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Yucatan Job - Ancient Aliens

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"Welcome to Mars," Brittany said, opening the shuttle hatch.

"Not what I expected," Quinn said, standing next to her and scanning the horizon.

"It’s a great big dustbowl," Santana said, joining them. "Kills equipment faster than one of Quinn’s troopers."

"My troopers don’t kill equipment," Quinn said, turning to glare at her.

"That’s not what my techs say," Santana said.

"Ladies! Not the time or place!" Brittany said. "Save it until we get home."

"You wanted to show us something," Santana said. "Couldn’t you just take a picture?"

"You have to see this in person," Brittany said. "Come on." Closing her suit’s helmet, she stepped through the safety field holding in the air.

Santana and Quinn quickly followed her out onto the sand.

"Not like walking on the moon," Quinn said, giving a slight bounce.

"Yeah, it’s less like walking on powder, more like sandpaper," Santana said, kicking at the ground.

"How far is it?" Quinn asked Brittany.

"Ten klicks," Brittany said, leading the way towards several low hills.

"We couldn’t land closer?" Santana said, grumbling.

"Nope," Brittany said. "Too dangerous."

"This is Mars," Santana said. "Big empty planet. What could be dangerous?"

"Besides the sandstorms and low atmosphere?" Brittany said, correcting her. "You’ll see."

"How are the defenses going?" Quinn asked. "When will we be able to set up the training facilities for my troopers?"

"The eyes-in-the-sky are all up, and connected to our security network," Brittany said. "We’d finished surveying the area you wanted when we ran into this." She pointed ahead to an object that seemed to rise up out of the ground.

It was a wall, at least twice her height, that disappeared off into the distance.

"A wall," Santana said. "Could have sent a picture."

"It doesn’t photograph very well," Brittany said. "It just looks like a line from space. A very thin one. The tech who found it thought something was wrong with her camera."

"So… wall…" Quinn said. "Who built it and why?"

"It’s the only known structure on the planet that looks made and not just the result of nature," Brittany said.

"What’s it made out of?" Quinn asked.

"Rock," Santana said, grimacing.

"Actually, it’s made out of an unknown crystal substance. It’s not really this color." She rubbed her hand across the dull surface, revealing an opaque material.

"Huh," Santana said, following suit. "Is the whole thing like this?"

"As far as we can tell. Almost two klicks of crystal, in a big circle."

"A circle? What’s inside?" Quinn stared up at the top of the wall.

"Nothing you can see from the outside," Brittany said. "Fortunately, we found the door." She gestured for them to follow her. After five minutes of walking, they came to a slight depression in the surface of the wall.

"How’d you figure out how to open it?" Quinn asked.

"We have our ways," Brittany said, her grin clearly heard over the comm. "Watch!"

There was a low pitched whistle, centered around her suit. With a huge rumble they could feel through their suits, the depression slowly deepened, becoming an oval opening.

"Be careful," Brittany said, blocking the entrance. "That first step is a klick deep."

"Whoa!" Santana said. "We didn't lose anyone down it did we?"

"No, we followed safety protocols," Brittany said. "That’s how we know how deep it is."

"So, it’s a long wall around a deep hole, and you can’t see it from the air?" Quinn asked. "How is that possible? It should stick out like a sore thumb."

"Look," Brittany said, shining light into the opening at an upward angle. The light reflected off of something shiny. "It has some kind of shield, hiding it from the surface. We think it’s the same material as the wall."

"Two kilometers around, with a cover?" Quinn said. "Any idea what it’s for? I’m assuming you sent in probes."

"And you have pictures, so we didn’t have to come down here in person?" Santana said, grumbling.

"You have better places to be?" Quinn asked.

"Yes," Santana said. "Your 'little' training base isn’t the only thing going on."

"Ladies, enough," Brittany said. "I brought you down here for a reason, and not just to hear the snark. Lovely as it is."

"The reason being?" Santana said. "I love you babe, but this little field trip could have waited."

"Watch," Brittany said, stepping through the oval. Instead of plummeting to her death, or at least falling from view, she stayed level with the entrance.

"Don’t do that!" Santana burst out, grabbing Brittany by the arm.

"It’s perfectly safe," she said. "There’s no gravity."

"Well, you don’t know that!" Santana said.

"I’ve tested it," Brittany said. "Besides, it’s only a couple thousand feet deep. My suit can handle it."

"What’s down there, Brit?" Quinn asked.

"It’s an underground base," she said. "Or it might be. Come on!"

Quinn and Santana cautiously joined her inside. They couldn’t see the other side but looking up, they could see something overhead, a featureless shiny flat roof with no markings. Their suits sensors gave them dimensions and a general idea of size but that didn't dispel the feeling of being in a dark cave, standing on nothing.

"Artie says it pre-dates the Confederation," Brittany said.

"And this anti-gravity thing still works?" Santana asked.

"Yup," Brittany said. "I have some techs looking into it."

"How do we go down?" Quinn asked, tired of staring at lots of smooth nothing.

"It’s like zero gravity," Brittany said. "Use your suit jets. Like this." There was a low flash and Brittany started to move down into the dark shaft. Quinn and Santana once more following her lead.

They went down for several minutes in the dark.

"Could use some decorations," Santana said.

"I don’t think it would last," Brittany told her. "It’s some sort of launch tube as far as we can tell."

"You found ancient spaceships?" Santana asked, excitedly.

"No, just a launch pad of sorts. The only thing working is this. And some lights. It’s been abandoned for a very long time. Probably before Mars became a desert," Brittany said.

"Not seeing the excitement," Santana said. "Sure, this gravity free tube is interesting but no ships? Are there any documents of any kind?"

They can to a stop, landing on a slightly angled oval. As soon as they stepped off of it, the room lit up. They were standing at the edge of a huge room.

"This, is impressive," Santana said. Quinn murmured in agreement. "The tube was huge. A shuttle could fit in it, if we got the cover open. A small cruiser could fit in here with room to spare."

"Or a small city," Quinn added. "What are your plans for it?"

"Plans?" Brittany said.

"We know you babe," Santana said. "You didn’t bring us down here to see a big hole in the ground or that fancy gravity trick tube."

"We haven’t really discussed plans for Mars, other than a training base for Quinn’s troopers," Brittany said. "We have a base out on Pluto, and our main space station out in the asteroid belt but there’s so much room in this system that we haven’t begun to use."

"We don’t have the people," Santana said. "We aren’t even half staffed yet. We can barely handle the few out-system patrols we have going now. And we aren’t going to be huge when we are. We’re just the local cops, not a whole world."

"I think we should have a backup base here," Brittany said. "We can do things we can’t do on Terra, because of tech issues. Or maybe we can terraform it. Earth needs room to grow and there's plenty of room here."

"That doesn’t usually go well," Quinn said. "There are dozens of stories of what could happen if people colonize Mars and the other planets."

"It worked for Star Trek," Brittany said.

"But getting there was not easy," Quinn said. "It took them a long time."

"Terraforming takes centuries," Santana said. "And that assumes it even works. Even with top of the line Confederation tech there’s still a sixteen percent chance of failure."

"I think we should still do it," Brittany said. "As soon as the Bugs are gone. By the time it’s complete the people will be mature enough to handle it."

"These are Terrans we’re talking about," Quinn said. "They’re worse than the Clans were. It could be millennia before they are civilized enough for what you have planned."

"I’d rather be positive," Brittany said. "We need to start planning for the direction we want to guide them to for after the Bugs."

"You and Rachel can do the post-Bug planning," Santana said. "Q and I still have a war to plan, and defenses to build. Is there anything else to see here?"

"Just the tech that makes the gravity tube work and the environment," Brittany said. "Everything else is long gone. Any objections to turning this into a base?"

"Not from me," Santana said. "If you can figure out how to actually get a ship down here, that would be good."

"Is this going to be separate from my desert training base?" Quinn asked.

"I’m thinking that it should be our private space port," Brittany said. "But we should put your training base underground like this."

"Order the equipment once you agree on the design," Santana said.

"Will do," Quinn said.

"Anything else?" Santana asked. "If not, I need to get back to Flag. The planning sessions for mapping the rest of the sector are starting tomorrow so I need to clear everything else from my desk."

"Just a minute," Brittany said.

"Hey boss!" a voice on the team comm interrupted her.

"Yes, Jayce?"

"You need to come see this," Jayce said. She sent a short video down channel.

"Where are you?" Brittany asked.

"In the south quadrant, second tunnel. The one that looks like living quarters," Jayce said.

"Jayce found something in one of the side caves," Brittany said. "I need to check it out. Can you spare a few more minutes?"

"I’ve got an hour," Quinn said. "Rachel’s expecting me for dinner tonight."

"I can do an hour," Santana said. "Or I can send the shuttle back for you."

"If you can’t stay, I can catch a ride back with Joy," Brittany said.

"Is it something interesting or something only a Shadow would care about?"

"Don’t know," Brittany said. "But I need to go. Are you coming?"

"Sure, why not," Santana said. "My desk can wait. It isn’t going anywhere."

Quinn and Santana followed Brittany deeper into the cavern. As they walked the faint glow became stronger, making it easier to see.

"So, big cavern, no evidence of the previous occupants?" Santana said. "Nothing? No clues to what they looked like or ate?"

"Nothing," Brittany said. "We know that something built this but there’s not enough info to know anything about them. Not a thing our archaeologists can use. Just dust and this empty place."

"We have archaeologists?" Quinn said, surprised. "Clan archaeologists?"

"They’re part of the Memory’s Office," Brittany said. "Rache started requesting them after we found that cruiser in Cancun. There’s enough work to keep a team of them busy full time."

"Doing?" Santana asked.

"I have them analyzing old Clan bases, and Andy has one on her staff," Brittany said. "They bring a unique perspective to things. We’ve managed to have Clan trained ones so far. The Indiana Jones films are a great recruitment tool. Things aren’t quite so exciting in real life but it has its moments."

"Huh, guess I never thought about it. So you’ve got one around here somewhere?"

"Jayce," Britany said. "That’s who we’re meeting down here."

"What do you think she found?" Quinn asked.

"No idea," Brittany said. "But we’ll know in a minute."

"Sorry," Quinn mumbled.

They came to a stop in front of a tunnel, three meters from floor to roof. They were met by a short woman in an enviro skin suit.

"Come on," she said. "You won’t believe this!" She quickly disappeared down the tunnel, the three women following closely. As the walked, she talked. "We’ve been exploring the back rooms," she said. "Mostly dust. Nothing organic. Interesting design, sort of like that cave base on that planet in the Ring system. But much older. And then Frankie noticed that one of the rooms had thicker walls. So we started scanning it to see if we’d missed anything."

"Secret door?" Santana guessed. "Or hidden closet?"

"Bathroom?" Quinn suggested.

"Better," Jayce said, stopping in front of a tall doorway. She led them in, joining another woman similarly dressed at the far wall. "Show them," she said.

Without saying a word, the other woman, Frankie, reached over and pressed on the wall. There was a slight humming and a large lit oval appeared in the wall. The humming continued and the oval split, half disappearing into the ceiling and the other down into the floor, revealing a shelf with a jumbled pile of small square crystals.

"Shiny," Brittany said, leaning down to scan them with her suit’s sensors. "Crystal storage?"

"Possibly," Frankie said, in a surprisingly deep voice. "But no way to read them at the moment.

"Janice and Joy brought back several different readers from their Ring trip," Brittany said. "They might have something that’ll work with these or at least tell you what they are."

"We were waiting for you to see this before contacting anyone," Jayce said.

"Did you find anything else down here today?" Brittany said. "They seem to have picked up after themselves really well."

"It’s been millenia, Lady Shadow," Jayce said. "Anything they left behind that wasn’t crystal or metal is long gone. If there was a reader it went with them."

"Maybe there are more closets," Quinn said.

"Keep looking, and let us know what else you find," Brittany said. "You’ve got two weeks before we start remodeling."

"Yes, Boss," Frankie said.

"And we need to head out," Santana said. "Coming with us?"

"Part of the way," Brittany said. "Need to check on another project south of here."

"More hidden alien bases?" Quinn asked.

"Nothing as exciting," Brittany said. "One of the construction teams is drilling for water a hundred clicks from here."

"Pass," Santana said. Quinn just shook her head.

"Okay," Brittany said. "I just need a drop-off. The drilling team has transportation I can use to get back to Flag."

"Okay," Santana said. "Now how do we get back to the shuttle from here?"

"Easy peasy," Brittany said. "Just follow the breadcrumbs." She pointed at their unique footprints on the dusty floor.

"That was mildly interesting," Santana said, after dropping Brittany off.

"If it makes Brit happy," Quinn said.

"A happy Brit is a sexy Brit," Santana said. "But sand doesn’t mix well with hard suits."

"That’s why we need a training base here. Too many of our battles are in sterile conditions. They need to be able to operate in all kinds of weather and terrain."

"Not arguing," Santana said. "But I prefer the nice clean of space."

"Understood," Quinn said. "How are your plans to explore the rest of the sector going?"

"Well, the Ring system is a bust. At least until we can figure out how to send equipment through. It’s not big enough to send a shuttle, even in pieces," Santana said.

"I’m sure you’ll find a way. Did they fix their navigation problems?"


"The one way trip. Forward or backward only."

"Not yet, but Brittany’s crew thinks they have an idea," Santana said. "And she has some bright kids on her crew."

"Have you gotten the 'don’t poach' speech yet," Quinn asked.

"Who’d you try to steal?" Santana said, laughing.

"No one," Quinn said. "Harriet Potter is spending a lot of time with Janice."

"Not surprised," Santana said. "They spent months working together and probably like each other."

"Really not time for romance," Quinn said.

"So I hear," Santana said, laughing.

"Rachel told you?" Quinn said sheepishly.

"The partner earring and the long speech about responsibility?" Santana laughed again. "Brittany would have staked me out on the nearest ant hill if I did something like that to her. Not very romantic."

"She didn’t talk to me for a month afterward," Quinn said, grimacing.

"She must have gotten over it," Santana said. "She was bragging about it the other day."

"Had to take her out to dinner in Paris," Quinn said.

"There’re some nice restaurants near the Eiffel Tower," Santana said. "That’s Brit’s go to city for make up dates."

"Expensive," Quinn said.

"As long as you don’t buy them, the Clan budget can afford to make the Memory happy."

"How many do we own now?" Quinn asked.

"In Paris? Two. World wide? A dozen. But they don't last very long. Restaurants have the shelf life of a box of donuts at the Fleet Chief’s annual staff meeting. Measured in seconds." Santana shook her head. "By the time they start making money, the celebrity chef will be tired of it and move on."

"What do you do with a failed restaurant," Quinn asked.

"Rent the space out to another one," Santana said. "That’s where the money is."

"Have there been any Bug sighting yet?" Quinn asked after several minutes of silence.

"Nothing," Santana said. "Artie still says they’re headed this way but they must have stopped for a nooner because there’s no sign of them anywhere."

"Maybe they aren’t coming?"

"No, they’ll show up," Santana said. "We’re in the way of their exit from the Confederation. They have to go through us."

"Not around?"

"Sure, but it’s longer and they probably think this is an empty sector. Radio traffic from Terra hasn’t even reached the nearest star system yet."

"Good," Quinn said.

"Not in a hurry to squash some Bugs?" Santana asked, as the shuttle landed gently on Flag’s deck.

"Nope," Quinn said. "Gives us more time to train, and plan."

"Still planning to fight them in the asteroids out beyond Pluto?"

"I’d rather we stop them in a different system," Quinn said. "The less local fighting the better."

"As long as you record it and bring the Press," Santana said, locking down the controls. "Otherwise they won’t believe it."

"You’ve seen those old recordings," Quinn said. "Unless we get up close and personal with the Bugs, something I hope to avoid, if Fleet can keep them from landing anywhere, it’s going to be boring. Real wars in space are not Star Wars."

"No, they aren’t," Santana said, "And we’ll do our damnedest so you don’t. But, either way, I have confidence that between Brit and Rachel we’re going to look like heroes. Big ones."

"As long as we’re not dead ones," Quinn said. "I’d rather my troopers be alive, than have Rache write epic ballads about them."

"She’s getting better," Santana said. "She only wrote two about the 'Search for Miranda Priestly’."

"That’s because Lady M threatened to leave and take the whole family with her if she didn’t stop. And you don’t ignore her. Ever."

"Or call her an asset in her hearing," Santana said, as they entered the bridge. "That doesn’t go over well."

"She’s like a more evil, but stylish, Sue Sylvester," Quinn said. "Not sure what Andy sees in her."

"Evil can be sexy," Santana said. "As long as she’s on our side."

"Definitely," Quinn said. "And maybe someday they’ll actually explain where Andy’s family comes from. Though, Lady M’s first husband being from another Clan is almost believable," Quinn said.

"You didn’t believe their last story either?"

"No," Quinn said. "There’s no such place as Krypton."

"They’ve got evidence," Santana said.

"And you believed it?"

"Of course not," Santana said. "But hearing them construct such an elaborate explanation can be fun. Eventually they start contradicting themselves."

"I’d like to station troopers on every planet in the ring system," Quinn said, when they reached Santana’s office.

"You don’t need my permission," Santana said, pulling off her suit. "It’s exploring our defenses. Looking for holes."

"No, but I want a ship for each in case my troopers need to evacuate in a hurry," Quinn said.

"Not a problem, once we can get ships out there," Santana said. "We can get some of the cost out of the surveillance budget. You just need a solid plan that’ll survive the inevitable Shadow review."

"I have multiple plans," Quinn said. "With multiple layers. Ogres full of layers."

"Does Rachel know you can reference her favorite childhood movies?"

"Of course," Quinn said. "It’s hard to stump her, but she never really watched that kind if thing."

"Wildlife shows and specials about puppies on PBS?" Santana said, laughing and taking the captain’s chair.

"And shows about Broadway," Quinn said.

"Of course, how could I forget," Santana said, laughing.

"Her childhood wasn’t really that narrow," Quinn said. "Her fathers insisted on a well rounded childhood."

"In Lima?" Santana said, not trying to hide her disbelief.

"They traveled all over the place," Quinn said. "Every summer and school break they were off on another 'adventure', according to her."

"Well, we’re all living a huge adventure now," Santana said, sitting behind her desk. "Are you sticking around?"

"I’ve got a meeting with Tech about a new hard suit design," Quinn said.

"Better you than me," Santana said, poking her desk.

Shaking her head, Quinn left her and headed towards her meeting.

Sand. Lots and lots of sand, as far as the eye could see. Her suit sensors weren’t much better. The high wind blowing over the plateau obscured anything more than a click away. Dropping into a sandstorm from orbit was looking like a bad idea, Quinn thought, but it’d seemed like the perfect opportunity to test the new suit design.

Like all hard suits it was nearly impervious to all forms of radiation and stopped most forms of direct blunt force, but that didn’t mean it was perfect. A well directed energy weapon could still knock a wearer out of action and shake them up. It didn’t matter if they couldn’t get killed if their suits became so damaged that they were basically just a lump on the battlefield.

Apparently, sand was also something to watch out for. It was like walking through sandpaper, she decided, looking at the bare suit structure where the protective coating had been worn away by the sand blasting it had been subjected to for the last hour.

"How’s it going?" Rachel asked over their private comm. "When are you going to get to the base?"

"Right now I’m grounded," Quinn said. "I can’t hop in this weather, and my sensors don’t see through a wall of solid sand."

"Solid sand?"

"Close enough to it," Quinn said, pausing in the swirling sand. "My suit tech is going to kill me when I get back. I haven’t taken this much damage to my suit, ever."

"I thought it could withstand a nuclear blast," Rachel said, sounding worried.

"The radiation of a nuclear blast," Quinn said. "And it wouldn’t be much use afterward. These suits are designed for fast moving combat, not extreme weather conditions like this."

"You’re going to be okay, right?" Rachel asked.

"Peachy," Quinn said. "It’s a valid equipment test, just a little extreme. Hopefully we won’t need to fight the Bugs in a Martian sandstorm. But this will give us data to make them better."

"Why you?" Rachel asked.

"You didn’t just ask her why she’s risking her cute butt in an experimental hard suit, did you?" Brittany said, joining them on the comm channel. "You know why."

"I’m sure there are other ways to test a new hard suit than sticking yourself into a blender," Rachel said.

"I won’t send my troopers out in a suit I haven’t tested myself," Quinn said. "You know that."

"I rest my case," Brittany said.

"Did you have a reason for joining our discussion?" Quinn asked.

"We’re getting a strange signal ten clicks to your west," Brittany said. "Our satellite sensors can’t see through that storm. can you check it out?"

"I’m not moving very fast," Quinn said. "Might be a little while."

"It’s still faster than anything else we could send," Brittany said. "I’ve got a team headed your way but they’re several hours out."

"Sure," Quinn said. "Send me the co-ordinates."

"Already sent," Brittany said.

"What if it’s a Bug?" Rachel asked. "You aren’t armed."

"I’m still wearing a hard suit," Quinn said. "I’m always armed."

"And there’s an experimental beam weapon on that suit," Brittany said. "If it’s really a Bug they don’t stand a chance."

"See? Not a problem," Quinn said. Flipping on several sensor pack modules in her helmet, she sped up. She couldn’t go full speed in a sandstorm but in the new suit she was faster than anything else currently on Mars. "Do we have any data on this 'strange signal'?"

"It doesn’t match any known profile," Brittany said. "It started broadcasting when you hit ground."

"So, something is watching me?" Quinn said.

"Possibly. If it is, it’s using tech your suit and our sensor arrays can’t detect. It’s also possible it’s a coincidence," she said.

"And you’re sending her right to it?" Rachel squeaked. "Send someone else, now!"


"Yes, Quinn?"

"What’s my title?"

"Lady of the Hands of the Council of the Serpent Clan," Rachel said, enunciated every word.

"And what’s my job?"

"You’re the Council war leader."

"War isn’t a sport," Quinn said. "You know this. It’s deadly serious. And I lead from the front, like all Hands."

"I don’t like it," Rachel said. "Come back."

"I can’t," Quinn said. "If this is a Bug we need to stop it before it takes root. If I promise not to get myself needlessly killed will you be okay?"

"You can’t promise something like that," Rachel said. "It could be a trap."

"My team is an hour out," Brittany said. "And San has two cruisers inbound."

"Cruisers?" Rachel said, her voice going up. "So you really think this is a Bug?"

"No," Brittany said. "We would have detected it as soon as it came in-system. But it is an unknown so we’re being cautious."

"And it makes a good training exercise," Quinn said.

"Yes, there’s that also," Brittany said. "It’s probably something harmless."

"An unrecognized signal that’s harmless?" Rachel said.

"Yes," Brittany said. "It’s a big universe. It could be a random visitor who snuck through our sensors."

"To Mars." Rachel said dryly. "Land of infinite beaches."

"You don’t need water to have a beach," Brittany said. "Though there are some large underground lakes that we’ve found."

"I must be close," Quinn said, slowing down to a jog. "I’m picking up a signal. It’s not very strong."

"That’s the one," Brittany said. "The strength fluctuates."

"You’re almost on top of it," she said. "Any second now."

"Whoah!" Quinn said, stopping suddenly. "Can you see that?" she asked. "A large silver cylinder. Looks familiar."

"I’ve seen one before," Rachel said. "Can’t remember where. A movie?"

"Historical record," Quinn said. "It’s not a Bug but it is definitely an unfriendly."

"Oh! Usually they’re a different color," Rachel said.

"Sandblasted," Quinn said. 'Brit, search for escape pods. Specifically the kind used on troop transports used during the Bast Queen wars."

"That was a very long time ago," Brittany said. "Thousands of years."

"That gravity elevator in sector seven is a lot older," Quinn said. "This predates the pyramids on Earth but isn't much older."

"Stasis pod?" Brittany asked.

"Possibly, but it’s been here for a very long time. Stasis is meant for a short term emergency."

"So, ancient escape pod. Occupants?" Brittany said.

"Maybe," Quinn said. "The Bast Queen wars took place a long way from here. They must have had a drive failure to end up here."

"It isn't going anywhere," Brittany said. "Look at the ground around it. It’s been here a long time. Stay back until my team gets here."

"Can we look inside," Rachel said. "How close can Quinn get?"

"It probably has automated defenses," Quinn said. "We’ll need Brit’s crew to turn it off. The tech in this suit doesn’t have the right kinds of tools to hack something like that."

"This is exciting!" Rachel said.

"And it wasn’t before?" Quinn asked.

"That was dangerous. This is archeology. Historical."

"Team inbound. Ten minutes before they reach your co-ordinates," Brittany said. "We’ll have answer soon."

"Are we recording this?" Rachel said.

"My suit’s log is always running," Quinn reminded her. "Of course you’ll get your recording."

"It’s important," Rachel said. "First people to examine a Bast escape pod."

"First in a millennia at least," Brittany said.

"Hey Lady Q," a familiar voice said, as she was joined by a three member Shadow search team.

"Ladies," Quinn said, acknowledging their arrival. "What can you tell us about this?"

The team quickly started setting up sensors around the pod. "It’s old," Janice said. "But not the oldest tech I’ve seen on a planet."

"It’s empty," Joy said, glancing down at her sensor pack. "It was probably empty when it landed."

"Can you open it?" Quinn asked.

"It might be booby trapped," Rachel said. "Be careful."

"Careful is my middle name, Lady Memory," Janice said.

"Right next to 'not'," Joy said, laughing. "But we can spring it and take a look inside."

"When you’re ready, ladies," Quinn said. "The storm is dying down."

They place sensors on the pod itself, until it looked like a freckled tube. "That should do it," Joy said. "We should get back just in case."

The four of them backed away from the pod, until it was just visible in the storm.

"Ready?" Janice asked.

"Go for it," Quinn said. "I’m sure we have insurance for acts of antique tech."

There was a series of quick clicks, followed by a large thump and sharp flash.

"You weren’t supposed to blow it up," Rachel said.

"We didn’t," Janice said. "That was the pod safety letting go. It should be safe now."

"Hatch?" Quinn asked.

"They didn’t have hatches," Brittany said.

"How do we get in?" Quinn asked.

Janice leaned forward and pressed on the pod. After several seconds, a large panel detached itself from the pod, leaving a dark hole. Smoke poured out for several seconds."


"No, just an old stasis field shutting down," Joy said. "They didn't work very well back then. Half the time they didn’t even work."

"That must have been a surprise," Quinn said. "Not a ringing endorsement."

"Definitely," Brittany said. "There was a reason why the Bastites lost that war. They couldn’t handle those kinds of losses."

"So the Clans had better equipment?"

"Much better," Brittany said.

"Is it safe?" Rachel asks over the comm. "What do you see?"

"Just lots of dust," Janice said, leaning in.

"Accessing the logs," Joy said. "Looks like it was ejected accidentally when a troop carrier jumped into the asteroid field. No mention of passengers."

"So there's a troop carrier from the Bast wars out there somewhere?"

"Possibly," Janice said, "though it’s not something we’d have missed."

"Space, it’s huge," Joy said. "If it crashed into a planet we’d never find it."

"We can use the emergency beacon," Brittany said. “Reverse the polarity.”

"Yes, Boss."

“What does that mean?” Rachel asked, over the comm.

"Ancient Shadow secret," Brittany said.

"Do you want us to box it up and take it back to the lab, Boss?" Janice said. "Maybe we missed something."

"Go ahead," she said. "Sorry to distract you, Q."

"Not a problem, Brit," Quinn said. "Just another mystery. This system is full of them. It probably came through another one of those dimensional portals."

"Well, if it was I feel sorry for whomever might have landed here," Brittany said. "It was a desert out here back then also."

"Are you coming in," Rachel asked Quinn returning to their private channel.

"I think i’ll finish my trek," Quinn said. "Make it a fair test of the suit."

"Well, don’t go falling into any portals or deep holes," Rachel said. "We have a date tonight."

"No plans to miss it," Quinn said. "Brit, I’ll check in with you later. Still more sand to look at."

"Don’t get lost," Brittany said, echoing Rachel, "or fall in a hole."

"A bunch of comedians," Quinn grumbled. Shaking her head, and shaking off the layer of dust that had accumulated while she was standing there, she turned and headed back out into the storm at speed.

Chapter Text

"Hey Brit?" Quinn said, as she traveled along an old creek bed, using her new suit’s battle comm channel that supposedly only Brittany knew about.

"Yes, Quinn?"

"How deep have you scanned this part of Mars?"

"Just a preliminary scan," she said. "It’s mostly a big red ball of dust."

"But you’ve found things," Quinn said, hopping over a large boulder.

"Sure, a few things here and there. It’s an old planet. Things tend to end up on it like galactic driftwood."

"What have you found so far?" Quinn asked.

"There was that underground base with the gravity well, of course, and the escape pod you just found," Brittany said. "A few old things from the Russians and NASA. Mostly museum level stuff."

"Any signs of inhabitants or visitors? Living ones?"

"Not yet. Why?" Brittany asked.

"I still feel like someone is watching me," Quinn said. "You’d have noticed if we had any visitors, right?"

Brittany hummed for a moment. "They would have to be here already, before San’s system sensors went up, or have tech better than ours to sneak past her. Or to sneak by mine. And Artie would have told us."

"Your system watch is better than Fleet’s?" Quinn asked.

"We have slightly different approaches, but yes, much better," Brittany said. "But don’t tell her."

"I didn’t hear that," Quinn said, laughing. "So, if anyone is watching me, and it’s not you or anyone in the Fleet, or Artie, they’ve been here for years?"

"Yup," Brittany said. "Let me know if you find anything."

"Will do," Quinn said. "Out."

"Later, Handy Babe," Brittany said, giggling.

Quinn scanned the sand dunes she was currently passing through. Now that the sandstorm had lifted, the horizon seemed to stretch out forever, though her suit said it was only a dozen clicks away. The feeling of being watched persisted as she approached some hills, still a thousand clicks from home base. If she didn’t stop or slow down she’d be there in an hour.

She was starting to feel the strain of constant movement. Not including the interruption for the escape pod, she’d been in her suit and constantly moving for twelve hours, her trek taking her across a huge chunk of planetary surface. Not a long time in a Clan hard suit, she’d gone weeks in her previous suit during training exercises in the past. But there were rarely such sustained periods of exercise at speed or on rough terrain. Even with her Clan enhanced physique and the hard suit she could feel it.

A sharp beep from her suit nav system warned her of an obstruction ahead. Slowing down, she looked ahead and saw jagged hills. As she approached them it was looking more and more like a large blast crater. Fairly common on the moon and some of the outer planets but the first she’d personally seen on Mars. Cautiously making her way through them she stopped at the edge of a large crater that her suit’s sensors said was twenty klicks across.

"That’s a big hole," Santana said in her comm.

"Voyeur much?" Quinn said. "Don’t you have some space monkeys to scare?"

"Why would I do that when I can peep on you?" Santana said. "Sure, it’s kind of boring on Mars but you do find interesting things."

"It’s a crater," Quinn said. Her suit beeped a warning. "With a high radiation count…"

"Which doesn’t register with all those expensive high tech sensors floating over you," Santana said. "So, why does your suit see it and we don’t? And why don’t they show you where your suit says you are."

"Can’t answer that," Quinn said. "Maybe one of them is broken?"

"Your suit says it’s okay," Santana. "And so do those satellite sensors."

"They can’t both be right," Quinn said. "And the suit isn’t invisible to Clan scanners. Not even in stealth mode.

"And that escape pod shouldn’t be there either, but oops, there it is, Santana said.

"Brittany won’t be surprised," Quinn said. "She’s being very silent out there."

"She’s busy," Santana said. "She doesn’t watch you 24/7, you know."

"Feels like it sometimes," Quinn grumbled.

"Nah, she does have minion AI’s keeping an eye on the rest of the Council. They let her know if she needs us. She doesn’t have time to watch us all personally anymore."

"Ah," Quinn said. "Not sure I should be relieved or concerned she’s so busy she has to do that."

"I’ve got the worrying about Brit under control," Santana said. "You go check out that crater."

"If I die, I’m telling Brit on you," Quinn said, looking down into the crater.

"If you die we have bigger problems than Brit yelling at me," Santana said.

"Don’t worry, I’ve got good minions," Quinn said. "They can handle the Bugs."

"That I’m not worried about, as long as your battle plans are on file somewhere Brit can get to," Santana said. "It’s your planning skills we need, not your fighting skills."

"Gee, thanks, San," Quinn said. "Love you too."

"You know what I mean," Santana said. "But Rachel would kill me if you get killed doing something I told you to do."

"No, she won’t," Quinn said.

"Doesn’t matter," Santana said. "Nothing’s going to happen. Now go find out what’s going on with that crater. Maybe it’s the troop ship that pod was from."

"Not going to be much left of it if it is," Quinn said. "Probably just radioactive dust."

"Just go," Santana said.

"Going," Quinn said, flipping the suit comm channels to 'do not disturb'. It wouldn’t stop anyone from contacting her but only emergencies would get through immediately.

That’s a long drop, she thought, leaning over the edge. She looked behind her, back towards the plain, mapping out a straight route. If she planned it correctly she could get a high enough jump to get a better close view of the crater. If the sat scanners weren’t showing her, who knew what else wasn’t being seen. It probably wasn’t Bugs, they weren’t subtle. Or sneaky. According to the history records, you always knew when they were in the neighborhood.

With a clear route in mind, Quinn moved back a click. Turning back towards the crater, she took off. Even with the rocky ground, she was able to get close to her maximum speed before reaching the edge of the crater. Hitting the edge like a high diver on a springboard, she hit her boosters, the momentum propelling her up in a high arc above the crater. As soon as she was airborne she switched all of her suit sensors to maximum sensitivity.

The arc wasn’t high enough to carry her even half way across the crater. Hitting her suit boosters again she briefly came to a stop, hovering several hundred feet above the crater floor for several seconds, before continuing her journey to the ground. Fortunately, her suit was built for this kind of use. It wasn’t much different than the final stages of planetary insertion. And this time no one was shooting at her.

As she reached the ground, Quinn prepared for the bounding jump that made the Clan’s hard suits so unique. As soon as her feet touched the ground she was pushing off again, gaining ten meters elevation. Not high enough to see above the crater rim but giving her a clear field of view across the crater.

On the third bounce she saw a dark shadow halfway up the crater wall. On the tenth bounce she was close enough to detect a metal oval embedded in the wall, set back several meters. Just barely leaving room for her to stand there, if she judged things correctly. With two more bounces she was headed straight for it.

With a hard thump, jarring enough to knock out a suit-less person, she slammed into the metal oval. Hitting the magnetic grapples built into her suit gloves she grabbed the oval to stop any further movement.

"That was fun," she mumbled.

"What was fun?" Rachel said on the Council comm.

"Oh, hey Rache, didn’t know my comm was live," Quinn said.

"It just came on," Rachel said. "You’ve been out of contact for thirty minutes. We were starting to get worried. Brit was going to send a rescue team after you."

"I told her you were busy," Santana said, jumping in. "But someone didn’t believe me."

"Sorry," Quinn said, not saying what she was sorry for, a deflection trick she’d learned years ago. "Found something."

"You’re very faint," Brittany said. "And still not showing up on our monitors. Must be something about that crater."

"Do I have enough signal to send a data dump?" Quinn asked, under her breath. "Not sure what’s here but I did a full scan of the crater while crossing it. Trying to send it now."

"Crossing it? Did you climb down and run across it?" Santana said. "Would have been faster to jump across it."

"It’s too far, even in this new hard suit," Quinn said. "I only made it halfway before I landed. But I had my suit sensors going full blast the whole time."

"Getting it now," Brittany said. "That radiation you detected is some kind of camouflage shield. That’s why we can’t see you."

"What are you doing now?" Rachel asked. "Your video comm isn’t transmitting anything, just static."

"Suit status is still good," Quinn said.

"Not getting any suit data," Santana said. "The suit techs are freaking. Only that comm channel is punching through and it is just dribbling the data. Your suit telemetry signal isn’t strong enough."

"Can’t help you there, San," Quinn said. "Didn’t design the suit, I’m just wearing it. They can fix that when I get back. It is supposed to be experimental."

"Argue later," Brittany said. "What did you find?"

"It’s a large metal oval," Quinn said. "Sort of looks like that one near that underground base you found. How do I open it? Does my suit have the right tech?"

"Use code Aleph - Finn - Moloch, authorization Clan Council override. That’ll give you access to the suit lock picks," Brittany said.

"Can anyone access those?" Santana asked. "The suit lock picks."

"Just Shadow suits on ops," Brittany said. "And a couple others."

"So I can’t?" Rachel asked.

"Do you need to get into places you normally can’t?" Brittany asked.

"Umm… no…" Rachel said.

"That would be a no, Shorty," Santana said. "Q-ball’s suit has a special test pilot mode for this test. It can do some things most suits can’t."

"And isn’t ready, remotely, for real ops," Quinn said. "All that extra tech like the special telemetry that isn’t working requires too much power. It’s going to need a full recharge tomorrow before I can wear it again."

"What’s behind the door?" Brittany said, interrupting them. "Do we need to send a team to meet you? I’ve got one team at the base. The other is in transit with that Pod."

"Just a minute," Quinn said. She triggered the suit lock picks, pressing gloves against the oval again. It shuddered for several seconds before it started to slide to her left. "It’s dark." She aimed her suit lights into the dark.

"Do you need a flashlight?" Rachel asked.

"She’s wearing a hard suit," Santana said. "She doesn’t need a flashlight. She’s got sensors and shit."

"Oh, right," Rachel said.

"It’s a tunnel," Quinn said. "Walls are smooth. Sensors say ceramic of some sort. Are you getting it?"

"Still only getting voice," Brittany said. "Even compressed down as far as possible there isn’t room for video on that channel."

"Understood. I’m going in a few meters. Let’s see how far you can 'hear' me," Quinn said. Putting words to action, she carefully entered, wary of triggering any traps. "Can you still hear me?" she asked.

"On max gain," Brittany said, her voice very faint. "You’re barely understandable."

"Got it. Compressing the signal more," Quinn said, adjusting her comm channel. A regular suit didn’t have the ability to change comm settings to that degree but her test suit seemed to be full of interesting features. "How’s that?"

"Better," Brittany said. "I suspect the tunnel material is affecting the signal. If you go much further we’ll lose you completely."

"Understood," Quinn said. "So, save the exploration for later?"

"Just wait until I can get a team down to you," Brittany said. "It’s not going anywhere. Looking at historical data on Mars, that spot has looked like that for as long as we’ve had detailed images."

"Okay," Quinn said. "Closing it up." She stepped back out of the tunnel and triggered the door. "How long until they get here?" she asked, looking across the crater. "And how are they going to find me?"

"You’ve got enough signal for them to find you," Brittany said. "But tag the door just in case."

"Done," Quinn said, placing a tag on both the metal oval and the surrounding rock just in case. "Think I’ll go explore. Maybe there’s something else here. We could cover it and add some air and have a nice place."

"Let’s not get ahead of ourselves," Santana said. "We still have Brit’s underground base to set up and your training base. Who would use this new base you are proposing?"

"It was just a thought," Quinn said. "We aren’t exactly outgrowing what space we have. At max population density, how many of us will there be?"

"Not counting the diaspora? A quarter million," Rachel said. "There really aren’t that many of us. Half a million if we add the Lost."

"Small but powerful," Santana said. "We aren’t supposed to be large or need to be. How big is the largest clan?"

"The Ghost Clan had two million active members at the last Clan census," Brittany said. "We’ve never been very large, which is probably why we ended up out here."

"But large enough to stop the Bugs, right?" Rachel asked.

"Our tech allows us to punch way above our weight class," Brittany said. “Some of the other Clans don’t have tech like ours and had to grow to survive."

"Two hundred and fifty thousand is still a lot of people," Quinn said. "Enough for a small city."

"I’m sending Pip and Squeak," Santana said. "They should have been on this little trip with you anyway. They should reach you before the others."

"I don’t need bodyguards," Quinn said, repeating a familiar complaint. "And we didn’t have any spare suits for them that could keep up with this one."

"Well, obviously you need to be watched," Santana said. "There’d be a riot if you got hurt. And you aren’t moving now. I think your adventure is over for now. You can test that suit some other time."

"I’m doing fine," Quinn said, jumping down from the tunnel entrance. "This just looks like a huge bomb crater, not from some asteroid. I wonder what happened."

"There are heavy elements scattered across the whole crater," Brittany said. "We’ll have to get some heavy scanners in to look at it. Some of those elements aren’t native to Mars."

"So, another alien facility? Or the remains of one?" Quinn asked, headed towards the center of the crater. "Still feels like someone or something is watching me."

"Can’t say," Brittany said. "That’s going to have to wait until my team gets there. It’s possible it’s some kind of automatic watcher. Something must control that camouflage field."

"Just a bunch of rocks," Quinn said. "If there’s something here it’s hidden under more rocks."

"Pip and Squeak should be with you shortly," Santana said. "They were already headed towards you when this happens. Apparently they agree that you need a babysitter."

"I might have suggested they join her," Rachel said.

"You don’t have the authority," Quinn said. She wasn’t going to yell, but she was tempted. Sometimes Rachel didn’t understand chain of command in her command. And sometimes it seemed like she just ignored it, taking advantage of her position on the Clan Council.

"I didn’t order them to do anything, Quinn," Rachel said. "I didn’t have to."

"See what you have to look forward to?" Santana said, laughing. "Someone who takes care of you even when you don’t want it."

"Of course," Rachel said. "Someone has to keep an eye on her."

"Brittany?" Quinn said, hoping for backup.

"Don’t look at me," Brittany said. "I have enough trouble keeping San out of trouble. Rachel’s your problem."

"Hey!" Santana said. "I’m not trouble!"

"Keep telling yourself that," Quinn said, with a loud snort as she landed in the middle of the crater. "Not very impressive. Pluto’s more exciting."

"You can freeze your ass off on Pluto," Santana said. "It’s not a garden spot."

"There’s just enough weather on Mars to have erosion and variety," Brittany reminded her. "That’s why you wanted to have a training base set up there."

"It really looks like a bomb crater," Quinn said. "A big one."

"The aliens probably blew themselves up," Santana said. "Not going to find anything there."

"Hey Boss, nice picnic spot you picked out," Pip said, landing in the crater next to her. Squeak landed a few seconds later.

"I do what I can," Quinn said. "You were getting bored."

"We’re never bored," said Squeak. "Hanging out with you is more exciting than refereeing a tech robot fight."

"Watching grass grow is more exciting than a tech robot fight," Santana said. "Ladies, don’t let your boss out of your sight."

"Yes, Lady Air, Ma’am," Pip said. "We’ll stick like glue."

"Like glue," Squeak echoed. "What’s the plan?"

"Lady Shadow’s team should be here in a few minutes and then we’re going exploring," Quinn said. "Found a tunnel." She waved back in the direction of the tunnel.

"Exploring exploring? Or Bug hunting?" Pip asked.

"No Bugs," Quinn said. "But my suit doesn’t have any close range weapons so we aren’t going to barge in and attract attention."

"Plenty of weapons to go around," Squeak said. She handed a suit blaster to Quinn. "Here you go Boss."

"Thanks," Quinn said, locking it to her suit.

"That suit hasn’t been certified for weapons tests," Santana said. "If you break it, you can explain to the techs what you were doing."

"Lady Air, we got the blaster from one of your techs," Pip said. "It’s coded just for that suit."

"You’re the best, ladies," Quinn said happily.

"We ain’t ladies, Boss!" Squeak protested. "We’re Serpent Clan Troopers. The toughest suits in the Galaxy. Right Pip?"

"Exactly, Squeak," Pip said. "Tough Suits! None are better!"

"I think they’ve lost it," Santana said to the others over the Council comm. "Who’re her backup body guards?"

"They’re troopers," Brittany said. "They’ve earned their attitude."

"And they’re going to need it," Quinn said quietly. "The Bugs aren’t pacifists."

"So what else did you find, Boss?" Pip said.

"Nothing so far," Quinn said. "We’ll have to wait for a full heavy scan team." A proximity sensor in her suit pinged. "Looks like they’re here." Turning, she headed back towards the tunnel, her entourage keeping pace.

"Boss, that’s an awesome looking suit," Pip said. "Moves so smooth. When do we all get them?"

"Hopefully before the Bugs get here," Quinn said. "But right now it’s too experimental. The power signature needs some work. And the weapons load is a bit off."

"Still a sweet looking suit," Pip said. "The chicks dig test pilots, I hear."

"I wouldn’t know," Quinn said, ignoring comments from Santana in the background on the other channel.

Quinn watched the Fleet engineers building a platform around the tunnel entrance to give them more room to maneuver. Another team, a Fleet Heavy scanner team, had taken up position in the center of the crater. Gold Team had also arrived fully outfitted for close quarter operations.

A comm relay had been set up at the edge of the crater to take care of the comm problems. The crater had quickly become a bustling hive of activity.

"So, a lot of bored people today?" Quinn asked.

"What gave you that idea?" Brittany said.

"It’s like a circus out here," Quinn said. "I’ve got one of your Shadow teams, several Fleet Engineer teams, and one of my teams. All for a little cave exploring."

"Think of it as a training exercise," Brittany said. "Your chance to direct a combined Clan team."

"I do that all of the time," Quinn said. "When was the last time we had a major operation that I didn’t get Fleet and Shadow support?"

"There was that time when you snuck into Moscow with your team and rescued that Ambassador’s wife from those mobsters," Brittany said.

"How’d you hear about that one?" Quinn asked, surprised. She’d thought that little misadventure hadn’t been noticed.

"One of my monitor AIs noticed some unusual traffic, and copied your suit logs before you erased them," Brittany said.

"Sorry?" Quinn said. "That was totally unplanned. The Queen asked my Grandmother for help and I couldn’t really say no."

"So, the Queen now knows you’re from Ohio?" Brittany said.

"Maybe?" Quinn said. "She knows how to contact me in an emergency."

"Well, if she does know there haven’t been any leaks," Brittany said. "She’s got mad intel skills. And some good people working for her that would surprise you."

"So, some of the big intel groups know who we are?" Quinn guessed.

"From almost the beginning," Brittany said. "I’ve got an agreement with them. They don’t spill our secrets and I don’t spill theirs. And my tech is much better so they can’t cheat."

"How much do we charge them?" Quinn asked.

"Charge them?" Brittany said innocently.

"For the intel?"

"Going rates," Brittany said, "but mostly trading in favors. And we don’t play politics with intel."

"So we’re basically neutral?" Quinn said.

"As much as we can be," Brittany said. "They know who we are and that we’re law enforcement with some extra zip. We aren’t going to get involved in their petty wars and squabbles."

"Do any of them know about our long term plans. About the Bugs?" Quinn said.

"Not yet, though they are suspicious. Too many things we are doing don’t make sense if we’re just building a base for a sector wide police force. If we were just space cops we wouldn’t buy NASA or share some of our tech. And we probably wouldn’t have grabbed Yucatan. We could have built our base anywhere. Like Mars."

"Huh," Quinn said. "So one of them told you about Russia."

"Yes," Brittany said. "You can’t hide anything from me. The Shadow always knows."

"As long as you don’t tell Rachel," Quinn said. "She doesn’t need to know about these kinds of side projects."

"I won’t lie to her," Brittany said. "And some day she’ll find out. She’ll get all of our records eventually."

"I know," Quinn said. "But by then it won’t matter."

"No worries," Brittany said.

"What do you think this is?" Quinn asked her.

"I think Santana has it right," Brittany said. "Somebody blew themselves up, or someone else did it for them. The tunnel probably goes to the control room for the camouflage and nothing else. It’s possible there’s some kind of security system still running but it seems to be ignoring us right now."

"Security? Active?"

"Mostly passive," Brittany said. "There was some low energy comm traffic in the area that seemed to follow you."

"And you didn’t say anything?" Quinn said.

"Hard to track them down if we scare them away," Brittany said.

"Ready?" Quinn signaled over the command comm, to her team and the Shadows. Everyone else had pulled back to the center of the crater, with reinforcements guarding the non-combatants. Green status lights flickered in her display as they all signaled ready.

Quinn stepped up to the metal door and signaled it to unlock. Even in the low atmospheric conditions of Mars, it slid open, eerily silent. Tossing a probe beacon down the tunnel, Quinn and her team quickly followed it, the Shadow team bringing up the rear.

There were no explosions, no gun fire, nothing. A large empty tunnel stretching out into the crater wall for an unknown distance. They cautiously walked in standard patrol fashion down the tunnel. With no reaction.

"Anything?" Quinn asked.

"It’s dead, Lady Hands," Jocelyn, the lead Shadow said. "Nothing on any of the comm bands or frequencies we can monitor. And the tunnel material absorbs any other kinds of energy. Not even a vibration."

"Mapping?" Quinn asked.

"The probe just says it’s a ten klick tunnel with an opening at the end. It’s not sensing any doors or other openings."

"Looks like we have a long walk ahead of us," Quinn said. "How are our comms doing?"

"Loud and clear," Brittany said. "Much better than last time. Definitely the camouflage shield that was affecting comms."

"Let’s go see what’s at the end of this," Quinn said, leading her team deeper into the tunnel, lit only by the infrared combat lights on their hard suits.

"Still nothing?" Quinn asked Jocelyn after they’d slipped a klick down the tunnel.

"Still dead," she said. "If there’s anything here we’ll need a heavy scanner team to find it."

"The heavy scanner team scanning the crater can scan the tunnel once you clear it," Brittany said.

As they passed the probe, Pip picked it up and tossed it further down the tunnel. "Did it go into the opening at the end?"

"No," Jocelyn said. "It bounced off of something in front of it."

"You need to practice your throw," Squeak told Pip.

"Looks like a corner," Pin, Gold Team XO said. "Someone want to scan that before we stick our heads around the corner and get them blown off?"

"You have such a way with words, Pin," Quinn said. "Joyce, check that out."

"Yes, Ma’am," Jocelyn said. Reaching into a pocket she pulled out a smaller probe and tossed it towards the corner, where it floated for several long seconds before moving out of site around the tunnel.

"Anything?" Quinn asked.

"Just more tunnel, Lady Hands," Jocelyn said. "It curves to the right, back towards the crater."

As soon as she finished, the was a large vibration and bright flash of light. Both teams pulled back from the corner.

"Lost contact," Jocelyn said. "Something triggered the self destruct."

"Any readings?" Pin asked.

"A brief blip when it blew, on a low frequency," Jocelyn said. "No detected direction."

"How many more of those do you have?" Quinn asked.

"Standard load, three each," Jocelyn said.

"Let’s try three this time," Quinn said. "One high and one low. And one here with us looking down the tunnel."

"Yes, ma’am," Jocelyn said. Her team pulled out several more from their pockets. The three were released into the tunnel. One stopped, hovering with a view down both legs of the tunnel.

There was a double flash this time, as the two probes sent down the tunnel exploded at the same time.

"Did you catch that?" Quinn said impatiently. "Was there anything from the third?"

"There’s a shield of some sort in the tunnel," Jocelyn said. "They ran into it and it fried them."

"So passive protection," Quinn said.

"Yes, ma’am," Jocelyn said. "Not a weapon or not intended as one."

"What setting for our suit scanners so we don’t run into it?"

"Tiger tech shield setting," Jocelyn said, after a minute. "That’ll show it."

"It’s Tiger tech?" Quinn said, surprised.

"No, ma’am," Jocelyn said. "But the Tiger tech scan setting will reconfigure your scanners to see it."

"Okay," Quinn said. "Britt?"

"She’s right," Brittany said. "It’s running at a low frequency like some really old Tiger tech they haven’t used in thousands of years. But the shield signature isn’t Clan. Any Clan. Ours or Tiger."

"Got it," Quinn said. "So, set your suit scanners to include setting Tiger-Alpha-Zed."

"Yes boss," Pip said, echoed by the others. "That’s the one that gives everything a faint green tinge."

"Could be worse," Squeak muttered. "There’s that one scan setting that gives everything a purple tinge, and you have to replace the scanner module to fix it."

"Ladies," Quinn said. "Save it for later."

"Yes, Boss," Pip said.

"Not seeing it," Quinn said, stepping around her bodyguards into the side tunnel. "Will it activate before we run into it? Or when we’re in the middle of it? Jocelyn?"

"It looks like the shield came on as the probes passed through it."

"So, being able to see it won’t do much good," Pin said, following her. "Who wants to get fried so we can turn it off?"

"We know approximately where it is," Quinn said, pointing at the charred probes several hundred meters away. "Just be careful."

"Janey, this one’s yours," Pin said.

"Gee, thanks XO," Janey said sarcastically. "I expect an awesome Journey party when you bury me."

"Only the best," Pin said. "Now go!"

Chapter Text

"It’s just a little singed," Pip said, poking Janey’s hard suit, as they waited for Jocelyn to open the large metal door on the other side of the protective shield. The rest of Gold Team waited in standard entry formation.

"That’s not a little singe," Janey said, trying to rub off the black mark down the front of her suit. "The Chief is gonna kill me, after she makes me clean all of the other suits after this op."

"I’ll vouch for you," Pip said. "You should get a medal."

"You cut it awfully close," Squeak cut in.

Any reply by Janey was stopped by the large door slowly sliding into the wall, with a large rumble that shook the floor.

"Go... go..." Pin said, as Quinn dove into the opening before it was fully open. When the others joined her, she was standing in the center of a large room. Along the walls were a number of viewing panels, displaying random scenes from the crater and surrounding area.

"Some kind of viewing room," Quinn said, before her eye caught something.

On the far side was a recessed alcove containing a large crystal ring.

"Well, that’s surprising," Quinn said. "Didn’t think we would run into one of those."

"That looks like one of the Rings that Lady Andrea discovered," Jocelyn said. "I wonder where it goes."

"It might not go anywhere," Quinn said. "So let’s not be in any hurry to try it out. Or it could go to the one out in the asteroid belt."

"That gives us a general age," Brittany said, in her ear. "All of the other rings are several hundred thousand years old, at least."

"What do you want us to do with it?" Quinn asked. "No one’s been here for a long, long time, based on the layer of dust."

"Not air tight," Pin said. "Might need to fix that."

"Is there anything else there?" Brittany said. "Or do you still need that heavy scanner team?"

"Definitely need them," Quinn said. "It’s the same material as everywhere else. Even the enhanced scanner on my test suit can’t penetrate the walls. If there are any secret doors or hidden passages we aren’t going to find them."

"I’ll get a full team down there," Brittany said. "The rest of Black Team should be there soon. Did you want to wait for them?"

"How long? This suit is running low on juice," Quinn said. "I’ve got maybe another hour before I turn into a pumpkin."

"There’s a shuttle up top with a suit tech and hookups just for you," Brittany said. "No pumpkin needed."

"Thanks, Brit, you’re awesome," Quinn said.

"And don’t you forget it," she said.

"Ladies, I’ve got to head out," Quinn said to her team. "This suit wasn’t meant for long ops. Pin, you’re in charge until the rest of Shadow Black team arrives. There should also be a Fleet Heavy Scanner team on the way. If they don’t have security with them, cover them until it arrives."

"Got it Boss," Pin said. "Anything else?"

"A quick review of this op tomorrow," Quinn said. "Janey shouldn’t have taken a hit from that shield. Take it apart and find out what went wrong."

"Yes, Boss," Pin said, before turning to the others and issuing orders.

Quinn headed for the tunnel, after one last look at the Ring. She’d yet to go through one and was admittedly curious, but there were other priorities. But having one on Mars could be useful.

"Hey Boss," Pip said. "Don’t forget you have dinner with Lady Memory tonight."

"Shouldn’t you two be back with the rest of Gold Team?" Quinn asked. "And when did you become my social secretary."

"Wherever you go, we go," Squeak said. "Orders from the top."

"You work for me," Quinn said. "I don’t need the company."

"Not when we’re on guard rotation," Pip said. "Only the combined Council can override that."

"You’re not going to win, Quinn," Brittany said.

"I’m a trooper," Quinn said, grumbling, as she reached the outer entrance. "It’s foolish to assign me bodyguards. They’ve got better things to do."

"You’re a member of the Council," Brittany said. "You’re entitled to protection."

"I’m my own protection," Quinn said.

"Call them your Handmaidens then," Brittany said, "if bodyguard doesn’t work for you. They aren’t going away."

"The Hand’s Handmaidens," Pip said. "I like that!"

"Wouldn’t you rather be leading your own teams?" Quinn asked them.

"Some day," Pip said. "But right now following you around is exciting."

"And gets us chicks," Squeak said. "They can’t get you so we get them."

"But you didn’t hear that," Pip said. "She didn’t say anything like that."

"I don’t want to know," Quinn said, grimacing. Handmaidens didn’t sound much better, she thought. It was still a babysitting job.

"Looks like they still haven’t turned off that camouflage shield," Pip said.

"There’s probably a control center near the Ring," Quinn said. "They’ll find it. Have you qualified in the new hard suits yet?"

"The ones Lady Andrea and the Potters wore for Lady M’s rescue?" Squeak asked. "We’ve had the pod time to familiarize ourselves with them and the nanite treatments but our suits aren’t ready yet. Maybe this week."

"If you’re going to follow me around, you’ll need them. They’re the only suits that can keep up with this one. We have a couple more weeks of testing in this model."

"Okay, Boss," Squeak said. "The shuttles are over there," she added, waving towards a section of crater wall. "Looks like there’s an elevator now."

"We’ll just wait out here," Pip said, once they reached the shuttle. "Let us know when you’re ready to head back to base."

"Okay..." Quinn said, wondering what they were up to. Pressing the hatch control, she slipped into the shuttle, the hatch closing behind her. It was occupied by one more person than she expected.

Quinn popped her suit helmet, exposing her face to real air for the first time in eighteen hours. She ran her hands through her short hair, trying to fluff it up after so long in the suit.

"What brings you here, Rache?"

"Hello Quinn," Rachel said. "I thought I’d come get you in person, it was taking too long for you to get back."

"Sorry, a few unexpected side trips today," Quinn said. "And the suit needs a recharge."

"Francis can take care of it," Rachel said. "Apparently I’m not allowed to touch the tech."

Quinn raised an eyebrow at the tech, who shrugged.

"Chief’s orders," Francis said. "She didn’t explain."

"I might have broken something the last time I wore one," Rachel said, blushing. "Something went wonky."

"What’s going on Brit?" Quinn said, over the command comm.

"Ah..." Brittany said.


"You won’t like it," Brittany said, warning her.

"Go ahead," Quinn said, frowning.

"Suit tech goes wonky around the Memory,” Brittany said. "The techs haven’t figured out why but it means she can’t wear one until they find out why and can fix it, and touching one, especially an experimental one like yours? They don’t know what will happen."

"Okay..." Quinn said, staring at Rachel. "They’ll figure it out."

"If you could sit here, Lady Hands?" Francis told her, pointing at a seat. "We need to hook you up to power."

Nodding, Quinn gingerly perched on the cabin seat. Hard suits weren't that heavy but they did wreak havoc on ordinary furniture. Most chairs just weren’t designed to support the weight of a hard suit wearing Clanswoman.

"How long?" Quinn asked.

"An hour," Francis said.

"Do we need to stay here or can we take the shuttle back to base?" Quinn asked.

"Your suit can charge while the shuttle is airborne," Frankie said. She started plugging Quinn’s suit into a row of equipment.

"Good," Quinn said, after signaling to Pip and Squeak that the shuttle was leaving. "Let’s get this thing moving."

"So, we now have a local Ring that we can use?" Rachel asked.

"Well, we have a Ring that isn’t in the middle of an asteroid field," Quinn said. "We don’t know if it’ll work or where it goes. It’ll take some research."

"Andy and her crew figured out how to use them," Rachel said.

"They were in a hurry," Quinn reminded her. "They were stuck parsecs from home and had no other choice."

"I’d like to go on a trip like that," Rachel said. "It sounded like fun."

"After we defeat the Bugs, you and I can go on a long road trip," Quinn said.

"Where?" Rachel asked excitedly.

"Wherever you want," Quinn said. "But not today."

"Can we take the Ring?" Rachel said.

"I’ll have to check with the experts," Quinn said. "I haven’t had time to look into how they work."

The sound of of the shuttle docking cut her off.

"Another twenty," Francis said. "I’ve already warned the pilot."

"Captive audience?" Santana said, entering the shuttle. "Don’t see the Might Q tied up like that so often."

"Santana," Quinn said. "Has your scanning team found anything else in that crater?"

"Nada," Santana said. "But deep scanning takes time. They might find nothing. But that Ring is cool. Now we just need to find one on Terra."

"Might be too expensive to use it to commute," Quinn said. "It must take lot of power to run."

Santana shook her head. "Not as much as you’d think. The techs think it has to do with the crystal. It doesn’t require as much power as the Rings in that other universe."

"What about all of those crystal storage devices Andy brought back?" Rachel asked. "Do we know what’s in them yet?"

"That’s a question for Brit," Santana said. She plopped down into an empty seat, making herself comfortable. "I don’t think her wiz kid have quite figured it out."

"When are we having the inquest?" Rachel said.

"Inquest for?" Santana asked.

"For the Clan member they brought back, the one with the Goa'uld problem," Rachel said.

"Can’t answer that," Santana said.

"Can’t or won’t?" Rachel asked.

"Can’t," Santana said. "Someone needs to put it on the agenda for our next meeting."

"Oh," Rachel said, frowning.

"Boss, what are we doing on Pluto?" Pip asked, imagining the cold creeping through her hard suit as they stood on the frozen plain.

"You wanted to be bodyguards," Quinn said. "I’m testing the new hard suit in extreme conditions."

"Are we going to be fighting in a blizzard?" Squeak asked. "I can make snowballs."

"Not if we can help it," Quinn said. "The Bugs aren’t too fond of the cold."

"So, Venus next?" Pip said.

"Right. You missed that," Quinn said. "That was three weeks ago. Learned a few things."

"Not to go to Venus?" Squeak said.

"It’s not my favorite vacation spot," Quinn said. "It was worse than the sandstorm on Mars. Our hard suits are tough but they aren’t ready for an extended campaign on Venus or Mercury. If the Bugs make it to those planets or any like them in other systems, Fleet is going to have to take care of them."

"So not even scouting?"

"The Shadows are testing hard suits for those environments that can handle their ops needs," Quinn said.

"Why not our hard suits?" Pip asked. "These fancy new ones?"

"Different operating parameters," Quinn said. "You’ll have to talk with the Fleet suit architects if you want to know details."

"What’s left to test, Boss?" Pip asked.

"We aren’t testing nuclear blast survival," Quinn said. "Simulations say we’ll be okay but Fleet wouldn’t sign off on the test."

"The Memory said no, didn’t she," Squeak said, giggling.

"Possibly," Quinn said. "Looks like our ride is here." She took off across the ice towards the waiting shuttle. Pip and Squeak kept pace beside her.

"A little early," Quinn said, as they settled into their racks.

"Might need your expertise," Santana said, over the comm. "We have a situation."

"Do I have time to change suits?" Quinn said. "This one isn’t suitable for regular ops."

"Plenty of time," Santana said. "Fleet is in-system waiting for us. We can get you out of that tin can and into your regular one once we get there."

"So, what’s going on?" Quinn asked. "Do you need me or a whole team?"

"The three of you should do it," Santana said. "We need a bit of mobile firepower. We’ve also got a Shadow assigned to the op."

"Details?" Quinn asked. "And where’s Brit?"

"She’s out on an op," Santana said. "Radio silence for the next month."

"Crap," Quinn said. "So just junior Shadows for intel support?"

"She can’t be everywhere," Santana said. "Fleet intel is just as good."

"Just as good as a Junior Shadow," Quinn said. "Brittany’s the best at what she does."

"There’s a large gap between good enough and not here," Santana said. "The Shadows are well trained."

"Details?" Quinn repeated.

"It’s another retrieval," Santana said. She paused to land the shuttle in Fleet’s landing bay. They settled to the deck without a sound or vibration. "Or maybe a diplomatic mission?"

"Who are we rescuing and what’s the priority?" Quinn asked.

"Priority? I want you all back alive and in one piece. Rescuing? Not sure yet. Seems to be an on-going extra-dimensional incursion."

"Another one?" Pip said. "We just got back from stopping those Nega-verse bozos from dragging us into their feud with that Moon Princess."

"She was cute," Squeak said.

"She has a destiny," Pip said, "and it doesn’t include someone from a different dimension."

"This solar system seems to be full of portals to other places," Santana said. "I can see why the Confederation wanted us here. Someone needs to keep an eye on all of these accidental crossovers."

"It does seem as if it’s unusually unstable," Quinn said.

"And not getting stabler any time soon according to Brit," Santana said.

"Didn’t Brittany say she had a way of closing them all down?" Quinn asked.

"Only if we can find them," Santana said. "Her techs are still trying to find a way to detect them all."

"So, what is it this time?" Quinn asked.

"Robots from the fifth dimension!" Squeak said. "Or maybe Buckaroo Banzai himself?"

"Nothing from a movie," Santana said. "A town seems to be missing."

"A whole town?" Quinn said.

"Apparently," Santana said. "There’s a forest where it used to be. And space has gotten extremely unstable."

"Anything special about the town?" Quinn asked. "Or just random?"

"No idea," Santana said. "But the US President has asked us to investigate."

"What else?" Quinn asked.

"His daughter might have been visiting a friend there at the time."

"Might have?" Pip said. "He isn’t sure?"

"Thy have a contentious relationship," Santana said. "Her car was found nearby."

"Okay, so that’s the rescue part. What’s the diplomacy part?" Quinn asked.

"It’s in the Salomon islands."

"Didn’t there used to be a launch facility out there?" Quinn said.

"Japanese," Santana said. "They lost their funding when we bought NASA."

"They were part of NASA?"

"No," Santana said. "But they had a quick launch capability their Japanese sponsors didn’t think they needed once they saw what we could do."

"What’s the catch?"

"There isn’t one, that I know of," Santana said. "They might not be happy to see us."

"So, stealth op? Why not some Shadows? They specialize in this kind of thing." Quinn said.

"The President doesn’t want anyone to know his daughter was there. And there were several Kaiju reported in the area."

"Kaiju?" Quinn asked.

"Monsters. Like Godzilla!" Pip said excitedly.

"Godzilla is a movie monster," Quinn said.

"Might be another portal letting them in," Santana said.

"I’m starting to hate portals," Quinn said. "There are way too many in this system. Do we know if the Bugs know about this? It might make us a bigger target than we thought."

"Artie? Did the Confederation know about the portals?" Santana said.

"There is no mention in Confederation records of the kinds of portals you are encountering," Artie said. "And no intelligence available about Bug knowledge about the portals."

"We need to get them under control before the Bugs get here," Quinn said.

"Not disagreeing," Santana said. "Britt’s spy kids are working on it, as I said."

"I’ll take your word on it," Quinn said. "So, what’s the plan for this Solomon Island thing?"

"You drop in and poke around?" Santana said. "I’d start with the launch center. We have almost no intel about the area, just what shows up on long range scanners. So we can get you a map of before and after and that’s about it."

"So, they just picked up their whole village and moved it somewhere else? And no one noticed?" Santana said, listening to Quinn talk with the Village Chief. "How did they manage that?"

"Their gods helped them?" Quinn said. "I have no idea what he means. But it isn’t a mystery anymore."

"What about the President’s daughter? Where’d she go?" Santana asked.

"She’s friends with the former astronauts," Quinn said. "They were having a sleep-over."

"A sleep-over? Is that what they’re calling it now?" Santana said, laughing.

"The astronauts are three tiny Japanese women," Quinn said. "Pip and Squeak want to bring them home with us."

"They would," Santana said. "Do we want them?"

"They do have experience with space flight but they aren’t big brains like the NASA scientists," Quinn said. "They were picked because of their size and the rockets used. Not sure what we’d do with them, unless we can find them a job at NASA."

"Riding rockets into space," Santana said. "They must have guts."

"Very much," Quinn said. "Two of them are actually related, stepsisters, and their father is the village head."

"See if he’ll let them go with you," Santana said. "We’ll get a shuttle down to you that can take regular passengers. And we’ll take the President’s daughter home."

"Okay," Quinn said. There was a long pause. "He said sure."

"Really?" Santana said in surprise.

"They’re adults, he said," Quinn said. "At least I think that’s what he said."

"The shuttle should be there soon," Santana said. "Get them packed up and ready to go."

"Where are you taking them?" Quinn asked.

"The President’s daughter goes home. They get to visit NASA until Britt gets back and decides if we can use them for something. They aren’t likely to have any Clan DNA."

"Not unless some Mayan princess made it to Japan," Quinn said.

"Well, we’ve run into a few in other places. I wouldn’t be surprised."

"Hey San, did you miss me?" Brittany said, sliding into Santana’s lap.

"Is that even a question?" Santana asked.

"Just asking," Brittany said.

"So, two weeks with a bunch of hot Amazons," Santana said. "How’d that go?"

"They bought it," Brittany said. "We’ve got a treaty for an outpost on their world."

"What’d it cost us?" Santana said.

"Training. We help them increase their tech level so they can make their own hard suits," Brittany said.

"I thought they didn’t have Clan DNA?"

"They don’t but they do have some interesting genetics," Brittany said. "We can show them how to get the same effects as we do."

"No problem with arming a potential trouble-spot?"

"We proved we were worthy of their culture," Brittany said. "And then there’s the whole woman warrior thing they have going on."

"I’m surprised you didn’t have to bring in Quinn for the negotiations. She’s the ultimate warrior babe, even if she doesn’t think so."


"What did you do?"

"I promised them a visit from her and her 'handmaidens' when we start building the base."

"Ha! That’ll go over well," Santana said. "We almost lost Andy to them. They aren’t going to want to let her go once they see her in action."

"We’ll just send Rachel with her," Brittany said. "They won’t break up a bonded pair. It’s against their laws."

"Rachel and Quinn aren’t bonded," Santana said.

"They will be, or else," Brittany said grimly.

"This I’ve got to see," Santana said. "When do you plan on telling them?"

"I won’t have to tell them anything," Brittany said, smirking. "It’ll happen."

"Are we taking bets on this?" Santana asked.

"What do you want to bet?" Brittany said, frowning. Slipping back off of Santana’s lap, she paced back and forth across Santana’s office.

"No buildings or real estate," Santana said. "That’s too easy. And no chocolates or treats like that."

"Hmm... I’ll have to think of something," Brittany said. "But the bet is on."

The ship rocked as asteroids bounced off of its shields. They’d come into the system at an oblique angle, bouncing through the orbits of several planets before finding themselves in a vast field of rocks and ice. Too many in their path at once to just be knocked away.

Time seemed to move at a slower rate as they traveled towards the second planet from the system’s star. Santana could see rocks whizzing by in the front screens.

"Santana, watch where you’re going," Rachel said, almost shouting.

"I am," she shouted. "Just a bit crowded out here. Stay in your seat."

"I’m not going anywhere," Rachel said, gripping her seat rightly. "How long before we get there?" "Another twenty minutes, if we don’t run into something," Santana said.

"I thought you said this was safe?" "It’s space travel in a small metal craft," Santana said. "It’s as safe as you can get while traveling through space."

"Well, be careful? Some of us aren’t space jockeys."

"Some of us are buckled into our seats," Santana said.

"Why are we feeling this?" Rachel said. "It’s like being on a rollercoaster."

"We went through a gravity wave," Santana said. "It knocked out the inertia controls .They’ll be back online in a minute."

"When are they expecting us?" Rachel said.

"The base opening ceremony is tomorrow," Santana said. "We have a meeting with the team tonight."

"Good," Rachel said.

"You’re ready for tomorrow?" Santana said. "You can handle not being with your favorite Amazon warrior?"

"My favorite Amazon?" Rachel said, puzzled.

"Q-ball?" Santana said.

"Oh," Rachel said. "She doesn’t think of herself as an Amazon."

"Well, they were impressed with her," Santana said. "Especially the way she defeated their champion. Fast but not so fast she embarrassed them."

"Is there a recording of it?" Rachel said. "I’d like a copy."

"I might be able to find one," Santana said. "I have connections."

"So Brittany was there?" Rachel said.

"Of course," Santana said. "And this was done in their traditional combat armor."


"What do you mean what?" Santana said.

"What does their traditional arms look like?" Rachel said. "You sound like it was something unusual, like nude wrestling."

"Well, there was no wrestling," Santana said, laughing. "You should have seen Q’s face. Spears and swords in the nude."

"You watched Quinn fighting in the nude?" Rachel asked.

"Why not?" Santana said. "You would too."


There was a screeching tearing sound and the shuttle shook for a moment. And then shook some more.

"Hang on," Santana said.

"What’s wrong," Rachel said.

"Looks like there’s something wrong with the shuttle," Santana said.

"Really?" Rachel said sarcastically, as the lights dimmed.

"Please stay in your seat," Santana said. "Looks like we’re going to have to go into stasis."

"For how long," Rachel said.

"No idea," Santana said. "But we’re probably going to miss tomorrow’s ceremony, unless they find us quickly."

"I’ve never done this," Rachel said.

"Sure you have," Santana said. "When we were kidnapped, they threw us into stasis. It won’t hurt a bit."

"You better be right," Rachel said.

"Just be glad I’m running the show. In five," Santana said.

"I’m not ready," Rachel said.


"Santana, can you tell Quinn something for me?"

"4... you can tell her yourself..."

"But what if I die?" Rachel said.

"3... you aren’t going to die. The Clan has been using stasis fields for emergencies for forever.

"Tell Quinn I love her," Rachel said.

"2... you can tell her," Santana said.



"What do mean, their shuttle disappeared on the way to the ceremony?" Quinn said, staring at Brittany from the door to the small hut. "Where are they?"

"Something happened," Brittany said. "We’ve tracked them and they disappeared after reaching the system from Santana’s cruiser. But then the ion trail just goes away. No wreckage. Nothing."

"Why were they taking a shuttle? There’s a Ring on the planet," Quinn said.

"Santana has a crew mapping that system and the one next to it," Brittany said. "It’s just barely inside of our mandate."

"Aren’t most of the Ring inside our mandate?" Quinn asked, pacing back and forth in front of her.

"It’s possibly a coincidence," Brittany said, "but yes. One of them is in old Ghost Clan territory. An unoccupied planet but still in their territory."

"So, if their shuttle had blown up there’d be evidence?" Quinn said.

"Yes. Some trace. Something left behind. There would have at least been a stasis pod."

"Are they still searching?" Quinn asked.

"Of course," Brittany said. "If they are anywhere in this system, Santana’s Search and Rescue teams will find them."

"And what are we doing until then?" Quinn asked.

"Waiting," Brittany said. "My primary search team is also looking. But they haven’t found anything yet."

"Portal?" Quinn asked. "We’ve seen enough of them."

"Haven’t found one yet," Brittany said. "And no signs they were kidnapped." "So, mystery?"

"We’ll find them," Brittany said. "We know they’re out there."

"Ugh! My aching head," Santana said, sitting up with a groan. She looked around. The emergency lights were on but it was otherwise dark. She triggered her emergency channel. "Brit? Are you there?" but there was no answer. And no answer on any other channel.

"Santana? My head hurts," Rachel said, moaning.

"Don’t move," Santana said. Getting up, she looked around for Rachel. In the dim light she could see her slumped against a bulkhead. "I told you to stay buckled in," she said.

"I am," Rachel said, her voice full of pain.

"Well, don’t move any more." Santana carefully moved towards her.

"It’s dark in here," Rachel said.

"The power is out except for emergency," Santana said. "We must have hit something."

"I’m not hearing anything on the comm," Rachel said. "How is that possible?"

"No power, the shuttle can’t relay us, and the comms aren’t strong enough to reach anything, wherever we are." As she finished speaking, she reached the panel for the emergency kit. Pressing a hand against it, she opened it and pulled out the small med-kit and a light, leaving the survival kit where it was.

Still walking cautiously, she made her way back to Rachel. Setting the med-kit down, she scanned her with the light, careful to avoid shining it directly into her eyes.

"Not looking too bad, Shorty," she said, seeing no visible signs of damage.

"Still hurts," Rachel said, shifting slightly.

"You ran into a wall," Santana said, opening the med-kit and taking out the med-scanner. Turning it on with a quick twist, she started to scan Rachel from top to bottom.

"What’s the verdict Doc," Rachel said, her voice strained. "Will I live?"

Santana shook her head, and looked at the scanner readout. "It says you’re okay. Just some bruises."

"Can I have something for my headache?" Rachel said.

"I don’t see why not," Santana said. She grabbed a hypo from the med-kit. "This stuff is strong, it might make you a little more flakey than normal."

"I’m not flakey," Rachel said, protesting.

Santana shook her head. "Just stay still for a minute," she said. She pressed the business end against Rachel’s shoulder and press the trigger. "There. Give it a minute and you should be pain free." She put everything back in the kit.

"Why haven’t we been rescued yet?" Rachel said.

"Don’t know," Santana said. "They’re probably still searching for us."

"How long were we out?"

"Umm..." Santana stalled. She really didn't want to tell Rachel that her comm was telling her it’d been a month since they’d been in contact with Fleet. She couldn’t think of anything good that would keep Brittany or Quinn from finding them for that long.

"How long, Santana?" Rachel said, sounding stronger. The meds must have taken effect, Santana decided.

"It’s been a month. We were out for a month," Santana said.

"A month? Quinn must be going crazy," Rachel said. "And Brittany too," she quickly added.

"Nah, they’ll be cool," Santana said. "It’s just like we’ve been on a long vacation."

"You usually come back from a vacation," Rachel said. "And you can send postcards."

"We’re probably not on any postal routes," Santana said. She got up and put the med-kit away. "You should eat something." She grabbed one of the survival rations. They weren’t exactly gourmet but it would keep them from starving right away.

"Do we have enough food to survive a long stay?" Rachel said. "It’s like being on a desert island."

"We have a week’s worth of supplies," Santana said, "but we still have the stasis field so it isn’t really a problem."

"Shouldn’t we still be in stasis?" Rachel asked.

"Yup," Santana said. "Something must have caused the shuttle to turn it off." She tried to access the shuttle comm with her own. "It’s not talking to me." She carefully moved to the front of the shuttle in the low gravity. Activating the command console, she quickly scanned the log, looking for whatever had put them in stasis and why they’d come out.

"There’s a slow power leak," Santana said. "It needs our permission to put us under deep stasis now that the emergency is over so it can save power."

"Is it that smart?" Rachel asked. "It could have killed us getting us out of stasis."

"Smart enough," Santana said. "But it should have just shifted us into deep stasis without asking."

"Can we see where we are?" Rachel asked. "It must be somewhere Quinn and Brittany can’t find us."

Santana nodded, and turned on the view screen. There wasn’t enough spare power to scan but simple video was possible. "That’s interesting," she said.

Rachel stumbled over to the command console. "Trees?" She frowned. "Weren’t we in space?"

"Yes," Santana said. "And nowhere near a planet."

"So we crashed into a planet and didn’t go splat?" Rachel said. "How is that possible."

Santana looked at the log. "Looks like the trip was sudden. We were in space, there was a collision and then we were here. Wherever here is. There’s no comm traffic, at least not on any frequency this can pick up."

"We’re lost, like in some bad 50’s TV show," Rachel said, her voice rising in panic. "Do you think they’ll find us before we’re canceled?"

"They’ll find us," Santana said. "No reason to panic."

"Of course you’d say that," Rachel said. "You’re the positive plucky engineer. I’m just the in-flight entertainment. We’re always the first to die!"

"You’re not going to die," Santana said. "Take a deep breath and calm down."

"How do you know?" Rachel said, taking deep breaths.

"Because I won’t let you," Santana said. "Quinn would kill me if anything happened to you."

"Well, with that kind of logic, why was I so worried?" Rachel said sarcastically.

"I’m well known for my logic," Santana said, winking at her.

Chapter Text

"Found it," Brittany said, her voice echoing loudly in Quinn’s com.

"Their shuttle?" Quinn said hopefully. It had been over a month since Rachel and Santana had disappeared, leaving no trace. In that time, Fleet, her troopers, and the Shadows had searched the entire system with a fine toothed comb, to no avail. She’d taken to sleeping in her quarters on Flag and hadn’t been home in weeks.

"The portal they went through," Brittany said. "Sending probes through it now."

"Why did it take so long?" Quinn asked, still tense.

"Space is big, really big," Brittany said. "You know that, Quinn. And this portal is at a slightly different frequency from the ones we’ve seen before. It looks like it’s left over from some experimental space drive. At least that’s what my science team is claiming."

"So, they went to wherever that space ship came from?" Quinn asked.

"Or to wherever it was going," Brittany said. "From preliminary tests there’s no time shifting, like that one over the Pacific on Terra."

"I’ll meet you there," Quinn said.

"We don’t know what we’ll find," Brittany said. "Maybe you should wait?"

"I’ll meet you there," Quinn repeated. She closed the comm, and turned to Pip and Squeak. "Pack it up," she said. "The Shadows think they know where the shuttle disappeared to."

"Yes, Boss," Pip said, knowing that asking for details at this moment wouldn’t be well received. The Boss had been in a bad mood since the Memory and Lady Air disappeared.

"Do you want the rest of Gold Team to get ready?" Squeak asked.

"Tell them to prepare just in case, but hopefully we won’t need them. Just the three of us for now."

"Yes, Boss," Squeak said, sending a message to the Gold Team XO to go on standby. She really hoped this worked out. The Boss may not believe in Clan soulmates but it was obvious to them that she was wasting away without the constant presence of the Memory.

"Why are there trees in space?" Rachel asked, staring at the shuttle view screen, after she’d climbed down.

"We aren’t in space?" Santana said. She poked the console. "Looks like there’s breathable atmosphere, and gravity is close to Mars gravity."

"So we can go outside?" Rachel said, excited. "Maybe it’s Terra?"

"Not like that," Santana said. She waved at Rachel standing there in her ship suit. "You need to put on your enviro suit. And the shuttle would have said if we were home."

"Do I have to?" Rachel asked, pouting. "It’s tight and makes me feel claustrophobic."

"There could be something in the air or ground that is poisonous," Santana said. "Quinn will kill me if you get hurt."

"I won’t get hurt," Rachel said.

"Doesn’t matter," Santana said. "You still need to put it on." She pointed towards the back.

"What about you?" Rachel said, giving her a look before heading to the back where the enviro suits were stored.

"I’ll be putting mine on also," Santana said, following her. "I’m not foolish."

"I really want my own hard suit," Rachel said, removing her ship suit to put on the enviro suit. "These never fit right."

"Then you aren’t putting it on right," Santana said. "They’re designed to be form fitting. Put it on and its nanos will change it to fit you perfectly."

"There’s only one way to put it on," Rachel said. "How could I be doing it wrong?"

"That’s how," Santana said, grabbing her wrist and typing a command into the wrist com. "You have to tell it to adjust the fitting and how you want it."

"Why doesn’t it do it automatically?" Rachel asked.

"Don’t know, that’s just the way it works," Santana said, pulling on her own enviro suit, and activating it.

"How come yours changed color and has different designs on it?" Rachel asked.

"It likes me," Santana said. "And it grabbed my settings from the system."

"Oh," Rachel said.

"Do you care?" Santana asked. "How often do you wear one?"

"Almost never," Rachel said.

"I’m sure we can get Quinn to show you how to save your enviro suit settings when we see her," Santana said. "It’ll be a good bonding exercise." She noticed how Rachel brightened up at that but didn’t say anything.

"So, what are we going to do?" Rachel asked.

"Basic. We’ll just take a look outside and see how the shuttle looks," Santana said.

"Do you think there’s any civilization wherever this is?"

"Don’t know," Santana said. "Since no one’s come knocking on the door, we’re probably in some wilderness." She flipped down her hood, covering her face. "Cover up," she said.

Rachel nodded and followed her example. Once she was all suited up to Santana’s satisfaction, Santana opened the shuttle hatch and cautiously stepped through the air shield. Looking around she saw more trees. "You can come out," she said over her comm.

"Looks like a forest," Rachel said. "Isn’t this an alien planet?"

"Yes," Santana said. "Why?"

"Why do those look like oak trees? And maple trees? Giant, but like the ones on Terra?"

"Huh," Santana muttered, pulling out the small scanner from her suit. She aimed it at the trees and took several readings. "That would be because they are oak and maple trees," she said.

"On an alien planet?" Rachel asked. "Even I know it’s very unlikely."

"Well, I’m no xenobiologist but..." Santana paused and looked around. "I have absolutely no frickin idea."

"The light seems a little odd," Rachel said.

"The system’s sun is right there," Santana said waving her arm. And then she actually looked towards it, her suit’s visor blocking the center of it to protect her eyes. "And that’s different," she said.

"What’s different?" Rachel asked. Santana continued to wave her hand. "What are you pointing at?"

"We aren’t on a planet, strictly speaking," Santana said. "I didn’t know anyone ever made one of these, except in old Terran sci-fi."

"You read sci-fi?" Rachel asked, before looking in the direction Santana was pointing. "Oh, my," she murmured.

"That’s one way to put it," Santana said. "We’re on a huge ring. In space. A very, very, huge ring."

"It’s wide. I don’t have words and words are my thing," Rachel said. "And huge seems to be the only word for it. How are we going to get home? This isn’t where we were going."

"It’s not anywhere near there," Santana said. "We would have noticed one of these."

"So, how’d we get here," Rachel asked, staring up.

"Probably another damn portal," Santana said. She increased the magnification on her visor. And squinted. And squinted some more. "A system ringworld. Not as big as the one in those books, but still bigger than anything I’ve ever seen."

"Is it real?"

"As real as such things get," Santana said. "Hopefully Brit and Q will find us. Don’t really want to spend the rest of our lives wandering around."

"Is the shuttle okay?" Rachel asked.

"Hmmm..." Santana pointed her scanner at their shuttle, and cautiously walked around it, stepping over broken branches. It didn’t look damaged, except for a few scorch marks along the sides. "I’ll have to run the system diagnostics but it looks fine."

"So, we can just get in and leave?" Rachel said. "And come back later to explore?"

"First we need to figure out how to get back," Santana said. "This isn’t anywhere near Terra or the Amazon planet. We would have noticed. So, we’ll need to find that portal and hope it goes back the other way."

"That should be easy, right?" Rachel asked, twirling around in a circle trying to get a better view of the ring above her head.

"If we had Brit with us, yes," Santana said. "She’s a wiz with a scanner. But me? Not so much. We’ll have to wait until night time to get a good look at the sky, before we go running off into it. And a place like this must have defenses so we need to watch out for that. Wouldn’t want to be mistaken for an asteroid and get shot at."

"Shot at?" Rachel said.

"It’s a scary universe out there," Santana said. "Any ship this big needs to be protected."

"Oh," Rachel said. "Think we’re near any towns?"

"Just a minute," Santana said. She punched a command into her wrist unit. There was a low humming and a small hatch opened on the top of the shuttle. A small probe the size of her hand flew out of the hatch and straight up until it disappeared from sight.

"What’s it look like?" Rachel said. "Can I see?"

"We’ll need to go back inside," Santana said. "We can use the shuttle’s view screen."

"Okay," Rachel said, turning back towards the shuttle. Stepping through the air shield, she popped open her suit, and drew in a breath of shuttle air. She left her enviro suit on. Now that Santana had activated it it didn’t seem to be too bad.

Santana quickly joined her. Going over to the console, she tapped out several commands. The view screen at the front of the shuttle changed from a view of the forest to one far overhead. "There’s a town," she said, pointing at a group of boxy structures on the screen. "Let’s take a closer look." She zoomed in on the structures.

"It looks deserted," Rachel said. "How far away is it?"

"From here? Three clicks. A long walk, unless we move the shuttle."

"It can still fly, right??" Rachel asked.

"Definitely. But we’re really low on power," Santana said. "Coming through the portal must have taken a lot of energy. If we move it we might never get it back here."

"Does it matter?"

"If we want Q to have any chance of finding us, we need to make it easier not harder. And getting stuck somewhere because we ran out of fuel wold make it harder," Santana said, shaking her head.

"Can we explore a little bit?" Rachel asked.

"On foot, if you want to look around."

"Okay," Rachel said. "How long would it take to get to the town?”

"Two hours," Santana said. "Minimum. But there’re no roads going that way." She gave another command to the probe and it started to sink towards the small town.

"The roofs are all gone," Rachel said, disappointed. "Must not be anyone living there."

"There are probably other towns or cities, if we have time to explore," Santana said. "But first let’s make sure Q and Brit can find us."

"How? Do we have to carve a big X out of the forest?" Rachel asked. "Do we have the tools to do that?"

"No and yes," Santana said. "We have tools, but we don’t need to do any carving. We just need to set up a solar power collector to give the shuttle’s emergency beacon enough juice to broadcast outside of the ring. By itself it’s really low powered."

"Do we have the tech to do that?" Rachel asked. "Is that something a shuttle like this carries for emergencies?"

"For emergencies? Nope. But we were taking one to our meeting to power our trading center. Just need to get it out of the hold," Santana said. "It’s going to take both of us to put together," she added. "Think you can handle a little bit of manual labor?"

"Of course," Rachel said. "I’m in great shape."

"It’s not your shape I’m concerned with," Santana said.

"Do we have to wear our enviro suits still?" Rachel asked.

"Yes," Santana said. "The air should be safe but you need the protection."

"It doesn’t look like much," Rachel said, looking at the small array of shiny panels. "How much power does it get?"

"Enough," Santana said.

"That’s vague," Rachel said. "How much is enough?"

"Well, do you want the incomprehensible explanation or the simple analogy?" Santana asked her.

"Simple please. Those are easier to put to music."

"This isn’t one of your musicals," Santana said.

"It would be kind of boring, except when we went outside to explore," Rachel said. "Explanation?"

"Okay, okay," Santana grumbled. "The solar panels put out enough energy to power a small television. The beacon needs about half that to send out burst messages."

"What do we do with the rest?"

"It gets stored in the shuttle energy bay. If we run low with power for the shuttle, it’ll use that."

"Oh," Rachel said.

"I’m hungry," Rachel said, leaning against the open hatch, watching Santana fiddle with the solar array.

"Plenty of food," Santana said. "And plenty of organics for the converters if you don’t want survival rations."

"Can you show me how to use the converter?" Rachel asked.

"Didn’t they teach that in your basic survival courses?" Santana asked.

"That was years ago," Rachel said. "I’ve never needed to know how to use it."

"Okay," Santana said, putting down the small probe. She looked around the clearing. "We’ll need something to feed it. Leaves and small branches, and grass should do it."

"Okay," Rachel said, climbing down to the ground. "Do we have to wash it?"

"Might want to shake off any bugs," Santana said. "They can go in the converter no problem, it’ll take anything organic, but I’m sure you don’t want to eat them anyway."

"Bugs? Yuck! No," Rachel said. She walked over to the edge of the clearing and started picking up branches and twigs. When she had a large armful, she headed back to the shuttle. "Where do I put it?"

"In a pile right there," Santana said. "There’s an external intake for the converter right there."

"How much more should I get?" She looked down at her small pile.

"Three more armfuls should be enough for tonight," Santana said.

"For tonight?" Rachel stared at her. "We have to get that much every day we’re here?"

"Every meal," Santana said, grimacing. "The converters can turn organic crap into edible food, though the taste might not be my favorite, but it isn’t very efficient."

"So, we really don’t want to be here for very long, do we," Rachel said, heading back out to the edge of the clearing. "Can we check that village for food?"

"We can check but it looked like it’s been deserted for a long time. Anything edible is probably gone by now." She joined Rachel in picking up branches and leaves. "And, no we don’t want to be here too long. We might have to go back into stasis if it’s more than a month."

"How do we get them here faster?"

"If you have any personal lifelines to the gods, you should contact them now," Santana said.

"No, that would be Sophia," Rachel said. "She has all those connections."

"And she’s not here," Santana said. "What do you want to eat for dinner?"

"What are my choices," Rachel said. "What kinds of things can the synthesize make?"

"Well, nothing fancy works out well in the model in the shuttle," Santana said. "We can tell it to make all sorts of fancy dishes but they usually come out looking like slop or tasting like crap. So, something simple. Like bread or simple soups."

"Pancakes or waffles?" Rachel asked hopefully. "Those are simple. Comfort food?"

"We can try," Santana said. "Pancakes are really simple. I don’t think even a Clan synthesizer can screw that up. And simple takes less veggie crap to make."

"I’d like that please," Rachel said.

"Come on," Santana said. "I’ll show you how it works."

Rachel happily followed her back into the shuttle and towards the small galley next to the engine room. "This is a tiny kitchen."

"Mostly for light food during short trips," Santana said. "That’s why the synthesizer is so lightweight." She pointed at it.

"How do I start?" Rachel asked, looking at the small device. It slightly resembled a microwave.

"Make sure there’s enough supplies in the converter," Santana said, reaching over to a side panel and pushing a couple buttons on the touchscreen. "This right here," she said, pointing at one reading. "As long as it’s green you can run the synthesizer. If it’s yellow, it’s running low. When it turns red, it needs a refill."

"So, green means we can make dinner?" Rachel said. "Can we get syrup or butter for the pancakes?"

"We can try," Santana said. She pushed a couple buttons on the synthesizer. “Once you turn it on, just enter what you want. It understands most words for food, it’s hooked up to the shuttle controller."

"What else can it do?" Rachel asked, as Santana pulled open the synthesizer and pulled out two trays, each with a stack of pancakes.

"Other than food?"

Rachel nodded. "Can we make other things with it?"

"Not this model," Santana said. "It doesn’t have the power. But we’ve got bigger ones in the fleet that we use to make ship parts with. And other things. And some of the hard suits have the ability to repair themselves using similar tech."

"Oh," Rachel said. "I know Brittany said something about nano-bots once but she didn’t really explain the tech in detail."

"Do you really need to know how our tech works like that?" Santana said.

"I should have some idea how we do things," Rachel said. "I know we use nano-bots to do a lot of things, but the Clan Memory isn’t really like a library. Stories can’t really be used to do more than have a basic understanding of tech, not build them from scratch. That’s not what they’re for."

"Well, we do have training for such things," Santana said. "Let’s eat," she said, leading the way to the hatch. "A little sunlight makes even these taste better."

Rachel giggled, sitting down next to Santana, taking one of the plates. "Finger food," she said, picking up a pancake and rolling it up. She took a cautious bite, and then dipped it into a puddle of syrup. "Not bad," she said. "A little messy."

"Not for every day," Santana said, following her example. "But a little mess won’t hurt us."

"Ready?" Brittany asked, looking around the bridge of the small cruiser. She’d had to limit the crew to as few as possible for the jump. Herself, her command crew, a bare bones ships crew, and Quinn and her handmaidens. The jump was dangerous and untried. The fewer at risk the better. They’d sent probes through but none had come back.

"Ready," Quinn said, bracing herself.

"Go," Brittany said, to her helm and navigator.

There was a hum that built slowly, getting louder and louder, until the cruiser started to vibrate.

"Preparing to jump," Helm said. "3... 2... 1..."

At the count of one, there was a sudden silence as the cruiser seemed to leap forward, all of the built up power left behind. Time seemed to stretch out and a strange light filled the bridge.

And then suddenly everything seemed normal again.

"Position?" Brittany asked, looking at her navigator.

"We’re far out on the edge of the sector," the navigator said. "On the other side of Terra."

"What’s that?" Quinn asked, pointing at the front view screen.

"Ma’am, we’re being scanned," Helm said.

"Well," Brittany said. "Why didn’t we know this was here? Take us closer. And block the scans."

"Yes, ma’am," Helm said.

"Brit?" Quinn said. "What are we looking at?"

"A myth," Brittany said. "It’s a ringworld. Someone took their solar system and turned it into a big ring around their sun. It’s been discussed over the years, but this is the first known example. It takes a lot of time and effort to do something like this."

"So, Santana and Rachel are down there somewhere," Quinn said. "How are we going to find them?"

"If their shuttle survived the trip intact, we should be picking up the beacon now."

"Ma’am, the ring is shielded. There are multiple layers. We’re in between two of them."

"So, what are they shielding?" Brittany said, frowning. "Can we contact any of our resources from here?"

"Our subspace comms can’t penetrate the outer shield."

"It probably blocks electromagnetic waves also," Brittany said. "Which explains why no one knows it’s here. Take us in closer, through the next shield."

"If it’s shielded, how are we getting through?" Quinn asked.

"We’ll find a way," Brittany said. "Find us the door."

"Yes, ma’am," Helm said. It took her an hour. "We’ve found a way through," Helm said. "It’s another portal. We need to use the same method that got us here, though with less power."

"Okay, get us through," Brittany said. The humming started again, rising quickly. The cruiser moved forward until it touched a section of the inner shield. There was a loud snap, and they were suddenly on the other side.

"Any more shields?" Brittany asked her crew.

"None," Helm said. "We’re being scanned again. Some kind of targeting system."

"Friendly," Quinn said. "They didn’t shoot down the shuttle did they?"

"No signs of debris," Helm said. "Ma’am."

"The shuttle has no weapons," Brittany said. "It probably let them all the way through. Now we just need to find them."

"That’s a lot of territory to search, if their beacon isn’t working," Quinn said. "How big is it?"

"Just eyeballing it, I’d say it’s very large," Brittany said, looking down at her command console. "The ship thinks it’s a hundred times the land area of Terra."

"A lot of room to grow," Quinn said. "Is it populated?"

Brittany looked over at her science geek for an answer. "There are life forms but no indications of known intelligent life."

"So, probably plants and animals but no 'people' that we’d recognize?" Quinn said.

"Yup," said Brittany. "Once we find Santana and Rachel we can look around, if you want."

"I’m curious," Quinn admitted, "but unless we’re looking to move in, I’m not in any hurry to explore."

"We’ll save it for a rainy day," Brittany said, nodding. "Set up some monitors and keep an eye on it. But first, we have a shuttle to find."

"Lady Shadow, the inner ring has shielding blocking any signals from reaching us out here."

"Closer then," Brittany said.

"Lady Shadow, the gravity field is too strong, we can’t get any closer," Helm said several minutes later.

"Any sign of the beacon?" Brittany asked.

"We’re getting a faint signal," Helm said. "We haven’t pinpointed it yet."

"But you’re getting something?" Brittany asked.

"Yes, Lady Shadow."

"Keep searching," Brittany said. "Find the shuttle. It should stick out like a sore thumb."

"Yes, Ma’am."

"Well, that’s interesting," Santana said. The shuttle console had begun beeping, waking them up. "Looks like they’ve found us."

"Where are they?" Rachel asked.

"Somewhere out there," Santana said. "The beacon is picking up a signal from a Fleet ship at the limit of its range."

"So they haven’t really found us," Rachel said. "But they’re nearby."

"Yes," Santana said. "Might take them a while."

"Are we going to have to use the stasis field?" Rachel asked. "How long?"

"Let’s give them a couple days," Santana said. "Brit has some clever people. If they know we’re here they’ll find us."

"So, what do we do until then?" Rachel said. "Can we go explore that village?"

"And if we’re not here when they find the shuttle?" Santana said. "Quinn won’t be happy with us."

"Well, that isn’t good," Rachel said. "Can we take the shuttle with us?"

"It’s not flying anywhere," Santana reminded her. "If it had enough power to get off the ground we’d go meet them."

"It was a thought," Rachel said. "I’m bored."


"No cards," Rachel said. "And you play a different kind of poker in the Fleet. I’ve heard about that."

"Still poker," Santana said. "And there’s always a deck of cards somewhere."

"I’ll pass," Rachel said. She pulled out her tablet, and started looking through it, humming as she did.

"You aren’t going to do that the rest of the night!" Santana said.

"Do what?" Rachel asked, puzzled.

"That humming," Santana said. "It’s annoying."

"Find me something else to do then," Rachel said.

"Go for a walk," Santana said. "Go look at the stars."

"I tried that last night," Rachel said. "The sun blocks them, even at night."

"Read a book," Santana grumbled, trying to get comfortable on her patch of floor. "Quietly."

"This isn’t going to be a very exciting story to tell people," Rachel said. "We need to do something exciting while we wait to be rescued, or we need to rescue ourselves."

"We aren’t rescuing ourselves," Santana said. "We can’t leave the shuttle and there’s nowhere to go anyway."

"Do you think anyone lives on this ring planet?" Rachel asked. "Shouldn’t we have seen someone? They must have seen our shuttle land."

"It’s a really big place. There could be billions of people living here and we’d still not see them," Santana said. "Besides, the probe didn’t find anything within a thousand clicks."

"Don’t they have tech?" Rachel asked. "Don’t you need tech to build a planet like this?"

"Of course," Santana said. "It takes a lot of energy and advanced tech to get something like this to work. I don’t think anyone in the Confederation has the ability to do it."

"Who do you think built it? The Gate people?" Rachel asked.

"Don’t know," Santana said. "And we’ll probably never know." She held up a hand to stop further questions. "But I don’t think the Gate builder built this. It’s a completely different kind of idea. You build a planet ring like this if you have nowhere else to go. The Gate builders would have built a gate to somewhere if they needed more land."

"You’re just guessing," Rachel said.

"Damn right I am," Santana said. "How would I know? But you saw that village. The Gate builders used crystal in everything. That village was stone."

"How thick is the ring, do you think?" Rachel asked. "Do they have mines?"

"Where would they put them?" Santana asked. "They probably don’t need them. They got all of the metals they needed when they built the ring."

"Hadn’t thought of that," Rachel said. “So they must not need to build anything and are all farmers."

"Farmers or bankers," Santana said. "Something that doesn’t require hard work."

"What’s that?" Rachel said. "It sounds like something is outside."

"Probably just the wind," Santana said. "Or a tree."

"We’ve been here for weeks," Rachel said. "Why haven’t they found us yet?"

"We’ve been out of stasis for four days," Santana said. "The beacon went off three hours ago. Give them time to find us."

"I am," Rachel said. "I hope we didn’t go through a time warp."

"Why would you even think that?" Santana said, frowning.

"What if we did? The war with the Bugs could be over and they’re just looking for us now."

"No," Santana said. "We would know if there was a time warp."

"How would we know?"

"Umm..." Santana shrugged. "We would just know. It’s like being in one of the pods. Even when time passes at a different rate, you still know it’s wonky."

"That’s not the same thing," Rachel protested. "When you’re in the pods it’s all in your head. Mostly."

"What’s wrong with your shuttle," Brittany said, her voice loud on their Council comm channel.

"Brit! Where are you?" Santana said, rushing to the shuttle hatch.

"Not where you are," Brittany said. "We’re close enough for comm traffic but we’re having a hard time finding your shuttle. We need some landmark."

"The shuttle is almost out of juice," Santana said. "I had to jury-rig one of those solar panels to boost the beacon signal."

"It worked but it’s confused by the planet."

"Well, we aren’t going anywhere," Santana said.

"Is Quinn there?" Rachel asked.

"She’s in the drop tank," Brittany said. "She can’t hear you. As soon as we find you she’s coming to get you."

"Yeah!" Rachel shouted as loud as possible.

"Jeeze, Shorty, keep it down," Santana said. "I almost lost an ear. And Q isn’t going to hear from there if she’s in a drop tank."

"Hey! One of the lights went out," Rachel said, looking at the beacon.

"That means we're getting closer," Brittany said. "This planet’s making navigation screwy."

"We’re in a clearing with lots of trees," Santana said. "Can’t miss us.

"There are a lot of trees," Brittany said. "It’s a big planet. How about something else?"

"There’s a small town a few clicks away," Santana said. "Abandoned."

"They’re all abandoned," Brittany said. "You’re the only intelligent life that we’ve found on the ring."

"So, finders keepers?" Rachel said. "Do we get to keep it?"

"What would we do with it?" Santana asked.

"There you are," Brittany said. "And a backup plan is never a bad thing. It might take a while to move everyone on Terra to it but it is an option. Our own ark, so to speak."

"When are you dropping by?" Santana said. "It’s a nice vacation spot. We can have a cookout."

"And singing around the campfire," Rachel said, getting into the spirit of it. "But you’ll have to bring the food. We don’t have anything for a barbecue."

"Quinn should be with you shortly," Brittany said. "We can’t get the cruiser too close to the ring."

"Gotcha," Santana said. "What about power to get this bucket of bolts moving again."

"Quinn will secure the area first," Brittany said.

"I thought you said there are no other intelligent beings here?" Rachel said, frowning. "What’s there to secure?"

"There are active defenses," Brittany said. "We’re not sure yet if they are mobile but we aren’t taking the risk. We haven’t seen you for over a month."

"We’ve spent most of it in stasis," Santana told her. "Something turned it off a couple days ago but we don’t even know how we got here."

"A portal," Brittany said. "Though not anything like we’ve seen before. This planetary ring is a long way from Terra."

"So we can’t have it?" Rachel said, sounding disappointed. "Who’s territory is it in."

"Ours," Brittany said, "just on the other edge of the sector, along the galactic edge."

"Oh!" Rachel said. "Who gets to name it?"

"You aren’t calling it 'Barbra'," Santana said, firmly. "Or anything after a musical."

Rachel pouted. "But it should be named after someone special, someone famous."

"Planet Q," Santana said. "Is that special enough for you?"

"Why not Planet Brittany then?" Rachel said.

"Because I never want a planet, star or ship named after me," Brittany said. "There’s only one me, and I’d like to keep it that way."

A high pitched sound came through the open hatch. It got closer and closer and then suddenly stopped.

"What was that?" Rachel asked, looking like she was ready to flee.

"That’s what a hard suit sounds like coming in at supersonic speeds." Brittany said. "Though if they were going for stealth they wouldn’t have made any noise."

"The Q Ball always has to show off," Santana said.

Chapter Text

"Don’t ever do that again," Quinn said, pulling Rachel in for a hug, even though they weren’t alone in the medical bay aboard the cruiser.

"We couldn’t help it," Rachel said. "We didn’t see that portal."

"Well try harder," Quinn said.

"Aren’t they so cute," Brittany said, standing in the door. "Couldn’t you just eat them up?"

"No," Santana said, pretending to gag. "Makes me want to vomit."

"There’s not a romantic bone in your body, San," Brittany said, poking her. "Admit it. They’re cute."

"And they’re ignoring us," Santana said. "And I’d like my sexy beautiful girlfriend to come with me, and away from the sickening cuteness, before she comes down with it."

"Sometimes, San, you are baffling. Where did you come from," she asked.

"This place called Lima," Santana said. "Not very big. Not very sophisticated. But that shit was real."

"And where are you now?" Brittany asked, raising an eyebrow in imitation of Quinn.

"On a Shadow cruiser," Santana said. "How did you get your own cruiser? Not even Q there has her own transport ships and she has more people under her command than you do."

"I borrowed it," Brittany said. "It looked lonely."

"Gonna to give it back?" Santana said. "Or do I need to permanently assign a crew to it for you?"

"A crew please," Brittany said, smirking. "We’re going to need it. This’ll free up your ships from playing bus for us."

"You got it babe. All you had to do was ask," Santana said.

"Look at them," Rachel said, giggling. "They’re so cute."

"I’m not cute," Santana said. "I’m hot, there’s a big difference."

"I think you’re cute too," Brittany said. "All huffy like that."

"I was right," Santana said. "You’ve been infected!" Reaching over, she grabbed Brittany’s arm and dragged her, giggling, out of the med bay. "Let’s check on this crew of yours."

"So, we still have that meeting with the Amazons?" Rachel asked, as they all sat down to eat in the cruiser’s mess after the trip back through the portal, leaving probes and warning systems behind.

"They’ve delayed it until the next yearly ceremony," Quinn said. "But they’ve agreed to our request. We’ll have a small base on their planet."

"Good," Santana said. "We’ll need to do something about protecting that portal to the ring world. Their system is suddenly more important than it was."

"Do we tell them?" Rachel asked. "Or is it our secret?"

"We’ll need to tell their queen," Brittany said. "They can’t protect it themselves but they need to be aware of the danger."

"They already have the Gate," Quinn said. "I don’t think this’ll be a big deal. It’s just another kind of Gate, just one they can’t use because it’s out in space."

"We’ll need at least a cruiser and support," Santana said. "Besides the in-system ships we’d planned for the base."

"Do you have them to spare?" Brittany asked. "Or do I have to give my cruiser back?"

Rachel paused, before taking another bite of rice. "What about cultural sharing? They aren’t a large nation."

"There are a hundred thousand Amazons," Brittany said. "But they are strictly planet bound. They didn’t even know that the Gate worked until Andy and her crew came through. They have plenty of culture to share."

"As far as spare ships go, I have more ships than trained crew to run them right now," Santana said. "I can build them faster than our people can be trained. Half my explorers are running on the bare minimum of crew. And I have a dozen cruisers like this in mothballs until there are crews for them."

"Can we train the Amazons and give them a few ships?" Rachel asked.

"Can we trust them?" Quinn asked. "Do we really want to hand over a cruiser to a culture that is so warlike?"

"Not yet," Brittany said. "Maybe in a hundred years, after we’ve defeated the Bugs. First we need to get them used to more modern tech. From steam to fusion power and high tech will take time."

"But we tell them?" Rachel said. She poked at her plate.

"Once they know it’s possible, they’ll build their own ships," Santana said around a mouthful of sandwich. "They won’t want to be at our mercy for long. They’re like Clan. Very proud."

"So we give them enough of a boost so they can start building their own ships? How?" Quinn said. "It’s not like they have the same tech base as Terra. They aren’t going to be able to handle our tech level for centuries."

"Possibly sooner," Brittany said, waving her fork. "But you’re right. We’ll give them a boost. Tech they can understand. But we need to think very carefully here."

"I’ll need to learn about their culture," Rachel said. "We need to understand them at a cultural level before giving them that boost up the tech ladder."

"More than we understand Terra?" Quinn asked, putting down her glass of juice.

"We grew up on Terra," Brittany said. "We didn’t need to gain understanding, we had it already. We just had to change our viewpoint to Clan."

"The two of you are the experts in that kind of thing," Quinn said. "Now, what about warriors? They can’t wear our hard suits but we discussed building them equivalent armor. It’d be nice to have a battalion of their best as backup."

"Something to discuss in the future," Brittany said. "We can’t ask them to fight our war, but we can prepare them if they encounter the Bugs."

"Their system isn’t in the projected path of the Bugs," Santana said.

"I’ll work up a training plan," Quinn said. "Something that will prepare them for the kind of things they’d encounter in hard suit combat."

"Are we done?" Santana said. "We’ll be home tomorrow."

"And there are some people who want to see both of you," Brittany said.

"I need to call my Dads," Rachel said, standing up suddenly. "I forgot all about them."

"As soon as we went back through the portal, I sent them a message, and your mothers also," Brittany added, looking at Santana. "We’ll meet them at the beach."

"We also have a full Council meeting tomorrow," Quinn said. "We need to review our plans."

"And Sophia wants to see everyone in person?" Santana said. "That woman needs to learn to use the comms."

"She knows how," Rachel said. "But it’s part of what she is as the Weaver. The comms don’t give her the connection to the rest of us that she needs." At Santana’s misbelieving look she added "It’s a mystical thing. Weavers have connections of a spiritual nature. Just like Mother has her powers."

"You’re making that up," Santana said. "Sophia doesn’t have a mystical bone in her body. How she became High Priestess I’ll never know. She’s a scientist. Sure, one of those squishy sciences but it’s still science."

"She had potential for it," Brittany said. "That was one of the requirements for the Weaver. You can’t guide a people like ours in a spiritual way if you aren’t capable of it yourself."

"Someone should tell my father that," Quinn said. "Those yahoos have the spirituality of mashed potatoes."

"Don’t be knocking the potato," Santana said. "The noble potato gave us fries."

"The Tiger Clan brought potatoes with them from their home planet," Brittany said. "Though they didn’t eat it like we do. It was more ceremonial."

"So, they worshipped tigers and Mr. Potato Head?" Santana said, laughing. "No wonder they were so poor."

"Poor in heart, rich in spirit," Rachel said.

"Where’d you get that tripe?" Santana asked.

"Old Tiger Clan proverb," Rachel said. "No, it makes no sense to anyone else," she said. "But it made them happy. They plastered it everywhere."

"Some of the other Clans are crazy," Santana said. She stood up. "We should be docking with Flag in a couple minutes. I’ll be on the bridge." She stomped out of the galley.

"Stasis doesn’t seem to have mellowed her out," Quinn said.

"She’ll be fine," Brittany said, also standing. "I better join her before she gets bored."

"She was really good when we were stuck on that planet," Rachel said. "I couldn't have survived by myself."

"You’d be surprised at what you can do when there’s enough incentive," Quinn said. "But she does have that survival gene in heaping amounts. She wasn’t made Lady Air for her sunny personality."

"I think we’re going to be fine," Rachel said. "With you, Brittany, and Santana, we can’t lose."

"Don’t underestimate your own role in this," Quinn said. "The Memory is important. Just like Mother, and the Weaver."

"I’m not," Rachel said, "but we aren’t going to beat the Bugs by me singing at them."

"You don’t know that," Quinn said, dodging Rachel’s hand heading towards her in response.

"You think you’re funny!" Rachel said, jumping up and into Quinn’s lap. "Take that!" and she started tickling her.

"Off. Off," Quinn gasped.

"Say Uncle!" Rachel said, continuing to tickle her.

"Lady Memory, Lady Hands?"

"Yes," they said together, looking up at the chief cook. "What can we do for you?"

"Take it elsewhere, please?" the cook said. "The dinner crowd will be here in a couple minutes and they aren’t going to come in if they see you acting like that."

"We’re acting perfectly," Rachel told her, causing Quinn to snort.

"Let’s get out of her hair," Quinn said. "Plenty of other places to be in a cruiser this size." She slid from her chair, grabbing Rachel before she could fall on the floor.

"But I was having fun," Rachel said.

"You need to go do something somewhere else," Quinn said. "They can’t clean and make it ready for the rest of the crew if we’re in the way.’

"Yes, oh wise and wonderful Lady of the Hands. And speaking of hands, don’t you have handmaidens? How’d you get away from them?"

"They’re here," Quinn said. "They’re just practicing being unobtrusive."

"I’m not seeing them," Rachel said, looking around, mystified.

"You don’t know where to look," Quinn said. "But don’t worry, they’re still there."

"If you say so," Rachel said.

"Let’s go somewhere else," Quinn said. "I’m sure there’s somewhere we can go and no one will notice us."

"Let’s go find it," Rachel said.

"Is that her?" Hiram said. "She looks different."

"It’s only been two months," Leroy said. "That’s barely time for her hair to grow."

"The two of you are like old mother hens," Shelby said, leaning against a tree, her arms wrapped around Frannie as they watched the Clan Council walk up the beach towards them. "She’s fine. They would have told us if anything was wrong."

"Yeah," Frannie said. "Now, if it had been Quinn, she would have lied her head off to 'protect' us from the truth."

"Santana would just ignore us," Maribel said. "Even now, she’s too 'cool' to let anyone know how she’s doing."

"They’ve grown up to be women we should be proud of," Shelby said. "All of them."

"They were lost for months," Hiram said. "What if they’d never been found?"

"But they were," Leroy said. "You know Quinn and Brittany wouldn’t have stopped until they were found."

"The entire Clan would have looked for them until they were found," Sue said, joining them. "The stories will be interesting, if the Memory can refrain from turning it into one of her dreary epics."

"You know you love them, Coach," Frannie said. "Rachel knows just the right things to write to make people proud of their deeds, without busting egos."

"A good tale is good for morale," Sue said, nodding.

"It looks like Quinn still hasn’t escaped her 'handmaidens'," Frannie said, laughing. "She doesn’t understand why they stick with her."

"Minions of that caliber are difficult to find," Sue said. "A minion must be a help in all things, not a roadblock."

"Pip and Squeak can be amusing," Shelby said. "One minute they’re swearing like sailors, the next they’re discussing some obscure television show like they are huge fans."

"Someone believed that all Clan members be proficient in so-called pop culture," Sue said, making a disgusted face to show how much she thought of that idea.

"Ah," Shelby said. "Well, it comes out in unexpected ways. Surprising ways."

"So, what kinds of adventure did you have?" Hiram asked, as they all relaxed after dinner. "What did you see?"

"We spent most of the time in stasis," Rachel said. "Not much to see there."

"Space, lots of space," Santana said, from her position on the porch wrapped up in Brittany’s arms. "And trees."

"It was a strange place," Rachel said. "This big ring with a sun in the middle."

"A Ring World?" Leroy said. "Someone actually built one? Did you meet any of them?"

"It was uninhabited," Brittany said. "Whomever built it was long gone, except automated defense systems."

"That’s too bad," Leroy said. "It must have been an amazing feat of engineering. Just think what we could learn from the builders."

"It isn't going anywhere," Santana said.

"We can go back and explore later," Brittany said. "But we have other priorities right now."

"Amazons," Frannie said. "When do we get to meet them? These are the Amazons that Lady Andrea found, right?"

"Yes," Quinn said. "The real deal. Warrior Women. Though they didn’t cut off a breast like the Greek version."

"Cut off a breast? Why would you do that?" Hiram asked.

"So they wouldn’t get in the way of their bows," Quinn said. "The Greek Amazons fought naked. Just imagine what that would mean when firing a bow."

"Ouch," Frannie said, rubbing her chest. "Do these Amazons fight nude?"

Shelby gave her a look.

"What? I bet you wanted to know that also," she said, poking her girlfriend.

"Only for ceremonial purposes," Brittany said. "Like when Quinn defeated their champion before they'd let us build a base."

"That was nude?" Rachel said, turning around to look at Quinn. "Did anyone record it?"

"Possibly," Brittany said, winking at her.

"I told you Shorty," Santana said. "That’s how they roll there. You’ll just have to ask for a play-by-play from Q there. You can even have her dress the same."

"Nude role-playing?" Frannie said. "That would be a sight."

"I have no plans to do it again," Quinn said. "It was an odd experience."

"But you won?" Shelby asked. "You are building a base in their system."

"A nice bit of empty desert on their main planet," Santana said. "Perfect for our use."

"Don’t you need food and water?" Leroy asked, curious. "A desert seems like an inhospitable place for a base."

"There’s an aquifer we can tap into," Santana said. "And we can buy food from the locals when the crews get tired of synth food."

"And it’s far from any inhabited areas. Safer for them," Brittany said. "They gave us a hundred year lease."

"Is that long enough?" Leroy asked.

"Plenty," Brittany said. "By the time it’s up they’ll have ships of their own and won’t want us around unless we’re doing our job of keeping the peace."

"Ah," Shelby said. "Long range planning."

"Is there any other kind?" Brittany said.

"Not if it’s you, babe," Santana said.

"Ice cream?" Rachel said.

"Someone ate the last, last night," Leroy said.

"No, it’s on us," Rachel said. "Sophia and Cassy were going to make enough for all of us."

"Homemade ice cream?" Leroy stood up quickly. "What are we waiting for?"

"For everyone to get up," Santana said. "They were going to make our favorites."

They all stood, brushing off sand, and straightening clothes.

"You wanted a meeting of the entire Council?" Quinn asked Sophia, as they joined her down by the water after everyone else had gone home.

"I believe it is time we brought Mother back." Sophia said. "It has been long enough."

"Isn’t she still crazy?" Santana asked.

"Only in the way all Mothers are somewhat unhinged," Sophia said. "They see the world in a different way than the rest of us."

"We have a Mother, but do we actually need one?" Quinn asked.

"Give her a ship and give her something to do," Santana said. "We don’t have time to coddle her. Let’s put her to work."

"But what?" Rachel asked. "What would a Mother actually do? We all have our own responsibilities but what are hers?"

"Morale?" Quinn said. "We’ve never really discussed this. Do we trust her with a ship?"

"Not yet," Sue said. "She hasn’t earned your trust. And she would know that."

"Rachel, what does a Mother do traditionally?" Quinn asked.

"She looks out for the Clan, protects it, guides it," Rachel said. "Something we don't really need yet. We have a plan and we’re following it. And it’s working."

"Will she turn any crew we give her into loyal followers? Loyal only to her? Like a cult?" Quinn asked. "Doesn’t she have some kind of power to persuade people."

"Do we want politics?" Brittany asked. "That’s the real question. We already have the Nine Cultists but we’ve been ignoring them. A Mother would be able to use them for her own goals."

"Let’s shelve this until after we fight the Bugs," Quinn suggested. "We don’t have time right now for infighting. Or chaos."

"She would do what she thinks is best for the Clan," Rachel said.

"But is it best for our plans?" Brittany asked.

"If that is what you believe we should do," Sophia said reluctantly. "But she is ready to join us. She is no longer buried in her grief."

"Why not have her write down her memories of the old Clan?" Rachel said. "We can use the information. She probably knows where all of the old bases were."

"She gave us that info a long time ago," Sue said. "We’ve barely investigated half of them so far."

"Anything useful?" Santana asked. "Was there anything interesting?"

"Mostly trash," Sue told them. "A thousand years isn’t good for most facilities. A few pieces of tech here or there but nothing salvable."

"Thanks Coach," Quinn said, looking across the fire at her. "We appreciate your input. Anything else you think we need to know right now?"

"No," Sue said. "It’s all in my last report."

"What else do we need to discuss?" Rachel asked. "Everything’s going the way it should, right? Santana, you’re building up the Fleet, Quinn, your troopers are training and preparing for the Bugs. Brittany, you’re monitoring the situation."

"Everything is on track," Brittany said. "We didn’t lose any real time with your disappearance. And we were able to use the search for you as a training / shakeout exercise."

"Glad to have helped," Santana said, sarcastically. "Next time you and Q can do it."

"We can, San," Brittany said. "Get a lifeboat and find an empty planet, just for the two of us. And make it a nice long vacation."

"Not without us," Rachel said. "We need vacations also. And I bet you and Quinn haven’t taken a break in months."

"We couldn’t, Rachel," Quinn said. "We needed to find you."

"And you did," Rachel said. "But now you need a mental health break. A chance to get away for a few days and recharge."

"Not without you," Quinn said. "It defeats the purpose to go on vacation by myself."

"Where should we go?" Rachel asked. "Can we take the Gates?"

"Something tech free," Quinn said.

"We do have that island," Brittany said. "You can go there and be by yourselves."

"Just make sure to come back," Santana said. "We’re all in this together. No permanent side trips."

"How’d your meeting go?" Cassy asked Sophia. "Did they agree?"

"They don’t want to risk a sudden change at this time. But they will think about it," Sophia said.

"All you can do is ask," Cassy said. "You haven’t explained what they are doing but they should know if releasing your Mother is a good idea."

"She’s ready," Sophia said. "She needs to rejoin the Clan."

"What would happen if you put her together with Ixchel?" Cassy asked. "Wouldn’t they be good for each other?"

"We have not discussed Ixchel yet," Sophia said. "It is a delicate situation."

"Lady Miranda, what can the Council do for you?" Brittany said, at the sudden appearance of Miranda Priestly in front of the entire Clan Council.

"I find myself with spare time," she said. "I cannot go back to Runway, I was declared deceased and they would not understand my appearance. And while the task you have given Andrea is appropriately worthy, it is hers, not mine and I can only watch. And our girls are also busy."

"So, you’re bored and want something to do?" Rachel said. "You have the powers of a goddess, you can do whatever you want and no one would be able to stop you."

"Having power and using it are not the same thing," Miranda said. "Although I enjoy my time with my family, I find myself desiring a more active life."

"You were worshiped as a fashion goddess," Quinn said. "Now you actually are a goddess. I see no contradiction."

"Ascending to a higher plane of existence is not how I would define god-hood," Miranda said. "When I ran Runway, my power was based on respect and fear."

"I would like to discuss this with you at greater length," Sophia said. "The Clan gods have not manifested themselves in recent memory. The views of someone who became a god would be enlightening."

"I have no wish to be worshipped," Miranda said. "But I would like to participate in your enterprise, though what my place in that might be escapes me."

"She’s bored, guys," Santana said. "What use do we have for a bored goddess? How do we put her to work?"

"I have plenty of ideas," Brittany said. "The ultimate spy. No one would know she’s there."

"I have no wish to be a voyeur," Miranda said.

"Your path will present itself to you," Sophia said. "It will not be what you expect, but what you need."

"And the Weaver has spoken," Santana said, grumbling. "Channeling our goddesses. I hate when she does that."

"Interesting," Miranda said, looking at Sophia in interest. "You were briefly in touch with some higher power."

"You can tell?" Rachel said. "Can we keep her? Someone who can sense the touch of a higher power would be useful. Maybe she should have a chat with Mother."

"The Clan Mother?" Miranda asked.

"Yup, Crazy old Mom," Santana said. "Sophia wants us to integrate her back into our society but we aren't ready for that yet. Maybe you could go talk with her and see what you think. You should be immune to her Jedi mind tricks."

"Mind tricks?" Miranda asked.

"It's a Mother thing," Santana said. "She has the ability to influence Clan."

"We have psychic shielding that appears to work," Brittany said. "But we are concerned that she may unintentionally control any clan working with her."

"I believe she should be released and given a productive task," Sophia said. "But we are not all in agreement."

"Her therapist AI says she's much better," Rachel said. "But we aren't all comfortable with her having the Mother power. Especially at this time."

"You all agree with this?" Miranda said. "You want me to evaluate your Mother?"

They all nodded. "Yes," Brittany said. They waited until Miranda had left the Council chamber before continuing. "And that brings us to the issue of Ixchel. We need to give her the hearing she's requested."

"What do the psych AIs say?" Quinn asked.

"They are still evaluating her," Rachel said. "They aren't quite sure what to make of her."

"Is she dangerous?" Quinn asked.

"No," Sophia said. "She is confused, and suicidal. She blames herself for what these Goa'uld did to her people in that alternate place."

"If I understand how Andy explained it, the host has no control. They are at the mercy of the parasite. In general she wouldn't be responsible for its actions." Rachel said. "But in her case, she's a merger between the original personality and the Goa'uld that possessed her, so it isn't so clear."

"She needs our forgiveness," Sophia said. "The forgiveness of the Council. She doesn't think of herself as Goa'uld. Those are just horrible memories she can't erase."

"I can't find myself caring," Santana said. "We have too many things to do to worry about someone from another place who happens to be one of our ancient leaders."

"That's not nice, San," Brittany said. "She came to us. What happens to her if we don't find her a place and forgiveness?"

"We can put her on ice," Santana said. "Leave her for some future Council to handle."

"No, we have too many people on ice as it is," Rachel said. "If we cannot just give her forgiveness we need to find a way for her to earn it."

"How?" Quinn asked. "She has knowledge of past Clan practices but that isn't how we do things now."

"Lady Sylvester, you've been silent," Sophia said. "What are your thoughts?"

"This is something you five must decide," Sue said. "If you plan to put her to work or release her, you need to make sure she isn't a threat."

"How?" Rachel said. "We can't read minds, and we can't force her to behave. Free will is an important part of who we are. That's why Mother is such a problem."

"And there's your answer," Sue said. "Have the Clan Mother evaluate her. She should be able to determine if Ixchel is a threat to the Clan. Isn't that one of her talents?"

"So, after Lady Miranda evaluates Mother, have Mother evaluate Ixchel?" Sophia said.

"Clever," Santana said. "But that means doing something with her until then. It could be days or months, if not years. Mother isn't the most stable person in the Clan."

"Let’s see what Miranda can do with her before we give up," Brittany said. "At least give her a chance."

"Okay," Rachel said.

"So, we're not exciting enough for you?" Andy said, after listening to Miranda explain what she was planning to do for the Council.

"You know I love you," Miranda said, hugging her wife. "But you don't need me to do your job and the girls are happy working with you. And it's not as if I will be far away. If you need me I can be there in an instant."

"Still, it's the principle of the thing," Andy said. "We just got you back and don't want to lose you again."

"You won't lose me," Miranda said. "Time and space have no real meaning now. Say my name and I'll be here."

"But why you?" Andy asked.

"Why not? Because I can give an unbiased opinion of this person," Miranda said. "They are concerned that anyone else could be influenced by her."

"And you won't be?" Andy asked. "What makes you immune?"

Miranda quickly changed into her energy form and back.

"Oh, right. Nothing can influence you if you don't want it to," Andy said. "You've got that whole ascended being thing going on."

"Ascended being thing?" Miranda said, in an amused tone. "I am, as always, myself. I would not have been influenced before ascending or even now."

"Sorry," Andy winked at her. "You appear so normal and I forget you are more than that."

"At least you are not calling me ordinary," Miranda said.

"You have never been ordinary," Andy said.

"I suspect it will not take long to evaluate this Mother person," Miranda said. "She cannot be too unbalanced. She never attempted to intentionally harm anyone. She may have made mistakes. But haven't we all?"

"Generous to a fault," Andy told her.

"It's all a matter of interpretation," Miranda said. "what some call generosity, others call bribery."

"When do you plan to start?" Andy asked.

"I shall visit her in a moment," Miranda said.

"I won't keep you then," Andy said.

"Time has no meaning outside of physics." Miranda said.

"Those of us who still age object to that statement," Andy said.

"You are aging wonderfully," Miranda said. Stepping closer, she wrapped Andrea in a tight hug. "When you are ready, far in the future, you’ll join me."

"Not now?" Andrea asked, curious.

"You still have a full life to lead," Miranda said. "While I don’t regret ascending, it was not a choice I was given. Ascending changes your outlook on life. It opens up more possibilities but removes others."


"The Ascended do not have children," Miranda said. "It isn’t something we’ve talked about recently but you’ve made your feelings clear about this in the past."

"Yeah, no," Andrea said, shivering. "I’m not sure I’m ready to give that possible future up. But that was something I wanted to share with you."

"We shall talk more in the future," Miranda said, "but clearly ascending is not something we need to discuss at this point."

"Nope," Andrea said. "Still using the body I’ve got. No need to trade up before I’m ready."

"And I must see to Mother," Miranda said. "She is another person who was not given a choice. She became the Clan Mother under unfortunate circumstances."

"I’d like to meet her at some point," Andrea said.

"I’m sure you’ll have plenty of opportunity," Miranda said. "This is only the beginning of our journey among the Clans."

"You see us staying a part of this group?" Andy asked.

"The girls are to all intents and purposes Clan," Miranda said. "This is where they belong. There is a larger future for them here."

"And myself?" Andy asked.

"You have much in common with them," Miranda said. "They see you as one of them."

"But I’m not," Andy said. "I have no Clan blood. I’m just a journalist who grew up in Ohio."

"And they are former cheerleaders who also grew up in Ohio. And like them, you have non-Terran ancestors."

"How do you know that?" Andy asked.

"Your Aunt Sue," Miranda said.

"What did she tell you?" Andy asked. "She likes to pretend to know mysterious things."

"It is not my place to tell you," Miranda said. "But she believes there is a perfectly valid reason why you are able to use Clan tech, without Clan genetics, and I agree."

"Some day, someone will have to stop being so mysterious and explain this."

"Yes, but not today," Miranda said. She shifted into her ascended form. "I shall return shortly," she said, before disappearing.

"Damn mysterious women in my life," Andy said, grumbling. "Never a complete answer where half of one will do." Shaking her head, she flopped back down into her chair.

Chapter Text

"An interesting place," Miranda said, looking around the clearing at the small dwelling. It wasn’t a style she was familiar with, with a wide porch surrounding it. She could only assume it was modeled on an early Clan design. She could detect a single being in the area, once she’d adjusted for the virtual aspect of the Clan learning pods.

"What are you?" a soft voice said, from a dark corner of the porch. "You are not a being I am familiar with."

"You can call me Miranda," Miranda said, slowly moving onto the porch. "I have been asked to speak with you by your Clan Council."

"Why?" the woman said, stepping out of the shade. "Have they sent an assassin? Are they employing the gods now?"

"I am not a god," Miranda said, "merely someone who has moved to another plain of existence. Your wellbeing is a concern of theirs."

"They do not know what to do with a Clan traitor such as myself," the woman said, quietly.

"They certainly have mixed feeling about you," Miranda said. "They are facing a war with an ancient enemy of the Clans and some would rather wait until afterward to decide your fate."

"Who endangers my Clan," the woman said, glaring fiercely at Miranda.

"The Sun Stealers of Kraal," Miranda said, "though they refer to them as the Bugs, for reasons that escape me."

"They are not very bug-like," the woman said, "but they destroy all in their wake. The last time we faced them we lost our beloved war leader, Ixchel. Mother still cried for her on Remembrance Day, many sun cycles after her loss."

"You knew this Ixchel?" Miranda asked, intrigued.

"She was the hearth father of my mother. Her descent into madness began then."

"So you remember her," Miranda stated.

"She was the first to show me the ways of the Clan hunters," the woman said. "To teach me to reach inside myself for the strength we all have."

"Please sit," Miranda said, changing form and creating a seat for herself.

"You are a god!" the woman said. "The gods could do such things."

"No," Miranda said. "Just more advanced. I was once as you, limited by my flesh. I was rescued and given this form."

"You have family," the woman said. "There is something about them that radiates from you."

"Yes, two daughters of the Wind Clan," Miranda said, "and my wife is of the fabled Winter Folk."

"The Winter Folk are a myth, a tale from before the Clans went to space," the woman said, her voice rising at her surprise.

"They exist, though they have been in hiding so long they don’t remember their origins," Miranda said. "She is all things to me."

"I would meet her," the woman said.

"Now is not the time," Miranda said. "Now is the time to discuss your future."

"I have none," the woman said. "My Clan was destroyed by my folly. The new Clan Council sees little of value in my existence. They have kept me locked away in this not-place."

"The Clan learning pods," Miranda said. "They are a safe space for you. You are protected from outside dangers."

"It is still not a real place," the woman said. "I can feel time passing differently out in the real place."

"They are not aware of this," Miranda said. "They would not wish for you to suffer."

"It is not suffering," the woman said, "but it is confusing. I know there are things I should be doing but not here."

"What do you think that is?" Miranda asked.

"I have thought something is endangering the Clan but they have said nothing. And you have now told me it is true," the woman said. "I must join the fight against the Kraal."

Miranda paused, there’d been a change in energy levels while they were talking. The woman was becoming brighter at some mental level. Miranda cautiously stopped time and examined this energy. It was unlike anything she’d seen before, though with a faint resemblance to what had surrounded Lady Sophia when she communed with her gods. Restarting time, she came to a decision.

"I cannot free you," Miranda told her. "That is not my purview. But I can visit and we can talk. I may also bring others."

"I would like to meet your family," the woman said. "I find the idea of a living member of the Winter Folk intriguing."

"Later," Miranda said, repeating her earlier denial. "And now I must go."

"Please come again," the woman said. "For longer conversation."

"I suspect your name shall become important," Miranda said. "The name your mother gave you does not fall lightly off the tongue."

"You may call me Romana," the woman said. "It is not truly my name but the name of the woman my mother named me after, in her own language."

"I had wondered," Miranda said. "The name you were given is not a Clan name."

"No," Romana said. "It is a musical name but few can bring that out."

Nodding in agreement, Miranda stood up, dismissed her chair and orbed away, and out of the Pod environment, reappearing in the Council chamber.

"Back so soon?" Rachel asked, noticing her presence. "We were about to break for dinner."

"I shall not keep you long then," Miranda said. "I have a simple request."

"Go ahead," Brittany said.

"I would like to involve Ixchel in this evaluation of your Clan Mother," Miranda said. "I believe it may benefit both of them."

"We haven’t allowed Ixchel into the pods yet," Brittany said. "It is not clear what effect they would have on her."

"She shall be safe," Miranda said. "I shall bring her with me."

"You have a way of entering the Pod environment without using the Pods?" Rachel asked.

"Yes," Miranda said. "It is just another energy level. I have spoken with your Mother and believe Ixchel’s presence with be beneficial. Mother is familiar with the Clan member of that name from this universe."

"That’s a coincidence," Quinn said, frowning. "Hopefully they were on good terms at the time."

"It appears so," Miranda said. "The term used was 'hearth father'."

"Really?" Rachel said, excitedly. "That was an ancient practice in the Clan. It was a parental role. Do we know if Ixchel had the same relationship in her home dimension?"

"We shall find out," Brittany said. "Do what you need to," she said to Miranda. "If we can rehabilitate both of them we shall come out far ahead."

Miranda nodded her thanks, and silently left, returning to Andrea’s side.

"That was quick," Andrea said. "you’ve only been gone for five minutes."

Smirking, Miranda leaned into her and leisurely kissed her. "Time flows differently in different places. I have found a role for our little Ixchel to play."

"Really?" Andrea said. "She has been a bit mopey. What is it?"

"She shall help me with Mother," Miranda said. "Or Romana as she prefers to be called."

"Romana? Really?" Andrea said. "That name sounds familiar."

"It’s possible you are thinking about a character in a certain English television show," Miranda said. "There are some similarities."

"Really? Do you think Romana, the Time Lady was a real person?" Andrea said. "I thought the show was science fiction, pure make believe."

"She claims to have been named after a friend of her own mother," Miranda said. "While it’s possible that, somehow, this Romana was named after a real woman, a Time Lady, it could be just a coincidence."

"Or another one of those portal leaks?" Andre said. "There was a phrase to describe this, but I can’t remember it. Something about fiction in one universe being real in another."

"Yes," Miranda said. "But it easily leads to confusion and headaches. Who creates whom, is one of the perennial issues of such a belief system. I prefer to believe it’s a coincidence."

"Spoil my fun," Andrea said, pouting. "I’d like to believe that Mother’s original Romana was really Romanadvoratrelundar."

"Believe what you wish," Miranda said. "We are unlikely to ever know the truth."

"How is Ixchel going to help with the problem of Romana?" Andrea said. "She’s not exactly stable herself."

"Romana has fond memories of someone with that name," Miranda said. "It’s possible it is even the same person."

"But Ixchel is from the Goa'uld universe," Andy said.

"They share some similarities," Miranda said. "If they are from the same point in Clan history it shall help both of them to meet."

"And the Council went along with this?" Andy said, surprised.

"The Council prefers to believe that everyone deserves a chance to prove themselves a valuable member," Miranda said. "Second or even third chances are not surprising. They see Romana as someone of immense value, if she can be successfully treated."

"And that is what you’ll be doing while the girls and I continue on our collecting trip," Andy said, nodding to herself.

"Yes," Miranda said.

"Have you thought what you’ll tell the girls? They are expecting you to be here," Andrea said.

"Just the truth. They’ll understand," Miranda said. "We also need to discuss you."

"Me? What’s there to discuss? Sure, you and Aunt Sue are keeping secrets from me, but what’s new about that?" Andrea said, frowning at her wife.

"These secrets are not meant to harm," Miranda said, "but you are correct. Some things should not be kept secret."


"Who you really are," Miranda said.

"I’m Andrea Sachs-Priestly, Andy for short," Andy said. "That’s as real as it gets."

"You are also, according to your Aunt Sue, a member of the Winter Folk," Miranda said, pronouncing it with a lilting accent.

"The what?" Andrea said.

"The Winter Folk are an ancient people who interacted with the Clans thousands of years ago, long before the Clans took to traveling in space."

"The Clans," Andrea said. "The Clans came from different planets in the same body of stars. Though, no one has ever explained why they are so interconnected and share so much genetics."

"The answer is the Winter Folk," Miranda said. "They traveled using some unknown means to all of the planets where the Clans lived. It is suspected that the Winter folk seeded the Clans among the stars, taking them from their original world."

"That’s pretty detailed for a myth," Andrea said. "There are numerous stories about ancient aliens who populate the stars using humans stolen from Earth."

"The Goa'uld universe is a real example of where it happened on a large scale," Miranda said. "The Goa'uld took humans from Earth and scattered them across their universe. Though there were other ancient peoples who existed before then that built the Gates used by the Goa'uld."

"So, someone thinks these Winter Folk created the Clans?" Andrea said. "How likely is that?"

"It is speculation," Miranda said. "There is no proof, just ancient stories. The Lady Memory can show them to you if you wish."

"Speculation, but you and Aunt Sue are sure I’m one of these 'Winter Folk'?" Andrea asked. "How can you be so sure?"

"Your Aunt Sue showed me convincing proof," Miranda said. "Your family traces its lineage back several thousand years to a family of these Winter Folk who arrived on this planet long before the Clan."

"So my mother and father know this?" Andrea said. "Why didn’t they say anything?"

"I do not believe they know," Miranda said.

"How can Aunt Sue know but my parents not?" Andrea asked.

"I can’t answer that," Miranda said. "But we know there is something special about your genetic profile."

"Yeah, it’s screwy," Andrea said. "I’m not Clan but I’m also not really human. Except I look human inside and out. How is that possible?"

"I cannot answer that," Miranda said, hugging her. "You’ll have to ask your Aunt Sue. She has answers."

"But will she share them?" Andrea asked, leaning into Miranda’s hug. "And will they be the answers to my questions?"

"That I also cannot answer," Miranda said. "Only your Aunt Sue can."

"Aunt Sue, Yada Yada," Andrea said, sounding frustrated.

"She does appear to have all the answers," Miranda said. "You should ask her."

"So, why bring Ixchel to meet Romana?" Andrea said, changing the subject after several minutes of silence from Miranda. "Why do you think they can help each other?"

"There was a Clan warrior with that name," Miranda said. "She was apparently a member of Romana’s family, though i’m not clear on the exact relationship. Her death hit Romana’s mother very hard and Romana believes that’s when she started to go insane."

"So, really close, probably you and I close?" Andrea said.

Miranda nodded. "That appears to be the implication."

"The Serpent Clan has always had a high percentage of women in leadership roles. And according to Lady Memory, the gender makeup of the Clan has been heavily favored towards women for the last few millennia, so this isn’t surprising." Andrea shrugged. "Not quite the fabled lesbian Amazons of Wonder Woman, but trending that way."

"Different Clans have different gender proportions," Miranda said.

"When do you have time for this?" Andrea asked.

"As I’ve said, time is flexible," Miranda said. "I need no sleep and have been filling my time learning about this Clan we have found ourselves in."

"Do you regret how deeply we are part of the craziness?" Andy asked. "I know you believe we need to be a part of this if only for the girls but what about you and I?"

"No regrets," Miranda said. "Other than being unable to save my staff when we crashed through that portal."

"You had no control over that," Andy said. "You were lucky you didn’t die yourself."

"Some would consider ascending to be a similar thing. Although I am back in your life, I no longer have a life of my own." Miranda frowned. "I do not miss the paparazzi but I would like to be able to take you out to dinner on occasion."

"Have you talked with Brittny about this? She has an excellent head for twisting the rules. Maybe she can bring you back?" Andrea frowned in thought.

"Back from the dead?"

"Figuratively speaking," Andrea said. "Some kind of rescue? Maybe they found you living on some deserted island that had a hidden Clan research facility on it?"

"It has possibilities," Miranda said. "It wouldn’t hurt to ask."

"And then you can take back Runway. It hasn’t been the same since you disappeared."

"Emily has been doing a halfway decent job," Miranda said, "but she could use proper guidance."

"Halfway decent? High praise from the former Queen of Fashion," Andrea said.

"You want to do what?" Brittany asked, her voice echoing across the comm.

"Resurrect Miranda," Andrea said. "Bring her back officially."

"We aren’t buying another magazine," Santana said, her voice sounding like she’s sitting next to Brittany.

"I think that would be awesome," Rachel said. "We do have our own media company now. Fashion is the next step."

"We have a war to fight," Santana said. "We can’t be involved in something like that."

"Why would we be involved?" Quinn asked, sounding breathless over the comm.

"Alien fashions?" Santana said. "You don’t think a magazine like Runway is going to want us on the cover? Hot alien women? Thousands of model-ishious aliens?"

"While the idea is intriguing," Miranda said, "the current state of Runway would require a lot of work to bring it back up to previous standards."

"You can’t fire Emily," Andrea said. "She went to your funeral!"

"Not the point," Santana said, before an argument could start. "Do we bring Lady Miranda back 'from the dead'?"

"Of course," Brittany said. "Never a question, it just has to be her decision."

"I think the hidden Clan base on a deserted island in the Bermuda Triangle angle would make for a great epic story," Rachel said.

"Except she disappeared in the Pacific," Quinn said. "Are there any Clan bases in the Pacific that we don’t know about?"

"That island were they think they found Amelia Earhart’s bones?" Andrea said. "That would make sense."

"And we can find Earhart’s long lost diary also," Brittany said, laughing.

"Let’s not go too far overboard," Santana said. "If Miranda survived, why didn’t Earhart? And what about the other people on that plane?"

"Well, actually," Brittany said, "there actually is a small Clan base in the Pacific. It was used to study that portal to the Goa'uld universe."

"Is it still active?" Quinn said. "You hadn’t mentioned it before."

"No, it went into stasis when the Red Pirates tried to destroy the Clan. I didn’t see any reason to bring it back online."

"We can’t bring back Miranda’s missing staff, can we," Andrea said. "So, no Nigel?"

"No," Brittany said. "We can rescue someone, but truly back from the dead? Not possible."

"They didn’t survive the trip through the portal," Miranda said. "That was the only explanation I was ever given."

"Could it have thrown them somewhere else?" Andrea asked hopefully.

"No, that portal, and all the others we’ve run into over the years, all went to one place. Sorry," Brittany said.

"So, we bring her back, and use that old base to do it," Quinn said, "but how? What’s the excuse? Why were we even looking?"

"Simple," Brittany said. "We were investigating several old Clan research bases we’d found mentioned in recently discovered records, one in the Pacific, and one in the Antarctic, and found Miranda in the Pacific facility."

"In stasis," Santana said. "No offense Miranda but it’s been a few years. We need a reason for you to not age."

"Of course," Miranda said. "And how did I end up in stasis?"

"We’ll have to look at the base to come up with a valid reason," Brittany said.

"And how do we get Runway back?" Andrea asked. "You owned a large amount of stock in Elias-Clarke, and I’ve been slowly purchasing more, but it isn’t a controlling interest yet."

"I’m sure we can buy enough stock to make it work," Brittany said. "Though we’ll want to do it before you are 'rescued' or it will look suspicious."

"We aren’t telling anyone that we own anything," Santana said. "Why would they care? Who knows we own that media holding company?"

"We told the US President, and the Queen," Brittany said. "A few other governments probably know also. It’s hard to keep things like that secret."

"How do you get away with it?" Andrea asked.

"There aren’t any rules against such things," Brittany said. "And they all operate as independent businesses. If we want to make use of their services, we pay them. Like with you."

"Actually, you don’t pay me," Andrea said. "I still get paid by the Mirror."

"Well, we provide all of your equipment, and pay for your living quarters, among other things," Brittany said. "And we pay the accountants who do your taxes. On top of that, we compensate the Mirror for your time. You would have been an editor by now if you hadn’t come to work with us, so we covered the difference so they could hire a full time editor in your place."

"That must cost you a lot," Andrea said.

"Worth every penny," Rachel said. "You fill a big hole in our plans."

"And we’re astronomically rich," Brittany said. "Between the patents we license, and the valuable metals we get from mining the asteroid belt, it’s a drop in the bucket."

"Do you pay any of your people?" Miranda asked.

"Clan? No," Brittany said. "They have access to all Clan resources, depending on position. And they get spending money, if they want to purchase something we can’t get them ourselves."

"An allowance?" Miranda said.

"More or less," Quinn said. "We just don’t have a culture that places an emphasis on wealth."

"They are aliens," Andrea said to Miranda. "Different culture. Different rules."

"It’s an interesting approach," Miranda said. "I don’t think Runway could be run that way. As much as the staff is dedicated to producing an outstanding magazine, they could not do it for free."

"We don’t interfere in management decisions for properties we’ve acquired," Rachel said.

"Well, there is NASA," Santana said. "We took that apart and remade it. More efficient. Safer."

"But that was different," Brittany said. "They needed a tech upgrade, and the US government outsourced them to us. But we do pay them, so they definitely don’t work for free."

"You own NASA?" Miranda said, raising an eyebrow at that pronouncement.

"Congress wanted to shut it down, since we can do everything cheaper. So we made them an offer and they accepted. We own the civilian facilities, and employ all of the engineers and non-military staff," Brittany said. "It’s been slow progress molding them into something we could use, but they are getting there."

"We didn’t get the military facilities," Santana said. "And other countries haven’t done the same thing. Or have shut down their own space efforts completely."

"The Chinese are still doing their own thing," Brittany said. "We’ve sold them some useful space tech but they plan to have their own space station and go to the moon on their own. The Japanese shut down their Solomon Islands launch facility."

"But we’re looking into hiring some of their staff," Santana said. "Some original ideas were coming out of there until they shut it down."

"We didn’t originally intend to be swallowing up all these things," Brittany said. "It just started happening."

"And happening," Santana said.

"And no one has objected?" Miranda asked. "You are basically controlling all of the non-commercial planet based space activities."

"They don’t seem to have noticed," Rachel said. "The public, that is. The governments are happy to take the money they were spending on civilian space ventures and spend it on other things."

"Military," Quinn said. "They are trying to secretly develop the same kind of hard suit tech. But they aren’t going to get very far without our help."

"If we had more time, we would give them a boost, but by the time they were ready we’d have either defeated the Bugs or failed," Brittany said.

"You aren’t willing to give them your current tech?" Miranda asked.

"No," Santana said. "For our own reasons."

"We will gradually boost Terran tech to our level," Brittany said. "But it will take centuries to do it correctly. We want a healthy civilization in this sector. A sudden boost may help us in our battle with the Bugs but the resulting mess would destroy the viability of this civilization."

"So, you are willing to be at a disadvantage in your war in order to have a better future?"

"Yes, Lady Miranda," Rachel said. "We won’t sacrifice our planet or the Clan for short term gains. And it’s still our planet, even though we are Clan."

"Noble," Miranda said. "I can see why Andrea is on your side."

"They are good people," Andrea said. "But still alien."

"Born and bred in Ohio," Rachel said. "Some of us anyway."

"So, let’s get this show on the road," Santana said. "That base needs to be examined, and everything prepared."

"Andy, it would be helpful if you mentioned in your column for the Mirror that we are investigating a number of formerly unknown Clan facilities, and you’ve been invited along. Once we’ve checked them for traps, of course."

"Can do," Andy said. "I’m assuming you’ll bring me in when you are ready. I need to get back out there. Our recording crew is starting to scan Rome tonight."

"Rome?" Brittany asked. "How long will it take?"

"It’s very dense. Both in cultural artifacts and history," Andy said. "We’ll be there for months."

"Do we need to negotiate access to any locations?" Rachel said. "We do have a good working relationship with the Vatican."

"I was able to swing access to hard to get to places through my own sources," Andy said. "Though we did have to promise copies of all of the recordings."

"And tech to view them?" Brittany asked. "We haven’t released anything that would allow them being viewed."

"They know that. They’ve requested the tech, when it does become available," Andy said.

"Your source wouldn’t be Coach, would it?" Quinn said. "She knows people in some of the most unexpected places."

"Yes," Andrea said. "Should I have cleared that with the Council?"

"Coach speaks for the Council," Santana said. "She would be on the Council if we could convince the Confederation. Stupid rules about Clan Council membership," she grumbled.

"Lady Sylvester is a valuable asset," Miranda said. "I find her lack of ambition puzzling."

"Aunt Sue is very ambitious," Andy said. "But her priorities often seem so alien, no offense."

"Coach’s ambition is not to rule, but to make the world a better place," Quinn said. "She just has different methods."

"Her methods line up with ours," Brittany said.

"Well, she practically created the three of you," Rachel said. "She took three talented and ambitious girls and made them into the kind of women the Confederation was looking for to rebuild the Serpent Clan."

"That doesn’t explain you," Miranda said to her.

"There are many layers to this swirling mass of plans," Sue’s voice said, joining them over the command comm. "The Serpent Clan is working towards saving this entire sector from the ancient Clan enemy and deserve all of the support we can give them. The Winter Folk, also known as the Furlings, also have their part to play. They have a vested interest in the survival of the Clans."

"What do you know of the Furlings?" Miranda asked. "They are a part of the mythology of the Goa'uld universe though none had ever seen them. The so called Fifth Race."

"The Winter Folk are credited with creating the Clans," Rachel said. "Most stories of them are unbelievable, more ancient legend than reality. How did you learn of them, Coach?"

"Years ago, while on an op in East Germany, my team rescued a family from the GDR. A family with amazing abilities. We took a vow to protect their secrets," Sue said. "It is time to reveal this to the Clan leadership."

"And that is how you became aware of Andrea’s heritage?" Miranda said. "And became an honorary aunt?"

"Andy?" Brittany said. "She’s one of the Winter Folk? One of the ancient founders of the Clans?"

"I was told only recently," Andy said. "I have no idea what it means."

"It explains why you are able to wear our hard suits and use our tech. The foundation and source of much of our tech is believed to have been created by the Winter Folk. There’s a special mode that is designed for the Winter Folk," Brittany said.

"Why didn’t you notice this before?" Andy said.

"There is special programming in our tech, that it wouldn’t work without," Brittany said. "It wasn’t clear where it came from or its purpose, it’s really subtle. But this partially explains it. It’s keyed off of your genetics."

"So you think I can do other things?" Andy said.

"Unknown," Brittany said. "You may just be able to operate at the same level as Clan, which we’ve already seen. Or you may have another level that we have yet to see."

"A level-up?" Andy said, giggling. "Do I become a Super-Sayan?"

"We don’t have those kinds of powers in the Clans," Rachel said. "Clan genetics give us extended abilities from humans but nothing like that."

"The Furlings do have special abilities," Sue said. "Andy’s parents used them to rescue my team, putting us in their debt. But they require special training and there is no one to provide that training at this time."

"Not even my parents?" Andy said.

"You may wish to speak with them about it but they don’t recall the training. They were stranded on this world years ago, before coming to the attention of the East German government. They declined to explain what brought them to this world," Sue said. "But they were unable to leave."

"Do they approve of my involvement with the Clans?" Andy asked. "They’ve never said anything."

"They don’t know the extent of your involvement," Sue said. "They may be friends of the Clans but the Council has not cleared them for this knowledge."

"We shall have to investigate," Brittany said. "Sorry Andy, but we have procedures for such things."

"Understood," Andy said. "Friends of the Clans doesn’t mean they’ll be okay with what you are doing."

"They are honorable people," Sue said. "But caution is wise."

"Coach, if you know anything about the Winter Folk, I would appreciate it if you could share," Rachel said. "Clan records concerning them are rare and often incomprehensible."

"That would best be gotten from Andrea’s parents, once they have been read in," Sue said.

"And you have no siblings," Brittany said. "So it’s just your parents we need to contact."

"Okay, enough of that," Santana said. "What about Operation 'Miranda Reveal'?"

"Two weeks?" Brittany said. "Miranda, can you become available then? It will mean you have less freedom for other things."

"Time is very fluid," Miranda said. "I will still be able to work with Romana and Ixchel."

"Romana?" Rachel asked.

"Your Clan Mother," Miranda said. "Has she not told you her name?"

"We have a string of unpronounceable letters," Rachel said. "She has yet to tell us how to speak them."

"She’s named after Romana, from the old British show about an alien time traveller," Andy said.

"That is speculation," Miranda said, at Brittany’s puzzled look. "It may well be a coincidence."

"I prefer to believe there is a connection," Andrea said. "With all of the portals that you keep finding, why not? A Time Lady could have wandered through this part of the Galaxy when the Clan first settled here."

"Interesting idea, though I don’t believe there are any time travelers in the Confederation. They would have been detected long ago," Brittany said. "But it doesn’t really matter. Calling her 'Mother' puts her on a pedestal."

"A pedestal she doesn’t want to be on," Miranda said. "The woman believes she is a failure and is simply waiting to be executed for her crimes."

"We don’t do things like that," Quinn said. "Especially not to Clan, however badly they might have behaved. Clan life is sacred."

"She does not see it that way," Miranda said. "But hopefully she can be convinced otherwise."

"I would like to meet her," Andrea said. "She sounds fascinating. And how you treat her reveals a lot about your culture."

"We will leave that up to Miranda," Brittany said. "If Miranda believes it is safe for you to meet her, then we will not object."

"She does have some psychic ability," Miranda said. "It is not clear to me yet what that is, but she registers as someone with access to a kind of almost divine power. Much like Sophia."

"Divine power?" Andy asked. "Like a god?"

"It isn’t clear," Miranda said, again. "I can sense something around her at times, but not its source."

"My cousin Sophia, as the Clan Weaver, has the ability to contact our gods, though she says they don’t really answer her, so much as inspire understanding."

"Has she said anything about what they think of all this?" Andy said, waving vaguely at the Council.

"They aren’t the kinds of goddesses who directly interfere in our lives, other than making us aware of their favor," Rachel said. "In the long history of the Clan they’ve mostly acted through the Council’s Weaver."

"Well, at least you know they care," Andy said. "Do the other Clans have real Gods?"

"It’s not something we talk about with outsiders," Brittany said. "Every Clan has some connection to the mystical plane but how it works is a closely guarded secret."

"Oh," Andy said, sounding disappointed. "So, no chance to interview them?"

"For your column?" Brittany said. "No, but I’m sure Sophia would be happy to give you an overview, and there’s always the Fox Clan and their gods if you want to learn about the clan gods."

"Fox Clan? Who are they?" Andy asked.

"Not one of the original Clans," Quinn said dismissively.

"They have their place," Brittany said.

"You’ve been in contact with them?" Santana asked. "Aren’t they too busy hiding away from Clan tech in their temple and little villages?"

"I thought we were going to leave them alone?" Rachel asked. "Do they even know we know where they are?"

"Not yet," Brittany said. "But I had a 'chat' with their Fox god, and have plans for some of them, with his approval."

"That’s dangerous, babe," Santana said. "Remember what they say about the gods."

"Don’t interfere in the affairs of the gods for they are quick to anger?" Brittany said, winking at her.

"No, that’s wizards," Andy said.

"Works for the gods also," Santana said. "I hope you know what you’re doing there, Brit."

"It’s all under control," Brittany said. "Another cog in the plan."

Chapter Text

Transformed to her ascended form, Miranda entered the small hut at the edge of the clearing. It contained simple furnishings, a bed, a small table, and a wardrobe. She only briefly wondered who’d chosen them. Ixchel wouldn’t have asked for anything of this sort. If she asked, she was sure it would have been either Andrea or Rachel, one of the two kind hearted women. It wasn’t that the others were unthoughtful but they would never have asked for themselves and would have never thought anyone else needed anything better than a mattress to lay down on.

"Ixchel?" she called. She could sense the chaotic aura of the Goa'uld clanswoman nearby but preferred to announce her presence instead of suddenly appearing.

"Yes, Lady Miranda?" Ixchel said, slowly rising from her position on the floor next to the bed.

"The bed is there to be used," Miranda said. "I am sure it is much more comfortable than the floor."

"It is too soft," Ixchel said. "It reminds me of the bed I was forced to use by Lord Paxle. I cannot abide in it."

"Ah," Miranda said. Nodding to herself, she glided over to the bed, and transformed it into a simple pallet with a straw mattress. "This should be better," she said.

Ixchel cautiously sat down on the pallet. Nodding to herself, she said, "This is more appropriate. what can I do for the great Lady Miranda?"

"I have come to request your assistance in an important task," Miranda said. "In your memories, do you recall a member of the Clan called Romana?"

"She was a shy little thing," Ixchel said, smiling faintly. "Her mother had been friends with a strange traveler with a name even our most skilled bard could not pronounce. She insisted on being called the shorter Romana. I would have wanted to watch her grow up, she had potential to become a wonderful member of the Clan. The Goa'uld killed them both when they conquered our lands and forced me into servitude."

"The Clan of this place also has someone of that name," Miranda said. "I believe she would benefit from your presence."

"And her mother?" Ixchel asked, a hopeful tone in her voice.

"This Clan’s Romana spent a long number of cycles in stasis, after her mother’s death. She is still grieving. She is also heartsick following the destruction of her Clan leadership when she tried to save her mother," Miranda said, giving her an abbreviated summary. "She blames herself for failing."

"There is more to this tale," Ixchel said, frowning. "There are no lies in your voice but you are not telling me everything."

"No," Miranda said. "Some of her tale must come from her, though she sees it in a much worse light than the Clan."

"I would come with you to hear this tale," Ixchel said. "But I am bound here."

"I have permission from the Clan Council to take you with me," Miranda said. "You are not a prisoner of the Clan. They are merely concerned about you."

"Then free me from this place to visit this Romana," Ixchel said.

"Place your hand here," Miranda said, holding out her own hand. "She is in a place you may call limbo."

Ixchel placed her hand in Miranda’s. There was a brief disorienting flash of light and change in gravity and they appeared in front of the steps.

"Miranda? You have returned. And who is that with you?"

"This is someone I would like you to meet," Miranda said. "This is Ixchel, a former warrior of one of the Clans, from another place."

"How can this be?" Romana said, staring at Ixchel. "She looks remarkably like my mother’s beloved of the same name. That is not possible. We buried her on the Moons of Starlight following the Battle of Forbearance."

"I remember the Battle of Forbearance, but in my world I did not die," Ixchel said. "It was a hard fought battle with many losses but there were worse things to come."

Romana gestured for them to sit. "What happened to your Clan?"

"We were conquered by creatures known as the Goa'uld," Ixchel said. "They possessed our leaders and stole us from our homes. We were able to prevent them from taking our tech, but they tortured us relentlessly."

"And you were one of these leaders," Romana said.

"Yes, to my shame. I was forced to watch the destruction of our Clan over many cycles. Until I was rescued by the Lady Miranda and her consort, the Lady Andrea. They brought myself back to their world, where I await the judgement of the Clan Council for my sins," Ixchel said.

"But you were possessed," Romana said. "Why are you guilty of those crimes?"

"I should have resisted. I should have died before allowing the destruction of my Clan. But that past cannot be changed," Ixchel said. "And now I have the memories of one of these Goa'uld in my head and have outlived them all."

"You were possessed," Romana repeated. "I, however attempted to make a deal with the Red Pirates, hoping to use the conflict to bring my Clan together and save my Mother. It did not go as I planned. The Red Pirates destroyed the Clan, killing the Council, including my mother."

"But they have not condemned you for this," Ixchel said. "They had not executed you for such a traitorous act."

"This Clan’s Council is not a tradition bound one," Miranda told them. "They come from a very different place. They know Clan traditions but grew up in a different culture. Expecting them to act like one of the old Clan Councils would be a mistake."

"They are not happy with me," Romana said. "The Hands and Air of the Council would rather I were put into stasis forever."

"They are warriors," Miranda said. "They may understand weakness but are not always sympathetic. But their bonded even them out and provide balance."

"The Weaver is also different," Romana said. "She is a true Weaver, able to commune with our gods."

"She has requested that both of you be given a place now, in the Clan," Miranda told them. "What place that may be is currently being debated."

"And what is your role in this, Lady Miranda," Ixchel asked.

"I am merely an observer," Miranda said. "Although my daughters are members of Lady Shadow’s birth Clan, I have no stake in your place in the Clan."

"And your beloved is one of the Winter Folk," Romana said. "When are you bringing her here to meet us?"

"Lady Andrea is a Furling?" Ixchel said, turning towards Miranda. "The Goa'uld were terrified of them, though none remembers ever meeting them face to face. They were fierce warriors according to the tales. Your Lady does not seem like one."

"Threaten her family and she becomes unstoppable in our defence," Miranda said. "But we are neutral in this matter. We support the Serpent Clan in its fight against the ancient Clan Foe. This is our world, after all."

"What of us?" Ixchel said. "Will we be allowed to fight for this world, this clan?"

"I do not see them turning you down," Miranda said, "once they believe you are ready."

"How goes the Grand Plan," Santana asked, slipping into Brittany’s office in the Clan base in the asteroids.

"What brings you here?" Brittany asked, rising from her chair. With a wide grin, she tackled Santana, placing her in a tight hug.

"I can’t drop in on my favorite person?" Santana asked. "I was in the neighborhood and saw you were alone, so I came by."

"You are so much like Sophia," Brittany said. "You’ll use the comms but prefer person to person meetings."

"No, I’m not anything like my cousin," Santana said, protesting. "But occasionally I do like to get a Brit hug."

"You’re heading back to the Ring," Brittany said, raising an eyebrow. "There wasn’t anything there."

"We never looked for the control center," Santana said. "As soon as you found Rach and me, we headed home. What if there is something valuable there? Something we can use to defeat the Bugs?"

"Who are you taking?"

"Q is giving me Black Team, but can’t come herself. Rachel is lending me two of her best apprentices. And I was hoping to get one of your Shadow teams for this," Santana said.

"I can give you the appropriately trained team," Brittany said. "I know just the two."

"Thanks, babe," Santana said. "We leave tomorrow. I’d ask you to join us but I know you’re busy."

"The first stage of the Overwatch project is almost complete," Brittany said. "Once it’s up we will have advanced warning when the Bugs reach this sector. But I need to oversee the last stage."

"I’m sure it will be a great finish," Santana said. "And free up some of my ships from the long range patrols they are currently are on."

"Efficiency is always helpful," Brittany said. "How are the crews coming?"

"Good," Santana said. "You’ve seen the reports. We should reach full complement in another generation from the pods."

"Good. Quinn is also almost at full troop levels. Just in time," Brittany said. "The Bugs are expected to pass through the Blue Clan sector through the next cycle."

"It’s getting close," Santana said. "I can’t say I’m looking forward to the war reaching us."

"It’s mainly skirmishes along their far border so far," Brittany said. "Artie keeps me updated on the status of the other Clans."

"So, it’s going well? For the others?" Santana asked. "It feels like we are on our own out here on the edge of the Confederation."

"Just a holding action," Brittany said. "The Bugs are bouncing off of the other Clans like ping-pong. They are being driven towards our sector."

"That’s not friendly," Santana said. "Why?"

"Least damage to the Confederation if the final battle with the Bugs is here," Brittany said.

"So, will we get any help?" Santana said, frowning. "If they’re driving them in our direction a little assistance would be helpful."

"The other Clans will get here long after the Bugs," Brittany said. "The Bugs are just moving faster than they can keep up."

"So we’re on our own like we thought," Santana said. "Sucks to be us, I guess."

"If we defeat the Bugs, and don’t just chase them out of this sector, we’ll be in a better bargaining position with the Council of Clans," Brittany said.

"But we have to survive first," Santana said. "What else do you have for me?"

"All of the intel on the ring world has been transfer to your cruiser," Brittany said. "And orders cut for the Shadow team. They have several experimental scanners that should be useful for this trip."

"So, Santana is off on a great adventure?" Rachel asked, speaking over the leadership comm. "When will she be back?"

"She has two months," Brittany said. "Any longer and we’ll be pushing against the timeline for final prep for the Bugs. They were sighted in Blue Clan territory, headed this way."

"But we’ll be ready for them?" Rachel said. "There’s time for Santana to do this?"

"If she finds something we can use against the Bugs, then we will be able to defeat them. Otherwise it might be close, with heavy casualties," Brittany said.

"You don’t think we can defeat the Bugs?" Rachel asked, hesitation in her voice.

"Yes, of course," Brittany said, "but I’d like to have a better chance of the Clan surviving. Right now it will take all of our resources to fight them, based on the reports from the other Clans."

"Oh," Rachel said. "What can I do to help?"

"What you are doing now," Brittany said. "Support Quinn. Support the efforts of Andy and her crews. Keep up morale. Do what a good Memory does, prepare her people for a hard fight. Much as Sophia is doing."

"We will need Mother, Romana, won’t we?" Rachel said.

"We might, though I’m hoping to do this without her," Brittany said. "She’s too unpredictable, even after the work Miranda has done with her."

"But she and Ixchel make a formidable team, I thought you said," Rachel said. "Wouldn’t having them out there be a good thing?"

"Give them a ship and point them at the Bugs?" Brittany said. "It isn’t that simple."

"Why not?" Rachel asked.

"It’s a matter of perception," Brittany said. "I can’t forecast their success with a hundred percent reliability. My models fall apart with them."

"What are you going to do?" Rachel asked.

"When Santana comes back, we’ll let her find a place for the pair, but first, exposure to Quinn and her operation will give us a better idea of their talents, than we already have seen."

"Does Quinn know you are giving her the pair?" Rachel said. "She prefers to make her own decisions about troopers and teams."

"She owes me one," Brittany said. "More than one, actually. She’ll go along with this for now."

"We all owe you something," Rachel said. "Do you want me to tell her?"

"I’ll handle it," Britany said. "No reason to put you in the middle."

"You’re a good friend and Shadow," Rachel said, giving her an exaggerated bow.

"I know, right?" Brittany said, giggling.

"You want me to what?" Quinn said, grimacing, and not quite shouting.

"Make use of Mother, and Ixchel," Brittany said.

"Both of them? Why? And how?" Quinn said. "It would be hard enough to fit one of them into my trooper teams. Romana has no experience with our battle tech and Ixchel can’t wear our current hard suits, because of the Goa'uld merger."

"So, don’t put them in hard suits," Brittany said. "They have talents. Put them to use."

"What’s the reason?" Quinn asked.

"We know they would be a valuable addition to our defenses against the Bugs," Brittany said. "They make a good team. But how we’ll be able to use them when the time comes is still unclear."

"And you want me to find out? Why me?" Quinn asked.

"Because you bring out the best in your people and you have a good eye for finding the talents of those who work for you," Brittany said. "Partly because you are the Hand of the Council and partly because of the things you learned from Coach."

"You know I don’t believe any of that Council psychic crap, right"? Quinn said.

"Sophia has something, and Romana has her own psychic gifts," Brittany said. "Whether it is something they had before or it’s part of their position on the Council isn’t clear."

"So, take them, figure out how to use them, and then what?" Quinn asked.

"Pass them on to Santana for further tempering," Brittany said.

"Huh, so I don’t have to keep them?" Quinn said.

"Nope," Brittany said. "Once you figure them out, Santana gets to use them. As you said, they really aren’t what you look for or need in troopers."

"What if I want to keep them?" Quinn said.

"You won’t," Brittany said. "They won’t clash but they just won’t fit properly."

"Then why even send them to me?" Quinn asked.

"It’s necessary," Brittany said. "I can’t explain, really. Just that they will be better after you have worked with them."

"One of your Shadow model things?" Quinn asked.

"Yes," Brittany said. "The model says we’ll survive the Bugs, but when I add them as a team, we’ll have the potential to soundly defeat the Bugs. It certainly isn’t a sure thing, otherwise we wouldn’t be taking all of these chances, but it improves our odds."

"You’re the modeler," Quinn says. "Any ideas on how I can make use of a former Goa'uld and an untrained Mother? Does your model say?"

"No," Britany said. "If I knew what to do with them, I’d tell you. I just know that something about spending time with you and your troopers will benefit them and us."

"Okay," Quinn said, sighing. "I’ll take them. No idea what to do with them but I’ll take them."

"I knew you would," Brittany said, winking at her.

"What’s the deal, Boss," Pin said, joining Quinn outside Brittany’s office. "What impossible thing does Lady Shadow want us to do now?"

"Funny you should say that," Quinn said. "She’s lending us two non-troopers. Wants us to turn them into something."

"Into troopers? The best place to start is in the training Pods. And years of training in the arts," Pin said.

"We don’t have that kind of time," Quinn said. "And these are special."

"How special?" Pin asked. "Special like Lady Andrea? Special like Lady Sylvester?"

"Special in a whole new way," Quinn said. "The Lady Romana and her partner Ixchel."

"She wants us to turn Mother and her friend into troopers? Is that possible or even advisable?" Pin asked.

"No," Quinn said. "Ixchel cannot wear a hard suit and we don’t have the time to outfit Mother with one. The Bugs would be crawling all over us before it and she was ready."

"If not troopers? Then what?" Pin asked, clearly puzzled.

"That was my question," Quinn said. "Got Lady Shadow’s usual answer when you don’t understand her reason to do something."

"The Model says so, so do it?" Pin said.

"Yes," Quinn said, sighing. "We can’t turn them into troopers but we have to do something with them 'because the model says so'."

"I hate when that happens," Pin said. "It’s like some special Shadow model magic."

"And this time the magic doesn’t even know what to do," Quinn said. "Do something, is all it’s telling us to do."

"We can’t pass them on to someone else?" Pin asked. "Maybe Lady Black could do something with them. She’s good at innovating."

"Lady Black is busy convincing the Chinese to cooperate on their plans for a moon base," Quinn said."Even I know that’s never going to happen," Pin said. "How about Lady Sylvester. She’s good at scaring troopers and making them behave. All of her teams used to be bad troopers, the fuck-ups. She knows how to turn those kinds of troopers into useful Clan."

"No, Lady Air is scheduled to get them when she gets back from the ring planet," Quinn said. "But we have to fix them before that happens."

"I’m sure she’ll appreciate our efforts," Pin said sarcastically. "When do we get them? And how do you want us to treat them?"

"With respect," Quinn said. "It is Mother after all, or she will be at some point. But they don’t know anything about how we work so that should be the first step."

"So, basic familiarity course we give someone who won’t become a trooper?" Pin said.

"That’ll do it," Quinn said. "Since we aren’t sure where to put them, at least make sure they know as much about how a hard suit based troop works as you can."

"As you wish, Boss," Pin said, smirking.

"Do I look like a Buttercup to you?" Quinn said, growling at her XO.

"More like Wesley," Pin said, ducking.

"Good one," Pip said, laughing, as she and Squeak joined them. "I could see you as the Dread Pirate Roberts, Boss," she added.

"We aren’t pirates," Quinn said, firmly. "And don’t even think about it."

"Not even a pirate flag in the team lounge?" Squeak asked. "I know just the place for it."

"No," Quinn said. "Not even a pirate accent."

"I bet Lady Air would let us do that," Pip said, pouting. "She would get the joke."

"Only if Lady Shadow approved," Squeak said, pointing behind her at Brittany standing in the door to her office. "Right, Lady Shadow?"

"Piracy has its pluses," Brittany said, winking at Quinn. "You never have to deal with post-battle cleanup and reports, and there’s always booty."

"And the excitement. They get to go on raids," Pip said. "And swashbuckling."

"We aren’t pirates," Quinn said again. "We have goals, and standards."

"And swashbuckling?" Pip asked. "Can we do that anyway?"

"We’ll see," Brittany said. "A little flair won’t hurt."

"Don’t give them ideas," Quinn said. "Send Romana and Ixchel to me."

"Of course," Brittany said. "Expect them shortly." Turning she went back into her office, leaving Quinn with her handmaidens and XO.

"Perfect," Quinn said, grumbling to herself, ignoring the laugh of Brittany in her command comm.

"Time to go Boss?" Pin asked. "We have that troop review on Mars tonight."

"Yes, of course," Quinn said.

With a low hum, the shuttle settled down outside the main gate. There was silence for several minutes, and then the hatch silently opened. A head poked out and glanced around. "Romana, come look at this," she shouted.

"This is not what I expected," she said, looking back into the shuttle. "It looks like something from my dreams." She waved at the large white edifice in the jungle.

"It is the rebuilt city of the Temple of the Serpent Cult," Romana said, joining her at the hatch. "The Clan Council has made its headquarters here since coming to this place."

"Is this where we find our redemption?" Ixchel said, wrapping an arm around her waist. "Or our death?"

"The Lady of the Shadows has promised us a suitable fate," Romana said, leaning back into her.

"Go on, don’t be shy, Lady Romana, Lady Ixchel," a voice from inside the shuttle said. "You’re expected."

Nodding, Romana stepped out of the shuttle, carrying a small bag. Ixchel followed her and they headed towards the main gate guarded by two hard suit wearing figures.

"We are here to see the Lady of the Hands," Ixchel said, when they reached the gate. The figures didn’t reply but gestured towards the opening gate. The two women entered, and stopped. Another hard suited figure stood in front of them blocking the way.

"I’m Pip," the figure said, her voice echoing in the courtyard. "The Boss wants to see you."

"The Boss? Who’s the Boss?" Ixchel asked.

"The Boss? Officially she’s known as the Hands of the Council of the Clan of the Serpent, or Lady Hands," Pip said. "I am one of her Hand Maidens, so to speak."

"The War Leader of the Clan of the Serpent," Romana said. "We are meeting with her."

"Yes," Pip said. "I’m taking you to her now." She turned and headed deeper into the city. They hurried to follow.

"Here they are, Boss," Pip said, stopping in the door to Quinn’s office in the city. "They wanted to see you."

"So, no side trips?" Squeak said, from her position behind Quinn. "I would have shown them around a bit before coming here. We have some interesting things here."

"That’s why the boss sent me," Pip said. "I follow directions."

"I follow directions too," Squeak said. "Right, Boss?"

"I haven’t fired you yet," Quinn said, leaning back in her chair. "Does that answer your question?"

'You’re an old softy," Pip said. "I would have fired her ages ago."

"I’m good in a tight spot," Squeak said. "And the Boss can’t fire me, only the Council can do that."

"I can reassign my Handmaidens to a nice cold post on Pluto or Antartica," Quinn said. "You’d still work for me but not be here." "But you won’t," Pip said, "because she’s going to stop talking."

"Yeah, what she said!" Squeak said. "I’m going to… wait!"

"Hush!" Pip said, waving at her.

"We’re here to see you," Ixchel said, sounding confused, "Lady Hands."

"Yes," Quinn said. "Come in."

"Lady Shadow sent us," Romana said.

"And she neglected to tell you why?" Quinn said.

"Yes," Ixchel said. "She gave us no instructions other than to see you as soon as possible."

"She was a bit vague on this end also," Quinn said. "She’s lent you to us for experience with Clan troops."

"Your armor does not resemble what Clan troops wore in my world," Ixchel said. "I have no experience with it."

"And it is much more advanced than any I’m familiar with," Romana said. "Will we be given training in its use?"

"Unfortunately, we don't have the luxury of time for you to learn to wear our combat hard suits," Quinn said, "Lady Romana. And Ixchel, your Goa'uld possession would not react well with the tech used in our hard suits."

"Then, why are we here?" Romana said. "How can we gain experience if we cannot participate?"

"We’ll think of something," Quinn said. "Pip will take you to your rooms. I’ll see the two of you in the morning. We should have some idea then of what you’ll do while you are here."

"Room?" Romana said. "We can share."

"That is acceptable," Quinn said, nodding. "Pip, make sure to show them were the canteen is."

"Yes, Boss," Pip said. Gesturing at Romana and Ixchel, she led them out of Quinn’s office.

"What are you going to do with them, Boss?" Squeak asked. "You can’t stick them with any of the teams if they can’t wear hard suits. And why did you tell them it would take too long to learn to use them?"

"How long have you been wearing a hard suit?" Quinn asked her.

"We started wearing them when we were teens," Squeak said. "So, ten years?"

"And how long before you could work with a troop?"

"We started learning maneuvers after a couple years. But we were doing other things. So, it takes a couple years to be comfortable in a hard suit in combat," Squeak said. "But I’ve seen latecomers learn the basics in three months. Longer for actual combat training."

"Yes," Quinn said. "We could stick them in the learning pods and they’d be able to go out with a troop in three months real time but they’d be a danger to everyone, including themselves."

"So what are you going to do with them?" Squeak said.

"We’ll think of something," Quinn said. "We don't normally take observers along."

"These troopers eat well," Ixchel said, setting her tray down next to Romana. "We never had it this good."

"The Clan believes in treating its’ people well," Romana said. "Well fed people fight better, train better, believe better."

"Also, our troopers are Clan also," Quinn said, joining them. "All Clan are treated equally."

"The Clan of my day believed the same thing but it wasn’t always acted upon," said Romana. "The troopers were the first to go hungry in lean times. They remained loyal because they were Clan but they were not always well treated."

"The troopers are our people," Quinn said. "Just like those in the fleet and other Serpent Clan. If we don’t treat them well, we should not lead them."

"And we’re all related," Pin said, sitting down next to Quinn. "All of the new Clan are related in some way to the Serpent Council."

"Related how?" Romana said. Ixchel frowned.

"Distantly related," Quinn said. "The rejoined Clan are much more distantly related."

"It’s said, that when the Confederation came to the Four, there were no Clan other than the Lost. The Confederation created the new Clan from the Four. Hence, all related."

"It’s not that simple," Quinn said. "But we do see the entire Clan as family, and you don’t mistreat family. It is not honorable."

"They lead us well," Pin said. "We would follow them to the end of the universe because they’ve earned it. Even the Cultists."

"The Cultists?" Ixchel said. "I have met the Weaver, and Lady Miranda. They do not seem to believe in false gods."

"The Cultists are of no import," Quinn said.

"The Cult of Nine are members of the Clan who believe the Council are divine," Pin said, ignoring Quinn’s glare. "Some of them find it embarrassing."

"We are not divine," Quinn said. "They merely misunderstand what it means to be on the Council. It comes with certain responsibilities and changes. You may have noticed that your Council lived an exceedingly long time compared to others in the Clan."

"Yes," Romana said. "But that is because the Council members are given enhanced tech as part of joining the Council. It is not a sign of divinity but of purpose."

"The Cultists don’t care," Pin said. "The Four are special."

"But that doesn’t matter," Quinn said again. "You aren’t here to argue about the Council, but to learn from us."

"I am learning much," Ixchel said. "You are the embodiment of the ideals of your Clan. They are in good hands, the Hands of the Clan."

"But what are we here for?" Romana said.

"We can’t put you in the field but you can observe," said Quinn. "And participate in other ways."

"Such as?" Romana said.

"The Shadow believes you would benefit from seeing how we plan and put teams into the field. And more about hard suit tech," Quinn said. "Some hands-on exposure."

Pin nodded. "Troopers are not just warriors in mobile armor. There is a lot that makes them the terror that they are."

"I shall be saying this too often, I suspect," Romana said, laying down next to Ixchel. "But life was very different during my Clan days. I much prefer this new Serpent Clan. All Clan are equal outside of roles and responsibilities. Yes, the Council holds much power, but they do not rule with the iron fist my mother and her Council did."

Ixchel turned towards her. "So they are better, then."

"It remains to be seen if they are better in the field of battle but in all other ways they exceed," Romana said.

"So, no regrets?" Ixchel said. "No desire to go back?"

"I will always have regrets, Ixchel," she said. "I caused the destruction of my Clan. My heart aches with the knowledge that I was the cause of so much death. But this is a worthy successor Clan and I will do all I can to help them succeed. Not just against the ancient enemy but in building a Clan we will all be proud to be members of."

"I see. My clan really does not compare," Ixchel said. "It was destroyed by a stealthy enemy. Our only victory was keeping our tech from them. I too wish to see how this will turn out. But I hope to play a bigger part than watching others fight. I am a trained warrior, though this new hard suit tech is beyond anything in my experience, and I would like to prove my worth."

"We shall go on this great adventure into the future together," said Romana. "You fill a void in my heart I did not know I had."

Ixchel kissed her forehead. "I am not that famous warrior of your childhood," Ixchel warned. "In my world, your mother was not my bonded companion. I will not willingly play parent for you."

"I would not ask that of you," Romana said. "The Ixchel of my childhood was a different person. You share names and Clan but are free from her past."

"Good," Ixchel said. "If we are to be partners, we must know where our hearts lie."

Chapter Text

The cruiser came out of the portal, engines humming, and all occupants braced for impact. An impact that didn’t occur.

"Report," Santana said, pushing the sound of her voice past the chatter erupting from the bridge crew.

"All sensors online, Lady Air," her helm answered. "Proceeding at normal flight pace towards the next portal."

"Science," Santana said, directing her question at the Science officer from the Shadow team. "Anything different?"

"No ma’am," the Science officer reported. "Matching previous records of trips through the long range portal."

"Good," Santana said. "Get us through that hole in the wall, Helm. Science, start scanning as soon as we’re through."

"Yes, ma’am," she answered. "Scanning to commence once through."

"Weapons?" Santana said, continuing through her bridge crew.

"We’re picking up targeting systems from the Ring," her Watch Officer, Poe, said. "But nothing coming our way."

"Good," Santana said. "Any signs of movement in-system?"

"All quiet in scanner range," Poe answered. "Scanners not reaching out beyond the outer system shield."

"Find a way through the fog," Santana said. "We need to find out how that shield works."

"Initial data says it is a frequency displacement shift," Science Officer Rio said. "Adjusting scanners to compensate."

"Excellent," Santana said. "Keep collecting data. We need to know if the Bugs can see through it."

"Yes, ma’am."

"Approaching portal gate," Helm said. "Brace for change." There was a brief vibration and hum as the cruiser passed through the portal into the inner system.

"Not bad," Santana said. "Find us a place to start, Poe. We don’t have a lot of time."

"Aye, ma’am," Poe said. "Commencing wide band scan."

"Estimate a week to scan completely," Science said. "An additional couple weeks to analyze."

"Find us something to dig into while you are doing that," Santana said. "Blue Team is going to go spacey if they sit still too long. Consult with Blue Team Leader. Find them some place to stretch their legs if not a war of some sort."

"The Ring is unpopulated, Lady Air," Poe reminded her.

"Yes," said Santana, "but maybe a robot war or a storm. Just something they can use to burn energy on if we’re stuck in a holding pattern for too long."

"Yes, ma’am, a playground for Blue Team," Poe said, straighfaced. "Any other requests?"

"You already know what we need," Santana said. "Find it."

"Comm link back to Fleet set up," the Comm officer said. "Limited to the battle channel for now."

"How soon to get full comm traffic," Santana said.

"We’re pushing as much data as we can through the outbound portal as we can," the Comm Officer said. "We’re working on widening it."

"Keep working on it," Santana said.

"Yes, ma’am," Comm said.

It was her off shift, and Santana was catching up on paperwork. A week in and they’d found nothing beyond a few empty cities and towns. Not even a space port, though according to her science team a structure of this nature couldn't have been built without space access.

But they were almost up to full comm capability, and she expected a flood of paperwork as soon as it was open. So she was trying to get out ahead of it while she had the chance.

"Hey San," Brittany’s voice carried over the Council internal comm. "How’s it going?"

"Hey babe!" Santana said, eagerly putting down her tablet. "Boring. We’re still scanning the ring, looking for any facilities that contain command and control systems. Nothing so far."

"Getting anything useful otherwise?" Brittany asked.

"You’d know better than I," Santana said. "I’m sure your Shadow team is sending everything back, now that we have full comms."

"Some faint clues but nothing definitive yet," Brittany said, "from the data I’ve seen. They’re integrating nicely into your crew."

"A good pick," Santana said, agreeing. "We’ll need more like that before the Bugs hit us."

"In progress," Brittany said. "They’ll be ready. How about the others?" "Q’s Blue Team is an interesting bunch," Santana said. "Very intense. They’ve got a Q-clone as Team Lead."

"Not surprised," Brittany said. "Something about Q’s genes makes for good ground combat leaders."

"Then why do I just get the cooks?" Santana said. "Could use some more good flight leaders."

"Because the cooks have the right temperament for space," Brittany. "Troopers are different. A good Q combat leader isn’t a good spacer."

"How did that happen?" Santana said. "I’ve got some of the best engineers in the Clans and they’re all Rachels. Why can’t I get some Q combat leaders?"

"You’ll have to talk with a Clan geneticist," Brittany said. "The Confederation AI’s have no idea why our genetics resulted in people with this range of talents."

"I thought Clan geneticists didn’t approve of this kind of gene manipulation. Where do we even find one to ask?" Santana said.

"At the next Council of Clans convention," Brittany said, "in a hundred years. Assuming they will even discuss this with us."

"Think they’ll be unhappy with us?" Santana said. "What can we do?"

"Well, the Council of Clans gave the Confederation permission to do whatever it takes, within moral reasons, to resurrect the Serpent Clan, so we’re safe. At least if we beat the Bugs," Brittany said.

"Of course," Santana said. "Minor detail. But it still doesn’t get me some Q’s for flight leaders."

"Lady Air, we’ve found something," Rio said over her command comm.

"Looks like I have to go," Santana said.

"Yes," Brittany said. "I’ll talk with you again tonight. It takes a lot of power to have this level of comm contact."

"Okay, babe," Santana said. "I’ll be there in a minute," she told Rio. Standing, she stepped out onto the bridge. "What do you have?"

"In the fifth quadrant, we’ve discovered this," Rio said, pointing at a small structure in a desert on the screen. "It has a shield that we can’t scan through."

"Have the Shadows looked at it yet?" Santana said.

"They’re on a shuttle now," Ro said. "They should reach it in an hour."

"Ah, right," Santana said. "Millions of square hectares of land in a big ring."

"Where have we seen something like this before?" Joy asked, examining the small edifice. "That writing is somewhat familiar." She traced the faint marking with a gloved hand. "Very curvy."

"There was a crystal ring. A very large crystal ring that went places," Janice said. "If you may recall."

"Very much so," Joy said. "So we should be able to translate this. Did you finish that auto-translator you were working on?"

"Yesterday," Janice said. "If we can get a good imprint we’ll know what it says in a minute." She stood back and aimed her scanner at the short sloping wall. She slowly moved her scanner up and down along its length. When she finished, she looked at the scanner’s display panel.

"What’s it say?" Joy asked.

"It’s just a string of letters and numbers," Janice said "PNX-2093. No idea what it means."

"In code?" Santana said, joining them on comm. "Can you decode it?"

"Just a designation," Janice said. "We don’t have any context for it."

"There’s this little trick I learned watching TV," Joy said. "Something called MacGyver. It should tell us how to get in." She attached several probes to a section of the object. Adjusting her scanner, she activated it again. A faint green oval appeared in the center of the wall, surrounding the writing. "Looks like a door."

"You didn’t learn that from MacGyver," Joy said, poking her.

"Well, no but it sounded good," Janice said.

"Ladies," Santana said, interrupting them. "Get on with it."

"Yes, ma’am," Joy said. "Getting on with it."

"We have a door, or something resembling one. How do we open it," Janice asked. "It’s a very dense material. Same material the ring is made of. We don’t have anything that will cut through it."

"Major Geordi?" Joy asked the Blue Team leader. "Do you have anything that can cut through a class nine material?"

"No," Geordi said. "That’s impervious to all of our portable weapons."

"Lady Air, we’ll need something to open this," Janice said. "Nothing short of a cruiser’s close range maser has that kind of power."

"If we try to open it with the cruiser, it’ll destroy it," Santana said. "It’s not a precision instrument. Figure something else out. The Shadow says you are some of her best." With that she dropped off their comm channel.

"Yes, ma’am," Joy said. "Now what," she said to Janice. "Can’t cut through it. Don’t have a key."

"Well, the Gates are all crystal based," Janice said, " and all of the tech of theirs we’ve found so far has been crystal based. Maybe we just need the correct frequency?"

"Anything special?" Joy said. "It could take days to figure out which one, if any."

"It’s all in the math," Janice said. "They were very math-oriented. Once we knew the math, we were able to decode those crystal memory chips. Not that they had anything important on them but the principle should be the same."

"So, time to set up camp?" Joy said. "Have a bonfire? Roast some marshmallows? Catch up on the latest Terawatt?"

"Haven’t roughed it for a while," Janice said. "But I’m sure we can get some survival huts down here. It’s not like this is an occupied planet."

"Got it," Joy said, several minutes later. "Survival huts not needed. Watch this." She pointed her scanner at the glowing door and tapped on the control screen. A humming noise engulfed them, cycling through several different tones. This continued for several bone jarring minutes before being cut off. With a loud whoosh, the circle disappeared.

"Clever," Janice said, nodding to herself. "How did you figure it out?"

"I’m special," Joy said, jumping up and down in excitement. "Can we go in?"

"No," Major Geordi said, having joined them during the loud humming. "We’ll check it out first." Pulling down her face mask, Geordi waved over several members of her team and gave them orders.

Geordi and two of her troopers cautiously entered the small building through the oval.

"We’ve lost contact with the Hand team and the Shadows," Rio said. "Their comms cut out when they entered the building. And then everything just stopped."

"What did the recovery team find?" Santana asked, leaning forward. Losing Blue Team would be bad. Very bad. They were second only to Gold team in experience and talent for mayhem.

"The area is clear. No signs of a fight," Rio said. "Blue Team leader, and her landing team are missing and there are no signs of the Shadows who were with them."

"Blue Team, and the Shadows, are all wearing Clan hard suits," Santana said. "They should be registering on our scanners."

"There are no signs of any of them," Rio said. "It’s as if they don’t exist or aren’t on the planet anywhere."

"Something must be blocking them," Santana said, frowning. "The planet must not be as empty as we believed. Find them."

"Yes, Lady Air," Rio said. "I’ll lead the Search and Rescue team. Fortunately, we have the design of the tone key used by Shadow Joy to open the edifice. She uploaded it before entering."

"Make sure you come back," Santana said. "I have no wish to lose you or any of your team in this effort. And bring back our missing people."

"Yes, Lady Air. We shall return. All of us," Rio said, saluting formally.

The small Search and Rescue team gathered in front of the small building. Weapons ready, face masks down.

"Ready?" Rio said over their comm. She triggered the tone used earlier by Joy to open the oval door. As soon as it opened, she led her team in.

The empty chamber was dimly lit with a faint green light. There was a broad stairway leading downward. Rio directed her team down it into the bowels of the planet. Moving carefully, they slipped down, Rio leading the way.

At each landing they passed, they left a comm transmitter, keeping in touch with the cruiser as they moved forward and downward.

"No sign yet," Rio said to Santana. "Not even a spec of dust to show they’ve come this way. If they came this way it was their choice."

"Joy and Janice can be impulsive," Freid, their Shadow assistant, said. "but they aren’t foolish. If they came down here they had a good reason."

"Blue Team Leader and Blue Team are also not foolish," Rio said. "Lady Hands sent her best infiltration team with us. That is why we suspect something happened to them. They wouldn’t just wander off."

"Whatever took them didn’t give them a chance to resist," Jane, the Search and Rescue team medic said. "If they’d resisted there would have been some damage, some sign of it."

The team reached the bottom of the stairway. There were three tunnels leading away underground.

"We’ll have to pick one," Rio said. "No splitting up. Send probes down them first."

"First rule of Search and Rescue," Beni said, in an ominous voice. "If you split up you start to lose your way. And you die."

"You watch too many horror movies," Freid said, shaking her head. She pulled out a search probe and tossed it in the air. It flew down the left tunnel, disappearing into the dark. She took out another and again tossed it into the air. It flew down the right tunnel, quickly disappearing. Taking out a third probe, she tossed that one in the air towards the center tunnel.

"What do you see?" Rio impatiently asked Freid. Only Shadow suits could access Shadow probe video directly. Something she’d bring up with Lady Air when they got back to the ship.

"Nothing so far," Freid said, after several long minutes. "The left and right tunnels are clear. They merge back into the center tunnel four clicks down."

"Doorways?" Beni said. "Empty tunnels make no sense."

"Closed ones," Freid said. "At regular intervals."

"So, center tunnel it is," Rio said. Signaling advance, she once more led the team into the dark.

"The end is just ahead," Freid said. "Another click and the tunnel ends in a large chamber."

"And Blue Team?" Rio asked. "Any sign?"

"Still nothing," Freid said. "The chamber is half a click wide."

"This is turning into a wild goose chase," Rio said to Lady Air. "Nothing here. No signs of Blue Team."

"Check out the chamber and then come back," Santana said over the comm. "We’re wasting time."

"Yes, Lady Air," Rio said.

Reaching the end of the tunnel, they fanned out on the edge of the chamber. The three probes buzzed back and forth across the large chamber.

"Anything?" Rio asked. "Looks empty."

"It is," Freid said. "Clean. Not even a spec of dust."

"Head back to the surface," Rio said. "We’ll have to reevaluate. They obviously aren’t here."

"So, nothing?" Santana said. "No Blue Team, no planet tech. Just empty rooms."

"Yes, Lady Air," Rio said. "Wherever they’ve gone, it isn’t here."

Joy rolled over. "My aching head." She reached around blindly, trying to find anything.

"Ouch!" Janice said, swatting away Joy’s hand. Sitting up she looked around. Clad only in the bio suits they wore under their hard suits, she and Joy were alone in a green lit chamber. Getting to her feet, she cautiously explored the chamber. With the exception of the two of them, it was empty. No furniture, no loose objects of any kind.

'Where are we?" Joy said, groaning.

"Don’t know," Janice said. "But I’ve lost my favorite Shadow suit and my tools."

"It’s not just you," Joy said. "I’ve lost everything also." She cautiously got to her feet and joined Janice in exploring the chamber.

"I wonder what happened to Blue Team?" she said. "The Shadow told us to keep them safe."

"Can’t keep them safe if they behave foolishly," Janice said. "Who goes into a dark room without checking it out first. We have probes for that kind of thing."

"We need to get out of here and find them," Joy said. "And then Lady Hands can spank them."

"I’d liked to spank that Geordi," Janice said, with a growl. "She knows better than to ignore our advice."

"You and your spanking," Joy said, shaking her head. "How do we get out of here?"

"Simple," Janice said. "It’s another crystal tone lock. And I’ve got the tone generator right here." She held up a thin object.

"How’d you fit that into your suit?" Joy asked. "And why did they let you keep it?"

"Because whomever grabbed us isn’t human, or maybe even a living creature?" Janice said. "They wouldn’t know all of the possible places it could be hidden."

"Not sure I needed to know that," Joy said, shaking her head.

"We all have our hold outs," Janice said. "I won’t ask where you keep yours."

"Don’t," Joy said. "So, we get out of here and find Blue Team and escape?"

"Of course," Janice said. "And run for it."

"Okay," Joy said. "Let’s get on with it."

Nodding, Janice stepped over to one of the walls. Holding her crystal key tightly, she tapped the wall with it, generating a low hum that sounded familiar to Joy. There was a louder hum and the wall split down the middle.

"Quick, out!" she said, gesturing for Janice to follow. She ran out into the hall. As they left the small holding chamber, it closed behind them.

"Great," Janice said. "More nothing. Does any of this look familiar?" She waved at the grey walls.

"I didn’t see the inside of that building before they grabbed us," Joy said. "This could be anywhere."

"They’re probably going crazy looking for us," Janice said. "We need to find Blue Team, and our equipment so we can call for help."

"This is what Lady Air was looking for," Joy said. "Some sign of tech used by the Ring builders."

"We haven’t actually found any tech," Janice said. "Just got ourselves captured and are attempting to escape."

"We’ll find tech when we find Blue Team," Joy said, peering around a corner. "Got anything that will tell us where Blue Team is?"

"No, sorry," Janice said. "Left it in my other suit."

"And no Terawatt when you need her," Joy said.

"A comic book character isn’t going to help," Janice said.

"But she’s so tera," Joy said. "I bet she would have figured it out by now."

"When did you become a Terawatt fan?" Janice asked, as she cautiously looked around.

"Cook had the complete first series," Joy said. "We bonded."

"You mean you convinced her to make extra snacks," Janice said. "How’d Terawatt get involved?"

"I might have had some test footage for the new Terawatt movie," Joy said, winking.

"Of course you did," Janice said, sighing.

"This place is full of empty cells," Joy said, poking her head into another empty chamber. "Too many empty chambers." She slapped a wall and it split open revealing another empty chamber.

"Here’s one that wasn’t open," Janice said, stopping in front of a blank wall. "Think someone is in there?"

"Do we want to let them out if there is?" Joy asked her. "It could be something nasty."

"Stay back," Janice said.

There was a large popping sound and the wall split apart. Janice looked into the open chamber. "Well, that’s different. Come see this."

Joy joined her in front of the chamber, and started giggling. "Do we have to wake them up? They’re so cute like that."

"And if they find out we left them like this?" Janice said. "It won’t be pretty."

"If we had video of this we’d be okay," Joy said. "But we do need to get out of here."

"Right," Janice said. "Time to wake up the sleeping puppies." Leaning forward, she cautiously poked the pile of troopers. Just as quickly, she jumped back away from swinging arms and feet.

"What’s going on!" Geordi said, pushing the other two troopers away.

"We got nicked," Joy said, cautiously approaching. "Haven’t figured out how yet, but we lost all of our equipment. But otherwise we’re doing good. Just need to find a way out."

"We’re naked!" Geordi shouted. "Where are our hard suits."

"Don’t know," Janice said. "Lost ours also."

"You aren’t naked," Bobbi said, looking down at herself and then at the others.

"We wear this under our hard suits," Joy said, tugging at her bio suit. "We don’t do the naked into battle thing you troopers do. Our suits are a bit different."

"So we don’t have any clothes?" Langley said. "Or suits? Or any of our equipment?"

"I think you looked cute like that," Janice said. "Let’s go."

"Janice!" Geordi said, shouting in a hoarse whisper. "Where are our suits?"

"Haven’t found them yet," Joy said. "We’ve been looking for you first. Sacrificing our own needs to your safety."

"A great sacrifice," Janice said. "We’re working without any of our Shadow tech."

"But you aren’t naked," Bobbi said. "We’re supposed to escape like this?"

"Unless we find your hard suits or some clothes, yes," Joy said. "And we really need to get out of here, wherever here is."

"Ideas?" Geordi said, quickly assuming natural control of the situation, naked or not.

"No idea who or why," Janice said. "Probably some AI or automated defense system."

"We’ve detected no life forms so far, so AI, automated, or very well shielded is always a possibility," Joy added. "We’d like to get back to the ship. It’s way past dinner."

"Or breakfast, or lunch," Janice said. "They’re probably freaking out, if we aren’t at that building. Which it is very likely we aren’t."

"Okay ladies, let’s go," Geordi said. "No time to waste."

"Naked patrolling? Not my favorite training exercise," Langley said, taking point.

"You have naked training?" Joy said, following. "Really?"

"Only during initial training," Bobbi said from behind her. "It doesn’t matter."

"Might not matter to you," Joy said, "but I couldn’t do it."

"It’s like one of those nude beaches, except with possible fighting," Bobbi said in a low voice. "You get used to it. Though it better not get cold because cold tits are distracting in a fight."

"I really can’t imagine," Janice said. "I like being warm. Sure, getting naked has its place but in a war? Or fight? Not if I can help it."

"And we won’t ask you to," Geordi said. "But finding something to wear, suits or not would be a good idea."

They’d been traveling for an hour, checking the rooms and cells for anything useful, before they came across something they could use.

"Looks like a stasis chamber," Janice said.

"What’s in it?" Geordi said. "This is the first thing we’ve found that isn’t a pile of dust."

"Don’t know," Joy said. "Need to get inside first."

"Maybe it’s food?" Janice said, "They must have wanted to keep it fresh."

"Food?" Geordi said. "Why would you store food in a stasis chamber? It's probably something important."

"Food's important," Joy said, frowning. "You die without it."

"Open it and find out," Bobbi said. "Pointless arguments won't find us clothes or our hard suits."

"I like her," Janice said, smirking. "She has her priorities right."

"I thought you had a thing for Geordi," Joy said.

"I can't like both?" Janice said, winking at the now blushing troopers. "And the more I see the more I like."

"I'm not seeing the attraction," Langley said. "Geordi and Bobbi? Sure, Geordi is an awesome Team Leader, and Bobbi has her moments, but taking things to a personal level? Why would you want to do that? I spend weeks on patrol with them, and I just don't see it."

"Gee, thanks, Lang," Bobbi said. "Love you too."

"What! I'm right, right Major?" Langley asked Geordi.

"Wouldn't want to date you either," Geordi said. "But the Shadows are kind of weird."

"We're not weird," Joy said. "We're just right for our job. But can we get back to this stasis field? Is it worth opening? It probably doesn't have your hard suits in it. I'd be surprised if we find them anywhere here. Whomever nabbed us probably recognized them as weapon systems and destroyed them. And our stealth suits also."

"If we have to fight, I'd rather not be naked," Geordi said. "Or the others. And you two are also vulnerable. Those bio suits won't do much against sharp objects or energy weapons."

"Well, no," Janice admitted. "They aren't even very warm. They're meant to be interfaces between the suits and our nano tech."

"Can you open the stasis field?" Geordi asked. "You don't have any of your usual gadgets."

"Depends on how it's locked," Joy said. "We opened the chamber with you all in it using a crystal tone lock-pick. Just like we used on the door."

"And that won't attract attention again?" Bobbi asked.

"I think we triggered a defense mechanism," Joy said.

"So, you don’t think there was any intelligence behind it?" Geordi asked.

"Nope," Joy said, making a popping sound with her lips. "An intelligent agent or alien would have searched us more thoroughly. We have our ways of keeping anyone from finding escape tools but they would have taken our bio suits also, not just the obvious. They probably thought they were part of us because of the nanites."

"Ah," Geordi said, nodding. "See if you can open that." She waved at the stasis chamber. "Anything is better than wandering around like this."

"I don't agree," Janice said, "but it's your party."

"Move back to the last tunnel junction," Joy said. "Just in case." She waited for everyone to get out of sight and triggered the crystal lock pick. There was once more a low hum, this time followed by a glow surrounding the stasis chamber. When it receded there was a large hole in the wall. Joy cautiously approached the hole and peered into the stasis chamber.

"What is it?" Janice shouted.

"Come see for yourself," Joy shouted back.

The others returned to the stasis chamber and peered in. It was a shallow depression, containing shelves of bundles.

"Well, not food," Janice said. Reaching in, she grabbed one of the bundles from a shelf. "It's soft."

Bobbi grabbed another. "It unrolls," she said, and proceeded to unroll the object. "What is it?" She asked, holding up a large square of material.

"Something wearable," Geordi said, grabbing another one and handing it to Langley, before taking one herself.

Bobbi took hers and tried to wrap it around herself, like a large towel or toga. "It doesn't want to be worn," she said after struggling with it for several minutes. She was wrapped up in the cloth, struggling to hold the edges together.

"Might need a push," Joy said. Taking her crystal lock-pick, she tapped it against a shelf, producing a different tone. She then touched Bobbi and the cloth with the lock-pick.

"What did you do?" Bobbi asked. "It moved."

"Thought so," Joy said to herself. "Just need to find the correct frequency."

"Thought what?" Geordi said.

"Crystal tech. Everything here responds to crystal. We just need to figure out how to activate these."

"But you don't know what it is," Bobbi said.

"Universal clothes of some sort," Joy said. "Or a hat."

"Probably a survival tent," Janice suggested. "One per customer."

"Or both," Joy said. She tapped the crystal again, generating a different tone before touching cloth. After a few long seconds it suddenly changed shape, flowing around Bobbi, becoming a snug, form fitting bodysuit, leaving her hands and feet bare and stopping at her neck.

"Wow," Langley said. "How does it feel?"

"Like I'm not wearing anything, but I don't feel naked anymore. Sort of like a skin suit for one of the older hard suits that we wore in training before becoming troopers." Bobbi rubbed her breasts and side, and her legs. "Much better than nothing."

"Fit Langley next," Geordi said. "We'll want to take several wrapped coveralls with us for testing."

Janice grabbed several additional packets, stowing them in a pocket. Meanwhile, Joy activated the cloth Langley was holding against her skin. It wrapped around her just like the one had wrapped around Bobbi.

"How do we get them off?" Bobbi asked. "It's snug, and doesn't have a lot of give to it."

"Looks like it'll pull off like a leotard," Langley said.

"Save the experiments for later," Geordi said, now dressed in a similar cloth. "You should be able to defend yourselves in these, though you'll want to watch out for your feet."

"Not a problem, Major," Bobbi said. "Trooper feet never get soft."

"Where to now?" Joy asked.

"I preferred the other view," Janice said, pouting.

"If you behave, maybe we can revisit that," Bobbi said. "Maybe."

"I'm all about the behaving," Janice said. "Watch me."

"Watch me?" Joy said under her breath, staring at her partner.

"If it keeps her focused, let her," Langley whispered to Joy.

"She's just being silly," Joy said in a low voice. "Standard deflection technique."

"Ah, understood," Langley said. "What do you usually do when you get stressed and kidnaped?"

"Wouldn't you like to know," Joy said, smirking.

"Ready to continue?" Geordi said. "We still need to find a way out."

"A map would be nice," Joy said. "Or even a compass."

"Would a compass actually work here?" Langley asked.

"Maybe one designed for the Ring," Joy said. "So, not a real one. Something using a local version of GPS."

"Like this?" Bobbi said, holding up her left arm. A small map had appeared above her wrist.

"Clever," Janice said, pulling her closer and looking at her wrist. "Not a lot of detail but it looks like we're on the right track. I think that's our tunnel, and there's a door."

"Not sure of the scale," Bobbi muttered. "Or how I turned it on."

"Probably read your mind," Langley said. "Must be all of that anti-psych training you've been doing."

"Anti-psych training?" Janice asked.

"Yeah, Lady Q worked with the Weaver on it. Someone needs to work with Mother but they don't want us being influenced by any Mother-magic," Langley said. "So, anti-psych training."

"Not everyone can do it," Geordi said. "You have to have some latent psych talent first. Bobbi is the only one on Blue Team who qualified."

"So, not just sexy but talented," Janice said, winking at her. "We definitely need to do some 'talking' when we get back."

"Is that what you call it in the Shadows," Bobbi said, flirting back.

"Keep it in your pants," Geordi said, growling at them. "I don't care if you're stressed."

"Yes, Major," Bobbi said, flushing.

"Yes, ma'am," Janice said.

"This must be us," Bobbi said, pointing at a small glowing dot on her wrist. "Need to know the scale but it looks like the tunnel ends just ahead."

"Even if we escape from here, how do we get back to the cruiser?" Janice said. "We don't have anything to signal with, unless that crystal lock-pick is also an emergency beacon."

"No," Joy said. "No emergency beacons on me."

"It can wait until we're out of here," Geordi said. "We won't know how hard it is to contact the cruiser until we know where we are. We could come out right next to our shuttle."

"We won't be that lucky," Joy said. "That would be too easy."

"Or this could be something important," Bobbi said, pointing at a strange symbol on the map on her wrist. "What does it mean?"

"No idea," Joy said. "Doesn't look familiar. We'd need our translator to figure it out, if it's in our language database."

"It shows up on the map of your survival suit," Geordi said. "It must be important."

"Survival suit?" Bobbi said.

"Makes sense," Janice said. "Why else would it be in a stasis pod? I knew you were more than a pretty face, Major."

"We'll ascertain what it is before finding an exit," Geordi said. "It might answer a few questions."

"Do we try to close the stasis pod?" Janice said, "Or leave it open?"

"Open," Joy said. "If someone was going to come running, they already know we opened it."

"It most likely set off an alarm somewhere," Langley said. "I don't think anyone is coming."

"Not even a robot or two," Joy said. "Looking more and more like it was an automated response to our poking around."

"Which we need to turn off," Geordi said. "Makes it unsafe."

"It's possible that whatever dragged us here was only trying to help," Janice said. "We just need to find them and ask."

"We don't need help that steals expensive equipment. And hard suits worth several years pay," Geordi said.

"That's several years of your pay, Major," Bobbi said. "At my pay rate, we'll have beaten the Bugs and jumped through the singularity, twice, before my pay covers the cost of my hard suit."

"We have a pre-action payment plan in the Shadows," Janice said. "We own our suits. And have a stipend for upgrades and replacement costs."

"I don't want to own a hard suit," Bobbi said. "I'm on my fourth since joining Blue Team. We wear them out very quickly. If I had to pay for a new one every time it breaks I couldn't afford to be a trooper."

"Shadow suits are virtually indestructible," Janice said. "The occupant might get squashed but the suit won't, they're a sound investment. Your descendants can sell it or rent it to your replacement."

"She's kidding," Joy said, shaking her head. "Shadow suits belong to the Shadow. The teams don't own their own suits. That would be crazy."

"Enough jabbering," Geordi said. "Let's get moving. We'll check out that location on the map, and then get out of here."

"Yes, ma'am," Langley said. "Ready to go."

Looking at the others and receiving confirmation, Geordi led the way down the tunnel, towards the location marked by the strange symbol.

"We're receiving a broadcast on Blue Team’s comm channel," Rio said, standing outside of the strange building.

"It's not reaching us here," Santana said. "Something must be blocking it. Relay it."

"Yes, Lady Air."

"This is Blue Team Lead," a breathless voice that Santana recognized said.

"Welcome back, Blue Team," Santana said. "Where are you? Your beacons are not registering with our scanners."

"Lady Air," Geordi said, "we have been unable to locate our equipment. It may have been destroyed."

"Destroyed? How?" Santana asked.


"Where are you?" Santana repeated.

"Unknown. We are in a large underground complex. We appear to have found a control center. But it is mostly inoperative."

"I take it that 'mostly' does not include radio?" Santana said.

"Joy was able to activate a transmitter and set it to our frequency," Geordi said.

"Can you trace that," Santana asked Rio.

"We are getting a general direction," Rio said. "We need several more triangulation points to get an exact location."

"Geordi, can Joy set up a steady signal that we can triangulate on?" Santana asked.

"Yes ma'am," Geordi said.

"Do it," Santana said. "We'll come to you as soon as possible, and Geordi?"

"Yes, Lady Air?"

"Try to find your equipment."

"Yes, Lady Air."

Chapter Text

Miranda sighed. She'd agreed to the resurrection ploy primarily to make Andrea and her daughters happy. But it came with a number of drawbacks. One of which she was facing now. She'd agreed to a press conference to announce her reappearance. Once it was over, she could get down to business.

But first she needed to deal with the current Runway staff, so they wouldn't be blindsided by her plans.

"Miranda Priestly, here to see Emily Charlton," the tall Clan Memory acolyte assigned to be her assistant told Emily's assistant.

"She's not in," the assistant said, receiving a glare from Miranda.

"She didn't believe it was me," Miranda stated. "She can come out here or I'll go in after her. We don't have time for histrionics. If she wishes to keep her job she will cooperate."

The assistant got up from her desk and slipped into Emily's office. Coming back out she said, "You may go in."

"Of course," Miranda said. She walked to the office door, her assistant following. When Emily's assistant tried to object, Miranda shut her down with another glare.

Sweeping into her old office, Miranda took note of how little it had changed since she'd disappeared. Even the desk was the same. The desk a pale Emily was sitting behind.

"Emily. Have you ever known Andrea to lie about something this important?" Miranda said.

"She's been working with those Aztec aliens," Emily said. "Maybe they tricked her?"

"Really Emily? Aztec? They're Mayan, as one can clearly see by examining their clothes. And why have you not done a spread with them yet? Andrea could have made arrangements," Miranda said.

"You're dead," Emily said. "You've come back to take away Runway." She started hyperventilating.

"If you don't calm down, I will have you removed," Miranda said. "As majority stockholder it would be well within my rights."

"Majority stockholder? You've been dead!" Emily shrieked.

"In my absence, Andrea has continued to purchase Elias-Clark stock. We now own more than anyone else."

"But Irv," Emily sputtered.

"Irv owns a paltry one percent of the voting stock. He has no say in the operation of this magazine," Miranda said. "After tonight's board meeting he will no longer have a position with the company. He has interfered for the last time."

"Will you at least give me a good recommendation?" Emily asked, sniffling. "I'll have my things out of your office before the end of the day."

"You are not going anywhere," Miranda said. "You will be given a fair chance to fix the problems caused by Irv's interference."

"I can stay?" Emily said, staring at her. "I'm not fired?"

"I've been gone too long," Miranda said. "If you can fix it, you can keep it. And don't miss the board meeting tonight. It should be educational."

"Yes, Miranda. Thank you, Miranda," Emily said, crying. "Thank you. I'll fix everything, I promise."

"And Emily?"

"Yes, Miranda?"

"Do something with this office, it looks like a shrine in here. Make it your own. That is all." With a smirk, Miranda left the office.

Once they were in the elevator, her own assistant, Buffy, asked "Do you think she can do it, Lady Miranda?"

"Of course," Miranda said. "This is not a charity. If she wasn't capable she would have been fired. She just needs a little guidance, and practice dealing with the Irvs of this world."

"Yes, ma'am," Buffy said. "When will you tell her you will still be involved with Runway."

"Tonight, at the board meeting. She will still be Editor-in-Chief but she needs tempering. Irv did not do her any favors when he made her editor. You can clearly see her struggle against him and to keep Runway alive in the last few years. Given her inexperience, that Runway has not folded is a miracle."

Miranda looked around the large room. The board meeting the night before had gone well. Irv was out, and she was now Chairman of the Board. Emily had been reaffirmed as Editor of Runway under her guidance. Over the next few weeks she'd be reviewing the other magazines in the Elias-Clark portfolio. They could all use a firmer creative touch.

The reporters were practically vibrating in their excitement. They'd had a week since the aliens had announced finding her to build up to it. A week of digging up old scandals and interviewing anyone they could find.

"Miranda! Miranda!" They shouted as she stepped out onto the stage, behind the podium.

"Questions?" Her new assistant asked. "You!" She pointed at a chubby man in front.

"Miranda, what was it like when the aliens found you?"

"I was surprised," Miranda said. "All I remember is the plane crashing, and then waking up to all of these women staring at me." She waved at a small group of aliens, dressed in a mix of hard suits and uniforms.

"Did you recognize them?"

"I was in what they call stasis when they arrived, so no, I had no idea who they were," she said. "Or where I was."

"Miranda, you look the same as you did when you disappeared years ago. Is this some alien fountain of youth?" Anther reporter asked.

"If it is, I don't recommend it," she said. "I didn't age but I missed years of my daughter's lives. I didn't see them graduate from high school. And I missed years with my wife."

"Miranda, what do you plan to do now?" Another reporter asked. "Will you be taking over as editor of Runway again?"

"No," Miranda said. "Runway currently has a competent editor. I may give her advice but the Elias-Clarke Board has asked me to take over as Chairman and guide all of the Elias-Clarke media properties."

"Rumor has it that Irving Ravits was fired at last night's board meeting," another reporter said. "Is there any truth to that?"

"Irv has retired," Miranda said. "The Board thanked him for his long service while I was missing and sent him home."

"Who's this?" she was asked, the reporter pointing at her assistant.

"My assistant and liaison with the aliens," Miranda said. "They've taken an interest in fashion."

"So, you'll have the aliens appearing in your magazines?" someone asked. "They've refused to be in other fashion magazines."

"In the time I spent with them I built a wonderful rapport," Miranda said. "Also, my wife, Andrea, has been spending time documenting their culture and they could see the synergy."

"Having their own nude beaches couldn't hurt," the chubby reporter said, to a burst of laughter.

"Runway is about fashion and the impact it has on our lives," Miranda said, giving him a repressive look. "We are not running some prurient rag."

"That is all, gentlemen and ladies," Miranda's assistant said. "Please address further questions to the Office of the Chairperson of Elias-Clarke." Saying this, she ushered Miranda out of the room.

"That didn't go too badly," Miranda said, as they entered a private room elsewhere in the building. "No real questions at this point."

"Give them time," Andy said, greeting her with a hug. "The Clan so rarely gives interviews that they really don't know what to ask. And then there are the paparazzi. As soon as they start taking pictures, things will start to heat up."

"You don't seem to have a problem with them," Miranda said.

"The 'alien watchers' know I have that column about alien life but that doesn't sell photos," Andy said. "And I'm never here in the city. I'm boring."

"You are never boring, darling," Miranda said. "Underestimated, yes, boring, no."

"Photos of myself with the girls don't sell," Andy said, shaking her head. "Though now you're officially back, they probably will. How did they react to you not being editor of Runway?"

"No reaction," Miranda said. "They've probably forgotten what that really means. And just remember me as someone famous."

"Emily doesn't get followed around, so I suspect you're correct. With you gone, no one had that kind of reputation," Andy said. "And Irv's retirement?"

"Gave them the official statement and no one questioned it. If they'd seen what Irv was doing to Runway and the other magazines there would have been an uproar. Emily managed to keep Runway alive but it was no thanks to Irv. He did everything he could to sabotage her and the magazine. Retirement is really too good for him."

"Well, he can't touch it ever again," Andy said.

"How were you able to get away?" Miranda asked her.

"Cassidy is doing a dry run today and I was making her nervous," Andy said.

"So they chased you away," Miranda said, laughing. "Well, it's their loss. I shall take you to lunch and then we shall do other things."

"And Buffy?" Andrea said pointing at Miranda's new assistant standing silently near the door.

"She'll be fumigating my new office, and installing some interesting bits of tech," Miranda said.

"You don't need tech," Andy said, puzzled.

"Lady Shadow insisted, though I suspect it is really some of her spy tech and is more for her than I."

"Sounds like her," Andy said. "Any chance to wire the world and get more data for her models."

"She has your best interests at heart," Miranda said. "She can be a wonderful advocate, from what I've seen."

"Oh, yes, definitely," Andy said. "She's like a spider collecting everything in her web."

"That was a boring press conference," Brittany said.

"That's how Miranda wanted it," Rachel said, reminding her of a previous discussion. "Just enough attention so she could spend time with her girls and Andy but not so much that they can't move without bodyguards."

"I offered to spice things up," Brittany said, pouting. "But she said no."

"Plenty of time for spice in the future," Rachel said. "Have you heard anything new from Santana?"

"No," Brittany said. "They found that abandoned control room but most of it doesn't work. San really thinks there's something there. They had a whole team disappear and it took them days to find them. And they still haven't figured out how that happened."

"She still has another month doesn't she?" Rachel asked. "Why does she think there's something there? The initial scans came up empty."

"A hunch," Brittany said. "A planetary ring needs a lot more tech than we're finding."

"If she comes back empty handed, I wouldn't want to be there when she gets back," Rachel said.

"She won't be very loud," Brittany said. "She'll just grumble a bit. None of our plans include 'Scare away the Bugs with a McGuffin.'"

Rachel fiddled with the papers in front of her. "Have you thought of other ways we can make use of Andy? Documenting planetary culture can really be done by any of her assistants, now that they're trained for it."

"Of course," Brittany said. "But that's very much up in the air. There are no obvious uses for her talents. And Miranda will be by her side, no matter what. But that's not a plan."

"Self-preservation is always important," Rachel said, "but nothing says it has to be exciting."

"We now have several teams that my model claims are important but I really don't know where to place them," Brittany said. "I suspect there's something wrong with the model but I can't figure out what."

"Maybe you need a different kind of model?" Rachel said. "I don't know how it works but it almost seems like statistics. But maybe that's the wrong approach?"

"I don't have any other approach," Brittany said, leaning back with a sigh. "The model has taken years to put together. If I started over we'd all be dead before I finish."

"So, it's science, not astrology?" Rachel asked.

"Not even close to astrology," Brittany said. "It's a mathematical model of potential possibilities. To redo it would be almost impossible. Even starting from scratch would take ginormous amounts of time."

"Maybe something completely different?" Rachel said. "Something else, some other factor to add to your model."

"But what?" Brittany asked. "I've thought of everything I could possibly need and added it to the model."

"So add something you don't think you need," Rachel said. "Something unique."

"For example?" Brittany asked, frowning. "There are many things I don't think the model needs. That's why I didn't put them in it."

"The model is about relationships, right?" Rachel asked. "Between people and events, past and present?"

"Basically," Brittany said. "There's a lot more to it than that but that does sum it up more or less."

"So, maybe a relationship is missing?" Rachel said. "Does knowing that Andy comes from a long line of Winter Folk make a difference in your model? Or that Miranda's daughters are Wind Clan through her first husband?"

"Not when I added that information," Brittany said. "It filled out a space in the model but didn't change any results."

"How about, Andy's relationship to Miranda's first husband?" Rachel asked. "That gives you a Wind Clan and Winter Folk connection."

"I'm not aware of any relationship between them," Brittany said. "Does Andy know him?"

"Certainly," Rachel said. "They're on speaking terms at least. When Miranda disappeared, he helped her."

"Does he know she's one of the Winter Folk? I'm assuming she knows he's Wind Clan, though we don't know if he knows that we know."

"That's a lot of knows," Rachel said. "But I don't think so. I haven't approached him, have you?"

"Hadn't really thought about it, honestly," Brittany said. "I do have him on my 'to talk to' list just so he knows the Serpent Clan is aware of his presence in our territory. I am surprised he hasn't come to us yet."

"According to Miranda, he's well integrated into Terran society. If she hadn't said anything we would have never known unless we happened to randomly catch him in a Clan genetics scan," Rachel said. "There hasn't been much interaction between their Clan and ours, according to our Clan history. We just don't travel in the same circles. It was very likely a coincidence that brought him to this planet. Most Wind Clan are fairly independent and prefer to travel in family groups. Like your parents did."

"I'll track him down," Brittany said. "Invite him up here. He's a cousin, so I can at least say hello."

"And add that to your model?" Rachel said.

"Yes,' Brittany said. "And now that you've helped expand that part of the model, though we won't know the results any time soon, what about Mother and Ixchel? Any brilliant insight into them?"

"Well..." Rachel paused. "Not a thing. Though I find it interesting that Romana knew our original Ixchel, who was basically her father figure."

"They seem to be getting along very well," Brittany said. "Isn't that a bit unhealthy? For them to have a relationship?"

"Ixchel has no memory of Romana's mother, so not really," Rachel said. "So it's a little one sided. But they have built a rapport. Besides helping each other, they are a lot more stable together."

"I'll have to check my model," Brittany said. "This relationship between them may change things."

"Did sending them to work with Quinn and observe her troopers in action make a difference," Rachel asked.

"Nothing visibly," Brittany said, "but they are still with Quinn's troopers. Not putting them in hard suits was actually a brilliant move on Quinn's part. They have to stay engaged with her troopers instead of focusing on the suits."

"Has the relationship between Miranda and them had any affect on things?" Rachel asked. "She's basically being treated as a 'wise elder' by both of them. Shouldn't that make a difference? Or maybe that's what is wrong with your model? Is the problem that you have two teams of two when you maybe should have a team of four?"

"That is certainly a different approach," Brittany said. "I'll have to adjust the model to allow for that."

"What about Coach," Rachel said. "Where does she fit into your plans?"

"Coach is too unpredictable for the model," Brittany said "She's basically a free agent. That's one reason why she was put in charge of our peace keepers. She can respond to changing conditions faster than the others."

"Is she really unpredictable?" Rachel asked. "She seems to have patterns."

"I've tried over the years to build a model that follows her actions and behavior but it never works. What seem like recognizable patterns are unique to her." Brittany shook her head. "I was able to use the model I originally designed for her to predict the actions of the Black Hats but for her it never was very effective."

"Oh," Rachel said. "That must have been a surprise."

"Yes," Brittany said. "I thought I knew her well enough to model her for my predictions but I was wrong, and had to start over."

"But it's still amazing how you've built this predictive model," Rachel said. "I wouldn't know where to begin."

"You build your own models, when you write an epic, and set it to song," Brittany said. "It's a similar thing, just a different kind of connection."

"Oh, I hadn't thought of it that way," Rachel said.

"Something's coming," Cassy said, watching Sophia cook. "I can feel it in the air. It's like right before a thunderstorm."

"Yes," Sophia said, blowing on her spoon before offering it to Cassy. "We are getting ready for war."

"I thought things were peaceful in this Confederation the Clan belongs to. I know there have been pirate issues but that's normal. Someone will always want to do things contrary to the expectations of society." Cassy returned the cleaned spoon to Sophia.

"Within the Confederation, according to our AI advisors, things are peaceful. The last time there was chaos, they redirected the involved parties towards more productive pursuits."

"What does that actually mean?" Cassy asked.

"The last time there was a problem in the Confederation, it was caused by the Clans. So the Confederation put them to work. That is why they are known as the Confederation peacekeepers."

"Ah, I get it," Cassy said. "Turn the troublemaker into the trouble watcher."

"That is an excellent summation," Sophia said, kissing her on the nose.

"So, if the Clans are busy being good citizen, chasing pirates and other lawbreakers, why are 'we' preparing for war?"

"An ancient Clan foe has returned," Sophia said. "It is currently engaged in a running battle with the Clans on the far side of the Confederation but they are really only redirecting it, they don't have the ability to stop this Enemy."

"But we do? Isn't the Clan here fairly small and new?"

"I do not understand it myself," Sophia admitted. "It is not clear why we are expected to vanquish this enemy that none of the other Clans can stop. This enemy appears to be more of a force of nature than a real foe. It is being kept away from population centers by the other Clans using skillful redirection but its path through our sector puts it right through this system."

"And we can't make them go around us also?" Cassy said, frowning. "I suspect there is more to it than that."

"Yes," Sophia said, "but I couldn't really follow Lady Shadow's explanation for why we are the ones expected to stop it and can't just send them around us. Possibly because we are so new that no one would miss us?"

"That can't be right," Cassy said. "I'd miss us."

"Our Clan is not up to full strength, and was believed lost by the other Clans," Sophia said. "If we lose, we will remain lost. If we win, we are a full fledged Clan once more. And that is also too simple of an explanation."

"So, it's all about Confederation politics," Cassy said. "That's really the only explanation needed. Politicians see things in ways ordinary mortals, human or Clan, won't understand."

"I would prefer that my planet and all of the people on it, both Clan and other, not be the price of some political calculation," Sophia said. "But we are not being given a choice."

"What is your role," Cassy asked. "What does a Weaver do when there is a war in the making?"

"Morale, and communicating with the dead and our goddesses," Sophia said. "This Clan is not very religious, as you may have noticed. But we all find some comfort in the idea of higher powers. And the goddesses do sometimes listen to our requests.""

"So, the power of prayer?" Cassy asked.

"It has happened," Sophia said. "Though rare, our goddesses have responded to requests."

"This book paints a very different view of your Clan," the host said, holding up a brightly bound book. "Why bring it out now?"

"We are aware of the views of many about our Clan," Rachel said. "They see us as simple space meter maids, ready to slap a ticket on the first person to cross the sun the wrong way. This collection of epic tales is intended to correct that misconception."

"Are they all new?" the host asked, flipping through the book.

"Several are new, yes," Rachel said, "but most date back a number of centuries."

"What inspired you to write them down and publish them?"

"Actually, it was because of me," Andrea said. "I've been exploring their culture. You might have seen my columns?" At the host's nod she continued. "I saw these stories while visiting Lady Memory a number of months ago in their central base. It took me several months to convince the Council to allow me to go there but it was well worth the effort."

"And the stories?" the host asked.

"When Lady Memory first showed them to me I was surprised," Andrea said. "They are a new unexplored facet of their history. Once you read them it is clear how and why the Clans were made peacekeepers for the Confederation. The Clans were not just wandering troublemakers turned into peace keepers. It's a fascinating history that we've been ignoring. So, after discussing the idea, we came up with this."

"And what part did you play in this?" the host asked, turning to Lady Sophia. "Isn't the 'Weaver' your religious expert?"

"The Weaver does give advice to Clan and communicate with our goddesses," Sophia said. "But that is not all I do. Although it has a different focus, the Weaver is also a historian of sorts for the Clan, much like the Memory."

"So, how did you get involved in this printing of the Book of the Serpent Clan?" the host asked.

"Lady Andrea was well aware of my interest in the stories our people tell around the campfire," Sophia said. "She asked for several that I felt were appropriate, that had exciting Clan adventures."

"And she's published before, and we wanted to make this widely available," Rachel said. "This is intended for a wider audience than our own people."

"What should people take away from this when they read it?" the host asked.

"That the Clans are complicated. And that what you see on the surface isn't everything." Rachel shrugged. "The Serpent Clan has become more and more integrated into your civilization as time passes," she said. "We are no longer just 'scary alien women'. But we believe the people of Earth need to see us as we truly are."

"Saying that they are a complicated people itself is a simplification," Andy said. "The Clans in the Confederation have a long, and often bloody history. I've been privileged to have access to that history, while researching my columns, and I was amazed at the depth there was to all of this. History is not just written down. It becomes a part of the fabric of their society."

"So, to sum it all up," the host began, "this is a collection of twenty five tales from the colorful history of the Serpent Clan. What kind of stories will we find in it?"

"There are the standard blood and guts tales, of course," Rachel said. "But there are also quieter stories. A couple love stories. And a few other things. A broad brush to view the Clan by."

"We really hope you enjoy them," Andy said. "They have been specially picked to show the amazing things the Clan has accomplished. But they really only scratch the surface."

"And we've brought enough for the entire studio audience," Rachel said.

"That's good," the host said. "I've got my own copy and won't be sharing."

"It's also available as an ebook from all the the regular media vendors," Andy said. "At a reasonable price," she added. "Free."

"I think that went well," Rachel said, looking down at the empty boxes. "Hopefully they'll actually read them and not just auction them off on the internet."

"Making it free should help with that," Andy said.

"Do you think we over sold this?" Rachel asked. "Sure they are interesting stories that show some different facets of Clan society, but most people won't have the context to make sense of some of them."

"Time will tell," Sophia said. "Until now, we've tried to keep a very low key presence. This book and any others that follow is more than that."

"Do you think we should do a series of books about the Clan, and other Clans?" Rachel said. "I'm not sure there are enough interesting stories to tell. Most of the epics and tales going back thousands of years are war related and don't have a lot of detail or depth."

"What we need is something like the Lord of the Rings and all of those stories about the history of Arda and Middle Earth that Tolkien wrote as background. But that could take years," Andy said, "assuming we could find a talented writer who could take all of the Clan histories and give them the right kind of flair."

"There are some beautiful passages in the Clan histories, where someone with serious talent attempted to write something inspiring," Rachel said. "Unfortunately, there's not a lot of it."

"Maybe we could have a contest?" Rachel said. "Raise awareness of the Clan. That's really our goal. We want people to know who we are at an emotional level and support us from that point of view."

Brittany stared at the 3D display in her office. She'd moved the focus out so that the entire solar system was visible. It wasn't quite real-time, even the tech the Clan had access to could't handle the amount of data that would require, but it came close. Its effective rate was five frames per second. Fast enough to detect change, but slow enough that all of the parts could work together. The comm traffic required for it to work was using one of the rare sub-space channels. If the enemy reached the system, they would be clearly seen up to a light year out. Plenty of time for Santana to scramble her prized intercept squadrons.

"That's an interesting device," Quinn said, joining her in staring at the display. "What's the in-system time lag on it?"

"Five minutes," Brittany said. "We don't have the computing capacity for anything better."

"In close combat, five minutes is an eternity, but at the speeds Santana's ships move at out there it should be plenty."

"Only if the Bugs haven't changed," Brittany said. "If they're still slow moving when entering a new system, we have a chance of beating them. That would give us first contact under our control."

"Home field advantage," Quinn said. "I'm assuming it's hardened?"

"Of course," Brittny said. "I won't bore you with a description right now but it provides a vital part of our defenses."

"How is it protected," Quinn asked. "It looks like there are defensive abutments in place but what powers it all?"

"We don't have enough staff, trained or not, to completely man our perimeter sensors," Brittany said. "So we used a number of proto AI's, when possible, to control the facilities. A regular patrol checks all of them on a frequent basis."

"So, magic?" Quinn asked.

"Magic," Brittany said, agreeing, before bursting into a giggle fit. "The kind you get when you throw tech at a problem." Taking deep breaths, she eventually calmed down.

"How's the lag between systems?" Quinn asked, after giving her time to recover.

"Not good," Brittany admitted, with a grimace. "It's worse than the old hyperspace relays we're using to route comm traffic to the Ring. We just don't have the right tech yet. I can switch to other systems and to a sector wide overview," she demonstrated by showing the sector view, "but the data at the edges is days old."

"Ouch," Quinn said. "That's not fast enough if the Bugs hit us like we expect."

Brittany nodded in agreement. "There are very few things we can't do well but that is one of them. If we want a fast sector spanning warning system we'll have to do something different or hope for a miracle."

"So how are you handling it?" Quinn asked.

"We have scout ships at the far reaches of our range," Brittany said. "If any of our scanners detect suspicious activity, they can report in faster than the comm links can reach."

"Crude, but any warning is better than one that is too late," Quinn said.

"We'll have something better eventually," Brittany said. "We have some things brewing in the lab that might do it, but it's all theoretical at this point. Turning theory into actual tech can take a while, even for us."

"What is the Confederation using for this kind of warning system?"

"There is nothing like it, in the Confederation," Artie said. "This may look primitive but the Confederation warning systems do not have this range or anything close to it."

"Why not?" Quinn asked. "I would have thought this would be a vital defensive ability."

"The Clans have been the only fast response capability in the Confederation for millennia," Brittany said, when Artie didn't respond. "And they did it the same way. They have listening posts across each sector and fast scout ships ready to deliver a message."

"Surprisingly crude," Quinn said. "So, once we get this working, assuming we survive the Bugs, we can sell it to the other Clans?"

"The Confederation may just co-opt it," Brittany said.

"That doesn't sound fair," Quinn said.

"They aren't a charity," Brittany said. "They know a good thing when they see it."

"And that is probably why there are so many non-interference rules between the Clans and the Confederation. Self preservation." Quinn sighed. "Right Artie?"

"Yes, Lady Quinn," Artie said. "The other Clans learned that the hard way."

"And since we aren't recognized as being at full strength, and won't be until after we defeat the Bugs, the Confederation has access to all of our tech," Brittany said.

"Sucks to be us," Quinn said, grumbling.

"Indeed," Brittany said.

"So, we'll beat the Bugs and do something about it," Quinn said, "and you didn't hear that, Artie," she added.

"Of course," Artie said.

"Artie's one of the good guys," Brittany said. "Sometimes she can't avoid reporting what we're doing but not everything."

"Good," Quinn said. "The Bugs may be the immediate threat but we need to take the long view."

"And we are," Brittany reminded her. "Everything is part of our long range plan, even the Bugs."

"And we have something the Confederation doesn't," Quinn said, smirking.


"Us!" Quinn said.

Chapter Text

"This is an amazing view," Andy said, looking around. Spread out below her was a vast field of stars.

"Yes," Miranda said. "This is one of the advantages of being ascended, being able to travel beyond the Earth and see the entire galaxy. It adds a certain amount of perspective to everything."

"I’m glad you shared this with me," Andy said. "The Shadow would kill for this kind of view."

"Unfortunately, there is no way to turn this into the kind of data stream she loves to view," Miranda said. "We are not actually here, but home. This is a different plane of existence."

"So it’s basically a virtual view," Andy said.

"Correct," Miranda said. "Although I can show it to you, I can’t show you the other things I am seeing while on this plane."

"Can you see the Bugs from here?" Andy asked.

"They are that dark smudge off in the distance," Miranda said, waving. "They just barely register."

"Shouldn’t they be closer?" Andy asked, squinting.

"They have not really begun to impact our sphere," Miranda said. "They are still too far away."

"Can you estimate when they’ll get here?" Andy asked. "Is that even possible?"

"At this level, no," Miranda said. "I have been keeping Lady Shadow updated on the status of the Bugs but there isn’t much to see yet. They are still at least three years distant."

"Three more years to prepare," Andy said. "That doesn’t feel like enough time."

"No matter how much time it really is it will never feel like enough. That’s just the nature of how your brain processes time," Miranda said. "Much like a faulty chess computer. Some things never feel correct, especially with the long game.’"

"That’s an interesting comparison," Andy said.

"It is unavoidable that some being who has ascended take the long view," Miranda said. "I suspect that the Ascended in the Goa'uld world have no real connection to current inhabitants and therefore do not have a lot of empathy with them."

"From stories told by Jack, that’s definitely true," Andy said. "Their Ascended are big on non-interference, no matter how catastrophic it might be. As Jack said, they took the 'f'-'u' out of fun."

"That is not how I would phrase it," Miranda said, “but I agree with the sentiment."

"I’d like to visit them, once our Bug problem is taken care of," Andy said. "We have a galaxy wide civilization but even with the Goa'uld, Jack’s world has more true freedom."

"As long as you don't interfere in something their Ascended are watching," Miranda said.

"I got that vibe," Andy said, nodding. "But other than you, do we have any Ascended in this universe?"

"I have not encountered any signs of ascended beings," Miranda said. "But it is possible they behave differently."

"Or they don’t stay on a plane where they can interact with those less fortunate," Andy said. "More like gods and goddesses than 'ascended' enlightened beings."

"Possibly," Miranda said. "But they have left nothing behind."

"What about the Gates?" Andy asked.

"An advanced civilization, certainly," Miranda said. "But they disappeared many millennia ago. No one has any idea that they even existed, except those of us who have experienced it."

"They could be the ones who built that ring," Andy said. "Though it doesn’t seem to use the same tech from the reports I’ve read."

"We’ve pinpointed Blue Team, Lady Air," Rio said. "They’re a hundred clicks spin-ward from where they disappeared."

"Good," Santana said. "Any updates on their situation?"

"None," Rio said. "They have been exploring the complex but it appears to have been abandoned years ago. There’s still no explanation for how they got there. All of the gear that looks likes it would be needed is just the right fit."

"You should have a pickup in ten minutes," Santana said. "Proceed cautiously, we still don’t know anything about the ring or its builders, other than they prefer to disarm than deal with armed aggressors."

"Any additional orders, Lady Air," Rio asked, scanning her surroundings.

"Bring everyone back, and don’t get caught yourself," Santana said.

"Yes, Lady Air," Rio said, leaving off the implied 'we won’t get caught, they’re a bunch of amateurs.’

Santana looked over the recovered Blue Team. They appeared to be in good health, so whatever had happened to them couldn’t have been too stressful. "What exactly are you wearing?"

"We believe they are survival suits, Lady Air," Geordi said. "We found a number of them in the tunnels below the control room."

"I hope you’ve preserved some in their original state," Santana said.

"Of course," Joy said. "Just for you, ma’am." Reaching into a pocket, she pulled out several of the survival suit packets and held them out.

Raising an eyebrow, Santana indicated that they be put on a nearby table.

"What else did you discover," Santana asked. It wasn’t the anti-Bug weapons she’d been hoping for but it was certainly a start.

"It’s more crystal tech," Janice said. "Same writing, same appearance as the tech we found around the crystal Gates, but not as old."

"I suspected as much," Santana said. "There just aren’t that many space faring civilizations in this sector."

"They might not be from this sector, originally," Janice said. "We don’t even know what they looked like. Other than 'human height' there’s very little to go on."

"Opinion, Rio?" Santana asked, after Blue Team had been sent off to medical for evaluation.

"It was an abandoned control center," Rio said. "It was connected to a dozen like it, none occupied. There appears to be no reason why they were dumped in that one."

"What else did we learn?" Santana asked, idly poking one of the packets.

"That there is something living or existing on this Ring that doesn’t want to be seen. And they are very likely watching us wander around. There are too many unknowns to know if we have any defenses against them, but so far we seem to be safe."

"Good, so spread the word, use extreme caution," Santana said.

"Yes, Lady Air," Rio said.

"Make sure the entire complex is scanned and catalogued," Santana said. "We don’t want to miss anything." Nodding, Rio left her alone in her war room. Checking the clock, Santana opened a channel to Brittany. "Hey Brit," she said.

"What’s up?" Brittany asked. "Did you find your missing crew, and mine?"

"All found and returned," Santana said. She looked at the light glancing off of the Ring, turning it into a glittering ornament in space.

"In some ways it’s a beautiful place, though a bit larger than anything I’d want to manage."

"Any signs of what you’re looking for?" Brittany asked.

"There is alien tech here, obviously," Santana said. "But it appears to be well hidden. If something hadn’t decided to play a joke on Blue Team, we wouldn’t have noticed."

"So, you don’t think it was some automated system that grabbed them?" Brittany asked.

"It just doesn’t feel right," Santana said. "It feels like there’s an intelligence behind it. Will we ever see it? Unknown."

"Let me know if you need reinforcements," Brittany said. "We can spare a few more troopers or Shadows if you need them."

"Will do," Santana said, before signing off. She sighed, rubbing her forehead. She decided she’d had enough excitement for the day and sent a prayer to the Clan goddesses asking for a peaceful week.

"Who are you and what do you want," she said, addressing the unknown person or persons that had briefly taken one of her teams and sent them elsewhere. She hoped it was something simple. With war creeping up on them slowly but surely, she wasn’t ready for anything too complex.

And no Artie to bug when things got slow, she thought. She didn’t often think about the Confederation AI in their midst but the AI’s voice had been a long term fixture in her life for so long that she almost missed it. "Rio!" She shouted.

"Yes, Lady Air?" Rio asked.

"Prepare for an outing, back to that control center. I’ll be coming with you this time," Santana said. "Let’s see if a different pair of eyes find anything. And let’s map it."

"Yes, Lady Air," Rio said, picking up some subtle clue that Santana was excited and reacting in response.

"Not very colorful," Santana said, looking around the control center. "How did you get it to work?"

Janice, once more dressed in her stealth suit, her spare one, took out her crystal lock-pick and tapped one of the consoles to generate a tone.

"That’s a little awkward," Santana said. "I assume that is a prototype?"

"Yes, Lady Air," Janice said. "We’re working on an improved model, though lab space on the cruiser is a bit sparse."

"Have you tried an oscillating crystal?" Santana asked. "Something with a wider spectrum?"

"Not yet," Janice said. "We have been focusing on opening doors and other things."

"Something like a sonic screwdriver?" Santana said. "We’ve all built those at one time or another."

"The Doctor always got himself out of trouble with it," Joy said, perking up. "But it was unrealistically powerful."

"The earlier episodes, the really old ones, he didn’t do much with it," Santana said. "Something like that should be easy to duplicate It would certainly be an easier form to carry around than the little chip you are using."

"Ye, Lady Air," Janice said. "This has to be adjusted for different uses, using our nano-bots. So changes can take a little while."

"I suspect this isn’t as dead as it looks," Santana said, wandering around. "It’s just too clean for that, unless they left the automatic cleaning equipment running."

"We tried all of the consoles," Joy said. "We even had Geordi use her sexy command voice, and nothing happened."

Turning towards Blue Team Lead, Santana raised an eyebrow at the blushing Geordi. "Maybe it was the wrong 'sexy voice'," Santana said. "Did anyone else try it?"

"No, Lady Air," Janice said.

"I like to think I have the sexiest voice in the Clan," Santana said, smirking, "but this calls for someone with the ability to insert an extra dose. Which will have to wait, she’s busy. For now, let’s search extra hard for anything that looks like it doesn’t quite belong."

Quinn stared down at her tablet and the results of the last week of testing. She was working on a training regimen to produce elite troopers. Her current teams were all in peak fitness, and excelled but she was looking for troopers with just that little bit extra that she could deploy as special units, her equivalent to Special Forces.

But it wasn’t turning out exactly as planned. The harder she pushed the better they did, which should have been impossible. Over and over she’d pushed her teams beyond where they’d gone before, and they just kept going.


"Yes, Lady Q?"

"Can you explain these results?" Quinn asked. "What is going on with my teams?"

"They have not to reached their peak," Artie said. "They are Serpent Clan. The more you push the closer they get."

"How do you know they haven’t reached peak yet," she asked.

"Because they do not yet match the performance ability of the one person who has reached peak," Artie said.

"Who would that paragon be?" Quinn asked.

"You," Artie said, causing Quinn to choke. "Most of them have some combination of your genetics and original Serpent Clan genetics so they should be able to reach your level but while they have been getting closer they haven’t reached it."

"There must be other Clan who are pushing the limit," Quinn said. "Shouldn’t they be looking for someone else to emulate?"

"They worship you, Lady Q. You are their ideal," Artie said.

"I’m nothing special," Quinn said, refusing to believe the AI.

Quinn quietly entered Rachel’s studio, waving off her assistant. She wasn’t a regular visitor to Rachel’s private space in their primary Cancun office but she’d been there often enough to know her way around. It was a warm and comfortable place; something she had come to look forward to after being out in the field. And once the Bugs arrived, something she expected to have very little time to spend in.

They had come a long way from when the Clan had first taken them in. She wasn't sure if she correctly remembered her life before this. It was a distant, dream like memory. She suspected the only one who really remembered their past in Lima was Rachel, and not because it was so much better but because it wasn’t. Of the four of them, Rachel had gained the most. Yes, Santana now had a fleet of warships under her command, and Brittany was a spymaster beyond any that she’d ever heard of, and she, Quinn, had a small army of talented and scary warrior women who would follow her into Hell if need be.

But Rachel had become the cultural centerpiece of an entire society. As she went so went Clan culture. All the music and art of the Clan was at her command. An army may travel on its stomach but a society lived for its art. And Rachel was at its center. Something way beyond what Quinn imagined she’d wanted back in high school. She could sing and dance to her hearts content. And it was encouraged!

But there were still some things she couldn’t have or were denied her. Quinn knew that her obsession with Rachel in high school had been very unhealthy. And had never made much sense. Th first few years after joining the Clan, while they are all still getting their sea legs, she’d offered friendship, and only friendship, to Rachel. But over time it had grown to be more, or at least she’d recognized it as more. To the point that she’d given Rachel a token of her affection and a commitment to always be there for her.

She wasn’t sure if she was being fair to Rachel. When the Bugs showed up she would be consumed with the defense of their system, world, and sector. And there were no guarantees that she would survive the upcoming war in one piece. But she needed to let Rachel know that she was willing to take that final step and acknowledge their bond before that happened. She wasn’t sure yet if it was a fabled soul bond, like the one Brittany claimed between herself and Santana but there was definitely something there. Some part of her heart just seemed to beat faster when she thought about Rachel.

When she’d originally gone to the Amazon planet, before the Ring Planet incident, she’d spent time searching her thoughts for some indication of what she should do. She’d even consulted their holy people in an effort to understand her inner thoughts and feelings.

It hadn’t yielded any surprises. Apparently, she knew herself fairly well. And watching Andy and Miranda reconnect after so many years apart had been inspiring. Their situation had been very different but the love she thought she saw between Miranda and Andy could power a platoon of hard suits. And they were such different people. If those two could find a way to reconnect, she and Rachel should also be able to.

"What brings you here?" Rachel said, sweeping into the office behind her, humming a song.

"I was hoping to see you," Quinn said. "We haven’t talked much since we rescued you and Santana from the Ring."

"I’ve been here," Rachel said. "You just had to drop in and say hello."

"I’m here now," Quinn said, stepping closer, stopping only when she was staring down into Rachel’s eyes. "Hello," she whispered.

"Why, hello," Rachel said, grinning happily up at her. "You seem very centered today. What’s going on?"

"I’ve been thinking. About us," Quinn said, lightly touching Rachel’s soft cheek with the tips of her fingers. "And I’m ready."

Rachel didn’t question her or ask her what she was ready for. From the way her eyes lit up and her smile increased, Quinn could tell she knew.

"I’m not sure if now is the right time, Rachel, but if I wait for that perfect moment it may never happen," Quinn said. "So I’m making now that moment."

"Just by being here you make it perfect," Rachel said. Raising her hand, she in turn touched Quinn’s face for a moment, her palm against Quinn’s cheek.

"I’m not sure if love is the best word to describe how I feel when I’m with you," Quinn said. "But something fills me with joy, when I see you smile, when I hear your voice, when I watch you move, and I wanted you to know, without a doubt that you make me happy. More happy than I’ve ever been."

Without a word, Rachel reached out and wrapped her arms around Quinn’s waist, and pressed her ear against her heart. Quinn could feel a slight tremble from her as she held on like that for several minutes.

"It took me a long time to understand what my feeling for you meant," Rachel said, in a soft voice. "Those feeling you describe? They match what I feel when you are with me. I would call it love but love seems such a small word to describe my feeling for you."

"Where do we go from here?" Quinn asked. "If you wish a formal acknowledgement of my feelings to the entire Clan I’ll do it, or some token of my love?"

"I have everything I need in here," Rachel said, placing her hand against her heart. "Your feelings are branded on my heart."

Quinn reached into a pocket and took out a small crystal case. "I did a little research," she said, "and this is the formal Clan bonding gift. Some texts say there should be a ceremony while others don’t." She held it out to Rachel.

Rachel carefully took the case, her hands shaking. Opening it revealed a delicate seeming earring in Clan colors nestled on a cloth combining the official colors of the Clan Memory and the Hand of the Council. "It’s beautiful," she said, looking down at it. "Please put it on," she whispered. "Which ear?"

"The left is for a public declaration," Quinn said. "It’ll sting for moment. Do you still want it?"

"Yes," Rachel said. "Please put it on."

Picking up the earring, she tilted Rachel’s ear slightly, and placed it above her earlobe. The was a small hum as it pierced her ear.

"What does it look like?" Rachel asked.

"Like it belongs there," Quinn said. Turning Rachel, she guided her towards a mirror near the inner door.

"It does," Rachel said, gently touching it. "Always."

"A new earring?" Hiram said, leaning closer after waving Rachel into their home.

"It’s a sign of great things to come," Rachel said, smiling widely, and twirling around. "Quinn gave it to me last night."

"What does it mean?" he asked.

"It’s part of the Clan bonding ritual," Rachel said, humming happily.

"She asked you to marry her?" Hiram said. "Leroy, get out here!" he said turning towards the kitchen.

"What’s up babe?" Leroy said, joining them. "Hey baby girl," he said, leaning down to give her a hug.

"Rachel is getting married!" Hiram said.

"Quinn gave you a ring?" Leroy asked, taking Rachel’s hands. "Is it invisible?"

"No," Rachel said, laughing. "It’s not a ring." She held her hand up to her ear.

"So, the Clan give each other engagement earrings?" Leroy said, puzzled.

"No," Rachel said. "It’s a formal bonding gift. Once I give her hers we’ll be bonded."

"So, married?" Hiram said. "No white dress? No walking you down the aisle?" He frowned. "You get an earring and that’s it?"

"There is a traditional bonding ceremony, but it’s rarely done," Rachel said. "That’s not the important part."

"What’s the important part?" Leroy asked, sitting down on the porch swing.

"We’re getting bonded," Rachel said, grinning and spinning again. "She loves me enough to tell the whole world."

"No white dress?" Hiram said softly, in a disappointed voice. He sat down next to Leroy on the swing.

"Even if we had a ceremony, there wouldn’t be a white dress or an aisle," Rachel said. "It would be in traditional Clan robes, under the stars."

"But there is a ceremony?" Hiram said.

"Yes," Rachel said. "But it isn’t necessary."

"As one of your fathers, I believe a formal ceremony is necessary," Hiram said. "You’re our little girl, our only daughter. This is something for us, not just you."

"Do you feel the same?" Rachel said, looking at Leroy.

"Yes," Leroy said. "Ceremonies are an important part of family."

"I’ll have to talk with Quinn," Rachel said.

“How did it go?” Quinn asked, her voice distant as it traveled across the system, where she was leading a practice jump on Pluto.

“They’re happy for us,” Rachel said.

“But?” Quinn said, hearing the hesitation in her voice.

“They want us to have the bonding ceremony,” Rachel said.

“Not unexpected,” Quinn said. “They’re your fathers.”

“Not going to say ‘I told you so’?” Rachel said.

“No,” Quinn said. “Which bonding ceremony did you want to use?”

Rachel pulled up the list of all known Clan bonding ceremonies on her tablet to refresh her memory. “None of them feel right,” she said. “They’re interesting historically but don’t rally represent the Clan and us now.”

“How many bonding ceremonies have we had since we began rebuilding the Clan?” Quinn asked.

“None?” Rachel said. “We have several hundred registered bonded pairs but none of them used a formal ceremony when they bonded.”

“Huh,” Quinn murmured after several minutes of silence, where Rachel assumed she was distracted by the jump.

“How many of us are there now? Almost a quarter million, including the latest generations sill in the pods? And no one has had a formal bonding ceremony? Maybe we just don’t need one?” Quinn said.

“Or maybe we need one that speaks to us, and not the past?”

“Well, here’s your opportunity,” Quinn said. “Look at the bonding ceremonies you have on record and make one that is this Clan now.”

“I can do that,” Rachel said excitedly.

“Make sure you involve Sophia,” Quinn said. “The Weaver will want to be involved, I suspect.”

“Of course,” Rachel said. “It won’t be just some bureaucratic signing of papers, though we could have that also.”

“Let me know when you have something that you are happy with,” Quinn said.

“It might be a few weeks,” Rachel said.

“Plenty of time,” Quinn said. “We already know our truth.”

“Yes, yes we do,” Rachel said softly.

The ever present humming stopped. "What are you thinking about?" Rachel said, looking up from her tablet where she was transcribing another epic poem.

"This," Quinn said, reaching over and lightly touching the small earring that signaled to everyone who knew what it meant that Rachel was part of a bonded pair. Quinn knew if she felt her own ear, a similar earring would be there. "When I gave it to you."

"That was a wonderful night," Rachel said, . "We’ve had wonderful ones since then but that one I’ll always remember. And the night you let me return the favor."

"There was no letting," Quinn said, smiling at her. "It took two of us for the bond to be complete. I was fully aware of the symbolism and process."

“Well, the bonding ceremony was unique,” Rachel said.

“And very appropriate,” Quinn said. “As much as we didn’t need it, it felt right.”

“And a dozen bonded pairs have used it since,” Rachel said. “With some minor variations, of course.”

“It must have spoken to them also,” Quinn said. “But some parts of the ceremony were really just for us.”

“I designed it to be flexible,” Rachel said. “And so it could be personalized. Even Sophia was happy with the results.”

Quinn nodded, but didn’t speak.

"Why were you thinking about that night?" Rachel asked, after several minutes of companionable silence.

"I can feel something coming," Quinn said. "If not tomorrow, then next week, we’ll get our first glimpse of the Bugs. And then things will be hard until we defeat them for good. And I need to refresh my memory of all of our good moments together. Store them up for when we will be apart."

"This is something we’ve never done before," Rachel said. "Since the moment we stepped out of the pods together we haven’t really been far apart. The fight against the Bugs is not going to be over overnight. It could be years."

"Yes," Quinn said. "We won’t be able to see each other for long periods of time. But I will be thinking of you constantly."

"And we do have the comms," Rachel said. "You aren’t becoming a hermit."

"Yes, when we can we will be in touch through the comms. It seems to work for Santana and Brittany. Santana is out there with the Fleet for weeks at a time," Quinn said.

"Although I’ve read accounts of past Clan wars, I have a hard time visualizing what this is going to be like," Rachel said. Putting down her tablet, she threw herself into Quinn’s arms. She sniffled, but didn’t cry.

"I promise to always come back," Quinn said, "no matter how far away or where I go."

"If you don’t, I’ll come after you," Rachel said, kissing her in promise. "We’re bonded and that means something beyond this life."

"Sappy," Santana said from the doorway. "Like from some tele-novella."

"Be nice, San," Brittany said. "They do things with words."

"I prefer actions," Santana said, pulling Brittany against her.

"Which is why your quarters are soundproofed," Quinn said.

"What can I say," Santana said, smirking. "Some things are worth shouting about."

"I think we should celebrate," Brittany said.

"Celebrate what?" Rachel said.

“Us. The future. The Clan,” Brittany said. “A party before it becomes dark out there.”

“Everyone? That’ll be some big party,” Santana said.

“Very traditional,” Rachel said. “Make some good memories before going into battle the first time.”

The feeling that she wasn’t alone flitted across Rachel’s mind. Looking up from her pad, she saw Brittany leaning against her doorway, an unfathomable look on her face.

"What brings you here?" Rachel asked. The last time she’d seen Brittany in her office had been three months ago when they’d had an impromptu celebration of the anniversary of the reemergence of the Clan on the day of the so-called Mayan apocalypse.

"It’s beginning," Brittany said. "The Bugs have crossed our outermost scanners along the border with Blue and should be in a habitable area within the year. And here in two."

"What do you need me to do?" Rachel asked, standing.

"For now? Nothing. But we’ll need to start spreading the idea that a war is coming and that the Clan will be ready to defend this planet," Brittany said. "Subtly, of course."

"Of course," Rachel said. "And how do we do that?"

"I have a few ideas," Brittany said. "But they’ll need your special touch."

"So tell me your ideas," Rachel said, waving at the chair in front of her, and sitting back down herself.

"Well, the first thought I had was…" Brittany said as she began outlining her ideas.