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Episode 3-03 - "Command Principles"

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Ship's Log: 15 February 2643; ASV Aurora. Captain Julia Andreys recording. I'm pleased to report that we have completed our shakedown and training cruise for the crew. The Aurora is officially back on active duty. I am also pleased to report that despite the changes to the command staff and some of the department heads, everything is going as smoothly as it did before the battle with the Cybermen and Daleks.

For our first mission back on active duty, the
Aurora has been sent to the Alliance's colony zone in Universe Designate A2M6 to assist in a medical emergency at the Oakland Colony on Phi Perseus 4.

With time on her hands before her morning bridge watch, Julia went by the medbay to check up on things there. She found Leo in the company of the newest medical officer on his staff. Doctor Roliri Opani, formerly the medical officer of the Koenig, was quick to notice Julia's arrival. The Dorei woman's dark teal skin and longer, pointed ears gave her both an alien and almost elfin appearance. The light purple spots running from her forehead to her neck and further below were the same color as her eyes, though her hair was a far darker hue. "Captain," she said.

"Ah, there you are." Leo turned as well to face her. "Anything more from the governor of the Oakland Colony?"

"His last update had no changes listed," Julia replied. "The women he has in quarantine aren't showing any symptoms of illness, but the tests his medical officers have done confirm the presence of a parasitical organism in their bodies. At least, in the Humans of the group, the quarantined aliens have shown no sign of infection."

"But it's not causing any adverse symptoms." Leo was clearly thoughtful on that point. "I've been looking over the notes that Doctor Logan, the colony's medical director, sent to us. At first glance I figured it was an organism from another world, but the genetic analysis confirms that it's life from Earth."

"But you've never seen it?" Julia asked.

"No. Never before. A2M6 Earth may have had a unique development compared to others. I'll know more when we get there and our biologists get samples."

"I am looking forward to assisting," Opani said. "While I enjoyed serving with the Koenig, the chance to work medicine on a star cruiser is an opportunity I've been dreaming of since I joined the service."

"You've earned it," Leo assured Opani. "And I'm looking forward to working with you."

Opani smiled at him. The smile faded slightly. "Have either of you heard from Commander Carrey lately?" she asked.

"We see him for the staff meetings," Julia replied. "But I'm afraid he's not being very sociable these days."

"If he keeps up this 'loner' thing, we may need to make an intervention," Leo added. "However alone he wants to feel, it's not helping him."

Julia nodded. "Believe me, I know. But I'm afraid I'll just push him away if I don't respect his wishes. As long as he's following his duties, there's nothing I can do."

"You don't think he's…" Leo didn't make any gestures, but the look in his eyes told Julia exactly what Leo was thinking of.

"He's been fine on duty, so it doesn't seem like it," Julia said. The expression on her face showed how hurt she felt about Zack's sudden distance. Whatever his feelings for her, they were still supposed to be close friends. And with Robert gone, Julia was already feeling lonely.

Leo gave her a pat on the shoulder. "It's not your fault if he's pushing everyone away. Don't let it get to you."

"I won't," Julia promised. "I can't. Not with a ship to run." She checked her omnitool. "Remember that we're having the staff briefing in two hours. We should be at Phi Perseus this afternoon."

"I'll be there," he answered.

Julia departed. She couldn't help but wonder just where Zack was at the moment.

The chiming alarm brought a brief destructive urge to Zack's mind before it went away. He sat up and gave a look to the bottle by his bed. The tequila was nearly gone from it. He took the bottle and poured a bit into the glass beside it. The tequila was one of the cheaper kinds and did not go down gently.

With bleary eyes and a blearier brain, Zack stumbled out of bed and went straight for his restroom. He was functional enough to complete his morning routine, if just so, and it still included knocking over a container of shampoo and sending its contents onto part of the floor before his flailing fingers managed to grip it. He left the mess behind for a moment and went to the living room. His head ached. Another hangover.

For a few minutes he sat there doing nothing. On his table an empty tumbler and a half-finished bottle of bourbon remained from his attempt to survive the end of Valentine's Day. The bourbon and tequila night cap had been sufficient to deal with that. And I'd gone a few days without more than a shot. Last night… it was just that once. Those thoughts comforted him with the idea that unlike his father, he was able to control his urge. He only needed this once and awhile.

Keeping his consumption low also helped with avoiding provoking the disappointment and criticism of his friends. Sneaking his supplies aboard with boxes of other things was working out. Sure, if they were out in space for a prolonged period where he couldn't visit a seller, he might end up running out. But if that happened, it happened, right? He would just have to go without for a while.

The other part of his avoiding tipping his friends off required his next action of shuffling his way over to the replicator. "Computer, Niltox, eight hundred milligram dose. And a glass of cool water."

"Processing… warning, eight hundred milligrams is twice the appropriate dose."

"Yeah, but I had more than twice my usual alcohol last night," he muttered in reply. "So please replicate the damn stuff."


The computer created a small paper cup with four pills in it. A nondescript glass with clear water appeared beside it. The blue-tinted pills reminded Zack of the ibuprofen he used to take to ease his joints after a particularly difficult and strenuous baseball game. Zack took the cup and dumped the four pills into his mouth, after which he drained the glass of water and took everything down in one strong gulp. He placed both cups back into the replicator and punched the return button. "Now for breakfast." He ordered cereal and toast and settled down to finish his breakfast and let the detoxicants do their work.

It was only after he was finished eating that he remembered the staff meeting.

The Starship Aurora had been built with a few conference rooms for mundane use - department meetings - and more critical functions such as meetings with foreign dignitaries or Alliance officials and high officers. There was one conference room set aside for the command staff's personal use. To facilitate response to an emergency, it was attached to the bridge module at the top of the ship, accessible from the bridge through a single pair of sliding doors. The furnishings consisted of a long table with enough chairs for the Aurora and Koenig command officers to meet together, as they were now, and for guest officers to attend if need be. A flatscreen monitor behind the head seat of the table was one method for displaying incoming calls, as was the holographic projector built into the center of the table, which could double as a projector for displaying information and data in briefings.

When Zack arrived, he knew he was a few minutes late. He had taken the extra time to make absolutely sure that his black-and-burgundy red uniform looked proper. He didn't want anyone to think he looked sloppy and to wonder why. "Sorry," he said before taking his seat to Julia's left, across from Meridina to her right. "I… I had a bad night." He glanced toward his officers. Seeing Opani wasn't there reminded him that she had been re-assigned to the Aurora, and her replacement was due to catch up with them at Phi Perseus. Another absence that stuck out to him was Commander Kane, the former Commander of the Marine Troops on the Aurora, crippled in the fight with the Daleks. His replacement, Major Gabriel Anders, was seated between Lieutenant Commander Phryne Richmond, the ship's chief of security, and Zack's friend Lieutenant Tom Barnes, the Asst. Chief Engineer and primary Engineering Officer for the bridge staff.

Zack remembered Kane as an athletically-built Caucasian man with light brown hair always cut close to his scalp in Marine fashion. In contrast Major Anders' dark hair was a little more grown out. He was built leaner as well. His skin, while on the light-toned side, had a brown color to it that, when combined with his facial features, reminded Zack of the Cherokee people he'd met during trips to Oklahoma as a child.

Lieutenant Commander Richmond, on the other hand, had the lightest skin tone in the room, being nearly porcelain white, with short-cut black hair and striking green eyes. She wasn't tall nor large, with a lean figure.

"Are you okay?" Julia asked him, not a hint of impatience in her tone.

"I am now," he said.

"Well, since you're here, we can begin." Julia picked up a digital reader. "We're all new to Universe A2M6, so I'll read the summary that Command provided to me. The Discovery led the first exploration jump in February of last year in the company of the U.S.S. Burnham as part of a joint exploration mission with Starfleet. Captain Patis and Captain Tilly made contact with one of the indigenous starfaring species of this universe, the Xou…" Julia blinked. "The Xou-exclamation point-tasam."

"Their language may have an emphatic element to pronunciation that doesn't render into English," Jarod pointed out. "It's probably pronounced something like Xou-tasam."

"Alright. The Xou!tasam. They're a species of aquatic echinodermoids with some similarities to Earth starfish. They lead an interspecies confederation translated as the Trading Consortium. Captain Tilly of the Burnham compared them, 'favorably', to Ferengi."

"As in they're not as rapaciously greedy as Ferengi culture encourages Ferengi to be?" asked Jarod.

"Apparently not, at least by Captain Tilly's estimation. The Xou!tasam are noted to prefer peaceful interaction over territorial expansion. It's why the Alliance was able to set up several colonies in this area of space. The Xou!tasam never claimed any of these systems." Julia set the digital reader down, reading the final notes from memory. "We already have standing treaties with the Consortium, including trade agreements, mutual assistance, extradition, medical research…" She stopped.

"So they are our local friends," Meridina noted.

"Trading partners, at least," Locarno said.

Angel asked, "I'm guessing they're not helping us out with the Nazis?"

"I'd like to meet one," Caterina said. "So this quarantine problem, is it them?"

"No, it's not." Leo shook his head. "It's Humans. Local ones, apparently."

"Whom we don't know much about," Julia said. "The Xou!tasam have provided us with some information on Humanity in this universe. They tend to be closer to one of the Human governments, the League of Democratic Worlds…"

An electronic tone interrupted Julia. "Bridge to Conference Lounge." The accented voice was that of Lieutenant Takawira.

"Go ahead, Lieutenant."

"Captain, we're picking up a distress signal." Those words caused everyone to sit up. "It's coming from the Oakland Colony. They say an unknown vessel appeared in orbit. It's preparing to attack."

Julia stood up. "Increase speed to Warp 9.9. Go to Code Red."

"Aye sir."

Zack and his officers went for the lift door across from the bridge door while the Aurora officers filed out, heading to their stations, all while the alert klaxons blared.

Undiscovered Frontier
"Command Principles"

The bridge of the Aurora was tense with anticipation. Everyone had assumed their stations. Meridina went over the small display built into the First Officer's chair while Julia sat up in the command chair. "Commander Laurent reports that our fighters are ready," Meridina said.

"All decks reporting ready," Jarod added.

"Anything more from Oakland Colony?"

"Just a continued distress signal." Jarod checked his console. "But I'm getting interference on that band."

"They're being jammed," Cat confirmed from the science and sensor station. "I've got a power signature on long range sensors."

"How big?" Julia set her arms on the armrests of her chair.

"Not very. A light starship going by our instruments." Caterina looked over her sensor returns. "They're maintaining an orbit over the planet."

"Torpedoes loaded," Angel reported. "All weapons ready for firing."

"Let us hope that is not necessary," Meridina stated.

After a moment Julia was ready to ask for an ETA. But she barely had time to open her lips before Locarno said, "We're coming up on Phi Perseus 4. Dropping out of warp in three seconds."

At exactly the three second mark the Aurora dropped out of warp. The planet loomed ahead. Without needing to be asked, Jarod magnified the image of the intruding starship. Julia noted that, as Cat had said, it was a light vessel. But it had a certain aggressive look to it with the visible gun turrets. The bow of the ship ended in a particularly large opening, presumably another weapon that was spinal-mounted much like the super-disruptors on Reich capital warships. A sponson shape lined with thruster ports was visible on each side of the ship.

"Looks to be two hundred and five meters by fifty-nine meters by eighteen meters as maximum dimensions," Jarod said. "Definitely a light design."

"I'll feel better about it when I know what that bow-mounted weapon is. Mister Jarod, hail them."

"I'm already opening the channel." A light appeared on his station. "They're responding."

The screen shifted to show another bridge or command center, with a holographic tactical display in the background. The image was focused upon a Human-looking woman with a dark complexion. The collar and visible shoulders of her uniform were white in color with black shoulderboard epaulets. Her dark hair was pulled back into a bun. A stern expression was on the woman's round face.

Julia stood from her chair. "Greetings. I am Captain Julia Andreys of the Alliance Starship Aurora, representing the United Alliance of Systems. You have entered our space and assumed an orbit over one of our colonies with apparent hostile intent. I ask you to state your intentions."

"I am Captain Wirake Mawarra of Her Imperial Majesty's Ship Irresistible, of the Imperial Aururian Navy. This system is in Imperial space. You have occupied on one of our worlds in an act of flagrant illegality, and worse, your squatters have abducted subjects of Her Imperial Majesty. I must demand their immediate release and your ship's withdrawal from our star system after a rendering of honours, or I will be constrained into attempting to compel your compliance.

So there we are
, Julia thought, feeling a little stunned at how utterly brazen the demands were from such a tiny ship. They claim the system too. "Our colonists found no evidence of another claim on this system," she answered. "Our governments can, of course, discuss the matter. As for charging our people with abduction, there are people being held in medical quarantine due to the detection of an unknown organism in their bodies. Once we're sure the organism hasn't passed on into the colony arrangements for their return can be made. And finally, it is my duty to protect citizens of the Alliance. I am not leaving this system so long as they are under potential threat."

Given the look on the opposing Captain's face, Julia could see this was not going well. "Your offered terms in this parley do not constitute an acceptable outcome, Captain. The honor and my duty to the integrity of the Imperial Federation compels me to demand your immediate withdrawal from our territory and the return without harm or delay of any of Her Majesty's subjects being held within the interloping settlement on the planet. You have but a single opportunity remaining to respond favourably to my demarche, or else we shall put it to the touch, Captain."

"They sound like they derive their English-speaking from the 19th Century," Jarod noted.

Julia glanced to Meridina. Meridina's reaction was a pensive look. She is rigid and uncompromising Meridina's voice said in Julia's mind. I strongly suggest we prepare for combat.

Not what I wanted
, was the returned thought. Aloud Julia kept calm and hoped it might persuade this captain to not commence hostilities. "Captain Mawarra, I assure you that your people will be returned shortly. They are being held as a medical emergency only. Now, I am willing to mutually withdraw from orbit and wait for…"

"Your response is, I fear, unacceptable. This parley is concluded, Captain. Withdraw from this system in twenty seconds or I shall commence fire upon your ship with the full vigour of my batteries." The woman's image, her face frozen in a rictus of determination, disappeared from the screen and returned the visual to the ship. It turned to starboard and began to approach. Slowly an orange haze started to envelop the ship, partially obscuring the hull.

"She's got to be crazy!" Angel shouted. "We outmass her completely!"

Julia returned to her seat and activated her harness. "We will not open fire first," she said. "Evasive Maneuvers, Plan Tan-."

Light around the bow of the Irresistible seemed to warp slightly. A blue beam surged from the weapon and slammed into the bow of the Aurora.

The intense rocking surprised everyone. It felt like the ship had just been struck by a full heavy weapon blast against the hull. "Report!" Julia shouted as they ceased shaking.

"It's some sort of graviton beam," Caterina said. "It sent reaction force right through the shields and into our structure!"

The beam fired again and the ship shook once more.

"The entire ship is feeling this!" Jarod added.

"Primary Shield Generators 1 and 2 are showing strain on their mountings," Barnes reported from his engineering station. "The shock is causing stress damage to multiple systems in the forward sections of the ship!"

"Return fire, disable that weapon! Helm, evasive maneuvers!" As she gave that second order, Julia felt the ship jolt violently again.

With all of the shaking Angel had to be extra careful to make sure she was hitting the right keys. She acquired a target lock and fired a full volley of the bow weapons.

Ten sets of sapphire energy pulses erupted from the bow of the Aurora in a steady stream. They slammed repeatedly into the shields of the frigate.

"Their shields aren't degrading," Angel said. "I'm firing again!"

"The shields aren't standard deflectors," Cat said.

Locarno maneuvered the Aurora to evade the enemy weapon. But the Aururian ship was smaller and more nimble. With her side-mounted thrusters she easily turned to keep her bow weapon focused on the larger ship. Locarno twisted and banked the ship enough that the next shot simply grazed the shields, with less rocking than before.

"What do you mean, Cat?" Angel asked.

"They're using gravitic fields as their main protective shield system," Cat explained. "Like the Abbai in E5B1. They don't suffer degrading from weapons fire."

"Give me a moment," Jarod said. "I'm reconfiguring your pulse cannons to fire a continuous stream instead of bursts. Use the emitters too. You need to burn through."

The next hit caused another violent jolt through the ship. "How the frak is that little piece of crap spaceship kicking our ass so hard?!" Barnes demanded with a shout. "They're damaging systems all over the ship!"

"Weapon reconfiguration complete," Jarod said.

"I'm bringing us back around," Locarno added.


Angel triggered the weapons again. With the small ship off their bow for the moment she relied on the new plasma cannons installed in the place of the removed phaser banks and pulse phaser cannons. Solid beams of blue energy lashed out at the small Aururian craft. "Something's absorbing the plasma where it's getting past the shields."

"I'm picking up a radiation signature from the gas they're circulating under that magnetic shield. It's not as effective against your weapons as it would be against lasers," Jarod said. "Keep it up!"

"Let me get a torpedo lock…"

"No!" Julia shouted. "No torpedoes! I'm not having you accidentally blow that ship apart!"

Once more the Aurora rocked. "Rupture on Plasma Feed 4A," Barnes said. "We won't be able to go to warp safely until it's repaired."

Meanwhile Angel was cutting loose with the Aurora's new mid-grade plasma armament. Operating under the same principles as the pulse plasma cannons the Darglan had developed - based, they now knew, off of Asgard weapons technology - the weapons were beginning to overwhelm the shield around the Aururian vessel. A plume of flame erupted from within the orange haze. "Direct hit!" Angel shouted.

"I'm reading damage to the enemy ship's electrical system. But they're still…"

Cat's warning was interrupted by another strong jolt through the ship. The enemy weapon was becoming visible on the screen, with the two vessels' bows moving into alignment. The other ship attempted to jink out of the bow cannons' firing arc. Julia knew they were fast enough to do it.

But Angel was faster.

When the bow cannons fired again, they fired in a steady stream that almost became beams in of themselves. The thick streams of rapid plasma pulses hammered the bow of the Aururian ship. The other ship's shields were overwhelmed by the power they were subjected to, allowing those deadly streams to reach bare hull.

An explosion flowered from the bow of the Irresistible, spewing gas and debris from the ship's savaged bow. A pair of further explosions erupted from the ventral hull of the ship. Flames around the vessel lit up briefly before, having consumed their fuel, they gave out. The orange haze that had surrounded the ship expanded, thinning until they could make out the Aururian ship visually again. It was an utter wreck.

Julia should have been pleased to have defeated the enemy ship that had caused such unexpected havoc for them. But her reaction was to snap her head around to glare at Angel. "What happened? I said shoot to disable!"

"Yeah, but against those shields, I had to hit them with my best shot," Angel countered.

"I'm reading multiple hull breaches. Their main power is completely offline." Cat tapped a key on her board. "There's also a change in life sign readings… it looks like at least half of them are gone now."

"Dammit," Julia breathed, looking at the wrecked ship again. Disabling the Irresistible to force her captain to negotiate had been her aim. Killing some of the other ship's crew was not going to make that any easier. "Commander Jarod, please re-open a channel to the Irresistible." Julia drew in a breath of exasperation. "Assuming they still have comms."

"It looks like they do," Jarod answered. "They're answering."

This time the image of other ship's bridge showed a different sight. The display in the background was missing. Faint cries could be heard. And Captain Mawarra was missing. In her place was an alien. Silvery, dark green hair covered the alien's head, with a pointed ear on each side a little shorter than a Dorei's. The skin had a silvery sheen as well, with a brown coloration to it, with hair almost thick enough to be fur visible on the body, dark brown in its color. A pair of yellow eyes looked back at Julia on the screen. "I am Lieutenant Commander Rimamika Nuirala, first officer of this vessel and currently in command. We recognize our defeat and are prepared to yield our ship. We insist on honorable treatment as is appropriate for civilized societies; if you can not or will not offer us such terms, then do not trouble yourselves with Quarter, we will fight you on the emergency batteries before we surrender ourselves to slavery."

"This is Captain Andreys. We are ready to provide medical assistance to your crew," Julia answered. The reference to slavery made her wonder if there was more to affairs in this universe than the Alliance knew. What are we dealing with here? "All we ask is that you suspend hostilities so we can discuss your claim to this system and the status of the people in quarantine. The Alliance is opposed to sentient slavery and I give you my word we will not hold any of you captive for any such purpose."

A lump of brown hair popped up over the alien's head and began to move side by side. A tail, Julia realized. "I can only act in such a way as to protect the honor of the Imperial Federation. I will relay your words to Captain Mawarra when she is able to receive them."

"First things first. Let me get our medical teams ready to go over to your ship. I will resume contact shortly." Julia nodded to Jarod, who cut the transmission.

"Are we going to trust them with Leo and our medical people?" Locarno asked. "They attacked us without provocation."

"I don't think they saw it that way," Julia remarked. "If our people overlooked something when settling this system… well, we'll have to look into their claim. But I doubt they're going to harm a medical team when they're clearly in need of one."

"If I may make a suggestion, Captain?" asked Meridina.

Julia turned to her and nodded. "Go ahead, Commander."

"I shall accompany Doctor Gillam or any other medical personnel he sends to their assistance," she said. "I can act to protect our people should treachery occur."

Julia nodded in reply. "A great idea, Commander. You've got my approval. Head down to the medbay and see Doctor Gillam about it."

"Right away." Meridina stood from her chair and started her way to the nearest lift.

Julia returned to her command chair. "Okay, what's our damage?"

"Repair crews are working on the warp system," Barnes said. "And we'll be looking at all of the systems to check for further shock damage."

"Shields are still at one hundred percent. We'll need to double-check the generator mountings, however," Jarod added.

"Get that done." A possibility came to Julia's mind. She looked at Caterina. "Miss Delgado, do you know if they got any transmissions out?"

Cat checked her sensor logs. "Looking at our logs, they were sending transmissions before we even arrived."

That news was not welcome. "Then keep an eye on long-range sensors. Commander Jarod, the ship is to remain at Code Yellow until further notice. I want everyone ready to resume battlestations and an alert sent to A2M6 Fleet Command on the situation. We may need more ships. Now…" Julia started walking to her ready office. "Please hail the colony. I want to know just what kind of ant hill they've kicked over out here."

Meridina arrived to find that the medbay was quite active. Multiple biobeds had patients, some of them favoring limbs that looked injured, even broken. Nurses were at work in tending to them. Once directed her toward one of the other rooms in the medbay. She found Leo and a number of figures getting into bio-containment suits. They were essentially EVA suits but colored medical blue with built-in medical scanner gear. Leo looked at her through the faceplate. "Go ahead and get a suit," he said.

"Do you consider this necessary?"

"Yes. It's possible that the Earth of this universe had different biological developments. And we have no clue which worlds these people may be from and what contagions they could carry. It's best not to take the risk."

"Very well." Meridina went over to the rack and took one of the suits. She removed her lightsaber from her belt before fitting her first leg into the suit. "How large of a team are you taking?"

"Doctor Hreept and I will be joined by half a dozen of my nurses. I'm sending Singh and Opani down to the colony to check on those quarantine cases. That leaves my other medical staff to process our wounded." Leo's expression was pained. "We had a fatality, I should add."

Meridina finished pulling her left arm into the suit. She stopped at that point to look at him. "From?"

"Junior Petty Officer Jumbe broke his neck during one of those shaking hits we took," Leo explained. "We were too late to save him."

"I see." Meridina gripped the suit and fitted her right arm in. Once her fingers fitted into the gloved end of the right arm she zipped the fasteners and began the automatic sealing system. "That is regrettable."

"Why did they open fire on us anyway? Julia's usually very good at diplomacy."

"We are dealing with an honor culture of some form. It appears they felt obligated to defend what they consider to be their territory."

Leo shook his head. "Good people dead over pride. It's criminal."

Meridina clipped her lightsaber back to her belt. "It shall be our task to ensure no others die as well." The HUD display on the inside of her faceplate confirmed that the suit's seals were in place and her air was circulating. The sensors set the internal atmosphere of her suit to match optimum conditions for Gersallian physiology. "I am prepared. Let us depart."

The transporter operator sent the medical team to what the sensors indicated was an intact area of the ship. It appeared to be a shuttle bay given the presence of such craft. Meridina and Leo stepped up toward an alien, one of the silver-haired semi-furred ones with pointed ears. "I am Doctor Leonard Gillam of the Aurora," said Leo. "My team and I are here to help your medical staff."

The alien looked over them. Her yellow eyes focused on Meridina. "You have come in containment suits?"

"Yes," Leo answered. "To minimize the risk of contamination for both sides."

"No offense is meant," Meridina added.

The alien seemed to consider that. "I… It is unnecessary, but I understand. Accompany me, I shall bring you to the surgeon."

"The Oakland Colony thanks you and your crew for dealing with that hostile ship." The speaker was Shaun Taylor, the governor of the colony in question. Julia had him on the monitor screen on her ready office desk. She sat quietly, her left arm on the chair arm and her right extended so her hand was on the desk near the controls for the monitor and attached computer system. Her eyes were focused on the screen and Governor Taylor's image. He was a man approaching middle age. The first faint indications of wrinkle lines had formed on the dark skin of his face. Deep brown eyes looked back at Julia. "Do you think more will arrive?"

"It's a distinct possibly, Governor," Julia answered. "Someone's going to come looking for them at the very least."

"I'll keep the militia and defenses on standby then."

With a nod Julia showed her approval of this measure. "I'd like to know more about these people you have in quarantine. How did they react to you?"

Taylor's tone was even and professional as he spoke. "They appeared in orbit about thirty hours ago and landed their ship at our spaceport. At first we thought they were independent traders. That changed when they met me and demanded to know why we had invaded their territory."

Julia nodded once. "What happened then?"

"I explained to their leader that we had no knowledge of any other claim and that they were welcome to stay and get their ship replenished. Unfortunately the arrival of extra militia to keep a watch on the situation provoked them. They pulled weapons."

A small headache formed in the middle of Julia's forehead. "Was anyone hurt?"

"We took some injuries before we managed to stun them all. Had there been a few more I'm sure we would have had fatalities." Taylor put his hands together on his desk. "I regret it came to shooting, Captain, but we weren't the ones to open fire. And I have no idea how they are justifying their claim to this system. Our survey teams did a thorough search of Phi Perseus for any indication of another civilization here or a pre-existing claim. We found nothing."

"Alright. We'll check into it as well. What about the people in quarantine?"

"They've been uncooperative since going into containment. They refuse to discuss anything but their immediate release."

"I'd like to know more about what they were doing. Their ship, have you searched it?"

"No. I wasn't going to risk contamination. We've kept the ship in a shielded hangar."

"Well, I'd like to have my people look at it. And we'll send medical staff down to get a look at these people. The sooner we confirm whether or not they pose a risk to the colony, the sooner we can let them go on their way."

"Agreed. I'll inform Colonel Littleton and Doctor Logan that your people are beaming down. Taylor out."

The screen disengaged. In the quiet of her office Julia considered her options and the necessities of the moment. There was no telling how much or how little time they had before another of these ships arrived. And the next one might be an even tougher ship than the first. She wanted to get as much information as she could before that occasion came.

She tapped the key on her desk to activate the ship intercom and said, "Andreys to Bridge. Commander Jarod, please report to the ready office."

Twenty seconds later her office door swished open and Jarod walked in. "Yes, Captain?"

"I'd like you to go down with a team from ops and engineering to inspect the quarantined vessel at the Colony," Julia said. "Find out what you can about it and report back to me."

"We'll go in with bio-containment suits under biological threat protocol?”

"Yes. At least, until we hear from the medical team about the nature of whatever this organism is they're carrying in their bodies."

"I'll get the team together now," Jarod said.

"You're free to go," Julia said. She watched him step out of her office and took the moment to ponder on the difference in how the ship operated now, the difference she'd made.

Robert had always been so informal. He insisted on speaking to others by name, and had no objection to the others on the command staff calling him by name. By contrast Julia was going for the more professional interactions even among her friends. In private and off-duty she was still Julia, but on the bridge, in meetings, and in the presence of others, she would be "Captain" or "sir" and she would address them like another officer.

It was perhaps unfair to them. It may even seem like she was letting her authority go to her head. But it was how she thought things should be run. They were part of an organization now and they needed to behave like it.

The thought came and went. She had to focus on the here and now. The situation here was fraught with danger for her ship and crew, not to mention the ten thousand colonists on the planet below. It would be easy to dismiss the claims of Captain Mawarra as naked expansionism, but given what Governor Taylor had told her about the people in quarantine, they had been expecting a colony of their people once they had arrived. Whatever Governor Taylor thought of the thoroughness of the survey of this system, Julia didn't want to leave anything on that matter to chance.

So she hit the intercom key again. "Andreys to Carrey," she said. "Come see me in my ready room as soon as you can. I have a mission to discuss with you."

After a few moments, which was honestly a moment longer than she thought it should be, Zack's reply came over the channel. "I'm on my way."

The Oakland Colony Hospital was stark to Opani's eyes. The white walls and flooring, the bright lights, lacked color to her sense of aesthetics. Most Dorei hospitals went for blues and greens to give subconscious reassurance to patients and their visitors, with some regional exceptions such as the various Sindai nations, where red and yellow was preferred.

The weight of the equipment in her arms reminded her of the need to concern herself with the matter at hand. She regained her pace with the others, causing the sound of her footsteps to echo more loudly in the hall. She caught up to Doctor Amita Singh, a brown-colored Human woman from a Human colony called New Punjab, who was asking questions of the colony's medical director, Doctor Allen Logan. Logan was middle-aged Caucasian man with enough gray in his hair to indicate he was in the upper range of middle-age. "There are still no acute symptoms?"

"None," Logan said. "I checked them myself an hour ago. And they have the means to call us if any of them get sick."

The answer was put succinctly and precisely. Doctor Logan struck Opani as capable and reserved. He showed no resentment nor any worries beyond reasonable concern for what was going on with the colony.

Logan brought them to a door and pressed his hand to the plate beside it. The system acknowledged his identity and the door slid open. He led them inside to the sight of numerous pieces of lab equipment. "Here," he said, guiding them to an open table. He indicated a nearby cabinet marked with temperature warnings. "We haven't received a bio-stasis vault yet, so we've been using cold storage for samples. The top drawer has the samples from our guests. I had them specially labeled for you."

"Thank you, Doctor Logan," Singh said. "This will work quite well."

"If you need me I am a call away."

"Do we have the codes to visit the patients?" Opani asked.

Logan responded by activating his multidevice. He tapped some keys on its hardlight keyboard. Opani and Singh received notifications of incoming data on their omnitools. "These codes will let you access the cells if you need to. Colonel Littleton's guards know to expect you."

"Thank you again."

The two physicians quickly set up their own scanning devices. Opani retrieved the samples they were due to use from the vault.

"We need to make sure the organism is not capable of airborne transmission." Singh accepted a sample from Opani. "Once we can narrow down its transmission vector, we can start on analyzing its effects on a body."

Opani took her own sample over to one of the pieces of equipment they brought in. "I should have a result shortly," she said.

The infirmary on the Irresistible was much smaller than the Aurora's medbay. Leo and his medical personnel found they had little room to work. But they nevertheless managed it. The ship's doctor, a Surgeon-Lieutenant Munissi, had shown some trepidation about the Aurora personnel, but the need to save the lives of her crew had outweighed such considerations. From her they had learned that the people on the ship could be generally referred to as "Aururians", although that seemed to be the name of a leading national group, not the entirety of their Empire.

As things were the Aururians were decently advanced in the field of medicine, having several mechanisms and devices that matched or even exceeded the Alliance's average level of medical technology. Their lack of transporter systems was the one place where Leo and his staff proved invaluable. A portable surgical unit lacked the versatility of a proper surgical theater but it sufficed, for the moment, in helping Leo repair cut blood vessels and other injuries, especially internal ones, that threatened the injured.

Meridina stepped up behind him. "They hide it, but they fear us."

"I'm not surprised," Leo answered. He used the controls of the portable unit to finish stitching up a torn blood vessel in a crewwoman's leg. Nasri was on the next bed cleaning up the blood and using a dermal regenerator on the shallow wounds on another crewwoman. "We're complete strangers to them. And I can confirm something of interest."

"They all carry the same organism as the quarantined group below," Meridina guessed.

"Almost. All but two of the humans we've treated, and those two have some sort of cybernetic implant the others lack." said Leo. "It looks like a spongiform of some kind. But until I do an in-depth analysis I'm still not sure of how it works."

"Of course." Meridina went quiet to let Leo finish securing his patient. Only when he was done and signaling for two of the Aururian orderlies to remove her from the bed did Meridina resume speaking. "I have observed another item that may be of cultural interest."


As another patient was placed upon the bed, Meridina noted that her observation still held up. She looked to Leo and said. "It appears that this ship is crewed only by individuals of female gender."

"It does appear that way, doesn't it? But right now the gender of my patients doesn't concern me." Leo looked over his scans of his new patient. "I have lives to save.”

Meridina nodded once and stepped away.

The ship that the quarantined Aururians had landed with was still where it landed. An energy field surrounded it to keep people out. That same need was why the Aurora officers examining the ship were in full biohazard suits.

Lucy was grateful for said suits, or rather because the blue suits were a far cry from the bulky biohazard suits she had seen on television growing up. These EVA-derived suits allowed plenty of mobility and comfort, a blessing since it allowed her to examine the close quarters of the ship's engineering space without difficulty. "It looks like they have a small internal warp drive."

"Then this thing has crap for warp range," Barnes observed. He was standing nearby. His omnitool was active and scanning the area. "And it's definitely not their primary means of superluminal propulsion."

"What's their power source?" Jarod asked over the comm. He was on the upper deck of the ship.

“They’ve got a combination of what looks like an anti-matter reactor and a fusion torch. It uses really Goddamned elaborate shielding. It looks like they took damage to that part of the electronics and I've got no sign of any remaining antimatter aboard. At least, I think that's what the readings indicate. Some of this; I've never Goddamned seen anything like it before.”

"Which explains why they landed without checking to see who was here." Lucy ran her scanner over another part of the engineering area. As the omnitool compiled the actual makeup of the equipment and machinery she was detecting, Lucy started to put it together in her head. "Unless I'm wrong, I… I think they have a jump drive in here."

"What kind?" Barnes asked.

"Spatial fold," Lucy said. "Just like on the Battlestar Pegasus and the other Colonial ships I've seen."

"Tom, go ahead and double-check her findings to confirm. Lucy, I'd like you to get up here to the main deck. I want to access their main computer."

"Sure." Lucy thought she could hear something in Jarod's voice. A sense that he was close to finding out the solution to a mystery he'd stumbled upon. "I'm on my way."

The crew of the Koenig were assembled and ready when Zack stepped onto the bridge. He sat in his command chair and leaned forward. "All launch preparations made?"

"Yes sir," Lt. Magda Navaez, the operations/science officer, said. "Our crew is in place."

"Except for medical," added Creighton Apley, the ship's First Officer and now sporting a black strip with the two gold ones on the rank tab fixed to his collar. Formerly a Lieutenant, Apley had been promoted to Lieutenant Commander following his performance commanding the Koenig at the Battle of New Caprica. "Petty Officer Takihara and her nurses are all we have in the event of a medical emergency. I'd suggest we call up the medbay and see if they can spare one of the staff doctors."

"We're not leaving the system," Zack said, "and this is just a search mission. It shouldn't be a problem."

Apley looked uncomfortable at that decision, but the logic was sound. He nodded and turned back to his station. "Releasing the docking clamps, sir."

"Umbilicals released. We're on our own power now," Magda added.

The Aurora's support ship dock opened behind them. They backed out carefully under Apley's expert piloting. The viewscreen of the Koenig bridge was soon dominated by a view of the back of the Aurora's primary hull. The dock doors they had just exited were already closing; above them were the closed doors of the main shuttlebay, with various running lights and open ports at spots on the azure sheened hull of the Aurora. The forward tips of the upper warp nacelles began to appear before Apley brought the Koenig's bow up.

"Cloak the ship," Zack said.

"Aye sir," Magda answered. A few running lights shifted to show the ship was now cloaked. "Cloaking device is running within specs."

"Okay everyone, we're looking for something small. A comm buoy or beacon."

"Left by us?" Lt. April Sherlily asked from the tactical station.

"No. Left by these Aururians," Zack answered. "They say they claimed the system. We're going to see if they're actually telling the truth. Magda, Cat's going to be relaying you the results of her ongoing sensor sweeps. Use those and our sensors to see if you can find anything."

"Will do," she answered.

With his orders given, Zack settled back into his command chair. Now it was up to Magda and Cat to see if anything was out there.

The main deck of the Aururian ship was what Lucy would expect for a ship of this size. The living quarters were off to one wing, and her progress brought her through what looked to be a kitchen and dining area. She found Jarod waiting in the control bridge of the ship. The crew of the vessel was small, with five control consoles and a central chair. Jarod was at a console to the port side of the bridge. The screen was lit up with a language Lucy didn't recognize. "This is something," Jarod was saying. "There's no written Human language like this in our records."

"So maybe this universe's Earth had a really divergent history?" Lucy proposed. "But they spoke English, right? Maybe there's an English language mode?"

"If there is, I haven't been able to unlock it yet." Jarod went back to tapping on his omnitool. "I'm going to try a remote hack. I need you to monitor the system and tell me when I get in."

"Right." Lucy brought her own omnitool up. She linked it in with Jarod's. "Go."

Jarod started typing on a hardlight keyboard generated by his omnitool, his eyes fixed on a display generated by that same device. Code flashed across the screen in blue light. Lucy's own omnitool showed the system was still not open to them. She waited for a sign of its reaction.

It wasn't her omnitool that made the hairs on her neck stand on their ends, though. Through her life force Lucy sensed something was amiss. She concentrated to see if she could figure out more of what it was that was making her feel this way.

The moment of clarity came. Lucy immediately hit the comm key. "Everyone, out of the ship now!"

Jarod gave her a bewildered look, which grew more bewildered when she grabbed his arm and hauled him from the chair. He stumbled for a moment before finding his footing and following her. "Jarod to Aurora, we may have a situation, beam us up!"

"Not possible, Commander. The energy shield…"

"Then have them turn it off!"

"No time!" Lucy cried.

Barnes met them at the stairwell leading to the engineering spaces. Two of the other officers were already outside when they got to the exit. Everyone ran for the energy shield that isolated the ship.

Everyone but Lucy.

She waited by the exit. She could sense that there was still a life inside. When the Dorei woman emerged from the door, Lucy waited until the straggler had run past her before continuing on. The others waited on the other side of the energy field, calling out to them to hurry.

Lucy, however, already knew it was too late, even before the ship behind her exploded.

Julia stepped back out onto the bridge in response to Locarno's summons. "Report," she said, heading for her chair.

"I just picked up an explosion at the Colony spaceport," Caterina said. Julia bit back the impulse to remind Cat that she'd asked Locarno for the report, not her. There would be type for reminding Cat of that later. "It looks like the Aururian ship down there blew up."

Julia leaned her head to the side and rested it in her hand, covering her face with her palm in the process. "Was anyone hurt?"

"We are confirming that the away team's omnitools are still active," Lieutenant Sabiha Neyzi answered from Ops. "I shall have the answer…"

Caterina looked up from her station. "I've got a contact on long range sensors, bearing one-four-one mark seven. It’s just come into range traveling at Warp 8.”

"Can you identify it?" Julia asked.

"The warp signature isn't familiar. I'm checking the data… Subspace spike!" Cat shouted. "Their subspace presence just spiked!"

"What?" Julia looked over at her. "What is it?"

"One moment. I've never seen something like this, not exactly, but it's broadly consistent with spatial fold jump drives, like those used by the Colonies of Kobol and the Cylons," Cat explained. "And it's growing… And I've got a jump signature in-system, thirty thousand kilometers out! Ship jumping in!"

An incredible thought crossed Julia's mind, but it would have to wait. "On screen."

Julia turned to the screen in time for the white flash of light and the appearance of a new, much larger vessel. It was longer than the Aurora, she was sure, a long and somewhat squat shape that looked like it was descended from 20th Century naval warships. It was slightly wider than those often were, but the triple turrets definitely looked the part as they began to track the Aurora. The ship was rapidly slowing, dropping out of warp and swinging seamlessly into orbit of the planet.

And the bow had its own armament; two open weapon ports, of the same general look as the one that had been on the Irresistible, and each one noticeably bigger than that ship's had been.

"They jumped in while at warp. At Warp 8!" Caterina's voice betrayed her shock at the achievement.

"Code Red!" Julia called out. "All hands, man battlestations!"

Chapter Text

For the second time that day the Aurora's alert klaxons made their long, electronic tones. Julia kept her eyes on the screen while activating her safety harness. "Prepare for evasive maneuvers. Lieutenant, hail them."

"They are already hailing, Captain," Neyzi said. The Turkish woman's fingers moved over the ops console. "Putting them onscreen."

The viewscreen changed to another bridge. In the background was another holographic map display much like a plotting board. The face that dominated the screen was of a woman who looked anything from her late thirties to forties. Her skin was light brown, with brown hair that looked curly - much like Lucy's - and was pulled back to the rear of her head. Julia thought the severe image was somewhat lightened by the freckles that dotted the woman's cheeks and other parts of her face. "This is Captain Margrethe von Lohringhoven of Her Imperial Majesty's Ship Maya-Mayi. You are hereby instructed and commanded to immediately return command of the Irresistible to her crew without condition. If you fail to heed, or delay in acting in accordance to this ultimatum, we will necessarily construe this as an act of War against the Imperial Federation and commence hostilities."

Julia felt an instinctive bristle at the bald threat. Honor culture or not, it was aggravating to deal with people who seemed to have "threaten" and "open fire" as Steps 1 and 2 of any encounter. She forced that aggravation to remain off her features, keeping her face neutral and her tone reserved. "Captain von Lohringhoven, I am Captain Julia Andreys of the Alliance Starship Aurora, representing the United Alliance of Systems. Your ultimatum is unnecessary. The Irresistible's crew is still in control of their ship. Our only personnel aboard her are medical personnel assisting with the wounded under the supervision of my First Officer." As she spoke Julia considered the potential consequence. She had expectations that a medical mission of mercy would not be interfered with. But was it possible the Aururians might seize her people now that they had backup?

While the other woman had a disciplined, even haughty look to her, a flash of surprise registered on her features. Apparently she hadn't been expecting the possibility that the Alliance hadn't seized control of her ship. “To clarify, you are in acceptance of the Irresistible's return to Imperial service and command? With her colours restored?"

Locarno and Angel were both looking toward Julia. They'd gotten the gist of that as well. The Aururian commander wanted the ship recognized as being a lawful combatant if shooting started.

Of course, if I don't, the shooting is going to start now. With that thought in mind Julia nodded. "Yes, Captain, I am. The Irresistible opened fire first as it was. It is not my intention to fire on your people except out of self-defense of my ship and of the Alliance colonists below us."

Von Lohringhoven nodded. "Then this first matter may be deemed settled in the present moment. The matter of your vagrant colony within our space must still be addressed. As of now, I am granting your settlement one week to evacuate this system. Any sentients who choose to remain must either swear or affirm an oath of allegiance to Her Imperial Majesty or they will be ejected with force."

"And that is our point of contention, Captain," Julia replied. "There is no indication whatsoever that your Imperial Federation has a claim upon this system. Our surveyors marked this system as open space and this settlement was made with that fact in mind. Your own communications officer can confirm there is no signal from a beacon or buoy. There are no markers in the system showing it as your territory. If you have a claim on this system, the Alliance is willing to negotiate the issue. But we will not be bullied."

The Aururian captain looked offscreen for several moments. A look of irritation and surprise crossed her features. "So it presently appears. I do have your word of honor, as an officer and captain, that your people did not destroy our claim buoy?"

"We did nothing of the sort," Julia said. "No claim buoy was ever recorded by our people. If it was destroyed or damaged in some way, the Alliance was not responsible for this act." And I'd love to know who did, if there was one.

There was a short pause, as Loringhoven regarded her through the screen. "The Imperial Navy in our persons will commence an immediate investigation into this matter. I caution you, my term and timeline for the removal of the occupiers of the planet below still stands. The Imperial Government has instructed me to commence negotiations on this matter, however, as well as to press upon the issue of the subjects of Her Imperial Majesty your occupation force has seized and imprisoned."

"I'll arrange a meeting with Governor Taylor immediately. We can meet on the planet in a neutral location, if you desire."

"I will select an appropriate venue. Maya-Mayi out." Her image disappeared from the screen.

The blast wave from the explosion that gutted the Aururian ship was more than powerful enough to send Lucy and the crewwoman ahead of her flying. It would also likely kill them both by smashing every bone and organ inside of their bodies.

Lucy turned and summoned all of her power. She willed energy into the space between her and the shockwave, just high enough to protect them. She felt the fury of the blast against her will and the energy it was directing. Debris slammed against the invisible shield as well. It took every erg of effort Lucy had to keep her field from collapsing.

This saved her life and that of the straggling crewwoman. The energy field surrounding the ship absorbed the blast and debris. It was visibly weaker afterward. Jarod and Barnes picked themselves up from the ground. "Lucy!" Jarod shouted. He went back into the field where she was standing and looking wobbly. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah," she said. "I just need a moment."

"What the frak happened?!" Barnes demanded. "What did you do?!"

"We were trying to hack into the computer," Jarod said. "It must have triggered an auto-destruct process." The three of them looked to the burning remnants of the ship. "It looks like they really didn't want someone looking through their ship."

A number of figures in green uniforms came running up, pulse rifles slung over their shoulders. "Sir," one of them said. "What just happened? How did that ship get blown up?!"

"A booby trap," Barnes answered. "And we were the Goddamned boobies who set it off."

"Colonel Littleton will want a report."

"He'll get it," Jarod promised. "But first, I need to call our ship." He brought up his omnitool. "Jarod to Aurora."

The delay before a response felt a little too long. Enough that Lucy audibly sighed with relief when the reply of "Aurora here" came from Julia. "Are you all okay? What happened down there?"

"I'm afraid trying to examine the ship's computer caused a hidden self-destruct mechanism to activate. If not for Lucy we'd have all been blown up."

"So the ship's a wreck?"

"Completely. Although we did learn some things about their ship design."

"Standby. We'll beam you back up shortly."

The quiet of the sickbay on the Irresistible was broken by a call over the ship's PA system. A voice, with inflection and tone indicating it was coming from one of the slender, semi-furred aliens, made a pronouncement in a language neither Leo nor Meridina knew. Their automatic translators also failed to identify the language in question.

It was clear that whatever was announced, those around them took it as good news given the wild cheers from anyone still conscious.

"Should I be worried?" Leo glanced up from a crew member he was removing shrapnel from.

Meridina opened up her mental defenses. She could sense the sentiment rushing around the crew with her inherent mindreading talents. "It would appear another vessel of their fleet just arrived," Meridina stated.

One of the crew overheard her comment and looked up from the bed, smiling with a particular vicious glee. "Iron Margrethe has arrived. Now it will be your vessel that is forced to strike!"

Meridina blinked at that. "You believe this person will force us to open fire?"

"No, she doesn't," Leo said. With the 19th Century lexicon on display his mind had recalled a couple of movies he'd seen over the years set in the time period. "It refers to a ship lowering its flag. In the days of naval warfare on the sea, that was how ships signaled their surrender."

Left unsaid was what would happen to them if the Aurora was forced to withdraw.

Yet again a voice came over the ship intercom, speaking in that same unidentified language. There was again a cheer, if not as great as before.

The vessel's doctor, Surgeon Munissi, stepped up to them. Her coloration was dark, much like Leo's, with a round face and dark brown hair cut short. There was a glimmer of respect in her brown eyes that had not been present before. "A battlecruiser from our fleet has arrived," she clarified to them. "In response to her challenge your Captain has stated our ship may raise our colors."

"We never assumed control of your ship in the first place," Leo pointed out.

"We nonetheless had yielded to you and were honor-bound to Her Majesty to take no action to repair the ship. Now that such is no longer the case, work will commence." Munissi watched Leo finish removing the last piece of shrapnel from the wounded girl on the bed. "I was initially uncertain to your intentions, Doctor Gillam. But I see now that your purpose here was an honorable one. Your assistance saved the lives of many of our girls. I am pleased to see that honor and compassion still exists in Humanity outside of the Empire. You even treat your alien physician with respect."

"Doctor Hreept is new to my medical staff, but he's one of the best. I would never brook disrespect to him."

Meridina allowed Leo to finish his remark before stating, "By your statements it appears the other Humans of this universe treat non-Humans with disrespect. Is this true?"

There was confusion and uncertainty on Munissi's face. "The League is well-known for its exploitation of alien species."

"I see. Our own knowledge of this League is still limited. We have only heard of them through the Trade Consortium." Meridina frowned. "It would appear that their conduct will not meet with the approval of the Alliance."

There was a skepticism evident in the Aururian surgeon at that remark. Whatever her thoughts on it, however, she spoke on another subject. "I have been informed that surgeons from the Maya-Mayi are coming aboard to assist me with the remaining injured. Since there are no more personnel in severe risk thanks to your efforts I can deal with the remaining wounded. It may be for the best if you return to your vessel, with our thanks for your compassion."

Leo took the hint. If things got tense again and they were still aboard, then he and his staff were potential hostages. "Thank you, Doctor," he said to her. "We'll get our equipment together and leave immediately."

The command staff was back in the conference lounge within the hour. Through the window outside they could make out the Maya-Mayi. The ship was an omnipresent threat given its large and visible weapons.

"Well, this is turning into a real fraking disaster, isn't it?" Barnes grumbled.

"There is still room for discussion to bring agreement," Meridina pointed out. "This need not end in violence."

"True, but it's going to be difficult. They firmly believe this system is rightfully theirs," Jarod said. "And right now they have the advantage with that battlecruiser. It has two of the graviton weapons the first ship used on us."

"Speaking of that…" Julia looked to Scotty. "Any suggestions, Mister Scott?"

"Deflector shields dinnae work very well against gravitons at that level o' concentration, Cap'n," said the veteran engineer. "We wud have t' completely rebuild th' shield systems."

"The weapon is essentially an overcharged, inverted tractor beam," Jarod clarified.

"So there are no countermeasures at all?" Meridina asked.

"Given time, we can reinforce th' ship structurally. Increasin' th' power t' th' structural integrity field wud help, tho’ that willnae do much for anythin' or anyone nae bolted down.”

"Do what you can. And what did you find out about their ship before it destroyed itself, Jarod?"

"Not much. As you've already learned, they use spatial fold jump drives and warp drives in tandem. Their power generation system combines a fusion torch with heavy shielding with trace amounts of some exotic matter." Jarod tapped a button and brought up the scan results.

"Well, wud ye look at that," said Scotty.

"You've seen this before?" Barnes asked.

"Only on th' drawing board, Tom," Scotty answered. "It's a monopole matter conversion system. It gives ye fusion-based power that can match matter/anti-matter reactors, but without th' risk o' anti-matter fuel sources. But ye need a big ol' particle accelerator, an’ I do mean a big one, t’ generate the materials tae run th' things."

"Well, that's something else we've learned at least," Julia said. "Anything else?"

"Lucy remained planetside to go over the wreckage of the Aururian ship," Jarod said. "She'll report in whatever she finds."

Julia turned to Leo next. "What about the people the colonists are holding? Did you learn anything more about that organism while you were over there?"

"I was a little occupied," he pointed out, leaning forward slightly. There was slight fatigue visible on his face. "But I made sure our suits' systems were set to record passive scans, including analysis of the ship's atmosphere. What I can tell you is that it's a spongiform that is present in their tissues and bloodstream. There were no indications of it in the atmosphere, and since all but two of the crew we examined had it present in their bodies, I'm inclined to rule out airborne vectors for infection. The most particular item of interest was that our suits' sensors confirmed the presence of a pheromone in the atmosphere of the ship. I've sent our data to Doctor Ke'mani'pala for analysis."

"So there is no risk to the Oakland Colony?" Julia asked.

Leo shook his head. "Not from the spongiform. I'm not sure what the pheromone does, or even if it's related to the spongiform. Doctor Singh and Doctor Opani are going to check on that. But if you ask me, the quarantine can be lifted."

"Returning their people to them will further ease difficulties," Meridina pointed out.

"It still doesn't settle the problem with the Colony," Julia said.

"Well, do we need this one?" asked Locarno. "I'm sure it's an annoyance to the colonists, but there are half a dozen other garden worlds in our claim area, we could simply relocate the Oakland Colony to another planet."

"No, we can't," Julia said. "That much is clear from the material Defense Command provided. The surveyors have confirmed numerous elements and minerals of immense strategic value in Phi Perseus, including cameronite, naqia, and trinium. The Alliance Government is already preparing further facilities to begin mining the system."

"So we need it and they insist it belongs to them." Cat shrugged. "Maybe we can make a deal? I mean, there is no claim beacon or anything. You're supposed to leave those, right?"

"Not every universe has the same system for establishing claims," Jarod noted. "But we would have the superior claim by those standards too, since they usually involve presence and use. And we've got both."

"It was clear to me that Captain von Lohringhoven expected such a buoy to exist," Julia said. "Once she realized it didn't she wanted to know if we were the ones to destroy it."

"I looked through our data on the system. There is no indication of prior claim," Meridina noted.

"So either they screwed up and didn't leave one, or something happened to it," Angel said.

"That's what I've got Zack out looking for," Julia noted. "As for the rest of us, we're staying at Code Yellow until this situation is resolved." Julia checked her omnitool. "Hopefully…"

Before she could finish the sentence a voice came over the intercom. "Bridge to Conference Lounge," stated Lieutenant Neyzi.

"Andreys here," she replied.

"The Maya-Mayi has signaled. Captain von Lohringhoven is requesting a meeting with you and Governor Taylor."

"When and where?"

"In one hour. She signaled she would be willing to land in the Colony itself for the meeting on the condition of meeting with the quarantined individuals."

"Very well. Send my acceptance of the time and her condition and relay that to Governor Taylor. Andreys out."

"I'd better issue my own report to Doctor Logan," Leo said. "He should release the quarantine once he receives it."

"Which means Captain von Lohringhoven might very well be picking those people up." Julia allowed herself a small grin. "That should make the rest of the negotiations easier. Alright everyone, you're dismissed."

Opani approached the wing of the hospital set aside for quarantine cases. A pair of militia guards waved her through on confirmation of her identity. The first set of doors brought her through a specialized forcefield, on the inside of which was an isolated atmosphere. Opani checked her omnitool and activated the atmospheric scanner before going through the next set of doors.

The quarantine sector, by nature, had to have comparisons to a jail. Keeping patients isolated from each other as well as everything else protected them as well, after all, but it meant putting everyone into what were essentially isolated cells, each with its own air circulation system that kept potentially contaminated air from escaping.

The quarantine rooms were more comfortable than cells at least. The beds had proper sheets and were made for comfort and a holo-display was made available for the occupant to watch programs or make comm calls.

Opani looked from cell to cell. According to the patient files, there were six Humans with the spongiform organism and four non-Humans who did not have it. They were paired with each other, every two sharing a room by species as a precaution. As with the crew of the Irresistible they were all female. Opani contemplated what that meant. In the histories of various societies gender segregation was sometimes practiced. The Epamal and Onurtam nations of Dorei were known for having males and females serve in entirely different units of their armed forces, or so Opani had learned in her preparatory school courses when she was a youth nearing adulthood. Did these Humans practice the same?

She walked among the cells, running scans on the air content within. The Human-inhabited cells did, indeed, include the pheromone that Doctor Gillam had detected aboard the Irresistible. The scanners found no trace of the spongiform, however, at least not in the air. It occurred to her that if Doctor Logan and his staff had access to the scanning technology they used on the Aurora this entire problem might have been avoided.

"Do you speak the English tongue of the Humans?" a voice asked. "Or the French?"

Opani turned about and faced one of the rooms. The occupant was one of the aliens, with silvery brown skin and dark green hair. Opani approached the forcefield and met the alien's yellow eyes with her own. "I have learned English, yes."

"I have never seen your species before."

"Nor have we seen yours," Opani answered. "I am a Dorei, from a planet we call Doreia."

"I am a Ralsan, born on the planet Venus in the human solar system."

"Venus." Opani vaguely recalled the name. "So you lived beside Humans?"


"It was a mere four years ago that we encountered Humans for the first time," Opani answered. "It must have been an interesting experience to grow up among them." As she spoke Opani was mentally compiling the notes she would provide to Doctor Gillam and the others. Even a name for the species with the Human Aururians was potentially valuable. Although her testing was mostly done, Opani decided to linger and converse. "I am Doctor Roliri Opani, assigned to the Alliance Starship Aurora."

"Kishala Abrakia," the Ralsan female answered. Opani noticed her yellow eyes dart around the room, as if searching for something. Once she seemed satisfied with her surroundings, her voice lowered. "We may be able to help you."

Opani found that remark curious. She leaned a little closer. One of her ears twitched. "What do you mean?"

"I saw your scar," said Kishala. "I have seen it on other worlds, where the Humans implant trackers into their workers to control their movements. We may be able to help you disable yours and escape."

A wince of anguish briefly crossed Opani's face at the reminder of the old scar at the back of her neck, the remaining blemish to her body that marked her time as a slave. By the end of Kishala's sentence, it gave way to confusion.

"We have done it before," Kishala assured her quietly. "If you come with us, you will be free of the Humans."

"I am free," Opani said. "Yes, I once had a neural override device planted upon my spine, but that was before any of us had met the Humans. The Humans of the Alliance do not enslave other species."

Disappointment flashed across Kishala's face. A flicker of defiance went through her eyes. "The League of the North has often claimed they do not enslave too. But I have seen the labor camps and the fields with my own eyes. I know how the Humans outside of the Imperial Federation treat aliens. Even when they claim you have become equal to them, you are still treated as an inferior."

"Whomever this League is, they are not involved with the Alliance. We are new to this Universe. My people are founders of the Alliance of Systems, along with our long-time allies the Gersallians and the Alakins of Universe A7R6." The surprise and bewilderment on Kishala's face told Opani everything. "Your people, they do not know about the Alliance? Where it comes from?"

"You speak of the Universe as if it were a planet," Kishala said.

"My people learned from the Gersallians of the existence of other universes," Opani explained. "It was knowledge they passed down from an age three thousand years ago, when a species called the Darglan created an interuniversal state based on scientific discovery and the protection of other species and peoples. The Darglan are gone now, but their legacy was discovered by well-meaning Humans, who re-introduced it to the Gersallians."

The other Ralsan in the cell was staring at her as well, now. A glance around the room showed that the other women, Humans as well, were doing the same. One of them, an older woman with a bronzen skin tone, spoke next. "Have they driven you mad, then?"

"I am not mad. It is the truth."

The woman in question showed skepticism in her amber-toned eyes. But the other woman with her, of darker skin tone and a thinner build, placed a hand on her arm. "I sense she believes she speaks truth."

The others looked now to this woman, if they could see her, and their expressions remained skeptical, though they softened slightly.

Opani wanted to continue the conversation. Her intention was interrupted by the light on her omnitool flashing to life. She pressed it. "Opani here."

"Doctor Opani, have you completed your scans?" Doctor Singh asked.

"Yes, Doctor Singh. I have. I was speaking with the patients."

"Truly?" The New Punjabi woman's voice betrayed pleasant surprise. "I hate to interrupt you, but I would like you to rejoin me. Doctor Logan is expecting us and our findings."

"Of course. Opani out." She lowered her forearm and looked back to Kishala. "I must go speak with the lead physician of the Colony. Hopefully our new information will persuade him to undo your curfew. You would be free to rejoin your people."

Kishala nodded. Opani could see the continued bewilderment on her face. She wondered if it was from Kishala believing Opani to be mad… or if she was scared Opani was not.

The port authority had removed the shield inside the hangar now that the vessel was destroyed and, more importantly, no contagion risk was present. A couple of officers and crew were brought down to join her. One, a Human petty officer with a ruddy, Caucasian complexion, brought up another piece. "I'm having trouble getting a material scan on this one, sir."

"Let me." Lucy accepted the twisted piece of material and put it into the materials analyzer she'd brought down. At first nothing showed. She had to change the scanner settings a number of times to get a result. The machine's display soon brought up data for her, data that was intriguing. "It's a scanner-reflective material," she noted. A slight suspicion arose in her mind.

"Lieutenant." The second newcomer was the Falaen officer new to the ship, Ensign Talara, wearing a field uniform that had command/navigation red trim as opposed to Lucy's Operations beige. Her blue eyes were focused on another, larger piece of scrap. This one had the remains of a hinge on it. "My scanners aren't showing anything of this either."

Lucy accepted the scrap from Talara and put it into the analyzer next. Using the same process, she got virtually the same result, save for a layer of material on one side of the piece near the hinge that matched samples from the standard deck plating. Her suspicions intensified. Lucy closed her eyes and reached through her life force, sensing the piece before her and the answer it held.

"Lieutenant, are you…?"

Lucy opened her eyes in response to Talara. "I'm fine. I was just considering what I'm seeing."

Talara nodded in acceptance of the answer. "Do you know why it was blocking our scanners?"

"Scanner-reflective material," Lucy replied. "Even the materials analyzer had trouble with it."

"What do you think it was for?"

"I have some suspicions," Lucy said while her hand went to her omnitool. Once the interface activated she tapped the key to activate her commlink. "Lucero to Aurora."

"Aurora here," Locarno replied.

"I need to speak to Captain Andreys about this wreck. I've found something."

The main office of the Aurora medbay was set up to Leo's liking. His desk included a group picture of his friends from the days before the Facility and a couple of family photos. His white doctor's lab coat was hanging from a stand near the door, leaving him in the Alliance uniform of black with blue trim color. Three gold slanted strips on his collar marked him as a Commander, although it was a rank he rarely attempted to employ.

The monitor on his office desk activated. "Singh to Gillam," Dr. Singh's voice said.

"Gillam here." Leo reached down and tapped the key to activate the video component of the call. Dr. Singh and Dr. Opani were present, with Dr. Logan behind them. "Any new developments."

"We have confirmed the presence of the pheromone as well," Singh said. "It is only with the Humans in quarantine."

"So it's looking like it is a side effect of the spongiform." Leo put his hands together on the desk. "Anything else?"

Opani spoke up."One of the aliens in quarantine spoke to me. Their species is known as Ralsan. They seem to coexist with the Aururian Humans. And they also seem to believe that Humans outside of the Aururian society are exploiting alien species. Because of my scar they believed me to be a slave. They state other Humans from a 'League of the North' have enslaved other species."

A small frown crossed Leo's face at that remark. "The Xou!tasam shared information about a Human government called the League of Democratic Worlds. But the package I read indicates basic material. Government type, economic system, import and export figures… either way." He shook his head. "That's for Julia, for Captain Andreys, to handle. From a medical perspective, it looks like these people pose no threat."

"Agreed," Doctor Logan said, "I will inform the Governor that I am releasing them from quarantine."

"I'm sure the Captain will be happy with that news," Leo said. "She's probably on her way to beam down right now."

Another tone sounded in the office. Leo tapped the blue light his omnitool was showing over the back of his left hand. The omnitool displayed an image of Ke'mani'pala down in Science Lab 3. The Gl'mulli scientist was one of the most unique individuals on the ship. The Gl'mulli were an agendered gelatinous species that resembled gumdrops of cyan or blue coloring. They sensed the universe primarily through electromagnetic field-based senses, communicating with the same. Through simple touch they could, when they desired, exchange genetic information to enable reproduction.

Ke'mani'pala had other communication and sensing options now, of course, with the help of the translation device that she affixed to her body. It was the blue electronic eye of this machine that looked toward Leo on the omnitool screen. "Doctor Gillam," she said, her voice an electronic warble through her translator. "I have completed an analysis of the organism samples you provided. It is a most peculiar thing, this spongiform."

"What have you learned?" he asked.

"The organism is fascinating. Clearly it evolved upon your species' planet of origin. But it appears to share some chemical similarities to our cells."

"What do you mean, Doctor?" Logan asked.

"The spongiform has a biochemical makeup that makes it possible for them to carry genetic data originating from another being. It can act much in the same way as my own cells do if I make contact with another Gl'mulli."

"You mean in reproductive terms," Leo said. "Like how your cells can carry genetic material secreted from another Gl'mulli into the interior of your body, where you merge your material with it to fertilize an embryo."


"When you say this can do the same thing, does it mean this spongiform could carry Human reproductive material from one body to another?" Singh asked.

"It does appear so," Ke'mani'pala trilled. "I would like to run laboratory tests to make certain. It will take time to grow a sample batch of the spongiform to conduct such tests."

"Let me know when you get any results."

"You will be the first to know, Doctor Gillam. I will begin the batch immediately." Ke'mani'pala disappeared from the screen a moment later.

Certain thoughts were coming to Leo on the matter. The spongiform, the pheromone present wherever those carrying it were gathered, and now this fact. Added together and it could imply certain characteristics. Leo tapped a few keys on his control and brought up a microscopic image of the spongiform. "Just what are you?" he muttered.

Julia and Meridina appeared in a pair of white bursts of light at the edge of the spaceport. Lucy stepped up to them. "I've got Talara and the others working on the debris still," she said. "We're using the scans to put together a model of the ship."

"You mentioned that they had sensor-reflective material built into their ship," Julia said.

"Right. And one of the pieces I've seen so far definitely had a hinge, or what used to be one."

"Implying a door or hatch," Meridina noted.

"Exactly." Lucy nodded once at her former teacher. "I can't tell you for sure until we finish the reconstruction, but I'm pretty sure it was a smuggler's hold of some kind."

"An interesting possibility," Meridina said. "It may provide us with answers on why the Aururian response has been so assertive."

"Maybe we'll find out soon," Julia said, while the air filled with a loud, electronic roar. A gray-toned shuttle was approaching from the distance at a high speed, coming from an orbital position given its height. As the moments passed the shuttle flew overhead and came back around to a landing. It had atmospheric wings that folded inward as it landed on four landing gear legs. The side of the ship was marked with a roundel of blue and copper color with a very dark purple center.

"Where is Governor Taylor?" Meridina asked.

"Late," was Julia's reply. She felt irritated at that. This was a first contact situation for them, and with all the trouble they'd already seen everything had to be done right. Being late would only make things seem worse.

The rear door of the shuttle opened. Captain von Lohringhoven stepped out in the company of another woman of dark skin tone with what Julia thought to be Southeast Asian features on her face. Their uniforms were white in primary color with blue and black on the trim and the shoulder boards. Gold thread marked the cuffs on the jacket and the bars on the shoulder boards, with fleece around the collars. A pair of figures in suits of light armor followed them out, keeping their rifles at port arms. Lohringhoven stepped up to them and nodded. "Captain Andreys," she stated. "This is my First Officer, Commander Andrianafelana.”

"Commander." Julia nodded respectfully in reply. "This is my First Officer, Commander Meridina, and one of my operations officers, Lieutenant Lucilla Lucero."

"I was expecting the governor of the Colony to attend as well."

There was just the slightest hint of anger in Lohringhoven's words. Julia worked to keep her own frustration out of her voice when she said, "So was I, Captain. It appears he was delayed. He may be discussing the release of your people with his medical director. Our examination has shown that the spongiform organism within them is not a health threat to the colony, making the quarantine unnecessary."

"A simple inquiry would have reassured you of this."

"Unfortunately communications between our people have not been the best so far. I hope we can change that now."

Any further conversation was not to be. A black and silver aircar pulled up toward them. It was not a completely high end model, but it was nice-enough looking to indicate it was the Governor's car.

The rear door opened and Governor Taylor slipped out of the seat. There was a look on his face that Julia thought to be somber. Very somber. He looked back to the vehicle.

The figure that emerged was not Human. It wasn't even bipedal. She watched a creature of yellow and orange and reddish hues slip out of the craft. The alien stood to only about one hundred and fifty centimeters in height, while in width its wide limbs gave it a wider profile than most Humanoids. One of its five arms remained up, showing what Julia were certain was a cluster of eyes. It moved forward with the four other limbs to remain in step with Taylor. When they were within five meters they stopped and the alien raised itself so that its other two limbs were free. An electronic device was attached to the centerpoint of its body.

Given the look, Julia was certain of the being's species, but it was Governor Taylor who made the introduction. "I am sorry for my tardiness," he said. "Sub-Consul Tio!sat!ny intercepted me on my way out and insisted on accompanying me to this meeting."

"It is certainly no great surprise to see a representative of the Trading Consortium present," Lohringhoven said. Despite the diplomatic formality in her tone there was a certain distaste evident in the Aururian captain's expression. Commander Andrianafelana was unable to even hide it. "As always, the Xou!tasam are quite swift to seize the main chance."

"Captain Lohringhoven." The voice was an electronic one that sounded over an incomprehensible series of sounds that issued from the center of the being's form. "Your reputation precedes you, ‘Iron Margrethe’. Given what we have learned, I am not surprised that your Empire has dispatched you to this place."

"Sub-Consul, this is Captain Julia Andreys of the Starship Aurora," Taylor said, gesturing to Julia. "And two of her officers."

"My pleasure, Captain Andreys. Your defense of this colony was most appreciated."

Julia kept her hands to her side. "It was my duty to protect my people, Sub-Consul." She leveled a look toward Taylor. "Are you inviting the Trading Consortium to these talks, Governor?'

"We have a complication," Taylor said. "I thought the Sub-Consul should be present to explain it." He looked down at the starfish-like alien. Julia could see he was not entirely happy either. He had the look of a man resigned to something nasty happening, something beyond his power.

"The Governor, in his attempt to identify the Aururian subjects who arrived on this world, provided me with images of the quarantined figures."

"Did you know about the spongiform's lack of airborne survivability?" Julia asked. Left unsaid was the obvious consequence of such: that they could have handled the people in quarantine already if they had been told.

"I am no biologist. I know nothing of how this organism functions, merely that it has divided the Human species into two parts," Tio!sat!ny answered. "I could give no assurances to the good Governor, as much as I wish I could."

"That still does not explain your presence, Sub-Consul," Lohringhoven remarked. Her tone was distant and cold. Julia's heart fell at the suspicion she saw in the Aururian officers' eyes.

"I provided the images to my superiors on Jao!senat to assist our trading partners in the Alliance," the Xou!tasam explained. "They reported to me that the figures in question are gun smugglers wanted in the Trade Consortium on numerous charges related to their activities."

The look on the Aururians' faces could have chilled a star into ice, Julia thought.

Taylor picked up from here. His tone was almost apologetic. "The warrants from the Consortium were provided to me just now. They are legitimate. And under the terms of our treaties with the Consortium, I am required to keep these individuals in custody until they can be lawfully extradited to the Consortium."

"An interesting approach, Captain Andreys," Lohringhoven stated, looking to Julia instead of Taylor. She didn't hide the smoldering disgust in her eyes. "You request my presence for a parley, assure me of access to the party taken by your squatters, and now I am told they are to be imprisoned until handed over to the friends of the Northern League."

"The Captain knew nothing of this," Taylor stated. "We're as surprised as you."

Lohringhoven glared to him next. "You have seven days, Governor, starting now. At that time, any in this system who refuse to swear oaths of allegiance to Her Imperial Majesty will be forced to leave. I expect our people to be returned at that time as well, without any injury to their bodies, minds, or honor, on penalty of immediate arrest of you and all other members of the leadership of this colony. Additionally, if any vessel of the Consortium, Alliance, or League attempts to remove our subjects from this world, I will commence fire upon them immediately."

Before Julia could speak, Taylor spoke up. "Your people have no claim here," he said. "There is no claim beacon, no buoy, no settlement. We colonized this world. It is ours by right. We'll fight to keep it."

The tone he got in reply went beyond icy. "A sentiment we have heard before, from rapacious butchers of innocent starfarers, before we drove their broken remnants before us. If it is war you want, then by all means, maintain your pigheaded foolhardiness. War and defeat you will then have."

Lohringhoven turned on her heel. Her First Officer did the same, and the two of them marched back to their shuttle without another word.

As the craft lifted off, Julia and Meridina exchanged worried glances. "Damn," Julia muttered. She brought her left forearm up and activated her omnitool. Her finger tapped the key on the blue hardlight to open comms. "Andreys to Aurora."

"Yes sir?" answered Locarno.

"Get me Admiral Maran on IU radio," she said. "We might have a war on our hands out here."

Chapter Text

Upon their return to the Aurora Julia called an immediate staff meeting. It was 2040 hours when everyone re-assembled in the conference lounge off of the bridge. Admiral Maran's call came just as the meeting was set to commence.

Now the Gersallian admiral was seen by all on the wall monitor behind Julia's seat. "I have taken the time to check your reports," he said. "If there is one thing clear from them, we know too little about A2M6."

"We've been in this universe for a year, why don't we know about these people?" Locarno asked. It was a pointed question.

"I believe we have relied too much upon the Xou!tasam to provide information. It is increasingly clear they had their own agenda in explaining what was going on in local spaces," Maran answered.

To this Meridina responded, "Perhaps they worried that we would withdraw from A2M6 and deprive them of a new trading partner?"

"Whatever their motives, we need more information. And we cannot rely upon the Consortium as a source."

"Well, we have learned a few things about the Aururians," Julia said. "They have something like an honor culture. They're willing to fight at the drop of a hat to make a point. They seem to practice some form of gender segregation in their armed forces. Most of them also seem to carry some form of spongiform parasite in their bodies, which gives off a pheromone that we still haven't figured out."

"Doctor Ke'mani'pala is growing a batch sample of the spongiform to run further tests on it," Leo said. "Her analysis of the organism indicates it may be capable of interacting with the reproductive material of other species."

"In what way, Doctor?"

"We're not sure yet, Admiral," Leo answered. "I'll ask her to issue a report as the data becomes available."

"The Xou!tasam delegate has stated this organism has divided Humanity into two parts," Meridina said. "Infected and non-infected. If the Aururians represent the infected portion of Humanity, it has clearly altered their culture in ways we may not understand."

"And there's still a lot we don't know," Jarod pointed out. "I'm still trying to figure out where their language comes from. I'm running it through a database of Earth languages now to see if we can find any words in common."

"Discovery is all nice stuff," Angel interjected, "but I'm more worried about the fact that these people want to start shooting us. Over some damned gun runners."

"Well, how do we know they are?" Cat asked. "Maybe the Xou!tasam are wrong?"

"Lieutenant Lucero did discover indications that the ship had spaces shielded from scanning systems," Meridina said. "And it would explain their refusal to speak with local authorities."

"Then the question is, why would the Aururians be willing to provoke a war over these people?"

"The principle of the matter," Julia murmured to herself, although the others heard it. "They're an honor culture and look to be distrustful of outsiders. Letting us take over what they honestly believe as their territory is a loss of honor and respect. Letting us do that while we hand over some of their people to an alien power? That's got to be even worse."

"And you believe she is sincere about starting a war if we resist?"

"Completely, Admiral," Julia said.

"Yes. I could sense that." Meridina looked to Julia. "But I also sense there is more to these reported gun smugglers than was apparent. The feelings of Captain Lohringhoven and Commander Andrianafelana indicate to me that they know what this group has been doing."

"The Sub-Consul may also know more," Julia noted. "He called Lohringhoven 'Iron Margrethe'."

"Just as the crew of the Irresistible did," Meridina added.

Leo leaned forward in his seat. "There's also the possibility of talking to these smugglers directly."

"They do not seem to be very cooperative," Meridina noted.

"Because we have the wrong people asking them questions," Leo said. "They spoke to Doctor Opani."

"What did they say?" Julia asked.

"They offered to bring her with them. To 'free' her from us. They think we've enslaved her." Leo frowned at this point. The implications for this perception were not pleasing to him.

"If they are criminals, they might just be trying to manipulate someone they feel is vulnerable," Locarno warned.

"It's worth a shot though, right?" This question was from Cat. "There's still so much we don't know about them. Maybe this is a chance to find out more?"

"Lieutenant Delgado is correct, and it is an opportunity we need to take." Admiral Maran looked offscreen for a moment. "I must brief the President and Senator Sriroj now. I will convey your findings. Find out anything more that you can and relay it to me immediately."

"And what do we do about that battlecruiser?"

"I've ordered ships to the area. We can't send many without undermining our offensive against the Nazi Reich, but we should be able to protect our colonies in the area from anything short of a full-scale offensive. Expect reinforcements to arrive soon. In the meantime, find out what you can about these people and this situation with these supposed smugglers. Resume talks if you can. But I can tell you this; we need the resources in Phi Perseus for the war, Captain. We cannot trade away our control of that system."

"I understand, Admiral," Julia replied. "Maybe we can find a way to satisfy the Aururians."

"I'll leave that in your hands. Maran out."

Once Maran disappeared from the screen Julia looked to the others. "I know it's late for us. I want everyone to get some rest. Things are only going to get more stressful here has time passes and we need the energy to deal with it. First thing tomorrow morning, we're going back down to the planet. I want some answers."

It was coming to the end of the day for Zack and his command officers. Their search pattern had turned up nothing so far. Given the mind-boggling volumes involved when it comes to space, he couldn't be too surprised at that.

"Magda, anything new from Phi Perseus 4?" he asked.

Magda checked her instruments before shaking her head. "That second ship is still in orbit. No change to their status."

"Alright." Noticing that the Gamma Shift officers were all on the bridge, Zack stood from his chair. "Well everyone, let's get some rest. Ensign Driik, you have the bridge."

"Yes sir," said the Alakin officer, who took the command chair.

In one group the bridge crew made their way to the lift. "Deck 1," Zack said. The lift set into motion.

"Do you think we'll have any luck finding something tomorrow?" Sherlily asked. "Because this feels like we're looking for a micrometeorite in an asteroid belt."

"What we're looking for may not exist," Magda reminded her. "It could all be some lie by these Aururians."

"Yeah. And they're not exactly winning any personality contests," Sherlily added. The lift stopped and the door opened, but for the moment nobody moved. "I'm surprised Captain Andreys didn't turn us loose on them. If they'd had two targets instead of one, that graviton weapon wouldn't have done them any good."

"Julia's trying to avoid a war." Zack gestured toward the open door. "And I think she did the right thing holding us back."

"From a pragmatic perspective, certainly," Apley said. "But maybe that petty officer would still be alive if she hadn't."

Zack had no reply to that. Nor did anyone else. The four officers split up and headed to their personal quarters. With great pleasure Zack went to his personal shower, the only water-using shower on the entire ship.

When he stepped out, he went to his desk across from the bunk he slept in. It was just a small unit and he vastly preferred writing his reports and doing paperwork from his office on the bridge deck which, being the same size as his quarters, was a more comfortable place to work in. But his purpose wasn't work this time. It was thought.

The boredom of their task had a bad side to it. With nothing to do but wait for any discovery of a beacon or probe, Zack had plenty of time to think. Thinking inevitably led to thinking about Clara, and then the gaping metaphorical hole in his heart would assert itself. The pain of losing Clara wasn't going away with time. He thought it never would. He would always be tormented by the "what if?"s of that horrible day. What if he hadn't gone with Anders but stayed behind? What if Clara had just gone to shelter like he'd hoped she could? What if he had never caused her to consider coming out into space in the first place?

What if? What if? What if?

The thoughts made him feel the need to not think. Not thinking was hard. But he knew it was the only way to escape the pain, even temporarily.

And that there was one sure-fire way to do it.

Zack reached into his duffel bag and pulled out the fresh bottle of tequila. He'd brought it from his stash hidden in his quarters on the Aurora by slipping it into the bottom of the bag, along with a plastic tumbler. He looked it over and grimaced. It was one thing to drink on the Aurora. What if there was an emergency during the shift and he had to wake up to deal with it? There would be no time for Niltox then.

"Just a nightcap," he said. "That's all I'm doing. It's all I'll need." He poured a shot's worth of the tequila into the tumbler and took the drink in a gulp. He set the tumbler back down on the desk and looked to the bottle. He picked it and the cap up.

To his surprise, Zack found his hand shaking. An impulse surged within him. He wanted another drink. To really help him with staying asleep. Just one more drink…

A snarl came to Zack's face as he forced the stopper back into the top of the bottle. "No," he said. "One's enough. It's all I'll need. I can't do more out here. Not out here." After repeating this mantra to himself Zack moved from his small chair to his bunk and laid back. He let his tired eyes close and soon drifted off into sleep.

Lucy's head hit the pillow with an expectation of continued hard work the next day. She drifted off into sleep peacefully enough.

A sense of quiet anxiety awakened her. Black strands of curly dark hair hung over her eyes when she opened them. She brushed her hair out of the way and turned in her bed. The sense of anxiety just wouldn't go away.

After an exasperated huff through her lungs Lucy slipped out of bed and walked to the foot of her bed. She sat on the floor, legs crossed together, and laid her hands on her knees. She felt inward for the warm, comforting energy inside of her, and through that to the universe as a whole. Thanks to the twenty months of training Lucy could feel the Flow of Life anywhere, even here on a ship of just two thousand living beings. She felt Meridina's presence easily enough, indicating Meridina was also awake and meditating. She sensed others on the ship as well, small embers of those who had the potential to learn how to use life-energy.

Beyond the ship she sensed other lives. The thousands of lives on the Aururian ships and those on the planet below. She felt their fears and doubts and hopes, just as she felt those on the Aurora. And there was grief too, grief for loss, coming from the smaller vessel.

Lucy felt her senses drawn to the planet, however. There, in the Colony, she felt another presence. A glow in the Force of Life. It could only be another sensitive with developed talents. She focused on that presence out of curiosity. Who are you? she wondered in her thoughts.

The thought was echoed. At first Lucy thought she did it, or Meridina, but when it came through again, Lucy felt the presence on the planet in the thought. Sister? Yhi be thanked, I am not alone!

"Yhi?" Lucy murmured softly, confused. "Who is Yhi?"

Her thoughts echoed her words. The other presence felt them and recoiled. You are not one of us.

Who are you? was Lucy's reply.

But there was no answer.

What did come was a foreboding feeling in Lucy's being. Her power quivered at the feeling. Glimpses of carnage went through her mind. Human and alien bodies, dead, surrounded by armored figures. Ships blowing each other apart. A sense of imminent danger with a terrible outcome.

Banishing these images pulled Lucy from her meditation. She sat alone on her floor for a moment. A thin layer of sweat was causing her sleeping gown to cling to her skin in numerous places. What had those visions been about? Was she sensing the future? A possible future?

A sudden yawn that evaded all control reminded her that she needed more sleep. She would try, but first she wanted to get started on a search. She went to her computer desk and activated the system. "Computer, I'd like a full library scan for the term 'Yhi'. Collect the results for me to read in the morning."

"Acknowledged. Beginning search."

With that handled, Lucy returned to bed.

At 0800 hours the command officers came together again. A second smaller table carried breakfast pastries and coffee for their breakfast, courtesy of Hargert.

Lucy stepped through the door from the bridge. Her presence was not expected. She noticed some of the others looking toward her. Julia was not, at least not until she finished her coffee. "Lieutenant?" It was only one word but definitely a question. The unspoken "What are you doing here?" hung in the air.

There was a small part of Lucy that bristled at it, too.

"I asked her to attend," Meridina stated. "Last night we were meditating when we felt a presence."

"A… presence?" This was from Major Anders.

"In the Flow of Life, Major," Meridina clarified. "It came from the Oakland Colony. I believe it was one of the captive Aururians."

"One of them has life-force powers, you mean," Cat said.

"Developed, yes. But I am unsure as to which."

"I heard her - I'm sure it was a her - say a name," Lucy added. "Yhi."

"I think I’ve heard that name before, some Aboriginal deity or heroine?" Richmond asked. Her Australian accent was enough to make it clear what 'Aboriginal' group she was talking about. "Somewhere near the east coast, I think."

"That was one of the results the computer gave me when I ordered a search," Lucy said.

"Are there any of these 'aboriginals' among the Colony settlers?" Meridina asked. "To eliminate the chance she is merely a resident discovering her swevyra's potential?"

Jarod tapped a couple of keys on his omnitool and shook his head. "None declared as having Aboriginal origins. Although even if you're right, this isn't entirely conclusive about their culture and society. This could be a particular person's belief."

"It would lend itself further to the argument that this Earth had a divergent history," Richmond said. "The Aboriginals are a very small minority in most universes."

"It's something to look into…"

The door slid open again, causing Jarod to let his statement end there. This time the new arrival was Doctor Opani. Leo raised his hand and Julia nodded. "Welcome, Doctor. Hargert made some seemai strips for you," she said.

The Dorei woman nodded and, with some gratitude, went for the dark green-colored strips of fruit matter that were on the table.

"There was nothing new during the night," Julia said. "Governor Taylor decided to keep the Aururians where they are at the hospital instead of moving them to the Colony's jail."

"Smart. Moving them only increases the risk of something going wrong," Richmond observed.

"We're down to six days left before Lohringhoven's ultimatum expires. We need to start making progress. Which means we need to learn more about these people."

"I don't think it'll help," Angel said, her arms crossed. "That woman wants a fight if you ask me. And let's face it, if we get reinforcements things might happen early."

"I still don't see any." Locarno looked at Julia after setting down his coffee. "Did he give you a timetable?"

"He didn't." Julia turned her attention to Angel. "And you might be right. But we need to know for sure."

Cat spoke up next. "Well, why don't we just have Doctor Opani talk to them?"

"I can try," Opani agreed.

"Alright. Lieutenant Lucero will join you. Commander Meridina and I will go see Sub-Consul Tio!sat!ny." Julia moved to the next order of business. "Mister Scott, Mister Barnes, have you made any progress for finding ways to resist their graviton weapon?"

Scotty shook his head. "Nae as much as we'd like, Cap'n. Th' best we've managed is tae shore up structural integrity with forcefields. They cannae last long, but it should buy us extra time in a fight."

"It's a step in the right direction at least." Julia stood from her seat. "Alright, you're all dismissed. Although I would like to speak to Lieutenant Lucero privately."

There were nods from some of the others. Everyone stood and departed except Lucy, who kept her blue eyes fixed on Julia. Once everyone was out of the room Julia met her eyes and said, "I don't need life-force sensing to know something is bothering you, Lucy."

The fact that something was bothering her was something of a surprise to Lucy as well. But hearing Julia address her by her first name, as if they were two friends, helped to crystallize what it was. "I know I'm not always attending staff meetings," Lucy said. "But whenever I did before, the most response I would get from Robert would be a smile and a nod, maybe a 'Good morning, Lucy', but nothing like that 'Lieutenant' remark. And I certainly wouldn't have felt like I wasn't wanted here."

Julia remained silent while Lucy laid out her complaint. When Lucy finished Julia nodded at her. "Fair enough. And you're right. Rob would've just nodded and said 'Hey' and that would be it. That's how he did things."

"But not you."

"Things are different now, Lucy." Julia leaned forward in her chair. "I mean, Meridina's my first officer now, and Kane's gone. We've got two new command staff officers who need some time to adjust. Being reminded that they're the outsiders in a group of long-time school buddies and friends isn't going to help. And when it comes down to it, you're not on the command staff. You didn't want to be, as I recall."

"No, I didn't," Lucy agreed. "But I never imagined it would mean feeling unwelcome in here. And you seem to be fine letting Tom attend, even if he's only the Assistant Chief Engineer."

"He's also a regular bridge officer and Scotty has made it clear he wants Tom in the meetings."

"So what, I should ask Jarod to do the same?"

"If you want," Julia said. "I doubt Jarod will have any problems inviting you, if you want to attend more staff meetings."

"The important part is I never thought I'd had to ask." The heat in Lucy's voice stopped just shy of an outburst. "And this isn't just for Richmond and Anders. You've always been the one pushing for military formality here."

"Well, we are in a military," Julia pointed out. Lucy sensed that Julia's aggravation was starting to rise. "You knew it would be like this when we joined up."

"I didn't know it would turn you into this." Lucy frowned. "I signed up because I believed in what we were doing, and I wanted to continue to work with you. I know I'm not in the inner circle, I never was, but I still felt like we were a team. That we were working together. I never imagined you'd push me out and make me just another officer on your crew."

"You're not just another officer, Lucy," Julia protested. "But you're not a department head, you're not a member of the senior staff. Honestly, you're not even a full-time operations officer anymore. You used to be a pilot on top of those duties, but now you're doing this 'white knight' life-force magic more than anything else. I honestly don't know where to put you on the ship's roster anymore."

"What I do isn't the point!" Lucy leaned toward her now. Her voice went up. "The point is that I think that after everything we've gone through, everything we've seen, I deserve better than being treated like an interloper."

Julia let out a sigh. How could she make Lucy understand her position? That as the Captain of the ship, she had to make sure everything was running well. She had to show her crew that she was in command and they could trust her. And that included not playing favorites. Maybe Richmond or even Anders would understand if she let Lucy slide, but how would the other officers at Lucy's rank feel at such favoritism? How would that affect crew morale?

Lucy's expression softened slightly. "Yes, I get it," she sighed. "But consider how I feel about it."

"I do." There was a little weariness in Julia's voice. Not from fatigue, at least mostly not, but a weariness of emotion. "Lucy, you've saved our lives before. You've saved Robert's life how many times, and I hope you understand when I say that he means more to me than anyone else in the world, so I owe you a lot on that score. I don't want you to feel like I don't value you, or that I don't care what you have to say. I just… I have duties. And there are ways things have to be done." A quiet little sigh came from her. "I'll talk to Jarod and Meridina about your place in the staff. So this doesn't happen again."

"Right." Lucy rubbed at her forehead. "I'm sorry if I… I just… everything's so different now. And I let that get to me. Even after passing all of those Trials, learning all of that emotional control… what does it say about me that I let a little thing like that bother me?"

A small grin appeared on Julia's face, providing a reprieve to the severity that had been there before. "You're still Human," Julia said. "And whatever those Trials were meant to show, anyone would hate not being recognized for what they've done." Julia's hands came up and lightly smacked the table. "Alright, we've had a nice heart to heart, but we've got work to do if we're going to stop a war."

Lucy's response was her own smile as she stood as well.

The Sub-Consulate of the Trading Consortium was not beside the Government Building, as Julia had imagined. As it turned out, Tio!sat!ny and his staff were in a warehouse and commercial structure near the small spaceport. Julia and Meridina materialized in front of the two-story structure in twin bursts of white light. Meridina glanced around at the colony, which was only now entering its morning hours with the dawn providing rays of yellow-tinted light over the remaining lighting of the Colony.

New Liberty and New Caprica had been roughly similar in layout, if not in building aesthetics, but Oakland Colony was nothing like them. Two ten story structures dominated the commercial district of the Colony. The name "New Horizons" was emblazoned on both. The two women recalled the name from the briefing material: New Horizons was the name of the Earth Confederacy company that had won the contracts to settle the planet and develop its resources.

"You'd think the Consortium considered proximity to the company more important than the actual government," Julia noted.

"For a society based upon trading and business, it does make quite a lot of sense," Meridina stated.

The two approached the door and knocked. The being who answered was a quadruped of about a hundred and sixty centimeters height. They couldn't tell gender for the six-eyed alien, with leathery skin of beige tone and copper-colored hair covering its head. A three-slitted area seemed to be its nose. When it spoke, a mechanical voice sounded over the sounds coming from its mouth. "Greetings. I am Rant'sesh-kat, the secretary for the Sub-Consulate. Sub-Consul Tio!sat!ny anticipated your arrival."

Julia and Meridina didn't exchange the look they both felt to be forming. They were escorted into a waiting area that had chairs made to accommodate multiple species. Two looked made specifically for Xou!tasam. Another looked more like a tub than a chair, and another like a half-open sleeping bag. There were four chairs that could fit bipeds. The secretary directed them to two and walked away.

"How many species are in the Consortium?" Julia wondered aloud.

"It would appear to have quite a few. Although the Xou!tasam seem the major force behind this government."

The far door slid open. Tio!sat!ny walked out on four of his legs. "Ah, Captain Andreys," he stated through his vocoder. "I am grateful to see you."

"Thank you for your time, Sub-Consul," she answered. "My First Officer and I have some questions regarding the Aururians. There is still a lot we don't know about them."

"I have sent communiques to my superiors requesting more information on them. For your benefit," the starfish-shaped alien assured them.

"While we wait, is there anything else you can share with us?" Meridina asked. "The reason for these charges against the Aururians quarantined here, for instance."

"Oh, that is all in the warrant, Commander. They have been identified by the Consortium and our trading partners in the League of Democratic Worlds as smugglers arming terrorist groups in our spaces."

"Are your people willing to fight a war to get these smugglers?" Julia asked. "Because that seems to be the likely outcome."

Tio!sat!ny made a low sound from what passed as its mouth. The vocoder couldn't translate it. Julia got the feeling it was chuckling. "The Aururians are not mindless aggressors, Captain, although they are expansionist. Whatever Iron Margrethe says, they know the galaxy will turn on them if they launch another war of aggression. Just as happened the last time."

Julia felt a sense of disbelief from Meridina. She said nothing, presuming Meridina would share later, opting instead to ask, "Captain Lohringhoven seems to have a reputation. Where did she get it?"

"In the last war, she commanded a light vessel. Her craft was escorting a convoy when Coalition forces attacked. Despite her numerical disadvantage--a frigate against three light cruisers--she kept fighting, causing the near loss of her ship but allowing time for the convoy to jump to safety. I am told by many that it was an impressive martial achievement." Tio!sat!ny made what seemed to be a disapproving noise. "I have little need for such actions myself, Captain. I consider military conflict a waste of resources and time. It is my earnest hope that your Alliance will permanently tilt the balance against them and compel them to remain at peace."

Unlikely was Julia's thought to that. The war made something like that impossible.

"Do you know why all their ships so far have had female crews?" Meridina inquired.

"It is something cultural, I believe. Honestly, Captain, you had best wait for the information packet. My experience with your species is limited."

Both took that to mean Tio!sat!ny had nothing more to say on the subject. Julia stood up. "Well, we will be on our way then," she said. "Thank you for your assistance, Sub-Consul."

"I am always pleased to help our trading partners," the Consortium representative answered.

Julia and Meridina walked out together. One she felt assured they were far enough away to not be heard, Julia turned her head to face Meridina. "You think he was lying?"

"Not a conscious lie," Meridina said. "Tio!sat!ny wants to believe the Aururians will be easily checked. But deep within his essence, doubt gnaws at him. What I could gather is that the powers in this place are all hastening their pace of armament. And he seems to fear the Aururians are winning the arms race."

"Let's pass that on, then." Julia tapped her omnitool. "And while we're at it, I'm arranging our transport to the Government Building. I have things I want to discuss with Taylor."

The lifting of the quarantine had changed things in the quarantine ward at the hospital. Opani noticed extra guards at the entrance, two militia and two wearing police uniforms. For a moment she wondered if they would refuse her access. The guards did visibly tense up at the approach of the two Aurora officers. One held up his forearm, showing he was wearing a multidevice instead of an omnitool. After images appeared on the screen he nodded. "Lieutenant, Doctor. You're clear to enter."

"Thank you," Opani said. She led Lucy to the door. This time there was no need to prep to go inside. They went through the next set of doors immediately and entered the ward. Now there were militia guards inside as well, both Human. Opani could see the assembled prisoners - now truly prisoners - were looking around warily. Were they contemplating escape?

Either way, she wanted to talk, and so she returned to Kishala's room. The Ralsan looked at her through the forcefield. "Why have you come?" she asked. Her voice betrayed her irritation with the situation, and perhaps a little instinctive fear. "We have been told we are being handed over to the League."

Lucy looked to Opani and sent a thought toward her. I don't know if they'll talk to me. They know you. Let me get you some privacy. She turned back and walked to the guards. "The Doctor will need some time alone with them."

"Lieutenant, we have orders to remain," one of the militia replied. "They're considered an escape risk."

"And if they try, they'll have to come through this room anyway," Lucy answered, indicating the airlock chamber.

The two looked at each other. They were both enlisted ranks. Lucy was an officer. Their training was to obey officers. Of course, that training was to obey their officers. Lucy restrained the sigh that wanted to come out. The last thing she wanted to do was try and use the mental trickery that Meridina had taught her. It was the sort of thing that could only cause trouble if Admiral Davies and his supporters learned about it.

Just as she gathered her will to do it, the guards opted to obey the officer in front of them and stepped back through the door. Lucy joined them. She nodded to Opani before letting the door close behind her.

Kishala and her compatriots all noticed. Kishala looked to Opani with suspicion. "What are you doing?" she asked Opani.

"I wanted to talk with you some more," Opani said. "To learn about your people. The Alliance still knows very little about you."

"I see." The suspicious look did not go away. "You will conceive that we are not inclined towards being in a trusting mood, I hope? Your people are intending and preparing to hand us over to the League and to our deaths or enslavement."

"The League?" Opani shook her head, bewildered by the accusation. "We have no agreement with them. The Consortium say they have charges against you for gun smuggling. We have a treaty with them…"

"The Consortium care naught for any principle but their trading business," another voice barked angrily. Opani turned to see the origin of the voice, one of the cells with Human women. A woman with an ebon shade of skin, one of the darkest complexions she'd seen in a Human, was glaring toward her through the forcefield. "They care little for how the League pays for their goods, or provides the materials they desire. This is no different. The Xou!tasam are playing the League's agent in this affair."

"You mean to say that they have no legitimate charge against you?" Opani looked from this woman to Kishala. "If this is true, I must know what is going on. I can inform my Captain and she can intervene."

"Would she, this Captain of yours? Presumably a Human captain?" Kishala asked.

"Yes, Captain Andreys would," Opani said. She met the yellow eyes of the Ralsan with her own. The light teal color sparkled with intensity. "She and the officers of the Aurora are not like your foes. Her only purpose here is to avoid war, which is why we seek to know more about your people."

“To avoid war, she needs to acknowledge the righteousness of the Imperial position. Failing to do such a simple thing has caused all the previous wars.” The dark-skinned woman from before spoke up, a hint of a crack of command in her voice.

Opani turned to face the other woman. "And what is your position?"

“The system is rightfully ours. It was surveyed and claimed eleven years ago. We landed here believing this was a colony of the Empire. That we are being held illegally, and that perhaps you should not blindly listen to the Xou!tasam and League unless you wish to meet the Grand Fleet. They certainly would appreciate another to ignorantly bleed for the sake of their profits and masses of slaves.” Each sentence was spoken hotly, falling like bits of molten metal as she bit each one off.

There was a soft cough from another of the group there, curly blonde haired above freckled dark brown skin. “Kat, you go too far.”

Her rebuke was gentle, but the tone behind it admitted no argument, and surprisingly, the other woman bent her head. “Forgive me, you have my profuse and profound apologies, Sister. I request your forgiveness as well, Doctor. It was unbefitting to speak in such a baldly aggressive manner with one such as yourself.”

The interplay was one Opani found interesting. The third speaker clearly held some sort of weight among them. "Your apology is accepted," Opani said. As she spoke she found that her left hand had drifted to the back of her neck, where a sliver of lighter teal skin marked the scar that remained of her own brush with slavery. "Passion is easy on the subject of slavery. But you are telling me the Xou!tasam practice it? Or just this League you speak of?"

“The League cloaks such an unpleasant and revolting truth in a bodyguard of lies, Doctor.” The woman referred to as ‘Kat’ replied to her, folding her hands on her lap before herself, earnest-seeming, at least. “They say they seek to ‘civilize’, that they have a mission to benevolently ‘uplift’ other species… but if they did, why would so much of the Imperial mosaic be made up of those who had been freed from their chains? The Xou!tasam, they are a difficult race of sentients to truly understand, I must fear. Their slavery may be hidden in language of debt, and indenture, but it is no less real. That they keep company and loose alliance with the League should be enough to condemn them, by the principle that one may be known by the friends you keep.”
Opani wondered about that. Had the Alliance, in its haste to find new resources for the war with the Reich, overlooked something vile about the Trading Consortium? Had they failed to properly investigate this universe before making their pacts and treaties, like some overeager Daxai merchant looking to make a larger profit on a deal? She had no doubt that the Alliance was not in favor of such vile practices. Especially not when millions were already dead fighting a regime that thrived on slavery and extermination.

Unless some are. The Alliance is not perfect. There are people on Doreia who would overlook such behavior if there was need enough, or gain enough. The Humans are certainly not immune.

The problem was going to be proof. The word of these people alone wouldn't be enough. She needed evidence of some kind. And more than that, she needed to know more about them. That was her mission from Captain Andreys, after all.

Another thought came to Opani. Kishala's careful whispers to her the previous day, the charges against them… they all seemed to point toward one possibility. One that might be quite important. "You bring guns to those fighting this League, do you not?" Opani asked. "That is the foundation of the charges against you."

The initial reply was silence. Opani sighed at that. "You do not trust me. I believe I understand. But you have to understand our position. The Alliance came to this system looking for the resources to continue fighting a war in another universe against a horrible evil, a Human regime known as the Nazi Reich. Surely you must understand that since we are already in one war, we would never have risked conflict with any local empire over territory. Not even for a system as rich in mineral wealth as this one. We settled this place because we found no sign of another claimant. We have no proof of your claim on this system. How are we supposed to respond when you demand we surrender it?"

The woman who had rebuked the other let out a soft laugh. “Doctor, you have clearly never had troubles with the constabulary. Even were we to trust you, anyone’s law enforcement is rarely your friend when they are holding you in detention. To speak with you would be foolhardy in the extreme and jeopardize our legal position. There was such a beacon placed, we, of course, assumed the absence meant that an active colony was now present. That it was not active when you arrived means that mishap, be it accidental or deliberate, befell it.”

It was clear that there was nothing more to be found out along that line of questioning. "I will inform Captain Andreys of this beacon existing." A thought came to her. "Do you happen to know where in the system it would have been left?"

“Of course I do. There would have been both a space-borne beacon and a non-transmitting marker, in the event such a misfortune as this happened.” She smiled, though shook her head sadly. “I must, however, regretfully inform you that such information should and must be asked of Captain von Lohringhoven. I am not authorized to disclose it to those outside the Empire.”

Opani nodded. At least she knew about it. It was something to tell Captain Andreys. "Then I should inform her right away." With that Opani was prepared to depart. But she stopped herself. Lucy had mentioned what she had missed in the briefing. That there was one here who was a Janiyal, or what the Lushan called Fenari, someone gifted by the Supreme Being (or some other force) with great power. She stopped and looked back. "There is something else. Two of the officers from my ship are what my people call Janiyal. They are blessed with power. And they sensed that power among you. I know they would like to speak with you on it, if you will allow them."

“I was not aware that prisoners could stop anyone from speaking to them if they so wished, Doctor.” There was a soft laughter that went around the room, as a shorter, muscled figure of a different ethnic group in the back of one of the cells remarked in an intensely sardonic tone.

"They would not wish to compel you into a conversation you do not wish to have," Opani answered. "It is not their way."

“You misunderstand her, Doctor.” The smiling prisoner from before had a wry look on her face. “She means that we cannot stop them from speaking to us. Whether we choose to answer is a different matter entirely, and much depends on the questions.”

Opani got the feeling that this was not simply semantics, but perhaps an offer. "I shall let them know of what you have said." In the moment before she moved her foot to continue turning and leave, Opani yet again stopped. She had a thought now. "Is there anything you would trust me with? To do for you?"

“We would wish to see the sunrise every day, Doctor.” The smile had vanished from that woman’s face, and she looked more than earnest. “To be Singers, as we are called to be, even on this world you have, perhaps unintentionally, stolen.”

Opani nodded. "I shall see what I can do."

After their arrival in the Government Building, Julia and Meridina were directed to a conference room. Taylor was already present with a few other individuals, including Colonel Littleton. He looked right at the door when it opened. "Captain, Commander." He gestured toward seats. "It's good to see you. We were just discussing our defensive planning."

"Do you have a full-strength deflector? Not that it will do any good if they use those graviton weapons." Julia and Meridina took the offered seats.

"We do, actually. And half of the Colony's population has completed militia combat training," Taylor answered. "If they send down an invasion, we should be able to resist it for a little bit."

"It might be wiser to preserve the Colony by declaring it undefended," Meridina said. "If we cannot stop them, I am skeptical that the Colony can be held, or rather, saved from the results of armed conflict."

"We're not going to give up just like that," Littleton vowed. "They'll think they can walk all over us."

"Given the state of Alliance defenses in this universe, it's entirely likely they can," Julia pointed out.

Littleton reacted with a deep frown. "Well, I'm so glad the Alliance Stellar Navy has such confidence in us," he remarked scornfully. "Are you really telling me you intend to duck and run, tail between your legs?"

Julia matched the frown and the scorn with a quiet, contemptuous look. "I will protect the people of this Colony any way I can," she retorted. "But the fact remains that we have to be realistic. We're already at war with the Nazis, we can't afford to jump into another one."

"We may have to consider that this system was claimed by the Aururian Empire before our arrival," Meridina added. "If this is true, then while it is a misunderstanding, we would be the interlopers."

"We searched every cubic meter of this star system," a woman barked. She was sitting beside Taylor. Her suit was cream white in color, a business jacket of gray over it and a tie at the neck. The woman's blue eyes flashed with irritation. The graying blond hair at her temples indicated her rough age. "There was no claim beacon of any kind detected!"

"This is Chairwoman Joann Logan," Taylor said, introducing the woman in question. "She's the head of the Governing Committee and the official representative of New Horizons."

"Chairwoman." Julia nodded. "While I agree the chances are low, it is possible that something could happen to such a beacon. A meteorite strike of sufficient size, for instance. And to be frank, if the choice is war or evacuation of the Oakland Colony, we need to consider evacuation." Julia knew she was skirting the edge of her orders by voicing this thought. But she also had an obligation to get civilians out of the potential war zone.

"And will the Stellar Navy reimburse my employers the costs of settling this Colony? Or the projected losses from our share of the revenues for the mineral rights?"

"That's for my superiors to decide. If it comes to that." Julia met Chairwoman Logan's glare with a firm look. "But I think you'll understand that we can't just…"

A knock on the door interrupted Julia. All eyes turned toward said door. Exasperated, Taylor said, "Come in." A figure in a dark blue police uniform came in. He was East Asian with close cut dark hair. Taylor had evidently assumed it was a clerk or some other interloper. Upon recognizing the newcomer he said, "Captain, this is Police Chief Andrew Jiang. Chief, how can we help you?"

"I imagined you'd prefer me hand you this, Governor." Jiang presented a pair of papers folded up with a dark blue covering. "Judge Moore signed them just ten minutes ago and ordered they be served immediately."

"The judge is aware we have a potentially hostile starship in orbit, isn't he?" Taylor, despite his complaint, still gestured for the paper to be handed to him.

"I'm sure he is sir, given the contents."

Meridina could sense Taylor's consternation and a growing impatience in Julia while Taylor read the papers. He frowned deeply. "Apparently Captain von Lohringhoven isn't just issuing threats," Taylor continued. "She's hired attorneys to fight the extradition. They've filed a habeas corpus complaint and demanded the release of the accused."

"It's a valid extradition warrant," Chairwoman Logan said. "There's nothing to it."

Julia picked up the papers. "Do you mind if I make a copy? I want to discuss this with my JAG officer."

"Be my guest." Taylor shrugged. "Now that it's before Judge Moore, my hands are tied. You can attend the preliminary hearing tomorrow if you would like."

Julia nodded. She would consider it. Or perhaps she would just send Lieutenant Vajpayee, the Aurora's JAG officer.

Of course, there was the fact that this meant another day would tick off of Lohringhoven's ultimatum. This just keeps getting more complicated.

The Aurora kept her geostationary orbit over the Oakland Colony in the company of the two Aururian vessels. The Irresistible was further out than the Maya-Mayi with a higher orbit. Julia pondered the arrangement; was it to let the larger ship cover the smaller, damaged one? Or to put them in a position to intercept any incoming ship?

The thought of how she could defend this colony alone still gnawed at Julia. Maran's promise of reinforcements had yet to materialize. She had to consider the possibility that politics had forced him to divert those ships to other colonies. She also had to consider the frightening idea that this would not be enough. The Alliance was stretched thin by the war and reinforcements would be few; was it possible that the Alliance might very well be driven out of an entire universe over this crisis?

"Anything is possible." Meridina turned her head to face Julia. The Gersallian woman's expression and body language maintained the stoicism that Julia had long known in her First Officer, but even with that there was a supportive warmth in Meridina that Julia appreciated.

"We can't just leave, but I don't think we'll be able to stay," Julia murmured. "The Reich is one enemy enough right now." Julia glanced at Meridina. "What do you think, Commander? About this situation?"

"I believe we are in a dangerous situation that may yet provide some opportunity," Meridina answered. "These Aururians are clearly not mindlessly aggressive. Hiring an attorney from the Colony was an inspired idea. I do not believe diplomacy is hopeless."

"But we still have the same damn sticking point. They say they claimed this system. Our people found no trace of a claim. They still insist that Phi Perseus belongs to them and that they'll use military force to drive us out. And that's not counting these smugglers…"

The lift door near the rear of the bridge opened. Julia turned toward it in time to see Lucy and Opani step out. "Captain." Opani walked up to her. Julia and Meridina were standing by the time Opani arrived in the middle of the bridge. "I would like to speak with you about the captives."

"We both would," Lucy said.

"We're all ears," Julia said.

"Although they would not confirm it, I am increasingly convinced that the women do move weapons. But that they do so to oppressed species inside of the League of Democratic Worlds. They insist that the League practices slavery of less-advanced species."

Julia thought back to the scant material they had on that polity. Virtually all of it had been very generic information from the Xou!tasam. The Alliance emissary on Jao!senat was not one of the more effective members of the service, Julia suspected, with his dearth of reports on matters outside of economic figures.

"The surgeon on the Irresistible made a similar charge," Meridina recalled.

"They also state the Xou!tasam may also be guilty of such things," Opani continued. "Although they seemed less vehement.”

"Is there anything I can act on?" Julia asked them. "Any information I can use?"

"There is something," Opani confirmed. "They informed me that it is common practice in their Empire to leave both an active beacon asserting a claim and a marker somewhere in the system. They would not tell me where and insisted Captain von Lohringhoven would have to provide the knowledge."

"A marker." Julia thought of it. "Presumably something that doesn't transmit. That way if their beacon goes out they can point to the marker and laugh."

"But if that is so, then why do they not simply show us the marker?" Meridina asked. "Unless…"

A sick feeling came to Julia's gut. "Unless they can't find it," she said. "Unless it's gone."

Meridina frowned. "If that is true, then it may explain some of their hostility."

"Because they think we found it and destroyed it," Lucy added.

"Unfortunately, I'm quite sure Mrs. Logan will argue it never existed," Julia sighed. She turned her attention to Ops, where Neyzi was sitting. "Lieutenant, anything from the Koenig?"

"No, Captain," she answered.

Julia looked to science, where Lieutenant Amira al-Rashad was sitting. The new black strip on her collar's rank tab was a much-deserved promotion given her effort during the Cybermen invasion of the Aurora. "Lieutenant, anything yet on long-range sensors? Anything that might tell the Koenig where to look for a beacon?"

"Not yet, Captain. But Lieutenant Delgado and I have had some thoughts on the matter." Al-Rashid's accent had that near-English quality to it that many Arab English-speakers could attain. "We're taking general scans of the system to determine the optimum locations for someone to plant a transmitting claim beacon. We think this will aid Commander Carrey's mission substantially."

"Good. Keep at it." With that done Julia returned her attention to Opani and Lucy. "Alright, anything else I should know?"

"Other than the fact that our new trading partners might be helping enslave other species?" Lucy asked sardonically.

"Yes. Other than that." Julia felt a surge of irritation. Part of it was at Lucy - the bridge was not the place for that kind of thing - and another was her growing discontent with Tio!sat!ny and the Consortium. She was starting to feel like she was a chess piece that someone had maneuvered into position.

"The prisoners have a request, Captain," Opani said. "They wish to see the sunrise every morning."

"The sunrise." Julia pondered that one. "What, they want access to video…"

"They have that already," Lucy pointed out. "The quarantine chambers come equipped with holovid projectors. Not that they seem to be using them. No, I think they want to be let outside."

"I suspect Colonel Littleton and Chief Jiang will not be supportive of such."

"Could they be planning an escape?" Julia asked the two. "I mean, this sounds like setting something up for them to escape."

"I didn't sense that in them," Lucy insisted. "It felt… well, it felt genuine. They genuinely just want to be out in the sun."

"I believe it may be for religious purposes," Opani added. "The woman who asked has some form of moral authority over the others. She rebuked one for speaking aggressively toward me, and she acts and speaks more like clergy than a commander."

That thought made Julia consider the idea. If they did follow through on it, then it would give Doctor Opani trust with them. They might learn more. And she doubted their attorney would prevail on the authorities to grant it. Not soon, anyway.

"Can you find a way to arrange it?" she asked them. "While keeping them secure?"

"We could lower the anti-beaming shield over the hospital and beam them to an isolated spot," Lucy recommended. "We raise a forcefield once the beaming is complete and let them have their ceremony."

"You'll need security guards."

To that, Lucy grinned slyly. "Probably not. Although I bet we'll have to let the militia come along anyway."

"I will attend as well," said Meridina. "I would like to meet them for myself."

"Then I'm leaving it in your…"

Before Julia could finish her sentence, Neyzi interrupted her. "Captain, we have a vessel linking to our jump drive. Incoming jump."

"About time," Julia sighed gratefully. "On screen."

The holo-viewscreen activated and shifted to show empty space. The empty void was broken by a spark of green light. The spark pulsed and then expanded swiftly into a swirling vortex. From the maw of the green whorl three vessels emerged. The lead ship was a cousin of the Koenig, one of the Trigger-class attack ships. The second was a Steslus-class destroyer-carrier, with its unique pair of secondary hulls, the upper hull containing a dozen launch tubes to each side and a launch/landing deck on the top. The third…

...the third was the largest of them all, at just over a kilometer long. Its profile was easily recognizable, the long, sharp lines and the sharp, sloping rear of the primary hull to where the top of the drive hull began, the only truly visible feature delineating the two parts of the ship. The vessel was nearly a twin of the Aurora, being only about ten meters longer and wider.

Julia was not surprised to read the name of the ship on the top of its primary hull.

"Vessels identified," Neyzi said. "The Heerman, the Lrrik, and the…"

"...ASV Enterprise," Julia said aloud, reading the name she saw on the screen. "Thank you, Lieutenant," she added quickly. "Are they hailing?"

"Aye Captain, they are. I am putting them on."

The holo-viewscreen shifted to show a mirror swap of their bridge, or at least a narrow look at such a swap. The image was dominated by a man with graying dark hair and faintly-tanned skin. "It is good to see you again, Captain Andreys," said Captain Ariel Shaham.

"The same, Captain, I assure you," Julia said, smiling at the man who was commanding the ship she was to have had.

"The commanders of the Lrrik and Heerman are already preparing to come aboard to meet with us, Captain. I would be happy to host you and Commander Carrey as well."

"Commander Carrey and his ship are on a special assignment," Julia said. "But I'll be over shortly."

"We will await your arrival. Shaham out."

The viewscreen returned to the sight of the incoming Alliance ships.

"Well, at least we have the advantage now," said Ensign Violeta Arterria from her station at the helm. When she heard Julia clear her throat she added a swift, "Sorry, Captain."

"I'm going over to the Enterprise," Julia said to the others. "Lieutenant, Doctor, you have my permission to enact your plan for the prisoners. You are dismissed."

"Yes Captain," Opani said. Lucy nodded in agreement and the two walked off the bridge.

"I do sense a slight apprehension now," Meridina said quietly. "From the Aururian vessel."

"Anything specific?"

"No. The apprehension is not one of fear. More one of impatience."

Julia nodded. She could guess what that meant. Lohringhoven’s odds were bad, but it sounded like she’d faced worse before. She wouldn’t back down. "We're not the only ones waiting for reinforcements. I'll let Shaham and the others know. Commander, you have the bridge."

"Yes, Captain," Meridina stated. She walked to the command chair while Julia headed to the lift herself.

If not for the sensation of having her body catapulted through a subspace tunnel, or the different figures at the transporter station controls, Julia would have been justified to think she hadn't moved from her spot in Transporter Station 1. That she had showed how similar the Enterprise was to the Aurora internally, at least here. She nodded to the transporter station operator, a Caucasian woman who stood at attention the moment she stepped down from the pad.

The door opened and a Human-looking officer entered, wearing the one gold, one black rank strips of a Lieutenant j.g and with the branch color trim of his black uniform being burgundy red, marking him an officer in the ship handling/command track. "Captain, sir, I am Lieutenant Hanatrim," the man said. Julia amended her thought to reflect he was a Gersallian. "Captain Shaham ordered me to escort you."

"Lead the way, Lieutenant," Julia answered.

The corridors were the same as the Aurora, as was the lift. Julia let Hanatrim give the command for the bridge.

The bridge was laid out exactly the same as the Aurora as well. The bridge crew currently on duty were busy at their stations. Yellow alert lights were showing on multiple panels.

Hanatrim gestured to the door across the bridge. It was the same door that led to the conference lounge on the Aurora. Julia thanked him and walked on. She noted with interest that the sensor officer on duty was a Salarian. She had yet to see one of that species in the Stellar Navy.

A pang of regret came to her. Had things gone differently, this would be her bridge. Her ship. Her crew. As much as she loved the Aurora, being the captain of a ship called Enterprise was the sort of honor anyone would want to have. And she had lost that opportunity. That the Enterprise was showing up for this, the first mission of her command, was almost like the universe was rubbing her nose in it.

Once she arrived in the conference lounge she was met with the other captains in the task force. Shaham stood in the middle of the three; to his left was a Dorei man with almost pale purple skin, dots and hair differing shades of light blue with the hair pulled back into a small ponytail, while to Shaham's right was a Human woman with dark brown skin the color of mocha. Her skin had an almost translucent look to it that made her look almost alien, and her curly dark hair was kept back in strict cornrows. Both were in the standard uniform, black with command branch burgundy red; the only difference were the gloves woman and dark sunglasses worn by the woman. "Captain Andreys," Shaham said. "Welcome to the Enterprise. These are Captain Gartan Meyos of the Lrrik and Commander Abebech Imra of the Heerman."

"Captain. Commander." Julia nodded to them and accepted a handshake from Imra. Shaham gave her one as well. "It's good to see you."

"I'm not surprised given the situation. That is quite the ship out there." Shaham gestured to the table. They all followed him to the table. "I've spent the day reading your reports on the situation. Have Commanders Scott and Jarod determined any way to counteract these graviton cannons the Aururians use?"

"They're shoring up structural integrity fields to handle the shock. So far that's the only countermeasure they've been able to put into action."

"I see." Shaham put his hands together on the table. "There are six days left in their ultimatum, then?"

"There are."

"Have you initiated diplomatic efforts?" asked Commander Imra. Her English was spoken with an evident accent, but not one Julia could easily place.

"I attempted to. I even arranged a meeting between myself, Governor Taylor, and Captain von Lohringhoven." Julia shook her head. "And then the Trading Consortium issued their warrant for the arrest of the Aururians in quarantine. Right when Captain von Lohringhoven and her First Officer arrived. As you can imagine, it didn't go over well."

"How could it?"

Julia noticed the look in Shaham's eye. "I thought the timing was suspicious myself."

"As in you believe it was intentional?"

Julia answered with a nod. "The Consortium hasn't been helpful at all in giving us information on these people. They swoop in and act to make the crisis worse. And there is the matter of the Aururian claims to the system."

Shaham gave her a curious look. "You think they're genuine?"

"I think we have to consider the possibility," Julia said. "Doctor Opani, one of my ship's medical staff, has been establishing a rapport with the prisoners. They informed her that the Aururians leave two indications of their claims inside a star system; a transmitting beacon and a non-transmitting marker in case something happens to the beacon."

"Then would Captain von Lohringhoven have not shown you the hypothetical marker to prove their claim?" asked Captain Gartan.

"That she hasn't is what I'm wondering about."

"It could be deception," Imra pointed out.

"Yes." Shaham nodded. "But if it isn't, then things are that much worse. The Aururians have a reason to be suspicious of us." He looked again to Julia. "So Commander Carrey is hunting for any sign that the Aururians left a beacon?"

Julia answered her with a nod. "He is. Under cloak."

"Then we'll have to see if he finds anything." Shaham's expression darkened. "Even if he does, our orders are clear. Phi Perseus has to be kept in Alliance control, we need its resources for the war."

"As valuable as they are, that won't do us any good if we get plunged into another war," Julia pointed out. "And they're going to bring in reinforcements before the ultimatum ends. We're pretty sure of that. And even if we match them ship for ship, it just means it's more likely someone's going to open fire."

He sighed. "True. But Command seems to think they're bluffing, or using this as a way to make us return the prisoners. I'll try to speak with Captain von Lohringhoven myself. I think that given what the Consortium did to you, Captain, it's best if a new face makes the offers."

Julia nodded to indicate her agreement.

"Then if there's nothing else, this meeting is over."

Gartan and Imra nodded and departed immediately. Julia did not. Once they were gone she said, "I see you've settled in. Her shakedown run went well?"

"Yes, it did," answered Shaham. He finally grinned. "The Enterprise is certainly a change from commanding the Tikvah, as much as I miss our old home sometimes. And the Klingons found her quite impressive." Seeing Julia's bewildered look, he continued, "Captain King and I were ordered to the ceasefire line at Archanis."

"Yes. I heard the Federation and Klingons stopped shooting at each other. It was about time if you ask me."

"It wasn't just diplomacy. They found out that General Martok was a Changeling infiltrator, one who has been quietly manipulating the Klingons into more aggressive stances." Shaham sighed. "The Dominion is a threat we're going to be worried about even when the Nazi are defeated."

Julia nodded grimly. Looking back, she remembered Martok's part in derailing the conference on DS9 that was attempting to keep the Klingons active against the Reich. And that's where we think Senator Kiang got replaced too… "Another reason to prevent a war from starting here." Julia stood up. "I'm going to head back to the Aurora now."

"Of course. And I'll begin talking to Captain von Lohringhoven."

"Good luck with that," Julia said. "You'll probably need it. She's really stubborn."

"So are my children," Shaham said. He grinned at that. "I'll inform you of my progress."

On that note, Julia departed.

As the clock ticked toward 2300, Julia stepped out of her shower with a white terry-cloth robe around her still-damp body. A blue towel was wrapped around her drying blond hair. To give time for it to dry Julia sat at her desk and activated her work station. The remainder of the day's reports awaited her viewing and signature. She went through them with quiet speed, taking care to understand each before she fixed her signature to them.

The paperwork wasn't the only thing on her mind, of course. Having Shaham and his ad hoc task force relieved some of the pressure her crew was operating under, but the fact remained that they were in an impossible situation dealing with a society they still didn't understand. She felt like the Aururians were not a mindless aggressor, but that didn't change the fact that they were capable of it. And their attitude toward the system was hardly the flexibility of diplomacy with their ultimatum and refusal to negotiate.

And then there was the Consortium. The Consortium had clearly been hiding things from the Alliance. And they had, perhaps, deliberately sabotaged the attempt to reduce the tension in the crisis. What was their agenda? And was it connected with the League's purported imperialism toward less-advanced species? These questions hung over the crisis like a shadow.

Julia stifled a yawn and tapped a key to activate her message recording system. "Send to Robert Dale," she said aloud, trusting the Alliance comm network to locate Robert with the message. He would log in somewhere, at some time, she was certain. "Hey Rob," she began. "I just wanted to…"

She stopped. What could she say? The fact was, Robert had his own concerns now that his life force powers were out of whack. If she told him what was going on, or at least as much as she could tell him, would it distract him from that issue? Would he be burdened too much by the knowledge they were in certain, imminent danger? With those thoughts in mind Julia couldn't bring herself to continue speaking, couldn't even find words. Finally, she sighed and said, "Computer, cancel recording." It replied with an electronic warble.

With nothing more to do and the hour pressing on toward midnight ship time, Julia removed the towel and let her hair fall down to her shoulders. She brushed it out to keep it from getting tangles while she slept.

As she reached for her green-colored nightgown to sleep in, a blue light appeared on her nightstand. It was her omnitool. She heard Lieutenant Takawira's voice say, "Bridge to Captain Andreys." Sighing again, more loudly this time, she went over and tapped the light. "Andreys here."

"Captain, we have identified vessels on long-range sensors. They are approaching at high warp and will arrive shortly."

Lohringhoven's reinforcements, she thought. "Have they communicated?"

"No sir."

Julia looked to where her uniforms were hanging in her closet. "So much for sleep," she muttered. More loudly, she said, "I'm on my way."

Julia arrived on the bridge to find the Gamma Shift crew in their places; Ensign Crane, a Human man, at tactical, the Alakin female Lieutenant Jakeet at Ops, the light teal-skinned, blue-spotted and purple-haired Dorei male Ensign Tagas at Science, and Ensign Talara at the helm. Lieutenant Tinashe Takawira stood at the command chair. "Captain."

"Have they jumped yet?" Julia asked Takawira. She turned to Tagas. "What is their speed?"

"I have not seen them attempt a jump," Tagas replied. "They are proceeding at Warp 9."

Julia blinked at that figure. "Warp 9? Can a ship with internal drives manage that?"

"Unlikely, Captain," Jakeet observed.

"What's their heading and ETA?"

"They're still five minutes out," Tagas said. "Heading 223 mark 119."

Julia went to her command chair and wondered. Her first impression was that it had to be the reinforcements that Lohringhoven was likely anticipating. But the heading was wrong, and she doubted that the internal warp drives on the Aururian ships could manage such a speed. Although maybe they have cruisers with warp nacelles?

"Hail them, Lieutenant Jakeet," Julia said.

"Hailing…" Jakeet operated her board, her taloned digits tapping the keys controlling the ship's interstellar communications gear. "They are responding with visuals."

"On screen."

The holo-viewscreen activated and showed a close shot of a man with a light bronze, Mediterranean complexion. He had a sharp, narrow face with dark hair and light blue eyes. His visible uniform was blue. Gold trim at the collar was joined by five golden bars. He wore a beret of blue color with an insignia on it, a trio of globes with blue, white, and red coloring backing them.

Julia spoke first. "This is Captain Julia Andreys of the Alliance Starship Aurora. You are entering Alliance space. Please identify yourself."

"Greetings, Captain." The man's English was not auto-translated, but it was spoken with a French accent. "I am Captain Guy de Montamar of the battlecruiser Poursuivante and acting commander of the 10th Task Force, representing the League of Democratic Worlds."

So here we go. The other side shows up. "Captain, you may be aware that we have a tense situation currently. Your arrival may cause hostilities to commence. I must ask what your purpose is."

A pleasant smile appeared on the man's face. "Of course, Captain, I understand your concern. I am here on behalf of our associates in the Trading Consortium. They requested our assistance in transporting the Aururian criminals your colony arrested to face charges in their nation for their crimes. And should our arrival cause the Aururians to attack, my forces will stand at your side and fight for your world."

Julia kept her face neutral at that. In her head, she was sighing, recognizing that the arrival of the League ships was going to make the situation even worse than before.

Chapter Text

Ship's Log: 18 February 2643; ASV Aurora. Captain Julia Andreys recording. The crisis at Phi Perseus has heightened with the arrival of the League ships under Captain de Montamar. The Aururian vessels are now significantly outnumbered but have shown no indication of withdrawing. I suspect their reinforcements are still en route and will arrive before Captain von Lohringhoven's ultimatum expires in five days.

The League's arrival to take the prisoners on behalf of the Trade Consortium is another matter. It's becoming clear that there is something going on here beyond the matter of some gun-running.

Copious amounts of coffee were steaming from pitchers and mugs in the Aurora conference lounge. With their clocks slowly ticking toward 0400 hours, most of those assembled were yearning for a return to their beds and dreading the fact that they would most likely have little time to get any more sleep before their main watch shifts commenced.

Julia sipped at a particularly strong cup of coffee. Hargert had promised her it could keep someone up for hours. She darkly suspected his claim would be put to the test. Once everyone was seated, she tapped a key on the table to activate the communication interlink.

Instead of a lone image on the wall behind her, the table's main holographic projector activated. It displayed images beside the table. One had Captain Shaham and his command staff, roused for the same reason. Captain Gartan and Commander Imra appeared in the other images. A third image showed a tired Governor Taylor with Committee Chairwoman Logan beside him. The final was of Captain de Montamar on his ship, the Poursuivante. The vessel, which was now visible through the lounge window, resembled the same aesthetic as the Aururian ships, but with sharper lines and a pair of long, gray warp nacelles built into the sponsons on either side of the ship and angled downward just enough to get the necessary clearance to function.

"On behalf of the Oakland Colony, I do thank you for your offer of assistance, Captain de Montamar," Taylor said. "However, I am obligated to keep custody of the prisoners in question until Judge Moore rules on their motions."

Montamar nodded. There was no sign of anything but a calm and patient demeanor in the man. "Of course, Governor," he said, his English fairly accented from his native French. "Your people are a free and democratic people as well, with laws and protections that must be cherished and supported. I will wait for the outcome to your legal proceedings."

"Although that will be a moot point if the Aururians invade," Shaham pointed out.

"If they commence hostilities, Captain Shaham, I am authorized to open fire in your defense. The League will not stand by while the Empire commits another act of aggression."

"Captain, the Alliance has been in this universe for a year now," Julia began. "Why has it taken so long for the League to approach us?"

"The Trading Consortium asked us to let them take the lead in your introduction to our universe," was the answer.

"Presumably they feared we would react badly if we found out about their neighbors." This was from Taylor.

"A reasonable fear," de Montamar said. "When do you expect the legal issues to be handled?"

"The day after tomorrow is the main hearing. Today will be a preliminary one to discuss the motion to dismiss…"

Even with the coffee, Julia felt the conversation slip away from her as it became less relevant to her immediate problems. It seemed that every development made war more likely to break out, regardless of what she planned or considered. And now she was tired and her eyes felt like weights had been attached to her eyelids. Having to think of solutions when her brain felt like it was in a fog would be an uphill climb.

Finally Julia noticed Shaham was speaking. "..don't know about these people," he was saying. "If we are to deal with them I would like to know more."

"And I will share with you what I know, gladly. Perhaps in person? I will bring a shuttle down to meet with your governor and the Consortium Sub-Consul."

De Montamar's offer prompted Taylor to nod. "I will be waiting."

"I look forward to meeting you in person, Captain de Montamar."

"I'll meet everyone planetside," Julia said. "Aurora out." She tapped a key and ended the call. "Any thoughts?" she asked.

"I'm not sure I like that answer," Locarno said. "About why it's taken so long for the League to make contact with us. If the Aururians are as aggressive as he claims, it makes more sense to open contact as quickly as possible to warn us and give them a potential ally."

"Perhaps their reluctance, and that of the Consortium, is linked to their alleged mistreatment of less-advanced species?" Meridina asked. "If the Consortium recognized that we would disapprove of their ally's behavior, they may have felt the need to keep us from learning about the League's actions until relations were firmly established. And the League may have feared we would oppose them as well."

From within Julia's sleep-deprived brain a thought kindled. I need to find out how things are going on the Koenig, she thought to herself.

"Yeah, but that's assuming the Aururians aren't lying," Angel pointed out, continuing on from Meridina's remark. "Maybe the League treats aliens just fine and the Aururians prop up terrorist groups to undermine them. All to have an excuse to attack them. Hell, maybe that's what the group down on the planet are. They could be terrorists themselves, for all we know."

"They're not," Doctor Opani declared. Eyes turned toward her in the chair to Leo's left. "They don't sound like terrorists."

"And you know how a terrorist sounds?" Angel asked pointedly. "You don't know anything about them."

"And neither do you," Opani shot back. "But you assume they must be bandits just because these people say so? These people, who may practice slavery?"

"I don't have to assume a damn thing to know these people are bad news." Angel's tone grew harsh. "Look at what they've done. These bit-" She stopped and corrected herself at the last moment. "...these people threatened an innocent colony, opened fire on us without provocation, killed a member of our crew, and are threatening to attack again if we don't knuckle under and give them everything they want just because they freaking say so! Why the hell should we give them the benefit of the doubt when all we've seen them do is shoot at us and threaten us? If you ask me, I think it's clear that these Aururians are bad news. And I certainly don't trust a damned one of them."

Opani's dark teal complexion gained a blue tint on her face. Her eyes narrowed and her long, pointed ears seemed to level against the side of her head.

"Both of you, calm down," Julia ordered. She leveled an intent look at Angel, who finally diverted her eyes from Opani. "I know we're all tired and cranky, but we've got enough problems without fighting each other."

"It's not really our place to worry about the prisoners, isn't it?" asked Leo. "That's up to the government on the colony. All we have to do is worry about protecting this world. Or, if necessary, evacuating it."

"We're rated for twelve thousand evacuees, maximum," Jarod said. "But it would take us several hours."

"We got all those people off the Tikvah in under an hour, didn't we?" Locarno asked.

"We were lucky that day, Mister Locarno," Scotty said. "I dinnae care t' try an' repeat th' performance if we dinnae have tae."

"Still, have extra transporter station personnel on standby just in case," Julia said. "With the Lrrik and Enterprise helping, we could get everyone off-world on the last day, if necessary."

"I am not sure we will be allowed," Meridina said. "The orders from Admiral Maran are quite clear on the matter of protecting Phi Perseus."

"I want to keep the option open. Just in case. Lieutenant, any luck with that beacon hunt?"

"You mean looking for something that might not be there?" Cat shrugged. "Al-Rashad and I have identified the best points for such a beacon to transmit, but it's going to take the Koenig a few days to investigate them all. We could probably do it inside of a day, but we'd have to leave orbit."

"Which we're not doing," Julia said. "Keep me informed. Doctor, anything more on that organism? The reason we came here in the first place?"

"Dr. Ke'mani'pala should have a batch finish growing today," he said. "It might take a couple of days, but I'm sure she'll figure out what it's doing to them."

"Let me know when she has results. We'll see if it corroborates whatever Montamar tells us." Julia stood in her chair. "I'll see everyone on the bridge by 0800. You're all dismissed."

Everyone began to file out, save for Meridina, Lucy, and Opani. And, Julia noted, Commander Richmond. "The sun will rise over the Colony in about three hours," Opani said.

"They said no?"

"They refuse to move them, but they do not forbid us from doing the same," Meridina noted.

"The Commander informed me of the proposal," Richmond said. "I could provide security teams for the purpose. But to minimize possible difficulties, I suggest another course of action."

Julia listened to what Richmond recommended. It was, indeed, a workable solution, and would keep the Aururians secure in the process.

I just have to hope this doesn't impact our relations with those new arrivals was the sole concern that went through her head.

The night had not gone well for Zack. The nightmares had come back with their full fury. Nightmares of Clara dying, of her accusing eyes, and those of Julia dying in the same manner. Of everyone turning away from him for causing their deaths. Sleep had only come after a good, solid night-cap, to drown away those dreams.

Or rather more than a night-cap, as it turned out. With his head aching Zack could barely moan, much less lift his head. Every tone from the alarm was like a knife to the middle of his skull. Finally he shouted, "Turn that damn thing off!" The computer complied immediately and, to get the last word in, issued him a reminder. "Ship time is now 0620."

The time demanded the attention of Zack's brain. It didn't want to cooperate. It took several moments for him to force himself to sit up. His eyes went over to the table, where his empty plastic tumbler was beside his bottle of tequila. He narrowed his eyes at the bottle. The level was down to about the three-quarter mark. That was far too low. He was certain it was too low. How could he have had that much. Just one drink the first night out and two drinks after the nightmare.

It was just two drinks, wasn't it? He could swear it was only two. It was only after he thought about it that he recalled the third. And the fourth. He had been trying to drown out the nightmares, hadn't he?

"Dammit," Zack muttered under his breath. Through the pain a cool feeling came to him. He was starting to become like his father, wasn't he? Drowning away sorrows with alcohol… And he didn't want to become Gerald Carrey. He had a life. A job.

A job. For the others, it was more than that. Zack had to think about that. Hadn't he ever considered this more than a mere job? Something to do with his life?

He had, yes. Flying the Koenig had been his favorite duty in the world back in the Facility days. The others were possessive of the Aurora, but he had always felt a deep affection for the gutpuncher that Carlton Farmer had put together for them.

That was before Clara had re-entered his life. Then it was something to do in order to be worthy of her. To live up to what she saw in him, the thing that brought her out to the stars too.

The thing that, in the end, killed her.

In a wave the feelings came back. That he had never been worthy of her. Those quiet dreams, that deep secret longing he'd never gotten out of him for another woman, all little betrayals of a good, kind person who had given him her love. Clara Davis would have been far, far better off if she had stayed far away from him.

Zack's hands went to the bottle and the tumbler. His first thought had been to put it away. But with those horrible feelings back, he felt a desire to put away another shot. Just one more. Something to dull that feeling. To get it out of him.

The comm system beeped right as his fingers reached for the cap of the tequila bottle. He pulled his hand back and hit the receive key on his omnitool. "Carrey here," he said. He knew his voice sounded off. He hoped it would sound more like being groggy from sleep than hung over or, now that he thought about it (as much as he could think), between being hung over and still being a little drunk.

"Navaez here," Magda said. "I came on duty early. I thought I would let you know we completed our sweep of this area. Still no sign of anything."

"Onto the next then?" he asked, grimacing from the pain in his head.

"We're already en route at point zero eight impulse power."

"Point zero eight?" He blinked.

"At full power, I might miss something on the sensors. This way I do not. Our ETA to the next scanning zone is ten hours."

"Alright then. I'll be up shortly. Carrey out."

Once the call ended Zack winced to himself. Even if he took the breath mints and got rid of any lingering smell on his breath, there was no way they wouldn't see he had been drinking. Zack turned to his personal replicator. "Niltox, six hundred milligrams," he specified. "And water."

"Warning. Requested dose exceeds recommended dosage by…"

"I know. Override and give me the damn pills!"

His outburst won him the machine's obedience. It produced two cups, one with the requested cool water and the other with three small blue pills. He downed the blue pills together and drank enough water to wash them down. With an eye toward the time clock, Zack went to his shower to face the day.

When everything was ready, Doctor Opani returned to the hospital. She was again waived through the doors to the quarantine ward by the guards. She found the prisoners to be freshly roused. Breakfast would be served shortly. She stepped into the area in the middle of the cells.

Kishala walked to the edge of her own cell until she was less than ten centimeters away from the forcefield containing her. "Doctor Opani."

"Ms. Abrakia." Opani grinned at her. "I need you all to stand beside each other in your cells."

"Why?" the Ralsan asked.

"So that we can take you outside," Opani answered. "The sun will start coming up shortly."

That prompted a reaction from the dark-skinned woman "Kat". "We are willing to accept a parole. Restraining us will not be necessary if you will but give it."

"You will not be restrained. We are transporting you to a site outside."

It was clear the others found the request to be bizarre. Doubly so for the lack of armed guards to accompany them. Nevertheless, the prospect of getting to see the sunrise won them over. They did as instructed.

Opani tapped her omnitool. "Lieutenant, they're in position."

"I see that. Beaming in five seconds."

"'Beaming'?" asked one of the other Ralsans.

Opani considered an explanation. But there was no time for one. She remained silent until she felt the familiar sensation of a transporter taking hold of her. The quarantine ward disappeared in a burst of white light that overwhelmed her vision.

When her vision returned, Opani was outside on a grassy field. The sky was dark and the stars were out. A thin sliver of dawn was visible on the horizon. The outlines of a forest showed beneath those early rays. Lucy and Meridina were standing beside her, Lucy operating the controls of a portable transporter system tied into the one on the Aurora.

In the moments after her sight returned, Opani watched ten more bursts of light appear. The prisoners found themselves standing in the middle of the grass field as the dawn approached.

The immediate reaction was utter shock. One moment they had been in their cells, then after a burst of light they were out in the open. They looked around and talked excitedly in their shared language about what had just happened. Kishala stepped out from among them and faced Opani and her compatriots. "What did you do to us?" she asked.

"We generated a subspace tunnel around you," Lucy replied. "And directed it here. It's safer than matter-energy transporter technology."

"These are two of my crewmates," Opani said to her. "Lieutenant Lucy Lucero, an operations officer, and Commander Meridina, First Officer of the Aurora. Meridina is a Gersallian."

Meridina nodded to them. "I know it is strange to see an alien looking the same as your own species. My people have had to adjust themselves to a similar truth now that we are in constant contact with Humans."

There was a look in the Ralsan's eyes. It was joy and wonder and uncertainty and, yes, a little fear mixed in. "Why?"

"You asked. And we have questions as well," Meridina said. "Our people have much to learn about this universe."

Kishala said no more. After one last grateful look she turned away and returned to the others. Opani noticed that for the first time her tail was moving side-to-side. She wondered if that was a good sign or not.

Between their time traveling in their ship and the days spent in confinement, the prisoners had spent weeks without seeing a planet-based sunrise. The three Aurora crewmembers watched quietly as they reacted to this one. Some knelt. Some sat. Two held their arms out, as if to embrace the rising sun of Phi Perseus. The younger woman with curly blonde hair who had restrained Kat in Opani's prior conversation with them stood in front of the others and greeted the rising sun with a soft melody. They didn't recognize the words. But they could understand some of the meaning.

"I believe she is the one," Meridina said to them. More specifically to Lucy, who was looking over the portable station.

Lucy looked up and toward the prisoners. After several moments of consideration she nodded. "I can feel it too," Lucy said.

The ceremony, such as it was, continued on through the sunrise. Some of the other women in the group took up the melody as the sun began its climb into the sky off the horizon. After about half an hour the assembled finished their singing and humming.

This time they all approached the trio. "We did not expect this," the young woman said. She gave them a bow of the head in gratitude. “As a Sister, I thank you.”

Meridina returned the head bow. "There is much hostility between our peoples currently. To allow it to continue not only increases the risk of conflict, it weakens the Flow of Life."

"The Flow of Life." The Aururian woman's look was one of curiosity. "That is your name for it?"

"It is."

"We consider it a gift from Anjea, the intercessor and protector of all the Singers, who convinced her mother Yhi - the Mother of Creation, who Sang all into existence - to grant us such a boon in our darkest hour."

Opani responded first. "Although I am ungifted, there are many among my species with the Gift who believe it to be the energy of the Supreme Being." Opani waited to see if they had more to say before she moved on. "We can do this daily. I have made the arrangements, and Captain Andreys will approve of it."

"She will," Meridina confirmed. "Captain Andreys is trying to learn more about your people. She hopes to find a peaceful solution to these disputes."

"One war is bad enough," Lucy added. "Fighting you would mean less ships to fight the Nazis."

A curious look came over some of the women. "Nazi?" asked the one named Kat. "You refer to the 20th Century movement led by Adolf Hitler?"

"Those are the ones," Lucy confirmed. "In the history of Universe S4W8, they won the war and at some point became the most powerful state on Earth. So they conquered the rest of Humanity, drove the rest to flee in space ships, and expanded into space."

The reply was incredulity. Incredulity that soon faded into general horror at the concept. “Mother above, you would think killing him once was enough…”

A tone came from Meridina's omnitool before Lucy could inquire as to what Kat meant. She checked it. "It is time for us to return you," she said. "We will bring you here again tomorrow."

"Again, you have our thanks," said the young woman who had led the singing.

"Before I send you back… what's your name?" Lucy asked. "If you don't mind?"

"I am Kirrhi," she answered.

"I hope we get this sorted out," Lucy said. "Meridina and I would love to discuss our cultures' different approaches to the Flow of Life."

Kirrhi's smile widened. "Yes," she said softly. "I think we would enjoy that as well."

The sun was still low in the sky when Julia and Jarod materialized outside of the government building. Security personnel directed them back to the same conference room Julia had seen the prior day. Imra and Gartan were present already with Governor Taylor at his seat and Logan beside him on the right. Julia and Jarod found their own seats to Taylor's left.

The next time the door was opened Shaham entered the room. He found a seat beside Taylor, one left for him by Gartan and Imra, allowing him to sit across from Jarod and beside Logan.

The door opened one final time. Captain de Montamar stepped in. Julia could now see the entirety of his blue uniform, with the gold-colored dual lines of buttons on the front and the gold cuffs, looking much like a combination of a 20th Century uniform and a Systems Alliance formal uniform jacket. The trousers had gold trim along the outside crease, at least down to his knee.

"Captain Guy de Montamar of the Poursivante, at your service Governor," he stated in accented English.

"Captain. Thank you for accepting our hospitality." Taylor gestured to a chair at the other head of the table. "Would you like coffee or tea?"

"The former, Governor, would be most welcome."

"For myself as well," Shaham added.

"I'll take one," Julia said.

"Tea," said Logan.

"I enjoyed a cup of tupari before beaming down," Gartan stated, referring to the Dorei equivalent of rich coffee. "I am not in need of more."

At a nod from Taylor, one of his assistants went to a replicator unit in the wall behind Logan, Shaham, and the other commanders. He ordered coffees for everyone available. The device lit up and in several columns of light produced half a dozen mugs filled with the dark fluid. "Cream or sugar?" the assistant asked those attending.

"A touch of sugar, I think," de Montamar requested. Taylor specified cream.

While this was arranged, Logan went to business. "Where is Sub-Consul Nio!sat!ny? I was informed he would be attending."

"I am uncertain myself," the League officer answered. "The League and Consortium often act in concert, but we keep our own counsels as well."

"I think we can commence without him, Chairwoman" Taylor said. "Captains?"

Julia and the other Captains gave nods of assent.

"Very well. I shall begin by bringing up a rather interesting distinction of our universe," de Montamar said. "I learned of this while examining the data that the Consortium was provided by your Alliance, trying to find why your universes are free of the nemesis of ours. It is quite astonishing." He removed a device from his jacket and placed it on the table. With a tap of a key the device generated a holographic projection of the Earth. Montamar tapped a few keys, generating a square that moved into the Southern Hemisphere and then into the Eastern Hemisphere until it was over Southeast Asia and Australia. Another key tap zoomed in.

Julia immediately saw what he meant. She didn't fight the surprise that came to her face. The interior of Australia, always brown or yellow from above, was instead lush greens with the light brown of plains. The desert areas seemed confined to a portion of the southern coast and a few other points in the northwest.

"An Earth where the Australian Outback doesn't exist." Logan raised her eyebrows. "That is quite intriguing."

"This is... " Jarod shook his head in amazement. "This is something entirely new for us."

"Presumably this altered the development of the peoples of this region?" Gartan asked.

"It would definitely have had to, as the known Earths so far see similar histories for the continent," Logan noted. "With the Aborigines never developing sufficiently to resist European settlement."

"There are several, though unlikely, explanations for such a change. Presumably the monsoons of primordial Australia never receded," Jarod remarked. "This would have drastically changed the development of the continent."

"Presumably not, Commander," said de Montamar. "Dry conditions may have killed the spongiform before it infected humans."

"We're still waiting for our scientists to finish their examinations of this organism," Julia said. "What can you tell us about it?"

"Much. It is responsible for the division of our entire species."

"That much we've been told," said Taylor. "How?"

De Montamar tapped the holographic projector, turning off the image of the Earth for the moment. "That thing evolved many thousands of years ago in a direction that let it infect Humanity," he said. "Once it is within a host organism, it spreads through the body. The host becomes ill, during which time the spongiform attacks and modifies the reproductive system, the bone marrow, the brain. In human males, the result is gruesome without immediate amputation of the most drastic sort. In females, however…"

By this point Julia realized where he was going with this. "It can carry genetic material from another source," she murmured. "We learned that much."

"Yes. Females infected by the organism can only transfer their genetic material between each other."

"They can have children," Shaham said in realization. "Without the need for medical technology, for in-vitro capability and embryo generation."

"Now we know why their ships are all female crews," Julia said. "Although that doesn't explain the other aliens, the Ralsan…"

De Montamar nodded. "I will get to that. The point, though, is that wherever Aururians went, it spread."

"The pheromone." Seeing the looks from the others, Jarod said, "It makes sense. Something like the pheromones could stimulate those not-infected to find those with the infection, those with the pheromone, desirable and attractive."

"In short, yes," de Montamar confirmed. "To such an extent the Empire has internal quarantines and cybernetic methods of resistance for privileged minorities. It is enough to explain their expansion, however. Especially when backed by the use of force."

"How different is your world's history?" Jarod asked. "I mean, from our current baseline? Something like this would… well, it would, it should, drastically alter the development of Humanity."

"I think that might be a little off-topic right now, Commander," said Logan. "What is clear is that even if the organism is not airborne, it might yet pose a health risk."

"So the Aururians developed in an Australia with more cropland and forest." Julia looked to de Montamar again. "And they eventually organized a society."

"Yes. Over the centuries they spread to the nearby islands and lands. Eventually contact with Europe occurred. The Aururians were developed enough that, even without the advantage of muskets, they were able to repulse a sizable expedition of conquistadors, after which they copied their ships, and sailed to Europe for aid. The English were the first friendly nation they found.”

"An alliance that seems to have stuck with them," Julia noted.

"Until they conquered those Isles.” He replied, dryly. “To sum up centuries in as few words as possible, the Aururians expanded where they could and worked their connections with Europe to protect themselves from conquest," de Montamar stated. "They stood as allies with the English in many of the great wars of Old Earth, and each time cunningly expanded their power, using their conflicts with Spain to gain entry to the Americas. The wars of the 20th Century saw them expand their reach even further, into the Near East, into Asia, even into Africa. By the 21st Century they had forged a network of confederated states and sub-states that spanned the globe and were in the first rank of powers. Sometimes they stood opposed to uninfected Humanity, but they were capable of working with us against a foe such as the Ralsan."

"Oh?" asked Julia.

"The Ralsan had no superluminal drive," said de Montamar. "They expanded over the course of centuries with fleets of slow-ships. When they arrived in our solar system in the first half of the 23rd Century, they found us a space-capable, industrialized species, fully capable of resisting them, where before they had not thought the world inhabited. The war that resulted was the last time the Aururians stood with us. The alliance did not survive the victory."

"A fight over the spoils of victory?"

"No. Something rather more painful for our people." A deep frown creased the man's aquiline face. "At this time, the world had come under the control of a central authority formed from the old United Nations. It was seen as necessary in the days before the Ralsan, when the remaining free Nations of Earth banded together to resist the reactionary tide of the Empire. Quarantines, trade sanctions… none of it worked. By the time of the Ralsan invasion, the UN had been corrupted under the relentless pressure. It devolved into a complete betrayal of the democratic principles of their founders. Hatred and fear fueled them, with apocalyptic, xenophobic visions filling their minds. They decided that for humanity to survive, the Ralsan had to die… and the Empire the same when it made a separate peace and settled the Ralsan survivors. When they developed the warp drive, the UN secretly moved to aggressively conquer the other worlds of the Ralsan empire. The Empire had gained such a lead in the pre-warp era that anything was deemed acceptable in the same of survival. Their colony ships were hunted down and destroyed in deep space, and the Ralsan were smashed, their worlds made into the resource base the UN needed to build a fleet, one that was to end the threat of the Aururians once and for all.”

As de Montamar described this, Julia's expression hardened into a frown. Some of the Aururian behavior seemed, if not excused, at least somewhat comprehensible. She also felt a tinge of sympathy for de Montamar. This was clearly not a bright hour in the history of his branch of Humanity, and he knew it.

"Eventually the Empire found out, over a hundred years ago," he continued. "About both warp drive and about the UN's behavior. Their response was a massive first strike. There was a nuclear exchange that shattered much of the Earth and a war in space between the UN's expanded fleet and the Imperial one. They even reactivated the Ralsan fleet and led them into action against the rest of humanity. In the end, all that our ancestors could do was evacuate as many of the survivors as they could and flee to their colonies. It would be decades before the fighting ended, with most of both halves of Humanity dead, and a new Ralsan-majority empire arisen from the ashes of our foes, under a human Empress and leadership. It fell to a great man, Captain Claude de Escuy of the UN fleet, to end the remains of the corrupt government that had provoked the conflict. He founded the League of Democratic Worlds under the ancient principles of the French Revolution and Republic. It was President de Escuy who insisted alien species must be protected and guided to true equality with Mankind, a new vision of the old œuvre civilisatrice.”

"The Aururians seem to think differently of your principles," Jarod noted.

"They do. It is a convenient excuse for them." De Montamar sipped at his coffee. "An excuse to launch war after war against the League. They have waged five wars of aggression against us since the Great Interplanetary War. Sometimes our lines hold. Sometimes our people are forced to flee their homes, driving us even further on our frontiers to find the resources necessary to protect ourselves. During the last war, a great coalition held them back, but instead of taking stock and reconsidering their aggression, they swore to double their fleet. Our desperation fuels unscrupulous men who take advantage of it to mistreat those aliens we are charged with protecting and uplifting, and the Empire uses that to provide an excuse for another all out attack. There is peace now, of course. We've had it for twelve years, but it won't last. It never does with them."

The more de Montamar spoke, the more Julia wondered if it was a mistake to ever come to this universe. On the one hand, she felt leery of the League. De Montamar's passion aside, how many of them were the exploiters and abusers the Aururians claimed they were?

But on the other hand… she felt a wave of horror at the concept of the spongiform. Not simply from what it did to those it infected, but the ramifications of the pheromone that the infected gave off. It made her think of reports about the Orion Syndicate, and how Orion women could enslave the minds of others with biochemically-enhanced pheromones.

Shaham beat her to the question forming in her mind. "This spongiform, Captain. Is it possible that it may be semi-sapient in some way? Does it alter the minds of those it infects?"

"That is a question that has been debated for a millennium, Captain Shaham," de Montamar answered. "For what it is worth, our scientists do not think the parasite actively controls the host.” He took another gulp of coffee. "Regardless, the Empire is are opposed to everything we stand for. The League stands for the sacred principles of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. We believe in democracy and freedom. The Empire is a cult of militant reactionaries. All cultures that come into their power are twisted into their form, expunged of anything that does not fit the Aururian view of a world governed by the Empress and the nobility. Consider Captain von Lohringhoven. Her ancestors were compelled to become Aururian, likely forcibly infected, after the fall of Earth. Her Germany is not the Germany of Kant and Goethe and Schiller. It is the Germany of Bismarck and his halo of bayonets put into the service of the Empire with a puppet Kaiserin. They only preserve shadows of other cultures, shadows of ancient crowns. And the only change for the Ralsans is that their Empress is a Human now. Indeed, though they call themselves Aururians, for most of the last centuries, they have been a Ralsan Empire in truth, demographically and culturally. The Ralsan are still militant conquerors, and that impulse of the Empire’s majority species has combined with the Empresses demanding relentless expansion to create an empire devoted to unending wars of subjugation."

The mood in the room was growing tense. "You paint a grim picture, Captain de Montamar," said Taylor. "If your perception is true, then we might as well prepare for a war now."

"A war we can ill afford," Commander Imra observed. "With the fleet fully engaged against the Reich..." She trailed off ominously.

"I can assure you, the League will support the Alliance in a war," de Montamar said. "It is a matter of survival for us too. The Alliance has the potential to swing the balance of power against the Empire and force them to finally accept a permanent peace."

Logan had another matter in mind. "Can it be cured?" Upon winning de Montamar's attention, she clarified. "The spongiform? Can it be removed from a host?"

"With great effort," said de Montamar, with an expression of distaste. "It takes weeks of careful blood chelation and filtration to remove all traces of the organism, along with a variety of other invasive and drastic procedures. Even then, the host is left sterilized and with a severely-depressed immune system."

"We may have medical science to deal with that problem," Logan said. "But I want to make sure we have a cure. Even if it is too late to prevent it from permanently altering the mind of the host, at least it can't spread."

"Understanding how to deal with the organism if it was introduced to our population is important," Julia agreed. "But right now I think our priority has to be stopping a war."

"I do not believe you can, short of surrendering this world to the Empire," said de Montamar. "And certainly not without returning the smugglers, which to be frank, would damage your relations with us."

"Maybe not, but there might be solutions we haven't considered yet," Julia said. "And the brutal fact is that we can't fight a war right now. We're too spread out."

"It is possible you would have to retreat for a time, yes," de Montamar agreed. "But in the long run, we do not need your full effort, merely your assistance."

"I believe this is outside of our purview," Taylor said. "Captain de Montamar, thank you for providing this information. I will forward it to the Alliance government immediately."

"Of course. And I will await the finding in your courts on the extradition order." The League commander stood up.

"The hearing is later today. In the meantime, you are our guest."

"Thank you, Governor, but I must return to the Poursuivante," he said. "And report to my government. As it is a Consortium extradition warrant, I leave that matter in the hands of the Sub-Consul."

"Very well. Have a safe flight back to your ship."

Captain de Montamar bowed respectfully and departed.

"We've heard one side," said Taylor. "What are our prospects of hearing the other?"

"Doctor Opani may have made progress with those prisoners," Julia said. "Maybe they'll be willing to talk to us."

"Not if their lawyers have spoken to them. They'll tell them to say nothing," Taylor pointed out. "And Captain von Lohringhoven has not been talkative."

"That I can confirm," Shaham said. "Our conversations have gone nowhere. Nothing more than the repeating of her ultimatum for our withdrawal." He shook his head. "Her Empire may be different, but I fear she was stamped out at the same Prussian mill they make Reich officers at.”

"I've been wondering about that, actually." Julia glanced toward Jarod. "Commander Jarod and I have spoken about whether a different approach may be best. A private meeting, maybe."

"I would rather you not," said Logan. "Exposing yourself to the organism is a foolish risk."

"It's not airborne," Jarod reminded everyone.

"No, but you heard Captain de Montamar. The pheromone that the hosts produce can undermine the will of a non-infected. There's no telling how little exposure a person can sustain before they lose control." Logan stood. "As of this time I am going to urge you, Governor, to re-institute the quarantine protocols."

"We're already holding them in the quarantine ward, so you shouldn't worry about exposure."

"It would likely take long-term exposure for the pheromone to have any effect," Jarod pointed out.

"But you don't know that," Logan pointed out. "You don't know the concentrations required. Until we know for certain, it is a risk I think we should avoid."

Julia said nothing to that. She stood from the chair and looked at Taylor. "I'm sending my JAG officer to the preliminary hearing. Will there be any issues?"

"It's an open hearing. There should be no problems."

"In the meantime, I have reports to file with Command," Shaham said. "And combat drills to deal with. Governor, Captain, I'll speak with you later." He nodded to them both and walked out, with Gartan and Imra behind him.

"Captain, Commander, I have a meeting with Colonel Littleton to attend," said Taylor.

"Of course, Governor," Julia said. "I'll keep in touch with you if anything develops."

Taylor nodded and walked out. Once they were alone Jarod glanced to Julia. "You didn't mention anything about Meridina and Lucy letting them out for the sunrise."

"No, I didn't," said Julia. "Logan doesn't seem to know. If she did, she might start insisting I stop them."

"And you have no intention of that."

"Not unless it's unsafe for them," Julia answered. "Which is why I'm going to share this with Leo. But either way, the last thing I need is to add to my headaches by having an argument with Logan. So until she says anything to me about it, I'm going to keep my mouth shut on the matter and see if anything comes of it."

"Sounds like a plan," Jarod agreed.

The morning's work ended early for Leo. The moment he got the message from Science Lab 3 he left the medbay in the care of Doctor Walker and made his way deeper into the ship. Science Lab 3, as their biology lab, was centered around three iso-lab capsules accessible only by an airlock system. Leo arrived as Doctor Ke'mani'pala emerged from the center one. The Gl'mulli scientist shifted her vocoder and visual stimuli-translator device toward Leo, allowing her to see him clearly and not as a faint EM trace. "Ah, Doctor," she said.

"You said you have something?" he asked.

"Oh yes, I do." Ke'mani'pala half-walked, half-slid her way to a nearby control. An appendage formed from the cyan gelatin of her body. It shifted to form fingers and started to tap the control. An image of the spongiform appeared on the holo-screen. "After my examination of the sample, I have been able to determine the role of the pheromone. Simulations indicate it is part of the reproductive process. It interacts with the brain of a Human being, and perhaps other species, and stimulates a biochemical response."

Leo watched the simulation light up centers of the brain. "The parts linked to attraction and desire," he noted. "The pheromone encourages someone to desire physical intimacy with others."

"Not merely others, Doctor. There are some species of fauna I have examined that use a similar method in their mating process. It encourages others to mate with them."

Leo shook his head. "That's rather horrifying in its implications. Prolonged exposure to these people would make a need for contact with them unbearable over time."

"Difficult, certainly. But I believe this explains the implants you reported."

For a moment Leo wondered what Ke'mani'pala meant. When the moment passed, the memory came to him. "You mean the implants on the Irresistible crew who didn't have the spongiform?"

"Yes. I believe it may be a device to prevent the pheromone from interacting with the brain."

"How?" Leo asked.

"I can only speculate on the exact mechanism," trilled the Gl'mulli. "But with time and testing we can replicate the technology, making our people immune to their influence. Perhaps in time, with fortune, we may even determine a means of inoculation not requiring implantation."

Leo nodded at that. "Good work, Doctor. Thank you for putting aside your other projects for this."

"You are most welcome, Doctor Gillam. And one does not grow an Aurorus sapling in a day, thankfully. My primary project is not disturbed by this work."

"You still deserve the thanks," Leo assured her with a grin. He looked over the data on the screens again. "Replicating that implant will take time, but I'd like to have something available now, if we need it." Biochemistry was not his speciality, but he had enough general knowledge to have an idea come to his head. "What if we could chemically immunize someone?"

"I do not believe it would last, Doctor," Ke'mani'pala answered.

"True." Leo tapped at the screen. "Not without causing similar permanent biochemical changes to the body. But I'm not thinking of permanent protection."

A low trilling sound came from the vocoder. "Hrm. It is a possibility. I would require your assistance."

"Given the situation, I'm ready to give it," Leo replied.

Upon returning to the Aurora Julia returned to her office and finished her paperwork for the morning. She was about to stand and depart when her door chime went off. "Come in," she said.

The door slid open and Meridina stepped in. "Jarod informed me of the day's meeting," she said.

"Good." Julia leaned back in her chair for a moment. "Do you have any insights?"

"I found it interesting that Captain de Montamar admitted to the fact that the League has not treated alien species well," Meridina said. "Although his words indicate he does not see it as the Aururians do."

"I'm not surprised. They're claiming that it's slavery, he makes it out like a few excesses that the Aururians blow out of proportion to justify wars of aggression. The spongiform makes them look even worse."

"Jarod informed me of the accusations of forced infection," Meridina said. She took a seat on the other side of the desk. "Although it appears they no longer practice such."

"I think the idea they might is scary enough," Julia answered. "And the fact the spongiform alters the brain. This thing, Meridina… I'll admit it's scary as hell."

"There is a cure, yes?"

"Not an easy one. And it still leaves a mark on you. And when you count the pheromones, I wonder if this thing is conscious in a way. If it's actually looking for people to infect." Julia stopped there and considered how she sounded.

"The organism is not a sapient being," Meridina said. "I sense nothing of it."

"And I'm sure scientists would have discovered something like that centuries ago, if it were fully sapient," Julia agreed. "But the thing sounds so pernicious. Maybe if the pheromones didn't exist…"

"I am reminded of our reports regarding the Orion Syndicate. But I have been in their presence, as has Lucy. We felt nothing. It is probable that prolonged exposure is necessary."

"Either way, when you combine it with the Aururians' expansionism and readiness to fight, it can make them seem, for lack of a better term, inhuman. Like the Borg."

"That is a harsh and unfair assessment of them," Meridina insisted. "They are living, thinking beings like any other. Whatever this organism has done to them, they deserve that consideration."

Julia nodded in agreement. "I know you're right. But I wonder how many people will agree." She thought back to how Chairwoman Logan took the news. It had seemed to trigger something in the woman, something close to panic and certainly laced with disgust. "And that hasn't changed the situation. We can't afford to fight, but we can't let the Aururians chase us out either. And they're not backing down. I wonder if there's some way to get them to share the system. Maybe divide the resources between us…" Julia glanced at her omnitool and stood. "Anyway, I need to be going. I need to see Vajpayee before he goes down to the hearing. And then I think I need a meal."

"Of course. I shall maintain the bridge watch for you."

As Julia reached the door she turned back for a moment. "How did it go? The sunrise service?"

"It was appreciated by them, I believe. They sang more than they prayed. At least one of the songs reminded me of the songs I have heard our people sing." A thoughtful look came to Meridina's face. "I believe I shall go again in the morning."

"Go for it." Julia continued through the door, not hiding the thought that came to her head.

I just hope they give you something I can use, or we're going to have a shooting war here.

The Lookout was filled as it could be despite the ongoing Code Yellow running status. Julia sat at one of the tables along the port side and watched her crew enjoy their meals. They gathered in groups and talked and gossiped, as they always did, as if they weren't one mistake from being caught in another war.

"Captain." The accented voice drew Julia's attention to Hargert. The elderly steward of the Lookout placed a platter before her, a battered fish fillet with cabbage stew and a rice pudding. A glass of fruit juice was set down with it. "I have missed you the past few days," he said.

"I've been eating in my office," Julia admitted. She tapped her digital reader. "And I'm trying to figure this situation out."

"It appears to be quite tense," Hargert agreed.

"That's not the half of it," Julia sighed. "These people, these Aururians, they've got this thing inside of them. It alters them, and if you're exposed to them for a long time it can make you tempted to, I don't know, sleep with them I suppose. To expose yourself to being infected with the spongiform too."

"Ah." Hargert nodded. A look of slight disgust appeared to his face. "It sounds quite terrible, doesn't it? The idea of being compelled into something you're not?"

"Yes," Julia agreed. "I know a lot of people are going to be leery of them now. It's going to make keeping the peace harder."

"Yes." Hargert sat down beside her. "How much do you fear this, Captain?"

"Fear the Aururian organism?" Julia considered that. "I… well, I can't get over the thought of it forcing me to be something I'm not. Of having this thing inside of me, rewriting who and what I am. This thing stays with you, even if you manage to get it out of your body. It leaves its mark. And it sounds like they've forced people to be infected before. Or might have."

"That is the most terrible, frightening part," Hargert said. "That word might. The uncertainty of it all."

"Yeah." Julia nodded. She looked out the window of the Lookout. Due to the orientation of their orbits, she could see the bow of the Maya-Mayi. The two graviton weapon emplacements there were an ominous reminder of the danger the warship posted to her ship and crew. It was a more immediate threat than the one she had been considering.

The two threats were linked, of course. If fighting started, if the worst happened, and they were overwhelmed and taken prisoner, would they be forcibly infected as a consequence? The spongiform rewrote brains, didn't it? Could the component include an element of compelling loyalty toward others with the infection? A way for the Aururians to convert enemies into themselves, like the Borg assimilating other species? A raw sense of fear came to Julia at the prospect.

Hargert noticed the change of her expression. "At least you are learning more about them," he said. "Knowledge does not always remove fear, but it can help make the fear reasonable."

A small grin came to Julia's face. "You love to do that, don't you?" she asked, turning her head to face him. "Say the wise things."

"With the same hope that all beings my age have," Hargert answered, grinning in reply. "That the things bitter experience has taught us will spare the young from repeating our mistakes." He shrugged. "Besides, I read it in a book, and it sounded very profound."

Julia couldn't help herself. She chuckled in reply, which prompted Hargert to chuckle as well.


The voice prompted Julia to look toward the door. Approaching her was a stocky man with a light brown complexion and close-cut dark hair. He was in an Alliance uniform, with silver branch color to mark him as a support service officer. She stood and said, "Lieutenant Vajpayee. How did it go?"

Lieutenant Shivdhar Vajpayee stood at her height with striking brown eyes and a face bearing a warm expression. When he spoke, it was with a clear, although not thick, accent from the northern region of India.

"The judge was a tad permissive toward the prisoners' case. Nothing extraordinary or irregular, he is simply giving them a benefit of the doubt that not all judges would grant."

"I can't imagine the Sub-Consul was happy."

"He was not. He was quite adamant that the judge dismiss the motion and order the extradition."

"And what do you think, Lieutenant? How will this go?"

Vajpayee looked thoughtful for several moments. "I can't say for certain. If the attorneys can prove the charge of re-extradition, the judge may dismiss the warrant on those grounds. It will not be easy, however. Extradition hearings usually defer to the State’s case."

"Usually. But I doubt that those judges had to deal with the prospect of a hostile battlecruiser bombing their home if they did." Julia motioned to the table. "Get a late lunch if you'd like, Lieutenant, and I'll go over your formal report on the hearing when it's done."

"I appreciate the sentiment, Captain, but I generally take lunch in my office," Vajpayee said. "I will have my official report finished for you in an hour or so. Would you like me to draw up a brief to file with the court? If you wish to weigh in on this case, I mean."

Julia shook her head at that. "I'm not going to involve myself in that process. I've got enough problems to deal with without delving into legal…"

A stray thought came to Julia. Or rather, a thought that had been simmering quietly in her mind these past few days, a sentiment, which she now saw from a different angle.

"Captain?" Vajpayee leveled a look at her, confused by her sudden trailing off.

"Lieutenant, there is something else you can do for me," Julia said. "Some legal and historical research, you might say. About our situation here."

Vajpayee nodded slowly. "I think I know what you mean, Captain. I'll look through the records and get back to you when I find something."

"Thank you," she answered. She watched him leave and returned to the table. Hargert was still sitting there, watching with an amiable, pleasant look. "Is everything okay?" she asked him.

"I am not sure," answered Hargert. The look turned into another grin. "But it is possible it will be. Good day, Captain. If you come back by 1930, I will have pork dumplings ready."

"I may do just that," Julia assured him.

The craving hit Zack after lunch, a raw need to go and get a drink. To feel the world go hazy around him. It was a sudden surge of need he hadn't anticipated and the strength of it made him close his eyes and concentrate.

It's the boredom, he thought. It has to be that.

Empty space filled the viewscreen. They were approaching the central point of one of the "optimum broadcasting zones" that the Aurora's science team had picked out. Magda was intent on her sensor returns. Sherlily was assisting from tactical while Apley kept the ship crawling along.

Boredom wasn't new to Zack. Sometimes this job could be dreadfully boring. It could be boring even when they were in combat zones in the war. But this was different from that tense, expectant boredom, when any moment a Reich attack ship could start lobbing torpedoes at unsuspecting ships. They were alone out here, unseen by the other ships, nothing but the Koenig crew and their mission of finding a microscopic needle in a haystack the size of the Empire State Building.

A microscopic needle that might not even exist.

The thought that this was all for nothing, that was the worst part. It helped with the desire to drink. It also made him wonder what the hell he was doing. Was this really worth it? Was this how he wanted to spend his life?

What life? was the bitter thought that followed. He had nothing now. He'd lost the one person who seemed willing to spend her life with him. He couldn't even think of New Caprica anymore. He had, quite simply, lost too much.

Thoughts of Clara were not what he needed right now. They made him want to drink.

"April, do you see this?"

Magda's inquiry, spoken in her clipped, accented English, ended the quiet on the bridge.

Sherlily looked over her scanners. "What?"

"I'm seeing a radiation trace," Magda said. "About three kilometers, bearing 348 mark… 112."

At tactical Sherlily double-checked her reading. "I'm still not… actually, maybe I am seeing it."

"When you say radiation trace, what are you meaning, Magda?" Zack asked.

"Going by what I'm seeing, it's a trace amount of radioactive material. Consistent with a fission battery."

"Like what you might find in a beacon that's meant to transmit for years?"


Zack thought of that. "How could the survey teams have missed it?"

"The same way we almost did. We're crawling along at one-twentieth impulse power right now, and I barely saw it. At normal sublight speeds? A ship could go over it a hundred thousand times and never see it." Magda tapped a few keys. "I'm refining the sensors to… here we go. Apley?"

Apley noted something on the helm board. "I see it."

"More traces," Magda said, anticipating Zack's question. "It looks like whatever it comes from is moving away from us. Course 288 mark 038."

"How fast was it moving?" Zack asked.

"The trace remnants are irregular, so there's no telling an exact speed. Not too fast, however. If I had to guess, a meteor impacted with whatever it was."

"Follow it, Ap."

"And I need you to keep us below one tenth impulse power," Magda added. "Otherwise we might lose the trail."

"Aye," Apley answered. "One tenth impulse."

Zack settled back into the command chair to begin the long wait.

The day was coming to an end, bringing Julia closer to the deadline imposed by Captain von Lohringhoven. There was nothing yet from Lieutenant Vajpayee on her question. His report on the hearing was concise but ultimately repeated what he'd already told her.

Now she was alone in her quarters, seated at her desk with a half-finished drink to one side and their formal written orders about keeping Phi Perseus on the other.

Her reading of the orders made the intractability of the problem starkly clear. Defense Command felt that the plentiful resources of Phi Perseus made exploration and use vital for the war effort and inevitable post-conflict rebuilding. She was only permitted to withdraw from the system if under "insurmountable military threat". And if that happened, the likely result would be war anyway.

A war they couldn't afford for a system they couldn't abandon. No matter what she did, she and the Alliance would lose.

Thinking of the Aururians sent another shiver up her spine. She conjured up a mental image of the thing getting inside of someone and rewiring them, altering their bodies until they were accepting hosts. It was the exact opposite of how the Cybermen had intended to take over her crew. More insidious, definitely.

And there was that sunset ceremony issue. Their one piece of goodwill with at least that part of the Aururians. If only I could transfer that goodwill

The idea clicked into place at that point. It might not work, but if it did… then maybe they could make something of this.

Her finger tapped a control on her desk. "Andreys to Bridge," she said.

A few moments passed before Lieutenant Neyzi answered, "Bridge here".

"Open a channel to the Maya-Mayi," Julia ordered. "I have something to ask Captain Lohringhoven."

Chapter Text

Julia didn't get much sleep. The day on Phi Perseus 4 was shorter than the standard 24 hour day the Aurora used and sunrise was at 0545. She was up at 0400 to have time for her abbreviated morning routine with a quick breakfast and then her planned stops.

She met Leo at the entrance to the shuttlebay. Before she could say anything he pressed a hypospray to her neck and triggered it. There was no pain from the injection. The device sent its contents in almost microscopic streams through the pores of her skin into her bloodstream. The tingle it made caused her to rub at her neck. "What was that?" she asked.

"A little something Doctor Ke'mani'pala and I came up with," Leo said, grinning slightly. "I've already given two doses for Opani to use on Lucy and Meridina."

"What's it do?"

"It should keep your brain from registering the presence of the pheromone, at least for a little while," Leo explained. "We think the Aururians use something similar on their non-infected crew through those implants we detected in them."

"And you're sure this will work?"

"About eighty percent sure," Leo admitted. "You'll know it's not if you start feeling an attraction toward any of the infected. Which I imagine will be very awkward."

"I suppose that depends on how much you believe Tom's remarks about my sparring matches with Angel," Julia joked. The humor helped to deal with the awkward sense the thought gave her. "I'll let you know how it goes. If it works, we'll want to inform Command."

"Good luck," Leo said. "And when you get back, we'll need to talk about your sleeping habits."

Julia leveled a playful glare at him before walking onto the basic Mark II shuttlepod that the shuttlebay crew had prepared on her order. It was a personal transport shuttle, six seats with only small stowing net cargo spaces. She got into the cockpit and settled into the pilot seat. The customary pre-launch check took just a minute. The shuttle's micro-naqia reactor came to life. "Flight control, shuttlepod B prepared to launch. Awaiting clearance," she said.

"You are clear, Shuttlepod B," responded a man with the slow lilting accent of a Gersallian.

At the press of Julia's index finger to the appropriate key, power surged into the thrusters that lifted the shuttlepod from the floor. She carefully maneuvered the pod about and toward the exit before triggering the main thrusters. The craft accelerated out of the shuttlebay and into orbital space.

Orbital space looked more open in the pod. She watched the rear of the Aurora move away to her right upon her banking to port. The Enterprise's lower nacelles were visible at the top of her view. The Lrrik was almost dead ahead, at least until she changed her course slightly, allowing her to fly past the Steslus-class destroyer. The blue orb that was Phi Perseus 4 loomed ahead. It looked much like Earth in color. The continents gave it a unique look, however. The wide band of a Pangea-sized continent that spanned much of the southern hemisphere was covered in greens and light browns and visible mountains. A big blue thumb the size of the North Atlantic stuck into the southern continent, not quite splitting it entirely. The Northern Hemisphere of the planet was mostly water on this side, but there was a continent a little larger than Europe that banded the temperate zone and just barely dipped down into the subtropics. She pointed her shuttle toward that continent's western coast and prepared for reentry.

The reentry went smoothly. So did the landing, just outside of the Oakland Colony at a promontory overlooking the ocean. Julia stepped out of the shuttle and waited quietly. A comforting warm sea-breeze brought the salty scent of the ocean with it.

Light appeared in the night sky above her. As it drew closer the light cast a deep shadow over its source and obscured its origin. It wasn't until the small craft set down that Julia made out the shape of the Aururian shuttlecraft, the same type she had seen a few days before.

Captain von Lohringhoven stepped out. Her curly hair was still pulled back into a severe bun at the back of her head. "Captain," she said. "I will advise you that it was against my own judgement, and the considerations of my officers, that I have come."

"Fair enough. I can't say I blame you given what happened a couple of days ago." Julia motioned to her shuttle. "I promised you access to the prisoners. I want to keep that promise."

Lohringhoven eyed the shuttle warily. "Why did you not have me land in your Colony?"

"Because we're not going to the Colony," Julia replied.

A quiet moment followed. Julia fought to keep her expression clear of any apprehension. The slightest overeagerness, or any other wrong reaction, could cause Lohringhoven to get back in her shuttle, or worse, and render this entire trip moot.

"Then I will trust in your word of honor, as suspect as it has been," Lohringhoven answered. Julia sensed the anticipation in her tone. Lohringhoven was already wondering just where the betrayal was going to come from. Which begged the question of why she would still come down.

Because her Empire doesn't want war any more than we do was the thought in Julia's head, but she didn't dare to speak of it.

"If you will accompany me?" Julia looked out over the horizon. They were on the eastern shore of the hundred mile wide peninsula that Oakland occupied the western coast of, so it was over the midnight black of the sea that the first hints of the impending dawn were starting to show.

Without a further word Lohringhoven followed Julia into the shuttlepod. She took up the co-pilot seat and quietly considered the touch-panel interface before her. Julia tapped the key to close the hatch and lifted off the second she heard the hatch finish shutting. They flew to the north, moving steadily inland over hills that, in daylight, would look lush with green and blue grass.

Julia brought them to a landing in a wide field. Meridina and Lucy were already present with the portable transporter. Lucy was operating that device when they stepped out of the shuttlepod. The Aururian Captain leveled a skeptical gaze at Julia, who checked her omnitool. "Any second."

Four columns of white light briefly burst into being. When they fell away, four figures now stood nearby; two Ralsan women and two Human women. Another four columns formed within ten feet of those first arrivals, bringing the last two Ralsan and two other Human women. Three final bursts of white light brought with them the last of the Aururian prisoners with Doctor Opani. One of them, one of the younger women, looked to Lucy and Meridina and nodded respectfully.

All briefly looked to the eastern horizon, where the corona of an early dawn shone over the distant forested hills. One by one they seemed to notice the shuttle and with it the presence of Julia and Lohringhoven.

There was a brief moment when Julia wondered if they would try to take their chance now. If, with Captain Lohringhoven and her pistol to help, they would attempt to rush Julia and her comrades. It was eleven against four now, after all, and they might not realize Julia had locked down the shuttle, nor the extent of Meridina and Lucy's capabilities.

But they didn't. Opani nodded respectfully to her and said, "Captain." For the benefit of the prisoners, she said, "This is Captain Julia Andreys from the Aurora."

They nodded to her with respect. But their real focus was on Lohringhoven.

"Captain von Lohringhoven," said the older woman who had been beamed in toward the end. "An honor." She bowed her head. Those with her did as well.

Lohringhoven returned the bow slightly. "Ladies. Sisters. It is good to see you are healthy and well. I can assure you that Her Imperial Majesty is pursuing every avenue to secure your release."

"We are honoured by the attention from Her Majesty," the older woman said simply.

The younger woman, the priestess whom Julia remembered was named Kirrhi, motioned to the dawn. "We would be honored if you would join us, Captain."

"It has been too long since I enjoyed the sunrise," was the answer.

Julia walked over to join the others while the Aururians took up positions together. Some seemed to be reaching out to embrace the sun as it rose, others knelt, and all sang. The translators still didn't have the Aururian language deciphered completely, but Jarod had been able to apply the known languages of the Australian aboriginals to the program in order to partially translate Aururian speech. With this Julia was able to understand some of it.

The older woman who had beamed in with the priestess sang her own song lowly to herself, on a different melody to the others, and it seemed, in English. "Oh why soldiers, why, why should you be melancholy girls, should it be you or I, whose business it is to die…?"

Opani interrupted Julia's quiet observation of the eleven Aururians. "Captain, I have a confession."

"Yes, Doctor?"

"I do not want to turn them over," Opani admitted.

Meridina and Lucy didn't react to this admission. Julia twisted her head slightly to face the Dorei doctor. "Oh?"

"I believe they are good people who are fighting a good fight," Opani said. "That they bring the means to resist slavery to the species oppressed by this 'League'."

"Have they admitted to that being their purpose?"

"Not directly. They say nothing." Opani shook her head. "But I can feel that as the reason. I believe that if we turn them over to the Xou!tasam, they will be given to the League and end up enslaved or killed."

"Strong words," Julia said. "But without proof I can't do anything about it, Doctor. We have a treaty with the Trading Consortium. We have to obey it."

Opani glowered. "We made the wrong friends in this universe."

"Did we?" Julia looked at her directly. "Even if the League Captain was misleading us about the cause of their conflicts, we've seen the Aururians behave aggressively. They're threatening to expel us from this solar system on the basis of a claim they've shown no proof of. They killed a member of our crew in an unprovoked attack."

Opani's minor glower turned into a betrayed frown. "So you're siding with the Consortium and the League? With people who practice slavery?"

"I'm not siding with anyone, Doctor," Julia replied. "At least not until I know more. All I'm trying to do is stop this from becoming a war."

"A single solar system, no matter how wealthy its resources, does not seem worth a war over. Not considering our current predicament," Meridina pointed out.

"On that, I'm in agreement. But Command isn't. They insist we need these resources, and we need them now, and they're willing to gamble that the Aururians will blink first." Julia returned her attention to Opani. "You've gotten pretty close to them, haven't you?"

"They are good people, Captain," Opani insisted. "They're doing the same thing you did in the years before the Alliance."

"That's… entirely possible," Julia admitted. "And I do want to know more about them. I want to hear their side of the story. And when it comes down to it, I want to find a way to stop this from becoming a war."

Opani took a moment to consider her reaction. She ended up nodding quietly in reply.

The conversation ended and the four officers from the Aurora continued to observe the sunrise celebration quietly. When the singing ended Lohringhoven made quiet conversation with the priestess and the woman who accompanied her.

One of the Ralsan walked toward Julia and the others. "Doctor, Commander," she said. "Thank you again for this. You give us hope that justice will be done for us."

Opani glanced toward Julia before she nodded in reply. "You are welcome, Kishala. But you should also thank Captain Andreys."

"She made it possible," Meridina added.

Kishala faced Julia next. Her yellow eyes scrutinized Julia for several moments before her head bowed once more. Her tail swished from side to side. "Thank you, Captain, for your compassion and nobility."

"You're welcome," Julia answered. "I was hoping this might break down the barrier between our peoples so that we might find an end to this crisis."

"There is naught that we can do on that matter. I am sorry."

"Maybe you can't…" Julia shifted her head slightly, allowing her to meet Captain von Lohringhoven's eyes as the Aururian officer approached. "Captain von Lohringhoven."

"Captain Andreys." The severeness in the Captain had not disappeared. But there was a small warmth in her voice now. "You have fulfilled your promise to me. I am sure you wish to discuss matters."

"What I want is your side of the story," Julia said.

"I take it Captain de Montamar has explained our history to you? The horrors of the Great Interplanetary War?"

"He did. He told us about the old government's crimes against your peoples, the Aururian and the Ralsan. And he told us about the spongiform and the pheromones it produces."

"And yet you come amongst us anyway." The slightest hint of a smile appeared on Lohringhoven's face. "You and your people need not worry on that score. The Chorus of Singers is best improved by the willing."

"He also charged that your Empire is the aggressor, launching war after war against his people."

"He would, yes." Lohringhoven seemed bemused by this. "It is true that we have often initiated the conflicts, but only in response to the terrible abuses that the Northern League have inflicted on other species. For all of their talk of reform and pursuing equality, they behave toward others just as they did when they were the United Nations of old."

"You refer to them as the Northern League," Meridina noted. "Why?"

"Because they are the descendants of the Northern Hemisphere nations that abandoned their allies in the Great Interplanetary War," Lohringhoven replied. "I suspect he did not mention that. The more powerful states in the north abandoned their allies in the Southern Hemisphere when they fled Earth at the end of the war. The ‘Global South’ was naught more than chattel to be dispensed with at the whims of the North. And that is how they still operate, Captain. Whenever they find a hospitable world for settlement, they seize it. Any indigenous species are brought under 'protection' that rivals the worst of the European Empires of the 19th Century."

"And you fight to liberate these species?" Julia asked. "And that's all?"

"Of course it is not," said Lohringhoven. "The Empire does take worlds from the League. We have captured their capital twice, in fact. It is our intention to reduce them to the point they are no longer a threat. But they always find new worlds to seize and exploit and new allies to throw into the flames. And so we continue this bloody dance, and I suspect we will until the League finally surrenders completely."

"You could stop," Julia said. She considered the alternative response - pointing out the assumption that it was the League that would ultimately submit and not the Empire - to be unconstructive. "Why not offer a peace treaty in exchange for the League ceasing those exploitations?"

"That would require us to trust them, Captain. We do not." Lohringhoven looked at her with pity, condescending pity, which Julia did not appreciate. "Your people will learn the same harsh lesson so many other nations and species have about the Northern League. Whether they are Democrats or Fascists, their view has proven the same; the galaxy and its worlds and races exist for their benefit, riches meant solely for the satiation of their most base desires. If we break them enough, this attitude will no longer lead to the abuse of innumerable sapient beings, but it is sheer fantasy to assume they will stop on their own. Certainly no treaty will constrain them. They will always insist upon it as a necessity, and justify it under the same lie."

"Yet you only fuel hostility and resentment with this approach, Captain," Meridina noted. "Your Empire and the League seem to be trapped in this cycle. They fear you, you fear them, and in the resulting mutual hatred the darkness within your peoples grows stronger with each conflict. The Flow of Life is weakened and all suffer."

"A bitter reality is a reality still," Lohringhoven answered. "And I imagine you have other concerns than our conflicts with the League. Your own position here is precarious and undefended by right. Disputed frontiers have ways of starting wars."

"You continue to insist this system is yours, Captain, but you have provided no proof of that," Julia pointed out. "I've been made aware of how you claim these systems. All you need to do is provide to us the marker showing your earlier claim, and we would acknowledge the justice of your claim."

"You would wage a war with the Empire for but one solar system, Captain? When you claim to have multiple copies of our galaxy to settle?"

"Under ordinary circumstances, likely not," Julia conceded. "But we are not in ordinary circumstances. We are fighting a war in another universe against the Nazi German Reich. I'm not sure if the Nazis ever developed in your history…"

Lohringhoven's eyes narrowed. "They did."

"Well, in S4W8, they won. They defeated the Allies. And by the end of the 21st Century, they subjugated the entire planet and forced what was left of their opponents to flee into space. Then they expanded into space themselves and began to exterminate any alien species they encountered. They've got a large interstellar empire that we've only begun to liberate. We need every resource we can get to finish them off before they recover their strength or, God forbid, reverse-engineer our interuniversal drive technology. We need this system, Captain."

Their eyes met. Lohringhoven was suspicious of the claim, that was obvious. She glanced toward Kirrhi. "Sister? You are a priestess. What does your gift say about this?"

"The good Doctor and her friends already spoke to us of this war, Captain," Kirrhi said. "I sensed truth. And I believe they…"

When Kirrhi stopped, the others turned toward her. "Priestess?" one of the other Aururians asked, bewildered with her sudden silence. The growing unease on her face made Julia wonder what was wrong.

"We are in danger," Kirrhi said.

Meridina nodded. "Yes. There is something…"

Some of the others were looking at the sky behind Julia. She turned to see what was there.

"Get down!" Lucy screamed. Julia felt someone - she didn't know who - slam into her back and throw her into the grass.

By the time she looked up, her ears were already ringing from the first blast. Two voices, one Human and one Ralsan, were screaming in the aftermath. Another pair of blasts went off around them that were accompanied by cries of shock and pain. She looked toward her shuttle and saw that it was reduced to a burning wreck.

A dull roar was in the air now. Despite the overwhelming ringing in her ears Julia was able to track it to the south side of the field. A craft was settling to the ground, or near to it, with ripples of blue flame spurting from beneath it. The vehicle was a dropship of some sort with blue and white coloring. An insignia she'd once seen - but where? - was emblazoned in blue on the strip of white facing them.

Figures in white and blue armor, with the same insignia on their chests, jumped from the craft. Her eyes widened at seeing that they were not all Human. The thin, top-heavy form of a Turian was among their number. A harsh voice barking, "Secure the target!" spoke with a guttural sound that Julia recognized as Batarian.

One of the armored figures raised a gun and fired. Julia watched the woman beside Kirrhi collapse to the ground, who with her bronze skin and straight black hair had stood out from the others but been silent and unassuming the entire time. She didn't fall as if she had been shot, mortally or otherwise, but rather in a boneless collapse as if she fainted. And she was the target?

There was a loud burst the next moment. One of the gunmen fired a round toward the crowd of Aururians. Julia expected to a weapon using mass effect fields. Instead she got a burst of flame followed by a spray of flesh and blood with an accompanying scream of agony. One of the Aururians went down.

Ahead, Lucy rose to her feet and ignited her lightsaber. The blue energy blade intercepted a shot aimed toward them. There was no burst of flame. The shot had been cleaved in half. Julia could barely hear the second electronic snap and hiss from Meridina's lightsaber.

"Waste 'em!" a Human voice cried, and the armored beings opened fire, focusing on Meridina and Lucy. Their lightsaber blades became whirring blurs of sapphire light, intercepting and destroying the incoming fire.

But not all of the enemy were involved in that fight. Two soldiers broke off and charged toward the fallen form of the lead Aururian. Julia was reaching for her pulse pistol when Kishala threw herself at one of them and brought the female Turian down. Another Aururian tried to intercept the second attacker, a Human male, and was shot point-blank in the chest. The weapon was a vicious one; a burst of flame in front of the Aururian that seemed to shred into the poor woman's body, sending a cloud of blood and flesh away from both the impact point and the opposite point on her back. The Aururian toppled.

Just as suddenly, a burst identical to the incoming fire tore into one of the arriving Turian troopers and sent him toppling in a spray of blood. Julia saw that the shot had come from Lohringhoven. Those are Aururian guns they’re using, she realized, grabbing for her own pistol in the cover that Lohringhoven’s fire gave her, and promptly opened fire on the human as he lowered himself to pick up the unnamed Aururian target. Her pulse shots dissipated against an energy field. The man growled at her and raised his weapon to shoot her.

Lohringhoven suddenly appeared between them. Julia didn't see the burst of flame, but she did hear it. Lohringhoven's left arm became shrouded in a storm of sparks. A sharp pain ran across Julia's left shoulder and arm, as if she had been cut by a blade at several points. She ignored the pain and stepped to the side to get a clear shot. Lohringhoven fired as well with her sidearm. The blue spark of light from the pulse pistol was joined by a burst of fire and what looked like a storm of impacts against the upper chest and neck of the trooper. The protective barrier had failed. Blood erupted from the neck of the man at the same moment Julia's pistol found its mark, blasting him in the face.

The explosive weapon went off again. A harsh cry of pain came from Kishala, who fell onto her back. Her torso was a mess of dark red blood - too dark to be Human - and shredded cloth and hair. The Turian female she had been engaged with brought her weapon over toward Lohringhoven and Julia as Lohringhoven paused with a sharp look to Kishala.

Before she could strike, the woman the entire attack seemed focused on leapt back to her feet as if she had just been lightly napping on the grass, only a minute after receiving a stun blast at close range. Julia watched in fascination as the woman's hand expanded outward, exposing a gun barrel where her palm had once been. A burst of ruby light sliced into the back of the Turian woman. The Turian's death cry sounded briefly over the battle.

The immediate threat of these two particular foes had occupied Julia's attention. Now she allowed herself to consider the others. She turned to see what was happening just in time to see the Batarian lose an arm to Lucy's lightsaber. The white-and-blue-clad attackers were falling back to their dropship. One managed to get into it and swung out what looked to be a vicious heavy weapon.

Before he could fire it, Lucy's arm reached out and pulled. The man flew from his seat as if pulled, flying over his heavy weapon and to the ground. When he tried to get up Lucy held her lightsaber toward his throat. "Surrender," she ordered.

Whoever he was, he'd had enough. He raised his arms.

The pilot of the craft had apparently seen enough. The dropship began to lift from the ground.

Meridina didn't let it get far. After cleanly disarming the last of the attackers - namely by severing her arms at the elbow - Meridina twirled around toward it. In the same motion her right arm extended. Her hand released her lightsaber, at least physically, while her will guided it to its target. The blue blade looked almost like a complete circle of sapphire when it hit the tail of the craft and sliced cleanly through it. The engine in the severed portion died in the seconds it took for the piece to slam into the ground. The rest of the craft soon followed.

The fighting was over at this point. But Julia couldn't relax. The attack had made certain her suspicions that there was more to this group than appeared. What was so important about that woman…?

Around them the Aururians still alive from the ambush were contributing by bringing together the surviving attackers and securing their weapons, those that were not frantically trying to stabilize and comfort the wounded and dying. The prisoners acquiring weapons was another cause for concern. If anything kept Julia from worrying about it, it was the sight of the dead and dying women in the field. Lucy and Meridina had drawn the fire of the attackers quite well, but there were three Aururian women and one Ralsan who had yet to move from their places on the ground.

Two Ralsan, Julia corrected herself, at noticing Kishala. Opani was crouched over her while Lohringhoven watched quietly. "How is she?" Julia asked.

"Multiple internal injuries," Opani answered. "I need time to stabilize her." Opani pulled a hypospray from her medical kit and went to work.

"Have you worked with a Ralsan before, Doctor?" asked Lohringhoven.

"No, but during their quarantine we took detailed medical scans while trying to figure out the spongiform. I can at least stabilize her for transport." Opani finished injecting Kishala and put the hypospray back. She removed a pack from within the kit. "I have to stop the bleeding first."

"I can," said Kirrhi. She knelt down beside Opani and laid her already bloodstained hands over the stricken Ralsan woman. Her eyes closed. The flow of blood from Kishala's wounds seemed to slow, and then stop entirely.

With the situation stable, such as it was, Julia lifted her arm and tapped the comm key on her activated omnitool. "Andreys to Aurora, we have an emergency situation. I need medical teams and security teams to my location ASAP."

After a few moments Lieutenant Takawira answered. "Right away, Captain. They are on their way."

"I have not seen these species before," Lohringhoven stated, look at the Batarian. "Do you know of them?"

"That's a Batarian. The others are Turians. They're from Universe M4P2. And I'm not sure what they're doing here, or who they are."

"I believe I do," said Meridina. She finished pulling the pilot out of the craft. A set of shackles she'd found in the dropship were now wrapped around the Turian's wrists. "I recognize this symbol. It is the insignia of the Blue Suns, a mercenary organization from Universe M4P2."

The question of why popped up in Julia's head, and was as easily dismissed. She thought aloud by saying "Someone hired them to take someone from the group. And probably kill the rest."

"The League. Or their Xou!tasam allies," said Lohringhoven.

Julia turned and looked over the Aururian captain. Her own left arm and shoulder had a couple of bleeding cuts. The uniform sleeve of Lohringhoven's left arm had been shredded. Pieces of flechettes hung from the metal cylinder they had embedded themselves in, now revealed by the gashes and holes cut through the fabric. "They're the most likely," Julia agreed. "If they're afraid the extradition will be denied. Or that you could successfully prevent it from being carried out. This craft had a cloaking device, otherwise we would have seen it."

By this point security and medical personnel were already beaming down. A bronze-skinned man in a security uniform stepped up to them, with the rank insignia of a junior lieutenant. "Captain, we're securing your attackers now."

"Secure the wreckage too, I want it analyzed immediately."

"Yes ma'am."

Another bust of white light heralded the arrival of Leo and more nurses. He looked toward Julia before moving to join other nurses checking over one of the fallen.

"Your people have not worked with Ralsan physiology before," Lohringhoven observed, looking tow here Opani was still securing Kishala. "My surgeons can save her life."

Julia nodded quietly. "Can you have one ready?"

"Your transporters can send the girl to them on my ship."

A harsh chuckle came from Julia's throat. "And that means I defy an Alliance civilian court by returning her to your custody without a court order."

"Is that a more important thing than this woman's life?"

The question was a fair one. And it was the kind of call Julia would be making a lot now that she was a captain. She suspected Robert's reaction would be to just hand her over.

But Robert wasn’t here right now, at this moment, to make this call. Julia was. She had an obligation to uphold the Alliance's laws. She also had an obligation to uphold its ideals, its principles, and saving the Ralsan's life regardless of legal quibbles was one of those things. And as commander, she had to make the decision, and she would have to live with the consequences.

Her first try was to go with a compromise. "Your surgeon can come over to the Aurora," Julia said.

Lohringhoven kept a cold look to her eyes. "And what of the others? It is clear they are not safe on this world. Whomever is behind this will try again, and I can assure you that the Empire will mete out harsh justice to your people for allowing their deaths in that eventuality."

"I agree," Julia replied. With all of the adrenaline in her system getting her heart to slow to a normal beat was proving impossible. This was not helped by the thoughts she felt circulating in her head. "Whoever did this could try again. So as of now, I'm assuming custody of these people. They will be kept on the Aurora, in comfortable conditions, while my officers investigate this attack."

"Somehow I suspect your civilian court will not appreciate that approach either."

"Maybe not, but I can justify it, and I'm betting Governor Taylor doesn't want a mercenary group blasting its way into the colony's hospital." Julia let out a breath. "So. Your surgeon?"

There was quiet for several moments. Lohringhoven's hand reached for her belt and pulled off a device. She opened it like an old-fashioned cell phone. "Captain von Lohringhoven here," she said into it. "Inform Surgeon-Commander Vega that her services are required on the vessel Aurora. Have her report to the hanger bay immediately. And send another shuttle down to my location. We shall need to retrieve mine."

"Yes Captain," replied the woman on the other end.

Julia tapped her omnitool again. "Andreys to Aurora. Have the medbay send someone to the main shuttle bay. We're getting a shuttle from the Aururians with a doctor on board, we'll need her in medbay for our patients."

"Yes Captain."

Nearby there were flashes of light. Opani had just beamed up to the Aurora with the stricken Ralsan woman.

"We still have more to talk about, Captain," Julia said to Lohringhoven. "Whatever your feelings are toward the League, going to war with the Alliance over a single solar system can't be your Empire's wish."

"It is not a matter of wishing, Captain. It is a matter of our rights. We claimed this system openly and properly. Your people have violated that claim. While I am willing to grant that you did not do so intentionally, the Imperial Federation cannot permit our territory to be taken in this manner. It would encourage other such encroachments by the other powers, and that would most definitely result in war. My ultimatum stands."

"Then why not a joint possession of the system? The Alliance and the Imperial Federation can hold equal title."

"That is but a minor improvement. And it still encourages the same behavior we must dissuade." Lohringhoven shook her head once. "Had things gone differently, had our peoples made contact before this colony was founded, a negotiation might have yielded such an arrangement. But we cannot accept it now. The fact of undisputed Imperial sovereignty over this system must be upheld. Upon that point we cannot yield."

"I see." Julia kept herself from sighing out of disappointment. "Just as much, we need the resources of Phi Perseus to fight the Reich. An interstellar war of this magnitude, and the defenses the Alliance requires for our other member systems… we need everything we can attain."

"Then there is nothing left to be said on the matter," Lohringhoven stated. "I wish to see my Sisters before you bring them to your ship."

Julia nodded quietly and said nothing more. Lohringhoven walked off. Seeing the visible metal on Lohringhoven's left arm, it made Julia wonder how much of "Iron Margrethe" was truly made of iron.

Meridina walked up to her. "Captain, you should return as well. You are wounded."

Julia looked to the wounds on her left shoulder. They were still bleeding. And she had things to do back on the Aurora, starting with getting Commander Richmond's help with their new guests. "Alright," she said. "I'll beam back up. You're going to take over the investigation?"

"Indeed. I will be interviewing the prisoners while Lucy and Lieutenant Liton examine recovered data from their computer systems."

"Good. Let me know what you find." Julia tapped her omnitool. "Andreys to Aurora. One to beam up."

The grass field, now stained with blood, disappeared from Julia's vision in a flash of light.

A pounding headache was Zack's reward for waking up at 0700. It hurt enough that he couldn't resist the temptation to dull it with a shot of his ever-dwindling bottle of tequila. He looked at the bottle, now between the halfway and one third mark, while the substance burned its way down his throat. "Crap," he muttered. The headache wasn't going away. And now anyone getting near him would smell the alcohol on his breath. He swiveled his chair to the replicator and barked, "Computer, six hundred milligrams of Niltox, a cup of water, and one mint breath mint, now."


"Override," he added, every syllable dripping with profound irritation at the machine nagging him yet again. "In fact, never bring up the dosage warning on Niltox again."

"Unable to comply with order. Dosage warnings may only be overridden by authorization from a Chief Medical Officer."

Zack glowered at the machine. He didn't have a doctor aboard right now anyway, and even if he did, he wasn't going to breathe a damned word about this to them, or to Leo or Opani or any of the others. He ran a hand through his uncombed brown hair in frustration. Get it together, he demanded of himself. You're starting to lose control, just like Dad did.

Once the machine fulfilled his order and provided the medication and the drink to wash it down with, Zack did so with a single gulp. He put the breath mint in his mouth and went off to his shower. He stood under the warm water and felt it spray him in the face. It woke him up fully, just as the Niltox was beginning to purge his system of the remaining alcohol and reduce the power of his hangover.

He might have remained in the shower forever if a tone hadn't come over the ship's intercom. "Bridge to Commander Carrey," Apley said.

Zack closed his eyes and sighed. A tap of a button just outside of the shower stall opened the channel. "Carrey here," he said wearily.

"We're approaching one of the solar system's moons. According to our sensors, the radiation trace is growing stronger. Lieutenant Navaez thinks that whatever it was, it might have gotten trapped in the moon's gravity well."

"Then assume an orbit and keep scanning. I'll be up shortly." Zack tapped the key again and let out a sigh. He would have to replicate another breath mint before going up. The worried thought came, that said mint would give him away. He didn't often chew on things.

"Gum," he murmured. "That'll work. Since I couldn't have breakfast. Yeah…"

The wounded Aururians on the planet were undergoing treatment in the medbay when Julia arrived there. A male Dorei nurse approached, his light teal complexion contrasted with the dark blue spots lining his forehead and hairline. "Captain, let me look at that."

Julia followed him to a biobed and sat on it. She removed her uniform jacket and pulled her undershirt up over her head to reveal her left shoulder and arm. Three lines of crimson stood out on her skin. The nurse scanned them for signs of infection before reaching for the dermal regenerator. Julia watched him hold the instrument over her wounds. A blue light softly ran over the cuts, closing said wounds as it passed over like a zipper being pulled across her skin.

When this process was over Doctor Walker stepped up. Julia had only met her once before; a woman near her age with a deep brown complexion and long dark hair. "It seems you were one of the lucky ones, Captain," she said while doing a scan. "I'm reading no other injuries."

"Don't I know it? What about the others?"

"Three dead, four wounded," answered Walker. "The worst is that alien… Ralsan, correct?" Upon Julia's nod she continued, "The Ralsan wounded. The Aururian surgeon and Doctors Gillam and Opani are in the OR now. We won't know if she survived until they're finished."

Julia nodded quietly. "Keep me posted." She slid off the bed.

At that moment blue light appeared on the back of her left hand. An electronic tone accompanied it. She tapped the light. "Andreys here."

"Captain, another shuttle has arrived from the Maya-Mayi," said Jarod. "It's asking for landing permission."

"What do they want? Who is it?"

"It's Captain von Lohringhoven. She's asking for permission to see the wounded."

"Then grant it and send someone to escort her to the medbay. I'll wait here for her."

"We also have Governor Taylor and Chairwoman Logan on comms for you."

"And I know just what they're calling about," Julia sighed. She knew she couldn't talk to them here, in the middle of the medbay. But with the growing questions in her mind, she wanted to be present when Lohringhoven arrived. She looked to Walker and asked, "Is there somewhere I can have some privacy?"

Walker nodded. "I'm sure Doctor Gillam won't mind you using his office."

"Thank you, and I'll thank Leo when I see him." While Walker moved on to check other cases, Julia left the treatment ward. To get to Leo's office was a short trip through the medbay. She stepped in and took one of the guest seats before re-activating her omnitool. "Put the Governor through to me," she ordered.

"Patching them in now."

Her omnitool projected a screen in front of her showing Taylor and Logan. "Captain, we've heard about what happened," Taylor said. "We're glad to know you're safe."

"Thank you, Governor."

"When can we expect the return of the prisoners? Sub-Consul Tio!sat!ny has made inquiries on the matter."

"I'm holding them on the Aurora for the time being," Julia answered. "Until we know more about who launched this attack and why."

"You don't have the legal authority to do that," Logan insisted.

"Given the situation, Madame Chairwoman, I'm acting in the best interests of you and your Colony," Julia answered. "The last thing you need is for more mercenaries to start shooting their way into your hospital, or your jail. The Aurora is a target they can't simply attack. I'm also going to return the three dead Aururians to Captain von Lohringhoven so they can be returned to their families."

"That is an usurpation of...!"

Taylor's raised hand forestalled the angry protest from Logan. "It's a reasonable action, Madame Chairwoman. We don't extradite the dead."

"I'm starting to wonder about this entire case, Governor," Julia said. "The mercenaries were after one of the Aururians in particular. We don't know why. We don't even know how they found us yet. I can't help but think that there's more to this case than charges of gun smuggling."

"Perhaps. But it's not my part to decide that. I have Chief Jiang and Colonel Littleton investigating where the mercs came from. As soon as we confirm the details and whether or not there is a further threat, I expect the return of our prisoners immediately."

After a moment of thought Julia replied with, "I understand your concern that the extradition agreement with the Consortium be upheld. I'll let you know if I find out anything regarding that."

"Of course. Good day, Captain."

Their image disappeared and Julia's omnitool returned to its standby status. She sat and considered her options. It occurred to her that under certain readings of regulations regarding emergency situations, she could assert authority over the Aururian prisoners and keep them in her custody instead. Returning them to Captain von Lohringhoven as part of a settlement ending the standoff would be acceptable in that circumstance. But the regulations might not stretch that far and the resulting tussle with the civilian legal authorities was not one she could take lightly.

The real key to the situation was the woman that the mercs tried to snatch, the one with the cyborg implants. She stood up and returned to the ward. The woman in question was remaining quiet at the side of Kirrhi the priestess, who was consoling one of the others. Given the quiet sobs Julia could easily imagine it was over one of the dead Aururians. She walked toward the unassuming woman and got a better look at her. She and Doctor Walker shared skin tones and hair color, although the woman was rather older. Seeing Walker looking over scans at a station, Julia went up to her and spoke in a low tone. "What do you know about that patient? The one sitting over there?"

Walker followed Julia's eyes. "She's healthy. Middle-aged, at least forty-five," Walker answered. "She has substantial cybernetics."

"She woke up from a stun blast within a minute," Julia remarked.

"That would be the cybernetic implants in her central nervous system," Walker said. "If they're shielded appropriately, they can allow rapid recovery from stun effects."

"Is that something you'd normally install in someone's implants?"

"I probably wouldn't," Walker admitted. "Those kinds of implants can run into difficulties normal ones can't. They consume more energy, for one. I imagine she wanted shielded implants for a reason. They were certainly hard to find. Most of my scanners showed her as completely organic. I had to use our Cylon-scanner to confirm the presence of cybernetics."

Julia considered that. "Really. Did she give a name?"

"Nina was the only name she gave."

Any further conversation ended when the door slid open. Lohringhoven entered in the company of Ensign Talara. Julia walked toward them. "Thank you, Ensign. You're dismissed."

"I'm pleased to have been of assistance, Captain," Talara answered before departing.

"Captain, welcome to the Aurora," Julia said to Lohringhoven. The Aururian captain had an intact uniform jacket now and didn't look like she'd also been in a fight for their lives.

"Your vessel is certainly an interesting sight. It seems to have been made for more comfort than normal for a military warship," Lohringhoven answered.

"Yes, well, the Aurora's purpose is not just to serve as a combat starship," Julia replied. "We consider her to be a star cruiser capable of non-military missions such as exploration, research, and diplomacy. We even have a contingent of civilian specialists aboard for those purposes."

"And yet your vessel has quite impressive armament, given the devastation it wrought to the Irresistible," Lohringhoven pointed out.

Julia nodded quietly. "We are capable of defending ourselves, yes. We have to be. Every universe has its dangers."

"I would expect such." Lohringhoven walked past Julia and approached Kirrhi. "Sister, what is the word?"

"We have lost three." Kirrhi replied solemnly. “Dead before medical aid could be given. Katherine and Lietan are lightly wounded and recovering. Naoko is gravely wounded but has been stabilized due to the efforts of Doctor Walker."

"I see."

Julia didn't need telepathy or life-force powers to figure out what Lohringhoven was going to ask next. "I will return the deceased to you, Captain, so that you can return them to their families, or perform whatever burial rites are necessary."

"I appreciate the gesture, Captain," said Lohringhoven. "But I am more interested in learning what rogues are responsible for this atrocity."

"Commander Meridina is leading the investigation," Julia answered. "She was once the ship's chief of security, and she's worked with law enforcement during her time in the Order of Swenya. Commander Richmond is, I've heard, quite the detective as well. I'm certain they'll figure it out." She frowned. "I wish to know what was going on as well."

"I am certain you will find the League or the Consortium behind this affair," Lohringhoven insisted.

Julia glanced toward the woman called "Nina". "I'm leaning that way too," Julia admitted. "But I'm more interested in why they were after that woman. The others, Katherine and Kirrhi and Kishala, seemed more important in this group." Julia was already looking at Lohringhoven again by the time she finished that sentence. She wanted to see the reaction to speaking on Nina.

"I do not care to speculate as to their motives, Captain. What matters is that this affair come to an end. I am hoping that you will yet see the injustice of the charges and release my people on your own authority."

"The Alliance places civilian leadership over military. If I ignore a civilian court, I betray that principle," Julia pointed out. She kept her poker face on. Lohringhoven's denial was well-spoken, yes. But she didn't believe it. Lohringhoven knew who "Nina" was, and why she was so valuable. "If I had a good reason to defy the court, though, or something I could bring to Governor Taylor to consider him to rescind the extradition order…"

An intent look appeared on Lohringhoven's eyes. "I cannot help you with that, Captain."

The door leading to the critical care and operating room wards slid open. Leo emerged. He was clearly finishing the act of pulling his lab coat back on. "Captain Andreys," he said formally, recognizing the presence of their visitor. "And Captain von Lohringhoven."

"I am, yes," she answered. "Doctor Gillam, what is the status of Kishala Abrakia?"

"Ordinarily I wouldn't share patient information with someone who wasn't next-of-kin or on a list of authorized persons, but given the situation, you're more likely to speak to her family than I." Leo crossed his arms. "She lost a lot of blood, and her internal organs suffered severe damage. Honestly, if not for Doctor Vega, I couldn't have saved her. Your surgeon's knowledge of Ralsan physiology allowed us to systematically deal with the worst of the damage. She's critical right now. Hopefully she'll be stable enough for the remaining surgery she requires, but I can't make promises yet."

"I see." Lohringhoven was utterly impassive. "Can I see her?"

Leo shook his head. "In her state, I would be remiss to let anyone but family around her. Her condition is still very serious…"

"I understand, Doctor." Lohringhoven glanced to Julia. "Captain, I am returning to await the outcome of your officers' investigation."

"I'll let you know what they find out," Julia replied. She watched Lohringhoven leave while restraining her frustration over the continued refusal to help her deal with this problem. Her eyes briefly moved back to "Nina" before she left the medbay.

The Koenig moved into orbit of the moon labeled Phi Perseus 7-XII, one of twenty moons in regular orbit over the Saturnine gas giant that was the seventh planet in the solar system. The moon in question formed a beige-tinted sphere on the Koenig's viewscreen.

"Are you still following that radiation trace, Magda?" Zack asked.

"There's interference in the moon's atmosphere," Magda answered. "A strong electromagnetic field." After a few key presses she said, "No wonder. The surveyors found several large deposits of Cameronite along with high-purity naqia."

Zack blinked. "Just how large are these deposits? That stuff's the rarest of the rare, right? Some variation of Ripleyite?"

"It's more conductive than Ripleyite, and for an EM pattern this strong the deposits are about the biggest you can find in nature. Whoever ends up mining this stuff is going to make a bundle."

Zack whistled. "No wonder Command's ready to start a war over this place."

"Give me a moment…" Magda continued her work on her console. Zack imagined she was trying to get the sensors to search in bands less-susceptible to EM interference. "I think I might have it… there. I've got the radiation trace again. It's faint… and it's on the surface."

"Can you put it on screen?"

The screen shifted to show a close-up of the beige-tinted surface of the planet. There was a rock formation in the center of the screen and, faintly, the indications of an impact that had struck underneath an apparent overhang. "That's the best I can do," Magda said. "We'll have to move whatever is under there out."

"Can we beam through that EM field?" Zack asked.

"I wouldn't recommend it," Magda answered. "At least not without modifications."

Zack tapped the intercom key on his chair. "Carrey to Engineering. Karen, we need to beam through an intense EM field. What can you do?"

After a moment the reply came. "Give me a couple of hours and I might be able to rig up the cargo transporter to punch through."

"Sir?" Apley turned in his chair. "I think we should send the Kirschner down with a team to recover… whatever it is. That way we don't risk the object with a failed transport."

For a moment Zack thought on it. He tried to hide his irritation at the fact that he should have thought about it before Apley. His approach could thoughtlessly destroy what mind be vital evidence in this standoff. "Right. Good point, Ap," he said. "Take Hajar and a team with you and whatever tools you might need."

"Aye sir." Apley stood up and left the bridge. One of the new officers, Ensign Brady, walked over and assumed the helm.

Zack considered letting Julia know, but he decided to wait and see what it was first.

In the grassy field where the ambush had taken place, Aurora security officers were now being joined by Oakland police. Chief Jiang stood beside Lieutenant Commander Richmond as she stared down at one of the survivors, a Turian. "You realize that you're facing a long prison sentence, don't you?" she told him. "Multiple counts of capital and attempted murder, including four involving Alliance personnel."

"The Blue Suns don't rat on clients," the Turian answered. "Besides, I've been imprisoned by the Hierarchy before. Your luxury jails don’t frighten me."

Richmond had her arms crossed. She was clearly considering other approaches to the interrogation. Jiang weighed in by saying, "You would rather spend decades, if not your whole life, in prison?"

The Turian said nothing.

The two walked away and were met by Commander Meridina. "They are uncooperative," Meridina said. There was no need to ask.

"Unfortunately. And very much so," Richmond grumbled. "From the sound of things they think our prisons are resorts."

"According to intelligence and security reports, many have operated as little more than pirates in the Terminus Systems for years," Meridina noted. "Given the reputation of those worlds, it is indeed possible that the humane conditions in Alliance penal facilities are no threat."

"We could always say we will turn them over to the Aururians," Richmond remarked.

"The unknown might frighten slightly. But I doubt it will be of much use."

"Then I don't see what the point is keeping them here," Richmond said. "We've finished interviews with all of them. We should either throw them in the brig or turn them over to Chief Jiang."

Meridina turned her attention to him. "Can your jail facilities hold them?"

"I'm not sure I want them," Jiang said. "Hard-boiled mercenaries are a security threat my jail personnel are going to struggle with."

"Then you have no objections to our taking them?" Richmond asked him.

"The Chairwoman might," Jiang conceded. "But if you ask me, it'd be a big favor to us if you did."

"That is sufficient, then," Meridina said. "Commander, begin transporting them to the brig."

"Happily. I'll triple brig personnel while I'm at it." Richmond stepped away to do so.

"I'm sorry we haven't been able to get them to cooperate," Jiang said to Meridina. "I'd like to know where they came from myself. Under our current colony code, we have to be informed if someone hires a group this heavily-armed. Actually, I think the Governor can even refuse to let them come."

"Someone did not care much for your law," Meridina noted aloud. "I am placing my hopes in the recovery of data from their hardware. Follow me, please."

The two walked over to the wrecked remains of the Blue Sun dropship. The merc unit's armor, weapons, and other devices were piled beside it. Three operations officers from the Aurora were going over them with the help of security personnel. Lieutenant Kyle Liton looked up from where he was examining an inactive omnitool. "Ah, Commander."

"Lieutenant." She nodded. "I have not yet had the chance to welcome you back to the crew."

"Oh, it's fine," he said. Nearly two years before Liton, still an Ensign, was with the computer security branch of Meridina's security staff on the ship. He had been framed by a Changeling from the Dominion of Universe S5T3 and, while exonerated, asked for a transfer off the ship due to the experience. Meridina was pleased to note that the young man seemed more seasoned than he had been before. "Honestly, after serving on the Libra, being back on the Aurora is a welcome change. But that's not why you're here."

"Have you made any progress?"

"Some." Liton tapped at his own omnitool and brought up a screen showing computer code. "These Blue Suns guys are pretty good at their computer security. Their wipe program was pretty thorough. But it's not complete. I think I can reconstruct some of the fragmented remnants of the data using Lieutenant Delgado's data compiling program. I've already sent it to her."

"Very good." Meridina stepped up into the crashed dropship. "Lieutenant Lucero?"

Lucy's head emerged from the cockpit. "I'm here."

"Any luck reconstructing the dropship's flight path?"

"I was just about to finish that," she said. She motioned for Meridina to follow her. Jiang came as well. The cockpit was lit by the overhead lights. There was no visible window for the pilot, whose seat Lucy returned to. She started tapping at the hardlight controls again, occasionally pecking away at her omnitool. "Their data wipe program did eliminate the logs from their sensors. But their own safety systems make that moot."

"In what way?" Jiang asked.

Lucy was grinning. "Because they didn't wipe them."

"And how does this help us?"

"The systems are designed to observe power flow to track potential faults and compensate," Lucy explained. "Or to warn the pilot so they can set down before suffering an overload or power loss. I can use that to determine when the dropship launched and get a close estimate as to the speed it was managing on the flight. And then I can check the systems that maintain flight control and use that log to reconstruct the maneuvers the dropship took, allowing me to establish a flight path." Figures appeared on a hardlight display above the cockpit controls. Lucy entered them into her omnitool. "Here. Let's see how the numbers add up." Her omnitool projected a screen showing a flat map of the planet centered on their location. After a few key presses a line left the area. It moved west until it reached the perimeter of the Oakland Colony.

"That's not possible," Jiang insisted. "The Colony Police would know if we had a mercenary unit in town. They're supposed to register with us." He eyed Lucy. "Are you sure they didn't come from a ship?"

"The power distribution logs don't lie," Lucy answered. "The engine power used is consistent with atmospheric flight only."

"Where is that in the colony?" Meridina asked Jiang.

He looked over the map closely. "It looks like it's near the spaceport. It would have to be, there's no way we'd miss something like this there. Going by the area…" He frowned. "Damn. It is them. This is not good."

"Who is it?" asked Meridina.

"My boss," Jiang answered simply.

There was a quiet tension on the Koenig bridge after the Kirschner dropped from the ship's ventral shuttle bay. The shuttle flew downward into the atmosphere, turning into a red streak as it made re-entry.

"Entering the EM fie-.... -ference on com-... -justing to…. -sate. Kirschner to… -nig, please respond."

Apley's voice was partially obscured by the static, but toward the end it became slightly clearer. "We can barely read you," Zack said.

"Roger. We've boosted the comm trans- …-er. It's the best we… do. Approach- radiation tra- ...source."

"Send us an image when you can."

The following seconds expanded into minutes. Zack glanced toward Magda. "They're still on visual sensors and the ship's intact," she said.

Zack tapped the key on his chair's arm to re-open the channel. "Ap? What's going on down there?"

"Stand by… -mander. Sending image now."

"We're getting the data. Even with data loss, I think I can clean it up enough to…" Magda used her controls to run a process in the ship's computer to sharpen the image forming on the viewscreen.

Zack watched the pixelated image sharpen enough to make out the detail on it. "Send this image to the Aurora immediately," he ordered.

Chapter Text

Even though there were four days left in the Aururian ultimatum, Julia entered the Government Building for the Oakland Colony with what seemed to be a sense of urgency. Meridina, Lucy, and Jarod all followed behind her. "They're here?" Julia asked the lady at the front desk.

"Yes, Captain," she answered.

The main door opened again. This time Chief Jiang entered with two uniformed policemen. He nodded to Julia and the others and motioned for them to go first. Julia nodded back and walked into the hall to lead her to the conference room. They found two uniformed officers already standing outside of the door, providing security.

Inside Governor Taylor was already seated with the others. Chairwoman Logan was to his right and Tio!sat!ny was seated to his left. Captains Shaham and Gartan were seated on the same side as Logan and Commander Imra was by Tio!sat!ny. The starfish-like alien shifted one of its arms, allowing its "eyes" to look toward the newcomers. "Ah, Captain," he said through his vocoder. "What has prompted this call?"

"I wanted to speak to everyone about the attack this morning," Julia said. "Specifically, I want to know why the hell New Horizons hired the Blue Suns mercenary group to abduct one of the prisoners."

Logan's face twisted into a scowl. "What do you mean by that, Captain?"

Julia nodded to Lucy. "We examined the computer logs on the Blue Suns' craft," Lucy said, tapping away at her omnitool. The display popped up and showed the map she had assembled, tracing the attacking ship back to Oakland Colony. Specifically, to the exact coordinate of the New Horizon complex near the spaceport. Logan looked on in stunned surprise. "We were able to reconstruct the flight path. It took off from your buildings."

Taylor shot Logan a look. "What the hell, Joann?" he asked.

Logan's scowl hardened. "You can't prove this," she insisted.

"Actually, we can now," Julia countered. "Your company invested in some pretty good sensor-deflecting materials, but the Aurora's sensors are directly of Darglan design. Jarod?"

Now Jarod activated a display, showing the New Horizons complex from above. The two large ten-storey structures were the most prominent feature. "Upon examination of the complex with sensors, we were able to determine that the lower level of this outer building" - he indicated a two-storey structure on the north end of the two towers - "contains another two dozen life signs and sensor returns consistent with the crashed Blue Sun craft. In fact, using specific sensor returns…" He tapped a key and the image shifted to make the roof of the building seem translucent, revealing two visible craft and what looked like armory stands. "As you can see, the structure is an armory and barracks."

Taylor's expression was now a full glare. "What the hell are you doing, Joann?!" he demanded. "What did you hire those mercs for?!"

"I didn't!" Logan shouted back. Her defiance had melted into an expression of disbelief and fear. "I… New Horizons agreed to host them in exchange for pay and considerations."

"From who?" asked Gartan.

Logan didn't speak. She didn't have to. The glare settling on Tio!sat!ny spoke volumes as it was.

"Sub-Consul." Taylor turned to face him. "What are those mercenaries for?"

"To protect my business interests, of course," Tio!sat!ny answered.


"I had Chairwoman Logan's permission. Her company even provided the barracks space since my structure could not. How can it be illegal if the head of the Colony government approves?"

"Because she didn't do it as Chairwoman of the Council," Julia pointed out. "She did it as an officer of her company. Less paperwork that way, Chairwoman?"

"It was harmless," Logan insisted. "And of benefit to my company. How was I to know what he was doing?"

"You are surprised that the being who asked you to skirt the law might do something illegal?" Commander Imra asked pointedly, her accented voice dripping with sarcasm.

"The Consortium never gave indications of such behavior before," Logan protested weakly. It was clear on her face that she realized how bad her situation was.

"Well, they have now," Julia said. "They attacked the Aururian prisoners with the intent to take one. And they were using Aururian firearms in the attack. I don't have a doubt in my mind that they would have killed us all and framed the Aururians for it. But they didn't expect Commander Meridina and Lieutenant Lucero."

"And why would they launch this attack?" Logan asked. "The extradition hearing is today, and in all likelihood the judge would have upheld the warrant in the end. There was no legal reason not to."

"They were after one of the prisoners," Meridina stated.

"Their leader?" Taylor asked.

"No. Another woman." Julia looked to Tio!sat!ny. "I'm guessing that the judge being lenient the other day made Tio!sat!ny worried that the extradition would be denied."

"It would be understandable if it was," the Xou!tasam answered. "The Aururian threat to prosecute any official who enabled our lawful extradition of the criminals is a powerful motivation to ignore the law."

"And what was your motivation?" Shaham asked.

"Why, business of course," Tio!sat!ny answered. "I have extensive business interests in the League that are threatened by the activities of these Aururian agents. The woman we sought to recover could provide valuable intelligence on Aururian gun-running to the League's protectorates, once she is turned over to the League for interrogation."

"So you admit that you would re-extradite them," Lucy pointed out.

Tio!sat!ny's upper appendages quivered. Julia pondered if it was the equivalent of a shrug. "They are more capable of such things than the Consortium. And it is their worlds."

"Why her? Why not Katherine Roberts? Or Kishala Abrakia?" Julia asked, recalling the names of the two leaders of the group.

"They are not the true leaders of the unit, Marshal Huaman is," said Tio!sat!ny.


In response to Julia's remark, the appendage with the eyes curled in once. The equivalent of a nod, Julia figured. "Yes. Marshal Naira Huaman, of the Empress' own personal police force. She is rumored to have the Empress' confidence. League intelligence identified her when she was seen on Trapaka. They have hunted her since."

"And that's why you nearly killed me and my officers this morning?"

"It had been my intention to strike the hospital if it proved necessary, but you provided a venue that would be less likely to cause undesired collateral damage," Tio!sat!ny explained. "I'm a businessman, so I took a chance. And like any failed gamble, I will not dwell upon it. We have other business to attend to. Despite our failure, our extradition request is still legitimate, and it is my intention to collect them today."

"Like hell," Taylor said. "Not after what you've said. As of right now, I'm personally rejecting the extradition warrant. Captain Andreys, the prisoners are free to go." He glanced toward Logan, as if anticipating protest, but Logan was too busy glaring at Tio!sat!ny. Her pale face made it clear she understood the ramifications of his actions, and of her own. She had likely destroyed her career over this.

The alien shifted in its cupped seat. At first Julia thought he was simply getting comfortable. That thought ended when she saw the device that was now curled around one of his arms. It resembled a camera more than anything but there was no mistaking what it was given the way he pointed it at them. "It is displeasing to me that you would allow this business to become so personal, Governor," Tio!sat!ny stated.

Behind them, the doors opened. The uniformed personnel stepped in and raised their rifles… at Julia and her people. There was no sign of Jiang's police officers.

"You're insane," Logan gasped.

"I find it is your species that is often insane, Chairwoman," Tio!sat!ny replied. "You Humans are often infuriating with all of the ways you complicate simple business transactions. Your Alliance, the Aururian Empire, the League, all of you distort the simple joy of trade through your bizarre morals and behaviors. We would not be in this mess if the Empire did not seek to meddle in the business affairs of others. Or if the League did not suffer from the inefficiencies that result from their refusal to properly establish markets on their protectorates. We had hopes that the Alliance would make a more reasonable neighbor, but you are little better."

If Lucy and I act in concert, we can disarm the two guards without risk, Meridina's voice stated in her mind. But Tio!sat!ny is likely to fire when we do. I can sense his intent.

"You realize that this is going to set back our relations with the Consortium substantially," Logan said.

"Will it, Chairwoman? Is your Alliance not in the middle of a war that demands resources we can provide? Are you not still facing the Aururian fleet over this system so necessary to that demand?" Tio!sat!ny made the wiggling motion with his upper appendages again. "Simple business logic shows that you need the Consortium more than we need you. Now, Captain Andreys, you will call your vessel and direct that the Marshal be transported to my mercenaries immediately. Once we confirm she is in custody, they will depart."

"The Aururians won't let you run," Julia pointed out. She eyed the firearm wrapped in one of Tio!sat!ny's appendages. He was too far away for her to get to, meaning Logan or Taylor was likely to take a shot once the shooting started. Her eyes briefly glanced toward Commander Imra. Her own eyes were hidden behind a pair of round, dark sunglasses, so she couldn't see where Imra was looking particularly. Meridina, can you reach into Imra's mind? She might be the only one who can keep him from firing.

I have attempted contact. She seems quite capable of deflecting telepathic connection. I cannot guarantee she heard me

Tio!sat!ny's reply was already coming by that point. "My vessel has a cloaking system. Bought at great cost through sources in your S5T3 universe, I will add. I look to make the investment pay off by slipping free of this system. Iron Margrethe will not know the Marshal is gone until we are halfway to Jao!senat. Now, Captain, if you will please contact your ship? No trickery, I would hate to see more violence. It is always an unnecessary complication to business."

Julia crossed her arms. "And if I refuse? You can't think you'll take all of us down."

"I do not need to. My Blue Sun associates are quite capable fighters, I assure you. It is what I pay them for. They will shoot you all before even your capable officers can respond."

"And then? You still won't have the Marshal," Julia pointed out. "You'll still lose out."

"Correct," Tio!sat!ny said. "Which is why I hope you will be reasonable, and then we can resume business. It is your fault that our relations have declined to this point, after all."

"Our fault?!" yelled Logan. "You bastard, you're the one holding a gun to us!" She jumped from her seat and leaned over the table. Her eyes glistened with rage. "You've ruined me for nothing!"

"I have many contracts at risk if I fail, I assure you, Chairwoman. And that is not 'nothing'. Please return to your seat. I would be especially saddened to kill you. You seemed the most sane Human on this world before now. And I hope that..."

Tio!sat!ny didn't get to finish his sentence. Behind them Lucy and Meridina pivoted on their feet. Energy struck out and slammed into the guards, causing their weapons to point upward before their reflexes could trigger them. Small bursts of flame exploded on the ceiling and sent slivers of deadly metal into the ceiling with enough force that they went up into the next floor. The familiar snap-hiss of lightsabers activating filled the room. Two blades of sapphire light twirled and found the rifles gripped by the disguised Blue Suns men, severing both weapons. The mercs, stunned by their sudden disarming, held their arms up in surrender before either could strike.

By this point Tio!sat!ny had also fired. But his aim was thrown off by the sudden strike of Commander Imra and the blast of orange light only scorched the far wall. Imra's hands were clasped like a vise around Tio!sat!ny's appendage. An inhuman shriek untranslated by his vocoder erupted from his mid-section. Julia watched the appendage in question go limp. The weapon it had held dropped to the floor.

"My limb!" Tio!sat!ny cried. For a moment, he tested the enormous muscles of his body against Imra, but she seemed as unyielding as a bar of steel, and he abandoned the effort.

"You don't have bones that break," Imra snapped. "Feel fortunate."

"Chief, take all of them into custody. Get them out of here!" Taylor demanded.

Jiang was already on his radio. Not a minute passed before armed police entered the room. Jiang directed them to cuff the mercenaries.

"I am a diplomat!" Tio!sat!ny shrieked. "I cannot be held!"

"You can't be charged," Taylor corrected. "But I'll damn well have you escorted from the building. You have twenty hours to leave the planet, Sub-Consul, or I'm having you sent back to Jao!senat on a Warp 3 sled." Taylor motioned to the door. "Get him out of here."

"But you can't… I'll be ruined!" Tio!sat!ny's uppermost appendage turned toward Julia. A bundle of eyes all focused on her. "Please, Captain, turn the Marshal over to me! I'll pay you well! I'll give you half of my holdings! I'll give you control of my company's fleet! Please! I'll lose everything if I don't hand over the Marshal!"

Julia crossed her arms. "I'm not for sale, Sub-Consul. I never was."

"This is madness," the horrified Xou!tasam insisted. "Absolute madness! How do you people maintain an economy with this madness…!" Even as Tio!sat!ny was led out by Jiang's police, he continued to blubber until his vocoder was overwhelmed, spurting out bursts of nonsensical sound joined by the keening and whistling noises of Xou!tasam speech.

Once he was gone Taylor settled back into his chair and sighed. Logan, looking utterly spent, stood up. "I have a letter of resignation to write," she said simply.

"Before you do, I have something to share with you," Julia said. She brought her omnitool online and used it to interface with the conference room's holo-display projector. An image appeared on it of a rocky beige surface. "The Koenig sent this to us just before we came down," Julia explained. "It's from Phi Perseus 7-XII."

On the screen the image moved up into a shadowed area. A light appeared, obviously from an atmospheric suit, and illuminated wreckage on the rocky surface. Pieces of rock were embedded into tempered metal alloy. As the light widened and focused, the shape of a cylinder snapped nearly in half by an impact could be made out. Small stubby bits showed what was left of what had been attachments.

The end of the cylinder was marked by a roundel of blue, copper, and dark purple. The same roundel they had all seen previously on Captain von Lohringhoven's shuttle.

Taylor recognized it immediately. Logan took a moment to realize the significance and rested her ashen face in her palm. "There was a beacon," she sighed.

"An asteroid impact knocked it out."

"It was small enough that it didn't just shatter the entire beacon," Jarod added. "If it had, the pieces wouldn't have had nearly as much velocity to them, and the surveyors would have found them. Instead the meteorite pushed the beacon toward Phi Perseus 7. In fact, if not for about half of a degree, the beacon would have gone on into the gas giant's gravity well, and we never would have found it. Instead it got caught in 7-XII's gravity and landed on the moon."

Taylor ran his hand over his head. "Dammit," he muttered. "What do we do?"

"It was still a good faith colonization," Logan murmured. "They can't hold this against us."

"But if their claim has justice, then we can't just dismiss it." Taylor folded his hands. "I'll need to speak to President Morgan and Secretary Saratova about this."

"I'll write a report when I get back to the Aurora," Julia said. "And see if this changes our orders. In the meantime…"

"In the meantime, I'll begin preparations for an evacuation. Quietly." Taylor looked defeated. "Thank you, Captain, for bringing this all to light. If it helps defuse this scenario…"

"It's worth it, yes."

"I'm going to inform Judge Moore that the Colony is now rejecting the extradition," Taylor said. "Release them to Captain von Lohringhoven, Captain. And I will speak with you later."

Taylor stood with Logan. The two walked out of the room.

"This may not change anything," Gartan noted. "It was a good faith colonization, and we are entitled to consideration from the Aururians. If they persist on demanding the colony leave or transfer its allegiance, our orders still stand."

"I know," Julia said. "And I know we need this system. We'll just have to see if we can work around that. We still have three days before we have to commit to an evacuation."

"The Enterprise will be ready for either case," Shaham promised. "I will speak to you later?"

Julia nodded. "Let's go home, everyone," she said to the others. "We still have work to do."

Two hours later Julia was sitting in the ready office sipping at her coffee. That she needed it this late spoke of how tired she was. The day's reports were slow-going. Better was the news that with Tio!sat!ny in custody, the Blue Suns in the New Horizon building didn't try to fight when Chief Jiang arrived with Chairwoman Logan to order them out. Having the colony militia armed up and ready to take the barracks with the help of the Aurora and Enterprise Marine troops undoubtedly helped with that.

Jarod's voice came over the speaker. "We have Admiral Maran on IU comms for you."

"Put him through." Julia turned to the screen in time for Maran to appear on it. He was in his Defense Command office. "Admiral, you got my report?"

"I have," he replied. "The discovery of the beacon has forced us to reconsider our assessment of the Aururian response to the colony. And you are returning their prisoners to them?"

"I informed Captain von Lohringhoven that they can go when they're ready. They're still waiting on their wounded to recover enough for transfer."

"Understood. What is their status?"

"Still at three dead and four wounded. Leo has the severely wounded Ralsan back in surgery now."

Maran nodded once. "It's good to know that part of the crisis is solved. It might help with the negotiations."

"There are none right now," Julia said. "Von Lohringhoven's made it clear. The Aururians can't accept anything less than sovereignty over the system."

"And we must have the system's resources."

"Could we trade for them?"

"Unlikely, unless the Aururians are stupendously generous," Maran said.

Julia sighed. "Admiral, I know it's not my place to question policy from Portland, but this seems ridiculous. We simply can't hold this system without committing to a major military effort, and that means a second war while we're still fighting the Nazis. What good is holding the system and getting its resources when it means that we have another war we have to divert ships to?"

"That is an argument circulating in the Council now. But there are those who believe the Aururians are bluffing. That they won't risk a war with the Alliance since our territories are out of their reach while theirs are vulnerable to Alliance attacks. Especially not if the League joins the conflict on our side."

"That's not a gamble I'd want to take," Julia mumbled.

"It is not a pleasant one, true. But for the time being, that is the one the Alliance Government is willing to take. I fear that the reports on the spongiform have proven particularly inciting for this faction." Maran folded his hands on the table in front of him. Julia found herself wondering if the pro-confrontation faction included Hawthorne and Davies. "If you can find an alternative that the Aururians agree to, I will ensure it is received with my endorsement, and it may change minds."


"Until then, your orders stand."

"And what about the Consortium?" Julia asked. "They abused the treaty with us."

"That is being discussed as well. Secretary Onaram has yet to inform me of any final decision on our relations with Jao!senat." Maran reached forward, toward a control on his desk. "I'll keep you informed if anything changes. Maran out."

After Maran disappeared Julia leaned back in her chair and devoted her thoughts to the intractable nature of the problem. There had to be some way out of it…

"Captain, an Aururian shuttle is asking for landing clearance," Jarod said. "It's Captain von Lohringhoven."

"Let her land." Julia stood up and walked out to the bridge. Jarod was in the command chair and Lieutenant Sabiha Neyzi at Ops. Ensign Arterria and Lieutenant al-Rashad were at the conn and tactical and Angel was in the final hours of her shift for the day. Jarod stood until Julia motioned for him to remain. She went to the lift and stepped in, fully intending to head to the shuttle bay and meet Lohringhoven.

But she didn't. A thought came to mind. Lohringhoven was the one who gave the ultimatum, true… but she was just a Captain like Julia. She was probably following orders in the same fashion. There was only so much Julia could do with her.

"Computer, Deck 12," she said.

She arrived in the Medbay and walked toward the uninjured Aururians. Her eyes focused on "Nina" to the exclusion of thinking about Kirrhi and the Ralsan beside her. "Nina, was it?" she asked.

The woman nodded.

"I'd like to talk with you about the abduction attempt." Julia leaned closer to her and, in a quiet tone only she and possibly Kirrhi could hear, added, "In private, Marshal?"

There was a small rush of breath from Kirrhi. The Marshal's expression didn't change. She merely nodded her assent. Julia turned her head to see Walker checking on the injured Aururian on the bed. "I'm going to borrow Doctor Gillam's office again."

Walker nodded in reply and went back to work. Julia led Marshal Huaman out of the ward and through the corridor to Leo's office. Once the door was closed behind them she turned and faced the Aururian woman. "Alright. Can you tell me what is going on?"

Huaman remained quiet for a moment. As if judging whether to cooperate or not. Finally she nodded. "I cannot speak of everything, you understand. Merely that I was asked to attend to one of our aid missions."

"To the world Trapaka?"

"Yes. There is a native species on that planet, the Itilmi, that the League uses for forced labor in their mining and farming operations on the planet. We have been providing the Itilmi weapons to fight back against their occupiers. I was tasked with negotiating with the Itilmi King and his rebels."

"For more weapons?"

"And aid to fix the ecological damage from the League's mining efforts, yes. Unfortunately there was a traitor in his court that reported us to the League's colonial governor. We had to flee."

Julia nodded. "If we'd known, we might have figured out what was really going on. The Consortium insisted you were just regular gun-runners."

"That is our cover. If the mission's official character was known, the League might consider it justification for war. Marshals make any operation they are part of one that, by definition, cannot be disavowed. They know that our efforts to improve our fleet are outpacing their armament program. A war now would be preferable for them, if they could excuse it to the independent worlds and the other powers."

With the explanation given, Julia thought of her wording before moving on to the other matter in her mind. "Tio!sat!ny said you are a confidante of the Empress."

"A confidante is… not quite the correct phrasing. The Marshalry is… how do you say; the oil in the machine of the Empire. We ensure that the entire engine runs smoothly by… unwanted events being arranged to not occur. Each of us is personally appointed and overseen by the Empress, to be her eyes, ears, hands, voice... and arrows, if necessary. She will assuredly be expecting a full report upon my return.”

"And if you don't mind me asking, what are you going to say to her about us?" Julia asked. "How will you advise her in dealing with the Alliance?"

"That depends, Captain."


A hard look came to the woman's face. "On how your Alliance deals with the murder of my girls while we were in your custody."

It was a fair question and Julia gave her a fair answer. "We're charging the mercenaries with at least three counts of murder and several attempted murder charges. And attempted kidnapping. Because my officers and I were there, they'll be answering to an Alliance court as well as the Colony court."

"Then they will face the firing squad or gallows?"

"Neither," Julia answered. "At least, not to my knowledge. The death penalty is not widely practiced in the Alliance, although individual members are not forbidden from applying it with sufficient safeguards and protections for the condemned. I'm not aware of whether the Oakland Colony answers to one of those member states. It is more likely that they will face life imprisonment, or very long-term imprisonment at least."

"Hrm. That is, perhaps, even better. I would prefer death to a life in a cage myself." Huaman's expression did not relax. "And their paymasters? You have discovered them?"

"The Trading Consortium's Sub-Consul apparently had businesses within the League that he would lose if he didn't deliver you," Julia said. "He masterminded it. Since he has diplomatic immunity he can't be charged and tried, but Governor Taylor's already ordered him off-world. I figure the government will ban him from any further work in the Alliance."

Huaman considered that. "And you will leave it at that? The Consortium will not be punished?"

"Oh, I don't know about that," Julia said. "Through him they abused the treaty they signed with us. And even before this, it's clear they were being untruthful when informing us of this area of space. I'm pretty sure they're going to find it hard to deal with us for a while. They'll probably have to fire Tio!sat!ny and make reparations at a minimum. And they might find their links to the League's exploitative behaviors will be closely investigated. It may sink any further trade agreements unless they shape up."

There was a nod from the older woman. Julia thought it might be one of at least partial approval. "There is still the matter of your colony on our planet," the Marshal said.

"There is," Julia agreed. "We've found your beacon. Or rather what's left of it."

"Oh?" Huaman gave her a curious look.

"From what we can tell, a meteor hit it," Julia explained. "One small enough that it didn't break apart at the impact but was instead pushed into orbit of one of the gas giants. Or rather, into one of the moons of the seventh planet. One of my ships found it earlier today."

"A rather odd coincidence," Huaman noted. "And Captain von Lohringhoven informed me the marker is gone as well."

"We didn't know where to look for that, but I'm not surprised."

"Then your Alliance will acknowledge this system is ours by right?"

"We do recognize your claim preceded ours," Julia said. "At the same time, our colonization was a good-faith act. And we have immediate need for the resources. We would like to negotiate with you on the matter."

"We cannot negotiate away sovereignty in this situation, Captain," Huaman said. "Not without inviting attacks on our beacons across our frontiers."

"Just as we need the materials to fight our war with the Nazi Reich."

"Yes. We have seen further proof of this conflict while on this ship." Huaman's expression turned into a frown. "If not for the issue of our prior beacon being lost, the Empire would have considered ceding the system as part of a wider arrangement for suitable compensation. But the principle of the matter must be kept."

"I was hoping to find some flexibility in your position," Julia said. "We don't want a war with you, but my orders haven't changed. We need this system and its resources. If there was a way to reconcile our positions…"

"It is my regret that these are our circumstances, Captain. Given the fate of our beacon, we cannot simply sell away the system. It would invite others to attempt the same. Still, if you have an idea that meets our requirements, I am willing to listen. I may speak, provisionally, for Her Imperial Majesty in time-critical situations as this."

Julia couldn't keep the disappointment from her voice. "Well, I see." She motioned to the door. "I suppose that is it, then. You and the others are free to go with Captain von Lohringhoven when she returns to her ship."

"We will remain with our comrades until they are fit to travel, Captain," Huaman insisted.

"Then I'll arrange quarters for you."

With nothing more to say on the matter Julia led Huaman back out to the receiving ward. Leo was present now and speaking quietly with Kirrhi and the others. Presumably Kishala was out of surgery. "...touch and go for the moment," he was saying. "But Doctor Vega and I think her chances have improved. We'll probably need one more surgery when her system has recovered enough."

Lohringhoven and Meridina were coming through the door a moment later. Meridina was not in uniform but in her purple training bodysuit. "My apologies for my appearance," she said. "There was an issue arranging an escort for the Captain. I was called from my training to do so."

Julia shook her head. "It's fine, Commander." She turned her head slightly to face von Lohringhoven. "Captain. The Marshal and I were just discussing matters. She and her team are free to go. The Governor has rejected the extradition request of the Consortium in light of their violation of our treaty."

To Julia's great surprise, palpable relief flooded von Lohringhoven's expression. "Thank you for informing me of this development, Captain Andreys," she said. "Marshal, I am pleased you are well.”

Huaman nodded in return. "She will be waiting. It’s safe now, Margrethe."

Julia and Meridina exchanged bewildered glances. Lohringhoven walked past them to Leo with a barely contained trembling. "Doctor, I would like to see Kishala now."

Leo looked toward her. "Like I said before, with her condition, I can only justify family members visiting her."

"Then there is no issue, Doctor." The stolid expression that Lohringhoven typically held had cracked at the same time her legs had begun to shake. "She is my wife."

Leo's look betrayed his surprise. Julia's poker face faltered from the widened eyes of her own surprise. She went back in her mind and thought over Lohringhoven's behavior these past few days, trying to see how this could be. She was very upset when she found out about the extradition, Julia recalled. And it explains why she wanted to see them personally.

Meridina didn't look as surprised. Or rather, she looked like someone who finally had an answer for something that had mystified her.

Lohringhoven reached into a jacket pocket and produced a small frame. With a tap it produced an image. It showed her with her hair in a less-formal style in a crisp, smart dress uniform with gold-tasseled epaulets and a plethora of medals over her left breast. Her hand was clasped with Kishala's, the Ralsan wearing a fine dress of bright color.

Images could be forged, of course. But it didn't seem a reasonable possibility. And besides that, there was a real vulnerability, a real concern, in the usually-austere Lohringhoven's eyes.

Leo was immediately convinced. "Alright, follow me," he said. "We'll find you a chair and you can watch over her."

Relief showed on Lohringhoven's face and in her posture. Quietly she followed Leo to the door to the other wards. He let her through.

"I had sensed her apprehension and worry," Meridina said. "And it was quite personal to her. Now I see why."

"What are her chances, Leo?" Julia asked him as he stepped through the door.

That caused Leo to stop. He turned to face her and shook his head. "Better than they were a few hours ago. But she's not out of danger yet."

Julia found herself wondering if those were better odds than she had of solving this problem. She decided she didn't want to answer that just yet.

Given the day's activities, Julia retired early and slept in. The morning meeting went by without any changes in the status quo, including no new orders from Command. The bridge watch saw no major changes to the situation. There was a meeting over comms with Taylor, Littleton, and the various ship commanders present. Two more Alliance cruisers jumped in during the course of the day, the Scorpio-class Sagittarius and the Nehru-class Ambedkar. The former had a compact arrow-headed shape, with armored warp nacelles built into the rear stardrive section of the ship. The Nehru-class ship closely resembled the Discovery-class and thus appeared to be a smaller version of the Aurora with two warp nacelles. But the primary hull was slightly wider in beam and the drive hull began further back on the frame.

Julia could see the two arrivals from the Lookout. She sat with her dinner and mused quietly about their situation.

"You look distracted." Angel sat at her table with a plate of Hargert's dinner for the evening, roast pork and carrots, with a bowl of steaming sausage stew. Her glass was an opaque one, but Julia imagined it was either a fruit punch or milk.

"You could say that," Julia murmured. "My first mission as captain of the Aurora and it looks like it's going to end in a war."

"You didn't exactly get the easy survey mission Robert got to start off," Angel offered.

"Hmm. Yeah." Julia took a bite of pork and carrot mixed together. "I keep wondering if there's something I've been missing. Some kind of solution that will fix this."

"Well, you know what I'd like to do."

Julia gave Angel a knowing look. "Somehow I doubt that 'smacking sense into them' would work as well as you'd like."

"But it would feel damn good," Angel pointed out.

"Maybe." Julia shook her head. "I just… I don't know. It almost feels like I didn't get enough done to make this work. Opani was the one to connect to the prisoners. Zack and his crew found the beacon. Lucy and Meridina stopped the mercs. Twice. And all I've been able to do is talk a lot and fail to find a solution."

"Yeah," Angel said. She held up her hands and crooked the index finger of her left hand into the index finger of her right. "You also approved of Doctor Opani's plan to talk to them, you approved letting her and Meridina and Lucy give them their sunrise dance party, you sent the Koenig out to see if there was a beacon, and you gave the orders that led to Lucy finding out where the mercs came from." She was up to her right hand's pinky at that point. "Basically, you did what you were supposed to do. You gave the orders and everyone else did their jobs. And because you gave those orders, we dealt with this whole prisoner crisis."

Angel's argument was, in all of its bluntness, also completely correct. Julia had to grin at her friend's assessment. "You're right. Unfortunately, it'll all be for nothing unless we find a way out of the impasse."

"Do you really think these Aururians will attack?"

"I do," Julia said. "From their point of view, they have to. If they don't, they're basically announcing that anyone can come into their frontier and shoot down claim beacons before colonizing, just so long as they're smart about it."

Angel shook her head. "But they're in the same bind as the Nazis. They can't hit our fleet stations and our bases. All they can do is overrun a few colonies. And if this League joins the war, and maybe the Consortium too… well, they might even lose."

"But people would still have to respect their beacons," Julia pointed out. "They might think a lost war is worth that. Sort of like when a young fighter goes up against someone who has a hundred pounds on her and picks a fight because that someone knocked over her little sister at PE." She gave Angel a knowing smile. "She knows she might lose, but it'll keep people from thinking they can mess with her little sis whenever they feel like it."

Angel laughed at that. "It's like that, huh?"

Julia nodded with a mouthful of pot roast. "Uh huh." She was swallowing when her omnitool lit up. She tapped the blue light on the back of her left hand. "Andreys here."

"Captain, this is Lieutenant Vajpayee."

"Go ahead, Lieutenant."

"May I see you, Captain? I have found something you might find useful."

"For what?" Angel asked.

"I'm finishing up my dinner right now, Lieutenant. Meet me in my ready office on the bridge in half an hour."

"Yes Captain."

"So what's that all about?" Angel asked.

"I'm not sure," Julia admitted. "But I'm going to find out."

Thirty-four minutes later, Julia was looking up from her monitor on the ready office desk, not sure if she should dare to hope this was it. "And it will work?" she asked Vajpayee. "You're certain of it?"

"As certain as I can be, Captain," he said. "The legal principle is sound."

Julia considered it for about ten seconds. With relief she nodded. "Thank you, Lieutenant. It's inspired. You're dismissed."

"Thank you, Captain."

Vajpayee stepped out of the ready office. The door hadn't even closed when Julia herself stood. "Computer, is Captain von Lohringhoven still aboard?"

"Guest identified as Captain von Lohringhoven is located in Medbay Critical Care Ward."

"And Marshal Huaman?"

"Marshal Huaman is in the Medbay."

"Good." Julia went to the door.

The two Aururians were now in the reception ward with the rest of the Marshal's team when Julia arrived. She nodded to them. "How is your wife, Captain?"

"Her condition has further improved due to the diligence of your surgeons, Captain," Lohringhoven answered.

"That's good to hear," Julia said. "May I speak to you and the Marshal in private?"

"I believe Doctor Gillam is currently in his office," Lohringhoven replied.

"That's fine. Follow me."

Julia led them back out of the medbay and further through the deck until they arrived at their destination. A plain blue inside caused the two to look around in curiosity.

"Computer, activate archived holo-surroundings. Model sunrise sky."

"Working. Holodeck engaging."

Their surroundings disappeared in favor of a soft grass field just as the sun was coming up on the eastern horizon. The two Aururians looked around with interest. "A holographic chamber? Compact enough for a ship?" Lohringhoven asked.

"We call them holodecks. They combine transporters with matter replication," Julia said. "Computer, please add three comfortable chairs. Put them in a gazebo."

A white painted wooden gazebo appeared. Three high-backed chairs were inside. Julia walked up into the gazebo and took one seat. Lohringhoven and Huaman took the others. "I think I've found a way through our impasse," she said to them.

"You have?" Huaman seemed interested. "What do you propose?"

"A measure that will keep this system as sovereign Aururian territory, but let the Oakland colonists stay where they are and let us mine the resources we need."

That had their attention.

Julia leaned forward in the chair. "What if the Alliance leases the system?"

"A lease?" Huaman asked.

"Yes. A lease, for a specific amount of time in which the Colony remains under Alliance law and control, and the Alliance gets to use the resources of the system. When the time is over, Phi Perseus completely reverts to Aururian control."

For a moment neither reacted. Julia didn't know if that was a good or bad thing, so she waited for some sort of reaction. Lohringhoven leaned over to speak sotto voce to Huaman. “Her Majesty’s foremothers leased Nepean Bay on Karta to the British for two hundred years, Marshal.”

The bronzen woman nodded, her expression inscrutable for a moment. "What sort of compensations would be offered?" Huaman asked, and when she did, Julia felt her first thrill of hope.

"Payment in currency, I imagine. A cut of the annual yields?" Julia suggested, not wanting to lose the moment.

"Acceptable," Huaman said. "And upon termination of the lease, all improvements to the system would revert to Her Imperial Majesty's ownership."

Julia nodded. "I think that can work."

"Then… yes." Huaman nodded. "Yes, I believe these terms work. Affirm your government's willingness to accept the leasing term and I will report the offer to Her Imperial Majesty immediately."

It took some restraint for Julia to resist the urge to cry out in triumph. She settled for a wide smile and a nod. "I will call my superiors immediately."

"And when you speak to them, please, add this note." Huaman stood. "Inform them of the likelihood that Her Imperial Majesty will appoint an ambassador to immediately commence talks with the Alliance."

"Talks on what issue?"

"On our participation in the war, of course," Huaman answered. Now she smiled. "Knowing Her Imperial Majesty as I do, and our people besides, once confirmation of the existence of this star-faring Third Reich becomes known, the Empire will be determined to crush the evil of their regime just as our foremothers did many centuries ago. The Alliance can expect Her Imperial Majesty to declare war on the Reich once she is convinced that the reports are genuine."

Julia couldn't fight the smile that crossed her face. "I'll let them know," she said. "It will certainly be appreciated." Inwardly she wondered about that. Depending on the size of their contribution, it would require providing them with IU drives as well. What effect would that have upon the volatile politics of A2M6? Would it convert the League of Democratic Worlds into an enemy?

I'll leave that for the diplomats to handle was her final thought on that. Even as a starship captain, there was only so much she could do.

Ship's Log: 23 February 2643; ASV Aurora. Captain Julia Andreys recording. Today the Aururian ultimatum expires. Thankfully it is now a moot point. As of this morning, the Alliance Government approved the plan for a lease agreement over the Phi Perseus System of Universe A2M6. Peace has been maintained. And we may have gained an ally against the Reich in the process, if not two allies. Captain de Montamar has informed me that the League of Democratic Worlds is likewise interested in declaring war on the Nazi Reich and contributing ships to the conflict. Not as many as the Aururians, I suspect, but enough that they will maintain some parity with the Empire in relations with the Alliance.

I will have a final meeting with both sides today at the formal lease signing treaty. Admiral Maran has informed me that I have been chosen to co-sign the agreement on the Alliance's behalf. It is, I suppose, a fitting cap to my first official mission as Captain of the

Conference Room 1 had been arranged for the signing. Julia and the others arrived in dress uniform, the white color and golden tassels and epaulets of said uniforms filling the room given the attendance of over five dozen other Alliance officers.

The Aururian contingent was just as large, led by Captain von Lohringhoven's commander, Admiral Kadesadayurat, wearing the uniform of the Royal Siamese Navy, one of the Empire’s “untouched” associated States. Marshal Huaman led the delegation, incongruous in a severe black outfit that recalled formal fashions of centuries before.

The size of the two contingents was thanks to the reinforcements that had already been ordered by both before the agreement was reached. Julia briefly mused, darkly, that had the lease agreement not been proposed or accepted, sixty-three Aururian warships would have ended up in a shooting war against forty-nine Alliance starships and, presumably, Captain Guy de Montamar's squadron. The officers of the latter were also in attendance, in finely-crafted blue uniforms of their own. They showed no indication of being opposed to the lack of a conflict.

The ceremony was short and sweet. At the Marshal's direction, Captain von Lohringhoven joined her in signing for the Aururian Empire. Governor Taylor and Julia signed for the Alliance. The financial terms were relatively light, given the value of the system, and for the first term of the treaty the Aururians had waived any share of the mineral rights. Every ten years the Alliance would have the option to renew the lease for another term, for an increasing sum of money and an increasing share of the mineral yields. After thirty years the lease would permanently expire and the system and all mines and facilities in it would revert to the Aururian Empire. The Oakland Colony would be granted autonomy status in the Empire if its residents remained after the handover. Whether that would convince the settlers of today or tomorrow to stay, Julia could not guess.

When the signing was over Julia looked to Lohringhoven and asked, "How is Kishala?"

"She is recovering well," was the answer. Leo had decided that Kishala was sufficiently recovered to be transferred to the Maya-Mayi the prior evening.

"Do you regret that she's involved in these kinds of missions? That she's away all of the time?"

"No more than she regrets my service in the Navy. She and I are committed to each other, and part of that love stems from our commitment to the cause of the Empire." Lohringhoven smile gently at her. "I imagine you have a similar feeling, Captain Andreys. Maybe even a similar trouble as we do."

"You might say that," she admitted. Duty always took a toll on personal relationships, it seemed.

"Then I will pray that things turn out for you as well." Lohringhoven nodded. "I am pleased things have turned out as they have. You would have made a capable foe had we put it to the touch, but I much prefer you as a steadfast ally. I hope to see you and your fine vessel on the front when we get there."

"Oh, we'll end up there sooner or later," Julia said. "We always do."

As the post-signing meal - provided thoughtfully by Hargert - was consumed, Julia found herself alone in the corner of the room. A plate of Hargert's cake - as always, he was eager for a reason to bake one, or rather two big ones in this case - was still in her hand. She mused that she would be spending a few extra hours in the gym the next few days to work off the calories she was consuming.

"Captain Andreys."

Julia turned to face the speaker. Captain de Montamar was resplendent in his dress uniform. "Captain de Montamar," she said in return. "A fine day?"

"Yes. The war has been delayed. And perhaps, now, it will never come," he said. "For the time being we, for the first time in nearly two centuries, share a common foe with the Empire. It will be odd to fight beside them as allies."

"Maybe it can be the beginning of a new future for you both," Julia suggested. "A chance to reconcile through shared sacrifice."

"Perhaps," he said, in the tone of a man feeling hope and doubt. "At the least, we hope to convince your Alliance that we deserve your support as much as the Empire."

"That will take some doing," Julia noted. "The Alliance is as opposed to the exploitation of other species as the Empire is. Your League may have to decide whether or not it prefers us as a friend over its current economic policies."

"It will not be easy," de Montamar said. "We have lost over half of our wealthiest star systems to the Empire in the last several decades. We need the resources those worlds provide us for our economy to function."

"You also need the goodwill of the Multiverse," Julia countered. "Your political system may be closer to our standard than the Aururian monarchy's, but most of the powers of the Multiverse aren't going to accept a state that considers the exploitation of other species necessary to their economy, much less an inherent right. You're going to have to make that choice. I hope you make the right one."

De Montamar nodded stiffly. "I do too. We must do more to uphold our principles. I will concede that."

"And hopefully, you'll stop trying to manipulate other powers into conflict with the Empire," Julia added bluntly.

Given the absolute lack of response in his expression, Julia figured de Montamar was a great poker player. "Whatever do you mean?"

"What I mean, Captain de Montamar, is that it's awfully unlucky that a meteorite of just the right size and velocity managed to take out the Aururian beacon. Likely within weeks of the Alliance survey mission showing up. And said meteorite comes that close to sending the beacon into a gas giant where it'll never be seen again?" Julia crossed her arms, at least as much as she could with the plate in her left hand. "A lot of things are possible Captain. But this is just a little too coincidental for my taste. Especially with their non-transmitting marker also removed."

A quiet stillness came over de Montamar. Julia wasn't shocked to see it. "You knew?" she asked.

"You and I… we are captains. We are officers who believe in a cause. When we are given orders in the name of that cause, we follow them, though we find them disagreeable."

Julia knew she would get no stronger answer out of him. She went to step away.

"I have faith," he said suddenly. Julia turned back to face de Montamar, who met her eye-to-eye. "I have faith that in the end, our common values as democracies will be stronger than any dalliance your people may have with the Empire. Given time, their reactionary nature will repulse you, or will drive them to turn on you when they see you cannot be converted to their ways. We will be waiting patiently for that day."

With nothing more to say, the League captain walked away.

When the lease treaty signing was over, Zack returned to his quarters as quickly as he could just to get out of his dress uniform. Once he'd removed it and was down to his undershirt and shorts, he went to his quarters' living area and sat on the couch. The bottle he had been drinking from on the Koenig was on the coffee stand. There was barely a quarter left in it. He reached for it.

But he didn't grasp it. "I've got to stop this," he murmured to himself. He was letting this start to become too much, he was letting it take over. No more. He wasn't his father. He withdrew his hand and walked into the bedroom of his quarters. Once he settled onto the bed he picked up a picture of himself and Clara. Tears came to his eyes. It hurt so much to know she was gone forever. The usual thoughts - that he was responsible, that he hadn't deserved her - came to him. He sobbed quietly in response. Again he wanted a drink. He wanted to stop feeling.

But he couldn't. Not tonight. He had to prove to himself he had this under control. He had to if he was going to face his friends ever again.


The world of Espérance had the distinction of being the third capital world of the League of Democratic Worlds. It was one of the first wave of colonies under de Escuy's first administration. Over the decades the splendid garden world had absorbed the millions of citizens who fled planets seized by the Aururian Empire. In the Fourth War the planet's defenders had successfully repulsed a determined invasion by Imperial troops in a resistance that Free Traders had declared "fanatical". Rebuilding Espérance had been a high priority afterward. Over the decades billions of francs had been poured into the planet's economy to make it the most wealthy - and most heavily-defended - planet in the entire League.

The main capital of the planet was found near the equator in a subtropical steppe region, at the base of the planet's main space elevator. Nouveaux Escuybourg was designed to emulate Paris from the pre-war Earth, with architectural nods from other great capitals added to emphasize the brotherhood of the League's nationalities and their equality. Some of the most brilliant of these buildings were the Houses of Government, where the various offices of the League's central government maintained themselves along the splendid Rue de Escuy.

One of the more magnificent structures along the Rue de Escuy was the Defense Ministry. A neo-Parisian structure, it had all of the security one would expect for its purpose. The offices of the League's military forces and intelligence services could be found on its twelve floors.

In one such office, Vice Director of Military Intelligence Jean-Baptiste Bouchard read over the report from Phi Perseus and sighed with discontent. He set the data reader down and held his head of thinning gray-brown hair in his hands. Not only had they failed to ensure the Alliance and Empire became enemies, they had also failed to get their hands on Marshal Huaman. Their efforts to secure their protectorates and colonies from Aururian interference would be set back by that failure.

"We're running out of time," he protested to Victor Renard, his senior aide. "The Empire's arms buildup will not long be diverted by this war. They will come for us again when it is over."

"I understand, Vice Director. But the Minister is embracing the President's policies on the matter."

"He has his reasons, yes," Bouchard agreed. "But nothing changes the fact that without the resources of our protectorate worlds, the League would be left destitute. And for what? Species that would never have discovered basic medicine without our guidance? Species where mad theocrats and oligarchs and kings rule as tyrants over populations who know nothing of their natural rights? And the Alliance expects us to simply walk away from these poor worlds?" He waved a hand dismissively. "It is all an act, Victor. The Alliance must pander to its alien members. When they no longer feel that need… well, I hope we can survive that long."

There was a tone from his desk. Bouchard pressed the key for his intercom. "Yes?" he asked.

"Vice Director, your appointment is here."

"I am ready," he said bluntly.

"Who is this?" Renard asked.

"Someone sent by our man on Jao!senat. Given the report I am uncertain…"

The door opened. The figure that entered was a woman in a stylized dark suit that fitted League fashions for professional women. A perfect, gorgeous woman, or so Bouchard thought. She made him immensely self-conscious of his graying hair, receding hairline, and definite paunch. Nevertheless he found himself and stepped forward. "Good day, Madame…"

"Je m'appelle Miranda Lawson, Monsieur Director," the woman said in flawless French. She offered her hand to Bouchard, who took it and kissed the knuckle. "A pleasure to meet you."

Julia's morning routine began as usual. Warm ups and t'ai chi forms (with some mok'bara learned from Worf), shower, breakfast, and the overnight reports from Lieutenant Takawira and the other Gamma Shift supervisors. By 0800 she was on the bridge. The rest of the command staff had reported as well.

"So, your first mission is a success," Locarno said from the helm. He was grinning. "You uncovered a conspiracy, stopped a war, made allies, and I hear that you even managed to get Senator Pensley to like us."

Julia gave Jarod a knowing look. He returned it with a bemused grin. "I may have talked about that note he sent you," Jarod admitted. "GIven all of the nasty things he usually calls us, you have to admit it's a novel experience."

"It is," Julia agreed. She still wondered about whether or not Davies and Hawthorne felt the same way.

"It would appear you succeeded quite well in your first mission as Captain," Meridina said, smiling gently.

"We did, you mean," Julia said. She couldn't help but smile too as she took her seat. Meridina quietly moved over to her chair as First Officer. Julia's eyes went to the holo-viewscreen and the image of a nearly-denuded orbital space. The only Alliance ship left, other than themselves and the soon-to-depart Enterprise, was a Predator-class destroyer. Nearby was an Aururian frigate of the same class as the Irresistible, the first of many Aururian ships that were to be permanently posted here as a result of the lease agreement.

"The lease idea was all your own, Captain," Meridina said.

"And sending the Koenig out," Jarod added. "And letting Opani…"

"Yeah, yeah, Angel and I already had this conversation," she pointed out.

"What the frak was that?" Barnes turned in his seat. "Did you just say 'Angel'? Not 'Lieutenant Delgado?' Who the frak are you and what did you do with our stuck up, formal address-only Captain?"

Julia gave him an amused look. "Captain's prerogative. I can waive formality for a moment or two."

"Oh, and here I thought you were lightening up. My bad."

Julia giggled at that. "Don't ever change, Lieutenant Barnes."

"So I have official permission to be the ship's asshole engineer?"

"Only if you don't make me regret it," she answered. "So, is everything ready?"

"The crew is all aboard, Captain, and we are ready for departure," Meridina said.

"Well then. One mission down…" Julia's small smile turned into a wide grin. "...a whole lot more to go. Mister Locarno, Mister Jarod, we're due in D3R1. Please set the jump drive to the Proxima Centauri jump anchor and prepare for jump."

"Aye, Captain," Locarno said first, beating out Jarod's "Yes ma'am" by a couple seconds.

Julia said nothing more at that point. She didn't need to. Her eyes found the Enterprise on the viewscreen and she realized she didn't quite feel the same pull as she had earlier. This was her ship. Her crew. Her place. She was the Captain of the Aurora. Given her role in the ship's construction, it felt like this was what she had always been meant for.

"Jump drive locked onto Proxima Centauri anchor, Captain," Jarod said.

Julia replied with a brisk nod and a smile. "Jump."

The Aurora moved away from the formerly-disputed planet. The kilometer long ship looked quite swift and graceful in her maneuver. Ahead of the vessel a burst of green light appeared. It expanded into an open tunnel between universes that the Starship Aurora flew into, heading out for another mission.