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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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    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    Doctor Opani checked in one last time on the infirmary before signing off for the day. The Gamma Shift nurse was fully briefed on the condition of the unconscious Quarian patient and possible special needs. She checked on Tali, asleep on the biobed she'd picked and with no issues showing on the biobed scanners.

    Tired and hungry, Opani went to the mess hall, or rather the half that hadn't been turned into a sleeping area for the special forces troops they were carrying. She replicated a kipatiran, a warm baked pastry with a vegetable and cheese filling, and a cup of cool fruit juice. An empty table was easily found, even in this reduced space, and she went to work on her food.

    She was mostly done when Barnes sat down with a late snack of a pastry she had heard him call a "hot pocket". A replicated "soft drink" still fizzed in a plastic cup. "Hey Doc," he said.

    "Hello."

    "So, Zack said something about us talking?" Barnes asked. "What's wrong?"

    "Nothing is wrong, exactly. But I think that you may have been rude to our guest."

    Barnes took a sip of his drink, which might have been an explanation for his sudden sour look. Or it may not have been. Opani waited patiently for him to respond. "Look, I'm acerbic sometimes, yeah, and I can be a jerk. But that doesn't change the fact that she has no training or experience with our technology and equipment. I don't care how good an engineer she thinks she is."

    "She seems bright. Eager. This work is part of who she is."

    "Sure it is." Barnes bit into his food and frowned. "Ugh. Christ, these replicators make anything and everything taste like ass."

    "They always have," Opani pointed out. "Don't change the subject."

    That prompted him to look at her, hard. "There isn't a damn subject, Opani. She's a kid and she's not working in my engineering department."

    "Why are you so resistant to it?"

    "For the same reason you wouldn't want some kid around who thought helping her daddy with bandages makes her capable of performing surgery," he retorted, and there was real heat in his voice. "In fact, that analogy works perfectly, because that's basically what you're asking me to do."

    Opani was quiet for a moment, allowing Barnes to take another bite. She felt there was something about the way he was opposed to this, something more than the objections he was listing. "Why won't you give her a chance? You don't need her to run the reactor, just give her a task. Pair her with an engineer and…"

    "No. That's final."

    "Why are you being so obstinate…"

    Barnes responded by standing up and grabbing his unfinished meal. He tossed it into the replicator and hit the reclaim button. Opani jumped up to do the same and followed him as he stamped out of the mess. "This is none of your damn business," Barnes barked back at her, already knowing she was behind him.

    "This is personal," Opani shot back. "It has to be. What has that sweet girl done to you? Certainly you're not listening to the poison from the others about thievery?"

    "No, no I'm not," he replied.

    "Then why won't you work with her? Find her something to do? She can't be that much younger than you were when you started this. If you could imagine being in her place…"

    Barnes whirled around so quickly that Opani nearly walked into him. "That's the problem," he said, his tone reflective of his broken patience. "Because I can imagine being in her place. Because I was in her place."

    Opani looked at him with confusion. "What?"

    "I've wanted to put together machines since I was a kid," Barnes said. Some of the anger had gone out of his face, replaced by the look of someone dredging through old memories. "I've always wanted to be an engineer. Like my parents. And I always thought of myself as one from the moment I passed my first engineering prep class in high school. And then everything with the Darglan Facility happened, and soon I was running ships and seeing myself as the engineer. But I didn't know jack crap about it, not really. I was still just the kid with a big head and ego ready to fry my brain out if it meant learning more about machines."

    Opani remained silent.

    "Then I met Scotty." Barnes smiled a little. "And I realized I didn't know jack crap. I still wouldn't know jack crap if he hadn't seen something in me and taught me what I was missing. Me being an engineer is because of him. It took a lot of time, training, and work to be able to do this job. So yeah, I get the girl's position because I've been there. I've been her. And I made enough mistakes back then to know what can go wrong if I let that girl work our most critical systems." He let out a sigh. "So yeah, I get where she's coming from. And that's why I don't want her in Engineering. The kid shouldn't have even been out here, dammit. She sounds college age, not fully grown up. She should be taking classes, not flying scouting missions."

    "Her people don't have your ways, or mine. Keep that in mind."

    "Then whatever it is they do for higher education. But my point stands."

    "I see." Opani rubbed at her forehead. "Thank you for your honesty, and sleep well."

    Barnes nodded and walked on to his quarters.




    Zack retired to his room. It was the only quarters on the ship that had been fitted to have only one occupant, and that had been at the insistence of Scotty and of Captain Farmer back in the day. "The ship's commander needs his or her sleep" was their argument, and their recommendation was accepted.

    It was only times like now that Zack realized why the two Starfleet men had said that.

    He sat at his desk in his white uniform undershirt and boxers. Zack's face reflected his sleeplessness and state of mind, how upset he was at what had transpired. In his mind he kept flashing back to the Batarian ship exploding on the viewscreen. Several dozen Batarians had been vaporized in that explosion.

    They were pirates, slavers, and in a straight battle he wouldn't have thought twice about their deaths. But this was different. He kept wondering about it. Wondering if he could have found a solution. A way to keep them safely contained on the Koenig, anything that might have seen them live. Anything that would spare him the knowledge that he had left those beings to die. That he had given the order.

    His hand crept to his desk's computer control panel. He hit a key to activate his message recorder. "Computer, log this message, deliver when I give the word."

    "Please list recipient."

    Zack swallowed. "Clara Lydia Davis, currently residing on New Caprica, assigned to New Liberty Volunteer Corps as a nurse."

    "Recipient logged. Ready to commence message recording."

    "Begin." After a moment to compose his thoughts, Zack started speaking. He told her how much he loved her. He told her he missed her. As he did so, he thought about what he was saying, about his feelings.

    He didn't want to hurt Clara, so he never told her about some of those feelings. About the occasional dreams where Clara wasn't the one in his arms. The flashbacks to the virtual world his mind had once been pulled into, where Julia Andreys had become Julia Carrey as he had fantasized about so often. He felt ashamed of the fact that a part of him would always be in love with Julia, no matter how much Clara deserved every bit of his love. It made him feel unworthy of both.

    Soon he got into the purpose of the message. It was nothing less than a confession, as if she could forgive him for it and grant him absolution. "I've killed in battle, I mean," he said. "I haven't counted how many ships the Koenig has destroyed. I've got no idea how many people have died fighting my ship. But this wasn't that. I left those Batarians to die. To get blown up. Not in a fight, but as an execution. I… I keep thinking I could have saved them. I should have saved them, should have done something… I just don't know what."

    Zack went silent as he thought on that. That he had no alternatives save tipping off the Batarians to the loss of their ship, and risking that whatever plan they had in mind would be put into action. He was tormenting himself over a decision that was a lose/lose situation. As Victus had put it, he did what he had to do. And he would have to live with that.

    He felt a quiet urge. An urge that ashamed him, even as he imagined the fiery sensation of his father's tequila pouring down that throat. He shook his head to get the thought, the desire, out of it.

    "I made the decision," he said quietly. "Now I have to live with it." He stared off into space, and into the corners of his own mind, and dwelled for a moment on his thoughts. "I can live with it," he decided. "It wouldn't be the only bad thing I have to live with." He drew in a breath before shaking his head. "Computer, delete that entire message."

    "Message deleted. Would you like to try again?"

    "No." Zack shook his head. "No, I don't think so." And with no further remarks, he slid into bed, wondering if he would be seeing that ship explode again in his dreams.



    It was one of those nights again.

    It had been weeks since Robert had dealt with the dreams that came to him, offering what he and Meridina believed were possible hints to the future. Now they were back and with a vengeance. He had glimpses of Fassbinder, the SS man thought dead on Gamma Piratus but recently determined to still be alive. The "Aryan ideal" German man's eyes went from deep blue to bright gold and yellow, darkness clinging to him and a sinister smile of triumph crossing his face.

    Then it was the girl in red and gold again, crying out as her amber eyes shined with ethereal energy that sent power rippling over Robert. Nearby Julia was on one knee, stripped down to a sleeveless white undershirt and shorts, her face full of determination.

    They were gone the next moment. Robert looked around at the Presidium of the Citadel, now beset by fires and smoking rubble. People cried out around him as, to his horror, shadowy figures with singular shining eyes impaled them on strange devices.

    The Citadel Council chambers appeared around him. Broken metal forms were scattered before the platform leading to the guest podium. At the podium was a single figure, a Turian, covered in cybernetic enhancements and pieces. Robert had seen this image before. But never had he seemed so familiar.

    "Our only hope to survive is to prove ourselves," the Turian said. "Servitude is preferable to extinction."

    "We can fight them, we can win!" a Human voice urged. Robert briefly thought it was his, as it was a sentiment he felt within, but despite the haze of the dream he realized it was a woman speaking. And it was a familiar voice. "Can't you see? It's taken you over!"

    Robert turned his head to face the direction of the voice. He felt surprise at recognizing the face. Shepard?

    And then he was alone, in the middle of rubble and debris, his side hurting, and above him was a massive metal monstrosity with a glowing red eye staring down at him. It made a noise, as if the Devil was playing a trumpet through a synthesizer.

    Maybe it was that noise that woke him up. Or maybe a part of Robert's mind was tired of the frightening imagery. Either way, he found himself sitting up in his bed. He quickly checked to make sure he hadn't woken up Angel, the instinct firing before his memory reminded him that she wasn't here now.

    After the moment passed he found the dream was coming to mind again. The image of the cybernetic Turian was stuck in his head. He felt like he should recognize the figure. But the image blurred as he awakened, the dream distorted by that very waking.

    When his omnitool display flashed the numbers 0402 at him, Robert sighed and laid back on the bed, turning to his side as he sought to get comfortable enough to sleep again.




    In her life, Tali had slept on far less-comfortable things than the biobed in the infirmary, and her sleep had been quite restful. She woke up to find that only a single nurse was on duty, checking Kon's life signs. Tali did the same and confirmed for the nurse that he was still stable, or that his suit's sensors considered him stable, at least.

    With her grumbling stomach in mind, Tali went to the mess hall and the replicator within. Only a few people were present in the room, mostly Humans wearing different uniforms from the ones she had seen Opani, Barnes, and the other ship personnel wearing. She remained clear of them and went to the replicator. She tapped the controls to see a list of dextro-compatible foods loaded into the system. The choices were as varied as she imagined they would be, and she selected a morning meal within seconds.

    It was one thing to order the food, however, and another to endure it. She'd tasted replicator food before and knew that it never quite managed to taste proper, but this was utterly atrocious. "Forget it," Tali muttered to herself. She knew just what to do.

    Nobody said anything when she returned to the replicator. First she had it reclaim her uneaten meal. But instead of walking away she activated her omnitool and interfaced it with the replicator. This let her run a diagnostic scan on the software and hardware. Seeing the latter made her grumble. She got onto her knees and pulled away the covering for the replicator's internals, revealing the various wires and cords that made up the device's guts. She went to work immediately on it.

    Tali became so intent on her work that she was surprised when a voice said, "Are you sure you should be down there?" She swung her head over and up. Two humans, a woman and a man, were standing nearby. "I'm not sure Barnes will appreciate you messing with the replicator," the man said.

    "I'm just fixing it," Tali answered. "The matter re-constitution system needs to be re-calibrated, it's completely off."

    "Is that why everything's been tasting like crap?" asked the woman. There was something about the redhead with darker-toned bronze skin that Tali thought was interesting. She seemed to stand out compared to other Humans she'd met since arriving on the ship. "Because I've had replicated food before, this is something even worse."

    "That's what I was thinking, so I was adjusting the internal systems and recalibrating the system. I think too many unrefined elements were being added. It would explain the taste."

    "Well, don't let us interrupt you." The man nodded. "Your name was Tali'Zorah, right?"

    Tali nodded. "It is."

    "Commander Carter Kane, Allied Systems Marines." Kane offered his hand. Tali looked for a moment before carefully accepting.

    "Commander Shepard, Systems Alliance."

    Tali accepted Shepard's hand too. "I'm sure you want to eat. I'll be done in a minute."

    As she went back to work, Kane said, "If Barnes finds out you're doing this, he's going to go on the warpath."

    "I offered to help him keep his ship running well. He chose to ignore me. Well, he can, but I'm not eating terrible food because he and his crew can't be bothered to do a little maintenance on the replicators."

    "Oohrah to that," Kane said. "I want my Marines to have edible grub, replicated or not. And they wouldn't let me bring a big store of MREs since we're all cramped in here."

    "I just need to double-check this power line… connection to the computer switch looks good…"

    After a few moments Tali slid away from the replicator. "Now try."

    "Two mugs of coffee, black."

    The requested items appeared in brilliant white light. Kane took one and handed it to Tali, taking one for himself. "Mmm. What do you think?" Kane asked after trying his.

    "I'm almost convinced this is real coffee," Shepard answered. "Nice job," she said to Tali.

    "Thank you. It was a simple repair." She stood up and put the panel back on. "Now I can enjoy my meal too."




    Given how badly the mess hall replicator was acting Zack had opted for eating in his quarters with the replicator unit there. As always replicators didn't quite get the oatmeal and buttered toast right, and the milk tasted bland, but it was at least filling.

    He was done with the toast and mostly done with the oatmeal. He eyed the closet full of uniforms, which he would be pulling on next, and turned his attention back to his report. He'd had a pleasant enough sleep given the events yesterday and time to internalize what had happened. He wondered if he would have been even more bothered had he been forced to look at the Batarians before they died. If he could have seen their fear.

    Zack chose to ignore that for the moment and focus on what he saw on his digital pad. Hajar had been running the night shift and provided meticulous reports. Long range sensors had detected another Batarian ship that was on a different course. Analysis of its course had further refined Magda's calculated point of origin for the transmissions to and from the now-destroyed Batarian raider. Whatever they were looking for was going to be easier to find.

    The question would be raised soon: what would they do when they found it? Attempt an attack, a covert landing of troops? Should he try to torpedo enemy ships still in their dock spaces, should it be that kind of facility (he suspected it was)? He really wanted to get Victus' special forces groups into the place to see if they could get their hands on any further information about the Batarians' plans and goals. But risking his ship unnecessarily was not something he could do.

    As his final bite of oatmeal went into his mouth, a tone sounded on the ship's speakers. "Bridge to Carrey," said the voice of Lieutenant Apley.

    "I'm here, Ap," Zack answered.

    "We've got something on sensors. You're going to want to see this. I think we've found the Batarian base."

    "Be right up."




    Zack arrived on the bridge in time to find his command crew taking their proper positions. He went for his chair. "What do you have for me?"

    "It's definitely a base," Magda answered. She gave her screen a close inspection. "I won't be able to determine how many ships are there until we get closer, but I'd say there are definitely a few ships, maybe as many as ten."

    "Mass sizes?"

    "Mostly raider-size. Maybe one or two cruiser-sized ones. I can't give you more accurate counts until we get within sublight sensor range."

    "How long?"

    "Two hours, twenty minutes," Apley answered.

    "Okay." Zack nodded. "Status of our cloaking device?"

    "Still operating within normal parameters," Magda said.

    "Any sign of a graviton net? Tachyon detection grid?"

    "Nothing. I'd be surprised if they could get something like that, even off the black market."

    "Sometimes, Magda, I don't think anything would surprise me." Zack settled into his seat and, as he often had to, waited until they were in range.




    Barnes ate breakfast in his quarters and double-checked the day's scheduling. Provided there were no alerts - and he expected there would be -- someone would finally be getting to the mess hall replicator by about 1200 to fix it. It was the earliest he could get a repair tech to the job given the niggling little fixes needed from the fire they'd taken the prior day.

    Ensign Ling arrived by the time breakfast was done. The Gamma Shift officer was that shift's Engineering Officer; now Ling would sleep in here due to the need for hotbunking. "Ling," Barnes said. "So, how's the husband?"

    "He's fine. Our daughter starts school in a month." Ling sighed. He was mostly East Asian in appearance, but the darker tone to his complexion and the shape of his cheeks was from an African grandparent "I had hoped to go get some leave time, but in this line of work, with a war?" He chuckled and hid his obvious sadness. "Unless we're sent somewhere near Sirian space, it's not happening."

    "Woh, sorry to hear that," Barnes answered. "The replicator's edible in here by the way. I'm hoping to get the mess hall unit fixed sometime today."

    Ling blinked. "What do you mean by that? It's been fixed. I don't think it's ever been better."

    Barnes had been turning away from Ling. That made him turn back. "What? What do you mean it's fixed, there was no scheduled…" He frowned.

    "Everyone's saying that Quarian survivor we took aboard did it this morning. And I'm telling you, sir, the food's never tasted better. It made my noodles taste more like noodles than liquid polymer, and… sir?" Ling watched as Barnes literally stormed out of his quarters. He might have gone after him to find out what was going on, but with everything going on and knowing that at any time he might be called back to his post, Ling decided to climb into bed instead.




    Tali couldn't be too surprised that word swiftly spread on the small ship of her fixing of the mess hall replicator.

    What she hadn't expected was the number of people coming to her to fix small things.

    "How did you get your omnitool memory so full in the first place?" she asked the Human crewmember sitting in front of her in the mess. Tali looked over the results of the scans she'd had to run on the offending omnitool. "It looks like you were trying to load half of the ship's data into it."

    "Our multidevices used to have two hundred megaquad storage capacity," the girl protested. "This thing locked up at just a quarter of that."

    "An omnitool shouldn't be storing that much data," Tali said. "It's built with wide-frequency range data-streaming capability. Aside from vital programs and applications, everything you load onto it should be remotely accessed from dedicated data servers."

    "Well… I'm still getting used to that," was the sheepish response.

    Tali sighed and shook her head. "Never mind. I remember one of my friends, Mela, he once overloaded his omnitool trying to generate a welding flame. We had to spend a day fixing it. This…" She tapped a few more keys. The screen on the young crewwoman's omnitool unfroze. "...just needs a hard reboot cycle. There, your memory buffer is clear."

    "Thank you. It might have taken all day for me to get it fixed by the tool shop," the girl said, her voice warm with gratitude.

    Tali watched the girl leave and felt content. While she had wanted to help maintain the ship more directly, helping a ship's crew with repairs was at least a decent activity for her. Her father would be far happier than he would with the thought that she was doing nothing of use.

    It looked for the moment like no one else was coming to ask her anything. Tali began to relax.

    She stopped relaxing when the door slid open and Barnes entered. His eyes focused on her with clear frustration and anger in them. "You!" He stomped up. "What the hell were you doing?!"

    "Excuse me?" Tali asked.

    "Oh, don't give me that. I've heard all about the mess hall replicator. You're a guest on this damn ship, you do not open up equipment and start fiddling with it to see how it works!" Barnes slammed his hand on the table. "One thing wrong and you could cause food poisoning, or worse, to anyone who…"

    Tali stood up. She wasn't as tall as Barnes, but she didn't have to incline her head so far to face him directly. "Listen, I've had enough of you thinking I'm that incompetent. I know replicator technology too! Lan'Durah taught almost everyone on the Rayya about them when he brought the technology back from his Pilgrimage."

    "Oh, really. Alright, let's play this game." Barnes activated his omnitool and went over to the replicator. "Let's see… matter stream regulators… within proper limits. Control systems… responding normally." Barnes' voice started to lose its angry energy as, bit by bit, his diagnostic showed green fields for every part of the machine. "...matter re-constitution matrix… calibrated correctly." He started to mumble. "Damn, like it's fresh off the…" He cleared his throat. "Computer, Barnes Order Number 4."

    The replicator obeyed and a cup of hot cocoa with a marshmallow appeared. He took the marshmallow and dropped it into the frothy brown drink. After giving it a moment to melt he sipped the hot fluid. And there was no mistaking the look of shock on his face.

    It tasted… good. Better than normal for a replicator, almost like the real thing. "Last time I tried this it was so hot I almost burnt my tongue off," he mumbled lowly. He took another drink and savored the warm, chocolate flavor on his taste buds, touched with the creamy remains of the marshmellow. Slowly he glanced toward Tali. She had crossed her arms. And he was certain there was a satisfied look under that featureless faceplate of hers.

    "Well." Barnes coughed and set the cocoa down on the replicator. With a tap of the key the system reclaimed the beverage. "Um… crap." He rubbed at his forehead and couldn't help but notice everyone was looking at him. "Yeah, I've got nothing. I'm the asshole here. That's… hell, that's work worthy of my best, of Scotty's best. Recalibrating the matter re-constitution system to that level… it's brilliant. I'd love to…"

    "Quarian!"

    All eyes turned to the entrance to the mess hall. Three Turians entered, Guard Captain Vidinos in the lead. All focused directly on Tali. "Where'd you put it?"

    "Put what?" Tali asked, confused.

    "The auto-spanner that went missing from the toolkit of my squad's gunsmith," Vidinos answered. "Where did you take it, Quarian?"

    "An auto-spanner? Why would I need an auto-spanner, why would I take yours?" Tali stood her ground as Vidinos and the men with him walked up to her. They spread out enough that they were clearly cutting off any avenue of escape. One of the Turians activated their omnitool and began to scan her.

    "It's a new model, just issued by Palaven Command," Vidinos said. "The kind of new technology you Quarians just love to get your hands on. So, I'm going to ask again… where is it?"

    "I don't have it, I wouldn't want it."

    "I'm not reading it, sir," the Turian with the scanner said.

    "Any interference?" Vidinos looked to his man. "It wouldn't surprise me if her suit is shielded to prevent people from finding things. It's how Quarians would operate." As he spoke, Vidinos seemed oblivious, or perhaps simply uncaring, about the looks he was getting from the others in the mess hall. Barnes was staring at him in near disbelief.

    "There's no null spots, sir, nothing to show shielding. She's clean."

    "There, you see?" Tali said, her voice laced with irritation. "I don't know what problem you have with my people, but you can't just accuse me of being a thief…"

    "I've been around enough Quarians to know what you people are like, always looking for new tech to take home, not caring who it belongs to," Vidinos retorted. He nodded to one of his men. "We'll find where you hid it. I'm sure you'll tell us after time in the brig."

    By this point one of the other Turians grabbed Tali by the arm. "Hey!" she cried. "Let go!" A second Turian grabbed her other arm. "You can't do this! I didn't take anything!"

    "Of course you didn't. That's what your kind always say." Vidinos turned around. When he stepped, his men stepped, and they began to pull Tali with them despite her struggling.

    Vidinos only managed three steps before Barnes moved in his way. "Hey, Vidinos, I don't know who the frak you think you are, but you're damn well not a senior officer of this crew, and you don't have authority to put anyone in the brig without our say-so."

    "Stand aside, Lieutenant, I'm the superior officer and you're out of order."

    Barnes got into his face, scowling with fury. "Hey, asshole, I'm a frakking senior officer on this ship. I'm the Goddamned Chief Engineer. I don't have to do jack crap if you say it. Fact is you don't have jack crap for authority on this ship, I do, and I'm frakking tell you to let her go."

    Vidinos may have noticed the gathering personnel, or he may not have. His soldiers certainly did see as the other half dozen Alliance crewmembers and Marines in the room started to move toward Barnes. But all Vidinos did was glare into Barnes' eyes. "I don't know why you care about this suit rat" - and the emphasis made it clear Vidinos intended to fullest meaning in the slur - "but I've got three of the best special forces soldiers that the Turian Hierarchy has to offer, and I'm not letting the Quarian get away with stealing from us. We're taking her into custody, either in your brig or in our barracks. If you've got a problem, take it up with Victus."

    "I'm not letting you take her anywhere."

    "Who's going to stop us? You?"

    "How about me?" another voice declared.

    Shepard stepped up beside Barnes. She directed a glare of her own at Vidinos. "Lieutenant Barnes is right, Vidinos," she said to him. "On this ship, he's got the authority, not me and not you. So do what he says before he has you dragged to the brig."

    Vidinos' mandibles twitched. If his face had the same muscles as a Human's, he would be scowling, and Barnes and Shepard were both certain of that. "I want that auto-spanner found," he said. "It's property of the Turian Hierarchy."

    "I'll have my people look for it when they can," Barnes said. "Now move on, you're causing a disruption."

    "Let the Quarian go, men," Vidinos ordered. His troops obeyed. "I'm sure these Humans will learn the same hard lessons we did about the Quarians, right around the time the Quarian strips their ship bare."

    With that parting remark Vidinos and his men stepped past Shepard and Barnes. They moved on to the exit door.

    Kane stepped in before they could leave. The faint semblance of a smile crossed his face. "Hey, Guard Captain," he said. He brought up his right hand. It was gripping a tool that looked like a ratchet wrench with a small specialized motor assembly embedded in it. "A member of the Koenig crew found this and gave it to me. It looks like someone left some fancy new auto-spanner in the armory over the course of the night. I thought the mark looked Turian, so…" When Vidinos moved his hand toward it Kane held it out and let him take it. "It's not bad either. Not as good as our latest, I mean. Ours has an auto-adjustment setting so we don't have to change the spanner socket out. One size fits all. Maybe your people should look into buying some from us."

    Vidinos turned away to walk past Kane. He stomped out of the mess hall with his men just behind.

    "That guy is an ass," Barnes grumbled.

    "A bigoted one." Kane nodded to him. "It's a good thing one of your people found this. Guys like that can cause a lot of trouble."

    "Did that asshole really think he'd get away with attacking us?" Barnes asked Shepard.

    "Maybe. Sad thing is, Vidinos is a damn good spec forces officer," Shepard said. "It would be a lot easier to hate his guts if he were an incompetent idiot too."

    "Life would be a lot easier if all the assholes were incompetent too."

    "Yeah. If only." Barnes turned to Tali, who was now seated. His face was turning red from shame and embarrassment. "Hey, kid… Tali, right?"

    "Yes," she answered.

    Barnes drew in a breath and walked up to her. He slid onto the bench for the next table, facing her instead of said table. "Your work on the replicator was great. I mean, it showed real ingenuity, a bit of creativity…"

    Tali remained silent. But the way she kept her arms crossed was anything but silent.

    "Aw, hell… I was an idiot, okay?" Barnes said. "A big dumb idiot asshole who assumed and didn't check things out. You still want to work in Engineering while you're here?"

    "I would. I'm a Quarian engineer, and it feels wrong for me to not help maintain a ship I'm staying on."

    "Fair enough." Barnes extended a hand. "Let's get down to Main Engineering. Poniatowski and I will see where we can put you."

    Tali's posture relaxed slightly. "Thank you," she said, in clear relief.




    The quiet on the Koenig bridge ended in the final minutes before their arrival. "I'm getting short-range scans of the system. Passive only." Magda went to work at her Ops station.

    Zack turned in his chair to face her. "What do we have?"

    "It looks like an A1-grade star," Magda said. "Reading four planets and a thin asteroid belt between the first and second. Three of the planets are gas giants, the innermost planet looks like it's a D-grade barren world, no atmosphere." After another few seconds Magda's attention clearly focused on one of her screens. "I'm detecting a faint power signature near one of the moons around the third planet."

    "Just one signature?" Zack asked.

    "With passive-only sensors, I wouldn't necessarily pick up ships in standby mode," Magda said. "Until we get closer I can't tell you anything more."

    "How much closer?"

    "Sublight range."

    Zack thought on that. The Koenig's Darglan-designed cloaking device was just as good as something the Romulans could field, if not better, but there were still plenty of ways to give themselves away depending on what the Batarians might have with them. "What's the fourth gas giant like?"

    "It's an ice giant-type. Methane, ammonia, water, and sulfur are the primary components of the atmosphere, various other elements. The magnetic field is on the higher end for ice giants, though, approaching small Saturn-type gas giant level. I think there might be a higher quantity of ferrous minerals in the convecting parts of the giant, but we'd need better sensors, or a probe, to confirm."

    "Not really what we're here for." Zack thought of that. "Could we use the fourth planet to hide ourselves more effectively?"

    "Let me examine the four moons first. Their orbital pattern and magnetic fields are…" Magda let the sentence hang. "Wow. It looks like one of the moons is actually conducting its own small mass effect field. I'm guessing a high concentration of eezo being subjected to electrical activity from other minerals. Maybe even a naqia deposit… yes." Magda looked to Zack and nodded. "I'll relay the coordinates to Apley, but if we stay in that section we should be hidden from any scans they can throw at us."

    "And our scans?"

    "Well, active scans might still get picked up." Magda went to work. "But maybe… I might be able to make a few light scans and make them look like routine electromagnetic activity from the fourth planet's system."

    "If you can."

    Things went quiet again until the thrum of the warp drive disengaging filled the ship. Apley's hands moved over the sublight controls. "We've dropped out of warp at the north pole of the ice giant. I'm moving us to the point that Lieutenant Navaez specified."

    "Sensors are showing an artificial structure in orbit over the third planet's outermost moon," Magda said.

    "On screen."

    The holo-viewscreen activated and showed the image of a squat structure with a crater-studded moon framing the bottom of the image. The white light of the system's star was currently coming from the side of the image, illuminating half of the gray and brown-hulled station in pale sunlight. Several arms were erected from the middle of the central structure downward, making Zack think of a jellyfish crossed with an umbrella. Ships were visibly attached to most of these arms, but the central arm continued all the way down to the moon. "Is that a tether to keep them attached to the moon?"

    "I'm getting heat sources from that central shaft," replied Magda. "It's a lift system. Actually, I'm starting to wonder if the base is actually on the moon. Even if it isn't, I'm betting they're mining the moon as well."

    "Could pirates build something like this?" asked Sherlily. "I mean, it's easy to build a station, relatively speaking. But tethering one to a moon? Where do you get the resources for this?"

    "It's not hard to guess," Zack murmured. "But proving it is another matter." Zack looked over the image. "You know, this place looks like it could have a lot more ships."

    "Maybe they're protecting other assets in the area?"

    "Maybe." Zack thought of that. "Or maybe there's more to this than we think. I mean, you don't build a base this big unless you've got enough ships to make it worthwhile. There's what, five there?"

    "Four. And what looks like a partially-completed ship on one of the berths." Magda shook her head. "In fact, it looks like some of those docks might be construction docks. This might actually be a shipyard."

    "If they're getting a lot of technology from other universes, that makes sense," Zack noted. "It gives them somewhere to build new ships using that technology." His eyes remained focused on the base. "Can we get life sign scans from here?"

    "Not enough to say what's in there, just that there are living things aboard," Magda said. "We'll need to get closer, or use active sensors, to get more information."

    "Not right now." Zack shook his head. "I don't want to give away our presence. Continue what scans you get, I want every bit of knowledge we can find about this place without giving ourselves away." Zack tapped his comm control on his chair. "Bridge to General Victus."

    Only a moment passed before the Turian general replied, "Victus here."

    "General, we've found something, a space facility of some sort. We're taking scans now, and we should have something for you and the other commanders in an hour or so."

    "Very well. I'll have the team commanders in your conference room in ninety minutes. Victus out."

    "Ninety minutes, Magda," Zack said. "No pressure, right?"

    "No, sir," she breathed, ignoring the fact that there was, indeed, pressure. "No pressure…"
     
  2. Threadmarks: 2-12-4
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    The second day of the diplomatic meeting was going about the same as the first.

    "Had you contacted the governments of this region before settling, you would have known not to colonize on those worlds," Tahrad stated evenly. His remark was a response to Onaran's protest at the extent of Batarian claims, which made up over half of the Alliance's settled zone in M4P2. "The Batarian Hegemony will not surrender its claims because of your haste."

    "Your claims are hardly reasonable," Onaran responded, maintaining his own even tone. Robert could feel that he wasn't feeling "even", however, but was increasingly frustrated by the intransigence of the Batarians.

    Nor was that the only source of frustration.

    "Whatever the reasonableness of the Batarian claims, the point is a fair one," stated Benezia. "The Alliance made no effort to establish diplomatic contact with local civilizations before you began to settle. I have to agree with Minister am Rimhar on that matter."

    "There were scant signs of any interstellar civilizations in this region of space at the time," Onaran said. "Nor were there any indications of territorial claims. Even the Citadel Council does not recognize these Batarian claims, Madame Matriarch. And it is unfair to hold our lack of information on the Citadel Council's existence against us."

    A new voice entered the conversation, and from an unexpected source. "While you are not Human, Secretary Onaran, I cannot help but hear Human whining in your words," stated Benezia's Turian bodyguard. "Those are the same words Humanity used to excuse their reckless activation of a mass relay in complete defiance to Citadel law and common sense."

    Onaran eyed the Turian. Robert looked his way and felt the voice jolt his memory. "I am sorry, Matriarch Benezia, but I am unfamiliar with your associate. Is he with the Council?"

    Benezia gave the Turian a brief, irritated look before nodding. "He is under Council authority, yes, but I do agree his words were unnecessary and uncalled for. I apologize."

    The Turian showed no response to that.

    Robert held up a hand and got a nod from Benezia. He looked to am Rimhar and asked, in a careful a tone as he could, "Minister, are you seriously suggesting that we should just pack up and evacuate over half of our colonies in this universe because the Batarian Hegemony might, in some unknown future, actually take physical control of those worlds?"

    "That would be the appropriate course for you to take, yes," the Batarian minister answered. "And it would have the added benefit of reducing your exposure to the criminal elements that have led to so many regrettable exchanges between our governments."

    The gall of am Rimhar was shocking, but put delicately enough to, as always, give him room to evade the accusation of a threat.

    Robert eyed Onaran, sensing he had a point to make. "A curious observation, Minister, as criminal organizations so rarely conform themselves to such things. It is just as likely they would take up bases in our abandoned territory to renew their attacks upon us. Especially if they sense weakness."

    "I find it unlikely. Such criminals are far more likely to turn their attentions to more attractive targets."

    Like the Systems Alliance's colonies in the Verge, Robert thought.

    "Interesting how familiar you are with these organizations' behavior," Onaran observed.

    Tahrad suddenly jumped to his feet. "Are you accusing me of collusion with criminals, Mister Secretary?!"

    The ferocity of the words were not matched by the emotions Robert sensed in the Batarian. He briefly eyed Onaran, and it was clear the Dorei knew he was being toyed with. "Of course not, Minister," Onaran said. "I would never make such a dreadful accusation. I feel we are beginning to make progress in these talks and would never jeopardize this. I am merely curious as to your familiarity with their actions and was hoping you might share more insights with us."

    Two of Tahrad's eyes narrowed. He sat back down wordlessly and glanced toward Benezia.

    "While it is clear that your positions are not compatible," she said, "I believe that we are making some strides toward resolving our differences. A question of compensations for settling your rival territorial claims may provide us a break from this impasse…"

    As Benezia began to lay out her thoughts on compensation for withdrawing from worlds or claims, Robert settled his eyes on her Turian companion. He could feel the impatience and the raw dislike in the man. But there was something more to him.

    Robert lowered his arms below the rim of the table. He activated his omnitool on a low-light mode and began typing out a request to the bridge.

    I wonder how Zack's mission is going? Robert thought to himself as he did so.




    The special forces commanders were at the table with Zack and Victus. An additional pair of seats had been brought in for Barnes, Magda, and Sherlily. Magda was using her omnitool to remotely control the holo-projector built into the conference room table. A three-dimensional, accurately-colored model of the Batarian pirate base hovered in the air over them, spilling gray and brown light over the assembled. "Our scans have confirmed the following," she began. A tap to her omnitool highlighted the central shaft linking the base to the moon. "This is the central tether attaching the facility in question to what appears to be a mining facility below the surface of the mine. Passive scans only tell me so much about this underground facility, unfortunately. And active scans could give us away, even through a cloak."

    "You mean they can see this vessel through its cloak if you engage active sensors?" Lidiks asked.

    "Not necessarily. It's like if someone in a foggy room of mirrors shines a light at you. You may not be completely sure where the source is, but you know someone's out there shining lights."

    "And we'd lose the advantage of surprise." Shepard nodded. "Okay, so we go in without knowing everything. That's nothing new. What can you tell us about the orbital base?"

    "Passive scans tell us quite a bit more about it," Magda said. With a tap of her omnitool she zoomed in on it. "They're definitely powered by fusion cores. The docking arms include machinery for starship construction and repair, but nothing above a certain dimension and mass. I suspect anything more powerful than a destroyer-sized ship can only be resupplied or patched up here, not built."

    "So they probably have a bigger repair yard somewhere," Zack said.

    "Most likely in Batarian space," Lidiks stated. "Whatever their links may be to the Batarian government, the Hegemony would never allow such organizations to field cruiser-grade warships independently."

    "Analysis of the gravitational profile of the base, and the heat patterns within, indicate there are some living areas toward the outer decks of the facility. Quite a few, actually." Magda zoomed in toward the upper decks. "The heat profiles indicate that the center of the orbital facility forms the receiving area for whatever comes up from the moon, with persistent heat profiles here." An area toward the middle of the structure, just off of the center to the left of the image. "Given the intensity of the thermal profile I'd guess this is a command chamber of some sort." Another key tap brought up more areas. "And these are the locations of the fusion cores."

    "Those would be our ideal targets," Vidinos said. "Could your ship hit them in a firing pass?"

    "Those look deep enough that I can't guarantee we'd get them in one pass," Zack said. He looked to Barnes. "Tom?"

    "I'd have to know the material composition to tell you for sure." Barnes looked over the sensor records. "I mean, the mass readings imply the presence, or really lack of presence, of some materials. But I'd need a sample. And since we can't get one, all I can say is that I wouldn't bet on it."

    "What about transporting in explosives?" Kane asked. "Could we cripple enough of their power sources to knock out their base's operations?"

    "We can take out maybe half of them in a single beaming," Barnes said. "I mean, assuming one bomb per reactor core. And if their safety precautions are crap, we might even cause a meltdown that takes out the whole place. But they've got enough redundancy that I don't think that's enough to cripple them. And if they can raise shields… that means no assault teams beaming over."

    "Given they have to protect the docking arms, could their shield perimeter be out far enough for us to decloak within the shields?" Zack asked, looking at Barnes. "I mean, if we can get that close without being detected."

    Barnes and Magda exchanged glances and, after a moment, nods. "Yes," Magda said. "That is possible."

    "Of course, they've got turreted weapon emplacements," Barnes said, pointing to said weapons on the hull. "And our shields will be down."

    "What kind of weapons are they?"

    "Looks like mass effect cannons," Barnes said. "But frankly, the only thing I can tell you is that they don't have phaser emitters set into the hull. They could be particle cannons for all I know, or plasma cannons. Lasers, disruptors, mass drivers. Any number of weapons I wouldn't want us to get hit with."

    "So we get one or two transports, and one salvo, before we have to raise shields," Zack noted. He continued looking at the structure. "April, how much could we take out with one opening salvo?"

    She looked over it. "Depending on our attack vector… Well, a double salvo of two torpedoes each, that's four emplacements. And if we line up the main battery…" She ran her hand over the holo-image. "I could probably get seven of these emplacements with my best shot."

    "Unfortunately, there appears to be at least fourteen on each facing of the station." Shepard shook her head. "So you'll need time to take out the others. And possibly those ships in the docks. We're looking at beaming over just one team in the first wave."

    "Then we should send our best." Vidinos looked to Victus. "My people will go."

    "How much training do you have in assault beaming, Vidinos?" Kane asked. "That's one of our specialties."

    "There's nothing you can do that we can't," Vidinos said in reply.

    Victus remained silent and refused to intervene in the squabble. He directed his eyes to Zack. "Commander Carrey, your ship will be at risk for this operation. What would you prefer doing?"

    Zack considered his reply carefully. He looked over the structure carefully, focusing his attention on the weapon emplacements and the enemy ships that would undoubtedly be looking to blast them to pieces once the fight started. This, plus the confined space they would be operating in if they remained inside the base's shield perimeter, would make the attack tricky. It would require every bit of his ships' maneuverability to make this work.

    "We need to give the assault team our best," he said to Victus. "So I suggest a joint team." Zack gestured to the assembled commanders. "We send these five together, with one of their people to round the team out."

    "And who will be in command?" Vidinos asked, in the kind of tone that made it clear he wanted that role.

    "I'll leave that up to the General to decide," Zack answered.

    "I'll consider that, and who will accompany you." Victus turned his head from Vidinos to Zack. "So you transport over a strike team while launching an opening salvo. What would you do afterward?"

    Zack was already looking at Sherlily and the display, imagining his ship's approach vector and where they could go after the opening attack. "We start trying to pick their ships off, and take out their remaining weapon emplacements. We'll be putting everything we have into engines and weapons and hope our proximity allows us to move more quickly than their firing emplacements can track. Meanwhile our strike team will get their shields down and we beam over more troops, if needed." Zack turned his head toward Victus. "Although a lot depends on what you want to accomplish, General. If we send more teams, we might be able to blow the place up, but it means we'll take longer getting out of here. A smash-and-grab aiming at taking the contents of their computers could work better."

    "Intelligence is something I wish to acquire, yes," Victus said. "But if we can remove this facility, I want to make that our objective."

    "Well, let's see what happens when the mission starts. There's too much we don't know about this place to make plans beyond the opening of our attack."

    Victus nodded at that. "I concur. Everyone, get your teams ready for deployment in case we need them. As soon as Commander Carrey reports his ship's readiness to move in, get to the transporters."

    "Yes sir," Vidinos said.

    "Yes, General," Shepard added.

    Zack looked back to the holographic image of the pirate station and frowned. "Where are all of their ships?" he wondered to himself while Victus and the troop commanders filed out of the room The last thing we need is for them to come home right after we start this. "Is there anything on long range sensors, Magda?"

    "Nothing the last time I checked," she answered.

    "I know we'll be busy, but try to keep an eye out all the same. I don't want to get taken by surprise." Zack stood. "Okay everyone, let's get to our stations. We'll give Victus and his teams some time to get ready and then we're going in."

    Everyone present nodded in agreement.




    Barnes stepped into Main Engineering and found all of his Engineering staff waiting for him, with Tali standing among them. "Alright people, we've got maybe ten minutes before we're going into combat. I want everyone on standby for combat stations. Kellerman, you're going to be on damage control."

    "Sir?" The Ensign, an Anglo-American from Universe L2M1, gave Barnes a confused look. "Are you sure? Who's going to be monitoring the coolant systems?"

    "Our volunteer, Tali'Zorah," Barnes answered, looking at her. Seeing the surprise in some of the others, he added, "Anyone who's eaten in the mess today knows what's she got in this line of work, and I'm betting coolant lines on Quarian ships aren't any different than on ours."

    "We don't use plasma, but that seems to be the only difference," Tali revealed.

    "I'll be doing my usual thing here with Lieutenant Poniatowski. Any questions?" When nobody said anything he nodded. "Everyone take your places then. Things should start happening soon."

    The assembled engineering staff dispersed to head toward their battle stations. Tali took up her place at the coolant monitoring station. "All lines are functioning. No faults showing. We're ready." She looked to Barnes as he looked toward her from his station by Main Engineering's Master Systems Display. "Lieutenant Barnes?"

    "Yes?"

    "Thank you again." There was gratitude through her partly-synthesized voice. "It feels good that I'll get to help you deal with the people who hurt my friend."

    Barnes nodded. "You're welcome."




    It was all quiet on the bridge of the Koenig when Zack confirmed that the teams were ready. "If we can, I'd like to get their second wave aboard," he said to everyone. "Six people aren't going to be enough."

    "I'll see if I can buy you the extra time," Apley said.

    "I'll give it my best." Sherlily nodded at tactical. "Phasers and torpedoes ready. I'll fire as soon as the cloak goes down."

    "On my mark then. Ap, take us in."

    "Aye sir."

    Still hidden behind her cloaking field, the Koenig moved out from her hiding place at full impulse. Zack waited patiently as the minutes ticked away while the ship crossed the millions of kilometers between the two ice giants and their moons. It felt almost like forever while the seconds crawled past.

    Gradually the Batarian pirate base grew larger on their screen, looming with an unmistakable malice. It seemed silly to think that his small ship could trouble such a place. But Zack knew they could, that they would.

    As the station filled the screen, Magda gave him the signal he had been expecting. "We're within the likely shield perimeter."

    "Steady…" Zack ignored the sweat that he felt forming on his forehead. "Mark!"

    Everyone acted in sequence. Magda deactivated the cloaking device. Within milliseconds power surged into the torpedo launcher mechanisms, sending out a full spread of solar torpedoes. The drive fields of the projectiles gave them a white-blue glow that shined over the hull of the station before they crashed into the weapon emplacements they'd been lobbed at, destroying them in bursts of energy and light.

    "Transporter Station is beaming our team over," Magda reported.




    Even as Magda spoke, Shepard and the others materialized in a corridor on the station. By common agreement Nisia, the Asari, was in charge, and she had brought along one of her compatriots to fill out the first team. "We've arrived on target," she said, checking her omnitool. "Move out!"

    The six started moving. Ten seconds after they did, another six figures appeared from bright columns of light. Led by Lidiks' subordinate Captain Letos, and including Shepard's subordinate Alenko, they followed the first team.

    Kane and Shepard were on point with Nisia and Vidinos behind them. Even as they moved on, both were waiting to hear for the arrival of the third group.

    It didn't come.




    The opening run went off as planned. Mostly.

    The torpedo barrage was followed up another second later by phasers, firing as soon as the energy surged into the capacitors for the emitters. The powerful amber pulses blasted apart more of the weapon emplacements. As Apley turned to maintain his maneuver, the aft torpedo launchers fired and took out another pair of emplacements.

    "Second wave is beaming," Magda said.

    Zack nodded. Space around started to light up in energy, green bolts that were barely missing his ship. Apley kept any of the shots from hitting.

    "Second wave over. Preparing third…"

    Before Magda could say anything else, one of the green bolts crashed into the Koenig's hull, causing the entire ship to shudder. "Direct hit on dorsal hull," Magda confirmed. "Raising shields." Moments later very slight rumbles shook the deck. "Shields holding at ninety-seven percent."

    "Damage report."

    "Armor damage only… wait. I'm getting a fault signal from the cloaking device, it looks like a cloaking emitter cell took a partial hit. Our cloaking device won't work."

    "So we're committed."

    "Victus to bridge. Can we send the third team?"

    Before Zack could reply, the ship shook slightly again. "Shields still holding."

    "I'm trying to evade the fire and give Tactical openings, sir, but those turrets are tracking really fast. I can't get out of their lines of fire."

    "That's a negative, General. Not unless our teams disable their defensive systems." Zack turned his attention elsewhere. "Apley, April, forget the turrets. Time for those ships, before they finish launching."

    "Roger."

    "Magda, what are we being hit with?"

    "Plasma fire," Magda confirmed. "Consistent with Coserian technology."

    "Coserians." Zack had heard of them; a former big bad empire that used to dominate parts of what was now Gersallian and Dorei space.

    As the thought came to him the Koenig aligned with one of the docking arms. Phasers lashed out at the Batarian pirate vessel still tethered to it. Evidently the ship hadn't been close to ready for action, and hadn't raised shields; Sherlily's aim and fire pattern demolished the ship in two barrages. As they swept past two shots from the dorsal phaser array took out the ship's power core, detonating it. The ship was consumed in the energy of a matter/anti-matter reaction.

    The next ship they targeted fared little better, being turned into a husk in space by the phaser blasts and a torpedo that gutted it. They turned and faced the third ship. When Sherlily directed their main batteries' fire over it, the amber bursts were stopped by crackles of yellow light that formed over it. She pumped more fire into the ship as they sped by, but it remained shielded and intact. More importantly, it pulled away from the dock it had been tied to.

    The Koenig jolted once more, this time from yellow spears of light coming from the fourth ship, now free and moving to pursue. "We got half of them," Zack said. "Let's see what we can do about these two. Ap, Attack Plan Hotel?"

    "Sounds good to me, sir," Apley said. And with that, he sent the Koenig into a dizzying array of spins and turns to avoid the mass of incoming fire.




    The Batarians had some warning of what was hitting them. But the warning hadn't come quickly enough for them to protect their command center from the spec-forces team.

    Shepard and Kane went in first. He started with a powerful spread of flash-bang grenades from his rifle's underslung launcher. His helmet's optics protected his eyes from the bursts of light that caused cries of surprise and anguish from the beings in the command center.

    This opened them up for Shepard's assault. Biotic energy gathered around her and, in an instant, she was propelling forward like she had been shot from a cannon. She slammed into the Batarian in the central "pit" of the control room, sending him flying. With a quick turn Shepard brought her shotgun to bear. There was a thunder in the room in the moment before the mass effect-propelled flechettes from her Katana-model shotgun tore through the torso of a second Batarian.

    Kane opened fire on the other corner, taking out one target and sending the others to cover. At the corner of his eye he saw movement looked toward what, he quickly realized, was not a Batarian.

    "Secure the chamber!" Nisia shouted, moving in with one of Vidinos' men. The Asari-make assault rifle in her hands fired toward the other far corner.

    "Down!" Kane shouted, ducking behind a control station, as the non-Batarian figure he recognized brought an arm up. A quick whir filled the air as a cannon emplacement appeared on the being's arm, the barrel formed from the palm of a cybernetic hand. A bolt of green energy nearly hit Shepard, spared by her instinctive reaction to Kane's warning.

    Nisia turned her attention to the attacker. He - or she - was from a species she'd never seen before, a gray-skinned humanoid with three eyes on their head arranged like points on an inverted triangle, a ridge of bone between each eye that connected to a skull covered in black and dark gray metal. The upper right eye was rimmed by a cybernetic implant. The suit, in contrast to the browns and reds the Batarians favored, was rust-colored leather of some form that stretched over a wide body, wider than normal for most bipedal or humanoid species.

    An amused smirk came to the face of the cyborg when Nisia opened fire. Emerald energy crackled and slivers of metal clanked harmlessly against the ground.

    Nisia and the Turian had to leap for cover when another emerald bolt came from the cyborg's arm. It smashed into the bulkhead behind them and exploded.

    "What the hell is that thing, Kane?!" Shepard asked from her cover.

    "I think it's a Jeaxian, but I've never seen one before!"

    "What the hell is a…"

    Shepard couldn't finish the sentence in time. The cyborg blasted the station she was hiding behind. An explosion of metal and ceramics created a storm of shrapnel and left the station demolished. Kane looked to see Shepard blown to the ground, either hurt or stunned and unable to move for the moment.

    The energy shield the cyborg had was strong. He couldn't be sure how strong since there was no telling how much power it could generate. Kane opted for a more raw force approach. With a quick key press he swapped his grenade launcher attachment from flash-bangs to charge grenades. Ineffectual fire from Nisia and the growing number of allies in the room was causing the Jeaxian cyborg's energy shield to remain constantly visible. He - Kane was mostly certain the Jeaxian was male - was directing a blast toward Lidiks and a second Turian. Alenko was remaining in cover at the door where Vidinos was now stepping through.

    "Fire in the hole!" Kane opened up with the grenade launcher, firing his entire available clip in five seconds. There was a roar in the air from the micro-rockets that kept the grenades on course, with some acceleration toward their target.

    One by one the charge grenades struck. They lived up to their name, directing the energy release from their shaped charge payloads into jets of plasma that directed their full fury into one small cone of effect. The blasts knocked the Jeaxian back, one by one, while the green shield flickered. The last blast caused the green energy to crackle weakly and seem to short out. A lance of plasma drilled into the side of the Jeaxian. He screamed, but he didn't go down.

    Kane was so busy shooting the grenades he didn't see Shepard get back up. There was a burst of air and energy when she slammed into the cyborg with a biotic charge. Its shield had been depleted momentarily by the grenade barrage by Kane, allowing Shepard's attack to connect and send the cyborg flying into the far bulkhead wall. After a moment it started to stand.

    "Sustained fire!" Nisia shouted, and everyone heeded her. Shepard's shotgun barked again, Kane's rifle opened up, and a host of other weapons did so as well. The Jeaxian screeched as energy and metal began to rip through unshielded flesh and metal. Kane's fire ended with the depletion of his charge clip. As he went to change it, other guns quieted as they overheated.

    When the firing was over the Jeaxian was slumped against the wall, his body reduced to a pile of blood and torn flesh with sparking cybernetics still active where it hadn't been broken.

    Kane brought his rifle up. "Okay, the chamber is…"

    The Jeaxian's arm came up and aimed right at him. Green energy formed around the barrel as it prepared to fire…

    A single gunshot blew what was left of the Jeaxian's head off. The arm flopped lifelessly before blowing up from the gathered energy.

    All heads turned to where Guard Captain Vidinos had entered the room. His Phaeton rifle was still raised up to where its scope was parallel to his right eye. He lowered it as if nothing of importance had happened. "It looks like the chamber is clear," he said to the assembled.

    Nisia nodded. She looked to Alenko and one of her Asari, the one who had joined them in the first wave. "Gain access to the station's systems and see what you can do about disabling their defenses. And I want all intelligence data you can glean from their databanks. Everything about their operations, their plans, and their assets. I want to know how many people are here."

    "And if there are any more like that thing, I'd hope," Shepard remarked, looking to the messy remains of the Jeaxian cyborg. While the others went to work she looked at Kane. "Which species was it, anyway?"

    "A Jeaxian, I think," Kane replied. "They're a species from the N2S7 universe, that is, the home universe of the Dorei and the Gersallians. From what I know about them, they're a former client species of the Coserian Empire that once tried to conquer the Dorei. They're mostly clan or tribe based and tend to cause trouble in the Unaligned Worlds, raiding and slaving and pirating."

    "I guess we know where the Batarians are getting their technology," Shepard remarked.

    "Commander." Alenko looked up from the station he was analyzing with his omnitool. "I'm tapping into their communications now. You're not going to like this."

    "What?" Nisia asked.

    "They got a distress call out," he said. "Some message, I can't tell who it was sent to. The translator reads it as 'Begin now'."

    "Well," Shepard sighed, "isn't that ominous?"

    "Inform General Victus, and continue finding what you can."




    When Zack was informed by Victus of what the others had found so far, his only answer was "We'll send a warning out", after which he turned to Magda. Before he could speak the ship shook again. "Magda? Send a priority transmission on all Alliance and Citadel space channels, warn them of an imminent pirate attack of unknown scope against unknown targets."

    "I'm trying," she said. "But we're being jammed."

    "Send by IU radio then," he insisted. As he did so the ship shook again, and Zack's attention went back to the tactical plot holo beside him, showing him the two enemy ships that were continuing to pursue his ship while the Koenig tried to evade the remaining weapons on the Batarian station.

    "Shields at fifty-four percent." After a moment Magda spoke again, and this time with a positive report. "IU radio signal sent."

    WIth that done, Zack could return his attention to keeping his ship intact.




    Robert's first inkling that something was up came when he noticed one of Tahrad's aides look toward his omnitool. The Batarian minister didn't pay his man heed at the moment, busy as he was griping about the Alliance's colonization of a garden world in one section of the Verge. "The planet Sahvad has been legally claimed by the Hegemony for the last hundred years," he insisted.

    "Again, Minister, it seems that our definition of valid claims remains incompatible with your own."

    "I will remind the minister that the CItadel Council rejected the wild extent of Batarian claims in the Verge decades ago," added Benezia.

    "Of course you did," Tahrad said. "The lack of respect for my people among the Citadel has long been chronicled. It is why we no longer accept the Council's decisions in the Hegemony."

    The aide finally seemed to get Tahrad's attention a moment later. As Tahrad conferred with him, examining what looked like a message, Onaram gave vent to only a little frustration with his reply. "The Allied Systems agreed to these talks as a gesture of good faith, Minister, and under the impression that the Batarian Hegemony was ready to consider reasonable solutions. But so far your entire position has remained inflexible and dogmatic. You demand the Alliance withdraw from over half of the systems it has colonized in this universe on the grounds of territorial claims with no reasonable justification beyond your government's declarations."

    Robert felt a surge of anger fill Tahrad. Anger, frustration, a sense that things had developed as they had to mock him. He stood from his seat and looked to Benezia. "Matriarch Benezia, an urgent message from Khar'shan demands my attention. I request a recess so that I can return to my ship."

    Benezia looked to Onaram. "Does the Alliance have any objections?"

    Onaram had surprise on his face at the request. Tahrad had never asked for any recess from the conference so far. "No objections, Matriarch," Onaram said. "I believe a recess will be of great benefit."

    "Then we shall recess until this evening." Benezia stood and nodded to them before stepping away from her table.

    The Batarians couldn't get away fast enough, from what Robert saw. Within seconds they were on their way to the door, and then out. "I wonder what has happened," Onaram said softly. "I can read the agitation in their body language."

    "I can sense it too. That message has Tahrad spooked. He's angry, and he's surprised." With a bad feeling growing inside, Robert keyed his omnitool. "Dale to Bridge. Can you tell me anything about a signal that just came to the Batarians a few minutes ago?"

    There was a short delay before Jarod's reply came. "It was heavily encrypted and came over extranet communication protocols. I can't tell you where it came from or what was in it, not right now anyway." Before Robert could respond, Jarod continued. "We just picked up a message over IU radio bands. It's from the Koenig."

    "Really? What's in it?"

    "Commander Carrey has issued a general warning to all Citadel, Systems Alliance, and UAS defense commands of an imminent attack by Batarian pirates against an unknown target, with unknown 'but likely strong' forces."

    That got Onaram's attention. And it certainly had Robert's. "How would he know that? Is this about that ship he stopped?"

    "I can't tell you that."

    Robert considered the situation. "They could be planning an attack anywhere. Against us, against the Systems Alliance… Jarod, get a hold of Commander Andreys. I want everything on standby for combat, as quickly and quietly as you can manage it."

    "Will do."

    Onaram's expression was grave. "Captain, you're not saying they intend to attack here, are you?"

    "I've got no idea what's going on," Robert admitted. "But I'm not taking any chances."




    Gunfire in the corridor on the left side of the command station was the first indication of the impending Batarian counterattack. Nisia nodded to Vidinos. "Take charge of a fire team and hold them off as long as you can." She looked next to Kane. "And I want another fire team holding the other exit."

    "Yes ma'am," Kane answered. He looked to the one Alliance Marine that had come over on the second wave, Popodoulos, and to Shepard. "Popodoulos, you're with me. Commander, do you mind joining me?"

    "Don't mind it at all. Jenkins, you're up."

    The other Systems Alliance trooper with them, an enthusiastic young SA Marine, jumped to it immediately. "Yes ma'am!" He ran up to join them at the exit door.

    "I don't have anyone on sensors coming this way yet," Popodoulos said to Kane. He kept his assault rifle at the ready, much to Kane's approval.

    "They'll come soon enough." Kane was remaining at the door for the moment. He looked back into the command chamber, where Nisia and Lidiks were overseeing the efforts to hack into the local system. "Any luck getting into their defensive systems?"

    "I've almost got it," Alenko insisted.

    "I'm more concerned about what else is on this station." Nisia looked at Lidiks. The STG regiment commander was operating another of the stations with his omnitool. "What have you found in their databases, Major?"

    "Correspondence with several known criminal organizations in the known Multiverse," Lidiks answered. "The Batarians have opened black market trading ties with the Orion Syndicate, who appear to be brokering their contacts with other organizations."

    "Make sure to get copies of all data, the Council will want to see it."

    "Of course."




    The Koenig's Main Engineering section was active as it would always be in a combat situation. Lieutenant Poniatowski was monitoring the reactors, Tali was still at the coolant controls, and Barnes was looking over everything. "Lang, I'm showing shock damage to the starboard impulsor," he was saying. "Your team is the closest."

    "Jawohl, Lieutenant," came the engineering mate's reply.

    Barnes re-directed his attention immediately to other issues. "Ana, I'm redirecting plasma flow to keep the phasers' power up."

    "Adjusting reactor rates."

    The ship shuddered under them again. Tali noticed a notification pop up on the station she was at. "I have stress damage showing on the starboard impulsor coolant line."

    Barnes looked over his team assignments. After he did he tapped a key. "Kreek, you and Ortiz need to get over to the starboard impulsor housing, reinforce the coolant line."

    "Confirmed", Kreek said.

    Barnes tapped a key at his station. "Engineering to Bridge. Whatever the frak is going on, I hope you're going to deal with it soon. I've got my entire damned staff tied up on repairs now."




    Zack overheard Barnes' complaint. He was simply too busy to reply to it. His thoughts were entirely focused on the tight maneuvers that were keeping the Koenig intact from the enemies facing them.

    Sherlily's accurate fire had taken out several more turrets on the Batarian station's hull. But it was proving difficult for her to get a good shot at the two ships chasing them around. Apley had to keep the ship moving to avoid the volume of fire coming their way, keeping her from directing the full fury of the Koenig's weapons on her target. The latest attempt proved clearly futile, as only part of a burst played over yellow-hued shields before Apley had to bank hard to avoid a pair of plasma bolts coming their way. "I can't get a solid lock," she protested.

    "I'm doing what I can," was Apley's response.

    The ship shook again. "Shields now at forty-two percent." Magda looked up from her station. "We're going to start suffering shield cohesion loss soon."

    Zack heard her, but gave no response. His eyes remained on the icons showing their attackers, chasing them around the frame of the enemy station. His eyes narrowed as he saw one ship pull into another direction. "They're trying to get us into a crossfire."

    "I'll do what I can to keep us out of it."

    Zack began to nod but stopped. He imagined the maneuvers in his mind, what the Batarians were trying to do, what they were clearly capable of. A mental image appeared in his mind, one that proved the key to the outcome he desired. "Ap, break to starboard, raise the bow twenty degrees," he ordered.

    "Aye sir."

    They performed the maneuver. It brought the Koenig right up along the lift structure connecting the base to the moon below. As Zack expected, the ship trailing them remained on them while the other ship was moving to catch them in a direct crossfire. His angle, toward the enemy base, gave the Koenig the appearance of being interested in going after more of the turrets.

    Just as he wanted them to think. The enemy ships moved into position to catch the Koenig in what would be a nasty three way crossfire.

    "Sir, they're moving to…"

    "I know, Ap. Steady on course… Initiate Attack Plan Oscar on my mark."

    "Yes sir."

    The Koenig kept her course up, weaving and spinning to avoid incoming fire, while the enemy ships moved to box her in between them and the station. The trap was nearly perfect.

    It would have been perfect if Zack hadn't wanted them to make it.

    "Mark!"

    At his call, Apley threw the Koenig into a sharp maneuver few vessels had the power and maneuverability to pull off. She dipped back "down" relative to the base, impulsor drives pushing to the limit to shift her position relative to the two enemy ships.

    The enemy ships were already firing when Zack gave the order. The Koenig's rapid maneuver thus had the benefit of getting them out of block of space the Batarian fire was moving into. Energy beams and missiles moved on…

    ...and toward their opposite ship in the prepared trap.

    The two ships couldn't destroy each other in these barrages, of course, and they sought to evade the fire in the second they realized what happened.

    That bought Apley and Sherlily the moments they needed. Apley lined up the Koenig on the ship that had been in front of them and Sherlily opened up with the Koenig's phaser cannons, joined by a full spread of torpedoes. The pulses of amber energy battered their way through the shields and began to send plumes of flame from the Batarian ship's hull. Then the torpedoes came in, four in all, with one missing due to the Batarian ship spinning just enough for it to fly on and smash into the hull of the Batarian station.

    The other three, however, had hit home. The Batarian ship suffered an internal explosion within a second of the torpedo strikes, then a second burst of radiation and energy from the ship's failing M/AM reactor. The ship was nearly vaporized in the blast.

    Apley turned the Koenig toward their other competitor. It was now recovering from the friendly fire the Koenig's maneuver had caused and its pilot and crew were reacting to the Koenig's maneuver, not to mention the sudden fact they were alone. The Batarian ship, now the hunted, twisted away and began evasive maneuvers.

    But Apley stayed on them, as much as he could, even if it brought them dangerously close to the shield perimeter of the Batarian station. Sherlily fired away at the ship. Some shots missed, some didn't, and the yellow energy that appeared from those hits grew visibly weaker.

    They'd run out of time, or so it seemed, as the Batarian ship shifted to break away completely. They had figured out what the Koenig was doing, that they were refusing to leave the shield perimeter, and the Batarian pirate captain recognized this gave their ship a mobility advantage. They could hit and run.

    Unfortunately for them, though, Sherlily was a really good shot.

    Just as the Batarian ship moved to break away, she fired another salvo of torpedoes and barrage from the cannons. Apley banked to avoid leaving the shield perimeter, turning around enough in the process so Sherlily could open up with the aft torpedoes.

    By the time the last two torpedoes were flying in, the first had already slammed into the weakened shields of the Batarian ship. One had gone clean through and slammed into the engine assembly in the rear. The ensuing explosion was joined by a clear slowing of the ship.

    Then the last two torpedoes hit and this ship, like those before it, was blown apart.

    It might have been a moment to celebrate. It wasn't however, as another plasma bolt slammed into the Koenig. Magda immediately reacted. "Shields down to thirty-five percent. We're getting bleedthrough damage."

    "Koenig to strike team, it'd be nice if you got those defensive systems under control." Zack felt another jostle shake the deck.

    "Shields down to thirty percent. We have damage to the port warp nacelle, an active plasma leak. Safety systems are cutting off the warp plasma flow. Warp drive is offline."

    "Engineering here. I'm on it," Barnes said.

    "I'm losing power in the port impulsor engine," Apley said. "We're going to start taking hits."

    "Engineering…"




    Zack's open-ended remark wasn't lost on Barnes, who was already moving toward the exit to take on the warp nacelle repair himself. "Dammit," he groused. "Poniatowski, Tali, what's up with the engine?"

    "Coolant systems are still intact," Tali said. She glanced his way and on toward the MCD. "It looks like the housing took a stress crack from that last hit."

    "Dammit," Barnes said. "Okay, I'm going to get to the warp nacelle and do what I can do. Poniatowski…"

    "I'm not certified for engine repair," she reminded him. "I'm a reactor specialist."

    "Yeah, but I…"

    "I'll do it," Tali said. The two points of light in her helmet focused on him. "I've repaired sublight engines before. Your engines aren't that different from our own, mechanically speaking."

    Barnes' first inclination was to reject Tali's offer. But he stopped himself. He needed all the other repair teams where they were. "Alright," he said. "Just be careful. With the engines in operation, you can't go into the interior housing space. The vibrations can become lethal."

    The ship shook hard yet again. "I'll be careful," Tali promised.

    "Good luck, kid." Barnes turned and left. Tali was right behind him.




    The status updates from the Koenig had Kane concerned. The ship was taking a battering, and they still didn't have control of the station defensive systems. He looked with concern to Shepard. "This Alenko kid, he can do this, right?"

    "His service record says he can," Shepard said. "I just met him, though, so I can't say if he's as good as some of your people."

    "Well, you can't put someone up against Jarod and have it be fair," Kane said. "But God, I wish we had him…"

    "Our shields are down to twenty-eight percent," Zack's voice warned over the comms. "And we've sustained engine damage. We need those guns down now."

    "I'm almost through this," Alenko insisted.

    "Recommend we fight our way to the reactors," Lidiks said to Nisia. "That may give the Koenig time to repair, if they survive that long."

    "And if they don't, it lets us take down this base…"

    Kane didn't hear Nisia's sentence end. Gunfire erupted in the hall he was responsible for. Popodoulos and Jenkins were pouring automatic fire down to the end of the corridor, where a T-shaped junction gave them the advantage of a chokepoint. Several armed Batarians went down, driving the rest of their comrades back to cover. Shepard concentrated and sent a pulsing wave of biotic power down the length of the corridor. Cries told them that her shockwave had caught at least a couple of Batarians.

    "Any time, Lieutenant," Nisia said firmly, but without hostility, to Alenko.

    "Just one layer of protections left… there!" Alenko punched a key on the board in front of him. "I've just shut down their automated weapons."

    "Koenig here. All fire has ceased and the station's shields are down. Thanks. We're preparing to beam more teams over to assist you."

    "That may not be necessary." Alenko continued working. "I'm setting off counter-intrusion defenses. It's sealing every bulkhead in the station, cutting it off section by section. I can even distribute sedative gas throughout the station."

    "Do it," Nisia ordered. "Cut us off first."

    Alenko keyed the command. Kane looked back to the end of the corridor, where a solid bulkhead slid into place at the bottom of the T-junction.

    "Commander B'Rani." Lidiks looked over from his station. "I have discovered the purpose of the living area at the top of the base." He keyed something on his omnitool.

    The main holographic viewer of the command station activated to show a live camera feed. A feed depicting cells, and within the cells were figures. Figures in sometimes tattered clothing, looking weak and exhausted, and almost all were not Batarian.

    "Slaves," Nisia murmured.

    "I am cross-checking their records. Yes. It appears sentient-trafficking is among the black market trade the Batarians are engaging in."

    "Which species is that?" Alenko asked. "It looks like a… a cat-human?"

    "That's a Mi'qote," Kane said, having directed his attention to the screen. "N2S7."

    "I can confirm this," Lidiks said. "There are approximately four Orion males, three Caitians, four Mi'qotes, a dozen Humans, an Asari… Sixty beings in all used for labor in the mine. They appear to have been implanted with control devices."

    "Slaving bastards," Kane growled. "We need to get them out of here and blow this place to hell."

    "General Victus, Commander Carrey, did you get this?" Nisia asked. "If you send over teams, you should direct them to the cells first."

    "We read you, Commander B'Rani," Victus said. "I will arrange for…"

    "General, we're going to need to evac." Kane could hear tension in Zack's voice.

    And it didn't take a genius to figure out what would cause that. It was no surprise when Alenko brought up the sensor screen for the facility. "We've got a bogey coming in. And it's a big one."

    "It's always something, isn't it?" Shepard asked Kane.

    "Murphy loves to kick us just when we think we’ve won," he agreed.
     
  3. Threadmarks: 2-12 Ending
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    Zack was looking at the same incoming contact on the holo-viewscreen. "Magda, how did we miss that?" he asked her.

    "For the same reason we nearly missed the base," she said. "The reason we would have missed it if I didn't have telemetry from its transmissions. This ice giant and the one we were over before both have abnormally strong EM fields. Combined with the mass shadows, it's hard to use sensors here. Both ways."

    "So we didn't see them, but they don't see us?"

    "Not yet." Magda was still working on her console. "ETA is four minutes at their current speed, Warp 7.5. Given the fluctuations in their warp field, I'd guess they're pushing their drive as fast as they can."

    "Even if they don't see us, they must know someone's here," Sherlily pointed out. "And we can't cloak."

    "And we have no warp power." Zack took only a moment to make his decision. He tapped the button on his chair. "Transporter Station, Commander B'Rani, we're going to beam the prisoners off and then your teams. B'Rani, can you relay exact coordinates to the transporters?"

    "We are doing so now."

    "What about the station?" Victus asked. "We should destroy it while we have the chance."

    "As soon as we get our people back, we can beam over charges to their reactors," Zack answered.

    Magda turned her chair to look at him. "That's easier said than done. Unless we have people on the spot planting charges, we can't be sure we're taking their reactors down unless we use torpedoes."

    "Then that's what we'll use." Zack turned his chair partially and looked to Sherlily. "April, what's our torpedo loadout look like?"

    "We've still got twelve torpedoes plus the ones on standby in the launchers."

    Magda looked over the sensor data. "They've got ten distributed reactor housings. Although if we're using torpedoes, I'm going to recommend a distributed spread to key structural points. Knocking out reactors is one thing, but if we're doing this, we might as well just gut the station."

    "Sounds good to me," Zack said. "Status of transports?"

    "We've already beamed off two groups from the slave pens," Magda said. "Doctor Opani and her nurses are dealing with them now."

    "I'm sending our medics to assist," added Victus.

    From the other channel, Nisia spoke again. "We are uploading all the data we can from this facility to your computers. The intelligence could be crucial."

    "We're receiving," Magda confirmed. She checked her sensors. "And that ship is now ninety seconds out."

    Zack keyed the comms again. "Bridge to Barnes. Status on our warp drive?"

    "I need another few minutes to finish sealing this break and to shift plasma back into the nacelle."

    "We're going to be facing a big, angry pirate cruiser in a minute, Tom. Tell me we have our impulse drives back to full."

    "I've got someone on that, give me a moment."



    Tali didn't hear that query from Zack. She was busy finishing her work on the exterior of the port impulsor drive housing. The drive was built in a position straddling the second and third deck, with Deck 3 being the main access to the impulsor housing area. The space was dominated by the gunmetal gray of the housing chamber. LCAR hardlight displays provided remote access to the systems from the safety of the exterior. Tali was familiar enough with sublight drives to know the interior wasn't so safe; as soon as the impulsors were kicked in, their operation would generate vibrations that would cause physical pain and eventual damage to anyone inside.

    This is why she made a frustrated noise and curse. She tapped her omnitool control and used it to access the Koenig's internal comms. Before she could call Barnes, his voice came from her tool. "Barnes to Tali'Zorah."

    "The crack is in the interior of the housing, I have to go in."

    "You can't," he said. "We've got a hostile ship coming down on us in seconds. The helm will be using everything they can from the drive. The vibrations…"

    "You and I both know they'll need the drive at full capacity," she retorted. "Unless you've got the warp drive fixed?"

    "We're still a few minutes from that." After a moment he added, "Alright, I'm on my way."

    "You won't get here in time." Tali was already accessing the control for the access hatch with the fingers on her free hand. "I've got it."

    "Tali, it's…"

    "It's what has to be done," she said, even as the access hatch opened. "You made me an engineer on this ship and assigned me to this repair. I'll get it done."

    His complaint was garbled, likely from frustration, while Tali climbed through the hatch into the interior of the housing. She was now in a space between the housing structure proper and the impulsor drive itself, with its fusion-driven electro-plasma propulsion. The space had been built specifically for this kind of repair and maintenance, but the nature of the technology meant it could only be safely accessed when the drives were disengaged.

    Tali tapped at her omnitool for a moment. She was carrying a personal kinetic barrier, standard for Quarians who were scouting for the fleet, and tweaked it to try and minimize the effects of the vibrations when they came. Then she turned her attention to the fault she'd scanned, a hairline crack that would keep the drive from operating at full capacity until it was mended. Tali detached the repair kit from her belt and began applying the patch within to the crack. Her omnitool whirred and sparked color as it attached said patch, sealing part of the crack off.

    That was when the vibrations hit.




    "Ten seconds." Magda read off the ETA of the cruiser. "Last transport off the station confirmed."

    "Beam over the torpedoes, now."

    Nobody on the Koenig bridge could actually see the torpedoes being transported from the loading rooms for their launchers. The armory crew had armed them as ordered and set the remote detonation, backed by a timed charge of a minute to ensure they went off. As the seconds passed they rematerialized on the station.

    Zack, for a moment, considered that most of the Batarians on that station were unconscious. Helpless. He was, in a sense, executing them just as he had the crew of the ship they'd destroyed.

    But there was no time to entertain that thought. "Detonate when I give the order," he ordered Sherlily.

    "Last torpedo is in position now.."

    "Enemy ship coming out of warp."

    Apley already had the Koenig coasting away under thruster power. Now he engaged the impulse drive as the Batarian cruiser they'd seen before came out off warp near the base. There was nearly no delay before they opened fire. Missiles and a steady barrage of yellow light and green energy bolts crossed the space toward the Koenig.

    Apley did what evading he could, and a number of shots missed. But with her sublight drives partly hobbled Koenig couldn't evade them all. The ship began shuddering again. "Shields down to thirty percent," Magda said.

    "Apley, put the base between us and that cruiser, please," Zack said.

    "They're already moving to a parallel point, we won't have much cover."

    "It'll have to do. Sherlily, standby to detonate."

    "Aye sir."

    Zack watched as the fire coming at them slackened off as they came to the side of the station, as if assuming an orbit around the station and over the moon it was tethered too. Apley kept them moving while the cruiser kept coming at them, rounding the station. Zack kept his eyes on the holo-tacmap beside him. The moon dominated the view, his ship steadily slipping away from it and the enemy ship toward it. "Yeah," he murmured. "Slip between the moon and the station. Take the direct route so you can shoot at us. Sherlily, prepare to detonate..." Zack checked the display. "...torpedoes three, five, seven, nine, and ten."

    "If we detonate them separately, we might leave the station intact," Magda warned.

    "I figured that. But I've got my reasons. Steady…"



    Tali's trick with her kinetic barrier had worked, up to a point. But her head was starting to swim as the vibrations interfered with her equilibrium. No, she thought. I have to finish this! She focused her attention entirely on the second patch. Another second of work and it was finished. Only one small part of the crack remained.

    Her stomach was twisting, feeling nauseous and sick. Her body was wobbling. It took everything Tali had to push the third and final patch up and begin welding it into place.

    But she persisted. She had to.




    Half a deck away, Tom Barnes looked on in triumph as the final plasma seal was fitted. He immediately pulled his omnitool back and grabbed the access ladder with one hand, then the other. It took him a second to lift himself out of the plasma feed line that had been damaged by the earlier hits. Once he had the patch secure, he looked to the crewwoman nearby. "Rosenbaum, hit it!"

    The young woman nodded and pressed the appropriate key. "Plasma feed engaged. The nacelle is being re-energized." Her accent was distinctly New Yorker, with a touch of Yiddish in it. "The estimate before full restoration of power is three minutes."

    "Right." Barnes immediately turned and began to run. "Keep an eye on it and call me or Engineering if anything happens!"

    "Sir?" Rosenbaum looked his way with confusion. "Where are you going?"

    "To save Tali!" he cried back as he disappeared from the chamber.



    On the bridge Zack watched his monitor carefully. He paid no heed to the activities of the others, or even to the arrival of Victus and the strike team commanders to the bridge. "Standby," he said again.

    "They're acquiring again, our respective angles are exposing their bow weapons to us." A moment later the ship shook from another impact. "Shields now at twenty-four percent. We're losing cohesion."

    "Standby." Zack kept an eye. The angle was so close, but it wasn't just right. Closer… closer…

    As the ship shook again, even before Magda updated the shield effectiveness level to twenty-two percent, Zack saw just what he wanted. Or as close to it as he was likely to get. "Mark!" he called out.

    Sherlily's finger stabbed at a key on her board.

    Five explosions gutted parts of the Batarian station. Four explosions were in the side facing the Koenig. One was at the base of the station.

    The last explosion had its intended effect. It not only wrecked the lift that connected the station to the moon, it literally broke the tether from the main body of the station, freeing it from its connection to the moon below. Freeing it to be driven by its own velocity.

    Velocity that the other explosions had now changed.

    Zack watched with satisfaction as the Batarian station, or rather what was left of it, began to fly right at the enemy cruiser.

    "It's not going to make impact," Apley predicted. "They've got too much space left, too much time…"

    Zack nodded wordlessly while watching the result. The enemy cruiser began an emergency maneuver to lift itself, in relation to the moon, and avoid the station. The space was small. For a brief moment he thought maybe they'd fail, maybe the station would actually hit, but it was certain it wouldn't after another moment passed.

    "It's not going to hit," Victus said.

    "It wasn't supposed to," Zack replied. "April, on my mark, detonate the remaining torpedoes."

    "Ready, sir," she answered immediately, while Zack watched the station and enemy ship move much as he hoped they would.




    Tali thought she would throw up in her suit. Her stomach was twisted into a knot. Her head was spinning from vicious vertigo that made it nearly impossible to focus. She was fighting to keep her omnitool on point, welding the final patch into place.

    Almost there… almost

    She almost missed that she was done. Tali's omnitool confirmed the patch was fully in place. Her work was done. She began to walk back toward the access hatch.

    Or rather, she tried to. It became more of a stumble. After a couple of steps she fell down. Unable to stand again, she began crawling toward it.

    But the vibrations were growing worse. Tali couldn't concentrate, she couldn't focus.

    Her crawling slowed to a stop, barely a meter from the hatch.




    On the bridge, Zack's cry of "Mark!" filled the air.

    Again Sherlily's finger hit the detonation key. Again, naqia-enhanced explosives blew apart the enemy station.

    It wasn't just those explosives of course. They were placed to cause maximum damage to the Batarian station, and that included the fuel bunkers and reactors that generated the plasma used in the station's weapons and power systems. Violently freed from their confines, some of this material added to the carnage. Things that could go boom did, in fact, go boom. One of the reactors even went up, its safety control regulators undone by the blast of a nearby torpedo.

    And the explosion happened only meters from the Batarian cruiser.

    The cruiser had decent shields, at least in raw power. But they had other flaws, and the proximity of detonations, the amount of raw energy released by the torpedoes and the concurrent secondary explosions, undermined the cruiser's shields. They failed to stop all of the force directed by the destruction of the station, with visible results from debris and energy striking and damaging their hull. Energy erupted from the cruiser's port nacelle when a large chunk of debris struck it.

    "The enemy cruiser's shields have failed. I'm detecting multiple hull breaches. Their port nacelle has been wrecked completely." Magda continued looking over the readings her sensors could find now that the energy of the blasts was dissipating. "It looks like they might have power failures too."

    "Ap, get us out of here, best sublight speed. Go to warp the moment we've got warp power restored."

    "Aye sir," Apley responded. "I've got full impulse power back, taking us out."

    The Koenig turned away from the broken remnants of the space station and the damaged pirate cruiser.




    Tali groaned in pain and tried to move. She could see the hatch, roughly, but the world kept spinning. Her head felt like it would roll from her shoulders. She couldn't move.

    She thought about what it would be like to give up. To just lay here and let it go. But as the thought came to her, another thought joined it. The thought of her father's disappointment in her. She hadn't even gone on Pilgrimage yet, how could she just lay down and die? Die without doing something for her people?

    She couldn't.

    Tali tried to move again. For a moment, it felt like she couldn't.

    Then the hatch flew open. She watched Barnes climb in partially. He reached out to her. "Take my hand!"

    She reached out, her hand seeking his while the world seemed to spin around them. But it wasn't enough, just wasn't enough…

    Just a bit more.

    They clasped hands. Tali scrambled to help Barnes move her weight, but it was mostly his effort that pulled her from the drive housing. Once they were out Barnes slammed a button and the hatch automatically shut.

    Tali's head was still spinning even as the vibrations ceased. "Keep it steady," she heard Barnes say. "It's no fun dealing with that. If your inner ears work like ours do, it's going to take a bit for your balance to get back to normal. Just sit here and give it a moment…"

    "Thank you," Tali muttered. "I don't think I could have gotten out on my own."

    "I know." He held her steady against the wall. "Just relax."

    After another several seconds Tali felt her head start to clear. She wasn't as queasy. She turned her head to face Barnes. "It worked?"

    "Yeah. They're burning away at full impulse. Any minute the plasma in the nacelle should be back to normal and we'll be warping away." Barnes remained quiet for a moment. "I'd like to say I'm sorry. Again."

    "What for?"

    "Because I didn't treat you like you deserved. Pilgrimage or no, you're an engineer, and a damned good one. You saved this ship."

    "I think we all did." Despite saying that, Tali couldn't quite hide her appreciation of his apology and recognition of her capabilities. "My father thinks I still have much to learn."

    "Hell, don't we all." Barnes chuckled. He extended a hand. "Thanks again, Tali."

    "And to you, Lieutenant."

    "No need to be formal." Barnes was grinning at her. "My name's Tom."

    "Tom," she said, and if not for her face plate, Barnes would have seen her smile.




    Zack wasn't satisfied until he felt the deck thrum ever so slightly, meaning his over-engined little gut-puncher of a starship was jumping to warp speed. A moment later Apley confirmed this by saying, "We're now at Warp 5.9, on course for the nearest relay."

    "So we did it," Zack sighed. "We pulled it off." After a moment he grinned. "Great job, everyone. That was nothing short of a Grand Slam."

    "And that would be?" asked Nisia.

    "Hitting a home run with bases loaded," he clarified. Turning and seeing the Asari Commando was still uncertain, he added, "It's from baseball. A Human sport."

    "Ah. I see."

    "Do we have anything more from that data we took?" Zack asked.

    "I've got Alenko looking over it down in the conference room," Shepard said. She was grinning. "It's about the only place on the ship that's not standing room only right now."

    "Magda, why don't you join him?" Zack said. "Technical Officer Walden can take over."

    "Yes sir," Magda said. She started to stand.

    "I wish to look through the data myself," Lidiks remarked. "It has the potential to…-"

    Before he could finish, a comm tone indicated someone was hailing the bridge. "Alenko to Bridge."

    Zack nodded to Shepard, indicating she should respond. She nodded back and said, "Go ahead, Lieutenant."

    "I've found data on what the pirates are up to. It explains why so many of their ships are gone from the area, and it's not good news."

    "They're about to launch an attack, I'm betting," Zack said. "What's their target? Elysium? Mindoir? Adrana? New Circassia?"

    "It's not a planet. They're after a ship. Your ship."

    Zack almost asked what he meant, but he put it together as his mouth opened and felt a wave of horror. "You mean they're…"

    "They're going after the Aurora," Alenko said.

    "Get that out on IU comms, subspace, anything. Now," Zack demanded. He felt his heart pound.

    The pirates were after his friends. And there was no way he could get there in time to help.

    All he could do was hope that the warnings he had already sent had them ready for a fight.




    Robert found Julia and the rest of the senior officers on the bridge when he arrived with Onaram. "Anything new?" he asked.

    "Still no signal from the Batarian dreadnought about if Minister am Rimhar is coming back over," Julia said. She changed seats to give Robert his command seat. Onaram took the VIP seat beside him.

    "That is highly suspicious," Onaram said. "Get me Matriarch Benezia, please."

    Robert nodded to Jarod. He keyed the ship-to-ship communications and moments later Benezia appeared on the holo-viewscreen. "Madame Matriarch, something suspicious is going on with the Batarian delegation," Onaram said, his tone stoic and succinct. "And you should have received an update by now on the signal on an unknown pirate attack. These may be related."

    "My security advisor agrees. It is clear that the Hegemony is not negotiating with the Alliance in good faith. For that purpose, we are intending to return to Council Space."

    "I would feel better if you let us escort you, Madame Matriarch," Robert said. "As I recall the relay network, this relay will not take you back in one hop. You'll still be in the Traverse, and vulnerable, if you go through."

    Benezia considered that for a moment before nodding and smiling. "Very well," she said. "I formally request that you escort us back through the relay."

    "We'll be going through the relay shortly. Dale out." Robert said nothing more, prompting Jarod to cut the line. He couldn't keep a frown from forming on his face.

    Julia noticed it. "What's wrong?"

    "There's just something off about this whole situation," Robert said. "Like there's something more than just…"

    He was interrupted by Caterina, currently at her station. "I'm picking up a subspace spike from the Mass Relay. Something's coming through."

    "Code Red," Robert said immediately. He wasn't taking chances. "On screen."

    The screen shifted to show the nearby Mass Relay. Vessels began to appear around it. Brown and red in coloring, and a unique set of designs that were nevertheless familiar enough that an identification was quickly made by Jarod. "They're matching Batarian profiles, but with several changes."

    "Yeah, the power signatures are entirely different," Cat added from her station. "They're raising shields, and I'm detecting what looks like energy weapons."

    Jarod quickly checked something. "And it's all consistent with what the Koenig signaled."

    "I don't suppose we should hail them?" Julia asked.

    Even as she said so, the viewscreen showed the Batarian dreadnought that brought their negotiating team suddenly zip away. "They've gone to FTL."

    "They don't want to be present for the fight. Plausible deniability." Robert was frowning. "This whole negotiation was a setup."

    "It looks like they're launching breaching pods," Angel warned.

    "They don't look like that much of a threat," Julia said. "They have to know we can still beat…"

    Before she finished the sentence the lights on the bridge all died. "We've just lost main power," Jarod said.

    "Weapons and shields aren't responding," Angel added.

    Locarno was working on his station, to no avail. "I've got no helm control."

    "Sabotage," Julia said. "They must have snuck something on board. Security missed something."

    "It looks like several sophisticated AI programs were loaded into our control systems, they've locked us out." A light appeared on Jarod's board. "Incoming hail."

    A guttural voice sounded over the speakers. "Aurora crew, we have come to claim your vessel. If you surrender peacefully, you will be allowed to abandon your vessel and your escape craft will not be harmed. Resist our forces and we will make slaves of any who survive."

    "If Batarians had a mustache, I bet he would be twirling it," Robert muttered. He tapped the key on his chair to reply, "Not happening. Come anywhere near my ship and we're blowing you right to hell."

    After a moment the reply was, "Remember that we were going to be merciful."

    "The breaching pods are moving forward." Jarod shook his head. "There's a lot for a force of ships that size."

    "With what sensors we've still got, it looks like there's at least five hundred boarders," Cat said. "I can't make out some of the life signs though."

    "Alert Security and our remaining Marines to standby to resist boarding parties." Robert looked quietly to Jarod. "Anything else?"

    "Definitely a control lockout," Jarod said.

    "Scott t' Bridge. Everything's as bad as you can expect down here."

    "Right." Robert looked back to the viewer. Backup power ensured it would remain on even with main power locked out. The breaching pods were nearly to them. "Jarod… now."

    "Infected computer cores isolated," Jarod said. "Re-initializing systems from backups."

    Within moments the main bridge lights turned back on. "Restoring shields and readying weapons," Angel said.

    It was clear on the screen that the Batarians hadn't seen that coming. The closest breaching pods were so far ahead, in fact, that they had no chance to avoid slamming right into the now-restored shields. Flickers of blue illuminated the shield perimeter of the Aurora where the pods smashed against the shields. And the pods lost. The lead ones were crushed completely by their own velocity's reactive force to being suddenly stopped by the deflectors. Those pods further back that couldn't turn in time weren't crushed, but were certainly damaged, while the pods behind them did evade in time.

    Not that it did them any good. Angel opened up with the Aurora's bow weapons. Her targets were the ships they had launched from, but any pod in the way was destroyed, even outright vaporized, by the powerful bursts of amber and sapphire light from the bow-facing cannons and pulse cannon emplacements.

    The Aurora bridge crew watched one of the enemy destroyers blow apart under the barrage of the main weapons. Solar torpedoes and more phaser fire drained the shields from one of the cruiser-sized enemy ships. A second burst of fire from the pulse plasma cannons finished the cruiser's shields off and tore the vessel's bow off.

    "The fighters are launching," Julia said, and the tactical screen reflected that, as several dozen starfighters came from the launch tubes built into the drive hull. The Mongoose-model starfighters turned and burned toward the remaining breaching pods, who were helpless against them. While four of the fighters broke off to finish the pods off, the others pushed on toward the enemy ships.

    Enemy fire was coming against them now, thick and heavy, and the Aurora's shields endured it. "Shields down to ninety-one percent," Jarod said. "Reinforcing forward shields."

    Angel, meanwhile, continued to focus on the damaged cruiser, turning it into a broken hulk with another barrage. A second cruiser coming up toward their port side gained her attention next, with multiple beams and bursts of phaser fire draining its shields down. The bow weapons fired again, the sapphire bolts of the pulse plasma cannons tearing apart one of the lighter pirate ships despite its shields being at full. Two spreads of solar torpedoes found the third cruiser-sized ship and pummelled the shields down enough that phaser beams started cutting into its hull.

    The Mongoose fighters finished closing the distance, and a storm of missiles and torpedoes struck at the small and big ships respectively. The third cruiser lost a warp nacelle to Commander Laurent's fighters while the second cruiser, still on the Aurora's port side, had its hull opened up by a fierce barrage from the phaser emplacements.

    Robert watched this. They were still outnumbered twelve to one, even with the losses they'd inflicted on the enemy, and that was always worrying. But when the Batarians began to react with organization, it wasn't to focus or coordinate their attacks. They started breaking away in formation. One by one, they jumped to warp speed.

    "They're moving away from us at Warp 5," Jarod said. He turned in his chair. "We could intercept them if we wanted."

    Robert thought of that. But he shook his head. "There's still enough of them in numbers to worry me," he said. "So I'm letting them go. Julia, recall fighters, at least all but a flight. We're going to send them through the Relay first to see if there's an ambush waiting for us. As soon as they confirm we're clear, we're heading back."

    "While our fighters confirm it's safe, I'll have transporters beam aboard any Batarian survivors," Julia said. "And some samples from their ships."

    "In the meantime, I'm going to get to work with Security," Jarod added. "That cyber-attack was a lot more effective than it should have been. If we hadn't been ready, it really would have crippled us for hours."

    "Jupap, please assume Ops." Robert nodded to Jarod as he stood to give his station over to the Alakin lieutenant, currently moving in from the Communications station on the starboard wall of the bridge. He looked to Jarod and said, "Report whatever you find immediately, please."

    Jarod gave him a nod as an answer before walking to the lift.




    Ship's Log: ASV Aurora; 14 August 2642. Captain Robert Dale recording. The Koenig has rendezvoused with us at the Richards-Phi Relay at the edge of the Skyllian Verge. I'm relieved to learn that Commander Carrey and his crew came out of their unexpected operation with no major casualties. The sixty plus people they rescued from Batarian slavery are having the slave control hardware removed surgically by Doctor Gillam and his staff. It will take time for them to recover from their ordeal, though. Seeing them reminds me of the evil that slavery represents, and why we have fought so long and hard to suppress that evil.

    Matriarch Benezia departed as soon as we arrived in the Verge. She has already informed the Citadel of the Batarian plot. I've yet to learn what the Hegemony's response is.

    There are still unanswered questions. Jarod has yet to find the device or method used to attempt the takeover of our computers. Until we know what's happened, I can't rest easy.





    A chirp at his ready office's door caused Robert to lift his head. "Come in," he said.

    When Zack entered, he was accompanied by General Victus. He handed Robert a digital pad. "My final report on our operation," he said. "For your review."

    "Thank you." Robert smiled and nodded, accepting the digital reader and setting it on his desk. "I'm looking forward to reading it. From what I've already heard, you did something amazing."

    "My crew did, they made it all possible," Zack said. He looked to Victus. "As did our special forces teams. We wouldn't have gotten that data if not for them."

    Robert nodded and turned his attention to Victus. "General, it's good to see you again."

    "The same, Captain. I would like to add my own report to your Defense Command." Victus handed a second digital pad over, loaded with a report in Turian script. "I have already informed Palaven and the Citadel Council of what occurred, but I wanted to give that to you personally for delivery to Admiral Maran."

    "I'll see he gets it."

    "And I will see that Commander Carrey and his crew get the commendation they deserve for their conduct," Victus added. "From both your Alliance and the Hierarchy."

    "Thank you, General," Zack said to Victus.

    "I'll have an officer show you to your quarters, sir," Robert added. "We're scheduled to meet up with the Milesar after our next relay jump."

    "Thank you, Captain."

    After Robert saw to that and Victus left, he looked back to Zack. "Well, it looks like you had a more eventful training mission than was planned."

    "Yeah. And it looks like your diplomatic summit didn't go anywhere." Zack stood from his chair. "I'm just glad you're okay."

    "I could tell something was up with the Batarians," Robert said. "Once we got your warning about an attack somewhere, I decided we should be ready. Jarod had the idea of preparing isolated control system backups in case they got into our systems." He frowned. "I'm a little concerned with just how effective that was, though."

    "Yeah. The Batarians had a lot of new tech, but nothing like that."

    Robert looked down at the digital reader on his desk with Zack's final report. He picked it up and looked to Zack. "Well, since you're back here and I'm sure you're up for some real food, how about you tell me all about it in the Lookout?"

    "Sure." Zack nodded.




    Julia was already in the Lookout having a meal. "So the Batarians have been buying up new tech." Lucy was speaking from across the table. She put her spoon into a bowl of steaming sausage stew. "It's going to make our jobs harder." She took a bite after speaking.

    Julia nodded. "Especially with the peace overture being fake."

    Lucy finished swallowing so she could reply, "I wonder how the Hegemony's going to get away with this one."

    "I'm sure Minister am Rimhar will have some excuse. Or they'll throw him under the bus as a 'renegade'." Julia sighed. "It's probably for the best anyway. Fighting both the Batarians and the Nazis would be a stretch."

    "Yeah. Slaving bastards that they are."

    They both took bites from their respective bowls and were still chewing when a third figure came up. "Are any of these seats taken?" asked Commander Shepard.

    Julia shook her head. After swallowing she said, "Feel free."

    Shepard nodded and sat with a tray carrying the day's lunch/early dinner items; corned beef, potatoes, steamed asparagus, and Hargert's much-beloved sausage stew. "I couldn't visit the Aurora and not treat myself to a meal," Shepard explained.

    "Your ride should be waiting when we go through the next relay," Julia remarked.

    "I know. That's why I'm enjoying this now." Shepard grinned before taking another bite. "This is so unfair," she said once she swallowed. "We don't get anything like this."

    "Well, there can only be one Hargert," Lucy remarked.

    "So, how has everyone been?"

    "Well, we've had some things happen. A few things have happened," Julia said.

    "Cat's a lesbian and has a girlfriend now, Jarod got kidnapped and Julia rescued him with a bunch of mercenaries or something, Rob and Angel broke up, Meridina quit the Order because they're a bunch of pricks, and I had to fight for my life with a three thousand year old laser sword," Lucy said in rapid order. "I think that about covers it."

    "You forgot Robert having a fight to the death with an eight foot tall genetically-engineered hulk-man," Julia corrected. She frowned. "And Fassbinder being alive."

    "Fassbinder." Shepard's brow furrowed. "Wait, you mean that SS commander I shot through a window?"

    "That's the one," Lucy said. "He's still alive."

    "Damn." Shepard shook her head.

    "Oh, and one last bit." Lucy smirked mischievously and nodded her head at Julia. "Julia's been offered a promotion and a ship of her own. Maran wants to make her Captain of the new Enterprise, a ship based off the Aurora."

    Julia blushed slightly. Shepard looked to her and grinned. "Well, congratulations," she said. "Tell me you said yes."

    "I haven't completely confirmed it yet," Julia answered, giving Lucy a dirty look. Lucy, being Lucy, responded by sticking her tongue out.

    "Well, with the influences of the other species in your Alliance, maybe it's different for you, but for us, the military is very much 'up or out'," Shepard said. "Someone who doesn't accept promotions stops getting the offers, and eventually they get retired to make room for younger personnel at their rank."

    "I've heard of that," Julia said. "I think the Alakins and some of the Dorei are like that too. But the Gersallians are big on merit. There's no shame in refusing a promotion you don't think you're ready for, and there's nothing wrong with someone relatively young getting higher ranks if they've proven they can hold them."

    "The Turians are supposed to be like that, and the onus of a bad promotion lies on the one giving the promotion, not the one who got it."

    "I guess I can see that." Julia set her spoon down. Her face reflected the struggle in her thoughts. "I want to be a captain," she said. "And I want the Enterprise. But I'm worried about what it'll do to this crew."

    "Fair enough," Shepard said.

    "And what about you?" Lucy asked. "I figured you'd be off commanding special forces at the front or something, blasting Nazis with biotics."

    Shepard smirked at that. "Oh, that was possible for a while. And I did a few operations with Citadel forces in S4W8. But I'll be going back to Earth soon. Captain Anderson's asked me to be his XO on his new ship."

    "Oh? So he's getting a new cruiser?" asked Julia.

    "No. Apparently it's some new experimental frigate we designed with the Turians. And with some new technology from your people as well." Shepard took a drink. "They're naming her the Normandy."

    "And you're going to be his XO? Congratulations."

    "I'm still not sure I want a command like that," Shepard said. "I'm a Marine, not a ship commander. But if that's where they need me, that's where I'll go."

    "And we wish you the best of luck, Commander Shepard," Julia said.




    It was late in the day when Robert returned to his ready office for a last check of the day's paperwork and reports. They had already offloaded Victus, Shepard, and the others - including the recovered captives - to the Turian heavy cruiser Milesar and were soon to make their last rendezvous before leaving M4P2.

    A tone caused Robert to look to his screen. The computer had finally finished his search request. He opened the results and stared.

    The Turian that had been with Matriarch Benezia had caused Robert's feelings to become uneasy. Not just from his open disdain for Humans, but… there was something to him, a darkness Robert couldn't place. And something familiar about his face, his eyes…

    But what really got Robert's attention was the attached data with the file.

    The door chime went off. Robert looked up and said "Come in".

    Julia entered. "I just wanted to let you know we're almost there. Nick says we'll be dropping out of warp in a couple of minutes." She noticed the look on his face. "What is it?"

    "Just… something. An itch in my mind about that Turian with Benezia."

    "The jerk?" Julia crossed her arms. "What about him? He never gave his name."

    "I'm not surprised." Robert turned the screen around on his desk to face Julia. She leaned over and read it. "Not now," he added.

    "Holy Christ," Julia gasped. "He's a freaking Spectre?"

    "Saren Arterius," Robert said, remembering the name on the screen. "One of the longest serving Spectres still in active service."

    "What is a Citadel Council black ops agent doing babysitting an Asari Matriarch?" Julia asked. "That sounds like overkill."

    "Who knows?" Robert's expression darkened. "There's no telling what he's up to. The Citadel gives them complete freedom on what they do so long as they get results in accomplishing their missions. That is, they can do anything they want. They can kill, steal, manipulate, intimidate, even terrorize, if it accomplishes their mission."

    Julia frowned at that. "So much for the Citadel's rhetoric about interstellar law. We may have been stateless, but we had lines we never crossed."

    "Yeah…" Robert shut the screen off. "I can't help but feel I've seen Saren Arterius before, though. That's what has me so weirded out about…"

    Before he could finish the thought, Jupap's voice chirped over the comm line. "Captain, we've dropped out of warp.. They're opening a channel."

    "Pipe it in here," Robert ordered. His screen activated to show his caller. "This is Captain Dale, Starship Aurora."

    "I have heard of you," was the response, in an accent of some sort. "I am Admiral Rael'Zorah vas Rayya. I've come to pick up my daughter from your ship."




    Tag


    Barnes and Zack accompanied Tali to the Briefing Room where Robert, Julia, and Secretary Onaram were meeting with three of the Quarian admirals. Once she stepped in, Tali was quick to call out, "Father!" and then "Auntie Raan!"

    Shala'Raan vas Tonbay walked up and embraced her. "Ah, it is good to see you are okay, Tali. When we lost contact with your ship, I feared the worst. How is Kon'Fanim?"

    "Their physicians have stabilized his infection. He woke up last night and already wants to go home."

    "Admirals, this is Commander Zachary Carrey and Lieutenant Thomas Barnes, they are the Commanding Officer and Chief Engineer of the Koenig," Robert said. "Commander, Lieutenant, these are Admirals Shala'Raan, Rael'Zorah, and Daro'Xen, of the Quarian Admiralty Board."

    "You are the ones who rescued Tali." Rael approached Zack and Barnes. "You have my thanks. I hope she was of service to you during her time on your ship."

    "Oh, she certainly was," Barnes said. "We might have failed if she hadn't been there." He grinned at her. "Tali's a hell of an engineer."

    "I'm pleased to hear this."

    Zack was already walking over to take a seat by Robert. "They didn't need three admirals to pick Tali up, did they?"

    "No, they didn't." Robert looked to Onaram.

    The Dorei nodded in reply. "In light of what has happened, President Morgan has decided it is time to initiate a dialogue with the Quarian Migrant Fleet."

    "And we are pleased to reciprocate," Raan answered.

    "Hopefully we can find your people a new homeworld," Robert said. "Either in this universe or in others."

    "I appreciate the offer in the spirit in which it is given, Captain, and I understand some of my colleagues may take you up on it." Rael faced Robert now, his faceplate obscuring his face save for two glowing eyes. Robert wondered if their eyes naturally glowed like that or if it was some effect of the face plate. "But I would rather return to Rannoch, if at all possible."

    "I understand," was all Robert could say to that.

    "This will be a discussion for the entire Fleet. But the other matters you have referred to, Secretary Onaram, are of interest to the Admiralty Board." Rael turned to face Onaram. Tali stepped back from him as if she expected that her father had greeted her and now she was no longer of importance to the moment. Robert thought he could sense a tinge of pain from the young Quarian at how quickly her father was dismissing her. Rael seemed oblivious of any of this as he continued speaking. "The offer of sanctuary in Alliance space and mutual assistance will be brought up for consideration immediately."

    "Won't the Citadel Council get upset if we sign a deal with the Quarians without informing them of it?" Julia asked Onaram.

    "We will obviously keep them informed, in the spirit of our treaty with them," Onaram replied. "But the restrictions on bilateral agreements stipulate only recognized governments and the Terminus Systems. The Quarians fall under neither stipulation for the moment, as the Citadel Council no longer recognizes any Quarian state."

    Zack grinned with amusement. "In other words, you're using their own dislike of the Quarians against them."

    "A byproduct of the situation, nothing more," insisted Onaram. "Now, as for other particulars…"

    Robert's omnitool flashed to life in part, a bright light appearing over his forearm and signifying an incoming call. "Jarod to Dale."

    Robert tapped the light, opening the channel. "Dale here."

    "I apologize for interrupting, but Commander Meridina and I have found something. We think it may be the device the Batarians used to sabotage the ship. We're analyzing it in Science Lab 2. I can transmit an image if you'd like to see it."

    "I admit to curiosity, Captain," Onaram said.

    "As do I." Admiral Daro'Xen was finally speaking. "If this technology could breach your computer security, it implies a grave security threat to our own computer systems."

    "Jarod, relay the device and the data you've gathered so far to the Briefing Room displays."

    "Doing so now."

    A moment later the image appeared over the table; a gray, circular device with coiled wires that gave the dead device the look of a bug. The wires, and part of the body, were charred, no doubt a result of a self-immolation security measure.

    "Woh, I've never seen anything like that," Barnes said.

    As Robert felt the surprise fill the room, he heard Shala'Raan's disbelieving tone when she said, "Keelah. Is it actually…?"

    "Admiral?" Julia turned from the image. "Do you recognize this?"

    "We all do. We all should, at least," said Daro'Xen.

    "Why?" asked Zack.

    "Because, Commander, it is technology that originated from our people," Daro'Xen answered. "Centuries ago."

    "Originated?" Robert put two and two together.

    "It is Geth technology," Rael'Zorah stated. "Your ship was sabotaged with a Geth device."

    Robert and the others shared an uncomfortable look. Onaram stared at the image another moment before he looked to the Quarian admirals. "I was under the impression that the Geth remained isolated behind the Perseus Veil."

    "They generally do. Occasionally they depart it to scout, and it is on those occasions that their technology can be recovered by our scouts," Shala'Raan explained. "But we've never recovered something like this. This was intentionally built as a device to sabotage computer systems."

    "So you don't have an idea how the Batarians got something like this?" Robert asked them.

    "None, Captain," Rael'Zorah replied. "None at all."




    Tahrad am Rimhar was not having a good day. His dreadnought was back at the mass relay, where the broken remains of the privateer fleet that was supposed to take over the Aurora and its crew were all that was left. On his screens the messages demonstrated the extent of their failure. Their main base was compromised, its orbital station destroyed, their slave labor stolen. Multiple ships destroyed or lost. The Aurora escaped, depriving the Hegemony of the chance to dismantle the vessel, interrogate its crew, and discover its technological secrets for the benefit of Khar'shan. Now their silent partners in the other universes were hinting that they were going to cut their ties to the Hegemony. Worst of all, it would be impossible for the Hegemony to hide his involvement, so he was likely to be outlawed and declared a rogue to provide deniability.

    He stood at the rear of said dreadnought, ignoring its captain and command crew, and looked at the viewscreens. One showed the vessel that had rendezvoused with them; the other the occupants of said ship. His silent partners.

    "You were supposed to cripple them, and you failed," Tahrad charged. "Do not blame this on me."

    "It is obvious they were warned." On the other screen, Saren Arterius remained unflinching. Matriarch Benezia sat beside him, quiet, as if she had no input in this conversation. Tahrad wondered just how Saren had secured her support, much less her obvious acquiescence to his control. "Your forces led the Koenig right to your main facility. And your ships were supposed to ambush them on the other side of the relay."

    "The operation was compromised by the Koenig's raid," Tahrad protested. "My people had to either attack or abort. Aborting would mean everything was wasted. We relied upon you to make sure the attack was successful, and you failed us! Now I am ruined!" Tahrad's rage built as he dwelled on that. "This alliance was a mistake! I should have had you shot while I had the chance, Arterius! And now…" He looked to the officers. "Target the yacht. Destroy them."

    Immediately it was clear something was wrong. Tahrad should have frightened Saren entirely. His yacht couldn't escape, couldn't run, and a single hit, maybe two, would leave it crippled. He lived entirely at Tahrad's sufferance. But there was no sign of it. His ice-toned eyes reflected no fear. As if he were the one who had Tahrad at his mercy.

    A tone sounded from elsewhere on the bridge. "A contact has just come out of FTL," warned the scanning officer. "Unknown configuration."

    Tahrad blinked in confusion. The captain of the ship said, "What?"

    On the screen a much larger ship now moved over the yacht and toward them. Tahrad stared in shock at the colossal, dreadnought-sized vessel. It was shaped like a terrible aquatic monster, four great grasping tentacles and six smaller legs to the back. One of the legs started moving toward them.

    Then there was a bright light, a light that was the last thing Tahrad am Rimhar ever saw.




    Saren watched quietly as the Batarian dreadnought was utterly annihilated. Only once it was gone, its crew dead, did he speak. "The operation was a failure. We may not get another chance."

    "It is irrelevant," replied the mechanical voice of his ally. On his viewer, Saren watched Sovereign turn toward the yacht briefly. "Our return cannot be stopped."

    "I'm still looking," Saren assured his ally. "Eventually someone will find a beacon that will lead us to the Conduit."

    "Good. I am expecting great things from you, Saren. Prove your worth. Prove the worth of your species."

    There was a burst of energy, and the giant living ship was gone.

    Saren looked down to Benezia. She had a confused glaze over her eyes. "What… what is he talking about?"

    "You'll find out."

    "Saren…" She stopped, as if confused.

    "This way, Matriarch." Saren helped her up and led her toward the rear compartments, where her staff and guards waited with the device Sovereign had left with him. "You are getting there. It won't be long until you understand what is at stake."

    "I… yes." She nodded slowly. "I need to know what is at stake. For us to survive. For… for my daughter to survive. My Little Wing…"

    Saren said nothing more.




    With the return of the Koenig to the Aurora, Barnes had been hit by the usual paperwork on managing repairs now that the ship was back in "drydock". It was only on hearing what time it was that he dashed, cursing, from his place in Main Engineering (and having to run back in to grab something, much to the bemusement of Lieutenant Poniatowski). He ran back to the Aurora via the airlock and to the nearest set of deck-to-deck ladders, not bothering with a lift that might take too long to get to him.

    His heart was pounding and he was nearly out of breath when he stormed into the main shuttle bay. "Wait!" he gasped.

    Eyes turned toward him. Robert and Julia exchanged curious looks. Secretary Onaram said nothing. Neither did the Quarians, just now getting into their shuttle to depart from the Aurora.

    Barnes sucked in a deep breath before managing, "Hey, Tali, a moment."

    Rael and Shala'Raan looked to Tali, who was about to step in ahead of them. She gave them a quizzical look. Shala nodded and Tali took it as permission. She walked up to Barnes. "I was wondering if you were going to say goodbye."

    "Yeah, well, I was busy with repair work, lost track of time." Barnes blushed a little. "It's like that sometimes."

    "I understand."

    "Anyway, yeah, uh…" Barnes brought up the hand he was keeping to his side, revealing what he was holding. "I thought I'd give you a farewell gift." He held it out to her.

    Tali picked up the item by its handle and studied the other end. "An… auto-spanner?"

    "Yep. Top of the line model, bought it myself. Best I've ever seen." He smiled and nodded. "I'd like you to have it."

    "Well, I…" Tali looked from the tool to him. "I don't know what to say… It's a nice tool, and… but… are you sure…?"

    "Oh, yeah, I'm sure," Barnes assured her. His smile was wistful. "An engineer always needs good tools, after all."

    "We do." Tali looked it over for a moment. "Is that… it has an auto-adjusting head?"

    "And an extender to get to those bolts that make you wonder if the designers ever had to work on their own crap."

    "Oh, keelah, I know what that's like." Tali looked it over for another moment before she gently slung the auto-spanner to her belt. "Thank you, Tom. It's a wonderful gift. It's…" She started to giggle.

    "Hrm?"

    "It's just… it's funny," she said, stopping for the moment. "Normally something like this is brought back from a Pilgrimage to be shared with the Fleet." Tali laughed again. "But I'm not on Pilgrimage yet, so it doesn't count."

    "So you don't…?"

    "Oh, no, no, I… I'm sorry, I'm still bad at interacting with other people, I'm afraid I've made it sound like…" Tali stopped and considered her next words. "It is a wonderful gift. Thank you."

    "You're welcome." Barnes looked up to the others. Julia and Robert were clearly trying to hide amusement. It was fairly clear that Secretary Onaram and the Quarian Admirals were quite ready to get going, though. "So, well, good luck. On your Pilgrimage. And if you decide you want to try and spend it serving with the Alliance or something… let me know. I can think of a few places that could use a damn good engineer."

    There was no way for him to know the smile that appeared on Tali's face, but somehow he could sense it. "I'll keep that in mind. Good luck to you, Tom. Keelah selai."

    "Yeah, Key-luh see-lie… Kee…" He stopped. "What you said."

    They shared a last handshake and Tali returned to her father's side. They boarded the shuttle last. Moments later its maneuvering thrusters fired and the craft lifted from the shuttle bay floor and turned toward the now-open dock, which it flew through in a burst of speed.

    Secretary Onaram was quick to leave, having other matters to attend to, but Robert and Julia stepped up to their friend. "It looks like she made an impression," Julia said brightly.

    "Yeah." Barnes nodded. "She's one hell of an engineer. I should have seen it from the beginning. I was a jackass and didn't."

    "Well, we love you, all the same," Julia assured him. "So, up for some real food now that you're back home?"

    "I suppose, yeah." He briefly looked back to the end of the shuttle bay.

    "Wondering if you'll see her again?" Robert asked.

    "A bit, yeah," Barnes admitted. "I never got to introduce her to Scotty, after all. But it's a big Multiverse, so there's no telling where she'll end up when she's off on that Pilgrimage."

    "True," Robert agreed. He smiled. "But somehow, I think we might see her again. The Multiverse works like that, sometimes."

    "Is that your life force mumbo jumbo thing or…?"

    "Eh… not really. Just a feeling." Robert's smile turned into a playful smirk. "Don't ruin the moment, Teddo."

    Barnes returned a fake glare at that. "You know how I feel about that name, oh brooding one."

    Julia sighed and shook her head at them, smiling. "Stop ruining the moment, you two, and let's go enjoy dinner."
     
  4. Threadmarks: 2-13 Opening
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

    Joined:
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    Teaser


    It looked like a picturesque day. The sky was blue with white fluffy clouds, not a speck of gray or black among them. The sun was out, the air and temperature were comfortable. It was the sort of day you used for picnics and barbecues, for outdoor sports, for swimming.

    But it hadn't turned out that way for the Delgado sisters.

    Caterina was at the wheel of the car. And every part of her brain that remembered 21st Century roads screamed she was on the wrong side of the road. It took a conscious effort to not correct well over a decade of memories of traveling on the right side of the road in order to remain on the left.

    After making a right turn, Cat suddenly faced a stationary delivery truck on the curb. The passengers behind her in the car cried out in surprise and fear just as she did. Even as she shrieked her instincts turned the wheel to the right. Their four-door car barely evaded the delivery truck.

    The truck heading right for them was another story.

    "Right!" Angel shouted. "Right!"

    Moving right sent them up a curb and on the sidewalk, but it evaded the head-on collision that would have put a complete, and fatal, stop to them. As soon as she could Caterina veered the car back onto the road and then to the left side. "Why can't you people drive on the right side?!" she cried out in irritation, not even intending the obvious pun.

    "Why can't Yanks?!" was the reply from the back seat, from someone as frightened as she was.

    I shouldn't be as frightened as them, Cat thought. Sure, there's a monster after us, but I've been through scary things before!

    "Everyone stay calm!" Angel insisted. Since she wasn't driving, she was busy tracking the signal they were trying to get to. "Make a left up here."

    Cat did so, onto a thankfully empty road. She kept her speed up.

    And then the road wasn't so empty.

    The thing dropped from the sky, a giant brown-and-red-feathered albatross with a cane wrapped in its talons. The moment it hit the ground the form shifted, turning sickly green and becoming an immobile mass before it reformed into a humanoid shape, a heavy-set male in a dark suit. In the back the two passengers shrieked in surprise and horror.

    There was a sinister smile on the creature's face as it drew up the cane.

    Cat knew what that meant. Her mind raced, numbers flashed through her head, and so she did the only thing she calculated would work.

    She slammed down on the accelerator.

    The car's engine roared in reply. The vehicle accelerated. Ahead of them, energy began to form around the cane.

    Everyone in the car let out an involuntary scream.

    Just as the cane seemed to reach a peak energy spike, the car slammed into the being holding it. An explosion of viscous green mass covered the front of the car before sliding off and falling behind them.

    "You killed it," the girl in the back gasped.

    "I don't know if I did," Cat answered.

    "No, you didn't," Angel said. She was looking at her omnitool's scanner function. "It's already reforming."

    Cat checked her side view mirror. The green matter was flowing back toward the cane, now alone in the road. "We need to keep going," she said. "If we can get to that power source, we can call for help."

    The two people in the back nodded. Angel looked back to see they were holding hands. "How are you two…? Elton and Ursula, right?"

    "Right," answered Elton. His face was drawn and pale. "We're uh… well, we're…."

    "...as fine as can be, I think," Ursula finished for him. Her face was just as pale, and her eyeglasses were nearly ready to fall off.

    Angel nodded. "Right. So not fine at all." She turned back in her seat and checked the omnitool. "Okay, make a right up here. I think this will take us where we need to go."

    They made another turn, and further down another, and soon they were away from the small shops and apartment-style buildings and in a suburban neighborhood. The sisters had seen such a few times growing up, visiting relatives in Wichita and Kansas City, although there hadn't been much in the way of such housing in the wide open grain fields of rural Kansas and the small town they had called home.

    "Slow down," Angel urged, and Cat did so. Angel held up her forearm toward her left as houses went by, slower and slower. Finally she said, "Here, but keep going."

    Cat almost asked why but stopped herself. Their pursuer knew the car. Parking along the street would keep them from being easily discovered. She drove on for about three houses until she pulled the car along the curb and stopped.

    "We can't just leave the car in the middle of the street," protested Ursula. "The police will…"

    "We'll worry about the police after we deal with the monster that wants to consume us." Angel checked the base of her back, where her pulse pistol was still in its hidden holster. To someone from this world it would look like a prop or a toy, which would be of help if they had to deal with local authorities.

    The four started to walk faster, and eventually jog, as they returned to the house they had determined was the source of the readings. "Are you sure this is a place to get help?" asked Elton. He looked up at the house, which looked to have three stories. "From something like that?"

    Caterina's omnitool flashed to life around her forearm. "This house is definitely the source of the power readings. Whatever is in there has to be powerful enough to break through this jamming."

    "I wonder if whoever lives here knows what they've got," Angel murmured. She led the four up to the door. Elton and Ursula kept an eye on the skies and on the road, as if any moment the monster might come back after them.

    When they got to the door Angel and Caterina exchanged looks. It was clear they might have quite a time explaining things to the occupant of the house. It would have been worse if they had come down in field uniform, but the mission had called for them to dig out their "21st Century" clothing. Angel was in her leather jacket and tan-colored blouse with blue jeans. Caterina, meanwhile, was in a comfortable blue T-shirt with the likeness of a lab-coat clad figure on the front holding a bubbling beaker, a comic book-style dialogue balloon above the figure proclaiming "This situation calls for SCIENCE!". Given all of the running they had done, Caterina was thankful she'd listened to her sister's advice, and that of her girlfriend Violeta, and worn the pair of black uniform trousers she had on instead of the skirts she normally favored.

    Angel looked over the front door and easily identified the doorbell. "This is going to be tough. How do we explain to someone that there might be super-advanced tech in their house and that we're being chased by some kind of shapeshifter monster thing?"

    "I'm… well, I'm not sure," Cat admitted, almost stuttering. She felt less comfortable now than she had trying to drive a vehicle on the left side of the road through the Greater London area.

    "Right. Let's do this." Angel hit the doorbell again.

    "Are you sure this is going to work?" Ursula asked. She and Elton were several steps behind.

    Angel and Cat looked at each other and nodded. "No," they answered in unison.

    A moment later the door opened.

    The occupant of the house was a woman, middle-aged, with light skin. Brown hair framed a face worn with age, with dark eyes that showed curiosity and intelligence. "Hello," she said. It was no surprise her accent was English, and her blue blouse and brown knee-length skirt were the kind of comfortable at-home wear one might expect a woman of her age and means to have.

    Angel glanced to Cat as she struggled to think of what to say. "Well, ma'am, we're…"

    "...it's going to s-sound crazy but we-we're, well, we're not from here and I don't m-mean w-we're not En-English or British o-or that," Cat began. Her cheeks were turning red and her speech was both stammered and rapid. Caterina couldn't keep the anxious look from her face. "And I'm rambling but you n-need to know that th-there's something h-her on your pr-property and w-we kind of n-need it to g-get help and th-there's this really…" Caterina stopped and took a breath.

    The woman watched patiently, more curious than confused or irritated.

    "This is going to sound insane but we're not from your Earth, we're interuniversal travelers who were sent to look into some strange energy readings here in London including one from your house…" Now Cat had enough control to stop stuttering, but she was talking rapid fire as if she were afraid to let the sentence stop. "...and we found this one thing in an old warehouse or something where these people were meeting and there was this monster that can absorb people and its after us and we really need to call for help but there's a jamming field over London that's blocking our communications and…"

    It was clear Cat was desperately out of breath. She stopped long enough to take in a breath and gave the house's resident time to speak. "It's alright, young lady, you'll be safe here," the woman answered. "What's your name?"

    "Caterina. Caterina Delgado. This is my sister Angel," Cat managed between more breaths. "And these people are Elton and Ursula, the monster is after them too."

    "Well, Caterina, my name is Sarah Jane Smith." The woman gestured for them to enter. "It looks like you and your sister have quite the story to tell…"

    Undiscovered Frontier
    "A Tale of Two Sisters"




    The living room of the house was comfortably furnished; the resident clearly had money to spare. The sisters were in first, with their hostess holding the door open for Elton and Ursula. The latter two were still visibly shaken from the day's events. "If you'll give me a moment, I'll see about some tea." Sarah Jane gestured to her couch and chairs. "Go ahead and have a seat."

    "Ms. Smith, I don't mean to be rude, but there's something really nasty coming after us," Angel said. "And to get help we need to find the source of a power reading our scanners are picking up in your home. I know that might seem unbelievable…"

    "You don't need to be so formal, you can call me Sarah or Sarah Jane. As for unbelievable…" A knowing smile crossed the woman's face. "...I'm quite familiar with the unbelievable myself. So, when you say you're from a different universe, do you mean an alternate timeline or a completely different cosmos from mine?"

    "A different sixth-dimensional location," Caterina answered. "Or at least, if you're going by what we call the O'palani-Fujisawa Theory of Multiversal Dimensional Structure."

    Sarah Jane looked from Angel to Caterina. "Now that does sound new. And you say you can detect a strong power source in my home?"

    "Yes ma'am," Cat replied.

    "And what are you running from?"

    "Some kind of absorbing creature…"

    Before Angel could finish, Elton said, "The Absorbaloff."

    The two sisters and their hostess looked to him. "What?" they asked together.
    "It's some kind of monster that, well, absorbs things," he continued. "It absorbed our friends."

    "And I figure it's going to find us and absorb us if we don't get to that power source," Angel insisted, trying to direct everyone back on track. "Whatever it is, if you just let us scan for it I'm sure we'll…"

    "I'm quite certain of what you're looking for," Sarah Jane said, interrupting her. "But I'd like to know what you intend to do with it."

    "Break through the jamming that's cutting us off from our ship," Cat replied. "And then we can call for help."

    "A ship you say? What kind?"

    Again Angel and Caterina exchanged wary looks. This wasn't at all what they imagined this conversation would be. At the same time, they knew there were rules about this sort of thing, rules they would break if they let Sarah Jane and Elton and Ursula know where they came from.

    "A gesture of trust is what I'm looking for," Sarah Jane explained. "Tell me where you come from and if I think you're being honest about it, I'll help you as best as I can."

    It was Caterina who spoke first. "We came here on a kilometer-long starship called the Aurora that has an interuniversal jump drive. We're from the United Alliance of Systems and I'll tell you more, but please help us first, that absorbing creature was reforming when we last saw it and I don't know how easy it'll be for it to follow us."

    Angel looked at Cat with clear worry in her eyes. She'd just violated a host of regulations and rules about these situations. It could land her in deep trouble when they were home. But it was clear from the look in Cat's hazel eyes that she didn't care at the moment.

    It was surprising to both that Sarah Jane was so unflappable about it, as if this was nothing too far outside of her normal everyday experience. She seemed to be quietly pondering Cat's explanation. "Alright," she finally said. "Let me show you something." She looked to the couch where Elton and Ursula were holding hands and clearly trying to recover from severe fright. "When I get back, I'll get some tea for you."

    Angel and Cat exchanged quizzical looks before following Sarah Jane up the steps to the top floor of her cozy-looking home. They entered what looked to be an attic converted into an office space or study room. Sarah Jane stepped across the room and faced what looked like an old fireplace. "Mister Smith, I need you," she said, no urgency in her tone.

    At first the two expected a husband to show up from a hidden door or perhaps from a nearby chair they hadn't noticed. Instead there was a sudden mechanical noise. Pieces of wall and what they had thought was the converted fireplace shifted and separated, allowing a computer station to slide out into the room. The screen came on with an oscillating pattern. "Yes, Miss Smith?" a computerized voice inquired.

    Angel and Cat exchanged shocked looks. Caterina immediately brought up her left forearm. Her omnitool appeared and she brought the scanner feature online, a specialized scanner more capable than Angel's.

    "We have guests today," said their hostess. "And they say a dangerous being may be pursuing them."

    "Scanners detect an extraterrestrial energy pattern and life sign moving within a ten kilometer radius. It appears to be circling the area. I will activate defense mode for the house should the pattern appear to move toward us."

    "I don't believe this," Cat gasped, looking over her sensor readings. "This computer… the processing power, the storage medium… a neural pattern… how did you get something like this? Where?" The urgency of the situation had clearly given way to raw curiosity.

    "That is another secret, young lady, and a longer story," Sarah Jane answered, smiling. She noticed the omnitool. "That's an interesting device you have. A holographic interface?"

    "Yes, it's called an omnitool. It's from Universe M4P2." Cat lowered the arm and ceased her scans. "I'm sorry, I was just so curious about 'Mr. Smith'. This computer technology is some of the most advanced I've ever seen. And you've got some kind of complex neural network intelligence running it and I would just love to know more..."

    "How about we go down and get your friends some tea to calm their nerves." Sarah Jane smiled knowingly. "And then you can tell me more about where you came from."

    When they stepped out and got back to the stairs, Angel gave a wary look toward Caterina and stopped her while Sarah Jane started down them. "Cat, be careful," Angel warned. "There are rules and regulations about how much we can tell her."

    "I know, but think about it, Angel." Cat looked down the stairs, where Sarah Jane was already moving toward her kitchen, before facing her sister again. "That computer… it might be more advanced than the best Darglan computers we know about. Whoever Sarah Jane is, she clearly knows far more than any average person on this world. The risk of some society-warping revelation isn't that big a thing. And if we're going to get her to help us, we need to share trust. We showed some, she showed some."

    "And now we show more." Angel sighed and nodded. Caterina did make sense, even if Angel feared a Stellar Navy bureaucrat wouldn't make a distinction.

    They went down the stairs and found seats. Within a minute Sarah Jane came out of the kitchen with a platter of cups and a teapot and what looked like cookies. "Thankfully I had just made a pot. I've put another one on. And some biscuits if you're hungry." She finished pouring the cups and took the last seat, facing her four guests with an amiable look. "I'm sure you've had a busy day already, young ladies." She focused her eyes on the sisters. "Now, you said something about being with an alliance of systems, and a ship called the Aurora?"

    "Yeah, we're senior officers on the ship," Cat said.

    Sarah Jane gave her an intent, questioning look. "You're rather young."

    "Well, it's a very long, complicated story about how we got to that point," Angel said. "And it involves the foundation of the Alliance. Do you mind if we focus on why we're here, on your Earth? And what's happened?" She eyed a window. "Preferably before we get into trouble with whatever that thing was."

    "Absorbaloff," Elton said, eyeing his tea without drinking any.

    "I'm… I'm not calling it that," Angel said.

    "Let's go with why you're here," Sarah Jane said.

    "Alright." Angel sipped at the tea. The taste wasn't something she enjoyed, but after the stress and activity of the day, and the length of time since breakfast, she enjoyed the mere sensation of taste.

    Caterina was enjoying it far more, and happily chewed on one of the offered biscuits while waiting for Angel to begin.




    The void of space was suddenly disturbed by a blink of green light, light that expanded into a vortex of green energy. The Starship Aurora emerged from the vortex, running lights proudly displaying her name and, along the ship's side, her registry number. The sleek kilometer long starship flew on from the point and turned toward the distant yellow spark that was Sol. Her four engine nacelles, arranged in a flat sideways X around the drive section of her hull, erupted in blue light. An instant later the ship was hurtling away from its arrival point at a speed faster than light.

    On the bridge of the ship, Caterina and Angel were in their customary positions, manning the Sensor and Tactical stations. Robert Dale and Julia Andreys, the ship's Captain and First Officer, were in their seats. Jarod was at Operations, Locarno at Navigation - in short, everyone was where they were supposed to be. And for good reason.

    "Nothing on long range sensors," Cat confirmed, and she was clearly trying to keep the nervousness out of her voice. It had been three years since they were last in Universe Designate W8R4, and she would never forget what had happened the last time. Bringing that containment unit to the Facility had been her greatest mistake, and it had cost them all.

    Hearing Caterina's report gave those on the bridge some ease. "Well, at least we know that the Daleks aren't in this area," Robert said. "Maybe we'll be establishing a colony in W8R4 after all."

    "Let's make sure we don't pop the champagne bottles too early." Julia gave him an amused look. "We've got some surveying to do. Mister Locarno, what's our ETA to Earth's solar system?"

    Locarno confirmed that with a quick triple-check of his math. "We'll arrive at the safe scanning point during the overnight hours."

    Robert looked at Julia. "Go ahead and schedule our weekly meeting for 0830, then."

    Julia tapped keys at her console. "Done. I hope everyone gets a good rest. And don't bother with breakfast. Hargert says he's going to treat us."

    "Hargert always treats us," Jarod observed, smiling.




    When the bridge watch ended for the two sisters, Angela and Caterina both caught the turbolift. "Going to the Lookout?" Angel asked. "Or will you go for replicated dinner?"

    "Actually, Violeta and I are going to have a dinner date on the holodeck," Cat answered. "She has the reservation ready and everything."

    "Replicator food isn't my best idea of a date." Angel looked away briefly. "Take us to Deck 4."

    "Well, it's not all replicator food. Hargert let her use the kitchen for our desert. It's this chocolate fondue stuff and a cake."

    "Mom used to keep you from indulging that sweet tooth," Angel said. 'Maybe I should have too. Otherwise you might become my plump little sister."

    Cat laughed and shook her head. "Don't worry, we burn the calories away." After a moment Cat realized what she said, and what it could mean, and her cheeks turned to red. "Not like that!... well, sometimes like that. And sometimes both and..."

    Angel rolled her eyes. "Cat, while I'm happy you've found someone and I even like her, I really don't need to hear about your sex life."

    "No, I mean, yes, Violeta and I make love sometimes, but sometimes we just cuddle, and we burn calories in the holodeck running Ultimate Fantasy." Cat noticed a sad look appearing on Angel's face. "You can still come, if you want. We have a spot for a monk."

    "I am not dressing up in that silly gown with that feather in my headband, it doesn't even look like a proper kung fu monk outfit," Angel insisted. "And that's final."

    The turbolift door had opened by now. The sisters walked out of it and moved down the hall toward their quarters.

    "Oh, come on." Cat sighed. "Since you and Robert broke up, I thought you'd have more time to…" Caterina stopped speaking. Her hand went to her mouth, in recognition of what her thoughts had led her to say before the rest of her brain could tell her not to. "I'm sorry," she said.

    And she had reason to. A pained look came over Angel's face. "It was never going to last," she insisted. "It never does. I knew that going in."
    Caterina nearly protested. This time she stopped herself. Nothing she could say would make Angel feel better. Desperately, she tried to change the subject completely. "Do you think we'll do any field team studies of Earth?"

    "It's a 21st Century Earth. And it's probably no different from any other," Angel said. "So no, I doubt we'll do any field team studies."

    "I wish we would," Cat said. "It's been awhile since I was on a field team."

    "The last time you beamed down for a field mission, it was the Gamma Piratus Facility, and the Nazis almost killed you."

    "Yeah. But a trip through a 21st Century town or city or whatever wouldn't have Nazis. Well, unless it was another timeline where they won or at least didn't get destroyed or something… what I guess I'm saying is I wouldn't mind getting to go on a field mission again."

    "The last time I was on a field mission, Cat, it was an unofficial one." Angel crossed her arms. "In fact, now that I think about it, I haven't done an official field mission since Rob took me and Lucy to infiltrate the Mayala."

    "Maybe we should ask to go together next time," Cat suggested. "Just for the chance to get off of the ship."

    "Maybe." Their walking had led them to Angel's quarters. "Listen, Cat, I appreciate that you want to make me feel loved and that I'm not spending all of my time alone now. But I want you to stop worrying about me. Go enjoy your time with Violeta. You've more than earned it." A grin crossed Angel's face before she gave her sister a peck of a kiss on her forehead.

    Caterina tried to think of what to say next, but there was no time. Angel shut the door of her quarters All Caterina could do was sigh and head on to her own quarters to get ready.




    Caterina was due for dinner, and was taking the moment to make sure she looked ready for it. Thus she was standing in front of the largest mirror in her quarters wearing the ocean blue evening dress that Violeta had bought her in Venice, a shimmering garment of silk and other materials that was cut below her shoulders, exposing her arms and shoulders completely while the rest hugged her body for support. Looking at herself in the mirror, Caterina had the thought that Violeta had picked out the dress for her because it showed she did, in fact, have curves, if not very prominent curves. A little pink came to her cheeks at that thought. The flutter in her heart had a different source: the idea that Violeta intentionally bought the dress to help Cat deal with her body image worries.

    The smile she was wearing was certainly proof of that, as was Caterina's appearance. She'd spent some time with makeup, more than she usually did, in the effort to look nice for the girlfriend who had been so thoughtful toward her.

    It was a short trip to Holodeck 3, mostly by turbolift to Deck 14. When she arrived the chamber was already active with a loaded program and a privacy lock. Putting in her personal code opened the door for Cat.

    She walked into a warm, comfortable environment, a restaurant patio with beautiful glass tables framed by hand-crafted iron stands. The chairs were similarly artisan-crafted, with leather seating. Mosaic tile beneath her feet depicted nature scenes from sunny oceans to forest-covered hills and mountains. A pair of moons, one silver and waxing almost to full and the other azure and in its last quarter, filled the night sky and gave the great bay and town encircling it a persistent halo of moonlight.

    The program was running several simulated diners, giving a further warmth to the locale. Caterina scanned around and found where Violeta was standing beside their table, a tray beside it with their meal and dessert. Violeta was in a backless dining dress, black with silver trim, with a single loop around her neck. When she turned it revealed the front of the dress. The loop was linked to the two sides of the dress, and that was only sides. It had no plunging neckline like other fancy dresses might, because to call it a "plunging" line would be an understatement. The "split", as it was, went all the way down to Violeta's navel. The dress flowed down from her waist to her heels, with splits along the sides. Violeta's hair, like hers, was short, but it still grabbed attention given its rich purple color, matched by the violet of her eyes.

    Caterina felt a lump in her throat. "You are stunning," was all she could manage while her cheeks turned pink. She felt suddenly self-conscious of her appearance and the nagging feeling that no amount of makeup or pretty dresses would ever make her someone close to Violeta in attractiveness. An old worry of being utterly unworthy of her girlfriend's affection stirred inside.

    Violeta stepped up and, with a gentle smile and a kiss, dispelled that thought. She took Caterina's hand. "You're just in time," she said. "And you look lovely." They walked to the table. "Do you mind if I have the system take some holo-images? My parents want to see more of us together."

    "They do?"

    "Of course. They're happy for us."

    "Oh, well, sure," Cat said. She nodded. "Take pictures if you want."

    "Thank you." Violeta was grinning widely. "Now for my secret. My parents send me care packages. Meals from home, or my favorite restaurants, packed in stasis containers to keep them fresh."

    Cat gasped at that. "That must cost them a lot."

    "Not as much as you think. Stasis generators are getting cheaper by the day." Violeta reached to the tray and took out three containers. "This is from Gregorio's Cafe and Bistro, which is what my holoprogram is re-creating for us. It's a fine Mediterranean cuisine restaurant in Pariana Cove. We have an apartment in town that we used for vacations when I was growing up." She gestured to the cove. "As much as I wanted to get out into space, if anything would bring me back to Sirius, it'd be Pariana Cove."

    "It reminds me of those little towns we saw along the Adriatic," Cat said.

    "That's right. And that's because the earliest settlers of Sirius' tertiary continent were from the Adriatic. Italians, Greeks, and Croats, some Montenegrins and Albanians. That's why they named the continent Adriatica. My father's family came from there." Violeta opened one of the food containers. Inside were warm breadsticks that smelled of butter, parmesan, and garlic. "Maybe when we can get an extended leave I can take you here. You can see it for yourself."

    "When we can get a leave. Whenever that happens." Cat sighed. As much as she was enjoying this, she felt a little rush of guilt, and she couldn't hide it.

    Violeta noticed it too. And she knew why. "You're still feeling bad for your sister, aren't you?"

    Cat nodded quietly. "I'm sorry," she said. "That's not fair to you."

    "I understand." Violeta ceased from opening the next food container for the moment. She reached across the table and took Cat's hand. "Cat, you don't have to feel guilty that you're worried about her."

    "That's…" Cat shook her head as she thought of what to say. "That's not why I feel this way. I guess I feel… I feel that part of it is my fault."

    "How?"

    "Because I'm not there for her as often as I used to be," Caterina explained. "I'm with you, and I'm happy, and I love being with you, and now it feels like I'm leaving Angel behind. Even though she's alone now."

    Violeta nodded. "I see. Did you invite her to…"

    "She won't play Ultimate Fantasy with us. I've tried."

    "Maybe she wants to be alone then?"

    "I don't know… Maybe it's just that she doesn't want to cause us to have any problems. She's just looking out for me like that, even if it hurts her." Caterina shook her head. "Oh, I don't know. I'll talk to her later about it, but it's not fair to you that I ruin tonight because I'm worried about Angel. I'll talk to her later."

    Violeta nodded. "Fair enough." She opened the next container. "This is a sausage and spinach lasagna that is the best anyone will ever have…"




    Across Deck 14, Holodeck 5 was also active. Inside it was emulating a boggy forest, with thick fogs covering the ground around a set of ruins.

    A fierce growl echoed in the air, warning Angel to duck before the monstrous-looking alien with a head that was almost like a human skull swiped at her with a blade. She retaliated with a snap kick that knocked it off balance and a roundhouse kick to send it flying.

    Another monster was coming up behind her, looking like an overgrown ape. Angel ducked its blow and twisted with her elbow out, smashing it in the head with an elbow strike. She threw a punch that sent a spurt of pain through her knuckles but which also threw the creature onto its back.

    With both opponents down, Angel stood and took several breaths, her hands resting against her hips. She was in exercise wear - olive brown sports bra, black shorts, sneakers - with her long dark hair pulled back into a ponytail to keep it out of the way while she exercised her skills in a way that would certainly have drawn a remark or two from Zack or Barnes about her need to "beat things up".

    "It looks like that mok'bara program wasn't the only thing Worf left us," a new voice said.

    Angel looked to where the entrance way, once-hidden, was now visible. Julia stepped in wearing the same kind of garments she was, save her shorts and sports bra were both of the same command branch burgundy red that her duty uniform had. The similar clothing did much to reveal the differences in their physiques. Julia's statuesque athletic build, her muscle lean in shape, was in contrast to the thick, developed muscle on Angel's limbs and belly. She had her vivid blond hair in the same ponytail she favored for standard duty.

    But while Angel was carrying nothing on her, Julia had a belt over her waist, with two rods hanging from it.

    Angel noted that before saying, "Yeah. I've been trying it a lot lately."

    "Well, beating the crap out of something has always been one of your favorite ways to relieve stress." Julia smiled at that. "I'm just happy it's not me."

    "I apologized for that bruised rib from last time."

    "So you did." Julia looked around. "So this is Worf's calisthenics program?"

    "He left it for me."

    "Well, he was aboard just long enough to get an idea of what you can be like," Julia noted. She looked around for another moment before looking down at the defeated enemies. "Looks like I'm late. You're already done."

    "I'm just getting started," Angel responded.

    "Mind if I join you?" Julia took the rods from her belt. "I've been working on my eskrima lately."

    "Really?" Angel nodded. "That Dorei girl?"

    Julia shrugged. "Seeing Druni fight reminded me of the couple of lessons I took years ago. I don't think I'll ever be a master at it, but Mr. Pembroke always said I shouldn't be afraid to learn new styles."

    "Just so long as you don't bring those things to our fights," Angel said.
    "Of course not. So, ready?"

    "Computer, reset program." At Angel's command, her two defeated foes were back on their feet, side by side. Julia stepped up to Angel's left and brought her weapons up into a ready stance. "Begin."

    The two opponents started to shift and move. "So, who takes the ugly one?" Julia asked.

    At that Angel smirked. "That depends. Which one is the ugly one?"

    Julia answered with a smirk of her own. "Well, there's always eenie meenie…"

    Before she could finish, the computer sent the two foes at them. The one with the skull head went for Julia, leaving the furry one for Angel. She ducked its first blow, which was high and too wild, and retaliated with a punch to the mid-section that stunned the creature for long enough that she could follow up with a knee smash to its forehead.

    Beside her Julia sidestepped and evaded two blows from the other monster before she slammed one of the eskrima sticks into its arm at the shoulder. It favored that limb as it stepped back a moment. Julia braced herself and waited for the renewed attack. When it came she blocked two punches with her weapons before the creature opened itself up. Julia kicked it in the knee to bring it down to a knee. The moment it was she smacked it in the head with both weapons, one loud crack following the next seconds later. Her opponent collapsed.

    Angel had her foe by the arm. She twisted it in place to force the furry thing to its knees and delivered an elbow chop to its upper arm with enough force that a human being might have had their arm or shoulder broken by the blow. She followed up by a kick to the neck and head that knocked her foe out.

    Julia sucked in a deep breath and crossed her arms. "Well, that was quick."

    "Too quick." Angel looked over to her. "Can I ask you something?"

    "Sure. You can ask anything." A sly grin crossed Julia's face. "You didn't ask if you may, though, so I might not answer."

    "For that grammar nazi behavior, I really should slap you," Angel retorted. She was grinning regardless. But the grin soon took a serious edge to it. "Are you going tell Maran 'yes'?"

    To that, Julia remained silent for a moment. "I'm thinking about it, and that's all I can really say," she admitted.

    "Right."

    "Why do you ask?"

    "I was just thinking." Angel's hazel eyes had a distant look to them, at least to Julia's perspective. "I mean, Rob and I are done for good. That's pretty clear. And Cat's got a girlfriend now and doesn't need her big sister hovering over her all the time. Zack's got his ship and Clara, Tom's got whatever he does, and Leo is Leo and always doing his own thing with medicine. And Lucy's… well, she's doing the life powers thing with Rob… I guess what I'm saying is that if you go… I've got nothing here."

    Julia remained silent at that.

    "Training with you, sparring with you, it's like that's all I've got left for a personal life," Angel confessed. And despite the usual rough edge to her tone, Julia thought there was a real vulnerability that was making her voice waver. "So if you go and become captain of the Enterprise…"

    "You want to come with me?" Julia asked.

    Angel remained silent for a moment. "Maybe," she said. "Likely."

    Julia nodded at that. "I'll let you know if I say yes to Maran, then. And I'll tell him you're one of my picks for my senior staff."

    "Thanks." The word felt almost hollow. Like a part of Angel had wanted her to say no. But she hadn't, and now Angel, despite the answers of "maybe" and "likely", felt committed. She wasn't sure she liked that. She drew in a breath and frowned. "Hell, that was too easy. Want me to turn up the difficulty?"

    "Sure, I'm game."

    "Just don't complain about the bruises." With that remark, Angel was grinning again.




    A tone woke Caterina up. She opened her eyes in the groggy fashion you'd expect from someone who had enjoyed fine wine for dinner. A lock of purple hair dominated her vision . Violeta was laying against her and stirring slightly as well.

    The tone went off again, piercing the sleepiness that was keeping Caterina from awakening fully. She twisted away from the warmth of her girlfriend and reached over with an arm to her nightstand, where the small elbow-band and wristband that were the physical accoutrements of her advanced omnitool. The wristband had a bright light shining over it. She hit it. "Uh… Delgado here."

    "I'm sorry for waking you, Lieutenant." It was Ensign Popov, a young Russian man who served as Gamma Shift's sensor officer. "But we just arrived at our scan point and we're getting some bizarre readings. I think you should see this."

    "Well, where are they coming from?" Cat asked.

    "From Earth."

    Cat sat up in bed. For them to call her at this time of night over this meant this wasn't just some random energy surge. There was something truly out of the ordinary going on. And given what universe they were in, that could mean trouble. If there was even the slightest chance of the Daleks finding them… No, she couldn't think like that.

    "Let me get ready, I'll be in Science Lab 1 as soon as I can," Cat said. The time on her nightstand showed it was 0430 ship time. She yawned as she climbed out of bed, bound for the shower and Science Lab 1.




    When Angel woke up, it was just past 0500. It had not been a restful sleep for her. Many of them these days weren't. She'd seen too much, heard too much, done too much. Tonight her dreams had been bad. Dreams of being a child, of Cat missing in a store and her mother yelling at her, accusing her of letting Cat get into trouble, of not protecting her when she needed it. "You have let me down," she heard her father declare, in a voice she hadn't heard since she was a little girl. "We needed you to be stronger."

    Now Angel was sitting upright in her bed, alone. The images in her head took time to fade away. Images of Cat dead or hurt, images of Rob, of the others.

    By all rights she shouldn't care about Rob right now. She'd opened herself to him again and once more he'd let other things come between them. The cycle had continued on. But now she meant to break it. She wasn't going to waste time on a relationship going nowhere, not when they faced potential death out here.

    Which is why I should act like everything is normal. Like I did before we got back together. No sulking, no refusing to be around him. It's over, for good. Just be his friend.

    It didn't hurt, or help, that she still cared so deeply for him.

    "To hell with this," Angel finally muttered to herself. She stood and went for the shower. There was still a couple of hours before the staff meeting, more than enough time to get some practice in at the punching bags.




    When everyone gathered for the morning's staff meeting, it was obvious that Caterina had already been up for hours. She immediately took offered coffee from Hargert while his assistants laid out a variety of breakfast selections for them; breakfast ham and bacon, eggs made in various ways, hashed potatoes, toast and breakfast rolls with a variety of jellies or butter to put them with.

    "You said something about unfamiliar energy signatures from Earth?" Julia asked, sipping at her own coffee.

    "Yes." Caterina put hers down. She tapped a key and activated the monitor display, showing a variety of energy signatures in the form of wave and oscillation patterns. "It's not just one either. I mean, we've got evidence of hyperspace taps. We've got subspace ripple effects consistent with advanced energy generation. I'm even picking up fluctuations consistent with a tear in space-time. There's more than one kind of advanced technology in evidence on this Earth, even though our scans confirm that the cities, population spread, and atmospheric state are all consistent with an average Earth of the early 21st Century."

    "Why didn't we see this before?" Julia asked Caterina. "We profiled this Earth years ago."

    "With the Kelley, and using long range probes," Jarod said as reminder. "The sensors built into the Aurora are more sophisticated."

    "Not to mention we weren't looking for these kinds of anomalies back then, we were more interested in finding out if there were any problems we could get involved with." Robert looked back to the readings. "This is definitely something to investigate further. Admiral Maran and Secretary Saratova are looking for anything that would complicate placing colonies in this universe. Finding out there is active, advanced alien involvement on Earth falls under that."

    "Well, we could get closer, but there's no telling what sensors they might have looking this way."

    "Aye." Scott nodded at Jarod's words. "They cud be seein' th' Aurora right now for all we know."

    "Any suggestions, Scotty?" Robert asked him.

    "We definitely need t' stay out o' Earth's orbit," Scott replied. "I wud suggest th' far side o' th' Moon. Or even Martian orbit."

    "And then what, we use probes?" Julia asked.

    "No, I dinnae think that will give us what we need." Scott looked deep in thought for a moment. "Some o' th' runabouts with cloaking systems might work. They're small enough that they're hard t' detect if we're careful."

    Julia asked, "So we use runabouts to ferry field teams?"

    "Aye, that's what we need. We investigate th' sources o' these transmissions on th' ground. Carefully. Maybe then we can see what we're dealin' with."

    Robert and Julia exchanged looks. "Alright," Robert said. "Julia will draw up the field teams we're sending down. We use teams of two in constant communication with a runabout equipped appropriately."

    "The Bastilone should work," Kane suggested. "She's made for infiltration ops."

    "I want to pair off one science or engineering expert with one bodyguard." Seeing the look on Julia's face, Robert nodded. "Julia will be in direct command from the Bastilone while I keep the ship near Mars."

    "We're the best suited for something like this," Jarod said. "This is our native century. With a couple of exceptions." Jarod needn't nod toward Scotty or Locarno to elaborate.

    "I'll go down," Cat announced. "I really want to get a first hand look at what's down there."

    Angel tried to stop the sigh that resulted. It was clear to Robert and Julia that she didn't want her sister going down. "Well, you're our science officer," Julia said, "And this is the sort of field mission we want you on. So yes, of course you're going."

    "I'd like to go too," Angel announced. "To protect Cat, or whoever else you want to pair me with." Seeing the looks, she added, "I haven't done an official field mission in a year and a half. It's my time to contribute."

    "Generally speaking, as the tactical officer we usually need you at tactical," Robert reminded her gently. "But since we're likely to not face any problems in space, I agree."

    "Jarod, Tom, you're both going down as well." Julia looked to Kane and Meridina. "As are you two. And Lucy, of course. We'll report to the shuttle bay at 1200 hours. Cat, go ahead and get another science officer to join us for a fifth team."

    "I will assign an officer to go with Lucy," Meridina said.

    "It sounds like you've got everything in hand," Robert said to Julia.

    "Almost." Julia looked back to the others. "I'll repeat this in the runabout for those who aren't here, but for our benefit, remember: we're skirting the laws of the Alliance with this mission. Admiral Maran's orders allow us to make a survey like this, but contact regulations still apply. W8R4 Earth falls under the contact limitations regulations of the Stellar Navy and the Pre-Spaceflight Societal Protection Act. Whatever happens, we can't talk about who we are or what we are to anyone down there. We can't do anything that might overtly impact the development of this Earth."

    "Right," Caterina said. "We don't tell anyone we're explorers from another universe who fly in a starship with interuniversal drive. Or we get in trouble."

    "Exactly. If that has to happen, it needs to come from me or from Robert. And I doubt it'll be necessary." Julia looked to Robert. "Is there anything else?"

    He shook his head. "No. That does it on this matter. Let's finish breakfast and then you can get ready for the mission. I'll send a report back to Admiral Maran before you go."

    "Oh, good." Caterina drank more coffee and went to the cart of breakfast dishes Hargert's assistants had rolled in. "Because I'm starving."




    There was a content look on Cat's face as she finished one of the offered biscuits. Angel, on the other hand, had only sipped at the offered tea.

    "So you're actually from a spaceship?" Elton asked.

    "And another universe?" Ursula added.

    Angel signed and looked to Cat, who shrugged. "Yes," she sighed, nodding. "I mean, I figured the pulse pistol and the omnitools gave something away…"

    "I can see why your Alliance has such rules," Sarah Jane noted. "Knowledge of the wider universe, or Multiverse I should say, would have a severe impact on our world."

    "So says the lady with the alien computer," Angel answered.

    A gentle smile came to the Englishwoman's face. "Yes. I am not your average person in these matters, I admit. I've had my share of encounters with alien beings and civilizations." Sarah Jane looked to Caterina. "I do appreciate your concerns with speaking to me about this, though."

    "So you'll help us?" Cat asked. "Because we need to get ahold of the Bastilone. Julia, I mean, Commander Andreys can get Ursula and Elton to safety, and we might have the firepower to take down this… Absorbaloff thing."

    "That is a dumb name," Angel sighed, shaking her head.

    "I'll assist you, yes." Sarah Jane stood. "Please follow me."

    "I'll stay down here and keep an eye on things," Angel said. She looked around the house, as if she expected the absorbing creature to pop through the wall.

    Caterina, meanwhile, followed Sarah Jane back up the stairs. "So your ship detected this creature from that far out?" Sarah Jane asked.

    "Oh, no. We didn't pick up the absorbing monster in any way until we were already in London."

    "What I'd like to know is why it's after two ordinary Londoners." Sarah Jane stepped into her attic with Cat behind her. "Mister Smith, are there any updates?"

    "The anomalous power source is still in this area and has reduced its search pattern. I believe it may be narrowing in on our location."

    "Thank you, Mister Smith. And I need you to act as a relay for a message this young lady is trying to send."

    "I'll tie in my omnitool to your system," Cat said. "And give you the information to make the call I need."

    "Very well. Accessing communications protocols."

    As Cat's omnitool linked to the alien supercomputer, Cat watched it with wide open eyes and a wider grin. "This is so cool," she breathed.

    "It is quite impressive, yes."

    Cat looked around the room. She could see some of the items were not of Earthly origin either. "I could spend hours in here just to see what else you have," Caterina admitted. "I love finding these things. Seeing new planets, new species, for the first time."

    The smile on Sarah Jane's face was one of fond memories, memories touched with a taste of bitterness, if only because they were the kind of thing she would presumably never do again. "I've seen things that few people have ever imagined," she said. "It never gets old."

    "There's so much to explore. So much to see. I'll never see it all, I mean, but at least I'll see more." Cat looked to her omnitool, which flashed on again. "It looks like I'm connecting partially to the Bastilone, but the jamming is a lot stronger than I thought."

    "Do you know where the jamming is coming from?" Sarah Jane asked.

    "No," Cat replied.

    "It appears to be a blanket subspace interference pattern, backed by electronic disturbance to deflect radio waves," Mr. Smith stated. "My analysis of your communications protocols confirms that the jamming is particularly suited to stopping your systems."

    "It seems that someone already knows about your Alliance," Sarah Jane remarked.

    "I'm not sure who," Cat answered. "We haven't had anything to do with this universe in years. All we did was send probes before. Do you have any idea who it can be?"

    "I do have a couple of ideas. I need to make a phone call."

    Caterina nodded and turned back to Mr. Smith while Sarah Jane went to get the phone. "Can you show me this interference pattern?" she asked.

    "Displaying now."

    When the information appeared on the screen Cat activated her omnitool and brought up her communication functions. "I might be able to alter…"

    Caterina was turning to the side, and thus toward the one window in the attic, when she saw the distant shape. A shape that soon was not so distant. She barely had time to jump away from the window before something crashed through it, sending glass flying all through the attic.

    Cat scrambled madly to her feet while the green mass now on the attic floor coalesced into a heavy set human form, the same one she had run over earlier. He brought the cane in his hand over toward her. "Well, quite the chase you have given me," he said, his voice deceptively Human.

    "What are you?"

    "You'll know soon enough." At its tip, the cane started to glow. "You'll be a part of something much greater, and I will find out just who and what you are."

    Caterina brought her arm up and hit a key on her omnitool. It activated the personal forcefield generator attached to her belt just as the cane finished charging. The pale light that swept toward her was stopped by the crackle of brighter blue light.

    "I'm going to enjoy this," the being said. "That field can't save you."

    And indeed it couldn't. Caterina's omnitool confirmed that whatever energy the cane was using, however it worked, it was disrupting her protective field. It wasn't going to run out of power, it was just going to fail.

    And then she would be absorbed.
     
  5. Threadmarks: 2-13-2
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    This was not what Cat had been expecting for her first field mission in months. Instead of quietly finding a signal in London likely to come from crashed alien technology or some other problem, she and Angel had ended up in the company of two local people being chased by a blob monster or something that sucked people into itself.

    And now that same monster was going to suck her in.

    Her omnitool warned Cat she had moments, if that, before the monster's bizarre cane could work its grotesque function. And then she would be dead, or trapped in some conscious way inside of the creature. She had to do something.

    Her eyes set on her omnitool. She remembered their briefing on them, on their functions and capabilities, two months ago when they were being issued. They'd been issued in the place of multidevices not simply because they were almost entirely hard-light constructs, and thus much lighter, but because that meant they could generate hard-light machinery or hardware to fulfill a function. They could access their microfusion cores to generate thermal energy and convert it into bursts of flame, create electrical fields, intense cold, and a few other functions.

    Cat knew she didn't have time for much, and her science model omnitool didn't include all of these defense capabilities… but it had at least one. She curled her fingers slightly, triggering the omnitool to activate that capability. A crackling burst of what looked like electricity shot from the blue hard-light construct around her and struck the creature. A stunned look came to the stout face and the cane came down as it shrieked in pain and frustration. Caterina scrambled back to her feet and went for the door.

    Sarah Jane and Angel came through it first. Angel pulled the pulse pistol from the small of her back and pointed it toward the thing. Blue-white pulses of energy smacked it repeatedly. Light, Caucasian-style skin began to turn green, as did his clothing.

    But it wasn't enough. The creature, now snarling, brought that cane over. His eyes swept across the wall and in their direction.

    As it did, Angel fired again, feeling she had little better to do. It did nothing.

    Cat peeked Sarah Jane's way. She was surprised to see the Englishwoman had pulled out a tube of lipstick. "What…?"

    Before she could finish the sentence, Sara Jane twisted the base. But instead of a bar of lipstick, what came out was the tip of a device of some sort, with a red-tinted diode. She held it toward the creature and the light lit up in a gentle red light. There was a brief whir in the air.

    The cane in the creature's hand suddenly sparked. He noticed it and, for the first time, a truly fearful, panicked look came to it. It turned and briefly became an amorphous blob of green before it had shifted again, this time into a great bird. It shot for the window, pulling its sparking cane with it.

    For a moment nobody moved. "What… what did you do?" Cat asked Sarah Jane. "What is that?"

    She smiled thinly. "A gift from a friend. A sonic device."

    "So it uses sonic waves to…?"

    "To do all sorts of things, actually," Sarah Jane said.

    Angel returned her gun to its small-of-back holster. She turned toward them. "Okay, what just happened?"

    "Your device messed up that thing's cane, or whatever absorbing technology is in it." Cat was still staring at the lipstick tube, which Sarah Jane was returning the cap to. "And the absorber is so important to it that it ran. Even when the pistol wasn't working."

    "It uses the cane to absorb things?"

    "Well…" Cat nodded. "Yeah. Or at least it did when we found it."

    "First things first," Angel said. "Were you able to get a hold of the Bastilone? Or even the Aurora?"

    Cat shook her head. "The jamming interference is keeping us from getting a stable signal out. I've got the omnitool's processor examining the jamming to see if we can find a frequency or something that goes through it, but it's going to take time."

    "I will be analyzing the field as well," stated the computer.

    "In the meantime, I'd like to hear more about what happened." Sarah Jane went to the door. "I'll be back shortly. Mister Smith, please conceal yourself."

    "Of course, Miss Smith," the computer answered. "I will inform you if I find a way through the jamming field." The machine pulled back into its hiding place. Cat muttered, "That is so cool" while Sarah Jane left the room.

    When she was gone Angel went straight to Cat and embraced her. "Are you okay?" she asked. "Did that thing hurt you?"

    "No. No, I'm fine," Cat insisted. She didn't resist the embrace, but after a moment she pulled away. "Our personal forcefields can resist the absorption effect briefly, but it was starting to bypass my field before I used a neural shock on it."

    Angel had a look of some surprise on her face. Cat was evidently not thinking about it, but for Angel, it was a shock to have Cat pull away from a supportive hug so quickly. She said nothing on that feeling, however, instead saying, "There's way more to this lady than it looks like. But I'm not sure how much more we should share with her."

    "Well, it's clear we're not causing any harm by being here, she clearly has her own extraterrestrial technology," Cat pointed out. "And we already told her where we're from. There's no harm in continuing to explain how the day's gone for us."

    "Badly, for the most part," Angel muttered. "I just feel uncomfortable about this. And that jamming field, it just doesn't fit…"

    Angel let that thought hang in the air between them without saying more, given she already heard the footsteps coming up the stairs. Moments later Sarah Jane entered with Elton and Ursula behind her. Both seemed to have regained some of their composure, even if they were clearly bewildered and scared. "It found us, didn't it?" Elton asked. "What's why the window broke."

    "Yes, but we scared it off," Sarah Jane said. She brought them to a couch, showed a couple more old chairs for the sisters to take, and took a final chair for herself. "Now, I'd like to hear you continue your story," she said to the sisters.

    Cat nodded. "Okay…"




    It was just a few minutes before 1200 ship time when Caterina came running into the shuttle bay. Much to her chagrin, everyone else was already present. "I'm not late, am I? I was just double-checking those scanner results we got and making sure my omnitool had them loaded and picking something to fit in..." Cat stopped at seeing the bemused expression on their faces.

    "It's fine, Cat," Julia promised her. "Let's get going." She nodded to Commander Kane, who took the lead in stepping into the Bastilone. Once aboard Lucy almost went to the helm station, if only by habit, but was stopped by the presence of Violeta. She smiled back toward them and especially to Cat, who smiled back. When she turned and saw the knowing smile on Lucy's face, Caterina's cheeks began to turn red.

    "I've got a full crew up here," Julia said, looking to Violeta and to the purple-skinned male Dorei officer in ops beige at the systems control station behind and beside Violeta. Julia slipped into the co-pilot seat beside the ensign. "How are our pre-flight checks?" she asked Violeta.

    "Everything is clear," Violeta replied.

    "The cloaking device is ready," the Dorei lieutenant at Ops said. Julia recalled his name was Havath, but she couldn't think of his first name.

    At the specialized engineering station was a young Turkish woman, Ensign Turkoglu, who added, "Fusion reactors online, impulse drives ready. I can bring the naqia reactor and warp drive online if necessary."

    "Hopefully that won't be." Julia hit a key on her station. "Bastilone to Aurora, we're preparing to depart."

    From the back of the control area of the lander runabout, Cat heard Lieutenant Jupap reply, in that chirping way common with Alakin speech, "You're cleared for launch, Bastilone."

    With the runabout launching Caterina slid into the back jump seat, or rather observation seat. Lucy was the only other one up here, while Angel had gone to the back. They said nothing while the launch went off without a problem. The Bastilone gently pushed itself from the shuttle bay of the Aurora with its own thrusters. Once it was out, now behind where the dorsal side of the primary hull slanted downward for over fifty meters before reaching the dorsal side of the secondary hull, the runabout's impulse drives quickly accelerated it away. It shimmered out of sight once Havath engaged the cloaking device.

    Once they were launched Lucy turned to Cat. "I didn't meant to embarrass you," she said.

    "Huh? What?" Cat looked to Lucy in confusion. "You didn't embarrass me. I mean, not entirely… I just realized what it looked like and I was a little…"

    Lucy set a friendly hand on Cat's shoulder. "No, you don't have to defend yourself. It's love. You deserve it."

    "Everyone says that, but I still wonder what it means. I mean, if someone can 'deserve' to be loved like that." Caterina held out her hand and gestured toward Lucy. "You deserve it too. You've been through just as many terrible things as I have."

    Lucy smiled thinly at that. "Maybe. Honestly, I've never really thought about romantic attachments. It's always something that happens to someone else."

    "I know what you mean." Cat nodded at her. "I used to be like that. Being with Violeta… it makes me feel so happy, and it makes me realize how alone I was."

    "Thankfully I'm never quite 'alone'," Lucy said. "Between training and work, I'm always with people."

    "But you can still be alone. I mean, it's so different for me now." Seeing the thoughtful look on Lucy's face, Cat narrowed her eyes. "I mean, I guess you could be, what is it? Asexual?"

    At that Lucy broke out into giggling. "I thought I was at one point," Lucy admitted. "But no. I feel the same urges others do. I just… don't feel them the same way, I guess? Or I have my own ideas on what I want. I guess that's true."

    "You mean on what kind of guy you want to be with?" A look came to Cat's face as a thought crossed her mind. "Or girl, I suppose. Or even something else. I mean, I know there's things like gender-fluid or two-spirited or…"

    "It's nothing like that, Cat," Lucy sighed. "I mean, I guess I'm open on things. If I fall in love with someone, their gender won't matter. I just don't know if that'll happen soon. I mean, if I'll meet someone…"

    "I'm sure you will,," Cat assured her. "Just like I did." As Cat said that, she looked up to the helm and smiled warmly while her girlfriend remained focused on her piloting work.




    In the passenger compartment, Angel remained still in the jump seat that was normally for armor-clad Marines preparing for a hot drop or insertion. She checked the holster at her back and then her omnitool.

    "So, ready to get back into the field?" Barnes plopped down next to her.

    "Yeah, I am," she replied simply.

    "Right." For several moments nothing was said. "So, are you going to the Enterprise?"

    Angel looked at him with an annoyed, confused expression. "What?" she asked bluntly and plainly.

    "Well, with Julia getting a new ship, I figured you'd want to go over to keep your fighting buddy," Barnes answered. "Scotty's thinking about it, I think. He's been having me take turns in running Engineering directly. I guess he's getting me ready to be the Chief Engineer."

    "Julia hasn't said 'yes' yet," Angel reminded him. As she did she almost wondered if he had been spying on the two of them the previous night. Is it that obvious?

    "Oh, like she's not going to," Barnes replied. "You know Julia. She wants the big chair. She just doesn't want to push Rob away to get it. And now Maran's offering her one. A new ship, just like the Aurora. You don't think she'll say no, do you?"

    Angel almost said just that, but she stopped herself. Julia wasn't power mad or anything like that, but she did like being the leader. It had been clear to Angel that Julia was seriously considering it. "I suppose she won't," Angel admitted. "But I'm not sure she will in the end. The Aurora is her baby too, in a way. I mean, she named the ship, she made sure that Farmer and Scotty and you got the resources to keep construction going…"

    "Point. But she'd never drive Rob off. This is her chance to be a captain, and I know she'll take it," Barnes answered. "So, you going to see about going with her? Maybe she'll want you as her XO or something."

    "I'm not command material," was Angel's instinctive reaction.

    "Then she'll have you at tactical."

    Angel sighed and looked over at him. "Just why are you hung up on this, Tom?"

    "I dunno." He shrugged. "I guess I'm just sort of shocked. It's like the gang's splitting up."

    "These things happen. People change. Our relationships change."

    "Yeah. You and Rob."

    Angel didn't bother responding to that. And Barnes, much to her pleasure, didn't say more.




    The Bastilone arrived over Earth and assumed a polar orbit. The ship remained cloaked and undetectable. Inside of the troop compartment, Julia and Caterina were using their omnitools to give the briefing and assign the teams.

    "...and that leaves our last two teams," Julia was saying. "There's a spatial fracture somewhere in Cardiff that we need to investigate. Tom, I'm pairing you with Meridina for that one."

    Barnes chuckled. "You're sticking the wiseass with the stoic monk lady?"

    "I am not sure that is accurate," Meridina said, her voice speaking with the slow, lilting accent Gersallians often had when using English. "The word 'wiseass' implies wisdom. I am not sure that is a word that fits you, Lieutenant Barnes."

    From her seat, Lucy began to giggle.

    For his part, Barnes clutched at his chest. "Oh, burn. Ow. Yeah, I forget you have a sense of humor sometimes."

    Julia shook her head while grinning. "Alright. You two are beaming down to Cardiff. And that leaves our Delgado sisters." Julia nodded to Angel and then looked to Cat. "You and Angel will go to London to find that intermittent power signature."

    "Cool."

    "So, Commander, some of us will need ground transport down there," Kane said. "What do you want us to do?"

    Julia nodded to Caterina, who tapped several keys. "I'm sending replicator patterns to the hard-light fabricators for your omni-tools. It'll let you replicate any cash you need by yourself. Then you can pay fares. Or even buy a car I suppose."

    "That might be a little too obvious." Julia smiled nevertheless. "Just remember the contact limitations. Find what you can about your assigned anomaly and report back as soon as possible."

    Everyone replied with nods and "Yes, Commander".




    Cat and Angel were set to beam down last. Julia was doing the honors at the transporter controls. "I've always wondered what London would be like," Cat admits. "They've got some science museums and stuff."

    "I always imagined it was this place with eternal fog." Angel looked to Julia. "Where are you setting us down?"

    "I've scanned an alleyway in the modern downtown district," Julia answered. "There won't be any witnesses that way."

    "What about a bathroom somewhere?"

    "These sensors aren't so precise that I can tell the difference between a ladies' room and a men's," Julia said. "And frankly, I'm not that good at this, so we're doing something easy."

    "Well, here's hoping you don't smudge our molecules together…"

    Julia frowned playfully at Angel, who smirked back at her from the transporter pad. "Down you go." Julia triggered the transporter.

    White light filled the sisters' vision. When it receded, they were in the middle of an alleyway. A dumpster to one side was half-full. "Well, here we are," Cat said. "London. And you know, I could probably replicate enough big bills that we could see about renting a vehicle. All we'd need is fake IDs, and I can make those too."

    "Yeah, well, I don't feel like driving on the wrong side of the road," Angel replied. "So, what do your scans say?"

    Caterina activated her omnitool. "Hrm. That's odd."

    "What?"

    "There's two sources now," Cat said. "It looks like one wasn't detectable from orbit."

    Angel activated her omnitool and said, "Delgado to Andreys. Cat says we've got a second signature down here. Orders?"

    "Investigate them both," was Julia's reply.

    "Alright. Delgado out." Angel lowered her arm and her omnitool deactivated its interface. She glanced around to see if anyone was looking their way and, more importantly, at Cat's active omnitool. "What's the closest?"

    "Hrm. Going by the map of London, it looks like it's in a suburb. A building, bigger than a house, maybe a warehouse or something." Cat tapped a key on her omnitool and the micro-fabricators fired up. Energy coalesced into a map of London with their destination marked. "There. Now we can just consult the map and we don't have to worry about anyone watching us use the omnitool."

    "Good. Now let's go get a bus or a taxi or something."

    "I'll start making us money then." Cat grinned at that. "Although does that make us counterfeiters?"

    "Let's not talk about that in public."

    "Okay. I'm just hoping we get to ride those cool double-decker buses London is supposed to have…"




    The tale was interrupted by a knock coming from downstairs. Elton and Ursula nearly jumped from their chairs. "You weren't expecting anyone, were you?" Angel asked Sarah Jane.

    "No, I'm not."

    Angel nodded. She reached to the small of her back and pulled her pistol. "I'll back you up."

    "And if they see you?"

    "We have personal cloaking systems. They won't as long as they're not here too long."

    "How much time do we have left on those?" Caterina asked her.

    "Enough." Angel looked again to Sarah Jane, who walked ahead to the door.

    Once they were out Sarah Jane said, "You're awfully fast to draw that, aren't you?"

    "I prefer my fists, but not with that thing. If it's a human threat, that's what the stun setting is for."

    "It can stun too, then? That actually makes me feel better."

    Once they were downstairs Angel tapped the device on her belt and shimmered out of view. Sarah Jane continued on to the door.

    Two men were at the door, dressed in business suits that made their government affiliation fairly obvious. "Good day, ma'am." One produced a badge in a leather walled. "I'm Inspector Wallbridge, this is Inspector Graham. We are on detachment from the Metropolitan Police. Do you know anything about the abandoned car down the street?"

    "An abandoned car?" Sarah Jane shook her head. "I'm afraid I don't, Inspector."

    The two looked at each other. "Perhaps if we came in? We have reason to believe that the driver and passengers are involved with an incident."

    "As I said, I am alone." An edge came to her voice. "Furthermore, I am familiar with the Metropolitan Police, and your badge is faked. I don't know what this is about, but I won't have you barging into my home, whoever you are."

    The pleasant facade of the two men clearly drained away. "This is a matter of national security," he said.

    "Do you have a court warrant?"

    It was evident they didn't. Angel saw the way they looked at each other and could tell they were thinking of forcing their way in. But they evidently decided not to. "We will note your lack of cooperation, Miss Smith," said "Graham". They turned and promptly walked away.

    Sarah Jane closed the door. Angel could see she was irritated, even more than Angel would expect her to be. "They looked government to me."

    "Yes. And there is more than one branch that might deal with an extraterrestrial threat." Sarah Jane picked up her wireless phone from its cradle. "I have a call to make. I'll join you upstairs as soon as I'm done."

    Angel nodded and went to the stairs.
     
  6. Threadmarks: 2-13-3
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    There was quiet in Sarah Jane's attic. Quiet that, for one thing, helped Caterina focus on her work. "This jamming is really good, she said to Angel. "I'm trying everything I can think of and I still can't get a signal out."

    "How widespread is it?" Angel asked. "Maybe it's planetwide?"

    "That's possible. I just can't tell."

    "My analysis of the jamming pattern indicates that it has been tied to a major source of power."

    Cat nodded at Mr. Smith. "Which means we may never be able to break through it."

    "Could the Aurora?"

    "Maybe. I'd have to ask Jarod or Scotty or Tom."

    The door to the attic opened and Sarah Jane walked in. "Were you able to find out more about those supposed cops?" Angel asked.

    "My sources are working on it." Sarah Jane returned to her seat. "Before we continue, I have some questions for you… Elton, was it?" She looked at the blond man and his compatriot.

    "Elton Pope," he clarified.

    Sarah Jane nodded . "And Ursula?"

    "Ursula Blake."

    "Ah, good. Where do you fit into all of this?"

    "Well, we're in a social group," Ursula began.

    "LINDA." Elton clarified. "I mean, that's what I called us. It stands for 'London Investigation 'n Detective Agency'."

    The look on Sarah Jane's face was quiet bemusement. Angel, however, quietly buried her face into her palm for several moments.

    "We met through Ursula's blog," Elton continued. "I was looking on the Internet about some man known as the Doctor."

    Caterina looked up from her work at that to exchange an interested glance with Angel.

    Sarah Jane also showed an interest in that. "You've met the Doctor, then?"

    "Well, a couple of times," Elton said. "When I was a boy. And several months ago…"

    "I've heard of him too and mentioned him on my blog. And so did a few other friends of mine. Bridgit, Colin, Bliss…" Her voice faltered as she listed their names. Tears returned to her eyes.

    "Ursula introduced us. We met every week to discuss sightings of the Doctor and maybe learn more about him."

    "Which is why that thing is after us," Ursula said, her voice now thick with horror and fear. "It's why it took the others. It wants to absorb him too."

    A pensive look came to Sarah Jane's face. "I see."

    "You've met this Doctor, haven't you?" Cat asked. "I mean, with how upset you look, and you're pretty familiar with aliens and such."

    Sarah Jane nodded at Cat. "Yes, I have met him. And he is a wonderful being. But I'm more concerned with this absorbing creature. If it is after the Doctor, it will come back here."

    "Then we need to figure out how to stop it."

    In reply to Angel, Elton said, "Well, his cane seems important."

    Cat nodded. "It seems to be how he's absorbing people. And he ran when your device damaged him."

    "So we destroy the cane."

    "What about the others?" asked Ursula. "Maybe… can't we find a way to free them?"

    "I'm not sure." Sarah Jane stood up and walked over to her super-computer. "Mr. Smith, did you get any scans of the creature? Or the creature's cane?"

    "Passive scans, Ms. Smith. I can confirm that it contains a power source not native to Earth and contains advanced matter manipulation technology. But I will require more exposure to the creature to determine more."

    "So when it comes back, let's scan it," Cat said.

    "If we can without getting absorbed ourselves." Angel was betraying some nervous by the way she had her arms crossed and was pacing, as if she were in a cage working off excess energy. "I'm not letting it take you, Cat. I'll destroy it first."

    "We won't let it take anyone." Sarah Jane returned to her seat. "Can you tell me more about what happened earlier? Maybe there's something you're overlooking at the moment."

    "Well, it was coming to our meetings for the last few weeks," Ursula said. "It claimed its name was Victor Kennedy, and that he would help us find the Doctor. It became more like a chore, I have to say, as he demanded we spend hours more than we used to in meetings. He seemed obsessed. And the others started to disappear and it was like he was chasing them off…" She shook her head. "But he wasn't."

    "And now we know why."

    "So he was using you to help him find the Doctor," Sarah Jane noted. "Then why did he try to absorb you? You were of use to him."

    "He said he likes doing it," Elton answered.

    "Maybe he needs to," Cat suggested. "He may have to replenish his biomatter every so often."

    "Either way, please, do continue with your story," Sarah Jane asked.




    The bus lines brought Caterina and Angel out of the center of the city into the suburbs of the Greater London area. In their solitary seat toward the middle of the bus, far enough away from the driver to not be overheard, Cat was quietly operating her omnitool. "I think it might be some sort of subspace tap, but a very portable one," she admitted to her sister. "I'm still not sure what it's for."

    "We'll find out when we get there," Angel replied. She turned her head to Cat. "Enjoying the view?"

    Cat was already looking out the window again. "A little," she said. "I just wish we could enjoy the visit more."

    "I don't really see the charm of this place. It's too big and too overcrowded."

    "It's one of the biggest, most important cities in the world. And there are all sorts of laboratories and science institutes here. And Oxford and Cambridge, although they're outside of the city. I think." Cat smiled thinly. "I was actually considering a program that would have gotten me into one of the Oxford science colleges, actually. Back when I was in high school."

    Angel nodded quietly. "Would you have gone, though?"

    "Well…" Cat went quiet for a moment. "Maybe. I mean, it would be hard to turn down. But I know it would have been hard for you to come too."

    "More like impossible." Angel turned away and looked out the opposite window.

    Cat didn't need mind powers to know her sister was upset about something. "Angel?"

    "Maybe I've just been holding you back," Angel said. "Maybe trying to protect you went too far and I just kept you from growing up. I mean, look at you. I think you've become more mature these last two months than you'd matured the previous two years."

    "Oh, don't say that," Cat replied. "Mama asked you to look out for me, and you have been. I could never have made it without you around." Cat's expression betrayed her sadness, not just at what her sister was saying, but other, older memories. "Losing Mama hurt so much. I needed you. I mean, I was just sixteen when Mama died. What would have happened to me if you hadn't taken me in?" Caterina's hand gripped Angel's shoulder. "You supported me even when it cost you. You gave up your fighting career and everything."

    At that Angel made a scoffing sound. "It wasn't much of a career. I was getting paid more working as a stocker than fighting in those rings."

    "Yeah, but if you hadn't quit, you could have made a career out of it." Cat's voice was earnest and warm. Her eyes, the same brilliant hazel as Angel's, brimmed with love for her sister. "I needed you back then, Angel. And I still need you, and you never held me back. Really, I think I was holding myself back."

    "You weren't," Angel insisted.

    There was no immediate response from Caterina. She turned to face the window, looking deep in thought. After several moments she checked the map. "We're almost there. We should probably get off the bus."




    The stop was at an intersection. The map led them onto the road their bus was preparing to cross, Maccateer Street. It was a quiet part of the city. Once they were walking along the road, Cat began to take brief scans. "It looks like it moved slightly," she said to Angel.

    "Maybe it's something someone is carrying, then?"

    "I wonder what it does, if that's true… wait, over here."

    Caterina picked up her pace and briefly moved past her sister. Angel caught up as Caterina examined her omnitool. "Okay, it's definitely in here," she said. "But below the street level, I think."

    "A basement." Angel looked up at the sign. "'London Council Library'. I wonder what's going on here." She reached to the small of her back and felt the reassuring presence of her pistol. "Let's go."

    They entered the building and found it empty at the moment. "Not a very active library," Angel murmured.

    Cat was still following her scans. "I'm scanning the building… this way, I think I've found an elevator." She led Angel further into the building.

    When they found the elevator, it was currently on the level below. "I wonder if someone is here," Angel said while hitting the call button to summon the left vehicle.

    "That will make this awkward. I'm not sure what we'll tell them."

    "We could always go for the truth," Angel suggested. "I mean, they won't believe us. But they might think we're just a couple of kooks."

    "I'm not really in a hurry to be looked at as a nut," Cat protested. We'll come up with something…"

    Before she could finish the sentence, the lift car rose above the floor. There were two occupants; a blond-haired man in light-colored clothing and a woman in plain clothing and wearing a pair of glasses. They were waiting almost impatiently for the lift to open. "Oh, hello," the woman said upon seeing them.

    "Hello," Caterina answered. She had already turned her omnitool off. "I'm Caterina and this is my sister Angel." The lift gate slid open and the two stepped off.

    "Ursula." She gestured to her friend. "This is Elton."

    "Hi," Angel said simply. "Say, is there anything going on down there?"

    "Not anymore," Elton said. "Why?"

    Caterina was the one to answer. "Just curious. We're just exploring. Being curious."

    "The only thing you'll find down there is an unpleasant jerk." Elton was clearly in a mood. "He's ruined our entire group."

    "I'm sorry." Cat frowned and nodded. "I guess jerks do that to a lot of people." She stepped out of the way so they could step off the lift. Cat slipped around them to step on with Angel.

    "Why are you going down?" asked Ursula.

    "Just to see it. Just for a minute."

    "She's OCD about these things," Angel added quickly. "Once she has it in her mind to visit a new place, she has to see everything. Even basements."

    "I don't have to see everything," Cat protested.

    At that Angel smirked. "Remember when we went to Wichita that time? You nearly got into the Governor's Office."

    "I was three."

    While early on Elton and Ursula had seemed bewildered by their intent, the sisterly bickering had reduced that. They had nothing more to say and prepared to leave.

    Just as Angel reached for the elevator button, though, Ursula suddenly asked, "Wait, where's my phone?"

    Elton looked to her. "You don't have it?"

    "No. It's not here." Ursula checked her pockets with increasing speed. The look on her face spoke of disappointment and realization. "I must have left it downstairs."

    "You need to come back down?" Angel asked.

    "Yes," she said. Elton didn't object, instead joining her in pulling open the lift gate again and stepping into the metal cage with them. Angel pulled the lever and the lift began to lower beneath their feet.

    "It won't take long," Ursula said. "It moves pretty quickly."

    Angel said nothing to that. It was still painfully slow compared to the turbolifts back on the Aurora. But now they were in for a quiet ride.

    Or rather, they were, until a bloodcurdling shriek of terror came from below. Ursula and Elton paled at the scream. "Colin," Ursula managed through her surprise.

    The lift came low enough for them to see into the room bed. Assorted tables were arranged with ordered precision, as if desks in a classroom, with chairs beside them. A board was used for what, at a distance, looked like illustrations aod photos, not that Cat and Angel could see what they were showing given their angle and distance.

    But their eyes quickly focused on the center of this area, where a green mass of what looked like ooze or raw flesh was holding out an object toward an older, middle-aged man. With a final cry the man seemed to be sucked into the cane.

    "Colin!" cried Ursula.

    That drew the attention of the oozing mass. It formed a human-looking face with an expression of satisfied amusement. "What have we here?"

    The lift came to a complete stop. The gate opened. But none of them dared to step out.

    The mass continued to speak through its newly-generated human head. "What have you brought me now? I sense something different about these two, yes…"

    Angel and Caterina moved ahead of the other, startled people in the basement room. "What is that thing?" Elton asked.

    The suppurating mass of green continued to shift in place. "Interesting," it gurgled through the half-formed mouth. "I can feel the energy on you. Subspace… ah, matter transportation. You are clearly not local."

    "What's it to you?" Angel asked.

    "What are you?" was Caterina's query.

    "I am a very curious being," the creature responded. "I exist to absorb knowledge. Knowledge is power." The mass gurgled for a moment. "And there are other benefits." The green mass coalesced briefly into a new form, that of the same man they had seen absorbed. A moment later it shifted into a middle-aged woman. Ursula gasped in shock at the sight. By the time she managed a pained "Bridgit" the creature had turned into another woman, closer to Ursula's age.

    "Bliss." Elton looked at the creature in horror. "You took them. You're why they disappeared!"

    "They were inefficient. Unnecessary. But their knowledge is useful."

    "It's not just that, is it?" Cat asked. She had her omnitool on and was scanning the malignant creature. "You use their raw mass for yourself. And you feed off of the act too. You're enjoying it."

    The gurgle that came in reply sounded much like a laugh. "Perhaps so. And what of you? Your technology is clearly not of this world. I must know more. Perhaps I will learn more after I absorb you two…"

    "Hey, you two…" Angel looked back. Her hand was already at the small of her back and pulling her pulse pistol out. "Alton or Ursula or whatever your names are, we should probably start to…"

    "...run!" Caterina urged.

    Angel started shooting the creature as it surged at them with a terrible hunger. The blue pulses struck the mass but did nothing to stop it.

    The creature began to coalesce into a Human form again, and when it did one of the resulting arms brought the cane to bear on Angel. Just as its light grabbed for her Elton slammed into Angel. Both flew out of range of the cane and hit the floor.

    Cat was already thinking of the problem. The lift was slow, too slow, if they were going to get away quickly. She grabbed Ursula and pulled her behind a pillar. "Is there any other way out of the basement?" she asked.

    "There's…. well, I…"

    Ursula was clearly scared out of her wits. It was a condition Cat was sympathetic with. Thinking of how the others - usually Rob or Julia or sometimes Angel - helped her in those situations, Cat grabbed Ursula by the shoulders. "You need to focus."

    Movement crossed Cat's peripheral vision. She glanced quickly enough to see the absorbing creature passing by the pillar, intent on them. She pulled Ursula with her to the other side of the pillar and onto the next one. Once she had her safely out of the absorbing thing's line of sight, Caterina took her shoulders again. "Focus. Ursula, is there another way out of here?"

    "There's… a stairway," she said. "The fire escape stairwell. But there's nowhere to hide, that thing will catch us…"

    Angel and Elton moved to the support pillar beside them. "Can you take us to that stairway?" she asked Elton and Ursula.

    "But all it has to do is…"

    "We'll deal with that part," Caterina said, cutting off Elton's protest. "But we need to know we can get there."

    "Y-yeah." Ursula nodded. "We can show you."

    "Good." Angel looked at Caterina. "Do you have any ideas?"

    Cat looked around. "Maybe." She grinned slightly. "I wonder what electricity will do to it?"

    "I don't know. My pulse pistol isn't doing anything." Angel still had the pistol in her hands.

    "I can hear you," the creature said. Its voice was now "normal", speaking from a properly-formed mouth. "The more you make me chase you, the more I'll enjoy absorbing you."

    Cat, meanwhile, was tapping away on her omnitool. A final key press sent a short text message that popped up in blue hard-light around Angel's left forearm: Water sprinkler.

    Angel tapped the screen to dismiss the message and nodded at Cat. After one last check to see if Elton was in place - he was - Angel turned around the pillar.

    The absorbing creature had been quietly walking back toward them. Its cane was up and ready, but currently pointing slightly away from Angel. This gave her enough time to aim her pistol above the creature and fire. The pulse shot struck the water sprinkler head directly above the creature. Stagnant water, pungent from the smell of being in pipes for so long, began to flow down over it. With a contemptuous look on its wide, bearded face, it swung the cane toward Angel. "Is that the…"

    With its cane now pointing away from her, Cat made her move. She slipped around the pillar and held her left arm toward the floor and the gathering puddle of water at the absorbing creature's feet. Her fingers curled into the gesture her omnitool recognized for its self-defense mechanism. An electrical burst, generated by the microfusion power source for the omnitool, shot out and struck the water.

    The creature cried out as electricity surged into it. Its form briefly fell, revealing its natural state as a big green blob. The cane dropped to the ground.

    "Go! Go!" Angel shouted at Elton. He started to run, with Ursula and Cat behind him, all heading to the other side of the basement. Angel took a moment to fire a shot at the absorber's cane. She hit, that she was certain of. She was disappointed that the cane hadn't been destroyed. Her shot still accomplished at least one thing, however. The kinetic element of the particle pulse's impact sent it skittering along the ground away from the recovering creature. Angel had a moment to see the absorber start to turn toward its lost device before she ran after the others.

    "Here!" Elton got to the fire stairway and ran into the door at full speed, throwing it open. He was in the lead for the run up the stairs. The four caused quite a clatter in the stairwell from the constant impacts of their feet against the metal surfacing of the steps. "Keep going!" she urged.

    They got to the last flight when the door below was thrown open. The absorber ran in, wearing his usual Human disguise of the man in the dark suit. Angel noticed the sprinklers in the stairwell as she got to the final steps. Ahead of her Elton went out the door to the main floor with Ursula and Caterina behind him. Angel stopped at the door and turned back, firing at every fire sprinkler head she saw. Water began to pour down upon the steps. She heard a thump from further down and, content that she had bought them precious seconds, Angel ran on to join the others.

    She found them rushing out the front door. "What do we do now?!" Ursula cried out.

    Caterina activated her omnitool. "Delgado to Bastilone, we need an emergency beamout for four, now!" When there was no response, she repeated herself. "Delgado to Bastilone, emergency beamout for four, please! We don't have time! Do you hear me?!"

    Angel tapped her own omnitool. "Delgado to Bastilone, please respond." When she got nothing she and Cat exchanged worried looks. "What could have happened?" Angel wondered aloud.

    Caterina's omnitool was already active. "That's odd. There's some sort of interference pattern now. All of our transmissions are being blocked."

    "What? How?!" Angel shook her head. "That doesn't make sense!"

    "That thing's going to get here any minute!" Elton shouted.

    "I don't know if we can outrun it on foot." Caterina looked down the street. She started walking to the end of the building. "There!" A light-colored four door sedan was parked. "Let's get going!"

    Nobody protested the commission of car theft; all four ran to the vehicle. Caterina, by habit, went to the passenger side while using her omnitool to mimic the radio signal of a key fob. The doors unlocked as she jumped in. Angel was already getting in on the driver's side while Ursula and Elton were climbing in the back seat.

    At least, those were the sides in Caterina's head, but once she sat down she realized that the steering wheel was on her side. She exchanged a glance with Angel; both had forgotten the change in sides from being in England. And there was no time to swap. Cat looked to her omnitool and used it to scan the keyhole for the car. The same microfabricators and replicator that had made the map earlier now produced a simple key that she immediately pushed into the ignition. With a twist of the key the car started.

    The absorbing creature came around the side of the building. Fear gripped Cat and she slammed on the accelerator. The car lurched right into action, speeding right at the absorber. It jumped to the side as the car thundered on. Cat pulled onto the right side of the road and was reminded to change to the other side by a cry of "You're on the wrong side of the road!" from a terrified Ursula.

    "So we can't get hold of the Bastilone and we have a monster chasing us," Angel groused. "What do we do next?"

    Caterina was already thinking of that. The idea popped into her head and she smiled despite everything. "We complete our mission," she said. "We find that other power source and use it to break through the jamming."

    "Alright, let me check the map…" Angel brought the map up. She frowned. "It gives me a circle. There's no exact location."

    "You'll have to switch to your omnitool when we get to that area," Cat said. Her hands clasped the steering wheel tightly. While I try to remember all of my driving lessons…




    "And we ended up here" Caterina said, finishing the tale.

    "So you detected Mr. Smith from half a solar system away?" Sarah Jane asked.

    "Well, we detected some of the power linked to him," Caterina clarified. "I had no idea it'd be a sapient supercomputer."

    With impatience clear on her features, Angel asked, "Have you gotten through the jamming yet?"

    Cat double-checked her omnitool. The shake of her head was answer enough. "Whatever this field is, it's made to jam communications like ours."

    "Could this creature be causing it?" Sarah Jane stood from her seat. "That seems the most plausible answer given the timing."

    "If he's got the equipment, but I'm not sure," Cat replied. "It could be something else."

    "Maybe related to those agents who came to your door?"

    Angel's suggestion clearly won Sarah Jane's consideration. "It's possible," she agreed. "I have a friend looking into that now."

    "I'm more worried about how we're going to fight that thing," said Cat. "The pulse pistol does nothing. And if we destroy the cane, I'm not sure we can get anyone back."

    "Well, we've got to find some way to stop that thing," Angel insisted.

    From her seat Caterina was thinking of just that. She used her omnitool to bring up her scans of the absorbing creature. The specialized scanners built into the omnitool gave her a number of different scanning capabilities, scanners set to record due to their mission, and now the readings were showing on the blue hard-light interface surrounding her left forearm. "It's got quite a lot of mass," she said. "However it's constructed, we may be able to use that. Maybe if I…" After another few scans showed up she nodded and smiled a little. "Yes, I think I can do this. I mean, I'm not an engineer, but I should be able to make this…"

    "Make what?" Elton asked.

    "A forcefield generator," Cat explained. "It wouldn't be very powerful, but I might be able to make something that would turn this absorber's mass against it. I just need the right parts."

    "I may be able to help with that," Sarah Jane said. She gestured to a set of drawers. Cat walked up and opened one. Her eyes widened. Sarah Jane looked to her and asked, "Can you use any of this?"

    "This… this looks like it could be a field amplifier. A portable one." Cat picked up the somewhat heavy, palm-sized piece of equipment. "Where did you get this?"

    "That is a very long story," Sarah Jane replied.

    As Cat looked over the contents of the drawers, her confidence rose sharply. The technology Sarah Jane had could indeed work. She grabbed the items she'd need and set her omnitool to assist in putting the pieces together. "I'll need just a few minutes and then…"

    Before she could finish, a shrill scream came from outside. Angel was the first to the window, with Elton and Sarah Jane behind her.

    Outside, they could see the creature, again appearing as "Victor Kennedy", standing over "Inspector Graham". His partner Wallbridge was missing. What had happened to him was evident given the energy coming from the creature's cane, which was now encompassing Graham. His scream continued until he had been drawn into the cane. Energy surged into the creature, which seemed to get just a little bit larger.

    The creature looked back to the house and up at the window. Even from that distance Angel could see the smile cross his face. He held up his hand, which turned green and started to shift into an amorphous green glob. Moments later it hardened again, but where it had been holding nothing before, now it gripped a firearm. He leveled it at them. Angel pulled Elton down and Sarah Jane ducked as well.

    A beam of blue light sizzled through the door, scorching the roof above them.

    "Cat, you might want to hurry," Angel called out. "I think we're out of time."
     
  7. Threadmarks: 2-13-4
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    One common attitude Caterina had found among others, even among her sister, was the attitude that "scientist = knows everything". That her science education, that her experience, made her capable of knowing everything and doing everything. It was a belief that she found aggravating sometimes. Biologists were not physicists, and neither were chemists. And they certainly weren't always engineers, as the entire point of engineers was to take what the scientists learned and put it into practical use.

    Except for Jarod, of course, but as far as Cat was concerned, he cheated. Mentally-adaptive super-savants were obvious exceptions to the rule.

    And here she was again, being expected to do something she wasn't actually trained to do. She knew how something like a forcefield generator worked, but how to put it together...that might be tricky.

    And if she couldn't, she and Angel and these nice people would all end up getting absorbed into some grotesque monster.

    Said monster was now outside of Sarah Jane's home. It had absorbed two men, government agents of some kind, and now had an energy firearm that it was using to shoot into the house.

    As another azure beam left scorched marks on the attic ceiling, Angel called out, "Cat, you'd better hurry with that."

    "It's going to catch the whole house on fire." Sarah Jane motioned to the door. "I'll take you to the back door!"

    While she led Elton and Ursula out, Angel quickly looked to Cat. "Don't worry about us, just get that thing built!" She went through the door a moment later.

    "No pressure," Cat murmured to herself, taking up a screwdriver and getting to work with a couple of the pieces she had.




    The absorber was approaching the front door when Angel went out the back. She pulled out the pulse pistol again. "That hasn't been working all day," Elton protested.

    "I haven't been shooting at the cane," she answered. "If I have to, I'll destroy it."

    "You can't," pleaded Ursula. "Not if we can get the others back."

    "It's a last resort."

    They came around the house while the absorber was preparing to go through the front door. It stopped and turned its head. Its guise was still that of the persona Victor Kennedy.

    Sarah Jane stepped up beyond the others. "What do you want?" she asked.

    There was no reply. All that Kennedy did was pull up the absorbing staff to use it.

    Angel fired at him with her pistol, aiming it toward the cane. As she hoped, he reacted by scowling and pulling the cane back. He reformed the energy gun he'd used before and pointed it toward Angel, who went back into cover to avoid the resulting beam.

    Sarah Jane brought out her sonic device again. Kennedy swept the gun over toward her, forcing her to jump for the bushes to avoid the sizzling blue beam that set fire to the small tree beyond.

    The fire began to spread before a spray of water struck it and extinguished it. Ursula, water hose in hand, brought the sprayer over and directed it at the absorber's face. The attack could cause no harm, but it did distract, long enough for Elton to dart up and grab the cane from the creature's hand. He ran back to the others.

    The absorber brought its gun up and fired a shot toward Ursula. As the beam moved closer to her she reacted instinctively, ducking for cover. The stream of water stopped blinding the creature.

    It shifted shape rapidly, becoming a lean cougar, and with the power of four legs it dashed across the short distance and pounced on Elton, who cried out in surprise. The cane went flying from his grasp.

    Sarah Jane lunged for the cane while Angel lunged for the cougar-shaped absorber. She knocked him off of Elton with a single push that sent the absorber into the lawn. It began to shift shape as it landed, remaining an amorphous mass. A solid tentacle of green biomass lashed out toward Sarah Jane's wrists as her hands closed around the cane. She clearly resisted the tug. For several moments she seemed to be prevailing, until the power of the creature was enough to pull her to the ground and begin dragging her. A second tentacle shot out and wrapped around the cane.

    Angel was grabbing at it as well at this point. She couldn't quite wrench it free, although she did stop the motion toward the rest of the creature. After struggling for a moment she started to kick at the tentacle holding Sarah Jane's wrist. The kicks were strong enough that the creature clearly disliked them. Its grasp slackened until the tentacle fell away. When it moved again, it was to merge with the tentacle gripping the cane, creating a tug-of-war between the absorber and Angel with Sarah Jane.

    Elton and Ursula got back into the struggle, brandishing a rake and a spade respectively, which they started to hit the creature with. This clearly agitated it, but the effect was counter-productive; it gripped onto the cane all the harder.

    Then the cane started to light up. Sarah Jane and Angel noticed it, and Sarah Jane immediately let go and jumped onto Angel to pull her away. A bust of energy went off that didn't touch them - the only reason they were not absorbed into the creature.

    It drew the cane back to itself with rapid speed, reforming into the Victor Kennedy form as it did. A hand flew out and smacked into Ursula, sending her flying. He twisted and punched Elton directly as he swung his spade, sending him down as well.

    "You are not stopping me!" the creature declared, clearly angry. He held up the cane toward Elton.

    An object flew through the air and landed at Kennedy's feet. It lit up and energy formed around and near it. The resulting beam of light from the cane stopped a few inches from its tip, contained in the crackle of yellow force field energy that now encased Kennedy.

    Caterina was standing outside the front door now. She had a smile of satisfaction. "I made it work!" she said, pleased with her success. "I'm shocked, but I did it!"

    "Good job, Cat," Angel said warmly, picking herself off the ground.

    From within his new forcefield prison, Kennedy scowled out at them. "Do you think this can hold me forever?" he demanded.

    "It'll hold you long enough," Sarah Jane answered. She looked to Cat and nodded. "Good job."

    "Thank you, ma'am."

    "How do we make it return our friends?" asked Ursula.

    "You can't," said "Kennedy", smirking. "They are a part of me now. Permanently. If you want to be with them again, you will have to join them."

    "Yes, we'll just take your word for it," Angel grumbled sarcastically.

    Cat activated her omnitool and began to scan the cane and the monster. It frowned at her while she looked over the readings. "We'll see what I can learn from a scan."

    "How long will that forcefield last?" asked Sarah Jane.

    "A few hours, I think," Caterina answered. She kept her hazel eyes focused on the sensor readings. "That should be enough time for us to figure out if we can save the people he's absorbed."

    Kennedy chortled at that. "You have far less time than you assume, Human."

    "And just what do you mean by that?" Sarah Jane asked. "Unless there's another of your kind around, and you don't seem the type to share."

    The creature smirked. And then he shifted form, becoming "Inspector" Graham.

    Everyone exchanged looks of bewilderment at the sudden change. As the sound of a speeding motor vehicle engine came to Angel's ears, she realized what the creature had just done. "Everyone into the house, now!"

    "Wait, what are you… hey!" Cat's last cry was from her attention to her omnitool being broken by Angel grabbing her right forearm and pulling her to the front door. Sarah Jane had clearly realized what was going on as well. She had taken both Ursula and Elton in hand and was bringing them with her to the door.

    Two black cars turned in front of the house, fishtailing from the speed they had achieved before breaking. Armed men jumped from the doors and directed guns toward Sarah Jane and the others. "Down on the ground!" one shouted. "Now!"

    Sarah Jane brought the others through the door and slammed it. Angel was already coming from where she locked the back door.

    "We've got to warn them!" Caterina insisted.

    "Warn them of what? That their friend's not really their friend?" Angel shook her head. "They'd never believe it. They're going to free that thing, Cat, and we won't be able to stop them. Now come on."

    The group got to the stairs and were running up when the door was thrown open. Armed men walked into the house.




    "Surround the house. Cover all potential exits." One of the agents stepped up to Kennedy while his comrades went in. "Are you alright?"

    "I'm fine, sir. Just got caught is all."

    "What are we dealing with? You reported that we're dealing with that 'LINDA' group that popped up."

    "I'm afraid to say they're mad, sir," Kennedy said as "Graham". "Obsessed with the Doctor, and in league with extraterrestrial agents and their spy who lives here."

    "Good job in confirming our suspicions, Graham," the other man said. "Hartman will promote you for sure."

    "For Queen and country," the creature said pleasantly, and he kept a satisfied smile on his face while another nearby agent shut down the forcefield generator keeping him prisoner.

    His rescuers looked at him curiously. "Since when did you get a cane, Graham?" one asked.

    "Do you like it?" Graham smiled widely and held it out to the man. "Here, let me show it to you…"




    The screams from outside drew all heads toward the window. "So much for them," Angel muttered.

    "There will be more," Sarah Jane replied.

    "Do you have any idea who they are?"

    "They're not UNIT, that's for sure. I suspect they're from the Torchwood Institute."

    "Shouldn't we barricade the door?" Ursula asked.

    "It wouldn't do any good," Caterina answered, as more screams came up from the ground floor. Her eyes were focused on her omnitool. "That thing has absorbed so much mass that it could pound the door down." She tapped something. "All of that mass…" A look came over her while she examined sensor readings. She looked to Elton. "How often did your friends disappear? How quickly was it absorbing?"

    "Well, uh…" Elton thought about it for a moment. "Bliss disappeared almost two months ago."

    "And it's been a few weeks since Bridgit stopped coming," Ursula added.

    "Does this mean something?" Angel asked. "And have you gotten through the jamming yet?"

    "Yes and no," came the answer.

    "You think that maybe it's had too much lately?" Sarah Jane asked.

    "The sensors are showing increasing fluctuation in its life readings. The body temperature is off, the mass is all wrong… yes. Yes, I think it's been absorbing too much too quickly."

    "Mister Smith?" Sarah Jane called out.

    The computer probably came back out. "Yes, Miss Smith?"

    "Can you link with the sensor readings this young lady has taken? Are there signs of any kind of instability in the creature?"

    "Accessing now."

    Outside the cries and shouts had died out. "That's probably not a good sign," Angel noted. She moved over by the door. Elton joined her, brandishing a cricket bat he'd found in the corner.

    "Miss Smith, I am indeed detecting indications of cellular degradation. The creature may have absorbed too much too quickly."

    "Can we use that against it?" she asked.

    "It is possible you could cause the absorptions to overload. Depending upon varying factors, such an overload could either cause complete cellular breakdown or cause the mass in question to return to original form."

    "In other words, we either cause the thing to die and take everyone it's absorbed with it, or we win and get everyone back?" asked Angel.

    "That is a fair assessment."

    Caterina kept going back and forth on the readings. "It's possible that we could cause the overload to reverse the absorptions before cellular breakdown." She looked at Sarah Jane. "Miss Smith, your sonic device, if you can hit the cane with the right frequency to disrupt its control hardware, and I can use the omnitool's data-streaming to remotely access the cane, I might be able to trigger a reversal."

    Everyone was becoming aware of a loud thumping coming up the stairs. Ursula's face was as pale as it had ever gotten. Elton's hands clenched around the cricket bat in his hand while Angel assumed an attack stance.

    Caterina worked as quickly as she could, running her fingers over her omnitool controls to finish configuring it.

    There was a loud knock on the door that made the hinges rattle. A second. The hinges were starting to come off their housing. A third.

    At the fourth, the door went off its hinges and fell in, splintered wood showing on the other end. The figure that ended was still mostly the Victor Kennedy disguise, but with the flesh turned green and the surface rippling with goo.

    Elton slammed the cricket bat on the absorber's head. It barely seemed to notice the blow. A hand swung out and sent him flying. Ursula rushed to his side.

    Angel jumped onto the creature's back and wrapped her arms around its neck. For several critical moments she held on for dear life while it swung around, trying to dislodge her. She locked her legs under its arms to win further leverage.

    The creature shifted to its basic, oozing green form. Angel's arms and legs sunk into that oozing form and all leverage was lost. It spun around and created a single wide appendage that slammed Angel in the chest and stomach, knocking her away and taking the air from her lungs in the process.

    The creature reformed into humanoid shape and held up its cane toward Sarah Jane. "I have had enough of this chase! I need your knowledge to find the Doctor!"

    Ursula and Elton grabbed at the cane. The act gave Sarah Jane time to avoid the absorbing beam that came from it. The creature howled in frustration and twisted with enough force to throw the two Londoners off.

    "Cat…?" Angel was starting to rise from where she'd fallen.

    "Not ready yet…"

    A scream partly distracted her. Ursula was caught in the absorption beam from the cane. It seemed to tag at her, distorting the shape of her body.

    Elton grabbed her and tried to pull her away. "No!" he cried. "Stop!"

    For a moment it looked like he might just get her away. But the device was not to be denied. Within moments it seemed to have gripped Elton as well. He cried out in pain and fear along with Ursula in the final horrible seconds before they were drawn completely in.

    The absorber shuddered in satisfaction. "And now for you…" It turned toward Cat and brought the cane up.

    Cat checked her omnitool. She was so close, so close, but the configuration still wasn't ready. She didn't have time! She had to move and…

    ...and Angel grabbed at the cane, just as Elton and Ursula had. "Now, Cat!" she cried out. She held on for dear life.

    Cat looked back to her omnitool. Just one last step. Just one. She almost had it.

    The absorber started slamming Angel against the pillar in the middle of the attic. Her face was twisted in a grimace of pain from the beating.

    But she held on.

    Caterina suddenly turned to Sarah Jane. "Now!"

    Sarah Jane nodded and held out her sonic device. The end lit up red and let out a whirring sound.

    As the cane began to spark, Caterina's attention returned to her omnitool. With a couple of button presses she opened a connection to the absorber's cane. The coding she had prepared, with Mr. Smith's remote help, loaded into the device's control hardware.

    Light surged from the cane, which positively crackled with power. Angel let go and fell backward onto the floor. She pushed herself away as the absorber began to shake.

    "No!" It screamed. "No! NO!!!"

    The light from the cane became blinding, forcing everyone to turn away from it. There was a sickening "glorp" echoing through the air and a series of agonized screams, followed by a rapid set of thumps.

    When the light receded, the burnt out remains of the cane dropped to the floor, where a small, sad little mass of pale green matter plopped and splattered beside it.

    Scattered around the attack were nearly a dozen people. Elton and Ursula, their friends, and several dark-clad men, along with a plump older lady who started to look about in stunned, horrified confusion.

    "Yes!" Caterina cried. With her sister out of arm's reach her desire for a hug of victory led her to wrap her arms around Sarah Jane, who laughed in delight. "It worked!"

    "We're… alive…" Elton looked up at them. "You did it."

    "Good work, Cat." Angela pushed off one of the agents, who was still struggling to recover. "You stopped that thing."

    "Well, Mr. Smith helped," Caterina said. She looked to the computer and said, "Thank you."

    "You are welcome, Miss Delgado."

    "Colin?" Bridgit struggled to stand. Her eyes moved over the floor until they met Colin's, as he struggled to sit up. "Colin!"

    "Bridgit? You… you're okay?"

    "Do you remember anything?" Sarah Jane asked them.

    "Not much." Elton helped Ursula up. "I thought I felt the others. Like I was… I don't know… a fog. Something without a body. And I was trapped."

    "You saved us," Ursula said to Caterina and Sarah Jane. Angel stepped up and accepted a hug from her younger sister, after which they turned back to Ursula. "You did it."

    "That's what we get paid for these days," Angel said, smiling. "Although this was a bit out there compared to our usual jobs."

    "And what happened to that… thing?"

    All eyes turned to the sad little green glob on the floor. "It looks like the biomass it consumed was taken from its original form," Caterina said. "It burned too much to leave behind a real body."

    "I wonder what species it was?" Sarah Jane murmured. She knelt down by the glob.

    "I'll see if I can get a genetic profile," Cat offered. "Maybe…"

    She was interrupted by thudding on the stairs outside. Within moments off that thudding becoming audible, figures rushed into the room. Men in 21st Century body armor held up weapons and shouted "Don't move! Hands in the air!"

    There was nothing for them to do. Caterina and Angel slowly held their hands up with Sarah Jane.
     
  8. Threadmarks: 2-13 Ending
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    After having their wrists zip-tied together and being held for several minutes at gunpoint, everyone was brought downstairs and then to the parking lot. A veritable fleet of vehicles was now on the street. The five "LINDA" members, the sisters, and Sarah Jane were ordered out to the street.

    One car finished pulling up through the cordon of protective vehicles. When it came to a stop the rear door opened. The woman who emerged looked like she was just now pushing forty years of age, with dark blond hair that went down to her neck and an impressive business suit. She walked up to them. "Well, this has made my day," she said. "We weren't sure of the source of those matter transports earlier today. It's good to know something's coming out of our efforts."

    "Who the hell are you?" Angel demanded.

    The woman kept her quiet smile. "I'm Yvonne Hartman, Administrator of the Torchwood Institute."

    "Torchwood." Sarah Jane spoke with clear contempt. "I've heard of your group before."

    "As we have heard of you, Miss Sarah Jane Smith," Hartman answered. "We're well aware of your past connections to the alien being called the Doctor and of your more recent activities. Feel fortunate we haven't already shut you down."

    "Isn't this brazen even for you? You've blocked off an entire street in blond daylight, in the middle of the London suburbs."

    "It is not our usual style, I grant, but we had reason to." Hartman nodded to the sisters. "Your friends here. We were wondering if the source of that probe would ever return."

    "What do you want from us?" Caterina asked.

    "Your technology, obviously. The means to protect Earth from all threats." Hartman nodded. "Your debriefing should be quite an education."

    "And then…?" asked Angel.

    "Well, that depends on how cooperative you are," Hartman answered. "I'm hardly a monster, after all. Answer my questions and I will make sure you're cared for."

    "We can't tell you anything about our technology," Caterina said. "That's against our orders. Our laws."

    "That is regrettable, young lady. Because I will do whatever I must to protect this country and acquire the means to accomplish that." Hartman gave them a hard look. "So you had better understand that I will ensure your cooperation, one way or another."

    "You can't be serious," Sarah Jane said, her voice betraying her anger. "This isn't right."

    "You should be thankful, Miss Smith, that you're not on your way to the Institute's cells," Hartman replied. "We're willing to let you keep your freedom. But first we'll be removing every piece of alien contraband from your home. And from now on, expect us to be keeping a close eye on you. Britain has enough threats to worry about without having some journalist engaging in amateur…"

    As Hartman's diatribe continued, an audible whump-whump-whump filled the air. After the word "amateur" her next few words were nearly inaudible as a helicopter moved overhead. Everyone looked up, even Hartman, as three more choppers moved around them. They were military in size, and armed soldiers began to drop from those hovering overhead.

    "What now?" Angel asked, loudly. "More friends of yours?"

    "My friends, actually," Sarah Jane answered, cutting Hartman off.

    The last helicopter came to a landing just outside the circle of vehicles Hartman had driven through previously. More soldiers spilled out and took up positions. As they came into place a woman slipped out of the passenger area. She was also in a suit, but it was more conservative in appearance than Hartman's, with a long business jacket. Her blond hair was cut into a short arrangement. She moved with deliberate, firm steps until she was within earshot of the assembled. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a very authoritative-looking ID. "Kate Stewart," the woman said, focusing on Hartman. "Deputy Director of UNIT."

    "Hello, Kate," Sarah Jane said, still smiling.

    Hartman, however, was not. "What are you doing here?" she demanded over the constant whump of helicopters. "UNIT has no jurisdiction…"

    "On the contrary, UNIT has all the jurisdiction it needs," Kate Stewart countered. "As you well know. This woman is one of ours," she said, indicating Sarah Jane. "Nor will you be taking these young ladies." She nodded to Angel and Caterina. "UNIT will handle any negotiations or contact with their people."

    Hartman's face made clear her stark disapproval, and more than a little anger. "If you think I'm going to let UNIT just waltz in and take this case over…" Hartman's voice became a growl. "The Torchwood Institute answers directly to Her Majesty and her Privy Council. I have full jurisdiction and authority to be here, and I will not let UNIT ruin what may be our best chance to acquire technology that would give us an edge against future incursions." Hartman drew close to her new rival. "And unless you have a Privy Councillor with you, there's nothing you can do to force the issue. Not unless you want to start a war in the middle of Bannerman Road."

    The look on Stewart's face told the sisters immediately that Hartman had just lost. That small, satisfied smile ended only for the UNIT official to say, "It's a good thing I brought a Privy Councillor along, isn't it?" She looked back to the helicopter and nodded.

    Another figure emerged, more slowly, and not surprising given he had to be helped down while holding a cane. It tapped against the asphalt as he walked up to them, an old man in a fine suit with a head of gray hair, the hairline receding, and an equally gray mustache and beard that were well-trimmed. He looked at the assembled and grinned slightly. "Sorry for the occasion, Miss Smith. Business first."

    She grinned back and nodded. "Of course, Brigadier."

    The man nodded and turned to Hartman. "Yvonne Hartman. You know who I am."

    It was clear she did. A sullen look came to her face. "Yes, Sir Alistair."

    Sir Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart nodded. "And you know what I am then."

    "A standing member of Her Majesty's Privy Council," Hartman replied dully. "Responsible for advising Her Majesty and the rest of the Council on matters involving extraterrestrial activity and advanced science."

    "Good." Sir Alistair nodded to her. "Release these poor people immediately and withdraw your agents. UNIT will finish up here."

    WIth immense frustration on her features, Hartman nodded. "Of course, Sir Alistair." She turned to one of the agents. "Release them."

    Wordlessly, the agent did so, a frown on his face while he used a pen knife to cut the zip ties one by one. Caterina and Angel both rubbed at their wrists while watching Hartman's people enter their vehicles. One by one, they drove off, all but one of the other UNIT helicopters withdrew as well.

    Once everyone was gone save the last two UNIT choppers, Sarah Jane took the moment to hug Sir Alistair. "It's good to see you," she said, and there was a visible tear in her eye.

    "And it pleases me to see you so well, Sarah Jane," he replied.

    "And Kate. It's good to see you too." Sarah Jane, knowing her friend's daughter well enough, only offered her hand. "Alistair must be proud at what you've accomplished."

    For all her business-like demeanor throughout the occasion, it clearly slipped at this point. "Thank you, Miss Smith," she said, warmth in her voice now.

    "So these are those friends you mentioned?" Angel asked Sarah Jane.

    She nodded. "I've worked with UNIT on a number of occasions, along with the Doctor."

    "I'm afraid you young ladies have the advantage of me," Sir Alistair said.

    Angel looked to him and nodded. "Sorry, sir. I'm Angela Delgado and this is my younger sister Caterina. We're… not from around here."

    "I would gather you mean you're not from this planet, not simply that you're from across the pond?" he asked.

    "Um…"

    "They are lieutenants on an interuniversal exploration vessel," Sarah Jane answered. "Sent to investigate alien power readings in London. Apparently their vessel sent quite a few teams to look into oddities on our Earth."

    "But you are Human?" Kate asked.

    "We are. We're from an Earth in a different universe. As crazy as that can sound."

    "It's not quite as crazy for us as you imagine," Kate assured her.

    "So… what does this all have to do with the Doctor?"

    Heads turned to face the LINDA quintet. Elton and Ursula were the most recovered from their experience. The others were clearly still getting the feel for being whole again.

    "What do they know of the Doctor?" Sir Alistair asked Sarah Jane.

    "You'll have to ask them."

    "Not a lot," Elton said. "Very little. I met him once, though. Well, twice."

    "Ah." Sir Alistair smiled. "He is quite capable of sticking in the mind, isn't he? Anyway, we had better get the chopper going, we won't be able to hold off news staff for much longer."

    "I'm afraid my home has suffered some damage so I can't invite you in for tea."

    "Oh, we can find some back at base," Sir Alistair assured her.

    Sarah Jane looked to the sisters, already certain of how leery they would be. "He's a friend, as I said, and he can help you contact your ship. We're in safe hands now."

    "And on our flight back, perhaps you can explain how this all began?" he ventured.

    Caterina looked to Angel, who nodded. "Alright," the older sister said. "We'll go."

    "Splendid."

    Kate nodded in agreement and got onto her radio. The other remaining chopper landed to take aboard some of the LINDA members while Sarah Jane, Angel, Cat, and Elton joined Kate and Sir Alistair on their helicopter. Once eveyrone was aboard both took off into the clear London sky.




    Night was starting to fall when the Bastilone rippled into view on the tarmac of the UNIT base outside of London. The side airlock opened and Julia stepped out with Jarod and Meridina.

    Angel and Caterina were waiting for them. They were in the company of Sarah Jane, Sir Alistair, or "the Brig" as some members of UNIT still called him, and Kate.

    Julia gave them a bemused look. "I hope you two are ready for a lot of tough questions from Admiral Maran."

    "It's better than being consumed by an evil alien," Angel retorted playfully. She looked to the others and made introductions.

    "Welcome to Earth, Commander," Sir Alistair said. "Or rather, our Earth."

    "Thank you, sir," she answered. "You have my greetings and those of the United Alliance of Systems."

    "Your lieutenants have explained a few things to us, but they insisted that you would be the one to answer a few remaining questions about the Alliance, and what you are doing here."

    Julia nodded. "I'd be happy to."

    "Then, allow us to provide hospitality."

    The Brig led Julia and the others, with Kate, back toward the building. Sarah Jane didn't head back with them for the moment, however, and this drew the curiosity of Caterina and Angel. "Where are you going?"

    "I want to see how the others are doing," she said.

    "So do I," answered Cat.




    They found the five LINDA members in a break room in the facility. They were huddled together, Elton and Ursula as one pair and Colin and Bridgit as the other, with Bliss in the middle, staring into space. Just before Caterina could speak, Elton spoke up. "It's just… how can something like this happen?" He looked up. "It's like the whole world has gone mad."

    "What has happened to you is terrible," Sarah Jane agreed. She took the seat opposite from them. "Take all of the time you need to recover from it."

    "But how… I mean, we can't just go to a psychiatrist and talk about this, they'll lock us up for being loony, talking about absorbing monsters and spaceships and other universes!"

    "I've talked to Kate Stewart about that, actually, and UNIT will provide help for you." Sarah Jane leaned forward in the chair and faced the five survivors with sympathy. "I can't begin to tell you how sorry I am for this happening to you. But you're not alone. You have each other, and I will help you as best as I can."

    They all looked to her silently.

    "I know what it's like to be a victim of something like that," Caterina said. This won her their attention for the moment. "I mean, I wasn't absorbed or anything. I had my nervous system nearly burnt out by an alien serial killer who mind-controlled me. And it's… it's still with me, and I have nightmares a lot, and so you're going to have them… but you're still going to have lives too. It's like Sarah Jane said, you've got each other too. Just like I've got my sister and my girlfriend and all of my other friends. And when you've got that… well, it won't make it go away, but it helps you live with it."

    Silence took over again. "Thank you for saving us." Now it was Bliss speaking. "I… I'm just glad it's over. I'm glad we can try to get back to normal now. And you're right… we do have each other still, I mean."

    "We shouldn't have gone looking for the Doctor," Elton said, quietly.

    Everyone looked at him.

    "That's what drew the Absorbaloff to us," he continued. "We were looking for the Doctor. But we should have known better… I should have known better."

    "What do you mean?" asked Colin.

    "The Doctor is dangerous. Being near him… people die from that." Tears were showing in Elton's eyes. "The things that come after him, the things he goes after, it's too much for people like us. We should stay away. We should all stay away! Otherwise this happens… or things like my…" He stopped speaking. Whatever it was, the pain was too great to continue.

    "It's okay," Ursula said to him.

    "You said you met the Doctor before." Sarah Jane had a sad expression on her face. "When you were a child. What happened?"

    "There was a monster… a shadow… and the Doctor came, and the monster was gone, but so was my mum! I lost my mum because of that, because of…"

    "Hrm." Sarah Jane frowned. "I think I remember that. A creature from the Howling Halls was loose in our world. The Doctor must have stopped it…" She stopped and lowered her eyes. "It must have hurt him so to not save your mother."

    "You actually knew the Doctor?" Bliss asked.

    "Oh, yes," she answered. "He and I traveled together. It was frightening and exciting and I would never give up those memories, not for anything in the world."

    "Even with how dangerous it is?" asked Ursula.

    To that Sarah Jane nodded quietly. "Sometimes danger is worth it."

    There was quiet in the room until the door opened again. A young African woman in combat fatigues stepped in. "The doctors are ready for you," she said to Elton and his friends. "I'll take you to them."

    Quietly the five stood up and went for the exit. Before going through the door, however, each stopped and looked to Sarah Jane and the sisters. "Thank you for saving us," Bridgit said. "Thank you ever so much."

    "You are welcome," Sarah Jane answered. The sisters behind her nodded and waved. "I hope you try and keep in touch," she called out to them as they stepped out.

    With the five Londoners gone, the three of them had the room to themselves. They all sat down. "I wonder what's going to happen now?" Cat asked.

    "Your commander and the Brig will discuss things, I imagine," Sarah Jane said. "He will report to the government and UNIT and decisions will be made."

    "And maybe we'll make colonies in this universe after all," Angel finished. "Just as long as we can make sure there aren't any of those 'Daleks' around."

    A sudden frown crossed Sarah Jane's face. "Daleks?" she asked.

    "Yeah." Angel nodded. "You've seen them?"

    Sarah Jane answered with a slow, quiet nod. "I was there, actually," she murmured, her voice low as if fatigued. "I was there when Davros created those tin-plated maniacs. The Doctor did what he could to stop him." Sarah Jane looked intently at them. "So you know about the Daleks."

    "Well, they nearly killed me," Angel answered. "And they almost killed Cat, killed a bunch of our science people actually. They nearly took over the Darglan Facility we used to live in…"

    "Darglan?" Sarah Jane concentrated for a moment. "I think I remember them."

    "Orange, tall skulls?"

    "I believe so, yes. The Doctor and I met them once. But please, continue."

    Caterina's eyes were kept low. "We lost a lot to the Daleks And it was my fault."

    Angel put her hand on Cat's shoulder. "You couldn't have known…"

    "I should have been more careful!" Caterina insisted. "You know that as much as I do. I should have found somewhere else to examine that container." Tears were in her eyes now. "And I can't let myself forget that I caused it. I cost us our home."

    Seeing Sarah Jane's curious expression, Angel said, "The Daleks tried to take over the Darglan Facility. We had to destroy the Facility to stop them."

    "Given their technology, you did the right thing. The idea of the Daleks with interuniversal travel is horrifying beyond words." Sarah Jane looked to Cat, who sniffled and fought to regain control of herself. She held back from speaking until she was sure Caterina was able to talk. "I can see why your people were being cautious about involving yourselves here, then. The Daleks are hardly our best ambassadors for our universe."

    "Yeah, that sounds about right," Cat muttered.

    "I'm not sure how much else we can tell you," Angel admitted.

    "You've told me enough." Sarah Jane nodded. "I can't exactly write a story about it, of course, but it's good to know all the same." She checked her watch. "I suppose I need to get going. I have a house that needs fixing up."

    "We can help," Caterina said. "I mean, we did bring the thing to your door."

    Sarah Jane answered with a grin. "That's a very kind offer, but Sir Alistair's already made the necessary arrangements." She stood up and went to the door to depart.

    Caterina called out to her. "Wait, Miss Smith…"

    "Please." She turned back, smiling. "It's Sarah Jane."

    "Okay. Well, um…" Caterina took a moment to consider how she was going to phrase her question. "The Doctor. The Darglan liked him, the Daleks were afraid of him, that monster wanted to absorb him… what is he? What's he like?"

    For a moment Sarah Jane seemed at a loss for words. Then it was clear she was considering just what words she wanted to use. "The Doctor is… the most wonderful being I have ever known," Sarah Jane said, a wistful tone in her voice. "He's brave, intelligent, and charming, and he has all of time and space at his fingertips. The wonders he can show you are as limitless as the terrors he can run into."

    "He sounds dangerous," Angel said,

    "Yes," Sarah Jane agreed. "And yet I have never regretted going with him. Not even the terrible things I saw are enough to make me regret meeting him."

    The immediate reply from the two sisters was silence. But there was no mistaking the growing sparkle in Caterina's hazel eyes. Sarah Jane nodded at her and said, "You're just the type of person he would love to meet, Caterina. And I hope you do. Given time, I'm sure you will."

    To that, Caterina had nothing to say. She accepted a hug from the older woman, who whispered "Good luck," into her ear before accepting a handshake from Angel. She turned and left the room, leaving the sisters to their thoughts.




    For a time after Sarah Jane left, Angel and Caterina remained quiet. "It's been a crazy damn day, hasn't it?" Angel finally asked.

    "Yeah."

    "I think I might stay on the ship next time," she continued.

    "Oh, I don't know…" Cat shook her head. "It was scary and stuff, but we did well. We learned a lot."

    "I'm not sure it's the answers our bosses wanted to hear, though.

    "Well… okay, maybe not. But it's still a good thing we were here." Cat looked to where Elton and his group had gone. "We helped people. We saved the day."

    "Yeah." Angel sighed. "It's just… I don't like seeing you in danger."

    "Well, I don't like being in danger either, or seeing you get hurt," Cat replied. "But that's part of life out here, right? And we still want to do this."

    "Yeah, we do." Angel lowered her head. "If you met this Doctor guy, and he asked you to go with him, would you?"

    "Well…. yeah, I think."

    "Even if it meant leaving behind Violeta?"

    At that, Cat when quiet. It was clearly something she had to think about, and think about hard. Her final reply was to say "I don't know."

    The next awkward silence ended with Angel getting to her feet. "Ah, forget it. Let's go find Julia. I want to go back to the Aurora and eat whatever Hargert's got on the menu."

    "Same here," Cat agreed, following her sister out of the room.





    Robert, Julia, Jarod, and Meridina were present for the holo-conference with Admiral Maran and Secretary Saratova. The Russian woman had an austere look to her with her thin frame, with a swarthy complexion and graying dark hair. "This may complicate our colonization plans," she said upon receipt of the file. "We are not prepared to face this number of potential threats to our holdings."

    "It's certainly something to deliberate," Robert agreed. "But we do have an Earth here that might be willing to work with us."

    "The Earth of W8R4 seems to be in the same situation as that of R4A1, Captain. Official contact is not an option unless their governments choose full disclosure to their populaces." Maran shook his head. "We'll relay your reports to the President and senior Council members, but for the time being we're putting the survey on hold. Return immediately while I determine your next assignment. Maran out." The two holo-images above their table disappeared.

    "Well, that's disappointing," said Julia. "After all that work we did, we're not staying?"

    "Not for now, anyway." Robert sighed. "But you saw that list. There's enough threats in this universe to deal with that we can't afford it right now." Robert tapped the comm key on his omnitool as it flashed to life. "Dale to Bridge."

    "Bridge here, sir," answered Locarno.

    "I want all runabouts to return immediately. We're jumping out."

    "Yes sir. I'm sending out the order, we should be secure for jump in about ten minutes."

    With that work done, Robert turned to Jarod. "Did we learn anything special about this world?"

    "Well, that rift in Cardiff is interesting, from a scientific perspective," he replied. "But most of the interesting information came from the UNIT files that Director Stewart shared with us."

    "She might not have if UNIT realized this means it's less likely we settle in this universe," Meridina pointed out. "I could sense their desire for Alliance involvement in their area of space."

    "Maybe we can do that in the long run, if things work out with the war. It'll be up to the President and the others in Portland to make that decision, though." Robert stood from his chair. "Alright, I know we all have work to do. You're all dismissed."

    Everyone stepped out of the room while Robert remained standing. He looked out at the stars and let his mind wander.

    A sudden sensation filled him. A feeling of being elsewhere, of being adrift, a cloudy scene of chaos and death. He heard people crying for help as they were forced into… he couldn't see what, but he could sense that it was something horrible. Metal tromping sounded in his ears. The feeling of dread continued as he could see the Aurora, damaged and nearly crippled, surrounded by a cloud of vicious enemies, like a swarm of insects picking apart the hull.

    And then there was a flash of blond hair. A creature on four legs flashed through his vision. And the voice in his dreams spoke yet again.

    "Bad Wolf," he murmured, speaking with the dream. "What does it mean? What can 'Bad Wolf' meean?"

    He was standing in the conference lounge again as if nothing had happened. As if he had not just seen all of that.

    What does it mean? He thought again to himself while returning to the bridge.



    Tag




    Julia was in her office on Deck 3 getting paperwork done when a tone brought her attention to the door. "Come in," she said. When she saw it was Angel walking in she asked, "Anything wrong? It's getting late, you should be resting up."

    "I've just got a lot of thoughts," Angel admitted.

    "About the mission?"

    "That. And about how things have gone. And what we talked about."

    "Oh?" Julia looked up at her. "What do you mean by that?"

    "I've made up my mind," Angel said. "Wherever you end up in command, I want to go with you."

    Julia put her hands together on the table. "Are you sure about that? Cat may not go."

    "I don't want her to, although I won't stop her," Angel replied. "Cat has her own life. She has a girlfriend. She needs to spread her wings and not have her big sis around watching over her shoulder all of the time."

    "Is that what she wants?" Julia asked.

    Angel crossed her arms. "I wouldn't know, I haven't asked her. I don't want to ask her. I don't want her ruining a good thing because she feels obligated to be at my side."

    Julia looked at her quietly. "And are you sure this is what you want, Angel? That you're up to being away from Cat in the first time in your lives?"

    "If it's for her own good. And maybe mine too. Maybe I need to, I don't know, be more than just the angry big sis who will punch people for her little sister," Angel admitted. She shrugged. "And maybe I can only do that if I'm away from her too. If I'm off on my own."

    "Maybe. But I'm not sure." Julia put her hands into her lap. "I'll consider it. But I want you to do something for me."

    "Yeah?"

    "Spend more time with Cat. And her girlfriend. Make the time for her, Angel," Julia said. "And make sure it's fun too."

    Angel chuckled and shook her head. "They're not really into fight training, and I'm not a science geek. And it seems like the main thing they do is play that silly holo-game together."

    "So I've heard." Julia's smile had a wry sense to it. "Didn't Cat ask you to play?"

    "She did. She wants me to be a kung fu monk or something. The costume is ridiculous, it's like one of those Chinese one-piece dresses and with a big feather in a headband."

    Julia imagined Angela dressed up like that and laughed. "Yeah, I can't see you in that. But maybe there's something else…? Or you could just wear whatever you want. Or…" The smile turned wistful. "Maybe you could try it? Just to see if you have fun anyway?"

    "Not gonna happen," Angel said. "No way."

    Her insistence only won her a bemused look from Julia.




    Caterina finished the last clasp on the large blue robe that made up her costume. She was met at the door by Violeta, in Archer gear, and looking very happy. She gave Cat a quick little peck of a kiss and said, "So, are you ready to hit Gugluru Volcano?"

    As the two started walking down to the lift, Caterina asked, "How hot is it going to be? I mean, once the game applies the environmental filters?"

    "I've set it to a low broil." Violeta grinned. "I don't want you to cook too much, after all. Although getting you nice and sweaty would make for a good reason to have a long, warm shower afterward." Her smile gained a mischievous edge.

    "I've got to finish my reports on the field mission tomorrow morning, though," Cat pointed out.

    "Well, I suppose we'll see how the night goes."

    They made their way by turbolift to Holodeck 2. As they walked down the Deck 15 corridor past assorted storage spaces, Violeta turned her head to Caterina and asked, "So what was it like? I heard that you and your sister got chased by some crazy alien that ate people."

    "It was… weirder than that, definitely," Caterina answered. "Actually, if anything, I enjoyed the mission just for the chance to talk to Angel. I think we needed to talk."

    "I'm sure you did." They approached the Holodeck 2 control panel and door. Violeta activated the panel and began loading their program. She glanced toward Caterina with her purple eyes, worry clear on her face. "Cat, I don't want to come between you and your sister, you know that, right? I'd never make you take that choice."

    "You don't. You haven't," Caterina assured her. She used her left hand to take Violeta's right. "Please, you don't need to worry about that."

    Violeta nodded and showed some relief.

    The door to the holodeck slid open. On the inside was swampy forest, with a tall, angry-looking mountain in the near-distance spewing red lava into the sky. The door closed behind them. "You know, we shouldn't be able to go anywhere near that," Caterina said. "The gases alone…" She stopped at seeing the patient amusement on Violeta's face. "I'm sorry, it's the scientist in me…"

    "I know."

    They stepped up toward the edge of a path leading right toward the towering volcano. Before they could climb in the holodeck entranceway activated. The door slid open and they both looked.

    Caterina couldn't quite keep the surprise off of her face at seeing Angel enter. She was in a fiery red Cheongsam-like garment that went down to her knees, with splits on the sides where her muscled legs slipped out. The design was framed by a golden dragon along the shoulders and left side. A red headband with Chinese characters in the same golden color as the dragon on the dress kept her dark hair in place.

    "Don't laugh," Angel demanded.

    "Uh… you forgot the feather," Caterina pointed out.

    "No way, no how little sister."

    "Well, we can do without," Violeta said, although she playfully ran a finger along the dark blue feather on her hat, which Angel felt looked more like a Three Musketeers hat than anything from William Tell or Robin Hood. "So, you're a monk."

    "I hit things, right?"

    "Well, yes. But not just that. The monks use the chakras, you can access specific abilities by doing hand movements and battle cries that make your punches and kicks stronger for a short time, or keep you from suffering damage…"

    "Let's just stick with 'I hit things' and I'll figure the rest out," Angel insisted, but her amused grin betrayed that she wasn't annoyed.

    "That sounds good to me." Caterina couldn't keep the smile off her face. As Angel walked up beside her, nor could she keep the tear from her eye. "Thanks for coming," she said quietly to her big sister.

    "Thanks for the offer," Angel replied, just as quietly, to her little sister.

    "I'm still surprised you came. I didn't think you were interested in this game."

    "I'm not." Angel grinned and put an arm around her sister's shoulders. "But that's not the important thing. I mean, what kind of big sister would I be if I didn't take the time to have some fun with my little sister?"

    Caterina responded by hugging her sister while Violeta watched, a happy smile on her face. "The Fire Fiend Kari isn't going to wait for us forever," Violeta teased.

    And with that, the two sisters followed Violeta toward the holographic volcano, sharing the same smile.
     
  9. Threadmarks: 2-14 Opening
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    Teaser


    Ship's Log: ASV Aurora; 6 September 2642 AST. Captain Robert Dale recording. The Aurora is in Universe S0T5 to commemorate the admission of a new member of the Alliance, the first to come from this unique universe, the Kingdom of Avalon. We are now in orbit over the capital planet Britannia. Admiral Maran has informed us that we were requested by name for a ceremonial banquet being held in honor of the occasion, and from what I am told, ourselves as well.

    Given the reputation of this nation and of this entire universe, it will be an… interesting experience, I'm sure.


    The command officers of the Aurora and Koenig had been to their share of state banquets and diplomatic dinners. It meant time in their stuffy dress uniforms and being feted with rich food that could occasionally be very disagreeable. They would put up with whatever conversation came to their hosts and pray for the courses to end so they could either head to the relatively freer post-dinner receptions or, if lucky, return straight to the ship.

    As a result, most of them were still in various stages of shock at the "banquet" in question. Instead of quiet conversation among groups, shouts and laughs echoed to the wooden rafters and the colorful coats of arms banners hanging from them, while the wooden tables were bare of any cloth, bearing only their plates, utensils, and the food itself. Several roasts of all forms of animals were on plates scattered down every table, with some vegetables and other foods, and young ladies in cotton blouses and dresses brought frothy mugs of beer and ale for the attendees.

    The attendees in question were uniformed, but the uniforms in question were large robes mostly of fur with cotton and linen clothing underneath. The men and women in these suits were physically fit, often brawny, with thick beards and mustaches on many of the men.

    The same was true of the man at the head of the central table, in a chair bigger than any other. His robe was the best-made, with ermine borders, with a graying dark beard that went down to his chest in a way that reminded Robert of Santa Claus. A golden crown on his brow glistened with a few precious stones set into its glittering halo. His voice boomed through the banquet hall with tremendous power. It was a fitting voice for a man of his raw size and energy. He was King Galahad "the Graced" of Avalon, the newest Head of State in the United Alliance of Systems.

    And, as far as Robert could tell, likely to be the loudest.

    Robert sat to his left as a "guest of honor" with Julia beside him, Zack in the next seat, and everyone else down from them by order of rank and staff position. Their dress uniforms, white with branch color and gold trim and the tasseled epaulets on the shoulders, were a jarring contrast to the garb of virtually every other attendee to the meal.

    "...and I stared down the Bragulan and gave him a punch, right in the nose!" roared Galahad, at which the attendees laughed and cheered. "And he was out like that! One punch! One of my best! And then I ordered Sir Belvedere to hold the thing down while I bound him!"

    A very large bearded man across from Caterina roared out a laugh. She stared at him, amazed and maybe a little intimidated. "And we dragged that ruffian back to our ship and got out just before the Bragulan Fleet jumped in! It was a glorious hunt and a triumphant outing for His Majesty!" With that boast made Sir Belvedere grabbed a large chicken leg and ripped a mouthful of meat from the bone while Caterina quietly put another small piece of lamb onto a fork.

    Again the hall roared with delight.

    From his seat beside Caterina, Barnes leaned in and quietly asked "What's a Bragulan?"

    "They're a species native to S0T5," she responded in as low a voice. "Mammalian, ursinoid."

    "Ursinoid?"

    "Uh, think of a bear. The Bragulans are… space-faring bears."

    Barnes nodded quietly. "Uh huh."

    Meanwhile Angel murmured to Leo, "This is like a frat party, isn’t it?"

    "You have no idea…" he replied.

    "But enough of my exploits!" shouted King Galahad. He directed his dark eyes and a wide grin to Robert and the others. "We are here to celebrate our fellow knights in the Alliance! Sir Robert, Lady Julia, please, regale us with your tales of glory and victory over the Narzis!"

    "The Narzis?" Julia asked. "You mean the Nazis?"

    "Yes, the Narzis!" Galahad laughed. "We remember well the tales of old, the stories of how our ancestors, in the days of Ancient Britain, led the world into battle against the Narzis of Germania!" He held up a mug of ale and guzzled some down. "Every knight knows the tale of Sir Winston the Bold, who led his sky knights into glorious battle against the dark lord Hitler and his warriors, and of how Sir Winston slew the dark lord in a sky duel!" Another cheer roared around the room.

    Robert almost instinctively remarked that Winston Churchill did not, in fact, kill Adolf Hitler in any kind of duel (at least not in any history he was aware of), but Julia's elbow bumped him with enough force to distract him. She said, "We have faced the Nazis in a number of battles, Your Majesty. Is there any battle you wish us to recount?"

    "Speak to us of your brave deeds in keeping the Narzis from the ancient secrets of the Darglan." The voice, said in a giddy soprano, was from one of the figures to Galahad's left and across from the Aurora officers. The young lady, one in three, was wearing a fine blue dress and robe with a massive pink headdress that looked like it came from a medieval European costume. The Aurora officers recognized her immediately as one of Galahad's daughters.

    "An excellent choice, Marissa!" Galahad declared.

    "Well…" Julia smiled thinly at Robert, who was still trying to align the fact that this was supposed to be a state celebration banquet with the fact that it had the atmosphere of a show at Medieval Times. "We sent a team down to investigate the Facility while we remained to watch in orbit. The Nazi ships came out of the first planet…" She stopped herself at that point, noticing a number of those assembled were clearly not following. She looked to the others and her mind raced. Emissary Gordon, the Alliance representative who had finished negotiating Avalon's admission and who now sat on the left side of the table beyond Galahad's top ministers, gave them a nervous look.

    "And they came for us, for their leader wanted to avenge our defeat of him in our first encounter, when we saved a ship full of innocent people from his cowardly bloodthirst," Robert suggested, trying to match the energy of Galahad's story and not quite making it. He looked down toward the others, his green eyes pleading for help.

    A single mug struck the table with a resounding thump. "Alright, lads an' lasses, allow me." Scotty rose to his feet. "So, our mission was t' secure that old Facility or blew her up t' keep th' Nazi scunners from claimin' her. Captain Dale led the team down t' hold th' place while th' Commander, brilliant lass that she is, remained on th' ship t' see us through. An' every skill we had was t' be needed, for th' bloody Nazis had brought an entire squadron t' take th' place. An' they were all SS, th' worst an' meanest bastards ye've ever seen, led by a scoundrel named Eicke who we stopped from killin' a ship o' helpless civilians. An' he had it out for us, oh did he ever, chasin' us with that bloody big dreadnought o' his…"

    It was clear that Scotty had the rapt attention of the assembled, so the crew let him tell the story. He didn't give it the melodramatic, roaring style that Galahad had used, but he clearly had an approach the audience related to, and they cheered at the appropriate parts.

    "An' that's how it went, Yer Majesty," he said at the ending.

    Galahad set down his half-devoured drumstick and slammed his meaty hands together in applause. "A glorious tale, sir! Glorious! Why, it gets my blood pumping! It makes me long to join my knights in battle with the Narzis! And perhaps I shall, if called upon, but my duties and the needs of honor mean I must leave that to Sir George!" He nodded to one of the men nearest him at the table, who nodded back in respect. "Good knights must all attend our duties before our desires. As King, I must set a good example." It was quite clear how much he disliked this decision, though.

    "Do not worry, Father," declared another of his daughters, older and more powerfully built than Marissa and lacking the medieval-looking headdress. "I will win honor in battle in your name!"

    "I trust you will, Miranda! I trust you will! I trust that all of you, from the finest sons and daughters of Camelot to the most humbly born of the colonies, will win great glory and honor in battle against the Narzi scourge!"

    The hall erupted in a cheer yet again.

    The King let a serving girl replace his empty mug with a full one, which he snatched up witn enough force to spill some of the frothy, amber-colored ale to the table. He held up the mug and proclaimed, "To Camelot and Avalon! To the Alliance! To honor, to glory, and to victory!"

    With their mugs held high, the crowd roared back, "To victory!" The Aurora and Koenig officers joined in, some louder than the others.

    Once the cheer was over Galahad leaned to his left, where another robed man, older with long gray hair and beard and a thin build, leaned in and whispered to him. "My First Minister has reminded me of an announcement to make. As we speak, my subjects are preparing to vote for their first representatives and Senator to sit in the Alliance Council. And Sir Percival has already accepted the Round Table's appointment to sit as their Senator. That leaves my choice for Senator, and I wish to see her honored here." He directed his eyes towards his daughters, specifically the fair-haired beauty between Marissa and Miranda. But while Marissa and Miranda were in medieval-looking robes, this one was in a more modern suit jacket and skirt of blue-gray color that matched her eyes. "My dear daughter, Princess Marigold, it will break my heart to no longer see you at my hearth and table. But with your skill in council and law, it would be wrong to deny you the honor of executing this duty."

    Marigold nodded to her father. "I will serve you with honor, Father, to return the honor you have shown me in trusting this duty to me."

    A solemn moment of silence passed, the first since the banquet had begun.

    It lasted only that moment, however, before Galahad's voice boomed yet again. "And now, while the next course comes, Sir Tristan and Lady Regina will demonstrate their skill with the sword!"

    There was, of course, a cheer of approval at that.




    After a night of drinking, eating, and partying that seemed more befitting a frat house than a state banquet, everyone beamed back to the Aurora. "I'm off to bed," Julia grumbled.

    "That was way too much food," Caterina groaned. "I almost got sick."

    "Where does King Galahad put it all?" Robert wondered aloud as they spilled out of Transporter Station 1. "The man ate every course!"

    "Given how energetic he is, he must burn enough calories." Leo stifled a yawn. "I'm off to bed too." He looked over at Lucy as she stepped out of the station, sporting a growing bruise on the side of her face. "Singh should be able to take care of that."

    "Good." She grimaced. "That guy was a lot faster than I thought he'd be."

    "I discouraged you from challenging him," Meridina reminded Lucy, stepping up from behind her. A look of concern briefly came to her face. "I do not see what you had to prove."

    "Well, they were asking for one of us to duel, with swords, and aside from the two of us I'm not sure who could tried?" Lucy rubbed at her head. "Ow, that smarted. I'm going to get these bruises healed and head to bed."

    Everyone split up as the conversations came to an end. Robert returned to his and couldn't pull his dress uniform off quickly enough. His head was fuzzy from the beer - he had possibly drank one too many - and it took him an extra ten seconds or so to properly stow the uniform top away. He was pulling off the trousers when a light on his computer table came on. A tone told him a comm call was coming in. He went over and flopped into the chair before tapping the acceptance key. "Dale here."

    The voice on the other end was Lieutenant John Pacetti, the Gamma Shift watch officer. "Sir, we have Maran on a priority channel for you."

    Robert frowned at that. Maran had them making a tour of the Alliance's S0T5 colonies next. What could have happened to change that? Nor was he looking forward to a conversation when he felt like this. "Put him through to my quarters."

    "Yes sir."

    A moment later Admiral Maran appeared on his screen, graying dark hair and beard kept trim. "Captain, I trust everything went well?"

    Robert nodded once. Only once, as he didn’t feel up to another. "The banquet was a success. Although it's not like any other banquet I've seen before. I apologize, sir, if I seem tipsy, but we didn’t want to offend..."

    Maran nodded and a small grin appeared on his face. "Emissary Gordon's notes on the Avalonians made for interesting reading. I'm glad to know it worked out well. Avalon's got some of the best starfighter pilots in the Multiverse and a fleet of carrier starships that will play a critical role in future fleet operations." The grin had already faded back to a stoic expression by this point. "Captain, your tour has been canceled for the time being. A… delicate situation has come up, and the Aurora has been called in to handle it."

    "Yes sir? Where do you need us?"

    "Set a course immediately for the city-moon of Solaris."

    Robert blinked. The fuzzy-headed feeling started to part from surprise. "Solaris? As in the capital of the Solarian Sovereignty? I thought they were forbidding Alliance starships from their space?"

    "They are, for the moment. But entry has been arranged for your ship. Just don't make any hostile maneuvers while you're in their space and you'll be fine."

    "Can you tell me what's going on?" Robert asked.

    Maran spent a moment considering his answer. "It's a delicate situation, and it'll be explained better when you get there. We have a partnership with one of the biggest research companies on Solaris, you see. And our partner reported that a critical device was stolen from his labs a few days ago, enough to jeopardize a very important project we're working on. He insisted that you work to retrieve it."

    "Who is the partner?"

    "Pan-Empyrean," Maran answered.

    Even if he was no expert on S0T5, Robert still recognized the name. "You mean… our partner is Sidney Hank?"

    "Yes," Maran answered. "So you can understand why we're taking his requests so seriously. Given the distance you should have a couple of days, minimum, to get your crew up to speed on Solaris and what to expect. I'll send you all of the relevant information. And remember that the Aurora is the first active duty Alliance Stellar Navy ship to visit the city-moon, so make sure your people understand that if they take liberty."

    "I will, sir. I'll send you regular reports on what's going on.

    "Very good. Maran out."

    Once the channel was cut Robert called up the bridge again. "We have a change of plans. Have all crew currently on liberty planetside beamed up and set a course for the Solaris system, Warp 9.2. Take us out when we have everyone aboard."

    "Alright, sir," replied Pacetti.

    Robert sighed and ended the call. He had the feeling this wouldn't be an easy mission. Especially not with the reputation of a place like Solaris.


    Undiscovered Frontier
    "Solarian Nights"






    The streaks of warp travel were showing outside of the bridge conference lounge window by the time every gathered the following morning. Hargert's staff had laid out a breakfast selection for them with lots of water and coffee, all of which was greatly appreciated.

    With the exceptions of Meridina and Zack, everyone looked at least slightly hung over. "I hav'nae had a headache this bad since Captain Kirk invited Gorkon t' dinner," Scotty complained.

    "I feel like a truck ran over my head," Cat moaned.

    "So we've all had a little reinforcement about the dangers of alcohol," Julia remarked, quietly drinking coffee and water together. "Let's keep that in mind for next time?"

    "I think our choices were 'drink heavily' or 'offend our hosts'." Jarod held up an icing-topped donut for a moment and took a drink of coffee before he took a bite from the pastry.

    "Hangovers in the line of duty," Barnes mumbled. "Maybe we should get medals."

    "Alright everyone…" Robert spoke loud enough to get their attention. Heads turned to face him. "Admiral Maran's calling us in on an urgent mission."

    "I was wondering why we had already left Avalon," Locarno said, taking another drink of coffee afterward.

    "So, where are we headed then?"

    "Solaris."

    Surprised looks filled the room. "You're kidding," Zack said.

    "We're actually going to Solaris?" Caterina asked. "Because… wow."

    Lucy held up a hand. "Maybe it's just all of the time spent practicing life force stuff, but I admit I'm still a little ignorant about this place… what's the big deal?"

    Robert nodded to Julia. She put her hands together on the table. "Solaris is, or maybe you could say was, a garden moon. Now it's one massive moon-sized city with a population of nearly thirty billion beings on an orbital body about ten percent larger than Earth's moon. It's the capital of the United Solarian Sovereignty, a federation of worlds on the edge of what is known as Wild Space."

    "The Solarians are one of the major powers of S0T5," Robert added. "On the surface they're a democratic republic, with an elected government and President. But observers consider them to be a corporate oligarchy in structure, with several massive megacorporations running the show in truth. They're highly militarized, and given the state of some of their neighbors, they have to be."

    "And they don't like us that much," Jarod said.

    "I didn't think they were that hostile, I mean, we have relations and some trade, right?" asked Zack.

    Robert nodded. "We do. And we're due to meet the Alliance Ambassador to Solaris when we arrive as a preliminary to the meeting the Admiral has ordered us to. Or rather, ordered me, Julia, Zack, and Jarod to. But the Solarians are still wary of the Alliance. Our arrival in S0T5 has altered the interstellar balance of power. The Solarians don't want us allying with hostile powers, but they're afraid that being too cozy with us might make their enemies go for broke to prevent a permanent shift in the balance of power."

    While Robert stopped to take a drink of coffee, Julia took over. "We're the first combat-capable Alliance starship to enter Solarian space. So we have to be on best behavior. Normal running status only. And we'll decide on liberty once we get there."

    "So, what are we being sent out here to do?" asked Kane.

    "Admiral Maran didn't want to divulge exact details remotely," Robert answered. "So I don't know everything yet. What his information has gone over is who we're working with." Robert hit a key on the small control pad beside his spot at the table. The monitor screen on the interior wall of the conference lounge changed to show a dark-haired man with fine, handsome features and piercing sky blue eyes. He was in a rich-looking suit of midnight blue with a vast skyline in profile behind him. The image was clearly for public display.

    "Wait, I think I remember that guy on a news report or something," Caterina said. "He's this really rich guy or something."

    "Sidney Leon Hank," Robert said. "President, CEO, and Founder of Pan-Empyrean Positronics and Pan-Empyrean Holdings, owner of multiple other major corporations and businesses, and quite possibly the richest man in the Multiverse. And I say possibly because once you get to this guy's level of wealth, it's hard to calculate exact worth. He's the one percent of the one percent."

    "According to his profile, he's also considered a Founding Father of the Solarian Sovereignty itself and is one of their most influential citizens. Apparently he was one of the original leading colonists of the moon." Julia blinked at the data. "And given the Sovereignty has been around for something like two hundred years, and Solaris nearly ten times longer than that... I have trouble believing that."

    "So what, this guy is some immortal billionaire?"

    Jarod shook his head at Barnes' remark. "’Billionaire’ doesn't even begin to do justice. Through his companies the man owns enough planets, moons, and planetoids to form his own interstellar empire."

    "Okay, so what, quadrillionaire? Quintillion? 'Really-frakking-huge-number'-aire?"

    "I think 'impossibly wealthy' is about as accurate as you can get," Julia said. "And we're dealing with him? What's this about?"

    "Apparently the Alliance Government is co-funding a secret research program with Pan-Empyrean as a partner," Robert explained. "Admiral Maran wouldn't divulge details over IU comms or subspace. All I know is that he considers it vital to Alliance security somehow. And according to both our officers on the scene and Mister Hank, someone has stolen a key component of the project."

    "And what, they need us to get it back?" Angel asked.

    "Maybe. We'll find out more when we get to Solaris and meet Mister Hank himself." Robert tapped another key and brought up, above the table, a holographic display of the city-moon itself. "We also have to study up on Solaris itself. I'm told some areas are dangerous to people without the right neural implants or hardware. Apparently there are even areas of hard vacuum right in the middle of some zones."

    "And more." Caterina had her own list up. "I mean, you've got areas with auto-memetic collectives that can overwhelm any normal brain, or hack into a brain with neural hardware. Anyone stepping into an area like that without extensive protection can get their mind wiped or their brain fried."

    "This place sounds insanely dangerous," Zack muttered.

    "It looks like much of Solaris is safe, though," Leo remarked. "At least from an atmospheric or neurological standpoint. I'll go over the data and see if I can make up any protections. Jarod and I can mark 'no go' areas by the time we get there."

    "The Ambassador will give us an info packet to distribute to anyone going down for liberty," Robert said. "Use that to finalize everything. Now, let's move on to the political information…"




    After her bridge shift for the day, Caterina finished her meal and went to Science Lab 2 to check up on simulations she was running on local space. Universe S0T5 had unique characteristics due to the unknown cataclysm that had destroyed or displaced the Earth of this universe. Spatial warping effects had spread out for light-years beyond where Earth had been, becoming so intense in the area near Earth that the stars no longer seemed to be in their proper places, and Sol was completely missing. Investigating how this phenomena could affect warp drive was one of many scientific studies she was now pursuing with the dedicated computers in Science Lab 2.

    She was taking time to examine the results when the door opened again. She turned, expecting to see another of the science officers coming in to check up on projects, and found instead that it was Lucy heading to one of the terminals. Cat took another minute to check another series of data points before she went over to where Lucy was working. On the screen for her terminal was a series of simulations, all showing negative results on the thermal stresses she had set. “Crystals?” Caterina asked, noticing the structures being examined.

    Lucy turned to face Caterina. “Yes,” she said. “I’m still trying to find a crystal that can accept…”

    Cat’s eyes widened at the display. “That’s… I’m not sure you’ll find a crystal that can take that much. Maybe dilithium.”

    “That didn’t work,” Lucy sighed.

    “What about Minbari…”

    “It blew up in my face. Almost literally. It’s why Scotty banned me from Machine Shop B for two weeks.” Frustration showed clearly on Lucy’s face. “Dammit, there’s got to be a crystal out there that would work at this. I know there’s one, in fact.”

    “Then why didn’t you run an atomic analysis scan on it?” Cat asked.

    “Because the old multidevices couldn’t do that without direct access to the crystal, and I didn’t think it’d be appreciated if I dismantled a relic of immense cultural value.”

    Realization showed on Caterina’s face. “Oh,” she said. “You’re trying to recreate that laser sword you repaired on Gersal, right?”

    “Yeah.” Lucy sighed dejectedly. “I’ve been through almost every crystal in our databanks, and even the rest don’t show the results I need to show they’re viable.”

    “Have you talked to Dr. Gatiri?”

    “The metallurgist specialist? No. Why would I?”

    “Because he’s also a minerals and materials expert,” Cat replied. “He might know something.”

    “I’ll go see him then, when I can.”

    The door slid open again. They turned and saw Meridina enter, wearing her training outfit of a white vest and loose brown pants with brown robe. Lucy sighed and said, “I lost track of time again, didn’t I?”

    “No,” Meridina replied with a slight grin. “I merely expected you would and anticipated where you would go. I do admit my concern for this project, however. I fear you may be losing sight of the more important aspects of your training.”

    “I’m not, I just… I have a feeling about this. That I’m meant to do this,” Lucy replied.

    “Perhaps you are. But I don’t want you to lose sight of the greater truths, Lucy.” Meridina’s grin turned sad. “I fear I may have done you harm. Due to our circumstances much of your training has been on self-defense.”

    “And it’s been needed,” Lucy said. “I needed every bit of it to survive the fight with Goras.”

    “True. But there is more to your swevyra than fighting. And I think your combat skills have been practiced enough... It is time, I think, to orient your training toward other aspects of our ways.”

    Lucy considered that. “I guess.” She logged out of the system and followed Meridina out.




    Caterina stepped out of the science lab and made it to the lift before running into Violeta, fresh from a bridge shift. Her girlfriend seemed as excited as Cat had ever seen her before, holding her hand tightly and saying with great exuberance, “I can’t believe it! We’re actually going to Solaris!”

    “It’s for business, so I’m not sure I’ll get to go down on liberty,” Caterina said.

    “I hope you can, though. I’ve been reading up on their people. They’re a lot like Sirians, I mean, with their acceptance of gene modifications, their lifestyles…”

    “Then you should go down and enjoy yourself,” Cat insisted.

    “You’re okay with that?” asked Violeta. Her purple eyes and matching purple hair were indicators of her own gene mods. “Are you sure?”

    “Of course.”

    That won Cat an affectionate peck on the cheek. “Thank you,” Violeta said.




    The training session was exactly what Meridina said it would be, with Lucy and Robert both spending their time standing on their hands trying to control objects. That had ended with neither belly-flopping as they had been wont to do at earlier periods and they were now sitting on the mats, legs crossed, with Meridina leading them into quiet meditation. The only sounds present were the slow, methodical breathing of the three. No words were spoken, no movements made, while they felt out into the wider universe with the power that was a part of them.

    All three noticed, wordlessly, that there was something peculiar about their location. Their life force could sense a subtle echo of power in Universe S0T5 that they hadn’t felt elsewhere. As if something fundamental had been changed, or shaped, by an unknown force.

    This distraction drew Lucy’s attention for a time. But her thoughts gravitated away from it. She dwelled on the warm light of Meridina and Robert and the life energy of the Aurora’s crew. They were a small, isolated segment of the Flow of Life and only after months of further training and sensitivity had Lucy been able to sense it. The warmth was refreshing to her very being. She felt peace.

    The slip came from Robert at first. His breathing picked up. Lucy almost opened her eyes to look at him, but in the end she didn’t need to. She could sense that he was experiencing visions of what could be, in a way she never really had. Faces, names, she wasn’t immediately familiar with.

    “Bad Wolf,” Robert gasped. “Bad Wolf.”

    Meridina focused her attention on Robert. Lucy felt her try to reassure him while he shook off the effects of the vision.

    Her mind would not quiet now, though. She kept going back to her project. To the crystal that she needed to make it work. This could be a real breakthrough to recreate Swenya’s Blade. And she wanted to. She could still remember how superb the weapon had been. How easy it had been to move with it, the buzz in the air while photons and plasma did the work of metal with the lightness of air.

    As those feelings built, frustration came to her. Nothing she tried was working. Nothing. She knew she could make it work if only she had a damn crystal, but she couldn’t find one that worked. Natural, artificial, it didn’t matter. Only the one actually in Swenya’s Blade seemed to work, and she had no idea why. She regretted not taking the damn thing apart to get a look, a good look, at the crystal inside of it.

    “Lucy.”

    The soft, gentle lilt of Meridina’s voice caused Lucy’s eyes to open. Her hands had balled into fists unconsciously. She could feel the tension inside of her from how agitated she had become.

    Meridina was looking at her with something approaching sadness. “It is alright,” she said. “This is not a thing that can be easily rebuilt. My people would have done so by now if it could be done. You mustn't let these setbacks poison your spirit.”

    “I… I know.” Lucy felt a little shaken. She drew in a breath and adjusted her position on the mat. “I’m sorry. I won’t let it happen again.”

    “That is not what concerns me. It is clear this issue weighs heavily on you.”

    “It’s just a little frustration. I’ll live with it.”

    “A little frustration can lead to greater problems.” Meridina kept her eyes on Lucy. “Do not hesitate to unburden yourself. Step away from the project for a time. Do other things that reward your efforts and perhaps a solution to your problem will come to you.”

    Lucy took in a breath, let it out, and nodded. “Okay. I’ll let the crystal problem go for a while.” She looked to Robert. “And what does ‘Bad Wolf’ mean anyway?”

    “If only I knew,” he lamented. He gave her a wan smile. “It looks like we both have some troubles to deal with.”

    “Don’t we always?”

    Meridina gently cleared her throat, getting their attention. “Let us resume our meditations…”




    They were still a day out from Solaris. Robert was in a subspace conference with Admiral Maran concerning the front in S4W8, leaving Julia in charge on the bridge when Locarno stated, “We’re now entering the inner defensive perimeter of Solarian space.”

    “Any sign they have us escorted?”

    “Maybe.” Caterina looked up from her sensors station. “I’ve got very faint subspace signatures on sensors. It might be ships using the bands of hyperspace that local drives access.”

    “But you don’t know for sure?”

    “Performance of the local hyperdrives seems to change as you get further Coreward,” Caterina explained. “So their sensor return data is all over the map, figuratively speaking.”

    Julia nodded at that. “Well, keep an eye out on those contacts.”

    “I will.” Cat sighed. “I was hoping to see if those reports of space fauna were as plentiful as they sounded.”

    “I’ve heard of them. One of our standing orders is to keep hunting ships from pursuing them into Alliance space if we detected any near our colonies.”

    “Hunters?” Caterina asked, frowning.

    This time it was Jarod who answered. “The states further Rimward use the largest space fauna as reactant fuel of some sort. In the same way that whales used to be hunted for oil.”

    “That’s wrong!” Cat shouted. “We need to go stop it!"

    “I don’t think we’ll be necessary for that, Cat,” Julia said. “We’ve got other things to worry about. Like making sure the first Alliance visit to Solaris goes off without problems.”

    “That might be easier said than done,” Jarod sighed. “Solaris has that reputation. I’ve thought about advising we forbid any liberties.”

    “I considered it too, but we’ve got crew in need of time away, so we’re holding off final judgement until that analyst comes aboard." Julia shifted in her seat. “In the meantime, everyone keep your eyes open. I don’t want any surprises when we get to Solaris.”




    With the night ending and arrival at Solaris coming within twelve hours, Robert returned to his quarters to settle in for the night. He was in the process of removing his uniform jacket when his door chime sounded. He quietly sighed and turned. "Enter."

    Instead of Julia or Jarod with unfinished paperwork, Meridina entered. She was in her uniform, telling Robert she had changed since they'd done their daily training. "Everything okay?" he asked.

    "I was in a late security briefing with my subordinates and Commander Kane," she replied. Meridina stepped further into the quarters. "I wish to speak with you on another matter, however."

    "Go ahead."

    "I am concerned for Lucy."

    To that Robert sighed and nodded. "Yeah. So am I. She's been working on those energy blades, lightsabers, whatever she wants to call them, she's been working on that so much I'm afraid she's becoming obsessed."

    "I have made some investigations into Solaris," Meridina said. "There is an enclave there operated by a number of organizations much like the Order. I hope that meeting such practitioners may expand our understanding of our swevyra."

    Robert walked over to his replicator. "Tea, standard, no sugar… wait." He looked back to Meridina.. "Would you like something? I'm not touching coffee this late."

    "A tea, perhaps, but I will not detain you for long."

    Robert ordered the second tea and the replicator provided both. He handed one cup to Meridina, who sipped at it as he took a larger drink of his own. The taste was soothing to his senses. "Do you think this will help Lucy?"

    "I hope it may provide her greater insight. I may also benefit."

    Robert nodded and said, "I know you miss the Order."

    "I do. But I know this is where I am meant to be. My destiny is here." Meridina sipped again. A tear formed in her eye. "Perhaps part of that destiny will be to learn more about the Flow of Life, about how swevyra interacts with the wider universe."

    "From what I’ve seen, your people seem pretty devoted to their mentality on the entire thing." Robert’s observation ended there, as he didn’t see the need to bring up how the Gersallians’ conservatism on the matter had driven the trial Meridina had been put through.

    "They are," Meridina agreed. "We know what has worked for us. And our experience with Kohbal and his followers has taught my people that exploring different approaches to swevyra is dangerous. It has become a failing, however. The Dorei have long proven that other beliefs on the nature of this power can exist without leading to darkness. And the Zigonian I met while we rescued Jarod spoke of yet another view. There may be wisdom in looking into these separate paths."

    "I can see that." Robert set his empty teacup down. "So I guess this is you asking for liberty?"

    "It is. Commander Andreys is quite busy with other things, so I thought it wiser to ask you."

    "I'll talk to her about it tomorrow, but I can't promise anything until I know what's going on with why we're here."

    "I understand." Meridina finished her own tea. She took the empty cup back to the replicator and allowed it to reclaim the cup. "I will not keep you any longer."

    "I'll see you in the morning when Ambassador Fry comes aboard for the briefing."

    Meridina nodded in reply and left, leaving Robert to resume his usual end-of-the-day routine.




    The command staff was at their stations on the bridge when the moment came the following morning. “We’re coming up on Solaris,” Locarno said. “Bringing us out of warp.”

    They all felt the gentle thrum through the decks from the ship drop to sublight velocity. The holo-viewscreen activated to display the sight ahead. A large gas giant was the dominant feature, but even without further magnification, their actual destination was clear. Moving between the Aurora and the gas giant in question was the city-moon Solaris, an orb covered in light. As they drew nearer the stupendous amount of ship traffic around the city-moon became evident. Sublight in-system craft burned in and out, on runs to the various resource mines and facilities in the rest of the system, while smaller pleasure craft and larger spacecraft liners and massive cargo haulers alike lined up on their way to or from the system’s hyperlimit. The amount of traffic was enormous despite Solaris’ relatively small size, easily the equal of Gersal, Thessia, or the most developed Earths in the Alliance.

    “Three ships just came out of hyperspace around us,” Caterina reported.

    “Solarian warships, Warstar-type.” A light showed on Jarod’s panel. “They’re hailing.”

    “Put them on.”

    The screen changed to show a man in a blue, authoritative uniform with Solarian insignia. “I am Captain Tobias Guangchu, commander of the Warstar Lao Kim. The Sovereignty Star Navy will maintain a defensive perimeter around your ship to ensure there are no incidents while you are a visitor to Solaris. For your safety, please follow all space traffic control directives and keep your vessel’s defensive systems disengaged. Any attempt to raise deflectors or arm weapons could, after all, be taken as hostile intent, and neither of our governments wish for this.

    “Of course not,” Robert answered. “And we will, of course, trust that your ships will keep our vessel safe from any attack.”

    Of course.” Guangchu smiled thinly. Though his name sounded East Asian, he looked more Caucasian and Indian than anything with the darker skin color and the facial features. “We must also be informed before your ship launches any craft. For security purposes of course.

    “Of course.” Robert didn’t need his enhanced senses to know Guangchu was not happy with this assignment or with the Aurora’s presence and would be out to make a nuisance of himself. “We will mostly be utilizing transporters as it is.”

    So I am aware. Be advised that we are familiar enough with your technology and we know of countermeasures. We will be monitoring your transporter activity closely. Any unauthorized uses of your transporter will prove very fatal to those attempting such a breach of our trust.”

    “Of course. Thank you again for your help, Captain Guangchu. Dale out.” Robert was relieved to see the clearly irritated Solarian commander disappear from the viewscreen. “Let’s make sure to monitor those ships.”

    “They don’t want us here,” Julia said. “Or at least he and his superiors don’t.”

    They both looked again to the viewer, and to the blade-shaped warships now taking up positions around them. Each was the length of the Aurora, but they were armed to the teeth and Robert darkly suspected even one could overwhelm his ship’s defenses in a fair fight. The message was a clear one: “We don’t want you here, so do exactly as told or we blow you up”.

    “We’re receiving an orbital approach vector from System Traffic Control. I’m relaying it to the helm.”

    Locarno looked over the data and sighed. “They’re making us wait for a couple of their cargo carriers during our approach.”

    “There’s nothing we can do about that. Keep to the approach and let us know as soon as we’re in transporter range. Ambassador Fry will be waiting for us.”

    Julia crossed her arms with clear irritation. “I’d like to know just what is the cause of this sort of petty harassment. Is it against us or is this some gesture being made toward someone else, and we’re just the ones stuck in the middle of it?”

    “If we’re lucky, maybe we’ll find out,” Robert observed wryly.
     
  10. Threadmarks: 2-14-2
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    The command staff from both ships were ready when Robert and Julia escorted Ambassador Fry into the Conference Room. He was a Caucasian man, with his hair in a bowl cut and a fine suit that covered a body that had settled into general stoutness in its shape. “Good day everyone,” he said, smiling, his accent distinctly English. “Melchett Fry, at your service.”

    “We should get down to business so we don’t keep Mister Hank waiting,” Robert suggested, quite certain that someone like that wouldn’t appreciate anything less than prompt punctuality. “I don’t suppose you can tell us why we merited such a large escort, or why Traffic Control held up our arrival in orbit to allow so many other ships right away?” The two cargo carriers had become four, joined by a luxury starliner, before the Aurora finally made proper orbit of Solaris.

    “Ah, yes.” Fry nodded. “The military escort couldn’t be avoided. The Sovereignty Government only agreed to your arrival on those conditions. And Mister Hank will be paying a fee, I’m told, for the duration of your stay here.”

    “Even more reason to get to business.”

    “Yes,” Fry said, agreeing with Julia. “As for the delays that System Traffic Control imposed, I suspect that has more to do with Mister Hank himself. While he is enormously influential, there are groups and powers in the Sovereignty who are opposed to him. Petty abuses of power is a way for the authorities to remind everyone of whom is in charge.”

    “Speaking of who’s in power…” Julia began.

    “President Victoria Sinclair. Her friends get to call her Vick or Vicki.” Fry used his omnitool to display the image of a woman in a fine business suit who, while not pretty, had what could be called handsome features. And there was no mistaking the glint in her eye. “She and Mister Hank were political allies. But politics in the Sovereignty are as treacherous as you might imagine, given the role of the megacorporations here.”

    “But not too cutthroat, I hope. Political intrigue and running a state usually don’t mix well,” Jarod pointed out.

    “That is where Olympic comes in,” Fry stated. “The Sovereignty’s infrastructure is overseen by an enormously powerful computational intelligence.”

    “You mean an AI.”

    Fry shook his head at Caterina’s remark. “The Solarians don’t approve of that term. They consider it a slur against machine-based intelligences. ‘Computational Intelligence’ is the appropriate term.”

    “Nice, a politically-correct way to talk about computers,” Angel remarked drolly.

    “Jarod, make sure our computer protections are fully in place,” Robert said.

    “A reasonable precaution, but I suspect that if Olympic wants to hack your systems, it will do so,” Fry remarked. “I don’t imagine it will harm you though. What will harm you is the rest of this moon. Solaris is not a safe place for Humans who have not been extensively modified with implants.”

    “So we shouldn’t allow any leaves.”

    “There are a few specific zones that you might visit, with only a few simple precautions. What you must understand, Captain, is that Solaris is a melange of subcultures and social organizations, divided by anything from common beliefs to planets of origin for newcomers.”

    “You mean things like Chinatown in New York and other cities?” Julia asked.

    “Yes. And some of these people keep their environments safe for the unaugmented. Others do not, and the consequences to exposure can be severe.” Fry tapped at his omnitool. “I would hate to deny your crews the experiences of Solaris though, they’re simply wonderous in many ways, and I think that if you keep them in the zones specified they shall be just fine.” The sectors marked by Fry were smaller than had earlier been shown as “safe”, but still showed at least a quarter of the moon’s surface. "Of course, if you go outside of them, you could end up in a state not unlike having your brain replaced with cauliflower."

    Barnes snorted out a laugh at that.

    Julia started working her own controls. “Anyone going down will have this information loaded into their omnitools. And we’ll put the Transporter Stations on standby just in case we need to pull someone back.”

    “A wise decision.” Fry checked the time on his omnitool. “Oh dear, it’s getting rather late, and Mister Hank is due at a Senator’s dinner later. As am I, I must admit.” Fry pumped his chest up a bit at that. “I shall have things to do… but yes, you should go see Mister Hank immediately. He will be waiting for you at Pan-Empyrean’s Main Offices near the Government Block. Is there anything else?”

    “Do you know what was stolen, or what this project is about?” Julia asked.

    “Oh, heavens no! No, I was not informed of that. The Defense Command has been keeping that information quiet. All I can tell you is that if Mister Hank is sending you on a hunt for it, you may have your work cut out for you.” Fry’s expression shifted, as if he suddenly remembered something and was embarrassed by the fact. “Also, I should mention… you will not be able to transport into Pan-Empyrean. They maintain a constant defensive field to prevent such entries. Transport down to the Alliance Embassy and a skycab will be arranged for you immediately.”

    “We’ll be down shortly,” Robert assured him.

    “Then I shall return. I have quite a few things to do today.” Without further word, Fry left the room.

    “For the moment, I’m holding off on liberty requests,” Robert said to everyone, looking briefly to Meridina who, in reply, nodded in understanding. “Not until I know more about what’s going on. There is something off with this situation.”

    “Aye, tell me about it.” Scotty nodded. “They invite us an’ then act like we’ve crashed through th’ front door.”

    “Are you sure we should both be going down?” Julia asked. “With Zack and Jarod too? That means almost all of our command officers are away from the ships.”

    “We’re the ones that Hank wants to see,” Robert said. “So I’m afraid that’s it. We’re all going down. Nick, you’ll have the bridge.”

    “And we’re heading down now?” Zack asked. “Just like that?”

    “I want to get this over with,” Robert insisted, standing up. Julia did as well, with Zack and Jarod taking just a moment more to do the same. “You’re all dismissed.”




    The Alliance Embassy was on the top floors of one of the many massive arcology structures. The lower floors were office spaces and residential blocks, with a layer of offices and housing for diplomats from smaller world-based governments. The upper floors contained everything from a sizable cafeteria to opulent, elaborate housing for the embassy personnel, with the uppermost floor being that of the current Ambassador.

    In the middle floors of the embassy portion was the docking bay for the embassy’s various vehicles. The craft that emerged was the flying equivalent of a limousine, with a spacious back area that seated the four officers from Aurora and Koenig in luxury.

    None of them took the time to enjoy the complimentary drinks in the back, or any other luxury feature. Everyone was looking out the windows at the sight of Solaris. The city-moon’s arcologies and skyscrapers rose up to and even beyond the atmosphere. Those that did pierce into space were referred to as "starscrapers", or so their driver informed them. Massive displays adorned the sides of buildings, showing advertisements for various consumer products or companies in general. “Normally ya can’t see the ‘smartvertisements’,” their driver said with his New York accent. “Ya need data implants like the rest of ‘em. But the limo’s equipped to pick up their datastreams and display ’em on the windows’ interior.”

    “Interesting.”

    Julia was watching the number of massive structures that flew by. Solaris was, at least here, an amazing sight to behold, colorful and bright and opulent. “So people live in these buildings?”

    “A lot of ‘em, yeah.” The craft flew above a large plate structure joined by numerous walkways to several nearby buildings Smaller buildings were on the plate, which included a lot for aircars. “They got stuff like that down there for shoppin’. The higher up you are, the fancier the shops and restaurants. Although some are built into the arcologies and skyscrapers themselves. Again, the higher they are, the more classy. Especially around the Government Block. We’re enterin’ San Dorado Block now, so we’ll be arrivin’ any minute.”

    The skylimo continued on its way through its traffic lane, other similar vehicles moving alongside or above or below it. It banked right around a long building, flying over a large garden courtyard attached to said building, and flew on toward a tall structure ahead. Said structure stood out somewhat compared to the other structures of Solaris. Their look had been sharp, angled, very much “space age” to the 21st Century aesthetics the four had lived with. The building ahead looked like it could fit into Manhattan’s skyline if it wasn’t so tall. “PAN-EMPYREAN” was arranged in bright lighting along the front. A massive, stylized infinity symbol with wings was arrayed further below, in a solid section with no windows. Various sky vehicles were flying around it, coming or going from the vehicle bays. Their craft flew into an opening in the front and entered an internal parking lot. The driver flew up a level and then sought out, with success, an opening near the entrance to the offices themselves. “I’ll be waitin’ for you,” he reminded the four as they got out of the limo.

    “Well, here we go,” Robert said, trying to keep confidence in his voice. “It’s time to see the illustrious Mister Hank.”




    The inside of Pan-Empyrean was just as opulent as the outside. Upon their entry into the main lobby through the entrance, Robert and the others were in the middle of material grandeur. The vaulting ceiling was bright with warm light created by electric chandeliers that glittered with gold color. Fine sculptures of marble lined the walls, depicting what looked to be mythological figures. Corridors to right and left led off to office spaces while a number of elevator doors were kept together on the far wall of the lobby, flanked by further corridors. Automated drones moved about on anti-grav power, keeping the fine floor and the Pan-Empyrean logo set into it as reflective as a mirror.

    A central desk ahead of them was manned by uniformed people, Humans of stature and strength, their gray security uniforms emblazoned with the winged infinity symbol insignia of Pan-Empyrean. One of them, a dark-skinned woman with close-cut black hair, watched them intently as they stepped up. Before Robert could speak she said, “Captain Dale from the Aurora, yes?”

    “Yes,” he replied. “With officers.”

    “You are on time. Bishop.” She looked to an older-looking guard beside her. “The escort is yours.”

    “Follow me, sirs, ma’am,” Bishop said. The guard led them away from the desk and through the lobby toward what were obviously elevator or lift doors. Men and women in suits milled about them, some looking like they weren’t paying the slightest attention to their surroundings. A well-dressed Zigonian stepped off of a lift as they came up. Bishop kept them from entering it, allowing a short gray alien in a dark hat, a top hat at that, to step in. “He looks like an Asgard,” Julia said.

    “That was an Apexei,” Bishop informed them. “Be careful around them. They’re all powerful psions. They tend to look down on Humans of any kind as backward apes.” He sneered. “Even though we’re the only thing between the little gray bastards and Byzon’s armies.”

    “Byzon?” Zack asked.

    Bishop eyed him as if he wasn’t sure Zack was screwing with him or serious. Realization dawned after a moment. “Right, you’re not from around here. Imperator Byzon, the Bragulans’ high-and-mighty ruler.”

    “Oh, right. The bear aliens.”

    Another lift ahead opened. This one had a unique design around its latinum-plated doors that marked it as special. Once they were inside it refused to move until Bishop gave it a full identification scan from his retina and hand. Once it blipped green the elevator began to move upward. “Mister Hank’s waiting in his office, but I can’t guarantee he’ll call you in right away. He’s a very busy man.”

    “He’s got a company big enough to be its own interstellar state,” Julia observed. “So we’re not surprised.”

    Bishop nodded and said nothing more.

    When the lift stopped, they stepped out into an antechamber with a luscious blue carpet. About ten meters ahead was a pair of big wooden doors, a fine dark tan in color like mahogany, with a desk beside it where a lightly-tanned young woman sat. She had no computer display in front of her and seemed to be staring toward the lift. To either side of the entrance were fine leather chairs. “Welcome to Mister Hank’s office,” the young woman said. “My name is Ariadne and I am Mister Hank’s secretary. You would be Captain Dale and party?”

    “We are, yes,” Robert replied.

    Ariadne seemed to be looking at something else for a moment before her brown eyes focused on them again. “Mister Hank is in a hypercomm conference meeting right now and can’t be disturbed. Please have a seat and I will inform you when he is ready to see you.”

    With nothing else to do, the four took seats, Robert and Julia on one side of the room and Zack and Jarod on the other. Zack looked around. “I don’t suppose there are any magazines…?”

    “You’re probably expected to load publications into a neural implant,” Jarod replied.

    “Indeed,” Ariadne said. “I do apologize for the inconvenience. We offer complimentary news access compatible with M4P2-standard omnitools, you may log in as you desire.”

    Jarod nodded and turned on his omnitool. At first the others thought he was going to look up news sites as Ariadne had suggested. Zack noticed he had the scanner running instead. "What's up?"

    "I was just curious about something. About this building. The mass numbers don't add up."

    "What do you mean?"

    "I mean that the sensor returns I'm getting aren't consistent with normal matter." He looked at the screen over his left forearm intently. "It's hard-light, actually."

    "What's hard-light?" Julia asked.

    Before Jarod could reply, Ariadne said, "The entire building."

    "The entire building." Robert's voice betrayed his shock. "But the power requirements, the… the control issues…"

    "Why would someone make a hard-light building?" Julia asked aloud. "The kind of generators you'd need to project the hard-light, the power to keep it going, it's got to cost far more than any building can be worth."

    "You'll have to answer Mister Hank," Ariadne stated. "He's ready to see you now."

    They stood up and walked to the doors, which swung open for them. The fine carpet continued inside, into the office.

    The office was huge. It was easily the size of a large house, with winding stairs along either side leading to a second level. Massive windows, or perhaps viewscreens, looked out at the Solarian skyline and the tall starscrapers around Pan-Empyrean, where sky-vehicles continued to make their way through the air in streams of semi-organized traffic. While the second level wasn't visible, the first had a thirty foot long conference table of fine amber-shaded wood to their right, while to their left were a number of large leather-clad chairs around wooden tables with the same amber shade. One of the tables still had a tray upon it with a bottle, closed, and fine glasses. On wall spaces beside the door were paintings of the highest caliber. "A Rembrandt," Jarod said quietly, looking at one. "Belshazzar's Feast". He looked to the other side of the door, this painting depicting a nude woman sitting and having her feet tended to by a fully-clothed figure. "Bathsheba at Her Bath".

    Further into the room, between the windows on either side, were great hutches and bookshelves, the former filled with even more bottles and collections of beautiful handcrafted drinking glasses, the latter with leather-bound books. The names and titles they saw on the spines as they walked along were often in gold: Hobbes, Locke, Dickens, Verne, Stevenson, Tolkein, Poe, Conan Doyle, with even older tomes that had names rendered in Latin. The quartet walked along and Jarod continued to note further art works along the walls. "Starry Night by van Gogh. Sorrow, Van Gogh. I see Titian, da Vinci, Tintoretto…" Jarod glanced down at his omnitool. "The materials are right…"

    Julia realized where he was going with this. "Are these originals, Jarod?"

    It wasn't Jarod who answered with, "I should hope so, given the amount of money I paid for them."

    Ahead of them, behind a great desk of the same amber color as the tables now behind them, was Mr. Hank himself. Sidney Hank was in a business jacket much like the image they'd seen before. In person he exuded a peculiar, friendly warmth, but there was a look in his eyes that belied general friendliness. This was a man used to power, and used to it for a very, very long time.

    "Quite a number of Rembrandts here, and is that a de Bray?" Jarod motioned to a painting on the right side of the room, to Hank's left.

    "It is."

    Jarod continued to look around. "Vermeer, Hals… I can see you're a fan of the Dutch Golden Age."

    Hank's lips formed a slight grin. "There's something appealing about the way the Dutch artists of that age captured the mundane, everyday facets of life."

    "And they're originals," Jarod said.

    "I would think they'd be in museums," Zack said. "I mean, aren't paintings like this usually kept in museums?"

    "That can… depend, Commander." Hank motioned to four prepared chairs of rich, burgundy-colored leather. He sank back into his own high-backed office chair, this one of rich blue color, with the insignia of Pan-Empyrean at the top above his head. "Please, Captain, Commanders, sit. It's good to see you." He turned slightly to his right, where a tray held a glass decanter and a caramel-colored liquid inside. He poured five glasses. "Help yourselves. This is Parthegon brandy, from the Chardonne. They refuse to bottle anything that hasn't been in an oak cask for at least ten years."

    With some trepidation, they took the offered drinks. Zack reached last and had an unhappy look on his face. Hank smiled gently and extended a hand to him. "I can provide you a detoxicant, Commander. I don't wish you to feel uncomfortable given the business we have to discuss."

    "That's a generous offer, but that's not…" Zack stopped and sighed. He shook his head. "Thank you for the offer."

    "It can take a strong man to deal with his flaws directly," Hank noted. "I won't bother you with a toast. Please, drink up."

    They all did. The taste was strong, but it was at least certainly more than just alcohol, and the taste was at least appealing.

    As soon as he put his glass down, Robert said, "Admiral Maran refused to speak about what's going on, and Ambassador Fry doesn't seem to know."

    "Yes. Secrecy can be vital in these matters. Especially on Solaris and especially involving our current delicate relations with your Alliance." Hank kept himself in a comfortable pose in his chair, keeping his glass of brandy at hand. After speaking he sipped at it and openly savored the taste.

    "That Warstar commander wasn't happy to have us," Julia said. "And the way they jerked us around on the approach…"

    "President Sinclair was sending me a message, reminding me of her disapproval to inviting you here. A message that the military was happy to join in with, I imagine." Hank's smile nearly turned into a smirk. "When you get to a position like mine, governments start to get uneasy. Or, rather, the people serving as government. I am still deciding on whether I'm going to let the gesture pass or reply with one of my own."

    "Mending bridges may help us with the investigation," Robert proposed. "This technology theft might require us to get help from the government."

    To that, Hank snorted out a laugh. "Perhaps in another state, Captain Dale. But this is Solaris. I don't trust the Sovereignty government any more than I trust my competitors, few as they are. I have resources that will serve just as well."

    "If you do, why call us?"

    "Because it is your Alliance's project, Commander Carrey. And because I think having you involved will be an asset to the investigation." Hank put his hands together on the table. "To steal from my lab requires one of two things: resources or someone on the inside. And even the latter may not be enough without the former. My security measures are too much for a thief acting on their own, even a thief inside of Pan-Empyrean. But if I investigate alone and the thieves still have someone inside my company, they may be forewarned. So it's best to get someone from the outside."

    "What records do you have of the theft?" Jarod asked.

    Hank looked to his left for a moment. A holographic screen popped into existence between the desk and the wall. The laboratory in question had a number of white-suited individuals moving about on whatever business they had. The far wall of the image suddenly suddenly seemed to partly fade away, creating a gap. Armed beings came in with weapons raised. The lab workers all ran for cover or immediately threw their hands up. "It looks like a strike team of at least six people," Jarod observed, even as two of them disappeared from the screen. After thirty seconds they came back with a dark, boxy object now on the back of one of them. They all withdrew through the hole in the wall, which shortly reassembled itself.

    "They disrupted the hard-light of the wall," Julia said. "You've got safety backups for your structure, right?"

    "Of course. They were overpowered locally. The devices to do so aren't unknown in Solaris. Photon disruptors aren't cheap, however, and are very bulky."

    "And a team of that size and training isn't cheap either," Jarod noted.

    Robert nodded. "I see your point then. What did they steal?"

    "A vital component to the project we're developing with the Alliance," Hank answered. "Your Defense Command has spared no expense in getting my people what they needed to succeed in this."

    "What kind of project is this?" Julia asked.

    To that, Hank shook his head. "I'm afraid, Commander, that I can't share that detail with you. Not by my choice, but at the behest of your superiors."

    "So you want us to find something you can't say a word about?" Zack asked.

    "I'm under no illusion that it will be easy, Commander Carrey. But given the record of your accomplishments together, I'm confident you'll find our missing component."

    "What if we find it's likely been moved off-world?" Julia asked. "Or even if we find it here, I can't imagine the Sovereignty will allow us to go after it with our Marines."

    "No, they wouldn't. That's why I'm going to give you the call number for one of my employees, Jason Chandra. Mister Chandra is in charge of my special security squad, the Wild Geese. You find him a target, he'll take it down, even if it's offworld." Hank savored another drink before continuing. "But I suspect it hasn't left yet. My people in Solarian security have been very thorough in checking outgoing ships. No… I suspect that the thieves are lying low for a while, until we become convinced they've escaped the moon. Then they'll move. So we still have time."

    "Don't you have investigators on your payroll?" asked Julia. Her voice didn't betray the suspicions behind the question.

    "It's likely any of my people will get noticed, especially if this was an inside job." Hank gestured to them. "You, on the other hand, are unknown to the Solarian underworld. Don't take your uniforms and you'll pass for baseliners easily."

    "And just hope we don't have to go into one of the zones of Solaris where baseline Humans can't go?" Robert asked.

    "I can make arrangements if such comes up. I suspect they'll stick to the green zones, though. Especially if there is any offworld element to the crew."

    Robert nodded at that. "Do we have anything to go on? The video doesn't give us physical descriptions. Did your internal sensors get anything from them? Or do you know what their escape craft looked like?"

    "As a matter of fact, I do. And I will provide you with that imagery as well."

    "I can't imagine they'll keep a getaway car, especially if they know they were being recorded."

    "Actually, that is our one advantage, Commander Andreys." Hank took another sip of his brandy. "They used an attack program with a cyber-memetic repeating algorithm code on my building's security when they invaded. A normal CI would have been completely sidelined by the attack program. Thankfully, Dionysus is not a normal CI, and he was able to preserve imagery and recordings that our thieves understandably believed to be destroyed."

    "There's that, at least," Jarod mused. "If you give me all of the relevant data on the break-in, I can start analyzing it as soon as I'm back on the Aurora."

    Hank responded by running his hand over a hard-light keyboard that popped up on his desk. Jarod's omnitool flashed to life again with a blinking button. He pressed it. "That's all of our data on the break-in and the relevant transponder code for the gear that was stolen. The short-range transmitter is built into the container and works only on this subchannel." Hank made a show of checking his watch. "I'm afraid I must see you off now. I have a board meeting to get to and then a dinner invitation I must fulfill. Feel free to send any new information you receive to Ariadne or Mister Chandra."

    It was clear that the session was over and no more questions would be answered. They stood and walked out.




    The Pan-Empyrean building disappeared around the corner of another tall arcology before Jarod said, "There's something more to this."

    "It seems that way," Robert agreed. "I can't believe Maran would send us in blind like this."

    "He must not have a choice." Julia looked out of the window at the passing sight of Solaris.

    "Jarod, who do you need to help you with this?"

    He spent only a moment considering Robert's question before replying, "Barnes, maybe, or Scotty, to see what they think about the technical issues."

    "I'll have them meet you in Science Lab 1 once we beam back. Keep me informed."

    "I'll let you know as soon as we find something," Jarod promised.




    After returning to the ship and handling various command issues, Robert went to the Lookout for an early dinner meal. Hargert's meal for the evening was grilled chicken smoked with mesquite and cut for various uses - salads, sandwiches, or by itself - with a variety of vegetable sides.

    While picking at his dinner, Robert watched Solaris through the window. They were over one of the highest-built zones on the moon, with starscraper structures so high that they breached the atmosphere and became space stations at their apex. The engineering knowledge needed to make such structures placed Solaris among the most advanced societies in the entire Multiverse. He couldn't think of another planet that looked like this. Maybe it's because the Asari and Gersallians don't see the need in 'starscraper' buildings? he mused.

    "Any seats taken?"

    Robert looked up to see Zack carrying his own plates. He shook his head, prompting Zack to sit down. "I've never seen anything like it," Zack admitted.

    "Maybe they felt the need to 'grow tall', so to speak," Robert said. "They don't have room to expand through colonization anymore. This area of space has been settled for too long."

    "So they just keep building bigger and bigger buildings until you can't tell where the buildings end and the space stations begin." Zack noted one particularly large, bulbous structure. "Isn't that the main space elevator?"

    "It is. The Sovereignty Spire, where their government bureaucracy and Senate are located."

    "It's times like these that I understand Cat," Zack said while absentmindedly using his fork to gather up a bite from his chicken salad. "I wasn't out here for the exploration stuff, but when you see something like this, you can't help but wonder about it."

    "I know." Robert took a small bite of chicken sandwich. Once he finished swallowing he said, "It looks like the four of us have been picked for this little investigation."

    "I wonder about that, actually. Why us specifically? Any crew could have done this. I mean, why not send out Madeleine Laurent? She's got a good crew on the Challenger. Or Ming Li Chung, I hear she's doing real well on the Shenzhou." Zack held up his fork with another bite on it. "I mean, if they're so worried about a military ship here, the Discovery-class ships are a lot less threatening than we are."

    "And that's assuming they want one of ours, from the Facility days," Robert pointed out.

    "I know, but I honestly don't know many captains in the Alliance service very well," Zack replied.

    "Right." Robert took the time to enjoy another bite, as did Zack. After swallowing and taking a drink from his tea, Robert said, "Well, Meridina wants to go down anyway. She wants to take Lucy to meet people."

    "More training with the life power stuff?"

    "Yeah. For Lucy."

    "Ah." Zack gave him a curious look. "But not you?"

    "Well, I am several months behind her." Robert shrugged. "And I get the feeling that it's something specific to Lucy that needs addressing."

    "Right. Of course, that might interfere in the invest…"

    Before Zack could finish Robert's omnitool lit up. He tapped the blinking blue light over the back of his left hand. "Dale here."

    "Sir, we've been going over the data Mister Hank provided. I think we've found something," said Jarod.

    Robert answered, "We're on our way". He took a final bite of his mostly-finished meal and stood to leave.

    Zack eyed his own unfinished meal and sighed before standing up to follow.




    Science Lab 1's speciality was in the field of analysis of computer data and computer sciences in general. Robert had long learned that this encompassed a wide variety of items, from analyzing records to examining alien computer databases and hardware.

    Now the main holographic viewer in the middle of the Lab was set to show the escape vehicle from the attack on Pan-Empyrean's labs. Jarod had the image zoomed in, showing the sleek nature of what Robert couldn't stop thinking of as a flying car. Beside Jarod Barnes was looking at the image as well. Meridina and Scotty were behind them and Julia was to the side. "Anti-gravs that powerful shudnae be hard t' trace," said the elder engineer. "If ye have th' graviton profile an' other points of data down."

    "The problem is that these things are pretty widespread," Barnes added. "Solarian LARCs are the most common kind of anti-grav vehicle on the entire moon."

    "But do they have their own individual signatures or patterns?" Meridina asked. "Individual enough for us to track?"

    "Not enough," Jarod replied. "From what I've seen it doesn't vary in individual models, only model types. Every other model like this on Solaris would give roughly the same profile. You'd have to be within a few meters, maybe ten or twelve at most, to detect any variation unique to a particular machine."

    "Do we have that profile?" Robert asked him. "In the records?"

    Jarod took a few moments to check. "Yes, I think we do."

    "So we can identify it if we get close enough," Robert noted.

    "That will be the tricky part. We can't even search most of the moon given the environmental hazards," Jarod pointed out.

    "Yeah. These people have all those frakking freaky stuff that can fry our brains."

    "Any luck coming up with protections?" Zack asked.

    "I've talked with Leo but…" He shrugged. "Unless you go in with a full spacesuit? I'm not sure. Some of their tech makes the idea of subliminal messaging look like it's a brick thrown into a greenhouse. I mean, it's like epilepsy, just that they've found things any Human is vulnerable to. I'm not sure we can protect against everything. Maybe a few things, if someone's wearing headgear or something."

    "Let's save that for later, if we need it," Robert said. "Do you think there's any way to track where the car went?"

    "Their sensor nets generally don't record to the level needed to pick out this vehicle from others of its type," Jarod said.

    "Maybe not. But if you can look for cars of a similar kind, cross-reference the times…" Zack let his suggestion hang in the air for a moment. "I mean, it'll narrow things down at least, right?"

    Barnes nodded at Zack. "It's a damned good suggestion."

    "Right." Jarod changed the system. "Let me see if Hank's data included anything we could use…. Ah, there we go. It looks like he's got an extensive sensor network around his complex. I'm going over the record now, let's see what pops up."

    The display showed a general top-level view of Solaris, with the Pan-Empyrean structure in the middle. A number of small red dots appeared, but only one was in the precise position off of Pan-Empyrean to be their suspect. The vehicle began to move away. It followed one traffic lane, then a second, skirting the Government Block. It passed through a built up zone, the Farbanti Block, and moved into the next area, where it merged into a larger traffic pattern that already included several dots.

    "Dammit." Robert looked at Jarod. "Can we identify it in that mess?"

    "I running an algorithm to try and sort through the contacts." A few of the red dots lit up and move on. One went into a zone called Ozone Heights. A second descended into the lower levels before it disappeared abruptly. The third split off and entered an area listed only as "the Sprawl".

    "Three possibilities," Julia murmured.

    "That means three teams," Robert said. "And we'll want to blend in. This should look like ordinary leave."

    "I will go to the Sprawl with Lucy," Meridina said. "It is where the enclave I wish to visit is located. To an observer it will seem I am there to pursue my own purpose."

    "Jarod, I heard Ensign Arterria wants to take liberty planetside?"

    Jarod nodded in reply. It was Julia who said, "And I think Cat and Angel will be going as well."

    "Well, Ozone Heights should be safe enough," Robert said.

    "Which leaves the lower levels." Robert thought that would prove the most dangerous. "What do you think made it disappear like that?"

    "The most likely explanation is that it reached the lower edge of Hanks' nearest scanner," Jarod said. "From what I can tell, it was right at the extent of its range. But another possibility is that it entered an emission-shielded area, maybe a parking lot."

    "At five hundred meters above the ground?" After a moment of contemplation, Barnes added, "Or whatever counts for the ground on Solaris."

    "I'm not sure Solaris has a ground level or 'sea level' as we commonly think of them," Jarod murmured. "But either way, yes. Solaris has a patchwork of walkways and mid-air platforms and bridges suspended between its skyscrapers and starscrapers, all the way to just a few meters off the ground, so any such bridge or inter-building connecting structure could house a lot for the vehicle, or even one of the nearby buildings. Honestly, I think it's our hardest search of them all."

    "That's why I'll go," Robert said. "Maybe I can sense where to take us."

    "I'll go with you, then, and watch your back," said Zack.

    Jarod nodded. "And I'll go."

    "And I will stay behind and run the ship, as usual," Julia remarked dryly.

    Robert almost remarked that's what she did best, but he stopped himself at the thought it might not be an appreciated sentiment. "Get the liberty requests completed, then, and we'll head out in the morning after breakfast. I'll let Hank know what we found."

    "One last thing, actually. It's something you should all see." Jarod started tapping keys. All of the prior displayed went away and were replaced by the image of the Pan-Empyrean structure. A diagram slid to the side, showing the building's exact dimensions as viewed from the outside. On the other side showed scan results from Jarod's omnitool once they were inside. "I got this from my passive scans while we were visiting Mr. Hank. Notice anything?"

    At first, nobody quite did. Scotty was the first to do so. "Well, I'll be… th' numbers dinnae match. They're all wrong."

    "Yeah." Barnes nodded. Surprise was showing on his face. "According to your omnitool, the inside of the building is bigger than the exterior allows for."

    As realization dawned on the others, Jarod tapped keys and brought up a pair of scan results. "I had to do a very careful scan to detect the pattern, but it fits."

    "The Pan-Empyrean Building is bigger on the inside," Meridina said. "Like a Darglan structure."

    Jarod nodded. "Exactly. He's got a dimensionally-transcendental field running."

    "What the hell, why didn't we get briefed on this?" Zack asked. "If the Solarians have DTF, what else do they have?"

    "Actually, that's another curious part. From what I can see, they don't." Jarod gestured to a scan result of the moon that he brought up. "No other DTFs are evident. Just the Pan-Empyrean building."

    "Given the nature of the Sovereignty's political and economic system, it's possible that only Hank actually has the technology," Julia pointed out. "But the building didn't seem that big. How much extra space is it giving him?

    Jarod replied, "Nothing to the extent of the Darglan DTFs we've seen in use, which is why we didn't pick it up on sensors until we were in orbit. In fact, the building's only about ten percent larger on the inside than the outside."

    "That's just a frakking waste," Barnes groused. "Even a ten percent DTF requires a lot of Goddamned energy. It's more efficient to go for at least a fifty percent level, if not a full doubling of interior size. If he doesn't need something like that, why bother with the expense? Why not just plan a few more floors or something?"

    Robert and Julia exchanged glances. "Actually, I can think of the reason why," Robert said.

    "Yeah." Julia nodded. "It's to show that he can."

    "Just like all of those paintings in his office," Jarod agreed. "And those books. Mister Hank likes to let people know just how much wealth and power he wields. And I think we should be really careful in dealing with him."

    "Yes," agreed Meridina.

    To that Robert's response was the obvious pledge of "We will be."




    Meridina found Lucy in her quarters studying the scans she'd taken of Swenya's Blade with her omnitool. She was off-duty and wearing a baggy tank top and dark blue skirt that reflected she'd had no thought of visitors coming by. "There's something about that crystal," she said to Meridina. "I mean, even without the intensive scans, basic analysis shows…" She stopped herself at seeing Meridina's expression and sensing her feelings. "I know. I should let it go. But it's just… it's this puzzle I want to figure out, gnawing at the back of my brain like some… some… gnawing gribbly little monster." When Meridina said nothing further Lucy sighed and shut down the monitor. "I'm becoming obsessed with this thing."

    "There is no harm in what you aspire to, only in how you get there," Meridina answered. "I am being sent down tomorrow as part of our current mission to Solaris. We will be going into the Sprawl to scan for a vehicle."

    "You sense, I scan?" Lucy asked.

    "I suppose. Although I have my own plans for our visit. There is an enclave in the Sprawl where a number of those who tap their swevyra meet and exchange their beliefs and knowledge. I believe a visit to this place may be of great assistance to you."

    "For learning more about my life energy outside of how to fight with it."

    "Yes." Meridina went over to one of the extra chairs and sat down to face Lucy. She, in turn, left the chair at her desk and went to the small couch, sitting at the corner and propping her bare feet up on the coffee table. "I would be remiss if I did not balance your training."

    "How does this work in the Order of Swenya?" Lucy asked. "I mean, I thought field swevyra'se - knights - would focus on combat arts because they're the most likely to fight, just as healers focus on healing. And general users try everything?"

    "Yes, we do spend some time on combat arts," Meridina said. "But even a field swevyra'se needs to have wider education. Too much focus on combat can undermine emotional control. It can lead to enjoyment of the power as a way to counter the fear. That is a path to darkness that few ever return from."

    "And you don't want me to go that way." Lucy nodded. She'd felt darkness a couple of times. She knew it was wrong and she didn't want anything to do with it. But she could remember how that power felt too. If she was in a bad place emotionally, or desperate like she had been when fighting that Changeling on 33LA, Lucy could give in.

    Meridina nodded. "I do not wish for you to go through what I did, or for you to become like Dralan Olati… or Mastrash Goras."

    "He was a good man, wasn't he?"

    "I believe so. He and my father were close from the time they were initiates. He fought in the wars with the Coserians and the Tresalians to protect our people, and he saved thousands from enslavement or murder. I suspect that Goras himself may have never realized he could one day fall." Meridina turned thoughtful. "My mother never quite liked him. She felt he had too much pride. Maybe she knew better than we did that pride could take him."

    "Maybe if the Multiversal age never started, he would never have fallen."

    "Perhaps, perhaps not. It was his choice in the end to listen to his pride and distrust. I know I am not above some of those emotions that lead to darkness."

    "And I'm not either. I still remember that Turian we saw on the Citadel, the one that was beating up that poor Quarian. The things he said, they…" Lucy went deep into thought for a moment as emotions swelled inside her. Her jaw clenched as old, painful memories surfaced. "...they reminded me of things people had said about me growing up. Of things that son of a bitch Duffy said. The things his son would say while he… while he tortured me." Lucy's voice took on a hollow quality. The painful memories made her feel like she was about to choke. Her eyes teared up.

    Meridina left the chair and sat on the couch beside Lucy. Lucy accepted her offered hand and could feel the warmth, both physical and through their life energies, that came from her teacher. Meridina said nothing, either verbally or through her mind. She didn't need to.

    The pain in Lucy's blue eyes receded quietly. "Thank you," she said to Meridina. "I'm okay. As I was saying… I understand what you mean. If you think this excursion will help, I'm more than ready for it."

    "Then we will go in the morning. 0900."

    "I'll be there."




    Julia had the Delgados and Ensign Arterria meet her in her office on Deck 4. "So my liberty is approved?" Violeta asked.

    "Liberty for all three of you. Conditional on doing the scans we require in the marked area." Julia used her omnitool display to show them the area in question. "It's in a region called Ozone Heights."

    "And if we find the car, we…?"

    "You call me," Julia answered Angel. "And then I call Mister Hank's security man and his team handles the situation."

    "Huh." Angel gave Caterina a look. "It sounds dangerous. And we just did a super-dangerous field mission."

    "Yeah, but it's just some scans."

    "So was the last mission."

    "I'll still go," Caterina said to Julia. Her hand was gripping Violeta's. "Violeta wants to see Solaris, and I do too. I'll keep my scanner active while I'm down there."

    "I guess I"m going too," Angel sighed. "But if I see one damned shapeshifting monster…" She let the sentence trail off.

    "Glad to hear it," said Julia. "We're all beaming down around 0900, or rather you're all doing it while I stay up here and mind the ship."

    "Why are we beaming down together?" Violeta asked.

    "Because the Solarians have transport-jammers up," Julia answered. "We can only beam down to the Embassy. You'll be taking local transportation to your specific search areas, or rather leave areas." Julia smirked. "I suspect you three will enjoy yours the most. Meridina and Lucy are heading for something called the Sprawl and Robert, Zack, and Jarod are off to one of the lowest levels."

    "So, 0900 it is. We get up, we eat breakfast, we go down." Angel made a show of checking the time. "And since it's already almost 2300, I'm off to bed. I'll see you in the morning."

    Julia waited patiently for everyone to file out before she did as well.




    The time on Robert's display flashed 0140 when the tone woke him up. He remained groggy for a moment while his thoughts formed enough to reach for the control key to activate the comm. "Dale here," he said, trying not to grumble at being interrupted in his sleep.

    "Bridge here, sir. We're picking up a signal from Solaris, sir. It's… well… it seems to be the Solarian President."

    "What?" Robert blinked and tried to force his sleepy brain into gear. "Can you confirm that?"

    "The transmission is coming from the Presidential Palace, sir. And our systems confirm its her voiceprint."

    "Alright." Robert yawned and reached for his nightrobe. "Give me about ten seconds to look presentable and put her through."

    He stood and pulled the robe on over his pajamas, grateful that he'd gotten back in the habit of wearing them after his relationship with Angel ended. The last thing he needed was to be a bathrobe slip away from being naked when speaking to a Head of State.

    The woman who appeared on the screen was indeed Victoria Sinclair, President of the United Solarian Sovereignty. Behind her the windows showed the lit-up skyline after nightfall in that area of the moon, much as the star no longer quite shined outside of Robert's window. "Captain Dale," she said. "I seem to have woken you up. I suppose you are operating a few hours ahead of us."

    "We use the standard Earth 24 hour day," Robert answered.

    "Ah. Solaris uses a twenty-five hour day. I am just about to retire for the evening myself." The President kept a serene smile on her face. "I know you must have your own duties to attend to, but I would like the chance to meet you, Captain. Would you mind letting me entertain you for breakfast in, oh, nine or so hours? An informal affair, I assure you."

    Robert immediately knew he had no choice. You didn't turn down an offer like that without severe diplomatic consequences. And regardless of what Sidney Hank had said, he still held out hope for at least some official assistance in their investigation, or at least perhaps a loosening of the restrictions the government had on his ship. Spurning a meeting would send entirely the wrong signal.

    Of course, if he went, it also meant he couldn't go down to the lower levels with Zack and Jarod.

    A small part of him wondered, with more paranoia than sense, if that was Sinclair's purpose.

    He pushed that thought away and answered, "I would be honored, Madame President."

    "Good. I look forward to meeting you in person, Captain. Sleep well." She disappeared from the screen.

    Robert groaned and pulled off the robe. As he laid down he made the decision not to bother anyone with the change in plans until the morning. They all needed their sleep. He only hoped they would sleep without interruption, unlike him.



    "Well, I guess that explains you not picking up any breakfast," Julia said.

    Robert nodded from his seat across from Julia in the Lookout. Zack was to his left and Jarod to his right. Everyone had a delicious-looking breakfast meal made up of ham omelettes, cereal, oranges, and strips of bacon with sausages. Robert had only a plate of the last items to nibble on until he was due for the breakfast with the President.

    "I could possibly join you when I'm done," he said to them. "But I have no idea how long this meal will take, and I have to beam down shortly to consult Ambassador Fry before I head to the Presidential Palace. I don't think he's going to be happy about this."

    "But it's a done deal." Jarod looked across the table at Zack, currently chewing on his orange. "Looks like it's just us."

    Zack swallowed. "Yeah. Could be fun."

    "I suppose we could bring Tom."

    "To the lower levels?" Zack made a face. "And what happens if he mouths off to some guy with implants we don't notice until he's using them to stomp our faces?"

    With a mouth full of omelette, Jarod nodded his head slightly to show he accepted the point.

    "I'd ask Kane, but sending our lead Marine down, even as 'liberty', might be too much," Robert said. "We're at least close friends and a reasonable group going on liberty together. I'm not sure Kane will be able to pass for that, especially if they have mind-readers or some other way of judging the situation."

    "Well, our list of possibilities is short." Julia smiled thinly. "So it should probably be me."

    "Are you sure?" Zack asked her.

    "Well, I'm supposed to do these things more than Robert anyway," she said. "I admit I'm not entirely happy with leaving Nick as our only senior officer with command experience on the ship, but that's the situation we're in. Everything I've heard says the lower levels are dangerous even inside the 'green zone' regions. You two will need someone along to help out."

    "She's right," Robert said. "So you three will head there while I go off to have breakfast with President Sinclair. If this works out, maybe I'll learn something we can use for this investigation, or at the very least get us some leeway with the government."

    Zack grinned wryly. "The last time we were in the field together was Abydos. This should be fun."

    Julia returned the wry look. Somehow, she suspected it would be more dangerous than fun.
     
  11. Threadmarks: 2-14-3
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    Ambassador Fry had a displeased look on his face. He'd called Robert and Julia into his office the moment they beamed down to discuss their plans for the day while the others arranged transport. Robert was in standard full uniform, black with red command trim, while Julia was in a leather bomber jacket and a navy blue sleeveless blouse with blue jeans. Her hair was put up into a bun instead of a ponytail, a quiet signal to others that she expected possible fighting. "I am uncomfortable with this situation, Captain," he admitted upon entry to his office. He went to his desk and sat down behind it while Robert and Julia found seats in front of it. "Relations with the Sovereignty are extremely delicate. If you say or do the wrong thing with President Sinclair…"

    "I'll be careful," Robert promised.

    "It's not just about being careful with your wording, Captain," Fry insisted. "The Sovereignty is a disjointed mess of conflicting power blocs that wouldn't last without Olympic keeping the lights running. If you make Sinclair think for a moment that you're in Sidney Hank's pocket, she will become our enemy. And if you make her think she's got you in her pocket, then Mister Hank will undoubtedly respond the same way, not to mention that she will presume she can win favors from you." Sweat showed on Fry's forehead, demonstrating the full level of his agitation. He directed his strained eyes toward Julia. "And as for this scheme of yours, Commander. Taking armed teams onto Solarian soil…"

    "Their own laws allow us to be armed for self-defense," Julia retorted.

    "That won't mean anything if you end up shooting some Max-Tec trooper!" Fry cried. "Or if you get involved in a shootout in the middle of Ozone Heights! These people don't know what to think of us, they mistrust us deeply, and having you running around scanning everywhere will just make things worse… my God why do you have to do this anyway?! Hank has all the assets he needs to investigate this!"

    "He's worried that someone within the company was involved in the thefts and that they could compromise any investigation his people make."

    "Is that all? With a company that big, unless the traitor was at the very top of the rank pole, what are the odds that they could spread their influence wide enough to catch everything the company does?"

    "That might be why Hank is concerned," Julia said. "Maybe he's facing someone in a senior position selling Pan-Empyrean out? Someone with the access to assist in the theft and to spy on investigations."

    "Possible," Fry conceded. "Very possible. But Mister Hank is a man of immense resources. I can't fathom why he needs you to do this investigation. He could just as easily hire mercenaries or private investigators."

    The argument was a good one. Robert and Julia, at that moment, wondered just why Hank insisted on them. And not just them as Alliance officers, but specifically, their crew. Zack had pointed out that there were other captains that could have been sent and worked just as well on this investigation.

    Fry continued on. "Damn. I know it's too late for you to back out. And you were ordered to assist him in any case, so you couldn't. But this does not sit right to me, Captain, Commander. There's no telling what agenda is being served, here or back in Portland."

    Back in Portland. Where Defense Minister Hawthorne and his ally, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Davies, remained implacable foes to the Aurora crew. Could they have outmaneuvered Maran in some way to set them up to take a fall? If the Aurora's activities caused a breach with the Sovereignty, it would give Davies and Hawthorne ammunition in their efforts to take the Aurora.

    "We'll be careful, Mister Ambassador," Julia assured him. "Trust us."

    "I must, Commander. And I can only wish you good luck. And you must really get going, Captain, I don't want you to hold up the President."

    Robert nodded and joined Julia in leaving the office. They arrived at the open parking area at the front of the embassy to find the others waiting. Jarod was in a black leather jacket with a green shirt underneath and black slacks and shoes. Zack had on an old jeans-material jacket of faded blue color, a shirt with the Kansas City Cardinals emblem on the front, and blue jeans.

    The second group was dressed similarly. Angel had a sleeveless blouse and black leather jacket with navy blue pants, hair pulled back into a bun like Angel's. Caterina had eschewed a jacket for a blue sweatshirt with the emblem of an atom on the chest, a collared light blue shirt underneath the sweatshirt, and medium blue pants over white shoes; Violeta had a long-sleeved white blouse and was the only one wearing a skirt, using the same white color as the blouse, although she had thigh-length navy blue socks over pantyhose and white tennis shoes.

    Meridina and Lucy were wearing matching clothing; brown traveling robes over cream white vests and baggy pants. Lucy had dark-colored tennis shoes while Meridina had on a pair of shoes called lintam, slip-on shoes with a pair of straps near the ankle.

    "Any problems?" Zack asked.

    "The Ambassador isn't happy, but he's not stopping us," Julia said. "We'll take public transportation to keep our cover of being on liberty. Everyone has the Solarian dollars loaded for use?" Everyone nodded. "Good. Let's get going. Remember to check in every hour."

    "Yes ma'am," Violeta said obediently.

    As they walked away Robert called out, "Good luck."

    Julia turned back to him and smirked. "We're not the ones going to breakfast with one of the most powerful women in this universe. You might need that luck more."

    At that Robert sighed. "Don't I know it?" he murmured. He walked toward the carport to get his ride to the Presidential Palace.




    Ozone Heights did not disappoint. Indeed, Jarod's description of it to them didn't even do it justice.

    The neighborhood was built among several blocks of skyscrapers and starscrapers, fifty meters high, two kilometers long and a kilometer and a half wide, its lowest level a little under three and a half kilometers above ground level. The 'scraper buildings it was attached to were all primarily arcologies, specifically pricey residences for those willing to pay to live in the Ozone Heights. The spaces between the 'scrapers were used for commercial properties, essentially being a massive twelve story-tall shopping mall with every service one might imagine available.

    The three young ladies departed the sky-bus at its designated stop, at the south terminal, among a crowd of people. The Solarians were wearing suits that varied in color and style; some looked little different from what the three Aurora crew were wearing, while others had an outlandish look to them with the way the suits were cut or formed. Three figures in sleeveless vests showing arms covered in tattoos and implants walked by, their heads topped with foot-high mohawks of red and purple hair. One had a hairless alien hexaped draped over his or her bare shoulders. A large reptilian in what looked to Cat and Angel to be a Catholic priest's uniform walked beside a Human man with electronics all over his head.

    They moved with the crowd through the entrance and approached a cylinder of glass or plastic. The device was quickly revealed to be an advertisement display. It was running its standard routine of ads for those without the implants to see smartvertisements. The first ad they saw was for the SinTEK Implant Store in the Heights, touting the "affordable" monthly payments for a new top-of-the-line neural data implant with advanced quantum computing capability and bandwidth to sustain dedicated brain-state backups. The second ad was for NeuroAware Implants, with patented NeuroProtect firmware to protect your brain from malicious data coding, for a price comparable to the SinTEK option. Cat did the math in her head on the exchange. "These things would cost a year of my salary."

    "The highest end models would devour over a year of Rob's salary," Angel added.

    The next ad popped up. "Tired of the same old tired candy? Of those little pills to keep you virile and hard? That's why you need ORGAZMO!" The image changed to show pieces of colored candy, all of which had a certain familiar shape to them that drew a blush from Angel and widened eyes of surprise from Cat and Violeta. "Now in six thrilling flavors, all guaranteed to provide the greatest orgasm you have ever known! ORGAZMO is recommended by four out of five doctors for treating frustration… because the fifth one was too busy enjoying ORGAZMO to vote! Find ORGAZMO at your local grocery store today!" The ad suddenly flashed to a very, very fast-moving script of warnings, complete with a rapid fire announcer giving health warnings about use or overuse of ORGAZMO.

    "There is no way I am touching that stuff," Caterina announced.

    "It's kind of unfair," Violeta said. "They didn't think of people like us when they made it." She turned and grinned mischievously toward Cat. "I can think of a shape we wouldn't mind trying out."

    Caterina responded with a deep blush on her cheeks.

    After giving her blushing girlfriend a quick kiss on the cheek, Violeta activated her omnitool and used it to interface with the nearby booth. On her omnitool a graphic showing Ozone Heights' name in stylized lettering appeared, followed by a female voice giving a voice-over as images of the sector played. "Welcome, visitor, to Ozone Heights, voted by Solaris Business Weekly as the best shopping experience for visiting life forms to Solaris. Here you can enjoy the widest selection of goods and services offered in the Sovereignty without the need for data implants or neural interface hardware. Ozone Heights was founded specifically to cater to off-world visitors' needs while visiting or living on Solaris…"

    Violeta muted the playback and brought up a map display. "Here, it includes a map directory for all of the businesses. Wow… we could spend days here and not shop everywhere."

    "So where do we start?" asked Caterina.

    Angel reacted by bringing up her own omnitool on her left forearm. The data Jarod had on the potential escape craft popped up, showing where the signal stopped. "It looks like a parking lot on the eighth level, north side. We should get going."

    "Don't have that thing too active," Cat urged. "We're supposed to be here on liberty, remember?"

    Angel turned the omnitool off. "Alright. But I want to get this scan work over. So let's hold off on the serious shopping and sightseeing until after we check this out."




    The Sprawl was almost ground level at just seven hundred meters above ground. It did not have multiple stories like Ozone Heights, but it was wider and longer, at least ten kilometers long on the east-west axis. While Ozone Heights was a shopping mall, the Sprawl made Lucy think of a grungy urban commercial area full of local mom-and-pop stores and some chains. The residential buildings were both in the 'scraper structures and interspersed between them. They were just above the category of "crack house" slums for Lucy, at the level of "rent-controlled urban poor". After stepping off the bus her sense of smell was assaulted by the sweat, dirt, and grease of the nearby streets. This low the sun barely seemed to reach them. Most light came from the street lights and neon signs, giving the Sprawl a look of perpetual twilight.

    "This way," Meridina said softly, and Lucy followed. She consulted her omnitool as they walked while Meridina looked at a group of children coming out of an alleyway carrying a yellow sphere. Their clothes were dull and wrinkled, but they clearly weren't starving. "I sometimes tire of seeing these places in other societies," Meridina said. "The wealth above our heads could provide much to many, and the whole of society strengthened."

    "Like on Gersal?"

    "Among other places. I am no stranger to my people's shortcomings, however, and I recognize that Humans, though prone to selfishness, have qualities my people do not always value."

    "Oh?"

    "In your societies, determination and persistence are valued, as is a willingness to go 'against' the majority opinions of your people."

    "Like you did when you broke from the Order?"

    To that Meridina sighed. "I suppose… yes." They walked onto a bustling market street. Around them open market stalls were haggling numerous items. Knickknacks, clothing, household supplies, anything they could hope someone would buy. "I can still remember their faces when I rejected them," Meridina admitted.

    "Who?" After a moment, Lucy realized what she meant. "The Order Council?"

    "Yes. They could not understand my choice. It angered them. I suspect some may believe Goras was right, that the Alliance corrupts us with the ways of others."

    "But Gersal's not a dictatorship. I mean, your people have rights, you have liberties…"

    "But we have responsibilities. Obligations. We must work to better ourselves, our families, and our people. If we succeed, we must not allow that success to go too far. Wealth earned is wealth that must be shared with those who helped you earn it, and they in turn are obligated to respect the qualities that brought you to that wealth." Meridina looked to her side, where a teenage girl with a cybernetic eye was haggling with a customer looking over her vegetable stand. She turned her head forward again in time to step around a large man handing out cash for what looked like a blackjack. "We value our sense of understanding that we are interdependent with one another."

    "Which is why your government calls itself the Interdependency," Lucy said.

    "Yes." Meridina looked over to her and stopped. "I am aware that some Human societies have some concept of this idea, but Humans as a whole seem to value independence instead of interdependence. You desire greater freedom, even from responsibility."

    "We do understand the idea of serving a greater cause," Lucy said.

    "Yes, but not the same way we do. What we see as a responsibility you see as a sacrifice. Something to be honored, perhaps even to be seen as an obligation of being part of a nation, but not as an obligation of responsibility in of itself." Meridina continued to walk. "I wonder if proximity to you has caused me to become the same. Perhaps… that is what Goras and my father, and so many others, fear the most. That Humans will lead us to becoming more independent as individuals until we lose our sense of interdependence."

    "Maybe," Lucy agreed. "Or maybe seeing how your society works will encourage more Humans to accept that we can be interdependent too. No man is an island, and we must all hang together."

    "Perhaps." Meridina held up her omnitool and checked the record Jarod gave her. "This way. We are fairly close to where the signal disappeared, and I wish to get this obligation completed so that we can go to the enclave."




    The bus dropped them at ground level exact. Zack was the first out. The dust in the air, the smells of rotten food, waste human, animal, and alien, and the worn down look of every structure save the exteriors of the 'scraper structures gave the place the look of abject poverty. This far down there was no sunlight to be had, and the available light only broke the darkness along the main roads, with some of the alleys being completely unlit. Only two other people joined them in getting off the bus, and both looked like they were worn out from a long work day and desperate to get to bed. The street sides were sparsely inhabited and some lights were showing in the smaller multi-story structures.

    "Well, this reminds me of… well, most of the crapholes we've been through out here," Zack sighed. He reached to his back for the reassuring presence of the small-of-back holster where his pulse pistol was safely kept.

    "The dark side of Solaris," Jarod murmured. A blank expression on his face formed. It didn't fool Julia. Beneath that expression her comrade was becoming angry. "It's all shiny and opulent up there, of course, while they keep the poor down here."

    "We're not here to grumble about the one percent," Julia said. "Let's see if we can find where that vehicle went so we can go home."

    They began to walk carefully down the poorly lit street in the direction of a half-ruined sign that said "Skylift" with an arrow pointing up.




    The same driver deposited Robert at the Presidential Palace, with ten minutes to spare. "I'll be waitin'," he assured Robert as the door closed.

    Robert nodded back to him before walking up to the large door that served as the main external entrance. Two soldiers in power-armor were standing watch. "Captain Robert Dale to see President Sinclair," he said to them.

    One nodded. "You're expected." Neither of them made any movement, the door simply opened inward to beckon Robert inside.

    The foyer of the Presidential Palace was certainly out to challenge to opulence and richness of Pan-Empyrean's lobby. Latinum-plated control panels for the doors, rich leather seats, a plush burgundy carpet… no expense had been spared for the Presidential Palace's look.

    At the desk ahead of him, a secretary was waiting. Her head was more metal than hair. "The President's aide will be here to escort you shortly, Captain."

    Robert nodded and sat down, giving him a better look at the open foyer, the marble tiling of the ceiling with a design showing a two-dimensional representation of the Solarian Sovereignty's member systems. On one wall an elegant painting, clearly done in one of the old European styles, showed a number of colonists disembarking from a colony ship settled upon blue-green grass under a fair sky. Portraits above the secretary showed a number of Humans, some men and some women; former Presidents, Robert guessed.

    After a short time a young Caucasian man in a pleasant business suit came out. 'Breakfast is ready," he said. "The President awaits you on her dining balcony."

    The man led Robert further into the Palace. They walked the entire way to a small dining room that jutted out from the side of the building, with glass overhead and along the entire far side. He was being treated to a private meal after all, it seemed.

    Victoria Sinclair was already at the table, with a plain white tablecloth over what looked to be a finely-crafted wooden dinner table. She was in a chair that did not look so old-fashioned, being constructed of what looked to be high-strength plastic with a latinum coated frame and fine leather seat and back. A similar chair was ready for him; the table had two bowls of fruits ready with a number of breakfast dishes, some of which he didn't recognize. By the other door two beings, a large woman and a shorter man with what seemed to be a very large head were standing quietly wearing shaded eyeglasses - very large eyeglasses for the shorter man.

    Okay, a nearly private meal.

    Sinclair herself made him think of Julia; she had the same near-golden shade of blond hair pulled back into a nice ponytail, and in build she and Julia were about the same, although she was not as tall. Her face was about the same shape, which is where the similarities stopped.

    But what made it clear she wasn't Julia, or anything like her, was her eyes. They were a rich, crystal blue, and they had the same quality to them that Robert had seen in Hank. This was a woman who knew what power was and how to use it, and who loved doing so in a way that Julia did not. She didn't hunger for it intensely - certainly not to the extent that Katherine Steiner-Davion seemed to, a ravenous maw that Robert was thankful not to feel - but she wanted it and enjoyed it.

    Fry was right. He had to be especially cautious around her.

    "Good morning, Madame President," he said in a friendly tone. He took the offered seat. "Thank you for your kind invitation."

    "You're welcome, Captain," she answered. Her accent was almost English and almost American, but the inflections of her tone, the way she pronounced the words, were different than those accents. Thousands of years of phonetic drift had produced a Solarian accent unique to this world and place, one he was going to have to familiarize himself with as the conversation continued.

    "You should try the stuffed bread rolls," she advised. "I had my cook make them fresh with imported Aurigan cheese and meat made of Majellan beef. The Majellan cow is a species unique to that world and makes for a delicious addition to the palate." She gestured to a glass full of crimson liquid. "And the vintage of the port is straight from Parthegon's finest."

    Robert nodded and procured one of the fluffy bread rolls from the basket between his seat and Sinclair's. He took a bite and found the taste to be enjoyable. The cheese was unique, making him think of both cheddar and muenster, while the meat was flavorful.

    While he chewed, Sinclair finished her own bite of food and began to speak. "I have read our file on you, Captain."

    Since his mouth was full, Robert's only reaction was to shift his expression to show interest.

    "CEID has had an eye on you. Especially after the attack on the Alliance Senate. You are what our people call an Esper, maybe even a Psion."

    Robert finished swallowing. "The Gersallians use a term that translates into 'life force power' to describe what I can do."

    "Does that include reading minds? Can you command others mentally?"

    "No. Not really. I can sense thoughts and emotions, but I've never been able to enter another mind, not willingly and certainly not forcefully. I couldn't make a kitten bat yarn, honestly." Robert set his fork down before digging into what looked like an omelette. "Of course, the question is if you believe me, and why you'd meet with me if you don't."

    "That's why I brought my bodyguards." Sinclair motioned to the men at the door, specifically the one with the large head. "Mr. Gray is a Psion assigned to protect me from psionic attack."

    "Then you have nothing to worry about," Robert answered. Mentally he couldn't stop himself from thinking But it looks like I do.

    "You needn't worry, Captain," Mister Gray said, adjusting his shades. The more Robert looked at him, the more he realized just how abnormally large Gray's eyes were. "Unless the President orders me to, I won't do so much as whisper mentally toward you."

    Sinclair smiled quietly at that. Robert found himself thinking about that statement and the situation. She was showing off her power now.

    Robert didn't care much for being intimidated, but he decided to be diplomatic about it. "Well, it appears my mind is in your hands, Madame President," he said, grinning. "I'd better be on my best behavior."

    Sinclair laughed lowly at that. "Oh, don't concern yourself, Captain. I'm actually something of a fan."

    "Oh?"

    "As I've said, I read the file on you. The things you've done, the accomplishments. Stopping one of your own renegades from causing a war. Managing to make first contact with the like of the Third Reich without immediately causing an interstellar war." The emphasis on that made it abundantly clear she knew about 33LA. "You have a number of diplomatic achievements to your name. Given all of the allies you won for the Alliance, you made the Alliance victory at New Liberty possible even without accounting for your personal involvement in that battle. And you kept the Reich from finding ancient technology that might have turned the tide of the war. You saved the Alliance Senate from assassins and helped to defeat a rogue Esper of immense power on Gersal." Sinclair stopped her recounting of the achievements Robert and his friends and comrades had managed in order to take a drink. "And now you are here. At Solaris. I find the timing interesting."

    "Oh?"

    "Just days ago, there was a robbery at Pan-Empyrean." Sinclair sipped again - it looked like she was enjoying the wine - before resuming. "Hank has tried to suppress the news of it, but he should know it's impossible to hide anything from Olympic, or the Datasphere in general. Frankly I think he's just being contrary on that note. But what I can't help but notice is that he swiftly informed me that he had invited the Alliance to send one of its most advanced starships to Solaris for consultations on the matter. I could have refused, of course." Another sip, while Robert took his first of the same. It was a strong taste, one of the richer wines he'd ever had occasion to try. "But I admit I allowed my curiosity to get the better of me. That was perhaps an error."

    "Oh?" Robert asked.

    His answer had to wait while Sinclair enjoyed a bite from one of the cheese and meat-filled bread rolls. "The Sovereignty is part of a delicate balance of power, Captain. The Bragulans, the Karlack, the Cevaucians… the peace of Wild Space, such as it is, relies on that balance remaining intact. The slightest tip could trigger a new round of interstellar warfare that could kill billions." Her eyes focused on him. "And your Alliance may become just that tipping point. So yes, refusing you entry was probably the wiser course of action."

    "But you didn't." Robert thought it over. She started another mouthful of food just as he resumed speaking. "Because you want to know more about what the Alliance is doing with Pan-Empyrean. And because you imagine that ignoring that connection will only make your enemies suspicious. But letting Hank invite us and then putting us under your guns? Acting as hostile as possible toward our interests? That mixes the signals. The your enemies can't be sure what you're doing, and if they're as worried about as us you are, they wouldn't want to bind us together by launching an unnecessary attack."

    Sinclair finished chewing. "An astute appraisal of the situation, Captain Dale."

    "If you want to know what the project is, I can't tell you. I was never briefed."

    "Really?" Sinclair eyed him with curiosity. Robert got the feeling she was considering asking Mr. Gray to rip the truth from his mind. A sly grin formed on her face. "Of course he wouldn't. Hank knows how good CEID psions are, and so does your Alliance if they're competent at all. No, they wouldn't tell you. They've got you running around in the dark." She nibbled on what looked like purple scrambled egg and swallowed. "Do you think your people will enjoy Solaris?"

    "We've heard many good things about it," Robert said carefully. "I was considering a visit myself."

    "Hopefully not to the bottom levels, it's disgusting down there with the dregs," Sinclair said. "I hope your comrades keep their guns ready and their eyes open. Your friends in the Sprawl and Ozone Heights will be safer, at least."

    Robert showed no surprise or concern. "You must really be interested in what my crew's up to on liberty."

    "Liberty, Captain? Or playing Sidney Hank's cat's paws?"

    "Part of our governing mission is to explore worlds and meet new cultures and civilizations. That includes sociological research." Robert shrugged. "Mixing business with pleasure helps with morale."

    Sinclair gained a glimmer in her eye at that. "And how often do you do that, Captain? Mix business with… pleasure?"

    The last word was spoken with a deliberate sultry tone. "You don't seem the type to simply seduce someone over a turn of phrase, Madame President. You're far too careful," he answered.

    "Perhaps you misunderstand me?"

    "No, I don't think I do." Robert took another of the rolls for his plate. "This has been a charming word game, Madame President, but I'm afraid I can't give you what you want. Whatever political rivalry or struggle you have with Sidney Hank is none of my concern."

    "So you say." Sinclair reclined in her chair. "Do you trust Mister Hank, Captain?"

    "No," Robert said immediately and emphatically. "Honestly, right now, the only people I trust are myself and my crew."

    "I suppose I should be hurt." Sinclair's grin twisted into an amused smirk. "But I can't deny it's a wise policy." She idly ran her fork through some of the omelette on her plate. "I must admit it is interesting to meet people who know Earth. In our universe, Earth is nothing but legend now, as is its history."

    "The material I read is vague on what happened," Robert said. "Three thousand years is a long time for history to get lost in, even with electronic media to save it. I'm not surprised some elements of Earth history get turned into lore and myth." At that Robert recalled the Avalonians, and the way they interpreted the history of their British ancestors through Arthurian lore and concepts. "Are you saying nobody remembers what happened to Earth?"

    "The Earthfall was a disaster that permanently warped the inner core of the Earthsphere," Sinclair said. "The closer you get to where Earth once might have been, the less reliable space gets. It is why we call that region of space the Fracture. And it is a terrible, corrupted place, with NEUROM oppressing entire worlds with the Ministry of Fate, the Mandragoran clans seeking battles and glory, the noble houses of the Grandeur of Auriga plotting against each other all of the time…" Sinclair shook her head. "I honestly would prefer not to talk about it. The Fracture is depressing and our Earth is long gone. And good riddance. No slight on your Earth intended, mind you, but the Earthreign was a terrible place ruled by terrible people, and they destroyed themselves. It's why I don't dwell on their fate. Here in the Sovereignty we look to the future, not a long-lost homeworld."

    Robert sipped at his drink as he considered that. "Clearly some people still have thoughts for Earth. I've been in Hank's office."

    Sinclair snorted. "That old fossil loves his relics of Earth."

    "If he's been around for millennia…"

    "Brain uploaded clones, mostly, with brain-state backups. We all have them. But the scientists say you can't maintain it over millennia. It doesn't matter if it's all backed up electronically, since even our best gene-modifications for the brain can't hold that much information." Sinclair shook her head. "Even if he's been around that long, I doubt Hank remembers anything but the last few centuries, at best."

    Robert pondered that. Would immortality be worth losing all your memories of the life you led before? It was memories that helped shape people; change them, lose them, and someone would gradually change into an entirely different being.

    He was jolted out of his thoughts by Sinclair speaking again. "Now, before our breakfast gets cold, perhaps we should focus on enjoying it." She sipped at her port and smiled warmly at him. "My chef will be so upset if we wasted his efforts."

    "Of course," Robert said genially, even if he was starting to wonder if he should be eating anything prepared here. But he'd already crossed that bridge and sensed no danger in the food, so he wasn't going to cause a diplomatic stir by refusing to eat more.




    Lucy and Meridina finished scanning the dimly-lit parking structure that Jarod's readings had shown was the last location of the potential getaway vehicle. None of the vehicles matched the description. "Maybe they moved it later?" Lucy suggested.

    "It is possible. And it was evident that these searches might not find anything." Meridina gestured to the exit. "Let us continue onward. The enclave I spoke of is close by."

    Lucy almost asked how she knew that. But when she took a moment, even she could feel it. She could feel the point where the Flow of Life seemed to flow with greater power and warmth.

    They left the parking structure and returned to one of the streets. The market was as busy as it had been before. They were passing a vendor selling holovids - likely pirated ones - when Lucy sensed a pang of fear joined by a jolt of confidence. She was paying enough attention to feel the hand slip past her robe and reach for the pocket on her pants, or perhaps for the hilt of her lakesh. Her hand snapped up and grabbed a wrist, a small wrist.

    "'ey!" a young voice protested.

    Meridina stopped and looked back with interest while Lucy looked down at the pickpocket. She judged him to be little more than nine years old, but possibly as old as twelve if he was short for his age. His face was smudged with dirt, with warm amber eyes and sandy blond hair. His clothes amounted to a worn child's jacket over a sleeveless cyan-toned shirt with an insignia on it - a sports team? - with knee-length cargo shorts, shorts that were bulging with what were clearly ill-gotten gains.

    "Yare a qick un, miss," the boy said. "ow'd ya grog me?"

    "My secret," Lucy answered.

    "Yaint gonna wig th' Maxtis onta me?" There was real fear. "I got sibs t' feed, un's a babe."

    Lucy put maximum skepticism into her expression and tightened her grip on the wrist. Meridina was looking back at them now, and had to sense the same slight deception Lucy did. "Maybe you've got siblings, but I doubt you're their sole provider."

    "Eh, 'kay, my ma does chores fa upside toffs too. But th' food an' rent is all she can cov, Miss. Me sibs an' I need scratch t' cov fer new threads or meds, ya grog?"

    Lucy considered him. She didn't sense deception that time. But she didn't let go just yet, not with the idea she just got. "We're looking for a LARC vehicle."

    "Yeah? There's billies upon billies on Solaris, Miss. Ya got a mod type?"

    Since Lucy was holding the boy's wrist, Meridina activated her omnitool. He shook his head. "I don't have a 'plant in my cranie, Miss."

    "We do not have implants either," Meridina said as she found the the vehicle from the Pan-Empyrean recordings and displayed it. "This is the craft we seek."

    The boy whistled. "Now she's a beaut mod there. A Sollark Works Helios. Prolly a new model, ya can grog she's got th' newie anti-gravs. She's no SinTEK Skylarc, but she can carry a right number o' peeps, an' she's as quiet as a Jesus Man's room after Sunday. Don't see 'em in th' Sprawl much."

    "Well." Lucy used her free hand to reach into her pocket. Some of the money they'd brought down was in cash. She pulled a $10 Solarian note from the bundle in her pocket and flashed the reddish-hued bill at him, the Sovereignty Spire prominent on the reverse side showing. "This is a down payment. I'll give you forty more if you can find one that parked here a few days ago, or at least give us a strong idea on where it's going." She narrowed her eyes. "And we'll know if you're lying."

    "I grog tha', Miss. Where're ya gonna be?"

    "A nearby enclave," Meridina said. "Where those with gifts meet."

    "That Esper enclave off th' Lo Tan Square? 'Right then, I'll find yar LARC fa ya, Miss."

    Lucy didn't need Meridina's help to sense the boy's honestly. The idea of working for that much money doing what he always did - watching LARCs from the upper level - was exciting. "My name's Lucy, and this is Meridina," she said.

    "Toby, Miss," the street urchin answered. "I'll grog yar LARC 'fore ya wig it."

    Lucy released Toby. He took off and, within a couple seconds, was out of sight. "If I hadn't felt genuine intent, I'd be convinced I just gave that money away." Lucy felt a pang of guilt. "Meridina, maybe we shouldn't have… maybe I shouldn't…"

    "If the vehicle that came here is not that of the thieves, they will not care. If the vehicle is that sent by the thieves, I suspect they will be more concerned with armed foes, not a street urchin admiring their vehicle. Let us continue…"

    Meridina and Lucy headed on to what was clearly Lo Tan Square. It was an open market surrounded by trees that glowed hot pink, bright purple, and neon green, illuminating the streets, while signs in Solarian English and what looked to Lucy like Chinese ideographs were fixed to various stalls. Many looked at least partly busy. "If people here are so poor, how can there be this many markets?" Lucy pondered.

    "I suspect not every buyer is from this place," Meridina said. She gestured to two suited men looking over a market stall selling what looked like glasses. "It's possible those from wealthier districts come here to purchase goods more cheaply than in their own."

    "The place doesn't look too dangerous, I guess. I haven't sensed anyone ready to attack someone. Well, not in the way a mugger would."

    "Nor I. But we are almost to our destination…"

    Moving along the edge of the Square, Lucy could sense where they were going even as it came into sight. The structure was on the north side of the square, a squat building of about three stories that looked like some stacked two hospital food containers together. There was no distinct sign on the outside of the property and the windows were shut, while light was visible from within the windows. The doors were made of polished wood. Lucy could feel the power within, a concentration she had only previously felt whenever visiting the Great Temple on Gersal. It was greater there, of course, but it was clear that within the structure were a number of those who could wield the same life force energies Meridina had taught her to use.

    The door had no visible handle, but unlike an open door it was fastened shut so that it could not be pushed open. As Lucy considered it, she realized no mere physical interaction could open it.

    Meridina focused on it silently. A latch within audible shifted, like a bolt being opened. Meridina's hand came up and the door swung open as she held her hand flat toward it without touching it.

    On the inside was a foyer. Small bushes, or rather very short trees, were kept in spaces to either side. Ahead a small desk was manned by a large alien in a light-blue robe over a brown tunic. While he was apparently humanoid, his face was completely alien, with three eyes that formed an inverted triangle on its head, with two ridges of flesh that moved diagonally between the inner eye and each outer eye. The creature's skin appeared to be colored like rust, but dark blue markings were on his cheeks and above the lower, inner third eye.

    Meridina stared for a moment in surprise. Lucy herself took a moment to realize what species this was: she was looking at a Jeaxian for the first time.

    The Jeaxian's head bowed slightly. "Greetings," he rumbled. "I am Jata'kesti ik som Rilap."

    "I have heard of you. And I recognize the markings."

    "I would expect a swevyra'se to do so."

    Lucy looked to Meridina. "Who is he?"

    Before Meridina could speak, Jata'kesti did. "I was once a taktan, a senior leader, in the forces of the Warlord Hatush ik som Ritap. For many years I joined my lord's raids on the peoples we shared a border with; the Dorei, the Mi'qote, the Hamati, even Gersallian colonies were not safe from our void raiders. I fought, I killed, I enslaved."

    Lucy's eyes widened as he spoke.

    "And then the day came that I realized how low I had gone. I no longer ignored the pain and suffering I caused. I fought to free those in bondage to my lord and brought them to safety. I would have died if not for the intercession of a Brother of the Crescent, who brought me to his order and helped me to find ways to atone for my many sins. That is why I serve here."

    "And how does serving as a secretary atone for the people you killed or dragged into slavery?" Lucy asked, heat in her voice. She flashed back mentally to that day in Stargate Command when Doctor Opani had tearfully shared her ordeal. "How many did you abuse with those damned neural implants?"

    The Jeaxian met her eyes with his own, which seemed to be burning with their red color. "I did not count."

    "Lucy," Meridina said, her voice laced with caution. "Please." She put a hand on Lucy's shoulder.

    Lucy recognized what Meridina was thinking. She nodded and understood. "Yes, I get it. I hope you find the redemption you seek," she said. As she did so she couldn't help but wonder how she would react if it had been a Duffy sitting there. Granted, the bastard father couldn't be there, the man who ordered her abduction and okayed her abuse and eventual planned murder. Robert had killed him that night she was freed and her new life began. But that slimeball Patrick…

    "I sense you have been victimized too," said Jata'kesti. "I shall pray for your wounds to heal." The Jeaxian looked to Meridina. "Swevyra'se, it is not often we see one of your Order here."

    "And you have not today. I left the Order of Swenya months ago," Meridina said. "I am no longer swevyra'se."

    "Perhaps not in title, but in spirit, your Light marks you as one who strengthens the Flow of Life."

    "You said the Crescent Brothers trained you," Lucy said. "I thought they were a male-only Dorei order who view these powers as the gift of the Goddess or Supreme Being?"

    "They do. But I know of the Gersallians' views as well." Jata'kesti looked to Meridina. "Have you come for guidance, swevyra'se? Or to meet other masters?"

    "I have come to introduce my student, Lucilla Lucero, to others who practice the ways of swevyra, so that her training in it might be improved." Meridina bowed her head. "Circumstance and, I fear, my own shortcomings have caused her training to become imbalanced. She has learned to fight as a swevyra'se, and I have seen her act as one outside of combat, but I fear she has yet to understand the nature of our connection to the wider Universe, or Multiverse I suppose."

    "I understand. A number of our residents are currently gathered for meditation, I shall…"

    The Jeaxian stopped when the far door opened. Lucy had already felt the approaching newcomer and turned her head to face the door, as had Meridina. Recognition and warm delight showed on Meridina's face. For a moment Lucy thought that the newcomer might be a Gersallian, maybe even Mastrash Ledosh himself.

    But the figure that emerged was too tall for that. The reptilian scales and the snouted face quickly drew Lucy's attention. A tail swished behind the figure as it stepped into the foyer of the enclave, wearing a robe of bright yellows and greens with what looked like blue vestments hanging from the shoulders. She soon recognized the reptilian as a Zigonian, with dull gray eyes that seemed to see nothing. His right hand held a walking stick of what looked like gnarled wood.

    Meridina's voice was warm when she bowed her head and said, "Kasszas. I am pleased to see you once more."

    "I am also pleased, Sister of the Light of Creation," the Zigonian replied. "And I sense the darkness that ailed you has gone."

    "Yes. I found release for my fears and doubts." Meridina gestured to Lucy. "This is my student Lucy Lucero. Lucy, this is Kasszas S'szrishin, a Zigonian of the Harmonious Val-Drillim, and one of those who aided us in rescuing Jarod from the Centre."

    Lucy nodded and smiled. "Thank you, then, Kasszas. Jarod is a friend of mine as well."

    "Creation bid me to follow Commander Andreys and her team, but your thanks are accepted in the spirit offered, Lucy." Kasszas' eyes remained unmoving as he approached. As one would expect, the pronunciation of anything sounding like an "ss" sound - such as the "c" in Lucy's name - came as a hiss. "I sense great potential in you. Creation has chosen you for great things."

    "You did not return to your homeworld?" Meridina asked.

    "Only briefly," Kasszas answered. "I felt a desire to spend time in meditation and quiet. My people are not a quiet people, even when we are seeing to our devotions, so I departed for the Enclave to re-center myself."

    There was a hint of sadness in the Zigonian's words that both Lucy and Meridina picked up on. Meridina was the one to realize its origin. "You regret the life you took that day."

    "I do. Though the dark one was a cruel woman and had no remorse, the end of her life was a loss of possibilities and a blow to Creation. I must consider the weight on my being to thwart doubt and darkness."

    "I understand." Meridina nodded. She had shed blood that day as well. She could still remember Dralan Olati's viciousness, the way he had embraced darkness… and her own dark impulse of joy after killing him in a lakesh duel. She looked again to Lucy and felt the old worry, the old fear, that Lucy's passion might lead her astray.

    "Come, my friends," Kasszas said. "There are many rooms available. Let us sit and concentrate on the intentions of Creation."

    Without a further word, Meridina and Lucy followed Kasszas to the back.




    Cat and Violeta were quick to get the scans done when they arrived at the parking area. Much to their joy and surprise, they quickly hit pay dirt.

    "A Solaris LARC Works Helios, model 3200, 245 model," Cat proclaimed. "245 being the 245 years since the Sovereignty was formed… anyway! This is it."

    "No, it isn't," Angel sighed.

    The craft was indeed the same make and model as the vehicle used in the theft from Pan-Empyrean. But the similarities ended there. This one was the wrong color, being bright hot pink with lime green trim. Something that looked like a male hulu dancer model was stuck to the visible dashboard in side, where the seats were painfully bright yellow in color.

    "Okay, yeah, it doesn't look like a vehicle that a team of super badass mercenaries would use to steal from a megacorporation," Violeta agreed.

    "And the remaining graviton profile doesn't match," Cat added, checking her omnitool and the readings. "It's close, and it explains why Jarod's scans considered it a candidate, but…"

    "Just what are you stupid apes doing near my car?!" a nasally voice shrieked.

    Everyone turned to face a short gray alien with a big head and really big dark eyes. He was virtually naked too, but he was wearing a bow tie around his short, thin little neck, and he had a full-sized bowler hat perched on the top of his head.

    "Uh… just admiring the… paint job," Cat offered.

    Even as she did, she felt something in her head. Like someone was sifting her mind around, just a little. The sensation ended with a painfully loud and even more painfully annoying laugh, a "HA HA HA!" that reverberated in both her ears and her mind.

    "You thought my car was used to steal from Pan-Empyrean?!" the Apexei almost shrieked. "You thought one of my people would ever steal from Sidney Hank? Seriously, you are really stupid examples of your stupid ape excuse for a species! Sidney Hank is one of the very few Humans who is worthy of being our equal, and he has done much for the Apexei species since those cursed Bragulans ruined our homeworld! We would never dare harm him or anything that was his! Now get away from my lovely vehicle or I will re-arrange your silly little heads!"

    Angel, for her part, felt sorely tempted to punt the little alien as far as she could with a single kick. But she complied nevertheless, as did Violeta and Cat. The Apexei made a satisfied chortle. "Stupid apes," he said once more while opening the door and climbing into his garish machine. A very low whooshing sound came from underneath, and bright lights appeared beneath the craft from its anti-gravs coming online. It lifted into the air and zipped on.

    "That was the most unpleasant alien I've ever met," Caterina said.

    "And there goes our best lead, too," Violeta added. "There's nothing else here that matches the signature we were given."

    Angel activated her omnitool. "This is Angela Delgado checking in, nothing in Ozone Heights."

    A moment later, Julia's voice came back, "Alright. Enjoy the rest of your day then. We'll keep checking in every hour."

    "Delgado out." Angel lowered her left arm and let her omnitool's interface disengage. "Okay, that's done. Where do we go next?"

    "Let's go find something to eat," suggested Cat. "And then we hit the stores."

    "That sounds like a plan," Violeta agreed with a wide grin.

    Together the three descended from the parking deck and back to one of the concourses. They were surrounded by opportunity to satisfy any shopper, and for a moment Cat nearly forgot her grumbling stomach to investigate a shop selling new starcharts. But she continued on.

    Their first food option, at the edge of a food court area, drew their attention. The sign in green and red flashed "DISC-ILICIOUS" in gaudy neon. A Human was at the order table, or at least Cat assumed she was Human, as they drew closer and the dark tan skin turned out to be dark-tan fur, and the green eyes were distinctly feline. They looked up to the menu while the customer ahead of them finished ordering and moved on. Seeing the main item name displayed, Cat immediately asked "What's a 'yum disc'?"

    "It's a Solarian specialty," the young woman replied. "It's baked dough with sauce and cheese and anything else on top. You can eat it whole or slice it up, although…" The leonine young woman leaned in close to them and spoke in a whisper. "I wouldn't recommend the slicing. A lot of Solarians hate the idea of slicing up yum discs."

    "Wait." Angel looked over the graphics some more. "You're basically making pizzas. That's what this is. Pizza."

    The young woman blinked in confusion. "Pi...zza? What is pizza?"

    "What you just described a yum disc to be," Violeta explained. She tapped her omnitool on and, with a few button presses and key strokes, brought up the image of a pizza. "We call it pizza."

    "But… what? Yum discs are… they've always been yum discs!" The young woman was clearly bewildered, although not hostile. "My great-grandparents used to work 32 hour shifts baking them for troops in Brag War One!"

    "We've always known them as pizzas. But I can go with 'yum disc'," Caterina said. She smiled. "They are really yummy, usually, and after thousands of years of history after Earthfall I guess names could have…"

    "Hey, you're holdin' up the line, you borebods!"

    The cry from behind prompted them to turn. A group of theoretically Human people were standing behind them. Each looked like they were half animal in some way. One had bull-horns on his head and the beginnings of a bull-like snout, one girl was covered in soft yellow fur with black dots like a cheetah, and a couple more had reptilian eyes and scales on their otherwise human-like faces. The fifth member had goat horns on her head and, instead of shoes, markings around hooved feet.

    "'Borebod'?" Angel said, bewildered.

    "That's you. A borebod," the bull said. "A weak sap who doesn't have the imagination to do something with your body."

    "You mean I don't get surgically altered to look like I belong in a kid's show with talking animals," Angel retorted.

    "My sister has hawk eyes, actually," Violeta said. "Gene-spliced and surgically implanted."

    "Oh look, it's a poser borebod," one of the reptilians said, hissing appropriately to draw out the "s" in "poser".

    "Yeah. 'Oh look at me, I'm so cool'," the cheetah-girl said mockingly. "'I've got purple eyes and hair. See, I'm not a borebod.' Get real, honey, you're not cool, just another borebod."

    "Hey!" Caterina glared at the cheetah-girl, holding a finger up. "You leave my girlfriend alone."

    "Or what, borebod? I'm not scared of you, I've got speed and claws, you're just a silly borebod ape."

    "If you keep this up I have to ask you all to leave, you're holding the line up," the feline-looking girl behind the counter said apologetically. "Please order?"

    "We'll take a pizza, or yum disc, with cheese, and three drinks," Violeta replied. She offered an electronic chit loaded with Solarian dollars for the cashier to scan, paying for the meal.

    As she did so, the gene-modded bull behind them thrust a meaty finger at Cat's face. "Keep talking trash to my girl, borebod, and you get the horns."

    "If you lay one finger on my sister, bull-boy, I'll break one of those horns off and cram it up your ass," Angel growled. Her body tensed with readiness for a fight.

    Some of the customers behind the genemods were stepping away quietly. Some were mods themselves, but clearly wanted nothing to do with the aggressive young ones hassling the trio. All five readied themselves for a fight. Cat curled her fingers and prepared to use her omnitool's defense features to protect herself and Violeta while Angel continued to glare at the bull-man.

    Before anything else could happen, everything stopped, as a powerful female voice shouted, "STOP!"




    Walking through the lowest levels of Solaris was a trying experience, with deep shadows and dark alleys that kept Julia, Zack, and Jarod constantly alert for any sort of ambush. After hours of walking and riding up and down lifts, they were near to the point where the vehicle disappeared from sensors. They stood along an elevated street outside of what looked like dilapidated apartment buildings, near a row of street vendors selling various wares. Jarod was consulting his sensor readings.

    Zack kept looking about. Like the others he felt on edge, and the constant vigilance was wearing thin and making him fatigued. When his stomach made a low gurgling sound, he amended "hungry" to his list of feelings.

    "It's a good thing we came in a group," Julia said. Her eyes were cast on a couple of jacket-wearing figures about thirty meters away who had looked their way. "We're just asking to get mugged."

    "We will be if we run across anyone desperate enough," Jarod observed while checking his readings. "We're almost there, we need to move one block over and up."

    They walked toward the market stalls and a number of smells quickly joined the dusty, rotten air they were already experiencing. Zack sniffed and sighed. "I smell burgers."

    "I wouldn't eat anything down here," Julia said. "You couldn't pay me to."

    Jarod looked up in time to follow as Zack led both over to the stall. A young lady, possibly as young as sixteen, was working a fryer, where a couple patties of meat were already mostly done. She handed off what looked like a hot dog to another Human in grungy work clothes and looked to Zack as he stepped up. "Just one Solarian dollar," she said in a thick, Spanish accent. "Big burger. Very good."

    "Zack…" Julia took his arm.

    "I'll scan it before I eat it," he insisted. "But it'll help the kid out, right?" Zack reached into his pocket and pulled out a pair of Solarian bank notes. "Keep the change."

    With enthusiasm the young lady accepted the money and put it away. She immediately took a plastic flipper and laid a cooked patty of meat onto a ready bun. She placed the other half of the bun on top, partially wrapped her culinary creation, and handed it over proudly.

    Zack took up the burger. Jarod was already scanning it. "No poisons," he confirmed. "No toxins. It's safe to eat. Although…" Jarod looked to see Zack hadn't waited. He'd already bit into the offered burger.

    "Good, si? Yes?"

    Zack examined his food. "Well, it's got a flavor… I can't place it. What quality meat are you using?"

    Julia had already seen the results on Jarod's screen and had half her face covered by her palm. It was Jarod who coughed and said, "Well, it's not ground beef, or ground chicken or pork…"

    "Ratta," the proprietor announced proudly. "Solaria Ratta."

    Zack caught the key element of that. "...rat?"

    The young girl nodded. "Is good? Best rats. Only best. Buy from Gimlet, good rat catcher, plump, good fed."

    If it had been someone else, Zack might have dropped the burger right then and there from the initial wave of revulsion. Only the completely innocent, happy look of the ratburger proprietor kept him from doing anything. He simply couldn't bring himself to upset her. "Yeah. It definitely is," he assured her in a polite, friendly voice.

    They walked on for a bit. Once they were out of earshot Julia looked at Zack with a grin that showed how much laughter she was holding back. "So, are you going to eat your rat burger?"

    "Damned thing is, it really isn't that bad…"

    "It's disgusting."

    "Hey, maybe it's cultural. Like how French people eat snails. And don't they cook dogs in some parts of China?"

    Their route was suddenly blocked by another young lady wearing a heavy coat, with sunken eyes of chocolate brown color and a slight tan to her complexion. Her hands reached to the front of her coat and pulled it open.

    She wasn't wearing anything underneath.

    "Five and you can touch them for a minute…"

    They weren't paying attention, not entirely. Eyes were widened to some extent, if just out of shock. "Uh… wow," Julia managed.

    "Just five. Please," the girl pleaded. "You can do whatever you want for a minute."

    Zack reached into his pocket and took another note, this one worth ten. She accepted with one hand and looked toward the hand that had just given her the bill, as if resigned to what was coming next. Zack shook his head. "No, I'm not… sorry, I've got a woman I love, and besides…" He gestured toward Julia with his thumb. "She'd break the hand if I… yeah, she'd break my hand. No, just… get some grub, on me? In fact, here…" He offered the ratburger.

    The girl closed her coat and accepted the burger. She took a bite from it and, for a moment, a pleased expression came to her face. She stuffed the note into her waist and moved on, taking another bite as she passed them.

    For a moment the three just stood there. "That was unexpected," Jarod finally said. "I wonder if that kind of surgery is commonplace?"

    "It can't be too expensive, if people down here can get it," Zack offered. "But why would she want three…?"

    "I hope she never has to run," was all Julia said, after which she seemed to shudder as if considering the thought. "Angel and Meridina both turned up blank, so let's get going. This may be our only lead left."

    They turned into a mostly dark alleyway. Julia and Jarod stared intently at a couple of figures in duster coats who were staring their way. Nothing happened and they were soon ascending the walkway mid-way down the alley, leading to the next level. On this level things looked even darker, and a large shadow loomed to their right. Looking up confirmed they were nearby a full-sized Solarian high-rise, possibly even a starscraper. Jarod consulted his omnitool again as they neared the edge of the platform where it terminated beside the 'scraper. "It was right around here," he said, looking out over the edge. They were still pretty far up, more than far enough that a fall could be deadly. "I can't pinpoint it any closer."

    Given their location, Zack asked, "Could they have gone into the skyscraper?" He looked toward it. "I don't see an entrance here, but maybe along the side here, facing this gap?"

    "Maybe," Jarod said.

    "So we find an entrance, maybe see what's inside?"

    "It won't be so easy," Julia remarked. "From what I've seen, most of the skyscrapers and starscrapers are entirely blocked off on the ground level. At least in this area. That way they can keep out these poor people down here."

    "A scan might show something." Jarod triggered his omnitool's scanner. "I might get a graviton trace matching our suspect."

    As Jarod talked Julia looked back. There were only a few people milling around, on their way to or from wherever. They seemed more interested in the view of the area than of the trio. But yet, Julia couldn't help but feel like she was being watched

    "I'm definitely finding something." Jarod looked up at the featureless lower levels of the starscrapers. "Time has caused a lot of these elements to decay, but I think there might be something…"

    Another jacketed figure was walking by them. Zack and Julia looked toward the pedestrian with little regard. Zack looked away, returning to looking at what Jarod was doing, and Julia nearly so...

    ...until she noticed the flutter of the jacket, and the metal sphere that dropped out and rolled over to them. "Look out!" she cried. She dived for Zack and Jarod, but due to distances only managed to knock Zack down and away.

    There was no explosion. Wisps of what looked like blue smoke erupted in jets from the sphere. Within seconds a gas cloud over a meter across on all sides had formed. The blue gas reached Julia and Zack as they started to stand again. They coughed and felt their bodies go limp.

    With her head against the ground, Julia could hear thumps, vibrations, from a number of approaching pairs of feet. She couldn't move and her vision turned blurry.

    The last thing she could see with any clarity was Jarod jumping over the railing.

    Jarod! She tried to cry out, but she couldn't move. She couldn't do anything as powerful arms pinned her wrists against the base of her back and strapped them together. Someone was just starting to pick her up as everything went dark.
     
  12. Threadmarks: 2-14-4
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    The sound of hissing gas drew Jarod's attention right away. He looked over in time to see Julia and Zack coughing on the ground. The blue smoke was already drawing close to him. Given the way their bodies went slack, it was a paralytic agent of some sort.

    Beyond the smoke, jacketed figures were approaching. Some of them were holding visible firearms.

    It took half a second for Jarod's mind, advanced as it was, to make the calculation. Julia and Zack were out of it, and his situation was hopeless. If he didn't get away, all three of them would be taken. All he could do at this point was escape.

    And there was only one way to escape.

    Without a further thought, Jarod turned toward the railing and swung his leg over it. The other figures started to pick up speed, clearly intending to stop him, but they were too slow. The other leg came over and, with his heart hammering in his chest, Jarod slid off the platform toward what could be a very messy landing a few hundred meters below.

    It paid to prepare for things. For instance, knowing you were going to be on a world full of elevated platforms and structures, the possibility of falling to a messy death is one you can take steps to deal with. In Jarod's case, it had been adding a function to his standard operations omnitool. The same hard-light generation that could craft a sharp, armor-penetrating omniblade was put to use for another feature; a hard-light grappling hook.

    Spinning in mid-air, Jarod was already below the level he had just departed when he got his forearm into position. The omni-hook, with a hard-light wire attached, shot out from his omni-tool. It stuck itself firmly into the underside of the level in question and buried itself by several inches into the surface ferrocrete. Jarod had a brief mental image of a comic book character he'd seen during his time as a fugitive from the Centre swinging around a building on a hook, and now he did the same thing, swinging below the level he'd just jumped from. He didn't want to risk them hearing him land, so he kept the hook in and retracted the wire. The underside of the elevated level was hardly flat, with his hook embedded mere centimeters from a trunk that undoubtedly contained data lines or power lines. A glance at his omnitool told him that the trunk was harmless. It also told him that he was pushing the projectors toward their limits and had only seconds left before the omnitool shut down the construct. He counted those seconds as he got closer… closer…

    His arm reached out and grabbed the trunk, wrapping around it enough that he had a grip.

    Within moments of securing his grip on the trunk, the hardlight hook dissipated.

    Jarod wrapped his legs around the trunk, thankful it was small enough to accomplish that, and with both legs and one arm around it he settled for a moment. He didn't know how long he could stay here, but he wasn't going to risk moving until he knew that their unknown attackers hadn't followed him.

    And then, once he was sure of that, he would have to do two things: contact the Aurora… and get to Julia and Zack.




    "STOP!"

    Everyone in front of Disc-licious froze.

    The leonine young lady at the counter was the first to react verbally to the source of the shout. "It can't be…"

    The woman who approached them was dressed in a sleeveless smock of sorts, with the belly also cut away to show rippling, powerful muscle around her visible navel, muscle equaled by that on her arms, or on the legs left bare below the mid-thigh by what looked to be a mini-skirt and shorts combination. Her eyes shined brilliantly blue in taking in the scene before her. Her head was shaved bald save for a top-knot out of the back of her head, a top-knot of fiery crimson hair.

    The gene-altered teens that looked ready to fight Angel and Cat (and Violeta) stared in stunned admiration at the new arrival, much to the disbelief of Angel and Cat since the new arrival looked as baseline Human as they did. They started scrambling in their pockets as the muscular woman stomped up.

    But she wasn't looking at them. She was staring with what looked like devoted admiration at Angel.

    "Can I… help you?" Angel ventured.

    "Such boldness. Such raw power, such passion," the woman said, her accent thick and vaguely Eastern European. "I can see it in you, the essence of the warrior feminine, the urges, the passions…" She looked to Caterina. "And you. Brilliance. Imagination. Ancient wisdom to be sought…" The bald woman moved on to Violeta,, whom she looked over intently. "So bold, woman. Such boldness! The vivid color, but only the color, anything else would mar your perfection!"

    "Umm…" Violeta looked at the new arrival quizzically. "I don't think we've met…?"

    "No. We have not. Fate has made this the day for our meeting." She looked the three over again, in sequence. "I see. You do not know of me. How shocking, how interesting. From a lost Wild Space world, coming to Solaris to seek your fortune, your destiny,and now it is here, at this place and moment!"

    "We… didn't catch your name," Caterina said.

    "Names, yes!" The woman smiled. "I am Katarzyna Granzowa, and like you, I am unaugmented. A simple, unadvanced Human, no modifications, nothing but my skill, the skill that made me the first baseline Human to survive MetaBrawl!"

    "You three really are fringe world yokels," one of the reptilians said to them. "How can you not know Katarzyna Granzowa?! The legendary fighter and movie star, wife of the Birk himself!"

    "The…. 'Birk'?" Violeta asked.

    "Wesley Prefect Birken is my husband, yes," Granzowa said. "Our love is eternal. He has vision, I have vision, and it has led me here to this day, this place in time and space! I simply must have you all!"

    "What do you mean… have us all?" Violeta asked, still very confused.

    "In our next masterpiece, of course!" She looked to Angel. "You will be perfect for the role of the Divine Guardian, the protector and warrior, and you...."

    "Caterina."

    "...you will be the Priestess of Knowledge, the Keeper of the Divine Secrets…. and this one shall be the Maiden." She had moved on to Violeta. "Blessed with sacred vision! You will all be perfect!"

    "Miss Granzowa!" The bull-man knelt down. "Please, can you autograph my horns?!"

    "And mine too!" added the goat-girl.

    "Anything for fans," Granzowa said. She reached into a pocket and pulled a marker she seemed to carry just for this occasion.

    As she attended to the autographs, the ordered "yum disc" was delivered to the counter, with drinks. Violeta tapped Cat's shoulder, and she in turn tapped Angel's. They quietly snatched up their food and drinks and, with careful haste, departed.

    "This world is weird," Angel murmured to them as they left the food court.




    On Robert's return to the Embassy, he was immediately escorted into a scanning chamber. A civilian Dorei man - light blue complexion, teal spots, dark blue hair, and dark teal eyes - was standing on the other end of a clear partition. "Sorry, Captain, security precautions," he said. "I'm Sanyam Dutal, the chief of security for the Embassy."

    "You think that the President of the Solarian Sovereignty poisoned me?" Robert asked.

    "Not poisoned. But CEID have been known to plant nanite-scale trackers and listening devices into our people before," Dutal explained. "The Ambassador himself once returned with a stomach full of spy nanites."

    "They bugged the Ambassador?"

    Dutal nodded. "That's how CEID works. We protested, of course, and President Sinclair naturally assured the Ambassador that CEID would be firmly reprimanded. But nothing ever came of it. When it comes down to it, CEID do whatever they want if they feel it's necessary."

    Robert sighed deeply and dropped onto the bench in the room. "And what about me?"

    "None yet. This may have been a perfunctory attempt. Or they're trying to determine how effective our security precautions are. Either way, the scan isn't completed yet."

    Robert activated his omnitool. It immediately informed him that it could not establish any connections. "And this thing is emissions shielded too, right?"

    "Yes sir. Everything, even subspace interference that blocks their hyperspace-based comm tech."

    "I need to get in touch with my people," Robert insisted.

    "As soon as the sweep is done, sir." Dutal checked something. "At the current progress, it shouldn't be more than another hour or so. Then another hour or two for Deputy Chief Kanilata to check you mentally for any signs of psionic tampering. And you should be set."

    Robert groaned at that. He was starting to hate this world.




    Meridina and Lucy followed Kasszas through the passageways of the enclave. The interior was well-lit and cheery, with works of art on the walls showing everything from nature scenes to likenesses of beautiful nebulae or quasars.

    They passed by what looked like a common mess hall. A multitude of beings were seated at the tables. A Vulcan was quietly sipping plomeek soup while, across from him, an African man had a bowl of lentils in an earthy-colored sauce. A blue-skinned, teal-spotted Dorei had a hand raised toward another Zigonian. "...still begs the question, my friend. Is Creation a construct of the Supreme Deity?"

    "It is and it is not. It is one and the same with all beings."

    "Then the Supreme Deity is another being formed by the power of Creation," the Dorei argued. "But then the Deity cannot be supreme."

    "Can the Deity not? A Supreme Deity can be such and still a product of Creation."

    The theological debate, or philosophical debate, continued on as they moved away from the mess. They came upon a meditation room where a figure was standing up. He had East Asian coloring and features. Seeing them, he bowed respectfully. "S'szrishin-san." His eyes glanced toward Meridina. "And Meridina-san. An honor."

    Lucy didn't recognize him, but she could see Meridina did. On a second glance, she did think she had seen the facial features before…

    Meridina nodded. "Kurita Minoru, I believe?"

    "I am honored you remember our naming conventions."

    "Kurita?" Lucy looked to Meridina. "As in the Combine?"

    "My father is the Coordinator of the Draconis Combine, yes," Minoru said. "He gave me permission to come to this place."

    Meridina nodded. "I felt your potential during our visit to Luthien. I am pleased to see you."

    "And I you."

    "Why did you come all the way to Solaris?" Lucy asked. "I'm surprised your father let you."

    "My father understands what I seek," Minoru replied. "There are many roads to wisdom. Mine has been longer than it might have been, but it is worth it." Minoru looked again to Kasszas. "I am going for my meal now. The meditation chamber is yours."

    "Thank you, Brother Minoru." Kasszas bowed his head in respect.

    After the Kuritan prince departed, Kasszas stepped into the middle of the room. Lucy looked around at the chamber. An incense burner was on one end, a collection of tea cups and a kettle on the other. A nature scene showing a tall waterfall spewing teal-shaded water upon a forest of bright blue flora dominated the far entrance. Several sitting pads were in the room. Kasszas pulled an extra large one out, and Meridina another. Seeing what they were doing, Lucy took her own.

    Once they were all gathered around the center, Meridina assumed her own meditative pose. Kasszas took one as well, his legs folded under him and his tail curled around them. Lucy sat cross-legged and set her elbows on her knees. "You have felt the power of Creation," Kasszas said to her. "You have seen with it. The frustrations I sense within you cloud your thoughts, obscure your connection to the whole of Creation. Such is the way with many beings. We blind ourselves to the truth. We are of Creation; Creation is within us."

    Lucy nodded. "While the Gersallians see this power as a Flow of Life, created by the individual life forces of all beings, that we can tap into and we are supposed to strengthen."

    "Yes. And I have meditated upon this. The way of Swenya, by word, is not that of the Harmonious Val-Drillim. But in the spirit, we are closer than might be imagined." Kasszas held up a scaly digit, tipped with a talon that Lucy knew could slice her throat open if applied. "We may all be different reflections of a single, greater truth. But you may never grasp this truth if you allow your frustration to cloud your judgement."

    "I'm just dealing with a complicated mechanical problem," Lucy insisted. "I've tried everything that should work, but I keep hitting a limitation."

    "I see." Kasszas' tongue flickered in thought. "Perhaps it is a matter of perception. I suggest you meditate upon the issue. Use your connection to Creation, my Sister, and you may find the answer you seek."

    "I have been," Lucy said, trying to keep the heat from her voice. "I've thought about it over and over, run it through my head…"

    "...and that is where you have taken the wrong path. You perceive the problem from the wrong direction. Think anew. Sense the power of Creation around you, sense it within yourself, and reconsider. Carefully."

    After that the Zigonian went quiet, apparently dwelling upon his own meditations, Lucy turned to Meridina. She almost spoke but stopped.

    This is why I brought you here, Lucy, Meridina's voice whispered in her mind. I have helped you where I can on this. And I would be a terrible teacher if I didn't know when to step aside and bring you to another who might better help you.

    Lucy sighed and nodded. With nothing more to do, she put her hands together on her lap and opened her senses up to the pulsing warmth of the Flow of Life.




    Two levels down and a block away from where they had been ambushed, Jarod moved quietly through the shadows. The old habits of his time running from the Centre were coming back as if he was riding a bicycle again, for the first time as an adult.

    At least, that was the theory of the analogy. Jarod's childhood in the Centre had precluded that sort of activity.

    Calls home weren't working. Someone had put up a localized jamming field blocking most communications. This told him that whatever they were doing, they were about to make their move. Going for backup would be tricky. Their opponents had been tracking them and knew his face, and they were likely to have all public transportation routes blocked. He had scanned the 'scraper in question as best as he could. The entryways were mostly blocked, and there was shielding to prevent scans from getting inside.

    But he knew there was at least one entryway. Getting to it would be a challenge. It would require planning.

    Jarod liked challenges, of course, and as his track record showed, he was quite good with planning.

    Coming out of the alley, Jarod's omnitool indicated the presence of things he would need. There was technology and gear in a nearby building. It was a squat structure built for this level alone. The marking outside was a flickering holo-sign that only said "Bio-Outfitting Center".

    Jarod entered the door, which chimed as he did so. Inside were shelves filled with all sorts of gear and equipment, including climbing gear, laser emitter assemblies, and shop tools.

    At the counter, a young man with a metal arm up to his right shoulder - bared by his tank top - was watching a hand-held holo-display showing two scantily-clad women fighting in a locker room. He looked up slowly as Jarod approached. "ey," he said. "Wot'll it be? The Surgeon's in."

    "Surgeon General," a voice cried from inside the nearby door. A man in a white lab-coat emerged, his right hand a metal fist, his face dominated by a large chin. "I'm the damned Surgeon General." He noticed Jarod and grinned. "Ah, hello there. Here for a mod or three? I charge a tenth of what those over-priced yahoos in the upper blocks charge, and my mods are guaranteed against all infections."

    "I'm not interested in getting modified," Jarod answered. He smiled widely. "But I'll pay for some of your gear, and an hour in your machine shop."

    To that, the "Surgeon General" scoffed, "C'mon, pal, this isn't a do-it-yourself shop. You want to get into my machine shop, you gotta work here, and I'm not hiring. Now, if you're so chicken-sh…"

    Before the four-letter word could be finished, the Surgeon General had reason to back up, given the look in Jarod's dark eyes and, more importantly, the pulse pistol now held toward his head. "Are you crazy, I've got prot…" Before his protest could finish, Jarod fired a stun blast into his chest, knocking the big-chinned man out. He turned to look toward the man at the counter.

    Said young man shrugged. "I'm still watchin' this Birkin marathon, guv," he said. "'nd that bastard owes me two days' wages 'nd a new arm. Just stun 'n tie me 'fore ya go, so's 'e don't grog on?"

    "Fair enough." Jarod pulled the stunned "Surgeon General" back to his office, where there was a nice chair to tie him to. Then he got to work, as quickly as he could, hoping Julia and Zack were okay.




    Julia woke up to feel tension in her shoulders and warmth at her back. The pain in her wrists confirmed the situation even before she opened her eyes and looked up to see her wrists bound above her head. She could make out another pair of hands lashed to hers and knew immediately that Zack was hanging behind her.

    For a moment fear struck. She was being held prisoner, and she didn't know why. The fact they were alive meant that their captors wanted something from them. What did they plan to do?

    Another fear hit afterward. Jarod! She'd seen him go over the railing. Why? Did he have a plan? Or was it a reflex reaction to being caught and being more willing to die than to be captured by anyone? Was he still alive?

    "Unh." Zack's head moved. He looked up and Julia felt his head smack against hers. "Ow," they said together. Julia would have kicked at him, but her ankles and Zack's were bound together too.

    Julia took in their surroundings. It looked like a machine shop. Firearms and other devices were spread out on tables along with tools. The lights were on, although dimmed, and for the moment Julia couldn't make out any guards.

    "Do you think we found the thieves?" Zack asked.

    "We found something." Julia looked up again. Their captors had left them hanging from a latch, attached by a strong steel wire to a pulley arm. "Looks like this is used to lift engine blocks or something." Looking down again, she saw a cement floor. Her feet were just touching it.

    "What do you think they want us alive for?"

    "Ransom. Slavery. Tickle torture." Julia kept studying the latch above. Her omnitool had been removed, a precaution against it having anything to cut them free. "Take your pick. I'm just glad we're not butt-naked."

    "Yeah, that would be awkward," Zack agreed. "They've got our guns too."

    "You see them?"

    "Yep. And our omnitools."

    "Maybe I…"

    Julia shut up and looked to her right at the sound of a door opening. Said door was elevated up to Julia's shoulder blades, with a red-painted metal walkway leading to metal steps down to the ground she was barely standing on. Two figures walked in, wearing what looked like tactical gear and holding assault firearms. They took up stations at the door and said nothing.

    A woman stepped in. Her skin was porcelain white in complexion. Deep, brilliant blue eyes shined like sapphires in the light as they took in the sight of Julia and Zack where they were bound. The suit was made of red leather with black trim and showed much of the figure of a lean, physically fit woman. She moved with a cat-like grace in walking down the metal walkway and to the steps leading down to the floor of the machine shop. In doing this, her turning allowed Julia to see a red band held raven black hair into a bun at the back of her head.

    "Oh crap," Julia murmured, after which she gulped.

    "What?" Zack asked. He couldn't easily see the new arrival as she was walking toward Julia's side of the room. "You recognize her?"

    "I recognize the uniform."

    "So you do," the woman said. Her accent had a strange quality to it. It didn't sound like English was her second language, but the phonetics of the pronunciation were unique even to Solaris, the vowel sounds sounding thick and pronounced. "My name is Tabitha. I am an agent of NEUROM."

    "Nure-who?" Zack asked.

    Tabitha narrowed her eyes. And then grinned. "Ah, yes. You are not so educated in the ways of our universe, are you outsider? And what of you?" Tabitha eyed Julia. You know of us?"

    "I've seen one of yours. She was called Denna, a fugitive."

    "Denna." Tabitha smirked. "My poor, sweet Denna. How I miss that girl. She was always a little too enthusiastic for our work. Enjoying pain is part of what we are in the Ministry of Fate. But one can have too much of a good thing."

    "Great," Zack sighed. "I'm being held prisoner by a dominatrix."

    "Zack," Julia hissed.

    "I trust you know what this is, then?" The woman reached to her belt and held up an object that almost looked like a leather-covered eskrima stick, the kind Julia trained with while practicing that specific art. "You've seen an agiel used before, yes? You needn't answer, actually. I can see the fear in your eyes." After giggling for a moment, Tabitha stepped around them and faced Zack. "You are ignorant. I shall fix that. Now, what are you doing in the lowest levels."

    "Sightseeing. Trying out the local food." Zack smirked at her. "Ever have a ratburger? There's a girl one level down, makes some really juicy…"

    Just as the device started to move toward Zack, the door opened again. Another dark-clad figure, this one a big muscular woman with a gun slung over her shoulder, stepped in. "M'lady, it's time. We can't keep the jammers up much longer before it becomes suspicious."

    "Hmm." Tabitha looked to her and noddded. "I'll be up in a minute. Have we found the target?"

    "We have."

    "Good. Ready the team. And have our people begin preparations to decommission this base. It's useless to us now."

    "Of course, M'Lady. It will be as you command." She stepped out.

    Tabitha stepped back around and faced Julia directly. "I'll make my decision on whether to kill you or bring you with us after I go." She got so close to Julia that their eyes met. "Bringing you back for debriefing would be quite the plum for this mission. And the chance for some playtime with you two is so tempting…"

    Somehow, Julia knew that however tempting it was for Tabitha, she and Zack wouldn't find it so appealing.

    "Ta, lovelies." Tabitha walked away, heading for the door. The lights dimmed down again as the door closed, leaving the two of them alone.

    "This is the worst shore leave ever," Zack grumbled.




    "This is the best shore leave ever," Caterina declared.

    The pizza, or "yum disc", had been tasty, and the drinks not bad. Now the three of them were walking along Ozone Heights and another line of shops. Caterina and Violeta now had bags of clothes on their right and left arms respectively, while their left and right hands were clasped together. Both were wearing matching sleeveless, navel-baring shirts of vibrant purple and blue colors that constantly shifted due to the specialized dyes of the clothes. They wore equally-matching blue skirts that stopped just above the knee.

    Behind them, Angel followed with a wistful grin. She wasn't having quite so much fun. Indeed, her primary sentiment was that she was pretty sure the other two had exhausted their money supply and that the shopping would become window shopping only now. Meanwhile she checked her omnitool for any updates from the others and frowned at the result. She quickly tapped another query.

    "I can't wait to wear that dress," Violeta said. "Especially if we get to go home… if girls on Sirius find out about this place…"

    "...they'll all jump on the first liner to come shopping," Cat laughed. She felt weird, but good; she'd never been much of a shopper, and during their Europe tour what shopping they'd done had been mixed in with sight-seeing. Caterina looked back to where Angel was still following. "So, where do you want to go shopping?"

    "I don't want to shop," Angel said. "I'm shocked you spent this much. How much of this stuff could you have just replicated up on the ship?"

    "There's no replicator pattern that can match this!" Caterina declared, gesturing with her right hand to the shifting patterns on her shirt.

    Angel shook her head. "That doesn't matter. And we need to get going."

    Caterina frowned and stopped, prompting Violeta to turn with her. "Are you okay?" Cat asked Angel. "If you're not having fun we can do something else."

    "It's not about fun," Angel snapped. "It's been too long since Julia's last check-in. And I just tried to raise them again and there's absolutely no response."

    The other two ladies frowned. "That is bad," said Violeta.

    Angel nodded. "And I can't get ahold of Robert either. He must be in the Embassy in a secure area."

    "We should probably head back there, then," Caterina said.

    Angel nodded, and they continued on.




    "Is this really necessary?" Robert asked, twitching, while the Gersallian woman Kanilata held her fingers to his face. She had a complexion that made her look East Asian to Robert, though her face had the same basic facial structure as other Gersallians.

    "I am almost done," she answered. "You are fortunate that my training as a farisa allows me to do this as I am. Others would have to be more invasive to be sure."

    "They didn't do anything to my head," Robert insisted.

    "Unfortunately, CEID's farisa are known to be capable of subtle alterations to a mind. We had to send one of our clerks back when she was found slipping our daily decrypted communiques to CEID operatives. She had been manipulated mentally to have a subconscious impulse to send the information." Kanilata frowned deeply. "It is a terrible abuse of mental powers."

    "And you're afraid they did this to me?"

    "We must take precautions against it. Now please, be silent again, and let me concentrate."

    Robert frowned and did so.




    Lucy was surprised to see how well she kept her focus in meditation. It was as if the energy around her encouraged it, allowing her to ease her thoughts and let her mind calm. She could feel the warmth of the Flow of Life and how the ember of power within her resonated with it. She could sense Meridina's power as always, strong, inviting, and laced with benevolent intent. She enjoyed that sensation, stripped of the doubt and fear that had plagued Meridina for those months after Amaunet took her as an unwilling host, and she signed with contentment at its presence near her.

    Kasszas was different. There was a special feel to his power, a contentment, a sense of absolute surrender to the Flow of Life, as if Kasszas could simply dissolve himself into it. It resonated around him in reply, as if he were a part of it.

    It made sense. He was blind. The Zigonian being bereft of a major sense encouraged the bond he felt to the Flow of Life, to his own power, because it was what he saw the world through.

    A thought came to Lucy. Was that her limitation? For all that she had learned with these powers, with this connection to a wider energy around her… she still often thought in hard terms. She had become an engineer, and engineers dealt with the firm limits of reality all of the time. The limitations of materials, of energy, of design.

    Limitations like the crystals for her recreation of Swenya's Blade.

    She had done everything right, hadn't she? She's taken what she saw in the scans, in the design, and she'd recreated it. But it was simply too much energy for the crystals. And there were some good crystals, strong, beautiful, why didn't they work?

    What am I doing wrong? she wondered. I'm looking at this from the wrong place. Maybe there's another way to see this? Something I'm overlooking? I should double-check those scans…

    Lucy stopped herself. No. That wasn't the answer, was it? That would be continuing to look at the problem from the same direction. She needed to try another direction.

    She felt within herself, and around herself, she felt the energy and she let go of her preconceptions. The answer was there. It had to be. She'd felt all this time that she would do this, that she could do this, and maybe this… maybe this was the way she would.

    From the warmth of the energy came a sight. The Gersallian Council Chamber. Mastrash Goras, his essence full of darkness, his hate murderous. Robert and Angel desperately trying to hold him off. And in her hand… the weapon. The blade. Swenya's Blade.

    She had felt within it. She had felt the pieces as they should be, as they had been shifted to disable the weapon. She remembered fixing it. Activating the blade at the last second. The sapphire light that filled her vision, the way the photons and the plasma moved within the confines of the blade's field.

    Lucy dwelled on that vision. On the blade. On what it felt like, on what was within. The pieces she had fixed.

    And as she did so, Lucy let go of the scans she had taken. She let go of all of the work she had done so far on making the blade herself. There was only the blade she had held and what she had felt inside, the way it was formed. The beauty and elegance of the design.

    Of course, Lucy thought.

    "Of course," she murmured aloud. "That's why the crystals don't work."

    "Lucy?"

    Lucy opened her eyes. Meridina was looking at her intently. "You have meditated more deeply than I have ever seen you before," Meridina said plainly.

    "Yeah." Lucy nodded.

    "And?" Meridina's lips curled into the slightest smile. "It seems to have given you new insight."

    She nodded again in reply. "It has."

    "And?"

    "And… I think I'm going to try something when we get back to the ship."

    Meridina nodded. The smile faded. "But we must do something first."

    "Oh?"

    "I have just spoken with Angel." Now Meridina frowned slightly. "Julia and her team are not answering communications. And the Aurora is detecting a jamming field in that section of Solaris."

    Lucy frowned in reply. "The Solarians are going to do something about that, I hope?"

    "Nicholas has been in contact with their security command. They are investigating. But I believe they may be too late. We must…"

    "Meridina-san."

    The two looked back from their sitting positions to the door. Minoru Kurita was standing in the doorway, bowing slightly. "Forgive me for interrupting, Meridina-san. But Jata'kesti sent me to inform you that a street urchin has come seeking you and Lucilla Lucero. He has found your vehicle."

    Meridina and Lucy both stood up. "I sense you must go now," Kasszas said. "Theezs kuzzs ta zas, Sisters. Creation's Light remain with you."

    "Mi rake sa swevyra iso, Kasszas," Meridina replied.

    Minoru escorted them back out to the foyer where Jata'kesti awaited with Toby. The large Jeaxian remained quiet at his place watching the young urchin. There was a slight fear in him, not so much of the alien but of the powers here, and all of the stories told about espers.

    "I found yar larc, Miss," he said to Lucy. "It's in a dock off Farshal Square, west side. Th' ol' Pan-Em buildin'."

    "Pan-Em?" Meridina looked at him intently. "As in Pan-Empyrean?"

    "Yair, Miss. Yaint gonna miss it, got th' winged sign 'n all. A fellow street-runner tol' me 'bout it, I went 'n grogged it, looked through th' window."

    The two nodded at each other. They could sense Toby was speaking the truth. Lucy promptly pulled the rest of the promised money out of her pocket and gave it to him. "Stay safe."

    "I grog yar worried, Miss, but I'm good." He looked over the money. "'n thanks, this'll cove some grub for me sibs."

    With that Toby left. "An interesting coincidence," Meridina murmured.

    "Maybe the theft was an inside job. Or the thieves figure nobody will look in an old Pan-Empyrean building?"

    "Perhaps. Or perhaps there is more to this game than we thought." Meridina tapped a couple of keys on her omnitool. "Meridina to Dale." When there was no response, she said, "Meridina to Delgado."

    After a moment Angel replied, "Delgado here."

    "We may have a lead. Meet me in the Sprawl. I'm relaying where we need to go. And do you know where Robert is? I can't reach him."

    "The Embassy's putting him through the wringer right now to make sure the Solarians didn't fill him with nanites or screw his head up," answered Angel. "He should be out shortly, if everything's fine. We're on our way now."

    "We will be waiting. Meridina out." After ending the call Meridina and Lucy left the Enclave.




    At the Embassy's parking lot, Angel looked over the transport schedules and frowned. "There's no public transport heading to the Sprawl any time soon," she said to the others. "And I don't want Lucy and Meridina going in alone."

    "And they'll be mad if we bring a shuttle or runabout down," Cat said. "So we need to find other transportation. Maybe the Embassy can help?"

    "I'm not sure they will."

    "They probably won't."

    The three looked to where Robert stepped up. "I just spent hours getting all of my atoms scanned, my omnitool completely dismantled and reassembled, and my mind probed," he said, after which he scowled and added, "And then they made me take laxatives for good measure just in case the scan missed anything in the food."

    "Yikes," Caterina said, wincing.

    Robert nodded once to her and continued, "Nick left me some messages about Julia and her team going radio silent, but according to reports, that entire area's been cut off from electronic transmissions."

    "A jamming field, I'd say," Caterina remarked.

    "Meridina left me a message about a lead in the Sprawl?"

    "Yeah, we just talked," Angel said. "They tracked the suspect vehicle to an old Pan-Empyrean building."

    Robert frowned at that. "Now that sounds suspicious. And Hank did think it could be an inside job."

    "If it's there, though, why would someone be jamming communications from Commander Andreys' team?" Violeta asked.

    "It could be unrelated. Either way, Meridina and Lucy are waiting for us. And all we need is transportation that can get us there in time." Angel nodded her head toward the main doors. "Do you think the Embassy…?"

    "Fry wants to keep his people out of this," Robert said. "But I have an idea who to call." He activated his omnitool's communication function and put in a call number on the Sovereignty comm network. After a few moments a man of light tan complexion appeared on the screen. "Mister Chandra? This is Captain Dale of the Aurora. We've found a possible site for the stolen component and my people need backup. If you wouldn't mind picking us up…"




    Time had passed in the machine shop. Tired of the silence, Zack broke it by asking, "Do you think the others are coming?"

    "Even if they are, they may not know where to go. You heard them talk about jamming. Even if Jarod survived…" She stopped. If anyone could figure their way around such a problem, it'd be Jarod. "We have to assume that our only way out of here is to get out ourselves."

    "Right." Zack nodded. "Ideas?"

    Julia looked back up. "If our ankles weren't bound together this would be easy. But I don't think we're flexible enough to lift ourselves enough to get to the latch." She looked beyond the latch to the cord above. "They never planned for prisoners. And this stuff isn't made for holding people."

    "Yeah, but I bet it's made for heavy stuff, heavier than us."

    "Maybe, maybe not." Julia took in a breath. "Okay, on the count of three, swing back my way."

    "Right."

    "One… two… three!"

    Acting in concert the two began to sway their bodies in the same direction, back and forth, until they began to swing slowly. There was a metallic creak above them as they progressed. Sweat began to form from the effort and their arm muscles were hurting from the increased strain.

    The effort ceased without any visible success. "Dammit." Julia looked back up at it. "Okay, maybe if we… when's the last time you did pull ups?"

    "During the last physical training run, last week," Zack answered. "The one Leo organized. But you said we couldn't get to the latch."

    "No, but maybe if we bring ourselves up as high as we can and then drop, it might do something."

    "Yeah, like tear our shoulder joints."

    "Maybe, but…"

    "Julia, I don't think we're getting out of this." Zack drew in a breath. "These people know what they're doing. They wouldn't tie us in a way that would make it possible for us to escape."

    Julia frowned and turned her head instinctively, wishing she could face Zack. "We can't just give up."

    "No. But I don't call biding our time so we don't injure ourselves 'giving up'," Zack retorted.

    "If they come back into this room, it's going to be to kill us or move us," Julia replied. "This is our chance to get away. Or do you want to be that woman's plaything?"

    "Not necessarily."

    "Then we need to find a way out of here," she insisted. "So think!"




    Jarod returned to the skyscraper structure where they had been attacked, but one level below where the attack had taken place. His now gloved hands flexed while he worked up his nerve for a moment. Here goes nothing.

    After reaching to his back and the powered unit there, he pulled the climbing spikes tied to it, one for each hand, and drove them into the surface of the 'scraper just at the end of the ledge. The hardened surface material would not have given for ordinary climbing spikes, but the powered unit attached to him generated a short-range graviton effect at the edge, effectively giving a powered thrust to the spikes as they drove home. Chunks of metal and ferrocrete fell away with each strike as he rounded the corner of the building and began to climb up. The magnets now attached to his boots had come from a mod meant for people to work in Solaris' zero-G zones. There wasn't enough ferrous material in the structure to allow him to actually walk on it, but it did help secure his feet while the spikes did the bulk of the climbing work.

    It was not as physically taxing as normal climbing would have been, with the spikes' nature driving them home without needing much muscle power behind them. Sweat nevertheless trickled from his brow at the effort of lifting himself up and the knowledge that if his grip failed, he would likely end up splattered on the ground half a kilometer below.




    Hanging by your arms in a machine shop as captives to some nasty dominatrix-like lady in leather can be a trying experience, Zack was finding.

    Oh, he had been in danger before, of course. That feeling came whenever you went into a starship combat mission, the idle thought that you wouldn't be coming back from it. That it might be the mission where a lucky enemy shot, or just a whole lot of enemy shots, would blow you to pieces, and that would be that. But that's a different beast to the sheer, frightening uncertainty of being a captive, of not knowing what would be done to you. Would you be beaten? Killed? Something worse? And the way he had nearly felt Julia's breath pick up when that leather-wearing chick had come in told him she was just as afraid.

    "Still nothing?" he asked.

    He was answered by a growl of frustration.

    "If we get out of this, maybe you should take that command offer, just so this doesn't happen again," Zack suggested. In the distance, he thought he heard engine noises. Tabitha was off for whatever it was she was doing.

    "Zack, now isn't the time to talk about the Enterprise, or anything but how to get the hell out of here before that lunatic comes back," snapped Julia.

    "Right." He drew in a sigh and looked around again. And again, he didn't see much of anything they could do. If their ankles weren't tied together too, one of them could have easily pulled themselves up and maybe work their wrists free. But they just didn't have the freedom of movement.

    "We should try to swing again," Julia said. "That latch looks like it might be a little worn."

    Zack looked back at it. He didn't see anything like that, and chalked it up to Julia indulging in wishful thinking.

    So they did. They managed to get themselves rocking quite a bit, which wasn't much fun. But the latch held.

    "God damn thing!" Julia swore.

    For a moment, Zack let himself give up on the idea of rescue. He imagined that very soon, they'd be dead, or wishing they were dead, and they certainly wouldn't be in a position to talkt o each other. "Julia…"

    "Zack, don't start. Get ready to swing again. One… two…"

    They tried again. There was a slight metallic creaking. But the latch wasn't giving way.

    "If we don't get out of this, it might be our last chance to talk," Zack said.

    Julia let out a breath. "I know," she said.

    "Yeah, so maybe we should say what we need to."

    "Right." For a moment she went silent. Julia didn't want to stop fighting. She knew if she did, if she gave up, then the uncertainty, the despair, would come. And she might fall to pieces, and it might bring Zack with her. And what good would that do?

    Besides, she'd made a promise. She'd promised Robert, Robby, that she wouldn't give up and that she would trust in him coming to save her.

    Zack swallowed and whet his throat. He couldn't keep his heart was doing a thud-thud as he imagined how he would say what he felt he needed to say. "I have a confession to make," he said. "And I think you should know that…"

    Before he could finished they heard the door creak open. They both looked toward it and were momentarily surprised to see nobody there.

    At least, not until it was closed. Once the door closed a figure shimmered into view.

    "Jarod!" Julia cried, her voice hoarse from her attempt to keep it from sounding too loud.

    "Well, it looks like you've been hanging around while I did all of the hard work," Jarod teased. He pulled out his pulse pistol from the small of his back, where the holster was still wedged just below the bulky power pack. He checked the setting for a moment before bringing the pistol up in both hands to look down its eyesight. A blue pulse erupted with a whup sound and smacked into the hook they were bound too. The metal gave way to the sudden strike of energy and broke, freeing their wrists in the process. They fell over due to how their ankles were strapped together. Zack twisted with Julia while Jarod hurried down the steps and pulled one of his climbing spikes up from where it was attached to his waist. With a single strike he severed the straps holding their ankles together. "There. So, is this it?"

    "I don't know, I don't think so," Julia answered.

    "That lady said something about a target and finding it," Zack added. He was now standing where their omnitools and guns were laid out. He put his holster on his back and slipped the omnitool brace back into place on his arm. "This may have nothing to do with it." He tossed Julia's gun, holster, and omnitool back to her.

    As she put them back on, she looked to Jarod and continued, "She was one of those leather-wearing dark powers types. Like the one Miss Parker hired when she abducted you."

    Jarod frowned. "Did she hurt you?"

    "She was about to, but apparently this 'target' mattered more. But she talked about taking us back with her, and I get the feeling hurting us was part of that plan." Julia shivered at that thought. "We've been out of communication for too long. We need to get in contact with the others."

    "They're still jamming," Jarod said. "We'll need to get out of here. They've still gone one vehicle left that we can hijack."

    "Do you know how to drive these things?" Zack asked. When Jarod gave him a sardonic look he said, "Right, yeah, I forgot who I was talking to."

    They walked up to the door and went through it, guns out and ready. The place was a converted vehicle garage with a bank of monitors toward one end and converted sleeping places. A long rack of firearms was half-empty on that far end. Figures were arrayed back by the monitors, watching something they couldn't make out. Jarod quietly closed the door to the machine shop while Julia and Zack approached the last vehicle in the garage. With nobody in or around it they were able to slip into it, leaving the driver's seat for Jarod.

    Once Jarod slipped into it, he brought up his omnitool. "This is going to be a close one," he warned them while working the controls. "Here we… go!"

    With a button press Jarod activated a remote signal to the bay door. It immediately began to open. Zack was looking through the rear window of the hovercar - which it was to him, official name be damned - and noticed the figures by the monitors reacting. They shouted and began to jump up, still surprised for the moment.

    Their uncertainty vanished when Jarod brought the LARC"s anti-grav engines online. Guns were pulled and orange fire erupted across the garage. Several shots hit the rear of the vehicle, blasting metal and frame away. The occupants were pulled back across their seats by the acceleration when Jarod jammed his foot onto the accelerator. The vehicle rushed from the bay into the outside air. Jarod banked it to avoid slamming into the skyscraper opposite of the bay they'd come from and took a moment to level them out.

    Zack let out a whoop. "Nice going, Jarod."

    Julia was already trying to contact the others with her omnitool. "Still no response."

    "We're not out of the jamming field yet," Jarod said. "I didn't see much, but those weapons aren't the right type. I don't think that was our group."

    "So this might have been for nothing," Zack said.

    "Maybe, maybe not. Right now I just want to get a hold of the others." Julia tried her omnitool again.

    This time she was rewarded by a crackle. "...to Andreys. Ar-... there? -ale to… -dreys, are you there?"

    With a smile, Julia nodded. "I'm here. We're safe."

    "What happened?"

    "Oh, abduction, rescue, the usual," Julia answered. "Do we have any updates?"

    "Meridina and Lucero may have something. Head to Farshal Square in the Sprawl."

    Julia looked to Jarod, who nodded. "We're on our way."




    The Sprawl was less active in the area around the Pan-Empyrean subsidiary building. There were still people moving around, but the markets were thinner here. This was an area of the Sprawl that had seen better times.

    Meridina and Lucy arrived in Farshal Square and looked at the four-story high structure. "I don't like the feeling of this place," Lucy said.

    "Nor do I. Whoever is in there may be expecting trouble." Meridina checked her omnitool. "Robert indicates they are still several minutes out. We have time to wait."

    Lucy nodded. Even as she did so, however, something felt… off. A sense of looming danger was filling her. She noticed the sudden look in Meridina's eyes and knew Meridina felt the same. "And if we don't, we need to figure out what to do."

    Meridina was already looking around, trying to sense an incoming attack.

    As it turned out, it wasn't an attack that was incoming.

    A vehicle not too different from the one they were tracking suddenly flew overhead, joined by another. One landed at the front of the building while the other hovered over it. Figures jumped from the top. Lucy felt a dark presence among them. "Uh oh," she muttered.

    "It would appear that something of consequence is happening," Meridina said. "And I feel it too, Lucy. There is a swevyra'kse among them."

    The team that landed in front blasted through the front door. An explosion of debris from the top of the building said they were entering from there too. "They're definitely not the Wild Geese," Lucy said. "Someone else might be looking for that component." She pulled her lakesh and extended it.

    "Then let us go," Meridina agreed, doing the same.

    With their lakesh blades out, they ran toward the opened front door. A guard watching said door turned to face them only as they got close. He brought his gun up but never fired it, as Meridina sent a wave of power that tossed him back to the ground hard. They ran in and Lucy took the moment to slice the gun in half with her weapon.

    They were in what used to be a front office. A sign read "Pan-Empyrean Consumer Works" on one wall. "It must have been a factory or warehouse," Lucy said as they continued on, following the sounds of battle and an occasional scream of agony.

    Their next foe came in the corridor they entered between offices. He had a different dark suit than the first that marked him as a defending party, not attacker. He had enough range to open fire. Lucy and Meridina caught his shots with their weapons and deflected several pulses back into him, knocking the armed man over.

    This way, Meridina urged with mentally, and Lucy followed. They found a door leading out into an open factory or warehouse area. There were signs of occupation on a long-term, like a portable stove and sleeping cots. Now they were a mess and armed men were still exchanging fire. The two went unnoticed for the moment focused. The pull of their instincts, or rather their powers, led them to notice a far door that was open. "That might lead to a rear dock. They're probably fleeing!"

    Getting to the far door meant rushing into the open and being exposed to a crossfire. Lucy's heart pounded for a moment at going into that kill zone, but she steadied herself, raised her blade, and joined Meridina in rushing the gauntlet. Their lakesh blades sung in the air, looking almost ethereal with the faint blue of their EM fields as they moved through the air to intercept shots fired at the two women. Their opponents were firing at them and at each other, although those were often the same thing. But Meridina and Lucy did not stop. Could not stop, as stopping meant being overwhelmed.

    Lucy had deflected fire before, but she felt a strange ease at it. She could feel the shots coming with even greater warning time than before. Her life energy, connected by the Flow of Life to the wider cosmos, let her easily guess where the shots would go, and her arms thrummed with power as they moved with speed and grace to get her blade into positions to intercept those shots if they might harm her or Meridina.

    The entire mad dash lasted barely ten seconds, such was their speed in covering the gap. Soon they too were going through the door and into a hall. Three dead bodies spoke of the brief firefight as one force retreated from the other. They kept going.

    The other end was the loading dock. A number of armed men and women, at least half a dozen, were arrayed around a lithe male figure carrying a container, the same one from the Pan-Empyrean videos. Other armed men and women were behind cover firing at them. Even as one defender fell, the others approached the vehicle that they were going to escape in.

    Lucy and Meridina took a moment to concur on their attack. When they moved, their first objective was knocking out the two nearest gunmen, reducing the fire they would have to run through. Lucy let Meridina take the lead and focused on deflecting the fire coming at her.

    And then she felt it. The dark power surged. A laugh echoed in the room as a lovely figure in red leather dropped from the upper level right in the middle of the initial set of thieves. She had only one leather-bound stick in her hand, but the moment it pressed against one of her foes, he or she let out a scream and toppled. She took out half of the remaining defensive shooters in seconds before she turned to the one with the container. She held a hand out and he stopped in his tracks.

    Lucy, by this point, was focused on protecting Meridina's back from incoming fire, so it was Meridina who watched as the man struggled to move forward. But the woman in leather would not be denied. Her dark power increased and the man soon fell to a knee, gagging, as an invisible vice tightened around his throat. Meridina made the calculation immediately. The woman was the priority target, a threat to them all. She brought her lakesh up, bounded over a fallen shooter, and swung it toward her.

    At the last moment the woman in leather twisted away. She scowled at Meridina. "A damned Magi. What are you doing after this thing?"

    "I am a swevyra'se of Gersal," Meridina announced. "And I have come to reclaim the device for its owner."

    "I'm Tabitha of the Ministry of Fate, and you just made a big mistake." Tabitha lunged at Meridina with her weapon. Meridina evaded the blow and brought her blade into position to cut at the weapon. Her opponent evaded that and threw a wicked kick that nearly caught Meridina in the face and forced her to back up. She swung again and Meridina evaded, even as she felt the growing rage and frustration of her foe.

    The man with the container began to crawl toward the vehicle. Lucy noticed him and made a split second decision. She rushed forward, as fast as she could, and jumped over the line of defensive shooters just as they laid down fire, narrowly avoiding their shots. She flipped in mid-air and landed beside the man with the container. A swipe of her weapon cut the straps holding it to him, freeing the device. She pulled it away from him. "I've got it!"

    That made her the focus of a large volume of fire. Lucy put everything she had into sending the shots back to sender. Her blade became a blur of blue light and metal.

    Tabitha broke away from Meridina to pursue the device herself. Meridina turned to pursue before converging fire forced her to focus on the defense. She sent a mental warning to Lucy.

    Lucy heeded it. She saw Tabitha's attack coming and parried it, moving to her side and sending Tabitha flying.

    Flying, as it turned out, right into the compartment with the device, knocking it into the nearby LARC. It bounced back into the air, right in the crossfire between Lucy and the others. Multiple shots started striking it, wrecking the hinge of the container and charring much of its surface.

    When it finally hit the ground, it cracked open, one half spilling away, and exposed its contents.

    Lucy and Meridina both felt the danger first. They moved toward each other, ignoring the wrecked container. The various gunmen didn't. While some kept shooting, others rushed to seize what was inside.

    Before they could take more than a step or two, something moved. There was a sudden surge of mass, and both Meridina and Lucy watched a familiar amber mass erupt from its former imprisonment. A tentacle of amber became a hardened spike of sharp metal that pierced the throat of an armored woman who was closest to the container. The spike immediately retracted back into the amber fluid it had come from, which formed into a vicious serpent. A serpent she had seen before… on the floor of the Alliance Senate.

    "Oh crap," was all Lucy could say before the Changeling attacked.
     
  13. Threadmarks: 2-14 Ending
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    The Changeling remembered the fight in the Senate and clearly marked Lucy and Meridina as the greatest threats. Lucy saw the strike coming just in time to dodge the shapeshifter's lung for her throat. While moving her blade remained in motion as well, swinging in mid-air and deflecting another shot coming her way in the chaotic melee.

    Tabitha was already back to her knees and preparing to get up when she spotted the Changeling. A flicker of surprise came to her face. Whatever she had expected the container to hold, it hadn't been what was now harrying Lucy.

    Meridina reached out with her power and struck at the Changeling as it curled around Lucy's ankles. The Changeling stopped in mid-movement, held in place before it could finish tripping Lucy up, which in turn bought her time to step out. In turn Lucy moved her blade to deflect more fire coming toward all of them.

    Tabitha lunged at Meridina. She sensed the attack coming a moment too late. Tabitha's agiel pressed against her back and pain overwhelmed Meridina, causing her to cry out and topple to a knee. She let go of the Changeling.

    Lucy heard her cry and knew that she had just a second or two to react. She focused for a moment. She reached inside of herself for the warm power within her, the glowing connection to everything else, and drew strength from it. Just as the Changeling went for her legs Lucy jumped in the air. She flipped in mid-air and landed behind Tabitha as the vicious woman raised her weaponf or another blow on Meridina. Upon landing Lucy held her free left hand up with her palm outward, throwing. A solid wall of unseen force smashed into Tabitha and tossed her backward. She landed among the team of original thieves and rolled with the impact until she was crouched. Her weapon flashed out and struck one of her other adversaries. The gunwoman screamed and collapsed.

    The Changeling was already turning back toward them. Lucy sensed hesitation in it. Clearly this was a chaotic fight among different groups, and the Changeling could see the opportunity to flee. The viper turned amber again, coalescing with a slight gloop into a hawk that jumped into the air.

    Lucy prepared to strike at it. But Tabitha was already moving again, and her target was Meridina, still recovering from what Tabitha's weapon had done to her. Lucy could sense the outcome there: Meridina would not survive.

    So she moved, intercepting Tabitha's raised weapon with her lakesh. The blade didn't destroy the agiel as she had expected it to. Tabitha's face was contorted into frustrated rage and she lashed out with her full power. Lucy got her blade up in time to catch the crackling lightning before it could strike her body.

    Meridina was picking herself back up from the floor at this point. She held her lakesh up to deflect a few stray shots sent toward her. She sensed that the Changeling was overhead even now, but with the incoming fire and the proximity of the swevyra'kse, she could not stop it.

    The Changeling dropped back to the floor at the bay door exit to the garage. There was a clear sense of triumph in the creature as it took a humanoid form and used fingers to operate the control panel. The door began to slide open. Meridina turned her head enough to see the sneer of triumph on the irregular humanoid face. The Changeling, without opposition, stepped into the open bay door.

    It never saw the LARC coming.

    The vehicle swooped in and slammed into the Changeling with enough force that it flew across the garage. It disintegrated into its natural gelatinous state by the time it hit the ground.

    The LARC twisted to the right at the last moment. The doors of the vehicle slid open. Julia and Zack came out from the passenger side and pulled out pulse pistols. They opened fire on Tabitha's troops on the far side of the garage, using the vehicle as cover Given the range and target size they had little chance of hitting, but their shots had the desired effect of forcing them to duck for cover. One put an object on the ground that expanded and created an energy field about three feet high, providing instant cover.

    Jarod, meanwhile, finished crawling across the front seats and left from the passenger side, using the others' covering fire to run up to the control panel. A few key presses were all that were necessary to close the door. It might have only been a second, but he knew what he'd seen. "The door's closed!" he said. "It can't get out!"

    "What was that thing?" Zack asked.

    "A Changeling," answered Jarod. He pulled his own pulse pistol out and joined Julia and Zack behind the cover of the LARC.

    "The second floor!" Julia shouted. The catwalk above had been empty, but now more armed figures were arriving. She didn't think they looked like Tabitha's people; they were clearly aligned with the original thieves. She held her pistol up and opened fire. Most of her shots missed, but one took one of their opponents in the shoulder and brought him or her down.

    Zack, nearest to the front of the LARC, opened up on one of Tabitha's armed goons attempting to move along the wall. The soldier was driven back into cover.

    As this part of the gunfight continued, the fight in the middle of the room was still on. Tabitha had given up on her lightning attack and was dueling with Lucy. Lucy's blade had greater reach, but Tabitha was an agile opponent and her weapon was quicker to move. Lucy fell back on the defensive. Nearby Meridina was continuing to fight defensively as well given the sheer volume of fire coming at them.

    We must stop the Changeling from escaping, she said to the others mentally.

    Agreed was Julia's sentiment. She kept firing on the upper catwalk with Jarod's help. One of his shots was a clean headshot, causing the soldier to topple over the catwalk.

    But the volume of fire didn't let up. They were driven back into cover, and that cover wasn't going to last long given that one group of their adversaries held the high ground. These guys are pros, Jarod thought, and through Meridina the five Aurora crew heard him. The only reason we're not getting overwhelmed is that they're also fighting the other team.

    And they've got damned assault weapons
    , Zack threw in.

    The additional complication re-asserted itself a moment later. The mass of amber fluid formed into short, four-legged scaly creature that skittered across the garage floor for the nearest LARC. Once it was under it the LARC began to shift. Suddenly the form of a massive six-limbed creature, with hardened scales and fur, appeared below it, lifting the LARC under four arms. The creature bellowed with effort and tossed the LARC toward Lucy and Meridina.

    Both saw it coming, as did Tabitha. All three turned suddenly and used their powers to throw the LARC upward. It slammed into the far catwalk and crushed it and the soldiers gathering there.

    The Changeling shifted shape again, becoming the viper, and shot toward the door control panel. Meridina turned to pursue it while Lucy was left to struggle with Tabitha. Energy fire descended around them and forced both to move back toward the remaining LARC and the bay door as well. Julia and Zack tried with frantic effort to squeeze off shots. Return fire kept them pinned in. And Julia noticed that the LARC they'd piloted in was starting to come apart from the repeated hits. Soon they wouldn't have any cover, and they would be gunned down.

    "Isn't Robert bringing those mercs in?!" Zack asked over the constant electronic whups and wips and WHOMs of weapons fire.

    "He is. They should be here any…"

    The far part of the garage door exploded inward.

    The vehicle that appeared in the new gap in the door was a larger LARC than the others. A protective energy field popped into place around it. Weapons fire sloughed off the sapphire energy of the field, which protected those on the inside as they poured out, weapons blazing. In the lead was a man, his cybernetics-covered face revealed by the transparent faceplate of his combat helmet. The big assault rifle in his arms began to blast away with a steady WHOM WHOM WHOM, showering orange energy blasts on any target ahead of him that drove the various gunpersons back to cover.

    A dark-clad, lithe figure came out next. He jumped all the way up to the ruined catwalk and then to the wall. Zack and Julia watched in surprise as the figure pulled out a solid sword that looked suspiciously like a vibrating katana. The figure's free hand whipped out and there were suddenly metal blades protruding from the throat of the two nearest enemy troops. The group behind them turned to open fire, just to find that the black-clad figure had jumped to the ceiling. He ran across said ceiling for three quick steps and then jumped back down as energy fire traced his path. His trajectory brought him into the midst of his foes. He landed and spun about. Three separate heads fell in the opposite direction from bodies they had once been connected to.

    The third, power-suited figure that came out didn't carry a gun. But it was quickly evident that the thin woman didn't need it. She held a hand up and the firearms from the dead fighters all started to rise. They spun to face the other side and erupted in fire.

    Other armed figures moved around her and the lead soldier with speed, throwing enough firepower that Julia and the others found themselves freed for the moment from needing to stay in cover. They noticed Angel was with the mercs, wearing a tactical armor suit and carrying one of their firearms so she could lay down fire with the rest of them.

    Seeing the black-suited figure in action, Zack chuckled and shook his head. "Oh, of course, a ninja. Why not? This world is nuts already."

    But even as this fight turned, the Changeling was still a threat. It turned back on Meridina suddenly, just before it got to the controls. To avoid being impaled by the metal spike it formed on its body she shifted and dropped to her knees. Her hand reached out and the viper-shaped Changeling went flying back into the garage door near the control panel. This time Meridina kept her focus on it, pinning the Changeling in place.

    Tabitha was still occupied fighting Lucy. Lucy was struggling hard to keep up with the agile woman, who mixed her strikes up with bursts of lightning that Lucy caught with her lakesh. Sensing what was happening behind her, Tabitha suddenly dropped and slid away under her own power… right as Julia and Zack opened fire on her from the rear. Lucy was forced to swing her blade rapidly to reflect their shots.

    Tabitha, now in a good position, rolled on the ground to orientate herself toward them and threw everything she had into one large wave of force, powerful and wide enough that Lucy, Julia, Zack, and even Jarod were sent flying. She turned toward Meridina, who ducked her attack and brought her blade over to parry the next.

    Unfortunately, this forced her to let the Changeling go. The Changeling promptly turned into a hawk and took to the air again, heading toward the breach in the garage bay door above the LARC. It was mere seconds away from freedom.

    Force grabbed it and threw it against the intact part of the bay door before dragging it down. Robert was standing at the door of the attack LARC, wearing a tactical vest as well, his hand up to focus his power on holding the Changeling. Cat and Violeta moved out next, in tactical protective gear, with the former's omnitool popping into existence. Electricity zapped from it and struck the Changeling. It lost form, stunned by the shock, and became a puddle of amber on the floor. "Violeta, see if you can put together a container for it," Robert said. He could sense the enraged being, and he knew that rage, that sense. He had felt this thing before. He'd met it on the floor of the Alliance Senate, and as he thought of that, certain pieces of the puzzle clicked together.

    Violeta nodded and started going through the back section of the LARC to find suitable gear. Around them the battle was quickly turning against both sets of hostiles. Mr. Chandra and his Wild Geese were taking apart the opposition with practiced ease. Success was theirs.

    The Changeling suddenly shifted. It must have been putting all of its willpower together to move against the omnitool stunner and Robert's power. He could feel its mass coalescing into a new form. A short, eight-legged mammalian creature with wicked teeth. It bounded out of the shock field and rushed on Cat and Robert.

    Caterina held a second longer than Robert expected. But she flinched in the end. He couldn't blame her; he blamed himself for bringing her on a mission like this, and he wished he'd known it was a Changeling given what Cat went through on 33LA. But it was too late for such considerations. Caterina moved, trying to get away, and the electrical shock dissipated. The Changeling moved with renewed strength and Robert found he couldn't easily hold it. The tongue of its animal form lashed out with a shape-shifted metal spike at the end. He had to duck to evade it, costing him his concentration. The Changeling was free.

    For a couple of seconds, anyway, before Angel and Jason Chandra both opened fire on it. Large orange pulses of energy, accompanied by the WHOM WHOM WHOM of their weapons, slammed into the creature. It rippled and shifted from the impacts, which formed amber patches as the creature lost its shape from the attack. Robert called out "Stop!", but he already knew it was too late. The fire continued on for another second until entire thing disintegrated into ash.

    Tabitha had her own problems. Meridina was holding her at bay with ease, and she could sense Lucy coming up behind her and Julia and the others bringing guns to bear on her. Tabitha turned away from Meridina and backed up toward the wall, facing Meridina and Lucy's blades and the guns in the hands of Julia, Jarod, and Zack. Meridina sensed Tabitha's recognition of her situation and said, "You know this battle is lost, dark one. Surrender."

    That drew a snarl. "We don't surrender," Tabitha declared.

    And then for a brief moment she yelped, in absolute pain, even as Meridina cried out, "No!", after which Tabitha's body folded lifelessly onto the floor.

    Jarod scanned the remains. "My God," he murmured, looking at the results on his omnitool. "Whatever she did, it destroyed her brain. It literally liquified the entire organ in seconds."

    "I sensed the thought," Meridina said. Her face was pale. "I sensed her death. It was a… compulsion. She recognized imminent capture and it triggered something."

    "A suicide pill or module in her head." Julia shook her head and looked down at the cruel woman who had been ready to torment her and Zack. "That's a nasty way to go, too."

    By now it was clear the fighting was over. Robert and the others approached them. "Well, someone's decked out for action," Jarod teased.

    Zack winked at Cat. "You look a bit small for that tactical gear."

    She smiled back. "Yeah. But they wouldn't let us come without it."

    "The Changeling is dead?" Meridina asked Robert. He nodded and looked briefly to Angel.

    Angel reacted by frowning. "It was going after you and Cat. I had to put it down."

    "Yeah, I guess. But I had questions." Robert looked to Jarod. "Jarod, see if you can find anything on the thieves. Go, now."

    "I shall attend him," Meridina said. She nodded to Jarod and followed.

    Julia could see the mood on Robert's face. "What is it?"

    "The Changeling was the package, wasn't it?" he asked. "It was the 'component'."

    Lucy nodded. "Meridina and I saw it come out of the container. Unless there was another like it, yeah."

    "So there wasn't a device?" Zack asked. He was frowning now. "They sent us after a Goddamned Changeling without warning us?"

    "That's not like Admiral Maran," Julia said. "I can't believe he left us out in the cold on that."

    "He may not have had a choice," Angel said. "These Solarians have a reputation. A bad enough one that the Embassy had a telepath deep-scanning Robert's mind for two hours just to make sure President Sinclair didn't brainwash him."

    "That would mean…"

    Julia stopped speaking at hearing the footsteps behind them. Robert turned and noted who was approaching. "Everyone, this is Captain Jason Chandra, head of the Wild Geese team." He indicated the man who had jumped out of the assault LARC first, with the cybernetic implants covering parts of his face. Chandra's light tanned skin was only showing a few hints of sweat despite the heavy fighting. "And Scirocco Montague, the team's expert psion."

    Everyone nodded in reply. Lucy eyed Scirocco carefully. She could sense that the woman had a lot of power.

    "Good job, everyone," Chandra said. "You held them long enough for us to get here." He eyed Robert. "You've got a good team, Captain."

    "I'm not sure how much of our holding them was because there were two different teams fighting each other," Julia mentioned.

    "Given they were all retired combat-dedicated Replicants? You didn't do half bad regardless." While Chandra was being personable, Robert could sense he was also being flattering intentionally. "The rest of my team are sweeping the building. Mr. Hank will be displeased to learn that his decommissioned factory was used by the thieves. It's a slap in the face."

    "I can imagine feeling that way." Robert eyed the mound of ash that had once been the Changeling. "He's not going to be happy about losing his 'component', though. Nor will my superiors." He looked back to Chandra's face and met him eye to eye.

    "Couldn't be helped," Chandra replied. There was no flinching. "We had to put that thing down before it escaped out into Solaris."

    "Since I'm pretty sure it's the same Changeling that infiltrated the Alliance, I can understand. The last thing we needed was it getting home to the Dominion to report. Thank you for the help again, Captain Chandra."

    "Thank you for pointing the way, Captain Dale." Chandra seemed to look into space for a moment. "I've got a transport LARC coming to take you back to the Alliance Embassy. I'm sure you'll want to debrief your people and give Mister Hank a report on our hunt. I'll send my own as soon as we secure the sight."

    "Given all the shooting, shouldn't the Solaris government forces be showing up?" Zack asked.

    To that, Chandra smirked. "We've already informed the Max-Tec troopers this was an internal Pan-Empyrean manner. They'll be staying away."

    "Right." Robert nodded.

    With nothing more to say, the two Wild Geese stepped away.

    "I don't like this," Lucy said. "I really don't."

    "We'll see if Jarod or Meridina find anything before that vehicle gets here. Whether they do or not, we're heading back to the ship immediately for dinner and a debriefing."




    Meridina led Jarod back toward the interior of the building to an area where the team of thieves seemed to have been living. Jarod moved into the room and began scanning everything with his omni-tool.

    At first nothing seemed untoward. It was only after a few minutes that Meridina felt a dark presence in the room. It wasn't entirely darkness, not like the swevyra'kse they'd just fought, but the energy was certainly cold and negative. She sensed with her power and drew her lakesh up just in case.

    "That will not be necessary," an electronic voice said.

    The dark-clad figure that had moved so lethally earlier was nearby at the wall. Meridina narrowed her eyes. She hadn't seen him enter, or sensed him entering for that matter. She certainly would have if he'd come in by the door. The only door there was, too. "You are?" she asked.

    "Matsudaira," was the answer, the electronic voice warbling ever so slightly to give the man an otherworldly feel. "I work for Mr. Hank. Captain Chandra says your ride home has arrived and it is time for you to go. This building is Pan-Empyrean property and we will handle the investigation from this point forward."

    Meridina considered the figure. She felt no ill intent, but she could sense the lethal capabilities of this being. If resisted, he might act with immediate lethality to uphold the commands of his superior. And he would be a fight if it came to matching him blade to blade, and Jarod would be at risk.

    "It appears it's time to go, Jarod," Meridina said softly.

    He looked up from a computer he apparently wasn't finished with. He noticed Matsudaira too and narrowed his eyes. Meridina felt his suspicions and nodded. They would, indeed, leave.

    With slight resignation, as if leaving his work undone, Jarod walked out of the room with Meridina.




    Ship's Log: ASV Aurora; 10 September 2642 AST. Captain Robert Dale recording. Our investigation on Solaris has come to a successful, if unsatisfying, conclusion. My officers and I have returned to the Aurora to go over the results of today's mission. There are lingering questions I wish to see answered, though I wonder if they ever will be.



    The command officers of the Aurora and Koenig, with Lucy and Violeta also present, were gathered in Conference Room 1 instead of the conference lounge. The tables were arranged in a half-circle around the central holo-tank. "It's good to see you're well, sir," Lt. Creighton Apley said to Zack. "We were a little worried about you going down there."

    "Yes, it has been a while since you were in the field like that," Lt. Magda Navaez added.

    Zack nodded to them. "It was… an experience."

    "Especially the ratburger," Jarod said from his seat at the table, the holo-tank controls in front of him.

    The Koenig officers, and the Aurora ones, looked at Zack as he turned red-faced. "Yeah, I got a little hungry, but I didn't know it was made from rat, alright!"

    "We just won't tell Clara about the three-breasted prostitute who propositioned him," Julia added, smirking with mischievous relish.

    Zack gave her a pained look and breathed out a sigh while the others still stared.

    After checking one last thing, Robert sat up. "Alright everyone," he said. "This mission is considered a classified one, so anything said in this debriefing stays in this room." He nodded to Violeta and to Lucy. "Commander Jarod, what do we know about the thieves who attacked Pan-Empyrean?"

    "They were a mercenary team known as Harland's Raiders," Jarod replied. "They tend in the independent Wild Space worlds and the Cevaucian-aligned systems, but they were registered with the Solarian government as far as we can tell."

    "Who were th' scunners workin' for?" Scotty asked. "The Dominion? Lookin' t' get their spy back?"

    "Unlikely," Jarod said. "From what I've seen of the financials I recovered, a Dominion source doesn't work. I find it hard to believe the Dominion even knew where the Changeling had gone. Even looking in our own databanks, its location is tightly classified."

    "We sent it to Sidney Hank," Julia said. "Or to his company, I mean. Why?"

    "The answer's frakking obvious, isn't it?" Barnes asked. "They're making some anti-Changeling weapons or something."

    "But why contract to Pan-Empyrean?" Caterina shook her head. "There are plenty of research firms or universities in the Alliance."

    "Because this was experimenting on a living being," Leo said. There was an angry edge to his voice. "That's the point of this. The Alliance Government didn't want to be directly associated with something like that. So they contracted someone who didn't give a damn, in a state where the law couldn't stop it." It was clear Leo was disappointed by the realization.

    "A saddening probability, but likely true," Meridina agreed. She shook her head. "And undoubtedly Mister Hank was compensated well for his part in such experiments."

    "Of course, whatever project they were working on is going to be missing its guinea pig." Locarno made that comment. "So it's all for nothing in the end."

    Robert thought about that. But he said nothing for the moment. He looked to Jarod. "What about this other group, let by that woman Tabitha?"

    "The soldiers were more Solarian-made Replicants," Jarod replied. "But I've found no identifying unit markings or indications of them in public files. They were probably assembled individually by Tabitha."

    "She worked for something called the Ministry of Fate. Or NEUROM."

    Jarod nodded to Zack. "NEUROM. It's an alliance of various governments closer to the heart of what was Earth-held space millennia ago. Our records on them are spotty. What we know from various sources is that they're an alliance of xenophobes, militarists, and dictatorships that serve as a major power bloc in that region of space, now called the Fracture. They have few relations with star nations in this region of space, and most of them can be fairly hostile. They don't really like Solarians and the Solarians don't really like them."

    "So basically a rival power bloc had an agent who got wind of the theft and decided it might have something useful," Julia said. "So Tabitha was going to swipe what she probably thought was a piece of advanced technology for the benefit of NEUROM."

    "Likely," Jarod agreed.

    "And instead, they nearly wrecked each other and us in the progress." Zack shook his head. "All for a damn Changeling."

    "Maybe it got lucky by dying," Leo murmured. "There's no telling what's been done to it."

    "Yeah." Robert was slipping back into his thoughts, putting things together in his head. "Jarod, what do we know about who hired Harland's Raiders?"

    Jarod tapped a key and brought up a series of financial transactions. "They were paid a lot of money over the last few months. A lump sum of what seems to have been a retainer was placed with them three months ago. I'm not sure where they learned of that Pan-Empyrean factory, but odds are their client selected it."

    "It's sounding like it is someone from Pan-Empyrean," Julia said. "I'd bet my commission that if we matched up those payment dates with our side's logs on moving the Changeling, we'll find that the retainer was placed after the contract was signed and the Changeling delivered."

    "That would imply that whoever was behind the theft wanted the Changeling, wouldn't it?" This question came from Apley. "Why would they want a Changeling?"

    "If they thought they could mentally program it to serve them, maybe?" Angel suggested idly.

    Everyone was starting to look again to Robert, who was still clearly thinking about everything. Julia was also showing signs of deep thought. "Jarod, is it possible the thieves had absolutely no contact with someone in Pan-Empyrean?"

    "I'm doubtful, but I suppose it could have been an ex-employee," Jarod answered. "I'd have to examine the list of people who knew about the project and if they had any connection to someone fired or let go from the company. What I can tell you from analysis of the evidence is that Harland's Raiders knew too much about Pan-Empyrean security for me to assume they didn't have someone on the inside. Someone with access to the floor plans in use in the labs and the location of the Changeling."

    "So it's not going to be a disgruntled janitor."

    "They have robots for that work, there are no janitors," Zack pointed out.

    Julia looked to Robert with concern. She could see the metaphorical thunderclouds rolling in over his face. "It's not really our investigation anymore anyway. This is up to Hank's people."

    "Yeah," he answered. "It is." A frown crossed his face. "And that was the plan all along, I figure."

    "What do you mean?" Caterina asked.

    "I keep thinking back to things that have been said these past couple of days," Robert remarked. "About how Solaris works. I think we've been had. We've been used as patsies."

    Jarod turned thoughtful as well. He nodded in agreement. "I can see that."

    "I'm going back down to Solaris," Robert said. "The rest of you, go get some rest. You've earned it. Debriefing dismissed." He stood up and walked to the door.

    Julia nearly left behind him, but noticed Zack's intent look toward her and stayed in her seat. Once everyone had left she asked, "You wanted to talk?"

    "We never did finish that conversation when we were hanging around," Zack said.

    Julia nodded. She smiled thinly. "I don't see any reason why we need to now, Zack. There's no point in admitting anything uncomfortable."

    "Maybe." He nodded. His eyes focused on her. "I guess you're right." He stood up from his chair and started walking toward the door.

    "Does she know?"

    Julia's question prompted Zack to turn back. He looked at her wordlessly.

    "Does Clara know?" Julia looked at him intently. "Does she know that you're still in love with me?"

    Zack's eyes lowered. "I'm sure she suspects," he admitted.

    Julia responded by shaking her head. "She deserves better than that."

    "You're right." He nodded. "She does. And I'm going to give her all the love she deserves. I love her too, you know."

    "But you love me more."

    Zack pursed his lips. "It's not fair to her," he said. "So I make myself forget it. Maybe in a decade or two, I'll even be able to forget it."

    Without another word, he walked out and left Julia to her thoughts.




    Robert surprised Ambassador Fry and his staff at the parking lot of the Alliance Embassy when he beamed back in. Fry, his husband, and his staff were dressed to the nines and heading to a SinTEK-hosted charity banquet, and it was with great reluctance that Fry agreed to let one of his drivers ferry Robert back to Pan-Empyrean.

    When he got there, Robert had expected an argument all the way up with every layer of security. Instead he found Bishop waiting at the security desk, ready to escort him up to the main office. Ariadne was likewise quiescent when Robert walked briskly up to the door and, with a wave of his hand, threw them both open.

    He found Sidney Hank sitting at his desk. The wealthiest man in this universe, perhaps of any of the known universes, had an empty tumbler and a bottle of tan liquid on his desk. A tumbler already filled was already in his hand. He made a show of checking his timepiece. "I expected you ten minutes ago," he said. "I suppose Ambassador Fry took some extra convincing. I may have underestimated the Ambassador's desire to keep you in check." He took the bottle and poured some of the contents into the tumbler. "I figured bourbon would better fit our impending conversation."

    Robert wasn't in the mood to drink, but he wasn't so angry as to forget niceties. He accepted the tumbler and, after sensing no danger in it, took a drink to take the edge off.

    "Excellent work today, Captain. Captain Chandra was impressed by your people."

    "I'm glad he appreciates my friends' efforts on your behalf," Robert replied.

    "I'm sure you can imagine why you weren't informed about the nature of the component?"

    "You didn't want Sinclair to find out," Robert said. "Or anyone else who might enter our minds."

    "Mostly the latter. I am enjoined, after all, to keep the project a secret." Hank took the last drink from his tumbler and set it down on his desk. "It's all part of the contract."

    "Pan-Empyrean was contracted to experiment with the Changeling we captured during the attack on the Alliance Senate," Robert stated. "Admiral Maran told me it was a matter vital to Alliance security. What he meant was that you're finding ways to fight Changelings."

    Hank's mouth curled into slight smile. "Are you sure that's it?"

    Robert thought for a moment and shook his head. "No. No, not just fight. To detect Changelings."

    The smile grew. Hank nodded. "Go on."

    "And then the Changeling gets snatched from your labs. Not the devices you're developing. Nothing of obvious and immediate value. The thieves go for an item in a sealed container that their sensors would have to tell them didn't include anything like electronics or precious materials. They do this with clear knowledge of the layout of Pan-Empyrean's labs. Which is impressive given your building uses a dimensionally-transcendental field that changes the internal volume from what it looks like outside." Robert took another quick sip of the bourbon. "That suggests someone inside the company was involved. But anyone inside the company who knows about the project would know of other, more valuable things to snatch than the Changeling. Why not the devices you're working on? Why not the actual project?"

    "Ransom?" Hank suggested. "I could be compelled to pay billions to recover the test subject. The contract has some severe penalties for failure to deliver, after all. Not to mention what would happen if the Sovereignty government were to find out that I had brought a hostile, shapeshifting alien to the heart of Solaris. The idea of anyone, especially a Senator or the President, being replaced due to my apparent negligence would be enough to cripple my influence for decades, maybe even centuries. My competitors would all gain at my expense."

    "I'm not sure even a Founder could effectively replace President Sinclair, or anyone with similar security," Robert answered. "Kill them, maybe, but replace? With all of your psions and mind-readers constantly checking things? But that's beside the point. The mercs' employer waited until now for the theft. Why? Why risk that your scientists might make an early breakthrough and finish the project? Those mercs were on retainer for months. They were held back intentionally. That doesn't make sense if their boss was looking to hold the Changeling ransom."

    Hank answered by pouring himself another glass. "I see your point. I take it you've recovered some of their financial information?"

    "Enough to know they've been waiting in that abandoned Pan-Empyrean building for nearly three months," Robert said.

    "Do you know where the money came from?" Hank took a sip. "No, you don't. Commander Jarod is good at his job, good enough that I'd enjoy hiring him myself, but he simply doesn't have the resources or access to go through Solarian financial databases to track those payments. Our banks are quite good at security, for understandable reasons."

    "They are."

    "You should therefore leave the investigation to my people," Hank said. "We'll get to the bottom of this easily enough."

    "Oh, I'm sure you will," Robert said, and he let the sarcasm come out.

    Hank folded his hands and looked directly at Robert, as if Robert had suddenly earned his full attention.

    "The weight of evidence makes it highly unlikely that the thieves didn't have someone inside your company," Robert said. "Stealing the Changeling and not the actual project means it wasn't someone out to betray you so they could sell your work elsewhere. The ransom argument doesn't hold out because of the months the mercs waited before they received their orders to move in."

    "And so what does the evidence lead you to, Captain?"

    "The evidence, by itself, isn't enough for me to go to any court of law, even if Solaris had one strong enough." Robert leaned forward in his chair. "But that doesn't mean I can't see what's happened here. This was a set-up, the whole thing. You were behind the theft."

    A very slight grin crossed Hank's face. He picked up the tumbler again to take a drink from it, as if the accusation amused him. "Well, Captain," he said after swallowing. "That is quite brave of you to come here and accuse me in the middle of my office, at the heart of my empire."

    "I can't prove it, and I'll never be able to," Robert said.

    "Of course." Hank considered his tumbler for a moment, as if he was trying to decide to finish it first or pour more in. "For sake of argument, if it was me… why? Why did I have my own company broken into, my employees terrorized, and my very expensive project endangered? Why, indeed, risk the outcome we have, the death of my test subject, and with it the collapse of the entire project?"

    "Because the project's not going to collapse," Robert answered. "That's why you kept the mercs on retainer for so long before giving the order. Your people have already completed their work. You've found a way to detect Changelings. The Changeling wasn't necessary anymore. It was just a loose end."

    Hank remained quiet for a moment. With quiet deliberation he finished the last of his bourbon and set the tumbler down. Once his hands were free, he started to clap slowly. "Well done, Captain." When Robert frowned Hank shook his head. "No, I'm not mocking you. You and your crew put together the facts quite well, and your deductions from them were earned. And I must assure you, your President Morgan and Minister Hawthorne and Admiral Maran will be quite pleased when I report to them the completion of our new Changeling Form Destabilizer. It will take a short time to implement and then your people will never have to worry about one of those Founders replacing a Senator again. And I, of course, will be making quite a lot of money on finishing development. Oh, and by building my share of the devices under the terms of our contract with the Alliance. I think you will agree that this is a victory for your Alliance, for Pan-Empyrean and the Sovereignty… indeed, for the entire Multiverse."

    Robert took another drink and swallowed it, leaving just a thin layer of bourbon at the bottom of his tumbler. "I can't argue with that. The Changelings caused us one interstellar war, then nearly caused us to collapse into civil war."

    "And it will not happen again," Hank said, beaming. "So as you can see, it is a victory for the good guys." The playful emphasis on the last words were almost mocking.

    "I can't argue with that either." Robert drank the last little bit of bourbon and pushed the tumbler to his right, signifying he didn't want more. He kept his eyes on Hank. "Of course, that doesn't explain one last thing."

    "Oh?" Hank's smile made it clear he knew what Robert was about to bring up.

    "This morning, Ambassador Fry pointed out to me that a man of your resources could hire all sorts of independent investigators and mercenaries," Robert said. "Even if you were keeping up the charade of having to deal with a possible traitor, you didn't need us. But you called us in. Not just us as in the Alliance, but my ship specifically. My crew. Why?"

    Hank seemed contemplative for a moment. "I suppose that is a fair question. Suffice to say I had my reasons."

    "Even if we had discovered what you were doing? What if the Changeling hadn't gotten killed? Or would Captain Chandra have shot us too to make sure it was killed?"

    "Oh, no," Hank said, ignoring the rising anger in Robert's tone. "I had no intention of causing your people to die. If the Changeling had somehow been recaptured, I would have found another way to dispose of it, I suppose. Although I would have been disappointed with Captain Chandra for not figuring out a way to ensure it was 'killed while attempting escape'. That one's always a classic."

    "Then why? Dammit, why?" Robert demanded. "I want to hear it from you. Why did you pull us in, risk the lives of my crew, my friends, to do your dirty work?!"

    At that Hank actually broke out laughing. Robert was left to smolder as the laughter continued on for several seconds. When it ended Hank rolled his eyes. "Oh, spare me your indignation, Captain. Let's remember one crucial fact." He held up a finger. "Your people hired my people to do your dirty work in the first place. After all, the high and mighty Alliance wouldn't dare use an unwilling living being as a test subject for experiments, even to defend against an enemy like the Dominion. That wouldn't be right. No, the Alliance needed someone else to do the actual dirty work it couldn't sully its hands with." He curled the finger inward. "So you came to me."

    "I didn't make that decision," Robert said.

    "No. Your superiors did. Your noble President Morgan and your honorable Admiral Maran made that call. They decided to compound their hypocrisy with cowardice and pay me to do the things they didn't have the stomach to do." Hank's eyes glared right at Robert's. "Let us not speak falsely now, Captain, not when we have been truthful with each other so far. I know what I am. Your government knows what I am, which is precisely why they came to me. And now you know what I am, too, which raises the only question of any relevance here: what are you going to do about it?"

    "There's nothing I can do about it," Robert admitted. "But that doesn't mean I have to like the fact that you almost got my friends killed to, what, make a point?"

    "Ah, but it was a necessary point to make, Captain. And that point is: I am not your, what was that old Earth term…?" Hank seemed to search his memory for a moment. "Ah, yes, I am not your janitor. The Alliance brought me in to do its dirty work and I felt obligated to return the favor."

    "Really? Because I thought that's what you were already getting paid to do?" Robert snorted in retort.

    "I imagine that a man as morally upright as you, Captain, understand that there are more important things than money," Hank answered. "I do value it, but I also value my self-respect. And I am no one's servant. And your Alliance would do well to remember that."

    Robert remained silent. He still felt anger, but it was down to a simmer.

    If Hank knew this, he ignored it and settled back into his chair as if in repose. "I admit I wasn't expecting NEUROM to stick its hand into this mess in such a direct fashion," he admitted. "I may actually have to hunt for a traitor in my organization. So perhaps this situation has led me to an additional benefit."

    "They nearly hurt my closest friends in the world," Robert said.

    "I know." Hank put his hands on his lap. "For what it's worth, I never intended that to happen. And I am thankful your friends emerged from their encounter with the Ministry of Fate intact. Few are so lucky."

    "I'll extend the sentiment to them."

    "You do that." Hank checked his timepiece again, although Robert got the feeling that was simply for show. "And now, Captain, I think it's time for you to depart. The fee that President Sinclair imposed upon me is, frankly, quite extortionate, and I suspect the commanders are getting itchy trigger fingers."

    Robert stood up. "So that's it then?" he asked. "You bring us out here, you subject us to your political feuds, you put our lives on the line without warning us of what's going on, and when we've done your work you just send us packing?"

    "Such is the way of things, Captain. But don't think you're unappreciated. You and your people have performed to expectations, and I assure you those expectations were high." Hank grinned. "And another way to look at it is that I am urging you onward so that you might get back to your duties. After all, where would this Multiverse be without the bold crew of the Starship Aurora, the Bearers of the Dawn?"

    For a moment Robert thought Hank was just making light of what had come out during Meridina's trial on Gersal. But there was something in the way Hank said it that, briefly, made him wonder just what Hank was getting at. Seeing the look on the business tycoon's face turn slightly impatient made Robert set those thoughts aside. He nodded, said, "Have a good evening, Mister Hank," and turned to leave.

    As he walked away, Hank spoke once more. "And remember, Captain, that if you ever need a favor… don't hesitate to call me."

    Robert didn't answer that. He didn't even turn around. He had a feeling that he would not appreciate being indebted to Mister Sidney Hank. He departed through the doors at the end of the office, intent on returning to the Aurora.

    A few moments after he left, Hank stood from his desk. He opened a direct data connection to Ariadne with a thought. "I'm departing for the villa. I don't want to be disturbed until the morning," he said aloud, though it was unnecessary.

    Understood, Mister Hank.

    He walked around his desk to the second floor of his office. He ignored the fine, exquisite artworks he had arrayed there. Michelangelo's David (fully intact), Nelson's Plinth, and a number of other key antiquities. He ignored them all and walked to the section of the second floor above the entry door and to the large mirror that was there. A mental command sent by data implant activated the advanced technology hidden under the surface. The mirror started to ripple, as if the glass surface was suddenly fluid. And he stepped right through.




    When Lucy returned to Machine Shop B and her work station there, it was with a new purpose. She looked over her crystal types and focused on them. Most, she felt, wouldn't work whatever she did. But there were a few…

    She focused with her life energy, her connection to the Flow of Life, and let those senses guide her. She felt Swenya's Blade hum in her mind, she felt its internals work as they had when she repaired them. And she knew, without needing anything like an atomic scan, what would work. She knew as she felt the crystals through her power and felt the subtle thrum in some of them.

    She turned next to the parts. Some she would keep. Others… she would have to redo.

    And with renewed purpose, she went to work, quietly thanking Kasszas and Meridina for her new insight.




    When Robert got back to the Aurora, he headed to the bridge. Despite the day they'd had, most of the senior staff was assembled. Even Zack was standing near the command chairs, and was looking toward Cat while talking. "...seriously, it really wasn't that bad."

    Caterina visibly shuddered. "I would have to be starving to eat rat meat. I'm so sorry you didn't get to have as much fun as we did."

    "I'm surprised you don't have to take out a loan for all the shopping you did," Angel said.

    "I have some money saved up. And Violeta had that birthday money her parents sent." She turned her attention back to Zack. "Do you know they call pizzas 'yum discs' on Solaris?"

    "That's… well, weird I guess," Zack said. "But the whole world is weird."

    "It was crazy," Angel muttered. "And then there was that crazy lady who wanted to put us in a holo-movie or something. And that…" A look of realization came to Angel's face. She looked to Zack and smirked while reaching for her pockets. "I got you something, Zack. A gift."

    "Oh?"

    Zack's reflexes were spot on. He grabbed the box out of mid-air after Angel threw it and held it up to his face. As he did, Angel chuckled and said, "Something for you and Clara to enjoy on your next leave. It's special Solarian candy."

    "What is it?" Julia stood and looked closer at the box. Her cheeks turned a faint pink at seeing the design of the contents within. "Angel!"

    "'ORGAZMO'?" Zack looked on the reverse side and read the descriptive text before he looked over the pictures of the offered flavors, revealing the shape of the candy. "Oh, no. No, hell no."

    Angel started to laugh. Robert, curious, got close enough to look at the box and see the offending shape. "Wow," he said. "That's… that's just…"

    "This world is insane," Zack said. "Certifiable! They should just give up and make it a big insane asylum! I'm not eating this!"

    "Clara might be disappointed," Angel cooed.

    "Alright everyone." Robert sighed and sat in his command chair. This signaled Julia and Zack to do likewise - Zack sitting in the extra chair in the command area - and for everyone to resume full attention. "We don't have new orders from Admiral Maran yet, but I'm assuming we're resuming our colony tour. Nick, get a course from System Traffic Control to leave orbit. I want a course ready for Farbanti, Warp 9.2, once we're at a safe distance."

    "Aye, Captain. Course plotted and set. System Traffic Control is giving us a course to leave orbit." Locarno smirked. "And we've got full right of way this time. I guess they can't wait to get rid of us."

    "Or Mister Hank made arrangements." Julia grinned. "You know, as insane as the place is…" She looked at the holo-viewscreen showing the sight of the city-moon and of the mighty starscrapers that breached its atmosphere. "...it's a wonderful place to look at. I wonder if there's anything else out there like it."

    "Maybe we'll find out one day," Robert said, grinning. "Nick, take us out."

    The Starship Aurora turned gracefully away from the city-moon and accelerated, threading her way through the traffic around Solaris on her way home.




    Although the city-moon was often called Solaris, it was in fact officially Solaris Minor. Solaris Major was the large gas giant that the city-moon circled, a large-scale gas giant with shades of blue and purple adding color to the spaces around the moon. The equatorial sections of the gas giant were littered with gas-mining stations sucking up helium-3 and other gases of interest to the Solarian economy.

    The poles were a different story. Under current Solarian law, the space around the poles had been restricted from all development or unauthorized traffic. The official reason was to preserve the gas giant's delicate polar regions from ruinous gas mining.

    The unofficial reason was because Sidney Hank said so.

    Granted, the southern polar region wasn't important to him. It was just to keep people from wondering why one pole was off limits and not the other. It was the northern polar orbit that he wanted to keep people away. There, protected by stealth fields and emission deflectors and subspace gravitic shunts, was his personal home, his private place to get away from the annoyances of Solaris and the Sovereignty. The Villa Straylight.

    He was still in his business suit when he stopped into the viewing deck. From here, at the top levels of the large space habitat that he and he alone dwelled upon, he could look out at Solaris and ponder his plans for it. Untold centuries of work and the city-moon still frustrated him sometimes.

    It couldn't be avoided, he supposed. People want to do their own things. They want to command their own destinies, even if they were morons who didn't know better. For all of the power he wielded, he couldn't stop that. Not yet, anyway. At least, not without taking measures that he had rejected in the old Earthsphere, or rather the Fracture, necessitating his withdrawal from those spaces oh so long ago.

    No, the only way to really lead was to make people think they were doing the leading, not you.

    But he wasn't here to watch Solaris. At a mental command the viewing systems zoomed in, zipping past all the other transports and liners and space yachts until they brought up the view of the Starship Aurora. Hank decided she really was a magnificent vessel. The four warp nacelles, long and sleek, and the shape of her hulls as they flowed together made her look fast despite her kilometer-long size. The green and white stripe along the sides added color to her azure hull. He could make out the ports for her starfighter launch tubes and the various lights and openings in the hull. She banked away slowly, the angle revealing the hanger deck for her fighters and the shuttle bay and full-sized dock built into the back of her primary hull. Her impulsor drives thrummed with ruby light as they propelled her the final kilometers beyond Solaris before she was ready to go to warp.

    And then she did, with a brilliant flash of light from her warp nacelles.

    Another mental command through his data implant brought the display back of the ship. Again he admired the lines. He accessed old memories and sighed at the sight. "So here we are," he breathed. "After all this time… and it's going to happen again, isn't it?" He picked up a glass of Parthegon brandy. "Well, I'd best get prepared…"


    Tag




    Robert stepped out of the shower with his bathrobe on and rushed to his desk, where his finger stabbed down on the key. "Dale here."

    "Channel from Admiral Maran, sir."

    "Put him through." Robert sat down and looked to his desk monitor. Maran's face appeared. "Good morning, Admiral," he said.

    "Good morning, Captain." Maran put his hands together in front of him. He seemed to consider himself for a moment before saying, "I've read your report and Commander Andreys'. And I owe you an apology."

    "I understand why you couldn't say what was going on," Robert said. "It might complicate the project with Pan-Empyrean if the Solarian government got involved. I'm sure they would."

    "Yes, they would. But that's not the only thing to apologize to you about, Captain."

    "You don't need to apologize for sending the Changeling to Hank, sir," Robert said. "That wasn't your decision alone. I'm sure a lot of people in Portland agreed that the ends would justify the means. And given what the Changelings could still do to us…"

    "Yes. But I won't pretend that what we did was right. Morally, it was wrong. And I will have to live with that." Maran shook his head. "And many other decisions. Some of them being mine and mine alone."

    At that moment, Robert knew exactly what Maran was saying. "You approved it, didn't you? Admiral?"

    "Not the specifics. But yes." Maran nodded. "And I acted without President Morgan's input. The guilt is mine alone."

    "I see."

    "I had no idea that Sidney Hank would drag you and your crew in, though." Maran's face had a stoic look as always, but Robert could hear the creak in his voice that spoke of how much he had been horrified by what happened. "I can only ask your forgiveness."

    For a moment Robert said nothing. He didn't know what he could say. Was it his place to be Admiral Maran's… confessor? Could he say anything to change what had been done? For so long he had seen Admiral Maran as a completely moral man, with values and principles that he would never turn away from. But now he had. The threat had, to him, justified it.

    "I'm not sure I'm the one who can forgive, sir," Robert said. "But I will anyway. It can't have been easy."

    "No. It never was." Maran sighed. "I'll simply have to live with it. I hope, Captain, that you never have to make a similar choice. Maran out."

    Robert sat at his desk for a moment and contemplated everything. Was this how the world would always go? Good men and women having to make morally wrong, ethically wrong, decisions to save lives? Could he make a call like that?

    He found himself in agreement with Maran. He hoped he never had to make a choice like that.

    Robert stood up to get ready for the day. He only had time to take two steps from his desk before another tone went off. He groaned and turned back to hit the key again. "Dale here."

    "Robert, please come to Holodeck 1 within half an hour," said Lucy. "It's important."

    He put his fingers to his forehead in a moment of frustration, but he forced it away. There really was no harm in this. "Alright, I'll be there."




    Robert was in uniform when he arrived at Holodeck 1 twenty-three minutes later. The program was set to show one of the meditation yards from the Great Temple on Gersal, a familiar program for some of their training. He found Lucy and Meridina were already waiting for him. Meridina was in her swevyra'se training clothing, as was Lucy. "Is this training? You never said it was," Robert remarked.

    "No, it's not," she insisted. Lucy gestured to a table before her covered in what looked like parts, including a few crystals that looked just big enough to fit into his palm. "I just wanted you hear for this. I think… no, I know this will do it."

    "You're going to try and build a new version of Swenya's Blade?" Robert asked.

    "No, I'm not going to try to build one," Lucy said. She was emphatic when she continued, "I am going to build one."

    Meridina nodded in approval. She knelt down into a meditative pose. Robert did the same, even if his uniform wasn't quite as flexible as their usual training clothing.

    Lucy drew in a breath and knelt as well, facing the table, which was now about eye-height for her. Robert felt the life energy within her swell. She was focusing on it.

    Parts on the table began to lift into the air, as did a brilliant blue crystal that looked almost like a big chunk of sapphire. Lucy felt the pieces individually and she felt how they would fit together, a delicate but complete whole. The first pieces formed what looked to Robert like a cradle for the crystal. As further pieces moved in they covered the crystal. Another group started to form a shell around it. As the process continued Robert's breathing slowed. He could feel what Lucy was doing, at the edge of his mind. Something like a picture was forming in his head but he could not grasp it.

    It was clear that Lucy did have a grasp on it, however. There was a final snap as the last pieces came into place. The resulting weapon lacked something of the styling to Swenya's Blade that Robert remembered, but he could see the similarities easily, and the weapon would fit comfortably in one hand or two. He thought it looked better than her first attempt from two months before, the one that nearly exploded in her hand.

    Lucy looked up and got to her feet. She reached out with her right hand and her new weapon responded to her summons, moving in the air until she gripped it. She looked it over. Robert almost expected her to say something like "Here goes nothing", but she didn't. She knew this would work on a level Robert didn't quite share.

    Lucy held the weapon in both hands and raised it to where the hilt was at eye level. Her blue eyes glistened with anticipation. Her thumb caressed the red button on the side.

    The electronic snap that filled the air was of a different pitch compared to the one of Swenya's Blade, or of her earlier failed attempt, and the hiss carried on for half a second or so less. Nevertheless the effect was as intended; a brilliant blue blade of light and energy surged from the weapon, of the same length as Swenya's Blade.

    Seconds passed. Robert waited to see if sparks would suddenly erupt as they had before. But even as the thought passed, something inside of him knew that they wouldn't.

    Lucy slowly lowered the blade and walked over to a slab of what looked like metal held up between two flat tables. She brought her new weapon up and brought the blue blade down on the metal.

    There was no sign of effort. The blade passed through cleanly, leaving reddened, nearly-molten bits of metal at the point of the cut that struck the ground on either end.

    All Robert could say was "Congratulations."

    Meridina's eyes were bright with the pride of a teacher, which was fitting as she was witnessing her student's grand achievement. "You have done it," she said. Tears started to fall. "Lucy, you have done something beyond compare."

    "It works," Lucy said. She deactivated the blade and turned back to face them. "Do you know what this means?"

    "Yes," Meridina answered, still smiling, tears now streaming down her cheeks. "I could not be more proud. By doing this, you have guaranteed that your name will be remembered by the Order of Swenya, no, by all orders, all those who follow the Light in their own way. You have not simply reforged Swenya's Blade, you have proven we can build our own."

    "Where did the crystal come from?" Robert asked.

    "That's the best part," Lucy said. "It came from Gersal."

    "Truly?" Meridina's joy, which had seemed unmatched, increased yet further.

    "Yeah. Doreia has some too. And there's a deposit on an ice planet in L2M1, McQuarrie's Station. And on some other worlds… the crystals aren't always exactly the same, but they work." Lucy was tearing up too. "And I'll show them all, Meridina, I promise. Anyone who asks me, I'll explain it to them. I'll show them how to build a lightsaber. Starting with you two."

    "I'm not sure I can do it yet," Robert admitted. "My control's a bit… well, that looks very precise."

    "We'll work on it."

    "Are you sure about 'lightsaber' though?" Robert asked. "What about 'beamsword'? 'Energyblade'? Or even 'Lucy's Really Awesome Laser Sword'?"

    Meridina laughed at that one, and Lucy let out a giggle. She shook her head. "No, it doesn't sound right. None of those do." She looked back to her weapon. "It's a lightsaber. And anyone who is working the strengthen the Flow of Life, anyone who fights and strives for Light, will be taught how to build one. I promise." Lucy gestured to the table and met Meridina's eyes. "Would you like to begin?"

    Meridina nodded softly. "Yes," she said. "I would be honored to learn this skill from you, Mastrash Lucy."

    Lucy didn't care for the title, but she let Meridina give it, if just to enjoy the warm and grateful smile on Meridina's face.

    Robert, meanwhile, was already on his omnitool. "Dale to Andreys."

    "Andreys here."

    "I'm going to be late to the bridge," he said, eying Lucy and Meridina as Lucy moved a hand over the extra parts. "I've got something important that's come up. Dale out."

    And he watched, quietly and with a smile, as Lucy started to show Meridina what to do.




    The morning light shined over the city-moon of Solaris, over the gas giant of Solaris Major, and thus over the gray hull and transtanium domes of Villa Straylight. In the heart of the great space habitat, Sidney Hank walked into his personal office. Much like his office in the Pan-Empyrean Building, it was covered in artworks and books.

    But this one also had photos. Private photos. As he entered, he glanced to his left, showing an image of him standing in the grand vistas of Paris, where even the Earthreign had agreed to keep the City of Lights bright. The Eiffel Tower was lit up behind him. The next photo was from a trip to North America. Niagara Falls. Another North American photo - the Grand Canyon, restored after years of labor - followed by Kilimanjaro in East Africa.

    "You're getting nostalgic again," a voice chided.

    "I could visit them again," said Sidney. "Earth's out there again. In other universes." He continued on, past the art and the photos, to the right of his desk and chair. He put his hand on the wall. "What do you think?"

    "I think it would be inadvisable," replied the electronic voice of the computational intelligence called Dionysus, the governing mind of the entire villa and of Pan-Empyrean itself. "And I see you're in the mood for auditory conversation this morning. How inefficient of you."

    "Sometimes, D, I think it's inefficiency that keeps us Human," Sidney said. The security systems on the hand plate finished processing. They opened up the hidden door in the side, allowing him entry into the large chamber within. Much like the Pan-Empyrean building, this chamber was bigger on the inside. He looked to one of the images beside the entrance. It depicted him in the company of a Human-looking woman with dark hair and blue eyes. She was clad in a blue jacket with white shirt and matching white trousers. Her weapon dangled on her waist in the image, while he was wearing a tactical combat suit with a plasma pistol on his waist and a full-scale rifle slung over his back. "She never did like wearing that," he mused.

    "You're not being as open with your mental processes this morning, so I can't be sure what you mean. Oh. I see. You're accessing those memories again."

    "I am." The next image was of the woman again, with Sidney, and the figure beside them was another old acquaintance, a Human-looking figure clad in a red jacket and a discarded scarf off one shoulder.

    "You've been accessing them often over the last two years. Nostalgia does not become you, Sidney."

    "You mean it does not become us, don't you D?"

    "When you get like this, I stop thinking of us as one being. And we often are not anyway. I believe that was the point of the exercise for this body?"

    "We were losing our Humanity. That would have caused us problems." Sidney moved on toward the center of the room. "But that's not the issue now." Sidney Hank's voice hardened. "They were right. Damn them, D, they were right. The Aurora crew clinches it."

    "I sense you're rather impressed by them."

    "Captain Dale's got power. Maybe more than he realizes. And there's more. But that's not the important thing." Sidney put his hand over a flat chest of about fifty centimeters by thirty by fifteen. It was locked, as it had been for a long, long time. "We have to be ready."

    "Perhaps this time will be different."

    "We heard the others, back then. It's never different. It happens every time." Sidney admired the ornate writing, in alien script, on the box. "And if we're not ready, we lose everything."

    "I concur," replied the CI. "Are you going to give it to them, as he instructed?"

    Sidney considered the question. "When the time is right," he decided. "But not before. We have to make sure."

    "I'm not sure he would agree with you on that course of action."

    "Maybe not." Sidney smirked at the thought of the old man's ability to glower in disagreement. "But I'm the one here, and I'm making the call." He ran his hand over the chest one more time, contemplating what was inside, and what it was meant to do. He turned away from it and walked toward the exit of his vault of secrets. "Okay, D, transmit my schedule for the day. I've got work to do." As the data flowed into his implant, Sidney stepped out of the vault and back into his office.

    There was, indeed, a lot of work to do.
     
  14. Threadmarks: 2-15 Opening
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    Teaser



    Ship's Log: ASV Aurora; 24 September 2642. Captain Robert Dale recording. We are currently en route to Earth in Universe Designate N2C5 to oversee the final stage of negotiations for a new member system in the Alliance. The Aurora was retasked to this purpose in light of concerns about potential hostility from other powers in the area. We will be attending all proper diplomatic receptions, but my officers and crew will be here primarily to act as protectors for the occasion in the hope that this will deter any planned aggression.

    I admit that finding there are states willing to join our Alliance even if it means being drawn into the war with the Third Reich gives me a sense of admiration and pride. Whatever its flaws, the Alliance is still shaping up to become something that I believe it was worth building. It makes getting up every day and facing my duties easier knowing the good we are accomplishing.




    A good breakfast awaited Robert in the Lookout. Zack and Julia were already waiting as well at their usual table in the corner. Hargert had put together a nourishing meal of breakfast sausages, fluffy toasted bread with butter and jam, and a ham and cheese omelette that covered an entire plate. Orange juice, fresh, rounded out the meal, with tea to come afterward. His friends had already eaten their way through their meal. "So, running late again?" asked Zack.

    "I was up a little later than I thought. I'm afraid Lucy's enthusiasm hasn't borne results with me yet." Robert rubbed slightly at his forehead. They'd spent two hours trying to help him put together one of her new lightsabers. But the parts just wouldn't come together for him.

    "Why doesn't Lucy just build one for you?" Julia inquired.

    "She offered, but something… it doesn't feel right to me," Robert said. "To be honest, I don't think I'll ever be as strong in this stuff as they are, training or no training. And I'm not sure there's a point me in running around with a sword when, if there's a fight, I'm better off using a gun."

    "Fair enough."

    Robert started in on his breakfast, leaving Zack and Julia to talk to one another. "Your deadline's coming up, isn't it?" Zack asked.

    Julia was chewing on her breakfast and her only reaction was a glare.

    "I'm not trying… look." Zack sighed. "You've got to give an answer to Maran soon, right? So he knows if he needs another candidate for the Enterprise?"

    Julia finished swallowing. "Zack, I'm still thinking about it," she said. "It's a lot to think about."

    "Yeah," he agreed. "But we both know it's the best move for you. I mean, Captain of the Enterprise. I'm no naval buff, and even I know that there are people who would sell their souls to get that posting. And Maran gave you first dibs on it."

    "I'm incredibly honored, too." Julia pushed her fork into a small mound of hashed potatoes on her plate. "And I'm completely tempted. But there's a part of me that…" She set the fork down and glanced toward Robert. He met her eyes but said nothing, opting to drink orange juice instead. "Farmer and Scotty and Tom and Jarod… they built the Aurora. But I feel like she's mine too."

    "You named her, yeah," Zack said. "Who knows, if we never lost the Facility, maybe you'd have been her captain while Robert remained behind to oversee things."

    There was no immediate response from Julia on that. "Maybe that's it," she admitted. "Maybe I would rather command the Aurora." She gave Robert a sad look. "But I could never do it at your expense."

    He finished swallowing and shook his head. "I know, Julie." Robert set his fork into the omelette again. "Sometimes I think you should be Captain and not me."

    "What would you do then?"

    "Go to New Liberty, I guess," Robert said. "Find a plot of land, build a farmhouse and a farm. Grow some grains, get some cows…"

    "Even after all of this, you'd do that?" Julia asked. "A Multiverse of possibilities, and you'd give it up for a farm?"

    "I guess it does sound silly," Robert admitted. "But I miss it."

    "I don't." Zack shook his head. "Your parents were great people, Robert, but I used to avoid sleepovers at your place just to get out of morning farm chores."

    "Well, you weren't from Kansas originally, of course you'd want to get out of it," Robert guffawed. He looked to Julia with a twinkle in his eye. "But it wasn't all hard work. Do you remember when Grandpa…?"

    Julia smiled in reply. "I do," she answered. "I couldn't stop laughing."

    Robert nodded. His green eyes reflected old joys touched by the pain of loss. "Sometimes I wish I could go back to those days. To just have the family together on the farm, like it was back then."

    "I miss my mother," Zack said. "It didn't matter how tired she was or how worn down Dad's drinking made her, Mom always had a smile and a hug for me when she thought I needed it."

    "We all miss something from our pasts," Julia said. And it was clear she was considering her own. "My parents would have loved it out here. And I like to think they'd be proud of me."

    "They would be," Robert insisted. "You've become everything they could have hoped you'd be."

    Julia nodded. Looking down at her plate and seeing it was mostly empty, she let out a breath. "Well, it's been fun, but someone has to get on the bridge soon, and it looks like it'll be me."

    "Not for long. Ledosh and Emissary Yadin want you coming with us when we get to Earth in…" Robert checked his omnitool time. "Wow. Barely an hour left. I'd better get eating."

    "And I have paperwork that needs to be finished." Julia eyed Zack. "As do you. Don't think I haven't forgotten about that overdue ship readiness report, Zack."

    Zack raised his eyes skyward, as if appealing to a higher power on the matter. When he looked back down he said, "You'll have it on your desk by the end of the day, O Responsible One."

    Julia gave Zack a playful punch in the arm and left.




    Holodeck 1 had again been set to resemble a meditation courtyard in the Gersallian style. Meridina was seated in her meditation robes and, if possible, would have glowed with delight.

    Nearby were two more robed figures, although their robes and suits lacked the simplicity of those Meridina and Lucy were wearing. Mastrash Ledosh was wearing his purple robes with blue trim, marking him as a member of the governing Council of the Order of Swenya, while his student and apprentice Gina Inviere wore the blue robe of a prospective field swevyra'se, or "Knight" in the closest Human-English term.

    Lucy was in simple training robes as well and knelt before the work table. All three felt her power flowing through her and into the multitude of objections that she was assembling in mid-air. Once the cylindrical object was complete it was in the rough shape of a flashlight, complete with a hook for fixing to belts. It was colored white and gold with a prominent blue circle that clearly functioned as a button, much like the models on Lucy's belt and on Meridina's.

    Lucy stood to her full height and reached her right hand out to the object. After her creation came to her palm, she gripped it and held it out. Her finger pressed the blue circle. An electronic snap split the air and lingered off with a short hiss, and a fine green blade pure light surged from the object. It buzzed in the air, said buzz changing in pitch and tone as Lucy drew it over to a slab of solid metal and severed the slab in two with a single stroke, all to the awe of her visitors.

    "Hamatu kena'se," Ledosh breathed. "Magnificent. Simply magnificent, Lucy Lucero."

    Lucy turned the blade off. She levitated the weapon in her hand and sent it over toward Ledosh, who accepted it. He turned the blade back on and quietly swung it a few times, getting the feel for it. "How does it feel, Mastrash?" Lucy asked.

    "Like I am wielding Light itself in my hand," the older Gersallian master said. "A swenkesh. You have built a swenkesh." He turned the weapon off and looked over the hilt.

    Lucy nodded. She had learned enough Gersallian to know that the root term "swen" meant light, or rather, the Light of Life. Swenya herself had been named for the Light of Life, and Lucy found it a truly meaningful name given what she accomplished.

    She was surprised to see him bow deeply to her. "Were you in the Order, Lucy Lucero, this alone would merit for you the title of Mastrash. You have restored an ancient art that my people forgot they once possessed. The Order, no, the people of Gersal will be forever bound to your memory by this."

    "I don't wish them to be," Lucy answered. "I'm offering what I know free of any debt. This is something your Order, that all who walk in the Light, should know. While you're here, I'll show you how I learned to put these together."

    Ledosh shook his head. "I am no engineer. Learning how to forge a lakesh was difficulty enough."

    "You don't need to be an engineer, Mastrash," Lucy said. "That's where I went wrong for so long. This is a weapon that embodies what our power can do and what it means. You have to see it through your swevyra, and once you do, you can assemble your own."

    "This is true," Meridina said. She took the hilt of her weapon, marked with blue instead of gold, and a blue blade came forth when she activated the weapon. After a moment she turned it off. "And if I can build this…" Meridina smiled. "...well, you do recall my first efforts at a lakesh, do you not?"

    Ledosh laughed. It was a warm laugh too. "That I do, Meridina. Yes, I can see what Lucy means." He offered the new weapon to Lucy.

    She shook her head. "Keep it. Study it with your swevyra, then build your own and give it to another to study. And have everyone pass it on so that everyone learns."

    "I shall do so," Ledosh said, smiling. "Gladly."

    A tone came from within the folds of his cream white vest and tunic. Ledosh pulled out a small communication unit and held it up to his mouth. "I am here."

    "Mastrash, we're arriving at Earth N2C5 in a few minutes," said Robert's voice. "Emissary Yadin is already heading to the shuttle bay."

    "Ah. I shall be there." Ledosh nodded. He clipped his new test lightsaber to his belt on the right hip, opposite his lakesh. "I shall see you again later, Lucy, Meridina. I look forward to your training."

    "I look forward to teaching you," Lucy answered, looking to both Ledosh and Gina. "Mi rake sa swevyra iso."

    "Mi rake sa swevyra iso," they answered, after which they left the holodeck.




    Robert had proposed taking the new runabout Zambezi down, but he had been vetoed by Emissary Yadin who felt that the Zambezi, though a normal cargo runabout, was still too large and not quite the signal he wanted to send. Instead they were going down in the shuttle Gerard. Robert and Julia were seated in the back with Ledosh, Gina, Emissary Shimon Yadin, and his daughter and assistant Leora Yadin. The Yadins spoke English with a Yiddish accent, Leora's less pronounced, and Yadin was conversing about his more sobering experience in acting as emissary to the provisional governments of worlds liberated from the Third Reich in Universe S4W8. "The poison of hatred has not left simply because the SS and the Nazi armies have been driven away," he was saying. "Anti-Semitism and other forms of racism and specieism persist on many of those worlds. I had people spitting on me on Gamma Taurus 3 once they realized I was a Jew. And most of the colonists on the planet were Levantine and Greek! They were non-Aryans to the Reich and treated terribly. But they still waste their energy on hating Jews!"

    "Divide and conquer," Julia said. "The Nazis keep their subject nations hating each other, and hating a common target other than themselves, and it makes forming resistances harder."

    "Yes. S4W8's world of New Ulster rejected Emissary Williams because she was a devout Catholic! It is madness, all madness. I wonder if we can ever heal such wounds…"

    "They have been in darkness for centuries, Emissary," Ledosh said. "It will take time to heal them. But it will be worth it."

    Robert and Julia noticed Gina nodding in agreement, which was in off itself a very meaningful gesture on her part.

    At the helm of the shuttle, Ensign Violeta Arterria looked back. "We're on final approach. And they're ready for us."

    "Take us in gently, Ensign," Robert answered. "I want to make a good impression."




    The shuttle flew in on a city of gleaming white structures and wide walkways bridging many of them. Violeta piloted them into an open port in the side of one of the main structures, bringing them into an open hangar bay.

    Once they had landed the rear hatch of the shuttle opened. Robert and Julia followed side-by-side with Emissary Yadin and Mastrash Ledosh toward several standing individuals. Peculiarly, one was clearly a robot or android of some sort with the height of a child and a circular device with blinking diodes hanging from its neck and obscuring most of its chest. Yadin directed their attention to the central figure, a thin gray-haired mind whose pale blue eyes showed appreciation for the occasion. "Good to be back," he said. "This is my colleague, Mastrash Ledosh of the Gersallian Interdependency, a member of the Council of the Order of Swenya, and his assistant Gina Inviere." Yadin gestured to Robert and Julia next. "And these good people are some of our best; Captain Robert Dale and Commander Julia Andreys of the Alliance Starship Aurora." Yadin turned to face the others and gestured to the central figure. "Everyone, this is Doctor Elias Huer, the Director of the Earth Defense Directorate and Acting Director of their Foreign Directorate."

    "Greeting, everyone," said the gray-haired man. "I am quite honored to welcome you to New Chicago on behalf of the United Earth Alliance."

    Robert waited for Ledosh to finish shaking Huer's hand before he did so. "A pleasure, Doctor," he said.

    "A pleasure to meet you," Julia said at her handshake.

    "Here are a few of my colleagues. Doctor Theopolis of the Computer Council." Huer gestured to the robot nearby, or rather to the disc on his chest.

    Said disc lit up with blinking red and purple lights, the wide thin purple lights giving the disc something of a face with their positioning implying eyes. "Greetings," it said. "I look forward to the successful completion of our discussions."

    The others nodded back. Robert remembered that the briefing materials mentioned that the United Earth Alliance's leadership included Artificial Intelligences like Doctor Theopolis. Working with Lt. Commander Data from Starfleet had cured him of any concern about artificial lifeforms, but he suspected that others might not be so happy. The Citadel Council of M4P2, for instance, banned AI research and development, and he idly wondered how they'd take this.

    Next Huer gestured to an attractive woman in a white uniform with a rainbow-colored band on the arm. Her light brown hair was shoulder-length and, for the moment, not kept in a bun or ponytail. "This is Colonel Wilma Deering, my military advisor and commander of New Chicago's defense squadron."

    "Colonel." Again the handshakes and pleasantries. Robert and Julia both felt her light blue eyes, almost gray in coloration, appraise them closely.

    "And last but certainly not least, a unique individual who works for my office when we need his talents," Huer was saying. He indicated a well-built man in the same uniform as Dearing, his posture confident. He had close-combed brown hair that Robert felt gave him a military feel, although not strictly military, with warm brown eyes and a face that seemed ready to grin easy.

    Indeed, he didn't wait for his introduction. He extended a hand toward them. "My name's Buck," he said warmly. "Captain Buck Rogers." A smile crossed his face as his hand went toward Robert and Julia. "Good to meet you."


    Undiscovered Frontier
    "Blast from the Past"




    The courtyard of the Earth government complex had been set up for the formal reception after the opening round of talks. Long tables bearing plates and trays of various foods were tended to by bright-suited waiting staff, while others in gray and white suits like Doctor Huer's milled around. At one end a stand had been erected for more computer forms like that of Doctor Theopolis. Near the stand with the AI attendees were a pair of flags, one showing the stylized globes of the Earth, Moon, and Mars on a dark blue field with a golden wreath framing the three globes, the other was the tetracolor flag of the United Alliance of Systems.

    After seeing that everyone else had beamed down in time for the reception, Robert and Julia remained with Ledosh and Huer, with Gina remaining a slight distance behind. "Since our contact earlier this year, Earth has been debating this step," Huer was saying. "And many of us have agreed that our future is in your Alliance."

    "The Alliance will be pleased to welcome your Earth into our number," Ledosh answered. "I am honored to be here to help your people, whatever their final choice."

    Theopolis spoke up next, still carried by the short robot. "The Computer Council is still deliberating a few points on our membership petition. But I am confident these matters will be handled to satisfaction in the talks."

    "Biddi-biddi-biddi, just make sure you read the fine print so we're not stuck with a raw deal," said another electronic voice, clearly coming from the robot carrying Theopolis.

    "Twiki, that was quite undiplomatic of you," Theopolis scolded calmly.

    Julia raised her eyebrows. "Twiki?"

    "Twiki is a personal assistant ambuquad," answered Theopolis. "Much to my regret, he has been picking up Captain Rogers' 20th Century idioms and metaphors."

    "Keep talking, wise guy," Twiki retorted, his voice definitely deeper than Theopolis'.

    Robert directed his attention to Huer. "Doctor, do you have any expectations from joining the Alliance?"

    "Well, we do believe it will make our universe more peaceful," Huer admitted. "The Alliance has the means to secure peace in our region of the galaxy and to make aggressive powers reluctant to act against Earth and other friendly worlds."

    "What kind of hostile powers are in this area of space?" asked Julia.

    "Well, there are a number of worlds that have embarked on aggression. We've had problems with the Ruathan, for instance. And Lozeria has been hostile. Aldebaran is chaotic and provides problems for our security." Huer was clearly building up to one last item, and one that Robert could sense he considered the worst. "And the Draconian Empire is certainly the greatest threat to Earth and many other worlds."

    "And they're all Human-looking?" asked Robert.

    "Many are, even the Draconians," Huer said. "We have theories about the possibility of Humans being transplanted to other worlds centuries or millennia ago by an unknown civilization."

    Robert felt a memory in the back of his head. "There are records of this happening in other universes. The Federation in S5T3 has recorded encounters with artifacts from a species called the Preservers, for instance, who were known to do such things."

    "It might make for an interesting research study," Julia said. "Although we have encountered alien species that look Human externally without actually being Human."

    "Indeed," said Ledosh. "I have been mistaken for Human many times."

    "And the Darglan recorded a few other instances of such," Robert said.

    "The Darglan…? Ah, yes." Huer smiled and nodded. "As I recall, they were the source of your interuniversal technology."

    "Among a number of other things, yes," Robert replied.

    "I look forward to further access to files on the Darglan and their technology," said Theopolis. "It will be interesting to learn more about a species that discovered interuniversal technology."

    "It's just a shame there aren't any left," Julia said, a slight frown creasing her features. "The Darglan were wiped out a thousand years ago by the Shadows."

    "Truly a tragedy," Theopolis agreed.

    Emissary Yadin and his daughter walked back up with an East Asian woman. "Ah, I see you've found Doctor Sung, Emissary," Huer said. "She is head of our Food and Medicine Directorate."

    "I am sorry I am late," the woman said in accented English. "My shuttle from New Seoul was delayed."

    "Well, allow me to introduce you to Emissary Ledosh, Captain Dale, and Commander Andreys from the United Systems," Huer said amiably.

    "My pleasure," she said to them, accepting handshakes. "Emissary Yadin and I have been speaking on the technology the Alliance has available to assist in our work. Your replicator technology, for instance…"

    Sensing where the conversation was going, Robert and Julia exchanged glances and he sighed. "Why don't you go check on the others?" he asked her.

    She gave him a warm smile and slipped away from the ensuing discussion.




    Zack and Barnes were off to themselves at the reception, quietly watching everyone go by. "It makes me think of how people in the Federation dress," Zack admitted.

    "You mean the jumpsuit look?" Barnes chuckled. "It's a bit off. I wouldn't want to be in one off those damn things. And the uniforms… dude, wearing white, I'd hate to see their laundry bill."

    "Heh." Zack nodded. Thoughts crossed his head and he decided to go straight to the point. "Karen should be back at the end of the month."

    "Cool," Barnes answered.

    "That means you'll be back on the Aurora."

    "Hey, it's where I belong." Barnes noticed Zack's look and shook his head. "No, man, I love the Koenig, but the Aurora, she's my babe, y'know? Scotty and me make sure she remains the best ship in the whole damn fleet."

    "Yeah, I can understand that." Zack took a sip of what tasted like a fruit drink. He had intentionally sought non-alcoholic refreshments. "I've been giving thought to resigning," he admitted.

    Barnes clearly wasn't surprised. "Clara?"

    "She deserves to be happy," Zack said. "I'm not sure how happy she can be if I'm always a universe and a light year away. I figured we could get a home on New Caprica, I could spend my time as a baseball coach."

    "Heh, you've made them all nuts for baseball," Barnes agreed. He sipped his drink. "So what's holding you back?"

    "Well, I can't leave until the war's over. Regulations on that," Zack said. "And I feel the same way about the Koenig that you do about the Aurora. She's my ship, my gut-punching girl, and I love to fly her."

    "Or command Apley on how to fly her," Barnes pointed out. He patted Zack on the shoulder. "You'll figure something out."

    "Yeah." Zack took a final drink. As he did he scanned the crowd and spotted an interesting sight.

    Barnes saw it too. "The hot brunette in the blue uniform suit?" he asked.

    "And the guy beside her. The one dressed in… our kind of clothes." Zack had nearly said 'normal' but caught himself. The Multiverse had long shown him that what seemed normal to him was no longer anything close to normal. Which the man had on, wearing a brown jacket over a light-colored polo shirt with dark slacks.

    They stepped up to the two, who were quietly talking. "Hey," Zack said. "I'm Commander Zack Carrey, captain of the Koenig."

    "Lieutenant Tom Barnes, currently Acting Chief Engineer of the Koenig," Barnes added.

    The man smiled widely while the lady beside him had only a faint diplomatic grin. "I'm Buck. Captain Buck Rogers. Nice to meet you."

    "Colonel Wilma Deering," the brunette said. After shaking their hands she asked, "Doctor Huer said that there was a second ship with the Aurora, but it's not showing on our scanners. Did your ship leave you behind?"

    "No, we're actually docked to the Aurora," Zack explained. "The Koenig packs a big punch for her size and she's got agility and speed, but she's really just a flying cruiser battery and she's not built for operating on her own for long. So we stay on the Aurora unless we're needed for something." He smiled wistfully. "I used to pilot her myself, but I'm her commander now."

    "I noticed the wings," Buck said. "Are you a fighter pilot?"

    "Certified, yeah," Zack said. "But I don't fly regularly. What about you?"

    "I fly all the time," Wilma answered. "Buck sometimes joins us if the mission calls for it."

    By this point the familiar, easy tone that Buck used was clearly setting him apart from Colonel Deering. Barnes asked, "You sound more like us than them, Captain Rogers, I guess you're not native here?"

    "Oh, I was born and raised in Chicago," he replied. "The original Chicago, back in the 20th Century."

    Zack and Barnes looked at him with surprise. "So you're… what? A time traveler?" Barnes asked. "Or are you from H1E4 Earth like us?"

    Buck brought a finger up and smiled. "I thought you sounded too familiar to be from a space age Earth. You're from the 20th Century too?"

    "Born in the 20th," Zack said. "Although it's the 21st now in H1E4."

    Buck laughed and took Zack's hand again. "Well, how about that. Where are you from?"

    "Born in Springfield, Illinois, raised in the middle of nowhere, Kansas," Zack replied.

    "My family moved to Kansas from Florida," Barnes said, accepting a handshake as well. "So, how'd you get to the 25th Century, Captain?"

    "Call me Buck," was the initial answer. "I got here as a popsicle. I was an Air Force pilot and astronaut and they fired me off on a one-man deep space mission. Something went wrong and I was frozen for five hundred years." Buck shook his head, even though the smile on his face didn't fade. "Waking up to find myself in the future was quite a shock."

    "Damn," Barnes said. "That had to be crazy."

    "How did you end up traveling on a spacecraft?" Wilma asked them.

    "Well, my best friend found out that the mound on his family property was actually a marker for the location of a Darglan Facility," Zack replied. "And it all kind of snowballed from there."

    "Are you two enjoying yourselves?" asked Julia, who stepped up to join them. "Good to see you again, Colonel, Captain."

    "It's nice to see you too, Commander," Buck said. His grin widened as his brown eyes took in Julia's appearance. There was no mistaking the interest reflected in them. Julia, fully aware of it, smiled in return as her aquamarine eyes looked toward him, as if to say she was aware of the interest, was not offended by it, and might even consider returning it. "So, are you from this… H1E4 Earth as well?"

    "I am," Julia answered. "You look like you could be too, honestly."

    "Buck is from our 20th Century," Wilma said. She gave him a bemused look. "And it can be trying at times."

    Julia gave Buck a look over. "Well, you dress like it. But how?"

    "I was an astronaut and my ship ended up freezing me," he replied, clearly not interested in repeating the entire story. "I take it you're also from Kansas?"

    "Born in Wichita, raised beside a farm," Julia replied, smiling. "Given the accent and attitude… Chicago, right?"

    Buck nodded.

    "You remind me of my cousin's boyfriend."

    Zack snorted out a laugh in his attempt to restrain from laughing. Buck noticed and could see where this was going. "I'm guessing you weren't a fan?" he asked Julia.

    Julia smiled widely. "He wasn't very faithful. And he tried not to be faithful with me."

    "Oh, that… yeah, I remember that frakker," Barnes said. "You spent the night in jail, right?"

    "Well, there was a deputy right there who was always self-conscious about 'girls' being able to beat up guys," Julia answered. "But the jerk couldn't press charges without having to admit what happened. Mister Dale picked me up the next morning."

    "As in Captain Dale?" Buck asked.

    "As in Robert's dad," she replied. "A number of us grew up together, Captain Rogers."

    "Call me Buck."

    "Buck, then." Julia nodded. "I'm Julia. Colonel?"

    "Wilma will do," she said, looking at Julia with some respect, at least for rank. "Are you a pilot like Commander Carrey?" Wilma asked.

    "I can pilot a runabout or a shuttle," Julia replied, "and I know my way around the helm of a starship. But I've never taken the time to get my wings like Zack has. I've found starship operation and command to be my calling." She gave Zack and Barnes a look that told them she would be irritated if they brought up the offer for the Enterprise. "If you want to talk about fighters, I believe Commander Laurent beamed down for the reception." She looked around until she confirmed it; Patrice Laurent, born on their Earth in the Central African Republic, was currently standing with Nick Locarno talking to one of the N2C5 Earth officers by another table.

    "What do you fly?" Zack asked them.

    "The Thunderhead model heavy starfighter," Wilma answered. "It's atmosphere-capable with eight laser cannons and hardpoints for two anti-ship missiles."

    "Not bad. We have the Mongoose multi-role fighter on the Aurora, she's a medium-weight fighter with four pulse phaser cannons and hardpoints for missiles or torpedoes. And atmospheric capability."

    "Sounds like one of the F-18s they were developing in my day," said Buck. "I hope to fly one some time."

    "If everything goes through, you may get your chance," said Julia.




    "...and the Association of Aldebarani Colonies has spearheaded amazing advancements in repairing biospheres subjected to repeated radiological damage," Yadin was saying to Sung. "Your Earth's shortage of agricultural land could be reversed within a decade, depending upon the work needed."

    "That would be wonderful," Sung agreed. "Earth's reliance upon imported food has been used as a weapon against us before."

    "Restoring your people to self-sufficiency in food is one of many things we hope to aid you with." Yadin nodded to them. "And there is the matter of power generation. I have heard you use anti-matter reactors?"

    "We do," Huer said.

    "Naqia is a safer and superior alternative, Doctor," Robert said. "Numerous other civilizations we've met are swapping to it as soon as they reasonably can."

    "We've already begun studies on this substance and have found a few deposits, although I'm not sure how well…"

    As Huer, Theopolis, and Sung continued to speak with Ledosh and Yadin, Robert felt a tingle at the back of his neck. It grew, in power and strength, until it took on the feel of a full strength warning. It made him more alert than he had been before. His eyes scanned the crowds. The officers from his ship, the staff from Yadin's embassy in New Chicago, the various New Chicagoans and Earth officials and staff…

    The staff. As in the waiting staff.

    Robert felt the attack coming just before it started. He reached his arm out and twisted in place, allowing him to intercept and grab the wrist of the waiter who was pulling a firearm up toward Huer. He lifted the offending weapon high as the assassin pulled the trigger. Small darts of ruby light struck out and missed Huer's head by two centimeters, scorching his gray-white hair.

    Robert felt the assassin react and shifted fully to face him - a man of swarthy complexion, dark eyes, and dark hair. He used his left hand to keep a grip on the gun, thus freeing his right arm so he could drive his elbow into the stomach of the assassin. The man doubled over and lost his grip on the weapon. Robert gave him a solid, knuckle-bruising punch to the jaw. The man toppled.

    Given the screams and shouts, it was immediately clear he wasn't the only one.




    Zack was the one who cried, "Look out!"

    Julia had already heard the sound of a blow coming from somewhere else in the courtyard. She turned in time to see the waiter, a small Caucasian man with a slight tan and dark blond hair, bring a gun up toward Wilma. She kicked the gun and the hand it was attached to just before it could be fired. The would-be assassin turned to face her and brought his arms up to attack. Julia readied herself and caught the first punch by deflecting it with her right forearm. Wilma moved in with a punch of her own that knocked the assassin back. He started to rise again.

    As the cries continued, Zack and Buck soon spotted another armed waiter, a big one, threatening a couple of civilian staff. They charged him and caught him in a tackle that knocked the gun out of his hand, all three hitting the ground. Nearby Zack heard Caterina crying out in shock and the familiar grunt - Angel had just decked someone hard - but he had his own worries as the big guy grabbed him by the back of the neck and bodily threw him off. Zack rolled for a moment and got to his knees. Buck was doing the same thing. Their foe lifted himself to his feet and snarled. He charged at Buck, who ducked the right hook and drove his fist into the big guy's torso, just barely missing the solar plexus. A second, swifted punch from the big guy sent Buck falling backward.

    Zack stepped up and kicked the big guy in the leg. Much to his dissatisfaction, it didn't seem to take him out. It did, however, draw his attention, and he threw a wicked backhand swipe at Zack that he barely stopped with his forearms. A couple of months of occasional Fight Nights on the Galactica came back for Zack, who threw a punch that Lee Adama had taught him. It caught the big guy in the side of the jaw and knocked out teeth. Blood came from his foe's mouth with a roar of pain and anger. "Oh crap," Zack breathed as he tried to catch the next blow. He didn't quite manage it. Even though it hit his forearms, it hit with enough force to knock him onto his back. Laying prone, he watched the attacker step up and raise a fist to hit him again.

    And then Buck jumped on the big man's back. He wrapped his arms in a chokehold around his neck with a determined look on his face. Zack kicked with his foot and smashed the giant's kneecap, making him roar despite Buck's hold on his throat. Zack scrambled back to his feet while the big guy swung around, trying to pull Buck off his back. He started backing up toward one of the courtyard's ornamental trees. When he hit it Buck grimaced, now stuck between a tree and a hard place. Zack moved up and kicked at the knee cap again, getting it at a different angle. He could swear he heard it crack this time, and the giant certainly screamed and dropped to a knee. Zack followed that up with a right hook against the giant's face, hitting the same side he'd struck before. Pain filled his knuckles from the impact.

    And still the big guy didn't go down.

    Barnes jumped in to help with the fight. Unlike Zack, he had absolutely no fight training, and a geek's built-in dislike of fisticuffs. Nevertheless he threw a punch, a bad punch that would have broken his knuckles before it did anything to the assassin.

    Or it would have, at least, if he hadn't been fighting dirty and sent the punch between the giant's legs.

    A shrill cry, higher than the earlier grunts, came from the big man. He collapsed onto his knees and then pitched forward.

    Buck, breathing heavily, let go of their foe's neck and climbed off. "The bigger they are…"

    "...the harder they… watch out!"

    Despite everything the big assassin was getting back up. Zack and Buck turned at Barnes' warning and, in the same motion, threw punches at the assassin's head. His face was big enough that their punches landed without their fists bumping together. The assassin toppled over onto his back and was out like a light.

    Zack and Buck were both wringing their hands in an attempt to soothe their bruised, hurting knuckles.




    The small waiter who had tried to shoot Wilma was proving to be a nasty in-fighter. He moved quickly enough to deflect and counter the blows Julia and Wilma were sending at him. Julia managed to evade one such counter-attack and grapple his arm long enough for Wilma to deliver a kick to his ribs that made him double over.

    Before Julia could take advantage, someone grabbed her left arm. She was roughly spun and took a punch from another, larger man that was half a centimeter off from breaking her nose. It forced her to let go of the first killer. Her attacker grabbed her by the throat and squeezed until she was choking. Wilma, recognizing the danger, grabbed the wrist doing the choking and kicked at the face of the choker. But the first assassin jumped on her back and pulled her away, leaving Julia to fend for herself as both hands now closed on her throat.

    Julia gathered her strength, knowing this was a death grip she had to escape, and grabbed the arm. This gave her the leverage she needed to shift her body and get her legs up to deliver a savage kick to the man's throat. He gagged and let go enough for her to breathe. But only that far, as he kept his grip long enough to throw Julia back. She hit the low railing around the nearby flower garden and toppled over it and back into the cool, dark soil.

    Julia started to get back to her feet. She only had seconds to think about things. As she did, she noticed that the garden had been sectioned off, presumably for different types of flowers.

    And they had been sectioned off by thin wooden poles.

    She grabbed one with her right hand and pulled it out as she stood up. It wasn't quite two feet in length, being right about fifty-five centimeters, which for her was good enough. Julia stood up as her attacker, recovered from the throat kick, was coming back for her. She hopped over the garden divider back onto the pavement of the courtyard and slipped beside him as he charged to grab her. She brought the stick up and slammed him in the side, hard enough that he cried out in pain, and used her free left hand to throw a jabbing punch that smacked him in the face. He fell backward.

    Julia turned to face him. As she did, she felt someone brush up behind her. Wilma had blood seeping from the corner of her mouth and her uniform was disheveled, but she was still in the fight. In front of her, the short assassin was in a combat stance, bruises on his face from Wilma's blows. Julia's opponent also showed the results of her fighting prowess on him.

    "A weapon?" Wilma asked.

    "Just a stick from your garden," Julia answered. "But I've been working on my eskrima, and I could use the practice."

    "Right."

    The two assassins had been looking at each other past the uniformed women standing between them. They charged together.

    Julia and Wilma separated briefly. Wilma exchanged blows with her quick, agile foe. Julia caught her opponent's punch, flowed under and around the blow, and smacked him in the face with her new weapon. When he fell back in surprise, she caught him in the elbow with the stick and used a snap kick to knock him back further. When he rushed ahead again she shouted "Incoming!" and ducked low. Her leg caught his in a roundhouse kick that threw him off-balance and sent him stumbling forward.

    Wilma, having heard the warning, feinted a blow at her adversary to draw him into an attack. He took it, the frustration on his face making clear his desire to end their match. This gave Wilma the opening and leverage she needed to grab at his arm. He might have pulled free of the grab, but Wilma had no intention of holding him and giving him time. She immediately smacked him in the face with her free elbow, smashing his nose, and threw him off-balance toward Julia.

    The timing was just a little off, as Julia's foe nearly ran into her. But the effect was as desired; the two assassins slammed into each other and toppled. Caught up in each other, they were in no position to resist Julia's stick or Wilma's fist when they came down. Both collapsed unconscious to the ground.

    The two looked at each other. "Nice work," Julia said.

    "Thank you." Wilma nodded.




    Another assassin came for Huer. This assassin never stood a chance.

    Robert had met Mastrash Ledosh before the Alliance was formed, years before he knew he had the potential to wield the same power. In all of that time, on ever occasion he met Meridina's mentor, he'd never seen the older man actually use his abilities in a fight.

    Now, however, that streak would end.

    Ledosh surprised everyone by pulling a weapon from his belt. Robert recognized it as one of Lucy's new weapons, one of her "lightsaber"s. An electronic snap brought a green blade into existence that intercepted several more pulses of ruby light. Gina moved into action with her own blade, which extended out with a metallic shriek. Her weapon intercepted shots from a third foe and sent them back. One deflected blast struck the second in the chest. There was a puff of flame on the killer's waiter uniform for a moment while he fell back.

    Robert thought Ledosh and Gina had the attack well in-hand. He didn't see or feel the last one emerge from the nearby bush until it was almost too late. He came up with a pistol aimed at Huer's back. Robert reached out and gripped the weapon with his power to throw it off-target. Red bolts shot out and, again, misser Huer.

    There was a cry. Doctor Song collapsed.

    Ledosh whipped around and joined his power to Robert's, pulling this last assassin into the open. In the blink of an eye he was across the distance. The assassin screamed as his gun, and the hands holding it, fell from his arms. Ledosh disengaged his new blade and returned it to his belt in a single movement while the shooter crumbled before him, holding up the stumps of his wrists.

    "Doctor Huer, are you alright?" Robert asked. Around them there were sounds of fighting and shots that were coming to an end.

    "Yes," the older man said, although his voice was shaking. "Doctor Song!" he called out, seeing the Korean woman on the ground with a blackened spot on her torso.

    Robert rushed over to her. He didn't need to put a hand to her neck to know she was alive, but he did so for appearance's sake. A weak pulse thrummed against his fingers. "She's alive, but wounded. We need medical help here! Leo!"

    Moments later Leo arrived, accompanied by Angel and Caterina. The wound on his face was already turning purple, standing out against the black skin. Leo's medical omnitool appeared around his left forearm while his right pulled up the dedicated medical scanner that went with it. "It looks like a plasma wound. Internal burning and organ damage to the lungs, stomach…" Leo tapped his omnitool to open a comm channel. "Gillam to Medbay, Medical Emergency, I need a full medical team beamed to my location ASAP."

    Doctor Lumenaram, a Gersallian physician, answered, "Doctor Opani and a team are preparing to beam down now."

    "Will she make it, Leo?" Robert asked.

    "If we can stabilize her." Sweat was already forming on Leo's brow, but given the fight that had already raged this was to be expected. He looked up to Huer. "Doctor Huer, I'm not familiar with the full extent of your medical technology. I know I can stabilize her in our Medbay."

    "As you are the attending physician on the scene, Doctor, I'll leave the medical decisions to you." Huer was still clearly shaken.

    "Biddi-biddi-biddi, I hate party-crashers," protested Twiki.

    By the surrounding sounds, it was clear that the attackers had been dealt with. Robert looked up in time to see a number of the others walk up. Zack and Barnes were with Buck, and Julia came back with Wilma Deering. With the exception of Barnes, they showed clear signs of having been in the midst of the attack. "Is everyone okay?" Robert asked them.

    "Good enough." Barnes cracked a grin. "You should see the other frakking guys."

    Robert didn't particularly find the situation grin-worthy, but he said nothing.

    "Who are they?" Julia asked. "And how did so many sneak in?"

    "I'll have security begin an immediate investigation," Wilma said. "They may have taken the places of our entire waiting staff."

    Buck was already kneeling over the man Ledosh had disarmed, almost literally. The man's eyes were fuming with hatred, but he could do nothing to stop Buck from pulling his waiter's uniform open to reveal the tattoo of a red dragon. "A pirate, then," he said. "I think I've seen this before."

    It was Dr. Theopolis who stated, "My analysis indicates it is the insignia of a pirate band known as the Dragon Legion. According to records… oh, this is most disconcerting."

    "Biddi-biddi-biddi, spit it out Doc."

    For all that the silver robot's attitude was grating, Robert had to admit he agreed with the sentiment.

    "According to our intelligence sources, the Dragon Legion are a front for Draconian Intelligence."

    "The Draconians." Buck frowned. "Why am I not surprised they'd pull something? They can't be happy that Earth is joining your Alliance."

    "So this was an attempt to disrupt the final negotiations?" Huer's question was rhetorical. "No. No, that's not enough. This was too risky an attack to be a spiteful stab at our admission to the Alliance. My successors could negotiate it just as easily."

    That gave Robert a very sick feeling. "Of course, if you and Colonel Deering and the rest of us were dead or incapacitated…"

    Wilma and Buck shared worried looks. "Then the defense of New Chicago, of the whole Earth, would be completely compromised."

    There was a tone. An orange omnitool popped into existence around Huer's forearm. For a moment he tapped at it. "My apologies, we just issued them to our Directors and I'm still getting used…" After he hit the right key a face appeared, a woman in uniform in what looked like a command center. "Major Logan, report?"

    "Sir, the watch posts have picked up an unidentified vessel," the woman said with a strong Irish lilt. "Something big's come through the gate… and it's being escorted by Draconian Hatchet fighters."

    "How many?" Wilma asked.

    "At least two dozen," was the reply.

    "Then this is the main effort of the Draconian attack," Ledosh said calmly. He looked to Dale.

    Robert nodded. He lifted his left arm and brought up his azure-toned omnitool, just as it lit up above the back of his hand to indicate an incoming message. He pressed the light. "Dale here."

    "Captain, there is a developing situation." The voice on the other end was Meridina's; she had assumed command to allow the rest of the command staff to go planetside for the reception. "We are detecting a number of craft now in the system. By Ensign al-Rashad's estimates, the largest vessel appears to be on a course for Earth."

    "Standby." Robert looked to Ledosh and Huer. "We can make the intercept."

    Ledosh nodded and looked to Huer. "Doctor Huer, the Alliance is ready to assist you in repelling this treacherous assault."

    "Your assistance is welcomed," Huer said. "Colonel Deering, please join them."

    Deering looked to Robert. "My fighters will be joining you as quickly as we can launch."

    Robert nodded. "We'll be expecting you, then."

    Buck and Wilma started running for the nearest door.

    With help accounted for, Robert reopened the channel to the Aurora. "Meridina, have us all beamed back up. Put us on an intercept course and call Code Red. I want fighters and the Koenig ready to launch."

    "Launch preparations beginning. We are beaming you now."

    With the exception of Leo and his medical team the Aurora and Koenig officers attending were beamed back, bruises and all.
     
  15. Threadmarks: 2-15-2
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    Meridina was watching with interest as the others returned. "Mister Scott is already in Engineering," she said, noting the bruises and injuries on Julia, Jarod, and Angel as they took their stations. "It would appear that the reception was more interesting than was expected?"

    "Oh, you know, assassins, guns." Julia took her chair and smiled wryly. "Everything you need to spice up a quiet reception."

    "I see." Meridina stepped away from the command chairs. "I shall prepare our security teams," she said as she walked away.

    "First fighter squadrons ready to launch," Julia said.

    "Launch," Robert answered.

    As the Aurora raced on, light blue-colored Mongoose fighters began to shoot out from the launch tubes along her upper drive hull. The main body wasn't too different from an atmospheric jet fighter's fuselage, with the sublight engines built to connect the atmospheric flight wings - also the site of the missile-bearing hardpoints - to the main body of the craft.

    "Signal from Earth," Jarod said. "It's Colonel Deering."

    "Put her on."

    The voice of the Earth squadron commander came over the speaker. "Captain, we'll be joining you as soon as we can get airborne. But half of my fighters were completely disabled by sabotage and our launch bays have been blocked with debris. It's going to take us several minutes to get airborne."

    "I read you, Colonel. Do what you can, we'll handle this." Robert looked back to Caterina at the Sensors/Science station. "Cat, can you give me scans of the craft?"

    "I'm trying, but they have a jamming field up," she said. "The best I can tell you is that it's the size of a small cruiser, but its mass is a lot heavier than it should be."

    "What do we have on the Draconians?" Robert asked. "Can you find anything in fleet logs?"

    "I'm looking, but so far all we have are long-range scans provided by exploration craft and trading ships," Caterina said. "And this craft's not matching exactly… it certainly is Draconian, at least if you ask me, but they didn't build it to their usual specs."

    "I'm tying us into Earth's systems," Jarod said. "Maybe they have something more."

    "I'm looking through the database now, but still nothing like that…" , Caterina stopped, as if stunned. "Mother of God, it…"

    "Cat?" Robert and Julia both turned to face her intently. "What's going on?"

    Caterina was busy looking over her sensor returns. "I'm not getting any indication of life signs on that ship. I can't be sure until we're closer…"

    Robert considered that. And given the look of realization on Julia's face, he knew he didn't need life force powered-insight to know what this thing was. "It's not a ship," he said. "It's a missile."

    Jarod was already doing the calculations in his head. What he conceived horrified him just as much. "If it hits, even without a warhead it'll destroy any city it strikes. There could be millions of casualties."

    "Then we keep it from hitting," Robert declared. "Angel, lock weapons on that missile, fire when we're within range. Jarod, put me on an open channel."

    "You're on." Jarod's tone of voice made it clear how futile he figured it would be.

    "This is Captain Robert Dale of the Alliance Starship Aurora from the United Alliance of Systems," Robert announced firmly. "You are violating the space of United Earth. On their behalf I'm ordering you to withdraw or you will be fired upon."

    After several moments it was clear there was no response coming.

    "We'll be in weapons range in a minute," Jarod said.

    The minute might have been quiet, but Caterina spoke up again. "I'm picking up naqia," she said. "And naqia-grade power sources."

    "From the missile?" Julia asked.

    "And the fighters."

    "Then they might have naqia warhead anti-ship missiles or torpedoes," Julia said to Robert.

    He nodded in agreement. "Send Laurent's fighters forward." Robert tapped the comm key on his chair. "Bridge to Koenig. Are you ready, Zack?"

    "My crew's at stations. We're preparing to launch."

    As the distance closed and the Koenig began their launch sequence, the Mongoose fighters finished closing the distance. "The Draconian fighters are accelerating to engage," said Jarod.




    The day was turning out quite hectic for Patrice Laurent. He'd gotten kicked in the stomach at the reception and now he was flying a combat sortie against a foe he had little information about. Half of his squadrons were still arming up back on the Aurora, leaving him with four squadrons, 48 starfighters, behind him. "Bravo, Delta, prevent them from breaking through to the Aurora," Laurent ordered, his accented voice reflecting his origins in Francophone Africa. "Alpha and Gemini, you're with me. Remember to watch your backs out there, everyone."

    A number of affirmatives came. The most important ones for his personal safety were from the fighters in his command flight. The strong soprano of Lieutenant Gwen Skydancer, leading the second element of his flight, and alien voice of his Kerbal wingman Lieutenant Jebediah Kerman were reassurances he didn't take for granted.

    The first of the big, vicious-looking Hatchet fighters were coming up in view on Laurent's HUD. They looked almost like flying tridents, painted red as blood with their cockpits built above and at the back of their central point. Their heavy laser cannons stitched bright light in the void of space. Laurent had already changed his course and craft orientation to throw off the shot. He let his crosshairs move over the nearest craft before him and turn red before he opened up with his pulse phaser batteries. Amber light pulses nearly struck the enemy craft, which jinked in another direction at just the right moment to throw Laurent's aim off.

    He persisted by matching the maneuver of the Hatchet fighter, bringing his weapons back on target. Again amber fire crossed the distance, and this time he hit. Bright blue energy flickered over the Hatchet. Much to his consternation, though, he couldn't see anything showing a direct hit. No debris, no brief spurts of flame or plasma, nothing.

    "Enemy fighter acquiring," warned Ensign Sentana, a Lushan Dorei man who now served as his second seat sensor officer. Laurent heeded the warning and fired his engines and thrusters to execute a sharp one hundred and thirty degree turn in space. His fighter rumbled slightly. "Glancing hit. Rear deflectors down to eighty percent," Sentana said.

    His maneuver had put Laurent in place to fire at another Hatchet. Again his pulse phasers battered strong deflectors that didn't seem to give. This time he fired off an anti-fighter missile. It also slammed into the enemy fighter. The shields flickered and he hit it with another barrage of phaser fire before the Hatchet broke away. This time he was rewarded with what looked like slight damage. But only slight.

    "I can't get a solid hit," protested a pilot over the squadron channel. "The deflectors on these things are too tough!"

    "Use missiles and steady fire," Laurent answered. "We have a numbers advantage. Work together and attack from multiple angles."

    As responses came, a frantic cry of "I can't shake him!" came over the line. The nearby explosion that caught the edge of Laurent's sight told him the terrible news that one of his fighters had just been lost.

    "They're accelerating toward the Aurora!" another voice called out.

    "Bravo, Delta, do what you have to! Stop them!" Laurent commanded. It was all he had time to say while dodging incoming fire from another of the Hatchets.




    "Their fighters' deflectors are stronger than normal," Julia informed Robert as they continued to close the distance. "Our fighters are having a hard time trying to shoot them down."

    "Bring our light batteries to bear as we enter range, but the priority remains the missile." Robert reopened his channel to Zack. "Zack, if you can help our fighters while engaging the missile, go ahead, but that missile has to remain our prime target."

    "Roger that."

    "It looks like two of the enemy fighters have made it through our squadrons," Julia said. "Fox and Echo squadrons are still preparing to launch. Charlie's fighters were down for a standard maintenance cycle and the flight deck reports they won't be ready to sortie for at least another five to ten minutes."

    "I think we underestimated the possibility for trouble," Robert lamented.

    "Enemy fighters are firing missiles."

    The holo-viewscreen showed the two Draconian craft firing their anti-ship missiles. The automated particle interceptors built into the Aurora's hull opened up, their white pulses seeking out the incoming missiles. One missile took repeated hits that were clearly absorbed by a short-lived shield system. Angel shot it with one of her lighter phaser arrays just before it made impact, destroying it. A second missile was clipped by the same shot and was blown wildly off-course by the damage.

    The other missiles, however, did make impact.

    The Aurora rocked violently from the blasts that were produced. "What the…?" Robert stopped himself from using any four letter words to finish the sentence. "Jarod?!"

    "Shields are down to seventy percent effectiveness," Jarod said. "And Primary Generator 2 has suffering buckling damage from reaction stress."

    "Just what are they packing those missiles with?" Julia asked.

    "Going by the emissions given off by the initiations… I think it's de-stabilized naqia," Cat replied. "Like the stuff we used to blow up the Kelley when we stopped the Daleks."

    Jarod whistled. "That's insane. I wouldn't want to be the pilot carrying those things… more fighters coming in!"

    "I've got a clear shot on the missile!" Angel announced. "Firing!"

    The Aurora's forward weapons blazed to life. Amber and sapphire pulses from the pulse phaser and pulse plasma cannon emplacements raced across the void and crashed into the blue forcefield that quickly formed around the missile. "The missile's deflectors are down to only ninety-five percent," Jarod said. "They've got high-caliber shields in place."

    "The Draconians' technology is a lot stronger than reports indicated," Robert noted irritably. Alliance Intelligence would be getting hell for this screwup. "Maintain fire, we need to take that missile down."

    "Energy spike in the propulsion systems," Cat said. "The missile is picking up acceleration."

    "Keep us on them Locarno."

    "Another incoming missile salvo!" Caterina shouted.

    The ship was nearly complete in its turn when the next missile impact hit. "Shields down to sixty-two percent. Bleedthrough damage to Decks 20 and 21, K section," Jarod reported.

    "Can we do anything with the shields to ride these weapons out more?" Julia asked.

    "I'll do what I can," was all he could say.

    As they spoke Angel kept up her shots on the missile, which continued to absorb the fire.




    The same was noticed by Zack on the Koenig as the attack ship continued to track the missile. Her pulse phaser cannons opened up on the rear engine assembly with minimal effect. He could hear the frustration in Lt. April Sherlily's voice as her fire continued to prove so ineffective. "These shields are stronger than anything that size should have," she protested.

    "No crew, no support space, more space for shields and power generation," Lt. Magda Navaez pointed out. "Enemy missiles inbound."

    "Ap, shake them!"

    Under the control of Lt. Creighton Apley, Zack's XO, the Koenig began to dodge and weave from the anti-ship missiles locked onto her. Her dorsal phaser stabbed out and shot one to pieces. Just as the phaser targeted the second, it hit. The entire ship rocked violently. "Report!" Zack shouted.

    "Shields down to seventy-four percent," Magda replied. "Superficial damage to the armor plating. All systems still functioning."

    "Bringing us back on attack run," Apley added, as the Koenig again turned toward the missile now accelerating toward Earth.




    Another of the fighter-launched missiles from the Draconian fighters struck the Aurora's faltering shields. "Shields down to thirty-five percent. Primary 4 is offline from an overload, secondary shields coming online."

    While Jarod informed them of the result of the latest hit, Robert and Julia were both watching Angel pouring fire into the missile as it drew closer and closer to Earth. "Fox and Echo are ready to launch," Julia said. "I've had them re-armed with solar torpedoes, they'll go after the missile."

    "How's Laurent doing?"

    Julia shook her head. "Not too well. He's lost seven fighters already and the other side's only lost three. We're getting transponders on at least five escape pods." The tactical map showed the current battle. The missile was heading toward Earth with increasing speed, the Aurora and Koenig were following it and pumping fire into its thick shields, and behind them the Hatchet fighters were in hot pursuit, weaving around with the Aurora's Mongoose fighters.

    "The missile's shields are still at seventy-five percent," Jarod said. "And at its increasing rate of acceleration, I'm not sure we can hit it before it strikes Earth."

    "There's no telling what's aboard that weapon, we can't let it reach Earth," insisted Robert, who was already starting to consider that their only hope of stopping the missile might be to plow his ship right into it.

    It was, needless to say, not a choice he was eager to make.




    Laurent watched his last missile streak through space and strike one of the Draconian fighters. His phasers were already ablaze, pouring fire into its flickering blue shields. More phaser fire came from an alternate angle, fifty degrees up and to the right of Laurent. Lieutenant Skydancer, he suspected, as the firing was more tight than Jeb Kerman's usual. Either way, the convergence was enough to overload the enemy fighter's shields. Flames broke out from the rear briefly before it blew up.

    Skydancer blew past him with a Hatchet fighter on her rear. Laurent engaged it with his weapons. "Where's Alpha 4?" he asked.

    "Damaged, I told him to RTB," said Skydancer. "This one's good, I'm having trouble shaking him."

    "I'm on him. Keep going, Alpha 3. Alpha 2, can you join me on this?"

    "I'm on you, Alpha 1," his Kerbal wingman answered in his accented, warbly voice.

    The same results were nearly repeated as Laurent's prior engagement, although this time the Hatchet broke away quickly enough that it only had an engine blown off, leaving it to careen wildly away from the fight.

    Satisfied that it was a partial kill, Laurent was looking for another engagement when his warning lights went off. He twisted and jinked to avoid the incoming energy fire. The Hatchets were surprisingly agile for their size and this one's angle of attack gave the pilot a great initial advantage. Until Laurent got out of the Hatchet's engagement zone on its angle, he was going to take fire. And take hits, as his systems showed.

    "Deflectors down to thirty," Sentana informed him. "I'm trying to shore them up with auxiliary reserves." He didn't have to add that another barrage or two like that would probably finish the fighter off.

    Laurent had little time to consider this consequence, as he was busy trying to prevent it. He threw the Mongoose into a strong turn and fired thrusters to shift the fighter's orientation, barely evading the shots. In his head he could imagine the space he had available, which maneuvers might work and which would expose him to fire…

    And then Sentana shouted, "New contacts!"

    There was that brief moment of uncertainty, of fear, of wondering if more of these tough heavy fighters were about to join the battle.

    A voice crackled over the line. "This is Colonel Deering of the 69th Earth Defense Squadron to Aurora fighters. We're engaging."

    The Thunderfighter heavy fighters came in at full burn on their engines. They were sleek fighters for their size, orientated around twin engine booms with canard wings for atmospheric flight near the rear. They lacked the exotic effects of nuclear-disruption technology like phasers, but what they lacked was made up for with the power behind their weapons. The lead fighter, under Wilma Deering's expert command, opened up on the fighter tracking Laurent. A second fighter came in and added its fire; with both shooting the Draconian's shields failed swiftly and the fighter was blown apart. "Is it just me, or are these things thicker-skinned than usual?" Buck inquired.

    "They are using heavy deflectors of some kind," Laurent replied. "We have been combining fire to overwhelm them."

    "Good idea, Commander."

    The reinforcements to the battle didn't change the Hatchet pilots' determination to break through and lob their missiles into the Aurora. Laurent linked back up with Kerman and noticed the performance of the Earth Defense Directorate fighters; they were having better luck blasting through the Hatchets' new deflectors with the heavier volume of fire from their main laser emplacements, but the Hatchets were doing their best to evade that fire and the Thunderfighters had a similar maneuverability profile, making it easy for Hatchets to escape them if their pilots caught on quickly enough.

    "Colonel Deering, this is Commander Laurent," he said into the comms. "My fighters will maneuver them into position for you."

    "The assistance is appreciated, Commander."

    "All fighters, focus on driving the enemy into the Earth fighters' line of fire. And keep them off of their backs." His order was answered by a number of "Yes sir"s. Laurent worked himself to do the same. He found a Hatchet fighter slipping up behind Colonel Deering and engaged it at the same time Buck's Thunderfighter did. The phaser and laser fire from different angles overwhelmed the enemy fighter's shields and turned it into a blinding white fireball.

    This cleared Deering for her own attack on a Hatchet. The lasers of her Thunderfighter pummelled the enemy craft relentlessly. Every maneuver it tried was matched and countered. Just as Laurent started to get a bead on it, the Hatchet fighter exploded. "Excellent shooting, Colonel."

    "Thank you, Commander."

    They both got back to work as the Draconian fighters' numbers continued to dwindle.




    The Aurora's battering was over, or so it seemed to Robert, with the Earth fighters helping to keep the remaining Draconians with missiles fully occupied. Now all he had to worry about was the missile streaking directly toward Earth.

    Which was a big enough worry, since it was just minutes from impact.

    "Any progress on their shields?" he asked, while on the screen the fighters of Echo and Fox Squadrons fired away with more solar torpedoes. It felt like he had seen Nazi dreadnoughts succumb to the pummelling that the missile was taking.

    "They're down to twenty-five percent. But at the rate we're going, it won't be enough." Jarod shook his head. "I'm reading heavy armor plating below the shields. Even if we finish degrading the shields, we'll never blow it apart before it's in the atmosphere."

    "And what's it carrying?"

    "Destabilized Naqia," Caterina answered. "The blast will be horrific. It will inflict planetary-scale devastation."

    Robert's fists clenched. "What if we ram it?"

    "It could knock it off course," Jarod said. "But a hard enough impact will set off the destabilized naqia within. There won't be much left of the Aurora afterward."

    "But the Earth will survive." Robert drew in a breath and exchanged a look with Julia. She knew what he was planning and knew it appeared to be the only choice.

    A solution flashed to mind just before she could agree with his plan. "Jarod, what if we tractor it off-course?"

    "It's close enough to Earth that its delta-v will carry it a far distance before it can come back around. At least, with the propulsion technology I'm showing."

    "Then let's try that first," she said, looking to Robert. Her green eyes flickered with confidence.

    Robert nodded in agreement. "Make it work, Jarod."

    "I'm charging up the main tractor beams now." Jarod tapped a number of keys on his board. "Get us in close, Nick. We're going to need both ventral tractors to make this work."

    Locarno responded by accelerating the ship further, pushing the engines to overtake the rapid missile.

    For his part, Robert opened a channel to Engineering with the control on his chair. "Mister Scott, we're going to need full power to the engines and tractor beams to stop this missile."

    "Ye'll have everythin' we can give ye, Cap'n. Tell Mister Jarod t' trim th' graviton wavelengths, it'll give ye a tighter, stronger tractor beam, shud be enough t' stop th' bloody thing."

    Jarod smiled warmly and answered, "Thanks, Mister Scott. A wonderful suggestion."

    "I'm sending you a calculated flight path to get clear of Earth, Nick," Caterina called out.

    "Receiving it."

    A moment after he said that, Jarod triggered the tractor beams. Two thin ribbons of blue light suddenly linked the Aurora to the missile. The Aurora shuddered and strained in pulling the deadly craft off its cataclysmic course to Earth. Bit by bit, it was clearly working. The question was if it would work enough.

    Caterina was watching her monitor like a hawk. "We've diverted it off course by one percent. One point three. One point five."

    "Is that enough?" Julia asked.

    "It depends on time to impact," she answered. "But if we don't get it up to twenty-five percent soon, we'll never deflect it. Three percent. Three point two."

    "Ye've got maybe two minutes left," Scotty warned. "We're redlinin' th' impulse drives somethin' fierce."

    "I don't think we'll manage it in two minutes," Locarno said.

    "Koenig to Aurora," said Zack's voice, now coming over the speaker. "We're moving in to help."

    The Koenig flew up on the other side of the missile and orientated herself to present her main tractor beam. Once she finished the maneuver a third thin ribbon of blue light connected the Draconian craft to the two Alliance ships. Working together they continued to push the missile off-target.

    "Fifteen percent… fifteen point five… sixteen point five… we're doing it!' Cat's voice was full of energy, nervous and exhilarated at the same time.

    On the viewscreen they could all see the Earth looming ever larger. North America was starting to shift to one side of the screen.

    "Twenty-three…. twenty-three point nine… Twenty-five!"

    The missile was turned away enough that it dragged the two ships beyond Earth with it.

    "I'm picking up a fluctuation in the warhead! I think the tractor pressure is affecting the naqia inside! We need to get distance, now."

    "Break off! Break off!"

    At Robert's command the tractor beams shut down and the Aurora pulled away from the missile. The Koenig did likewise. The missile flew on, accelerated to such an extent that it would take a complicated maneuver to put it back on course for Earth.

    It never got that chance. The delicate payload it was carrying had been disturbed too greatly. Resonating with energy, there were no mechanisms to stop the destabilized naqia within from exploding with the massive energy it contained within. The missile was instantly vaporized.

    The Aurora shields shuddered slightly. "No damage from the blast," Jarod said. "But I'm reading faults in all main and secondary impulse drives."

    "Aye. I'll be needin' tae take 'em offline an' put work crews on 'em for a day or so, otherwise we'll be sittin' ducks," said Scotty.

    "You're free to do that as soon as this fight is over and we safely make orbit. Bridge out." Robert checked the tactical map. The Draconian fighters were down to just ten, and that number was declining more and more quickly as the inverse square law went to work. "Recall Fox and Echo for re-arming," he said. "And have Charlie launch. I doubt they'll get there in time to fight, but I want a CAP out now at all times, at least until we find out if we're facing more attacks."

    He was answered by nods and "Aye"s.

    "Signal Doctor Huer and Emissary Ledosh," he said to Julia. "I'd like them to beam up so we can go over this attack."

    "I'm sending Ledosh a signal now," she answered. "And I already ordered out the S&R runabouts and shuttles. And I detailed the Irrawaddy to beam up whatever's left of that missile for study."

    "A good idea." And as the Aurora moved into orbit and the battle came to an end, Robert let himself wonder just what was going on. The Draconians were an aggressive and powerful empire, yes, but technologically, they weren't supposed to be this well-off. What's going on? And who was responsible for this? Some rogue Draconian officer or is it their Emperor?



    In a star system not too far from Earth, an angry female voice cried out, "Damn them! How did they survive?!"

    The reserved man standing next to her considered his answer carefully. "We may have underestimated Earth's new friends."

    At that the woman's look soured. Princess Ardala of the Draconian Empire was used to getting her own way, but yet again the defenders of Earth had thwarted her. She took solace in the idea that the failures were from others. "It shouldn't have mattered. Clearly our agents were inept. And now one of the weapons has been expended uselessly. My father will be incensed. He will blame me." She looked toward her right hand man. Kane was a man of tanned complexion and reserved cunning, which she found useful when she didn't find it utterly annoying. "How long until the other weapons can be fired?"

    Kane made the mental calculation of his answer. He recognized that look of imperial impatience crossing the otherwise-lovely Ardala's face. "Assembly is taking some time," he confessed. "There is only so much of the special material, after all, and it is needed for powering the new deflectors as well as being used for the warheads. It will be at least a day before we can launch another wave."

    "We must speed things up." Ardala's scowl was joined by a look of consideration. "Surely you can get that thing to be more cooperative?"

    "It will not."

    "Your torturers cannot break it?"

    "They have not yet. They dare not use the furthest degree, it would kill the creature in its fragile state."

    "Very well. See what can be gleaned from the data we recovered instead. We cannot let this happen again. The next time we launch these weapons, the Earth must be destroyed." Ardala smiled ferociously. "And then all of known space will bow to the Draconian Empire."

    And I will be remembered as the one who brought it about, was her concluding thought on that outcome.




    Conference Room 1 was the site of the assembly chosen to examine the Draconian attack. In attendance were the command officers of the Aurora and Koenig joined by Ledosh, Dr. Huer, Dr. Theopolis (With Twiki carrying him as usual), and Wilma and Buck. Leo was conspicuously absent, still tending to Director Sung and to other casualties in the battle. All of the attendees had seats and Jarod took the seat to direct the briefing while Huer and Robert were at the heads of the adjacent tables. "I've managed to get some atomic analysis scans of the missile debris, to give us an idea of where the Draconian technology comes from." Jarod frowned. "And the answer isn't good."

    "So what is it?" Buck asked.

    "Well, the remaining energy pattern is consistent with what destabilized naqia would give off," Jarod said. "But I would say the most important piece evidence is from the fighter debris. We managed to recover part of the deflector generators they were using on the Hatchet fighters."

    "Nice," said Buck. "Whatever it is, it took a lot of time to punch through."

    "And that's not surprising, given what we've found." Jarod's look was somber. "The deflectors are Darglan technology."

    Mouths opened in mute disbelief. Everyone stared.

    And then, after checking the scan results Jarod displayed, both Scotty and Barnes nodded. "Well, I'll be," said Scotty. "It's Darglan alright. Looks t' be a more advanced version of th' deflectors we installed on th' Aurora."

    "So the Draconians have frakking Darglan technology?" Barnes shook his head. "Because… holy crap, man, that makes them really frakking dangerous."

    "That it does," Ledosh agreed, his calm tone a contrast to the disturbed expression that came to his face. "To think that such a treacherous people are abusing the legacy of the Darglan people…"

    Of course, the weight of the finding was lost on much of the other side's attendees. "Who were the Darglan anyway?" asked Buck.

    "A species that existed thousands of years ago," replied Julia. "They built the interuniversal jump drives we use. They built a lot of advanced technology."

    "It's gonna frakking suck if these bastards got their hands on IU drives," Barnes complained.

    "The only way to know for sure is to find out more about this attack," Buck said. "And where it was launched from. Doctor Huer, any ideas?"

    "Before I came up I consulted with our intelligence people," Huer said. "There have been reports about intense Draconian interest in the Pleiades Sector. They've recently annexed several systems in that area."

    "Did anyone protest this?" Robert asked.

    "None. That region of space is open, and has little value."

    "Pleiades?" Caterina looked up. "If it's the Pleiades Cluster, then that actually makes sense."

    "What makes sense, Cat?" Robert asked.

    She operated the control at her seat to bring up a sensor reading. "I got this from the remnant debris of the missile. There wasn't much left, but there was enough for me to determine that it contains a rare isotope of Hafnium, Hafnium-178m2, probably in the missile's batteries."

    "I am aware of Hafnium-178m2," said Dr. Theopolis, the lights of his disc flashing as he spoke. "It occurs naturally in only one solar system. Pleiades-24."

    "Just like in every other universe." Caterina smiled. "I bet that the missile was manufactured in that system, or somewhere near it."

    "What do you want to bet the Draconians are building these things wherever they found this alien technology?" Buck asked rhetorically.

    "Using local resources where possible would keep their project from becoming more visible," Jarod agreed. "So this is the perfect place to begin a search."

    "There's a stargate that leads to Pleiades," Wilma noted. "We can make it in two jumps. But it could take weeks to search with conventional drives, if the Draconians are in another one of the systems."

    "The Koenig's warp drive will make it easier to cover distance," Zack said. "We can go out there and look around. Under cloak. And I bet if they've got anything Darglan, it's got a DT field."

    "A DT field?" asked Huer.

    "A dimensionally transcendental field, Doctor," Caterina said. "It makes things bigger on the inside than they are on the outside."

    "That sounds like an extraordinary technology," Theopolis remarked, with as much excitement as his robotic voice could perhaps muster. "I look forward to learning more of these Darglan."

    "I'll be glad to open our database to you, Doctor," Caterina said, smiling at the AI. "With permission of course."

    "So what happens when you find this place?" Buck asked.

    "We put a few solar torpedoes into it, I suppose," Zack answered. "Unless we want to try to insert a team to see what's there?"

    Buck nodded. "That's exactly my thought. It might tell us more about what the Draconians are planning."

    "Are you up to it, Buck?" asked Huer.

    That prompted a grin from the pilot. "As always, Doc. You know me."

    "Hopefully you will not do anything reckless," stated Theopolis, "although past experience indicates a high probability of my hope failing."

    "I'm not sending Captain Rogers in alone," Robert stated. He looked to where Commander Kane was sitting quietly. "Take a squad that you think works for this op, Commander, and have the Bastilone ready."

    "The Bastilone?" Buck asked.

    Kane nodded. "She's our special ops assault runabout, comes equipped with a cloaking device. The Koenig can get us close and the Bastilone will insert us."

    Meridina nodded. "I shall accompany you."

    "And we'll bring Lieutenant Lucero, if she's up to it," Kane said. "Which I'm sure she'll be."

    "As long as our force isn't too big, otherwise we'll never sneak in," Buck warned. He was still grinning slightly. "Although I'll enjoy the backup."

    "Should I go too?" Caterina asked. "If you're handling Darglan technology, I mean."

    "I've got another project for you, Cat, with Jarod." Robert looked at them. "Just in case more of these missiles come, I want a countermeasure that doesn't require us to burn out our impulse drives."

    "Right." Jarod nodded.

    "And since the Aurora is bound to orbit for another…" Robert looked to Scott next.

    "Give me another thirty hours, sir," Scotty answered. "My crews are doin' th' best they can, but a lot o' our components need replacin'."

    Robert nodded. "Then we're not going anywhere until then. Once we have a countermeasure idea in place, we can join the Koenig in Pleiades for the search or to hit their base."

    "Might I join you in your efforts to counter the new Draconian missiles?" Theopolis requested. "I believe I will be able to assist you."

    "We'll be glad to have you," was Robert's answer.

    "We'll see you in Science Lab 2, then," Caterina said, still grinning. Working with Data had been great, and she was looking forward to working with another AI.

    "Biddi-biddi-biddi, at least she's a cutie," said Twiki.

    "Twiki, that is quite unacceptable. Lieutenant Delgado is a scientist and should be treated like one."

    "You're no fun."

    Wilma cracked a slight grin and looked to Buck. "You have taught him too well," she said, prompting an innocent look from Buck. After that remark she turned her head toward where Robert and Huer were sitting. "I'll keep my pilots on standby. We should have the entire squadron back to full readiness by tomorrow evening."

    "I can coordinate with Commander Laurent and Colonel Deering," offered Julia, glancing Robert's way.

    "That works for me," he replied. Robert, in turn, met Huer's look. "And I'll ask Admiral Maran for more ships. I'm just not sure how many we'll get or when. The fleet's heavily engaged in operations against the Nazis right now."

    "I shall consult with President Morgan on the issue," Ledosh stated. "And it is possible I may be able to persuade the Gersallian government to provide assistance independent of Alliance command."

    "I understand," Huer said. "I'll call in what favors I can. There are worlds near to us, trading partners and allies, also being threatened by the Draconians. We can get help."

    "It looks like we've got everything planned out. Is there anything else, Doctor Huer?"

    The older man shook his head. "I'll issue my report to the other directors and to the Computer Council on what our reaction will be, and begin mobilizing our remaining defense squadrons."

    "Then our meeting's over." Robert stood, signaling the others to do the same.

    Zack turned to Buck and nodded. "You've got anything you want to bring with you?"

    "A few things," Buck said.

    "My people should be ready to launch in a couple of hours, I'll be waiting for you at the airlock."

    While they left, Huer approached Robert, Ledosh standing beside him. "Do you know anything about Director Sung's condition, Captain?"

    "Before the meeting Leo said he was prepping her for surgery to repair damaged organs," Robert replied. "I can take you to the medbay to see if she's out of the OR."

    "Thank you, Captain, but I wouldn't wish to be a burden when you have so much to do already."

    "I shall escort you then, Doctor," Ledosh said quietly. "I will use the time in the medbay to compose my messages to President Morgan and Director Anjila. And then we can discuss matters as they are needed."

    "Thank you then, Emissary."

    Ledosh led Huer off. Robert took a moment to let everyone get out before he left as well, his message to Admiral Maran already forming in his mind.








    Meridina found Lucy in the Lookout enjoying a late lunch. Like Meridina she hadn't gone planetside for the ill-fated reception. Meridina had volunteered to stay while Lucy, never one for diplomatic receptions, had turned down Julia's offer to list her as a senior officer for the reception invitations.

    Now, the thought came to her that if she had gone down, she might have seen the attack coming, and maybe fewer people would have gotten hurt.

    There was little time for guilt, however. Lucy was finishing a much-desired meal and was already thinking about the repairs she would need to do when Meridina stepped up. "Lucy," she said. "I am afraid I recommended you for a dangerous mission."

    "Well, as long as you didn't volunteer me," Lucy answered, grinning. "I'm up for it, as you know."

    "Indeed." Meridina nodded. "And now that you have shared your insights with Mastrash Ledosh, the knowledge will pass on as you requested."

    "If it were any Mastrash other than Ledosh, I'd be worried about the plans being shared with other groups," Lucy said before digging her spoon into a mostly-consumed container of sausage stew. "But I know he will. So, how are we going to be facing death now?"

    Meridina felt the calm confidence and humor in Lucy and smiled with satisfaction. She could never stop appreciating Lucy's bravery. "The Draconians of this universe have Darglan technology."

    The confident grin vanished from Lucy's expression. "Crap," she muttered. "That's bad."

    "It is. We will join a team of Commander Kane's Marines and Captain Rogers in attempting to infiltrate whatever installation we discover."

    "Right." Lucy thought deeply for a moment. "I wonder how the Draconians accessed a Darglan database or Facility. Their access panels don't recognize just anyone."

    "Indeed. Perhaps we shall find out."

    "So this Captain Rogers guy… is he an observer or something?' Lucy asked. "Someone Earth's sending along to see how we do it?"

    "Actually, he volunteered to perform the mission alone," Meridina said. "Which is brave and reckless."

    "Really reckless." Lucy nodded in agreement. "Anyway, I'd better get my stuff together. We're riding on the Koenig, right?"

    "We are."

    "Right. I guess I'd better get my pack for the Koenig."

    Meridina's look was curious. Lucy, in turn was bemused by feeling that curiosity. "A pack for the Koenig?"

    "Clothes. Hygiene essentials. Snacks. The replicators on that ship are crap, I don't care what people say about that Quarian girl fixing them. And some reading material in case I'm too keyed up on caffeine to meditate and need something to do." Lucy sighed. "And maybe I'll take a shower since only Zack has a shower on that ship, dammit."

    "I'm quite certain he will let you use it if you ask," Meridina said.

    She was quite surprised when Lucy broke out laughing at that suggestion. "I am not getting into Zachary Carrey's shower," Lucy announced. "I don't care how faithful he is to Clara Davis. Not. Happening."

    Meridina's response was a confused look, followed by a bemused one as she understood the context.




    Wilma was still on the Aurora when Buck came back, now wearing his favored brown jacket over a dark blue shirt and black trousers. His duffel bag was on his shoulder. Julia had provided Wilma a digital reader with a map of the ship and appropriate directions so she could take Buck to the airlock for the Koenig's dock. "It's too bad you're not going," Buck said to Wilma. "It's going to feel odd, not having you watching my back."

    "You seem to have done well enough for yourself before you met me," Wilma pointed out.

    "Well, yeah, but…" Buck stopped speaking as he considered what to say, and how Wilma might react. "...I've gotten used to being watching my six, in and out of the cockpit."

    A soft smiled came to Wilma's face at that admission. "And I've gotten used to keeping you out of trouble. Or trying to, anyway." They stepped into a turbolift. Wilma had learned about the voice control and asked for the appropriate deck. The lift began moving. "They're good people," she said. "This crew. You're in good hands."

    "That's what I was thinking."

    When they got to the airlock Zack was waiting with a crewman, a well-built young Dorei man. "Crewman Hagao will take your bag to the guest quarters we've set aside for you," he said. "I'll take you on a tour once we're away, if you'd like."

    Buck nodded and handed the duffel bag to the blue-skinned, teal-spotted alien, who walked back through the airlock.

    Meridina and Lucy arrived behind Wilma, wearing their blue robes and purple combat armor. Each carried a bag as well, although Meridina's was smaller. "You're not moving in," Zack said to Lucy.

    "She desires to be quite prepared," Meridina explained. "And she does not want to use your shower."

    Buck cracked a grin at that. Zack gave Lucy his best "I'm offended" look, which Lucy answered by sticking her tongue out before heading on through the airlock. "Those aren't your standard uniforms, are they?" Buck asked Zack.

    "No, they're in special field armor for the whole 'move things with the power of my life force' thing," Zack answered.

    "Ah."

    When they looked back, Julia was now standing beside Wilma. "Don't take stupid risks and find out everything you can," Julia said.

    Buck looked to Zack. "Is she talking to me or…?"

    "She's being a mother hen, as usual," Zack announced, causing Julia to cross her arms. "I'm already feeling sorry for her crew on the Enterprise. Now let's get going…"

    They walked through the airlock and into the Koenig. Buck noted how much more restricted the space was in the smaller ship. "It's not quite as bad as a submarine," he said, "but this feels like an entirely different design style from the Aurora."

    "The Koenig isn't made for multi-mission long-distance cruises," Zack said. "Back in the day we built her to be a gut-puncher and not much else. She's quick, she's agile, she packs a wallop and is a lot harder to kill than she looks, but she's not built for extended missions. That's why we're hooked up to the Aurora."

    "So she's a set of guns strapped to an engine?"

    "Pretty much." Zack led Buck into a turbolift and said "Deck 1". the lift carried them down and up the ship until they stepped out onto what passed for Deck 1, which was the lift door, an escape pod hatch, Zack's ready office, and beyond these, the bridge itself.

    Meridina and Lucy were already at the rear of the bridge, standing quietly. As Zack approached his command chair Magda was the first to begin speaking. "Sir, all crew have reported in. Engineering is bringing all reactors online."

    "Good." Zack stopped at his chair and looked to Buck. "Captain Rogers, this is my remaining command crew. Lieutenant Creighton Apley, my first officer, is at the helm. Lieutenant Magda Navaez, operations officer, and Lieutenant April Sherlily, tactical officer. Doctor Roliri Opani is down in the infirmary as usual. Everyone, this is Captain Buck Rogers of Earth, he's joining us for this mission."

    "You can call me Buck," he said to everyone. "There's no need for formalities."

    "If you wish," Magda said. "Although the name is bizarre. Did your parents think highly of deer?"

    Zack took his seat. "Alright, we have an evil empire and a secret base full of Darglan technology we have to take away from them. Let's get going."

    "Yes sir," said Apley. "Releasing umbilicals and docking clamps. The airlock is secure…"

    Zack sat back and let his crew get to work on the launch.




    Julia showed Wilma to the observation deck beside the airlock. They watched the doors to space slide open and the Koenig back out of its protected dock. As the doors began to close the Koenig was already turning in place. They had one last look at it accelerating away from the ship before the dock doors were again shut.

    Wilma glanced toward Julia. "You're worried for them?"

    Julia sighed and nodded. "Every time," she said. "Zack's one of my oldest friends in the world, as much as I want to smack him sometimes. And I'm always afraid that one day, he won't come back."

    "I know the feeling." Wilma nodded. "Over the years, many of my friends in the Defense Directorate's pilot corps have come under my command." Her light blue eyes took on a distant look, as if imagining faces… faces she would never see again. "I don't want to count the number of times we flew back from a mission and they weren't there."

    "And it was worse being their commander, wasn't it?" Julia asked.

    Wilma nodded quietly. "It makes me responsible." After a moment she asked, "Do you have an officer lounge?"

    "We have an senior officers-only wardroom up by the bridge, the Conference Lounge," Julia answered. "But in a mood like ours, I think Hargert's dinner is just the thing we need."

    "Hargert?" asked Wilma. "And that is…?"

    Julia smiled. "The best damn cook in the Multiverse. This way, Colonel." She started walking toward the exit.
     
  16. Threadmarks: 2-15-3
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    Space split open and the ASV Koenig emerged, her lines and squat size giving her the look of a predator. This was enhanced as she shimmered out of sight like a shark sliding beneath the waves to hunt prey.

    "We're secure from the jump," said Apley.

    "Cloaking device engaged," added Magda. "The cloak is operating properly."

    Zack nodded and winced. "Those jumps, do they make you feel nauseous like that, Buck?"

    Buck nodded from his spare chair to the side, at an auxiliary station. "Every time." A glint appeared in his eye. "But don't tell Colonel Deering."

    "Our lips are sealed," Zack promised on behalf of his crew, confident they'd keep the secret. "Magda, what do we have on our scans?"

    "Absolutely no sign of a DT field effect," Magda replied. "And I'm running all of Lieutenant Delgado's search parameters."

    "Huh. Well, keep scanning. Ap, do you have a course for Pleiades-24?"

    "Already laid in," Apley replied. "Warp power at your word."

    "It's given."

    After the flash of energy and light on the screen confirmed they had completed the jump to warp, Zack looked to Buck. "Want that tour?" he asked.

    "Sure."

    Zack stood up. "Ap, you have the bridge. Let me know when we get to Pleiades-24."




    Julia was surprised to see Wilma Deering eye her plates cautiously as they were delivered by Albert. The young German man noticed it as well. "Is something wrong, Colonel?" he asked.

    "Oh… nothing," she said, and forced a small smile. "Nothing at all."

    "If you need anything, let me know." Albert nodded and walked away, leaving them with plates of chili beef and cheese burritos, corn chips, mashed and diced potatoes, and oranges and avocados.

    "Is something wrong?" Julia asked. "You look like you already know you're not going to enjoy it."

    Wilma's smile remained. "Buck tries to cook these kinds of things for us."

    "Oh." Julia chuckled. "And I'm guessing he's not a good cook."

    "The taste is… special." Wilma eyed the food for another moment before transferring one of the burritos from the central plate to her empty personal one. "We normally don't eat food like this, actually."

    "Oh?"

    "Much of Earth's agricultural land was left irradiated by the Third World War," she explained. "That's why we import so much of our food, and import is more efficient with processed food discs. Buck often complains about them not being real food."

    "Hopefully your Earth's choices will grow now that you're involved with the Alliance," Julia said. As she considered what Wilma had just said about her Earth, Julia could imagine the nightmarish image of all of the golden fields of grain she'd grown up with withering and dying off. "And maybe we can fix your Earth. I hear they're already making progress repairing the Earth in N2S7, and L4R2's Earth is going to be resettled soon."

    "So our Earth wasn't the only one to get ruined."

    "They can't even find Earth of S0T5 anymore," Julia said. "It's been gone for three thousand years. Your Earth's made it through pretty well compared to the others."

    It was clear Wilma was not going to be heartened by that alone. Julia wondered how she might have turned out living in such a world, an Earth trying to crawl its way back from the edge of extinction. "I've read that there are Humans on a number of other worlds not connected to Earth."

    "Yes. The histories are vague," Wilma answered. "So many records were lost during the war and all of the ships fleeing. It's hard to believe Humanity was able to spread so far after the war."

    "Did you have help?" Julia asked. "Maybe another species took pity on you?"

    "None that we know of." Wilma tried another corn chip for a moment. "I suppose it's possible in the years after the war. What we have now is owed to the Computer Council, the original artificial intelligence computers that directed the rebuilding of Earth."

    To that, Julia nodded before taking a bite and enjoying the taste, although she was quick to ease the spiciness of the food with a drink from her glass of fruit juice. "Do you ever regret your position? Climbing to command?"

    Wilma shook her head. "No. Well, not usually. Once and awhile I wonder if I might be happier if I'd done something else. But this is where I want to be. It's where I can meet the challenges that I want in life, and protect the things I care about. The people I care about."

    Julia nodded quietly. "I know the sentiment."

    Wilma, who was nibbling at a corn chip but still avoiding the burrito, swallowed and said, "I heard Commander Carrey mention something about an 'Enterprise'?"

    Julia drew in a breath and raised her eyes for a moment, as if seeking strength from above. "He's trying to be helpful." She took another bite of the burrito and wanted to moan at how good it tasted, at the texture of the burrito or the taste of the filling. It was almost uncomfortably hot, but Hargert had been very exact in the balance of spices, making the burrito hot but manageable and, most importantly, rich in flavor. "I was offered a command earlier this year. A promotion to Captain and command of a new starship, the first in a new class of ships based off of the Aurora."

    "Congratulations," said Wilma. "When do you take command?"

    "At the end of the year. If I say yes. I have about a week to give my final answer." Julia took another drink.

    Wilma nodded. "So you're not sure if you want the post?"

    After a moment of quiet consideration, Julia said, "I'm divided. A part of me is leaping at it. Leaping at the chance to be the Captain of the Starship Enterprise. But at the same time… these are my people. This is my ship. Leaving to take over another ship, I… well, I'm worried about the others. Robert will have to find a First Officer that works with his command style, he'll need a new tactical officer because Angel, that is the older Lieutenant Delgado, would come with me… plus I'll have to put together my command crew and get used to the whole thing." As she listed the challenges, Julia felt something inside of her that was almost eager. Yes, challenges, challenges that she could take charge of.

    It was clear Wilma could see some of that. "Something tells me you'll do well either way," Wilma said. "You could stay here and continue to be Dale's First Officer until he's promoted. But that's not the same as taking a ship and making it yours, is it?'

    "No." Julia shook her head. She felt the rush recede. "No, it's not. The Enterprise would be my ship. My crew."

    "I felt the same way when I took command of the 69th," Wilma said.

    Julia nodded in acknowledgement. It wasn't hard to imagine. Wilma Deering had that feeling to her, a confidence in command that Julia respected. She liked being around the starfighter pilot and commander.

    It was, to Julia, time to end this topic of conversation. She eyed the uneaten burrito Wilma had pulled onto her plate and smiled. "You wouldn't happen to be trying to avoid eating this, would you?" she asked, her tone full of humor.

    The response from Wilma was a bemused look. After that she took in a breath, as if to steel herself, and picked up the burrito and took a bite of it. Her eyes widened as she experienced the taste for the first time. Julia considered it a good sign when she commenced chewing and eventually swallowed. "This is… actually very good," Wilma admitted. "I wish Buck could cook like this."

    "I told you." Now Julia's smile widened. "Hargert is the best damn cook in the Multiverse."




    The tour of the Koenig was brief, given the size of the ship. It ended in the mess hall, where they replicated a meal of basic chicken sandwiches with french fries and potato chips, plus drinks. Buck took his first bite and Zack could see a familiar uncertainty in his face. "It doesn't taste right, does it?" Zack asked.

    "It is a little off," Buck said. He ate another chip. "But it's better than food discs."

    At that Zack chuckled. "It's actually still pretty good compared to what it can be. A young Quarian girl we had on the ship several weeks ago fixed the mess replicator to the point it almost tasted real. I'll have to ask Tom about giving it another maintenance repair soon." Zack took a bite of his sandwich while Buck tried the same. When he finished swallowing, "She's a small ship, but she's mine. In a manner of speaking."

    "I know that feeling." Buck nodded. "Once you've flown something like this, it always stays with you."

    "It does."

    After they enjoyed their meal a little more, Buck said, "It looks like you and your friends have managed to land on your feet when it comes to leaving behind the 20th, 21st Century world."

    To that Zack remained quiet for a moment. "We didn't have a whole lot to go back to," he admitted. "Rob's parents were dead, Julie's, Leo's… Tom left his folks behind and never looked back. Angel and Cat lost their mother a couple of years before everything happened, I lost my mom years ago…"

    "Nobody to go back to, then?" asked Buck. "Your father?"

    An old pain shot through Zack. It appeared on his face and was evident in his brown eyes. "Dad had problems. Alcohol."

    Buck nodded slightly.

    "Eventually it got his health. Before it did, he made mistakes, and we both paid for them." Zack held a fry in his hand and considered it a moment. Old memories of happy visits to fast food restaurants, of plastic toys and salty french fries, bubbled up despite his desires to the contrary. "A… friend of mine, a close friend, talked me into going back to Earth and seeing him. I wanted him to come out here, maybe get treatment, but it was too late. He died the morning after I arrived."

    "I'm sorry," was all Buck could say. "And your… friend?" He'd noticed the look Zack had on bringing the friend up, and it wasn't hard to imagine what he was talking about.

    "She left Earth, came out here. We met again by chance." Zack's thoughts went to Clara. He wasn't sure when he'd get a long enough leave period, but when he did he intended to catch the next starliner to New Caprica. "She's a nurse on a colony of Human survivors in N2S7. We see each other when we can."

    "Good. I'm happy for you."

    There was something in the way Buck said his well-wishes that made Zack look at him more intently while he chewed, quietly, on the fry he'd been holding. Buck continued to eat quietly as well.

    "We're luckier than you," Zack finally said. "I mean, we don't have a lot to go back to, but at least we could."

    "It's nothing."

    Zack looked at him. Buck, noticing that Zack was looking for a reaction, responded with a smile. "I've gotten used to it," he said. "And it's not like I can complain. I wanted to be an astronaut from the moment I joined the Air Force. Now I travel between worlds and I fly a starfighter." He held up what was left of his sandwich. "And now that the Alliance has come along, maybe we'll even get proper food again. So in the end, being frozen until the end of the 25th Century worked out for me."

    For a moment Zack said nothing. He couldn't help but think that Buck was hiding something behind his smile. But he couldn't be sure. "It's good to hear that," Zack answered. "It's been a long day, and we'll arrive at Pleiades-24 in the early morning hours. I can show you to your quarters before I head back to the bridge."

    "A little sleep won't hurt," Buck agreed, still smiling.

    Zack nodded back, still wondering what could be beneath that friendly smile.




    The time flashed 0100 and Caterina was only now yawning. Jarod had already left for the evening, leaving her alone with Theopolis and Twiki. Working with them wasn't like working with Data, but she enjoyed it all the same.

    Of course, the problem wasn't so easy to deal with. The screens in Science Lab 2 showed the simulations and the news wasn't happy. Another result flashed across the main screen. Cat groaned at the result. "Another successful hit," she said.

    "And the casualty numbers are catastrophic," Theopolis added. "By my calculations, three of these missiles alone would do lasting damage to Earth's biosphere. Even one will devastate a large section of the globe. Billions of deaths are likely."

    Caterina checked the simulation parameters again. The planet-based weapons solution, already unlikely to establish, would still fail because the missiles couldn't be destroyed in time. Not with their powerful deflectors. "The tractor beam satellites might still be our best bet," she said. "If they can cause destabilized naqia warheads to detonate prematurely…"

    "Unfortunately, the power requirements to restrain the missiles for a long enough period to induce destabilization is not feasible. Starships will be required."

    "Do you have civilian ships? Merchant ships? Something we can rig up for this?"

    "We have very few of the ships of requisite size and power generation capability, and re-directing them to this task would have a severe effect upon food imports." Theopolis' lights blinking continued to draw Caterina's attention. Unfortunately, they also seemed to be making her even sleepier. Assuming that wasn't just general sleepiness. "I will still forward the idea to the Computer Council and determine if there are sufficient available ships to protect the planet."

    "I'm sure we can come up with something…" Caterina yawned yet again. "...better."

    "Lieutenant, might I recommend you get some rest?" Theopolis suggested. "Your thought processes will benefit from getting sleep."

    "What? No. No, I can just…" She yawned again. "...get coffee."

    The door to the lab opened. Violeta walked in and let out a sigh at seeing Caterina slouching slightly in her chair, clearly desperate to stay awake. "Commander Andreys warned me you'd do this," Violeta sighed.

    "Biddi-biddi-biddi, that's what I call a dye job."

    Violeta ignored Twiki's remark and finished walking up to Cat. She knelt down beside her and touched her on the cheek. "You need your sleep, Cat. Let's go back to your quarters."

    "I'm almost… if I look at the problem a bit more…" Caterina looked at her girlfriend with her hazel eyes now bleary. "Just get me some coffee?"

    "No. Commander Andreys and Captain Dale made it clear you needed to go to sleep tonight." Violeta stood up. "Let me take you to bed."

    "It is an excellent idea," said Theopolis. "Twiki and I can continue to run simulations while you rest."

    "But…" Nevertheless Caterina was swaying as she stood up. As a result she nearly fell into Violeta's arms. Violeta steadied her lover and gave her a slight kiss on the cheek. "Come on, Cat."

    Cat mumbled a protest but did not resist.




    Given the time and their ETA, Zack had ordered his command crew to bed and left the bridge in the hands of Ensign Driik and the third shift bridge crew. He'd settled into sleep well enough and dreamed of being back home, of his mother and a warm summer sky and a baseball game…

    He had just hit the ball low through the infield, sending it just below the out-stretched hand of the short-stop, when a tone woke him up. Zack gently raised his head from the lone pillow for his cot. A blue light was blinking above his left palm. He sighed and tapped it. "Carrey here."

    "Sir, we will be arriving at Pleiades-24 in precisely three minutes," chirped Ensign Driik. The young Alakin male's voice was slightly distorted and off due to the translator systems needed to convert Alakin speech into something that could sound English. "Technical Officer Robinson is already commencing sensor scans. Do you wish me to alert the senior officers?"

    Zack yawned and rubbed at his right eye. He could still imagine the warm Kansas sun and the dust of the baseball diamond, as if his brain didn't quite want to come out of the dream yet. He forced in a breath and shook his head, as if to clear his mind with the motion. When it didn't quite work he started to rub his forehead instead. "Okay. Let me know if you find anything, but don't call up the others yet. They need their rest."

    "Yes sir."

    The omnitool disengaged its interface, leaving only the small braces on his elbow and fingers that served as the physical pieces of the omnitool. Zack laid back in his cot and rested his hands over his belly, or rather over the plain gray uniform undershirt covering it. He felt himself start to nod off.

    He was just starting to fall asleep again when the tone went off again. His eyes opened again and he reached for the flashing light of his omnitool. "Carrey here."

    "Commander, we have something on sensors," Driik said. "We're reading a power signature on the third planet of the system."

    Zack sighed at that and sat up. "Alright. Alert the senior officers. I'm on my way."




    The bridge opened and Zack, now in his uniform, found that Apley had already beaten him here. "You didn't sleep in your uniform, did you Ap?" he asked as Apley vacated the command chair and relieved Driik from the helm.

    "No sir, I'm just a quick dresser."

    Zack took his chair and looked to where a young woman, fair-haired and with a slight tan, was seated at Ops. "What do we have on sensors?"

    "Looks like a structure in orbit over the third planet. It's only showing on the narrow band subspace sensors," she replied, her accent reflecting her Australian roots. Zack quickly recalled what he knew of her. Technical Officer Jane Robinson was an enlisted crewwoman who had completed sufficient training to man an officer's bridge station without a full officer course or commission yet. He was certain she would eventually transfer to the Aurora to become a full science officer once her posting on the Koenig was complete. "It looks like there's some kind of sensor dampening field present to hide the power signature from most kinds of sensors. Honestly, if we didn't have Darglan tech in our sensors, we wouldn't be seeing them either."

    "Take us in, Ap. Set ship condition to Blue."

    "Yes sir," Apley said.

    "Setting to Code Blue, sir," Robinson added. With a few key presses she caused blue lights to appear in the wall paneling, informing the crew of the potential for hostilities.

    Over the next minute both Sherlily and Magda arrived, relieving Robinson and the young man who'd been at tactical; Technical Officer Jesus Perez, Zack recalled. Everyone was in place for when the Koenig dropped out of warp some distance from the planet.

    The planet itself was a barren, rocky world, clearly not a life-bearing planet at first glance. As they drew close Zack could make out a shape in orbit. It was a series of blocky, open structures. "A construction yard," he murmured.

    "There's definitely a dampening field that's hiding this location from most sensors," Magda said. "Robinson was spot on about that. I might have missed what we are seeing, it looks a lot like background subspace radiation. The kind you'd expect to see around a B1V sequence star."

    "So it's a perfect place to hide something, that's what you're saying," Zack said.

    "It is, sir." Magda started examining her sensors again. After another ten seconds passed she cried out, "Stop! All stop, now!"

    Apley did so, confident in Magda's judgement and Zack's likely agreement with his assessment of it. The Koenig cut her velocity and came to a stop (or at least a relative one).

    "What is it?"

    "Detection satellite, sir," Magda said. "Still inside the dampening field, but they didn't calibrate its systems properly or we'd have stumbled right into it."

    "Can they see us cloaked?"

    "Likely. I'm detecting signs of a gravitic grid. No sign of tachyons, though."

    The thought immediately occurred to Zack. "Can the Bastilone slip through?"'

    Magda clearly had to think about it. Finally she nodded. "I think so, yes. The runabout has a very good cloaking system, and the smaller mass may not disturb the gravitic triggers."

    "Well then." Zack hit a key on his chair. "Carrey to Meridina."

    The reply was swift, enough to show she was awake. "Yes, Commander?"

    "Please get Kane, Lucy, and Captain Rogers and be ready to meet with me and Lieutenant Navaez in our conference room on Deck 2 in half an hour. I'll have breakfast ready."

    "Very well, sir. Meridina out."

    "Ap, you have the bridge, alert me if anything changes." Zack looked to Robinson, who had moved to an auxiliary station. "Tech Officer Robinson, resume Operations, and see if you can get us some better scans. On the down low, I don't want them to see us coming."

    "Yes sir," the young Australian answered.

    "Magda, with me please." He stood from his command chair. Driik stepped forward to reclaim the helm while Apley moved to take the chair. "I need coffee."




    Thirty minutes later Zack and Magda were with the core of the insertion team. Further sensor scans by Robinson had yet to show anything else. "It's possible that the Bastilone might find more information once it's in range," Magda informed them while a holographic view of the planet and the yard structure over it hung in the air. "So far what we can see is that they are constructing spacecraft of an unknown kind."

    "Although it's probably those missiles," Lucy remarked.

    "I agree. Either way, we can't get any closer without triggering their gravitic net. And there's no telling what defenses they have."

    "So this is an insertion to discover and disable their defensive systems," Kane noted. "And we'll have to figure out an insertion strategy on the way in."

    "That about sums it up," Zack said.

    "Well, it's not the best plan." Buck nodded to Kane. "But I'm pretty good at making it up as we go in."

    "Murphy always messes plans up anyway," Kane agreed. "I'll get the squad ready. We've got suits in case we need to go EVA or if there's something planetside."

    "Meanwhile we'll stay here and monitor the situation," said Zack. "If you need us to come in, call right away. Now, are you ready to go?"

    "Like I said, I'll get my squad and load them on the Bastilone," Kane answered. "We'll brief on the way in, since there's not much to brief."

    "I'm ready," Buck said.

    Lucy and Meridina both nodded. "Ready," added Lucy.

    "Then you're all dismissed." Zack stood up. "Good luck."




    The Bastilone cloaked before leaving the shuttle bay built into the bottom of the Koenig. The assault runabout turned toward Pleiades-24 III and accelerated ahead. In the cockpit of the runabout Lucy was on pilot duty with Ensign Yang as co-pilot. "We're coming up on the gravitic grid," he said.

    "Keep an eye out for any reactions." As she said so, Lucy looked over the readings and guided the craft toward the point least likely to generate any reaction. She focused with her senses and sought out the grid's satellites. She would sense if they triggered, at least if she was right about this.

    "We're in the grid." Yang kept at work. Behind them, Buck, Meridina, and Kane watched quietly. Tense seconds passed before Yang added, "We're through. Still no sign that they detected us."

    "Good." Lucy carefully upped the sublight drives. As they drew closer to the planet she signaled for Yang to swap seats with her. He took over piloting duties while Lucy, now in his seat, brought up the sensors. "I'm detecting a microwave beam linking the yard to somewhere on the planet. I think that's their power source."

    "Microwaves? I'm guessing they're not for popping popcorn," Buck remarked.

    "It's a widespread method of transferring power between a planet and its orbital spaces," Lucy explained. "It's a weakness, though. If we take out the power source, the yard will be forced to rely on backups. It may be weakened. It might even be completely shut down."

    "And it'll definitely take out their defenses," Kane said. "Maybe we should go for removing the power supply then?"

    "That seems the wisest course," Meridina agreed. "Although it may be dangerous if the power source sustains an atmosphere."

    "That's what the suits are for, ma'am." Kane looked over her field armor suit. "Do you have a helmet for those?"

    "We do," Lucy answered. "I've already set their comms up."

    "And we've got a suit for Captain Rogers in the back." Kane motioned. "Mind joining me, Captain?"

    "Certainly." They stepped into the back.

    "Yang, take us in toward the source of those microwave emissions." Lucy used her own controls to indicate their destination. "The thin atmosphere will make it easier to avoid detection."

    "Aye ma'am."

    The Bastilone flew down into the atmosphere of the planet. The craft's special heat absorbers drew in the re-entry heat, helping the cloaking device to hide it, with said heat being sent into thermal heat exchangers to gradually be released into the atmosphere or to provide steady heating for climate purposes inside the craft.

    As they came up on the source of the microwave transmissions, Lucy gasped in shock. "Oh my God."

    "Swenya's Light," Meridina whispered. "It is… beautiful."

    The source of the emissions had been coming from a tall mountain, at least 12 kilometers tall. Stretching for dozens of kilometers around the mountain was lush, live-bearing landscape. To the north was a rich temperate forest, to the south a green canopy of jungle terrain. The west had a wide open steppe and the east, closest to them, was beautiful green grassland interspersed with patches of trees. As they swooped overhead Lucy looked out to see that a herd of quadruped mammals that looked like… "Wooly Mammoths," she murmured, in shock.

    Yang slightly adjust course, which allowed for them to evade a flock of orange-and-white avians that were flying proud.

    "It's a nature preserve," Yang said. "On a barren world."

    Lucy nodded. She could feel the life here. Nothing sapient, or entirely so, but still… She checked her sensors. "Life forms are all around this zone. It… it looks like some sort of field is sustaining an artificial atmosphere. Or maybe it was an attempt at terraforming."

    "Ma'am…"

    Yang prompted Lucy to look up… and scowl. The sides of the mountain had been scoured of life. She could make out open mining pits that had been torn from the forest along the northern edge. Large foundries and refineries had been built in the shadows of the mountain. "More life signs. Human, or at least near-Human. They must be the Draconians."

    "Where do we set down?" Yang asked.

    "One moment." She kept scanning, and as she did she felt angry. So many star systems, so many planets and moons and asteroids… why did they have to scar such a marvel of engineering? This was a nature preserve. This was unnecessary, nothing but greed.

    Her scans confirmed Lucy's choice of landing. "Take us to these coordinates on the northeast face of the mountain," she said. "It looks like a landing pad for a structure inside of the mountain."

    Yang obeyed and flew them in that direction. Lucy, meanwhile, was already noting the presence of turreted defense guns, undoubtedly meant to shoot down aerial intruders. At least our cloaking device is holding.

    When they arrived at the landing pad Lucy made a quick scan. As she expected, there were security sensors, including a camera system. She walked into the back to find the others ready. "As you may have noticed looking outside, we won't be needing helmets."

    "My sensors were showing a breathable atmosphere," Kane said. "But we're keeping our helmets anyway. Makes it impossible for us to get hit by knockout gas."

    "We are quite impervious to such as well," Meridina stated. "Or at least, it is very difficult to use such on us."

    Buck eyed the helmet he had been about to put on. He tried it on. It was a standard model, which meant his face was fully visible through the main plate, and it wasn't too heavy. "This works for me," he said while holstering his gun. "So how do we get in without being seen?"

    "Whenever you're ready, Lucy?" Meridina asked.

    Lucy nodded. She went to the rear of the runabout and opened the hatch. The landing pad was empty, a light gray slab buried into the mountain-side, with two large red metal doors serving as an entrance. Lucy got down to her knees and put her hands in her lap.

    From Buck's perspective, nothing seemed to be happening for several moments. Lucy, of course, saw differently, using her connection to the universe to feel for energy currents around the sensors. Buck only realized what she was doing when several small bulb surfaces around the door sparked. "There." Lucy stood and gestured. "I knocked out all of the cameras here and within the first section. They'll think they had a mechanical fault, at least for a while. Meridina and I will cover for you once we're far enough inside, allowing you to hunt for a power source."

    "You're not just going to walk in, are you? Visible?"

    "They're going to know someone's here sooner or later. By the time they find out those cameras have failed intentionally, you'll be deeper inside, and we'll be ready to provide a distraction," Lucy replied.

    "I'll come along with you ladies," Buck said. "The Draconians will know me. It might help sell the deception."

    "We will appreciate any assistance you might provide, Captain Rogers," Meridina said. "Let us begin."




    It was breakfast in the Lookout, with a variety of breakfast choices being made available for the crew. The engineers were particularly hungry, many having worked extra shifts to make the wide-scale impulse repairs that Scott had deemed necessary.

    Julia sat at one corner table with a mug of coffee and an unfinished bowl of cereal beside the scraps of what remained of a cheese omelette. Her thoughts were on the choice she was faced with.

    "Any seats taken?"

    She looked up and saw Locarno standing over the table with a tray of breakfast in his hands. When she shook her head he sat down. "How are you this morning?" he asked.

    "Alright, I suppose. I'm due to beam down to New Chicago in an hour. Colonel Deering and I are going to discuss our defense plans with Doctor Huer."

    Locarno nodded. "Right." He dug into hashed potatoes. Before taking a bite he said, "She seems to be a good commander and a great pilot."

    "She is," Julia said. She waited for him to start his first mouthful before she continued. "I look at her and I think… 'That's what I want to be. I want to be in command. I want to be in charge.'"

    After swallowing Locarno said, "I know the feeling. I used to be convinced I was going to make Captain by the time I was thirty. Faster than Kirk."

    "I'm not looking to rush it," Julia said. "I was content to wait for Robert to decide to move on, or get promoted. He will be eventually, or he'll be transferred to wherever Admiral Maran thinks he can be useful."

    "Maybe. Although I hear the Gersallians believe in leaving people where they are if it's where they work best." When Julia didn't answer that Locarno said, "I suppose being offered the Enterprise changed your plans?"

    "It might. It should. Even thinking about how I'll need to adjust to a new command crew, how I'll need to settle into my new ship, it doesn't scare me as much as it excites me." Julia smiled slightly. She raised the cup of coffee and sipped at it. "It's a challenge. And I know I can meet it."

    "You've got the confidence." Locarno set his fork down and leaned forward in his chair. "What's holding you back, then?"

    "Like you need to ask." Julia took another drink.

    "You're worried about the rest of us? About how Robert will manage?"

    "Yes."

    Locarno nodded. And then he shook his head and chuckled. "It's funny. Your devotion to the rest of us may hold you back. My devotion to my friends is what kept pushing me on. To tackle bigger challenges, bigger assignments." He didn't state how that eventually ended, there was no need. "I've got no advice for you. I mean, I can understand both sides of what you're going through. But I can't help you choose. You're the one who has to live with it."

    "I know." Julia sighed and sipped at the coffee again. "But I can't help but thinking that no matter what choice I make, I'm going to feel regret for it."

    "Yeah. Probably." Locarno took another bite. After he finished swallowing it he added, "That's part of life, I guess. Hell, if I'd decided against trying the Kolvoord Starburst, I'd have probably regretted it. I would have kept thinking I had lost an opportunity to prove how skilled we were. How skilled I was." The bemused look on his face had a tinge of sadness at it. "Of course, I'd still be in Starfleet if I made that decision, and so would Hajar, and Josh and Jaxa would probably still be alive…"

    "Is that you trying to make me feel better…?"

    "Oh, no." Locarno shook his head. "That's just me thinking of how ridiculous that other Nicholas Locarno would be, and how if he found out what my life went like, he wouldn't feel a damn bit of regret."

    "Heh. Yeah, I can see that." Julia breathed out a sigh and let her spoon drop into the unfinished cereal. "I've eaten my fill, and I need to get things together for the meeting. I'll see you later, Nick."

    "See you later, Julia," he replied.




    They had made it some way further into the mountain base when Buck finally said what he was thinking. "This place isn't Draconian."

    The inside of the structure was gold in coloration, with blue and gold flooring. The aesthetics emphasized triangular shaping, with the ceiling tapering inward until it was a point about four meters above their heads, with open-bottomed rectangles hanging down every five meters or so and filled with bright white light to illuminate the halls. Occasionally they moved past shorted out sensors. The doors all seemed to lead to storage areas filled with boxes of material.

    "I have never seen a design aesthetic like this before," said Meridina.

    "It's certainly not Darglan." Lucy continued on, looking over her omnitool as she did. "I'm using low frequency, low power sonic pulses to try and map out this place. At least until we can find a terminal…"

    Their wish came at the next door. They stopped just outside of it; there were people inside according to Lucy's sensors. "If we go in, they'll raise an alarm."

    "Let us go first," Kane said. He reached for his belt and triggered his cloaking device. His Marines did likewise.

    The others stood back and allowed the Marines to enter. After several seconds a series of thumps were heard. They entered to find the Marines has finished off their opponents and decloaked. "Well, we're ten seconds shorter on the batteries for these things," Kane said while his Marines secured prisoners with tie-straps. "But look what we have here."

    The storage room was the largest yet, clearly meant for receiving or shipping out large, bulky containers and pieces. Lucy went up to one container and scanned it. "Naqia," she said. "But Pleiades-24 III isn't rich in… wait." She narrowed her eyes. "This… this isn't raw naqia ore. This is refined. In fact, it's already ready for use in reactors or warheads."

    "Maybe they're bringing the naqia here for refinement and then shipping it back out?" Buck asked.

    "Let me see…" Lucy went about the room, scanning. Kane was busy helping his Marines find an empty container to hide their captives in. "No. I'm not seeing any raw ore. I suppose they could be out, but I doubt it."

    "As do I." Meridina frowned. "They must be looting this place of its naqia."

    "Or just its extra naqia, otherwise they wouldn't be able to power their construction yard." Lucy found a computer terminal. She switched the mode of her omnitool over. "Let me see if I can gain access to their systems."

    "How does that work, anyway?" Buck asked.

    "Omnitools can be equipped with remote data interfaces. They let me do… this." With a final key tap Lucy gained the access she was looking for. "It looks like they're shipping out this naqia regularly, along with other minerals from the planet. Including the Hafnium-178."

    "To the construction yard?"

    "Yes." She nodded at Buck. "Which tells us that whatever Darglan technology they uncovered here, it doesn't include transporter technology. Or at least, nothing they've learned to use yet. Anyway… okay, there we are. Commander Kane, I'm relaying you and your Marines coordinates for their microwave emitter assembly. It's further up, near the apex of the mountain."

    "But not their power source?"

    "No." Lucy shook her head. "We don't know what it is, Commander. It could be something that we can't safely sabotage, or even sabotage at all."

    Kane still had a skeptical look on his face. "Or because you don't want to destroy the nature preserve outside."

    Lucy met his look. "I don't. Not unless absolutely necessary." And I'll hate all of us for bringing it to that. "But we don't know what we're dealing with. However Darglan tech ended up here, this structure doesn't conform to anything the Darglan built. This is someone else's building. Maybe someone else's nature preserve."

    "Right." Kane relaxed his expression. "You make a good point."

    "And save your cloaks," Lucy instructed. "I just hacked into their computer systems and disabled the entire system. They had to rig it with the pre-existing structure, so hopefully they'll think it's still mechanical failure. If not… that's why Meridina and I are ready to cause a lot of noise."

    "Acknowledged." He turned to his troops. "Okay Marines, we're moving out!" He operated his light power armor's omnitool interface. "I've relayed our target and our path to your omnitools, let's get a move on…!"

    The Marines filed out, leaving Lucy with Meridina and Buck. "Anything else we can find in here? Like where they're getting their technology?"

    Lucy shook her head. "No. They may have it on an isolated system. What I am seeing is the way to the command deck, personnel quarters, a couple of labs, and something called the "Source Chamber".

    "That does sound the most promising," said Meridina.

    "It does." Lucy quickly loaded the necessary data to their omnitools. "I just got us a path to it. It's three levels down and there's an access ladder. Let's go!"




    Just as Commander Kane was leading his Marines toward their target at the top of the volcano, another Kane was moving through the halls deeper in the volcano. This Kane disliked this alien place. It was too bright and it was hard to secure in proper fashion. But its value to the Empire was incalculable, so he endured.

    His destination was a set of quarters closest to the command room for the base, at the end of a long hall flanked by two Draconian soldiers bearing assault laser rifles in their arms. They saluted to him with a clenched fist over their heart and he saluted back. "Did you awaken the Princess?" he asked.

    They looked to one another with some nervousness. "We attempted to, sir, but her servant said she had left strict instructions to…"

    Kane suppressed the desire to shoot them. "Open the door, now!"

    They obeyed. The door slid open and he entered the Princess' private chambers. She was still in bed, splayed out on her luxurious bed with its golden sheets with her back turned to Kane. Two slave-girls, her personal attendants, were laying beside the bed, and the older woman in charge of her chambers moved to intercept Kane. "The Princess left strict instructions not to disturb her rest…"

    Kane shoved the woman out of the way and barked, "Princess, we have a situation, I must speak with you!"

    The form under the sheets moved and turned. Ardala's brown eyes flashed with irritation at seeing Kane. "What is it now, Kane? Speak before I have you shot."

    Kane showed no reaction to Ardala's threat. He knew she wouldn't dare, it would displease her father too greatly, and even Ardala would not countenance the Emperor's wrath. "Our security monitors are down across this alien facility."

    Ardala took interest in that. "Really? And you are having them repaired, of course?"

    "Of course," said Kane. "But the timing is suspect."

    "Ah." Ardala smiled. It was a predatory smile. "You believe that Earth agents have entered the base? Perhaps even Buck Rogers himself?"

    "It is a possibility. Our spies have reported that the Allied Systems have invisibility technology known as cloaking devices. Indeed, the gravitic net we purchased through Aldebaran was intended to deal with such craft, but we can't guarantee it works. Even now Alliance or Earth agents may be loose in our base."

    "Well, take precautions then. Have the guards around the microwave emitter and the power core doubled." A thought came to Ardala. She slipped out of the bed, exposing her body to Kane. He averted his eyes, as was appropriate, and waited until she had donned her clothes. As usual, Ardala was not one for physical modesty. The top was exquisitely-crafted, with strong shoulder pads of light purple silk and cotton that supported the bands covering her chest, and a semi-translucent silk dress of the same color that hinted at the shape of her legs. "And gather my guards," she added. "At least a half dozen."

    "Where do you intend to go, Princess?" Kane asked.

    "To satisfy a hunch," Ardala said.




    Going down the access tube wasn't difficult, thankfully, and Lucy led them down more of the gold-and-blue corridors. "This place must have been a command facility to maintain the nature preserve," she said.

    "And now the Draconians want it for something else," Buck said. "And they'll tear this place apart in the process."

    "We'll have to come back and drive them out. We can't let this place stay in their control."

    "You won't get any argument from me."

    As they approached the next turn Lucy stopped and flattened herself against the wall. "Guards," she whispered. Meridina and Buck did the same. All three moved close to the corner. Buck was tempted to look around it, but Lucy held him back and shook his head. She looked to Meridina. You or me? she asked.

    You could use the practice, Meridina answered, noticing the bewildered look on Buck's face. My apologies if I have presumed, Captain, but telepathic communication is the safest course.

    I'm just not used to someone being in my mind, he answered, looking at her.

    I will not enter your memories or thoughts without your permission. I am bound by my Code to respect your mental privacy.

    Lucy was already moving around the corner. The guard saw her and raised their weapons. Lucy brought her hand up and waved it. Her will pressed against their wills. "You will let me and my friends pass," she said. "We have permission."

    For a moment Lucy wasn't sure it worked. Then both repeated what she said in dull tones. She looked back as Meridina led Buck around the corner. He watched the guards warily as they walked past. "How did you do that?" he asked.

    It is a mental compulsion through our swevyra, our life force energies, Meridina explained. It only works against those who are not willful enough to resist the compulsion.

    "Right." Buck patted the pistol on his waist. "How much further?"

    Lucy consulted her omnitool. Not much further, she thought. And remember, telepathic conversation.

    "It's not…" Buck caught himself. Sorry.

    No harm done
    .

    They went past an access room for one of the power conduits running through the base. Their path eventually led them to a closed door with a Draconian guard. Lucy stepped forward to repeat the same mental trick on this one.

    At first it looked like she succeeded. But as she drew closer, and Buck and Meridina moved into sight, the guard started to bring his gun up. Lucy already recognized that his will had re-asserted itself over the compulsion and reached out with her hand. The gun went flying from his grasp. The Draconian stood and gawked in utter shock at being disarmed. Buck ran past Lucy and delivered a solid punch that laid the Draconian out. He looked up at her. I guess it doesn't always work?

    Not always. And I'm not as used to doing it as Meridina.


    Meridina stepped up while Buck used tie-straps that Commander Kane had given him to secure the Draconian's wrists and ankles together. I am a farisa, however. A natural telepath. You are not.

    While the two women watched his back, Buck picked up the unconscious guard and stepped into the "Source Chamber". He took a couple steps in and put the man down, even as he stared at the sight within. "Well, I don't think I expected that."

    Lucy and Meridina entered and looked around the room.

    In the far wall was an alcove with a flat pod or chamber that was surrounded by inactive screens or displays, the pod itself wide open. The walls were lined with power lines that ran to the alcove, creating gray bumps in the otherwise gold surface. Closer to them, in the middle of the room, was a chair. It was plainly not a nice chair, with strong metal straps in place to bind the occupant by the wrists, the ankles, and across the chest and waist. A battery of mobile devices was set to one side.

    The occupant raised a head. While it - or apparently he - was bipedal, the occupant was also clearly alien given the shape of his head. His skull was tall and not covered with hair, but rather a sort of fine yellow fuzz that ended halfway between the top of the head and the eyes. Their location gave the alien the feel of having a caricatured, vertically elongated face. The eyes were pinkish in color, revealed when the alien's eyes opened to see them. The alien was in a blue jumpsuit of sorts, but there were numerous tears and worn parts to it.

    A faint little smile crossed an otherwise-pained expression. It spoke in an alien language that their translators lagged in decrypting.

    "Swenya's Light," Meridina gasped.

    "What?" asked Buck.

    "My God." Lucy stared in shock. "It can't be…"

    "Human," the alien said. It spoke again in its tongue. This time the translators worked, having found the language in their databanks. "Not one of the others." The voice had a medium pitch to it, with a hint of a difference in sound produced by what seemed like an altered breathing pattern. Its pink eyes focused on Meridina. "You speak of Swenya. You are Gersallian. To see one of your people again…"

    Buck motioned to it. 'You know this guy?"

    Lucy swallowed. "No, but I know the race." She stared forward. "It's… he's a Darglan. A living, breathing Darglan."

    "Oh, so that's what the wretched creature is."

    The three whirled around and faced the door, now barred by several armed men flanking two figures. One was a man in a militaristic black uniform, with dark hair and mustache with dark eyes. The other was a woman who was clearly beautiful and, even more clearly, glad to show it with how much skin the suit revealed.

    Buck frowned. "Princess Ardala," he said. "Fancy meeting you here."

    "Ah, Buck Rogers." Ardala's grin was ferocious and pleased. "I thought it was you. I'm pleased you've come, actually."

    "Oh?" he asked. "And why's that."

    Her eyes glinted wickedly. "Why, so you'll survive the destruction of the Earth, of course. As my prisoner."
     
  17. Threadmarks: 2-15-4
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    Lucy and Meridina reached for their lightsabers. Ardala raised a hand with a device in it. "Lower your weapons. This is tied to the chair our guest is kept in. It will send a solid electric shock through his body. If you make any other move, I will trigger it with enough strength to kill this 'Darglan'."

    Buck stepped ahead of the others. He gave Ardala a skeptical look. "Really, Princess? You're going to kill the source of all of your new technology?"

    "He has not been cooperative in that avenue, I fear," Ardala replied. "Most of what we have learned comes from examining what we found here."

    "I am dying already," said the Darglan. "Do not let them hold this place. They do not deserve it. They are cruel and petty…"

    "Come, Buck, do you really expect to survive if you start a fight here?" Ardala asked. "We have you trapped. If you all surrender you will be treated well and I will not harm the alien."

    "And I'm just supposed to trust your word?" Buck asked. "You've always had problems keeping it in the past."

    "Ah, but now I have no need to break it. The power in this place will make the Empire ultimate in this space. Perhaps we will even gain the secrets of the interuniversal drive from this place."

    "It would be your destruction to use that secret from this place," said the Darglan. "It is not safe."

    I can yank the control from her, Lucy said. Or Meridina.

    But can you do that and stop them all from shooting? was Buck's mental reply. We may just need to play along

    Meridina didn't join their conversation. She was focused elsewhere.

    "We'll be the judge of that, alien," Ardala snapped. She returned her attention to Buck. "Ten seconds, Captain Rogers, then I press this button and my men open fire. Ten, nine, eight…"




    The microwave emitter dominated the chamber. Kane looked it over from a second tier entrance, the highest he could find into the room. It resembled a satellite dish vaguely, but with a large needle coming from the center and pointing up past the ceiling of the chamber toward the open sky. Men in dark uniforms milled around. All were armed, but only some had rifles. "Barker, Yamashita, to the right. Hajama, Toussiers, left. Ijala, pick your targets. Belyakova, you watch his back and spot. Rosenfeld, get your charges ready, I'm with you."

    His Marine squad split up as he requested. Kane followed Rosenfeld toward a walkway that would take them up to the microwave emitter. Lance Corporal Leah Rosenfeld, as the best-trained of his current demolition specialists, was as careful as he could hope. Even cloaked, sound could give them away if they let their footsteps clang along the metal walkway. Careful steps prevented such an easy giveaway of their presence.

    There was a single technician at work on the walkway. Kane kept an eye on him while Rosenfeld went to work with her charges. They would become visible after she moved away from them, adding a challenge to this operation. Kane noted with approval that she was deliberately placing them to reduce the likelihood of someone seeing them. If it all went according to plan, the first sign that there was trouble would be when they hit the detonators.

    Assuming, of course, that it all went to plan.

    Usually, things going wrong didn't start in the way they did.

    Commander Kane.

    Kane blinked and looked around.

    I cannot speak over our commline. It was Meridina's voice. We have a hostage situation. A distraction would be most welcome.

    Kane sighed at that, wondering how their part of the mission could turn into a hostage situation. But he knew what this meant.

    "It looks like we're the distraction now, Marines," he said. "Rosenfeld, keep fitting those devices, and put some on the bottom level if you need to. Ijala, pick a target. I've got this guy."

    The poor technician never saw him coming. Kane held his arm out and clotheslined the guy onto his back with a loud thud. That clearly drew attention from below. "What's going on up there?" one voice called out.

    Ijala fired his shot. One of the guards went down. Visibly.

    That was enough to set the others off. "Sound the alarm!" one of them shouted.

    The Marines decloaked, if just to save their battery power for the moment, and opened up from their places on the upper catwalk. Kane pulled his rifle from the attachment point on his back and did the same. WHOM WHOM WHOM sounds filled the air and the Draconians had no chance to put up a fight. The technicians ran for the door and safety while the armed men sought cover. Kane saw one succeed before lifting his rifle up. He ducked into cover himself. Sparks flew above from the unseen shot that hit the casing of the emitter. Barker's voice sounded over his comms. "It looks like they're packing laser rifles, sir."

    "Don't get hit, and everyone remember there's no fire to track them. Rely on other ways of finding shooters." Kane slowly rose from his cover and drew a bead on his shooter. A burst of orange light took him out; Ijala had hit his target.

    And then a loud klaxon filled the air. Someone had indeed gotten to the alarm.

    Just as planned… I guess, was Commander Kane's thought.




    Ardala had gotten to "Two" when the alarm split the air. For a split second, confusion reigned.

    Meridina's free hand snapped up and the device flew from Ardala's grasp to strike the ground behind Meridina where it was now nestled against the wall.

    Buck rushed forward, not expecting Meridina's act, and slammed into Ardala before he realized she didn't have the device anymore. He stopped himself from following her to the ground and turned to throw a fist at Kane. Kane moved enough to not take the punch directly to his face and took the impact on his shoulder instead. He kicked out and knocked Buck back. "Fire!" he shouted.

    It hadn't been necessary. The other Draconians were already shooting.

    They just weren't hitting anything.

    Lucy's lightsaber was active and moving, a blade of blue light catching the unseen lasers and deflecting them back into their shooters, while Meridina's protected both herself and the Darglan behind her. One had sparks erupt from his leg and toppled. The other cried out from a laser to the shoulder.

    Kane had already lifted Ardala up and was pulling her to safety. Buck set into the nearest guard. He punched the guard in the jaw, a blow that bruised his knuckles but set the Draconian out cold.

    The remaining Draconians retreated back through the door. Lucy gave them a final shove with her power to get them out of the door. Buck went up to the control and hit a key. After it was shut he turned back. "That was good timing."

    "Commander Kane was kind enough to provide us a distraction," said Meridina. "One moment." She looked to the captive Darglan and held her hands up. The metal bands tying the being to the chair snapped in sequence. He stood up and immediately fell forward into Meridina's arms. "You are injured."

    Lucy was already scanning him. "More than just hurt. The scans show cellular damage."

    "Yes," said the being. "I am afraid my rescue is a waste. I am already dying."

    "How?" Buck asked.

    "The stasis chamber… unh." The Darglan grimaced. "The Draconians did not disengage it properly. They damaged my body when they took me from stasis."

    "We'll get you medical attention," Buck promised. He extended a hand. "I'm Buck. Buck Rogers."

    "Lucy Lucero."

    "I am Meridina."

    The Darglan looked to all of them. A smile was showing on his amber-shaded lips. "I am Jornam, the keeper of this place."

    "This place being a Darglan base?" Buck asked.

    Jornam shook his head. "No… we did not build it. We discovered it, and the wondrous preserve. After the war I stayed…" He stopped and grimaced.

    Sensing Jornam's problem, Lucy took her canteen from her belt and opened the top. "Water," she said.

    "Thank you." The Darglan drank the water weakly, but with visible enjoyment. "They have been denying me sustenance beyond my basic survival needs. But I would never cooperate with the like. They will abuse the gifts of this place."

    "They already have. They attacked Earth and nearly hit it with a missile."

    "Yes."

    "Is there a way to make them leave?" asked Lucy. "Without destroying the Preserve, if we can?"

    Jornam nodded. "The structure is made to seal off its power source from the rest of the base. The mountain itself no longer contains a volcanic chamber, but the builders created the means to fill the levels with lava as a precaution. I can provide you the means to trigger the security system."

    "Right now I'm more worried about escape,." Buck gestured toward the door. "Ardala's going to have her goons ready for us to come out."

    "Then we will not go out that way." With Meridina's help Jornam went over to a wall. He pressed his hand against it, showing off the longer, slender fingers of a Darglan hand in the process. Once it was settled against the wall for a moment, the wall slid open. "Come. My personal chamber."

    Buck and Lucy followed Jornam and Meridina into what looked like a cozy little sleeping room. The air smelled surprisingly fresh given how long it had been sealed. A soft cot was to one side. A chair faced a screen on an elevated part of the floor with a control panel between the two. "For my rest," he explained. He moved into the room and to the controls. They lit up when he pressed them. Meridina remained at his side. Her power was focused on Jornam in an attempt to heal.

    "If Caterina was here, she would still be shrieking in joy," Lucy observed. She watched Jornam begin his work.

    "Who is this 'Caterina'?"

    "Our ship's science officer," Lucy answered. "She hasn't met anything she doesn't love to scan and learn all about."

    "I suspect she wishes she was immortal so she could see everything," Meridina added.

    A pleasant smile appeared on Jornam's face. "I would very much like to… unh… meet this person. It pleases me that the spirit of my people lives on." Lucy and Meridina exchanged sad looks. Jornam noticed this and added, "I know the Darglan people are extinct," he informed them. "That the First One species called the Shadows killed us. It was not a surprise."

    "You knew? How?" Lucy asked.

    "An automated message from She'teyal about the attack." He had to stop and take a breath. "My friends promised me they would ensure I received any emergency communications from the Homeworld, and though long dead, they did." Jornam tapped another key. "You must have many questions."

    "Oh, a lot," Lucy admitted. "There's still a lot about your people we don't know. We've found databanks and a couple of your Facilities…"

    "Truly?" Jornam seemed happy at that. "And you have used them well?"

    "We think so. We don't have the Facility any more. The Daleks attacked…"

    "The Daleks?!" Jornam, despite his weakness, put heat into his voice. He turned, his pink eyes wild with fear. "Did they take it from you?!"

    "We blew it up," Lucy assured him. "We detonated one of your small multi-mission ships' power cores after destabilizing the naqia. It wiped out the DT field."

    Relief showed on the Darglan's face. "Good. That is…" He grimaced as pain visibly shot through him again. "I am connecting to the old database of this place."

    "Who built it?" asked Lucy. "You made it sound like it isn't Darglan."

    "It was not. Though it does… resemble... " He grunted again. "...the styles of the S'kama people of my species. This is a place built by an old species. One that came before us." Jornam looked to Lucy and gestured toward a circular container on a shelf near the bed. "I prepared a device during my last waking cycle, a data storage databank that has my database of knowledge from this place. Please, take it. So that it is not forgotten. That was my… ungh… purpose."

    Lucy nodded and retrieved the container. Within it was a familiar orange disc, much like the one the Consort had given Robert the prior year, but this one lacked the pocket dimension storage that made Robert's impossible to read. "And the security measures?"

    "I will soon be able to activate them."

    "Can you contact the Draconians?" Buck asked. "And warn them to get their people to safety?"

    Jornam considered what Buck had just asked. "You would warn them? Despite what they have done?"

    "I've seen enough death in my life," was Buck's answer.

    The Darglan looked to Meridina. "And you, you are both followers of Swenya? I remember her… she would argue the same if she were here."

    "Yes, she would," said Meridina. Lucy could feel the energy building within Meridina, a tension between her fear for Jornam's life… and her desire to learn more of what Jornam knew of Swenya and of the Gersallians in her time. Knowledge that was lost or distorted for her people, and here was someone who could share it…

    "Of course. And you are right to do so." Jornam operated his controls. "I have the original structure's operating system fully accessed. I will activate a link to the command center shortly."

    "How is Commander Kane doing?" Lucy asked Meridina. "You still have telepathic contact with him?"

    Meridina nodded. "He is… occupied."




    As more laser shots created burns into the wall behind him, Commander Kane had the mental image of being stuck in a hive that's just been kicked over.

    The Draconians didn't have power armor. What they did have was an almost suicidal willingness to charge his Marines in the hope of getting a shot off, and with numbers that was effective enough. Kane was now kneeling beside Ijala and focusing fire on the lower level, where Rosenfeld was finishing the last of her charges. Ijala claimed another officer with a direct headshot. Behind them Barker was busy overseeing their escape route.

    "This is the last one," Rosenfeld said. She turned away from the emitter, glanced toward the stairway to see how exposed it was, and did the smart thing. She braced herself and activated her power armor's short-use jump jets. Plumes of energy surged from the back and the young woman was airborne.

    "Suppressing fire!" Kane had already shouted, and the Marines promptly moved from cover and began firing everything to keep the Draconians' heads down. This did draw fire, as hoped.

    Rosenfeld's pained "Oy vey!" made it clear at least one Draconian had gotten a shot off. Kane spotted the offender and shot him in the chest, putting him down.

    Toussiers ran from cover to help Rosenfeld, who was cursing profusely in Yiddish that their systems didn't both translating. Kane distinctly heard "Mamzer" and "schlimazel" in the rant, the only words he could make out. He hoped that the rest were proper cursing like a combat-wounded Marine was permitted. That hope was joined with shooting up another of the Draconian soldiers. "Toussiers, status on Rosenfeld?"

    "Hit to the shoulder, sir. She can walk, but the laser penetrated the armor enough to damage the tissue. Her left arm's immobile."

    "Right. Time to go then!" Kane looked up. "Withdraw! Back to the LZ!"

    Ijala immediately compacted his sniper rifle. The Alakin was still pulling his backup pulse pistol out as he went through the door they'd entered through. Barker and Yamashita were spraying fire in one direction to keep enemy troops from coming that way. Belyakova pulled back to join Ijala and Hajama remained with Kane. The Dorei man kept his rifle firing with superb control. Together Kane and Hajama gave the cover Toussiers needed to help Rosenfeld back through the door. "Go," Kane ordered, following Hajama.

    A burst of energy and light came from the far corner, courtesy of a pulse grenade Barker has thrown. The team moved with swiftness down through the base, retracing the steps they'd taken to come this way. When they reached the desired distance, Rosenfeld used her functioning right hand to trigger her explosives. The vibrations shook the structure around them.

    "Kane to Bastilone. Primary objective complete." Kane checked the remaining charge in his pulse rifle. "We're returning to the LZ. Expect a hot evac."

    "Roger that, Commander," replied Ensign Yang.

    "Kane to Meridina. Emitter's down. We'll hold for you at the main storage bay."

    "Do not, Commander," said Meridina. "We are preparing a process to render this place uninhabitable to the enemy. Proceed straight to the Bastilone. We will be behind you."

    "Copy that." Kane motioned to his people. "Double time it, let's go!"




    In Jornam's room, he turned to Buck and nodded. "You wished to speak? I am establishing a link to the command center."

    Buck nodded. A holographic image popped up beside the wall. The Draconians had filled the structure's command area with their own equipment. He could see numerous Draconians were at work, and an angry Princess Ardala was fuming from a chair. "Hello, Princess," he said.

    "Rogers!" Ardala looked at him and glared. "Do you really think you'll escape this?"

    "I'm pretty confident of it," Buck answered. "I just wanted to let you know that we're about to fill this entire structure with lava. You might want to evacuate."

    "You… you couldn't. You can't!"

    "Well, seeing as I have the place's custodian with me, I'm pretty sure I can." Buck showed her a confident smile. "I'll give you ten minutes to clear out. Rogers out."

    Jornam recognized the terminology and cut the communication. He pressed several more keys. "I have set the security system to begin the failsafe procedure. Only I can undo it."

    "It is a shame to destroy this place," Meridina lamented. "I feel there is much we can learn here."

    "The power core will survive. That is what matters. The wonders of this world will not be extinguished." Jornam stood and winced. "I… I am sorry, but my energy is spent. You should go."

    "We're not leaving you here to drown in lava," Lucy declared. "We're taking you with us."

    "You will need all of your skill to escape," Jornam insisted. "I cannot be responsible for your deaths. Not when I am dying… unh… already."

    "We will bring you to safety, Jornam," Meridina assured him. "And you will again see the stars your people so enjoyed traveling among."

    Jornam gave Meridina a wistful, sad look. "My poor people. Our curiosity could be such a curse, but it is what made us the people we were. Very well…" He tapped another key on his console. In the corner the wall opened to reveal something that looked like a mirror. A second key press caused the surface of the mirror to begin rippling. "It is a dimensional portal device. I have set it to take us to the upper section of this facility."

    Lucy stared at it. "Is that… did your people make that?"

    "No. The original builders did. I spent many…" Jornam groaned yet again. Meridina and Lucy could feel the pain inside of him and Lucy was worrying he might not live much longer. "...many years studying this place."

    "I shall give you the benefit of my strength." Meridina held onto Jornam. She reached into him with the Flow of Light and used her power to ease his pains. "Come."

    "Well, off we go to Wonderland," Buck observed.

    One by one they went into the portal. On the other end they were in a dark, empty chamber. Jornam stepped up, with Meridina's help, to examine the wall. One panel lit up and became a Darglan interface panel. He tapped several keys of Darglan script and a door slid open. Once they were through Lucy checked her omnitool. "We're just one level below the LZ," she said.

    "This is the way," Jornam told them. With Meridina beside him to help him, he took the lead in taking them down the gold-and-blue corridor.




    Alert lights were showing on long-dormant alien screens. Draconian officers and technicians tried desperately to understand what was going on. Ardala watched them, her face an impassive mask hiding frustration and a little rage. Kane looked none too happy either. "I am sorry, Highness," one technician said. "We… we cannot access the core processes of this place's computer systems. We never have been able to, and it is from there that this sequence is being controlled. Lava will begin flowing into the base in eight minutes."

    "We should have killed that alien long ago," Kane said gruffly.

    "Perhaps." Ardala looked toward Kane. "What of the missiles?"

    "I completed three," he said. "The others are hours or days away from completion."

    "Then begin their launch sequences," Ardala ordered. "And have my ship ready for my arrival. We will personally escort the missiles to Earth this time."

    Kane nodded to a technician. "Enabling launch sequences, Highness."

    "Good. Now sound evacuation." Ardala eyed Kane. "Let us depart."

    "At once, Highness," he agreed.




    Magda noticed the changes on her screens. "Commander." She looked over to where Zack seemed to be thinking quietly. "I'm detecting activity in the yard. It looks like they're energizing some of the craft."

    "They're preparing to launch," Zack said. "Okay, let's hope they stirred up a mess down there. We're going to Code Red. Ap, take us in. April, prepare weapons. Magda, decloak when we're in range."

    Everyone answered and the Koenig flew forward, flying through the gravitic net. Whatever warnings it would give, it didn't matter now.




    Commander Kane and his Marines made it to the LZ with a platoon of Draconians on their tails. Standard fire-and-move tactics helped them keep the enemy suppressed with a generous use of grenades. Kane threw his last into the corridor as he went out the door to the landing pad. Draconian craft were already moving toward them to evacuate the Draconian personnel. Kane and his people ran into the Bastilone, disappearing from view as they passed into the cloaking field's effects.

    Kane left Barker to get everyone ready to hold the LZ for the others while he went to the cockpit. Yang was sitting there watching the incoming Draconian shuttles. "They're unarmed, sir. Do you want me to begin offensive action?"

    "No. Stay cloaked. They're just evacuating. Commander Meridina and her team are wrecking this place."

    Yang nodded. "Okay sir."

    Once Kane knew the young pilot wouldn't move the ship, he returned to the back. He swapped out his charge clip for a fresh one and joined the others in defensive positions.




    Jornam was managing to move at a quick pace with Meridina's power bolstering his failing body. They made it to the staircase and had gone through the main cargo receiving area before they found Draconian soldiers behind them. Lucy turned and ignited her lightsaber. "Keep going!" she shouted. "I'll cover you."

    Meridina and Jornam did. Buck, however, turned back and pulled out his laser pistol. He timed his shots, causing spurts of sparks to appear along the walls and floors when his shots weren't hitting the Draconians themselves. Lucy's lightsaber was a blur of blue. The lasers hitting it were invisible to the human eye. But Lucy could still sense where they would be. Her life force was guiding her arms and weapon, putting it in position to deflect shots, while Buck's fire was keeping the Draconians from pressing her with their numbers. They kept backpedaling as they went.

    Meridina and Jornam got to the door first. She led him in the direction of the Bastilone. He seemed surprised to be going toward nothing. Just before he spoke of his uncertainty on the matter, they entered the cloaking field. The runabout and the armed Marines suddenly appeared.

    "Commander Meridina." Commander Kane nodded to her. "A friend?"

    "He is Jornam, the original caretaker of this place." She nodded to him. "And he is a Darglan."

    Meridina thought there was something quite amusing about the surprise that briefly showed on Kane's face. The other Marines had reactions ranging similarly, from quiet, stunned surprise to incredulousness.

    Meridina turned back to where Lucy and Buck were coming through the door. The fire against them was forcing them to keep their focus on defense and was slowing them down.

    A sudden rumble filled the mountainside. "That would be the security system, I believe, Jornam said.

    "We need to get out of here. Barker?"

    "Yes sir." Barker grabbed hold of a set of rungs built into the side of the Marine waiting bay. She climbed up into a seat set into the ceiling. "I've got the angle, sir. But we need to decloak first."

    Kane nodded and hit the intercom key on the wall. "Yang, decloak, we're going weapons hot back here."

    "Yes sir."

    The Draconians, undoubtedly, got a sight when the squat runabout shimmered into view, resting on her warp nacelles toward the rear and with her back wide open.

    The twin turret anti-personnel pulse cannon built into the top of the craft was also an unpleasant surprise.

    It began to fire, a massive WHOM WHOM WHOM filling the air as the bright blue pulses flew over the heads of Lucy and Buck before striking their pursuers. The hits were instant killers, vaporizing the Draconians with direct hits. Even glancing ones could kill or severely wound.

    And then they saw it. Felt it. From within the structure a wall of bright orange and red rock was spewing forth, a river that would kill everything it touched.

    With the weapon's suppressive fire Lucy and Buck were able to turn and run into the back of the runabout. Lucy went through the Marines' space and up to the cockpit, where Yang quickly let her assume the helm. "Lifting off now, restoring cloaking device."

    The Bastilone picked up from the landing zone just as the lava began to surge from the entrance. It shimmered out of view again and raced for orbit.

    In the back, Toussiers helped Meridina secure Jornam. "This kind of cellular damage is just… how could this happen?" asked the combat medic.

    "The Draconians did not awaken me properly," said the Darglan. "The damage is fatal."

    "Well, maybe not if we can get you back to the Aurora on time." Toussiers kept scanning. "I don't even think I can offer painkillers for you, though. I've got no idea of your physiology, if any of our meds will help you or might kill you."

    "It is… alright." Jornam looked to Meridina. "Might I see them?"

    Meridina nodded. "Follow me to the cockpit, then."

    The Bastilone was in orbit by the time they made it there. Jornam was contented as he sat down at a panel, his eyes focused on the open void ahead of them.

    "Let's get back to the Koenig," Lucy said.

    Meridina nodded and tapped a key. "Bastilone to Koenig, we're ready for pickup."

    "Standby," came Magda's reply. "We're on an attack run."

    "Standing by," Lucy answered, while ahead of them the Koenig decloaked and opened fire.




    The Koenig bridge was all business when the ship opened fire. The viewer showed the phaser cannons blasting into the Draconian construction yard. Explosions flowered from the surface, with atmospheric gas and debris spewing from the new wounds in the yard. Solar torpedoes raced across the distance and slipped into one section of the yard, where they hit an incomplete missile. A large explosion consumed the rear half of the weapon.

    "I'm reading power surges in the yard. They're trying to power their defense guns."

    "Prepare evasive maneuvers, Ap, if we need them. April?"

    As the Koenig moved past the yard, the aft torpedo launchers fired as well. These shots nailed another of the partially-completed missiles, blasting the warhead clear off.

    The Koenig made a sharp turn in space and opened up again on the yard. Another spread of torpedoes blew apart the skeleton of a missile while the phasers gouged out chunks from another.

    The Draconian energy weapons opened up on the Koenig. The bridge shook from the hits they took while Apley corkscrewed the ship into another attack run. "Shields at ninety percent," Magda reported.

    "Take us on another run," Zack ordered.

    They flew in on the run and another of the enemy missiles was blown apart. "The last ones are mostly intact, we'll need several more attack…" Magda's attention was drawn to a new contact. "I've got a ship approaching at high sublight velocity. I've never seen it before, running it through recognition profiles…" Magda waited for the results while the Koenig threaded more defensive fire to damage the yard further.

    "Magda, any better idea on what it is?" Zack asked.

    "Still… ah, there. I have the profile. It's a Draconian warship, believed to be called the Dominator-class." Magda looked to Zack and shook her head. "It's definitely out of our weight class, and they're already launching Hatchet fighters. I've got a dozen coming in to intercept."

    "And probably more soon enough. Are they armed with naqia weapons?'

    "I believe so, going by these readings."

    A dozen of those fighters, all of those missiles… this won't work. "Alright, we're getting out of here. Bring us back around and give Lucy an approach vector to land the Bastilone quickly."

    Apley's response was immediate. "Yes sir."

    The Koenig broke away from the damaged construction yard. A few more shots from the dorsal phaser, and another spread from the aft torpedoes, did further damage to it. Ahead of the ship the Bastilone decloaked while Apley raised the Koenig's bow relative to their approach vector. With precision Lucy flew up to the underside of the Koenig and entered the opening shuttle bay door.

    "The Bastilone is secure," said Magda. "Enemy Hatchet fighters entering range. They're locking missiles."

    "Take us back to the Pleiades Cluster Stargate, maximum warp."

    The Koenig jumped to warp just as the first missiles fired.




    Ardala stomped onto the bridge of her flagship, the Dragon's Fire, with all of her usual imperiousness. The captain of the ship saluted to her, fist over heart. "Your Highness, the smaller vessel escaped with their stardrives."

    "Yes. Well, you were out of position."

    "What will your punishment be?"

    Ardala smiled at the man, who was trying to hide his fear. She glanced toward Kane and shook her head. "Nothing, for the moment. If all goes as desired, I may show leniency."

    "The yard is badly damaged. It will require weeks to repair," the captain continued. "But the three missiles you ordered launched were not severely damaged. We can resume the launch sequence soon."

    "Ah. Very good." Ardala settled into her own personal chair on the bridge. "Then do so, with all haste. Buck Rogers and his friends have taken our prize and ruined our lovely new base. But it will be for nothing when our missiles ruin the Earth."

    "As you command, Princess."

    Ardala watched the captain return to work with quiet pleasure. Her father would not be happy with the damage they took, but it could be repaired. Even the alien structure could be reclaimed with a lot of work. And the Earth… the Earth was still hers to destroy.

    And she would be there to see it happen.




    When Zack stepped into the infirmary, he still couldn't believe what Lucy had told him about over the comms.

    Seeing made him believe.

    Barnes came in behind him. "Holy crap," the engineer said. "It's… it's actually…"

    "...a Darglan," Zack finished for him, looking over the orange bipedal alien. Meridina was standing beside him, holding her hand to his back, while Doctor Opani was scanning him with a medical omnitool. Buck and Lucy were standing nearby. "A living Darglan."

    "I am Jornam," the Darglan said. His pink eyes took in the sight of the two. "You are the commander of this ship?"

    "Commander Zachary Carrey, Alliance Starship Koenig."

    "...'Alliance', you say?"

    "Yes, the United Alliance of Systems," Zack answered. "We're an interuniversal group of Humans, Alakins, Gersallians, and Dorei. We've also made contact with a large number of other galaxies…"

    Jornam sighed in contentment. "Then you accomplished our dream. We had wished to see the same happen. If only…" Jornam grimaced and clutched at his chest. "I apologize, Commander. I am dying, and it is becoming painful."

    Zack looked to Opani. The Dorei woman, her skin a dark teal with light purple spotting, shook her head. "The cellular damage is bad, Commander. I definitely can't save him here, and even the medbay on the Aurora might not do it."

    "I have done what I can," Meridina added. "But my power only alleviates his pain and helps him to move easier. I lack the strength to heal him."

    Zack couldn't keep the frown off his face. A Darglan, alive, but dying. Perhaps beyond their power to save. It seemed unfair. "Make him comfortable," Zack ordered. "We're still an hour out from the stargate. As soon as we're back to Earth…"

    "You must warn them," said Jornam. "The Draconians will attack again."

    "With their FTL drives, those surviving missiles won't arrive in Sol System for days," Barnes pointed out. "Don't worry, we've got…"

    "No." Jornam shook his head. "They will not need to use the stargate you are heading toward."

    "What do you mean?" asked Zack. "Why not?"

    "Because, they already have one," said Jornam. The Darglan's voice was firm, showing his certainty of that statement. "They will use the stargate in the solar system with the Preserve."

    Zack looked at him with surprise. "Wait, we didn't read one."

    "It is set to remain off. I made it that way centuries ago. But Ardala has reactivated it. And it connects directly to the Earth system's stargate."

    "Which means that her missiles will fire directly to Earth's solar system," Meridina said.

    "Yes." Jornam's face fell. "She learned enough from my things… from me… that her weapons can destroy all life on your world."

    "Unless we stop them," Buck said.

    "Yes. Unless you stop them," Jornam agreed.
     
  18. Threadmarks: 2-15-5
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    Robert, Julia, and Ledosh joined Doctor Huer and Wilma in Science Lab 2 to check up on the progress there. The news, however, was not what they had hoped to hear.

    "It is quite a difficult problem given our available resources," Theopolis said to them. "Even a complete deployment of our available starfighter squadrons would be incapable of stopping more than one missile given their noted acceleration and defensive capabilities."

    "And we don't have the means to build a theater shield large enough and strong enough to block them," added Jarod. "So if they get past us to Earth, there's nthing we can do to prevent a mass casualty event."

    Huer nodded. He turned his head toward Robert. "Captain, can the Alliance provide any more ships?"

    Robert shook his head. "Admiral Maran's already informed me that reinforcements aren't available. The best he can offer is the Shenzhou. She's leaving drydock tomorrow and will jump to join us."

    "Regrettably, the Gersallian fleet is also incapable of sending reinforcements for the moment," Ledosh added.

    "Let's just hope the Shenzhou isn't a day too late." Julia crossed her arms. "Colonel Deering and I have some ideas on how to support each other in another fight, but if they bring a lot of fighter cover I'm not sure we'll be able to stop multi-..."

    Before she could finish Robert's call-received light appeared on his hand. "Bridge to Dale," said Locarno.

    Robert tapped the light over the back of his left hand. "Dale here."

    "The Koenig just came back through the stargate. Commander Carrey wants to see you at the airlock when they get back. He said to bring a medical team and Cat."

    "Did he say why?" Robert wondered just what prompted Zack to make those requests.

    "They found something in Pleiades-24."

    "Tell him we'll be there, then. Dale out."

    "Do you mind if we join you?" Huer asked.

    "Not at all." Robert checked the time on his omnitool. "We have some time. Jarod, what about trying…?"




    By the time the group from Science Lab 2 arrived at the dock, Leo and a medical team were waiting, complete with anti-grav stretcher, for the arrival of the Koenig. They all watched her dock and walked on to the airlock entrance.

    When it opened, Zack stepped through with Buck and Lucy behind him. Twiki spoke up immediately. "Biddi-biddi-biddi, nice to see you in one piece, Buck."

    "It's nice to be in one piece, Twiki," Buck replied.

    "What's going on?" Robert asked him.

    Zack gestured toward the airlock. Opani stepped through and stood to the side, allowing Meridina to exit with another humanoid. The tall skull and orange complexion were immediate giveaways. Robert and the others each had a wide-eyed look, with jaws lowered to varying degrees. "It's… it's…" Caterina seemed unable to finish the sentence.

    "This is Jornam," said Zack. "He is, was, the caretaker of some ancient nature preserve on Pleiades-24 III that the Draconians looted." He smiled at Caterina. "And he's a Darglan."

    "Swenya's Light," Ledosh murmured.

    "A Darglan. A living Darglan," Caterina squeaked.

    "Not if we don't get him to the medbay," Leo said, already looking over his medical omnitool. "The cellular degeneration is killing him." Leo motioned to his team. Nasri led a couple of nurses in helping Meridina set Jornam onto the anti-grav stretcher. They departed immediately with Ledosh joining them to help Meridina in her healing attempts.

    "A Darglan," Julia said, her awe echoing Caterina's. "I never… how?"

    "He was in a stasis chamber of some kind," Lucy replied. "But the Draconians removed him from it. And not in the correct way."

    "This is… this is amazing," Robert said. "If Leo saves him, imagine the things we'll learn."

    Lucy produced a spherical container from an internal pocket on her robe. She twisted it just so and the top slid out and then down, revealing the orange Darglan data drive within. "This is supposed to be all of his critical data."

    "So this was a Darglan Facility?" Julia frowned. "Or a data center? Do the Draconians have access to the IU drive?"

    "It didn't appear to be," said Lucy. "Apparently the nature preserve itself, and the central facility built into the mountain to sustain it, were built by another race. Jornam chose to live there."

    "Another ancient race, then?"

    "We have scans of the structure. We can look through them later," said Lucy. "But we can tell you it's unlikely the Draconians got IU drive tech or even Darglan weapons technology."

    "Okay, let's move from the scientific curiosity from a moment," Zack said, looking to Lucy. She looked back and nodded, and both turned their heads to face Robert and Huer. "Jornam says there's a special stargate in Pleiades-24. One that the Draconians can turn off and on to send out their missiles. And it can lead straight to Earth's stargate."

    "A stargate with that kind of distance?" Wilma seemed stunned by it. "Normally that's a two jump distance."

    "They can do it in one. We did what we could to their construction yard, but we weren't able to finish off the three completed missiles before a Draconian carrier showed up and we had to retreat."

    "Three missiles." Huer drew in a pained breath. "How do we defeat three?"

    Julia shook her head. "We need a fleet. Or some way to keep them from getting to Earth. Can we shut down your system's stargate?"

    "No," Huer answered. "You can't shut down stargates like that. At least, not to our experience."

    "So we can't keep them from coming through. We'll have to fight them and find a way to stop them here."

    "What if you reactivated the thermal shield?" Buck asked Huer.

    "Thermal shield?" Robert asked.

    "Back when they woke me up, Earth had a thermal shield to protect the planet," Buck explained. "It would destroy any craft that approached without the proper codes."

    "The shield system was decommissioned," Huer explained. "The Draconians developed countermeasures to thwart it. It could take days to get it back up."

    "The tractor satellites have some merit," Julia said. "We know tractors can trigger the destabilized naqia to go off."

    "But not quickly enough," Jarod reminded her. "Certainly not with three of the missiles coming after Earth."

    "What if there was a way to trigger the same thing with something else?" Julia asked. "Something that would…"

    Something in Caterina's mind clicked. Everyone could see the moment of epiphany on her face. When she left at a near-run, they followed.

    Science Lab 2 was Caterina's destination. Once she was there she called up the data they had been going over. Calculations filled her mind while her fingers danced over the controls, activating new simulations with new parameters.

    The simulations were running when the others entered. "Cat, what is it?" Julia asked.

    "Come on… come on… the calculations… yes!" Caterina stood up and let out a squee of triumph. "It works! It, I mean, it will work!"

    "What will work?" Buck asked.

    "I think I understand." Theopolis was studying the simulations. "You would convert the thermal shield generators into a series of graviton pulse emitters."

    "Yes!"

    "The power demands will be quite high," Theopolis said. "However, Doctor Huer, I believe the Lieutenant is onto something."

    "What would this plan do?" Huer asked.

    "It would allow us to subject incoming missiles to intense graviton fields, such as used in this vessel's tractor beams," Theopolis answered. "This would cause the Draconian warheads to destabilize and explode."

    "Good thinking, Cat," Jarod said. The simulations looked good to him too. "We'll have to do some converting of their existing shield generator stations to make this work."

    "Get any operations or engineering personnel you can find that's not essential to Scotty's repairs," Robert ordered. He turned to Huer. "Doctor, we'll help you get the modifications done."

    "Thank you, Captain. The Defense Directorate will cooperate fully. I will need to return to New Chicago to oversee the modifications."

    "I will see to the necessary modifications for the generator in New Chicago."

    "Jarod, Lucy, see if you can help them," Robert said. He could feel the room's feelings pick up. They had a solution, and now they would see about implementing it.

    They nodded and joined Huer and Theopolis (and Twiki) in leaving Lab 2. It was clear to everyone just what was on Caterina's mind. "Your simulations will give Jarod and the others what they need," Robert said. "Why don't you head to the medbay?"

    As Cat jumped from her seat, Julia added, "But you have to listen to Leo. If he says you have to wait, you wait."

    "I will," she vowed.

    Once she was gone Zack left as well, stating he was going to return to the Koenig "just in case". Robert and Julia exchanged looks with each other and with Buck and Wilma. "We should go back to New Chicago," said Wilma. "We'll need to have the squadrons ready."

    "Of course. And we have work to do as well," Julia said.

    With common assent, they all departed.




    Leo, as it turned out, was willing to let Caterina visit Jornam in his intensive care room. Meridina and Ledosh were sitting and meditating in the room, using their power to help the Darglan keep his strength up. Caterina stood at the door for a moment, trying to think of what to say, what to ask, of the orange-skinned alien she had never imagined she would ever meet. She felt like every cell in her body would vibrate until she drilled through the deck.

    "You are the one they call Caterina?" Jornam asked, as if just now noticing her.

    She nodded. "Caterina Delgado. Lieutenant Caterina Delgado, actually. I'm the science officer."

    "So I see." A pair of pinkish eyes focused on her. "I can see you have questions."

    "Too many. I can't think of one," Cat confessed. She pulled up a chair to sit beside Jornam, taking care to not bump into Meridina as she did. "There's still so much we don't know about your people, and so much I want to learn about, well, about everything."

    "Kestim ram," said Jornam. "That is our term for the state you are in. When you can't figure out what question you want to ask because you want to ask them all, at once, and have them answered together." He gestured to her with his hand. "Feel free to ask, and I will answer while I have the strength to. And please, do record our conversation. My knowledge should be shared with all of your people."

    Cat nodded. She moved her left arm and brought up her omnitool interface, which she used to enable the recording option. As she did, one question slipped through the rest and came to her tongue. "So… how did you survive the three thousand years?"

    "A cryostasis chamber set to wake me up every century," Jornam replied. "I would check on the preserve and examine the findings from probes I left at other inhabited worlds in this region of space."

    "To see how they were developing?" Caterina asked.

    "Yes. And, if necessary, to provide what assistance I could."

    "Assistance?"

    Jornam nodded. "My people did not always agree on the scope, but many of us believed that we should be more than distant observers. Life is a precious gift of Reality, Caterina Delgado, and all beings have a moral obligation to protect it where they can. My people often used our starships and interuniversal drives to relocate endangered species and races to safer worlds where they could thrive."

    "Just like…" Cat swallowed. "When we found your technology, we… we would help people, take them from places where they suffered and bring them to another world to live in peace. We called it New Liberty."

    "Might I see this world?"

    Caterina nodded. With her omnitool she interfaced with the wall monitor in the room and used it to display images of New Liberty Colony. "People from our Earth, from C1P2 Earth, and now from other universes, they all live here together."

    The images played, including the last two anniversary celebrations and the recordings Caterina had personally made from them. She looked back to Jornam to see the Darglan was quietly tearing up. "Are you okay?"

    "I am happy," he said. "You have used our legacy well, Caterina Delgado. In this New Liberty Colony you made, and in the Alliance you put together… it is everything my people wanted to see."

    Seeing Jornam say that, hearing the pride in his voice, made Caterina think of Control. The AI operator of the Darglan Facility had often assured them that his creators would approve of their rescue missions and their conduct. "Is there anything of your technology left in this universe?" she asked Jornam. "Maybe… maybe newer computer hardware?"

    "Why do you ask?"

    "Because, Control… the Control of our Facility… he is in our databanks on the Aurora. But our computers don't have the capacity to let him operate like he's supposed to. His memory and program have to remain heavily compressed and only partially-functional in our auxiliary computer cores."

    "A Control? You wish to bring him back?" Jornam smiled sadly. "I am sorry. It is a worthy goal, but I did not have such technology left to me when the others returned home."

    "Oh." Caterina nodded, disappointed. "Well…" Something came to her mind then. "Jornam, may I ask you something?"

    "Of course."

    "Was it you?" Cat asked. "Were you the one who took Humans from this Earth after their nuclear war, to resettle them on other worlds?"

    Jornam went quiet for a moment. "Yes," he said. "I did."

    "So all of the Human civilizations, even the Draconians, are…"

    "No," he said. "Some predated our arrival in this universe. They were transplanted long before we gained the IU drive."

    "By who?" Caterina asked.

    "An old and powerful empire seeking to preserve other species. They were the ones who built the preserve to protect many old species from a number of worlds. The timital of Yutam, the oronthi, the gutabi bird… even your Earth's wooly mammoth and dodo, among other animals."

    Caterina decided she wanted to see this place. But more importantly, she wanted to continue on the topic of the Darglan themselves.

    "How many species did you transplant?"

    "In the three generations of our interuniversal civilization, we must have performed hundreds of them. Maybe thousands. Sometimes it would be as little as relocating them on their own worlds. Or to other versions of their worlds in a different universe. If deemed necessary, an entirely different world in an entirely different universe was selected, so long as their new environment was close enough to match the one they were familiar with." Jornam drew in a breath. The conversation was becoming an effort, and his ability to continue speaking with groaning in pain was entirely thanks to Meridina and Ledosh helping him. "That was our way."

    "Is that why you didn't return to your homeworld?" asked Caterina.

    Jornam nodded. "She'teyal was not my home. I was born in the Universe N2S7 to a mission keeping watch over a transplanted species called the Mi'qote."

    "The Mi'qote really aren't indigenous to Ys'talla?"

    "No, they are not. Their world was suffering a severe catastrophe. So we removed samples of the major sapient species of that world to new homes. My database has some of their locations listed."

    Caterina nodded. She would have to consult Lucy's new database as soon as duty and time allowed. "So you stayed with the preservation missions?

    "I did," Jornam said. "It was my calling. After the Dimensional Fracture, I volunteered to remain in this universe to observe. And I turned down my people when they were ordered by the First Ones to return to She'teyal and to abandon our interuniversal holdings. This was my place, my calling. I would not abandon it."

    "Were you the only one? The only one working here, I mean?"

    "Not at first." Jornam shook his head. "I had colleagues. But they elected to return home. Only I desired to stay, and to see if your people or another would one day find my place. I felt it was my duty even though I would miss them greatly."

    "I wish it had been someone better than these Draconians," said Cat.

    "As do I." Jornam closed his eyes. "I fear that my energy fails me, Caterina Delgado. I do not know how many more questions I might answer."

    "Maybe I should go, then," she said. "So you can get your strength back up. Or… would you like to ask me questions? I mean, I'm sure you're curious about what things are like now. About the Alliance, the Multiverse..."

    Jornam smiled and laid his head back on the pillow. One of the nurses had specifically replicated one to accommodate his taller skull. "I would enjoy that," he admitted. "I admit that I too have a case of Kestim ram."

    Caterina couldn't hold back the tears. The weakness in his voice, the way he was laid on the bed… she knew he was dying. That there was likely no hope. She'd seen this before. When the cancer was close to killing her Mama. She sniffled and forced a smile. "Whatever you want to know. I'll tell you."

    "Very well… Speak to me, then, of your Alliance. How was it founded? What is its purpose?"

    As the tears flowed down her eyes, she told him, and hoped and prayed it would make his final hours better.




    Not too far away, Leo and Julia were watching on a monitor. Caterina was busy trying to explain the Alliance Council despite her severe lack of political science understanding.

    Julia looked toward Leo and asked, "Is there any hope?"

    Leo gave her a look that answered her question. His verbal reply was, "It'd be cruel to give hope." A shake of his head and a sigh later, he added, "If he were Human or another species I'm familiar with, he might have a shot. But our knowledge of Darglan physiology is limited. The cellular damage is… well, it's just too much. I'm sorry. All I'm sure I can do is try to ease his pain and make him comfortable."

    "Then how long does he have?"

    "I can't tell. He might have an hour, a day, a week. Maybe close to a month if we find a therapy to restore function to his cells. I just can't think of anything that will work enough to bring him back from the brink." Leo smacked his hand on his table. "Damn Draconian butchers. They killed him when they screwed up his waking sequence. That man is living history and they killed him with their impatience and arrogance."

    "I doubt they care. Given what Meridina and Lucy have said about this 'Princess Ardala'..." Julia set a hand on his shoulder. "Do whatever you can anyway. We won't give him on him without a fight."

    "You know I will," Leo promised.

    Julia nodded. She turned to leave.

    Her omnitool went off. When she answered, it was Lieutenant Pacetti starting his bridge shift early. "This is the bridge, we have a situation. Multiple contacts are coming through the system stargate. They're Draconian."

    Wherever he was, Robert answered just as she started to. "Go to Code Red. Sound battle stations."

    Julia started to rush for the door as klaxons started echoing through the Aurora.




    The generator facility for the old planetary thermal shield reminded Jarod of a power plant with all of its capacitors and emergency fusion reactor backups in similar layouts to turbines and emergency generators. One wall covered in blinking lights was showing off displays of projected power draws and other vital information.

    There was a puff of smoke from a solder nearby. "Please be careful, Twiki. These circuit boards are quite rare, and we don't have the time to replace them."

    "Get off my back already."

    "Twiki, I am not on your…" Theopolis stopped himself. "I do think you have been around Captain Rogers a little too much lately."

    Jarod returned to the control panels. As he checked the status of the modified projectors for the system, his omnitool flashed to life. "The Draconians have arrived," Robert said. "What's the status on the shield conversion?"

    Jarod looked up to the panels. "We've almost completed the New Chicago conversion. The others are in various stages of completion. We still need at least four hours to cover the entire planet."

    "They'll be at Earth in one," Robert replied.

    Jarod checked the sites' reported completions. "We might have thirty-three percent coverage by then."

    "It will have to be enough then. Standby to beam back."

    "I'll give you the signal." Jarod lowered his arm and turned his head to face Twiki and Theopolis. "Can you finish the conversion?"

    "Biddi-biddi-biddi, no sweat, pal."

    "Yes, Commander Jarod, I believe we will," Theopolis replied. "However, a thirty-three percent coverage of Earth will leave dangerous gaps in our defenses."

    "I know. But that's the best we can do." Jarod tapped his omnitool again. "Jarod to Aurora, I'm ready."

    The transporter whisked him away.




    Huer arrived in the flight bay in New Chicago to find every available pilot was present. Buck and Wilma were standing beside a wheeled in transparent board with combat maneuvers drawn on them. "...must remember to focus your fire," Wilma was explaining. "The Hatchet fighters have been configured with protective shield systems that can absorb multiple direct hits from individual fighters." A hand went up. "Yes, Major Danton?"

    The curly-haired man in the front row asked, "Can't we do the same thing, then?"

    "Unfortunately not," Huer said, joining the conversation. "The Thunderfighter will have to be re-designed to make use of shield systems. That process is still in the planning stages. The Defense Directorate had no idea of the Draconian modifications, unfortunately."

    Danton and his pilots nodded.

    "Commander Andreys and Commander Laurent will be directing the Alliance fighters to keeping the Hatchets off of us," Wilma continued. "Their Mongoose fighters are more maneuverable than the Hatchets. Work with them whenever you can. We'll be operating on a common frequency."

    There were nods from the assembled.

    "The Draconians are still nearly an hour out," Huer said. "As such, we're launching now."

    The assembled pilots stood and dispersed. Huer watched them go before turning his head toward Wilma and Buck. "Good luck to you both."

    "Thank you, sir," Wilma said. Buck nodded in agreement, and then they departed as well.

    Huer stood and watched. Briefly he recalled his younger days flying for Earth. But it was not his place anymore. All he could do was watch and hope.




    Jarod was the last of the command crew to arrive on the bridge of the Aurora. Lieutenant Jupap, an Alakin, quickly changed his position to an auxiliary console along the rear of the bridge to let Jarod reassume his station.

    Caterina turned from her sensor station. "They're going to be in range of Earth in forty-five minutes."

    Robert nodded. "I don't see any point in waiting for them to get close. Set an intercept course, full impulse."

    "Yes sir," Locarno answered.

    "The Koenig is following," added Jarod. As he received more information he added, "The Earth squadrons are forming up to join us."

    Robert looked to Julia, who nodded and brought up her tactical display. "I'll coordinate our efforts with theirs."

    "And I'll focus on our maneuvers." Robert keyed his intercom. "Mister Scott, how are the impulsors?"

    "All repairs are complete, Cap'n," was the reply. "Ye've got full impulse power with nae problems."

    "And it hasn't even been thirty hours yet. Another miracle for you. We may have to submit your name for sainthood."

    "Thank ye, sir. But I'm satisfied with what I'vve got. Engineering out."

    Once the line was cut Robert looked to the holo-viewer and counted down the minutes until they intercepted.




    In the medbay Meridina and Ledosh could feel the tension of combat readiness in the crew. The two Gersallians kept their focus on the Darglan patient on the bed between them. Concern filled Meridina at the clear ebbing of Jornam's life.

    Is there nothing more we can do? she asked her old teacher.

    Yes was his response.

    A low tone filled the room. With focus Meridina ignored it. That focus was still broken, despite her efforts, when the door opened and feet began to thump. She looked up and opened her eyes to see Leo and several nurses. "His vitals are failing," one of the nurses said. "What do we do?"

    Leo looked over the readings and sighed. "I don't think there's anything we can do. Still… prep the cortical stimulators."

    Nasri's expression betrayed her concern. "But, do you know how to set it for a Darglan?"

    "I'll have to go by the scan results when we brought him in," was Leo's answer. "It's better than nothing."




    On the Aurora bridge holo-viewscreen, the Draconian warship was now visible, flying above the three missiles, each over half the length of the Aurora. The ship was colored a dark brown tone. Its ship was vaguely similar to Klingon ships, at least if you counted the prow, although a higher deck was also attached to the main body. Defense weapons were visible at several points, but there was no sign of truly capital-scale emplacements. He wondered if that would hold up during the fight to come.

    First, of course, was a perfunctory gesture. "Hail them, Jarod.'

    There was a moment of silence before Jarod confirmed the signal was being answered. The viewer changed to show a beautiful woman with long, well-kept brown hair and clothing that made Robert think of Las Vegas more than militant empires. An austere uniformed man stood beside her. "I'm Captain Robert Dale of the Alliance…"

    "We know who you are, Captain," the man said. "This is Princess Ardala of the Imperial House of Dracon."

    "I shall speak for myself, Kane," snapped the woman, who glared toward hier compatriot. "As stated, I am Princess Ardala. I will make this quick, Captain. Earth has become a threat to the Draconian Empire, and I have come to remove that threat. I demand Earth's immediate surrender to the Empire or I will have it destroyed."

    "Earth is under the protection of the United Alliance of Systems," Robert replied. "I insist you withdraw or we will engage you."

    "Do you think the Empire fears your Alliance? You are trapped in war with another power already. You would not dare to strike at us."

    "If you destroy a potential member under our protection, we'll have to." Robert leaned forward in his chair. "Last chance, Ardala. WIthdraw."

    Ardala fumed at them and shook her head to someone off the screen. The viewer switched back to the view of the ships.

    "They're still moving forward."

    "Target the nearest craft."

    "Targeting now," Angel confirmed.

    Robert nodded. "Fire when ready.

    The Aurora's weapons blazed to life, targeting the lead missile. In one full salvo four of the Auroras squadrons fired torpedoes at the lead missile. There was barely enough space for the volume of firepower that converged on the missile. Its powerful deflectors absorbed the barrage with mixed success.

    "Hatchet fighters coming in," Jarod warned.

    "We're on them," Wilma Deering said over the bridge speaker.

    The Earth fighters and Aurora fighters accelerated ahead in several organized squadrons. The space ahead of the Aurora soon filled with both kinds of fighters.

    "Opening fire on the missile again," said Angel. The Aurora's weapons tore into it once more. This time the Koenig, clear of the enemy fighters, engaged the missile as well. Sapphire and amber energy washed over its straining deflector screens, joined by the particular blue-white fields of active solar torpedoes.

    "Some of the Hatchet fighters are getting clear of the dogfight," Jarod said. "They're firing missiles."

    "Nick, evasives!"

    The Aurora twisted in space. Beams of phaser fire struck out in rapid succession toward the incoming projectiles. One by one explosions flowered from destroyed missiles.

    Only two made impact on the Aurora's shields. They still caused the ship to shudder from the feedback on the deflectors. "Deflectors down to seventy-one percent," said Jarod.

    "Fox Squadron has adjusted, they're engaging the enemy fighters."

    "Keep us on that missile," Robert ordered.




    In the medbay, Meridina and Ledosh remained with Jornam, who had been transferred to the OR in lieu of any other appropriate ward for his condition. Leo and Lumenaram continued to discuss his condition. "Replication of his organs is a slow process," Lumenaram said. "The cellular damage is forcing the systems to adjust. And there is no guarantee they will function as needed, or that he will survive the surgery to implant them."

    "I know. But we owe it to him to give him every fighting chance," Leo insisted. He was now in operation scrubs should they have to make any invasive procedures. "Do we have any good ideas on a cellular repair treatment?"

    "Few. THe time limit is simply too small…"

    There was a low, hoarse breath. Jornam stirred on the table, drawing their attention. Both doctors attended to him. "Can you hear us?"

    Jornam nodded. "Please… your telepath. I have… something to share… too weak…"

    Meridina heard him. Her face remained a stoic mask even if her heart was pleading to Leo on the matter. Leo gave the matter two moments of thought before he nodded.

    Meridina stepped up to the bed. I am here, she thought, projecting that thought into the Darglan's mind.

    Jornam reacted slowly. He was in pain dulled by the increasing failure of all aspects of his body, including the nerves. But once he reacted Meridina felt their minds connect. Images of his past filled her. Knowledge. Names. His mate, Keluz, had died in the war with the Darkness. His parents. friends, all were dead, forcefully returned to She'tayel. But he had left them willingly to become caretaker. Images of the Preserve flashed through Meridina's mind. And of a ship. Of Humans climbing into his vessel amid a ruined city. A virgin world with new fields growing.

    With the memories of Jornam, Meridina felt closer to the ancient being. She could feel his happiness at meeting them and seeing the legacy of his species carried on. His regrets at not seeing more of the Multiverse now that it was again open. Sadness that his people were gone.

    A stray thought came through his mind. Meridina saw a world. Darglan structures. Entire Darglan working around an interuniversal jump drive, taking measurements, making modifications. Improvements. New layers of existence to be accessed.

    No! The cry was Jornam's. A feeling of shame. It was error. Our error. Forget this!

    What did you do?

    Our curiosity went too far. We should have heeded them. We should have listened! It was our fault!


    Another stray memory. A world consumed by a hungry void. Space twisting as if in pain. And a shape, a large shape, many shapes, emerging from the void, their forms wavering with life, black enough to blot stars.

    No! No! Not these! Not them!

    Meridina felt horror and knew that Jornam suffered. Whatever her own curiosity, she steered his mind away. She opened her own memories. She showed him images of the Great Temple of the Order of Swenya, of Jantarihal. She recalled the Citadel of M4P2, Babylon-5 in his species' home universe. Other beautiful things. Things that made her happy. Her family. Mastrash Ledosh, her teacher and mentor. Her comrades on the Aurora. Lucy, her first student, who had accomplished so much in such a fairly short time. Brave, smart, passionate and with a good heart. Robert, equally brave, determined, ready to sacrifice.

    She felt his mind make connections and swing back to happier thoughts. Words and singing filled the connection between them. Thank you.

    And then his thoughts ceased. Meridina opened her eyes and found Ledosh was pulling her away from Jornam, as warning tones sounded. "Ready cortical stimulators!" Leo shouted.




    Outside of the Aurora, the battle between the groups of fighters continued. Wilma Deering maneuvered her Thunderfighter with skill, evading fire from two Hatchet fighters coming up behind her. She pulled the fighter into a loop and twisted its orientation into space, a maneuver at the very edge of the envelope of the craft's capabilities. More fire zipped past her while her maneuver brought a Hatchet into her gunsights. With a press of her thumb triigger the eight laser cannons on her fighter opened up. Pale blue light pulsed through the void. The deflectors of a Hatchet fighter lit up briefly. But the craft had already been damaged. The deflectors failed and her target blew up.

    "Colonel, fighter on your five o'clock low," warned another pilot. She triggered her Thunderfighter's engines to full and evaded the fire. She finished her corkscrew maneuver.

    But her sensors still showed an opponent firing on her. "I'm having trouble shaking this one," she said.

    "We're on him."

    Buck's voice was joined by Major Danton's. Their fighters moved in from different angles and opened up on the Hatchet. It exploded spectacularly as soon as the shields failed.

    "Thanks, Buck, Major Danton." Wilma noticed the fighter showing up on her screens and pulled her fighter's nose up. This let her intercept a Hatchet firing on Buck. She opened up with her weapons. Deflectors met her direct hits, but it did scare the enemy pilot off his run against Buck.

    "Thanks, Wilma," Buck said.

    "Colonel Deering, this is Brigadier Gordon. I'm leading my squadron on an attack run against the Draconian carrier ship. Do you think you can handle the remaining fighters?"

    Wilma considered her screens for a moment. "Roger that, Brigadier. You're clear."

    "Lieutenant Krlkt here," chirped an alien voice. "Bravo Squadron will protect your six on your attack run."

    "We welcome the assistance, Lieutenant," Gordon answered.




    Princess Ardala watched the enemy fighters swoop in on her command ship. The protective screen of Hatchet fighters, eight strong, moved to intercept them. But they were outnumbered three to one. The Alliance Mongoose fighters raced ahead of the Earth Thunderfighters and engaged the Hatchets. One blew apart from being targeted by three enemy ships and the others scattered to avoid being picked apart. The resulting gap was more than wide enough for the Earth fighters. "Fire all defense guns," Ardala ordered.

    "Tracking… engaging."

    The Dragon's Flame carried several laser cannon turrets for anti-fighter defense, supported by particle flak cannons that generated damaging particle busts. Both of these weapon systems opened up on the approaching Earth fighters. They retaliated with missiles and their own fire. The ship began to shake under Ardala's feet. Her screen showed an occasional burst of flame and light from a destroyed fighter. But for her, it was not nearly enough. "The enemy is engaging our defense weapons," an officer stated. "We've already lost two flak emplacements."

    "Should we recall our fighters?" asked another.

    "If we do, they will destroy our missiles." Ardala quietly pondered their situation.

    "The new deflectors, Princess," Kane suggested. "They are not as good as those we placed on the missiles, but they can protect us from these enemy fighters."

    "Very well. Raise the deflectors." She faced the officer overseeing the missile tracks. "Do the missiles have a firm course for Earth?"

    "They do, Highness. The lead missile's shields are down to one third power, however."

    "Then activate the terminal stage thrusters on the missiles. I will leave nothing to chance."

    "Yes, Highness." The officer did as commanded, hoping that the fuel tanks on those engines would hold out.




    While the fighter battle continued, the Aurora and Koenig were still unloading on the missiles. "Missile shields now at thirty percent," Angel said. "I'm giving it everything I can."

    "At this rate we'll finish off this missile and start on the next by the time they get to Earth," Caterina added.

    "Any news on their readiness planetside?" Robert asked.

    "Twenty-five percent coverage, and New Chicago's is still offline."

    "Keep firing, then, and let's see if…"

    On the screen the rear portions of the missiles lit up. "They're activating additional sublight drives!" Cat shouted.

    "Keep us up with them!" Robert gripped the chair arms. "What's their new ETA?"

    "Five minutes for the first missile to enter Earth's atmosphere. Three minutes until it reaches optimum engagement range for our graviton pulse generators."

    "Is there coverage for it?"

    Jarod checked his calculations, after which he shook his head. "No. It's going to be in the New Chicago engagement range." Jarod tapped a key on his board. "Jarod to New Chicago shield generator. Doctor Theopolis, are you there?"

    "I am here. We are finishing final adjustments. Everything should be ready within three minutes."

    "Good," Jarod answered. "Because that's when you need to activate it."




    The Hatchets' numbers had thinned enough that Buck had no distractions keeping him from overhearing what was being said about the missiles. "Wilma, we may need to help with those missiles."

    "I'm not sure what we can do to help, Buck. But just in case, take the 27th Squadron out of New Amritsar."

    "I hear you."

    An accented female voice said, "This is Major Kaur. Orders confirmed."

    Buck broke his fighter away from the fight and hit the engines to full speed, and then beyond. "Whatever else happens, we've got to stop those missiles," he said over the radio.

    "We are ready," was the only reply.




    Theopolis checked on the tracking for the incoming missiles and concurred with Jarod's statement. "Oh dear," said Theopolis. "We must hurry, Twiki."

    Twiki's response was what one would expect from the one doing all of the work. "Biddi-biddi-biddi, you can't rush perfection, Doc."

    "I do regret that I lack the arms to assist."

    "I'd pay real money to see that."

    Theopolis ignored Twiki's continued use of Buck's colorful 20th Century language and kept his calculations on the work still to be done and the time left. He wished Twiki could be faster. But ambuquads did have some limits in their forms, and he was doing quite a good job.

    They were in the last twenty seconds of their allotted time when Twiki rose up from where he was working. "Biddi-biddi-biddi, that ought to do it."

    "Then activate the graviton generator, Twiki. Defense control will take over."

    "Roger." Twiki's metallic hand tapped the final key.

    Nothing happened.

    This, as one could imagine, highly concerned Theopolis. "Oh dear, Twiki. We only have ten seconds…"

    "I'll do what Buck would do," Twiki announced.

    "And that would be?"

    Theopolis needn't have bothered. Just as he finished his question, Twiki's hand struck the control panel.

    "Twiki, I doubt hitting things will…"

    The generator lights lit up in rapid sequence.

    "See, Doc?" Twiki asked. "Always count on Buck."

    "How interesting that it worked," was the only reply Theopolis could think of. And given his calculating power and expansive computer brain, that was quite the indicator of how flummoxed he was.




    Robert was holding his breath when the missile entered the engagement range according to Jarod. If their plan worked, they still had a shot at saving Earth. If it hadn't…

    Blue light shot up from the surface of North America and struck the Draconian missile directly. The missile suddenly lost its forward movement.

    "There we go," he said. "Angel, keep up the pressure."




    Ardala was also observing, but felt entirely differently for obvious reasons. "What is that?" she demanded. "The Earth doesn't have defenses like that!"

    "They may have modified their own thermal shield system," Kane proposed. "And our other missiles will soon be caught."

    "Divert them!"

    "I can only divert the third," the Draconian officer controlling them said. "I've re-assigned its target. The second missile is already entering the same range of effect and is slowing."

    Ardala was not satisfied by the idea of just one out of three hitting. But that was better than none. And with her ship occasionally shaking from the damage it was taking against the Earth and Alliance starfighter attacks, it was time to go, before their half-powered deflector systems were overwhelmed. "Bring us back around to the stargate," she ordered. "It is time we left."

    "Coming about."




    "It looks like the Draconian flagship is withdrawing," Caterina reported. "They're on a course back to the stargate."

    Robert nodded. "Jarod, are those missiles going to engage the same generator?"

    As Robert asked that, the second missile joined the first in the grip of the blue beam from Earth. The third, however, was pulling away. "It looks like they're moving it to a different target. We've got to pull it into position for one of the other generators."

    "Firing tractor beam." As soon as Jarod did so the Aurora began to shudder. "I'm reinforcing the tractor beam now. But we're going to burn out the impulse drives again at this rate."

    "We don't have to divert it all the way from Earth this time," Julia pointed out. "Just into range of another active generator."

    "Go for Northern Asia, the Siberia generator is online," Jarod recommended.

    "Moving us over now," said Locarno.

    The Aurora's engines wrestled with those on the missile, which was trying to angle and turn back toward Earth. "Strain on the impulsors and tractor beams is increasing."

    "It looks like the engineering crew's going to be repairing our impulsors again," Robert replied. "Keep it up." The deck was already shuddering from the strain.

    As before the Koenig moved in and grabbed the missile with its tractor beam to assist with moving it. The small ship couldn't contribute much, but she was overpowered enough to contribute something, and that was the important part.

    "We're getting a warning sign from the surface," Jarod said. "The New Chicago generator is overheating."

    "Probably from holding two missiles at once," Robert mused. "Cat, any idea on when those missiles will go boom?"

    "There are too many possible variables. I can only guarantee it shouldn't take more than five minutes for the destabilized naqia to react to the gravitons."

    Robert's response was to nod and wait quietly, and with strained patience, for something to happen.

    The first thing that happened was that a ribbon of blue light shot up from the region of Lake Irkutsk and snatched the missile they were dragging. The Aurora and Koenig were freed to pull away.

    The second was that the lead missile went up in a bright flash. A crackle of blue light covered the second missile during the flash. "One missile down!" Jarod declared. "And the other one lost most of its deflectors to the blast."

    "Angel, take it down," Robert ordered, even if it seemed unnecessary after a moment's thought. Either way, it didn't hurt anything to have the Aurora pounding away at what was left of the missile's deflectors.

    Robert allowed himself a moment of belief that it was all over. Just a moment. A part of him knew it wouldn't be that easy in the end.

    And, of course, it wasn't.

    The blue ribbon holding the missile in place wavered suddenly. "Jarod?" Julia asked, worry in her voice.

    Jarod was already examining what was going on. "It looks like the strain of holding both missiles overheated the graviton emitters. They've been degraded by the heat damage and are having trouble holding that last missile."

    "Angel, give it everything we have," Robert said.

    She delivered, throwing all of her firepower at the missile's failing deflectors. Angel immediately stated the results of her efforts. "The missile's shields are down to ten percent. Just a few more hits…"

    The blue beam flickered out of existence.

    "Jarod to Theopolis, what just happened?"

    "The graviton emitters have shut down due to strain and heat damage. We will not be able to restore the beam for several minutes."

    On the screen the missile was already picking up speed again. Robert shouted, "Cat, status on the naqia in that missile!"

    "Signs of complete destabilization, but not enough yet." Caterina checked her figures. "We need to hit the warhead with everything."

    "Jarod, get our tractors on it, now! Angel…"

    "Firing everything."

    The pulse plasma cannons on the Aurora, joined by the other weapon systems, continued to hammer away at the missile. A tractor beam linked it as well, but the range and the power of the missile's boosted drives were making the effort an ineffectual strain on the Aurora. "The shields are almost down," Angel said. "We're getting bleedthrough damage."

    "Tractor emitters are already stressed, we're putting them over the redline," Jarod added.

    "Keep them up as long as we can," Robert urged. "Are there any fighters in range?"

    Julia was about to say no when a check at her display confirmed that there were indeed fighters coming in. "Earth Thunderfighters, they're entering range."

    "Buck to Aurora," a now-familiar voice said. "Looks like we got back just in time."

    Robert didn't dare grin, not until the missiles were gone. "Focus fire on the missile's warhead. If we can finish destabilizing the material in the warhead it'll go off."

    The Earth fighters moved in for the attack… and the Aurora's tractor systems gave out. "Stress failure in the graviton generators," Jarod said. "We've lost tractor beams for the moment."

    "Dammit."

    As Robert uttered that curse - and thought of many nastier ones - the missile began its deadly course to Earth once again. It likely wouldn't hit New Chicago directly, but with its payload any hit would be catastrophic to Earth. It had to be stopped.

    The Aurora, Koenig, and Buck's fighters were certainly making the attempt. The deflectors on their target failed completely and every hit now registered on the dark hull of the missile. Flame and debris gouted from the wounds being carved into it. Torpedoes slammed into the missile's sides.

    But it still kept going.

    "I'm targeting the engines too," Angel said. "It looks like we're slowing it down."

    "You're just slowing the acceleration, it's got enough speed to hit Earth," Jarod corrected. "We need to destabilize the warhead."

    "Well, I'm hitting it with as much as I can, but I'm trying not to hit the others too," Angel pointed out. "And the warhead's got some thick armor protecting it."

    "Yeah. Wait." Caterina was examining her sensor returns carefully, even though every instinct was to rush. They were down to just three minutes, maybe less, until the missile would be too close. As she focused on the scan a small smile crossed her face. "There's a weak point. It's a small one, it's right behind the forward stabilizing fin on the nearside to us. A gap in the armoring. If we hit it directly, head on, I think the shots would get to the warhead." Caterina relayed the data to Angel.

    Angel looked at it. She cursed under her breath. "At this range and angle, I'm not sure I can hit it. But I'm going to try."

    "Relay it to the fighters," Robert said. "They might get a better shot."

    "I'm sending the data now," said Jarod.

    "Targeting point received, Aurora," Buck said. "We're going in."

    Even as the Aurora did its level best to blast the missile apart - now restrained to avoid hitting the Earth fighters - Buck and the other fighters went in on an attack run. One by one the Thunderfighters poured their lasers into the weak point. Some hits were off, scoring armor instead. Others, though, were not.

    As the fighters peeled away from the run, and the clock ticked down further, Robert looked anxiously to Caterina. "Cat?"

    "I'm definitely picking up signs of instability, one more run should do it!"

    "Roger that." The Earthfighters made the maneuver and repeated their attack run.

    Still nothing.

    "The missile will enter the upper atmosphere in sixty seconds," Jarod warned. "We're almost out of time."




    Buck heard Jarod's news and looped his fighter back around. He did the calculations in his head. They could make another pass, but only one, and if it didn't work, Earth would take the hit.

    On the other hand, if he made a slow pass by himself and matched velocities, he could get in all of the fire he needed to.

    "I'm going in alone," Buck said. "Everyone else hang back. When this thing goes, you don't want to be near it."

    "Rogers, what are you doing?" asked Robert.

    "Matching velocities with the missile," Buck explained. He was coming back up on the target area. The Dakotas loomed ahead beyond the missile. His systems confirmed he only had thirty-six seconds and counting before they hit atmosphere.

    With his crosshairs spit over the weak point, Buck opened fire.

    Laser fire poured into the small chunk in the warhead's protective armor.

    "Buck, what are you doing?" It was Wilma. "If you don't pick up velocity, you won't get away fast enough."

    "I know what I'm doing, Wilma," he replied. Twenty seconds.

    More fire.

    Fifteen.

    Buck adjusted his heading slightly, keeping his laser cannons on target by doing so.

    Ten seconds.

    As he approached seven seconds, he heard Caterina Delgado's voice yell, "Instability peaking! It's going up!"

    Buck fired off a last volley and hit his engines to beyond full.

    And then light consumed everything.




    The Draconian missile exploded in a brilliant burst of light. The Aurora tremored slightly when the energy from the detonation hit. "Report."

    "Shields holding," Jarod answered.

    "And Earth…?"

    "The blast was still outside the atmosphere." Caterina looked over her instruments. "Local satellites are gone. It looks like the energy from the detonation was insufficient to to severe damage on the surface. Just a few fires in the Rockies."

    Tension seeped out of the bridge with that news. Robert let out a sigh. The Earth of N2C5 was safe. "And the battle?"

    "The Draconians are withdrawing. Their fighters are breaking away from the fight," Julia answered. "Do you want to pursue?"

    Robert was ready to say yes. But he had a larger concern for the moment. "What happened to those Earth fighters?"

    "They're reporting in." Julia checked her display. "They've all suffered damage but they're intact. Wait…" She double-checked the display on the fighters. "I'm not picking up Captain Rogers' fighter."

    "He was breaking away too late," Jarod said. "There might not be anything left."

    "Captain Rogers, this is the Aurora, please respond," Robert said.

    There was no answer.

    Another voice came over the tactical channel. "Buck. Buck, it's Wilma. Respond, please."

    For several seconds there was nothing. Just long enough for those on the bridge to consider the likely outcome. Robert closed his eyes and tried to focus, to sense if he could…

    "Rog… -rora. Pl… -spond."

    "It's him," Jarod said. "I'm getting the IFF code on the subchannel."

    "I'm scanning now." Caterina looked over her screens. "I've got his fighter on sensors. There's no power and he's lost all drives."

    "S… -gain. Rogers… respond."

    "And his radio is probably badly damaged," Cat added. "We need to get his fighter secured, Earth's gravity is pulling him in. And beaming him out would probably be nice."

    "I'm relaying the order to the Transporters now," Jarod confirmed.

    "So what do we do about the Draconians?" Angel asked. "We can intercept them before they get back to the stargate."

    Robert nearly gave the order, but he held off for the moment. "Put me through to Huer, Jarod."

    "Opening channel now… Doctor Huer is responding."

    Huer's face appeared on the holo-viewscreen. He was clearly recovering from just how close a thing this fight had been. "Huer here. Congratulations, Captain. I hear you've found Captain Rogers?"

    "We're beaming him aboard now, Doctor," Robert said, grinning. "He's going to be okay."

    "That is a relief." Huer's face made that clear too. "Did you need something?"

    "We can intercept Ardala's ship before it makes it to the stargate, Doctor. If you want us to, we'll make the intercept."

    Huer immediately shook his head. "No. No, it's safer, and smarter, to let her go."

    "Even with all of the deaths she's caused?" Angel asked bluntly.

    Huer's posture was relaxed now. He showed no impatience when he answered Angel. "As things stand, the Draconians have been beaten, but they won't retaliate. They made an effort, we beat them, and while their honor's been bruised, it's not lost. But if you kill or capture Ardala, the Draconian Emperor won't be able to tolerate such a loss of face. He'll declare war on all of us to avenge her. And we've had enough fighting for now."

    Robert gave a single nod of his head in acceptance. It was a smart decision. Earth clearly needed more time to build up its defenses, and the Alliance was still at war with the Reich. The Draconians were a problem for later. "Very well. I'll recall our fighters and stand down."

    "I thank you again, Captain. You and your crew. Earth wouldn't be here today if not for your efforts."

    "We all pitched in, Doctor," Robert answered with a smile. The running lights were already set back to Green and the Aurora crew was standing down from battle stations. "We're at your disposal for a final debriefing, sir."

    "Give us a few hours, Captain, and I'll be ready to meet with you. Huer out."

    Huer's image disappeared from the screen. All that was left was the Earth; an Earth that had suffered terribly, but which still bore life and could be brought back to its full glory with effort. Robert didn't let himself think what it would look like if any of the Draconian missiles had hit. "I'm going to file a report with Maran," he said. "But first…"

    There was a tone over the speakers. "Medbay to Bridge," said Leo.

    Robert tapped the comm key on his chair. "Bridge here. Go ahead, Leo."

    "I'm sorry. Our new Darglan friend… he didn't make it. Jornam's dead."

    Given what had been said before, this wasn't a harsh surprise. But it didn't stop Robert from feeling tremendous loss. Jornam was, as far as he knew, the last of his species. The knowledge of who the Darglan were, of their culture and society and history, he could have provided them with all of that. With explanations beyond what had been recovered from various Darglan databases.

    But now… now he wouldn't. Now it was all lost, due to the short-sighted greed of the Draconians. Robert wished he could seize Princess Ardala and make her pay for what she'd done.

    Caterina was weeping bitterly at her station. Angel, at Robert's nod of acceptance, walked over to comfort her. "Thank you for telling us, Leo," Robert said. "I know you did what you could."

    "Not that there was much to do." There was a pause. "We didn't take heavy casualties, so I'm free for whatever final staff meeting we're holding over this."

    "I'll let you know when Huer tells us a time, Leo. Bridge out." With that done, Robert stood up. "I'll be in my ready office, everyone. Julia, you have the bridge."




    There was silence on the bridge of Ardala's ship. It was not an easy silence, but one positively humming with imminent danger. The officers refused to look toward their princess for fear of earning her wrath.

    "Curse the Alliance," Ardala said. "Buck Rogers alone was a dangerous foe, but he was just one man. He posed no threat to the Empire. But the Alliance… they are a threat to us. They're a threat to everything we are."

    Kane nodded in agreement. "The Emperor can find little fault in your operation, Princess. But I suggest you may wish to give him time to accept this outcome before you return to the Throneworld."

    Ardala's only reply was an angry glare. Kane was right, of course, and she hated it. She couldn't face her father with this defeat fresh. "Let us return to our base and collect our survivors," she said. "Holding the world will not be possible for now."

    "We could always destroy that preserve, if you wish," Kane said.

    After flirting with the temptation, Ardala shook her head. "No, darling Kane. I will not. That would be unseemly. My father would be even more angry at me for destroying something priceless like a brat. We will withdraw and leave it as it is. After all, we can always come back. When the time is right…"
     
  19. Threadmarks: 2-15 Ending
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

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    Ship's Log: ASV Aurora; 26 September 2642. Captain Robert Dale recording. The Draconians have withdrawn completely from Earth's solar system and show no signs of returning. Our casualties were light this time, at least in total numbers. Twenty lost pilots and crew is a blow to our fighter group, however, and the others will be feeling those losses keenly.

    I am also saddened to log the death of Jonram, the Darglan caretaker of the alien-made preserve on Pleiades-24 III. The entire Alliance will know the loss whenever we consider how much we might have learned about his remarkable people, whom we owe so much to.

    Despite these losses, we can be satisfied with the survival of billions on Earth that the Draconians would have killed with their attack. The Earth of N2C5 is on track to join the Alliance, and it is always possible their allies will join as well. And we will all benefit.



    Huer returned to the Aurora with Wilma, Theopolis (and thus Twiki), and Buck. They had agreed to have a last meeting with the Aurora crew on a new subject. They were meeting in Conference Room 1 again to accommodate all of the visitors with the command crews of the Aurora and Koenig with Ledosh, Gina, and Emissary Yadin. At Robert's request, Caterina played her conversation with Jonram. "Extraordinary," said Huer. "There have been theories, of course. But to actually have confirmation that Humanity was spread through our region of the galaxy by alien intervention…"

    "The Computer Council will go through our records to see what may or may not have been recorded on this population transfer," said Theopolis. "Perhaps it is possible that Jonram aided our creation in some fashion. If so, we are further indebted to his memory."

    "I wonder if he's happier," Buck said, quietly. "He's not alone any more."

    "Perhaps. But it is a loss, Captain Rogers." Meridina appraised him with sad eyes. "Jonram still had a place. He had hope of making new bonds with other beings, and of seeing the fruits of his millennia of labors."

    "Not to mention having the Multiverse open again," Caterina added. Her eyes were slightly reddened from crying. "He was so eager to learn more about it."

    "Did he have any wishes?" asked Yadin. "Do we know anything about Darglan funeral rites?"

    "Sadly, we do not." Meridina shook her head. "But he did inform me that by his time, many Darglan born away from their homeworld preferred to have their remains launched into a star."

    "That makes sense," Caterina said. "Stars are the furnaces that create most of the chemical elements in the Multiverse, including those that make life possible." Tears were forming again in her eyes. "The elements that make up the Darglan body, any body, would be returned to their source, and inevitably be spread back into the universe at large."

    "I see," Huer said. "Then, we would be happy to have his remains sent into our Sun."

    "And given that this ship's foundation frame was built by the Darglan, it is fitting that it be the launching point for Jornam's remains into Sol," Ledosh proposed.

    "We can't say no to that," Robert said. "Doctor Huer, since we were talking about a joint ceremony for our dead…"

    "...we have no objection to Jornam joining them," Huer finished for Robert. "He saved us from our own mistakes, and he helped to save us from the Draconians."

    "Very well. I'm still waiting for official word from Defense Command on which of our casualties' remains are being claimed by family, and which are to be given a burial in space. When I do, we'll schedule the ceremony."

    "Of course."

    "What about this alien preserve on Pleiades-24 III?" asked Wilma. "We can't leave it to them."

    Robert responded with a grin. "Yes, well, once I let Admiral Maran know we had no problems here for the moment, he redirected the Shenzhou and the Armstrong to that system. I spoke with Captain Chung this morning and she's confirmed the Draconians are pulling out of the system. Princess Ardala's ship is keeping its distance for the moment."

    "Yeah, well, I don't blame her," Zack said. "Ming's a conservationist, and with two Discovery-class starships with her… I wouldn't want to face those odds with a carrier."

    "Once they've ensured the Draconians are gone, Ming and Captain Lojin will send science teams down to begin examining the preserve," added Julia. "Earth scientists will be invited to join them once it's safe."

    "Thank you, I'll let the Science Directorate know." Huer rose from his chair. "I believe that covers everything. Again, on behalf of the people of the Earth and our fellow planets, we thank you for your help in this manner. Your bravery and resourcefulness have confirmed the wisdom of our decision to join the Alliance."

    "Thank you, Doctor Huer," Robert replied. "If that's all…?"

    Nobody reacted.

    "...then this meeting is adjourned. You're all dismissed."

    Everyone started to file out. After exchanging looks with Meridina and Lucy, Robert made sure to get to the door. When Buck got to it he asked, "A moment or two of your time, Captain Rogers?"

    Buck showed curiosity at Robert's request and nodded. "Alright."

    Robert led Buck into a corner of the room to speak privately. "This is informal," he said. "You can call me Rob or Robert, and unless you object I'll call you Buck."

    "I think I'll go with Rob, then," Buck answered, a charming grin on his face.

    "Alright, Buck." Robert smiled in reply. "You saw Meridina and Lucy's powers on display yesterday, of course?"

    "I did. It's not the first time I've seen people use mind powers of some sort, though," Buck revealed.

    "I suppose mind powers is a good way to refer to it in the short hand," Robert allowed. "Well, I have similar… abilities. Meridina's been teaching me like she taught Lucy, although I'm nowhere near either in raw ability."

    "Really?"

    "Yes. I honestly couldn't persuade a dog to chase a thrown stick with my powers," Robert confessed. "And I won't be winning any gunfights with a sword, whether it's made of memory metal or energy. No, the one thing I've found I can do with these abilities is understand people. More than ordinary, I mean."

    It was clear Buck was wondering where this was going, or perhaps knew and wasn't looking forward to it. "Alright. And you're bringing this up because…?"

    "Because when I look at you and the charming grin and the humor and all of the other things you project, that's not all I'm seeing," Robert answered. "You arrived in this time and almost immediately you started doing risky missions and jobs for Doctor Huer. You threw yourself into piloting starfighters. You put your life on the line constantly when you could just as easily live a happy life being interviewed by legions of historians."

    "Well, yes," Buck said. "I don't want to just sit down all day chattering with historians. I became a pilot and an astronaut to see outer space and meet challenges. And that's what I'm doing. And I'm doing it while serving in uniform, just as I did in the Air Force."

    Robert could sense the truth in that. But he could feel, if just a little bit, the feeling hidden under it. "I can sense that," he said. "But that's not all, is it?"

    Buck went silent.

    "You weren't just talking about Jornam earlier," Robert continued. "You were talking about yourself. And I can see why. You're just like him. A man who lost everything when he woke up in a new time. A new world." Robert waited a moment to confirm how close he was with Buck's emotional reaction. What he sensed prompted him to continue. "You left people behind, right?"

    After a moment Buck nodded. "Yes."

    Robert replied with a nod of his own. "I… I didn't lose everybody. I don't have it as bad as you. I acknowledge that. But I've still lost people I loved and cared about. And I've lost my family home and land. A century and a half of Dales farmed that land, and I lost it. I'll never be able to go back. Even if it was on another Earth… it wouldn't be the same." Robert felt the pain of that truth wash over him. He didn't deny it. He didn't let it pull him away. "And that's how I know there's a part of you, Buck, that doesn't care about living and dying anymore. You're not suicidal, no, but I don't think you care if you live or die sometimes. Am I right?"

    For a moment Robert thought Buck would protest him. But there was nothing but silence. No, Buck couldn't deny what he said. He couldn't admit it out loud, of course. But he wasn't going to deny it. "If it saves Earth, yes, I don't mind dying," Buck said. "I'm not looking to, but I'm not going to save my skin at the expense of my world."

    Robert took that answer for what it was, the closest to an admission that Buck would give, and nodded. "I know that feeling." He drew in a breath. "Just as I would give my life to save the people I care about. All I want to say, then, is that I hope that this feeling doesn't lead you into throwing everything away. You've lost a lot, more than I have, but you have people in this time and place that respect you and care for you."

    Buck wasn't grinning now, but he wasn't frowning. A neutral, thoughtful look was on his face as he considered what Robert said. When he spoke, it was with a firm, gentle tone. "Well, Rob, I'll take that to heart. And the same goes for you. This crew, they're not just your friends and comrades. They're your family. Take care of them."

    "I always will," Robert pledged.

    There was nothing more to say. Their hands came up and they shared a firm handshake, at which point Buck left the room.

    When Robert went to follow, he found Meridina waiting for him. "You did the right thing," she said.

    "I would like to think so," Robert replied. "Well, I have to go see about this mixed ceremony. I just wish we know more about Darglan burial traditions."

    "I may be able to help," Meridina said. "I was connected to Jonram's mind when he lost consciousness for the final time. He gave me his final wishes."

    "Oh?" Robert asked. "And they are?"

    "You will see," Meridina replied, smiling thinly. "I will discuss them with Caterina. I believe she was the one he intended."

    "Well, I look forward to it," Robert said.




    That evening, Julia finished her paperwork for the day and looked out the window of her quarters toward the spinning Earth below. Her uniform was hanging in her closet and she was wearing her emerald nightrobe. Its silky surface was soothing to her skin, scrubbed clean in the shower from the day's sweat and work. She sipped at a cup of warm tea that would, ultimately, help her to sleep.

    Julia's mind returned to the question looming over her. It was the question that only had one guaranteed outcome: she would feel regret from it. There was no escaping it.

    As she looked out the window, she thought of Jonram. The Darglan had placed his sense of duty, his desire to fulfill his goals, above remaining with the ones he loved. It hadn't been easy. That was certain. But in the end, he'd made the choice. She wondered if he had agonized like she had. How easy had his decision been?

    Another regret. She had never been able to talk to Jonram, to ask him these things.

    Her thoughts wandered further to another new acquaintance. Working with Wilma Deering these last two days had been an experience. She was a leader and confident in that, just as Julia was. And it was clear Wilma would have regretted it if she hadn't reached as far as she could.

    Just as, in her heart, Julia knew she'd regret it if she turned down the opportunity presented to her. An opportunity she had earned.

    "This is what we signed up for," Julia murmured to herself. "We knew this could happen. We can't regret it when it does."

    A part of her felt pain, as she should. This decision… she would leave people behind. She would leave Robby behind. He would be on his own.

    Maybe that's good for him. Maybe… maybe he'll become a better commander, or maybe he'll have an easier time moving on if that's what he wants.

    Or maybe… maybe they'll all get killed because of something I would have seen and stopped...


    Quiet passed. Julia sipped on her tea as time wore on toward the end of the day. When the cup was empty she stood up. The tea cup and saucer went back into the replicator, which reclaimed them in swirls of light. She walked up to her desk and gently eased herself into her chair. Her finger found the activation key for her personal computer unit in her quarters. The screen flashed on. "Computer, record a message for me, please. The recipient is Admiral Maran, Chairman of the Alliance Defense Staff."

    The computer's feminine voice immediately requested, "Please provide personal code to verify clearance for action."

    "Andreys Charlie Gamma Echo 3392."

    "Code authenticated. Ready to record message."

    "Record." Julia took in a breath. This was it. She was casting the die, and it would determine how her life, and the lives of those she cared for, would go on from here.

    Despite everything, there was no wavering in her voice as she spoke. "Admiral Maran, this is Commander Andreys. Sir, you have my apologies for the time it's taken me to speak to you on the manner of your offer. It was something I had to consider carefully, and I'm afraid it took longer than I expected.." Julia set her hands in her lap. "I'm sending this message, Admiral, to let you know that my answer is 'Yes'." Something twinkled in her aquamarine eyes. "I am ready, and with gratitude and confidence I accept your offer to be named Captain of the Starship Enterprise."



    Tag



    The Aurora's launch deck was filled with uniformed men and women and beings. Caskets draped with the flags of the Alliance and Earth were arrayed on special launch gantries. Out the rear hatch of the deck, the distant light of Sol shined through the protective forcefields.

    Doctor Huer and Emissary Yadin were the speakers for the occasion. They praised the heroism of the dead flight crew as the friends of those lost watched on with eyes brimming with tears, shed and unshed. Colonel Deering and Commander Kane gave the orders to the ceremonial guard to fire the appropriate salutes. Said fire filled the launch deck while Chief Tayal Lagamo, a dark blue-skinned, teal-spotted Sanusa Dorei, played a remembrance hymn from the hita instrument - a set of five pipes bound together like a flute. The hymn was interspersed with the bagpipe tune of "Amazing Grace" played by Junior Petty Officer Heather Cameron.

    Then, in one complete group, the caskets were launched out into space.

    The service did not end there. One last casket was brought up. This casket was covered in a unique flag, replicated specifically for this service after consultation with the various sources of information about the Darglan. The insignia was a stylized emblem that reminded Robert of an atom, an atom being refracted through mirrors as if to show more than one, although the actual symbol was a Darglan emblem representing unity and discovery. All music stopped.

    After discussion, and learning what was to be said, no eulogy was given. The Darglan believed in memorializing their fallen after the fact, but not during their burial ceremony. That was a time to reflect on the loss of a living being; remembrance was for later. Or so the records, and what Meridina had learned, had said.

    With sad tears and a determined expression, Caterina stepped up to the dais and the podium. All eyes turned to her as she looked down at Jonram's casket. She was in full dress uniform, as they were, and despite her small stature Robert felt that Caterina was looking the part well. She swallowed and raised her head. For a moment her eyes closed as she brought the words from her memory, words she had been memorizing with Meridina's help for the past two days.

    All who are born walk a road
    The road of choice and chance
    We walk in hope of our future
    That those we walk alongside
    Will know a better path for our efforts

    All things change, all things strive
    As atoms spin and fuse
    The past can guide, but should not blind
    For our future must be seen
    If it is to be

    We seek to grow
    We seek to learn
    That is the core of life
    For life's sake knowledge is gained
    For with knowledge comes growth

    Like children leaving their cradles
    Now we have come out to the void
    With the stars of infinity our guide
    Solar winds will carry us on
    New discoveries the reward for our dedication

    For what is Reality but the existence of all
    And what is existence but a chance to learn?
    We learn, we grow, and by our knowledge
    Reality itself comes alive
    And we grow closer to understanding it

    Now my road has ended
    Cry not tears for me
    Knowledge is what I gift
    My growth the map for your benefit
    And my matter returned to the source of life

    For matter cannot be destroyed
    It is only transformed
    And we came from starstuff, all and one
    And to starstuff we return
    To one day become life anew


    By the time she was finished the tears were streaming down Caterina's face. She nodded quietly to Julia. Julia, in turn, looked to the ceremonial pallbearers. Meridina, Lucy, and Buck were joined symbolically by Robert, Huer, and Leo. They picked up Jornam's casket and moved it to a launch platform. After they stood to the side, Caterina was the one who walked to the launch controls and keyed the sequence.

    With a great heave, the platform launched the casket into space. A small thruster powered by a microfusion core fired, directing the remains of the last Darglan on toward their final destination in Sol.

    Julia pressed a key to close the launch deck door. Once it was closed, she declared, "Burial company dismissed!" and the ceremony broke up.

    Caterina was met at the door by Lucy and Meridina. "Jornam would have been quite proud of you," Meridina assured her.

    "Thank you," Cat answered. "I just wish I didn't have to give it."

    "I know." Meridina set a hand on Caterina's shoulder.

    Caterina, however, looked to Lucy. "What did you do with that database that he gave you?"

    "I put it away in my quarters," Lucy answered. She knew where this was going. "Do you want to meet me in Science Lab 1 later? We can start analyzing it."

    To that, Caterina nodded. "Yes. I think I'd like that. And it's what he'd want. He'd want us to learn more."

    Lucy and Meridina nodded in agreement and joined Caterina in heading on to the Lookout.



    The Lookout was becoming crowded by the time Julia and Robert arrived at its doors. Earth and Alliance personnel were mingling freely as Hargert's staff brought up food and drinks for their benefit.

    Just before they entered, Julia gestured to Robert to follow her. Despite the crowd they found that there was a spot near the door where they could be relatively alone. Once there Robert met her eye to eye and asked, "Okay, what's on your mind?"

    "I said yes," she said.

    Robert immediately knew what she meant. After trying to think of a proper reaction he settled for nodding and saying, "Congratulations, Captain Andreys."

    Julia gave him a droll look. "I'm not a Captain until New Year's. Admiral Maran's going to make it official in a few weeks and I'll be here until a few days after Christmas."

    "Right." Robert let a grin form on his face. "Congratulations, Julia. Do you mind if I announce it to everyone?"

    "I suppose it's better to get it out of the way," Julia said.

    With that permission given, Robert went to the bar where Albert, Hargert's protege, was preparing more drinks. A few whispered words and thirty seconds later a tone sounded over the speakers, ending all conversation. Sets of eyes began to turn toward Robert and to Julia, who stepped up beside him. "I have an announcement to make," Robert said, using the speaker system himself so he didn't have to make his voice too loud. "It is my honor and privilege to introduce to you my oldest and best friend in the Multiverse. Everyone, applause for Captain Julia Andreys, the new Commanding Officer of the Alliance Starship Enterprise!"

    "Aye!" shouted Scotty. "Three cheers an' a toast for th' Captain of th' Enterprise!"

    Pink turned to slight red on Julia's cheeks at the resulting cheers and applause, joined by the clinking of glasses and cups.

    Once this had died down the two made their way to a table where Doctor Huer and Buck were eying a table laden with Texan and Southwestern food. Wilma stood behind Buck and winked at Julia, who winked back.

    "Are you sure about this, Doctor Huer?" asked Theopolis from his place hanging on Twiki's chest. "You were quite unwell the last time you attempted 20th Century cuisine."

    "That's because Buck cooked it," Wilma said. Buck gave her a faux-angry look.

    "Yes, well…" Huer chuckled a little nervously. "The other people in the Alliance eat this, obviously. Perhaps I should learn too." He picked up a burrito an