. The saboteur may not have known this."

    Jarod nodded. "I'm checking the backed up record now." He looked back to the screen.

    It was the same image again, and played on from there. The woman waved her hand. The soldier led her through.

    "He didn't check her ID," Lucy said.

    "And they're not supposed to escort anyone," King added. "The doors between the checkpoints are meant to be unlocked by the technician."

    They watched as the woman went through the following layers of security with the guard at her side. At the middle checkpoint, another hand wave seemed to placate the guards there. The same at the last checkpoint, after which the young woman entered the core room.

    The core was a hexagon, at least sixty feet wide, which meant the image only showed a part of it around the central control console and the door to leave. While the guard remained, the woman went to work on the system. For some time she worked under the core's central control console, including removing the panels below it and working on the wires within.

    "Computer, freeze frame," King barked. When the video stopped, she said, "Zoom in on the subject's right hand. Lower right quadrant, upper left."

    The computer analyzed King's order and obeyed. The video zoomed in. Without an order it began to enhance the image. The technician was pulling an object out of her bag. It was small, with a clear section meant for splicing wiring together.

    "I've never seen anything like it," Jarod said.

    "I have."

    All of the eyes in the room turned toward Meridina.

    A sad look filled her blue eyes. She was struck with disbelief. "It is a device manufactured by the Interdependency Defense Forces," she said. "It is intended for making entry into secured computer systems."

    "So you're saying that Gersallian military intelligence did this?", King asked.

    "Unlikely," Meridina said. She shook her head and was clearly struggling with what she had just seen. "However, the Defense Forces work closely with the Order, and provide us with access to such devices for our own work."

    "Meridina, think about what you're saying," Lucy said.

    "I know precisely what I am saying," Meridina answered. Both Robert and Lucy could feel the growing emotional turmoil within her, the sheer disbelief that this had actually happened. "But there has been trouble on Gersal for months now. Anti-Alliance sentiment has created a faction called the Dissenters who oppose our participation in the Alliance. So it is possible that even one of my fellows has gotten mixed up in this."

    Commander King observed Meridina make this admission. She nodded stiffly. "Well, that leaves our duty clear. We should report this to the Committee."

    Robert sighed and nodded. "Agreed." He had no choice, and he knew that, but he also knew he was handing a loaded gun to Hawthorne and Davies. Whatever was going on here, there was no telling how far it would take their anti-Gersallian, or at least anti-Order of Swenya, agenda. "We'll send a message to the Committee and then go check to see if this device is still active."

    "I shall call for the technical staff," King said, bringing her left arm up to look at her multidevice. "We'll need their support."

    "Secure the work stations and our materials," Robert said. "Let's get to the core."




    The Main Defense Planning Database was in Tower 4, facing to the southwest, located on the highest levels of the complex (lower levels held less-critical computer cores). The five officers had called up a transport car to speed them across the walkway spanning Towers 3 and 4. The blue-skinned Dorei Private driving the craft still looked intimidated as all hell by the five officers after they left him on the other end of the walking bridge. From there it was another ten floors up to the entrance to the Planning Database.

    By the time they arrived, Defense Command Security had already answered King's summons. An Army Captain, an African woman with a slight build and reserved demeanor, was waiting for them at the first checkpoint. "Commander King. Captain Dale." Her voice sounded East African to Robert. He almost wanted to say one of the Somali accents, but he'd heard many during the Facility days and wasn't sure of them all. "I am Captain Joan Orombi, of the Security Detachment. I already have technicians inside investigating this device."

    "So it is still there?", Meridina asked.

    Orombi nodded. "Yes, Commander, it is."

    "These devices have an identification code that is placed within the hardware, it cannot be removed without disabling the device," Meridina said. "If I get the number, I should be able to verify where the device came from."

    "You already know its origins?", Orombi asked.

    "Yes."

    "We watched the video of the device being planted," Robert explained. "Meridina was able to identify it."

    "Ah." Orombi could tell that there was more to it, but she went back to business. "Follow me."

    They went to the first checkpoint, where they were waved in. "We still need to figure out how they erased the on-site security footage," Lucy said.

    "We will investigate thoroughly, Lieutenant."

    Robert nodded. "It should help us narrow down…"

    He stopped as every fiber of his being sensed the impending threat. There were only seconds to react.

    "Get down!", Meridina shouted. She jumped and pulled Orombi to the wall and down. Lucy got Jarod and pulled him to the other end and Robert did the same with Commander King, who shouted "What the devil!?..." in shock as he grabbed her by the arms and pulled her.

    The entire tower seemed to quake beneath their feet. A thunderous roar sounded beyond them and a plume of flame erupted from the next set of checkpoint doors. Along the walls they were safe from immediate burning, but the blast wave caught them with enough strength to knock them all over.

    For several seconds Robert thought he was going to black out. His head was spinning wildly and his body ached. He could faintly hear something over the roar that had overwhelmed his ears and left them ringing. Only as his vision cleared could he see Meridina looking at him, calling his name. Robert!, she shouted in his mind.

    I'm alive. He checked on King. The blast had knocked her out cold for the moment, but he could feel the life within her, and there was no sense that she was wounded. So is King.

    Jarod and I are fine
    , Lucy added mentally.

    Orombi is as well.

    With that confirmed, they all looked toward the direction of the core. Fire suppression systems were kicking in and the distant drizzling sound of flame-retardant foam being sprayed over the core's access area was audible.

    Robert swallowed. "This has gone beyond spying," he said. "Someone with links to the Gersallian government just set off a bomb in Defense Command."

    "Yes." King was frowning. "Clearly to prevent us from gaining access to their data hacking device." King gave him a somber look before looking to Meridina. "I'm sorry Commander. But the way things are going, we may very well be looking at the end of your species' membership in the Alliance."

    Meridina reacted to that news mutely, and only Robert and Lucy could feel the raw frustration surging within her. Everything she'd fought and sacrificed for was at risking of falling apart before her very eyes.




    Across the Columbia and along the west bank of the Willamette, the city of Portland shined like a jewel in the lengthening sunset. Holographic signs advertised and announced everything from products to news; in the streets and in pre-programmed aerial lanes vehicles moved, carrying people from work to home or from home to work or any other location.

    In the old Northwest Quarter, one dwelling in particular had quite a number of residents. On all relevant records, the home had been rented by the Gersallian Interdependency's Interspecies Cultural Exchange Directorate. The neighbors had little to say of the occupants; they were friendly to neighbors, but seemed distant, which would have been strange indeed if the neighbors knew which organization that rented the house.

    Inside there were a dozen Gersallians. A few had military backgrounds. All had been training for some time for what was to come, and all were dedicated to the cause of the Interdependency… or rather, the Interdependency as they saw it. A Gersallian Interdependency that was free and independent of the quarrelling, unbalanced Human societies it had mistakenly bound itself to.

    Most of those in the home were in the basement. Sound-proofing and passive jamming fields ensured privacy for the training they underwent there. At some expense, a holographic chamber had been placed into the basement, so large that it nearly took up the entire floor. Reassembling it had been the work of a week for the occupants.

    On the inside, they had completed another practice run using the information given. This one had ended like many of those in the recent couple of weeks; victory, with the armed men and women standing among the carnage and destruction of what had been a holographic recreation of the Alliance Senate chamber. The holographic visages of dead Senators and officials abounded everywhere.

    One of the leaders pulled off his combat helmet. "The attack was a success. End simulation."

    "Kalnat." Another of his men pulled off a helmet. "Should we not practice extraction?"

    "Extraction will come in one of two ways, my friends." Kalnat looked at them in one sweep of his head. "We will either be capable of activating the transporters, or we will not. That is the truth of the matter. By the time we finish this work, there will be no escape if the transporters fail."

    The second man nodded. So too did the others.

    "We will make one more…"

    Before Kalnat could finish, a door appeared in the nearby wall. A woman in a blue robe over light purple vest and dark blue leggings stepped in. She was shaved bald, and her blue eyes looked to Kalnat intensely. "Our time has come," she said.

    Kalnat looked to her. "What has happened?"

    "The device was found. Our source in the Senate says we can delay no longer." The bald woman looked over them all. "We must now show our devotion to our people. A Senate meeting will be called for tomorrow morning to discuss what has happened. That is when we will strike."

    "If the device was found, then security will be…"

    "Our source will deal with security," the woman said. "We will do the rest."

    "Yes, we will. May Swenya and our ancestors forgive us for what we must do," Kalnat answered.

    "Indeed." She turned and left.

    The woman walked up to the ground floor, then to her small, spartanly-furnished second floor. Her computer systems turned on and she immediately accessed the communications links that had been so carefully established in the prior months.

    Within minutes a face appeared on the screen, with a moderately-sized beard and a bald head like her own. "You caught me in a meeting," said Mastrash Goras, of the Order of Swenya. "What is it, Italarai?"

    "Our listening device was found. The charge went off as planned, but our source says we must hurry. We launch the operation tomorrow."

    "I see." Goras nodded stiffly. "Then I can only wish the best to you. You and the Dissenters carry the hopes of our future with you, Italarai. Know that, even if your conscious is troubled by your duty."

    "I know," Italarai answered. She nodded. "Mi rake sa sweyvra iso, Mastrash. I could not have asked for a finer teacher."

    "You have been a devoted and marvelous student, Italarai. I hope to see you again. Mi rake sa swevyra iso."




    The tension in the Defense Committee was undeniable. Robert left it to King to give the report on their findings, including the offsite video backups. His ears were still ringing from the blast. But it wasn't just that which made him feel like he had to sit down.

    The bomb had killed Orombi's team. The guards at the midway checkpoint had been critically injured. The damage to the core had been substantial as well and Tower 4 had been abandoned for the time being while experts analyzed the damage and made sure that the structure was sound.

    And now he was presenting evidence that this had been done by one of their own. An investigation into whether the Nazis had expectations of the Alliance's raiding plans had led them straight to findings that could rip the Alliance apart.

    "And you are certain of this?", asked Minister Hawthorne.

    "We are, sir," King replied. "Captain Dale and I have signed off on the findings. While we cannot be sure what data was leaked due to the destruction of the spying device, it is clear that a major security breach could have easily leaked our plans to the Reich. The method by which this communication could have been made is still undetermined."

    "And it was agents of the Gersallian Interdependency who committed this act?", Pensley asked.

    "I object to that!" The male Dorei Senator - Hipathi - stood to his feet with his pale purple skin turning dark purple around his cheeks. "This is not proof that the Gersallian government has done anything!"

    Pensley smirked with immense self-satisfaction. "I hear the voice of the Dorei Senator, but I hear the words of the Gersallians who are his puppet-masters."

    Hipathi's face turned an even deeper purple. Before he could bark out a retort, Hawthorne's gavel rapped. "You are both out of order!", Hawthorne shouted. When both sat, still glaring at each other, Hawthorne returned his attention to King and Robert. "The device, you say that the video record shows it as a Gersallian one?"

    "It does, sir," King said.

    "How did you make this identification, Commander?", asked Councilman Palas. The Gersallian legislature's voice was hoarse. His expression was drawn and pale.

    "Commander Meridina provided the identification, Honored Councilman." King turned to face him. "She stated that it is a device made by the Interdependency Defense Forces, and that it has been provided in the past to members of the Order of Swenya for use in the field."

    Palas looked at Meridina. She seemed almost in her own world. Robert could feel the anguish and uncertainty she felt, and now horror that her own people might have caused the deaths of Alliance personnel.

    Hawthorne and Davies exchanged intrigued looks. Robert kept himself from scowling.

    "These are grave accusations," Sriroj said. The Thai woman's eyes went to the Defense Minister. "I would move that an investigation be ordered into the possible Gersallian involvement."

    "Assuming this isn't some false flag." Zoral sat up in his chair and triggered his own recorder and microphone with the movement. "There are factions that would attempt such a thing to turn us against each other."

    "And yet the investigators' own video proof shows that the saboteur used mental powers, just as the Order of Swenya does," Davies retorted. "All of this evidence is pointing in that direction."

    "We both know that the Gersallian Order of Swenya is not the only source of such beings, Admiral," Zoral retorted. "The intruder could have been a Betazed. But you don't see me rushing to accuse the Federation, do you?"

    "How would a Federation officer have gotten their hands on such sensitive Gersallian equipment, Councilman?" Pensley shook his head. "I know how much you Sirians love the Gersallians, but this is really too much. In time you'll be as beholden to them as the Dorei are. And before the honored Defense Minister calls us to order, I have my own proposal to add to the Honorable Senator Sriroj's." Pensley looked over the others, and especially at the Senators assembled from the External Affairs Committee. "I move that the Defense Committee formally endorse resuming the peace initiative with the Reich. It's clear we have to clean up our own house before we can even begin to consider a permanent arrangement in S4W8."

    "I object!", General Gulinev snarled. "We cannot make peace with fascists!"

    "It is not your place to object to a political consideration, General!", Pensley shot back.

    "Order!" Hawthorne slammed his gavel. "There will be order in the Committee!" With swiftness the voices and shouts died down.

    As the voices died down, the Sergeant-at-Arms approached Hawthorne and whispered into his ear. "Very well," he said. "Bring her in."

    Robert and the others looked back to see the doors open to admit a new arrival. The Chinese woman in question was reserved in her attire, a full-sleeved gray suit and loose gray trousers with gold-colored embroidery on the sleeves and cuffs. Her dark hair was pulled back into an austere bun, the temples already graying, and her face was thin.

    A very bad feeling came over him at seeing her.

    "Senator Kiang," said Minister Hawthorne. "Thank you for joining us."

    "Minister." Kiang nodded. "I have come to inform you that the Senate has voted to hold a full session in the morning on this situation."

    Sriroj gave her peer a look of irritation. "I was not aware the Senate was voting on the subject."

    "Nor were any others here," Kiang said. "But Senate President Akreet agreed to the session and held a virtual meeting of the majority of the Senators. The vote for a session was approved. And the Defense Committee has been requested to observe and participate as is deemed necessary."

    "Very well." Sriroj was clearly unhappy.

    "Then I take it the Senate is assuming control over the investigation?", Hawthorne asked.

    "Oversight, yes. But I believe it acceptable for your team to continue their work," Kiang said. "Although some considerations may be necessary given the evidence. Among the legislation being proposed would be a ban on permitting members of certain 'orders' from serving in the Alliance services."

    Robert could sense Lucy's surge of anger at that. He knew she could feel his. Within a second he was on his feet, looking at Kiang. "You're talking about banning Commander Meridina and her peers," he said.

    "Captain, you have no place to join this conversation!", Hawthorne barked.

    Robert bit down on his lip at that.

    "I would be happy to help direct such legislation through the Council," said Pensley, who was almost purring with delight. "I have long waited for the Senate to realize the dangers facing the Alliance from the inside."

    "Do not mistake our purpose," Kiang said. "We have many considerations for how to deal with the recent difficulties. The investigation into Gersallian responsibility for the security breach, and for this bombing, is just one element. That is why we wish the Defense Committee's presence."

    Robert could feel the satisfaction oozing from Hawthorne and Davies. Maran's face remained a stone mask.

    "Then, in light of this, I will adjourn the Committee for the evening. We will reconvene tomorrow morning. Before we adjourn, however…" Hawthorne looked back to Robert. The pleasure was eminent in his face. "It is clear, Captain Dale, that your services with this investigation are no longer necessary. Nor are they desired. You and your officers are hereby relieved from those duties and you are dismissed. Commander King, you may assign a new team as you like."

    Maran frowned at Hawthorne. But he did nothing. Given the way things had gone, he could do nothing.

    "We are all hereby adjourned." With a last rap of the gavel, the session ended and the Committee began to file out the nearby doors. With a gesture, Davies summoned Commander King. She took one last look at them before joining him through a side door.

    "Robert, you can't let them do this," Lucy said. Beside her, Meridina looked and felt miserable. "This is the opening they've been waiting for!"

    "There's not anything we can do," Jarod replied on Robert's behalf. "Maran's known for cooperation with the Order of Swenya, so this makes it impossible for him to act."

    "So Meridina's going to be kicked out of the Stellar Navy over this?" Lucy shook her head. "That's ridiculous! And that device doesn't prove anything. There are other life force users out there, they could have swiped it!"

    "It's not about what is true," Robert mumbled. "It's about what fits everyone's expectations." As he said that he looked to Kiang, who was exiting with other Senators from the two observing delegations. "And you heard Pensley. There are probably more like him. They have it out for the Gersallians. Maybe over last year, or maybe over other things. This gives them a chance to vent about it."

    "There has to be something we can do," Lucy insisted. "Because look at them. Hawthorne and Davies are so paranoid about Meridina they don't care about anything else."

    Robert considered that. "There's only one thing I can do." He stood up a the room finished clearing. "I'll meet you at the shuttle bay. If nothing comes of this we'll just have to get a flight back to the Aurora."

    The others nodded in reply as they stood, even Meridina. They left together.



    When they got to the shuttle bay, at the very top of the central building, Jarod went off to find a flight officer and a shuttle that would be available. Lucy and Meridina waited outside of the chamber. "Maybe it's what Zoral said." Lucy put a hand on Meridina's arm while she stared blankly at the window. Night was falling in Portland and the red and orange rays of sunset were coming over the hills to the west, on the opposite side of the Columbia River. It was a lovely sight, but it was also not the focus of Lucy's attention.

    Lucy felt the fear and despair inside of her mentor and it made her heart sink. Those emotions would only make things worse for Meridina and her struggles with the darkness that Amaunet's possession had left her with.

    "I wish it were true," Meridina said. "But a part of me… it is as if my swevyra itself can feel that it is true. That one of my own was responsible."

    "Are you sure?"

    "Quite." Meridina shook her head. "I… I can't understand it. Why would any of them do something like that? Even my father, even Goras, would not…"

    "There might be another explanation. Maybe one of your Knights went rogue and fell to darkness? They could be working for the Nazis, or whoever is spying for them."

    "If so, then they have done us a great harm, Lucy. Great harm indeed." Meridina shook her head. Tears had appeared in her eyes. "They are destroying everything that we have aspired to build. The future itself is at threat because of them, the victory of Light, everything I've sacrificed for…"

    "The what?", Lucy asked. "What are you talking about?"

    Meridina bowed her head. "There are some things I have not told you, Lucy, because it was not the right time. Perhaps, now, it shall never be."

    Lucy's curiosity piqued. But she also trusted Meridina enough to let the curiosity pass. "It's up to you on how much you tell me. I would like to know."

    "Perhaps… in time. When this is over."

    "Now all we can do is hope Robert comes up with something."

    "Indeed."




    Robert made a beeline toward Admiral Maran's office. But he did not stop there.

    A couple of turns down further corridors brought him to his destination. Beside the door was the sign with the name of the office's occupant.

    Admiral William Davies - Vice CNO

    Robert keyed the door and opened. An older woman, of about forty with a Mediterranean complexion and dark hair, was sitting in the next room at one desk, her rank insignia that of a Captain, while a younger Caucasian woman in her early twenties with a yeoman's rating insignia on her collar was at the desk beside the door. Both looked up. "Sir?", the yeoman asked. "How can I help you?"

    "I'm Captain Robert Dale and I need to speak to Admiral Davies," he said.

    "He is currently occupied in a meeting," the yeoman replied. "I'm afraid you'll have to wait."

    "No, yeoman, he will not," said the Captain. Her accent was Spanish, or maybe Portuguese. "I'm Captain Benedita Soveral, the Admiral's senior aide. And I can tell you that he is not interested in speaking with you."

    "I need to talk with him about the investigation," Robert said.

    "You have been removed from that investigation, Captain Dale." The way she spoke made it clear she didn't think he deserved the equal rank to her. "Commander King will share anything of interest. Now, the Admiral has had a very long day and isn't up to whatever complaint you wish to subject him to."

    "I'll let him decide that."

    "It's my job to decide," Captain Soveral declared. "And if you don't leave I will call…"

    The door to the inner office opened. Commander King stepped out with Admiral Davies at the door behind her. Both looked at Robert. King nodded to him, gave him a polite, "Captain Dale", and went on out.

    Davies and Robert exchanged looks. "I can give you a few minutes, Captain," he said, withdrawing into the office. Robert followed before the door closed.

    Davies' office was more furnished than Maran. Old holopics and normal 2D print pictures adorned shelves. A large model of an Earth Confederacy dreadnought was prominent on one wall.

    "Well, Captain, I don't have a lot of time with the Senate session coming in the morning." Davies took his chair behind his desk and looked to him. Even as he did, he was typing something onto his systems. Behind Davies and through the secured window Robert could make out the city lights of Portland in the distance, a lovely view if not for the circumstances before him. "What do you want?"

    "Admiral, I'd like to continue being part of the investigation."

    "That is not possible, Captain," Davies announced. "And given what Commander King's debriefing stated, you know why."

    "She told us about what happened last year, yes. The Gersallians threatened to leave the Alliance if the Defense Committee removed us from the Aurora."

    "And the Senate knows it, as does everyone on the Committee," Davies said. "They know you're not an unbiased observer in this, Captain. You have strong reason, very strong reason, to see the Gersallian involvement in this scandal hushed up."

    "But that's not what I want," Robert insisted. "Whoever did the crime has to face punishment, regardless of their species."

    "What you want, Captain, is irrelevant. You're off the investigation. As far as I'm concerned, you should be going back to that starship that you can't seem to keep out of the repair yards." Davies put his hands on the table. "If things play out the way they're going, hopefully that won't be happening again either."

    Robert ignored the remark, even as he sensed what it entailed. He had another card to play. "You don't think it's suspicious that Senator Kiang is the one who's initiating this Senate meeting? That she's the one who just so happens to be ready to put this entire thing in the open?"

    :"Suspicious? No, I'm damn grateful. She was working with the Gersallians last year. It seems it only took thousands of dead Alliance personnel to make her see that mistake."

    "And you didn't read the report from DS9?", Robert asked. "We had Dominion sabotage completely shut down the station, and we never found out why. The summit had to be the target."

    "Your own report said that Commander Kane secured the Senator."

    "After several minutes of blackout, sir," Robert said. "That's more than enough time for a Changeling to act."

    Davies met him eye to eye. "I see. So that's what you're going to argue. That Senator Kiang is doing this because it's not her, she's been replaced by a Changeling."

    "I think we need to look into it," Robert said. "We still don't know how any defense plans could be sent to the Nazis."

    "Commander King will undoubtedly turn up the cause," Davies said. "As for the failed summit, I have indeed read the report, and my conclusion is that the incident is far more easily explained by the presence of a centuries-old Asari serial killer being able to hack into the atrocious computer security of that decrepit old Cardassian station. Calling it a Dominion operation when we had no indication of Dominion involvement in the situation is foolish."

    "Jarod's report on the virus used on DS9 says otherwise."

    "Commander Jarod's report simply specified that the attack vectors were similar. Not that they were the same." Davies put his hands together on the desk. The gesture briefly dismissed his hardlight keyboard. "This seems to me to be nothing more than the desperate flailing of a partisan for the Gersallians and the Order of Swenya. Frankly, you should have followed your mentor's example, Captain, and kept you mouth shut, because there's nothing that you can do or say to cover up the fact that your Gersallian friends have been caught red-handed engaging in espionage against the Alliance military. And if I have my way, the Gersallians are going to outlaw that damn Order or be driven out of this Alliance. And if that costs us a third of our memberships, that's fine by me, because we'll be a better and safer organization without them."

    Robert looked across the desk at Davies with near-incomprehension. He understood that Davies had suspicions of the Gersallians, but this was taking that even further. "Can't you see what you're doing, Admiral?", he asked. "All of this paranoia and suspicion is going to destroy the Alliance!"

    "I'm well aware of what can or can't destroy this Alliance, Captain," Davies retorted. He started typing again. "And it seems to me that you've already picked your side on that matter with what you've become." Before Robert could ask what he meant, Davies smirked at him. "Oh, I know what you are, Captain. I read the report on Gamma Piratus. You've become one of them."

    "If you mean I found out I've got these life force powers, yes," Robert said. "It let me save the lives of my colleagues and stop the Nazis from taking over the Facility."

    "Oh, I'm sure it did," Davies said. There was a dangerous glistening in his dark blue eyes. "But that's the problem. Powers, things like that, are a threat to the liberties of the Alliance and its people. That blast tonight proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt in my mind. One saboteur, one, waltzed right through all of our security by mentally dominating our people. I shudder to think of what entire organizations of them can do. Because when you think about the number of people they can dominate and the power they can wield, and how many of them there are, you realize that nobody is safe from them. They could seize control of our government with ease. They've already done it with the Gersallians and the Dorei. And when you realize that, a good man comes to only one conclusion." Davies stood and leaned across his desk, drawing closer to Robert. "The Order of Swenya, and the Crimson Brotherhood and the Silver Moon and all of those other Dorei organizations, are grave and terrible threats to the citizenry of the Alliance. And I am going to neutralize those threats to preserve the sacred liberties of every member of this Alliance."

    The sheer vitriol and disgust coming off of Davies was almost putrid. There was no disguising what was within him: fear, and with that and being driven by it, was hate. Hate for anyone who could wield power over him. Who could turn his mind against him. The sheer horror of that thought of violation had hardened Davies' opinions on the matter.

    It was with frustration that Robert brought his hands up in a gesture of disbelief. "How can you be so close-minded… this is what the Nazis want! And the Dominion, and the Batarians, and all the other tyrants and dictatorships that stand to benefit from the Alliance collapsing! They want us at each other's throats!"

    "The meta-powered beings of the Multiverse are greater threats to this Alliance than any of those forces you just mentioned," Davies retorted. "I want the Nazi Reich gone too, but not at the cost of my freedom of thought. If I had to choose, I'd gladly be supporting Pensley's peace broadcasts if it meant saving the Alliance from your friends.""

    "People with these abilities aren't threats to you," Robert insisted. "It doesn't work that way!"

    "So you say. But I have little reason to trust you." Davies was still oozing vitriol, and it was joined by intense satisfaction. He took his seat again and resumed typing. "Now, you've said your peace, Captain, and I have work to do. I suggest you return to your ship. Your part is done and you are dismissed."

    Robert's first desire was to plead for time, to persuade Davies he was wrong. But there was no mistaking that oily, dark feeling he was getting from Davies. There would be no persuading him with talk. Davies was convinced of a threat, and now he had evidence that his suspicions were correct. And that was all there was to it. Dejected, Robert began to walk toward the door to leave.

    One last thought came to him. He turned briefly. "Admiral, if you're so worried about people with life force powers being able to take over minds, why did you let me come in here alone?"

    Davies looked up from his desk and smirked. "Captain Soveral has been monitoring us. I've been keeping in touch with her the whole time. At the first sign of you using your powers against me, she was going to fry your brains out with a microwave pulse rifle. Now, as I said, you are dismissed."

    Robert blinked and opened the door. Captain Soveral was indeed standing on the other end. A black-painted rifle with an emitter at the firing end was in her arms. She smirked at him. "The yeomen has a weapon as well."

    She did indeed. Also pointed at Robert.

    "I've also alerted security to send a sweep our way. So I don't suggest you try anything, Captain, if you want to live." Soveral tilted her head to the door. "You may go."

    Robert nodded. The paranoia and fear oozing from Soveral was just as bad as that from Davies. He almost got the sense that she wanted him to "try" something, just so she would have an excuse to shoot him.

    He didn't give her the chance. He went for the door.




    When he arrived at the shuttle bay, Robert found the others waiting. "How did it go?", Lucy asked.

    "Davies thinks he's won," Robert sighed. "He's… poisoned by hate and fear about us. He thinks we're out to use our powers to dominate the minds of the government and rule the Alliance like.. I don't know, some clique of super-powered beings."

    "He thinks we are like the Brotherhood of Kohbal," Meridina said. "Darkness does manifest as desire to rule and to dominate."

    "Either way, he's enthusiastic about tomorrow. He's convinced that he's got the smoking gun he was looking for. And he doesn't care at all about the issue with Kiang."

    "Is there anything more we can do?", Jarod asked.

    "I… I don't know," Robert said. "Admiral Maran's helpless. Depending on how things go tomorrow, President Morgan might even be forced to re-assign him. And I'm not sure the President can do anything. Not with the bomb, I mean."

    "Then it may be over," Meridina said quietly. "Maybe it has been for nothing…"

    Lucy gave Meridina a worried look. "We should go back," she said. "We're all exhausted."

    "I have a shuttle ready," Jarod said.

    "And a pilot?"

    "Oh, no pilot." Jarod smirked. "I gave some advice that was helpful and the assigned pilot signed off for the day. The flight control officer's agreed to let me pilot the shuttle back. I'll have a couple of the flight crew fly it back in the morning."

    "Then let's go," Robert sighed. "After the day we've had, I just want to collapse in bed."





    "It's that device, isn't it?", Lucy asked, as she approached Meridina's quarters alongside her mentor. "That's what's bothering you."

    "It is more than the device," Meridina said. "I cannot get the feeling out of my being that everything is going wrong. Something is going to happen. And because of the darkness infesting Admiral Davies, we can do nothing about it."

    Lucy had to admit she felt apprehensive too. Like something terrible was about to happen. But she couldn't place it, not exactly. "What do you think will happen?"

    "Destruction. Death. Slaughter. And from it more." Meridina's blue eyes hazed with doubt. "But the darkness within me… I can't be sure if what I'm seeing will come to pass or if it is a reflection of what is inside. If I'm distorting my sight with the darkness within me."

    "Maybe not, but we can't take that chance." Lucy frowned. "Let's get some sleep first? Then maybe in the morning we can figure something out."




    The day had been a blur of paperwork and quick meeting for Julia. That had been a benefit, if only to keep her from facing the twisted up feelings inside.

    But once she was trying to sleep, that benefit went away. She couldn't sleep. She tossed and turned in her bed while her mind continued to run the images in her head. The tactical reports that Robert and Locarno had filed, and Zack's, had made the progress of the battle clear. She kept thinking of the things she would have done had she been there, advising Robert, and how that might have changed the battle. Maybe they could have saved more ships… no, certainly they would have. Maybe even the Themistocles.

    It seemed like she had finally settled into sleep.

    Suddenly her multi-device went off. She sat up and opened her eyes. The drydock was gone, replaced by burning ships and energy weapons fire raining down on the ship. Her eyes widened and Julia sprinted off to the bridge, still in her nightgown. The cyan-toned garment was hardly fitting for duty, but she had to get to the bridge, she had to be there! They needed her!

    She about jumped into the lift and shouted "Bridge!" It started lifting her up while the ship rocked beneath her. The journey kept going. Far longer than it should have. "Go faster!", she demanded. "Faster!"

    "Unable to comply. Lift car already at maximum safe velocity."

    A long growl of frustration answered it. "Get me there you stupid…!"

    Finally, after even more time, the door opened. Julia rushed out onto the burning bridge as the vessel rocked around her. On the viewscreen a Nazi dreadnought was pumping super-disruptor blasts into the Aurora. "I'm here! What's happening?"

    "You abandoned us."

    The voice was Cat's. But off. Julia turned toward Sensors.

    Cat's blackened corpse was laid against it. Her head lolled, lifeless, to the side. But the mouth still moved. "You abandoned us, Julia."

    "Why?", another voice asked. Angela was sprawled out on the floor nearby, half of her body ablaze and her eyes staring dully upward. "Why weren't you here?"

    Julia's breath quickened. She looked around in a panic. Barnes stared at her, a blackened corpse at Engineering. "You should've been here!", he accused.

    "You left us to die," agreed the slumped corpse of Nicholas Locarno. He was in her chair.

    "We needed you and you abandoned us." That was from Robert. Julia, trembling in disbelief and fear, rounded the side of the command area to go toward her seat and his. He was laid back in it, arms dangling to either side, a disruptor burn between his lifeless eyes.

    Leo was on the ground nearby, a medical case in his hand opened and its contents strewn about. Even as he didn't look toward her, his mouth moved. "You weren't here."

    "You weren't here!"

    "Ye weren't at yer post!"

    After the accusations from Zack and Scotty, Julia started to turn, trying to follow the voices, until she found herself in engineering. Not on the Aurora, but on the Koenig.

    Karen Derbely, in hospital gown and wrapped in bandages, was standing beside the plasma coolant conduit. "Look at what happened to me," she said, her voice scratchy and strange. "Because you weren't here, because you weren't here!"

    Behind Derbely the conduit splintered. Julia screamed as the coolant rushed like an ocean wave and washed over her, cooking her to…

    Julia sat up, a scream still in her throat, and again was in the quiet darkness of her quarters. Once the scream stopped the only sound was the heaving of her breath. She looked out the window and saw nothing. She'd set her windows to tint mode.

    It was a dream. It was all a dream.

    The time said 0250. That made Julia groan as she slid out of bed. Her blue sleeping gown had a coat of sweat now. And her mind… her mind was in such agitation that she knew she wouldn't be falling asleep soon.

    Her first act was to assume a ready stance and to begin the slow movements of a t'ai chi routine. If it worked she'd be able to get some sleep soon. All she had to do was let her mind calm down.

    It didn't.




    The dreams came back for Robert that night. The broken, twisted remnants of a city stretched before him, shadowy figures dancing just out of range of the light, and beyond a single light pierced the sky. A loud noise, like a trumpet horn sounded through the Devil's synthesizer, rattled his bones.

    And then there was a scream. He turned. Julia was strapped into a chair of some sort, with something braced around her head while her bare wrists were covered in straps, while SS men stood nearby at controls. Her face contorted into agony and she cried out. Fassbinder, the SS man killed at the Gamma Piratus Facility, was standing beside her smirking as he looked to Robert. He started to open his mouth.

    But then he was gone. Robert stood in a room with men in SS uniforms strewn everywhere, already dead or unconscious. Winds whipped around him like he was standing near a tornado. He looked up and saw a young woman in a tattered vest and suit, both red with gold or yellow trim, standing on a raised dais. The winds whipped around her. When she opened her eyes, they glowed with pure energy. Robert raised his arms in self-defense…

    ....and then he was somewhere new. To his surprise, it was the Senate chamber of the Alliance. And it looked like a war zone, with work stations still sparking while the dead bodies of gunmen and Senators and others were strewn about. "This is all your fault!", screamed a voice. Robert turned and found Admiral Davies over the dead body of Commander King. "I'm going to destroy everything you cherish!", he vowed. "I will not let you win!"

    And he could imagine it, in a flurry of horrible images, a host of Alliance fleets destroying one another accompanied by the Alliance flag being torn in half. When the destruction ended he looked up.

    It was New Liberty that was burning. Beth and her wife were among the dead at his feet, and on the Government Building, a Nazi swastika fluttered triumphantly in the flame-swept winds consuming the Colony. A wolf howled in the background. And then he heard the door chime and…

    ….and Robert was awake, sitting up in bed, while the door chime went off in the main living area. He looked over and saw he was alone. Angela had gone to bed in her quarters when he hadn't returned. He took the time to pull on a pair of knee-length shorts before stumbling to the door and opening it.

    Julia was standing in the doorway with reddened eyes. She'd pulled a baby blue bathrobe over the emerald nightgown she'd changed into. "Hey," she said. "Are you…?"

    "Angel's not here," he replied. His eyes felt heavy, but after that dream he knew he'd be awake for a while. "Come in."

    Julia stepped into his quarters. "Do you want to have a coffee?", she asked. "It looks like we're not getting any sleep."

    "Let's give it half an hour, the last thing I need is for the caffeine to keep me up when I could fall asleep again." He went to his replicator. "You?"

    "If you're not having any, I won't."

    "Okay then. I'll get us some tea then." He looked back to his machine. "Brown tea, unsweetened, warm. Two mugs, standard servings." Light coalesced as the atoms were moved about, forming the requested containers and beverages. He picked them up and brought them over to the couch, where he handed one to Julia. He stepped beside her and sat to her right, at the edge of the couch. "So, here we are," he said.

    "Looking like two insomniacs fresh out of bed," Julia added, smirking.

    Robert looked down, as if just noticing he was shirtless. "Ah, yeah."

    "At least it's an enjoyable view," Julia added in a teasing tone.

    "Right." Robert sipped at the tea. It wouldn't wake him up like coffee. If anything, he hoped that it would soothe enough that he would go back to sleep. "So… bad dreams?"

    "You've got those life force powers, that's cheating," Julia answered. She took another sip.

    "Too true." Robert sighed. "And they're part of the problem. I take it you heard?"

    "I did." Julia shook her head. "Someone's already let it slip that a Gersallian was behind it, and that it might be the Order."

    "Davies. Preparing the way for his grand plan to crush the Orders or drive the Gersallians and Dorei out of the Alliance." Robert shook his head. "The man was ready to have me shot tonight over these powers."

    "You're joking."

    "I'm not." Robert sipped at his tea again. "And what about you? What caused your bad dream?"

    Julia took a quiet sip first. "I… it's probably this… twistiness I feel inside."

    "From not being there?"

    "Yeah."

    Robert shook his head. "But you can't blame yourself…"

    "I know, Rob." Julia's voice was laced with irritation. "I know that. Rationally. Nobody can blame me for not being there. You don't, Zack doesn't, Maran doesn't…"

    "But you do."

    "Yes." She nodded. "Yes, I do, and I shouldn't, but I Goddamned do." She put her left arm on her left thigh and used the hand to prop her head up, half covering her face in the process. "It's like there's this part of me that refuses to accept any reason for it. It's mad as hell I wasn't there and it's making me suffer for it."

    "Sometimes our head and our heart aren't in the same place," Robert sighed. "I'm sorry that it's making you feel that way."

    "Well, nothing you can do about my psyche." Julia moved her head to take another drink. "So is this it? I mean… is this thing going to blow up?"

    "Senator Kiang called for a Senate session tomorrow. The Defense Committee will produce the relevant evidence." Robert shook his head. "Maran's helpless. Morgan can't do anything about it. Whoever did this, whether they're Gersallian or not, made a mess of things. We lost lives tonight."

    "Right." Julia nodded, but her eyes were dark. "You think this will go that far?"

    "I think the Alliance is about to fall apart." Robert's expression was dark. "And I think that it might be the Dominion's fault."

    "Kiang." Julia nodded. "Kane did say he didn't get in to see her right away."

    "Could be nothing."

    "Or it could be that she was replaced by a Changeling."

    "Right." Robert pondered that. "So, how do we convince anyone? After tomorrow it'll be too late. The news will go out what happened and the Gersallians' role in the Alliance will be destroyed."

    "Except the evidence isn't one hundred percent," Julia noted. "So all of the people who like the Gersallians will see it as Hawthorne and Davies stretching the evidence to justify a bigoted agenda."

    "And all the while, Pensley will be in the Council, pushing the anti-war agenda."

    "As if the Nazis will make peace and keep it." Julia rolled her eyes.

    "Yeah, but that's not stopping him. And he'll get Tetzel's Senator to agree with him, and they'll push to resume their peace proposal broadcasts to…"

    After a moment, Julia looked at Robert, who stared dully ahead. "Robby?"

    "Resume peace broadcasts," Robert murmured. "He said he wanted to resume them."

    "Okay?"

    "Which means that they've already been made before," Robert said.

    "Right." Julia shook her head. "But what…" She stopped. Her eyes widened.

    "The broadcasts. That's how." Robert sat up and went over to his desk. "Computer, open priority channel, full encryption, authorization code Dale Juliet Zulu Romeo Three Five Six."

    "Please specify recipient."

    Robert leaned over it. Julia stepped up beside him. "Commander Elizabeth King."

    "Locating specified recipient. Standby."

    "Why King?", Julia asked.

    "Because Maran can't do anything about it now, and Davies would literally take the Devil's word over mine right now."

    "And King won't? She's his spy, remember?"

    Robert shook his head. "True, but she puts her duty before her prejudices."

    "Ah." Julia sighed. "Well, I'll leave you to it."

    Robert stopped leaning over his desk and looked over to Julia. "Hey, Julie?" He put a hand on her arm as a gesture of support. "I know that this isn't something you just get over. All I can say is… I trust you. I trust you more than I trust myself, and if you're not here for a crisis, I'll always know it's for a good reason. I know you won't abandon us, okay?"

    Julia responded with a faint smile. "Thanks," she said. "I'm hoping that helps."

    "Me too." Robert looked back to his desk monitor.

    A moment later King appeared. The background seemed to be that of an apartment bedroom. The call had roused her from bed, so King was in a conservatively-made night-robe. A bright, shiny pink robe, but a normal one still.

    "I guess she doesn't sleep in her uniform," Julia mumbled to herself, so low even Robert barely made out what she said.

    "Captain." King was clearly irritated, and just as clearly dedicated to hiding it. "I suppose you have a good reason for waking me at this ungodly hour?"

    "Commander, Pensley talked about resuming peace broadcasts to the Reich," Robert said. "So there have already been broadcasts, right?"

    "I believe so. I'll have to check the logs."

    "I think that's how our plans were passed on to the enemy."

    King frowned at that. "How? Those messages were vetted by the Intelligence Office and the Command Staff."

    "Maybe not in the actual message. But someone, our spy for instance, may have been able to add the data if they got access. A subchannel or something. Something most people wouldn't see unless they knew what to look for."

    King considered that. "It's possible. Although if true, the consequences are horrifying."

    "What do you mean?"

    "As I said, those messages were carefully vetted up to the moment of transmission. For any additional data to be included in the package would have required the highest accesses. I'm not even sure the technicians themselves could do it and not be noticed, only someone with access to the actual message and related data before its transmission."

    "Like?"

    King thought for a moment. "The Senators on the External Affairs Committee."

    Robert frowned. "Kiang."

    King's jaw clenched. "I'll make inquiries. Please meet me tomorrow morning in the Rose Garden. Go ahead and bring the others."

    "We'll be there," Robert pledged. "Dale out."
     
  11. Threadmarks: 2-08-4
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    Italarai and Kalnat had roused everyone that morning for a final layout of the plan. One of their number, Seqen, was doing his part already by preparing their transportation. Infiltration would mean staying out of sight; the day was warm and it would be impossible to justify wearing the heavy clothing that might have obscured their weapons to the eyes of others. Instead they would carry them in packs and duffelbags, made so that they would look like tourists if spotted inside the Senate.

    With one careful look Italarai noted their nervousness. She could feel their fear. That deep down, despite their devotion, they still did not want to die. She understood it, and indeed, she didn't feel bad about it either. To follow a cause to the final end was always difficult.

    "We will not die if it can be avoided," she stated. "The Interdependency will need us in the coming days. Our attack may very well provoke war. But without it, our people will be conquered from within, and we will become nothing but puppets to the Humans and their Alliance."

    The heads at the table nodded grimly.

    The door opened. Seqen stepped in. "The truck is ready," he said.

    "Then we leave immediately," Kalnat said. "For the people of Gersal."

    "For the people of Gersal," the others echoed.




    With the light of the sun and the growing warmth of the day, the Rose Garden looked particularly tranquil when they arrived to meet King. She was near a public meal replicator kiosk with a mostly-finished breakfast before her. "I was afraid you wouldn't arrive," she said as Robert sat down. Lucy, Meridina, and Jarod all brought up seats.

    "We had a few difficulties getting the carpool at Command to let me use a vehicle," Robert said. "I had to go to General Gulinev's chief of staff to get them to cooperate."

    "Yes, that would be Admiral Davies," she said. "He contacted me this morning with the suspicion you would try to intervene."

    "He's taking this way too far."

    "He is frightened of the powers you wield. I admit I'm not pleased with the prospect either." King sipped at her coffee. "The difference is, I know that you're not the kind of man to use them just to get your own way. And if you and Meridina were committed to covering up this incident, you wouldn't have identified the device in question so readily. Davies and his inner circle know you only as a brash radical assigned to a command above your station and with the power to compel them mentally."

    "I don't think I could compel a cat to bat yarn with these powers, honestly. But that's not what we're here for."

    "Indeed not." King frowned. "I've been up all night attempting to decipher the peace initiative broadcasts that were sent."

    "You didn't find anything?"

    "No. But that's not surprising, as my access has been restricted by Senate order. All I could access was a basic copy of the planned message and the raw data on the transmission itself, since it was sent through Stellar Navy channels." King held up one of the digital pads in front of her. "But I can't see what was actually sent."

    "I would think Davies would back you in getting to review them."

    "He can't on his authority. The President can, but without probable cause I can't go to him. The Senate would be in an uproar." King shook her head. "Hypothesis aside, we have no actual proof that the plans were transmitted inside of the peace offers. Without that proof, nobody will let us have the access we need."

    "Maybe we don't need the actual transmission," Jarod said. "May I?"

    King nodded and handed him the digital pad. "What are you going to do?"

    "I'm examining the transmission data. How much raw data was used, for instance. A simple message, even as an official communication, wouldn't be above a certain size." Jarod examined the contents of the screen. Robert could only imagine the way that his mind was running, quickly analyzing what was before him in such a way that he was nearly putting himself into the shoes of the saboteur. "So I'm comparing the message that was planned to the volume of data that was actually sent." After a few more seconds Jarod smirked. "There you are," he murmured.

    "Commander?" King looked at him intently.

    "Each transmission is at least three percent larger than it should be with this message."

    "What if someone made last minute alterations?", Lucy asked.

    "Then they would be defying the Senate's explicit instructions," King answered. "What could be sent within that margin? The size of the message isn't that great, there's no way the plans could be mixed in."

    "Not in one message." Jarod showed a pleased smirk. "But what if each specific transmission had a different piece? I mean, presumably the message was transmitted repeatedly over a few days, right?"

    "Correct."

    "Then maybe the system was set to transmit the data piece by piece with every individual transmission of the peace message," Jarod said. "The Nazis, by analyzing the message, realize it contains something extra, and after several transmissions our spy has introduced himself, or herself, and sent them the plans they took."

    "A plausible explanation," King said. "I might be able to present this to the Senate."

    Robert nodded. But he was already thinking of something else. "We need to be in the Senate."

    King gave him a look. "I'm already putting my career at risk talking to you, Captain, I lack any authority to get you into the Senate. And why would you want to be there?"

    "Because I think something's going to happen today," Robert said. "I don't have any physical evidence for this, just my instinct and my power. I think whoever was behind that spying device is going to strike again. And maybe at the Senate itself."

    King pondered that. "You sound convinced, Captain. But should you be so certain of it?"

    "I'm as certain of it as I was certain that I needed to go down to the Facility at Gamma Piratus," he replied.

    For a moment King said nothing. She was weighing that thought in her head. "If you hadn't gone down, the SS would have taken control of the Facility."

    Robert nodded but said nothing. The others remained quiet as well.

    After another period of thought King sighed. "I'm going to get court-martialed for this, I suspect," she muttered. "But I think I can get you in." She checked her multidevice. "And we'd better hurry, the session will start soon."

    "We won't be able to take weapons into the Senate," Robert noted.

    "No, we won't." King frowned. "And we will be scanned for weapons before we go in."

    "So we'll have to be unarmed?", Lucy asked. "What good will that do if there's an attack?"

    "We will manage, Lieutenant."

    King heard Meridina's words, but she was clearly suspicious of them. She said nothing, however. Robert got the feeling she knew what Meridina was getting at and didn't want to even think what she was thinking. "Alright, let's get going," she said. "I'll meet you at the aircar garage beside the Senate."

    Only after King walked away did Robert give Meridina a leery look. "The lakesh won't show up on a scanner, will it?"

    "No. We craft them to evade the sort of scanning that finds weapons."

    "Right." Jarod sighed. "So we're going to smuggle two swords into the Senate Chamber. And to think I just got out of a cell."

    "Hopefully we will not need them," Meridina said.

    Robert frowned at the thought. This was the kind of thing that would further set off Davies' paranoia. But they needed to be ready to fight off anyone attacking the Senate, and that meant having at least something for self-defense. It was a risk he would need to take. "I don't want to keep Commander King waiting," he said. "Let's get going."




    Long ago, the area had been a residential neighborhood joined by the railroads that connected Portland to the rest of North America. Eventually the area had torn away by the conflicts and social dislocations that the Earth of the Federated Stars had known in the time between the 21st and 27th Centuries, becoming open land.

    Then the Alliance had been formed, and at the proposal of various authorities, the regions of the Northern half of Portland that had undergone this change had been handed over to the new United Alliance of Systems to be their capitol complex. The various government offices were to be housed in structures that, with 27th Century industrial technology, were ready within months of the announcement. The former Portland International Airport had been converted into a Spaceport for the increased off-planet traffic of the Alliance. Defense Command had, over the course of ten months, arisen in its place between the Columbia and Lake Vancouver.

    Council Hall was another such structure. It was two buildings joined by a central covered courtyard area, the northern building belonging to the Alliance Council and the southern building belonging to the Alliance Senate. The flag of the Alliance flew over both structures, each designed with elegant square marble columns along the exterior and in the light shades that all of the contributing cultures agreed would work. To a Human eye there was something slightly off about the structure. The dome over the covered courtyard was carved in the Gersallian style, a polished and gleaming glass exterior with a smooth, pyramidal-shape at the top, while the layers beneath it contained eaves that gave it the appearance of a pagoda, but with strong upward slants at the ends of the eaves as favored by the Alakin. The Dorei had contributed the internal halls and how they were laid out, made to resemble the Legislative Hall of the Dorei Federation in the capital city of Darnis on Doreia. The marble exterior reflected Western architecture while the Eastern influences showed in the eave overhang. The smaller domes above each structure were done in the styles prominent in the Indian subcontinent, the internal courtyard was adorned on the inside and outside by Arabic art (the designers had even worked calligraphy, denoting Arabic phrases about the strength of alliance, into the art itself).

    As with most bicameral systems, the lower house was truly representative (albeit at a rate of about twenty billion citizens per Council Representative) with a large chamber that would house up to seven hundred legislators if the time came, while the upper house held three members per Alliance member state. One Senator was elected democratically by the citizens of a member state, one elected by the national legislature, or equivalent body, of the state in question, and the final Senator appointed by the Head of State of the member state. These representative policies left the Alliance Council, currently, with three hundred and seventy Councilmembers and eighty-seven Senators, all to represent the roughly seven and a half trillion beings that resided in the Allied Systems.

    And Robert knew that he was about to possibly decide the fates of those seven trillion something people. Their livelihoods, freedoms and liberties, their very lives, could be lost if this went bad.

    This is when Julie would remind me that this is why we get paid the big bucks now, he mused as King led them through one of the non-public entrances to the Senate, located along the north side of the building. Not that we're millionaires…

    They were met by security almost immediately. "They're with me," King said.

    The Human guard who accepted her identification nodded in reply. He was Caucasian, with pale blond hair barely visible under his protective cap and dark brown eyes. When he spoke to say, "Please come forward for the security scan," it was with a Norwegian accent. Nearby his companion, a man with a dark complexion and features that Robert thought looked Indian, remained at the ready with his pulse pistol holstered.

    Robert was scanned and cleared. Jarod came next. That left Meridina and Lucy. Robert forced his face to become a mask of non-emotion as they were scanned. It seemed for a moment like the man was taking an overlong interest in Lucy. He waved the scanner over her again, as if looking for something…

    Lucy scowled. And Robert, for his part, felt guilty at the relief as he sensed what was in the Norwegian's head. It was a petty abuse of power, but he was doing the second scan just to have an excuse to look over Lucy again. He waved her through. Meridina didn't get quite the same scrutiny and went through as well. King led them down the hall.

    Once they were out of earshot, Robert looked to King. "That guard should probably get talked to."

    "Unfortunately, Captain, I have no standing for it," she answered. "Otherwise I would have already reported his conduct. Perhaps I'll have to go to Colonel Agarwal, she will be most interested I'm sure. But that is a matter for another time." King looked to her multidevice. "The session should be starting any moment. I will be called in shortly."

    "Jarod and I can present the evidence with you and answer questions," Robert said. "It might be best of Lucy and Meridina remained outside the Chamber at first."

    "Agreed." For a moment King was in thought. "I take it that Senator Kiang is at the top of the suspect list?"

    "You read the report from DS9?"

    "I did." King nodded. "I also find it more likely that the Asari was responsible. It doesn't pay to underestimate beings who have lived for so long, I think. But I won't dismiss your concern out of hand. 33LA has already proven the destruction a Changeling can cause and the extent to which it can hide from us. The prospect of the Chairwoman of the Senate External Affairs Committee being replaced by one…" King shook her head. "It is possible Admiral Davies has identified the wrong existential threat to our way of life."

    "I don't blame him for being worried about mental powers," Robert said. "Honestly I'm scared of what they can do too."

    "I've already been on the receiving end of them," Jarod added.

    "We both were, I recall," King noted. "Venir was an eye-opener."

    "Let's just hope Davies understands he's worried about the wrong threat, then," Robert sighed.

    At that moment King's multidevice went off. She breathed in as if to steel herself. "I've been summoned," she said. "Let's go."

    As they continued on, Robert contemplated the feelings he was sensing from her. King was afraid. Not of him or Meridina so much as she was her own "side" in this. Admiral Davies and Minister Hawthorne would, indeed, be furious at her for involving him again. She was putting a lifetime of work on the line for this. It was humbling to realize he'd won that much trust from her.

    Robert also felt guilty. He'd been brusque with her when she left the Aurora with her ship. Indeed, his entire crew had been more than ready to see her go and to never see her again. Now he saw how unfair that was. He hadn't quite forgiven the spying, no, but as they marched on to the moment of decision before the Senate, he found he respected King more than he ever had before.

    His thoughts were interrupted by a sense of uncertainty from Meridina. He looked back to her. "Are you okay?"

    "I am," she said. "I thought I sensed something, that's all."

    "It felt like a presence to me," Lucy said. "But maybe it was just my nervousness."

    "Maybe, or maybe not."

    They nodded at his remark. "We shall be prepared either way," Meridina pledged.




    The Dissenters' cargo truck was moving toward the Council Hall loading entrance, along the eastern side of the building, when Italarai felt it. The presences were vibrant and active to the senses of her swevyra, three in total, although one was not so strong as to feel like a threat. Knowing that such presences meant those who were capable with their life energies, it meant a complication for Italarai in that they might sense her use of her powers. "There are swevyra'se present in the area. I will be sensed," she murmured to Kalnat.

    "Then we go to the alternative," he murmured back. He went to the front of the cargo area and pulled open the slide to speak to Seqen. "Are we ready?"

    "I'm pulling up now," Seqen said.

    "Italarai cannot help us. It will have to be you."

    He could hear the uncertainty in Seqen's voice when the reply came. "For Gersal."

    The truck pulled up to the forcefield gate at the building exterior. A Human man, light-skinned with a bit of a tan, met them, wearing the green and black uniform of a Council Hall Security Officer. "ID and authorization," he said. "What's your purpose?"

    "I am picking up items at the request of Senator Gilnatan." Seqen handed him the ID, provided by the Interspecies Cultural Exchange Directorate, and the authorization order provided by their Senate contact. He forced his nervousness down into his belly, knowing the slightest suspicion would force him to use lethal means. And out here, in broad daylight, anyone could spot them. The entire mission could fail at this moment.

    When the guard handed him back both items, Seqen breathed a sigh of relief that a last moment constricting of his throat made into an apparent grunt of acceptance. The guard pressed a key and the forcefield disappeared. Seqen gently tapped the accelerator pedal and moved the truck into the gate. A ramp down led them into the basement level loading docks.

    They were now on the clock. Their logged arrival wouldn't immediately engender suspicion - at least not if their source had been accurate - but given enough time, their failure to depart would be noticed. Transport vehicles weren't supposed to stay for long after all, and they still had to deal with the mandatory security inspection. And Italarai could not manipulate their minds now, so he would have to deal with them quietly.

    The truck came to a stop near one of the loading areas. Seqen stepped out of his truck while, in the back, Kalran looked to his technician, Laras. The bearded, tan-skinned Gersallian was looking over a display. "I've used the codes provided to patch into the feed for Senate security," he said. "Our contact came through. The security grid in the Senate Chamber is stuck into a loop. As far as their minders are concerned, everything is reading fine."

    Kalran nodded. As he did, he heard Seqen speaking with the inspectors. "Activate personal cloaks," he instructed. Everyone, within a second of one another, triggered the personal cloaks they were carrying on their belts. The cloaks only had a few minutes' worth of charge given their power demands - the superior Darglan-technology personal cloaks had not been available for use when the operation was planned - and this was to be their main use in the plan; get them into the Senate.

    Once the inspectors opened the back, they reached for their scanners as they climbed in. Kalran waited patiently and quietly to see if they detected the hidden transporter pad under the sensor-absorbent material laid into the truck's rear bed. If they found it, then he would have to kill them here and now, and it made their escape even more complicated. Perhaps even impossible. But if they didn't…

    After several tense moments, the two seemed satisfied by the results and left the back of the truck. Seqen thanked them. Behind Seqen, the others moved to the rear doors and quietly lowered themselves to the asphalt of the loading dock. "Swenya be with you," Seqen muttered, knowing Kalran and the others would hear. "Mi rake sa swevyra iso."

    The strike team, with the batteries on their personal cloaks winding down, moved swiftly to the stairwell door. Their contact's authorization code let them into the stairwell and they ascended it, as rapidly as possible, as they bore down on their target.

    They just had to get to the Senate Chamber undetected. Then surprise would be theirs.




    The entrance King chose to enter was the southern one. They came through the door into a space between the raised seating area of the Senate. The carpet was emerald bordered by blue, and the wood paneling was done in one of the Dorei styles - Robert wasn't familiar with it - while ahead the overhead lights were made out as electric light chandeliers. Multiple desks were laid out and a Senator sat in each, although they only became visible as the party got to the end of the entrance way and to what proved to be the middle tier of the seating area. Above them were seats, and below them were more.

    Down, in the "pit" at the middle of the Senate, space had been set aside for the Defense Committee to sit. The quarters for them were cramped, with little room between each seat due to the confined space of the pit area. At the south end of the pit was a podium, presumably for any guests to address the Senate if requested.

    While the Senate was a circular chamber, the northern quarter of it was taken up by a series of raised platforms. The lowest platform had the Party Leaders. There were six recognizable political parties of Alliance-wide popularity, and from what Robert had learned of Senate practice, these six parties were recognized at this platform level by having their leaders in the Senate sit there. Given there were only 29 member states of the Alliance, Robert found it odd that there were that many political factions of that size. I guess I'm used to Republicans and Democrats being it, he used. Sometimes it was odd that there were still bits and pieces of his pre-Facility life that persisted in this age.

    The second tier was for the President of the Senate, currently an Alakin Senator named Akreet, with green and yellow feathering around his head. The Sergeant-at-Arms had a place there as well, as did the Secretary of the Senate.

    The uppermost tier was where President Morgan was sitting, flanked by a couple of his staff. None of the Cabinet were present today save Hawthorne.

    Heads turned toward them as they approached the back of the middle tier. By the time they reached the lower tier and King was facing the Defense Committee, standing at attention beside the podium - she had openly avoided standing there - everyone in the Senate was looking their way. Robert glanced toward one of the lower tier seats to find that was where Senator Kiang was sitting. He still felt nothing quite out of the ordinary about her, but with all of the other emotions in the room - and they were starting to run high - he couldn't focus on her with any accuracy.

    Robert could feel Davies' disbelief and anger. Hawthorne had clearer control of his emotions. He was more curious than anything. And Maran… Robert tried not to give even the slightest grin at the flicker of hope he felt within his mentor's being. Or at Zoral's clear amusement.

    "If it pleases the Senate," Hawthorne began, "this is Commander Elizabeth King, tasked by the Defense Committee to look into the Gersallian attack and the security breach at Defense Command."

    Akreet gave a tilt of his head, an Alakin head gesture indicating acceptance. "You may proceed." At that, King went to the podium facing northward. Robert and Jarod took up positions beside her.

    "Commander." Hawthorne smiled, but it was brittle. "I see you have brought Captain Dale and Commander Jarod with you. I trust they are relevant to your report?"

    "Yes," she said. "In keeping with your orders from last night, I requested they attend to my investigation as members of my team."

    "This is outrageous conduct!", Pensley shouted. "Captain Dale and his officers were expressly removed from…"

    From the Senate desks came a roar of indignation and a babble of voices in various languages and accents. "Order!", was the usual shout, along with a few "Sit down!"s and one "The Councilman has no leave to speak!"

    "The Senate calls the Honored Councilman to order," Akreet declared. He smacked a gavel to his podium. "He may only speak when prompted by myself or the Defense Committee Chairman, as he is well aware."

    Pensley's face was going purple by the end of the rebuke, but he obeyed.

    "And what prompted you to make this decision despite the clear wishes of the Defense Committee, Commander?", Hawthorne asked. There was a dangerous tone to his voice.

    "Captain Dale was kind enough to share his insights into the security breach investigation," King explained. "He proposed a method for our war plans to be transmitted to the Nazi Reich that I thought credible. Upon further investigation, I have determined that his proposal was not just credible, but accurate."

    Hawthorne nodded his head once. "And that method would be?"

    Commander King held up her digital pad. "The data was transmitted in installments within the peace initiative broadcasts the Senate sent to the Nazi German Reich at the end of March."

    Several voices in the Senate broke out in a furor. Pensley's anger and disbelief overwhelmed Robert's feelings of the others. He stood and glared to Hawthorne, who nodded. "This is a travesty!", he shouted. "This is a fraud. Commander King, either by her own will or at the will of another, has aligned herself with the militant radicals who dragged us into the war in the first place! This is nothing more than an attempt to block all prospects of peace!"

    "I'm afraid not, Councilman," King answered. "The evidence speaks for itself. The transmissions sent to the Reich contained at least three percent more data than the message approved by the Senate mandated. That is above the margins of a few simple edits."

    Some Senators cried out in disbelief, others in anger. Pensley looked to one of their number, who was identified by the holographic nameplate as Kita Marswell, Senator of the Tetzelian Republic. The dark-haired woman stood. "I move that the Senate declare this line of questioning out of order. This claimed proof has no weight to it. A few percentage points of an error?"

    "The Tetzelian Senator displays her ignorance on behalf of her dear Councilman Pensley," one accented voice proclaimed. It was a Human Senator in the middle tier, Senator Benjamin Hadley of the Procyon Association. "Those of us who understand subspace communications are well aware that the claimed percentage is peculiar. I move that the Senate President order the release of transmitted data. Then we can judge for ourselves."

    Senator Kiang rose. "The Senator from Procyon has a point, but this is a matter for the External Affairs Committee. I move that we adjourn and allow the Committee to deliberate this evidence in the presence of the Defense Committee. After all…" Kiang eyed King and Robert together. "...only a Senator of the Committee could have changed the data between its approval and transmission."

    If Kiang was a Changeling spy… Robert felt she was a damn good one.

    Because if so, her words had a calculated effect. More and more Senators were shouting, furious or disbelieving or mortified at the idea that one of the ten Senators assigned to External Affairs could be a traitor.

    As the turmoil reached its fifth second, Pensley was glaring hatred at Robert. "This is a conspiracy!", he screamed. He pointed his finger at them. "A conspiracy against peace and against the Alliance by radicals and their Gersallian masters!" Robert could hear the enraged man's screamed words, but he wondered if many others could given the Senate was devolving into a heated argument. The rapping of a gavel told him Akreet was trying to restore order. Given the disbelief and fury in the room, this clearly wouldn't come immediately.

    "Oh no," he breathed, looking to Jarod.

    Jarod looked back. "What?"

    "This is what she wanted," he said back. "The Changeling wants this disorder."

    "Why?"

    "To delay the Senate. To keep it deliberating, and in turmoil," Robert said, even as Akreet's gavel pounding grew louder. Above him, President Morgan gazed at the disorder that had gripped the Alliance Senate with eyes full of shame. This was supposed to be the orderly body that debated with calm, but the tempers and emotions that the crisis had spurred was taking hold even here.

    "Whatever's going to happen, it's going to happen at any…"

    The gunfire erupted before Robert could finish his sentence.
     
  12. Threadmarks: 2-08 Ending
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    Meridina and Lucy remained outside of the Senate Chamber's southern entrance, listening intently as the shouting within grew. Lucy gave a glance toward Meridina and held back a sigh. Months ago, Meridina had been this figure of supreme, calm confidence in Lucy's life. Now she looked like a monster might jump from the corner at any moment. Much of the quiet confidence had given way to clear worry and doubt, and those were not qualities to people with their abilities.

    Whatever she was suffering internally, however, Meridina was still quite skilled, and Lucy could feel her become more alert. Lucy, do you feel that?

    Lucy focused for a moment. At first she felt nothing, at least nothing that stood out against the growing emotional agitation coming from the Senate chamber. But as the seconds passed she felt it. Nervousness, tension, but defiant intent mixed within.

    And violent thinking. Someone was steeling themselves for imminent killing. Intentional, unrelenting, and brutal killing.

    Lucy felt under her uniform jacket and to the space at her waist where her lakesh was hidden.

    Meridina's body had tensed. She made no similar movement. But yet, within seconds she was moving. Her hand swept out and energy lashed out. A sharp impact sounded against the far wall. Another thump came from the floor.

    Out of nothingness appeared a dark-clad man, Human-lookingg, with a weapon in his arms.

    Lucy had her lakesh out and swinging just in time. Her blade moved at the commands of arms that Lucy was not really controlling. Her instinct, her bond with the universe, were guiding her blade to deflect the shots that came roaring out of nothingness. One shot deflected back into the unseen attacker caused a sudden explosion of sparks. A ripple in the air appeared and became another dark-clad figure, with a mean-looking automatic weapon in his hands.

    Said figure still had the gun pointing toward Lucy, and indeed was still firing, but Lucy didn't have to hold back his fire for long. Meridina lunged to his side and swung her lakesh in a clean cut at his forearms. The slice lopped his hands and the lower third of his forearms off completely. Crimson blood spurted out and onto the normally-immaculate carpet. The man screamed in pain and shock at the damage.

    Lucy looked to their fallen enemies. Both were just starting to stir. Her first thought was to disarm them before they could recover.

    And then a sense of immediate danger filled her being. Lucy stopped and tried to focus on it. She felt her power instinctively move her body, turning her to the side.

    A lakesh blade swung through the air she had just vacated. A single figure shimmered into view a moment later. Her attacker was a woman, bald, with haunting blue eyes focused entirely on Lucy. Some surprised briefly flickered in them when Lucy brought her lakesh up and nearly cut her along the cheek.

    Italarai was stunned at what she saw. The Human had a lakesh. More importantly, she'd trained with it. Italarai wasn't just facing one possible threat now. She would have to eliminate this one too.

    With a single movement of her hand, Italarai's power lashed out and slammed into Lucy. Lucy didn't get her defense up in time. The blast of pure energy struck like the blast wave of an explosive, hurtling Lucy through the doors and into the Senate Chamber.

    A Senate Chamber in which the earlier shouts of anger were now those of fear and terror.




    The gunfire had jolted the Senate's attention with swift and terrible efficiency. Senate President Akreet's calls to order halted as the sound echoed for a moment and stopped. "Sergeant-At-Arms," he said, "contact sec…"

    The east and west doors exploded at almost the same moment. Since each door had two security officers watching it, this had the side benefit to the attackers of eliminating four of the security staff, leaving only the two at the south door, the Sergeant-At-Arms himself, and a security man among President Morgan's staffers.

    As the explosions were still echoing in their ears, dark-clad figures came in with assault rifles. The lead one coming in from the east raised his weapon to spray the top tier with blue energy bolts. Morgan's people had already pulled him down into cover.

    The lead shooter from the west opened up, as did the fellow behind him. The Sergeant-at-Arms was too slow to avoid being hit, taking shots to the right shoulder and arm that brought him down.

    Further shots struck Akreet square in the chest. Robert was certain the Alakin was dead before he hit the ground.

    King rounded the podium and dashed for the Defense Committee chair. The incoming shots soon moved down toward them. She plowed into Admiral Davies and dragged him to cover. Maran and Gulinev had already secured Minister Hawthorne. The other members of the Committee were taking cover.

    So were many of the Senators. But cover wouldn't help those in the lower tier. More gunmen were pouring into the Senate from both east and west, and while fire continued to converge on the President's location and the Party Leaders, the other shooters were firing into the pit.

    By this point Robert and Jarod were moving. Jarod moved into cover toward the southern door, the only one not breached, where the armed guards there were already moving up to try and shoot at the incoming shooters. But they only had sidearms available, not rifles. One of their number, a male Dorei, took a blast to the chest and fell down right beside Jarod, dead. Jarod picked up his gun and went back to the corner. When no suppressive fire came Jarod leaned out and lined up his pistol with one of the shooters coming in on the west side. His weapon barked, two shots in succession. One was slightly off and the other struck a shooter in the shoulder, knocking him back into cover.

    Robert went into the pit as well. He could feel the attention of a couple of the shooters on him and jumped just as they fired where he was, sending shots that just missed him and hit a desk behind which one of the senators was cowering.

    He put everything into the jump, just as Meridina taught him, and it cleared him straight to the second tier. He landed between Akreet and the Sergeant-at-Arms. He sensed nothing from them; they were dead, and there was nothing he could do about that. But he could still save the others.

    A cry came from the Senate floor. He looked in time to see Senator Marswell struck again by a shot. She fell to the ground, clearly dead.

    Looking to the west, Robert saw the man Jarod shot helped into cover by a compatriot. A third figure, a woman, was tracking him with her gun. He had only moments.

    Robert extended a hand toward the Sergeant-at-Arms' fallen body. The pulse pistol he had been carrying zipped through the air and into Robert's hand. He swung it over, diving to the side as he did, and barely evaded the first burst of shots from the dark-suited woman's rifle. He let his instincts, directed by the power within him, take the aim and fire.

    The shot nailed the attacker in the throat. She went wide-eyed and gagged as she fell over.

    He hit the floor, on his side, and adjusted his gun and aim to the remaining uninjured gunman on the west side. Again he pulled the trigger, squeezing it several times.

    Initially his shots were a little off, missing to either side. But as the gunman turned, Robert pulled the trigger one more time. This time, whether it was luck or his abilities finally synching like they should, he got the hit he was looking for, a shot right in the forehead. The figure slumped over beside his wounded friend, the back of his head smoking. "The west door is clear!", Robert shouted. "West is clear, get everyone out!"

    The surviving security man beside Jarod heard Robert and shouted the same. "West door, evacuate now!" Jarod nodded in agreement.

    As he turned to begin giving covering fire on the east side, the southern door exploded inward. Lucy landed on the ground beside him and rolled until she reached the steps leading down to the lower tier. She grunted and, with effort, picked herself up. There was no mistaking the gleam of the lakesh now in her hand.

    She brought it up as a blur zipped past Jarod. Another woman - Italarai - swung her own lakesh toward Lucy's neck. The blow was parried. Lucy grunted and, in a move that was surprising enough the Gersallian never saw it coming, threw her head forward hard enough to smash her forehead into the nose and mouth of her attacker. An audible crunch came and blood gushed from the broken nose that resulted from the impact.

    Jarod brought his pistol into place to shoot the woman from behind. Lucy noticed first and sent him a quick mental message, more of a sensation: No. He turned his attention to the gunmen along the eastern door to aid Robert and the last remaining Senate security guard.

    Robert was staying behind cover. Bursts of energy flew over his head with enough frequency that he knew it would be impossible to leave cover and not get shot. Mentally he reached out for the others. Meridina?

    I am occupied
    , was her return thought. There are three more attackers attempting to come in by the south entrance. For a moment their connection lapsed. Two now.

    Jarod? Lucy?

    Busy!
    That thought was definitely Lucy's, and Robert heard another clang and electric buzz as lakesh blades slammed together.

    I'm helping to get the Senators out the west door, Jarod thought. And for the record, I hate telepathic communication.

    Robert smirked at that. Be that as it may, I could use some cover fire. He reached out mentally for King and sensed her approaching. Commander King?

    Get out of my head!
    was the sole reply, a powerful thought that actually made Robert's head hurt.

    A burst of fire from overhead came from the other side of the room, forcing the other gunmen into cover before they could shoot at Robert again. He heard footsteps thumping on the floor and turned his head to see King rushing up to join him. She'd claimed a weapon from one of the fallen attackers to the west door. Upon closer examination Robert recognized it as a MP-10 Particle Rifle, a common enough model initially built in the Colonial Confederation of D3R1.

    With King giving him cover fire, Robert rose over the desk of the dead Sergeant-at-Arms and squeezed off several shots. The gunmen on that door had taken cover at the nearest desks. One started to change cover, with King's weapon literally ripping the desk up, and Robert fired a shot that got the gunman in the leg. A cry echoed in the Senate chamber.

    The other two gunmen were trying to shift between suppressing the opposition and shooting at the Senators as they fled. One wild shot did take a Senator in the arm, sending him down his knees. Jarod quickly bolted out of cover and grabbed that Senator, helping him up long enough for two others to grab their colleague and help him along. Over by the west door Senator Sriroj and Admiral Davies were directing the evacuation. Davies had retrieved a weapon from the other fallen gunmen along that side and occasionally squeezed off a shot toward the fighting.

    The fight between Lucy and the swordswoman Italarai had moved toward the pit. Lucy was giving ground, using her lakesh defensively and buying time for Meridina to finish off the attackers outside the south doors so they could work together. And it was clear Italarai knew it. Robert felt her surprise and frustration at how well Lucy was fighting. "You've been trained as a swevyra'se," the woman said in a harsh tone. "How?"

    "That's my little secret," Lucy retorted, catching another swipe of the blade.

    It was at that moment she felt the risk. A shot not just coming for her, but going toward one of the Senators. Lucy backed away from Italarai and then jumped backward, opening the range with Italarai, and using the break from the attack to swing her lakesh to intercept the bolts that came toward her.

    Bolts, it would later be said, that would have struck Senator Sriroj directly had they landed.

    Indeed, said Senator noticed this and called out thanks, while above them the bolts flew upward and hit the electric chandelier. Sparks flew from blasted lights and rained down upon everyone.

    Italarai charged toward Lucy as she moved to adjust. Robert could feel the future of that move with crystal, horrible clarity. Lucy's blade temporarily out of position, an awkward posture to stop the first blow, a fist or foot to knock it away, and then… Lucy would die.

    So Robert, with King providing ample cover fire, turned and opened fire on Italarai as she got up to Lucy. Lucy did indeed make the awkward block, but Italarai couldn't take advantage of it. She felt Robert's shots coming and she twisted her blade to reflect them. One pulse deflected, then a second, and the third, deflected right toward the fleeing Senators…

    …where it struck Senator Kiang square in the side of the head.

    A number of people noticed it. They couldn't help it. And so it was with great shock that the pulse in question did not send her to the ground, dead. It did cause Kiang to stop and falter, yes, but it also caused the entire side of her head to briefly turn amber in color and began to lose shape.

    Robert's horror turned to an almost satisfied realization. Kiang was indeed what he thought she was. "Changeling!", he shouted. "Everyone down!"

    The shout, and other considerations, caused Senators near where "Kiang" had stumbled to fall back from her as she picked herself up from the ground. A bitter expression crossed the Changeling's face. Her entire body turned into amber and she flowed through the Senators toward the exit. Robert didn't care let the Changeling escape and moved his firearm over to engage her. But she was too fast and he couldn't risk shooting one of the fleeing Senators.

    It was King who opened fire. WOM, WOM, WOM, one after the other, shots that nearly hit the Changeling each time and didn't hit a Senator. Robert wondered what she was doing. He almost asked until the feeling within him made him turn and face the other direction again. One of the last gunmen was trying to get a shot at their backs. He went for cover the moment Robert's gun started barking.

    The Changeling continued toward the door, but not directly, not with King's shots forcing her to dodge and evade away from the door. Further shots descended around her from the pistol in Jarod's hands. The infiltrator was shapeless, nothing but a flowing mass of amber fluid that evaded their shots. She had been stymied in her immediate escape attempt, so she changed tactics and started moving to the middle platform where Robert and King were. As she rushed them, dodging and weaving around King's shots, the amber began to coalesce. A hiss filled the air as she became an alien serpent of some kind, like a boa constrictor with the agility of a rattlesnake. Crimson scales covered the head, turning into brown and yellow further down the form.

    Robert felt the strike coming just in time. He jumped and knocked King over, causing the Changeling's strike to miss. Only after they were down did he realize that the Changeling had wanted him to do that, as she continued on toward the east door.

    Ironically enough, it was one of the attacking gunmen who stopped her for the moment. Whether he knew what the Changeling was or not, he opened fire. Particle bolts filled the space in the Changeling's line of advance and forced her back for the moment.

    King and Robert wheeled around and opened fire on her. Being fired on from three guns and two directions had pushed the Changeling's evasive abilities to their limits. Several shots grazed the serpentine Changeling. Amber appeared over its scaly body as the hits caused the Changeling to lose form. A couple of direct shots brought it down into a formless amber puddle.

    With the common enemy disposed of, Robert and King had to take cover as the gunmen started shooting at them again. Robert heard one calling out in Gersallian and the fire on their position became relentless. The particle blasts were destroying the desks; they had to scramble down to the Secretary of the Senate's desk as those of the Sergeant-at-Arms and the Senate President became so battered they were no longer effective cover. The two gunmen shifted back toward the east door, firing as they went, and soon King and Robert would have no cover unless they fell back to the west side of the platform.

    Lucy could sense their danger. She parried another blow from her attacker and twisted her lakesh around to catch the next. This gave her the position to force the wielder toward the Defense Committee table. With an instant to gather her focus, Lucy lashed out with her force powers. Raw, unseen energy sent her foe flying off into the abandoned desks of the middle tier. This gave her the opening to go the distance to the enemy gunmen as they retreated. They saw her coming and turned their particle rifles on her. Lucy's power guided her arms to block the incoming fire with her lakesh blade.

    Robert and King slipped out of cover and brought their firearms to bear. Each sighted down on one of the gunmen and pulled their triggers. The pulse and particle fire caught their foes, as did one shot deflected by Lucy, and there was nothing the two gunmen could have done to save themselves at that point.




    Italarai got back to her feet in time to see Kanral and the last of his fighters go down. The mission was a failure. This displeased her.

    But displeasure could wait. She wasn't done yet. She had only moments with which to escape. Her hand went within her robe to the secret control there and her finger found the button to activate the beacon. She felt a surge of warning go through her as the device activated.

    At that moment Meridina whirled into sight. Her lakesh slashed toward Italarai's, a disarming move she could never have stopped.

    It never connected.

    Italarai materialized in the transport truck down in the Council Hall loading dock. Seqen watched her materialize, and materialize alone. He frowned. "The mission failed?"

    "It did," she said simply. "Our window is almost closed."

    "Then we should…"

    Seqen stood, and the moment he was on his feet Italarai's free arm made a pulling gesture. She yanked him toward her in a burst of her power… just as she brought her lakesh up toward his chest.

    Betrayal and shock flashed over his expression as Seqen felt the blade go through his heart. "Why…?", he asked weakly.

    "It is better this way," Italarai answered. Sensing he was already mere moments from death, she brought the beacon out and pressed a key along its side. This changed the system it was locked onto. With another press of the button, she was whisked away by a transporter.

    She materialized on a space vessel in orbit of Earth. The small personal shuttle had no IU drive, but it did have a solid warp drive for its size, and best of all, a second set of hardwired ID codes that she could use. In just five seconds of transporting she was in the cockpit seat activating her warp drive. The small shuttle shot off toward Proxima Centauri, where a ship would be waiting for her in interstellar space.

    Once she was secure, Italarai activated her backup comm line. She sent a single message to Mastrash Goras.

    The operation failed to achieve optimal results. Suspect we were manipulated by Changeling from S5T3 Dominion. But it wasn't a total loss. The video from the Senate will make for interesting viewing and may provide opportunity for you.

    After that, there was nothing to do but sit and wait for shuttle to arrive at its rendezvous.




    The last of the attackers disappeared in a burst of white light a moment before Meridina would have knocked her blade away. She frowned and looked out at the Senate, and most importantly, at the dead bodies around the floor.

    The carnage was not as bad as it might have been. Still… all of this death. And all done by her people. Her people! Shame and horror filled Meridina at the thought of it.

    This.. this was supposed to be a time of greatness. A time of hope, prophesied by Swenya herself. This was not supposed to have happened.

    "Meridina!", Lucy shouted. "A little help?!"

    Meridina reacted immediately, jumping down to the main walkway between the middle and lower tier and running over to the east door entrance. Robert and Lucy had their arms up and hands out. Their power was flowing outward, binding the Changeling as she - or he, or it - writhed about on the floor. The amber fluid of the Changeling seemed to be trying to take shape. "We have to hold it," Robert gasped. "We have to keep it in place until security gets here with a container."

    "I understand." Meridina raised her arms and added her power to her students'. Together the three held the Changeling in place.

    King kept her commandeered assault rifle on the creature. Nearby Admiral Davies and Jarod walked up, weapons raised. "Security across the entire building is down," Davis said. "Someone scrambled all of the systems."

    "Someone using Senatorial access codes, I bet," Robert said. He kept his focus on the Changeling while talking; even with Meridina and Lucy helping and doing most of the work in holding the thing down, he didn't want to risk it getting up.

    "I doubt they'll be Kiang's," King said. "This entire incident has the feel of a false flag operation."

    "Your meaning, Commander?", Davies asked.

    "We were manipulated, sir," King said. "And so were the Gersallian radicals who launched this attack."

    "We'll see if the evidence backs your theory, Commander," Davies responded harshly. He looked over at Robert and then Meridina and Lucy.

    For a moment, real fear struck Robert. Davies had them dead to rights. He could kill them all with a single sweep of the rifle on automatic fire… No! Robert forced the thought down. Davies was paranoid, but he wasn't suicidal. Even he couldn't ignore a Changeling that had been masquerading as a Senator, and if he gunned them down nothing would hold the creature back. He'd read the reports from 33LA. The Changeling would kill him, King, and Jarod in seconds, and that was assuming Jarod didn't gun him down first.

    While King and Davies kept the rifles taken from the killed radicals trained on the Changeling, Jarod was busy operating his multidevice. "I'm gaining access to the Council Hall security system," he said. "And I just got a message through to the Aurora. They're relaying my reports straight to Defense Command."

    "Who did we lose?", Robert asked. "I saw Senator Akreet go down."

    "Djalis, Rawlinson, Marswell…" King's voice was firm, but Robert could feel her own horror at what happened. "I counted at least eight dead Senators."

    "Ten," Jarod corrected. "And Councilman Palas didn't make it."

    "Dammit," Robert muttered. He looked to Davies, but his biting remark died in his throat. Now wasn't the time. And right now, all he wanted to do was collapse as soon as the Changeling was secured.




    Mastrash Goras had called upon all of his discipline to force the surprise to come out when Mastrash Maklir's junior apprentice informed the Council of the news over the interuniversal networks. The attack on the Alliance Senate was on all of the major news sites and networks. Goras waited patiently for confirmation that there was little information as to the extent of it. How many Senators had died, how many got away, and most importantly, if any of Italarai's people had gotten out.

    Karesl made it clear he wished to speak. Maklir nodded assent. "I move that the Council adjourn for now," Karesl said, his voice somber. "We must extend official condolences to the Alliance Senate for its losses on this tragic day, and offer the services of our Knights to find those guilty and bring them to Justice."

    Ledosh nodded. "I second the motion."

    "Let all vote as their swevyra requires," Maklir intoned. The old man registered his vote last, as he always did. It was a unanimous outcome. "Mastrash Ledosh, you will send the message."

    "It shall be done at once."

    The Council split up and went their separate ways. Karesl stepped up beside Goras. "A terrible tragedy." Karesl shook his head. He could sense Goras' intense thoughts. "Do you think it could be the Dissenters?"

    "If so, they have gone too far," Goras insisted. "We should continue to monitor this. We may yet find the opening we need."

    "If only it had not come with such bloodshed," Karesl sighed. He nodded to Goras and stepped into his office.

    Goras went into his own office. He found Italarai's message waiting for him. Whatever did she mean?, he pondered. It would be hours before they could speak with any security. In the meantime, he would have to monitor communications.

    Night was starting to fall when more video reports came. As Italarai reported, it was a failure.

    It was only after seeing leaked videos of the fighting in the Senate that Goras realized what Italarai meant… as he watched Italarai duel with a Human woman with dark curly hair. Goras smiled at recognizing Lucilla Lucero, Meridina's student who had turned down the Order… and yet was here dueling with an Order lakesh in her hand.

    Oh you foolish girl, he thought. I have you. You have overreached, and now you and your entire cause are mine to crush.




    Ship's Log: 10 May 2642; ASV Aurora. Captain Robert Dale recording. The news of the attack on the Senate, and the outing of Senator Kiang as a Changeling infiltrator, have sent shockwaves across the Alliance. That the attack was instigated by Gersallian extremists, the anti-Alliance "Dissenters", has caused a lot of shouting and anger. If not for the unfortunate death of Palas and for Commander Meridina's prominent place in the defense of the Senate, it might have caused irreparable damage to the Gersallians' participation within the Alliance.

    Thankfully, with the Changeling a captive and Kiang's systems exposed to scrutiny, Commander King is ready to issue a report to the Senate with Commander Jarod. Commander Meridina, Lieutenant Lucero, and myself have been asked to attend as well.


    The damage to the Senate chamber hadn't been fixed. Eleven desks, mostly on the east side of the chamber, were vacant and covered by wreaths. The Council had sent their Sergeant-at-Arms, an Alakin female, to stand in the place of her fallen colleague. The various Senators looked on in quiet dignity, far from the state they had been in when violence had broken out, and all awaited for the new Senate President to call the session to order.

    The prior day the Senators had made their vote, and now Senator Sriroj Thiang stood as Akreet's successor. The appointed Senator of the Sol System Republic was as stoic as Robert had usually seen her. Above and behind her, President Morgan was again in place. More of his Security Service guards were flanking him. And the Council Hall security forces had been tripled. There would be no chances taken.

    Sriroj looked down at the pit, where the Defense Committee was together. They were short two members. The Council had yet to appoint a delegate to replace the slain Palas, and as Senate President Sriroj would no longer sit on the body, and again no delegate had been appointed yet to replace her. "Minister Hawthorne, the Senate is prepared to hear your findings."

    Hawthorne nodded and looked across the table to the witness podium, where King stood with Robert, Jarod, Meridina, and Lucy flanking her. Up in the visitor's gallery the command crews of the Aurora and Koenig were in attendance. "If it pleases the Senate, Commander King has finished her preliminary investigation into this terrible attack." Hawthorne nodded to her. "Please, proceed."

    "Yes sir." King looked to her datapad. "My investigation, with the help of the Planetary Criminal Investigation Bureau and the Portland Police Department, has determined that the attackers were Gersallian extremists known as Dissenters. They oppose Gersal's place in the Alliance." King looked up at Sriroj and Morgan. "It appears that they gained entry to the Senate using command codes that were officially assigned to Senator Yantanaran."

    Heads started to turn to the tan-skinned Gersallian woman sitting in the upper tier. Her face was pale with disbelief.

    "However, evidence recovered from the computers of the Changeling masquerading as Senator Kiang indicate these codes were duplicated." With that King defused the growing tension. "It appears that the Changeling was seeking to instigate a political crisis to split the Alliance over apparent Gersallian government terrorism."

    "There is nothing 'apparent' about Gersallian terrorism!", thundered Pensley from his seat. "The wreaths we see here are proof of that." By the time he finished, cries of "Order!" were starting to drown him out.

    "Sit down, you are out of order!", ruled Sriroj, and her glare told everyone she would not humor Pensley today. The irate Councilman obeyed.

    "Was this Changeling also responsible for the leaking of our plans to the Nazi Reich?", asked Davies.

    "It would appear so, sir, yes," King said. "By the Senate's decree, Commander Jarod and I examined the broadcasts sent to the Reich to offer peace. They did indeed have fragmented data parts that, when compiled, provided several of our war plans to the Reich. This includes the proposed raids on their supply lines."

    "And the Gersallian involvement in the data theft from Defense Command?", asked Maran.

    "Our records from the other day confirm a ninety-nine percent probability that the force-endowed Gersallian who escaped by transporter is the same woman who planted the data hacking device into Defense Command," King stated. "Communication logs indicate this woman and the Changeling had been in contact for at least a month beforehand."

    "Do we know who she is?" The question was from Senator Hipathi.

    "We do not yet, sir. We merely know she was trained in the arts of the Order of Swenya."

    "A good thing we had two defenders with similar training," noted General Gulinev.

    "Is there anything else you believe the Committee and the Senate should hear, Commander?", Hawthorne asked.

    "Only that our initial concerns about the Gersallian Order of Swenya appear overstated," King answered. "I can't rule out rogue elements in their organization, of course, and I will continue my investigation into the attack with the Committee's blessing. But it is clear that a blanket condemnation of the organization is, at this time, premature. Furthermore, this unprecedented security breach indicates we may need to consider our own organization of such talented individuals to answer to the Alliance Government. It is my recommendation that the Senate and Council launch an investigation of this." King looked to her side before facing Hawthorne again. "I would also say that this tragedy would have been far, far worse if not for the conduct of Captain Dale and his officers. With the security and future of the Alliance at stake, Captain Dale and his people showed impeccable virtue. They acted with intelligence, decisiveness, and valor in support of my investigation. And I needn't point out their conduct during the attack." King nodded her head. "That is all, Minister."

    "You may step down." Hawthorne nodded. "Do any on the Committee wish to issue a statement before we vote on Commander King's report?"

    Pensley stood. "I will only say that I am mortified that the peace initiative was abused so callously by this outsider, and that I plead with the Committee and the Senate to not let this incident bias them against the possibility of peace."

    Robert wouldn't let himself smirk. He was amused to see that General Gulinev had no such scruples, rolling his eyes at Pensley.

    "Anyone else?"

    Davies stood. "I have a statement," he said. As he did so, he eyed Robert and the others. "While Commander King's recommendation for an Alliance organization of… talented individuals has its merits, we must remember that such powers pose grave threats to the liberties our systems and nations cherish. The powers we have seen would allow these beings to crush us under a tyranny that we might never escape. I would move that aside from looking into our own organization to protect the Government from these threats, we also begin research into ways to suppress these abilities and to deal with those who abuse them. Such a precaution is manifestly necessary to our posterity. Otherwise we are risk from all sorts of organizations, be they the Order of Swenya or the Earth Alliance Psi Corps of E5B1. I ask the Committee and the Senate to please begin considering these measures while we still have time. That is all." Davies sat.

    Admiral Maran didn't react to that. But he showed Robert and the others a grin even as he ignored Hawthorne's last request for statements. When none came, the minister turned and looked up to the Senate President. "Senator Sriroj, the Committee has finalized its report into these incidents, and we have nothing further to add."

    "Thank you, Defense Minister." Sriroj looked down to the podium. "Commander King, Captain Dale, Commander Jarod, Commander Meridina, Lieutenant Lucero. Please, approach."

    Robert wondered what was going on, but he said nothing while joining the others in walking around the pit, up the steps, and to where Sriroj was standing. "It is my position, and that of the Senate, that we have you to thank for our very lives. The citizens of the Alliance can rest easy knowing that they have such valiant defenders standing watch over them. Your courage and commitment saved many lives and thwarted an attack that might have torn the Alliance asunder, and your boldness in the face of an unexpected threat ended the grave risk that the Changeling infiltrator posed." Sriroj looked up to Morgan. "The Alliance President and Stellar Navy may yet reward you in any manner they deem fit, but here and now, the Senate of the United Alliance of Systems awards you the Senate Order of Merit."

    The Sergeant-at-Arms stepped up and provided Sriroj with her first case. The medal was a metal disc of silver with the Alliance torch insignia set into the middle. Robert didn't move, didn't dare to, as it was pinned to his chest by the Senate President, who went on to do the same to the others.

    As Sriroj did so, applause came from the Senate and from the Gallery. Robert peeked momentarily to see Julia, Angel, and the others clapping with proud grins. His heart felt lightened by it. Despite everything that had happened, the Alliance had been preserved, and the Changeling threat dealt with.

    There would be battles in the future, of course, and he knew in his heart they would be vicious and dangerous and painful. But for the moment, that was still in the future, and here in the present, he could smile and enjoy the moment.




    Tag




    After the ceremony and an attendant dinner, the crews returned to the Aurora. It was clear even on the trip back up that Meridina was not in the festive mood, indeed, that she had been forcing cheer for the benefit of her comrades.

    None felt that more acutely than Lucy and Robert. Robert gave Lucy a nod as they all left the shuttle bay, acknowledging her intent to check up on Meridina.

    Meridina had been swift in heading to her quarters. By the time Lucy got there she was already inside. Lucy stood at the door and leaned against it. "I'm here if you need me," she said simply.

    A moment later, the door opened.

    Meridina was sitting alone, staring at the book Lucy had always seen her looking at. The book that contained Swenya's writings. "It wasn't supposed to be this way," Meridina sighed.

    "What wasn't?"

    "I am lost," Meridina murmured. "I have had such faith in this. Such faith that this was the hour, this the time, but now…"

    "Meridina?"

    She wasn't supposed to say these things. But Meridina didn't care at the moment. She'd alienated her father for this cause. She'd risked her position in the Order for it. She'd believed that the time had come, that this was the prophesied day that Swenya had promised millennia ago.

    But the Alliance wasn't becoming the shield of Light. It was falling into the darkness of fear. Men like Hawthorne and Davies were poisoning it from within, the Dissenters had committed murder to alienate her people from the Alliance, and dark forces from without were constantly battering away at it, causing pain and suffering to increase.

    Meridina got up and moved through her living area. Her mind was in turmoil.

    Had her father been right? Had she, had Ledosh, been wrong?

    Was it all for nothing?

    The dark thoughts within her stirred. She felt the cold doubt, the biting fear that none of it had mattered, nothing she had done. That all of her dreams were going to die.

    "Meridina, please, talk to me," Lucy urged. She took up a chair and sat beside her teacher. "Whoever these people were… I mean, there are always going to be people who are extremist, and who go too far. But we're not going to let them drive us apart. We've already stopped them once!"

    "I thought you were the ones," Meridina murmured, as if nothing Lucy said had registered. "I thought this was the time." The Gersallian, sniffling, stumbled over and landed on the floor beside her couch.

    "Meridina, it's not over." Lucy walked over to her and helped her onto the couch. "We'll figure this out."

    "Lucy, I am so sorry." Meridina shook her head. "I thought I was making things better, that I was helping you find a potential, but… it was my own ego. I wanted you to be the ones…"

    "I have no idea what you're talking about."

    "You're supposed to be them," Meridina continued. "You're supposed to be the Dawn Bearers! You're supposed to forge a shield of Light and bring us Hope and Victory! But that's not happening. Everything is going wrong, my people are going mad with fear and anger, and this darkness...it is clawing inside of me, all of the doubt and fear that I… I have never felt like this before! The Goa'uld is gone, the mark should be gone, I should have healed by now! But I haven't! The darkness inside of me is still there and I can't make it leave!" Meridina finished her tirade by breaking down into tears.

    It was hard for Lucy to see Meridina like this. Amaunet had been bad enough, and she sensed the confrontation with the "swevyra'kse" while rescuing Jarod had been troublesome in its own right… but now it was like she had been stripped bare of all expectations, all hopes, by seeing her people engage in such pointless killing. Indeed, to see one of her own Order helping in that slaughter.

    At this point in time, a despairing fear long buried under layers and layers of mental blocks, conditioning, and sheer willpower was surging through to the surface. Lucy could sense that in her. Meridina had truly become completely, deathly afraid that everything she had done had been for nothing, and everything she had believed had turned out wrong.

    "Whatever you're talking about, the darkness isn't going to take you, I promise," Lucy insisted. "I'll help you. Robert will too. We all will. You're one of us, Meridina, you're a part of this family!"

    Meridina gave Lucy a sad look. "But I will not be much longer. Everything is ruined now. My errors have seen to that. And I am so, so sorry I didn't tell you before, about what I knew, about what I felt."

    Lucy blinked. She couldn't make out what Meridina was talking about. "Is it this 'Dawn Bearer' stuff you talked about? You can tell me, Meridina!"

    Meridina shook her head. "It's too late. I can sense it."

    "What? How is it too late? What is…"

    Meridina stood suddenly, as if she sensed something. She sighed and nodded. "Of course," she murmured. "They know."

    Wordlessly, Meridina began to strip her uniform off. Lucy watched in bewilderment as Meridina took a simple sleeveless linen robe of blue and white and pulled it on, covering her down to the ankle. She affixed her lakesh to the linen belt that held the robe in place and walked to the door. "You don't need to see this," Meridina said. "But… I would feel better if you came."

    "Where are you going?", Lucy asked.

    Meridina did not answer. And Lucy could tell she wouldn't.

    But she still followed.




    Robert had been about to pull his uniform off, much to the delight of a waiting and smiling Angel, when he received the alert from the bridge. "Sir, there's someone at the starboard airlock. Several people in fact. They're refusing to leave and are demanding to be let aboard." Lieutenant Pacetti sounded as professional as ever.

    "Have they identified themselves?", Robert asked.

    "No, but they say they must speak to you. And they have government clearances."

    Angel was frowning at him over that, although he knew he wasn't the focus of said frown. "Let's find out what's going on," Robert said. Into his multidevice he said, "Tell them I'm on my way, Pacetti."

    "Yes sir.."

    Together they started the journey to the lift. When they got to it, Julia was already stepping in. "Pacetti called you too?", Robert asked.

    "Yeah," she said. "He must think we'll both need to face this. I wonder who it is?"

    "Knowing our usual luck?" Robert sighed. "Admiral Davies coming to give us a surprise inspection."

    "But we're in repair dock undergoing heavy repairs…" Julia sighed and rolled her eyes. "So yeah, of course."

    Once on Deck 10 they made their way to the starboard side of the primary hull. The airlock door was still secure when they got there. An Alakin female, Lieutenant Charrip, was present with a small security detachment. "The airlock officer summoned me, sir," she said. "Just in case."

    Robert nodded and stepped up to the airlock door. At that point he knew who was on the other side. He couldn't help but feel the sheer power. "Bridge, ready the emergency airlock security protocol," he said into his multidevice. "If you see anyone force their way onboard, trigger it. Hell, if I don't give you the clearance signal and I start to let them aboard anyway, trigger it."

    Pacetti showed no hesitation. He responded immediately with an, "Aye Captain."

    Julia gave him a look. "That's a bit excessive."

    "After the other day, I'm not taking chances," Robert answered as he opened the airlock door. He stepped into the airlock as the other end opened as well.

    Seven figures stepped in. All were in red Gersallian robes, and all wore the same purple body armor Meridina favored. The lead among them was a bald man with tanned skin. He looked at Robert through alert eyes and, Robert could feel, a supremely tuned swevyra/life force. "I am Hajamar, a swevyra'se of Gersal and Knight-Sergeant-At-Arms of the Order of Swenya. My Knights and I have come to seek justice."

    "If you're after the crazy lady who got away from the Senate attack, you're wasting your time here," Robert replied.

    "That is not our duty," Hajamar answered. "You are Captain Robert Dale?"

    "I am."

    Hajamar handed him a Gersallian datapad. It held text in Gersallian and an English translation beside it. Robert read over it, but Hajamar made sure to pronounce its contents. "By order of the Council of the Order of Swenya, I have come to arrest the Knight Meridina, daughter of Karesl of the Family of Lumantala."

    Robert's jaw dropped in surprise. "...what?", he finally managed.

    "Knight Meridina is wanted for treason against the Council and its commands, and of the Code of Swenya," Hajamar continued. "And we will take her into custody, Captain Dale."

    "Like hell," Robert snarled. Behind him, Julia and Angel crossed their arms and stepped closer, as if to support him against the long odds. "This is my ship, and a starship of the Alliance Stellar Navy. We don't answer to your Order. If they want Meridina, they can go through the proper channels."

    Hajamar narrowed his eyes. "I see she has trained you as well," he said. "Another proof of her treason."

    "She's been teaching me control of this power, nothing more," Robert asserted. "Now, I suggest you leave and go through the Admiralty and Defense Command or even the courts, but I'm not handing Meridina over on your say so."

    "We won't let the traitor escape us," Hajamar warned.

    "Then camp out there for all I care," Robert retorted. "But if you step one foot on my ship, my crew has orders to blow the airlock and seal it behind us. And I know you're powerful, but I wonder if even you people can resist explosive decompression."

    Hajamar seemed to consider it. "You are deceiving us," he said. "You would be taken too, as would your officers."

    "Yeah," Robert said. "But my crew will probably beam me and my people back before we hit the wall of the drydock. Depending on how fast the safety people respond, well, do you think you'll be that lucky?" He went eye to eye with the Knight, glaring into his brown eyes. "Are you willing to take that chance?"

    And he was clearly considering it. Robert could see that. Hajamar and his Knights weren't pushovers, and they knew their thing, and the fact was Robert was more outmatched here than he'd ever been in this sort of situation. Not even being cornered by Fassbinder and his SS at the Gamma Piratus Facility was this bad.

    "Please, stop."

    Robert turned. Meridina and Lucy were entering the airlock. Lucy looked bewildered, but Meridina had a sort of strange calm, even if it was covering immense doubt and… even despair, Robert thought.

    "Knight Meridina," Hajamar said.

    "Knight Hajamar." Meridina nodded respectfully to him. She reached to her belt and pulled out her lakesh hilt.

    Hajamar's Knights all went for their blades. A chorus of metallic shrieks accompanied the extension of a half dozen lakeshes.

    Lucy almost reached for hers, and Angel was clenching her fists for a fight. But Meridina looked to her and shook her head. She looked back to Hajamar and held her right palm up, the hilt laid on the palm. Robert felt her power grip it and levitate the hilt. It moved slowly through the air toward Hajamar.

    Hajamar opened his palm. The weapon accelerated, too fast for Robert to intercept it, and landed square in his palm.

    Meridina stepped up beside them and looked to the four. "I am honored to have known you all," she said. "Thank you for making me feel as if we were family. I am humbled by your generosity of spirit and your courage. Mi rake sa swevyra iso." She turned back to Hajamar. She put her wrists together and extended them forward. "Knight Hajamar, I surrender myself to the Knights of the Temple. I am ready for judgement."

    Hajamar's expression softened. His eyes showed a glimmer of compassion. His reply was a wordless nod. From his own belt came a set of metal shackles.

    "You can't do this!", Lucy screamed. She looked to Robert. "Stop them! Stop her!"

    Robert swallowed and looked to Lucy, who looked like she was about to cry. "I can't, Lucy," he said. "She's going with them of her own free will."

    "There has to be a regulation about this!" Lucy looked to Julia next. "Isn't there? She's an officer of the ship! They can't just march her off!"

    "Maybe if we were on active duty, we could order her to not surrender," Julia said. "But we're in drydock, Lucy. The entire crew is in stand down. I mean, if she wanted me to I could fight this…"

    By now Hajamar had fixed the shackles to Meridina's ankles as well. Lengths of tritanium chain, starship hull grade, now bound Meridina's limbs to a ring of the same material. The chain rattled as Meridina took her first steps, now standing between the seven Knights in red. She looked back to Lucy with tears in her blue eyes. "Goodbye, Lucy," she said. "You will find your way. I believe in you."

    Hajamar gave a blunt, but not hostile, order in Gersallian. Meridina turned away and began to walk in time with her jailers.

    Robert could feel Lucy's swevyra crackle with power. She was going to attack. Before she could he grabbed her by the arms. "No!", he hissed. "Not here, not this way!"

    "This isn't right!", Lucy shouted. "She didn't do anything wrong! She's the purest, most noble woman I've ever met!"

    "Yes, she is," Julia said. "But starting a fight here won't help her. We've got to fight this another way."

    "How?", Lucy demanded.

    "I don't know yet." Robert looked back down the airlock tube. The far airlock door slid to a shit, cutting off their view of Meridina. "But this isn't over." A look of grim determination crossed his face.

    Upon seeing it, the same crossed Lucy's face as well. Angel and Julia both nodded in agreement.

    "Meridina is family. And we're going to help her any way we can," Robert vowed.
     
  13. Threadmarks: 2-09 Opening
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    Captain Robert Dale Personal Log; 13 May 2642. I have spent the last two days trying to get in touch with Mastrash Ledosh to find out what is going on with the Council of the Order of Swenya, and why they arrested Meridina on charges of "treason". Despite my best efforts, I have been unable to get in contact with him.

    The news from Gersal is not good. Reports of Meridina's arrest, and that the charges against her related to her service in the Alliance, have sparked widespread protests between the Dissenters and those in favor of continued membership in the Alliance. The Gersallian government is in turmoil. The Dissenters are demanding a reconsideration of Alliance membership. Meridina's charges are apparently the 'proof' they've needed that the Alliance is corrupting Gersal.

    I'm also concerned with Lucy. Since Meridina was arrested she's become… angry. She's taking this harder than I thought she would.

    Robert finished writing his log and looked over to his half-eaten lunch. He picked up a ham sandwich and started to wolf it down.

    Nearby Angel plopped into a chair. "You know, if we were out there," she said, "at least I'd have tactical watches to take my mind off this."

    "I know." Robert rubbed at his forehead. "But we're not. Scotty and the dock manager have virtually taken over the ship for now."

    "Except for Little Miss Workaholic, who still can't get out of her office for all the paperwork she insists on doing herself," Angel pointed out, smirking as she did. "You need to make her take a break, Rob."

    Robert smiled at that. "I already tried that. Then Jarod got abducted."

    "Ugh. This last week has been one non-stop headache." Angel considered her unfinished lunch for a moment. "So, when do we go to Gersal to kick some ass and take names?"

    Robert leveled a curious stare at her. "You mean breaking into a secure temple controlled by people who could bat us across the room with a wave of their hand? All to pull out a prisoner who doesn't want to be freed?"

    The reply was a frustrated glare at nothing. "And there's nothing anyone can do to stop them?"

    "The Gersallian government considers it an internal Order matter," Robert said. "And there's no provisions in the Alliance government for intervening."

    "She's an officer of the Stellar Navy, isn't that enough?"

    Robert shook his head. "She transmitted her resignation before surrendering. And since this is a private organization passing judgement on one of its members the other authorities can't do anything."

    "But we're not going to leave it at that, are we?"

    Robert shook his head. "No, we're not. I'm going to go there myself if necessary."

    "If you go, I go."

    Robert felt a warm feeling in his heart. He didn't think Angel would care so much for this, not when she already detested the influence and time sink that the entire issue was for him. But he could feel her sincerity. Whatever her feelings about Meridina training Robert, Angel considered Meridina a member of the family, and she was ready to raise hell to save her.

    "I've got one last card to play on the issue," he said. "But with things so hectic in Portland right now, I can't be sure when I'll get the call." Robert let out a sigh. "I'm also worried about Lucy."

    "I didn't realize how close she was to Meridina." Angel picked at a small glob of mashed potato on her plate. "The longer this takes, the more angry she's going to become."

    "Which is why I'm hoping the call I'm expecting comes sooner rather than later," Robert said. He took up the last bit of his sandwich. "Until then, all I can do is wait and hope."




    In the Aurora gymnasium, heads were turning at the sound of a series of furious punches against a gym bag. Some half-expected to see Angel there, familiar with the tactical officer's affinity for "beat the crap out of something to relieve stress", but they would have been surprised to see Lucy Lucero there as well.

    These days she didn't go with the standard exercise wear of shorts and sports bra, or at least she didn't normally. With Meridina it was usually training vests and trousers. But today she wore something that fit the environment better. She wasn't muscular like Angela, she didn't even have Julia's build with defined, if not bulked, muscle. Her arms and stomach were solid and flat, with some slight muscular definition on her exposed belly.

    The crew in charge of the gym's equipment had spent a year quietly shoring up their equipment. The joke around the ship was that Angel had destroyed every punching bag not reinforced with tritanium. She hadn't, but the gym staff had toughened them after she had wrecked two.

    But those reinforcements were against Human strength. As Lucy's frustration grew that strength tapped onto the power of her life energies, the swevyra that Meridina had taught her to tap. She hit the bag hard enough to break it entirely, causing sand to erupt from the wound. She pulled her fist out and watched the sand fall, giving a frustrated cry in the process. Wordlessly she went for the broom and bucket that the crew had left nearby for such eventualities.

    She had just finished the sweeping up when a voice called out, "And I thought Angel could be rough on those things."

    Commander Julia Andreys was standing nearby. In contrast to the more conventional workout clothing Lucy had, she was wearing a white martial arts gi with a black belt around the waist. Her long blond hair was the kind of rich color most blondes wished they were. She had pulled it into a bun at the back of her head. "How are you feeling?", she asked.

    "I'm upset and angry and trying like hell to hold it back," Lucy answered. "Meridina's done everything they've ever asked her to do. She's stood up for everything they're supposed to believe. And this is how they repay her."

    "Maybe there's more to this than we thought," Julia offered.

    "They wanted me to leave the Aurora and join their damned Order, you know," Lucy continued. She took the bucket of sand and the broom and put it against the wall. The punching bag was rolled to keep the hole in its surface upward and dragged over to join them. Lucy looked up after doing this and said, "Now I'm glad I said no. These people aren't half as good as Meridina thinks they are."

    "That may be part of the problem," Julia murmured. "Robert's trying everything he can. He hopes to have a response to a couple of calls he made by tonight."

    "Good." Lucy crossed her arms. "So, what are you doing here?"

    "Looking for you. I wanted to help you."

    "How?"

    Julia grinned. "Well, I can't teach you how to pick things up with your life energy or whatever, but I think I can teach you something to help focus your mind and body. Maybe it'll help you deal with this situation over Meridina. You've heard of t'ai chi?"

    "Slowly swinging your arms around."

    "Not just that. It's about focus. Learning the movements and how to do them and keeping it all in your head." Julia assumed a starting stance. "And it's a pretty useful martial art. It's about flexibility instead of power." She moved her arms and shifted her posture in an initial movement. "The point is to meet strength with fluidity."

    "So, judo?"

    "Judo is more about turning an enemy's size against them, this is more 'go with the flow'. Let your enemy punch and kick, but instead of trying to block everything and meet your strength against theirs, you let their strength go to waste. And then, when the moment is right, you strike." Julia made a motion that, if done at a quick speed, would have been an effective counter-attack against a foe. Julia chuckled. "How else do you think I spar with Angel? She's got the advantage in muscle, after all."

    "I just figured you made her insanely jealous with that tall, statuesque figure you've got going for you."

    Julia laughed at that. "Angel's not the type to feel jealousy over that. She's proud of those muscles. If she had it her way, we'd all be wearing sleeveless uniforms."

    Lucy stepped up beside her. Julia kept her gentle smile at noticing that she was assuming the same stance Julia had shifted into. "Okay, let me show you one of the first forms my teacher showed me."

    They began. As they worked through the series of moves together, Lucy realized what Julia was talking about, how the precision helped to instill focus even as the movements made her feel limber.

    It still didn't keep her from worrying about Meridina, but maybe she wouldn't explode into anger at their continued inability to do anything for her.




    The Great Temple of the Order of Swenya had been built as a place of learning and contemplation. It had never been meant to be a jail. But experience had taught those who ran the Order that sometimes, such things would be necessary.

    The dungeon of the Temple was buried within the mountain rock under the main structures. There were only a few because there was never any anticipated need for many of them. Swevyra'kse - those who gave into the darkness - were more often killed than captured, and many of those captured were turned over to state authorities for criminal trial. for members of the Order accused of crimes within Order law and rules, confinement was usually house arrest, and punishment much the same.

    Now the cells of iron and steel had a single occupant. Meridina was in the plain linen robe she had worn upon her arrest. She sat in the damp cold, far from the sun, with the only sources of light being the electric lights strung along the cavern ceiling. Her trintanium chains kept her locked to the middle of the room, just within range of the toilet and the sleeping pallet. And here she stayed, kept company only by a roving patrol of the Temple Knights and by the feelings in her own heart. The feelings of darkness festering there, of fear and pain and despair.

    Meridina had believed so strongly that the time Swenya prophesied was at hand. Now… now she felt doubt. And thanks to Amaunet possessing her, and using her power for darkness, she felt that evil power within her as well.

    "It pains me to see you like this."

    The voice made her look up. Mastrash Ledosh was standing quietly in front of the cell. "I will tell them I instructed you," he said. "Then your punishment will be reduced."

    "No, Mastrash. You did nothing wrong. I did all."

    "Meridina, the world is shuddering from this news. A Human, trained as a swevyra'se without the Council's approval. The Senate attack, now this… " Ledosh stopped. He could see that wasn't reaching her. "Captain Dale sends messages almost hourly. I dare not reply right now, not even to warn him to stop. I think he may come here."

    "That is his right," Meridina murmured.

    "Meridina, we must do something I do not know what Goras has planned, but the meeting is tomorrow…"

    "I will face my judgement."

    "Even if it means expulsion? Or even worse?"

    Meridina's heart quailed at the word "expulsion". Her entire life was devoted to the Order. She had done what she had done in the name of its future health. "I am guilty," she said. "Let the people have me as their sacrifice for this crisis."

    "And if your friends come? If they come to defend you?"

    "There is little they can do. But…" She lowered her head. "I would feel better if they were here," she confessed. "I feel, even now, that our destinies are intertwined."

    "The whispers of destiny can be misheard," Ledosh said. "Please, do not sacrifice yourself needlessly over your interpretation of them."

    Meridina did not answer that. She kept her head bowed and focused again on the darkness she felt within, trying to come to grips with it and send it out of her.

    Ledosh recognized there was no more to talk about. He bowed his head and departed, leaving Meridina to her thoughts.



    Undiscovered Frontier
    "Whispers of Destiny"




    As soon as Robert got the notification, he summoned Julia, Angela, and Lucy to join him in the bridge-side conference room. This way everyone relevant to the thoughts he had in his mind on the situation were there when Admiral Maran arrived. The dark-haired Gersallian looked no worse than he had a few days prior at the Senate, but Robert could feel his fatigue and worry. "Captain, Commander, Lieutenants." He nodded. "I received your calls. I thought it best to meet you here on the Aurora."

    "Thank you, sir. I know your schedule lately has been hectic."

    Maran didn't quite sigh at that. "You could say so." Maran took a seat beside Julia, to Robert's left. "The video files from the Senate Chamber have already been spread across the multiversal public networks." He looked to Lucy. "For what it's worth, I'm glad you were trained in the arts, Lieutenant."

    "Thank you, sir."

    "Unfortunately for Meridina, this has Gersal in an uproar. Meridina training you two as she has been is against long-standing traditions and laws for our people."

    "Then why did she do it?", Julia asked.

    "I can't tell you." Maran shook his head. "I've known Meridina since she was Mastrash Ledosh's star pupil. She's always been deeply committed to the Order. I don't understand why she would break its rules like that."

    "I think I do," Lucy said. When everyone looked toward her, she went on. "Before the Knights came for her, she was talking about something, she was upset over it. Something about how we were supposed to be… " Lucy went through her memories for a moment. "She said we were supposed to be 'the Dawn Bearers'. Something about a shield of Light."

    Everyone noticed the surprised look on Maran's face. The Gersallian admiral was clearly thinking about what had been said. "She said those words? Those exact words?", he asked.

    Lucy nodded.

    After taking several breaths and recovering from surprise, Maran had a look of someone who just had a slight epiphany. "I… I think I can see that point, actually."

    "What was she talking about?", Robert asked.

    Maran leaned back in his chair. "It is said that before she died, Swenya laid out a vision she had of the future. That the Bearers of the Dawn would come and herald a new age of peace and prosperity." Maran shook his head. "I always thought it was metaphor, or perhaps some half-remembered text that was recovered after the defeat of the Brotherhood of Kohbal twenty-nine centuries ago."

    "Meridina believes this," Lucy said. "Or, at least she did. Everything that's happened lately has, well, I think it broke her faith."

    "Perhaps. If she thought that you were the Dawn Bearers… then I can understand her conduct. It does make sense."

    "This is all well and good, but we're not getting to the real issue," Julia said. "We need a way to get her back. They shouldn't be allowed to keep her locked up."

    "The Order has no authority to imprison," Maran said. "They can only hold one of their own for a few days before a trial is necessary. And their sentences are binding only if their charge remains in the Order, and most sentences culminate in expulsion as it is. The only cases where they will act further is if internal corruption is involved."

    "You mean if they argue the person has given into their darkness," Lucy said. "Which they might do to Meridina. What happens then?"

    "Then they are tested. And if they fail, then the Order has leave of the Interdependency Government to kill the offender."

    Lucy paled at that..

    "They can actually invoke the death penalty?", Julia asked. The admission shocked her. "But they don't have state authority."

    "On this matter, they do," Maran explained. "The Gersallian Knights of the Temple are recognized as having the right and duty to execute those proven to be tainted by darkness." Maran put his hands on the table. "As for getting the Commander back, we have no power to compel her return at the moment. The Order and Interdependency have laws regulating their affairs going back millennia. If the government tried to intervene, then it would cause a fracturing of our entire society that could lead to civil war."

    "And if the Alliance Government got involved…"

    Maran frowned at that. "The Gersallian people would turn against it. You would see Gersal withdraw from the Alliance. The Dorei might or might not follow suit."

    "And other member states that like the Gersallians would be against it," Julia added. "And any state that opposed Alliance Government intervention in their internal affairs."

    "But Meridina has rights!", Lucy shouted. "Under the Alliance laws too! We can't just let them kill her!"

    "Could we give testimony?", Robert asked.

    "Or better yet, deny her resignation," Julia added.

    Maran shook his head. "I'm not sure the Order would accept that. At best, if they are only interested in her training of you, then they will expedite her trial and likely expel her. And if they believe Meridina's current problems make her a threat of falling, they'll defy any approach like that on the grounds of protecting others from the threat she poses."

    "This is the kind of thing Hawthorne and Davies are waiting for," Robert grumbled. "Having the Navy and the Order butting heads would justify their entire line of argument.

    "I agree." Maran nodded. A contemplative look came to him. "But there is another way. Not to get her out of the trial, but to be there to support her, and perhaps to show the Council that the two of you are not a threat."

    "What's that?", Angel asked.

    "It is permissible for a limited number of close friends to attend such events, by invitation of the Order or of the family," Maran replied. "By being present you could allow Meridina's advocate to call you forth as witnesses. If the rest of the Order observes you and decides you've been taught well, they might be willing to accept a defense of Meridina helping you to establish a Human discipline."

    Lucy and Robert looked at each other. They got the gist of what Maran was referring to, and understood what it meant. After a moment they nodded. "We're ready to say that's what we're up to," Robert said.

    "It will be not be easy to persuade them," Maran said. "My people try to be tolerant of many things, but we have a long cultural memory. Alternative approaches to swevyra led to the Brotherhood of Kohbal and its horrors. They're still watching the Dorei Orders for corruption and they were formed centuries ago. I expect they will keep a similar eye on you regardless of the trial's outcome."

    "Let them. The important thing is helping Meridina."

    Lucy nodded. "All we need is a jump and we can fly the Rio Grande there."

    "I can arrange that," Maran said. "I'm sending the Drunal to bring Councilman Palas' remains back to his family. They live on Tanatal, but the Drunal will be jumping at Gersal. You can jump with them."

    "Sounds good to me," Robert said. "When do they leave?"

    "In two hours," Maran said. "And you'll need every minute of your time. Meridina's trial begins tomorrow."

    "Let's go pack," Angel said.

    Julia nodded. "Jarod and Scotty can oversee the repair work while we're gone."

    "Commander, wait." Maran shook his head. "As I said before, the number of who can join the proceedings is limited. Only three may do so."

    "So one of us has to stay behind," Lucy said.

    "You and Robert must go," Maran answered. "But yes. You can only take one other with you."

    Julia and Angel exchanged looks. Each could see the desire, and the intent, in the other. It was Julia who nodded. "Okay. I'll stay then."

    "We'll let Meridina know you wanted to go," Robert assured her. "Admiral, may we?"

    Maran nodded. "I'm not here as your commanding officer, so there's no need for formality. You needn't have asked… and yes, you may. You'll need the time."

    Everyone stood up to head toward the doors. Robert, Lucy, and Angel were heading straight for the lift on the near side of the conference room, Julia was heading toward the far door leading to the bridge. As she got to it, Maran called out, "Commander, a moment?"

    She turned. "Yes sir?"

    "I would like you to join me at the Fleet Base tomorrow morning," Maran said. "I'll be at the main dock terminal at 1130 hours. Please meet me there. It is important."

    Julia's look was carefully neutral. "Yes sir, I will."

    Maran nodded and went the other way, leaving Julia to wonder what was going on when she returned to the bridge.







    The three met up at the lift. For the moment they were still in uniform, with civilian clothes packed away for when they got to Gersal. "Deck 10," Robert said, and it sped its way to the ordered deck, where they filed out and headed toward the front airlock. Leaving the ship was necessary; with Aurora in drydock, and her main shuttlebay a wreck, they couldn't launch from her at the moment. The Rio Grande and their other surviving craft had been transferred for the moment to the Fleet Base pool, held as reserve craft until the Aurora was ready to depart with them aboard again.

    When they came up to the hall leading to the airlock, they stopped.

    Between them and the airlock, their comrades were standing lined up, Julia at the head of the line. "They wanted to wish you goodbye," she said. "And good luck."

    "Thanks," Robert answered. "I know that all of you wishes you could be with us. We'll tell Meridina for you."

    "Bring our lass home, sir," Scotty said. "This is where she belongs."

    "She's one of us," Locarno said. Kane nodded in agreement.

    "She's family," Jarod said.

    "Yeah, and we can't let them take her from us." Caterina hugged her sister closely. Beside her, Violeta was nodding. She'd never seen the command crew together like this before and Cat had insisted she come too.

    "We'll be waiting," Leo promised.

    "Right. Don't worry, we're bringing her home," Robert promised.

    "An' we'll be workin' t' get our lass back in shape while ye're gone."

    Robert smiled at that. "I'll hold you to that, Mister Scott. They're telling me we've got at least another five weeks in drydock."

    "Won't take more than a month, sir," Scotty pledged. "I'll see t' that."

    "We'll see to that," Barnes corrected. Beside him Zack nodded in agreement.

    "We'd better get going," Lucy said. "The Drunal is waiting for us."







    The Drunal was waiting for them above the North Pole. Lucy brought the Rio Grande in at three quarters impulse. They only had a few minutes to enjoy the sight of the newest Discovery-class starship in the Alliance fleet. She looked every much like her sisters, including the Challenger, who were essentially built like as the Aurora's small cousins. With only two warp nacelles, angled upward, and a smaller hull altogether, it was clearly a different ship, but the layouts of the launch and recovery deck for the small fighter wing aboard, the main shuttle bay, and the proportions of the primary and drive hulls and how they flowed together were evocative of the Aurora herself.

    "I wonder if they'll ever build a ship like the Aurora," Angel said from the side seat behind Robert. Technically she could manage the Rio Grande's communications and defensive systems there, if it were necessary..

    "Oh, I'm sure they will," Robert replied. He was beside Lucy as the co-pilot, but that effectively meant monitoring everything else while she did the flying. "In time."

    Angel nodded. Herr console let off a beep. "The Drunal is preparing to generate a jump point. Five, four…"

    "We're in position now," Lucy assured them all.

    As soon as Angel reached "One" space split up ahead of them. An emerald-colored vortex opened in space. The Drunal let them go first and Lucy quickly made use of that opening.

    After the usual experience of transitioning to another universe, they found themselves in near orbit over Gersal. "I'm asking for landing permission now." After a moment Angel nodded. "We've gotten it. They're vectoring us in to land at Jantarihal Spaceport."

    "It's been awhile since we were on Gersal,"' Robert mused.

    "Somehow I don't think the reception we get will be the same as we did before," Robert sighed. "Let's put in and get a ride to the Great Temple. I'd like to see Ledosh turn down my calls now."







    After Robert and the others had left, everyone dispersed to go back to whatever work they chose to do while the ship was under repair. Zack followed Julia to her office. "What can i do for you Zack?", she asked.

    "Well, to put it simply… I need a Chief Engineer on the Koenig."

    Julia gave him a concerned look. "Karen?"

    "Derbely is going to be out for the next three months. At least." Zack frowned. "It's going to take her that long to heal."

    "I see." Julia sighed. "Well, do you have anyone in mind?"

    "Tom knows those systems inside and out," Zack said.

    "Tom's also helping to get our repairs done," Julia pointed out. "Still, if he's willing to do the temporary transfer, I'll see if Scotty can let him go."

    "Thanks," Zack answered. He remained seated in front of her. "How are you doing, by the way?"

    "Well, I'm alive," she said. "That's better than some. And I'm…" She thought of the word she wanted to use. "I'm bette rthan I was a ocuple of days ago, how about that?"

    "Okay. I just know how you felt about not being at 425TD."

    "I had to work through it," she confessed. "And I did."

    "Right." More silence filled the room for the moment. "Do you think they can do it?", Zack asked.

    "Those three? There's not much they can't do." Julia gave Zack a reassuring smile. "They'll get it done. Don't worry."

    "Yeah." Zack nodded. "I know I've got to think positive. I just wish we could all be there. That we could show those robed jerks what we think of them treating Meridina like this."

    "Oh, I know the feeling." Julia looked to her computer. "Now I've got to get to work finalizing more leave requests and going over crew replacement."

    "Yeah, I've got to do the same," Zack said. "I'll be in my quarters on-ship if you need me."





    Admiral Maran's arrangements hadn't stopped with the berth at the spaceport. As soon as Robert and the others secured their things, a Gersallian air-car pulled up. The vehicle was winged near the back, with space for five or six riders aside from the driver. An older man was in the driver's seat, gray-haired and bearded in a way that reminded Robert of some of his grandfather's war buddies that had come during reunions when he was just a child. "Captain Dale and others, yes?", he asked.

    Robert nodded. "Here."

    "The Admiral asked me to give you a ride," the older man said. "Things in the capital are tense right now. You might not get a ride if people figure you're Alliance."

    "We can change out of uniform if it'll help."

    "Willing to put away your multidevices? Everyone knows the military model ones."

    "Got any good replacements?", Lucy asked.

    "Afraid not," was the reply.

    "Then it's better that we don't." Lucy looked to Robert. "I've got things set up in case we need an emergency beam-out."

    He nodded. "Alright. We'll go in uniform for now, but we should probably change if we meet Meridina's family." Robert looked at the driver. "And you are?"

    "I'm Haklir," he answered. "I was a rate in the fleet for ages. I've known the Admiral since he was a ship commander. Man's saved my life a dozen times, easy. I'm one of many who'll come calling if the Admiral gives the call."

    "Well, Haklir, I'm Robert, and this is Angel and Lucy." Robert gestured to the others. "I know you're doing this for the Admiral, but thank you anyway."

    "You're welcome. Whenever you're ready."

    They settled into the vehicle. Haklir drove it out of the hanger area where the Rio Grande would remain. Lucy's multidevice let her remotely close the hanger behind them.

    Away from the spaceport, the car gained altitude and joined the thick aerial traffic over the city. Below Robert could see crowded streets. His senses helped him feel what was going on below. He could feel the anger of the crowds. They felt betrayed, angered, by a breaking of the ways that three thousand years of experience had turned into accepted tradition.

    "Is everyone joining the protests?", Angel asked.

    "A lot of people are, but not all are against you," Haklir said. "Some of them like the Alliance. And they think it's time that we accept not everyone's going to want to use their gifts the way we do." Haklir shook his head. "It's going to be worse tomorrow. The Order's agreed to a request from the Directorate. They're going to allow a holo-broadcast of the entire trial."

    "So the entire planet will see it live?"

    "The entire planet? The entire Interdependency. The Dorei too, probably. And I wouldn't be surprised if someone put it on the IU network."

    "Huh." Angel crossed her arms. "No pressure then, huh?"

    The vehicle flew onward, over the tall and majestic curved buildings that were shining like crystals in the light of Gersal's sun and over the pristine green parks outside the city center, bordered by towering residential arcologies. Haklir increased power to the anti-gravity field below the vehicle to increase its altitude, bringing them higher along with the winding road and pathways below. A winding river joined said roads, guiding them up toward the mountains.

    It was visible for minutes before they arrived. The Great Temple of the Order was a large circular structure, joined by similar smaller ones. The architecture was like nothing you could see on Earth. The circular buildings had elegant, beautiful designs engraved into their round surfaces. Light colors dominated their color scheme, and the roofs were a nice brownish-red, like stucco in some Human architectural styles.

    "The offices for the Council are this way," Haklir said, bringing them toward one of the vehicle parks. "I imagine you'll want to speak to Mastrash Ledosh. Good luck getting in with the way things are right now, but I'll be here reading over some things while you're busy."

    "Thank you, Haklir," Robert said.

    "You can thank the Admiral when this is over," the old man answered. "Now get going before those red robes get antsy about us."

    They climbed out of the vehicle together. Robert gave them both a look that they returned, as if to say "Here we go", before they walked together toward the main door ahead. There were door guards present with weapons already in hand, but not activated. The man and woman, with tanned complexions of similar shade, were clad in the red robes of the Temple Knights. It was the woman who said, "These are the private chambers of the Mastrasham of the Order and are restricted. Do you have business here?" Her eyes narrowed. Robert felt himself being scrutinized and knew they would feel the energy he held within, as they would Lucy. Indeed, the two seemed to be getting a little more tense.

    "You can say that." Robert looked to the others, who nodded. "I am Captain Robert Dale of the Alliance, commander of the Alliance Starship Aurora. I've come to see Mastrash Ledosh and to look into the treatment of one of my crew, Commander Meridina."

    The two never looked at each other, but Robert could sense they were communicating mentally. "Your presence is not desired, offworlder," the man said. "This is an affair of the Order, not your Alliance."

    "I'm not here to intervene as an Alliance officer. I'm here as Meridina's friend and student in the ways of swevyra," he answered. "I believe I have rights under your Code, correct?"

    They clearly didn't quite like that either. Finally the woman tilted her head in that way Meridina usually would when accepting a point. "You are correct. I will inform Mastrash Ledosh you have come." The woman closed her eyes.

    For seconds nothing happened. Angel gave Robert a pensive look. He could see why. Other red robes, and blue robes, and even a purple robe were all looking their way from around the Temple. They'd made an impression.

    The woman's eyes opened. "He is coming to escort you."

    "Thank you," Robert said, and he put a diplomatic smile on his face. It never hurt to be diplomatic, after all.
     
  14. Threadmarks: 2-09-2
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    Ledosh said nothing on the way in. It was plain to see from the haggard expression on his clean-shaven face, the worry in his eyes, that the situation was taxing him.

    The silence of the trip let the three examine the cream-white halls of the building, the art and calligraphy hanging from the walls, and the general ambience of the Order of Swenya's headquarters. It looked pre-industrial, almost, save for the electrical lighting set into the walls and the ceiling. The floor was fine wood tile with a repeating series of purple-hued carpets laid down, a few feet between each carpet. Doors on either side were marked with engraved tablets. Robert didn't bother using his multidevice to get the translations, they were too busy keeping up with Ledosh.

    He brought them to an office near the center of the building and opened the door with a wave of his hand. Inside the waiting area of the office was a blond woman. They recognized her within seconds. "Gina Invieve?", Robert asked.

    The humaniform Cylon nodded and smiled. She was wearing her blond hair in a large bun at the back of her head. A blue robe over a cream-white vest and loose pants were her clothing choice, and that made her purpose here obvious. "Meridina told me you had joined the Order," Lucy said.

    "Yes." Gina nodded. It was easy to feel the peace within her, mingled with joy. She was as happy as she could be. "I've found a place here that I'd never have anywhere else. Peace."

    "Gina is a fine student and apprentice," Ledosh noted. He continued on to the second door.

    The inner office had a high, curved desk, an example of fine wood carving. A computer display and flat keyboard were set into the top of it. For Robert it was a reminder that the Order was hardly ignorant of technology, even if a part of him couldn't help but think such technology out of place. Too many movies with warrior monks, he decided.

    The thought briefly brought further ones. Painful, but heartwarming, memories of sitting at the family TV and watching kung fu movies with his parents and sister and Julia. Sometimes Zack too, when he was around. He remembered teasing Julia about her martial arts fixation and it coming from all the movies they had been watching (he also remembered the grin on her face after she'd flipped him for the seventh time, proving it wasn't just silly movements). A tear started to form in his eye and Robert pushed it away.

    If Ledosh or Gina had felt that brief distraction, they said nothing. Ledosh did not take his desk but approached the wall and stopped. "You've come to help Meridina?", he asked.

    "We're here for her."

    "I see. She has truly won your loyalty." Ledosh's voice was sad. "If only she would put the blame on me. She should. I have always encouraged her with my views of the times we're in." He sighed. "This is my fault."

    "You didn't give us these powers," Lucy said. "And you didn't order her to train us."

    "I could have counseled her not to," Ledosh said. "Instead I let her, because I believed. And now it may be for nothing. I fear there is no helping her, and your presence may only serve to further condemn her. It is evident to all that you've been trained in your swevyra, and trained far beyond what simple control training would provide you."

    "Admiral Maran suggested that we might persuade the Council that Meridina showed us more to form our own, Human equivalent of the Order," Robert said.

    Ledosh's face curled into a half smile. "Maran has always been a thinker. It makes him a great commander. That is, perhaps, the only approach that has a hope of working. But you'll need Meridina's support."

    "Can we see her?", Lucy asked.

    "She's down in the dungeons right now. Access is restricted to myself and those of my rank only. It is a common procedure."

    "To throw someone in the dungeons?", Angel asked, a sarcastic look on her face. "Because I didn't peg your people for doing the dungeons and ye olde torture chamber thing."

    "It is more of a jail, I suppose, but the word in Gersallian translates to your 'dungeon' more accurately," Ledosh admitted. "And it's not common for someone accused of the violations Meridina stands accused of. It is, however, common for those we fear have fallen, or may fall, into darkness."

    "Right." Lucy breathed out in frustration. "She still hasn't shaken off what Amaunet did to her."

    "Correct. And that may condemn her tomorrow. And she seems ready for it. I fear recent events have broken her spirit."

    "Then we need to give her hope. Let us see her!", Lucy insisted.

    "I cannot," Ledosh insisted. "It would make things worse. Our relations with your Alliance are in jeopardy."

    "Meridina's in jeopardy too!"

    "Lucy, calm down," Angel insisted. "Remember, we can be there for her."

    "The Order will never vote to permit it," Ledosh said. "Even if I were to submit the vote to the Council, Goras and Karesl would crush it given the sentiments right now."

    "Then we'll go to the family," Lucy declared.

    "You would drag them into this?" Ledosh shook his head. "Her father is against you. Even if her mother and siblings rule for you, that may tear at the foundations of their family."

    "It seems to me that if they want us there and he resists, he'll be the one at fault," Lucy said.

    "Where can we find the Lumantala?", Robert asked.

    Ledosh drew in a breath of exasperation. "You will not accomplish anything by being here," he insisted.

    "Maybe, maybe not, but we have to try," Robert insisted. "We'll be respectful of your traditions, we're not here to cause a fuss. But we will support our friend…"

    "Our family," Angel insisted.

    Ledosh was quiet for several seconds. "Gina, you have seen where they are to go, yes?"

    "I have, Mastrash."

    "Take them to the Lumantala home, then. I will let Drentiya know you are coming."

    A sound came from the inner office. It was a polite knock against the door. Robert opened his senses that way, tried to feel what was there with his energy, and stopped when it felt like he was shining a flashlight against a flood lamp. The two powers there were great, as powerful as Ledosh's if not moreso.

    Gina stepped up and opened the door. Two men entered, wearing the same purple robe with blue trim as Ledosh's. Robert and the others recognized one as Mastrash Karesl. Meridina's father, was his thought.

    The other was a bald man, with a prominent beard of dark gray color. His dark brown eyes focused on Robert and then on Lucy. Robert thought he felt bewilderment and then a calm, pleased feeling come over the man.

    "Mastrash Karesl, Mastrash Goras." Ledosh nodded. "Interesting timing."

    "We heard that outsiders from the Alliance had come, and with developed swevyra." Karesl looked them over. "You have come on behalf of Meridina, then?"

    "We have," Robert confirmed. "We're here to support her."

    A sad look came over the man's face. "Your support may have been better applied at a distance."

    "Indeed." The bald man, Goras, looked satisfied at the situation. "You have no place here anyway. No standing. The Council will deny any request by the Alliance to involve itself in our affairs."

    'We're not here to do that," Robert said. "We're here as Meridina's comrades and friends to stand with her in her moment of need. Just as she's stood at our side when we've needed it."

    "So you say. But what can you offer her, truly? Your presence confirms the charges, undeniable as they already are. Your very presence will appear to our people to be Alliance snooping." Goras shook his head. "The Order Council must maintain its position on these matters. We must prevent even an iota of visible Alliance influence in our proceeding. The answer is no, and will always be no. Meridina will face our justice without you at her side."

    "This isn't about justice and you damn well know it," Lucy said. "This is about politics. You're against her because you're against the Alliance."

    Goras looked at Lucy with amusement. "Another of her students? Ah.. I see. You were the one with the lakesh. A weapon you are not fit to wield." There was clear heat in his tone on that last sentence. "If you were carrying it now I would strip you of it myself."

    Thank God she left it on the Rio, Robert thought.

    "Undoubtedly my daughter believed she was doing the right thing in training you," Karesl said. "I only wish she had encouraged you to come to us, and to be accepted into the Order. None of this would be necessary."

    "There are other causes in life than the Order," Robert said.

    "But none safer for a wielder of the swevyra," Karesl countered. "You are even now risking a fall to darkness. Especially you, Lucilla Lucero." He looked to Lucy, who was clearly angry. "I sense your anger now. Anger inevitably leads to hatred. Hatred is the source of suffering, and the wellspring of darkness. My daughter did you no favors when she failed to compel you to come to us."

    "I go where I decide."

    "And that is why you will one day need to be hunted down, like any other swevyra'kse," Goras said.

    "You know, you don't seem the 'no anger' type yourself, Goras," Angel noted. "I don't have mumbo jumbo mind powers, but I can tell when someone's letting a little too much get to him."

    "You mock our ways with every word you speak of them," he retorted.

    "If that's what you want to call it." Angel smirked. "So, does this thing with your Order's leadership have anything to do with us being the Bearers of the Dawn?"

    Robert felt Ledosh's surge of incredulity. And it was clear that Karesl and Goras were stunned to hear the phrase. "A delusion," Goras finally spat. "A fantasy. One that should not have been shared with you!"

    "Meridina didn't tell us anything about it," Angel retorted. "We found that out ourselves. Apparently we might be some prophesied heroes?"

    "It is a fiction!", Goras roared. "The Prophecy of the Dawn is nothing but some invention of the merchants looking to capitalize off of reputed writings found after the Fall!"

    "Well, hey, if it's a fiction, no need to be angry about it, right?" Angel smirked at him.

    "This is a waste of time with needless provocation," Karesl remarked. He looked to Ledosh. "I hope to see you in the morning. These three, I do not. They have no place at the trial."

    "Indeed," Goras hissed.

    The two men stomped out.

    Ledosh sighed and went to his desk, where he slumped into the chair. "I have work to do. Gina, if you would please?"

    "I'll go with them," Gina said. Left unspoken was the term and protect them.




    Haklir nodded at the extra passenger. Gina provided him the directions for their trip back into Jantarihal and to one of the arcology districts. The return trip was quiet at first, until Robert decided to say, "No, Lucy, we're not going back for your weapon."

    Lucy looked over at him, frowning. "What?"

    "I felt it in your head," he said. "Hell, I'm sure the entire Order did."

    "I don't like being unarmed, especially not around that creep Goras." Lucy frowned. "I wish someone would wipe that smug look off his face."

    "Mastrash Goras is one of the best duelists in the Order," Gina said from the front seat. "You wouldn't last more than ten seconds against him unless he let you."

    Lucy grunted in reply. But she didn't defy Gina's assessment.

    "I don't want to fight Goras, I just want Meridina out of this situation."

    "Unfortunately, I'm not sure that's possible," Gina said. "She's… upset a lot of people, and it's bringing all of the recent arguing about the Alliance to the forefront. Ledosh is afraid that if the Council acquitted her, it would cause a civil uprising by the Dissenters."

    "You mean a civil war," Angel said.

    "It probably wouldn't go that far." But there was something in the way Gina said it that made Robert think that no, it probably would.

    Haklir brought them in back to ground level in front of an arcology door. "Here you are," he said. "No need for thanks, like I said, courtesy of the Admiral."

    "I understand," Robert said.

    "But thanks anyways," Angel added, smiling at the older Gersallian man. "That's just how we roll."

    Haklir didn't quite seem to get the reference to "rolling", but he understood enough to smile back with a little nod before driving off.

    Gina led them into the arcology. The first floor was a beautiful inside courtyard with sculptures, flowers, and other things that made Robert think of a grand hotel lobby. They went to a lift that brought them to the 12th floor, where they crossed through a garden placed in the middle square-shaped section of the structure. "It's beautiful," Lucy said.

    "It's a common thing for arcologies," Gina replied. "The residents work together to keep their gardens and home spaces maintained." She brought them up to a door and triggered the chime.

    "Hello?," said a voice from inside via a speaker. A young woman, more of a girl who was probably around the age of seventeen or so by equivalence. "Who is it?"

    "Leniraya? I am Gina Invieve, and Mastrash Ledosh asked me to lead these people here."

    After a moment the door opened. A woman with short brown hair and the same blue eyes as Meridina stood there, wearing a simple sleeveless ponch-like top garment and what looked like slacks down to her ankles. She looked from Gina to the others. "You're… you're Meridina's crew, aren't you?"

    Robert nodded. "I'm Robert Dale."

    "Angela Delgado."

    "Lucy Lucero."

    "Come in," Leniraya said. She led them into an outer room, a parlor for greeting guests. The furnishings were comfortable enough. A number of people emerged from an inner room. One looked like a sister to Leniraya and Meridina, midway between them in age. A young man a little younger than Meridina stood behind her with blond hair. A girl with blond hair and teal-toned eyes stepped up to join Leni, taking her hand casually. "My sister is Gamaya and my brother is Qalkrsl. This is Penrine, my dearest."

    An older woman, blond-haired with gray at the temples, came out last. She was dressed in a long dark blue robe and had the same blue eyes as her daughters. She looked to them and nodded. "Hello. I am Drentiya."

    "Meridina's mother." Robert nodded. "I'm Robert Dale, this is…"

    I know your names, was the telepathic response. Leni shared them with me. Please, come to our family chamber.

    The three shared looks. We don't want to impose…

    We know you consider Meridina family, Drentiya said mentally. And I feel that belief in your hearts. That makes you Lumantala. Please, come and enjoy a warm meal. Traveling always takes more out of a body and soul than we think.

    It was a gentle reminder that Robert hadn't eaten in hours. He felt his stomach gurgle quietly, as if happy at the thought of a meal, and with a quick glance and not from the others he stepped forward to join them.




    Dinner was had in a dining room much like a Human family might have, with a round table of what looked and felt like wood. The Gersallian dishes were things none of the eaters had tried before, but while the tastes could be eclectic, they were palatable. More than palatable in some cases.

    When the meal was over and they returned to the main family room, Robert said, "That… Leyoomi?"

    "Liyume," Leniraya corrected gently.

    "He has trouble with Gersallian," Lucy said, an amused grin on ehr face.

    Robert shot Lucy an irritated look. "Yes. That. It reminds me of the dumplings my grandmother used to make."

    "So you enjoyed it." Drentiya smiled gently at him. I am pleased I gave you that comfort. Please, take a seat."

    The seats were low-backed sofas and chairs, with one chaise longue that Drentiya took to. Robert and Angel took one of the two loveseat-like sofas and Lucy a low chair. Leniraya and Penrine took the other loveseat and Gamaya her own chair. "You've come to us because you wish to attend Meridina's trial," Drentiya said.

    "We want to be there for her."

    "Maybe you shouldn't, though." Leniraya frowned, although not at them. "You are both proof of the charges against her."

    "If Meridina were giving us instruction to help form a Human counterpart to the Order, though, wouldn't that be acceptable?"

    "Perhaps," Drentiya said. "Sadly this is not about the truth. It is about the politics. Meridina is the lever the Dissenters wish to use to split us from the Alliance. They may succeed, whether or not she is convicted, or even if you are there or not."

    "I think they should come with us," said Gamaya. "Once the others on the Council see them, and see that they're not going bad… they'll see Meridina was right to train them. How many might have died if they hadn't been in the Senate?"

    "Your father and his friends will fight that."

    "I'm sorry," Robert said to her. "We don't mean to be a source of contention in your home. If you think it'll make things better that we leave, we will. We just want to be there to help Meridina in any way we can."

    "I know, Robert." Drenitya nodded. "And I am prepared to give you that permission. But first, I want to ask you… what will you do if they rule against her?"

    "I'm not sure what we can do." Robert looked to Lucy. "Lucy?"

    "If they expel her, we offer her a place with us," Lucy said.

    "And if it's more?"

    The thought made Robert sick. It made him angry, too. But he could sense this was what Drentiya was concerned with. "If there's nothing we can do, there's nothing we can do," he said.

    "And you, Lucy Lucero?" Drentiya turned to her. "You are the strongest evidence in either direction, for my daughter or for my husband. If you appear prone to darkness, Meridina will be held accountable, but if you control your feelings and behave as they would expect you to, it will make her choices seem wise."

    Lucy was silent for a moment. She still felt anger, anger at this whole damn crazy world for what they were doing to Meridina, who only wanted to be the best of them that she could be.

    But she remembered that cold darkness and wanted nothing to do with it. And she knew what Drentiya meant. For Meridina's sake, she couldn't be angry. She had to sit there, and look at Goras' smug stupid face, and keep a neutral stoic look on her face like Meridina always had and not think about how fun it would be to wipe that smug stupid look off Goras' smug stupid face….

    Leniraya giggled. That caused Lucy to look at her with bewilderment before realizing that, like her mother and sister, Leni was a mind-reader. And she's just heard every bit of that thought. A blush came to Lucy's cheeks.

    "Yes," Drentiya said. A mirthful little smile crossed the Gersallian matriarch's lips. "You must be that way. Quiet. Calm. This word you use… 'stoic'. You must be that."

    "Yeah," Lucy conceded. "I'll do my best."

    "No, you will not," Drentiya remarked. There was steel in her quiet tone. "A swevyra'se does not do their best no more than they try. They do."

    "Right." Lucy nodded. "I'll be stoic. I will be a rock."

    "Good. And thus, you will be with us tomorrow."

    Lucy smiled softly. And then the smile turned sarcastic. She looked over at Angel, who seemed more interested in stealing a second to play footsies with Robert, who was grinning amiably at it. "What about her?", she said. "Angel's the hothead."

    "What about her? She has no active swevyra. She can call Goras a kenyak and growl that his ears are flapping against his backside, the others will not care so much." A smirk came to Meridina's mother that nearly brought Lucy to giggles. "Most will think her correct."

    "What's a kenyak?", asked Robert.

    "It's a beast of burden," answered Qalkrsl.

    "Oh. Oh." Lucy grinned.

    So did Angel. "A jackass," she said. "I get to be the one who calls him a jackass."

    "With his head up his ass," Lucy added. "Lucky you."

    A round of chuckling and giggling accompanied that. It stopped when everyone heard the door to the residence open.

    Barely ten seconds later Mastrash Karesl strode into the family room. He noted the presence of Robert, Angel, and Lucy. A look of anger briefly came to his eyes that was frozen into nothingness by the steady look of Drentiya. It was clear the two were in mental conversation, while their children and guests looked on with patience to see the outcome.

    Karesl's face became a stoic mask. "I see." His eyes met his daughters and son. "And you agree? Despite what it might mean for your sister's fate?"

    "I do," Gamaya said, insistent. "They're good people. Everyone should see it."

    "Meridina is family to them too!" Leniraya met her father's look with confidence. "So they should be a part of this!"

    "They're good people, Father." Qalkrsl nodded. "I am for them."

    Karesl nodded at their answered. "As a Mastrash of the Order, I am against them being there. As a believer in the Interdependency, I am against it." His look softened. "As family… I am convinced. I have no objection." Karesl looked to them. "I, too, will accept you in joining our family to stand with Meridina tomorrow."

    Robert nodded back to him. "Thank you, Mastrash. We will behave accordingly, and do everything we must to help Meridina."

    "Do you have somewhere to stay the night?", he asked.

    "We were going to head back to the Rio Grande," Robert answered. "It has bunks."

    "We have beds," Drentiya said. "And a guest sleeping room."

    The three exchanged looks. And they didn't need telepathy to know what their collective response was.

    "Thank you, ma'am," Robert said. "We humbly accept."




    Given how things were going, Robert shouldn't have been shocked that he started having the nightmares again.

    Some of it was the same as always. The Reich captain Lamper, but with strange blue eyes. The cybernetic Turian in the Citadel Council chambers. The girl with the red-and-gold vest and pants brimming with out of control power, her amber eyes solid white with energy. She called out to him as the power coming from within her started to become overwhelming…

    Then he saw a temple high in the mountains. It looked Gersallian, but only just, with sharper lines to its structure. A large door barred the entrance and warning signs were engraved into it.

    Robert looked around at a circle of people. Twelve in number, under dark hoods, and each sporting a weapon in hand. He couldn't make out what they were saying, but it sounded like an oath of some sort. He looked down at an emblem on the floor, a hexagon shape with a blade emblem fixed inside of it.

    There was a howl, in the air, feral and loud. A four-legged creature moved through the shadows. As his eyes tracked it, he could hear two words being whispered faintly. Too faintly, though, as he couldn't make out what they were.

    He felt Angel's hand grasp his. He looked over at her. She looked back, her hazel eyes intent on him, and said two words.

    "Wake up."

    A moment later she repeated those words. And Robert was no longer in the dream. He was in the dark guest sleeping room in the Lumantala home. The spare bed squeaked a little underneath from the stress on its metal frame. Angel was still gripping his hand. "You were dreaming again," she said.

    Robert sighed and laid his head back. "How loud did I scream this time?"

    "You didn't," she said softly. "You just kept mumbling something over and over. But I couldn't make it out."

    "Mmm." Robert felt like twin weights were hanging on his eyelids. He closed his eyes. "I'm sorry for waking you up," he said. "We should get back to sleep."

    Angel gave him no argument on that matter.




    By the time the two of them settled back into sleep, it was Lucy who couldn't sleep. She sat up and looked around at the dark room. Seeing Robert and Angel were sound asleep, Lucy was careful in going out the door. Her footfalls barely made a sound as she followed her memory of the place out to the greeting room and then to the front door. It wasn't locked and gave her no problems in getting out.

    Lucy stepped into the garden area. The flowers planted there had a sweet, soothing fragrance, and with all of the foreboding she felt inside of her, it was welcome. She found a place near the flowers and sat on the ground. She crossed her legs loosely, trying to avoid constricting the blood flow to them, and closed her eyes again. She started to fade away into sleepiness in the field.

    Not that she fell asleep. She didn't let herself. She thought of what was to come in theo morning and focused on herself. She would have to control her anger, her feelings, so that Meridina was not punished for them.

    A knot of anger was still strong inside of Lucy's heart. Meridina had been a shining knight to her, a brave and selfless fighter who worked to save lives just as the rest of them had. It was painful enough seeing that tarnished by Meridina's lingering doubts and fears from what Amaunet did to her. But now she had been betrayed by her own people. The people who had started a murder spree in the Alliance Senate, and now her own Order was going to strip away everything she'd worked for.

    Anger won't solve this, Lucy thought to herself. It's distracting me. I have to let it go. She drew in a breath, then another, and tried to focus on other things.

    A noise was the first indication she wasn't alone. She felt the energy draw nearer and knew who had come to join her. "Mastrash Karesl," Lucy said simply. She wouldn't let anger into her words.

    Karesl sat down at the next set of plants, putting about six or seven feet between them. He assumed a meditative position as well. "It seems none can sleep tonight."

    "I'm betting we have a lot on our mind," she answered.

    "Hrm. I can feel your frustration with my people. And the anger you are suppressing."

    "Do you blame me? Meridina is everything you should aspire to. Instead you're tearing her down, right after she helped save the Alliance Senate."

    "The timing is not something I prefer, yes. But she has grievously violated the Code through your extensive training. That must be addressed."

    "She was trying to give us direction with our power."

    "She was trying more than that, unfortunately." Karesl sighed. "I suspect she was motivated by the prophecy of the Dawn Bearers. She and Ledosh have been convinced you and your shipmates are the Dawn Bearers of the prophecy. I'm not sure how much she told yo…"

    "Nothing," Lucy said. "Just… that she was upset that we might not be."

    "So she doubts that too. Hrm. I would be satisfied if not for that being wrapped up in the general doubt she suffers from."

    "So you don't like the theory?"

    "I have always considered the Prophecy of the Dawn Bearers to be questionable authenticity. It was Ledosh who convinced her we were in those times."

    "She didn't say what this prophecy was about."

    "There is little point going into detail. It was recorded that Swenya had a vision near the end of her life and wrote upon it. But the veracity has never been confirmed. There are indications that it was Reshan's prophecy and not Swenya's."

    "And so all of this is going to happen over a dumb prophecy that may not be true?", Lucy asked.

    "No. This goes deeper than that. The future of our people is at stake here. I do not believe the Alliance is our best future. My daughter feels otherwise. Tomorrow, we will see which of our visions plays out." Karesl looked at her intently. "I harbor no ill will toward you, Lucilla. I can sense the genuine virtues in your swevyra. Had you chosen to join the Order, this day may not have come."

    "No, it wouldn't have. Because we would have failed at Gamma Piratus, and the Nazis would have interuniversal drives and Darglan technology," Lucy said.

    "Perhaps. But regardless, the fight to come has been due to the actions of both sides. May those with the strongest convictions win." Karesl stood up and looked down at her. His voice lost some of its power and became gentle. "And whatever happens… thank you for being here in my daughter's time of need. I will stand against her errors, but I do not want to see her alone, and I do not wish her destroyed."

    Without another word, he left.




    Underneath the Great Temple, Meridina tossed and turned in her cell. The chains binding her rattled as she moved over and over. Inside her being, her mind, she felt like she would drown. She felt Amaunet inside of her again. She saw the carnage she'd inflicted. She saw her blade cut into Lucy's flesh and bite into her neck.

    Lucy!

    Meridina woke with a start at that. Her cell was dark and the electrical lighting was barely functional.

    Meridina sat up and focused on herself. She felt so much doubt, so much uncertainty, that it was becoming too painful to carry.

    This is my fault she thought to herself. "I was so blinded by my desire to be the one to find the Dawn Bearers. Now look at what has happened."

    No one answered. Which was to be expected.

    If only she didn't have this darkness inside of her. Nothing she had tried had destroyed it. Ignoring it wasn't working. And now it had put her life in jeopardy.

    Meridina didn't go back to sleep. She meditated the rest of the night.




    After getting up and going through her morning routines Julia headed to the Lookout for breakfast. Her digital reader was in her hand as she enjoyed the waffles and breakfast sausage that Hargert's kitchen staff had prepared for her. Fully half of the crew was now off-loaded, taking leave time or, in some cases, getting re-assigned to other posts. Much of the crew would be off the ship by the end of the week to get the same combination of leave time or "shore" postings to fill the time before they launched again. It was with great pleasure that Julia signed and filed the medical leave approval for Jarod, allowing him to return to New Liberty to see to his family.

    "You seem nervous, Commander."

    Julia looked up to see Hargert observing her not-so-empty plate. "Usually you are finished before now," he noted.

    "Sorry, I'm just... " She sighed. "I'm just wondering what the Admiral wants to see me for."

    "Ah. I see. Do you have reason to be concerned?"

    Julia nodded sadly. "Well, Hargert, I was absent from a critical operation and used my command codes to gain access to an exclusion zone that I didn't have official orders to access. So… yes, I think I have reasons."

    That won her an understanding nod. "Well, I'm sure it's not that. You brought us back Mister Jarod. The Admiral is an understanding man."

    "He is," Julia agreed. "Unfortunately, Minister Hawthorne and Admiral Davies are not." She checked her watch. "I'd better get to my office to finish filing things, I'm supposed to be meeting the Admiral at 1130."

    "Of course, of course." The old German put an understanding hand on her shoulder. "Just remember, it's usually not as bad as your fears think it to be."

    I hope not was the reply in her head.
     
  15. Threadmarks: 2-09-3
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    That morning everyone took time to get ready. Robert, Lucy, and Angela changed into civilian clothes, essentially shirts and jackets and trousers. They still looked different than the vests and robes that were the common garments of the Gersallians for this occasion. Karesl left first. As a Council Mastrash he had duties for the trial. The others took a commuter vehicle summoned by Drentiya.

    Today Jantarihal was quiet. Too quiet, Robert thought. Like the whole city was holding its breath and waiting to see what happened today. And if the wrong thing happened… a brief image tormented him, an image of Jantarihal in flames from the Dissenters and pro-Alliance forces fighting their differences out in the streets.

    Leniraya shot him a sad glance. Robert had the feeling his fears were shared among the others.

    The vehicle left them at the entrance to the main structure of the Great Temple. Robed men and women, cream-colored robes and blue robes and green robes and the occasional rare purple robe, were all entering amid two lines of stern-faced red robes. Four of those split off from the others to escort the Lumantala family into the building. The foyer was large and expansive, filled with artifacts of the Order's history, and a massive set of double doors stood before them.

    "This place is more stadium than temple," Lucy murmured as they entered the doors. She'd been here once before, but for Robert and Angel it was their first sight of the Council and Assembly Chamber. They gazed around at the seats, all of them starting to fill up.

    "Okay, so it's a large stadium."

    Robert nodded. He looked down at the round stone table. "That's where the Council sits."

    "Yep." Lucy looked on to the far alcove in the structure, where the Relics of Swenya remained. She kept her eyes on them even while the Lumantala family took their reserved seats in the first row. There were more than enough for all, including the trio from the Aurora.

    But Lucy wasn't ready to sit yet. Seeing that people were being allowed to walk around the Council area at the moment, she prompted Robert and Angel to follow her to the alcove. They all looked up at the painting of the dark-haired woman with the brilliant shining sword. She was still standing over a fallen group of dark-robed by men. "Swenya," Robert guessed.

    "Yeah. And her stuff."

    He looked into the glass cases beneath the painting. The tattered robes and the sandals were one thing. The round-shaped hilt was another. "That's an odd design for a lakesh," he said.

    "Well, it's three thousand years old," Lucy said. She gazed at it and wondered, not for the first time, if it still worked. She felt her hand moving toward it. Her power tentatively reached out to the weapon, as if she could sense if it were intact or not.

    Robert pulled her away. "It looks like the Council is coming in," he said. "Let's go."

    They walked back from the alcove and to the first floor seats. Angel was holding their seats in reserve; they would be at the end of the family, by Gamaya, with Lucy beside her and Robert between Lucy and Angela. Gina Invieve sat beside Angela. They hadn't seen her since the prior night, but Robert got the idea she hadn't gone far since then.

    The Council consisted of thirteen Mastrash-rank members of the Order. The eldest one was clearly held as the leader, or at least the senior, of their numbers. Ledosh found a seat near them. Goras and Karesl sat across from them. The elderly man was handed a heavy rod with a lead end on one side. He pounded it upon the table. "The Council will come to order."

    All speaking stopped. Everyone made their way to seats if they didn't already have them.

    "He is Mastrash Maklir," whispered Gamaya. "The eldest of the Council members."

    Robert nodded in reply and waited for Maklir to say or do more.

    He didn't have to wait long. The old man started to speak again once the clattering of footfalls stopped. "We are faced with a grave occasion. One of our own has been accused of treason against the Code, the Order, and the ways of our people. Temple Knights, bring forth the accused."

    A smaller door to their right, and thus to the left of the relic alcove, opened. Two red-robed Knights walked through. Behind and between them was Meridina. She was back in her blue robes as a knight, wearing a cream-colored tunic beneath the robes and matched by baggy trousers the same color as the tunic. Her limbs were in chains again. To the others, she looked contemplative more than anything. Behind her came two more of the red-robed figures, all four leading her into a position in front of her family. A chair was provided for her to sit in.

    Robert and Lucy exchanged looks. They could feel her feelings, and it was clear she had no hope for what was to come.

    "Meridina, daughter of Karesl and Drentiya, daughter of the Lumantala Family, Knight of the Order of Swenya, you stand formally accused of treason against the Order. Do you understand this?"

    "I do."

    Maklir nodded. "Then we will proceed. Mastrash Goras will direct the prosecution. Mastrash Ledosh, as the mentor of this woman, I call upon you to defend her."

    Each man nodded. Ledosh and Goras stood from their chairs and walked away to opposite ends of the table. Ledosh took up a position near Meridina, close enough that Robert and the others could speak to him if desired.

    "Then let us begin." Maklir nodded to Goras.

    The bald man stood. He looked from Meridina to Robert to Lucy. "My brothers and sisters, people of Gersal, we face a crossroads for our people. In these times, we must consider what is best for our future. For thousands of years we have deliberated with one another on the best way to find a solution to whatever we faced." Goras held a hand toward Meridina. "But this woman decided to take that choice upon herself. She decided to defy the traditions and ways our Order has kept for millennia." Goras swept a hand out. "There are no words for this arrogance. Mitigation, perhaps, should she reveal that she was ordered into it by a superior."

    At that a brief tumult came from the assembled. It was called to order.

    "What was her crime, you ask?", Goras continued. "Was it enough that she abandoned our Order's neutrality and joined the Alliance Navy? No. She went beyond that. She violated one of our most important rules. And the proof of this is seated before you now, at this very moment!"

    With that, Goras pointed to Robert and Lucy.

    "These two have awakened their swevyra, and Meridina has trained them in our arts. She did so without the Council's approval. She has shared our most sacred laws, our most important teachings, with outsiders!"

    Cries went up from the assembled. Goras basked in them. Robert found the image confusing and distasteful; Goras seemed more politician than contemplative warrior-monk. And his rhetoric seemed to be nothing but a flip of Pensley's or Davies'.

    "Some may cry and say this is no crime," Goras continued. "They will point out that our people trained the Dorei in the arts of swevyra. They forget that we punished them as well, when their desire to train outstripped their wisdom. And they trained existing organizations! Brotherhoods and fellowships and religious institutions that already knew the need for discipline and control. Whom has Meridina trained?" Goras again pointed toward Robert and Lucy. "They are not in a brotherhood, not a temple. They are former renegades, former renegades given legitimacy by the same Alliance that seeks to ensnare our people!"

    There were more cries. Not all were supportive. Robert could feel the raw tension in the crowd. Even these trained Knights and followers of the Order held strong feelings on the matter, and many were against Meridina.

    "Look at her," Goras said, his voice lowering as his eyes bored down on Meridina. "Feel her swevyra, now weakened by darkness. Remember the day that the daughter of Karesl forged her lakesh, and how bright she was, how noble. See now what has been done to her by those who twisted her against her people!" Goras now glared toward Ledosh. Ledosh returned the glare with a quiet, stoic expression.

    Meridina said nothing. She kept her head bowed.

    "It is sad to see such a promising swevyra'se fall so far." Goras walked back toward the central table. He met Karesl's eyes, and his ally did not flinch. "It weighs my very essence to see that potential destroyed. That is the cost we have paid, that my colleague, her noble father, has paid for the agenda of a few prophecy-mongers! Because now we have not a noble swevyra'se with a strong destiny before her, but a broken Knight, every moment growing closer to becoming a swevyra'kse."

    Goras turned back to Meridina. "But I cannot allow my sympathy for how you have been deceived to divert me from the enormity of your crimes! You are wanting, Knight Meridina! You are a threat to everything we hold dear! You have undermined millennia of our ways!", Goras raged, a finger leveled at Meridina. Some voices gave approval, others did not. "You have paved the way for the subjugation of our entire species to outside influences that can only corrupt us! You are an enemy, a traitor to this Order, to the Code, to the people of Gersal. I will see you tested! Personally!"

    The Chamber quieted. Robert could feel Meridina's family become afraid and horrified. "Tested?", Robert asked Ledosh, his voice just high enough in volume to reach Ledosh's ear.

    He turned to face Robert. The older Gersallian's expression was drawn with horror. "He wishes to test her, power against power, lakesh against lakesh."

    "A duel?", Lucy asked.

    "A duel to see if she is in control. If she can resist the darkness that has sprouted within her. And if she fails…" Ledosh gave them a sad look. "...he will certainly kill her."

    Robert and Lucy exchanged worried glances.

    "Of course, the Council must first approve," Goras finally continued, having let his words sink in. "So I will let them judge." He bowed to the Council table and stepped back, giving Ledosh one final glare.

    Ledosh matched it. After a moment of silence he stepped forward. "If it pleases the Council?"

    Maklir nodded in reply.

    "We must recognize the true reason we are here today," Ledosh said. "We do indeed stand at a crossroads. Along one path is a future unlike any we have imagined in millennia. The legacy of our ancient benefactors, the Darglan, has been provided to us. The Alliance is a part of that legacy. Swenya foretold long ago that this day would come. And now that it has…" There was both supportive voices and opposition in the seating, and for a moment Ledosh quieted. "...now that it has, there are voices crying 'No! No, we must be alone!'" Ledosh now looked to Goras and Karesl in turn. "They claim that our people must stand apart. That our ways are threatened by being too close to outsiders." Ledosh waited a moment, letting that sink in, before declaring, "Arrogance! That is what it is, sheer arrogance, and it is not befitting our people!" A couple of voices accused Ledosh of the same. "The Alliance is not perfect, but it represents the best hope for the triumph of our ideals, for the victory of Light that Swenya foretold three thousand years ago."

    Ledosh turned to Meridina. "And here she is. The one Knight brave enough to stand up and risk everything for that dream. Meridina was there at the beginning. She knows the opportunity before us. And she has acted with faith and nobility in reaching for it. Her training of Robert Dale and Lucy Lucero is not a betrayal of the Code, but its very essence! She has imparted the wisdom Swenya handed to us to the Human species, as Swenya herself would have done. And she has done so with people who have repeatedly spent their sweat and their blood to protect the innocent! Look at what they did with the Darglan legacy, my brethren! The Alliance is the culmination of that work, work that started with the most noble pursuit a being can have; using their skills and talents in the cause of Light, to protect the innocent and lift them from danger. They were not lording over helpless worlds like pirates, they were giving their time, their devotion, to breaking the chains of slaves and freeing the oppressed! To saving the lives of others! Their deeds strengthened the Flow of Life. And that is the very definition of what it is to be a swevyra'se."

    Ledosh now held his hand out toward them as well. "Sense them, my brethren. Feel the purity of their swevyra. There is no darkness there. There is Light. Tell me you would not have seen the same done, that you would have ignored their potential as some would say Meridina should have done."

    Ledosh turned about again. He walked up to Meridina. She was evidently miserable, but it was clear her mentor's words were moving her despite everything. "There is now darkness in Meridina, yes," Ledosh conceded. "It was put there by a malevolent being who seized her very body from her control, who separated mind and soul from body and swevyra, to control the latter for its own cruel and twisted means. Can you not feel how Meridina has suffered, brethren? Goras wants her tested, but what he really wants is her death, because with it he might strike at the Alliance he abhors. All this, despite the facts of what she has endured. She needs healing, not testing. And I know you will see that before we are through." Ledosh nodded to Meridina, who gave a small nod in reply. He turned to Maklir and nodded as well.

    Maklir smacked his rod to the table. "Mastrash Goras. You may present your evidence."

    Goras rose again. He was frowning at Ledosh. But at the right moment he turned to face Maklir. "I will start by presenting the video evidence. By rights it is the only evidence I need. It comes from the recent treacherous attack upon the Alliance Senate, and it will show the extent to which the accused trained her students beyond the instructions and laws of this Council." With a press of a button to his wrist, Goras activated a giant holo-screen above the table. Robert recognized the Senate camera footage and frowned. It had spread out too damned fast.

    Lucy flew into it, having been blasted back by an initially-unseen foe, who closed with Lucy and began to duel her, lakesh against lakesh. Robert's feats during the fight were also partly visible. Goras slowed the playback to make a point. "Observe the video closely…"




    Julia arrived at the terminal at precisely 1125 hours, showered again and changed into a fresh uniform and with her long blond hair pulled back into a bun at the back of her head.

    The main dock terminal was a sea of activity, with uniformed and civilian personnel milling around, on their way to one ship or another to do everything from inspect repairs or ensure supply delivery. Signs pointed to various clusters of docks, and lifts provided transport to those that couldn't be walked to from the terminal.

    Admiral Maran was waiting for her near the lifts. He motioned her over and she walked straight over "Admiral, sir," she said. "Good morning."

    "Good morning, Commander." His expression was solid, on the quiet side, but she didn't see any reason to immediately worry. "You'll be happy to know Robert and the others are at Meridina's trial as we speak."

    "They got in?"

    "They did." Maran stepped up to the lift. The gray doors slid open, admitting them into the cylinder-shaped lift. After they stepped in Maran said, "Observation Deck, Dock 20."

    "Isn't Dock 20 the high security construction dock?", Julia asked. Already the lift was moving upward.

    "It is. I have something to look into there."

    By now the lift had cleared the terminal proper. It was now in a transparent tube. Julia could look out at the entirety of the Fleet Base and its series of connected structures and docks. The lift tube was but one thread of the great spider's web of transport tubes and solid connector structures filled with storehouses and machine shops. In one direction, away from the Base, the Earth continued to spin slowly below them. By habit Julia's eyes focused on the heart of the North American continent and to the wide fields of Kansas. Even on the Earth of the Federated Stars, where megalopolises had devoured entire coastlines and regions, Kansas was still a sea of green and brown framed by the Kansas City Metropole on the east.

    Maran saw the look in her eye. "You're thinking of home."

    "I'm thinking that five years ago, I never imagined I could see it from space," she replied quietly. She turned away from the Earth and toward the base itself. The central structure around which the webs of transport tubes, open docks, and closed docks were located was a rough ziggurat shape over a disc. "How many people live here again?", she asked.

    "As in semi-permanent residence? Something along the lines of three hundred and sixty thousand," Maran said. "Although the total capacity is closer to a million. It's not the Rings of Gersal, but it's still impressive."

    "You're worried about what's going on back there," observed Julia. "I mean, with Meridina's trial and all of this political upheaval over the Dissenters."

    "Always," Maran said. "My people… we're not perfect, Commander. For all that we like to play up being in harmony and balance with one another, we can be arrogant and curt with other societies. We think we have all the answers." He sighed. "Sometimes it's easy to think that way. But I know we don't."

    "I guess nobody's perfect," Julia said. And she drew in a breath. "About A4P5…"

    "We'll get to that," he said.

    The transparent section disappeared. They had moved into one of the closed dock structures, used for high security construction. After staring at more gray bulkhead framed by lighter lines for another half of a minute, they were admitted onto the observation deck for Docks 20 through 25. "This way," Maran said, leading her out onto a hall carpeted in beige and burgundy. As they walked along other officers and personnel went by here and there. It was about a hundred feet of walking before they got to a door marked "Observation Lounge 20-21".

    Inside was a well-furnished lounge, complete with a wet bar (currently unmanned), a long table for meals or appetizers, and several soft chairs and sofas. The entire room was twice the size of the Aurora's Lookout and looked like a massive one storey box built into the docks outside of the transparent aluminum windows. Straight ahead, between the windows, was a single wall of gray. "I guess these make for some good parties?", she inquired, trying to show some levity.

    "Commissioning and launching engagements, certainly," Maran said. "Senators, Councilmen, Defense Ministry officials, and the command officers usually." He stepped further in, giving a view of both docks from where he was standing. "You're concerned about A4P5?"

    "I admit I am, sir," Julia said. "I had no authority to enter the Earth Exclusion Zone, but I did anyway, and in a private vessel of questionable origin."

    "Have you arranged to have your code changed with Fleet Security yet?"

    "Already done."

    "Good. Then there's no loose ends." Maran looked back to her and grinned slightly. "After all of the trouble with the Senate attack, I took the liberty of writing out orders for you to retrieve Mister Jarod. They were backdated appropriately. I'll have to pretend to scold someone in Communications for the failure to have them logged properly."

    Julia refused to let herself sigh with relief. "Thank you, sir."

    "You took a risk to bring one of our people home, Commander," Maran said. "And during the entire operation you made the sort of on-the-spot command decisions I trained you to make. Which is why you're here today. Look out the windows."

    Julia turned to the dock to their right first. The windows had '21" written above them. Within the dock she found a ship, still under construction. But its size and shape was still recognizable.

    Quite recognizable.

    She went across to the Dock 20 window. The same rough shape was under construction there too. The profile was a little different, but… yes, it was still the same.

    The two ships were a kilometer long, easy, and they had the familiar flat-X four nacelle layout for their warp drives. And there was no mistaking the profile, even if it looked like some fine details might not be the same.

    "You're…" Julia looked to him with surprise. She smiled. "You're building ships based off of the Aurora. Directly off of her."

    Maran nodded. He was smiling too. "Yes. With the success in building the Discovery-class ships, we took the next step. Granted, the war has forced us to adjust our plans somewhat. Half of the ships we're building as a first flight will be built as dedicated battlecruisers, with heavy armament. Our designers have been assisted greatly by your scans of that 'Avenger' ship you fought at C1P2 Earth." He nodded to Dock 21. "That's the first of them over there. Our designers decided to name her and her class the Excalibur."

    Julia smiled softly. "Well, it sounds cool for a warship name. And it fits, I guess." She looked back out at the vessel in Dock 20. "I guess this one will be more like the Aurora?"

    "Yes. An Advanced Star Cruiser, with multi-mission operational capability."

    Julia nodded. Her eyes scanned the vessel more closely this time, making out the details of the hull more closely where it was complete. She found the ship's name already painted on the hull, at the spot halfway between the bow and the bridge on the primary hull's dorsal side just as it was on the Aurora.

    Her eyes didn't widen, but a grin came to her face as she read the name quietly.

    A.S.V. Enterprise.

    "You're building an Enterprise," she said.

    "It's a storied name in Human history," Maran remarked. "We have a similar ship name, Inrelen'se. Both terms mean a great undertaking requiring effort and dedication. The planners and I thought it appropriate for the vessel and the design."

    "Scotty is going to love this," Julia said. She felt her smile widen at the thought of his reaction.

    "She's going to be ready for her shakedown by the end of the year," Maran continued. He looked over at her. "And I want you to take her out."

    Now Julia's eyes widened. Her mouth half-opened in surprise as she looked to Maran. "You… you mean you want me to put her through her paces, to test her out for…"

    "No, I don't," Maran said. "At the end of this year, I want to have a launching party in this lounge where I introduce you as Captain Julia Andreys, Commanding Officer of the Alliance Starship Enterprise."




    There was a clear tension in the air of the Council and Assembly Chamber when Goras finished presenting the video from the Senate and every element of it he found important. "As you can see, brethren, the charges are irrefutable. Meridina has trained students outside of the discipline of the Order. This is a violation of tradition, a violation of the Code, and an act we must punish." Goras looked up to the spectators. "Of course, this alone does not merit testing, you will argue. And I agree! It does not!" He pointed to Meridina. "It is the darkness within her that does. Regardless of where it has come from, whether from her own arrogance or from this Goa'uld entity, we all know the dangers of darkness within oneself. It twists, it corrupts, and it seduces. And it seduces the most quickly when supported by arrogance and self-importance."

    Goras turned and faced Meridina. "So what are you, Knight Meridina? Are you a follower, performing your acts at the behest of a superior? Or are you that arrogant to take upon yourself the authority to circumvent this Council?"

    "I did what my swevyra guided me to," Meridina answered. Her voice was quiet and reserved.

    "Quite the answer. An answer I would expect." Goras stepped closer to her. "Tell me, then. What was the purpose you discerned for this? What is it your swevyra guided you to do?"

    Meridina met his look. "To train them to use their powers, so that they could fulfill their destinies."

    "And those destinies would be?"

    "Their destinies," Meridina replied, "as the Bearers of the Dawn, foreseen by Swenya."

    The spectators erupted in a babble of surprised voices. Shouts of disbelief and disapproval, audible gasps at the idea, they all came down into the center of the chamber.

    "The Bearers of the Dawn," Goras said. He looked away from her and to the Council. His eyes focused on Maklir. "The Council has spoken, at some length, on whether or not Swenya's prophecy is at hand. We have not had a definitive decision on the matter. Yet you would decide that it must be so?"

    "That is disingenuous," Ledosh interrupted. "The Council has in fact supported that interpretation of prophecy from Swenya. It was a Council decision to place Meridina on the Aurora."

    "A decision influenced by the dedication of a minority," Goras insisted. He lifted a hand dismissively. "The scholarship on the authenticity of the prophecy has long been debated. It is hardly a convincing reason to blatantly ignore our laws. Which you, Knight Meridina, have most assuredly done." Goras turned to face her again. "And now there is a darkness within you. A core of fear and anger and guilt that festers in your swevyra. We are told it is from the Goa'uld. I would ask you if this is true. Because I can see the conscious evasion of our traditions and laws as something to prompt such feelings. And that doubt that we all feel in you now… where might that have come from? Surely not from the Goa'uld, for you are free of it. Have you finally realized your error?" Goras motioned to her. "Please, answer."

    "My doubt…" Meridina's eyes fell. "I have struggled with this darkness inside of me since the Goa'uld enslaved me. I believe that it has made me feel doubt. And to see our people as they are now… we are not supposed to be this way!" Meridina shook her head. "I watched Gersallians, I watched one of our own, one with the training and control of our Order, murder innocent people! What am I supposed to think when I see this? Knowing how much of this anger in our people comes from my actions… I never intended this. I never wanted it. I never imagined that the Alliance might see our people torn like this or driven to such monstrous behavior. Yet it has, and what else should I feel? I acted to bring us the golden age foretold by Swenya. Instead, all it seems I have enabled is suffering for our people. Anger at me and at what the Alliance presents clouds so many of our people. And I never wanted this. I…" Meridina sniffled and gripped the podium to avoid slumping against it. "The Alliance is supposed to be the shield of Light. Instead we are gripped in violence. Our people are angry, other peoples are angry, blood has been spilled… and all I wonder is if I helped cause it! Because… if I did…" Tears openly flowed down her face. "...if I did…. then I must submit to the charges. I must plead guilty."

    A satisfied look came to Goras' face. "We make progress, I see." He again turned to the Council. "Straight from the accused herself, my fellows. How can we deny her own judgement on making our own?"

    "It appears you failed to hear her," a woman on the Council declared. "She stated she is guilty if she is the cause of the recent troubles."

    "Which she is!", Goras roared. "She is the cause! Look at what her arrogance has caused our people! Look at what this submission to the Alliance has done to our society! We are out of balance because of her and those like her, who have suborned our people's' needs to outsiders and their ways! Look at what the Alliance is, my brethren! It is a collection of ridiculous states that squabble needlessly with each other when they are supposed to act for their common good. And the defendant before us today would have us become part of this!"

    "I wanted to show them a way forward," Meridina said.

    "No, you wanted to glorify yourself by bringing about this prophecy you insist to be so " Goras again swapped from addressing Meridina to addressing his peers. "Our ways are clear. She has violated them. And she carries the taint of darkness. Let her be tested by our best, so that if found wanting she may be struck down quickly and painlessly. It is better than letting her free into a world that has turned against her and will drive her into darkness."

    Lucy drew in a breath. Robert felt her anger and shook his head at her. It quieted as, around them, the assembled voiced their agreement or disagreement with Goras. This only seemed to feed that tumult as neighbors began arguing the case for or against Meridina.

    What was worse for both of them was feeling how much this was hurting Meridina. It wasn't that her people were against her, it was that her people were so clearly divided about it. Their division was something horrid.

    "Can we speak?", Robert asked Ledosh, having to raise his voice somewhat just to be heard over the ongoing arguments in the assembly seating.

    Ledosh looked to him. "Not directly. However…" He stepped up toward the Council, and not far from Goras. "Now that Mastrash Goras is finished, I hope I may be permitted to speak?"

    "Indeed." Maklir nodded. He looked to Goras. "You appear finished."

    "I am," Goras declared. He went to his chair at the table.

    Ledosh, with the arguments not quite dying down, had to wait briefly as Maklir brought order back. "My brethren, Mastrash Goras has made his arguments forcefully. But let us remember the wisdom of our ways. Swenya once said that all view the world by the lights of their own thoughts. My colleague's views of the Alliance are known to us. He sees this situation in that light. Meridina and I see it in another, and I ask you to consider both in judging her."

    "Because what Meridina should be judged for is not the failures or opportunities of the Alliance but her own actions. This dissension in our people does not change this fact. What Meridina must be judged for is her actions and the outcome of those actions." Ledosh looked to her. "Tell me, what have your students done with their power now that you have shown them how to wield it?"

    "They have accomplished much." Meridina turned her head to look back at them. A smile came to her face, even as the tears dried on her cheeks. "They have faced dark forces with bravery and skill. They have strengthened the Flow of Life with kindness and compassion."

    "Indeed, if they had not been trained, wouldn't the mission to Gamma Piratus have failed?"

    "It is likely, yes," Meridina said.

    "And the Darglan legacy would now be in the hands of the forces of darkness?'

    "Yes."

    "In short, you have reason to say you would make the same decision again?"

    "I do."

    More roaring came from above. Robert felt nervous at that. If things went sour, they could have a mob on their hands. It's hard to believe the Gersallians feel so hotly about this. But then again, they'd had this setup for almost three thousand years, so why wouldn't they be suspicious of changes?

    "If it pleases the Council, I would like to speak with Meridina's students."

    "I object!", Goras thundered. "The outsiders have no place here!"

    "They are not outsiders," Ledosh retorted. "They are here as part of the Lumantala."

    Maklir nodded.

    Ledosh looked to Robert and Lucy, who stood up. "Tell me, under what circumstances did Meridina start teaching you to use these powers?"

    "After we developed them." Lucy took the lead in answering as the senior student.

    "Did she explain to you the dangers of darkness?"

    "She did," Robert replied.

    "And she trained you to control your talents."

    "She did."

    There were more cries coming from above.

    "Why did you come today?", Ledosh asked them.

    "Because Meridina is family to us," Lucy said. "She's meant so much to our lives, and she's given so much of herself. We weren't going to let her face this alone."

    "Your loyalty is most befitting your reputations," Ledosh said. He extended a hand toward them. "Tell me, what do you wish to do with the talents you have attained? How will you use Meridina's teachings?"

    Lucy nodded to Robert, who replied for both of them. "To make the Multiverse a place where justice, compassion, and peace rule. We'll use these abilities to oppose evil organizations like the Nazi Reich that enslave, torment, and murder."

    After he said that, Lucy thought of the Quarians she and Meridina had met on the Citadel, and how that encounter had gone. "Our goal is to make the Flow of Life stronger by giving aid to those who need it."

    Ledosh nodded at them. To their side, Meridina's siblings and her mother also gave nods of approval, and it was clear their sincerity was recognized by many of those present. "Can anyone see them and say Meridina's training of them is a mistake? That it is against the Code? They are acting as any swevyra'se would."

    "Words mean little against actions," Goras retorted from the Council table. "If they mean to be swevyra'se, then they should join the Order! But that one expressly refused to!" He pointed to Lucy. "And you cannot tell me that the Alliance forces are a force such as our own Order. Their own superiors despise us."

    "They misunderstand us, and thus feel fear. We can correct that in time," Ledosh insisted.

    "Before or after they order our government to disband us?", Goras snarled. "Before or after we are enslaved to the whims of the Alliance?! How many of our people have bled and died in a war led by the incompetent?! How many ships have we lost?! How much of the Interdependency's wealth has been spent?! And how much more will we pay for this victory? We have darkness enough in our home universe to confront, the Alliance would have us spend our strength in other universes instead!"

    Again a roar came, followed by further dissensions in the Chamber. Maklir struggled to regain control with repeated strikes of his rod against his section of the table.

    "We're not going to solve this," Robert muttered to Lucy. "They're too caught up in their fears. They're not listening."

    "Then how do we get them to listen?", Lucy asked.

    "Aside from getting that jackass Goras to shut his stupid piehole?", Angel muttered.

    Neither responded to Angel's muttering, as they were both recognizing what was going on inside of Meridina. She was facing the crushing of her viewpoint of her own people, indeed, of her own Order, as the arguments in the seats around and above them continued in some form or another. Their disagreements over the Alliance had been amplified by their feelings toward Meridina's actions, creating a spectrum of reactions that amplified the emotions of the people in attendance and, one presumed, outside on the planet as well.

    An apprentice entered the Chamber from one of the side doors. A number of eyes followed the bald woman with brown eyes as she went up to Goras and murmured into his ear. He stood. "It is clear that we must come to some decision, my brethren," he said. "For I have just been informed that a riot has erupted in the city of Lankeran between the Dissenter and Alliance factions."

    The chamber stilled. Goras looked over to the operator for the Chamber's display screens and asked, "Do we have a news feed?"

    "We do, Mastrash," he answered. The man in the cream-colored robe started operating his controls.

    Moments later the display became active again. Two crowds were pressed against each other and in a full brawl. Screams and shouts filled the air and it was easy to see some people were being knocked over in the tumult, a potentially lethal condition with the risk of trampling. Signs in Gersallian were being used as makeshift weapons.

    "I…" Lucy shook her head. "I just didn't think they could get like this. They're always so…"

    Robert said nothing. He understood her horror and surprise. It was hard to imagine a society as peaceful as the Gersallians becoming so agitated. But given the events lately, he supposed he shouldn't be surprised. The Senate attack had been proven to be a Dissenter extremist operation, and evidence showed it had clear support from institutions on Gersal even if the Changeling that had been impersonating Senator Kiang had been their primary ally in getting into the Senate. That alone was enough to be scandalous, but throwing in another military setback in a war that had already claimed hundreds of thousands of Gersallians and cost them so much in treasure and ships and lives, the disagreement over Meridina's actions…

    They could feel her reaction. Meridina stared with horror at the footage of the riot. It was painful to feel the weariness in her, a sense that she was breaking before their eyes. Her normal calm was seeping away.

    Goras had the footage turned off. He looked to Meridina with the air of a man who knew he had struck a blow right where he'd wanted it. "This is the fruit of your labor, Knight Meridina. For the first time in centuries, civil discord has come to our world."

    "It's not her fault!", Lucy shouted, and immediately she knew she had messed up. But having done so, she finished her thought. "She couldn't have known your people would behave like this!"

    Goras' nostrils' flared as he directed a steely gaze at Lucy. "You have no place to speak before this Council. Be quiet or you will be removed."

    Robert gripped her arm. "Don't," he murmured. "For Meridina."

    Right, she replied mentally, her jaw clenched. "My apologies," she said with forced humility.

    "You're right."

    All eyes turned to Meridina.

    Tears continued to stream down her cheeks. She had trouble keeping her voice from breaking when she continued. "I wanted to see the Prophecy of the Bearers come to pass. I was certain this was the time. And I was certain… am still certain…" - her correction didn't quite sound convinced, but she still made it - "that Lucy and Robert and their friends are the Bearers of the Dawn. But I didn't foresee this. I… I never imagined… I would cause this suffering." Meridina forced a breath in to gain control, any measure of it, and with it some composure. She directed her eyes toward Maklir. "Mastrash Maklir, I ask to be tested. By Mastrash Goras himself. Mastrash Karesl can be our intercessor."

    "Meridina, no!", Ledosh cried.

    "Meridina…" Drentiya was tearing up. She could sense her daughter's intent. "Meridina, please, reconsider this."

    "You are aware that you may die in this?", Maklir asked her.

    "I am. If my death will bring peace to Gersal…" Meridina turned her eyes to focus on Goras. His brown eyes glinted with satisfaction. "...then it will be worth it."

    Lucy had to force herself from shouting "No!"

    Goras smiled thinly. It was clearly meant to be seen as a respectful smile, but there was an edge to it. "I will be honored to test your control, Knight Meridina. I assure you, if it comes to it, I will make sure that you do not suffer."

    "Thank you, Mastrash," Meridina answered. A strange calm was coming over her, tinged by the sadness she felt as she heard, and felt, the shocked feelings of her family. Leniraya was being held closely by Penrine. Qalkrsl held his mother's hand. And Gamaya was pale and looking at her father in expectation, as if he could stop this.

    Above and behind them all, the assembled crowd were murmuring and speaking quietly, but not arguing.

    Maklir smacked his rod on the desk. "Then we shall adjourn briefly to prepare. The Temple Knights will take the prisoner to the waiting chamber and retrieve her lakesh." He stood and stepped away, a signal to everyone else to do the same.

    Meridina said nothing as her escorts took her to the east side of the chamber and the door there.

    Lucy finally found her voice. "We can't let her do this," she said. "We… we can't." She looked at Robert. "Goras is one of the best duelists in the Order. He'll kill her."

    "I really want to wipe that smug little smile off his smug face," Angel growled.

    "All we can do is be here for her," Robert said. "This is what she wants. There's nothing we can do to stop that."

    "We'll see about that," Lucy said, moving away from them. Before Robert could stop her, she was already on her way to the door where Meridina had been taken.

    "Should I go after her?", Angel asked.

    "No." Robert shook his head. They continued to follow the family into the main foyer.
     
  16. Threadmarks: 2-09-4
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    Aboard the Aurora, the ship was becoming quieter and more empty as more and more of the crew departed for temporary shore postings, transfers, or simple extended leave. Jarod was no exception to this. He had leave of his own, and an hour to catch the transport that was carrying materials to New Liberty and its nearby adjacent resource colonies. He was in civilian clothes now, wearing a brown fleece jacket and dark green polo shirt with a pair of black slacks. A duffel bag in Stellar Navy Operations beige was over his shoulder.

    Before heading out, he checked up on the transmissions from Gersal, and then went to Julia's office. He found her there staring at nothing. "You don't look as busy as I thought you'd be."

    She said nothing.

    Jarod stepped in and took a seat. "I don't see you as the type to be staring off into space, Commander."

    "Hrm?" Julia finally seemed to notice him. "Oh, Jarod. Ready for your trip?"

    "The Weiss leaves in an hour for New Liberty," Jarod answered. "So I've got at least half an hour before I have to start running."

    "Ah."

    "Have you been watching the proceedings?", Jarod asked.

    "Hrm? Oh, Meridina." Julia frowned. "Dammit, no, I've been.. caught up with something."

    Before Jarod could say anything, the door opened. Scotty stormed in with a dark look. "I just heard what those bloody idiots on Gersal are up t'! I cannae believe they'll dae somethin' like that tae th' lass!"

    "What?", Julia asked. "What's going on?"

    "Meridina's going to be 'tested'," Jarod said.

    "Dinnae tell me that's a bloody test!", Scotty roared. "It's a cold-blooded execution, Mister Jarod, an' make no mistake about it!"

    Worry for Meridina briefly trumped Julia's prior thoughts. "What do you mean?", Julia asked.

    "It's some concept for a duel," Jarod explained. "It has to do with the Gersallians' views on their abilities. They say Meridina's been corrupted and that she has to be tested to see if the corruption is too great to let her live."

    "That Goras, he's just lookin' for an excuse tae kill her." Scotty kept a frown on his face.

    "Well, we can't do anything about it," Julia sighed. "We'll have to leave it up to Robert, Angel, and Lucy to handle it."

    "Unfortunately. Let's hope they've got something." Jarod went to stand and stopped. "What were you staring off into space over, anyway?"

    "Hrm? Oh, just thinking," Julia said.

    "Did Admiral Maran have anythin' tae say t' ye?", Scotty asked. "Hargert mentioned ye looked worried this mornin'."

    Julia smirked at that. "Oh, he did."

    "How bad is it?", Jarod asked. "Assuming it was bad news."

    "Oh, it wasn't bad news. It was…" Julia took in a breath. "It's probably not the best time to talk about it."

    "So you're going to make me spend my entire leave wondering what's going on?", Jarod asked, a bemused expression now on his face.

    "Aye lass, ye might as well answer."

    "Well, since you insist…" Julia drew in a breath. That strange mix of worry and elation and uncertainty and vindication that had come about when Maran told her what he wanted was still gripping her. "Admiral Maran's offered me one of the new ships they're currently building here at the Fleet Base. He wants me to take command of the Enterprise."

    A small grin came to her face as she saw their initial reactions. Scotty especially seemed ready to light right up just at the name, and it was an understandable distraction from their concerns about Meridina. Jarod slowly grinned. He spoke first. "Well… congratulations. I mean, that's excellent news. What type of ship is she going to be?"

    "The first of a new class, based off of the Aurora," she answered.

    "They're finally buildin' 'em, then? It's about bloody time," Scotty declared. "An' good for ye, lass. Ye've earned it."

    "So, you're leaving?" Jarod asked.

    "Not yet." Julia shook her head. "I have another six months to accept the post. I want to talk it over with Robert first. Admiral Maran's offering me a chance to pick my first command crew, so after I talk to Robert I'll start seeing if anyone is interested."

    "Lass, ye dinnae have to ask," Scotty said. "Tom's got th' Aurora well in hand, after all."

    "Woh." Julia held up a hand. "Let's not start splitting the crew up yet. Like I said, I want to talk to Robert first."

    "I can understand that," Jarod said. "But when it comes down to it, this is about you, and a chance to take a command you've earned several times over."

    "Maybe." Julia nodded. "But I still want to talk to him about it first. See what he and the others think. I want my own ship… but not at the expense of the rest of you. A command's not as important as my family." She glanced down to her computer. "Well, Jarod, you'd better catch your ship. Say hello to your sister and dad for me. Scotty and I have a ship to repair."

    It was clear she was ready for the conversation to end. Jarod and Scotty nodded and obeyed her silent request.




    Lucy found the waiting chamber easily enough. All she had to do was feel for Meridina's essence. It was full of pain, and fear, but also a strong and resolved calm. When she stepped up to the door two of the red-robed Knights moved to block her. "I'm going to talk with her," she said. "I'm not here to do anything else. You can sense that."

    "Yes," one said.

    "And if you do attempt to steal her away, we will use lethal force to prevent it," the other remarked.

    Right. Of course. Lucy made it clear through her expression that she wasn't perturbed by that. The Knights let her through.

    Lucy found Meridina sitting on her knees, hands on her upper legs. Her lakesh was laid before her. "Lucy," she said.

    "Please don't," Lucy said. "Don't do this, Meridina. You don't have to."

    "I must," she answered. "My people must see that my way has not corrupted me. Then others might follow in my path without causing this terrible dissension. This is why I must be tested."

    "But Goras isn't interested in testing you!", Lucy shouted. "He's going to kill you no matter what happens! And he'll justify it however he has to."

    "Then that is his choice. And this is mine."

    Lucy balled her fists and screamed wordlessly. "Why are you so stubborn about this?!", she demanded. "Don't you know there are people who care about you? People who love you and don't want to lose you?! People who will be hurt if they no longer have you in their lives?!" Tears flowed freely down Lucy's cheeks. "This isn't right. You shouldn't have to do this." She closed her eyes and bowed her head. With little effort to stop herself, Lucy dropped to her knees. "You've done so much for me," Lucy sobbed. "You've done so much for all of us."

    Meridina's eyes teared up. She shifted forward and took Lucy's hands into her own, prompting her to look up. "I know," Meridina said. "I know I am hurting you. I am hurting Robert, and Caterina, and all of the others on the Aurora. I am hurting my parents and my sisters and my brother. I can feel their anguish even now. And if there was another way, Lucy, I would take it. But this fighting has to stop. My life is not more important than the lives of my people. I will sacrifice myself to bring them peace."

    Lucy said nothing. She hurt too much to find words, and she could sense what was to come. Meridina knew she was die at Goras' hand, and she would not stop him from killing her in the end. All she sought to do was fight until she had proven that she was not taken by darkness.

    Meridina pulled Lucy close and embraced her in a hug. "Whatever happens… I am proud of you, Lucy. You have been the kind of student a teacher can only dream of, a student who teaches in turn. Please, use the teachings I've given you to make the Multiverse a kinder and gentler place. Teach Robert well, and with him you two can change everything for the better. Because I know, in my heart, that you and the others are the Bearers of the Dawn."

    "I will," Lucy said. With all of her will, she forced the sobbing to slow. She knew that she couldn't show it out in the Chamber.

    Meridina accepted the answer. Even though she knew that deep down Lucy was still not accepting what was to come. It would take time. Such things always did.

    The Knights entered the room. "They are ready," one said. "Come."

    Meridina stood up. She was now permitted to wear her blue robes as a field Knight. She held her right palm downward and, with a yank from her will and the power bound to it, pulled her lakesh into her hand. "I too am ready," was all she said.

    Lucy forced herself to stand. Without another word, she followed Meridina out of the room.




    In another room not too far away, Goras finished slipping on his short-sleeved combat tunic. A bald-headed apprentice handed him his vest next and he began to pull it on. He felt the presence at the door. "Are you going to see this through, Karesl?"

    "If my daughter falls to darkness, I want her end to be quick," he answered.

    Goras smiled thinly and turned to face his political ally directly. Karesl, as intercessor, was also in the combat tunic and vest, with his purple-and-blue-trim Council robe over that assemblage. Both were still in the baggy trousers that the Council wore on these occasions. "But that is not the question I asked," Goras said.

    Karesl didn't reply.

    "If Meridina survives this, the Dissenters will assume we have backed down before the Alliance," Goras said. "It will not matter if she has purged her darkness or proven tested. Our people will face a civil war." When Karesl still didn't answer, Goras continued. "She brought this on herself, Karesl. She admits that. She made herself the symbol of the Alliance to our people, and as that symbol, she has revealed the Alliance as a threat to our ways. If the Gersallian people are to avoid a civil war, Meridina must die."

    Yet again, there was silence.

    "Do not back out now," Goras urged. "We will save our people this way!"

    "I am committed to securing our independence from the Alliance," Karesl said. "But I fear that your path may prove a bad one. And you ask a heavy price of me."

    "I do." Goras nodded and stepped up to him. His eyes were intent on Karesl, as if searching for the slightest weakness to pounce upon. "And I expect you to pay it if our people demand it."

    Karesl said nothing at that. He nodded his head and left.

    The apprentice stepped up beside Goras. "Is there anything else, Mastrash?"

    "Go to your place. We will speak again when this is over."




    The Council Table had been removed from the center of the Chamber, leaving it a bare floor save for the alcove where the Relics of Swenya were kept in their cases. The members of the Council, save Goras and Karesl, now sat at the top of the alcove, above the portrait of Swenya, and a podium had been erected for Maklir.

    On the bare floor, Meridina and Goras stood facing each other. Karesl stood off to himself, ready to intercede as necessary. Everyone else was back in their seats. Robert could see the red in Lucy's eyes and put a hand on her shoulder. Penrine was holding Leniraya close as the latter sniffled. Drentiya shed silent tears and it was clear the Lumantala family were convinced they were watching the death of their sister and daughter.

    I have faith in you, Robert urged mentally, looking at Meridina. You can win this.

    No, I cannot
    , she replied.

    Maklir stood at the podium and struck his rod to it for attention. "All who are here, know you are witnessing one of the most terrible burdens of our Order. One of our own has been tainted by darkness. It falls to us to test her and ensure the darkness will not corrupt her further." Maklir looked to Goras. "Mastrash Goras, know that is your duty to test. This is a heavy responsibility, and if you would not bear it, it will not be held against you."

    "I will bear it, Mastrash Maklir," Goras answered. "For it is a burden that all must bear at some time."

    "Very well. Mastrash Karesl, as intercessor it is your duty to aid Mastrash Goras if the darkness in Knight Meridina takes hold, and to aid Knight Meridina should she prove true in the testing. Above all else it is your duty to end the battle when it is no longer necessary. Are you ready to assume this grave responsibility? We acknowledge that you have ample cause to wish it upon another."

    "No, Mastrash," Karesl replied. "I am ready to function as intercessor."

    Maklir nodded. He looked to Meridina. "Knight Meridina, you requested this trial, and the Council acknowledges this. We are still prepared to postpone it if you feel it is not necessary, and to render our own judgement after deliberation."

    "I am ready for testing, Mastrash," Meridina said. "It is better this way."

    "Then all is decided." Maklir looked to a technician in the cream-colored robe of the laity of the Order. "Activate the field."

    A faint buzz of energy rose up from the ground, continuing until it became a dome over the central floor. Only Meridina, Goras, and Karesl were inside.

    "Ready yourself, Knight," Maklir ordered.

    Meridina nodded. She pulled her lakesh from her belt. It made a metallic shriek as the memory metal emerged from the hilt and formed into a blade. The light blue EM field gave it a ghostly aura.

    "Begin the testing at your leisure, Mastrash Goras."

    Goras pulled his own lakesh and extended it.

    Silence filled the chamber.

    Meridina could sense the blow coming, and when it came she was barely able to get her blade up to meet it. A "whmm" sound filled the air as the EM fields of their blades met, followed by the clash of metal on metal. The power of the strike was deliberate and precise, forcing Meridina to shift her weight to hold it.

    Goras' power gathered in an instant and lashed out. Meridina went flying backward into the field. It was like hitting a wall with a low electrical field in it, a field that provided a small and painful shock. If it had paralyzed her with the shock, the battle would have ended right there.

    But Meridina was quick enough, just quick enough, to recover and roll away from Goras' lakesh blade before it cut into her head. She brought her blade over in a quick attack that Goras parried with ease. Her rolling maneuver brought her back to her feet. Meridina forced a breath from her lungs and steadied her blade. He went at her again, a juggernaut, and she met his attack again, and the next, and the next…

    She couldn't win. Meridina was already certain of that. Goras was powerful with his life force, and his dueling skills were among the best in the Order. She was not bad herself… but against him, she was little better than a novice in some ways. Decades of experience told against her. Had this been a real duel, or at least if Goras didn't need to pretend he was testing her, Meridina believed she would already be dead.

    Death. Its imminence kindled fear. As much as she believed in doing the right thing, in giving her life for her people to have peace… it scared her. She didn't want to die. She didn't want her journey to end. That fear came to her and it resonated with the darkness inside of her. All of that fear and anger that she had kept pent up over this past month.

    Her will held it in. She would not lose control to that darkness. She was a Knight of Swenya. She lived for the Code. If she had to, she would die for it.

    It's not fair! was the unbidden thought as she barely parried a strong blow from Goras that threw her off-balance. Lucy had been right about that, and now the thought rippled through Meridina. Tears momentarily came to her eyes as she realized how it was going to end here, no matter what she did, and after all she had done.

    Why couldn't her people understand what this was about? Why did so many of them want to turn away from their destiny?

    Meridina forced the thoughts away again. She forced the darkness down, even as it seemed to be on the verge of exploding, as her fear of how soon she would die filled her. She would not give in to her darkness. She would fight until she couldn't any more.




    Robert didn't need to be an expert duelist to know that Meridina wasn't just losing, but that she was only alive because Goras wasn't ready to kill her yet.

    "He's toying with her," Angel said.

    "Technically he's not supposed to be going all-out to land a fatal blow," Robert said. "This.. it's some kind of ultimate stress test."

    He glanced over to Lucy and frowned. She was watching the battle… but she was distracted. Robert glanced down to see where her right hand was touching the surface keys of her multi-device. The multi-device's holo-display had been set to a small, uni-directional setting, and was only visible from Lucy's perspective or a narrow cone around it. "What are you doing?", he whispered.

    "I don't trust him," Lucy said. "If he does anything…"

    Robert's eyes widened when he realized what she was doing and reached for her wrist, obscuring the multi-device. "You can't save her that way," he hissed.

    Lucy frowned at him. "I can't stand by and let her get murdered, Robert."

    "Intervening like this won't save her, Lucy. It will make things worse. You've got to let this play out."

    "And watch her die?", she retorted in a violent whisper.

    "Hopefully not. Have faith that she'll get through this. Then…" he frowned. "We'll see, okay? But this won't end well if you just go in there." Left unsaid was the fact that Robert didn't think any of them could defeat Goras, even together.

    But if it came down to it, they wouldn't let Goras murder Meridina either.




    Meridina's arms were hurting. Her very being was fatigued with the constant stress of fighting an opponent with Goras' power and skill.

    He lunged at her again, and even as she parried the blow he turned into the movement and delivered a kick to her ribs that caused at least one to crack. Meridina let out a cry of pain and moved backward. She scrambled to get her footing again and restore her balance. Goras refused to let her, continuing his assault with increasing fury and power, almost as if he were reveling in her desperate, failing defense.

    Again the darkness within her stirred. A cold feeling merged with the fear of her imminent death, a feeling screaming for her to act, to do anything to survive! For a very brief moment she wanted to hate Goras, hate him for his desire to kill her, and to strike him down as she had killed Dralan Olati just days ago.

    And he knew it. Goras' eyes were not hiding his satisfaction, even if his face kept its neutral look. He was pushing her into the darkness. He wanted her to go there. He wanted her to fall.

    He wants me to fall so he can kill me.

    Meridina took another kick, this time to a shoulder, but she had been rolling away from the attack and the impact lost some of its power. She rolled onto one knee, blade still ready, and glanced at her father. He could feel the darkness within her too. But where Goras seemed almost animated at its presence, she could sense his fear for her. He wanted her to stay firm.

    Goras' blade came at her again and Meridina stopped it. She stopped it a second time, and a third, but Goras' attack was an onslaught that kept her on one knee. He had the superior position, superior power, superior everything, and he was using it. Meridina struggled to keep up with the blows…

    The flat of Goras' blade ran over her wrists. It did not cut her, but it did push her arms into a twist that gave him complete leverage on her lakesh. With a surge of power he knocked it from her grasp and sent it clanging to the floor, two meters or more away. He kicked again and caught her in the sternum, throwing Meridina onto her back. His hand reached for her as she tried to stand. He didn't grip her physically, but she felt his power close around her waist and hips, holding her in place. He pulled her into the air and flung her into the wall near the alcove, ribs first.

    Another rib cracked. Meridina cried out in pain before falling hard to the ground. Her left hand reached over her torso to clutch her wounded right ribs. She looked toward Goras. His eyes were still grinning, and though he tried to hide it, satisfaction was coming through his feelings.

    He was about to kill her. She had to act! She had to do something!

    The darkness stirred within. Fear, anger, hate… it wanted her to lash out with it, to strike down her foe, to save herself! It is him or you! her own voice, hard and cold, insisted. You'll never get another opening! Do it!

    Meridina was, at that moment, more scared than she had ever been in her life. And she might very well have done it.

    But her eyes moved over to her father, looking impassively at her, duty and love warring on his countenance while Goras stepped toward her. She moved on to her mother, her brother, her sisters, all looking at her with horror and sadness at what Goras was doing to her.

    And then there was Angel, a comrade-in-arms. Lucy and Robert, her students, her charges. The ones who would carry her legacy on even after today. A legacy that the voice inside of her would taint if she listened to it. She felt their sadness, their pain and anguish… and their faith.

    It hurt to think she might fail them. That the darkness would take her. She knew she couldn't let that happen. She couldn't listen to this darkness, this festering power that she just couldn't get rid of, that Amaunet had planted within her, it wouldn't go away! It was still inside of her, like it had always been inside…

    A memory came to her in those seconds. A flash of thought. Perhaps more than that… perhaps her swevyra using her memories to bring her wisdom.

    The memory was a voice, that of the Zigonian Kasszas S'szrishin.

    "Darkness comes from many sources, dear Sister. Perhaps you must look inward to see where this comes from, to truly understand it, and thus to deal with it."

    "I feel it within you," Goras said. "I feel your darkness yearning to break free. Clearly you are failing your test. Say it, Meridina. Recognize that the darkness has started to claim you, and I will make this end quickly."

    She didn't answer him. She remained on her knees and looked only inside, at herself, at that darkness. That fear and anger, that hatred, all festering inside of her since Amaunet had enslaved her.

    It all came roaring back. Her helplessness. The Goa'uld firmly controlling her body, holding her swevyra as if it belonged to her, and letting Amaunet's hate and anger and rage play out upon the helpless victims that came before her.

    All of that had gone away with Amaunet's death. But the darkness remained. Those emotions remained.

    Meridina looked to her mother, even as Goras again offered to end her life quickly if she admitted to her darkness. Drentiya had tried to tell her of how to deal with it, but she hadn't listened. She'd thought only of burying the darkness, of hiding it away and locking it down and ignoring it.

    Now she knew she'd been wrong. She'd been ignoring her own feelings. She had been ignoring everything that Amaunet had caused her to feel. The darkness is mine, she thought to herself. It has fed itself on my control. Because I would not face the feelings…

    "Accept it!", Goras shouted. "Accept you can't control it! That the darkness within you cannot be held back! Do it, Meridina, and don't draw this out! Do it and you will die painlessly!"

    Meridina looked at him while tears began to flow. Her heart felt like bursting. Those feelings fueling the darkness… she couldn't hold them back any more.

    So she stopped trying.

    "I'm angry!", she screamed. "I'm afraid! And I hate what was done to me! I hate what Amaunet did with my body! I hate it!" Meridina let out a sob while the tears flowed until they obscured her vision. "Amaunet violated my body. She violated my mind. She violated my swevyra. She hurt me and hurt others with me and… and it hurt so much… and there are more out there like her, and… and I can't…" She kept her tear-filled eyes locked on Goras. Nearby her father watched her break down with a quailing heart. "I can't go through that again! I'm afraid of it! And I'm angry that it happened, I'm angry she caused it and that I couldn't stop it, I… I had to watch her fight Lucy, hurt Lucy… hurt people… and then I doubted, I doubted when it wouldn't go away…"

    The crowd was silent. No words were being muttered. No sounds being made. Even Goras took a step backward, as if unsure about whether to attack or not.

    "The darkness was mine all along," Meridina confessed. She sobbed. "I should have known that. I should... I should have accepted my feelings, I should…" For a moment she became inarticulate. "I should have been a swevyra'se. I should not have doubted myself. I should not have tried, I should have done."

    Goras held his blade up for an overhead stroke. It was clear his mind was made up. He started to approach.

    "I am in control," she said to him. "This darkness is mine, and I control it. I can. I will. And I will heal." She looked again to the others. A small smile came to her face. "My family will help. All of them."

    They all nodded. Goras wasn't looking to see that Karesl was as well.

    She put her eyes back on Goras. "You're not just testing me, Goras. This is to kill me. You want me to die because of what I believe, because you're afraid of it. Because you're afraid that things are changing."

    Goras kept approaching. He was within a few steps.

    "I will gladly die for my people," Meridina declared. "But I will die fighting for what I believe."

    Goras ignored her. His blade swung down for her skull.

    Meridina's power, the core of her life force that all present called swevyra, rushed to meet the blade. It slammed into the weapon and into Goras with enough force to send him flying to the opposite side of the battlespace. She stood to her feet and pushed the pain of her broken ribs away for the moment.

    "Go get him, girl!," Angel shouted. "Go get that jackass!"

    Meridina's arm extended toward her lakesh. It flew through the air to her hand.

    And just in time to. With a look of frustration and anger on his face, Goras was charging. Again his blade went for her head, and again she parried the blow. His strikes were as furious as ever, powerful, quick, deadly. He was fighting to kill.

    Meridina held her ground. It took everything she had. But she wasn't giving up. Her arms protested, her body ached, her broken ribs screamed for succor. Her body just wanted to stop and end the fight.

    But the rest of her carried on.

    Her arms moved and his blade caught every blow. Her legs remained steady. Goras' offensive fury was a wave, and Meridina was doing her best to become a rock to break the wave. She couldn't endure this forever. He was too powerful. But if she could hold out just long enough…

    Then she saw it. Goras' frustration was giving way to fury. He was balancing on the edge himself now, and while Meridina didn't want to send him over into anger and darkness, she did take advantage of it. He made a swing that was a little too off, a little too wild, and she was able to evade it instead of having to parry it. Her blade seemed almost to sing as it slashed through air in a quick cut aimed at his exposed right side.

    There was resistance. And a flash of blood.

    Goras actually cried out, in shock more than pain, at Meridina's lakesh striking home. He backed away and he was off-balance. Meridina acted immediately with a swing of her arm. Energy from the core of her being reached out and caught Goras' legs before he could summon his own power. He tripped over and fell on his back.

    Had Meridina not been wounded and tired from the fight so far, she might have won a formal duel at that point simply by getting in range before Goras could recover. But her injuries were enough to slow her for the moment. Goras had time to get back to his feet. He put a hand to his bleeding wound and concentrated. The blood began to slow until he pulled the hand away, revealing the bloody cut now mostly healed.

    The Chamber was alive with energy. From the Lumantala family's section it was all positive. Hope and joy sprung from seeing Meridina hold Goras off like that. "She's overcome the test!", Leniraya shouted. "End this, father!" Around them it was clear many others felt the same way. Even some who had not been favorable to her on the charges against her seemed ready to agree that she had proven herself in the test.

    Goras and Karesl exchanged looks. There was a mental communication between them. Goras frowned and shook his head. He looked back to Meridina with an intensity in his brown eyes that told her that she had humiliated him. "I am not afraid," she said. "Do you still wish to test me?"

    "Yes," he said simply, although it was clear that testing wasn't what he had in mind. A susurration came from the crowd as Goras charged again. Meridina held her ground once more. It was even harder this time. She did not let herself doubt, but it was clear that Goras still had the advantages in power and skill.

    I will not give up, she insisted. If you mean to kill me, I will fight.

    You can't resist me, child!
    , Goras retorted mentally. And you and I know you must die for Gersal to have peace!

    Their blades clashed again, over and over. Goras felt the advantage steadily go back to him and pressed it. Meridina showed no fear in reaction, not even as he began to drive her back again.

    From the attendees, voices and thoughts were being raised. They were satisfied: Meridina had passed the test. It was time for the fight to end.

    Goras refused. He sent blow after blow against Meridina, fighting with all of his power, all of his skill, no holding back. His wound was not as severe as hers. He was winning handily. After another pair of parried strikes he forced Meridina up against the wall and started pressing his blade against her, forcing her blade back toward her throat. "You should have let me kill you before," he rasped. "It would have been quick. Painless."

    "Why do you hate me so?", Meridina asked.

    "I do not hate you," Goras insisted, but it was clear it wasn't true. "But I will not let you win. Our people must be free of the Alliance."

    "But my death won't end that," she insisted. "There are many thousands, millions, of our people serving with the Alliance. They believe in it. They won't let you destroy that."

    "Then they will suffer the consequences. Just as you are…" The blade drew closer to Meridina's neck.

    And there was nothing she could do to stop it.

    Suddenly the two fighters were wrenched apart by a powerful force that erupted between them. Goras was knocked backward several steps, out of blade range of Meridina. Meridina went to one knee in relief and looked up.

    Karesl now stood between them, one hand on his lakesh hilt, and his eyes fixed on Goras. "This battle is over," he declared.
     
  17. Threadmarks: 2-09-5
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    Silence reigned in the Chamber.

    It ended when Karesl spoke.

    "As intercessor, it is clear to me that Meridina has proven herself in control," Karesl announced, his eyes fixed on Mastrash Goras as the other man regained his balance. "It is clear that darkness has no hold on her. I declare the test concluded."

    Goras frowned deeply at him. Frustration flashed through his brown eyes at being denied. "Do you speak as intercessor, Karesl, or as a father?"

    "Intercessor." Karesl looked back toward Meridina. "As father, I add that whatever my disagreements with her, I am proud of my daughter."

    At that Goras stood to his full height. "The people of Gersal will see it differently," he vowed. "They will see a man who acted out of bias. Who kept the violator of our traditions from being given the full and rigorous testing her crime demanded."

    Karesl shook his head. "The people of Gersal are watching, Goras. Do you think them blind? They can see that you have made this personal. You desire Meridina's death because of her belief in the Prophecy of the Dawn."

    "And you would have our people shackled to the Alliance to humor your daughter."

    "I am still against our membership. I believe Gersal should have kept itself separate from the Alliance and acted instead as its guide and friend," Karesl answered. "I believe that we should withdraw from it, if not from the war with the Reich. But that is not the issue here." He sighed. "I'm sorry, old friend. But this has to stop. Or you'll be the one falling to darkness."

    For a tense moment nothing was said. Goras let out a grunt, and then he sighed. "I'm sorry too," he said. "Old friend." He lowered his weapon.

    Karesl turned to Meridina. He reached down and helped her back to her feet. "You've done well," he said.

    "Thank you, Mastrash." Meridina smiled weakly. "I… I still feel that darkness there. But I can manage it."

    "Sometimes the solution isn't control, it's acceptance," Karesl said. "Now…."

    The next word never finished coming from his mouth. Instead there was a "hrrrgk" sound from it. Pain stabbed through Meridina's chest, coming perilously close to her lung. She looked down.

    The blade had buried itself into her torso.

    And it was sticking through her father.

    "I'm sorry, Karesl," Goras said. His arm was still outstretched from the motion he'd made to throw his blade into Karesl's back. "I am sorry you are so weak." He pulled his arm back toward himself.

    A sucking sound accompanied the blade pulling out of Meridina and Karesl. Karesl collapsed into Meridina's arms. The pain of her wound was already driving her to her knees.

    Robert looked to Lucy and nodded. He needn't have bothered, as she was already rapidly operating her multi-device. "C'mon," she murmured. "Come on…"

    Maklir's rod slammed on his podium. "Goras, what is the meaning of this?!"

    "I will not allow this charade to continue," Goras said. "The traitor must die and our people must be kept free!"

    "No! No, this is wrong!"

    "Goras, have you gone mad?!", Ledosh shouted.

    "No. I simply see clearly the truth." Goras elevated his hand toward the Council in their place above the alcove. "You are traitors! You would bind us to the Alliance and take away everything our people have become!" He looked to the audience, and presumably into the devices transmitting the trial elsewhere. "Loyal children of Gersal, this moment has come, and we must accept it! The Order of Swenya and our government has been stolen away from us by fools and traitors! We must stand firm if we are to redeem ourselves, if we are to remain free!"

    "Lower the field!", Maklir ordered. He turned to the technician. "We must stop…"

    An energy beam struck Maklir in the back. He had no time to cry out before he disappeared in a haze of yellow energy.

    A bald-headed apprentice with a disruptor pistol leveled the gun that had just killed Maklir toward the technician controlling the shield. The technician raised his hands and stepped away.

    Lakesh blades extended across the Chamber as a number of those in attendance, many bald like the first attacker, turned their weapons toward others. A pair of red-robed Temple Knights placed blades to the throats of two Council members. A third, blue-robed bald woman placed a blade up toward Ledosh.

    And all the while, on the first row of seats, Lucy was struggling with her multidevice. "It's not working," she muttered. "I can't get the harmonics…"

    "Let me," Gamaya hissed.

    The three Aurora crew looked toward Gamaya. "What?"

    "Give me the device, I can make it work." Seeing their look she sighed. "You're trying to briefly disrupt the field to get inside and help Meri, yes? Let me do it!"

    Robert turned inward for a moment. The situation in the Chamber was so tense it was hard to focus, but he let his instincts direct him here. "Do it," he whispered back to Lucy.

    Lucy pulled off her multi-device and handed it to Gamaya. She immediately took it and began working.

    Inside the dome Goras looked back toward Meridina and Karesl. Meridina was busy trying to heal his wound to the best of her ability. "What have you done?", Karesl rasped.

    "What needed to be done," Goras said. "What you were too weak to contemplate, 'old friend'."

    "But… Maklir…"

    "An old man past his prime." Goras looked back up at the captive Council. "Indeed, I might say the same for many of you. I was certain there would be trouble, but you are so complacent that we Dissenters in the Order have you completely at our mercy." Goras shook his head. "And you would have us believe you could protect us from the Alliance?"

    "We don't need protection from the Alliance!", Meridina yelled despite the pain in her chest. "No more than the Order needs protection from Gersal!"

    "Oh, but it is clear we do, on both counts," Goras said. "The Interdependency has been allowed to fall into the hands of those who would give away the traditions and ways of three thousand years. How can we trust such a government?"

    "They'll be on their way," Ledosh said. "Security forces are watching now."

    "They're busy," Goras said. His blade went back to his belt for the moment. "As soon as I acted, my compatriots did as well." He looked to Meridina and held out his free hand. Her lakesh flew into it. "A pity that you didn't die as I asked you to, Meridina. Your death would have made this unnecessary. Now the true children of Gersal have no choice but to seize control to save our people from the Alliance." He raised a hand. "Gersal needs a leader with the vision to lead it through this new era. And it falls upon me to take that mantle."

    Meridina glared up as Goras held her blade above his head. "You are a traitor, Meridina, daughter of Drentiya and Karesl. I strip you of your rank I strip of you of your place in this Order." He gripped the tip of the blade, using his power to absorb the edge so he didn't lose his fingers, and kept his other hand on the hilt. With one solid burst of effort he brought the blade down until it struck his upper leg, rising to meet it. A loud snap echoed in the air as the blow, assisted by Goras' great power, broke the memory metal blade in two. Goras tossed both ends of the broken blade away and retrieved his own. With a metallic shriek, Goras' blade extended to its full length. "And now, traitor, I strip you of your life. In the name of the people of Gersal, I proclaim you unfit to live for your crimes against us." He brought the blade up. "Time to die."




    As Goras spoke, Gamaya's fingers flew over Lucy's multi-device. Her face was blank with concentration. "Have you adjusted for the harmonics of the…", Lucy began.

    "Yes." Gamaya continued to work. "I've almost… got it…"

    The others looked to where Goras was approaching Meridina and Karesl, his killing intent clear from the way he held his blade. "Gami…", Lucy said nervously.

    "Almost…"

    "Gamaya, we're out of time," Robert hissed.

    It proved unnecessary.

    As he said that, Gamaya hit a key on Lucy's multidevice. "Now!", she cried. As she did, energy erupted from the multidevice via its built-in transmitters. The burst fried the machine immediately.

    But it still had the intended effect. For a brief second, the force dome over the central floor of the Chamber disintegrated in front of the Lumantala seats.

    Robert and Lucy jumped through it in that instant, Angel beside them.

    The moment they were through Goras brought the blade down toward Meridina's head.

    Lucy and Robert lashed out with one joint burst of power. It was a wild shot, one Goras hadn't seen it coming, and it had enough power to send him flying until he hit the western side of the alcove wall and collapsed onto his hands and feet.

    Meridina looked to them with worry in her face. She tried to move, but it was clear her wound was severe and she was in no shape to fight. All she could hope to do was keep her father alive.

    And hope that they could defeat Goras.

    "Okay, now what?", Robert asked Lucy.

    Lucy responded by going over to where Karesl and Meridina were laid out. "I'm sorry," she said, pulling Karesl's lakesh from his belt. He was too weak to respond verbally, but she sensed him understand and consent. She flicked a switch and the blade activated, extending out to a length greater than the one she was used to. That's not good, she thought. This weapon would be heavier than her lakesh and harder to wield. And she was already at a major disadvantage.

    Goras roared in anger as he got back to his feet. He looked to Lucy first and charged at her. Lucy caught the attack with Karesl's blade. It took almost everything she had to resist his sheer power. He was pouring his life essence, his swevyra, into his body, making him stronger and faster and more resilient.

    Lucy was doing the same, of course, but it meant focus, and focus while a pissed off swordmaster was trying to kill her was not anything close to an easy task.

    He put her on her backfoot almost immediately. A second swing pushed her blade nearly out of position and she might have taken a follow-up stab to the gut if Robert hadn't reached out with his power at that moment. He grunted as he tried to focus on Goras' right leg, immobilizing it and throwing off his posture.

    Angel, meanwhile, tried to do what she did best. She came up to his blind side and threw a punch.

    Her fist never connected.

    Goras briefly turned and glared her way. With not even a move of his hand he generated enough force to stop Angel's punch in its tracks, just an inch from his face. His power gripped her wrist and held her in place for a moment. Her hazel eyes widened in surprise.

    This allowed Lucy the time to recover her footing. She swung her new blade in Angel's defense, trying to keep Goras from exploiting her immobility. Robert swapped targets and felt out with his power for Goras' right arm to grip it, keeping his sword swinging off-target.

    It worked, for the moment. A swipe from Goras went wide, missing Lucy. Lucy recovered and made a slightly off-balance swipe at Goras that didn't connect either, but which forced him to divert his attention from Angel. With her wrist freed Angel recovered her balance and lunged with her whole body. Goras hadn't found his footing yet, not with Lucy swinging at him again and having to be parried; Angel plowed into him and brought him to his knees. Robert dashed in and grabbed Goras' left arm physically, restraining his blade and exposing his right side. "Lucy!", he shouted. Now! Won't get another chance!

    The follow-up mental commentary hadn't been necessary. Lucy knew she only had a second to land a hit to put Goras down. With all of her power, all of her might, she swung the lakesh at Goras' right arm, aiming to cut him at the elbow and deny him the use of his primary hand.

    She was a second too late.

    Goras screamed. It was a rage-filled, horrifying scream, and it had power. Indeed, his entire body vibrated with it, and in one massive pulse it struck all three and sent them flying. Angel and Robert went into the far shield dome and went down. Lucy was thrown back against the northern side, near the alcove.

    "I considered letting you go!", Goras shouted. "To return to your people in peace! But no. No, I will destroy you too, and in your names I will punish the Alliance for this interference in our affairs!"

    Robert and Angel were starting to get back up. Lucy was already getting onto her feet. Goras went after her first. Lucy got the blade into position to block his first attack and then his second. She could feel the sheer fury radiating from him, and it was terrifying.

    And more than fury. She could feel the cold. The vicious, cold darkness that she had once felt, and which had horrified her. Goras was falling to it. In his anger and frustration at the way events had gone, at the way he was being continually defied in his goals, he was losing control of his emotions, of himself.

    "Look at you!", she cried. "You're supposed to be a Mastrash! But you're falling to darkness!"

    "You have no right to judge!" Goras' blade slammed down on Lucy's again. She strained to hold him back.

    Robert and Angel were running. They operated in tandem, Angel going for his legs again and Robert reaching with his power to grip Goras' sword arm. Goras let out a frustrated growl and whirled about for a moment, just a moment. But it was enough. Angel had to jump to her side to avoid his blade. Goras gestured with his hand.

    Robert felt like he'd been hit by a truck. He went flying back into the dome field from the power of the invisible bolt of energy that had hit him.

    Lucy tried to take advantage. But Karesl's blade was too heavy. She wasn't used to the weight and her attempt to hit Goras' weak side was easily evaded. Goras brought his blade around with one hand while the other smashed across Lucy's cheek. Pain covered the side of her face from the impact and she fell to one knee. She already felt the next blow coming and brought the blade up to meet it, stopping Goras from decapitating her in a single swipe. But the way she had to shift her body and arm made her grip weak. The impact of the blow sent Karesl's blade flying from her hand.

    Goras smirked and brought the blade back around for a swift swing. Angel kept it from connecting by going at him again. Her fist went for a point on his arm. She'd wanted him to drop his sword from the impact, but all it did was make him change which hand held it. She adjusted quickly, bringing her leg up and kicking at his open throat.

    But again Goras' power caught her by the limb, this time the ankle, and she was helpless to stop a hard blow from his free hand from slamming into her rib cage. Angel's scream of pain was involuntary from the sheer shock of the fierce blow as it snapped ribs. She flew backward.

    But she'd bought Lucy the second she needed to get Karesl's sword back. She summoned it to her hand and caught Goras' killing stroke against her just before it landed. She tried to stand back up, to get room, but he bore down on her with his power. "Poor fools," he growled. "You should have never matched power with me."

    Lucy didn't reply. She couldn't. All her strength had to go into holding back Goras' blade.

    But even there he held an advantage. He'd landed his blow at just the right spot on Karesl's longer sword, and given their positions, he was starting to overwhelm the memory metal's flexibility. The metal felt like it was giving way, even as the two blades' EM fields continued to go "whmm!" Lucy cried out in effort as she tried to push him back. She summoned all of the power within her to do it.

    But Goras met it. And he pushed harder.

    There was a loud snapping sound. Karesl's lakesh broke into two in Lucy's hand, and Goras' blade descended on her shoulder blade. Her clothes caused little resistance as the blade cut into the soft fleece and the polyester beneath until it met warm flesh.

    Lucy was pulling backward and twisting, keeping Goras from driving his blade through her arm or shoulder. He cut along the shoulder and upper left side of Lucy's torso, ending just below the armpit. She spun away as her blood flowed onto the floor from the cut.

    For a moment she looked up, to see if any more help would be coming. But there was none. Even though Goras' people were in the minority, they had the advantage that they were ready to fight, and anyone who moved first would certainly get someone else killed.

    This is pointless, a part of her thought. He's too powerful. And now we don't have any weapons. She looked up. Goras was no longer looking her way. Robert had gotten his attention again by grabbing at his legs while Angel, despite her broken ribs, was coming in close to land a punch. Goras sent her flying with another movement of her hand.

    Don't give in!, she heard. She looked to Meridina, still tending to her father. Meridina's blue eyes were locked upon Lucy's. Feel with your swevyra, Lucy. Find a way. You must!

    There was no time for meditation. Almost no time for thought. Goras was winning, and with every blow they were getting weaker. Lucy didn't even closer her eyes as she might have otherwise done. She felt within herself and pushed through the distractions, particularly the fact that she would probably be dead in a minute or two, to see what was within. To see if the energy inside her, the insight and power, would know of some way to get a weapon again, to have a fighting chance against Goras. But the two other lakeshes were destroyed. There were no other weapons...

    She stopped the thought. As she did, Robert grunted in pain as Goras batted him against the force dome again.

    Lucy's head swiveled to her right… toward the alcove where Swenya's relics remained in their containers.

    This is so not going to work went through her head as Lucy got back to her feet and ran toward the last weapon left to her.

    Goras didn't see her immediately. He was too busy slamming Robert and Angel up against the force dome, over and over, knocking the air out of their lungs and in general wearing them down to the point they would fall unconscious. He only turned when one of his followers screeched an enraged, "Blasphemy!"

    By the time he turned, Lucy was already bringing the full strength of her power down upon the glass case before her. It shattered at the impact. Her right hand darted in…

    "YOU DARE?!", Goras roared. He left Robert and Angel to fall, nigh-unconscious, to the ground. He charged with near-superhuman speed toward the alcove, his lakesh raised and coming down…

    ...on the empty display case, as Lucy rolled away from him and to her feet.

    Swenya's Blade was in her right hand.

    Stunned looks and gasps filled the Chamber. No one could fathom it, could believe that anyone would dare to take up the relic.

    With nothing left to do, Lucy's thumb found the switch on the hilt and pressed it.

    Nothing happened.

    Her mind registered the lack of the familiar metallic shriek of a memory metal blade flowing into form and hardening. She looked down at the useless paperweight in her right hand.

    Goras' eyes were focused on her. And she could see the gold starting to form in them. "There is no punishment severe enough to avenge the atrocity you just committed, alien," Goras spat.

    "Um… sorry?", Lucy offered, even as her mind raced. She wished she had her multidevice. If she could scan the weapon maybe she'd see what was…

    Goras' power lashed at her. Lucy tried to resist it. She put everything into it. But Goras was still too strong. His life force energy became a vise around her neck and around her trachea. She wheezed a last gasp of air as he lifted her up. She tried to cry out, but she couldn't. The air simply wasn't inside of her anymore. Her feet cartwheeled helplessly in mid-air, four feet off the ground, while her hands instinctively went to her throat. Swenya's Blade hit the floor, forgotten in her moment of panic while Goras choked the life from her. The pressure continued, on and on, and Lucy was convinced he was about to snap her neck like a twig.

    And then it was over, and Lucy was falling back to the ground. She had inhaled her first gasp by the time the pain registered in her knees that she was back on terra firma.

    Robert and Angel, battered and bruised, were back on their feet, and the two had tackled Goras to the ground. Robert was trying to hold his sword arm in place while Angel's arms wrapped around his neck in a sleeper hold. Lucy could feel their sentiments. They knew this wouldn't work, they knew they couldn't stop Goras, but they were willing to buy her the time she needed if it gave them the slightest hope of victory.

    Lucy reached her hand out and pulled the broken relic to her. She looked it over, she felt into it with her power, with her insight and all of the technological knowhow she had. There was a reason it had stopped working. Why? Was a circuit broken that was keeping electricity from reaching the memory metal? Was the blade emptied of the substance?

    Robert went flying into the alcove, where he slammed into the stand holding Swenya's sandals and toppled over. Goras got to his feet, still conscious despite Angel's strength holding his neck and throat, and turned his back toward the alcove. Angel screamed at the first impact, and then the second, as Goras kept slamming her into the solid wood surface. Her grip weakened.

    Lucy looked back to the weapon. There had to be something…!

    And then Angel was out of it. She slumped to the ground, utterly spent, bruised and battered and completely helpless. Goras turned toward Lucy. His nostrils flared and his eyes, now firmly gold with darkness, bored into her.

    It seemed incredulous that Goras' people hadn't turned on him. His followers had to feel his loss of control. They had to know he was becoming a monster right before their eyes. But still they did nothing, whether out of fear or momentum or simply dogged determination to the course he'd proclaimed for them. They still held the Council and the present members of the Order captive, leaving none to challenge Goras. No one but Lucy.

    Lucy… who had seconds to live as Goras rushed at her, intent on cutting her to ribbons as she fumbled with the useless relic in her hands.

    Energy caught him by the ankles and Goras fell over. Lucy looked that way in time to see Meridina and Karesl, wounded as they were, throwing their power in at the last moment to trip Goras. It was clear they were spent as well, and Karesl may even be dying. But they had bought her a few more seconds...

    Somewhere between her swevyra and the insight that energy gave to her, and her technical knowledge, Lucy sensed something. There was a part inside the weapon. It wasn't right… like it was out of place. And not from any damage, as the weapon looked intact on the outside. It was as if someone had intentionally used the energy of their life to shift a piece out of alignment.

    Lucy could do the same. But it wasn't the best choice. She would have rather opened it, scanned it, made sure she knew what was inside and if she might be breaking something. But that required better circumstances than what she was facing at the moment, with just seconds to act.

    Without options, Lucy reached inside the dormant weapon with her energy. Her power gently gripped the piece within and moved it back toward what she felt to be its proper place.

    Goras got back to his feet. He ignored the others. He could feel Meridina and Karesl couldn't do anything else. Angel was out of it. Robert was still struggling to get back to his feet.

    And once Lucy was dead, they would all die in turn.

    His blade came up. Goras once more charged at her. She had seconds before his blade came down again. Maybe a few more if she dodged far enough.

    But her attention was entirely on Swenya's Blade as, with a moment of satisfaction, the piece within slid back into its proper place. She could sense that the millennia-old weapon was once again intact.

    That didn't mean that it would work, though. It was three thousand years old. It hadn't been touched in millennia.

    But with Goras' lakesh seconds from her skull, Lucy simply had no other choice. Please work please work please God let this work please! went through her head as she brought the ancient hilt up toward Goras.

    Goras yelled in animalistic triumph as his blade came crashing down on Lucy.

    There was no time left. She triggered Swenya's Blade.

    And once again, no memory metal flowed out to meet Goras' weapon. There was no shriek of memory metal hardening. No gentle "Whmm!" of EM fields clashing.

    Lucy should have died right there.

    But she didn't.

    An electronic snap split the air and lingered off with a hiss, followed by the harsh high-pitched buzz as Goras' blade made impact against the bright sapphire light that now filled Lucy's vision.

    In the place of the memory metal blade that Lucy had expected, a solid blade of blue light had surged from the relic.

    "What…?" The surprise was complete on Goras' face. He backed away for the moment.

    And indeed, the surprise had gripped the rest of the Chamber. Everyone stared in wonderment and surprise at the shining blue light of Swenya's Blade. The restored weapon filled the air with a constant electronic buzz. The buzz increased in pitch and volume when Lucy moved it in the air as a consequence of getting back to her feet. She looked into it for a moment, ignoring the strain on her eyes. Her mind was processing this weapon in her hand, this… beautiful piece of elegant technology. She thought she could feel the photons and plasma bouncing about within the blade, kept in place by the field that gave Swenya's Blade its shape.

    Goras overcame his shock. He would not back down now, not when so much had happened, not with his rage so pure. He struck at Lucy again with all of his power and fury.

    Lucy met the attacks with Swenya's Blade. The weapon moved more like an extension of her arm than any other sword she'd had. It had virtually no mass. That meant no weight, and that meant freedom of movement. Goras' skill advantage was still great, but now Lucy could meet his attacks more rapidly. Indeed, Goras seemed reluctant to truly press their blades against each other. He had no idea what the weapon in her hands could do. She wasn't even sure.

    Goras could still kill her. He was more powerful than her. The darkness seizing him made him even more powerful. And he had skill. Lucy had him at her advantage from surprise, but that would fade soon. She had to win quickly, and she had to do so by enduring his onslaught. She had to beat him with flexibility.

    The thought brought a little smile to her face. Thank you, Julia, for the t'ai chi lesson. She put Julia's forms to use. Using her size and the lightness of her weapon to parry and deflect Goras' swings and cuts kept him from landing hits. She moved her body in a continuous flow to evade further blows, letting him waste his strength on empty air or easily-deflected blows.

    All eyes were on them. All eyes on Gersal, across the Interdependency, would see this, would see Swenya's Blade alive again after three millennia and wielded by an outsider trained in the Gersallian arts.

    And it would be for nothing if Lucy failed

    The battle moved back toward the alcove. Lucy was giving ground, but doing it willingly. The buzzing of her weapon contrasted with the continued "Whmm!" sounds that came when it was struck by the EM field of Goras' lakesh. He remained quiet, but it was clear from the fury in his eyes that he wanted to kill her, and he aimed to do it.

    His superior skill soon weighed in. He adjusted to Lucy's flexible movement and shifted his posture, cutting her off and pressing her back toward the alcove. With several blows of his blade he pinned her in before she could escape. Lucy caught a swipe aimed right for her forehead with her blade. Again it buzzed angrily as the lakesh pressed against it. Goras snarled and pushed himself against Lucy, putting all of his power, all of his strength, into using his blade to press hers back into herself.

    And all she could do was resist. Her arms screamed in protest as they held firm, preventing Goras from finishing her off. The shining blue energy of Swenya's blade filled both of their eyes.

    At first neither noticed it, but it was Lucy who did first. At the point where their blades met, Goras' lakesh was now glowing red. She felt a surge of elation at that. The lakesh's EM field was failing, and the energy of her weapon was burning into the memory metal. The elation gave her an extra spurt of strength, reinforcing her will to hold firm as Goras literally destroyed his weapon in trying to cut her with it.

    Moments later, there was a loud metallic snap in the air. The top half of Goras' lakesh flew past Lucy's head and embedded itself into the alcove wall.

    Lucy summoned everything she had to move, and to keep Goras from recovering. She twisted away from him as Goras fell off-balance to what had been her right, and was now her left. He started to turn back to her, his broken blade still in his hands. But Lucy's blade was already in motion, swinging upward as it approached Goras' wrists.

    There was a scream, a cry, and two little thuds joined by the clang of metal against the floor.

    Goras fell before Lucy. His arms now ended at burnt stubs at his wrists. He screamed in inarticulate rage and pain at his dismemberment.

    Lucy stared at him in shock. She was still alive. She looked down to the blue energy blade shining in her hand and laughed lowly. She stopped paying attention to Goras in that moment, absorbed completely in her miraculous achievement.

    This was a mistake, as Goras started to gather his energy. Even with no hands to focus his power through, he could hit her hard enough to do damage, perhaps to kill.

    But there was a sudden and fierce movement and here came the fist of Angela Delgado right on target. The shock of the blow knocked the crazed Mastrash unconscious.

    The sound of the impact jolted Lucy's attention back to the here and now. She looked down at her foe, now unconscious, and at Angela beside him. She was on a knee and fierce pain was written all over her face, such that Lucy didn't need her gift to see it. Angel gave her a pained smile. Her hazel eyes looked over Swenya's Blade, still shining brightly. "Cool sword," she managed.

    "Yeah," croaked Robert, who was crawling his way over to them. He smiled weakly at them. "Good job getting it to work."

    "Thanks," Lucy answered. She extinguished the blade before she reached down to help Robert to his feet. "So, it looks like we won."

    "Yeah, we did," Angel said. "Look."

    Lucy looked upward at the Chamber where, much to her pleasant surprise, Goras' followers were surrendering to Ledosh and Gina in one wordless group. Without his life being threatened, the technician was allowed to lower the forcefield. Green-robed healers rushed to Karesl and Meridina alongside their family.

    "Well, we lived," Robert said. He grimaced as he held his left arm with his right. It looked like it was broken. "I guess pain never feels so good than when it means you're still alive."

    Angel forced the grimace from her face and answered, "Pain is weakness leaving the body." She snorted. "At least that's what Commander Kane told me."

    "Yeah… I think that's a bit.. Off…" Robert winced at trying to move his arm. "Because I feel pretty damned weak right now." He looked to where Meridina was being treated. "What do you think?"

    "Pain is pain," Meridina answered. Her voice was weak, but the tone behind it was triumphant. "It reminds us we are alive. But it can break as often as it strengthens." She looked to where Goras lay unconscious on the ground. "Sometimes in ways others don't see until it is too late." She lifted her eyes to look at Lucy. "You have wielded Swenya's Blade in battle against darkness. My people cannot deny the correctness of your training now."

    "So… we win?", Lucy asked, favoring her injured arm.

    "Every one of us," Meridina agreed. A sad look came over her as she looked to where her critically wounded father was being prepared for a stretcher. "Although the cost may be high."

    The others became respectfully silent at that. Due to their silence they gradually became aware that, save for the healers, the rest of the Chamber's occupants were staring down at them. The trio stopped speaking and looked to the seats..

    One by one, the Gersallians of the Order of Swenya bowed their heads in respect and admiration.

    "You have achieved something I did not think possible," said Ledosh, who walked up to them.

    "You mean two students and a non-powered fighter beating a Mastrash?", Lucy asked.

    Ledosh shook his head. "No. That was always possible, especially as he descended into darkness and lost his way. No, your achievement is that you have won the acceptance of the Order today. You stood here, in the eyes of all, and reforged Swenya's Blade. And with it, you defeated the greatest threat the Order has faced in centuries." Ledosh smiled at that. "The Council has voted. Meridina is clear of all accusations, and you two have been recognized as the likely progenitors of a Human swevyra tradition."

    "Well, good to know we won after all that."

    Ledosh nodded to them and moved on.

    "So… who do I give this to?", Lucy asked. "Because I bet it's not 'Finder's Keepers' with a cultural artifact."

    "We'll let Ledosh figure that out," Robert said. "Right now, we need good food and a soft bed."

    "You don't even have to ask," said Lucy. "But first, I want my multidevice back." She looked down to the round hilt in her hand. "I've got some scanning to do."
     
  18. Threadmarks: 2-09 Ending
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    Captain Robert Dale Personal Log; 15 May 2642.

    We're all alive.

    And that is news, because we fought one of the most powerful members of the Order of Swenya, a member going mad with power, and we lived.

    We've spent the night in the medical ward of the Great Temple having our wounds treated. The Order's healers are astounding with how much they can do without technology and most of our injuries were dealt with by their healing methods.

    Although some wounds are not so easily healed.




    The four crewmembers from the Aurora stood quietly in the bedroom of the medical ward while an apprentice healer used both his senses and medical scan technology to check on the status of Mastrash Karesl. He breathed slowly and weakly. Around his bed Meridina's mother and siblings had gathered, holding a quiet vigil.

    "What have the doctors said?", Lucy asked Meridina. She was in a second set of civilian clothing, fetched from the Rio Grande the prior night, and Swenya's Blade dangled openly on her belt.

    "He was examined by a medical expert from Jantarihal early this morning," Meridina replied. She was back in proper tunic and vest as a full-standing member of the Order, with the blue robes of a field Knight. Her lakesh hilt was on her belt even though it had yet to be repaired. "He suffered severe internal bleeding from Goras' attack. They are hopeful for his recovery, but depending on how his body heals, my father may be unable to keep up his duties with the Council Mastrasham."

    "I think he's strong enough to pull it out," Angel remarked. She was back in her civilian clothes, which hid the bandaging around her damaged ribs and the bruising from all of the pounding Goras had inflicted on her. There was no hiding the wince whenever she moved a certain way, though.

    "Regardless of the outcome, we will be here for him." Drentiya looked up from her chair. "Thank you all for your bravery last night."

    "Thank you for giving us the chance to be there," Robert answered. His left arm had been mended by the ministrations of the Temple Healers, but it still ached and he refused to move it unless he had to. Even rapid healing couldn't keep him from feeling pain from the injuries.

    There was movement at the door. Gina stepped in and bowed his head respectfully. "I am glad you're all well," she said. "The Council has summoned you. All four of you."

    Meridina looked from Gina to her slumbering father. She wanted to wait and see him wake up. She wanted to talk to him, to thank him, for being there for her, and for understanding her.

    But she had duties still, and Karesl had raised her to fulfill duties above her own wants. "I'll be back shortly," she said to her family.

    "We'll be here, Meridina," Drentiya said. "Take as long as you need."




    A reception was waiting for them in the Council Chamber, as many of the seats were filled again with blue and green and cream-robed members of the Order. Workers had already put the Council's table back, but the scars of battle damage hadn't yet been completely removed.

    Sitting in Maklir's place was another older Mastrash with a balding head and a long, beakish nose. The seat for Karesl remained empty, but that of Goras was also filled by another Mastrash, and woman with short graying brown hair and a light complexion.

    "Knight Meridina. Lucilla Lucero. Robert Dale. Angela Delgado." The old man bowed partially to them from his seat. "We thank you for your bravery. I am Mastrash Tinaran."

    Meridina made the same bow in return. The others bowed their heads instead. "You're welcome," Robert said. "What can we do for you?"

    "There are a few orders of business the Council wishes to discuss with you," Tinaran stated. "The most pressing being the issue of Swenya's Blade." He directed his dark amber eyes toward Lucy. "You have achieved something remarkable, Lucilla. No one has ever imagined it possible to bring life to Swenya's Blade. Many of our greatest have tried and failed."

    "It was a matter of thinking the right way, sir," Lucy answered. "I just had the right background in understanding technology."

    "So you say." Tinaran folded his hands together. "It has created quite the stir among our people. Many in the citizenry believe we should offer you a purple robe. Alas, that would require you committing to the Order."

    "I figured. I have a place already." Lucy looked to the others briefly.

    "Yes. Of course, this means that Swenya's Blade must be returned. It is a relic of our Foundress and a treasure of the Gersallian people. It does not belong to any one person."

    Lucy felt the others looking at her curiously. But she merely smiled and unclipped the ancient weapon from her belt. She used her power to gently levitate it over to Tinaran. "I understand," she explained to them. "I don't have any problems with returning it."

    "Thank you for your understanding." Tinaran looked over the Council with some relief.

    Robert tried not to frown. He got the feeling that the Council wasn't exactly about to throw them a ticker tape parade. As he contemplated the reasons, he asked, "Can I ask a question before we continue?"

    Tinaran looked again to the others. Nods were the only answers he got, though not from all. "That is acceptable."

    "Goras claimed his followers would attack the government as well," Robert said. "But I haven't heard anything about this."

    "The Interdependency Security Force was prepared," Ledosh replied. "We are told they received word from the Alliance Government warning them of an imminent Dissenter attempt to overthrow our government. Curiously, it came from the Office of the Vice Chief of Naval Operations."

    The four shared bewildered looks. The idea that Davies would help thwart a coup that was going to give him what he wanted was… bizarre.

    "Either way, the attack failed to seize the Director or any of his subordinates, and the Assembly was unharmed," Tinaran said. "Goras' madness ended last night."

    "And Goras himself?"

    "Incarcerated," another of the Council members, a tan-skinned woman with graying brown hair, said. Robert felt Meridina's mind communicate a name to him: Hadisina. "We will decide his fate later."

    "Testing Goras will be a difficult prospect.."

    "Last night seemed like quite a test," Angel guffawed.

    The Council didn't react to that.

    "There are other points we must address," Tinaran said. "Specifically, the issue of the Prophecy of the Dawn."

    "What about it?", Robert asked.

    "We ask that you not speak on it in public," the old man said. "The Council once voted to investigate whether your existence and your actions were signs of the Prophecy's fulfillment. We encouraged the Gersallian government to resist your removal from the Aurora on the strength of that belief. But in light of recent occurrences, we now feel that this issue is too potentially disruptive to the populace. The Council has made an official public ruling; the Prophecy is not coming to pass at this time, and we will no longer make policies based upon that calculation."

    Meridina couldn't hide her disappointment. "We all saw them," she said. "None can deny what they are. Who but the Bearers of the Dawn could re-ignite Swenya's Blade?"

    One of the other Council members answered immediately. "As Lieutenant Lucero herself pointed out, she merely used her technical knowledge. There is nothing of the swevyra about her insight." Meridina identified him mentally for them: Verairos.

    "I didn't mean it was just…"

    Before Lucy could finish, Tinaran raised a hand. "This is our decision, Knight Meridina, and it is final. The Order, for the moment, holds that the Prophecy is not coming true. Its authenticity will still be debated until we see further indications that Swenya's vision is coming to pass."

    Meridina bowed her head. "Yes, Master."

    "Why?", Robert asked. "Are the Dissenters that powerful? Their leader just got outed to the entire Multiverse as having become a madman falling into darkness. Their coup fizzled."

    "Not all Dissenters were violent," Tinaran said. "Many rejected Goras' path. But they are still our people, and their beliefs and feelings must be considered."

    "Even some of those who support the Alliance are not comfortable with the idea of the Prophecy," Hadisina added. "We must consider their views. If the Order, if we, continue to follow this line, we will only further damage the balance of our people."

    "And it is clear that others in the Alliance have their own concerns about our actions on the matter," Verairos added. "Even now, legislators for the Alliance Council are proposing an act that would bar members of our Order from serving in the Alliance Government while remaining in the Order. It is clear that we have invited hostility in the Alliance that we must act to dispel. And that means withdrawing ourselves from the Alliance's direct affairs."

    "You're just going to what, go isolationist?", Lucy asked.

    "No, not at all," Hadisina said. "But we will no longer show interest in the internal affairs of the Alliance, we will merely offer our services when and where it is needed."

    "And this extends to the issue of the Prophecy of the Dawn, and of the Aurora," Tinaran said. "Our people spent valuable influence in shielding you from the hostility of your own superiors last year. We cannot do so any longer. The Prophecy, true or not, must not dictate our approach to the future."

    Robert couldn't argue with Tinaran. He didn't like the thought of trying to judge situations through things like prophecies. His own nightmares and dreams had been a mixed bag so far. They'd helped at Gamma Piratus, but 33LA had been a different story.

    But he felt there was more to it than that. He thought he could feel something else in the Council. A nebulous sort of… fear? As if these Council members, given a reason, wanted to dismiss the Prophecy of the Dawn because something about it…

    ...scared them?

    "Additionally…" Tinaran leaned forward in his seat and put his hands together. "There is the matter of your current position. The Council has debated the matter extensively."

    "What is the Council's decision, then?" Meridina looked to Ledosh. He had lowered his eyes. Whatever was going on, he had been outvoted.

    It was Tinaran who answered. "The charges have been cleared, as Ledosh informed you last night. However, in keeping with our decision on restricting our affairs in the Alliance, it is our choice to recall you from field service from the time being. You are hereby instructed by the Council to resign your commission in the Alliance Stellar Navy and to return to Gersal."

    "You will be assigned to the Temple Knights," Hadisina added. "Knight-Commander Hajamar will assign you where you are needed while you work with the Healers to finish purging the darkness that remains latent due to your experience with the Goa'uld. In time, when you have served your proper time with the Temple Knights, we will see to a new field assignment."

    Meridina drew in a breath. Her heart hurt at hearing their decision. She looked to the others, who all looked to her with worry and sadness, particularly Lucy. "I see," she said.

    "You have proven a valuable and loyal swevyra'se. It is unfortunate that your devotion to the Prophecy helped to cause this strife," Tinaran said. "We will do everything in our power to help you recover from what has happened."

    "No," Lucy said. "Meridina, you…"

    Robert set a hand on her shoulder. "Lucy, it'll be okay. You and I can carry on together." He looked to Tinaran. "The Council won't object to Meridina remaining in contact with us, will it?"

    "Within reason, no," he answered vaguely. "She has a right to association so long as it does not impact the Order."

    Angel rolled her eyes. "So basically, the answer is 'yes, but only if we like it'."

    "Swevyra'se have responsibilities," Hadisina said. "Sometimes they require us to restrain ourselves."

    Meridina had remained silent through this exchange. Her mind raced with the implications of what was being said. She bitterly imagined Goras would laugh when he learned; he might not have split Gersal from the Alliance, but the Council was certainly tilting toward his side of things. They wanted to pull away from the Alliance. And Meridina couldn't understand why.

    But they were the Council. The Code required she obey them on matters like this, just as she would one day be obeyed if she sat upon the Council.

    She turned her head to face her comrades. By the scale of her life, her involvement with them was not terribly long. Just a few years, and mostly the prior eighteen months. But that was enough time to build the bonds she felt toward them. To enjoy the wonder and delight of Caterina at seeing new things, Jarod's daily happiness at having a place and identity of his own, Zachary's confident growth as a commander, Commander Kane's curious mixture of straight professionalism and exuberant camaraderie…

    The crew of the Aurora had become more than colleagues. They had become her second family.

    Meridina's heart threatened to split at the weight of the choice before her. She closed her eyes before tears could form in them.

    "Meridina?", Robert asked. "What is it?" He could feel the turmoil within her as she weighed two parts of herself, and judged which she would have to rip away.

    "You don't have to do this," Angel insisted to the Council. "Let her stay with us. We work well together. And we won't talk about this Prophecy or whatever."

    "The decision of the Council is final," Tinaran declared. "Knight Meridina, you may say your goodbyes. We will arrange for anything you left on the Aurora to be brought to your new quarters here in the Temple."

    Robert and Lucy were both looking at her. Lucy could feel the pain building in Meridina's heart. Tears filled her eyes at that feeling. She said nothing about it; there was nothing to say.

    Meridina had a choice to make, it was that simple. And her nature demanded she make it decisively, with no doubt, although either choice would almost demand such doubt. Because she had already known doubt, and felt what it could do to her. How it could undermine her and weaken her.

    "Meridina…?", Ledosh asked.

    "Mastrasham of the Council," Meridina said. "I hear your commands. The Code of Swenya, the Code I have sworn to live my life by, to give my life for, requires I obey them." She turned to face them. Her eyes focused on Ledosh. "Mastrash Ledosh, I can never thank you enough for your patience as a mentor and a teacher. You taught me to listen to the wisdom of my swevyra. That is what made me the swevyra'se I am today."

    Ledosh was paling as he realized what was going on. "Meridina…," he began.

    As he said her name, Meridina was already gripping the right shoulder of her blue robe. In a gentle, quiet motion, she pulled her right arm out of the sleeve, and then her left arm out of the other. In several motions she folded the robe reverently into a flat square and laid it gently upon the Council's table. They were all staring in disbelief as she took her lakesh hilt and laid it on top of her discarded robe.

    "My heart and my swevyra lead me in the same direction," Meridina said. Tears were already pouring from her blue eyes. "My place is on the Aurora. I cannot obey your order. I have no choice but to renounce my Oath to the Order of Swenya."

    The air seemed to grow chilled. The Council members looked at each other in utter surprise. For all of their power, their supposed vision, they hadn't seen this coming.

    "I will remember my service to the Order fondly," she said. "It was everything I wanted in life. And though I am compelled to renounce my place as a swevyra'se of Gersal, I will still honor the Code of Swenya until my dying breath." Meridina bowed to them with genuine respect.

    "You can never come back," Tinaran warned. "You have chosen this course to evade a proper Order from this Council. Therefore you will be regarded as having left this Order for selfish reasons and you will be treated accordingly."

    Meridina nodded in acknowledgement. "Mi rake sa swevyra iso."

    And without another word, she walked away.

    Robert, Lucy, and Angel looked to the Council. "Have a good day," Robert said, and he managed some sincerity in it despite himself. Afterward he too turned, as did Lucy and Angel, and the three walked briskly to catch up with Meridina and joined her in exiting the Chamber.




    The four Aurora crew emerged from the central structure of the Great Temple and walked on toward the stop for the commuter service. Robert and Lucy shared uncomfortable glances; they could feel the pain inside of Meridina.

    "Those sons of bitches," Angel growled. "That asshole Goras is going to laugh his ass off when he finds out."

    "They're scared," Robert said.

    "Of what? Goras' crazy supporters?"

    "No." Lucy shook her head. "Something else. They're scared of something else."

    As they approached the stop, an aircar pulled up. Its doors opened. "Please, come with me," Gina said from the driver's seat.

    The four looked at each other, although Meridina barely glanced as part of that.

    "Please hurry," Gina insisted. "We don't have much time, they're going to get suspicious."

    "Well, since you put it like that," Robert sighed, climbing in on one side. Everyone joined him and within five seconds, the aircar was zooming away. "Where are we going?", he asked Gina.

    "The countryside," she replied. "Mastrash Ledosh's family still owns a small cottage in the mountains. He's going to meet us there in a few hours. Privately, away from the Council and the Order."

    "What's going on?", Angel asked. "Why all the secrecy?"

    "I don't know why," Gina said. "But I know he thinks it's very important." Gina glanced back at Meridina, who was squeezed in between Lucy and Angel. "I'm sorry, I didn't know you would be coming. I… well, Ledosh didn't think you'd actually leave the Order."

    "I almost didn't," Meridina admitted. Her reddened eyes briefly looked to Lucy and then to Robert in the front seat. "But I felt I had to."

    "Hopefully we're about to find out why they forced that choice on you," Robert said.




    The Lookout was mostly empty when Julia arrived to have lunch. Even most of the usual staff seemed to be gone.

    But not Hargert, of course. Never Hargert. He approached her with a tray, on which there was a steaming bowl of sausage stew and a plate of lunch finger foods that looked delicious as always. A glass of fruit juice rounded out the lunch. "Don't you ever take days off?", Julia asked him as he settled the tray before her. She smiled gently. "You always seem to be here at work."

    "And what would I do with my days off, Commander?", Hargert replied amiably. "I would be here anyway. This is not work to me, it is pleasure." A smile creased his wrinkled old face. "That I am compensated for it makes it all the more enjoyable." He slid into the chair opposite from her. "I hear congratulations are in order to the Captain of the new Enterprise."

    Julia shook her head and grinned. She picked up a spoon and dipped it into the stew. "I'm sure Scotty's told everyone on the ship. Although I honestly haven't said 'yes' yet."

    "Ah. You wish to discuss things with Robert, yes?"

    "Among other things." Julia took a bite and savored the delicious, rich taste. "I swear to God, Hargert, you are the greatest cook I've ever known. You would have given competition to Rob's grandmother."

    "Danke schon," he answered. "I suspect we learned the same way."

    "Maybe." Julia stirred the spoon in the stew again.

    As she took her next bite, two more figures walked up. Caterina and Violeta were in uniform too, wearing uniform skirts instead of trousers. They were holding hands. "Can we?", Cat asked.

    Julia nodded. "Sure."

    "I shall be right back." Hargert got up and walked off, presumably to get two more sets of food for the new arrivals.

    Cat and Violeta took chairs beside each other. "I heard from Angel that she was okay," Cat said. "But I'm still not sure what happened. Something about a fight and a bad guy with mind powers?

    "Apparently one of the leaders of Meridina's Order went nuts and tried to kill everyone. Rob and Angel and Lucy helped put him down."

    "Lucy, you mean Lieutenant Lucero, right?" Violeta's face brightened up. "I was watching a video this morning over the IU extranet. She had some kind of energy sword!"

    "Don't ask me, I'm still wondering about it myself," Julia replied.

    "When are they going to be home?"

    "Maybe later today, maybe tomorrow."

    "Oh." Cat nodded. "Well, then maybe… well, actually…"

    Julia crossed her arms and adopted something of a half-smile. "I can hear it in your voice Cat. What do you need?"

    "Not me. Violeta. She, well, she needs… she's new, so…"

    With Cat clearly nervous about the request, Violeta spoke up. "I haven't been on the ship for longer than six months, so I'm not automatically eligible for a leave time. I'm getting temporary assignment to the shuttle pilot pool at the end of the week. But until then… well, Cat was telling me she's never been to Paris or Venice, and she has a few days of eligible leave, and I was thinking…"

    Both of the girls were blushing by this point. Julia smiled softly. "I think I can manage a few days of leave time for you, Ensign Arterria. You might have to do some extra duty once the ship's underway again, though."

    "I'm fine with that," Violeta said. "Completely."

    "Ah. Well. I'll have your leave papers arranged tomorrow. You'll need to be back in time to report to the Fleet Base Piloting Division, of course."

    "Of course!" Violeta nodded and grinned. "Of course, I'll be back on time, I promise you Commander."

    Cat let out a little squee and left her chair to give Julia a tight hug. "Thank you, Julie. Thank you so much. I'll make it up to you!"

    "You always do," Julia answered. "And you can start by letting me get back to my lunch? Hargert's already on his way with your's."

    And indeed, he was.




    The cottage was small, a structure that at its largest was the size of the living area of Robert's quarters. Gina escorted them to the door and saw them inside. "I'll be waiting out here and watching," she said. The furnishings were spartan and simple. A pantry in the far left corner of the rectangular room included a small stove and an icebox or refrigerator. In the opposite corner, to their right, was a simple cot, and to their left were a couple of chairs and one small couch that looked like it could also be used for sleeping.

    In fact, the only thing that made the cottage look like it didn't belong in the 20th Century was the technology in the far right corner. A computer system was present, beside a mantle with holo-image bases instead of photographs and what looked like a stand for a lakesh hilt. Beside it was a big book.

    But the final item was the real breaker of the image of quiet, pre-space age living. A transporter pad.

    White light appeared in a burst on the pad. Ledosh appeared from within the burst. His purple-with-blue-trim robe was still over his white vest and brown tunic and trousers. He looked to them and nodded. "It is good to see you."

    "Mastrash Ledosh." All nodded back in some way, although Angel's as more one of acknowledgement than any deference.

    He nodded back. "Thank you for coming." Ledosh turned his head slightly to face Meridina directly. "Meridina, I am sorry. I tried to vote against it."

    "I know," she said. "If Councilman Pensley has his way, I would have faced this choice anyway."

    "Senator Pensley, now," Ledosh said.

    "What?", Robert asked, incredulous.

    "Admiral Maran and I have been sharing updates since the coup attempt. Last night the Tetzelian National Assembly voted to appoint Pensley to replace Senator Marswell, one of those lost to Goras' madness."

    Robert nodded. "I'm guessing Goras was behind the attack on the Senate, then?"

    "According to the Temple Knights, yes. They found evidence on his computers of his collusion and Alliance Naval Intelligence corroborated it with the evidence they forwarded to the Interdependency this morning. Unfortunately the apprentice he used, Intalarai, was one that he did not have present at the attack. She has gone missing."

    "I still can't believe Davies helped with that," Lucy said.

    "I am fairly uncertain of his reasoning myself. But that is not the matter at hand. The Council will become suspicious if I remain here too long."

    "Wouldn't they suspect you for leaving the Great Temple anyway?"

    "No, Lieutenant Delgado. It is a practice of mine to come to the cottage and meditate when I am agitated by my colleagues. But I am never gone for very long in those circumstances."

    "No, you wouldn't be," Meridina said quietly.

    Ledosh's eyes brimmed with compassion when he looked at his student. "They were wrong to react as they did to your departure. Although even I wish you had stayed. Though the Council and many older Mastrasham are in agreement on this policy, the younger ranks of the Order see you as a heroine. Many now believe the Prophecy is coming true and are upset by the Council's choices. Given time, I may persuade them, and with you to rally the field Knights…" Ledosh sighed and shook his head. "I will not criticize you for following your swevyra's direction, though. I've trained you too well to have you ignore it."

    "So why is the Council scared about the Prophecy?", Lucy asked.

    "The real reason," Robert clarified. "Because I felt that fear. This isn't about society and politics."

    "For the same reason Goras and Karesl are against it being true. They don't want it to be true, and they are afraid it is."

    "That makes little sense to me," Meridina said. Her voice became the most animated it had been since they left the Great Temple. "I have never understood why anyone would oppose the idea of the Dawn Bearers. It is a prophecy speaking of a new Golden Age, it is not something to dread!"

    There was something in Ledosh's expression that made Robert realized there was more to this than even Meridina could see. "Is there more to it?", he asked.

    Ledosh sighed. "Yes. There is."

    Meridina stared at him. "What? I have read it, how could there be more?"

    "Well, what is the Prophecy?", Angel said. "I mean, is it something like the Book of Revelations? Or some of the prophecies the old Hebrew Prophets would give?"

    "It is best described as a poem, reciting Swenya's statement on what the future held," Meridina said. "I memorized it years ago. I shall attempt to render it into your English." She drew in a breath and began to speak.


    When Meridina finished, the other three looked at each other. "'Sisters of fire and heart'," Lucy said, looking to Angel. "Well, I can see that with you and Cat, I guess."

    Robert smiled gently at Angel. "You're definitely the sister of fire. It's one of the things I love about you."

    She returned the little smile, but there was an edge to it. Angel clearly felt uncomfortable with all of this.

    "And Julia and Zack are both Commanders," Lucy continued. "But then again, I get the feeling it means something else."

    "It would," Ledosh said. "These words were written in the High Gersallian dialect of Swenya's time. We are fortunate that they survived the Uprising of the Brotherhood."

    "The Brotherhood of Kohbal, you mean."

    "Yes."

    "I know they caused a lot of destruction in that era, but until last night I never realized how much," Lucy continued. "I mean, I'm betting they're the reason that the Order went from something like Swenya's Blade to the memory metal blades in a lakesh. It was the best replacement the survivors could find after they lost the knowledge."

    "It would appear so. And undoubtedly the Council will spend the next several weeks deliberating whether to allow technical examination of Swenya's Blade or avoid the risk of damaging it."

    "The power cell lasted for three thousand years, I'm not even sure that naqia devices could manage that."

    "I'm more interested in this issue with the Prophecy," Robert pointed out.

    "Oh, yeah." Lucy sighed. "Okay, so that sounds… I mean, it talks about evil, but it says we'd beat it. I'm not scared by it "

    "That is because it is not the original version," Ledosh revealed.

    Meridina looked at him with surprise. "Mastrash Ledosh, there's more?"

    "Not much," Ledosh said. "But the original version has an extra line in the final stanza. A line that we have kept hidden for thousands of years."

    "Holy crap," Lucy said. "What does it say, something about the sun dying out or something?"

    Ledosh nodded grimly. "Something worse. Simply by telling you this, I place myself at jeopardy before the Order. But I believe the Prophecy is coming true, and that you must be informed of what it truly means." Ledosh turned again to Meridina, who was staring at him in horror. "I'm sorry for not telling you, Meridina. I argued for it, but the Council refused me. Just as they demanded we hide the existence of the Prophecy from you and your crew, Captain."

    "I'm guessing the Prophecy is why Meridina was assigned to us in the first place," Robert replied. He looked to her. "And she was ordered not to tell?"

    "And she was ordered to avoid any act to promote your knowledge of swevyra should you have power with it," Ledosh confirmed.

    "I am very sorry," Meridina said to them. "It was thought necessary while we determined if the Prophecy was actually coming true."

    "And since I am certain that it is, I am ready to reveal the true version of the Prophecy to you."

    "Well, okay then," Angel said. "Lay it on us."

    Ledosh drew in a breath and spoke the final stanza, adding a sixth line.

    There was a gasp in the room. It came from Robert. His mind flashed back several months to Gamma Piratus and the Darglan Facility there. A Facility filled with the wreckage and damage of an ancient battle, and in its secured databanks, a partial message left by the defenders.

    "'Stop the Darkness'," Robert murmured. When all eyes turned to him, Robert explained in a louder voice, "It was the only line left of a message left by the Darglan in the Facility on Gamma Piratus. The end of a spoken sentence with those three words. '...stop the Darkness.'"

    "So what is the Darkness?", Lucy asked Meridina.

    "I do not know," she said. "Although.." A memory came to her mind. "Years ago, Caterina showed me the holographic chamber in your Facility."

    "Which is when it told you about a prize for the Gersallian species at a blue sun," Angel said. "I remember. Looking for it is how we came into contact with the Galactica and the Colonial Refugees."

    "Yes. But there was a message with it. A warning about the use of the Darglans' drive technology, and how we must always respect the limitations of the drives, or we might be exposed to a 'darkness' that dwells in the deepest voids of the dimensions. And that if we did so, 'Ancient Ones' would punish us." Meridina shook her head. "I reported this at the time, but no one spoke to me of it."

    "That is because the Council restricted this knowledge long ago," Ledosh said. "One of the surviving writings from Kohbal's Uprising spoke of an ancient war. All that we know is that Swenya led a group of devoted swevyra'se to fight at the side of the Darglan against the Darkness, and that few returned alive with her at the end of the war. Not everything from her account survives, sadly. From what we have left, we know that the Darkness could not be reasoned with, could not be negotiated with, and indeed never even communicated. They only strived to destroy all Life that they found, and Swenya claimed to have watched them annihilate entire stars."

    An image flashed in Robert's vision. An image from his dreams, of stars dying out in never-ending waves until entire galaxies had gone dark.

    "If they could destroy stars… why weren't they listed as an Omega-level threat by the Darglan?", Lucy wondered.

    "Maybe the Darglan never had time to update the list?", Angel speculated.

    "Or maybe there was no point in updating the list once the war was over," Robert said. "We know the Darglan were from E5B1, and that the First Ones of that universe's Milky Way banned them from ever using the IU jump drives again."

    "This explains the warning they left in their message to us," Meridina added.

    "And why they asked the Asgard for weapons technology." Robert shook his head. "And Thor's warning to me about using the IU drives. The Asgard knew something of the Darkness, even if he didn't say anything about knowing their name. Thor said they even allied with the Goa'uld at the time to resist them."

    "What I want to know is how the Darglan could beat something that destroyed stars," Lucy said. "That's.. I mean, it's nearly impossible."

    "That mad scientist Tolian Soran could do it," Robert said. "He destroyed one star and almost took out another."

    "He didn't destroy the stars, actually, he just changed them," Lucy pointed out. "I wouldn't call that annihilation."

    Ledosh spoke next. "We know Swenya spoke of beings who came to the Darglans' aid due to the threat the Darkness posed. Ancient races and species that sided with them, some just as terrifying as the Darkness in their power. Races that could manipulate space and time, races with enormous mental powers, even beings made of pure energy."

    "And they what, beat the Darkness by blowing them up before they blew up suns?", Angel asked.

    "We do not know." Ledosh shook his head. "Which only serves to feed the fears of the Council. This is why they wish the Prophecy to be wrong, and why they do not want it revealed. The fear it would generate among people to imagine such a powerful enemy returned to threaten us could make our current upheaval even worse."

    Meridina nodded. "I… I never knew, I…" Her eyes fell. Her face was pale. A tear started falling from her right eye as she closed them. "This is what Father meant when he said I would be broken if the Prophecy came true. He knew that I was hoping for this horror to return to threaten us without knowing it."

    "Yes, that is like him." Ledosh bowed his head. "I cannot give you access to the writings right now. The Council would be suspicious of my access at this time. But when I can, I will do more to teach you about this threat, while I hope and pray that the Prophecy is in error."

    "Yes," Meridina said. "I hope so too."

    "I have told you all that I can. I'm afraid you must go, and go quickly. As it is, the Order may suspect you were up to something if they realize how long your ship has remained," Ledosh said. As he did so he walked to the side and concentrated.

    The door opened. Gina stepped in. "You're done?", she asked.

    "I am."

    "You can't tell me what was said," Gina remarked, and this was aimed at the others. "If the Council found out I was informed, Ledosh and I would be punished."

    "Well, we won't," Robert said. "Just us knowing is risk enough for him."

    "Yes." Meridina was staring off into space. "Let us depart."

    "I have contacted an Order vessel equipped with an IU jump drive, they will provide you a jump back to Earth L2M1 upon your arrival to orbit," Ledosh said. "Gina is more talented with the transporters than I am, she will help you transport back to your ship."

    "I'll go back and beam the rest of you at once," Lucy said.

    While Gina and Lucy worked, and Robert and Angel stood to the side holding hands, Ledosh stepped up to his student. He felt her turmoil and sadness and frustration and it made him feel shame and guilt. The Council had repaid her devotion and faith with narrow-minded cowardice… and he had repaid it with deception. "I am sorry," he said. "I lacked the courage to defy the Council. I feared that Goras and Karesl would prevail if I did defied the Council's instructions."

    "I know, and I understand." Meridina shook her head.

    "I feel your pain, student. Please, don't hold it in this time. Give it release."

    Meridina didn't reply to that.

    "Will you say goodbye to your family?"

    Meridina nodded. "I wish to. But I will not be welcome in the Temple, and they are with my father."

    Lucy heard that and looked over to her. "I think I can make the transport work," she said. "The Great Temple's got passive anti-beaming fields, of course, but Ledosh's systems are tied into them with the frequencies that aren't blocked, just let me get the right frequency and I can send you over once we're on the Rio Grande."

    "We'll send you as soon as we're back," Robert said. "And you can take all of the time you need."

    "Thank you," was her quiet reply.

    "And I've got us ready to beam over," Lucy said. She stepped over to the pad. "I'll go first. I'll signal when I'm ready to beam you over." She nodded to Ledosh. "It was nice meeting you again, Mastrash Ledosh."

    "The same to you, Lucilla Lucero."

    With a press of a key, Gina beamed Lucy away.

    "Good luck with the Council," Robert said. "Let us know if we can help you with anything."

    "I will," Ledosh said. "And be mindful. The knowledge I have given you is disturbing, but do not let it weigh down your heart. The Darkness can be stopped, should they return. Continue your training in the meantime. Your visions may give us further insights into the path we are treading upon."

    "We'll keep that in mind," Angel said. Robert felt his heart twist a little at the tone in her voice. She would not take him continuing training very well, not when he had promised it'd be over soon.

    Before he could say anything about it, his multidevice chimed. "Lucy's ready for us."

    Meridina looked to Ledosh. She bowed and, with a tear in her eye, she gave her farewell. "I hope to see you again, Mastrash. Mi rake sa swevyra iso."

    Ledosh nodded. "I wish the same, Meridina. Mi rake sa swevyra iso."

    Robert pressed a key on his multidevice. They all transported away.




    Nobody said anything when Meridina beamed into the hall of the Great Temple's medical ward, just outside her father's room. Inside she found her family gathered. Despite everything, her heart felt lightened at seeing Karesl's eyes open.

    "We heard," Drentiya said. "I can feel your pain, Meri. I am so sorry."

    "The Council are a bunch of kenyakam," declared Leniraya.

    Meridina stifled a chuckle that would have been full of pain. "We're preparing to launch to return to the Aurora," she said. "But I wished to say goodbye, and to see how father was doing."

    "I am recovering," Karesl said weakly. "The healers tell me another minute and I would have been beyond saving." He turned his head in a stiff motion. "Tinaran told me what the Council ruled, and what they have done." He frowned. "And what you have done."

    "I am sorry, Father, for disappointing you."

    Karesl shook his head. The motion was as stiff as his movement earlier. "Do not concern yourself with it. I can sense the hurt in you, you do not need more from believing me angry with you." A sour look came to him. "Ledosh told you, didn't he? He told you about the Prophecy."

    Meridina didn't reply. She knew Karesl could only be hurt if their family found out.

    "I am sorry," Karesl said.

    "Whatever it is, what's done is done," Drentiya said. "Please, Meridina, come home again sometime. We wish to see more of you."

    "I am no longer in the Order, but I still have duties on the Aurora," she said. "But now that things have changed and my presence will not bring any disruption… I will return, and I will visit you whenever I can."

    That brought smiles to her family. Qalkrsl spoke up next. "We're proud of you, Meri. Always. Even though you're no longer in the Order, we know you're a swevyra'se and always will be."

    "Always," Karesl agreed. He reached his hand up and Meridina took it. "I have always loved you, daughter, but know that I am also proud of you, Meridina, and I always will be. You are following the calling you feel within, and I hope it brings you the destiny that you seek. May the Light of your swevyra always guide you well. And if the Prophecy is true… I will be there to help you, in whatever means is necessary."

    "Thank you, father." Tears welled up in Meridina's eyes. "Thank you very much."

    And she embraced him gladly, comforted in the knowledge that regardless of how things had turned out, despite all of their disagreements over the prior two years, her father still loved her and was proud of her.



    Tag



    The first thing Robert did upon their return to the Aurora was head to his quarters and soak in a warm bath. Having a bath tub/shower unit instead of just a shower was a perk of his rank that he didn't often partake in, but with all of his bruises he simply couldn't resist.

    He still ached when he left. He had dried off mostly when his display lit up. There was an incoming call, private, that wasn't being routed through the bridge like most calls would be. He pulled on his bathrobe and, with his hair still wet and uncombed, plopped into his chair wearily and tapped the key to accept the call. "Ah." He smiled. "It's good to see you."

    "Likewise," replied Commander Elizabeth King. "I hear you had quite the adventure on Gersal."

    "And I have the bruises to prove it," Robert answered. The smile stayed on. "I figured something was up with Davies' office helping the Gersallian government."

    "Yes. Although it has certainly cost me Admiral Davies' support, I thought it an act of necessity to forward our information from the Dissenter safehouse we found here in Portland." King's face remained neutral, but there was a hint of a satisfied smile coming to her face. "The Gersallian Interdependency is a critical member of the Alliance, after all, providing numerous troops and ships and material for the war effort. We can't afford to let them fall into civil war or an anti-Alliance dictatorship."

    "You'll get no disagreement from me on that. But if Davies doesn't want you around anymore, what will you do now?"

    "I will serve where I am needed, as always." She checked something off-screen. "I thought you should know that we still haven't found Goras' apprentice Intalarai. She was the powered woman who got away from the Senate attack. Wherever she is, I imagine she will prove dangerous in the future."

    "Probably."

    "Well, I'll let you get back to settling in and healing from your battle. King out."

    She disappeared from the screen. Robert entertained himself with the thought of how Davies had reacted to what happened.

    His door chime went off unexpectedly. "Come in," Robert called out. When Julia entered he said, "Hey, Julie. How did everything go while we were gone?"

    "Oh, fine enough, I guess," Julia said. She smiled gently at him. "I watched the video making the rounds on the 'net. I should slap you for nearly getting yourself killed again… but that would make me a hypocrite since I nearly got decapitated by a cyborg ninja last week."

    "Heh, yeah." Robert nodded. "It all worked out for the best anyway. We brought Meridina home. Although I think she's going to be hurting for a while." He frowned. "She had to leave the Order to come back. They were going to make her resign her commission and come back for duty at their Grand Temple."

    Julia nodded in understanding. "I can see how that hurt her." In her heart Julia found that Meridina's choices reflected her own. My friends and family or my career.

    Robert wasn't actively sensing Julia's emotions, so he didn't sense the thought in any way to define it. But he could tell Julia was conflicted about something. "What's wrong, Julie?", he asked.

    "I… well, you might say I received an offer I couldn't, or at least shouldn't, refuse." Julia shifted in her chair and sighed. "And since Scotty will ensure you get this news sooner or later, I might as well tell you."

    "Tell me what?", Robert asked.

    "Admiral Maran met with me yesterday," Julia said. "He's asked me to accept a promotion and take command of a starship. A new one, the Enterprise."

    For a moment Robert didn't say anything. But just a moment. Slowly a smile formed on his face. "Well, that's… that's incredible," he said. "I'm so happy for you. I know you want your own command."

    "I do," she said. "And not at your expense either. And that's how it felt last year when… well, when you were lost in the past meeting Captain Archer. Or when you were on Gamma Piratus." Julia shook her head. "Every bit of me wants to jump for joy and say 'Yes!' in the loudest voice I can while still keeping my personal dignity. Every bit of me but my heart." Her green eyes fell. "Because… even if I brought some of the crew with me, you can't all go. And I know that the more who follow me, the more alone you and the ones left behind will feel. And I don't want to do that to you."

    Robert had to admit he did feel worried about the idea of having her leave. He'd have to find a new First Officer, and if it was one he hadn't served with… that meant months of building up a trust like the one Julia and he had shared for decades. He relied upon Julia so much that he wasn't sure he could do the job without her.

    But he couldn't bring himself to say that. He couldn't crush her dreams. Because this wasn't just any ship she was talking about, it was the Enterprise. That was a name that anyone would want on their career file. And to be Captain of the Enterprise?

    "I think you should go for it," he said. "If that's what you want."

    Julia blinked. "Yeah, I thought you'd say that. But we both know how much harder it'll be for you with a new XO."

    "I'll find someone. Maybe one of the old Facility hands who's climbing the ranks. I hear Gabriel's son Jose made Lieutenant Commander. Maybe he'll be available when.." Robert stopped. "When would you be leaving?"

    "The end of the year. I have about six months to give Maran my answer."

    "Right." Robert nodded. "Well, I won't lie. I'll miss you terribly, Julie. We've been side-by-side almost all our lives, and if this happens we won't be seeing each other beyond an occasional fleet operation or if we get lucky and go into the dock at the same time. I'm… well, it'll hurt. But I could never let myself stand in the way of your dreams."

    She nodded in reply. And smiled a little. "Thank you." After taking in a breath she said, "So, your message when you jumped back was that some big things happened."

    "Well, beyond the failed coup d'etat and the Order of Swenya deciding they wouldn't have our backs anymore…" Robert took in a breath. "...we also found out that the Gersallians can't tell whether or not we're the figures in a three thousand year old prophecy predicting the return of a horrific and powerful alien force that tried to exterminate all Life in the Multiverse three thousand years ago."

    He'd kept his voice level. As if he were sharing the weather. Julia blinked and her face betrayed her disbelief. "Wow," she said. "Okay, maybe you need to start from the beginning?"

    "Okay," Robert said. "Well, when we got there the other day…"




    Meridina had dutifully reported to the Security Office upon her return to the ship. She sent a signal to the Stellar Navy rescinding her resignation - Admiral Maran had kindly tied it up in bureaucracy before it could be accepted - and looked over the reports by her subordinates and by Commander Kane. There were virtually no security issues present save a reported fight between some of the crew and a few dock workers, which could happen whenever they put in.

    Soon she was done at the Security Office. Meridina walked to her quarters and into her bedroom, where she sat on her bed silently. She'd left her things before departing, including her spare blue robes and other clothing issued for her use in the Order. Her book of the recovered writings of Swenya was still in its place on her bedroom bookshelf. Looking at it no longer gave her satisfaction. The Council had edited one of those works, after all. How many others had an "official" version for everyone else and the Council's original copy?

    How much of her people's knowledge about Swenya, about their history, had been rewritten by the Council over the millennia?

    It wasn't those thoughts that ended her silence, though. It was simply all of her pent-up feelings on the day's choice that came bubbling up. She started to weep as the enormity of her choice came to her.

    All of her life, since she was a child, Meridina had wanted to walk the path of Swenya. She'd wanted to be a swevyra'se, to uphold the Cold and help the innocent, to live to the highest ideals of her people. The Order had been her purpose, her life.

    And now she had walked away from it. No, she'd been pushed away from it.

    She'd had a good reason, yes. Her heart, her swevyra, still told her this was the right path for her. That this was the way she was meant to go. But that didn't mean she could ignore what she had just done. She had just slammed the door on her whole life, casting herself off into an uncertain future away from the Order.

    It hurt. It hurt like few things had hurt before.

    And as she dwelled upon it, it hurt even more, for the simple fact that she couldn't even be sure of what she believed even more. Growing up, the Order had been a beacon of Light itself, an institution wholly devoted to the betterment of not just the Gersallian people but of all species.

    But now she had seen that it was not. The Order was fallible. It could be divided. It could be distracted. It could be misled. It could, for the sake of convenience, turn against everything it was supposed to be, and it could deceive to fulfill its own ends or prejudices.

    And if the Order could do those things… what did that mean for the Code? Was the Code something they'd just written up for their own benefit? How much of it was genuine, from Swenya, and how much of it was added by the Council over the years to serve their own ends and not the truth?

    For that matter… what about Swenya herself? Could she have been the heroine that history claimed? The Order wrote the history, after all…

    These two pains, contradictory as they were given her decision, nevertheless meshed into one terrible harmony within Meridina; the understanding that she had seen years of belief burned away. The old certainties that had governed her conduct were gone now, stripped by the reality of what she now knew and what she had done. She felt adrift in a raging sea of uncertainty about the future, about her fate.

    But even in a raging sea, one could find the sanctuary of an anchored vessel.

    The unlocked door to her quarters opened. Someone locked them quietly. Meridina didn't look up. She could feel Lucy and knew Lucy was feeling what she was going through.

    Lucy entered, still in her civilian clothes of jacket, shirt, and pants. She said nothing as she walked over to the bed and sat down by Meridina. Her blue eyes focused on Meridina's tear-filled eyes. A sympathetic tear rolled down her right cheek.

    Lucy could have assured her it would be okay. She could have encouraged her in the knowledge she made the right choice. She could have said any number of things calculated to make Meridina feel better.

    But she knew that wasn't what Meridina needed. Lucy wordlessly opened her arms and let Meridina embrace her. Meridina continued to cry even as she tightened the hug, resting her head and face on Lucy's left shoulder. Gratitude filled her even amidst the pain she felt; she didn't have to put up a facade of control, she didn't have to hide what she felt. When Lucy had just been her student and a possible piece in the puzzle of the Prophecy, Meridina had to be strong around her, and had only slid from that after Amaunet had taken her.

    But now, she didn't need to impose stoic calm. Meridina could let her pain show. She could let her emotions out without undermining what she had to be for Lucy's sake, or for Robert's, or even for herself. Here, with Lucy, she could be vulnerable.

    And Lucy… understood. She understood what Meridina needed from her, and what she needed her to be.

    When Lucy finally spoke, it was with the only two words that truly mattered. The only thing that would truly ease Meridina's pain.

    "I'm here."




    In her quarters on Deck 4, Julia Andreys sat in her blue nightrobe and stared at the screen of her computer system. Robert's story to her, about the Gersallian prophecy and how it had already impacted their lives, had her thinking about everything. Everything that had happened to them over the past four years.

    Four years. Barely one out of seven she had lived. But the changes she'd faced had been so stupendous that they defied comprehension. Her best friend in the world, the closest she had ever known to having a soulmate, had found something incredible, and now she was out here, living on a spaceship currently docked over a 27th Century Earth, part of a vast alliance of worlds and nations and systems from different universes. She had once dreamed of taking personal responsibility in some fashion - maybe as an elected official, or a businesswoman, anything really - and now she was being offered command of an advanced and powerful starship.

    Given what Robert had told her, they might be in for even more changes in the coming years. Especially if there really was some terrible threat out there in the Multiverse capable of causing mass destruction.

    With these thoughts going through her head, Julia keyed the computer system.

    Personal Log: Commander Julia Andreys; 15 May 2642.

    It's been a busy week. So much has happened in the last several days especially, things that I think will remain with us for a long time. Sometimes it seems so easy, the way that change can come to our lives. Sometimes it's a good change, something that we've been wanting to see. A dream that's coming true…




    The atmosphere in Carranzo's on New Liberty was as festive as ever. One of the cheering tables was particularly festive; Jarod sat between his father and sister, laughing with them while Broots' daughter Debbie shared a story from her school at her father's urging. Jarod, with one arm on Charles' shoulders and the other on Emily's so he could hold them close, held a glad feeling in his heart at getting to live this day.

    Beside Charles, Sydney smiled gently at him and nodded. Better than anyone else, he understood what Jarod felt, and felt the same.

    It was always good to be with family.




    ....or finally getting to experience something we've been missing…




    A brilliant glow lit up the sky over the City of Lights, and contributing to that glow was the Eiffel Tower.

    From a balcony at a hotel that, while quite expensive, was run by people who were also quite willing to demonstrate their appreciation for those fighting "the Nazi Boche", Caterina Delgado and Violeta Arterria held hands and looked out at the brilliance of one of the most beautiful cities that Human civilization had ever produced. Paris shined in the splendor of its lights, its avenues and boulevards and the museums and universities that had long made its reputation, while the Seine River reflected those same lights to add to the ambience. Their bellies were content with a shared dinner and the half-finished wine bottle on the balcony table testified to the further enjoyment of the evening.

    Caterina turned her head. Her hazel eyes met Violeta's exotic, gene-engineered purple eyes, made to match the similarly-engineered purple hair. They both smiled and blushed at each other. Violeta waited patiently, sensing what the shorter young woman was preparing to say, but making sure it came from her.

    Cat's heart was pounding in anticipation as she spoke the two words that Violeta had been waiting for.

    "I'm ready."

    Their eyes closed as they drew close and began to kiss intently. Violeta would be the one to close the balcony door while Caterina pulled off her jacket and backed up into their hotel room. They embraced and kissed again. The kiss ended in a brief pair of giggles as they fell back onto the waiting bed.




    ....and sometimes it's bad. We find out that the things we believed true, about ourselves, about others, are not true.




    In the darkness of her quarters, her tears spent and fatigue sending her off into sleep, Meridina looked at the book of Swenya's writings again. And the look on her face made it clear she didn't know if she could trust that beautiful calligraphy ever again.




    We endure pain, we endure loss, and we see the people we care for… the people we love… get hurt.




    The Fleet Hospital's visiting hours were flexible, so no nurses were surprised or disapproving of the five figures that remained in one of their rooms. The sign on the door gave the room number - 2478 - and the name of the occupant.

    Lt. K. Derbely.

    The patient on the bed was still wrapped in bandages, fresh from the first operation to repair or replace the damaged flesh from her horrific injuries. Her eyes were slightly glazed over from the pain medications she had been given, but they could focus enough to show gratitude for her fellow officers from the Koenig. To her right, Lt. Creighton Apley held her hand affectionately while Lt. April Sherlily was sitting beside him, smiling sadly at her wounded friend. On the other side, the Koenig's Dorei medical officer, Doctor Roliri Opani, kept glancing at the medical readout panels as if unable to resist doing the job of another with her own skills, even as her eyes glistened with unshed tears at the sight of her comrade. Seated beside Opani was Lt. Magda Navaez, showing a supportive smile while unable to hold back the tears at her friend's condition.

    Tears were also evident in the eyes of their commander. Zack Carrey stood at the foot of the bed, looking at his chief engineer with sadness, but some relief that she was on the road to recovery.

    But that couldn't make up for the pain in his heart at seeing her in this state and knowing that, in many ways, she was one of the lucky ones, and that once again he had lost some of his crew. And even one was too many for him.




    But whether change is good or bad, we know it's coming. And all we can do is roll with it, no matter what it means.




    A handful of officers and enlisted personnel were still watching, and listening, as personal items went into a box in one of the working offices in the Naval Intelligence section of Defense Command, halfway up Tower 2 of the giant six-towered structure along the Columbia River by Lake Vancouver. The nameplate for the office had already been removed by its now-former occupant. Some considered stepping up to express condolences or good wishes, but the nearby scowling visage of Captain Soveral cowed them into saying nothing. No one wanted to be the next to face the wrath of the Vice Chief of Naval Operations.

    Commander Elizabeth King emerged from her former office with a quiet, dignified bearing. She ignored her former colleagues, an act of defiance to those who supported her ouster and an act of quiet benefit to those who didn't, lest they show any sympathy. She had no worries about it. The Stellar Navy was a big organization and she was devoted to the success of that organization and of the Alliance that it defended.

    There were other jobs in the Navy, after all, and she had gotten quite a taste for command in her time with the Sladen...




    Because change can be useful. It can create new opportunities for us, if we're ready to take them. If we want to take them.




    While Meridina was sound asleep in the bedroom, Lucy went into the living area and activated her multidevice. The repairs she'd made after the fight with Goras (and while fussy Order healers had been treating her) were holding well.

    But Lucy's real business was with the data saved after the repairs were made. With a few presses to the keys of the multidevice's hardlight controls, the holographic display brought up multiple images of the same object, all from the results of the different specialized scanners in her engineering-issue multidevice.

    Lucy closely examined the various images of Swenya's Blade that now hovered in the air, lighting up the darkened living area of Meridina's quarters. A pleased grin began to cross her face, lit up as it was by the holographic images hovering in front of it. An idea was starting to come to mind, an idea turning quickly into a plan…

    After all, she wasn't just a swevyra'se or Gifted person or whatever they wanted to call it. She was an engineer.

    And engineers built things.




    Julia's lips pursed as she thought about what she had just said. For her, the question of taking the opportunity was the big question. After several moments of thought, Julia continued to speak into the log. "The thing is, if you survive to the end of the day, that always guarantees one thing: another day comes. And you never know what changes it can bring. You can face things that make the world you know change, things that challenge you..."




    The Inner Library of the Great Temple was quiet. Only a single light illuminated its spaces and the shelves of volumes present there.

    Mastrash Ledosh rarely had time to go through the Library due to his responsibilities. But with everything that was happening, he knew he would have to start making the time. He had questions of his own, questions that could only be answered by examining the remaining knowledge of the past.

    His hand searched along a line of old tomes and books until he found one. The leather binding was old and cracked. Even the best restorationist work couldn't keep a book intact forever, and these books had to be reprinted every several hundred years, a millennium at most, and each time one needed reprinting, it had to be done by order of the entire Council. It looked like the book he pulled out would need such a reprinting soon. His fingers ran over the gold calligraphy of the title.

    The Life of Reshan.

    Ledosh tucked the old tome under his arm and walked on. A slight feeling of unease filled him. His swevyra felt unsettled. The library did have that effect on him, unfortunately. It represented secrets, and he was displeased with that secrecy that still governed the Council's thinking.

    But he couldn't help but feel there was more to it than that.




    ...and if I've learned anything from my time out here, it's that you can never guess where those challenges can come from.




    The dungeons in the underground of the Great Temple were the lowest levels of the complex. Given the general demeanor of most of the dungeon's occupants, the lack of light was fitting.

    In the one occupied cell, Goras fumed impotently at his mutilation. He burned with rage at having been defeated, a rage that was turning into hate. Hate for Meridina, for Ledosh, for Karesl, for the Order of Swenya and the government and many others.

    But none of the hate was greater than that he felt for Lucy Lucero. The outsider who had mutilated him. He would not rest until she died screaming.

    There was movement outside the cell. Goras looked up and frowned. "Who is there?", he growled at the shadows. When no answer came he shouted, "Show yourself!"

    A single figure emerged from the deep darkness of the dungeon hall, clad in a dark cloak and hood. Goras sensed the swevyra of the figure. It was hidden well and he got the sense that he had been "allowed" to see her.

    The figure's white-skinned hands reached up and removed the hood. A young bald woman looked at him with intensity. Goras' attitude became one of bewilderment. "Intalarai?", he asked.

    She smiled at him. "I've brought you something of interest, Goras. It should help you pass away your time in here." She put a book into the cell between the bars. "I warn you that you should keep it hidden. The Order will not appreciate it."

    "Where have you been? Why are you leaving me here? Why are you here at all?!"

    "Because, Goras, your time has finally come." She looked back to him and smiled. "You have been chosen."

    Goras stared at her. He stared because he got the sense that she was not the same person he had started to train. Indeed, that she had been of greater power than he had known.

    Because here, with her finally looking directly at him in his cell, he could finally see what he had never seen before: the blue of her eyes was gone, replaced by the savage gold color of a swevyra'kse fully fallen into darkness.

    "We've been watching you for some time, Goras," she purred. "And now you are ready for the truth."

    With that said, she stepped backward and soon disappeared into the shadows of the dungeon.

    Goras looked down at the book. Without his hands he had to focus harder for fine control, but he found little difficulty in lifting the book and pulling it closer to him so he could see it in the dim light of his cell. It was colored like browned rust. Simple crimson lettering provided the title, while an equally crimson symbol dominated the rest of the cover. It was a hexagon segmented into twelve parts, each of the six rough sides of the hexagon split into two. A sword ran through the middle.

    The title of the book simply said, The Secrets of the Brotherhood.

    He opened the first page, finding a note within joined by a little scribbled facsimile of the emblem on the page.

    Rest and learn, Brother Goras. The day of your vengeance will come.

    Goras didn't know what this all meant, but he did know one thing. His fight wasn't over. And one day… one day, his enemies would suffer for what they had done.




    Meridina once told me that destiny was a matter of finding the place you're meant to be in and following the path it lays out for you. Maybe she's right. Or maybe there is no destiny, no fate, and we're free to make our own lives by our own will. To follow our own path.

    But either way, whether it's by destiny or fate or free will... you still come to the same simple truth. You have to keep walking the path before you if you want to get anywhere.




    The lights in Robert's bedroom were dimmed to the compromise level that he and Angel had accepted for when they shared the bed. He was still sleeping on his back while Angel, in her sleep, had turned away and on her ribs, a decision made in sleep that would undoubtedly make her tender in the morning.

    Both were sleeping soundly for the moment.

    Robert's sleeping mind, however, was not given the same respite.

    The dreams resumed. The strange Turian with cybernetic implants, standing in the flames of the Citadel Council chamber. Julia dragged into a cell by SS soldiers and shocked until she fell into it. A large robot aiming to shoot Caterina and a tall figure in a long brown coat. He saw hooded figures giving an oath over an emblem, a hexagon divided into twelve pieces with a sword in the middle, and further hooded figures dragging a screaming figure into a spacecraft he couldn't recognize. The young woman in the tattered vest and pants, colored red with gold trim, crying in anguish until solid bright energy replaced her amber eyes. Julia stood beside him, in tattered clothing of her own, yelling, "We have to help her!" as power started to push them back. An animal's howl echoed through the scene.

    And there was the four-legged creature again, and the faint whisper of two words. A human figure appeared in the shadows with it. The shadow obscured the figure's features, but something of the shape told him it was a woman. She seemed to turn toward him. Her voice spoke with an accent that, in his dream-state, he had trouble deciphering.

    But this time, he could hear the words.

    Robert jolted awake, confused and disorientated, with the two words somehow burned unto his conscious. As if his very essence had imprinted upon them. The force with which he sat up was sufficient to wake Angel, who groaned as she felt the pain on her healing ribs. She twisted in the bed and sat up beside him. The gentle fabric of her nightgown rubbed up against the bare skin of Robert's side. Angel didn't say anything; she could tell it was another nightmare.

    "I…" Robert shook his head. "I heard them this time."

    "Hrm?", Angel asked in a groggy voice.

    "There were two words. I've… I've been hearing them in my dreams lately. And a howl. But they don't make sense."

    "Huh. You've never mentioned words before." Angel yawned. "What were they? I mean, what doesn't make sense."

    Robert blinked. He kept trying to think through the haze of sleep still in his brain. "They just… they don't make sense. I don't understand why I'm hearing them. But at the same time… it's… I don't' know…"

    "Important?", Angel suggested.

    "I guess."

    "Well then." Angel crossed her armed, which flexed her muscles in the process. "What are they?"

    Robert blinked. The sleepiness in his head was still slowing his thinking down. But the request from Angel, and the look in her face, soon helped him focus. He pulled the words from his brain.

    He mumbled them at first, but knew she hadn't heard him. So Robert turned to face Angel, confusion written all over his tired face. And this time, he spoke the words aloud.

    "'Bad Wolf.'"
     
  19. Threadmarks: 2-10 Opening
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    Teaser


    Ship's Log: ASV Aurora; 1 July 2642. Captain Robert Dale recording. I am happy to log our official return to active duty following six weeks of repairs from the battle at 452TD. Commander Scott has performed the usual miracle of getting our repairs and shakedown work done ahead of schedule and getting us back out of spacedock.

    I am also happy to log another occasion. Given the time, I will remark upon it in my next entry. I'm due in the Lookout
    .

    The crowd of uniformed officers and crew grew quiet when Robert reached for the small box on the table beside him. He opened it to reveal a rank tab of two gold strips and a silver strip. "It is my honor and privilege to say that as of this day, July 1st 2642 on the Alliance Standard Calendar, the Alliance Stellar Navy has awarded a meritorious promotion to Nicholas Locarno for outstanding service on numerous occasions as Navigation Officer of the Starship Aurora." Robert grinned at Locarno, who remained at attention while Robert clipped the new rank tab in place. "Congratulations, Lieutenant Commander."

    "Thank you, Captain," Locarno answered.

    Cheers came from the assembled crew, including the members of the command crew of the Aurora and of the Koenig, the attack and escort ship that usually remained docked to Aurora's large docking port at the rear of the primary hull. Locarno looked to the assembled, including to one slightly-grinning Ensign Jean Hajar from the Koenig, before noticing that the Lookout's civilian host and cook Hargert was already rolling out a large cake. The icing lettering, silver and gold in color, spelled out "For Lieutenant Commander Locarno". Impressively Hargert had managed to make a reasonable facsimile of the Aurora with blue and white icing.

    "You baked a cake?", Locarno asked Hargert. "For a promotion?"

    Hargert gave him a look of faux mortification. "As if I would not? Come now, Commander, certainly you know by now that I never miss an opportunity to bake a cake." The aged man's German accent was slightly hoarse, if only from the obvious age in his voice. The smile on his face was a far more evident indicator of his mood.

    "I hope mine is chocolate." That remark came from Caterina Delgado, still a Lieutenant and the ship's Science Officer. She was one of the smallest people in the room, not surprising given her height was - in old English-US terms - just a few inches over five feet. Hazel eyes glistened with the presumed image of a chocolate cake in her head. "Some of that Swiss stuff."

    A bemused sigh came from beside her. Ensign Violeta Arterria, one of Locarno's subordinate helm officers, was holding Cat's hand. Her purple eyes - matching the deep purple coloring of her genetically-engineered hair - looked at her girlfriend with affection and some feigned irritation. "I should never have taken you through Switzerland before we got to Venice."

    Caterina looked to Violeta and playfully stuck her tongue out. Violeta started giggling at her in reply.

    Robert, as Captain, got dibs on the second piece. He also secured the third piece for its proper recipient, who was currently nursing a glass of fruit juice at the lounge's bar counter. Commander Julia Andreys' long blond hair was pulled into a ponytail as always. Her green eyes, shaded close to aquamarine, were looking to Robert as he stepped up. She extended a hand and accepted the offered paper plate and plastic fork. "Thanks," she said, smiling.

    But there was more behind the smile than simple joy. Robert could sense the emotional tension within Julia. He could have even without his "abilities", those life force-derived powers he had been training to use for over half of a year. Reading Julia was almost second nature to him, and the same for her reading him. "Doesn't this bring back memories?", he asked her as she took a bite.

    "Hrm?" She had a mouthful of cake to chew.

    "Well…" Robert smiled back at her. "I think my earliest memory is your fourth birthday party. Grandpa brought me to your house. I remember looking at you with icing all over your mouth, and all over mine, and Grandpa joked that when we were older we'd be licking it off each other."

    By then Julia had swallowed. That was a good thing, as she broke out giggling. "Oh my God, I think I remember that too. Mom just stared at him."

    "My Mom told me years later that your parents actually complained about it. Dad had to smooth things over." Robert shook his head. "Grandpa always had his own sense of humor."

    Julia shook her head. "And he always thought you and I would get together when we were old enough."

    For a moment it was clear both were flashing back to that moment under the wide open Kansas sky. The mound on the family property had collapsed with the destruction of the Facility far below. They had barely escaped it together. They had been caught up in the thrill of that moment when they shared a kiss… and immediately decided together to stop there and continue their relationship as it had always been, free of any romantic entanglement.

    "Speaking of being together…" Julia looked to the crowd. "How are you and Angel doing?"

    Robert drew in a breath that came dangerously close to being a sigh. He looked back as well and saw where Angel was gently teasing her sister over something. While Cat was a small, skinny girl, Angel was several inches taller and filled out. Although her uniform didn't show much of her body below the neck, he knew what was beneath. His mind brought up the images from his memories, of the rippling, tough fighting muscle under the bronze complexion of Angel's skin. Angela Delgado had spent much of her life learning to fight hand-to-hand, and she could be an utter terror in a fight.

    "We had some time together. During the repairs." He sighed. "But now that we're back on full duty…" Robert shook his head. "I keep expecting the shoe to drop, Julie. I want this relationship to work, but with everything else I have going on…"

    "Isn't your training with Meridina supposed to be over?"

    "I used to think that, but now, I'm not sure if it'll ever be over," Robert admitted. "Now that we know what was going on with the Gersallians, I can't help but feel I have to stick to the training. And Angel's not happy."

    "You might have to make a choice, Rob," Julia said. "About what's more important to you."

    There was something in the way she said those words that made it clear Julia wasn't just thinking of his situation. The feelings he had sensed in her when he stepped up were returning. His training with Meridina made that clear, even if he would have realized that without that training or the abilities the training was honing. "What about your choice?", Robert asked. "Have you made it yet?"

    "I haven't made it official," Julia said. "I'm just… torn, I guess. I want to be a Captain, and Admiral Maran's offering me the Enterprise of all ships. But if I say yes, I'll either be going off on my own, or I'll be splitting us up if anyone joins me. I don't want to do that."

    "Julie…" Robert took her hand. "I think you should do it. I think you have great potential as a captain. Honestly, I think you'll be better at it than I am."

    She smiled at him in response.

    Before either of them could say anything, blue holographic light appeared over Robert's left forearm. A voice came from the hologram. "Bridge to Captain Dale," said, or rather chirped, an alien voice. Robert recognized it as the voice of Lieutenant Jupap, who was currently minding the bridge. The Alakin continued. "Admiral Maran is on subspace. He needs to speak to you immediately."

    "Tell him I'll be on my way to… wait." Robert chuckled. "Just let me step out of the lounge."

    Julia nodded and grinned. Another piece of cake was already on her fork. "Hurry back if you can." A mirthful look came to her eyes. "I'll try to protect your piece as best as I can."

    "From the others, or from yourself?"

    "Both."

    Robert smirked back at her and stood from the counter stool. He walked past a few of the others and stepped out of the Lookout and into the adjoining corridor. Once the door slid closed his right finger pressed the blinking blue light.

    Until just a few weeks ago, the Stellar Navy had used the multidevice. Specifically, an electronic all-in-one device of ultralight "space age" material that acted as general scanner, communicator, and computer access all at once even on general models - specialized ones could do even more, like send out exotic electronic emissions or make specialized scans. The Earth of Universe L2M1 had first developed the specific concept, although several of the other Earths in the Multiverse had variations on it.

    But then contact with Universe M4P2 happened the prior April. M4P2 went one better than all the others: the omnitool. A small, lightweight piece with built-in holographics emitters, it was even lighter than multidevices and more versatile, replacing the physical key controls with an interface generated entirely with holographics and projected hard-light machinery. Organizations within the Alliance, public and private, had spent much of the year negotiating licensing rights on the technology with the manufacturers in Citadel space. Only now was it bearing fruit: as of June the Stellar Navy was issuing new, specially-made omnitools for its personnel. The Aurora crew was in spacedock at just the right time to get them issued.

    One of the benefits of having omnitools appeared on a holographic screen created by the one Robert was wearing. Admiral Maran appeared from his office at Defense Command, near Portland in the Pacific Northwest of Earth L2M1. The Gersallian man had his usual immaculate appearance, with graying dark hair on his head and the solid expression Robert had long become accustomed to. He was even accustomed to the fact that because of the whims of evolution or fate or God himself, the Gersallians were aliens who looked, on the outside, like Humans.

    "Admiral," Robert said respectfully.

    "Captain." Maran nodded. "I'm pleased that your ship is back in full running order. We need you back out there."

    "Has anything happened with the war?"

    The Admiral nodded. "The 11th Fleet just won a victory at Beta Laurentis that has secured our hold on that sector. Allied ground troops have finished securing Scheerwelt and Neu Posen. Which is related to the subject of my call."

    "Oh?"

    "We would have never managed the troops to take both of those worlds without the presence of Inner Sphere units. The 3rd Davion Guards and the Orloff Grenadiers played critical roles in the fighting. That's why I'm concerned by reports we're getting from our Inner Sphere allies."

    Robert frowned at that. "What?"

    "Something is going on in the territorial zones held by the Clans. Intelligence indicates some sort of political upheaval is underway. President Morgan and I are concerned that this could be a prelude to a renewal of the Clan Invasion."

    At that, Robert frowned. From what he knew of Universe F1S1, the Clans were a caste society that had arrived on the Inner Sphere's Coreward frontier about seven years ago. They had technological superiority over the Inner Sphere in military terms, and a highly-trained and lethal warrior caste leading an invasion of the Inner Sphere, stopped two years later at a planet called Tukkayid in what was left of the Free Rasalhague Republic. "If that's true…"

    "...then Prince Victor, Captain-General Marik, and the other Inner Sphere leaders would be forced to pull their troops off the front," Maran finished for him. "The Inner Sphere's leadership is assembling for a conference on Tukkayid called by ComStar. Primus Mori and Precentor-Martial Focht have invited President Morgan and myself to attend. And we want you there."

    Robert nodded. Diplomatic meetings were one aspect of the job he was getting used to, even if he often found them dreadfully boring. "Understood, Admiral. We'll jump for F1S1 immediately."

    "I look forward to seeing you on Tukkayid, Captain. Maran out."

    The omnitool shut down the screen. With a conscious thought and a movement of Robert's arm, the blue holography of the omnitool came to life around his left forearm. The Stellar Navy-issue version was different than those usually found in M4P2, and not just in color: the designers crafted the basic interface to resemble that of an old multidevice, as if it had been a touchscreen. Robert hit the visible key for opening a commlink. "Dale to Bridge."

    "Yes Captain?", Lieutenant Jupap responded over the audio channel.

    "Activate jump drive, set to F1S1. Once we're through, set a course for the system Tukkayid and engage."

    "Yes Captain."

    With that done, Robert turned back to the Lookout. WIth no immediate jump anchor to their destination, or anywhere near it - jump anchors had yet to be installed anywhere in the Coreward half of the Inner Sphere - they would take a day or two (or more) to arrive at Tukkayid. This meant he was not needed immediately on the bridge or elsewhere.

    And that meant he could, at least, get to actually finish that piece of cake.




    Undiscovered Frontier
    "The Path Before Us"



    The quiet solitude of Meridina's quarters were meant to let the Aurora security chief have her daily meditation. A chance to reflect on the day and sense where her swevyra, her life force, was leading her.

    Once meditation had come almost second nature to her. Once it was clear she had an attuned swevyra, one that could reach out to the universe and made her capable of great feats of power, her father Karesl had taught her meditation. And like any daughter-turned-student eager to please the father she admired, she'd taken to it and with discipline had become quite the capable meditator. Even after her entry to the Order of Swenya and being given to another of the ranking members of the organization for training, her father's training in the meditative side of their work had guided her.

    But meditation no longer came easily for Meridina. These past few months had been a trial for her, the greatest in her life, and everything had changed. She had been taken as a host by the vicious Goa'uld Amaunet, severely wounded by her own student Lucy Lucero in the act of stopping and killing the vile being, and then had to deal with the grief and guilt of what Amaunet had used her body, and her abilities, to do. The deaths inflicted at Stargate Command, the pain that had been caused, all of it had driven Meridina toward darkness. And then came her confrontation with the corrupted Draman Olati, the attack on the Alliance Senate by an extremist faction of her own people, and the leader of that faction trying to kill her after forcing her into a trial before the Council of her Order. Even vindication had been bitter: the corrupted Mastrash Goras might have been defeated, but in the wake of his fall and the death of the Council's leader Maklir, the Council had decided to turn its back on everything Meridina had been trying to build. She was ordered to return home.

    Instead, Meridina put her bond to the crew of the Aurora before her devotion to the Order of Swenya. She resigned from her Order, turned her back on everything she had once lived for, and was now firmly upon the path she and Mastrash Ledosh, her teacher, had foreseen.

    And it hurt. It hurt like nothing she had ever considered before.

    It was getting late in the day. Meridina gave up on meditation and decided to look for Lucy. Now that Lucy's training was known, there was no need to be subtle with it or with Robert's, and Meridina was no longer holding anything back on their education in their abilities. And that meant more training and more time. Regrettable given Robert's responsibilities, but he needed the training if he was ever going to be capable of defending himself adequately with his life force.

    Perhaps I should force myself to call it that more often, Meridina pondered to herself. Robert has such trouble with pronouncing it. A very small smile came to her face at that thought.

    Given the time, Robert was probably busy doing daily paperwork in his office. He had already alerted her to a staff meeting in the morning to discuss their arrival at Tukkayid for the following afternoon. She would collect him second, then.

    And she already had a good idea where Lucy would be.

    Meridina put on a cream-colored vest and loose black trousers before she left her rooms. It was a short trip from her quarters to a turbolift. "Deck 25 Section G," Meridina stated. The lift sped its way through the lift tubes connecting the ship's various decks together until it brought her to the destination she described. Deck 25 was one of the middle decks of the drive hull of the ship, and this specific section was within the engineering area.

    A short walk brought her to her destination. The door panel referred to it as "Machine Shop B". Inside she found that things were generally quiet. A pair of petty officers and four crew were looking over various machinery replicators and fabricators. Shop B was for precision work on small items, the tooling and pieces that had to be kept up in the inventory for the ship to have spare parts on the many thousands of individual machines that, together, formed the Starship Aurora.

    Lucy was in one corner, working quietly with one of the fabricators. She was in a work uniform, black with beige trim and a tool belt around her waist. Her curly black hair was pulled into a curly ponytail at the back of her head. As Meridina walked up she turned and stood. "Meridina?", she asked.

    "I was coming to get you, it is nearly time for training."

    Lucy's blue eyes blinked. "Wait, what time is it? It's only like 1800, right?"

    Meridina smiled gently. "1930," she clarified.

    Lucy made a face and then covered it with her palm. "Oh. Dammit. I lost track of time."

    Meridina gave Lucy's work station a peek. Not that she needed to; there was only one project that Lucy was so wrapped up in that she would lose track of time like that.

    "How is your work going?", Meridina asked gently. "Are you close to reproducing Swenya's Blade?"

    Lucy shook her head. "I don't know. My scans were pretty thorough. But it's like re-assembling a puzzle when you've got pieces missing and aren't even sure where some are supposed to go."

    "I am certain you will manage it, Lucy," Meridina said. She set a hand on Lucy's arm to be supportive.

    "What about you? I know the last few months have been rough…"

    Meridina tried to keep her sadness off of her face. Being forced to choose between the Aurora and her devotion to the Order of Swenya had been excruciating. She felt an odd sense of being cast adrift even through her devotion to her purpose: to work with the Aurora's crew to fulfill their role as the Bearers of the Dawn.

    This was especially important given what they had learned about the Prophecy of the Dawn, a work passed down from Swenya herself three thousand years ago. Her own mentor had revealed that the Order Council had doctored the original copy to hide the ending line. That line was a warning that an ancient threat known only as "the Darkness" would return. And my people know nothing of it.

    Lucy reached over and turned her station off. "Why don't we get this training out of the way and then get some dinner?"

    "It will be a late one."

    "I know." Lucy grinned. "But we'll be hungry, and it's a chance to unwind and decompress. Even swevyra'se or Life Knights or whatever you term want to use need time to themselves. Time to take it easy."

    "You forget that I am no longer swevyra'se."

    Lucy responded to that with a small smile. "Then just what are you busting my ass for when we go train?"

    It was a rhetorical question. A soft smile came to Meridina's face. "An interesting point. Very well. We train, and then we eat together."

    "Great. I'll see if Hargert has any tasty stuff left from Nick's promotion ceremony earlier."

    Without another word, they both stepped out of the machine shop.




    After the day's work was done Angel went to Robert's quarters. He wasn't in. This did not surprise Angel in the slightest and she entered the quarters to wait for him.

    Robert had kept all of his important family things after leaving his family home years ago. Some family items he'd left with his cousin Beth Rankin, now the Governor of New Liberty, while some he had with him. Mostly they were replicated copies of family photos. On one wall his old high school football jersey was hanging with a frame showing clipped newspaper articles. Angel's memories went back a decade to recall those nights, when he had put in a good performance as a wide receiver. He hadn't done well enough to be offered a full scholarship at a university, though.

    I can't imagine how different our lives would be if he had gotten a scholarship, Angel thought. She sighed. But I bet it would be another thing to keep us apart.

    She looked at the time. 2150. It was getting too late for anything, even for a dinner, and that hurt. It looked like they were going back to the way things had been since before New Year's. Day after day after day of Robert doing his Captain work and training in his abilities, leaving no time for her.

    Those damned powers. If only Leo had a way to get rid of them.

    Thinking about freeing Robert of the burden of these "life force" strengths made Angel recall what that blind Zigonian had said to her. Kasszas had told her that she wasn't in love with Robert anymore. That she loved a "phantom", a memory of what he had been before he started using those life force powers.

    She'd denied it at the time. Even now she wanted to deny it. It brought her pain to realize she couldn't. Looking back to all of the times she and Robert had been dating, and all of the times they'd broken up… wasn't that how it happened? That things would happen, he would disappoint her and she'd disappoint him, and then it would end? As the damned lizard had said, her affection was more for what she wanted him to be than what he was.

    Angel sat on the couch and felt tears form in her eyes.

    She waited in the quietly, silently weeping in frustration and uncertainty. At about 2220 the door finally opened. Robert stepped in, wearing the sleeveless cream-colored vest and baggy brown pants he usually did for the training sessions. He was covered in sweat and fatigued. When he saw Angel, a guilty look came to his face. "Sorry, Lucy was late and we…" He stopped. his eyes lowered. "How long have you been waiting?"

    "Not too long," Angel said. And it was true: a bit over half an hour was nothing compared to waiting two hours, or all night, as she had sometimes done. "Did you want to catch something to eat?"

    Robert shook his head. "Meridina picked today to increase the weights I had to lift. And to try out the augmented running course. I'm too exhausted to do anything but wash up and go to bed."

    It was with a small voice that Angel said, "Sure, I understand."

    Robert didn't need to hear the disappointment in her voice. He'd felt her presence, and her knotted feelings, even before he got to his door. "I'm sorry," he said.

    "I know," she answered. "You always are, and I know you mean it." She looked at him and they made eye contact. "I think we should talk about this, though."

    "Is there anything new to say?", Robert asked. "Because it seems we discuss it all of the time."

    "Yes, I think there is," she answered. "For one, it's pretty obvious your training isn't going to end. Whatever Meridina said about 'learning control', she had far more in mind. What happened on Gersal made that clear. And if you're going along with that, well…"

    Robert swallowed and said nothing. His past promises that the training would be over soon and he would have time again were clearly no longer being kept. "Yeah," he said. "It's not fair to you."

    "Like I said, we'll talk." Angel gestured toward his room and the shower unit beyond. "Why don't you go wash off real quick and get to bed?"

    There was nothing for him to say to that. He nodded and went to the shower.

    After said refreshing shower, weary to the bone, Robert made his way to the bed. Angel was already lying there in her nightgown. She gave him a little kiss on the lips as he settled into place beside her.

    They both fell asleep shortly thereafter.



    When the Starship Aurora dropped out of warp, it found itself in the middle of company.

    The most prominent of the ships visible was a type Robert and the others rarely got to see: a Sirian League carrier-vessel. The ship was two hundred meters longer than their own, thirty meters wider, and about the same height. It was one big solid hull, with the surface painted dark green with blue streaks, and the eight-sided starburst insignia of the Sirian League prominent on the side. Near the rear of the ship the hull bulged out and became circular.

    "A ring drive," murmured Locarno from his place on the Aurora bridge. The command crew were all in their normal places.

    "A what?", asked Angel.

    "It's a big ring for the warp drive assembly instead of warp nacelles," Cat explained for her sister. "The Vulcans still use them on some ships."

    Locarno added, "They're easier to protect, but their warp maneuverability isn't anywhere near that of a nacelle-using ship."

    "The ID code of the ship has her as the Majestic," Jarod said.

    Robert nodded. The Cincinnatus, the Earth Confederacy dreadnought that had been President Morgan’s usual interstellar means of transport, had been lost in the same failed attack campaign where they had been ambushed at 452TB. Robert wondered whether or not the Majestic would take the place of the lost ship or if it was just a stand-in for the moment.

    "I wonder if the Inner Sphere states have brought any of their starships," Julia wondered aloud.

    "Unlikely." Jarod shook his head. "It's only been three months. I'm betting they're still working on the refit plans."

    "So where do you think they are?", Robert asked.

    "I'm picking up indications of other warp drives that came into the system over the last couple of days," Caterina said. "It looks like warp-capable light interstellar passenger liners."

    "As in…?"

    "Think passenger jet, not actual big liner ship," Cat finished for her sister.

    "That would make sense," Julia said. "You can buy those almost anywhere, including government transport models."

    A tone came from Jarod's console. "We're getting a hail from the planet. It looks like it's coming from the central ComStar facility planetside."

    "Put them on screen."

    Jarod did so. Admiral Maran appeared. He looked to be in an office space, presumably one set aside for his use. "I see you made it."

    "We jumped in a bit further away than I would have liked," Robert admitted. "But without a jump anchor close to Tukkayid there didn't seem to be a point in using one."

    "I was the one who ordered you out before the Majestic was ready to depart. We proved lucky in the arrival point." Maran drew in a sigh. "Regardless, it's good that you're here. Tonight is the arrival banquet and the political discussions begin tomorrow. But things are moving more quickly than we anticipated and I want to get you up to speed. Standby to beam up a delegation on my signal. I'll see you shortly. Maran out."

    As soon as he disappeared from the screen Robert and Julia rose from their chairs. "We'll have them beamed up to Station 1. Jarod, you have the bridge, and have Jupap ready to take over. I suspect this will be a command staff briefing."

    "I'll have Meridina meet us there," Julia offered.




    A young man with technical crew rank was manning the transporter station controls when the two arrived. Meridina came in just behind them. "We're getting the ready signal from the planet, sir," the man said.

    "Whenever you're ready, Crewman."

    The young man nodded and operated his controls.

    Moments later six columns of white light formed on the pad. The light burst briefly, quickly enough that it didn't blind, and five figures now stood on the pad. Robert and the others straightened their backs to stand at attention as Admiral Maran stepped down. "Captain, Commander, good to see you in person again."

    "It's always a pleasure, Admiral." By now Robert was looking over the other attendees. He recognized Victor and Jerrard Cranston first, Victor right behind and beside Maran in the middle row and Jerry Cranston behind Victor in the rear. Standing beside Jerry was an East Asian man in a St. Ives Compact uniform.

    To Maran's side in the front section was a man in a robed uniform of white with the ComStar insignia on the breast, with rank insignias as well. He had an eye patch on over the right eye and looked quite old, easily in his late sixties.

    The sixth figure, placed beside Victor, was another older man, with gray hair and a military-style buzzcut. His uniform was dark gray and had a red disc with a black wolf's head on it placed prominently on the neck.

    Maran stepped down. "I believe you already know Prince Victor and Colonel Cranston. This is Precentor-Martial Anastasius Focht of ComStar and Colonel Jaime Wolf, former commanding officer of the Wolf Dragoons. And this is Colonel Kai Allard-Liao of the Compact. Gentlemen, this is Captain Robert Dale."

    "Precentor-Martial, Colonels." Robert nodded. "This is my First Officer, Commander Julia Andreys, and my Security Chief, Lieutenant Commander Meridina." Looking to Kai he nodded. "I'm sorry we missed you, Colonel Allard-Liao, during the visit to St. Ives. I hope your mother is doing well."

    Kai nodded respectfully and smiled. "She's doing quite well. Doctor Gillam's suggested treatments are working like a charm. She'll never have to worry about the cancer again."

    "He'll be happy to hear that." Robert kept himself from sighing. Leo had made the suggestion for further anti-cancer genetic treatments after learning that Duchess Candace Liao, Kai's mother and ruler of the Compact, had survived a bout with breast cancer a decade before. It had been a very poor substitute for failing to save Joshua Marik.

    Robert turned his attention to the older men next. "It's an honor to host you, sirs, aboard my ship."

    "It is a fine vessel." Focht looked around with his one eye. "And it lives up to the reports from the newsvids during your diplomatic tour. Unfortunately a tour is out of the question, Captain. We are pressed for time now."

    "For the banquet tonight, you mean?"

    "Not just the banquet." Focht's single eye focused on Robert. "The peace of the Inner Sphere is at stake. The Clans are preparing to renounce the Truce of Tukkayid. We have only days, perhaps, with which to prevent a resumption of the Invasion. And your ship may be the only thing that can succeed."

    Robert nodded and glanced to Julia, who glanced back with the same look in her eyes that he knew was in his own. A look with a single thought behind it.

    It looks like it's up to us again.



    Conference Room 1 was set up with tables in a half-circle around the central holotank projector. The command crews of the Aurora and Koenig took several of the seats, leaving a table for the Inner Sphere leaders and one for Robert, Julia, and Admiral Maran to sit at. Focht offered a ComStar-made data disc to Robert, who passed it to Jarod for use in the briefing. He stood up

    "Since the Truce of Tukkayid came into effect, ComStar has maintained various intelligence assets in Clan-held space," Focht stated. "Our greatest concern is that the Crusader faction would one day manage sufficient votes to overturn the Truce."

    "The Crusaders are the pro-war faction, right?" asked Zack.

    "It would be inaccurate to identify the Clan factions as pro-war or anti-war, Commander," answered Focht. "Their culture is built around combat. The Wardens believe in remaining apart from the Inner Sphere as a protective force while the Crusaders believe in conquering the Inner Sphere to restore the Star League under the rule of the Clans." Focht stepped up to the holotank. Jarod activated it and brought up a starmap of the Inner Sphere. Various stars signifying populated star systems lit up and three-dimensional borders came into existence to delineate the current territorial dispositions.

    The Clan Invasion zones were the most prominent feature on the map; four narrow strips plunging from "above" toward the middle. Six icons appeared over the map, spread among the four zones. To the spinward "left" a zone was marked with the emblems of a green bird and a snake's head, then a snarling wolf head, a roaring white bear's head, and then a pouncing gray feline and a feline face in the middle of a sunburst-like pattern. Focht, for the benefit of his listeners, briefly identified each zone's holders: the Jade Falcons and Steel Vipers, the Wolves, the Ghost Bears, and lastly, the Smoke Jaguars and Nova Cats. A line on the map appeared at the rimward edge of the invasion zone. "Under the terms I negotiated with ilKhan Ulric Kerensky, the Truce of Tukkayid forbids any Clan forces from moving beyond this line."

    "And they evidently don't care about securing all of the territory coreward of Tukkayid," Julia observed.

    "They do not," Focht said. "They have raided above the line on occasion, but they appear to consider such attacks to be a waste of material. Unfortunately, this may have contributed to the current threat against the Truce."

    "They want more fights?"

    "Yes, Captain. For their youngest generation, it is a matter of their future." Focht looked to Colonel Wolf. "Colonel Wolf can explain."

    The aging mercenary leader stood up from his place and walked to join Focht. "In the Clans, advancement for warriors requires combat. All promotions are done in Trials of Position. And to earn these Trials, warriors must accumulate victories in battle."

    "And with the Clans at peace, you get fewer chances for big flashy victories," Angel observed. "It's like being a professional fighter. It doesn't matter how well you train, you're going to be stuck in your place and ranking if you don't get in any good fights."

    "The analogy is a good one. But for the Clans, even more is at stake than mere statistical rankings. Every warrior longs for a chance to win a Bloodname." When no one inquired as to what he meant, Wolf kept going. "In the Clans, what you refer to as family names, or surnames, are strictly prohibited. Only warriors who have won a Bloodname receive a second name. The Bloodnames come from the eight hundred men and women who followed Nicholas Kerensky in the Second Exodus. No more than twenty-five warriors are allowed to hold each name at a time; to win a name requires victory in a Trial of Bloodright tournament."

    "And to get in a tournament, you need to have a good record," Julia observed.

    "Yes." Wolf nodded to her. "I cannot emphasize how important a Bloodname is to a warrior of the Clans. It is the only guarantee that a warrior's DNA will be used in future generations of Clan warriors. Bloodnamed warriors get the best command opportunities and are members of their Clan Council. They elect the Khans and Loremaster of a Clan from among their number." A dark look came to the man. "It is the fear of not getting this opportunity that is turning the newest generations of Clan warriors into ardent Crusaders."

    "Okay, but the Truce is only for fifteen years," Julia said. "They'll still be in their thirties when it's over. They'll have plenty of time to get their shot when the Truce expires, won't they?"

    "You are thinking in your social terms," Wolf said. "The Clans consider a warrior too old by the time they reach thirty-five."

    "Woh." Thomas Barnes shook his head. "That's pretty… I mean, that's not even middle-aged."

    "Much of this is due to the Clan eugenics program," Focht replied. "Their scientist caste has been constantly refining their genes for centuries. Every five years is a new generation, considered superior to those beforehand. A thirty-five year old warrior is three generations out of date."

    "Which is the problem." Jarod spoke up. "The Truce is for fifteen years. The newest generation of Clan warriors would be approaching thirty-five when the Truce ends. By Clan standards they'll be too old."

    "What happens if a Clan warrior hits that age without a Bloodname?", Julia asked Wolf. "Do they forcibly retire them?"

    "They are removed from frontline units and assigned to garrison forces or second line forces," Wolf answered. "Most will become solahma. They will spend their time fighting bandits as a last, desperate hope to get at least some of their genetic material into the breeding program. If they survive to a certain age, they usually end being relegated to caretakers of the sibkos. That is, the children of the warrior caste, taking care of them and training them until they reach the age for their Trials of Position."

    "For a people devoted to martial glory, that's a lot of incentive to keep fighting," Julia observed.

    "Exactly," Focht said. "As it is, with raiding between Clans low and no conflict with the Inner Sphere, the young warriors have few opportunities to gain the victories to secure places in Bloodright challenges. And with fewer Bloodnamed warriors dying in battle, they have fewer opportunities to join the ranks."

    "And so they have plenty of incentive to resume the war. The handful that do become Bloodnamed are voting the Crusaders' way, adding to their vote totals, and even those who don't provide the Crusaders with a lot of lower rank support to pressure their superiors." Robert nodded. "So we need a solution to this problem. Preferably one that doesn't involve drawing away from the war."

    Jarod looked to Focht and Wolf. "Is there any way we could offer them a chance to ally with us against the Reich? That would give their junior warriors the chance to fight and reduce the pressure."

    Wolf nodded. "It is possible. But it is also dangerous. The Crusaders will see your offer for what it is and oppose it."

    "Or they will not, but instead demand the same technological compensation you are providing to the Inner Sphere," Focht observed. "This would allow them to repudiate the Truce at their leisure after the war. And you would expect them to demand the right to your drives so they can maintain conquests in the S4W8 Universe."

    "So we'd be handing over worlds to the Clans." Robert frowned. "And I thought the Turians getting to impose their system on freed worlds would be bad enough…"

    "Unfortunately our options are limited." Admiral Maran spoke up now. "If the Clan Invasion resumes, we're obligated to help fight it, and that will come at the cost of the war with the Reich."

    "But if we give the Clans access to our technology and to the resources of other universes, we make them stronger too," Julia pointed out. "And when the war's over, we run into the same problem we have now."

    Victor joined the conversation at this point. "Every day of peace with the Clans is another day that the Inner Sphere is better prepared to fight them when the invasion restarts. Even if you have to give them technology, we're getting the same, and we'll still have the stronger position with the Alliance on our side."

    "Prince Victor's right, our situation will be better," Jarod added. "With the Reich defeated, our ships are free to deal more decisively with the Clans. However more powerful they grow, they can't fight the Inner Sphere and the Allied Systems at once."

    Julia nodded, but the frown on her face told of how much she was still leery of the outcome of Jarod's suggestion. She looked at Colonel Wolf. "Colonel, could we do it? Is this a solution?"

    Wolf nodded. "It could work. The Nazi German Reich gaining your interuniversal drives is still a possibility, and it is the sort of threat that the Wardens believe the Clans exist to fight. Some of the Crusaders may also see the advantages of blooding their newest cadres in battle before the renewal of the Invasion. But they will not agree lightly, that you can be sure of. Your people will need to decide what they are willing to pay to secure Clan assistance, and a deferment of the Invasion." The Colonel allowed the smallest smile to show on his face, with Maran getting his attention for the next comments. "As for the Dragoons, my successor has agreed with me that if this threat is prevented, the Wolf Dragoons are ready to accept a contract with the Allied Systems to fight in your war. And we have contacts with many other elite mercenary formations in the Inner Sphere that will be open to similar offers."

    "A generous offer, Colonel Wolf," Maran answered. "The President and I will bring the matter straight to the rest of Defense Command once this matter is resolved."

    "Regrettably, I cannot make a similar offer." Focht shook his head. "The ComGuards are needed in the Inner Sphere. All I can pledge is that ComStar is ready to expand its current relations with the Alliance and that the First Circuit will consider more extensive joint research and technology agreements."

    "Of course." The Admiral looked to the rest of those assembled. "We'll bring Commander Jarod's proposal before the leadership in tomorrow's opening meetings. I would like to have you there as well, Captain, as well as Commander Andreys. You are also all invited to this evening's banquet. Formal dress uniforms, of course."

    Robert looked over the others. Maran hadn't said it, but it was blatantly obvious that "invitation" was silently joined with "ordered". And that mean wearing dress uniforms, a task that nobody took with any relish.

    So of course he answered, "We'll be there, sir."

    "Be ready to transport down at 1900 standard," Maran said. "This meeting is adjourned."
     
  20. Threadmarks: 2-10-2
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    Robert and Julia dutifully escorted Maran and the others back to the Transporter Station to see them off. From there it was back to the bridge and to the conference lounge to the side. The transsteel windows showed Tukkayid's vibrant colors and a large starship of one of the F1S1 nations in orbit near them. The others were waiting.

    "It's not going to be that easy," Locarno stated. "Warrior cultures don't just talk. You just know they're going to challenge us to a fight at some point."

    "He's right." Jarod looked up from a digital reader. "I've been looking over the material we have on the Clans. Going by the reports from ComStar and the Commonwealth, the Clans do everything by combat trials. Even some exchanges of technology and trade can involve ritual combats."

    "So what, they're going to ask us to fight them even if they agree to join us against the Nazis?", Angel asked.

    "Likely."

    "Then we'll need to be ready for that." Robert nodded. "Jarod, keep researching them, and we'll make sure everything's ready for a combat. If the Clans want to fight us, we'll show them just what that means."

    "Unless they challenge us to fighting in those big walking tanks." Barnes crossed his arms. "Do we even have anyone who knows how to do that?"

    It was a good question. Robert looked to Commander Kane, the Marine officer who commanded the Aurora's Marine detachment. The sandy-haired man shook his head. "We haven't been training to use F1S1's BattleMech systems. Although I've considered some anti-'Mech tactics."

    "Would they work?"

    "In the right terrain, and with the right employment." Kane nodded. "Our powered armor squad can probably give a few of them a good fight. But unless we sneak up on them, we probably lose, oh, seven times out of ten. Those things have too much armor and too much raw firepower."

    "What about air support?" Robert looked to Lieutenant Commander Patrice Laurent, commander of the Aurora's fighter wing. "The Mongoose fighters have atmospheric flight, don't they?"

    Laurent nodded. "Our support munitions may be enough. But I'm sure the enemy will have air support of their own. I will have to assign specific squadrons to air superiority and to ground support."

    "I'll leave you to that. Starting tomorrow." Robert checked the time on his omnitool. "As for now, we should adjourn so we can get ready for that banquet. Full dress uniforms. And that means the pants, not the skirt." He looked to Caterina when he said that. She frowned and, for the first time in weeks, put on the full Pout. Robert was, thankfully, immune. "Every leader of the Inner Sphere is going to be present. President Morgan too."

    "Whoever came up with the dress uniform was a sadist," mumbled Jarod.

    Robert smirked at that. "You won't hear any argument from me on that point."




    Tukkayid had once been a minor planet in the grand scheme of the Inner Sphere. There had been little in the way of facilities to host the assemblage now gathering on the world.

    Robert and the others could see that in the years since it had become a household name in the Inner Sphere, Tukkayid had changed. ComStar had shining new facilities on the world and had essentially taken the planet over. Then they had gone on a building spree that had raised, among other things, the kind of facilities useful for hosting large scale affairs of state.

    The dining hall was at ComStar's main civilian facilities, very close to their military headquarters and the new war college they were constructing. It was a massive hall built specifically for these kinds of summits. The interior had fine, soft carpeting of light blue and gold trim with massive electric chandeliers hanging every twenty feet down the length of the hall. Long tables full of dishes from every major culture stretched down the sides of the hall.

    The Aurora and Koenig officers arrived at about 1850 ship time, a full ten minutes before Maran had requested them. They'd beamed down even earlier, just to spend over ten minutes in line with other notables and attendees as the master of ceremonies or whomever it was announced the arrivals one by one, complete with noble titles. The brilliant white of their dress uniforms contrasted to the usual black they wore on their duty uniform jackets. The shoulders had golden board epaulets with tassels of the same color hanging down from the epaulets. The various medals and commendations they'd won - including the shiny new Senate Order of Merit that Robert, Meridina, and Jarod had gotten for stopping the Gersallian Dissenter attack on the Senate - were glinting from their places over the left breast of their jackets.

    When they finally got to the door, a Caucasian man approaching middle-age in a fine dark suit met them. "Sirs?"

    "Captain Dale and crew," Robert said.

    "Of course, sir." The MoC turned to the hall. He activated a microphone at his throat to be heard across the hall. "Now presenting Captain Robert Allen Dale of the United Alliance of Systems Stellar Navy, Commanding Officer of the Alliance Starship Aurora, with command officers." The man's accent was not the snooty English accent that a near-quarter century of 20th Century television had trained Robert's subconscious to associate with such pomp. It instead had a deliberate Midwestern tone. "Commander Julia Megan Andreys, First Officer. Commander Montgomery…"

    "Seriously?", muttered Barnes, as the MoC insisted on naming each and every one of them, full names with rank and position, so that it took over a minute to introduce them. Then came Zack and his crew, but since he only had five officers with him that was mercifully quick.

    Once they were done Julia looked to the others. "Let's be careful what we say or do here. Everything here will be taken politically."

    "So what are we supposed to do?" The question came from Caterina, who looked both uncomfortable and disappointed. "I mean, if someone starts to talk to us?"

    "Then be as courteous as you can be," Robert said.

    "Or just talk science at them until they get bored," was Angel's response. She grinned at her younger and smaller sister. "That usually works."

    Instead of a happy retort, Cat smiled thinly at her sister's jest and walked on toward one of the tables.

    The crews dispersed across the room to find food. A little rumble in his stomach reminded Robert about his small breakfast and lunch, and that he had an immediate need to find something. A passing waiter was kind enough to offer something from a small creme-topped pastries that were delicious, if rich. A second waiter offered him a glass, which he took absentmindedly. Robert was more focused on scanning the room to see if he recognized anyone he had already met during their tour of the Inner Sphere.

    Officials from all of the Inner Sphere states were present. They provided an interesting contrast with various forms of dress. Davion suits had more of a martial flair to them, even if they were distinctly Western, while the Lyran parts of the FedCom delegation were dressed up to the nines.

    "Captain."

    The German accent in the voice would have been enough for Robert to recognize the speaker, even if he hadn't recognized the tone. He turned and nodded to Prince Victor. Victor was in the company of Jerry Cranston, as expected, and a large middle-aged man with graying red hair. "Highness," Robert answered respectfully, offering his hand. "You were pretty silent earlier today."

    "I felt Focht and Wolf had more to say," Victor replied. He gestured to the red-haired man. "This is my Marshal of the Armies, Morgan Hasek-Davion, Duke of Syrtis and head of the Capellan March."

    Robert nodded to the man. He was, if Robert remembered the family tree he'd seen, a cousin to Victor, the son of an aunt. "Marshal," he said. He took Morgan's hand and they shook. "A pleasure to meet you."

    "The same. Victor's told me that your visit to New Avalon was the highlight of the year for him." Morgan nodded. "I saw the vids from the press on Victor's tour of your ship, so I can see why."

    Robert answered with a nod. There was admittedly more to why Victor would feel that way. But given everything he knew about the court politics of F1S1, Robert knew that some things were best left unsaid. "I hope the people of the Commonwealth share your opinions. I'd like to think that we have enough in common that Alliance-Commonwealth relations will always be good. But I understand that it's going to take some time and patience. The existence of the Multiverse is a lot to take in for your people."

    "It has been," Victor said. "But…"

    He stopped speaking. Robert could see his eyes were drawn toward the door. Cranston had a reserved look on his face. Robert felt something of the emotions from both men. A feeling of distrust, dislike, a sense of broken promises and trust, the latter particularly strong in Cranston.

    Robert turned now and faced the same direction as the others. At the opening of the door was a tall, splendid-looking woman, immensely beautiful and wearing an ice blue sleeveless dinner gown and a jeweled tiara. Long wintry green dinner gloves went up past the elbow of her bare arms. Her blond hair was the same color as Victor's, done up in an elaborate braid and ponytail at the back of her head.

    "Presenting Her Royal Highness Princess Katherine…" There was a hushed remark. "...I am sorry, Katrina Morgan Steiner-Davion," the MoC said. "Regent on Tharkad, Duchess of…" He listed off several titles. Some were presumably courtesy titles of some sort or another.

    "Your sister," Robert murmured.

    "Yes."

    "I didn't get the chance to meet her," Robert said. "The Aurora ended its tour at Orestes. What's she like?"

    There was no answer from the two men, or from Morgan. But Robert could sense that had they given an honest answer, it would have been unkind. And seeing that Katrina was making her way toward them, he decided not to press.

    "Victor, it is good to see you," Katrina said amiably. "I hope New Avalon is treating you well, little brother." A teasing smile crossed her face.

    "Well enough," Victor answered, smiling quietly. "My congratulations to you on the job you're doing on Tharkad."

    "Keeping our people safe and happy is a pleasure." Katrina turned to face Robert. Their heights were close, so her eyes lifted to face him, crystal blue in their color. "And you are Captain Dale. I'm thankful to finally get the chance to meet you, Captain. I regret that you didn't give Tharkad a visit as you did the other capitals of the Inner Sphere."

    There was something to the remark that told Robert there was more to it. Ignoring that, Robert pressed on. "Yes. I had hoped to see your world too, but since we had already met the leader of the Commonwealth, Defense Command felt it necessary to send us on."

    "I see." She extended a hand. "Better late than never, I suppose. Thank you for your assistance in the Joshua Marik matter, Captain. I hope that it is merely the beginning of your Alliance's involvement in the Inner Sphere."

    Robert took it and kept his eyes on her as they shook hands. As they did so his life force senses flared up. Her hand felt cold, unnaturally so, and it took a moment for Robert to realize the sensation of cold wasn't physical, but through her life energy.

    He focused quietly on that, on Katrina herself. Not deep enough to see anything, certainly not to the level of reading minds or sensing current motions, just a sense of who he was with.

    For a moment Robert thought he was being pulled by something. There was an inexorable force within Katrina. A vortex of some sort…

    No. A maw. A hungry, ravening maw demanding to be sated, capable of anything if it meant satiation. The sense of pure desire was frightening in its intensity, hidden as it was below the veneer of quiet composure and familial ribbing that Katrina had kept up. Robert got the sense that he could be drawn in, used up, and spat back out once he no longer met the needs of that hunger.

    The sensation of the feeling was enough that he froze in mid-handshake. A look of bewilderment bordering on distaste flashed across Katrina's features. It was enough to jolt Robert back to movement. "Oh, sorry," he said, sounding sheepish, which wasn't hard as it wasn't an act. "I'm afraid I've got a lot on my mind, Highness."

    "Of course." Katrina was clearly not convinced, but it was obvious she didn't know what to think.

    Robert's strange reaction to Katrina hadn't gone unnoticed. "Hello," said a friendly voice, as Julia stepped in. She nodded to Victor and to Katrina. "Your Highnesses."

    "Ah. Commander Andreys." Victor extended a hand and she accepted it. "This is my sister, Princess Katherine, my regent on Tharkad overseeing the Lyran half of our united realm. And our cousin, Marshal Morgan Hasek-Davion."

    Julia nodded, still smiling warmly, and accepted handshakes from them and from Jerry Cranston as well. Robert could tell she was aware something was up, given the way she was drawing the attention of the group to herself. "Katherine, or is it Katrina?", she asked the other woman.

    Katrina was looking at Julia with interest, and now a small smile. "I was born Katherine and Victor's used to using that name for me. But I've taken my grandmother's name now."

    "Ah. Well, I'll go with Princess Katrina then. I'm Commander Julia Andreys of the Starship Aurora, First Officer."

    "Indeed." Katrina's smile remained amiable. "It seems you and I have similar positions, then."

    "We run the day-to-day things while the boys get all the credit?" Julia chuckled. "Something like that. And I regret that we never got to visit Tharkad, I've heard it's an amazing world."

    "Yes, quite…"

    Talking to Julia seemed to draw Katrina's interest, and the two walked off together, leaving Robert to collect his thoughts while Victor and Cranston looked on in stony silence.

    Robert felt unsettled by his experience. He'd never felt such an immediate sensation from meeting someone. At best, he could get a good sense of current feelings and honesty. But that feeling from Katrina, that ravenous maw, left his heart racing and his head woozy.

    "You do not look well," Victor observed.

    Robert shook his head and swallowed. "I… it was just a shock." He went to excuse the matter by blaming his drink before his short-term memory kicked in, reminding him that he hadn't even started it yet.

    "My sister can be… an experience."

    The bitter feeling inside of the Archon-Prince returned. Robert looked at him. "Your sister is special. I've never felt an impression like that before."

    "Does this have to do with your… abilities?", Cranston asked.

    Cranston's question gave Robert a brief, instinctive flare of shock. But it was only a second in length before the instinctive reaction went away. His secret was, for the most part, out. Even if the recordings of the Gersallian Dissenter attack on the Alliance Senate hadn't been fully released, the Gersallians had openly broadcast Meridina's trial before her Order. A trial where his training had been revealed and then demonstrated.

    "Yes," he answered. He looked over to where Julia was introducing Katrina to Jarod and Scotty. Looking back to Victor, he added, in a stone tone, "I always had the sense that your feelings toward your sister weren't the best. Now I can understand why."

    "What was it?", Victor asked. "What did you sense?"

    Robert briefly looked back to Katrina. Even across the room, he thought he could feel that pull. "Hunger," he murmured. "Insatiable hunger."

    Victor and Cranston exchanged knowing looks. Robert could see they weren't surprised.

    Somehow, that was the scariest part of it all.




    After being introduced to a few new faces Angel made her way over to where Cat was staring quietly out of a window, an unfinished plate of pastries in her hand. "Some of this stuff is good," Angel said, indicating a rich-tasting fish filet on her plate. "You can't just eat pastries the whole time."

    "They make me feel better." Cat sighed. "I wish they'd let Violeta come with us."

    Angel rested her free hand on Caterina's shoulder. "She can't go everywhere with you."

    "I know. But this is… I mean, she would love it here." Cat took her last bite and finished what she had after some chewing. "I never thought being in love would feel like this. I'm not even in my labs as often now. I'd rather be with Violeta."

    "I know what it's like," Angel said.

    "Yeah, you would." Cat looked over and up at her sister. "Are you and Rob… I mean, I know you're upset with all of the things he's doing now. Are you...?"

    "We're still together. Technically." After saying that Angel sighed. "It's complicated, Cat. I know for you it's going well right now, but over time… well, things get in the way."

    "He's breaking your heart again, isn't he?"

    "Maybe… I don't know." Angel shook her head. "It was all so easy when I came to him last year. But now this 'life force' stuff, and…. other things that have come up."

    "That prophecy stuff you heard on Gersal?", Cat inquired.

    "That." Angel drew in a breath. "During that mission we went on to rescue Jarod, one of the people who helped us was this Zigonian named Kasszas."

    "The blind one?" Seeing Angel's curious look, Cat answered the unasked question by saying, "Jarod mentioned him a few weeks ago."

    "Yeah, that one." Angel looked out the window and let the memory come through her. "I… asked him if there was a way to remove Rob's abilities. He said no. And then he said I didn't love Rob anymore."

    Cat frowned and furrowed her brow. "Well, that was a pretty mean thing to say."

    "I thought so too." Angel nodded in agreement. "But I keep thinking back to that... He said I was trying to love an image of Rob and not the real thing. That I had to accept his powers in order to love him." Angel shook her head. "Just like that. I had to accept something that's tormenting Rob every damned night, it feels like. Half of the time I'm waking up and finding him curled up on the bed. Or he wakes me up screaming something." Angel shook her head. "And I'm supposed to accept that. But I won't."

    "Leo said there's no way to remove this stuff from him, though."

    "There has to be a way," Angel insisted. "Something nobody's thought of yet. You're into science, can't you find…"

    "I'm not a biologist," Cat protested. "I mean, I know some basic things, but my specialties are in entirely different fields. I wouldn't know where to start when it comes to life force stuff." She frowned. "Besides, isn't that stuff good? I mean…"

    By then it was too late. Angel was already giving her an angry look. "It gives him nightmares all of the time, Cat, so no, I don't think it's good."

    "But without the powers, the Nazis would have killed me," Cat said. "Robert needed them to save me."

    "We could have found another way," Angel insisted.

    "I don't think…" Cat stopped. She could tell from Angel's expression that this conversation was going nowhere. She set the plate she had down on the window sill and took her sister's hand. "Angel, I don't want to see you hurt. But I'm worried about this. What Robert's got now… whatever it is, I don't think it's something you get rid of. Not with science anyway. Maybe it's just something… it's a change and you have to go with it. Or…" Seeing that was upsetting her sister, Cat sighed. "Violeta and I have this thing, Angel… we always ask each other before we… well, before we do anything. And she was pretty clear on letting me take the lead because I'm new at the whole 'lesbian relationship' thing. That's because we both have to be happy for the relationship to work. I mean, obviously not happy all of the time, but…"

    Angel was starting to tune her sister out. That wasn't something she normally did. But it felt like Cat was saying the same thing to her. She had to accept it. She had to accept this… this curse that Robert had taken up, and should give up finding a way to cure him of it.

    Maybe I should, was her brief thought on the matter. But some part of her instinctively rejected that. These abilities, this power, was destroying their relationship. She felt like they were getting to the point where they weren't even together anymore, just… what, friends with benefits?

    And I don't want that anymore. Not with him.

    Caterina finished speaking. "You stopped paying attention to me," she said with a hint - more than a hint, really - of accusation in her voice.

    "I'm sorry," Angel said. She looked down at her plate and put it on the sill. "I'm… I'm not hungry."

    "Angel…" Cat reached for her sister's arm, but she was too slow. Angel tromped off into the crowd, looking very much like she wanted to be alone.




    The Master of Ceremonies began to call out new arrivals again. These new arrivals were clad differently from the other groups, wearing Japanese-style formal robes and suits, with the black dragon-on-red disc insignia of the Draconis Combine stitched into the torso areas of the robes. An East Asian man of graying dark hair was immediately recognizable to Robert: Coordinator Theodore Kurita.

    He had little stake, emotionally, in the arrival of another Inner Sphere potentate and family. But he could feel Victor's emotions shift, longing and need taking over from the lingering irritation and distrust of dealing with Katrina. That won his attention and Robert soon looked back again, even as the Ceremonies master introduced "The Keeper of the Honor of the House of Kurita", a woman in a red and black kimono with her long dark hair pulled back into a formal knot at the rear of her head. She looked nearly thirty, probably a few years older than Robert. Bright blue eyes scanned the crowd and faced Robert. Her expression remained fixed. Nevertheless Robert could feel a joy within her, the joy of seeing someone who met much to her.

    He looked over and felt nearly the same from Victor, tinged with bittersweet feelings. Cranston was looking at Victor with a little concern. "Huh," Robert murmured. "And I thought my love life was complicated."

    "Whoever you want to be with, you don't have to worry about provoking a civil war by marrying them," Victor lamented.

    "Eloping to Las Vegas wouldn't exactly work for you two either, would it?", Robert sighed.

    That got him a harsh laugh from the Prince. "If only…" Victor shook his head. "The Archon-Prince of the Federated Commonwealth marrying the Keeper of the Family Honor of the Draconis Combine is the sort of wedding that requires all sorts of state protocols and functions. Including dowries and gifts."

    "You mean that your people would be convinced you were going to give up worlds to the Combine in any gift exchange. But I've met Theodore, he's not stupid enough to push for something like that…"

    "He would have to have something for show to avoid domestic problems," Cranston pointed out. "And popular opinion in the Commonwealth would never allow that."

    Robert's response was to rub at his forehead. "Just whose bright idea was it to set up aristocracy and feudalism in the Inner Sphere, anyway?"

    "Michael Cameron," Victor answered nonchalantly. "Although feudalism has mostly been a result of the Succession Wars."

    "I thought some of the old Earth nobility still existed in some Alliance states?", asked Cranston.

    "Well, I think some do," Robert admitted. "European and Arab royal families. But they don't have these kinds of politics involved in their marriages anymore." He shook his head and gave Victor a look that he hoped was comforting. "I'm sorry. I can only imagine how much it hurts for you."

    "And what about you?", Victor asked. "The way you're talking, you have your own relationship problems."

    "Well, nothing to the level of a civil war over them." Robert shook his head. "For me it's more of a question if I'm even going to have a relationship for much longer. Between my duty to train in my… abilities, and my duties as a captain…"

    Victor gave him a sympathetic look. "Duty and love don't always go together."

    "You're right about that." Robert cleared his throat. "Well, enough of that I guess. We still have to figure out what we're going to do about the Clans."

    "That's what the strategy meetings are for tomorrow."

    "Maybe. But I've already started to think of something with the others." Robert gave Victor a thoughtful look. "How much do you know about the Clans' combat trials?"




    The following day Robert, Julia, and Jarod were the ones to beam down to join President Morgan and Admiral Maran at the grand strategy meeting. The ComStar conference room was arranged with tables in a curved line across the room, all facing a raised dais and podium marked with the ComStar insignia and with a holotank above and behind it.

    There was no difficulty in finding the Alliance table - President Morgan had been given a place between the Marik and Kurita tables on the right side. The Commonwealth was represented by one table with both Victor and Katrina sitting at it. Robert didn't recognize the woman who was with Katrina, although her military uniform gave her rank as a Marshal, while Victor had Marshal Hasek-Davion at his side as well as another man, with a full beard of wolf-gray hair and a head of hair to match. His uniform was different, clearly that of a mercenary.

    Focht was directing the briefing. "We have determined more about what is going on in Clan territory," he said. "And the news is grave." He gripped the podium. "A few weeks ago, the Wolf Clan Council convened a trial hearing to hear accusations leveled against ilKhan Ulric Kerensky by the Clan Loremaster, Dalk Carns, who is a known Crusader."

    "What was he accused of?", asked the wolf-haired man at Victor's table.

    "Treason, Your Grace," replied Focht. "The charges are spurious, that much is clear, but the newest generation of warriors in the Clans are opposed to the Truce and are pushing the conviction. From what we have gathered, Loremaster Carns leveled a very grave and heavy accusation against the ilKhan. He accused him of plotting genocide against the Clan."

    "That sounds farfetched," noted Thomas Marik. "How could such an outrageous charge hold weight?"

    "Our sources in the Wolf Clan state the charge is based on the Truce, that the Truce was planned to destroy the warrior caste," Wolf said. "It is a ridiculous charge, but it is one that the Crusaders can take advantage of. Ulric's actual actions are irrelevant. The Crusaders want the Invasion to resume. Presumably they have hoped that Ulric would renounce the Truce to save himself."

    "Then we must prepare for war." This came from Sun-Tzu Liao, Chancellor of the Capellan Confederation. The sharp-eyed Asian man was flanked by his red-haired sister and one of his high military officers. "The Clans will be resuming their campaign."

    "As things stand, that is the most likely outcome." Focht looked to the Alliance table. "Although we may have one last chance to prevent it. President Morgan?"

    Henry Morgan stood. He looked every inch the seasoned statesman, and his business-like suit - a dark blue jacket with seamless sealed cuffs over a silk white shirt and green tie - was in sharp contrast to the ostentatious uniforms of the Inner Sphere leadership. "The Allied Systems are ready to assist the Inner Sphere in resisting Clan aggression," Morgan said. "Although it is our hope to prevent a resumption of the hostilities so that the conflict with the Nazi German Reich is not prolonged. As many of you are aware, we suffered a setback nearly two months ago that has cost us some of our reserve. And I shouldn't need to point out that regardless of our success in preventing the Reich from gaining control of the Darglan Facility at Gamma Piratus, the longer the war rages, the more likely the Reich will manage to discover how to use IU drives through examination of the ships we've lost in action within their territories. So we must put all of our efforts into preventing this potential Clan threat."

    "Do you have a proposal on how to persuade the Clans to uphold the Truce, Mister President?", Katrina asked from the Commonwealth table.

    Morgan nodded at her. "I do. Precentor-Martial Focht has informed me that the Clans' upcoming meeting is on the planet Tamar." He held a hand toward Robert and the others. "It is my intention to send Captain Dale and his ship to Tamar to open our first diplomatic contact with the Clans and to secure, by any means possible, their cooperation."

    Theodore Kurita nodded from his table. "That is, perhaps, the best chance we have. Seeing your vessel and some of the technological advantages your Alliance enjoys may cause even the militant Clans to reconsider."

    "Although it will not be easy." Colonel Wolf was speaking up next, from his own table near Focht. "If you have read the reports I made available, it is clear that the prolonged peace is causing enormous strain within the warrior caste. Many of the younger generations of warriors are insisting on new conflicts. I fear that the Truce will not last despite the Alliance's presence."

    Robert gave Maran a look. Maran stood. "I believe Captain Dale and his officers have a suggestion to propose to the summit."

    "We are prepared to hear him," said Focht.

    Robert stood and looked over the assembled leaders of the Inner Sphere, from the hollow visage of Rasalhague's Elected Prince Haakon Magnusson to Victor to the emissaries from the Periphery realms of the Magistracy of Canopus and the Taurian Concordat. "I've been discussing this issue with my officers while examining our material on the Clans. Commander Jarod has found a possible solution that will ease this… pressure on the Clans' internal affairs. But it's going to have a long-term cost, and I can't suggest it at Tamar unless the leaders of the Inner Sphere, and President Morgan, are ready to consider it." Robert drew in a breath before continuing. "We could offer the Clans a part in the war with the Reich."

    "Which means they would also get access to the same technologies you are offering us, correct?", asked Thomas Marik.

    "Yes, Captain-General sir. They would."

    A few protesting voices arose. "You can't!", Magnusson cried. "We're already under enough threat, with your technology the Clans would overwhelm what's left of the Republic in a day!"

    "What if they insist you remain neutral in a renewal of the invasion?" This was from Katrina. "There has to be a line that you will not cross."

    "I would never intend to offer that term, not without guarantees… or as a calculated risk for an immense benefit," Robert insisted.

    "Or as a means for the Alliance to abandon the Inner Sphere to the Clans," charged one of the Lyran officers with Katrina.

    "That is not our intention," Morgan stated flatly. "And I will not allow it to come to that."

    "So you would betray any such term if it's made with the Clans? How could anyone trust you…"

    Before Sun-Tzu could continue, Robert spoke up again. "If I were to even consider such a thing, it would be to meet a Clan offer to end the Invasion for now."

    "The Clans already agreed to a fifteen year truce. We are only five years into that truce and they are already planning to break it." Sun-Tzu shook his head. "I cannot accept such an agreement. It would be base treachery by the Alliance against the Inner Sphere. Indeed, I am deeply suspicious of this entire concept now."

    Robert met the Capellan ruler's glare with an understanding look. "I understand your skepticism. But your people have fought beside ours, we're not going to abandon you like that. All I'm asking is for leeway to act as I need to if it means stopping the Clans from rescinding the Truce. Believe me, if it's clear we can't dissuade the Crusaders… if Ulric Kerensky is removed as ilKhan and the Crusaders are preparing to resume the invasion, we'll break off the talks. And the Alliance can prepare to join you in a war with the Clans."

    Victor stood. "It's worth a try," he said. "Even if the Clans gain something from joining the war, the Inner Sphere and the Alliance can hold them at the Truce line ten years from now. That's ten years for the Inner Sphere to continue building defenses. Ten years for us to finish off the Reich."

    "Not all of us are involved in your little crusade, Prince Victor," Sun-Tzu said. "Do not presume that the Capellan Confederation will jeopardize its defenses to assist in that war."

    "Obviously not, Chancellor Sun-Tzu," Victor answered. "But many of us are committed to helping end that threat before it could possibly bring us harm, and that is what I was referring to."

    "Regardless of that issue, it is clear we should consider Captain Dale's proposal." Focht put his hands together on the podium. "Let us vote on it by delegation."

    The vote was held. The Commonwealth, the Combine, and the St. Ives Compact voted in favor of. The Capellans and Rasalhague voted against. Those assembled looked toward Thomas Marik.

    The Captain-General, in turn, looked to the Alliance table and nodded. "The Free Worlds League votes in favor of the Alliance proposal." He studiously ignored the slight displeasure on his future son-in-law Sun-Tzu's face.

    Thomas Marik's vote eliminated the tie-breaking vote that Focht and Primus Mori could have employed, as controversial as that might have proven. Robert nodded at Julia and Jarod; their mission was good to go.

    Victor stood. "In support of the mission, I propose that an observer be dispatched" Victor looked to the older, wolf-gray-haired man at his table. "Duke Morgan Kell of Arc-Royal is my choice."

    The older man nodded.

    "Given the short time we have to influence the upcoming Clan Grand Council meeting on Tamar, I would suggest that Captain Dale and his ship be released to depart by this evening," Focht stated. "Are there any objections?"

    There were none.



    Ship's Log: ASV Aurora; 4 July 2642. Captain Robert Dale recording. We are currently en route to Tamar and expect to arrive during the evening hours. Grand Duke Kell and a small group of ComStar-provided analysts have been issued quarters for the duration of this mission.

    I spent much of the night going over the material on the Clan leadership provided by Colonel Wolf and Precentor-Martial Focht. There are a few ways to approach this problem. I only hope I can read the Clans correctly and find the one that will work.




    The lunch crowd in the Lookout was of the standard size. Freshly roused Beta Shift crew were getting their breakfasts while some Alpha Shift personnel took lunch breaks. Robert had opted for lunch in the Lookout in the hopes that Angel would join him. Unfortunately she had other arrangements with Cat, and he was dining alone.

    He chewed quietly on the reuben sandwich that Hargert had given him and found that, for all that the mission meant for the future, it was the future of his relationship that he couldn't get his mind off of. He and Angel had always had issues with staying together. Family obligations - Robert to the (eternally struggling) family farm, Angel to watching her then-underage little sister - inevitably got in the way of things, and then would come the arguments, the recriminations, and a breakup. A few weeks, or a few months in some cases, would pass, then they'd meet up in a social setting and become friendly, just for the cycle to lead to hooking back up and straight on that same path as before. This entire cycle had started in high school and continued on into early adulthood, and it left Robert wondering if he was cursed to continue it.

    It felt so different this time. Like knowing we could die out here made it easier to keep things going. Our obligations weren't interfering… not at first.

    A small burning sensation of guilt came to Robert. How much of this was because he knew he could stop these issues easily? All he had to do was tell Meridina he was done with training. That he was satisfied with his level of control and that he needed to focus on other things? That was what was supposed to happen, after all. All of those months, he had trained under the impression that he was only ensuring basic control of his abilities, of what the Gersallians called "swevyra", and he had promised Angel he'd have more time for her once that training was over. But with everything that had happened on Gersal, and the revelation that Meridina had intentionally been training Robert and Lucy Lucero more extensively than control… With all of that, he had decided to keep training.

    Maybe I should take that back, he thought, and not for the first time. Angel deserved better than being third-string in his life behind his captain duties and his life force ability training.

    And like every time he thought of that, he remembered other things. He remembered the Prophecy of the Dawn, as Mastrash Ledosh and Meridina had describe, and he remembered the message in the Darglan Facility on Gamma Piratus. The warning about "the Darkness". And his dreams, his nightmares, of stars going out across the galaxies of the universe…

    Robert might have stuck himself into another cycle of thought if not for the new arrival. "Captain Dale," said a voice made hoarse by age, but still tempered with the firmness of command. Robert looked up from his meal to face Morgan Kell. The ex-mercenary commander had a plate of his own. "May I?"

    "Oh… yes, yes of course."

    Morgan sat. "You reminded me of the monks I once lived with," he said. "But it was rare to see someone so intent upon their thoughts, even in those days. Does this mission trouble you?"

    "It wasn't about the mission," Robert admitted. "There were other… things on my mind, you could say."

    "Ah." Morgan took a small drink from a cup. Robert couldn't tell what was in it. "I'm curious about how your crew seems to operate on duty. It's not the military style I would expect."

    "It would be on other ships," Robert said. "But for vessels in direct Alliance service, with crews from different species and different cultures, we had to find a good median point. Alakins require more sleep than Humans, for instance, from a medical standpoint, but they are more alert while awake and require fewer breaks."

    "Ah, yes." Morgan nodded. "I am still getting used to the idea of non-Human life. I actually felt sorry for the first alien delegation that I hosted on Arc-Royal, those… Tarans? Tarians?"

    "Turians?", Robert offered.

    "Ah, yes. Turians." Morgan nodded. "They were an interesting sort. They came to inspect my family's BattleMech factory and observe the Kell Hounds in field exercises. But they spent most of their time dodging reporters and dealing with culture shock."

    "I'm not surprised. Ever since first contact with the Inner Sphere, people have been looking into your BattleMechs as a possible new weapon system."

    "I've been considering installing mass effect weapons on BattleMechs myself. The chance to have autocannons without heavy ammunition requirements, or explosive ammunition, is compelling." Morgan took a bite from a sandwich on his plate. Once he was finished, he spoke again. "My son is a Khan in the Clans, you know."

    Robert blinked. "What?" With a movement of his hand he activated his new omnitool and brought up a data display of the known Clan leaders. "Which? I mean, how is that possible?"

    "He is Khan Phelan Ward in the Wolves," Morgan continued. "They let him compete for the Bloodname because his mother is descended from a Star League officer, Jal Ward, who joined Aleksandr Kerensky's exodus over two hundred years ago. Ward ended up being one of Nicholas' eight hundred followers."

    Robert found the name, and with it the image. In fact, once he started reading over the ComStar bio Morgan's words were quickly confirmed. He felt a little embarrassed at not knowing this. I've been focusing on reading up about the Crusader Khans since they'll be the ones I'm having to fight the most.

    It was clear Morgan knew the "why" of Robert's ignorance. He made no comment on it. "I have a vested stake in your mission, Captain, as you now see." Morgan sighed. "While my Kell Hounds will most likely fight the Jade Falcons and Steel Vipers instead of the Wolves, the Invasion resuming means that my son and I will be enemies again."

    "Your son's with the Warden faction, right?"

    "The Wardens may oppose continuing the Invasion, but they are obligated to fight if it restarts. Knowing Phelan, he will throw his full energy into getting the Wolves to Terra first."

    "Because Earth is their goal," Robert noted. "The first Clan to reach Earth gets to take charge over all of the other Clans."

    "Exactly."

    "But that's not enough, not if they want to reunite the Inner Sphere under their leadership." Robert shook his head. "I mean, Earth has some strategic value, being in the dead center of the Inner Sphere. But throwing everything they have into seizing it first makes no sense. They're creating long flank lines that the Inner Sphere can exploit."

    "The Clans are used to winning in the end, and to quick and decisive battles," Morgan reminded Robert. "Strategy is not always their strong suit." The older man sighed. "And I fear it may eventually lead to Phelan's death. I have already mourned him once. I don't wish to go through that again."

    "Yeah." Robert noddded. "I don't blame you. I know what it's like to lose the people that you love. And I'll do what I can, Duke Kell. I'll find a way to keep the Truce." And maybe, if we're lucky, it may not be so temporary in the long run




    With the Koenig docked Tom Barnes was back in his usual role of being Scotty's #2 man in Engineering. And it was work he preferred; the Koenig was a little asskicker of a ship, but it sucked to live on it, and that was what Tom would have to do if it went out for any extended missions before Karen Derbely finished her operations and rehabilitation from getting most of her body flash-fried by coolant plasma.

    For the moment, he was looking over the plasma feed line leading into Nacelle Pylon 3, the lower starboard pylon on the ship. An engineering rate Crewman, Gabe Howell, was standing beside him with a tool. "Do you see what I mean, sir?", he asked.

    Barnes looked back to his own scan results, displayed on his nice new omnitool. He delighted in operating the holographic device. "Yeah," he sighed. "Yeah, I can see that. Looks like a fault in the valve." Barnes tapped a hard-light key on the omnitool display. "Barnes to Scott."

    "I'm here, lad," was the reply from his mentor.

    "Howell's right. The valve on Feed 3B is stuck in the open position."

    "Alright then. I'll have the backups brought online. Go ahead an' get a replacement valve from th' shop."

    "On my way." Barnes looked to Howell. "Let me know if anything else happens, I'm going to get a replacement valve built."

    "Yes sir," the young engineering crewman replied.

    Barnes smiled thinly to that as he walked away. This was the part he loved about this life. He wasn't just an engineer, he was an engineer on one of the most advanced machines that an engineer could ever imagine. Forget designing a car or a jet, he had helped to design, and was helping to run, a kilometer-long starship that could go faster than light and hop universes.

    He walked up the work ramp for the nacelle pylon to the deck it was attached to. From there it was a short trip around the various machinery spaces and the access doors for them to a turbolift and Deck 25.

    In Machine Shop B he went to the bank of fabricators. An engineering officer, Lieutenant Teikue, was overseeing the shop crew. "Lieutenant Barnes, sir?", he asked.

    "I need a new plasma-holding valve for one of the feed lines." Barnes brought up his omnitool and looked up the information. "Model… PV210 should do it."

    "Yes sir."

    Barnes left Teikue to relay the order to his shop workers. For the moment he had nothing to do. A job like this would only take ten or so minutes depending on various factors and he might as well wait.

    It was while he was waiting that he recognized a head of curly dark hair nearby. Even without seeing her face, he could see it was Lucy and called out, "Hey Lucy, still working on something?" When she didn't respond he crossed his arms and repeated her name. When a second repeat of said name didn't work, he smirked and said, "Hey, Earth to LL. You there, LL?"

    She stopped moving her hand on the control and took in a breath. Lucy turned and gave him a playful death glare. "You know I don't like that nickname. I never have."

    "Yeah, I remember. You finally told us that only after a few years and finding the Facility," Barnes replied. "But I didn't know how else to get your attention."

    "Shouldn't you be in Engineering helping Scotty?", Lucy asked.

    "I'm waiting for them to get me a new plasma valve for one of the Nacelle 3 plasma feeds," he answered. He stepped up closer and noticed the cylindrical object in what looked like a manual fabricator assembly. "Still working on that… laser sword or beamblade or lightsaber, whatever it is?"

    Lucy sighed and shook her head. "Yes. But there's still no luck with the crystal issue."

    "Have you checked the inventory? We have a few focusing crystal types around."

    "And none of them work, they can't handle the energy load," Lucy answered. "I need stronger crystals."

    Barnes blinked. "Woh. Did you see what kind of crystal was in that weapon?"

    "I got scans, but I'd need a full atomic material scan for that," Lucy said, "and I didn't want to risk taking the blade apart. The Gersallians would have been mad as hell if I had wrecked their relic."

    "Huh." Barnes pondered the question. "Well, I'll see what I can find for you. I know some people who are examining new types of crys…" He was interrupted by a tone from his omnitool. Someone was calling him. He tapped the holographic key to open the channel. "Barnes here."

    "Tom, I need you to double-check the engines before we get to Tamar," Zack said. "Hajar said something about that plasma coolant line having some irregular results from the testing yesterday."

    "How soon are we going to be there?"

    "By tonight, I've heard."

    At that Barnes rolled his eyes. "Dammit…" He looked to Lucy. "Hey, they're getting me that valve soon, a PV210. Mind getting it from Teikue and taking it to Feed 3B for installation?"

    Lucy nodded. "Since you're doing me a solid on my crystal hunt, sure."

    "Thanks." He turned away. "I'd better get to the Koenig then. See you around."




    Robert entered the gymnasium in uniform and quickly found who he was looking for. Julia was standing on a practice mat in a white martial arts gi with a black belt around her waist and her hair pulled into a tight bun at the back of her head. She was in one of her practice stances, moving through a sequence of what looked like t'ai chi moves and holds.

    She wasn't alone in this. Angel was standing beside her, doing the same, and they had a new addition to the group. Robert was somewhat surprised to see it was Meridina, wearing the same kind of martial arts gi the others had instead of her usual preferred training vest. She mimicked the movements of Julia and Angel flawlessly.

    Politeness demanded Robert remain to the side until they were done. Within a minute Julia did what looked to be the final movement, culminating with her hands coming together, palm-against-palm, in what looked almost like a "praying" gesture. She let out a final breath and her body relaxed. "Well, there we are," she said. She looked to Robert and grinned. "One of these days, Rob, I'm going to get you into this."

    "Well, you've got Angel and Meridina now…"

    "...and Lucy," Julia added. Her grin remained. "When she's not spending all of her time in the Machine Shop trying to build a new light sword."

    "It is an interesting discipline." Meridina nodded to Julia. "And it served Lucy against Mastrash Goras."

    "And I only gave her one lesson," Julia pointed out. "If she'd been fully trained, I'm not sure Goras could have landed a hit. Not with anything physical anyway." Julia looked to Robert again.

    He was, in turn, embracing Angel for a moment. She gave him a small kiss on the cheek and pulled away. "We don't have long, right?", she asked.

    Robert shook his head. "Maybe an hour. Locarno will let me know when we're fifteen minutes out. If need be we'll slow to make sure we're ready when we get there…"

    "I'm going to shower. See you on the bridge." Angel nodded to him and walked to the exit.

    Meridina gave Robert a sad look. "I am sorry."

    "Sorry for…?", he asked.

    "For undermining your relationship with Angel," Meridina answered. "If it were not so important to continue your training…"

    "Is it?", Robert asked. He was still looking at the door that Angel had just walked through. "What if we dialed it back a little? Maybe a couple nights a week?"

    "By all rights we should be doing more, Robert," Meridina pointed out. "You still have much to learn in how to use your swevyra."

    Meridina had been gentle in her reminder of his relative lack of capability. He still had trouble dueling Lucy, who only had six months of training on him, and even in comparison to her his advancement in most of the relevant abilities was lacking.

    It wasn't the first time Robert had felt frustrated, or even dejected, about his lack of progress. But now it added to his frustration over his failing relationship with Angel. He frowned. "I'm having trouble making the time for what I do now, Meridina. Maybe…" Robert shrugged. "...I don't know. I'm starting to think that maybe I should just accept that this as far as I'm going in terms of my force abilities and end the training."

    Meridina listened to him say those words. For a brief moment there was a small flinch on her features, joined by a quivering of her heart. Whatever it had been, she forced it away. "I understand your frustration with your progress Robert. But not everyone advances as fast as Lucy has. You are advancing at the pace I would expect. It is possible that you may never have the same capability in combat, yes..."

    "Then what's this for?", Robert asked pointedly. "I mean, I've got the mental control down, I'm not going to give in to my darkest impulses, you can be sure of that. But if I'm never going to be able to fight alongside you and Lucy with these abilities, maybe I should just call it quits. Before I give up something I don't have to."

    "I understand that I may be asking much of you. It is a sacrifice. But I believe it a necessary one. You need to learn how to better harness your talents."

    Meridina's words were spoken gently. But they cut deeply regardless.

    Part of that may have even contributed to what came next. To the instinctive, defensive reaction that led Robert to responding, "Maybe I don't think that sacrifice is worth it anymore."

    Meridina looked at him closely. For a moment he thought she would initiate some sort of mental contact, a connection to gauge if he really meant that. In the end all she did was nod. "I see. If that is how you feel, if it is the path that your swevyra is guiding you toward, then I respect it. Please let me know later if this is the way you wish things to go."

    Without another word, Meridina walked away.

    Even before she reached the door, Robert could feel the pain welling up inside of her. The only thing keeping him from recanting on the spot was his own surprise that he said that to her.

    He was even more surprised by the sudden jolt of pain in the back of his head. "Yow!", he cried out in surprise.

    When he turned his head to face the source of the slap, he found himself staring into a pair of infuriated aquamarine eyes. "In all of our years together, Robert Allen Dale," Julia began, anger lacing every word, "you have rarely been more of a thoughtless idiot than you were just now." As he drew in a breath to speak Julia interrupted. "You really want to do that? To bring up 'sacrifices' and if they're worth it?" She pointed to the door with a single finger. "To her. That woman gave up everything, Rob. She walked away from the organization that gave her life purpose, that… that she spent her whole life wanting to be a part of… to stay with us, to train you and Lucy. Because she thought it was the right thing to do. And you want to whine about making sacrifices to her."

    Julia stopped. Robert swallowed and shook his head. "I was out of line," he admitted.

    "Waaaay out of line." Julia shook her head. "Listen, I get it. Angel is… Angel. She wants a boyfriend who'll be there when the night's over and who will spend time with her."

    "Yeah."

    "But you can't, Rob," Julia pointed out. "You couldn't from the start. And if Angel can't live with that… then maybe you two shouldn't be together now."

    "But we were doing so well," Robert insisted. "Before this life force thing came up, I was making time, and she was accepting when I couldn't, and it was working. We were compromising, recognizing mistakes… we were doing everything right for a change. It felt like this was it and we had finally made it work!" He sighed. "And then this training started and the whole thing just… derailed."

    Julia nodded. She spread her arms and took him into a hug. "I'm sorry, Robby," she murmured into his ear. "I'm sorry that you two might not work out after all. But sometimes… it just isn't meant to be."

    She could feel him breathe heavily as part of a sigh. After a half minute of holding tightly they pulled away from each other. "I need to go shower and get into my uniform," Julia said. "You should freshen up to."

    "I'm heading to the shower now," Robert answered. "I'll see you on the bridge, Julia."

    Julia nodded in quiet agreement.




    Everyone assembled on the bridge in time for their arrival. Locarno brought the Aurora out of warp just inside the lunar orbit of the planet. Caterina was quick to confirm scan results. "It looks like there are six armed ships of capital ship size in orbit. The ComStar records and the IFF codes confirm them as warships of the six invading Clans. There are several dozen ships of smaller size. I think it's their non-jump capable 'DropShips'." Cat looked over something. "They're definitely reacting to our arrival. They're launching fighters."

    "If they know anything about us, they know we can be in combat range in minutes," Julia remarked.

    "I know. So let's start this right. Jarod, put me on with the local authorities."

    "You're on."

    "Attention, Wolf Clan leadership, and those of the other Clans," Robert began. "I am Captain Robert Dale of the Starship Aurora, representing the United Alliance of Systems. I've come to open communication with the Clan Grand Council on behalf of President Henry Morgan and the government of the Alliance. I request safe passage, or safcon as you call it, to orbital space in order to speak with the Council."

    For several moments there was quiet. A gruff voice finally replied, "We have received your message, Captain Robert. Standby."

    "Did he just use your first name?", Angel asked. "That's pretty rude, right?"

    "It's how the Clans address others," Julia said. "Given names only. Only Bloodnames are recognized."

    "Well, I guess Jarod will feel right at home," Locarno said. That caused a bemused grin to come to Jarod's face.

    When a voice came over the other end, it was the rough voice of a woman just starting to sound like she was entering her elderly years. "This is Khan Natasha Kerensky of the Wolf Clan. Your request for safcon is granted, Captain."

    Robert recognized the name immediately. He'd heard that Khan Kerensky was not simply a Clan leader, but had been a feared mercenary commander in the Inner Sphere for decades before returning to the Clans. "Thank you, Khan Kerensky. We'll assume a standard orbit immediately."

    "The ilKhan is going to present your request to the Grand Council shortly. We will inform you if they are willing to hear you speak. That is all."

    "Nick, put us in standard orbit."

    "And right under all of their guns," Angel murmured. "And I guess we don't have permission to raise shields?"

    "Not unless they lock on us first."

    "Right." Julia nodded in agreement. "Somehow I think taking defensive precautions after they've promised to give us safe conduct will not go over well. It would be saying we don't trust them." She looked at Robert. 'So, who's going down?"

    "I want to make an impression. You, Zack, Meridina, Commander Kane, and Jarod. Get Lucy up here to take Jarod's place. Nick, you just made Lieutenant Commander, please don't get the ship shot up on your first mission after the promotion."

    Locarno smirked. "I'll try not to," he answered, taking the remark as the humorous gibe it had been intended to be.

    "I'll signal Grand Duke Kell to meet us at Transporter Station 2," Julia said. She brought her omnitool to life in a flash of blue light.

    "Alright everyone," Robert said. "Let's go stop a war."
     
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