Ship's Log: ASV Aurora; 12 July 2643. Captain Julia Andreys recording. I'm reminded of an old saying. "The reward for work done well is more work."
Conference Room 1 was full of department heads, officers and senior NCOs, although most of the command staff wasn't present due to other tasks. Julia and Meridina were seated at the main table. "What about the tactical systems?" Julia asked. "Lieutenant Delgado reported a number of our plasma banks were disabled."
"I've got teams working on them already, sir," replied Senior Chief Petty Officer Isabela Talaverda, the NCO responsible for the damage control teams. She was a lean, muscled woman of dark bronze complexion and one of the remaining crew from the Facility days. "You can expect full weapon capability in the next twelve hours. But it is going to detract from surveying the damaged hull sections."
"Operations is shifting personnel to assist, Chief." That was from Lieutenant Tra'dur.
"It doesn't change the fact that some of our battle damage is best dealt with by yard work, ma'am," Talaverda insisted.
"Admiral Maran's aware of that, as am I, but our orders remain, so we have to make due," Julia replied. "I'd like a timetable on…"
We just saved the Citadel. Given what Robert and Commander Shepard found out on Ilos, we saved the whole galaxy. Maybe even the Multiverse itself. We should be getting a break.
While other engineering crew were already on tasks, Scotty and Barnes were assembled with Jarod and Lucy and Tra'dur, among other engineer and ops officers, over the master control table in Main Engineering. From this location every system on the Starship Aurora could be remotely checked for trouble, and quite a few of them were showing such from battle damage.
"I dinnae like th' look o' th' secondary generators," Scotty was saying. "We need 'em t' be completely resynched if we're t' have th' shields ready on time."
"Normally that's a job of two or three days," Barnes said. "Getting them done on time… it's impossible."
"Nae, lad, it isnae impossible at all, just a matter o' manpower."
"I'll take a team and handle it," Lucy promised.
"Good lass." Scotty turned his attention to Tra'dur. "As for ye, we've got some power conduits needin' patchin'."
"Of course, Commander Scott," the Dilgar officer answered.
"That leaves th' damage tae th' warp drive." Scotty looked to another of the engineer officers. "Yrap, ye get a team an' go EVA tae inspect th' nacelle. Th' auto-repair patch looks t' be good so I dinnae think th' damage needs a yard, but I need tae be sure…"
But we're not getting that break. Admiral Maran's calling us to the fleet. We're going back into the war with the Reich. No matter how tired or battered we feel.
There was controlled chaos in the Aurora medbay. Leo moved from one bed or stretcher to the next. He found Doctor Roliri Opani, a Dorei woman of dark teal complexion, looking over another Dorei. The light blue-skinned male, with prominent dark teal spots the same hue as Doctor Opani's skin, was unconscious and, more to the point, missing half of his right arm and most of his right leg. "I have completed stabilization," Opani informed Leo.
"Good. We'll ship him out on the St. Johns." Leo moved on. The next bed had an injured Alakin. He quickly found the injury wasn't severe and tagged the Alakin as fit for duty.
Doctor Lani Walker had beaten him to the next bed. The Tohono O'odham woman was finishing her examination of a Human female, a Petty Officer who, like Leo, was of African descent. The woman was conscious but somewhat out of it, unsurprising given the amount of bandaging visible on her. "I've almost finished processing her," Walker said. "Stable, non-severe injuries, but extensive. Probably two weeks before she can even consider light duty."
"Then she's off to the transporter."
Walker tagged the crew-woman appropriately while Leo moved on, continuing his job of sorting through wounded to determine who would stay and be back on duty and who would be evacuated to the Citadel. He felt irritated at this necessity. The Citadel's medical services were already strained dealing with the dead and wounded from the Geth attack. His patients couldn't be prioritized given the situation. He could only hope someone got hospital ships out to help. There was nothing more he could do.
Admiral Maran says this will decide the war. So I can understand why. And we'll do what we have to regardless. That's what we're out here for. And if it can end the war… then it's well worth it.
It was approaching Gamma Shift's watch period on the Aurora, several hours after they received the call from Maran. Julia returned to the bridge from her ready office. Locarno was at the helm while Ops was being manned by Lieutenant Sabiha Neyzi. Lieutenant Crane and Ensign Tagas manned the Tactical and Science stations. A warrant officer, a male Alakin named Thepk with blue skin and yellow and white feathering, manned the Engineering station.
Meridina moved from the command chair. "Did you sleep well?" she asked.
Julia gave her a sardonic look. "Try as I might, no. I ended up leaving a personal log entry just to get some things off my chest."
"I understand. Admiral Maran sent an update, he is awaiting us at New Prussia in S4W8. Lieutenant Neyzi is already preparing for the jump as soon as we take the relay through to Arcturus."
"Good. Is everything ready then?"
Meridina checked her screens for several moments. "Yes, the St. Johns just returned from taking the last of the critically wounded to the Citadel."
"Where are we on personnel?"
"Quite well," said Meridina. "In keeping with instructions from Admiral Maran, we have taken aboard crew from the crippled vessels to replace the wounded and slain. Commander Jarod and Chief Perez are seeing to their assignments."
Before Julia could respond to that, the lift doors opened. She looked toward it, expecting Jarod or another officer to be coming aboard.
Instead, she watched Captain Elizabeth King of the Excalibur approach. The Englishwoman was in normal duty uniform just as Julia was, dark brown hair pulled back into a bun at the back of her head and looking as reserved and controlled as she always did. "Captain, I apologize for the sudden arrival," she said. "Admiral Maran ordered me to report to the Aurora before she departed for New Prussia."
"It's fine, Captain, things here are pretty hectic around here given the situation," Julia replied. "How are matters on your ship?"
"Not to my liking." King's voice betrayed a hint of aggravation. "We suffered significant losses from the battle damage, and Commander Stirling is adamant that a yardship be dispatched to bring the Excalibur back to a fleet base. The structural damage can't be repaired without a dock."
Julia nodded, not surprised by the admission. The Excalibur had taken two direct hits with failed shields from the ancient Reaper machine, Sovereign, during the battle, blowing one of her warp nacelles in half and damaging several sections and decks of the battlecruiser. She suspected the Excalibur would be in drydock for months for repairs.
"Commander Granville will keep things in order until my return." King shook her head. "Honestly I would prefer to see to my vessel's repairs myself, but the Admiral is adamant that I attend. My presence is needed, apparently."
"Well, we're preparing to depart now," she said.
"Impulse power at your command, Captain," Locarno said. "The Normandy is already moving to the relay."
"The Normandy?" asked King.
"Admiral Hackett and the Council are sending Shepard to help," Julia said. "It looks like the Commander won't get the benefit of any rest either."
Julia offered the observation seat to her left to King, who took it. It was clear she was still irritated with being ordered off her ship, but she said nothing more. "Take us to the relay, Mister Locarno," Julia said. "Set the destination for Arcturus."
"Aye ma'am," was the reply.
The Aurora turned away from the Citadel and the gathered ships of Admiral Hackett's 5th Fleet, plus the remnants of the Citadel's defense fleet. The grand space station, still recovering from the Geth attack upon it, started to fade from sight on the holo-viewer, obscured by the clouds of gas and particles of the Serpent Nebula.
Neyzi altered the viewer to show the sight to their bow. Ahead the long, slim form of the SSV Normandy was already making her final approach. Energy crackled from the mass relay and touched the Normandy. Moments later the Human/Turian hybrid frigate zipped away, propelled across a quarter of the galaxy in the blink of an eye.
Under Locarno's control, the Aurora made her own approach, and the process repeated. Soon the Normandy was on the holo-viewer again. In the distance, a fleet of the Systems Alliance was maintaining a secure watch on the toroid-shaped Arcturus Station, the capital of the Systems Alliance.
But that was not their destination. Locarno relayed positional data to the Normandy. The smaller ship responded and moved to conform to it. As soon as they were ready, Locarno nodded at Neyzi, who activated the Aurora's interuniversal jump drive. Fixed to an anchor at the fleet base at occupied New Prussia, the drive activated, forming a vortex of swirling emerald energy that represented a breach between universes. Both vessels flew into the jump point.
On the other end was a garden planet, a copy of the planet that in Julia's home universe was the location of the New Liberty Colony. But here it wasn't just one settlement of three hundred thousand like it was for New Liberty: rather the planet was covered in cities. Julia recalled the data, that the planet was populated by seven billion people, almost all of them from Germany of the S4W8 universe.
Which meant that many, if not most, were likely ardent Nazis.
Coming out into the Multiverse had been a spectacular experience. For Julia and those she considered her friends, it was a path they'd never have expected, and it repeatedly provided them a chance to see the wonders of possibility among the Multiverse.
One thing that wasn't a wonder was the S4W8 universe.
While the various universes tended to have diversions in history at some point, usually by the 21st or 22nd Century, S4W8 diverted far earlier. Specifically, it diverted in the 20th Century, and in a way that could always be certain to horrify those who learned of it: this was the universe where the genocidal madman Adolf Hitler was not defeated but emerged triumphant. The "Third Reich" had not only prevailed in what other universes considered "World War II", it had survived the following decades as well, conquering more and more territory, expanding its power and influence until by the mid-21st Century it had completely conquered Earth.
And then it had gone to the stars, and Hitler's Thousand Year Reich had spread its evil from world to world, building a large interstellar empire on the sweat and blood of the oppressed nations of the Earth the Reich had not slaughtered in its victory while bringing death to every sapient species it encountered.
The idea of fighting Nazis was once something Julia thought would come off as a joke. Some pulp fiction thing. At most, a result of finding a 20th Century Earth and intervening in it back in the days of the Facility. But now it was no joke; it was a frightening reality. Julia and the others had experienced that reality first hand repeatedly, from the desperate fighting at the start of the war to New Austria, Gamma Piratus, the Durani Cluster, Clirison, New Brittany, the Epsilon Offensive…
Her thoughts were broken by Neyzi speaking again. "The Kentan is signaling for us to join the fleet. Admiral Maran wishes to see you and Captain King immediately."
"Coordinates set," Locarno added. "I'm moving us toward the fleet."
Said fleet soon filled the holo-viewer. It wasn't the first fleet Julia had seen in this war, but it was still the kind of sight she'd never forget. Thousands of starships from across the Multiverse in formations by type. Winged Alakin warbirds, graceful Dorei starbirds, the arrow-like sharp shapes of FedStar cruisers and the blocky, utilitarian warships of the Colonial Confederation…
And there were more now. Julia recognized designs as varied as the Aururian warships, looking more like wet navy ships of the 20th Century modified for space flight, the elegant star-sailing vessels of the Gy'torans, and the spherical orbs of the Gl'mulli. There were a handful of White Star ships of Universe E5B1, several warships from the Inner Sphere and the Clans of Universe F1S1, and…
Julia stared in utter surprise at another group of familiar starships. "...Starfleet is here?"
"I can confirm," Ensign Tagas remarked. "I'm reading several Federation starships. Nebula, Excelsior, Miranda, New Orleans, and Galaxy-classes all present, and a couple of newer ones on the recognition charts. Akira-class and…"
Julia was already noticing a Starfleet design she'd never seen before. The large cruiser-sized vessel lacked the curved lines of the Galaxy in favor of a rapier-sharp design, with the primary hull flowing into the drive hull and a great, golden deflector dish. From the underside of the hull, the ship's registry number was visible.
"...Sovereign-class," Tagas finished. "USS Enterprise."
"Indeed. I wonder who is in command?" Meridina pondered.
"I think we're about to find out," Julia remarked.
Robert noted the wan look on Shepard's face as she joined him at the airlock. Fourteen hours after the end of the fighting on the Citadel and here they were, preparing for another fight. He suspected he didn't look any better.
"Are you ready?" Shepard asked. Her green eyes met his. Despite her clear fatigue, Shepard's uniform looked completely fresh. Robert's own uniform, while presentable, still seemed to lack the crisp look of Shepard's. While she was in the blue of a Systems Alliance officer, Robert's predominately-black Stellar Navy uniform was marked with the silver branch trim of Intelligence branch and a staff officer's aiguillette. He'd returned the four golden slanted stripes of a Captain to the collar of the uniform for the purpose of the briefing, even if his true purpose there had more to do with being one of the dozen Paladin operatives serving the Alliance. Likewise Shepard's attendance was hardly due to her rank of Commander, but rather her status as a Spectre of the Citadel Council in Universe M4P2.
"As ready as you are," Robert sighed, and both knew full well how tired they were.
Shepard nodded and tapped her omnitool. "This is Commander Shepard to Kentan Transporters. We're clear to transport over."
A moment later a verbal acknowledgement came, and the two were whisked by a subspace tunnel across a span of space into the heart of the Gersallian dreadnought-carrier starship Kentan, one of the most powerful starships in any fleet in the Multiverse.
The two stepped off the pad quickly. A moment later the transporter engaged again. When the bursts of light faded, Julia and Captain King were on the pad. Robert smiled and nodded at Julia, who repeated the gesture.
"Commander Shepard." King stepped up and offered her hand to Shepard. "I owe you congratulations. And given what happened on the Citadel, gratitude. Thank you."
"It's fine, Captain. Congratulations on your new command."
"Did you get in any trouble for stealing off with the Normandy?" Julia asked Shepard.
"Given everything that happened, no." Shepard's expression turned bemused. "Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised to find out the Council expected me to run off. My doing so against orders gets them off the hook with the Terminus governments."
"That's quite a possibility," King agreed.
"Alright everyone, Admiral Maran's waiting for us," Julia remarked.
The four left the transporter station and headed toward the Fleet Command Chamber at the heart off the ship. Inside of it junior officers were manning various stations, providing up-to-date intelligence and sensor scan data for the benefit of the Admiral. Other stations acted as fleet communications and performed duties to help sustain coordination of the force.
They approached the large central table, currently displaying a holographic projection of nearby space. Sol was marked with a red light and a ship icon. Other ship icons overlaid with swastikas were present beside it and in nearby space.
The table was round. Opposite of the side they approached, a large screen allowed further data display to complement the table's display. Standing between the table and the large screen was Admiral Maran, wearing a Stellar Navy uniform with his singular five gold star rank insignia. To one side of him stood the familiar figure of Delenn, the Vice President of the InterStellar Alliance and the leader of the Anla'shok - the Rangers - that flew the White Star ships. As always she was dressed in colorful, flowing Minbari robes of blue and violet, with her black Human hair flowing down and around the crest of bone that partially circled her head. On the other side was a small woman in an ostentatious uniform of black and blueish gray, with dirty-blond hair and dun fur: Warmaster Shai'jhur of the Dilgar, accompanied by several more Dilgar and one Human woman of Indian ancestry wearing the Dilgar uniform. Another crisp dress white uniform belonged to a Human woman of dark complexion. Robert sensed Julia's immediate recognition: this was an officer of the Aururian Imperial Federation of Universe A2M6. Around the circle, General Hatcher of Military Intelligence was present, as was Admiral Relini, the Dorei commander of the 9th Fleet, and Admiral William Adama of the Colonies. A Human woman, Hispanic Robert thought, stood in the same uniform as Shepard's.
The last two figures at the table were in Starfleet uniforms, a new model that used gray on the shoulders with the collars showing branch color, both burgundy red in this case. One was a Vice Admiral, a Human male, and beside him stood Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Robert and Julia noted that the Starfleet commander, the first one they'd ever encountered, looked quite well. And it wasn't hard to guess what his new posting was.
"Captains, Commander, thank you for attending," Maran said. "It's good to see you're all well after the attack on the Citadel. While I'm sure you would like to report on that situation, I'm afraid we have more pressing matters at the moment."
The new arrivals took up places at the table. "I imagined there'd be more admirals," Robert said.
"There were," was Maran's reply. "But most of our allied contingents have returned to their ships to finish battle preparations. You're here to discuss the most critical element of this situation, the reason why we had to move quickly. For your benefit, allow me to introduce Admiral Waratah Eora of the Aururian Imperial Navy, Admiral William Ross of Starfleet, Warmaster Shai'jhur of the Union of Tira and Rohric, and several of the Warmaster's officers and advisors."
Julia recognized Fei'nur immediately, as well as Kaveri Varma. And she was pretty sure the other two were sisters of Tra'dur, but she didn't know which ones.
"So this is about hitting the Nazis' capital Earth," Robert said. "I thought the timetable for that attack was still at least a month away? The earliest D-Day I saw listed was August 18th."
"Yes. It was our intention to continue with clearing operations around Earth. But circumstances have changed. General Hatcher?"
Hatcher nodded. He was a Human man, roughly six feet tall, in a green uniform jacket marked with three stars. His skin was a very light mocha in coloration, with a thin face and equally thin figure. At Maran's instigation he tapped a key on the screen. "About two months ago, forces from the Free Worlds League and the Capellan Confederation attacked the Reich colony world of Rosenburg." Said world now showed on the holo, along with related data. Robert noted that it looked like quite a decent garden planet; its counterpart in his home universe had been one of the alternative sites for the New Liberty Colony had its current location proved hostile. "Rosenburg is an agricultural planet primarily, a breadbasket world that exports foodstuffs. The Reich's laws forbade any town greater in size than 50,000 residents to maintain the planet's nature." Hatcher tapped a key that brought up a flat map of the planet. For Robert and Julia it was like someone took the area of Kansas they grew up in and duplicated it across an entire planet.
After another key press Hatcher brought up combat footage. Reich troops, including power armored-Panzergrenadiers, were in a desperate firefight with invasion forces from the two F1S1 states listed. The iconic weapon system of F1S1 - large armored walkers called BattleMechs - was prevalent on the screen. Several different models of 'Mechs, ranging from human-shaped machines to more blocky, bulky ones covered in weapons or with reverse-jointed "chicken legs", were giving and taking fire from the Reich forces.
"They're fighting awfully hard," Shepard noted. "Was this breadbasket world that important to their food supply?"
"Not this important," Hatcher noted. "The defense forces assigned to Rosenburg were far more than seemed reasonable."
"Assuming the planet was named for Alfred Rosenburg, could this have been an issue of prestige for the regime?" King asked. Robert could tell she knew the answer was going to be "no", but it was a good question regardless.
"We considered that possibility, and there have been cases of the Reich defending targets beyond their military value for reasons of prestige. But this seemed excessive even for that purpose." Hatcher shook his head. "The Marik and Liao forces suffered extremely high casualties in the initial attack. They were forced to request Alliance reserves to complete the pacification of the planet. As a result, our troops were able to locate and secure this site."
With another press of a key, the 2D map zoomed in on a mountain range on the northern continent of thee planet. The layout of an extensive facility built into the mountains was presented. "The facility was protected by SS forces and the Reich's regular military, and they fought for every centimeter," Hatcher said. "Half of the invading unit were casualties by the end. The enemy even collapsed half of the facility with charges, destroying much of the storage and machinery sections. Fortunately, our people were able to access the computers and forestall efforts to destroy the data within."
"It's taken us weeks to crack their encryption and examine the data," Maran said. His expression was clearly grim. "As of a week ago, we found this."
Now it was Maran pressing a key for the table. The prior displays went away in the place of a detailed technical schematic. German writing covered the schematics. Even without reading said writing, Robert and the others stared in realization and dawning horror.
At the top of the display read Interuniversumtriebwerk.
"Our worst fears have been realized," Maran said. "The Nazi Reich has developed the interuniversal jump drive."
The technical display left no doubt as to the contents. And the German name for the project left no illusions to what it meant. "We ran out of time," Robert said. Every moment built up both horror and guilt at what that word meant. The war he'd started through fear and misjudgement had already slain so many people… and now this.
"Indeed." King's face remained stolid. She knew what the data meant and the ramifications. "Every day the Reich goes on, the risk to the rest of the Multiverse increases. If they build enough drives and equip them to enough ships…"
"...it will change the war," Julia said. "They can attack our worlds directly. Hit shipyards, mining stations, population centers…"
"It could cripple our offensive capability," Maran confirmed. "We would have to deploy large segments of the fleet to stand watch over our most populated worlds, or leave them vulnerable to Nazi attack. And while the Reich's military resources have been strained to the breaking point, their fanaticism suggests they are quite capable of suicidal tactics. Even if they lose an entire attack force in the process of hitting one of our worlds, they may judge it worth the cost to terrorize our populations."
"Although you are partially incorrect, Captain," said Hatcher. "We're not quite out of time yet." Hatcher indicated the schematic. "Examination of these plans indicate that while the Reich has mostly completed the research phase of their project, they haven't yet made it work. There are technical flaws in these plans that will take time for them to fix before they can achieve an interuniversal jump point. They were still working on that when Coalition forces hit Rosenburg."
"That was almost two months ago," Robert said. "They've had a lot of time to work out the remaining bugs."
"Don't forget that they had to take time to get their project relocated," Hatcher said.
"Indeed. The General's correct in that the fall of Rosenburg did buy us a little more time. We've intercepted some communications indicating the project is still being completed," said Maran. "We still have a window of opportunity to defeat the Reich before they finish employment of the drive. That's why we're attacking S4W8 Earth now."
"The project's based on Earth?" asked Shepard.
"A great deal of it, yes. Going by captured files…" Hatcher brought up a map of what, in other universes, would be Berlin. But the Berlin of S4W8 had little in common with its counterparts in other universes--it was wrought on a massive scale, from the Seelowe Heights in the East to Gransee on the edge of the Uckermark, to the bank of the Elbe in the west and Delitzsch in the south, a vast city of incredible density stretched. "It's somewhere in this area." He highlighted a section of the city. "In the heart of what they call Welthauptstadt Germania."
"The World Capital." The words came out in a snarl for Robert as he translated the title. It was another harsh reminder of just how twisted this universe was. "They're performing the research right in the heart of their own capital."
"It makes some sense, I suppose," said Shepard. "It's already going to be a secure area, heavily protected. And with something like this, their leaders are going to take a direct interest."
"That's why you're here?" Julia asked Ross and Picard.
"It is." Ross nodded. "The Federation Council spent two days deliberating the matter, but in the end President Zife and his advisors convinced them. Starfleet is joining the war openly and aiding the invasion. We cannot let a regime like this acquire the drive."
"It will not be an easy battle," Picard observed. His accent was a refined English, very much in contrast to his French name and background. "They have to know they have time on their side and will fight ferociously as a result."
"Then we will fight with the courage of the desperate," Shai'jhur said. "The results of the Reich having an interuniversal capability demand it." She nodded to Maran.
"We've already landed troops on Earth," Maran said. "Contingents from virtually every power in the Coalition are fighting to secure key points. Unfortunately, the Reich is quite resilient in bouncing back from defeat. The fleet units we shattered in the Epsilon Offensive have been reconstituted."
"Kampfgruppe," Robert said. Upon noticing the looks on some of the others, he said, "My grandfather told me about how German units recovered after the offensives of 1944. Scattered companies and battalions would form ad hoc formations, kampfgruppe, to fight on."
"Tactically speaking, the Reich has always shown a penchant for such," Hatcher observed.
"Indeed. Their counterattack inflicted severe losses and heavy damage to the fleet that landed our troops. We were forced to pull them back." Maran's expression was severe. "Although their theater shields will protect the ground forces for the moment, we have a large number of our best troops trapped on the Reich's capital Earth. If we lose them, it could be weeks, even months, before we could gather enough forces to hit Earth again. And given that the invasion forces are being led in part by Prince Victor of the Federated Commonwealth, among other key military leaders from some of our allies, such an outcome would have serious political consequences for the Coalition."
"There are alternatives to planetary invasion, Admiral," King pointed out delicately. When her remark was rewarded with a number of bewildered and horrified expressions, King added, "Undesirable methods of last resort, certainly, but still the superior outcome to defeat."
"Such methods have been proposed already," Maran said. "And if absolutely necessary, we may have to employ them. But our objective is to break the Reich, not destroy its capital. Their political system is fixed to central authority. If we destroy that authority physically and morally, the individual Gauleiters and Admirals and Generals will be left to decide things on their own. Organized resistance against our forces will collapse."
"They must suffer humiliation as well as defeat," Delenn said. "They must lose a great battle in the heart of their empire to those they consider unworthy."
"So we're going in to restore communications with the invasion army and provide reinforcements," Julia said.
Maran nodded. "There will be two elements. I am assuming personal command of the main assault fleet, consisting of the bulk of our available ships. After we make orbit, our fleet will stand off and move to intercept any incoming enemy attack. A second, smaller force will remain in orbit to support the invasion forces, led by Warmaster Shai'jhur." He nodded at the Dilgar leader, who nodded back. "Admiral Relini, Admiral Eora, and Admiral Ross will be her subordinate commanders. Captain Andreys, the Aurora and Koenig will be part of this fleet. But I have an additional task for you during the operation."
"Your crew is the most experienced with Darglan technology, including the interuniversal drive," said Maran. "The Aurora's science officers will be responsible for determining the exact location of the research facility in the heart of the city, enabling the ground forces to take it."
"Which I'll be responsible for?" Robert asked.
"With Commander Shepard, yes, and a team of your choice," Maran said. He looked to King. "Captain King, my apologies for taking you from your ship. But we have need of your services in another field. I'm afraid that the Nazi counterattack came as we were deploying a field intelligence team. The team was lost, and we need an intelligence officer to be part of this operation. There will be critical information in that facility that will need to be secured."
"I see." King nodded. "I anticipated it was something like this. I will serve in whatever capacity is required."
"Excellent. There are already allied troops in the vicinity." Maran brought up tactical data. A near ring of forces were in place around the enemy capital. "Each sector is being fought for tenaciously and the situation is changing hourly, so I can't give you any advice on your best starting point. That is a decision you will have to make when we arrive in orbit."
"Understood," said Robert. "Is there any other data we need to know?"
"Only this. Every minute we delay gives the Reich more time to recover. We're waiting on a few final reinforcements but when the time comes, all ships are making for Earth S4W8. I expect you to be ready by then. I'll have whatever engineers we can spare from the New Prussia base come aboard and take up the repair jobs so your people get some rest."
"Understood, sir," Julia said. "The Aurora will be ready."
"With nothing further to discuss, you are all dismissed."
Julia returned to the Aurora and immediately set about the preparations for the arriving engineering teams. Maran proved true to his word, as over three dozen engineering officers led by an Alakin female, Commander Hrathep, arrived within the space of half an hour. Julia was quick to send Scotty, Barnes, and the other Operations and Engineering officers of the ship to their quarters for some much-needed rest.
The truth was she needed some as well, but for the moment she knew there would be no sleep. Not with the terrible stakes hovering over her head. They'd come so close to finishing the Reich off. Now they were out of time and forced into a desperate gamble.
After making some headway on department reports, Julia stepped over to the window of her ready office. The Aurora was in formation with several other Alliance ships, adjacent to the Starfleet detachment led by Picard and Ross. Given the distances and angles none of their names were immediately visible, but she already recognized several ships with the same profile as the Aurora. Maran's fleet included all five of the Enterprise-class ships in active service. The newest of them, the Thunder Child, was directly to port of the Aurora. Many of the Discovery-class ships were present as well, including Discovery herself and the Challenger.
After taking in the sight and considering the stakes for a few minutes, Julia returned to her desk. Low priority messages from other captains were showing. So was a request from Commander Patrice Laurent, the Aurora's CAG. The pilot wanted to visit his sister, Captain Madeleine Laurent, on the Challenger. Julia immediately authorized the request. Another message was from Captain Arik Shaham on the Enterprise, expressing his sentiments about the occasion. Captain Phillip Wallace of the Thunder Child was inviting her to a victory celebration once they'd taken the Nazi capital. She was gratified to see a message from another of the old Facility hands now serving as First Officer of the Nehru-class star cruiser Sun Yat-sen…
Julia finally set everything aside. If she wasn't going to get some sleep, she at least needed food. She stepped out of her ready office and looked to Lieutenant Takawira in the command chair. "Lieutenant, I'm getting a bite to eat. You have the bridge."
"Aye Captain," Takawira answered, his English accented from his home colony of Nkomo, settled by Zimbabweans in Universe L2R1 centuries before.
The lift ride down was quiet. With what was to come, most of the crew not absolutely essential were off getting sleep or resting. There was a general fatigue in the ship, the kind you'd expect after a desperate battle. That they were off to another one…
In the Lookout, a number of crew not getting sleep were enjoying a meal. Hargert's kitchen staff were due to beam over to the fleet base minutes before they departed, but she knew from experience Hargert would not be joining them. He would stay on the Aurora working himself to exhaustion to keep the crew well-fed. That their foes were the Nazis would only redouble the elderly German cook's resolve to serve the Aurora crew in the crisis. At the moment she spotted him emerging from the kitchen carrying a great pot to the side bar. A number of officers and crew were waiting with bowls, all soon filled with steaming servings of his legendary sausage stew. Julia felt a rumble in her stomach and a familiar watering in her mouth. She took her place in line. A Petty Officer ahead of her tried to move away, to give her his place, but she shook her head and refused it.
Within a minute, she had a bowl in her hand and Hargert had a ladle full of stew coming up from the pot. "Good evening, Captain," he said. "You look famished."
"I am famished," Julia admitted wearily. "And I can't sleep."
"Certainly not if you're hungry! Eat your fill and let your satisfied stomach ease you to rest." He made sure the bowl was full before ceasing to fill it. Julia stepped away and found a table not yet claimed, a window seat. She slid into the open chair. Albert, a young German man serving under Hargert, provided her a fruit drink and a glass of milk on the side. She enjoyed a bit of both before plunging into her meal.
She'd made it through not quite half of the bowl when someone asked, "Is this table reserved?" The accent gave away the speaker before Julia could look up and confirm the speaker. Captain Picard stood with a small grin and a bowl of stew in one hand, a cup of steaming tea in the other. He took a seat once Julia shook her head and gestured toward the table. "I was surprised to learn from Mister Data that your Mister Hargert does not rely on replicators for his food preparation."
"Not unless absolutely necessary," Julia confirmed.
Picard nodded and took his first bite. It was clear he found the experience enjoyable. Once he finished swallowing he nodded, smiling. "Well, having experienced his efforts first hand, I'm hardly in a position to question his methods, am I?"
Julia chuckled lightly in response. After finishing another bite she asked, "So, I see you have a new Enterprise. She looks impressive."
"That she is," Picard agreed after swallowing. He gave Julia a knowing look. "I'd imagined you and I would share that singular distinction."
This time the chuckle from Julia was lacked the same amusement. "I suppose."
"Do you regret it?" Picard asked.
"In the end? No." Julia shook her head. "I mean, I suppose I will one day. Everyone wants to be the Captain of the Enterprise. But the Aurora… she's my ship. She's been mine since we started assembling her. It's fitting that I command her now."
"Understandable." Picard sipped at his tea. "And you've certainly had an eventful career as captain so far. New Caprica, Phi Perseus, Tira, now the Citadel…"
"It's been busy," Julia answered. "But I don't think anything can compare to what tomorrow's going to bring."
"Likely not," Picard agreed. "I admit I was particularly impressed by the Phi Perseus situation. Your command decisions in that crisis should provide quite a case study for Starfleet cadets."
"Jean-Luc, please," he said.
"Julia. As I was saying, I was very impressed with the Oakland Colony situation. Your proposal over the dispute concerning Phi Perseus was inspired, and your handling of the matter justifies your growing reputation in diplomacy."
"Diplomacy is a headache. But there are worse things."
"Indeed." Picard sighed. "An awful lot of blood will have to be spilled in the next few days to prevent a greater calamity."
"Is there any resentment for us?" asked Julia. "If the Alliance had never come to this universe, the Nazis would never have even considered an interuniversal drive."
"Perhaps not. Or perhaps they would have stumbled upon the Darglan database and Facility in due time." Picard turned thoughtful. "I'm sure there are some who believe the war could have been forestalled, measures taken to eliminate the risk… but the truth is, what we do out here will always have an element of risk. All we can do is learn from our mistakes and try to make the best choices available at any given moment."
"I won't argue with that." Julia sighed wistfully. "If we live through this, I'm looking forward to peace. I've had enough fighting to fulfill any fantasies of being a hero." Her eyes wandered over to the Memorial Wall at the end of the Lookout, and the ever lengthening list of names upon it. "And I've had enough people die under my command."
"I know the feeling," Picard admitted.
Julia might have spoken more, but her eyes were pulled toward the starboard-side door to the Lookout. She was quite surprised to see the two new arrivals. Shai'jhur and Kaveri Varma approached Hargert, who spoke with them briefly before departing for the kitchen. Afterward they looked about and, upon seeing Julia and Picard, walked over to them. "Captains," the Dilgar woman said.
"Warmaster." Julia motioned to the two remaining seats. "Are you here for the stew?"
"Sort of,” Kaveri answered for them. “Your man Hargert offered us a special preparation of Wildschweingulasch he’s been making for Tra’dur and some of the other officers on the Aurora who follow Hindu traditions.”
“She says it’s very good,” the Warmaster added after she sat. “And we’re not fighting on the same ship.”
“Shai’jhur gave me Wrath when the reconstruction--calling it a repair would be absurd--was finished,” Kaveri explained.
"The Wrath." Julia thought she remembered the name. "Is that the new Sekhmet in the fleet?"
“New is an …” Kaveri hesitated, looking to Shai’jhur.
“She is reconstructed from the wreckage of the Vendetta, which I salved from Third Balos,” Shai’jhur explained after a moment. “I didn’t tell that story over Tira, we hadn’t the time, but during the retreat from Balos I did come across the Warmaster’s flagship.”
"But she wasn't aboard?"
“We found her flag captain, Battlemaster An’jash, dead on the bridge with a broken back. The crew slaughtered. The ship was a ruin--only some undamaged armour held her together in two places, her back had been shattered by neutron beams in two places, one entire beam wrecked by Novas as well. There was one survivor, the Emperor’s Chef, who Jha’dur had dragooned into making her meals for her after the Emperor was killed. He’d locked himself in a galley cooler which hadn’t lost atmosphere. I towed the wreck back to salvage the equipment, but in the end, she spent thirty years sitting, a derelict, over Rohric.”
“For some reason,” Kaveri added, a bit wryly, “when we began the emergency work to repair her with Alliance funding, Shai’jhur thought it would be a perfect idea to have me as her Captain. She flies straight only with five percent overdrive on the port engine block, but she’s still one of the most powerful ships in known space.”
Julia showed a small grin at that. "Do you enjoy being back in command?"
“It is a service to a righteous cause,” Kaveri replied. “I can say I am thankful to be leading such an eager crew who hunger to prove themselves, but I am an old woman. The Union Navy will inevitably contract when this war is over, and, at this point, my desire is to lead her back safe and sound to the reserve depot she was revived from. If I do that, it is a good final command.”
"Well-spoken, Captain Varma." Picard nodded to her. He turned his head to Shai'jhur. "If you don't mind me asking, Warmaster, I recall reading that Warmaster Jha'dur was verified as having survived as late as six years ago?"
“Yes,” Shai’jhur answered rather tightly, a constriction of the muscles around her throat visible. “On Babylon 5.”
"How did she survive the loss of her ship?" Julia asked.
“It wasn’t Earthforce that finished her off,” Kaveri interjected. “The Minbari attacked the Wrath, and took Jha’dur -- as a prize, a prisoner. It was Minbari neutron cannon that broke her back. The reason remains unclear. Jha’dur didn’t talk to my daughter, or anyone else, about that when she was on Babylon 5. Perhaps Delenn knows.”
"Somehow I suspect she might be reluctant to bring up the matter," Picard observed wryly. "I wouldn't care to speculate why any of the Minbari would have thought of capturing such a woman as Jha'dur."
"She's said to have been brilliant." Julia considered her drink for a moment. "She was one of the key reasons why the Dilgar were able to take on so many of the other species at once and come to the verge of victory."
“An intellect like Jha’dur comes along once in ten thousand years,” Shai’jhur answered levelly. “She was a brilliant biologist, surgeon, starship tactician, duellist, cybernetics engineer -- all at once, simultaneously, the best in every single one of those fields, and a decent strategist as well, though not the best. I am being cautious about opening our archives precisely for this reason. There is much work she did which the multiverse should know about only cautiously.”
"Your people might have had a happier fate if Jha'dur's brilliance had been matched with ethics," said Picard. "It is always a regretful thing to see such talent directed toward such horrible ends."
“She was never given a chance to develop a sense of ethics,” Kaveri replied. “I hope someday it is appreciated as one of the great tragedies of history, because it is. She should be with us now, saving billions with the likes of her universal vaccine. Instead, we make our best efforts in the ashes of her story.”
"It makes me wonder how many of the Reich's minds might have done something better for their lives if they hadn't been brought up in a Nazi society," pondered Julia.
"We may never know," Picard mused. He took a final drink from his cup, his bowl already finished. "It has been a pleasure to see you again, Captain. Warmaster, Battlemaster, a pleasure as well." He stood. "Should everything turn out well, we will see each other again when this battle is over."
"It was good to have you," Julia noted. "Please say hello to Commander Data for me."
"I will do so," Picard assured her.
After getting a few hours of much-needed sleep, Cat went straight to Science Lab 2. She found Meridina waiting for her at the entrance. "Commander."
"Commander." Meridina followed her in.
"Did you get any rest?" Cat took in the sight of the large science lab, with its multiple holographic and holo-viewer displays tied to control stations. The lab specialized in physics simulations and experiments. From here Cat could network sensors from the entire fleet to hunt for the particle traces related to active interuniversal drive signatures. If the Nazis were testing such technology, she would find it sooner or later… hopefully sooner.
Behind her, Meridina answered, "I have rested for a time, yes. The personnel Admiral Maran sent us have been able to assume responsibilities for our repairs. You have rested well?"
Cat nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, I slept. Didn't even have a nightmare."
"You are afflicted with bad dreams?"
"Aren't we all?" Cat shrugged at that and approached a station. "Okay, the fun part of this is going to be networking with the Aururian and Federation ships. Well, maybe not the Federation ones, we've got their comm protocols to allow networking."
"WIll Commander Data be coming to assist?"
Cat shook her head. "As much as I'd love having him aboard again, Picard's going to need him on the Enterprise. But I'm sure he'll be helping me whenever he can. Now…"
The door to the science lab slid open. Two Dilgar entered. Tra'dur was in Stellar Navy uniform, the trim color of beige standing out in all of the dark blue of science, the other in Dilgar uniform. Cat and Meridina easily noted the family resemblance between them. "I hope I am not late?" Tra'dur asked.
"Just on time, actually," Cat said, already taking a chair. "Let me bring up the example traces."
"You will be assisting Commander Delgado's scans?" Meridina asked Tra'dur.
"Yes, from the ground," Tra'dur answered. Her English was accented with what Meridina was told was an Anglo-Indian accent, presumably a result of her mother Shai'jhur learning the language from Kaveri Varma. "I will be with the team, providing immediate scans and a connection to Commander Delgado."
"I see. Then I shall work to aid you as best as I can."
"Wait." Cat glanced back toward her. "You're going down?"
"Robert insisted it was necessary," Meridina replied. "And the Captain has reluctantly concurred."
"Then who's going to do your job?"
"Commander Locarno. Lieutenant Arterria will man the helm."
Cat nodded. Violeta was a great ship pilot herself, even if the exchange reminded her that her girlfriend would soon be leaving the ship. As she wanted to change the subject, Cat looked to Tra'dur's compatriot and said, "Oh, welcome to the Aurora. I'm Lieutenant Commander Caterina Delgado, Science Officer. This is one of our three science labs."
"Cat'Delgado." The other Dilgar nodded and smiled amiably. "My younger sister has told me about you, among others.” She shot an askance look at Tra’dur. “Though she’s terrible at introductions. I am Battlemaster Tia'jhur." Like her sister she spoke the tones of the subcontinent.
"The eldest, right. Nice to meet you. Is the other sister here?"
"Other sister?" asked Tra'dur.
"Jul-... Captain Andreys mentioned something about seeing two of your sisters here," Cat said. "At the briefing."
Realization showed on Tia'jhur. "I believe I understand. That was our adopted sister, Zhen'var."
"Oh!" Cat nodded. "Captain Varma. Vee mentioned she'd been surgically altered into a Dilgar."
Tia’jhur’s face twisted into an odd expression for a moment. “You are one of the most accepting humans I have met, thank you. Zhen’var did not have peace. Especially not after the mutiny of her crew and betrayal of her government at Tira. She traveled with my little sister Surgeon-Commander Nah’dur to Solaris for the procedure.”
"I hope they enjoyed it." Cat smiled at the memory of Solaris, even if that memory shared the same bittersweet taste as all of her other memories involving Violeta. "It's a really weird place, but pretty fun."
“Well, Nah’dur got to operate on her sister with equipment she’d never dreamed of before. I expect she had an awesome time from start to finish,” Tia’jhur laughed. “Though apparently Fei’nur had to pull her by the scruff of her neck into an elevator to keep her from getting herself into trouble in the lower levels.”
"Why would Nah'dur go to the lower levels?" Meridina asked. "They are not meant for tourism."
Tra’dur groaned and finally spoke again. “My sister wanted a ratburger.”
At that Caterina started giggling. "Really? I thought it was so gross when Julia told us about Zack getting one. He thought it was a hamburger!"
“Nah’dur is going through this phase where she wants to experience authenticity from the universe. Or rather she always has,” Tia’jhur sighed. “She also has a massive crush on Battlemaster Fei’nur, by the way, so you can’t rule out her intentionally putting herself in a position where Fei’nur has to rescue her. My little sister is best described as incorrigible. She has been since she was a little kit. When Zhen’var… Asked to become Dilgar, Nah’dur came up with the plan, and forced everyone to accept it. She has an intense spirit, and when she’s sure something is right, she can’t be stopped. Though, I admit all of us girls supported her there. Sister-Zhen just wasn’t happy unless she could finally fit in.”
"I have never met an individual who wished to alter their species before," Meridina remarked.
"Well, it's not too different from some of the cosmetic stuff the Sirians do, or the Solarians," Cat noted. "I mean, when we were on Solaris I met people with animal body parts, it was kinda weird. But interesting!" She made a face. "Although some of them were kinda jerks…"
“Apparently there were many humans who tried to surgically alter themselves into Minbari after the Earth-Minbari War. Zhen’var… Is much smarter than that, and my sister’s work, much more complete. She is not just a staff officer. Mother ended up giving her one of the war emergency cruisers, and she has already fought in command of her.” Tia’jhur glanced to her sister, but had already elected to speak openly.
“I would remind you that the commander of the White Star flank on our fleet is also no longer of the same genes with which she was born, Commander,” Tra’dur added gently. “I think it wrong to preference one experience over the other.”
"So I have heard." Meridina nodded simply, acknowledging the point. "Ultimately that which improves life matters. And life is change, sometimes painful, even unexpected. I still find it difficult to understand the Humans of your universe and the way they were ready to strike at her for protecting the innocent." As she said those words Meridina contemplated just how deeply her crew's treachery had wounded the woman. She thought it necessary to change her species. Such a thing usually indicates a malady in the mind. And yet she is functional enough to command. "It is not our place to judge her either way. If her alteration has made her feel better about her life then that is what is important. If anything, the Multiverse has taught me that the impossible is not always so."
Cat laughed at that. "Sorry, it's just… if you'd gone to me about six years ago and told me I'd be flying in a spaceship that can hop universes, I'd have thought the idea insane."
"I never imagined we would get such a chance as your Alliance has given us," Tra'dur remarked. Her eyes shined bright with the prospects of the future. "The Alliance, the Multiverse, it's giving us so many opportunities I didn't dare dream of."
Cat smiled softly at Tra'dur, remembering easily how eager the young Dilgar was to make her mark in the sciences. Not to mention Tra'dur's astonished joy at seeing the Citadel.
"It is to secure those opportunities that we fight the coming battle," said Meridina. "The Reich is a source of darkness that will stifle us all if it is not expunged."
A steely look formed in Tia'jhur's eyes. "Rest assured, Commander, it will be."
After moving most of his things back to the Aurora, Robert settled into his quarters on the ship and nodded off. The rest was peaceful, more so than he expected. When the tone woke him up, he put on a cream-white vest and leggings and the nondescript brown traveling robes of Gersallian make. He had a stop to make.
When he arrived at Holodeck 1, it was already up and running. He stepped in to the simulation of a contemplative garden in the Great Temple of the Order of Swenya. The holodeck systems generated what felt like a refreshing breeze moving through the garden, nestled between the great circular buildings of the Temple. He'd never been to this exact locale in the actual complex during his one visit, but he could see why Meridina made a holographic recreation of it.
Lucy was waiting there, wearing the same kind of vest he was, but with no robe. The vest was sleeveless, baring her solid arms and their light brown tone. A table with pieces for a lightsaber was laid out beside her. "There you are," she said softly, with a hint of amusement. "I should probably be upset with you for being so hard on my handiwork."
Robert let out a quick chuckle followed by a small sigh. "I apologized for the training device," he said. "As for the lightsaber, blame Shepard."
"It's so much easier to blame you though," Lucy teased. "I'd make a 'Sir Robert' joke, but the fact is the Gersallians see me as a Knight too, so I should probably be careful about that kind of humor." She sat beside the table cross-legged.
Robert walked over to the other end of the table and did the same. He noticed that the lightsaber she'd built for him was laid out on the table, with new parts to replace the ones wrecked by Sovereign's death. "Did you get any rest?"
"I did. Don't worry that I spent my entire rest period manufacturing your parts. I keep a store of them for this reason." Lucy set her hands on her knees. "I'm okay with building it myself, Robert."
"I know. But… I think I need to do it," he replied. "I need to keep improving my focus. So I don't have any more problems."
"Suit yourself. I'll be here if you need me."
At that point they stopped speaking. Lucy closed her eyes. Robert felt her presence in the Flow of Life, the burning glow of her powerful life force. Everything about her, everything that was Lucy Lucero, was embodied in that glow. Her courage, her passion, her kindness, that kernel of immature playfulness at the center of her sense of humor… every part of it.
Robert turned his attention to the pieces of the weapon. He reached within for the golden warmth of his own power, blazing brightly with the energy of his life and its connection to the Flow of Life. Robert directed that power toward the table. He willed the pieces of his weapon, new and old pieces, to lift into the air and come together.
As he watched, both with his eyes and with his power, they did just that. Piece after piece gathered around the emerald green crystal that survived the destruction of his weapon. The pieces locked into a cradle around it, one by one. He felt elation at how well it was going.
Naturally this didn't last. He felt a strain in himself. The energy of the Flow of Life was filling him beyond his need for it. His focus was getting weaker. The piece he was moving to fit into the framework around the crystal rattled in his faltering grip.
The frustration welled up within him. Again with the control failure! Why couldn't he hold this power back?! Why couldn't it just damn cooperate with him?
Robert. Lucy's voice cut through the frustration. Don't let it get to you. You're doing fine. Better than before.
It won't be enough, he thought back. I can feel it slipping… Every piece in the air, as well as the partially-completed weapon, seemed to shake a little.
You can do this, Lucy insisted. You've come far enough.
My control…! The piece jostled against the others, out of place. Another piece dropped a centimeter before Robert regained control of it. For a brief moment it felt like it might shoot off, but he managed to hold it in place.
Stop being afraid of the power, Robert, Lucy admonished him. I can feel that fear. It's holding you back. You're afraid of losing control. But it's not about control, it's about focus, about letting your swevyra/life force guide you.
Robert nearly protested that he had good reason for such fear, that he'd nearly killed Shepard because of the increased power, but he stopped himself. He could feel the conviction in Lucy's words. The fear in himself. The little voice that insisted the power was too much, it wouldn't be controlled, he could hurt someone with it…
He could hurt the people he loved.
Robert drew in a deep breath. The fear clawed at him and he strove to ignore it. He centered himself on the serenity around him, holographic as it was. He was not going to fear himself. Not again. Fear led him astray too often. Focus, not control.
The piece pulled away. Robert felt the instinct on where it needed to go, the fine attachment to make it work, and he followed it. He felt the piece lock into place. Other pieces moved in, one by one. He felt each lock into place as they were meant to, as the feeling inside of him insisted they should. With each piece the picture in his head of how it was supposed to fit together came more clearly.
As the frame came together Robert felt a surge of elation, one that nearly overcame his focus as well. He held it in check to ensure it didn't stop the final frame pieces from locking together. He felt the metal snap together until the weapon was whole. A smile crept across his face as he held a hand up to the weapon. He shifted his legs and used a free hand to get himself to one knee. By the time he was ready to stand completely, the weapon returned to his waiting hand.
After a moment of quiet breathing, Robert's thumb found the switch.
The lightsaber came on, snap-hiss, and the green blade generated by the weapon filled his vision.
"There you go," Lucy said aloud.
Robert nodded and went over to the practice plates Lucy had assembled. He brought the energy blade down on the metal. It sliced through without effort, leaving bright orange tracks to mark the ends of the sundered plates. After twirling his weapon for a moment Robert disengaged the blade and returned it to his belt. "Thank you for your help," he said to Lucy.
She nodded once in reply, her face still bright with a proud smile. "I just gave some guidance. You assembled the weapon this time. It's your achievement." She stood up. "How is your technique coming?"
With a wry look, Lucy went over to the table and picked up another training orb, the same kind Robert had recently broken. "Show me."
Robert breathed a small sigh and nodded. He pulled the weapon from his belt again, ignited the blade, and assumed a defensive stance. "Alright, I'm ready. Hit me with your best shot."
Lucy did just that.
A persistent electronic tone broke through the gentle bliss of sleep, rousing Commander Montgomery Scott from a too-short rest. His body, tried by decades of Starfleet service, temporarily resisted the impulse to get out of bed. As awareness cut through sleep, the will to overcome the slight aches in his joints came through and brought him to a sitting position on the bed. "Computer, raise lights," he ordered. The computer obeyed, bringing the lighting of his quarters to full. The bright light helped to keep his eyelids open despite the weights that seemed to be pulling the lids down.
It was more than just sleepiness that afflicted the veteran engineer. The tyranny of his age had its part to play. Long gone were the days when he could sleep four hours and be up, bright as rain, to stand a watch in Main Engineering or another duty station on a starship. Now such scant sleep weighed heavily on him. A small part of him wondered if it was time for that dreaded "R" word to be contemplated. As always, that small part was swamped by the feeling in his heart and soul, the feeling that rejected the tyrant Age. He had a place here, on this ship that could pierce universes as easily as it pierced the light-speed barrier. He was still an engineer, and his ship needed him. Especially now, as his young lass of a ship had wounds that needed tending if she was to return to the fighting.
To help wake up Scotty replicated a good pot of hot coffee and drank his fill from it. Reports from the engineering teams temporarily assigned to the Aurora filled his queue. Systems repaired to effectiveness, albeit not to perfection in some cases, and those still being worked on came down in a list. Scotty immediately began considering how he would assign them to the others. While nobody knew when Maran would order the fleet out, it was going to be soon, and they would be off for what might be the fight of their lives.
And fatigue be damned, Montgomery Scott would have his ship ready for it.
Jarod was finishing up a quick breakfast when the comm call came in. He took a last bite of replicated scrambled egg before reaching over to the controls for the computer systems built into the desk in his quarters. A holo-viewer popped on. After a brief waiting screen to show the Aurora's systems were establishing the link, the viewer changed to show his caller: his sister Emily. "Hey Sis," he said.
There was visible worry on Emily's face, framed by her dark hair. "Jarod. I heard about the Citadel. Are you okay?"
"Tired. Busy," he replied. "How are you?"
"Busy as well. I'm doing a piece on New Liberty's strained relations with the Earth of this universe." Emily shook her head at it. "Given some of the things being said back on Earth, you'd think the Colony was full of violent revolutionaries out to topple every government on the planet."
"They've never been happy with us," Jarod noted. "But they know they can't do anything about it."
"It'll make for some interesting copy, at least. And then we have that big summit coming up in a few months…"
Emily was interrupted by another tone, one she could hear through the line. Jarod sighed and tapped a key on the table. "Jarod here."
"Time t' rise an' shine, Commander Jarod," Scotty replied. "I'll be needin' some help from ye tae get th' ship back up an' runnin' in time."
"I'll be down in Engineering in a few minutes. Jarod out."
Emily heard that too. She frowned. "Jarod, what's going on?"
He shook his head. "I'm afraid I can't say. You'll find out soon enough."
"You're going back into action? In the war, I guess? But you just got out of that battle at the Citadel!"
"I know. But this is… important. Really important." Jarod leaned in toward the viewer. "Maybe when it's over I can tell you more about it."
"It's not getting a story I'm worried about. It's you."
"I know," he said. "I'll call you when I can."
"You'd better," Emily said. Jarod didn't need advanced intelligence, or any of his experience with psychology, to know his sister was tremendously upset by the danger he was in. "Our family has lost enough."
"We have," Jarod agreed. "Goodbye, Em. I'll talk to you later."
"Good. Be careful, Jarod. I love you, brother."
There was nothing more to be said at that point beyond the obvious reply. "Love you too, Em." Jarod gave her a final, reassuring smile before ending the call. After taking a moment to collect himself, he stood up and went to his closet to get his uniform. It was time to get to work.
Built into various strategic points of the Aurora's kilometer-long frame were the generators that provided her first line of defense against enemy fire: the deflector shields. While there were multiple types of energy field-style shielding in the Multiverse - mass effect field-generated particle barriers being one alternative, another being the gravitic shielding employed by the Abbai of E5B1 and the Aururian Imperial Federation of A2M6 - deflector shields were by far the most common. They didn't quite match a particle barrier's ability to reflect matter, and they lacked the grativitic field's ability to resist fire completely until its capacity was exceeded, but they were the most efficient and versatile means of energy shielding in the known Multiverse. The Darglan employed what many considered to be the pinnacle of that technology, being the most energy efficient and flexible version of the technology known. Due to their Darglan shielding the Aurora had energy shielding that could resist dreadnought fire for a time, and had often done so.
But like any machine, subjecting the generators to repeated heavy stress caused them to break down and require fixing. And Sovereign and the Geth fleet certainly provided such stress.
Tom Barnes carefully shifted his tool belt over his waist before sliding further into the access panel for the guts of Primary Generator 4. This was one of the six generators that provided the initial effort when the Aurora brought her deflector shields are online. Like all the other primary generators, it had been strained incredibly by the firepower the Aurora faced at the Citadel, straining the structural moorings and, most importantly, the internal electronics that controlled the immense energies the generators channeled from the ship's reactors. Barnes started working on the internal power lines and quickly identified the source of the generator's woes; part of the power cabling had partly burnt out from the strain of the repeated hits from Sovereign's powerful weapons. "Cable line," he called out.
He'd expected Junior Petty Officer Freept to provide the item he needed. He was surprised to look down at the end of the accessway and see Lucy crawl in with a length of power cabling. "Aren't you working on the secondaries?"
"Secondary 2's resynching is complete," she answered. "Ana Poniatowska is working on 4."
"What's Ana doing working on our ship?"
"The Koenig didn't require much in the way of repairs." Lucy held the cable just far enough for Barnes to reach it. He took the cable length and put it to the side so he could begin working the damaged cable out. "Derbely sent half of her people to help us get things finished."
"It still won't be enough," Barnes said. He grunted and removed the damaged cable from its port. The exposed electronics made him frown. "God-fraking-dammit, the port itself has damage. We're going to have to replace the whole thing."
"No time," Lucy reminded him. The job he was speaking off would require a disassembly of the generator, a task that would take an entire day to do. "How bad is the damage?"
Barnes checked the scan result. "Not too severe. The cabling took the worst of it. But this generator won't last under sustained fire."
"Put it in the log. It's not the only critical repair we don't have time for. The coolant lines to the primary heat exchanger are showing indications of micro-fractures."
Barnes kept his attention on the port, which his omni-tool was now up against. "What? Oh frak me."
"Language," Lucy giggled. "Scotty's already got a team working on it, but if those microfractures are signs of structural failure, the coolant lines need replacing."
"And we don't have time for that, yeah." He kept his eyes on his work.
Lucy blinked at that. "What are you doing?"
"Using the omnitool's fabricator to replace damaged material in the port," Barnes answered. "It's not the best repair, but it should keep the generator from failing the first time we take a heavy disruptor hit."
"Thanks." He kept his attention on the work for another minute before asking, "So I guess you're going down there?"
"Yeah," she answered. "Meridina and I are joining Robert and Commander Shepard."
"Huh. They're giving you more help than that, right? I mean, damn, it's their freaking capital, the Nazis are gonna fight like hell."
"We'll have support. Our mission's too important to leave us without it." She shrugged. "I'm not sure what support it'll be yet, aside from our Marines."
Satisfied with his repair work, Barnes picked up the new cable. "Well, either way, good luck."
"Thanks." She smiled at him. "And the same to you. I'm trusting you to keep our home safe."
"Don't you worry a damn bit," Barnes said, his hands working the replacement cable into place now. "I'll keep our baby flying proud and kicking ass no matter what it takes."
Julia arrived in the main shuttle bay in time to see the last of the cargo shuttles take off. The bay was now almost entirely empty, with only the runabouts Warri and St. Johns visible. A team was working on the former, switching out its modular components to configure it for combat operations. The storage spaces were being converted to carry the runabout's combat loadout: a small-scale naqia reactor to power the plasma pulse cannon being mounted on the chin of the runabout and the extra shield generators to provide the ship some protection from enemy fire. The last of the space went toward a small magazine of solar torpedoes that would directly feed into the launcher mounted on top of the hull. The refit would turn the Warri into a small torpedo boat with some anti-ship punch to her main weapons. She would, at least, pose a respectable threat to Nazi destroyers.
But the Warri's refit wasn't why Julia was present. The incoming craft were. Now that the main shuttle bay was mostly empty, other craft were visible on approach. Julia took the door and stairway up to shuttle bay's flight control center, built into the space above the entranceway. Here Chief Petty Officer Dragan Omapa, an older Dorei male with grizzled, whitening teal hair and dark purple skin with blue spotting and eyes, oversaw the shuttle bay's landing operations, working in tandem with the flight command center directing the starfighters. It was an unwelcome redundancy to be sure, a consequence of the later decision to add the starfighter capacity to the Aurora after the Facility was destroyed. Omapa and his superior, Senior Chief Tahrana Farshaz, closely networked their respective flight control centers to compensate for this unexpected flaw.
Omapa noticed her and stood at attention. "Captain in the control center," he informed the assembled.
"At ease," she said immediately. She nodded to Omapa. "Excellent job clearing the bay."
"Thank you, Captain," the older Dorei replied.
As they watched, the first assault lander entered the bay. The ships were slightly bigger than standard runabouts. Each had a visible cannon on a turret on the top of the ship as well as smaller double-barrelled anti-personnel pulse cannons built into the side and at the top of the ship's rear section. The first ship to land began to disgorge Marines in light power armor.
After three more landed, each bearing a company's worth, another lander came in with a bulkier rear section. This was a vehicle-carrier variant, which likely had a pair of armored vehicles in the back.
"Jamak take their damned souls," cursed Omapa. "They were supposed to land on the landing deck." He turned away and went to his controls.
Only one more of the vehicle-carrying landers came in, with two more non-vehicle variants, these dismounting platoons of heavy armored Marines. The last wave of assault landers landed behind them, bearing another battalion of Marines.
Or so Julia thought until they opened up and she saw the sight of Stellar Navy field uniforms. Curious, Julia left the control center. As she got to the bottom of the stairs and approached the shuttle bay entrance, the doors parted. Robert walked in. He noticed the new arrivals as well.
Specifically, he noticed the figure that emerged from among them.
Zack approached, in field uniform like the other new arrivals. "Captains," he said amiably, a faint smile on his face.
"Aren't you supposed to be on the Citadel?" asked Julia. "Liaising with C-Sec?"
"I'll be back there in a week or so, once C-Sec has the Citadel in order," Zack answered. "Admiral Maran offered me a temporary assignment. I'm commanding your backup for the attack."
"Backup?" Robert nodded toward the others. "Them?"
"Yeah. They're the 5th Naval Infantry Company," Zack replied. "Maran called for volunteers from the survivors of lost ships or ships laid up in drydock. Anyone capable of carrying a pulse rifle and field ops kit can sign up. We're going to help make up for casualties. Well, the other companies mostly. We're assigned to be your primary combat support, Rob."
Robert nodded. He could sense Julia's worry over the situation and knew it matched his own. "Are you alright with this? Really?"
"I figure that if we're so desperate we're throwing half-fixed ships back into the fight, this is too important to be left behind," Zack replied. "It's clear something nasty's going down with the Nazis."
Knowing that Maran was keeping the reason for the attack secret, Robert nodded. "It is."
"I'm not dumb, Rob," Zack remarked. "I know Maran's probably sworn you to secrecy on why we're rushing this, but it's not hard to figure out. Most of the crewmen in my unit are already guessing they've developed the IU drive. It's the only thing that makes sense."
"A reasonable guess." Quietly, Robert nodded once and sent a small thought with his powers. They've almost completed the work.
"I thought so." Zack's expression turned grim. "Then the war has to end, now, or they're going to kill billions of our people before the fighting is over." He looked back to the others. One of the other naval volunteers, a senior Lieutenant, approached, a woman of mostly East Asian appearance. "This is Lieutenant Ginchiyo Tachibana, one of my platoon commanders. She's security branch and has done field combat before while serving on the FedStar battlecruiser Tiger."
"Lieutenant," Julia said amiably.
"Captain." The newcomer looked to Zack. "Commander, the landers check out." Her accent sounded more English than Japanese.
"Good." Zack looked Julia's way next. "In case we can't beam down, we'll have assault landers for the job." He glanced toward the naval personnel gathering on the deck. "It might still be a few hours before the fleet's on its way, I'd like to give everyone some rest time while they've got it."
"Well, we're carrying a little extra crew from the Excalibur, so we're already hard for space," Julia noted. "But I think Holodeck 3 should be available, and Hargert's cooking sausage stew by the tub in the Lookout."
"I'll send people to get some." He smiled at her. "And if we've got time…"
They were interrupted by a tone from Julia's omnitool. A blue light appeared over the back of her left hand, indicating an incoming comm. This was confirmed a moment later when Locarno's voice came over the omnitool's hardlight-formed speakers. "Bridge to Andreys."
She tapped the light. "Andreys here."
"We just got confirmation from the Kentan. The fleet is due to go to warp within the hour."
"Right. Begin offloading the New Prussia engineers immediately and ready the ship for departure. I'm on my way to the bridge. Andreys out." She eyed Zack sadly. "You'd better get that stew soon. At fleet cruise speed we'll be at Earth in about six hours."
"Yeah. I'll see to it."
WIth nothing left to say, Julia departed the shuttle bay for the bridge. Zack watched her go before looking to Robert. "So, ready to end the war?"
"Been ready," Robert replied. "I just wish we didn't have to throw everything into a big gamble like this."
"Yeah, I hear you," was Zack's response.
After checking up on the rest of the ship as best as she could, Julia made it to the bridge with five minutes to spare before departure. The secondary watch officers were mostly on duty - al-Rashad at Sensors, Luneri at Tactical, Neyzi at Operations - with one of Locarno's new officers, Ensign Rawlins, at the helm. Meridina and Locarno were both standing in the middle of the bridge. "Captain," Locarno said. "I think we're as ready as we'll ever be."
"Given we don't have a choice… well, I know our crew can do it." Julia took her seat. Locarno, for the moment, sat in the observer seat to Julia's left while Meridina took her usual seat. "And everyone else?"
"They are off-duty for the moment, but on standby," Meridina replied. "I believed that the best status to grant them a measure of rest before our arrival."
"The same goes for both of you," Julia noted. "Especially since you're going planetside with Robert, Meridina."
"I will depart for a rest as soon as we are underway," Meridina promised.
"I'll go catch a nap too, I suppose," said Locarno. "I'll get Takawira up here so you can catch some rest too."
"See about getting some cots in the conference lounge," Julia said. "This invasion could last for days, and we'll be under constant alert status until its over."
"I will make arrangements," Meridina promised.
At that moment there was a tone from the Ops station. "Captain, interuniversal jump point forming. We have a ship coming in."
"On screen," said Julia. Given the timing, she suspected this was what Maran was waiting for before they set off for Earth.
She could see why the moment she recognized the vessel that came through.
It was a new ship, known only to Julia for the fleet reports on its progression. It bore some slight resemblance to the Aurora, but in size and power it was far greater, with design elements similar to the much smaller Predator-class destroyer and the Igasana-class heavy cruiser as well. Like those two ships, the primary hull and drive hull were together at the bow, with the navigational deflector a great golden eye with a blue iris built into the "chin" below the foremost bow. The front of the ship resembled a shovel with the way the bow widened and then gently tapered backward. Along the rear drive section, four warp nacelles were built directly into the frame, like on one of the attackers like the Koenig. The shape of the rear section of the drive gave them just enough clearance of obstacles to generate a proper warp field.
It was also about a mile long, over half a kilometer wide at its widest point, and had numerous plasma emitters like those now installed on the Aurora.
"Is that…" began Locarno, stunned.
"It is," Julia said, staring in surprise at the new arrival. "It's the Unity. The first Alliance-built dreadnought starship with integrated Darglan technology."
"She is quite a sight," Neyzi murmured.
"She's the only one of her kind too," Julia noted. "At least so far."
"The Concord and the Liberty are still being built," Locarno added. "Although aren't they planning an even larger design?"
"That's the rumor."
Several seconds after Julia's remark, Neyzi looked up from her station. "Captain, the Unity's identifier just changed. She's signalling flagship status now."
"Oh? Who's the commanding admiral?"
"So the Unity's going to be with us in orbit," Locarno said. "I'm sure the Nazis will find that a rude surprise if anyone gets past Maran's fleet."
"I'd rather that not happen," Julia remarked, even if she was already certain it would. The Reich's leadership would be well aware of the importance of the coming battle. They would likely throw everything at the invading force and be dedicated to removing the orbiting support fleet.
"The Kentan is signalling the fleet," said Neyzi. "Admiral Maran wants to be put on general address to every ship in the fleet."
The holo-viewer changed to show Maran on his flag bridge on the Kentan. The image would be on every bridge and on many a holo-viewer or flatscreen display across the fleet, as well as on audio over the ship intercom systems. "Brave soldiers and crews of the Coalition, this is Admiral Maran of the United Alliance of Systems. By now, you are aware of our purpose. You may not be sure why we are embarking on this mission." Maran allowed a moment for the comment to sink in before continuing. "While I am aware that duty and honor are held highly by all and no explanation is necessary for your best service, I will not have you strive in ignorance of the stakes. And they are higher than ever. We are bound for the Earth of this universe, the heart of the Greater German Reich. The Nazi regime that has slaughtered countless billions over the last five hundred years must be put down to secure the peace of the Multiverse, and it must be put down now. To delay is to invite the Nazis to complete work on an interuniversal drive, work we know to be advanced to near-completion."
Again Maran paused, allowing that news to sink in for those who weren't aware of it. For every being in the fleet to understand the incredible stakes of the coming fight, and why their lives would be at risk. When a few seconds passed he resumed. "For the good of our peoples, for the safety of our worlds, for the posterity of the Multiverse as we know it, this must not come to pass. I trust every one of you to fulfill your duties, and with your courage and sacrifice we will prevail. The Reich will fall."
Julia thought it over, but Maran ended with one last remark. "May the Light of Life stand with us against the darkness of our enemies."
At that, Maran ended the call.
"Kentan is signaling course and speed data," Neyzi confirmed.
"I have it," replied Rawlins. The African-American woman spoke with what Julia thought was a Cajun accent, or at least influenced by Cajun. "Course laid in, speed readied. Ready to initiate warp upon command."
"Keep us in formation, Ensign, and engage," Julia said.
The Aurora, in tandem with the other ships of the Alliance fleet and the other Coalition contingents, made the jump to warp.
With barely an hour left before the fleet would arrive, Zack stepped into the Lookout. He couldn't stay long, but he didn't need to. He immediately walked to the bar. Within a minute Hargert stepped up. "Zachary," he said, smiling softly. His German accent was pronounced, but not so thick as to make him difficult to understand. "It is good to see you again."
"Good to see you again too," Zack replied, matching the smile. "The people in my company enjoyed the stew. They wanted to say thank you."
"I accept humbly. The important thing is that you and your comrades got a good meal before the fighting begins." Hargert eased into a seat. Zack could tell that Hargert was weary. It was unsurprising given the flurry of activity he'd brought on himself. "You seem more settled, Zachary."
"I guess I am. Well, I am about to go risk my life, I suppose that keeps me from dwelling on things." Zack sighed. "I know I made a real mess of things before. I… I just couldn't bear bringing my problems to anyone…"
"We all have our pride, my young friend. It can lead us astray easily, but few can endure life without some." Hargert's expression changed to show worry. "So many of you are going to risk your lives destroying this evil. I wish I could do more than cook for you."
"You've done enough," Zack insisted. "Honestly you look like you'll fall over with a stiff breeze."
To that Hargert chuckled lowly. "I suppose I might," he admitted. He turned his head slightly. "Thomas."
Zack turned in time to see Barnes step up and sit beside him. "Hey Tom," he said, smiling at his friend. He clapped Barnes on the shoulder, pulling him close for a quick hug. "Good to see you."
"You too, man. You too." Barnes clapped Zack's back as well. While he looked somewhat rested, it was clear he was still a little tired. "Man, it's good to have you back. I mean, you're coming back, right?'
"I've got to finish my tour on the Citadel first," Zack replied. "But yeah, I think I'm coming back."
"Awesome, man. With you and Rob back, everything will be great."
"What can I get for you, Thomas?" Hargert asked.
"Nothin'. I mean, I'm due in Engineering in about twenty minutes, no time for anything."
"Not even for a celebratory drink with Zachary?" Hargert asked, his eyes glinting with humor.
"Given what I'm about to get into, coffee is all I'm interested in."
"Same here," said Tom. "What's that stuff Ana's always asking for?"
"Ana Poniatowska? She delights in my Milchkaffee."
"Alright then, let's go with that."
It didn't take Hargert long to mix three cups of the aforementioned substance. "To renewed friendships, my young friends," he said upon handing two of those cups to Zack and Barnes. Each took them with their right hands, as Hargert did his own. The three men raised their drinks and clacked the ceramic cups together.
"To renewed friendships," Zack agreed.
"Abso-fraking-lutely," Barnes added.
Given the size of the incoming fleet, Julia felt little surprise at the lack of enemy resistance in orbit when the vanguard of the main fleet started dropping from warp. "No welcoming committee," she observed quietly. Around her the others were at their stations: Angel at tactical, Cat at science, Jarod at Ops. Violeta was at the helm and one of the junior ops officers, a male Avalonian ensign named Tristan Mallory, was manning the Engineering station. Locarno was taking up First Officer duties beside her, already verifying the fighter launches as the Aurora, and the other ships in the fleet with fighter wings, began deploying their fighters in a defensive screen.
"They're bastards, but not stupid," Angel said from Tactical. "I'm betting they pulled out when they saw us coming. Probably to link up with whatever main fleet they've got coming in."
"Either way… what's the status of our beam-downs?"
"We're already deploying the first battalion of Marines," Jarod said. "They're going to a Dorei unit in the southeast front around the city that's taking heavy fire.
"Do we know where we're sending Robert and the others yet?" asked Locarno.
Caterina looked up from sensors. "I'm detecting trace elements of neutrinos that could be from test activations of a drive. I can tell you that whatever they've done, they're not consistent with the signature of a proper jump point."
"So we're not too late," Julia said.
"I'd say not." Cat frowned. "But I can't give you an exact area. Just somewhere in the center of the city. There's so much interference from the fighting that we'll have to wait until the ground team can help me triangulate a more exact location."
A tone came over the ship's speakers. "Dale to Bridge. Do you have a location for us yet?"
"I'm figuring that now," Cat said. "There's heavy fighting all around the city. I'm trying to find what looks like the most likely location for their research facility. But the best I can do is tell you it's somewhere in the heart of the city."
"Understood. We'll pick a beamdown point and relay it to you."
Although the plan was to beam down, Robert nevertheless gathered everyone in one of the assault landers. While most of the vehicle was devoted to cargo space for moving troops, a section between the cargo area and the cockpit had a small data center. It was hardly an optimum command post, but it let Robert and the others - King, Meridina, Zack, and Anders at the moment - look over the situation on the ground. An open comm channel to the Normandy allowed Shepard to participate as well. "This is the fiercest land battle of the war," King noted grimly. "Even as we speak, our side alone must be taking hundreds of casualties across the front."
"Likely. But right now I want a good landing zone."
"What about over here?" Zack indicated a point in the southeast corner of the city. Markers indicating the presence of Alliance troops were placed.
"There are avenues there to lead us into the heart of the city," King said. "But I wouldn't recommend it." She tapped the map. "There's a heavy enemy element in this sector, and these are residential blocks. We could end up being bogged down by militia forces as well as Reich troops."
"King's right," Shepard said. "That place is a maze, and every building could be a fortress. We'll get stuck in there forever."
"Schildow," Anders suggested. "The 1st and 3rd Davion Guards and the Oriente Fusiliers' 4th Brigade are hitting the enemy hard there. We can use that to slip through."
At first glance Robert liked Anders suggestion. But as seconds passed he didn't feel right about it.
"Progress along the northern sector has been the slowest," Meridina noted, looking over the relevant reports. "The greatest concentration of enemy armored forces are in the northern and northeastern approaches."
"Because they're busy fighting the FedComs and Leaguers," Anders pointed out. "They'll be more concerned holding the line against the Inner Sphere's walking tanks than stopping a fast-moving column of powered infantry."
"And if they don't, you get us surrounded and trapped," Lucy observed. "Look, Prince Victor and the other ground commanders have left a gap in the lines along the western edge of the city. Why don't we land near Wustermark and slip our way in from there?"
"For the same reason the northern front is a bad choice. Little chance of backup," King noted.
"Potsdam," Robert said. When they all looked to him, he indicated the area in question, southwest of the heart of the city. "Here, near Potsdam and Wannsee. Clan Wolf and the Turians have secured a position at Potsdam, the Dilgar are right behind us, and the Aururians are coming up on the Teltow Canal." He tapped a key and highlighted a road in the area with a press of his finger to the holo-display. "They call this the Horst Wesselstrasse, and it leads right up to the Volkshalle at the edge of the city center. The area is mostly industrial and commercial, so no thick residential blocks to fight through, and the allied units in the area will be on hand to help if we absolutely need it."
"Given the enemy positions, even if we land in Wannsee the direct path isn't viable," King observed. "And the water route is inadvisable. We'll have to force the canal close to Teltow."
"The Aururians will probably be there soon after we land." Now Zack was focusing on the recommended spot.
"I've never worked with them," said Shepard. "They're that all-female Amazon society you made contact with a few months ago, right?"
"I'm not sure 'Amazon' fits entirely, but yes," Lucy replied. "And they're fairly militaristic. And more than a little aristocratic."
"If you think they can force the Canal on time, then I'll back that choice."
"Same here." Zack blinked at the data. "I'm surprised the Dilgar have enough troops that they're fielding an independent force. Where did they get this many troops?"
"My mother practiced the same total mobilisation for this war that we had in the old Imperium days," Tra'dur replied with some justified pride. "Twenty-five divisions on the ground, thirty-five ships in the stars, all from forty-five millions."
"Even in victory, that may cause them some pain in the post-war drawdown," King pointed out.
"We are quite aware of that, Captain," Tra'dur answered. A fierce look came to the Dilgar woman's face. "But we are willing to pay that price. We have a lot to prove to the Multiverse, you might say."
"I see." King nodded at Robert. "Captain, I know it's your final call, but I highly recommend the Potsdam point. Wannsee is too far ahead for our safety, and we'll need to backtrack to link up with the Aururians anyway."
Robert considered the request for a minute before nodding. "Potsdam it is."
Shepard nodded. "The Normandy doesn't have a transporter, so we'll coordinate with your transporter operators to bring my team down to your coordinates. I'll see you planetside, Robert. Normandy out."
Once Shepard's image disappeared Robert tapped his omnitool's comm key. "Dale to Bridge. We have a beam-down point for you. What's our deployment status?"
"The last of the Marine replacements just went down," Jarod answered. "Give us your beam-down coordinate and we'll get you down there ASAP."
"We're relaying coordinates now," Robert replied. "Shepard will be contacting you for bringing her team down from the Normandy. Awaiting beamout."
The beamdowns were commencing as planned and there was no sign of an enemy attack. On the Aurora bridge Julia was left with the frustration of waiting for something to happen while dreading that it would.
When she couldn't bear the silence any longer, she glanced toward Locarno. "Status on the beaming?"
"We're beaming down the strike team from the Normandy now," Locarno noted. "The Naval Infantry unit will go afterward and we'll be done." He glanced over more data. "The fleet as a whole reports sixty percent completion of the transport operations."
"All of this to capture one city," Angel murmured.
"It's a big city," Jarod noted. "And the Nazis are throwing every soldier they can find into holding it."
"Sixty-five percent completion," Locarno noted.
Julia turned to the port side stations and Cat's station there, where she was still examining sensor returns from the surface. "Anything on sensors?"
"I still can't determine the exact location of the particle traces," Cat said. "I've got my people using Lab 2 to help, but there's just too much…" She stopped and let out a harsh breath. "Captain, long range sensors are lighting up. I've got a massive reading in subspace."
"What is it?"
Cat checked her readings carefully. "Disturbance consistent with warp drives. A lot of them. I've never seen so many… there must be four thousand ships out there."
"Let me see?" Jarod waited for Cat to relay the scan results to him. Julia couldn't see his face, but she could tell from the way he straightened in his chair that he was surprised at what he was seeing. "I'm running the readings through the computer now. I'd say at least thirty-five hundred ships." A light appeared on his console. "Message from the Kentan."
The holo-viewer activated to show Maran's face. "Support fleet, maintain position," he said. "The main fleet will finish our beamdowns and intercept the incoming ships by the time they approach the outer planets of the system. Leave the fight to us."
"Understood, Admiral," replied Shai'juhr from her flagship, the Magaratha. "We will hold."
Squadron by squadron, Maran's fleet began to break from nearby space. Within a few minutes the last of them were pulling from orbit and moving away at high sublight. A check of the tactical holo-display beside her told Julia how small the invasion armada had become… if one could call a fleet of over three hundred combat starships "small".
"Beaming down the last unit now," Jarod confirmed.
The team's beamdown point was at the edge of the Sansouci gardens, not far from the palace of the same name. The skyline bore no trace of the idyllic setting that had once made the area the preferred home of the Prussian royalty and their court. Towering edifices along the Havel River turned Potsdam into a small island of quaint palaces, parks, and summer homes amidst a sea of what the Nazis undoubtedly considered urban splendor.
In the distance, the immense spires of City-center Berlin shimmered under a haze of smoke. Thunder roared from every direction on the horizon. It was not natural, and neither was the smoke which obscured the skyline.
Robert thought it was a big damn eyesore, and the sight of Hakenkreuzen everywhere was a visible reminder of just what this place was. It wasn't the only reminder. Robert could feel the cold darkness in the Flow of Life around him, as if the entire region was steeped in it.
"This is an evil place," Meridina murmured beside him. "So much hate and fear and… how can beings live like this?"
"This place makes me feel filthy." Ensign Talara, Lucy's student in the arts Meridina had taught them, seemed to shudder. Robert still didn't know much about the young Falaen woman. He'd heard that her people were once known as Alteans before nearly being exterminated by another species over ten thousand years ago, but he'd yet to look up further details on that.
"You look like I did on my last trip back to Mindoir," Shepard noted, looking at Robert. "Been here before?"
"C1P2," Robert said. "Just a week or so before the Dalek attack on the Facility. We were trying to smooth over relations with the Prussians and other Earth governments, and Leo was treating their king for a stroke." He remembered the brief period of lucidity from King Frederick William IV during that visit. He'd always sensed that the old romantic had something of a love-hate sentiment toward Robert and the other "Sternvolk" who were causing such a fuss among the governments and societies of that 1850s-era Earth. "In the long run it didn't matter. The Avenger left Berlin and Potsdam a burning ruin, and Frederick William died in the bombing."
There was an explosion near enough to shake the buildings, a reminder of how close to the fighting they were. A few soldiers took cover. Nearby Zack materialized with Lieutenant Tachibana and some of the other officers of his company of provisional naval infantry. More and more of his unit were appearing in bursts of white light every few seconds, creating a constant buzz in the air. "Didn't we come to this place on that 19th Century Earth?" Zack asked.
"I was just telling them that," Robert answered. He consulted his omnitool, using it to tap into the Coalition's tactical comms. The display showed the local forces. A moment later the face of an older woman wearing a Clan-made neurohelmet appeared. A few strands of red hair were visible through the helmet's faceplate. "Khan Kerensky?" Robert asked.
"Hardhead," replied the notorious Black Widow of the Wolves. She smirked. "Maran said he'd be sending you. But I figured you'd land over with General Threek south of the Seelow Heights."
"We don't want to get bogged down in the residential blocks," Robert answered. "My force is going to work its way over toward the Teltow Canal. It looks like the best route to the heart of the city."
"A good choice. I'll make sure Alpha Galaxy keeps the Nazis busy. General Victus might be able to slip a regiment your way to watch your flank, but it'll depend on when the Turians manage to secure Wannsee."
"I'll let General Kylarjha know you're on your way. She's gathering to make a push over the Canal within a few hours, so you'd better hurry your asses up. Aururians don’t wait around."
"We will. Thank you, Khan, and good luck."
"I'm the Black Widow, Captain Dale." Natasha Kerensky grinned wickedly. "I don't need luck." With that the communication ended.
"The infamous Black Widow," Shepard noted. "Why did she call you 'Hardhead'?"
"Because I got punched by Lincoln Osis and managed to get back up," Robert remarked, trying to not remember how hard that particular punch had hurt. He looked to Zack, who was conversing with his officers. "Everyone down?"
"Just about," Zack answered. "We'll be ready to move out in a minute."
"Good." Robert looked toward the east-south-east. More explosions could be heard, along with distant retorts of weapons fire. "We've got work to do."
While the battle raged below them, the Aurora crew were in a state of "hurry up and wait" readiness. Everyone was at battlestations, the vessel's weapons were energized and ready, the defenses primed. But yet there was nothing to do. All they could do was sit, wait, and hear for any news about fire support being needed orr incoming enemy forces to deal with.
For all that combat could be terrifying, Julia still found it preferable to this state of tense uncertainty. She knew from training with Maran and her own experience that you couldn't keep people in a state of nervous readiness forever. Eventually attention would drift. It couldn't be helped.
Cat interrupted those thoughts. "Multiple contacts, enemy fighters," she called out. "They're coming up from locations all over the planet."
"They were waiting for our main fleet to withdraw."
Julia nodded in agreement with Locarno's assessment. "I don't want Laurent getting swamped. Tell him to stay in range of our weapons."
"All vessels, assume close formation," Shai'jhur ordered over the comms. "Let our defensive batteries attend to them. Fighters, engage stragglers."
"All squadrons are launching," Locarno noted. "We'll have everyone out in a minute or so."
Julia nodded and said nothing, watching silently as the enemy fighters rose to face the fleet.
The bridge of the Magaratha resembled what she ought to have in times of old. Busy Dilgar officers moved about with folios and data and holograms projected and re-projected. Shai'jhur watched her eldest daughter keep the staff well under control. A final count of some 300 ships stood in orbit of Terra. Only an eighth of them were her’s, but her rank counted as equal to a Nazi Grossadmiral and technically ranked anyone in the Alliance, so she was in command of the Earth operation, but as a courtesy and acknowledgment of the limited military power of the Union, Maran’s subordinate. A niggling part of her brain reminded her that the last time she had actually commanded this many ships in one place at one time was the retreat from Third Balos.
Sparkling below her, the Warmaster thought the planet pretty. Murderous though they were, the Nazis seemed good stewards of the environment. The realisation that there were twenty-five divisions of Dilgar amongst the troops assaulting Welthauptstadt Germania below them felt almost weird after decades of weakness. Her officers were exultant.
“I’m shifting the fighters to start making runs by wing, so that they will draw the enemy fighters back into the atmosphere, Warmaster,” Tia’jhur reported from the forward command position. Magaratha had been modified to incorporate staffwork on her bridge, just one of many lessons for the Independent Fleet from the Dilgar War. And though she had not wanted to risk it before, if her daughter was to be a Warmaster someday and her successor, she had to be blooded in the greatest battle the Dilgar had fought in thirty years. Period.
“Understood. Are we using adaptive spacing in the anti-fighter box?”
“Yes, Warmaster, distance between ships is being determined based on weapons fit for the anti-fighter role. We’re doing the calculations and forcing them out by tactical datalink with the Enterprise, Aurora and the Unity sending us back error correction.
“Right.” Shai’jhur thumbed her open channel selector. “Battlemaster Zhen’var, take note that you’re on forward point for the fleet if we’re attacked from the inner system. I want your pentacon to concentrate those Alliance sensors and ripple scan inbound, but if you can keep the box intact while holding position, use passive optical as well.”
“Yes, Warmaster!” That faintly too-eager voice came back.
Shai’jhur smiled. Her instincts about her adopted daughter had not been wrong so far. But of course Kaveri would not ruin a kit. Not in the end. She steepled her hands and leaned forward, hunched in her command chair, staring intently. The fleet was protecting them in the outer system, the battle was occurring around Neptune. It was inboard that mattered. Then the fighters began the first of their close-atmospheric runs by wing and she highlighted the atmosphere of that blue orb, hanging over Welthauptstadt Germania.
“Tia, have the last of the Army resupply transports withdrawn from the system?” She asked her daughter after a moment. The ship’s interceptor grid had just automatically come up, filling space around them with lines of explosions as the Nazi fighters attacked their section of the defensive box.
“Yes, Warmaster!” Her daughter stared for a moment, unused to the informality in combat. But they were about to be sorely tried and Shai’jhur was her mother. “It is just the fleets, now. The armies have enough supplies for another week, come fang and blood.”
“That will do… That will do. They are learning everything about us with this formation, daughter. The adaptive box makes up for our disparate technology, but also showcases them in harmony.”
“But we will keep the scans up. They are testing us and a fleet will be coming soon to exploit that. From in-system, I believe.”
“Yes, Young Mistress,” Shai’jhur answered, using the epithet for a youth of brilliance. The significance, the true significance passed between them in a flash, and her daughter flared with pride. “That separates the true objective from the Neptune battle as much as possible. Have us ready.”
“Yes, Warmaster.” Tia’jhur turned back to the holotank.
Shai’jhur followed her gaze, but with the spot for Fei’nur at the side of her command chair empty, the risk her other daughter was taking flickered to her mind. She banished it. Shai’jhur had survived watching billions die, now was not the time to count her family above that.
The Nazi fighters filling the orbital space were mostly those that Patrice Laurent had faced already in the war. He kept his grip on the controls of his Mongoose starfighter and kept his aim on a Nazi fighter that was attempting to acquire one of the Aururian fighters. At the press of his finger trigger the pulse phasers on the Mongoose came to life, spitting amber energy over the enemy fighter. Its shields held long enough for the Nazi pilot to break and evade. The maneuver brought the fighter free from Laurent's attack, a respite he was determined to cut short. He twisted and pulled over the front of the fighter to reacquire his target. As soon as his reticle turned red his finger tensed. This time the bursts of amber light played over the enemy fighter's shields until they collapsed. Flame and debris erupted from the main body of the dagger-shaped Nazi craft until the entire craft disintegrated, overwhelmed by the stress on its damaged structure.
In this environment there were no shortage of targets. But that wasn't Laurent's worry. He was worried that in the thick of this fight, his people would focus too much on combat and let themselves be outmaneuvered. "Alpha, Charlie, Fox, form up on me," he said. "Break away and prepare to re-engage."
"Roger that, Commander," and variations thereof were the replies to his order. Laurent moved his fighter's nose toward the North Pole and put his engines to full. The Mongoose, always a nimble fighter, shot away from the fight. Almost half of the Aurora's fighters followed.
Laurent's intention had been to come about and re-engage in formation. That plan changed when his radio came alive. "This is the SSV Normandy, we could use some fighter cover. I repeat…"
His reply was immediate. "Normandy, we are moving to engage." Using his systems he tracked where the Systems Alliance frigate was currently evading the two dozen Nazi fighters chasing it. Their disruptors blasted at the Normandy and struck its protective fields. It took the hits well, but Laurent wondered how many hits they could take if the Nazis went fire free with torpedoes.
Not that he was going to find out.
"All fighters, engage, keep them off of the Normandy." He gave the order even as he selected a target for his weapons. The data readouts gave him a solid target lock and he opened up with an anti-fighter missile before engaging with phasers.
The initial strike did as expected. Over ten enemy fighters died to that first volley, with another twelve damaged to varying degrees. The Nazis broke off their chase of the Normandy and turned toward Laurent's fighters. The warning tones of active target locks filled Laurent's ears. He repressed the instinct to break off wildly and controlled his evasive maneuver, changing the heading of his fighter and hitting the Mongoose fighter's boosted engine trigger. The maneuver was good for evasives, but it also had the effect of straining the inertial dampeners enough to generate punishing G-forces.
The Nazi fighters missed thanks to this maneuver. Their pilots were skilled enough to not entirely lose track, however, and Laurent found that they were keeping the superior angle of attack, forcing him and his squadrons to remain on the defensive. His fighter twisted and shifted to evade the incoming disruptor fire. One of the other fighters in Fox Squadron wasn't so lucky, taking enough fire to pierce the deflectors. The fighter was torn apart from the attack.
Before the Nazis could claim more, light mass effect fire struck them. The Normandy maneuvered into their rear, her weapons blazing, and four enemy fighters blew apart before they realized the frigate was attacking them, forcing them to break off. Laurent happily shifted to offense, finding a target and striking it with several shots before moving on. "Thank you, Normandy," he said into the radio.
"You scratch my back, I scratch yours," replied the pilot on the other end. "Unless you've got one of those really hairy backs, I draw the line at that."
Laurent chuckled. "Well put." With that exchange over Laurent turned his attention back to the fight at hand.
They almost made it to Teltow before facing enemy units. Robert had even been entertaining the possibility they wouldn't have to fight anyone before linking up with the Aururians. That thought went away the moment he felt the sense of danger. He stopped and glanced toward Lucy and Meridina. Both nodded and ignited their lightsabers just as he did his.
That was when the snipers started firing. Robert sensed where the shots were coming from and where they were going. He intercepted the shot aimed at his head with a quick motion of his blade, its buzz filling the air as it sizzled through the air before him. Shots aimed at Zack and one of his officers were stopped by the other two.
"Garrus, Tali, Ashley, right side," Shepard barked. "Wrex, Kaidan, with me!" She went to the building to the left as the others went to the right. Both structures had a commercial look to them, as did those around and before them, giving them an innocuous look that had to be ignored in the nightmare of an urban combat. The normal response to the incoming fire was, in fact, to call in artillery to level the place.
Shepard's team ran ahead, and they weren't going alone. Anders sent his Marines into action, detailing squads to follow them. Around them Zack and unit sought what cover they could manage. "Platoons Bravo and Charlie are confirming no sniper fire on their roads," Tachibana said. "They're moving ahead…"
Shepard's team had only just entered the structures when more visible enemies moved into sight further ahead. Robert sensed and deflected another sniper shot before turning his attention to the incoming threat; a platoon of four panzers and accompanying infantry, including a squad of Panzergrenadier armored infantry.
"Anti-armor rounds!" shouted Anders. The power-armored Marines with him obeyed, triggering their armors to switch to said weapons. Disruptor fire converged on them and on the naval infantry and was quickly responded to by suppressive counter-fire. Missed shots tore holes into the ground around their targets and started fires.
The firefight made things more difficult for Robert, Meridina, and Lucy, as they couldn't focus on the attack so long as they had to deal with both the incoming fire and the sniper fire from the buildings. They were in a stalemate at the moment, but only for a moment. Robert and Lucy had to leap away from the others to evade a shot from one of the tanks. The other enemies fired as well and they heard cries and screams from behind, those of comrades mangled or slain by the blasts. Any time Shepard! was Robert's thought, after which another sniper shot came within a second of blasting through his shoulder. He deflected at the last minute.
One of the enemy tanks blew up, the victim of a missile from the Marines. Said Marine unit had to return to cover to avoid another round from the tanks. The fire blasted away at the first floor and foundation of the building instead.
Just as it seemed the tanks were a volley away from overwhelming the three, there was a sharp cry and an explosion from a nearby building. A soldier went flying from a window. "Sniper down," reported Ashley.
Robert sensed a surge of fear joined by resignation, and then a distant feeling of void filling in where there hadn't been one. "Coleman here," said one of Anders' Marines. "Sniper down."
Lucy didn't wait for the confirmation of the last sniper being defeated before dashing ahead, lightsaber swishing through the air to block incoming fire. Robert and Meridina sighed in resignation before taking off after her. Robert waited for an opening after another sniper shot before focusing on one of the tanks ahead. He reached through the Flow of Life and felt its power, so chilled by death and hatred on this world, but still vibrant enough to respond to as he needed. Much to the surprise of the vehicle's driver, the vehicle was knocked into the air as if something had exploded under it. It flipped in mid-air and came crashing down on its turret.
A moment later there was a crash from above. The last sniper came flying out of the building, Shepard above him wreathed in biotic power. She shot the sniper in the torso on the way down, a hit to the heart that was immediately fatal. She landed and rolled, avoiding incoming fire from the Panzergrenadiers.
Freed from sniper attack Robert and the others could focus on offensive means. Robert brought his hand up and gripped a large chunk of debris with his power, sending it flying into a Panzergrenadier to stun him long enough for Meridina to close the distance and begin slicing through the armor with her weapon. He turned to aid Lucy and found she needed none. She leapt over one of the Panzergrenadiers, landed behind him, and drove her lightsaber into the armored suit's power core on the back, the blade impaling the pilot and his suit so that the blue blade was sticking a little out of the front as well. She pulled her blade out immediately and went for one of the two remaining tanks. The tank crew tried to depress their gun low enough to target her, but Lucy acted first, forcing the muzzle high enough that the shot flew off over her head. She reached the tank in the next few seconds and sliced its main gun in half with her lightsaber. The coaxial disruptor targeted her. Robert ripped it free while she went to work on cutting into the turret. An enemy soldier popped out of the turret with a sidearm coming up. Lucy raised her hand and invisible force ripped the gun from his grip. The man had a moment to be absolutely stunned before the same free hand turned into a fist and struck him in the jaw. He fell over and back down into his vehicle. Lucy finished cutting a hole in the turret and dropped down into the confined space. Robert heard cries of surprise in German, sensed a moment of pain and disbelief, and then the fighting stopped with further cries of surrender.
That left one tank. Meridina dealt with this one by forcing the vehicle to flip and then mentally commanding those inside to go to sleep.
Some of the attached infantry was already retreating. The armored infantry lacked the speed to, especially given Shepard and Lucy, who used their abilities to quickly get in range, at which point their respective weapons - shotgun and lightsaber - came to play. Robert and Meridina left them to finish the fight and approached Zack, now coming up from behind. He was shaking his head. "Goddamn," he muttered. "Every time I think I know how badass those powers make you…"
"What's our status?" Robert asked.
"Bravo and Charlie platoons ran into infantry, but they're retreating now. As for Alpha?" Zack shook his head. "Two dead, four wounded."
Robert sighed at that. "I'm sorry," he said. "A hell of a thing. They signed up to serve on starships, not fight on the ground."
"Don't worry about that. They knew it'd be bad coming in," Zack said. "They're all volunteers who want to see the Nazis beat down. Anyway, I've got my corpsmen prepping the wounded to be carried. The Aururians aren't far from here, right?"
"Probably not. But we'd better hurry. The Nazis know we're here and if we get identified, they might figure out what we're here for."
"Right. We're still behind you."
Robert nodded once and showed his friend a grateful smile before they continued on.
The Nazi fighter attack was on the ebb. Shai'jhur's tactic of a formation to maximize the anti-fighter weaponry of the fleet and the skill of the allied pilots was grinding down the enemy fighters, such that the attack was visibly petering out.
Through it all, Cat kept her eyes on the sensors. They were already showing the distant energy discharges of the main fleet battle as well as those of the battle with the fighters. No other ships were showing on the long range bands, although she couldn't rule out cloaked ships.
She was just about to return her attention to other bands when she noticed something of interest. A faint reading was coming from deeper within the solar system, in close proximity to Sol itself. Her first thought was that it was just the sensor detecting a natural signature from the star. But the more she looked at it, the more she wasn't certain. "Captain, I've got something on sensors." She prided herself that calling Julia by rank while on duty was virtually second nature to her now.
"What are you seeing?" asked Julia.
"I'm not sure. I think it might be an energy source near the sun. Which would be what the fleet warning was about."
"And it would be pretty hard to see from here," Jarod noted.
"See if any of the other ships are picking it up?"
"I'm asking now…" Jarod worked his console to send the message. After a moment he nodded. "The Enterprise is seeing it too. Data thinks it might be multiple ships."
"Oh, right," said Cat. "It would explain why we're seeing it. So…" Something caught her attention. "The signature's shifting… I think they might be moving."
"Standby. Jarod, alert the Magaratha…"
"Warp signatures detected!" Cat called out, noticing the change in her readings. "They're…"
There was no point in finishing the warning. On both the tactical display and the holo-viewer, incoming ships zipped into existence, having just decelerated from warp. Julia recognized the various lean, predatory shapes of Reich warships, the smaller ones resembling daggers and the larger having a slanted shape. She also recognized the coloring scheme and the twin lightning bolt insignia visible on the vessels.
"Evasive maneuvers, now!" Julia called out. Violeta obeyed and sent the Aurora into an corkscrew turn. A moment later, disruptor beams sliced through the space they would have been occupying.
“Fleet orders, assume formation Lepanto-3,” Jarod called even the very moment they had finished evading.
Heavy ships straight in to disrupt the enemy formation. This will be unpleasant. “Helm, come about four-one-one mark seven, full ahead!”
The first contact with the Aururian troops occurred to the west of Teltow. The area showed the signs of bitter, fierce fighting, with bodies and burned out vehicles littered amongst the piles of rubble barely recognizable as having once been human-made structures. The troops were mostly Ralsan in this immediate sector, the silvery-complexioned humanoids with pointed ears, tails, and brown hair nearly thick enough to be fur. The same was true for General Kylarjha when they arrived at her command headquarters, nestled in what had been a former bank at the edge of a residential sector, the vault being one of the few structures to survive the hellacious bombardment that had pounded the area. Members of various species could be found in the HQ, although Humans and Ralsan in Aururian uniforms were by far the most prominent.
"Captain, Commanders." Kylarjha nodded to them. "You have arrived with unintentional punctuality for our attempt to seize a bridgehead over the canal."
"We'll help with it in any way that we can," Robert assured her.
"I am aware of your talents, as well as the capabilities of your allies.." Kylarjha looked briefly to Shepard. "I intend you to remain in reserve for the initial attack. Your mission is of high importance and I shall not see it risked needlessly."
It was a good point. Robert felt an instinctive dislike at remaining on the sideline, though. "We'll hold back until your forces secure our route over the canal," he said, "and then we'll help secure your bridgehead. We're going to need your support to get to the Volkshalle."
"Is that where you believe the research center is?"
"We're not certain of the location yet," answered Shepard. "But it's somewhere in that area."
Kylarjha respponded with a single, stoic nod. "Very well. I shall provide an escort for you toward the front."
The Teltow Canal predated the Nazi Regime by a generation, built in the first decade of the 20th Century to link the rivers Havel and Dahme and allow river traffic to move south of Berlin's busy center. The Nazis' initial rebuilding of Berlin after their victorious war left the canal intact, as had the centuries of urban expansion since. Some trees and parks continued to flank the waterway while middle and upper class residences and commercial parks were to be found beyond, offering a place for rowing practice and swimming in the city.
That was in peacetime at least. Now that the capital was a battlefield, every structure in sight showing some kind of damage, with many no more than piles of rubble, no matter the effort the Nazis had put in for their buildings to become graceful ruins. The north end of the Canal was not lined by trees any longer, but by enemy infantry and heavy guns, including enemy tanks. Only occasional trees had not been knocked over or shattered by artillery fire, and of the buildings, they showed the effects of the titanic concentration of heavy artillery that had been brought forward to attempt to secure a lodgement on the far shore.
While the naval infantry and Marines cooled their heels for the moment, Robert and many of the others gathered at a divisional-level observation post - assembled in a captured business - to observe the river crossing. The Aururian general in charge was Native American, a Quechua-speaker from the Andean region of South America. She spoke that language with aides, all from the same region by Aururian custom of geographic recruitment and unit groupings, and switched to English and Aururian when issuing commands to her subordinates or receiving the same from Kylarjha.
The attack began with an artillery barrage on the other end of the canal. The enemy defenses had force shield protection, but against the fury of a full-fledged bombardment these shield systems degraded and finally collapsed. Explosions threw up chunks of debris from their impact points, occasionally joined by bodies… or at least pieces of them. One shell landed squarely on a gun emplacement, slaughtering the crew servicing it and blasting the gun to pieces.
As the barrage developed, the precision munitions were hitting so frequently that the opposite bank turned into nothing but a wall of smoke and flame. There was no longer any ability to tell the explosions apart, only an ongoing assault of sound, explosion following explosion, blending together into an eardrum shattering crescendo. The disruptor beams and bursts that came sizzling from the far side slowed, then ceased, as those foolish enough to give their positions away served only to provide the forward observers points of aim.
As the bombardment continued its steady steel rain, the Aururians went into action. Their armoured vehicles moved up into jumping-off positions. Rows of tanks hid behind buildings as small compressed air lines were rolled up right to the bank by advancing infantry. These were attached to smoke generators and misters loaded with chemicals which would aerosolize and block sensors. Quickly the entire bank was obscured and the visage of the Nazi positions under attack on the opposite bank could no longer be discerned, nor could the final preparations for the jumping-off points be observed or targeted by the Nazi troops.
The Aururian General in command of the post had been quite busy, and ignoring them for a sustained period of time, before, after a brief exchange with some of her staff, she stepped back over to the group, a Ralsan officer saluting and leaving the post as she did.
“Alright. Captain Dale, please go forward to point X-ray Vectrus,” she said mildly. “Once we get the bridging gear across the Fourth of the Twelfth Wirrawunga’s commanding Colonel has been instructed to take you forward. Good luck, Captain.”
“Thank you, General. And the same to you.” Robert rose.
“Oh, save it for my girls,” she said simply, her voice pitched to carry through the roar.
“Then I will.” With a tight grin that was really his teeth gritting, he waved his hand. “All right, team. Let’s go!” They started off down the streets of the burning and shattered capital, straight into the bare hell of a massed urban attack.
As they reached the point marked by a blazon of spraypaint across a ruined building, small groups of troops could be seen, dashing along the streets under the cover of smoke and smog. They had compact, conformal air tanks and special armour, the women under it slipping on facemasks and fitting fin attachments to their boots. Robert could hear a call through the dim murk, lit by the continuous roar of explosions across the front.
“See you on the other side, Maria! All right, girls, let’s go. Strength and Guile!” They disappeared down the bank.
The barrage continued. Talara shook. It was impossible to think, impossible to feel, impossible to anything, there was just a continuous whooshing, crashing, freight-train rumble, the sharp whine of energy weapons as direct fire weapons were now engaged through the cover. Now the barrage was for suppressive purposes. “How is it possible for anyone to survive that!?” She shouted at the top of her lungs.
Lucy barely heard her. One of the Aururians passing by was closer, a Major bringing forward scan-gear with a small team of techs. “Oh, they’ll be alive.” She shook her head grimly. “They’ll be alive. But courage! We’ll slosh ‘em up enough to get across.” Then she and her team vanished again into the impenetrable fog.
The SBS teams went into the massive storm-drains which debouched into the Teltow on the opposite side. They used micro-drones to scout ahead and disable Reich reconnaissance sensors intended to prevent them from doing -- exactly what they were going to do. Passing through and up into manholes behind the forward Reich positions, where the smoke and smog drifting across had now obscured the far bank as well.
Their weapons were knives and compressed air guns with tritanium cylinders and barely subsonic, poison-tipped flechettes, fought at ten paces or hand to hand. Once they cleared their positions, they marked sensor tracers for the remaining Reich strongpoints, working around their own suppressive barrage.
On the opposite bank, the minutes passed with an unimaginable fury. Twenty minutes, twenty-five… How long could it last? From the ammunition the Aururians were expending, freshly resupplied by the freighters Shai’jhur had escorted in and out, it seemed forever. They saw the end of their campaign ahead, and they spared no shell in making the crossing.
Meridina joined Lucy at Talara’s side, putting a hand on her shoulder. Robert stayed low. He could see his Grandpa right now. The breakout from Normandy had been like this. Little else in the American experience...
Then the opposite bank erupted. Moments later the scream from overhead signalled that it had been caused by air support, carefully timed for the final support for the operation. Precision guided fires from both artillery and aircraft converged on targets designated by the SBS. As they did, they finally squawked, using their suit radios to confirm target destruction. In the headquarters, a tactical plot for the assault crossing was updated with each report, showing cleared lanes for the assault, questionable, and dangerous.
Combat engineers were moving forward to the bank, the snorting and clanking of their massive ‘funny’ special purpose tanks buried under the sound of the ongoing barrage. The complexity required for the operation meant there were actually MPs directing traffic behind the buildings to get the right equipment in the right places. It was almost incongruous to see women in white gloves and crimson helmets waving batons with perfectly crisp gestures.
The MP’s redirected traffic on the fly to account for Nazi strongholds that hadn’t been knocked out by the final precision air assault. The SBS girls did their best, but it was equally important for them to accurately observe where the air assault had not worked. Final selection of the crossing lanes was done at the last second and then uploaded across the tactical datalinks, the MPs receiving the last set of directions for the tank columns.
Abruptly the barrage surged to an enormously intense tempo. The multiple rocket launchers were salvoing--all of them. The artillery was firing as fast as it could. The tanks began to roar and whine, and then to move. They would go across first, alone, as a breakthrough element. As the lead of the columns arrived on the far shore, the SBS would take positions to support and warn of infantry ambushes and once resistance requiring heavy armour to break had been met, close support would be rushed up as the bridging crews worked.
Unseen to the observer on the banks, more SBS teams were operating down the canal itself, clearing mines, traps and encumbrances. As they worked, special burrowing drones they had set were drilling into the concrete a few feet below the water, trailing line charges as they did. Once through the concrete and a set amount of soil, they kept going to protect themselves and dropped the line charge, leaving it embedded through the concrete.
It was time. The Micklick detonations provided the final signal. Massive high-end chemical explosive charges eleven times the power of TNT erupted inside of the concrete, blasting massive gouges across the banks of the canal and collapsing the bank. The charges had been specially placed and calibrated as planned demolitions: They created the ramps that the tanks would egress from the canal on.
The heavy tanks moved directly into the canal as charges buried into the bank on their side provided a similar effect at the very last moment. Plunging down ramps of mud and rubble into the canal, the tanks disappeared entirely. It took Robert’s breath away for a moment, for he remembered the need for tanks to breathe back home. But that was the 21st century and this was the Aururian Army. They were quite capable of operating fully submerged for bridging operations, and churned the water brown as they roared across.
In a final act of support, the phosphorous and smoke rounds crashed down to augment the fog and aerosol cloud in blinding and disorienting the Nazi defenders, a final salvo as the assault was already underway. Abruptly, the silence in the wake of that barrage was almost as unnerving as the thunder before it, and to call it silence simultaneously true and a black joke, for the intensity of the direct fire with charged energy weapons that now commenced. The Aururians advanced according to a tightly coordinated plan where part of each tank formation provided fire support as the other part dashed across.
For a long moment, it seemed like there was an absence of response on the part of the Nazi defenders. Perhaps, contrary to the pessimistic and anonymous Major, they had in fact been blasted into total annihilation. Certainly the SBS professionals had marked and seen to the destruction of every direct fire strongpoint or position for anti-tank weapon teams that they could identify, and it showed. The initial phase of the assault was proceeding flawlessly, the tanks charging up the destroyed banks of the canal, engines again screaming in air as they shook off the muddy brown water and ground through ruined concrete and rebar.
The life force users could feel the anxiousness of the ranks around them, huddled behind what-ever cover was to hand - the engineers would be next, to float their spans to provide for the follow-on waves. The heavily armoured engineering vehicles went underway next, while rockets sent lines across the canal.
On the far bank, the Nazi defenders were not in an utterly hopeless position. Small groups of survivors rallied. Taking local initiative, Unteroffiziers moved into position with radios. Where heavy weapons had been knocked out, they used comms. Working through the jamming with automatic frequency shifts, they began to call down high-angle missile fire from launchers centrally located in the city.
This fire was detected long before anyone along the bank could see it. Tanks waiting their turn to cross spun their turrets skyward, the dedicated anti-air and artillery SP pom-pom platforms swinging their barrels in accordance with direction from central control. The first counter they could see were the massive salvoes of anti-air missiles from the rear areas screaming over their heads. A rippling mass of explosions swept the sky, and the agonising roar of battle was back on around them.
These missiles followed power-trajectories which brought them plunging straight down toward the canal. They were guided, making final course corrections before slamming into the bottom. Tremendous masses of water erupted where they did, tanks and engineering vehicles that were crossing skewing to the sides to dodge their own lines of advance and then converge on the ramps on the far side. Few got through, most missed. A couple did not.
As the artificial smoke and smog cleared from around the river, the tremendous hammers of the explosions shattered one of the engineering vehicles. The instantaneous deaths of the crew could be clearly felt in the direct line of sight, amongst the exploding rubble blown upwards in a mix of muddy water were the fragments of what had once been living women. Talara stopped in her tracks again, transfixed, the moment of clarity bringing home the continuous killing all around.
Lucy put her hand on Talara's shoulder. "It's not easy," she said. "It should never be. And hopefully you'll never get used to it… not like I have."
"All of this death," Talara murmured. "It's wrong. This entire city, this place, it's…" She stopped, unable to find the words to continue. Through it all she sensed dark fascination and noticed Tra'dur watching the battle as well.
The Dilgar woman looked to her and swallowed convulsively. “Now I understand Battlemaster Fei’nur very well. She spent years like this, and then she raised us when her entire family was dead. Before now… I didn’t understand. Not even the fights at the tidal barrage could tell me that.”
Most of the engineers got across. Extending bridges across the canal using the guide wires started immediately. Secured to bridging equipment on each end, the lightweight composite structures unfolded while anchors were driven by explosive charges into both banks. They were still under intermittent fire, but the tanks were pushing ahead and light hover-vehicles were now racing forward to deposit large numbers of troops to finish clearing the bank.
Threats to the tanks had all but been eliminated, but crew-served weapons were still positioned and manned in several nests throughout the remaining buildings and ruins. Two of them converged fire onto one of the hover-transports as it crossed. A few others were engaged, but quickly fired counter-missiles at the attacking positions. This one was not so lucky; struck in one of the manoeuvring thrusters, it spun violently in circles until crashing into the canal.
Unlike the tanks and engineer vehicles caught under-water, most of the squad aboard was very much still alive. Robert could feel their fear and desperation in the Flow of Life, and he acted without thinking, lunging forward out of their partial cover, back from the bank, and charging toward it.
Lucy reached for her lightsaber. “Now’s our time!” She dashed forward, and Talara and Meridina followed. After a shrug, Shepard followed them as well, dashing straight up to the bank.
Throwing himself down on his belly at the concrete retaining wall, Robert reached out with his strength. The energy that flowed through him joined in the life of a planet still very much full of it, for all of the darkness and evil that it had known. He slipped one of the heavily weighed down and drowning women into the air and then onto the bank, and then another.
Above his head, Lucy and Meridina’s lightsabers hummed, quickly hard pressed by a few Nazi positions still held with small arms. As they covered them, Shepard rolled out of her own cover and delivered a biotic attack straight across the canal at the position.
Talara dropped to her belly at Robert’s side and lent her strength into the effort, her full concentration burying her psyche into the exertion of her own powers, barely trained. Slowly another rose from the water.
Fire slapped around him, and Robert ignored it, bringing another person to shore. Suddenly, it was gone, and his concentration threatened to leave him as he felt the flash of a large group of men abruptly die. The searing heat of a flamethrower device on one of the engineer vehicles ripped across the Nazi positions that were taking them under fire, superheated uncontained plasma much safer than the gelled gasoline of old and even more effective at incinerating and catching light to everything in its path.
Robert won the battle against his own demons, forcing him to think calmly of the aspirations and desires of a woman who wanted to go on living. He slowly pulled her free and then quickly swung her in the air to safety. As he did, Talara did the same, and they exchanged a silent, quick smile, words lost in the roar of hell all around.
Robert was bringing another pair of half-drowned people to the shore when he sensed Zack approach, a Ralsan woman at his side. Nearby he heard mechanical whirring and turned. Another of the bridges was going up right next to them.
Zack's naval infantry and Aururian troops waited for it to finish. Much further down another bridge was already stretched across the canal, allowing Aururian tanks covered in infantry to cross. "It's time to go," Zack said. "The Nazis are pulling back toward the Horst Wesselstrasse. And your ride’s here. Colonel Teroli," he introduced the woman.
"Where they'll make another fight of it," Robert answered with a sigh, and then reached out his hand for the Colonel.
She shook it, her tail flexing behind her. “Captain Dale. I believe you got a bit ahead of yourselves, but fortunately close enough to find you. We’ll be pushing on ahead in the same direction long enough for you to hop a ride, if you don’t mind being tankniki for a bit. I certainly would, but I expect you can handle it better than most.”
He looked out on the canal; with enemy fire non-existent in this section, the bridge had been rapidly completed at their side, and with their efforts completed at life-saving, he felt a wave of fatigue. “Sorry, Colonel…” He swayed in place, blinking in exhaustion.
Zack reached out and steadied him with a hand on his shoulder. "It’s all right, Rob," he said, and then reached into a pouch on his belt and removed a ration bar. "Here, get some energy back. Follow us when you're ready. Colonel, say they can fall in with D Squadron at the rear and then my troops will come up right behind your Wirrawungas?”
“That’ll do, Commander,” she answered, and turned away, whistling a cheery tune. For the warrior Ralsan, the occasion was one of grandeur and pride.
Zack shook his head, and handed out similar bars to the others before heading off to join his unit and form them up for the crossing. Robert stood silently, watching Zack go.
Lucy was already tearing into the bar Zack handed her. "He'll be fine," she said to Robert, trying to assure him.
"I'm not sure any of us will be," Robert admitted. The thunder of distant explosions punctuated his words. "Let's push onward. I want to be there in case the unit needs us."
"Yes," agreed Meridina.
And together they approached the bridge. As promised, an Aururian tank stopped long enough for them to hitch a ride on the back, after which they joined their friends and allies in the push toward the heart of Welthauptstadt Germania.
A wave of Nazi Z-2500 destroyers, one of several dozen in the enemy fleet, began an attack run ordered by the SS commander on the cream of the Alliance fleet: the Aurora, her Enterprise-class cousins, and the Unity herself. The attack ordered by Shai’jhur meant they converged at a high closing rate, the attack having been thrown together in response to Shai’jhur’s own manoeuvre. The ships raced in at high acceleration, straining their engines to maintain the maneuvers to keep their ships alive long enough to finish their attacks.
The first target of the attack was a Dorei starcruiser which had already been damaged in the fighter action. They formed up smartly and delivered their torpedo salvoes into her flanks as they turned in toward the port of Shai’jhur’s formation. Weakened shields were overwhelmed and the starcruiser erupted in sheets of flame from venting oxygen down her flank. As they moved beyond the burning Dorei starcruiser, the luck of their attack had already run out.
Amber energy lashed out in pulses that pummeled at one of the enemy ships. A solar torpedo went through its weakened shields and slammed into the engineering section, the "handle" of the Nazi destroyer's dagger shape, resulting in the vessel disappearing in a white fireball brought on by antimatter containment loss. The Attackers had arrived, nimbly shifting through the regular order of the formation to plug gaps and respond to contingencies.
Having finished off one of its prey, the Starship Koenig directed its attentions to the rest. The attack ship directed its fury at another enemy destroyer. This one didn't die like the last, with their shields holding just enough to take the follow-up torpedo hit. The destroyer captain maneuvered sharply to evade the Koenig's fire while trying to stay on his attack run.
Creighton Apley, the Koenig's XO and piloting officer, kept his nimble ship on target, allowing April Sherlily, the tactical officer, to savage the enemy ship with another phaser burst. The destroyer broke apart under the attack. There was no time to celebrate before emerald pulses slammed into Koenig's shields. "Shields down to seventy percent," Magda Navaez warned as the ship shook. "Two enemy attack ships to stern, A-2000 class."
In the command chair, Will Atreiad remembered the designation, a newer Nazi attack ship built to counter the Alliance's Trigger-class, which were based on the Koenig. They were handier ships, in principle, with their wings and manoeuvring vanes, but they had a few weaknesses. "Evasive Pattern Delta," Will ordered.
Apley sent the Koenig into a tight series of maneuvers. Under that evasive plan, the ship used her more compact mass to take advantage of shorter impulse times for initiating violent, jerky manoeuvres that the sweeping turns of the magnetic vanes on the A-2000s couldn’t match even if they could turn inside of Koenig. The two enemy ships, dagger-shaped like the destroyers but a little smaller and far more agile, kept on the Koenig, though most of their fire was evaded successfully in the violent snap-rolls and turns.
Just before Will could order an attempted shift to the offensive, weapons fire struck one of the attack ships. Disruptor torpedoes from the Normandy blasted through the ship's shields and crushed the Nazi vessel's armor, inflicting internal damage. The Systems Alliance frigate twisted hard to avoid an incoming disruptor bolt.
"Attack Pattern Echo, execute!"
Apley maneuvered the ship once again, this time spinning the ship about her centre of mass to bring her forward guns to bear as the thrusters fired in a complex sequence to place her en echelon to her pursuers, able to deliver fire to both in overlapping coverage on the same heading. Under fire from another angle, the pursuing attack ships failed to fully match his maneuver. The first ship targeted was already damaged. Amber phaser bursts slammed into its degraded shields until the side of the ship was exposed. A single torpedo followed and blew it to hell.
"Another one down," Sherlily crowed.
Nobody had time to respond to her boast, not with more enemy vessels in the fight.
A Reich Sedan-class cruiser drew alongside the Aurora and struck at her deflectors with repeated beams of emerald energy. As the cruiser's disruptors cycled, a second and newer cruiser, identified as the Tannenburg-class, joined in with pulse cannon disruptors that battered away at the Aurora's shields.
As the bridge shook under her, Julia readied to give an order to return fire, but it proved unnecessary. The starboard plasma cannons and emitters lit up, their sapphire light burning into the red hue of the Reich ships' shields. Continued hits on the Tannenburg finally blew through the ship's shields, creating plumes of flame and gas wherever the Aurora's weapons sliced into the ship. Violeta turned the Aurora to port on Julia's command. Not only did this evade fire from one of the big dreadnoughts looming ahead, it presented the aft cannons toward the enemy cruiser. Angel was quick to acquire a target lock and fire. Thick pulses of blue energy slammed into the damaged ship, setting off further explosions that gutted the cruiser. More blue beams played over the Tannenburg-class cruiser's shields, which flickered and weakened when solar torpedoes from the aft launchers slammed into them.
The thick pulses of plasma that finished the cruiser off didn't come from the Aurora, however, but from the Thunder Child, side batteries receiving maximum energy for a brief burst of fire which ripped the nacelles to shreds and tore through her victims armour in a hundred places. The heavy cruiser spun off, power dead and escape pods loosing from her sides.
The Enterprise-class ship veered in across their field of vision with a moment’s warning for Violeta through the taclinks, a quick coordinating message based on standard patterns. In this case, Thunder Child bravely stood in, absorbing fire meant for the Aurora and focusing on an enemy battlecruiser. Another of the same class, the Olamte'se, joined the Thunder Child in hitting the Nazi Lützow-class warship hard. The converging fire of the two big cruisers overwhelmed her shields and wrecked the starboard flank batteries of the battlecruiser and she fell back into the protection of her compatriots.
Given the amount of attention the enemy fleet was applying to the Aurora, it could be hard to forget she was hardly the focal point of the battle, nor the most capable of the ships. Over a hundred thousand kilometers away, on the other end of the formation, the Challenger and the ASV Enterprise were exchanging fire with a Reich dreadnought. A spread of white-lit quantum torpedoes announced the intervention of the USS Enterprise into that fight. Under Picard's command the Enterprise laid into the port side of the dreadnought, absorbing a couple of powerful disruptor hits to her shields as she did. The Akira-class Sitting Bull joined that fight with an even larger spread of quantum torpedoes that blew large chunks from the side of the dreadnought. The Challenger's plasma banks and cannons laid into the bow of the dreadnought. A return shot from the spinal mount disruptor barely missed the smaller cruiser.
One thing Julia was picking up from the fight was that Shai'jhur's tactic was, for the most part, working. The heavier enemy fleet's formation was breaking up from the allied fleet's charge into close-quarters combat. As the Aurora shuddered again, with Jarod informing her that shields were down to fifty percent, Julia wondered if it would be enough in the end.
The wide boulevard known as the Horst Wesselstrasse was one of the major arteries leading into the center of Welthauptstadt Germania. Flanked to either side by parks and smaller buildings - a commercial area for the capital - the road was well-maintained and the sight of a number of memorial statues. It was also vast, six lanes in each direction with electric trams on the outside and wide sidewalks, with pedestrian overpasses to access the immense linear park in the middle subtly integrated with the vast number of distributory flyovers that were anchored on buildings and decorated in the standard Reich architectural pattern, the Volkshalle rising above them in the near distance.
Much of the area was already a ruin. The molten, wrecked remains of a statue to Heinrich Himmler provided some cover for Robert, King, and Tra'diur. They were the closest to the road in question while the others were further behind and toward the eastern flank of the advance. The debris of urban warfare filled the streets, including the bodies of the slain. Burnt, wrecked frames of vehicles abounded. Shattered and violently rearranged roadblocks and gun positions marred the sidewalks and storefronts.
There was little time to take in the sheer devastation. Across the road Nazi panzers were still in hull-down defensive positions, covering the lateral road from Teltow they'd taken. A pair of burning Aururian vehicles nearby spoke of their effectiveness. Above them an emerald beam streaked, melting a little more from the statue. "I wonder if they'll get in trouble for destroying the statue?" Robert mused idly. The sheer intensity of the battle had deadened his nerves to the point that even the splash of some droplets of molten bronze on his coat didn’t make him flinch or try to take further cover.
That won him something of a glare from King. "This is hardly the time to consider that, Captain."
She was right, of course, but it still stuck in Robert's head. He chuckled mirthlessly. "I guess it'd suck to survive all of this and then get executed for wrecking one of the Nazi statues." Sensing King's increased aggravation, he shook his head and forced the thought away. "Dale to Carrey," he said into his omnitool. "We're pinned down here. What's your status?"
There were distant sounds of battle over the comm line, indistinguishable from the sounds they heard directly. "The going's hard. Shepard and her team cleared one of the buildings sniping the Aururian tanks and Lucy, Meridina, and Talara cleared another. But we've taken more casualties and the Nazis aren't giving any ground. How did the flank attack go?"
"Poorly," Robert replied. "They had a detachment holding the intersection. Our vehicles are down and we've got a lot of dead and wounded."
"I'll let General Kylarjha know. We'll get to you when we can, Carrey out."
Another heavy disruptor beam sizzled nearby. More importantly, Robert sensed approaching troops. He glanced toward their direction just enough to see figures in feldgrau entering the street. If they kept coming that way, they'd certainly flank the three of them. "We're sitting ducks if we stay here," Robert said to the others." He glanced around and noticed that one of the Aururian vehicles was still mostly intact, if disabled. "There."
"Fifty meters, about," King noted. Resolve showed on her face. "It's our best shot."
"You two go, I'll cover you before I join you."
"Captain, are you sure…?"
Robert nodded at Tra'dur. "Go!"
The two jumped from cover as Robert's lightsaber ignited in his hand. When he stepped out of cover a moment later his blade intercepted a disruptor beam of the same color, sending it back to the shooter. The shooter collapsed with a cry of pain and surprise.
This drew more fire, of course, and Robert focused himself on stopping that fire. His arms seemed to move of their own accord, blocking shot after lethal shot sent his way. After several deflections he felt an opening to counter-attack. He reached out with his power and gripped a chunk of the Himmler statue, throwing it toward the oncoming enemy. Three of them were unable to get out of the way in time and were thus crushed under the ruin.
As they ran, Tra’dur and King both took turns diving to the ground and firing with rifles to provide further cover for the other. It was too far to cover in one go. As they withdrew, however, Robert attracted the true effort of the advancing Wehrmacht troops. Even an Unteroffizier knew where to find the schwerpunkt and concentrate against it; it was obvious that the lightsabre-wielding man was critical to the enemy advance in this sector.
Robert sensed danger a moment later and reacted with instinct. He pushed out with the force of his life energy, concentrating it into a hammer of invisible power that forced the turret gun of one of the tanks upward. A shot that would have landed on him instead struck the building behind them, blowing off pieces of debris and partially collapsing at floor.
This created a shower of debris that rained down upon Tra'dur and King, just as they neared the ruined tank. Most of the pieces missed…
...and then one landed on King's head. She collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut.
Tra'dur reacted immediately, bending over to collect the unconscious woman, while Robert kept his attention firmly on the enemy tank. He gathered the warm energy inside of him and pressed it below the tank, feeling his control shudder as he did. The tank suddenly popped up into the air, rising by at least six meters before it twisted and fell on its own turret.
That didn't stop the infantry fire from coming his way. It was everything Robert could do to reflect it with his weapon. He managed to send one bolt into an enemy infantryman. This was hardly enough to stop the barrage of fire that was pinning him in place and keeping him from counter-attacking.
Relief came from the pulse fire that struck the Reich troops from their flank. A streak of blue energy proved to be Shepard, who slammed into one of the soldiers and sent him flying. Her shotgun barked and a solid slug ripped through the heart of a second soldier.
The fire against Robert ended. He lowered his blade and brought his left hand up, using it as a focus for the energy he summoned. Invisible force struck several Reich soldiers, throwing them to the ground. Most were mowed down by weapons fire before they could stand. Confident that the reinforcements had turned the tide sufficiently Robert turned away and ran over to where Tra'dur was examining King. "How bad is it?"
"She is alive," Tra'dur said. Her omnitool was showing the results of a medical scan. It wasn't as detailed a scan as a medical-model omnitool would provide, but it provided the necessary basic information. "There is some head trauma consistent with a concussion."
"Let's get her to the others," Robert said.
By the time they lifted King up, Zack and Meridina were approaching them. Both were starting to show the wear of the day's fighting on their suits and in their tired expressions. Meridina immediately noted King's state. "I can help her," she said. "Allow me."
As Tra'dur did so, Robert turned his attention to Zack. "I didn't think you'd get here so fast."
"We had a little help," said Zack, indicating the sight behind him. Along the Horst Wesselstrasse troops were marching with vehicles rumbling beside them. Robert immediately noted that they were not all Aururian, in fact, instead of being tanks they were giant 10x10 IFVs with tank turrets. They were so completely piled with applique armour, slat armour, ERA blocks, extra plate welded on the front, you name it, as well as bedding and packs and what frankly had to be plunder from peoples’ houses, they sagged overweight on their tires.
"The Dilgar caught up to us and cleared the other side of the road,” Zack explained. “Look at ‘em, they’re fighting with total crap, too, but they don’t seem to care and they’ve got a lot of it.”
There was a very high ratio of IFVs to soldiers in the Dilgar units. "Even so, good timing," Robert replied. "Your troops are following up?"
"They're securing some prisoners first, but they'll be joining us soon."
"Right." Robert took one more look at the Dilgar troops. Mostly very young and a mix of the smaller ones from Rohric--a few coughing blood right on the battlefield--and healthier Dilgar from Tira. He could sense their fear,their equipment was all forty-year old designs from the Dilgar war that had sat in depots in Rohrican caves for decades, they knew it was inadequate, but they had a lot of it so there were always replacements and always another IFV for a unit. But you couldn’t replace a life and they were taking much higher casualties than most of the other units in the offensive. He could feel the numbness in their minds, mixed with grim determination, a natural instinct to duty, which carried them on through countless dead comrades. They were almost entirely conscripts, and that fact made his soul ache.
Feeling sick again, he glanced toward Meridina and King. He could feel Meridina's power reaching into King's head, soothing the bruises and healing tissue, concentrating on her and using that concentration to acknowledge, but not dwell on, the feelings of those around. She wasn't a fully trained healer, so King would still be feeling the blow, but it would help King recover quickly. "Let's rejoin them, then."
They continued on through the wreckage, as much of lives as of the city.
In orbit the fight between the fleets continued in all of its fury. Another round of shaking through the ship pressed Julia against her harness. The tactical display beside her showed the source of the attack; the remaining SS-crewed dreadnought, even now coming about to bring its spinal-mount super-disruptors to bear on the Aurora. Violeta kept the Aurora maneuvering to prevent this.
The Aurora's own weapons continued to blaze away, filling space around them with sapphire beams of plasma and the more powerful bursts from the plasma pulse cannons set into the bow and stern of the ship. Much of this fire was directed at the dreadnought, causing red energy to sparkle into existence around the impact points. Again and again the Aurora's weapons lashed out at the enemy ship as its weapons lashed out at her.
Julia noticed the threat from the other side just as Angel did. From their starboard another of the Reich battlecruisers was locking on, its own spinal mount weapons coming to bear. "Evasive Pattern Echo," Julia ordered, mentally tracing the movement against the tactical map. The maneuver would, if successful, keep them clear of both capital ships' spinal mounts.
The Aurora made a twist and something of a turn, shifting away from the oncoming battlecruiser. When its weapons fired they achieved only glancing shots.
"Shields still at thirty percent," Jarod said.
"Focus on that battlecruiser," Julia ordered.
Angel responded with as great a barrage of fire as she could manage from the ship's current angle. This attack intensified as they completed a turn and brought the bow guns to bear on the battlecruiser. Its shields flashed red under the sapphire onslaught, holding with increasing difficulty. Fire from other Alliance ships in the vicinity joined theirs in ripping into the shields of the ship. The battlecruiser's shields began failing.
The enemy dreadnought fired on them again, as if to aid its comrade. The heavy disruptor mounts tracking them struck the Aurora's shields, which crackled and weakened. At Engineering Lieutenant Mallory noticed the result of the hit immediately. "Primary Shield Generator 4 is down," he said. "All secondaries and tertiaries are engaged."
The latter report did little to assuage Julia's concern at the initial one. The primary generators were primary for a reason, and with one down the shields' regenerative cycle, and capacity for deflecting or absorbing incoming fire, would be diminished.
It was therefore no surprise that after several more hits Jarod's response was, "Shields now at twenty percent."
In the meantime the enemy battlecruiser was no longer a problem. Fire from the Aurora and other ships reduced the ship to a flaming wreck. The dreadnought retaliated with another barrage on the Aurora. "Shields down to fifteen percent, stress damage on Secondaries 2, 5, and 6."
"Maintain evasive maneuvers!"
Violeta did so, to the best of her ability and that of the ship's. Of course, a kilometer-long starship couldn't shift course on the fly. The evasive maneuvers did not evade every hit, and in their situation even a single hit was now potentially dangerous.
This hit was delivered rather soon after the previous. "Shields are at ten percent, cohesion is failing," Jarod warned. "Hull breaches on decks 7, 9, 10, and 15, multiple sections."
"Armor self-repair systems are operational," Mallory assured them.
"Do something about that dreadnought, Tactical!"
"Trying now, Captain." Angel didn't look up from her console while replying to Julia. With her systems showing a firm target lock Angel triggered the weapons on the port side of the Aurora. Repeated beams of sapphire light continued to meet the red of a deflector shield over the dreadnought. The Aurora twisted slightly, a maneuver to throw off another heavy shot from the dreadnought. Even then, its smaller mounts continued to lash the Aurora's faltering shields, some of the emerald beams persisting long enough to scour the azure hull. An SS cruiser delivered several more hits to starboard, exploiting the weakening of Aurora's shields.
Said cruiser didn't get a second shot. Energy fire overwhelmed its weakened deflectors, with spinal-mount scale grav lasers ripping into the vessel until it was left a gutted ruin. The Dilgar battlecruiser Wrath ignored her victim and focused her next barrage on the enemy dreadnought, striking from a new angle, firing the two Hyach spinal lasers again and again on continuous beam. She maintained the heavy assault until the enemy ship began to divert some of its shield energy to face the Wrath.
Angel was quick to take advantage, with help from Violeta. Violeta turned the Aurora until her bow weapons could bear on the dreadnought. Angel quickly confirmed a target lock and opened fire with the bow mounts. Ten pulse plasma cannons erupted with sapphire fury, their bolts tearing through the dreadnought's shields and impacting on hull. Torpedoes followed up just as the plasma fire died down, allowing them to crash into the enemy ship without shields to stop them. Flame flowered from the dreadnought's hull, accompanied by gas and debris.
Wounded, the dreadnought retorted with her weapons yet again. The spinal-mount disruptor fired, missing the Aurora and instead impaling an Alliance vessel beyond her. The other shots repeatedly stabbed at the Aurora with emerald light, many of them hitting. The Aurora's shields likewise faltered, below the ten percent level that maintained cohesion, and the armored hull took most of the blow.
For all the damage caused by the hits, they didn't do anything to degrade the effectiveness of the Aurora's weapons. The bow cannons blasted chunks of hull and armor from the enemy ship. The port side of the dreadnought received another barrage from the Wrath that destroyed some of the weapon emplacements on that quarter of the ship as her unshielded status meant that the Wrath was able to use guided missiles with naqia-enriched thermonuclear warheads for pinpoint fire, wrecking entire sectors and directly targeting and blasting through even heavily armoured weapons mounts.
Burning and dying, the dreadnought began to maneuver away. Angel wasn't letting it go that easily and quickly put another spread of solar torpedoes into the SS ship. The blue-white sparks savaged the bow area as it continued its turn away. Blue beams lashed into the damaged area, followed by the pulses of the Aurora's main battery.
A sudden brilliant flash erupted from the forward end of the dreadnought. One of the shots from the Aurora had struck the main capacitor for its powerful spinal mounts. Now that energy was violently released with an explosion that blew the bow off of the Reich warship. The Wrath, seeing the weakness, immediately poured more fire into the dreadnought. The Koenig and Normandy led an attack run of fighters that sent a volley of torpedoes and energy fire into the wrecked bow while the Aurora continued her own withering barrage.
Further explosions came from the interior of the dreadnought until a final, terrific series culminated in a flash of white light that engulfed the vessel, signifying the loss of its antimatter fuel. The SS dreadnought was now nothing but a field of molten debris.
The dreadnought's loss was not the start of the retreat, but it certainly contributed. Even before it blew, a number of the most damaged Reich ships made the emergency jump to warp. That number escalated in the minute after the dreadnought died until every intact ship of the Reich had successfully fled, leaving only their broken comrades.
"No new contacts on sensors," Cat confirmed. "They're running!"
"For now anyway," Locarno said. "I'm sure they'll be back."
"Maybe, but it gives us the chance to get some damage control done." Julia released the harness from her chair. She looked Cat's way. "And a location for that research facility would be nice."
"This fighting made it impossible to keep up the analysis, too much interference." Cat tapped several keys on her board. "But now that it's stopped I can resume the search." She looked over her screen. "The team's still not close enough for me to be certain, but I'm narrowing it down now."
"Relay any information to the planetside team. And then get some rest. Cots are in the conference lounge." Julia looked to Angel next. "The same to you. I want everyone taking rest periods when possible."
She received no complaints.
The daylight was long gone and night settled uneasily over the city. An orange hue covered the horizon on all sides. The continued sound of battle was a din in the background as the group assembled in a trade school's cafeteria. Nearby classrooms were being employed by their supporting naval troops as temporary barracks Outside the window Aururian and Dilgar troops and their vehicles continued to hold positions along the Horst Wesselstrasse, with very heavy fighting still raging in the distance.
"Why aren't we pushing on?" Lucy asked. Despite some enthusiasm in her voice it was clear she welcomed the respite.
"It's been a hard day, Lucero," Shepard answered. "Taking the time for chow and a nap will make the fighting to come easier to survive."
"She's got a good point," Robert said.
"Well, if you think that…" Lucy reached into the pack she was carrying. It was a standard issue one, meant for emergency supplies - rations, water, first aid - but Lucy had clearly added another pair of items, on the bulky side. Robert recognized them as a pair of insulated tubs. She sat the tubs on a nearby table and opened them up. The appealing scent soon wafted into every set of nostrils in the room.
Tra'dur's nose visibly twitched and a hungry look came to her eyes. "Sausage stew."
"Fresh from Hargert… when we left anyway," Lucy explained. She nodded to Tra'dur and then Shepard. "One of each type to fit your dietary laws."
"Dietary laws?" asked Garrus.
"Some religions restrict the kinds of food you can have," Robert explained. "Lieutenant Tra'dur follows Hindu dietary law, so no beef. Nothing from the Earth cow, I mean."
"And the other has no pork." Lucy smiled and nodded at Shepard.
Seeing the looks from some of the others, Shepard shrugged. "I've never been a particularly observant Jew, but we don't eat pork. Or anything non-kosher."
Lucy went digging into her pack. "Now we just need some bowls. I thought I packed something…"
Zack jumped up from the seat he took and went to the side of the room. "We're in a school cafeteria, so… yep!" He pulled up a tray with utensils and plain white ceramic bowls and grabbed some spoons from another receptacle. "These should work."
Lucy gave Garrus and Tali an apologetic look. "I'm afraid Hargert didn't have any dextro-compatible food. I did replicate some…" She provided them insulated containers.
"Very thoughtful of you, Lieutenant," Garrus said, accepting one. Tali took the other.
"You've been carrying around that extra weight all day?" asked Kaidan.
Lucy nodded. She gave Meridina a knowing look before saying, "I'm used to dealing with weight."
Meridina returned the look with a small smile. Talara sighed, familiar with the exercises Lucy was referring to.
Robert chuckled, also aware of what she meant, but not saying so. Taking the bowl Zack had given him, he accepted his portion of the stew, selecting the beef sausage variant.
While the bowls were put to use to give out portions, Ashley looked at Tra'dur with some interest. "So your people converted to a Human religion? Why?"
“It's complicated,” Tra'dur observed, “but my mother-Shai preached a dharmic interpretation of our Gods from the copy of the Gita that mother-Kaveri left with her, at the time of our greatest hopelessness after Omelos, when the suicide rate was brutally high. It isn’t that we converted so much as human religion offered a new philosophy of explaining how we were utterly defeated and most of us died at Omelos, and how we might have a path forward from that.”
"To repair your people's broken spirits, your mother embraced a spiritual solution," Meridina remarked.
"There were many more that might have been lost otherwise." Tra'dur gave Lucy a look full of gratitude as she spoke, freely mixing her speech with mouthfuls of the stew. Even inside a building some of the party had difficulty hearing her over the continuous roar of the shelling in the background.
The roar briefly gave way to a particularly loud blast from nearby. For a moment everyone was silent. Robert spoke first, saying, "That was pretty close."
"I'd say we should have found somewhere safer, but there's nowhere in the city that's 'safe' at the moment," Zack said. He looked toward Robert. "I remember your granddad saying a few things about what it was like for him."
"A few, yeah," Robert said. "Grandpa Allen didn't like to relive some of the things he went through, though, so most of his history I only found out after he passed away."
"Your grandfather fought in a war?" asked Ashley.
"Yeah. Our world's World War II, to be precise. He fought in the European Theater against the Nazis." Robert chuckled lightly at that. "So he and I have that in common now."
"That war must have been very different from this one," Tali observed. "I mean, your technology wasn't nearly as advanced."
"No, but it was still vicious." Robert dug a spoon into the stew. "No smart munitions, but they still had lots of artillery, armored vehicles, bomber aircraft. The war killed millions." He glanced toward the window and the distant carnage raging outside. "I was always a little disappointed in how some of his stories didn't have actual fighting in them. Now I suppose I can understand why. He didn't want to relive this part."
"Not many do," Shepard noted. "War is hell."
"I was just a child when my father went to assist with one of the Interdependency's wars with the Coserians," Meridina noted. "He never spoke much of what it was like. It was the one activity in the Order he did not share freely with me."
"Is there anyone who thinks war is something other than bad?" Zack asked rhetorically. "Besides Klingons, I think."
Nobody answered immediately. Slowly, a rumbling chuckle was gaining everyone's attention. Shepard looked to the source and asked, "Something to add, Wrex?"
The Krogan Battlemaster snorted with amusement. "I find it funny that all of you people talk so much about not liking war, but you're always ready to fight them. And people say we're the violent species."
Tra’dur glanced up. “To be honest, I’m not sure if Dilgar are more inclined to like war than humans, or that was just the propaganda of the Old Imperium days and we still live in its shadow.”
"War is often driven by the darkness inside of living beings," Meridina noted. "Fear, anger, hatred. Whether driven by darkness itself or an imbalance in life, it can drive any people into war. And as war fuels such darkness, it spreads to others touched by it, creating a terrible cycle that fuels itself on the darkness war brings to all."
"That's certainly more poignant than 'War is an extension of politics by other means.'" Everyone turned to see King walk into the room. Despite her usual bearing, it was clear she was still a little uncertain on her feet, and her head was wrapped in a white bandage.
"How are you?" Robert asked her.
"The corpsman confirmed the concussion and provided means to reduce the swelling and coax the cells to heal," King replied. "He also made it clear I'm to avoid serious combat if I can. I consider it an act of great forbearance on my part that I did not point out the folly of that restriction in our current situation."
"I suppose you can't blame him for trying," Shepard said.
"It's your pick, Captain," said Lucy. "Sausage stew without pork or without beef?"
"I'll take either," she answered while taking a seat. Zack offered her a bowl. Shortly after he handed it to her the building rattled from another stray shell going off nearby. "I see we are still close to the fighting. Any updates?"
"The Dilgar and Aururians are going to keep pushing down the Horst Wesselstrasse," Robert replied. "To give us as close a jumping off point as they can give us. And some Alliance troops have broken through the Seelow Heights area and are entering the eastern part of the city. We might still hook up with them in the heart of the city, if they manage to keep up the momentum."
"Well, that is excellent news," King remarked. She took a bite of her food and was plainly impressed. "I had forgotten what an excellent cook Mister Hargert is. Thank you kindly for the reminder."
"You're welcome," Lucy said.
In the heart of the Aurora's drive hull, Main Engineering was a hub of continued activity. Scotty kept his place at the control table near the master systems display for the ship, noting all of the yellow and red showing damaged and offline systems.
Barnes approached him, looking tired and frustrated. "Just as I thought," he said. "Primary 4 is down. It's going to require a complete rebuild to get our shields back to full strength."
"Aye. That's what I was expectin' tae hear," answered the older man. "Anythin' else affectin' the shields?"
"Primary 2 is offline for repair, I've got a team that should have it finished in an hour. Section G on Decks 10 through 14 is still on backup power, the power conduit feeding the area needs replacement."
"Did ye make sure th' medbay has full power?"
Barnes nodded. "I did. Secondary lines are up and running. Even if all of Deck 12 loses power, the medbay will still have its lights on."
"Good lad." Scotty sighed and tapped at the table. "We cannae have th' doctors losin' our crew from no power."
"Yeah." Barnes looked over the display. "Anything more about those microfractures in the cooling system?"
"Nae problems so far. I've put a team on settin' up a bypass around th' fracture zone."
"Best we can do until we're in dock," Barnes agreed. He looked over his mentor and noticed the obvious. "It's been a long day, and Thama set up some cots in Section Storage. Why don't you get some rest?"
That got him an irritated glare. "Dinnae ye baby me, Tom." The rebuke was heated, especially since it was clear Scotty knew he needed the rest too.
"I'm not Ju-... the Captain," Barnes countered, correcting himself as he did. "But I figure the Ratzis are gonna be back, and it might be better if we're ready for the long haul, y'know?"
"Aye, I do, an' I'll get a wee bit o' shuteye soon, but I need to brief th' Captain on our progress."
"Why don't you let me do that?" Barnes asked.
For a moment a refusal formed in Scotty's voice, but he stopped himself. "Alright, lad, I'll leave it t' ye. Let me show ye a few things before I head off."
A look at the sensor screen showed Cat she was starting to get close. The instruments Tra'dur had taken with her gave Cat's systems a better look at the specific particle emissions she was seeking. The zone of possibility was shrinking appropriately, becoming a smaller circle in the middle of the capital.
"The results are promising, Cat'Delgado," Tra'dur said in a near-whisper over a commline. Cat could barely hear her over background explosions. "Once we fight into the city center we should be certain."
"And the closer you get, the smaller I can make the circle," Cat said. "I may have an exact coordinate for you by the time you're approaching the middle of the city." After a moment's consideration, she asked, "So, how is everyone?"
"Quite tired. Many of them are asleep or nearly so. Even I may be dozing off soon."
"Yeah. I know the feeling." Cat checked the time and stifled a sudden yawn. She wanted to get to sleep soon, even if it would only be a cot in the lounge and not her bed. "It's really bad, isn't it? The fighting, I mean, and the people dying…"
"It is. Today has been a lesson." There was brief silence on the other end. "I used to wonder what made Fei'nur the way she is. To know she endured this for years, I can hardly imagine staying sane."
"I can't at all," Cat admitted. She remembered Fei'nur, the big bodyguard cyborg for Shai'jhur, undoubtedly over on the Magaratha at the moment. "You know, I thought it was funny to see the way she reacted to replicators, but knowing she had to survive for so long… it's not really funny now."
"Between Balos and the decades on Rohric with the poor food, I am not surprised at all that she is enamored with replicators. Most of my people are. And for those who remember Omelos, who remember food not tainted by spores, real filling meat… Gods, it makes me ravenous just talking about it. And my family runs a meat canning factory to begin with."
Cat giggled quietly. "I'm sorry to make you ravenous," she said. "If I could, I'd send you something."
"Lieutenant Lucero was kind enough to carry Mister Hargert's stew for all of us."
"That's Lucy for you. She always likes to make people feel better. It's part of her 'Life Force Knight' thing or whatever it's called." Cat's eyes examined the long range sensors next. There was no sign of any further ships coming in, although the sensors showed the main fleets still out by Neptune. The battle there was now more of a skirmish, but likely just to give the Nazis time to get reinforcements in. At any time the fleets would likely re-engage. "I should let you get some sleep."
"I appreciate the conversation, but yes, I think…"
Over the line, Cat heard sudden shouting and the distant whine of disruptors. "Tra'dur?" she asked, confused for the moment. "What's going on?"
After several seconds of nothing, Tra'dur's reply came with haste. "I must go, we're under attack!"
In seconds the sound of nearby disruptor fire roused everyone who had actually managed to fall asleep. Hands went to weapons and Robert and Lucy quickly unfolded their robes - they'd been using them as makeshift pillows - and pulled them on over the armor. Garrus' voice came through their short-range commlink. "They're coming from the north. Vehicles, infantry, and mechs."
"Panzergrenadiers, probably," Shepard remarked, putting her shotgun back on its small-of-back mount on her armor. She scooped up the assault rifle last. "How close?"
Everyone heard the shot from Garrus' rifle. "Close enough."
Zack's voice came through next. "My unit's ready."
"Have them take up defensive positions." Robert ran toward the door with Lucy and Meridina trailing, the others behind them. The exit to the north was nearby. Between the energy he was calling upon and the adrenaline rush, any remnant sleepiness was fading. He triggered another comm. "This is Dale to Union command post, status?"
A Dilgar voice responded, "An enemy counterattack has broken through our northern flank. They are closing in on your location."
"We spotted that. Anything else?"
"We have sent troops to support your position. Hold until relieved."
"They won't, then." Robert looked to the others. "We'll stop them." He re-opened the channel to Zack. "Get your unit ready. We're going to give the Nazis a surprise."
The approaching enemy were crossing the wide boulevard of the Horst Wesselstrasse when the naval infantry's return fire reached it's peak. The entire unit was now engaged, using the windows and doorways of the school to fire from cover. Anders and his Marines focused their efforts on the enemy armored forces, power armor infantry and tanks, using the heavier munitions they were equipped with to deal damage to those foes. In turn their return fire struck at the structures of the school, blasting through walls and ruining entire rooms.
Not every shot like this hit as expected, however. One of the tank gunners was surprised to see his shot thrown back to explode in the street, as if it had been deflected.
Having performed that deflection, Robert drew in a breath and felt the life energy within him swell in readiness. When he called upon it again it was to reach out and grasp the offending tank. He caused it to fly upward into the air and twist, after which it landed on another tank, smashing the turrets of both. He repeated the process with another, although this time the tank landed in such a way as to not crush the other tank's turret, simply its main gun.
His senses warned him of the incoming attack. He jumped from the window and hit the ground below with a shockwave of dust, the result of his effort to cushion his landing. Above him several shots from the enemy tanks all struck, blasting much of the upper floor. "Is everyone clear?" he asked into his comm.
"Affirmative," Shepard answered. "Although you gave Garrus a scare. Either way, we're ready."
"Good," Robert replied. "Let's go. Zack?"
"We're ready when you give the signal."
"Consider it given." Having said that, Robert ignited his lightsaber and ran ahead.
From the east side of the school came the rest of the team, weapons blazing, Lucy and Meridina in the lead deflecting incoming fire.
At Robert's signal, the rest of Zack's unit sallied from the damaged school, following Anders' Marines. Their training in field operations, rushed as it had been, taught them enough that with the Marines in the lead, they provided the necessary numbers to the counter-attack to give it a chance.
In the years of the Facility, Zack had seen some terrible things. He'd seen what was left of Human beings starved in work camps and prisons, beaten, tormented, ruined, among other horrors. And there had been fights, true. He'd even once gotten his jaw broken in a tough fight to rescue kids being used as slave labor. Such things had always seemed truly hellish to him.
But that hadn't been this. This kind of fighting, with energy weapons and shellfire everywhere, freaking tanks shooting at you along with heavy weapons on big armored infantry… it was an entirely different kind of Hell. Any moment he could be blown apart or hit by a shot that could overpower his personal forcefield and kill him. The same had been true to an extent while commanding the Koenig, but combat between starships lacked the visceral (sometimes literally so) nature of the battle.
Zack hit the deck as fire swept nearby, narrowly avoiding a disruptor shot. While prone he lifted his pulse rifle and fired it toward the source of the beam. In the night he couldn't see if he hit anyone, but even if he hadn't hopefully his fire was forcing someone to hit the ground or otherwise hold their fire. After squeezing off several more shots while prone he got to his feet and, accompanied by Lieutenant Tachibana and several of the others, kept moving ahead. Their running carried them into the street and to a damaged, abandoned Nazi tank that they used for cover.
Whatever he was accomplishing with his pulse rifle and shouted commands to the other platoons over his commlink, Zack knew it was very little compared to some of the others. Over the other sounds of battle he could hear the booms and thundering from Shepard's biotic attacks and her shotgun. He also thought he heard the occasional high-pitched buzzing of the lightsabers in action. Robert, Lucy, and Meridina were doing more than their share of damage with their powers and their weapons. And Anders and the armored Marines in his unit were doing more damage with their heavier weapons by far.
The enemy noticed this too, and that meant the team heavies were drawing disproportionate attention from the Nazis. "All platoons, keep going," he said, readying himself to go back out. "We've got to keep them off-balance so they don't regroup!" Affirmations from the platoon commanders came over the commlink. He nodded to Tachibana, who smiled thinly and nodded back. "You didn't sign up for this either, did you?"
"Not particularly," she admitted, her voice accented with Oxford English despite her name. An amused glint in her brown eyes made Zack grin. "But I did sign up to stop the Nazis. It's why I'm here and not with my ship."
"Right. Well, here goes!" With that Zack emerged from cover, trying to stay low while spraying pulse fire where he could. He caught one infantry soldier trying to get a bead on him and Tachibana shot the soldier before he could fire. With the rest of the unit they were almost to the other side of the Horst Wesselstrasse and the enemy seemed completely surprised by the attack.
Zack looked to one of the enemy tanks in the road rotating its cannon around to fire on the others. The same rotation turned the turret away from his position with Tachibana. "Cover me," he ordered. She nodded just as he turned away. Zack jumped from cover and pulled a demolition charge from his field uniform's belt. It took only seconds to get close enough to place the charge up on the turret ring, after which he turned and sprinted back toward cover.
Before he could get back, the charge detonated. Spalling from the torn metal tore into the crew space, ripping them apart in the second before the destruction hit the ammo storage. A massive shockwave slammed into Zack, throwing him into the air. He tumbled and landed hard, knocking the air out of his lungs. He sucked in several breaths trying to get over the shock of the hit, wondering briefly if he was more severely wounded.
He was just about certain he wasn't and started to get up when a boot kicked him in the side of the head. Even through his protective helmet Zack felt an impact that might have caused a concussion without said helmet. The world spun in terrible colors as he fell over on his side and looked up at his attacker, a frowning, angry-looking enemy soldier. Strands of blond hair showed around his enemy's face, with hate-filled blue eyes glaring at him, and a pair of SS thunderbolts prominently displayed on his collar beside rank insignia. Wordlessly the soldier brought his disruptor rifle up to shoot Zack, who was still recovering his equilibrium.
There was a powerful impact that splintered the SS trooper's helmet. Blood erupted from the other side of the helmet, joined with some gray matter, and the enemy trooper dropped with a hole in his head. Given the nature of the wound, and the fact there was no flash of pulse fire, Zack guessed at his savior and croaked into the comm line, "Thanks, Vakarian."
"You're welcome," Garrus replied.
Zack got back to his feet and had a moment to take in the battle now that it was on the north side of the boulevard. The counter-attack was working; the SS unit was disintegrating. To the west Dilgar infantry were riding up on mechanized vehicles, joining the counter-attack.
"Are you alright?"
Zack turned his head. Robert was approaching, his lightsaber now off and hanging from his waist again. In his blue armor and those brown robes he was a unique sight compared to the uniformed soldiers and naval troopers around them, including Zack's own field uniform. Sweat coated his forehead, much as it did Zack's own. "Are you alright?" Robert repeated.
"Got my bell rung. Twice." Zack rubbed at his head. "But nothing serious."
"Good." The sounds of battle were moving further away. "The Dilgar got their reinforcements to us. The SS battalion's in full retreat. I'm betting they didn't realize how ferocious your unit could be."
"Or that you were with us," Zack said. "I doubt they planned for three life force whatever users, and certainly not for Commander Shepard."
"Seeing her in action as I have, I don't think anyone can plan for Shepard. Not unless it counts surrendering immediately upon encountering her." Robert chuckled. "So, think you can get back to sleep?"
Zack's reply to that was a harsh laugh. "No. Not happening now."
"Thought so." Robert gestured toward the road leading to the center of the city. "I guess we should press on, then."
"I guess," Zack agreed. "The sooner we get to the center of the city, the sooner this ends."
"Then get your people ready, and I'll alert the others," Robert said. He turned and looked down the road, as did Zack, toward the silhouettes of the city's massive structures in the far distance, barely illuminated by the brief flashes of artillery strikes. "It's time to make our push."
Angel slept soundly in the lounge with some of the others, finding the cot to not be too uncomfortable. It was a unique experience. Even during the weeks after the ambush at Krellan Nebula and the start of the war, they'd never resorted to an arrangement like this, keeping everyone at or near duty stations with no one cleared to return to their quarters.
When she woke up, it was to find the table covered with pitchers of coffee and tea and a number of pastries and finger foods. She grabbed a breakfast wrap that proved to have chicken and cheese with lettuce and wolfed it down with a cup of well-brewed raktajino. It was on the bitter side, but she didn't get why the others thought it was so terrible. And it certainly woke you up.
Looking around Angel noticed that she was one of the first of the main crew to be up. Jarod and Violeta and Locarno were all snoozing away and Mallory was half-awake. She frowned when she saw that the last empty cot, meant for Cat, was not only empty, but had clearly not been used. After retrieving her uniform jacket and fitting it on properly, Angel went out to the bridge. Lieutenant Takawira had the backup watch on duty: Crane at Tactical, Neyzi at Ops, Rawlins at the helm, and Tagas at Science…
Or rather, it should have been Ensign Tagas, but the Dorei man wasn't present at all. Cat was still at her post, a free hand on a cup of what Angel guessed was coffee, her eyes focused on a sensor screen showing this universe's Berlin and shifting color in the city center. She went up to the station and looked down. "Have you gotten any sleep at all?"
"I've been busy," said Cat. "They're getting close enough that I'm starting to get a fix on the research facility."
"I'm sure Tagas could have done this," Angel said. "You should let him relieve you. Or Al-Rashad."
"She's on a rest cycle," Cat said. "I had her running the search from Lab 2. And Tagas… I mean, he could've done this, but I…" Cat looked at her sister with weary eyes. Bags were already formed under them. "I felt it was something I had to do. To make sure."
"Silly nerd," Angel sighed. "You need your sleep, Cat."
"I'll get some as soon as I'm done. Besides…" Cat frowned. "It's not like Rob and Zack and Lucy and Meridina are getting to sleep."
"Yeah." Angel nodded. "They aren't. But that doesn't mean you have to stay up too."
"I have to find that facility. Then they can hit it and complete this mission and come home and the war can finally be over so we can get out of here." As Cat continued speaking her frustration was clearly growing. "But that can't happen because these Nazi jerks are hiding it too well!" Cat ended her remark with a frustrated smack to her table.
"This is all the more reason you need some sleep," Angel insisted. "Now, call up Tagas and get to that cot. Sleep as much as you can before the Nazis send another fleet at us."
Cat sighed and nearly did so. Just as she did so, her screen showed new readings. A particle trace, one of many given the technology used in the fighting, but still…. "Wait," she said. "Look."
"That neutrino signature. It's a little off but…" Cat tapped at her omnitool. "Delgado to Ground Team."
"Yes, Cat?" The reply was from Robert.
"I think I've found them!" Cat informed him. "Tra'dur, are you there?"
"I'm relaying a particle reading to you, it just came up. What do you think?"
There was silence initially. After several moments Tra'dur's voice came back. "The wavelength is a little off, but it does look like a drive signature."
"I think we've found their research facility," Cat said.
"I would concur. They must be testing a model, even now."
"Good job, Cat," said Robert. "Now go get some sleep."
"What? Why are you…"
"Because you've been up all night trying to find this place," he replied. "And there's no telling when another fleet's going to show up, so you need your rest."
"Oh." Knowing she couldn't argue, Cat sighed… and it promptly turned into a yawn. "Okay. And Rob…"
"We'll be careful," was the response. "Good night, Cat."
When the call ended, Angel was already alerting Tagas to return to the bridge. He arrived and nodded to Cat, who relinquished the science/sensor station to him. She went to the lounge where, after removing her uniform jacket, she slid her cot over to Violeta's and laid down in it. She fluffed the pillow laid her head on it and was asleep within seconds.
With the flank attack beaten off, the team worked their way down the Horst Wesselstrasse. Statues adorned both sides of the wide road, accompanied by an increasing number of state ministry offices among the other institutions like banks and stores. The industrial sector was clearly long behind them. Ahead, as sunlight crept over the horizon, they could see the massive structures of the city center, the most prominent being the massive Volkshalle built near the Tiergarten along the Spree.
The disgust that the team felt toward the Nazi imagery was in some small apart ameliorated by the fact that much of it was on fire.
Even now the artillery was raining down on the area. Much of it was Coalition, although the Nazis had some remaining that they were using with abandon. Their World Capital was the work of centuries of Nazi architecture and labor, but they clearly showed no hesitation in wrecking it in the course of a day.
"The facilities are located in the Friedrich-Wilhelm University grounds," King was saying, observing the data Cat sent. "According to their files, this section is named the Werner Von Braun Academy of Advanced Physics."
"The university is east of Brandenburg Gate," Robert noted. "And that's not far from the Führerhaus, where intel says the Führerbunker is."
"You think Sauckel's in there?" Zack asked.
"I'd bet on it. Withdrawing their leader would be seen as an admission of defeat by the SS and the OKW." Robert smiled grimly. "So if we can manage it, I say we go pick up Herr Sauckel after dealing with the Von Braun Academy."
"A workable plan," King said in agreement.
Ahead of them, the sound of weapons fire was growing. Aururian troops were to their right, moving to flank the Reich's defenders on the road and secure routes to Tempelhof and the southern entrance into the Reich's capital district. Dilgar troops would shift to the left but were going to be their primary backup heading in.
Robert reached for his lightsaber and unlatched it from his belt. "We've made it to the heart of their precious 'World Capital'." He flashed the others a wicked grin. "Let's go wreck it."
"Let's," agreed Lucy.
Leo awoke from a nap in his office and departed a minute later, a near-finished mug of coffee in his hand and his uniform and lab coat on. He ventured into the arrival ward, now bearing overflow from the Normal Care Ward. Some of the wounded were crew assigned to the Aurora, but a few were from other starships. He noted a Tellarite in a damaged Starfleet uniform, likely from one of the Starfleet ships lost in the fleet battle, and a Dilgar male being tended to by an Alakin nurse. Doctor Hreept was inspecting these wounded. "Doctor, you are rested?" the Alakin physician asked.
"I am, about as well as could be expected," replied Leo. "Anything new?"
"Several more wounded that are overflow from the army surgical hospitals. Doctor Walker is treating them."
"In the Critical Care Ward, still."
"I'll relieve her then," Leo said, moving on to do so. As he passed through, he felt relief that his friends on the surface weren't present. While they would likely be treated planetside if the worst happened… well, no they wouldn't, because the worst happening would preclude treatment…
Stop worrying, Leo. Focus. You've got patients.
He arrived in the Critical Care Ward to find the worst of the cases on the ship. Most were from hull breaches suffered late in the fight. There were again some wounded from other ships and from planetside.
Worst of all, four of the occupants were entirely covered by sheets.
From the central station near the entrance of the ward, Doctor Singh looked up. Amita Singh was a woman of strong features, New Punjabi by birth with ancestors from that same region of the Earth in Universe L2M1. She appraised him with weary eyes. "We lost four more," she said quietly. "Their injuries were too severe."
"So I see." Leo swallowed. "I'm sorry."
"There was nothing that could be done. The surgeons did their best, as did we. I've already filed the reports." She stood. "Your office?"
"Or the lab," Leo said. "Some of the nurses are setting up there."
"I prefer the office, and thank you for allowing it." With visible relief Singh went for the door. Leo finished recording the change in watch doctor and settled into the seat. So far the critical cases were stable, or at least not in need of any immediate help. But that would change, and that was assuming no immediate cases arrived in the medbay.
"I just want this damned war over with," Leo grumbled aloud, after which he breathed a prayer for the friends and colleagues who were, even now, risking their lives to bring about his request.
The center of Germania was a great maze of towering structures that housed the immense bureaucracy that worked in the various government ministries of the Reich. Shops could be found on the lower floors of the buildings; some structures were entirely given over to commercial or other enterprises. Law firms, trading corporations, everything one might find in an urban area. To supplement the roads at ground level, the Reich had added elevated roads that moved from building to building on bridges several stories in the air. Some buildings even had open floors to accommodate these roads, spanned on massive reinforced concrete arches.
These immense flyovers removed cross-traffic and distributed vehicles directly into the massive parking garages which held the commuters. The bridges themselves were a box truss, carrying transit lines inside of them, neatly concealed from view in favour of the Reich’s ornate architecture. At the heart of the city the Volkshalle now loomed above everything, the dome a truly immense presence, large enough to fit the Great Pyramid at Giza comfortably inside.
The ruins of one such bridge now blocked the way down the Horst Wesselstrasse. Positioned along the ruins were a full company of Lowe or “Lion” heavy tanks and perhaps the better part of an improvised abteilung, part of the strong force guarding the core government buildings. Getting through them would require a major battle which might last hours, and even as he conducted recon now, Robert had to move quickly to avoid the harassing fire that the Nazi forward positions directed towards even a single man.
Robert considered one of the high rises as a detour and immediately discounted the idea. He sensed the danger there. Too many places they could be held in place by enemy troops, too much risk of one side or the other bringing the building down upon their heads. Instead they turned down the Kurfürstenstrasse and headed toward the Reich Ministries section of the Volkstrasse, the parade avenue of the government district in Tiergarten.
Robert felt the sense of danger with the others. Talara voiced it by shouting "Look out!", even though she didn't recognize where the attack was coming from. Everyone back to the advancing squads of Marines and naval infantry started moving toward cover.
The attack was heralded by scream of shellfire, rather than the whine of disruptor they'd grown used to . Scanning with their omitools Robert and the others quickly identified the threat. Nazi panzers were on the elevated road two blocks to the north, at the very edge of the high-rise dominated area along the Landwehr Canal. Their gun turrets were depressed as low as they could be, allowing them to fire on anyone trying to go down the Kurfürstenstrasse. Another shot boomed, forcing everyone to pull back toward Horst Wesselstrasse. "We've got tanks on the elevated road," Zack reported into the tactical comm. "North of our location. Think we can get some support?"
"Fire support is already tasked to other units," replied a controller for the Coalition command.
"This is Captain Robert Dale. I'm a Paladin on an urgent mission and I need priority," Robert insisted.
"Understood Captain. I just found some air units to assist."
Robert was giving his thanks when the attack began. Lucy intercepted a shot meant for him with a swing of her weapon. Meridina shielded Zack while Shepard and Kaidan cooperated on a biotic field that absorbed the other incoming attacks. The attackers were quickly identified as firing from the high rise to their south. Everyone scrambled for the only cover that was realistic; the shadow of the building. "Wait," Meridina urged as everyone went for the visible door into what looked like a fancy retail shop. She projected force into said door, throwing it open.
A massive plume of plasma and flame erupted from the door, accompanied by a shockwave that threw several Marines and infantry on their backs. Tali was knocked back into Wrex, who caught her. A massive concentration of fire from concealed positions inside of offices on upper levels of surrounding high-rises converged on them, disruptors scouring the ground. Zack’s entire unit hit the deck, rapidly throwing back suppressive fire as their scouts tried to pinpoint the positions of the enemy strongpoints in the upper stories and direct man-portable missiles into them.
One thing was clear: If they remained in position out in the open on the Kurfürstenstrasse, they were all going to die within minutes. Tra’dur growled through her teeth and pulled a Dilgar stick grenade off the bandolier she’d grabbed earlier. “Come on, it’s the doorway or we’re all dead, we’ve already triggered the trap, let’s go!” Slinging the grenade underhanded in a perfect throw through the doorway, she rose to charge. The explosion was perfectly timed, but the enemy behind cover waited for it and then, and only then, took their positions. The shout of “Stellungen!” saw all expression leave Tra’dur’s face. A moment later disruptor beams sizzled through the doorway.
Talara on instinct lunged and knocked her clear of the converging disruptor beams. As she did, it seemed that the position exploded again from a micro-missile or rifle grenade launched from somewhere, screaming through the entrance.
Tra’dur’s plan might have been a feat of reckless courage, but the realisation and the plan were both sound, the mysterious explosion a perfect opportunity, and the rest of the team followed up by impulse. Meridina and Lucy charged in, their lightsabers flashing blue streaks in the air that deflected the emerald beams coming at them. Ashley and Wrex followed with their rifles blazing, Zack behind them leading a squad with an automatic shotgun.
Robert was so intent on covering the rest of Zack’s troops trying to reach shelter alongside the base of the building that he almost missed the incoming air support. Craft streaked through the sky, too fast for him to notice. The release of weapons was perfectly silent,and for a moment it seemed like they had just flown overhead. Then the rippling explosions through the buildings told him they'd hit home, a cascade of steel, concrete and glass pounding to the pavement of the Kurfürstenstrasse as the PGMs detonated directly in the Reich positions which had been marked by ground-based targeting from Zack’s troops. "Ground team, you're clear," said a female voice that he thought he recognized.
A moment later he realized he did, in fact, recognize the voice. "Colonel Deering?" he asked.
"Captain Dale, it's good to hear from you," said Wilma Deering, a starfighter pilot and commander from Earth N2C5's United Earth Alliance "We cleared those vehicles from the upper road. And collapsed it, I have to add. From what I see, your way is clear."
"Thank you, and my best to Buck and the others if you see them after all of this," Robert replied. When the call ended he turned to Anders and Zack. "What's our status?"
"Snipers on several floors." Anders frowned. "It's going to take forever to clear the building."
"I don't have forever. Let's keep going."
"And leave these Nazis in our rear?"
Robert shook his head. "They won't be for long. Let's go." As they worked with Shepard to get everyone out of the shop, now secured, he used his omnitool to identify the building as a sniper's nest to the Coalition command, ensuring the Dilgar or Aururian units following them would work to secure the building.
Careful to keep themselves shielded by the structure as long as possible, they ventured on toward the Reich Ministries, taking them into the heart of the city, their destination now mere kilometers away.
In the ready office off the bridge Julia checked over reports of the damage control efforts currently underway. While their shields would not be at full strength with the loss of one of the primary generators, at least the armor and hull were fully patched, the self-repair systems' work reinforced by careful damage control repairs. It was one of the Aurora's great advantages, one shared with the Unity and the other Darglan-tech ships, that the self-repair systems let them fix with ease damage that usually required delicate EVA work or a full yard. Some of the other vessels in the fleet wouldn't be so lucky.
With reports on her ship done, Julia took the time to check the status of the fighting on the ground. The battle was going well, although with great cost. She noted with relief that none of her friends were listed as casualties, although a quick check confirmed that several of Zack's company were dead or badly wounded, as were a few of Anders' Marines.
She was considering requesting more information on their situation when the call came from the bridge. Locarno's voice was tense. "Code Red, all hands to battlestations. Enemy fleet inbound. Captain Andreys, please report to the bridge."
She jumped from her chair about as forcefully as she ever had and rushed to the bridge. Locarno swapped from the command chair to the first officer chair. He was somewhat rested, at least, although there was still a hint of visible discomfort at being in one of the central chairs. "Status on enemy fleet?"
"It might be the same one from before, but with reinforcements," Locarno indicated. "Maybe some ships pulled from their main fleet."
"What's the status of that battle?"
Locarno checked the report quickly. "Maran's fleet is fully engaged. It looks like the Reich fleet's throwing everything they can find at him. They must have a thousand ships more than he does now."
That wasn't good news, but Julia had faith that Maran could deal with the numerical disparity well enough to win.
There was no need, nor time, to give further orders. The enemy fleet dropped from warp in near-orbital space. Barely a second passed before disruptor and torpedo fire erupted from the enemy. The Coalition fleet immediately returned fire, creating a riot of lethal colors in the space over Germania. The Aurora lent its contribution to this display, her pulse plasma cannons raking a Reich cruiser with sapphire fury. The blue-white fields of solar torpedoes buried themselves into the hull of the enemy ship, eradicating the Hakenkreuz insignia on its side.
Multiple disruptor blasts played over the Aurora's weakened shields. A shield-disrupting torpedo from a Nazi destroyer nearly struck as well, only to be destroyed at the last minute by a timely shot from the Aurora's particle interceptor batteries.
"Shields already down to seventy percent," Jarod warned. "The starboard shields are degrading."
"It's the loss of Primary 4 Captain," Ensign Mallory added. "Shield capacity and regeneration rate are down and coverage on the starboard is compromised."
"And they know it too," Locarno warned
Julia saw immediately what he meant. Two enemy cruisers were already maneuvering to the starboard side, focusing their fire upon it, and a battlecruiser was joining them. Maneuvering to present their port side would disrupt the Alliance formation and put the enemy out of their primary arc.
The weapons kept firing at the approaching enemy, degrading their shields steadily. Another enemy barrage caused a similar loss on their side. "I'm wearing them down as best as I can," said Angel. "But I don't think… wait."
What Angel noticed was soon evident to everyone. Amber beams sliced into one of the Nazi Tannenburg-class cruisers until its shields began to falter. A pair of white sparks - quantum torpedoes - slammed into the ship, blasting gaping wounds into the Nazi cruiser's bow and port side. Within moments the fire that was steadily degrading the weakened starboard shields ceased making so many impacts as their fury was instead spent on the shields of the Enterprise-E, now off their starboard side.
"The Enterprise is covering us to starboard. Other Federation ships are moving up to meet the enemy," Jarod said.
"Ross is reinforcing our section of the fleet," Locarno said.
Julia nodded. "Let's return the favor and keep the enemy off their port. Maintain fire, cruisers are priority targets. Koenig and the fighters will take care of enemy destroyers."
"Transmitting orders now."
The ship shuddered under another hit, slightly straining Julia against her seat harness. She kept her focus on the tactical display as the battle continued around them.
The sleek Sovereign-class USS Enterprise entered her first fight as if she were spoiling for one. Phaser beams lashed out repeatedly at the Tannenburg-class Nazi cruiser to starboard. Red-hued shields kept crackling into view as the amber beams struck.
The Enterprise-E's bridge was rather different from the prior Enterprise. Gone was the wood-paneled horseshoe with the tactical station at the center, behind and above the Captain's Chair. Now tactical was on the starboard rear corner of the bridge. The helm and operations were likewise placed in close proximity to each other. At Operations was Data, as always, while the helm was manned by Lieutenant Hawk, a male Human officer. Lieutenant Padraig Daniels stood at Tactical.
"Enemy vessel's shields are degrading," Daniels reported. Return fire caused the deck to shudder beneath them.
Data added, "Our shields are down to eighty-nine percent. No further damage."
"Attack Pattern Beta, Mister Hawk, Mister Daniels," Picard ordered. At his right side Commander Riker kept his eye on his own station, allowing him to coordinate the ship's crew for the battle. "Remember to keep us to the Aurora's starboard."
Under the control of the two officers, the Enterprise maneuvered to bring her torpedoes to bear. Daniels fired a spread of the projectiles and Hawk promptly brought the Enterprise back over, ensuring that another disruptor bolt meant for the Alliance vessel's shields instead struck Enterprise's.
The quantum torpedoes fired from Enterprise followed her phaser strikes in, slamming against the cruiser's shields until they caused a localized shield disruption. Phaser beams played over the Nazi vessel's hull, splitting it open.
To make the cruiser's problems worse, other Starfleet vessels joined the attack. A Miranda-class ship pelted the wound with photon torpedoes. The shields regained cohesion in time to stop the follow-up phaser strikes, but the injury to the Tannenburg-class cruiser was already done.
This freed the Enterprise to face the Lützow-class battlecruiser just as its spinal-mount disruptors lashed out at them. This time the hit caused a severe rocking throughout the ship. "Direct hit," warned Data. "Shields are down to sixty percent."
At Picard's order the Enterprise-E directed her firepower on the battlecruiser. Its shields proved to made of tougher stuff than those of the enemy cruiser, absorbing the phaser fire and torpedoes without effect.
Ten streams of thick sapphire bolts crashed into the enemy battlecruiser a moment later, followed by a flurry of beams of the same color. The Aurora was directing her own considerable firepower on the enemy ship. Daniels followed up with more shots of his own, this time causing clear loss to the enemy's beleaguered shields.
This didn't stop the enemy battlecruiser from firing again. Hawk maneuvered enough to evade the thick disruptor beams from the spine. One instead smashed into a Galaxy-class starship to their stern. Said vessel, the Venture, retorted with a barrage of rapid phaser strikes and a full spread of photon torpedoes. The Excelsior-class Lakota joined in the attack, firing quantum torpedoes into the growing wound in the battlecruiser's shields causing immense devastation across the Reich warship's hull.
The enemy ship attempted to break off, to find cover with allies, but the SS commander had provoked too many foes with his bold lunge at the Aurora. The Enterprise and the Starfleet vessels around her were relentless in their attacks on the battlecruiser, pounding it with phaser and torpedo fire until it finally blew apart.
Given how the SS viewed the Federation and its reputation, the attack was a fair reminder to them that for all Starfleet talked of peace and mutual understanding, it still had teeth and it knew how to use them.
There was no chance to reflect on this, however; there were more foes coming up, and the Enterprise was soon hotly engaged with them.
The team spent an hour fighting their way through the Ministries, a battle they'd still be tied up in if Dilgar troops blasting through the barricades at the southern terminus of the "Volkstrasse" hadn't linked up with them. Now they were in striking distance of the massive Volkshalle, a gigantic domed structure at the heart of the Reich capital. Even a kilometer away the building was imposing in its size and grandeur, and atop it was an emblem of the Reich, with an utterly massive winged eagle perched over a wreath around the swastika. It might in fact be the largest classical Dome in the multiverse--only geodesic hab domes were larger.
"I say we blow it up," Lucy said, looking toward the structure. "What do you think?"
"I think it can wait until we finish our mission," Robert answered, grinning.
"Business before pleasure. Right."
A green uniformed Dilgar approached them and gave a salute. "Battle Expert Ter'shar," he introduced himself. "My unit's been detached to assist yours." Beyond him more Dilgar infantry approached, male and female in worn combat uniform and gear mounted on more of the inevitable old but serviceable kit, IFVs and APCs that had gone through some ridiculous up-armouring kits.
"We need to get to the research facility on the University grounds nearby," Robert said, speaking to both Ter'shar and the others.
"There are enemy forces holding positions in an arc through the university gardens and residential blocs. They are in a fight with one of your units that approached from the east, but they have the reserves to block our advance," Ter'shar warned.
"They may not know where we're planning on attacking," King said. She looked to Robert. "Why don't you take Shepard's team, Commander Meridina, and Lieutenant Lucero with you? Feint toward the Führerbunker and draw them in. Our forces will round north toward the Brandenburg Gate and then swing to the east as soon as you have their attention."
"Sounds like a plan," Robert said. He glanced toward the others.
"I'm all for it," replied Shepard.
Meridina and Lucy nodded their approval as well. Lucy looked to Talara and said, "Keep Captain King and Lieutenant Tra'dur safe, Talara."
"Yes ma'am," the Falaen replied. The orders gave her renewed confidence. She’d already done that with Tra’dur. She drew on the feelings of hope from those around her and concentrated on the task ahead.
Zack gave Robert a worried look. Robert returned it with a nod and a small smile. "We'll be okay, Zack. And we'll link up with you when we can. Take that research facility. It's the reason we're here."
"We will, and you'd better damn well keep yourself alive while we do it," Zack answered.
"The same to you."
With this final goodbye, Robert and the others broke away from Zack's unit. They cut over to the east by a block to approach the bunker from the south. Outside of the parade lane of the Volkstrasse, the high rises were again surrounding them. But many of these were burning, broken wrecks and some were completely collapsed. Robert, Meridina, and Lucy sensed the dead and dying in the rubble. And some were not soldiers. Each sensed the others' sadness at this realization - at the very real fact that civilian life was being lost - and together they provided some measure of comfort to one another on this.
One thing all of the rubble and broken shells of vehicles allowed for was plenty of cover, which proved vital as sniper fire occasionally converged on them. The three intercepted the snipers' fire, deflecting their shots, and mentally noting their positions to the others. Garrus and Ashley provided counter-sniper fire with their rifles. These attacks slowed their advance at points, but they did not stop it.
A squad of Panzergrenadiers challenged them to the south of the "Führerplatz", where Sauckel's palatial residence and its adjoining square bordered Brandenburger Tor and the Kroll Opera House. By this point it was clear that the cohesion of the defence was breaking down. Nazi reserve units were moving in disorder and encountering the enemy randomly as command and control was degraded by the continuous artillery and aerial assault which still filled the sky with an unending screaming and roaring and shook their bones as it had, unrelentingly, for more than forty hours straight.
Robert responded to their presence with a wave of force that sent one flying backward and forced the others to brace themselves. Meridina and Lucy rushed ahead. Their lightsabers scythed through the air in blue flashes, cutting through the suits' armor. As they went to work dismembering and disabling two of the suits Shepard shot forward and slammed into the third that was still standing. Her shotgun thundered, a point-blank shot that penetrated the machine's armor partially. The pilot inside stepped back and tried to aim one of his arm weapons at her, but Shepard was already in motion. Biotic power erupted under the armor and knocked its legs out from under the pilot. Shepard stepped up to the chest and discharged her weapon again, this time at the faceplate. The slug smashed through the armor and killed the pilot within.
With another sniper firing at them, Robert was busy deflecting that foe's shots and directing Ashley and Garrus toward him, leaving Wrex, Tali, and Kaidan to deal with the suit he'd toppled. The Panzergrenadier got back to his feet just to be thrown off them again by Wrex, who slammed into the armor at a full charge. While Wrex's shotgun boomed, wrecking one of the legs, Kaidan's biotics flared to life and tore the left arm off as it trained to aim at Wrex. Tali came up to the right side and used her omnitool to fire a cryoburst in the right arm, flash-freezing it in place. With his foe helpless, Wrex finished him off with three more shotgun blasts that overwhelmed his armor.
This proved the most intense of their battles on their way toward the grounds of the Führerhaus, itself part of a complex of buildings housing military command offices. Around them, the sun was starting to fall, helped by the choking clouds of smoke from the endless fires in the city. The light turned a sickening red-orange through the boiling, roiling clouds and cast unnatural shadows across the ground. Ahead of them, the architecture had a grandiose, Gothic feel to it; like much of the city it was built to transcend prior forms of similar structures. The effect was especially unnerving in the fading, smoke-choked light.
The group expected heavy resistance. More Panzergrenadiers, actual tanks, infantry in prepared defensive positions. What they found seemed more like stragglers, as if a more vital place was being defended. Individual squads of infantry who quickly fell to the powers and skills of the team. Approaching the building, Robert could sense something cold and dark ahead. He noticed Meridina and Lucy did as well, but none of them reacted.
"Might I suggest we split into teams to take different entrances?" Meridina asked. "I do not sense numerous foes in the structure."
"We can go through the front," Robert said. "Shepard, can you have your team sweep the north entrance? Depending on what we find, we'll break off and rejoin the others."
Shepard gave him a searching look. When he didn't blink she finally nodded. "Alright. Good luck, and keep in touch. Let's go everyone!" She led her team away to the side of the building.
Robert exchanged looks, and feelings, with Lucy and Meridina. They agreed that this might be safer for Shepard and her team. While I do not doubt Commander Shepard's combat abilities, nor her talent against those with swevyra, the rest of her team may not fare as well.
I was thinking more that Shepard can hit them from behind if we need her help, Robert responded mentally. "Let's go," he said aloud. "We need to find out what this darkness we're feeling is."
"Yeah." Lucy reached a hand up and pulled the ornate front doors off with a gesture. They entered.
The opening hall was much like any foyer to any office building, complete with directories and a desk for building security or information. That it was adorned with Nazi imagery was substantially less appealing.
Ahead of them there was movement. Six figures in what looked like specialized SS field uniforms were assembled by a lift. A look of angry familiarity crossed Lucy's face as the SS-garbed men turned to face the team.
At the rear stood one particular man, genetically-engineered to have the blond hair and blue eyes of the Nazi ideal, who gave them a contemptuous look.
"Fassbinder!" Robert called out.
A small, contempt-filled smile crossed the Nazi's face, after which he stepped into the open lift. "Deal with them," he ordered.
"Jawohl, mein Oberführer," one of the other men said. Like Fassbinder, like them all, he had blue eyes and blond hair, although his hair was a shade closer to gold than the others.
The door to the lift closed.
As the remaining five SS turned toward the trio Robert connected to Shepard with his omnitool. "We've got hostiles on this end, we'll hold them."
"Roger. Let us know if you need backup."
"Right." Robert lowered his omnitool. His right hand was already reaching for his weapon. Lucy and Meridina re-ignited their lightsabers a second before he did.
In a smooth coordinated motion, the five SS pulled objects from their belt. Robert didn't recognize the style, but he had a sudden horrible realization of what they were using, a realization that proved true when five blades of crimson light flashed to life with a harsh electronic snap and prolonged hiss.
The five charged toward the trio. Lucy and Meridina moved ahead to meet them. Robert, not the duelist either of them were, stood his ground to receive his initial attacker, or more accurately, to project force that stopped the SS in his tracks. Two hate-filled blue eyes started to turn yellow as the SS man met his power with the same, but colder, darker.
Lucy found herself dealing with two opponents. She kept her movements defensive, letting her blue blade intercept repeated strikes from the red blades of her opponents. Training with Julia and her own personal training came through for her here, as Lucy kept her movements short and quick, causing her trained but untried foes to waste energy trying to strike her. She weaved, ducked, and spun, her lightsaber flashing in the air to repeatedly meet her foes' attacks, even as they tried to flank her.
Meridina tried to engage two herself, and successfully locked blades with one. But the other continued on, coming to the aid of his comrade trying to attack Robert. She twirled, evaded a blow from her foe, and sent a bolt of force into the SS trooper's back that sent him flying before he could hit Robert from the side.
Robert, sensing the threat he might still face, chose to give ground as needed. He stepped back, letting his opponent move forward, and felt out for the other intended attacker. He felt the SS man stand, his heart full of fury, and felt dark power surge from that raw anger, that raw rage. He forced his focus to split long enough to generate a strong field of force that grabbed and threw his second opponent toward his first. He hadn't intended the result, but seeing them collide and fall in a tangle of limbs gave him a moment of amusement. Just a moment, however, as one of them quickly sat up and opened his hands toward Robert. As his eyes' gold color intensified Robert felt darkness well within the man. He was surprised when purplish electricity surged from the gloved hands of his foe. He barely got his lightsaber in the way in time. The lightning crackled angrily at the green energy of his blade, as if trying to arc around it.
Meridina's opponent was proving a skilled duelist, and Meridina sensed the scars on his face were part of that background. His style was unlike any Meridina had seen, with a lakesh or a lightsaber, consisting of quick one-handed movements while the free hand kept balance or acted as a focus for attacks with his darkness-tainted life force energy. She responded to the style with careful, defensive maneuvers, waiting to find her opening.
Robert's second foe stood. Like the other, dark power welled up within him and lightning crackled from his fingertips. Robert shifted his weapon until he was catching both attacks with it. He grunted with effort, supplementing the lightsaber's deflective properties with his own power, allowing him to weather the attack of his two foes.
With growing frustration and rage they escalated the power surging at him. Robert matched it with determination, continuing what was, for the moment, a stalemate.
Acting in concert Zack's infantry, the Marines, and the Dilgar under Ter'shar followed the Volkstrasse north toward the Brandenburg Gate. They broke to the east before reaching the parks of the Tiergarten. The enemy response to their advance was sporadic given the multiple Coalition thrusts toward the heart of the city and the strained resources of the divisions responsible for defending the capital.
The Dilgar troops had attacked with headlong aggression again and again, trying to get into the operational decision loop of the enemy. To a certain extent it had worked, because each time they had broken through. The casualties of Ter’shar’s battalion had been enormous, though. Combat car after combat car had gone up, their armour inadequate against the firepower of the Nazi defenders.
The result had been dead Dilgar, burned, minced, blasted to pieces, or dying in unusual composure from shockwaves. There were at least a hundred burned corpses in view of his position at the moment, and seventeen burned out Dilgar vehicles. Survivors threw up on the street as their NCOs screamed at them or, especially in the heat of the moment for silver furred old veterans of the Imperium’s military, beat or kicked them until they re-assumed their positions.
Zack found himself hunkered down with a young Dilgar corporal, or something like that anyway, who was attaching the guidance package to a new disposable anti-tank missile tube and checking the bullet count on her magazines. She was shaking, but looked intently at her weapons, focused on her job and forcing fingers through the motions.
She looked too damned young. “How old are you?” He asked, feeling as sick as he’d ever felt.
She looked up through wide, blue, catlike eyes and blinked hard. “Fifteen, human officer, Sir,” she answered in broken English, rising as she finished her checks.
“My God, why the hell are you here?”
“Because Dilgar are not beggars. We will show we equal. Sir.” She snapped the lock off her rifle, took one last look, and dashed to join another unit forming up.
“Jesus Christ.” The night was stealing his sight as he leaned back against the cold concrete, and he reached for his night-vision goggles. Zack could see pretty clearly the moral dimension. The Union espoused the values of democracy but Shai’jhur couldn’t change things in a day, or a generation. Their Army still ran on brutality and conscription. She needed the experienced people used to that. And she craved respect for her people. Redemption.
And they’d been too desperate for help in the war they’d started to say no. So they got fifteen year old conscripts. Zack remembered seeing them, was it minutes, was it hours, ago--probably shooting Nazi troops who had surrendered. Looking at the piles of charred corpses and burned out vehicles and that girl seared in his mind, he decided he hadn’t actually seen that and there was no need to bring it up.
One of his NCOs, Tucker Johansen, came trotting up with a report. Zack turned to greet him and shake the memory from his head when an abrupt explosion in the middle of the street sent a shockwave and shrapnel across their position. He watched as Tucker was literally shredded before his eyes, ripped by the shockwave and destroyed by shrapnel in so much of a heartbeat from the blast. A heartbeat later it sent him flying through a window into a shop. A meter to the right and he’d have been flung into the granite facing of the building instead.
The building like as not saved his life as the rest of the multiple rocket salvo slammed into the street in front of him in a continuous rippling detonation of impacts. The flashes were damped by filters in the night-vision goggles he was wearing, and as the roar of the impacts passed, he pulled himself to his feet and dashed back out into the street. The explosions had shredded the dead and the living alike, and this time his own soldiers were among the wounded. Forcing himself to overcome the impulse to stand and stagger insensately from the shock, he screamed at the top of his lungs. “CORPSMEN, CORPSMEN, GET CORPSMEN FORWARD NOW!!”
As they came forward, Zack could heard heavy fighting, direct-fire disruptors and cannon, on the right. The latest Dilgar push was at hammer and tongs with the enemy and the rockets must have been fire support from a surviving Nazi battery which had overshot its intended target, landing on his unit instead of the Dilgar. Or since they were all part of the same attack it didn’t matter and they’d simply targeted what they could. As the corpsmen came forward, Zack dashed for the wounded himself to help with first aid. At the moment it was all he could do.
Zack was busy checking up on one of his wounded, a young Irishman nearly disintegrated by the plasma warhead on one of the rockets, when the last two Dilgar combat cars still intact finished flanking the main enemy position on the lateral road just south of Brandenburger Tor. "Commander, we've got an open route," said Anders over the taclink. "My Marines have scouted the approach, no more opponents. It looks like they're pulling back to the University grounds. Bring your men forward."
"We're on our way," Zack said.
“Can you meet with me to plan out our attack as your unit moves up?”
“Yes, what’s the position of concentration?”
“Designated Alpha Sierra X-ray on the taclink.”
“Understood.” Zack switched to general tactical orders. “All troops, this is Commander Carrey. Converge on tactical point Alpha Sierra X-ray!”
With stretcher-bearers starting to take the wounded back to the nearest battalion aid station he felt confident with moving forward. After shaking the injured man's hand one last time Zack jumped on a passing Dilgar vehicle--the markings suggested it was reinforcements from a second battalion now coming up the road--and joined the infantry sitting on it in a ride toward the front. Around them the detritus of the city's smashed towers and structures filled the streets, as did the bodies of the dead. Zack was familiar with the later, he’d seen more in the last few hours than he could stand, he was more familiar than he'd ever imagined he'd be before the Facility was discovered, but the sheer wreckage of the city was something new. It reminded him more of alien invasion movies he'd seen back in the pre-Facility days of his life, but they didn't do justice to the sheer destructiveness of the battle. Oh yeah, there were pictures of this very city being wrecked by the Soviets in 1945, but they were after the fact, still images in black and white. This was seared in living color into his brain, right as it happened. A ringside seat to the devil’s show.
One of the Dilgar soldiers, a female, gave him a curious look. One of her companions growled something too lowly for his Universal Translator to bother translate, winning a hot look from the female. "Is something the matter?" he asked.
"Nothing of importance, Commander." The Dilgar spoke with something of an Anglo-Indian accent, although the sounds were off from normal given the Dilgar language's influence on her pronunciation. "Just a stupid young soldier making a crass remark." She reached into her pack and offered Zack a foil-covered strip. "Are you hungry? The meat strips are very good… Humans are omnivores, yes? You eat meat?"
"Unless we choose not to." Zack accepted the strip. He did feel rather hungry. He blinked at the taste. "Turkey jerky?"
The Dilgar answered with a nod.
"What's your name?"
“Master Kia’mur,” she answered, her rank indicating she was an NCO. “Sir.”
"Commander Zack Carrey," he answered.
The conversation ended as the vehicle pulled up to the southwestern border of the campus. There was a distant sound of pulse fire and the whine of disruptors. Zack dismounted and, after checking his pulse pistol's charge level, moved toward the sound of the fighting. He entered through a gate into the grounds.
The Friedrich-Wilhelm University was one of the premier institutions of learning in the Reich, and the regime had built it to match the rest of the capital. A wide courtyard filled with trees - most destroyed now - was surrounded by classically-designed structures, each bearing the name of a beloved Nazi scientist. Zack could see the Marines from the Aurora and his naval unit moving to occupy a corner of the courtyard, returning fire as they could. The Dilgar were assuming their own positions, reinforcements for Ter’shar’s battered command coming up fast. And to the south was another force, men in light and heavy power armor with a combination of pulse rifles and coilgun weaponry Zack wasn't immediately familiar with. He met Anders and King on their way to meet with the others, with Tra'dur and Talara following.
They were behind cover when a blast nearly lifted them off their feet. "That damn gun," Anders grumbled. In his armor he took the hit better than the others. "The Ratzis have a heavy cannon in an anti-fighter flak tower that can depress enough to sweep this entire arc. Not one of their usual disruptor models, this one's firing plasma. Superheated tungsten rounds. With their defences around it including at least twenty Lowes, taking this place is going to be bloody."
"Do we not have armored vehicles that can fight it?" asked Talara.
"The gun is huge, I don't think any tank without full deflectors for its size can take a direct hit from it," Anders said, "and they've got it behind protective fields on the tower, which is probably tritanium reinforced concrete. We called in air support, but the fighters are busy dealing with a fresh commitment of enemy air power. They're holding back missions until the flyboys and flygirls regain air superiority."
This conversation carried them into range of the armored infantry. One of them saw them coming and saluted in the British style. "Sir, Corporal Donald Hamilton, Black Watch 1st Battalion." His accent had a strong Scots burr.
"Who's in charge here?" asked King.
"That'd be Major Trewen, ma'am, I…"
Before he could finish there was a loud blast. This time the hit wasn't close enough to cause them any trouble, but the screams and cries of the affected made it clear the Nazis had fired for effect.
"Private!" Hamilton called one of his soldiers over. "Bring them to Major Trewen!"
As it turned out, Trewen was nearby, near the front with his troops and like Anders in combat armor. He saluted the new arrivals. His faceplate's transparency showed a man of slightly tanned complexion with brown eyes and what looked like a lock of brownish-red hair near his left eye. "Major Reginald Trewen, Commander of the Black Watch 1st Battalion." While his Scots accent was evident, the pronunciation was less pronounced.
"Commander Zachary Carrey, 5th Naval Infantry, and Major Gabriel Anders, Commander of Troops on the Starship Aurora," Zack answered. "And Captain Elizabeth King, nominally commander of the Starship Excalibur, on intelligence assignment."
"Major, the Union Division made it through?" King asked.
Trewen smiled slightly and nodded. "Aye, Captain. It was a right hard battle getting through the Heights, and some of the other units are still tied down there, but we got through with a couple of Dorei divisions. And I hear the FedStars' East Asia Division is coming in from the northeast. They should be here by tonight."
"We need to get in there immediately, Major," King said. "This facility is the entire reason for the invasion."
"I’ve heard rumours about that. Bloody Nazis with IU drives, talk about a nightmare." Trewen seemed distracted for a moment. "Captain, I hear you… I understand about the gun, but we've got supporting forces now, I want that position taken…" After the unheard Captain presumably made further remarks, Trewen sighed and said, "Standby, I'll see what I can do." Seeing the look of the others, Trewen said, "My lads and lasses have been in combat for days. We've already lost good people, and morale's cracking. But we'll get the job done."
"I'll comm Ter'shar, we'll launch a coordinated attack with you," Zack said, though he cringed at the idea of ordering the Dilgar battalion forward again with how many casualties it had already taken. Even as he said this, the enemy gun thundered again. This time the cries were further away, and Zack had the sick feeling his people had taken the hit. Taking that position without removing the gun is going to be messy. I'm going to get a lot of our people killed. If we could take out the gun…
He blinked and looked toward Talara, who was looking at him intently. "Commander, I may be able to help…" she began.
Will Atreiad, when faced with the renewal of the enemy's attack on the fleet, immediately breathed a prayer to the Lords to give him strength. The Koenig crew was ready as always, but he knew that sooner or later they'd hit their limit. It was always a human weakness; people get tired.
Sherlily was directing accurate fire into an enemy A-2000 that was currently shooting up a Dilgar-crewed Trigger-class ship. Said vessel pulled away, shields nearly depleted and several scorch marks on its hull, a warp nacelle inactive from battle damage. The Koenig came about to face another enemy destroyer squadron, this one coming in for an attack run on the Unity. Dilgar and Aururian fighters joined them in hitting the destroyers hard. Three exploded from direct hits before the others broke off, firing their torpedoes defiantly. The Unity's defenses engaged the torpedoes, shooting down three before the rest struck and disrupted the big dreadnought's shields. But the disruption did little to aid the Nazi battlecruiser the Unity was in the process of wrecking.
The Aurora was still in the thick of the fight, Will noticed, and she was paying the price for it. "Bring us back around. The Aurora's starboard shields are still weak."
"Already flying us that way," Apley confirmed. As always the ship's long-time XO kept a cool head in the crisis, flying the ship with skill and ease around incoming enemy fire. A super-disruptor beam meant for another ship slashed across the bow.
"Glancing hit. Shields down to thirty-eight percent," said Magda. "And we've got destroyers inbound for the Aurora."
"Take them out," ordered Will.
Again the Koenig crew executed an attack run, this one from the side of the attacking enemy division. A full torpedo spread and rapid phaser fire lashed out. The phasers battered away at one of the destroyers until it exploded; torpedoes damaged two more enemies. Sherlily's second barrage finished one of those off.
The ship shuddered violently. "Shields now at thirty percent," Magda said. "Enemy A-2000s approaching bearing one-six-six mark two-zero-nine."
Will considered breaking off, but he wanted to remove the destroyers hitting the Aurora on her weak side. "Maintain attack run." The ship shook again, another enemy hit despite Apley's efforts to keep the attack run up. Sherlily killed another of the enemy destroyers. Without needing the order she fired another torpedo spread. The blue-white drive fields of the projectiles sparkled in space before crashing into their victims. One more destroyer died, leaving four.
The Koenig rocked again. "Shields now at twenty-seven percent."
Sherlily kept up fire. As soon as she registered a reload, torpedoes fired once more. She fired aft torpedoes as well at their pursuers, registering a hit. Her forward fire eliminated another enemy destroyer and damaged one.
The enemy squadron fired in sequence. Four torpedoes per ship, meaning sixteen came at the Aurora on the weak side. "April!" Atreiad called out.
"On it!" She started firing phasers on the torpedoes. The Aurora's point defense particle interceptors joined in, filling space with blue bolts. Some of the torpedoes exploded as they were shot down. Then more.
In the end, six crashed into the Aurora's faltering shields, in sequence. Had they hit together it would have been bad enough, their shield-disrupting effects leading to immediate shield loss on that quarter. But hitting sequentially meant localized shield loss. Localized loss that, in the end, permitted two torpedoes to come through to crash into the Aurora's hull. One slammed against the upper starboard nacelle's pylon, blasting a hole through it and damaging the plasma feed leading into the nacelle. The other struck the drive hull, exploding against the armored hull. Despite that armor, damage spilled in to the ship's internal sections, albeit only along the hull, and the armor repair systems and forcefields quickly dealt with the hull breach.
That wasn't the only problem, though.
In Main Engineering Barnes noticed the problem first. "God dammit," he growled.
Scott looked over from where he was working and noticed the same; a red light on the ship's reactor coolant system. He quickly opened a comm. "Engineerin' tae Jakala, what's yer status?"
"Coolant rupture is confirmed," the Alakin answered. "The conduit to the primary heat exchanger is completely ruptured, Deck 24 Section P. We're suited up and well, but we're trapped until we can get the coolant line fixed."
"Dinnae bother with that, man! Check th' shunts an' shut down th' main line!"
"Acknowledged. We'll need a team in Section O while the bulkhead's sealed."
Scott furrowed his brow at that. With all of the damage occurring on the starboard side, his damage control teams were stretched thin. He'd have to divert one…
"Let me put one together," said Barnes. "I'll take Lopez, Aung, and Hataram, we'll get the work done."
"Good choices, lad. Get to it, an' remember tae wear th' environmental suit. Just in case."
"I don't wanna get flash-fried to a skeleton by plasma, so count on it." Barnes turned away. "Lopez! Aung! Hataram! Front and center! We've got work to do!"
The individuals in question - an Argentinian woman, a Burmese man, and a Gersallian male - looked up from their stations before responding. They fell in with Barnes as he left through the aft entrance to Main Engineering. Scott watched him go with confidence before returning his attention to the ship's faltering shield systems. The Aurora shook from another impact against the hull, the starboard shields degraded enough to allow bleedthrough. He went to work shifting the shields to adjust to this problem.
With the devastation in the courtyard of the Friedrich-Wilhelm University, cover was nearly impossible to find. The trees and bushes were charred husks and the beds for some of the plants lining the walkways were broken by repeated fire. Cover was more often provided by force shields deployed by the Alliance or Reich forces, and those could be overwhelmed by sufficient firepower. This was proven by the large plasma cannon that dominated the defensive position of the Nazi troops holding the other side of the University. It thundered once more, a white flash searing into unprotected retinas as it streaked across the darkness of the sky and toward the ground, a bolt of tungsten superheated into plasma that exploded against the shield and broke it immediately with enough leftover power to injure and kill the Dilgar troops using it for cover. Heavy fire fell on their position, causing more casualties before the survivors could get back out of the line of fire.
From one of the few spots behind cover, Zack was consulting with Ter'shar, the Dilgar commander. "Our flank attack to the north is being held back by an enemy column supported by armored vehicles," he said. "We will not be able to catch the enemy position in its flank. We’ve already taken four hundred casualties in this push, nearly half the battalion, and Battle Expert Fia’tur’s battalion as taken a hundred since it came up."
"Then we’ll try our plan instead, Battle Expert. Standby." Zack turned his attention to Talara, who was kneeling beside him. "Are you sure you can do this?" he asked.
Talara's initial thought was no, she wasn't. All she could do was try. But she thought of Lucy's lessons. That she had to be certain of her intent, that there was no such thing as trying, simply doing. There was no room for doubt. So she pushed it away. Her eyes, shining like blue crystal despite everything around them, met Zack's with determination. "I will," she said.
"No time like the present then," Zack said.
Talara nodded and turned her attention to the Nazis. She sensed them through the Flow of Life, sensed those who genuinely were ready to die for Hitler's Thousand Year Reich, and those who had no choice but to be here. She felt sorry for those souls born in this place of evil and forced to fight for that same evil. Such people might yet contribute to a better world, a better Multiverse, if they survived this battle.
Which meant she needed to act, to do her part to end the fighting, to save what lives she could.
Talara reached within for the energy there, the power of her life and its connection to the wider Flow of Life. She felt the golden warmth within and, as always, felt awed by its presence. She took that energy and reached out with it for the distant gun. She couldn't see it from the cover they were using but she didn't need to. She sensed the dark satisfaction of the gunners, firing with impunity behind the protective defenses of the massive flak tower to kill and maim their foes, well supported by comrades who would protect them, fighting for the defence of their homes. She coalesced her will around the weapon itself. It was not an easy thing and Talara nearly lost the grip several times, just managing to hold on.
Without warning the others Talara got to her feet. She needed to see what she was feeling for this final act, requiring her to expose herself to danger in the process. She felt the weapons turning toward her. She had seconds to act.
Talara's hand came up in a gesture, a focus for the invisible energies she was wielding. The power forced the Nazi-crewed cannon to point downward, its next shot striking its own allies and temporarily disturbing the enemy defense.
At Trewen's order the Black Watch launched an immediate attack on the defending positions. Again weapons fire blazed through the courtyard. The cannon's gun crew tried desperately to re-align their gun, but Talara kept it pointed too low to be used against the attackers, forcing the enemy to leave the gun unused. The flak tower commander quickly ordered his men to take up small arms and fire from the parapets and firing slits, but that was nothing in comparison to the big gun drawing power directly from the research reactor on the campus.
Soon the entire courtyard was alive with weapons fire, as the other units - including Zack's - joined the attack. Even without the cannon being in action, it was clear the Reich forces had a strong enough position that the attack might not make it Multiple troops fell to the emerald disruptor beams and anti-armor coilguns of the Reich troops. These enemy troops had the further advantage of being relatively fresh compared to the troops of the Alliance and Dilgar, worn down by the prior days of fighting.
Then mortars opened fire and swept the advance. The flashes of plasma dug craters into the ground and the hammering of shrapnel bombs going off in a carpet above the heads of the attackers ripped through the formation. Several heavy crew-served weapons opened up from the flanks, taking the attack in enfilade. The Highlanders peeled off groups of power armour to attack those, but it was clear that the better part of the force was now pinned down, going to ground as the field was churned and burned.
Even with cover, they were still taking casualties from the mortar bombs. The attack was already coming apart. Troops found themselves unable to attack or to retreat as the tanks fired shots over their heads, engaging with the Alliance tank company in support of Trewen’s men and checking them just as effectively as the infantry.
Zack watched the attack falter and then looked to the straining Talara. If she tired and that cannon came back into action, the entire force would be wiped out in minutes.
The battle in the foyer of the Führerhaus raged without end. Robert, Lucy, and Meridina had the superior talent and experience, their five SS foes the benefit of numbers and the surprise of what proficiency they did have, far beyond what had been expected. Lucy and Robert each continued to fight a pair of foes while Meridina fought a talented duelist alone. At a glance Robert thought Meridina's opponent's one-handed style seemed like fencing. She was adjusting to it, parrying the thrusts of his blade as they came. Nearby Lucy continued to spar with two foes. She alternated between them, her weapon at the ready, deflecting their attacks with skill. Occasionally she mixed in an attack. A couple were slashes that nearly struck home, but now it was a high kick that struck the chin of one of her foes, knocking him to the ground. This let her focus for a moment on her other foe. She drove him back several steps and delivered a swipe that came within an inch of a lethal blow.
Robert's foes had him on the defensive as well. He sensed their hostility, their hate, toward him, and their determination to kill him. Their tactics were to divide his attention; one would try to overwhelm him with darkness-infused lightning while the other went at his weak side with lightsaber attacks. Robert responded by giving ground where he could, circling around the foyer in the process and keeping either from attacking from behind. His lightsaber came up and parried a blow. He followed up the parry with a burst of invisible force that threw his foe backward and gave him space, but only for the moment before more of the lightning crackled through the air.
And so the dangerous dance went on.
From her place at the south entrance to the university grounds, Tra'dur could see that the attack was in danger of failing. The allied forces were tired and their morale ebbing while the enemy fought like a cornered beast. She felt for her gun but knew there was little she could do to turn the battle. Her last attempt to turn a situation around by motivating the assault on the skyscraper had ‘worked’ only in the sense that she had nearly been killed and had just prompted the Knights to attack.
She bitterly wondered how Fei'nur would take it, seeing her cowering here, her allies faltering as she did nothing. This was the kind of thing Fei'nur endured for years without complaint. She… Was a member of the clan of Dur. Dilgar were not cowards, and especially not her’s. She had seen so many dead Dilgar, laying scattered all around the streets in shocking, ghastly windrows of burnt and shattered corpses. The entire day had been a trek through dead Dilgar. They, who were so few, less than forty-five million where once there had been twelve billion, a fraction of a percent of their original population, were dying out of all proportion to all the other races and nations involved. At the will and design of your own Mother-Shai. That’s what killed them, don’t pretend it’s anything else. In all of our wars, your mothers have been giving the orders that got those kids killed.
Tra'dur spied one of the wounded being pulled through the entrance to safety in the street. Corpsmen responded immediately. The figure was one of the smaller ones among the Human regiment. Drawing close and watching the corpsmen remove the mask, Tra'dur saw it was a woman, of brown hair with her eyes closed and her face paling. A savage disruptor burn showed through a melted, exposed piece of her armor. On the pack fixed to her armor was gear… and one thing else that none of the others had.
Tra'dur was beside them when the corpsman removed the item to better handle the wounded. "Clear out!" one demanded of Tra'dur, working as he was on saving the life of the wounded. Tra'dur took a step back, but only a step, as her eyes remain fixed intently on the set of bagpipes removed from the wounded.
A sudden thought came to Tra'dur, one that brought with it a moment of fear, fear she forced away. That thought grew to a determination to action that led her to pick the discarded instrument up. With the practice of years, heightened by her off-duty sessions with Commander Scott, Tra'dur slung the instrument into place. A breath to prepare herself came and she re-entered the battleground. The ones who fought your mother’s troops all died you know, and you will die too. You know your mother’s troops brought her that set as a trophy of the body of a dead man. And in another five minutes, you’re going to be just as dead.
“But even my mother called them heroes,” Tra’dur answered aloud the voice in her head. And then she rolled out of cover.
The sight would always come back to the many soldiers fighting for the university commons. A lone figure, in a dirtied Alliance Stellar Navy field uniform, charging back into the firing zone, a set of bagpipes wailing. Tra'dur remembered the song among the many that Commander Scott had taught her, the quick march tune of the Black Watch, and so over the sounds of battle "All the Blue Bonnets are O'er the Border" could be heard.
Tra'dur had every right to expect she was about to die. Playing required her to be out in the open. A disruptor beam, fired from cover, sizzled just a meter away from her. That she survived the coming minutes could be attributed to the effect of her arrival on the battlefield. For as the song reached the ears of the soldiers around her, the weary men and women of the Black Watch felt a sudden surge of pride. The sight of this alien woman, a navy officer, playing their regimental march in clear sight of the enemy, galvanized that pride, or pushed with shame, it didn’t matter, not in that place, not at that time. With growing, fierce determination the Black Watch rallied. Soldier by soldier, squad by squad, they got to their feet and charged forward with a loud roar.
A figure appeared beside Tra'dur, though she didn't turn to face him for how focused she was on maintaining the Blue Bonnets at the quickened pace Scotty had taught her. "Keep playin' lass!" urged Major Trewen. His rifle barked fire, hitting a distant Reich soldier about to fire at them. "For God's sake, keep playing!"
She did. Somehow, by luck, by Gods, or just perhaps, by the respect that even the Nazi in their ranks felt for such a display of clean martial courage, she was not taken under fire and not hit.
The sudden charge of the Black Watch was joined by another. From the western edge of the courtyard the Dilgar soldiers, their own pride stimulated by the sight of Tra'dur and the Human soldiers she'd rallied, charged as well. The yowled cry was instantly translated by the comm systems of the adjoining Alliance Marines and Naval Infantry - "Harm's Way is the Valiant Way!" - who watched the Dilgar rush forward.
"Take that damn cannon!" Anders roared, bringing the Aurora's Marines into the attack.
"You heard the man!" Zack shouted into his unit's comms. "Everyone, go!" He glanced toward Talara, still concentrating and clearly near the edge of her endurance. As nobody was firing at them for the moment, he lifted his rifle and moved ahead, joining the growing charge for the enemy position.
Losses were taken by the Coalition in the charge. How many, perhaps hundreds. By that time, exact positions of casualty counts and where people fell, at what moment in what place, were becoming difficult to track. The tanks came forward. The Reich panzers, fighting hull-down, had an inestimable advantage and the Alliance tanks started to explode and burn as the Panzertruppen did their job.
In doing it, however, they were distracted. They were fighting their like, their equals. The coax guns were not sweeping across the field. They were not tracking to deliver main cannon fires to the infantry.
Even now, it was not a true charge in the classic sense. Everyone was too disciplined was for that. They advanced by squad, dashing crisply ahead, the Highlanders with bayonets fixed. Half of a platoon at a time would advance and the other half cover with crew-served weapons.
The delay, too, had given time for the Dilgar and Alliance troops to bring up heavy mortars which now engaged in earnest. Laying down a continuous suppressing fire as fast as the big 120’s could be worked, they forced the gunners on the crew-served disruptors and plasma guns in the defensive line to cover and killed more than a few.
Historians would probably debate in the future which component made a difference: The tank attack at close quarters, the mortar support, or -- the piping. But the men and women of the Black Watch had no doubt.
The attackers soon crashed into those defensive lines. It was a battle to the knife, with bayonet and pistol as much as rifle. The outlying defensive positions fell before the charge, which carried on into the next group and into the next. As they did, the tanks exchanged fire at twenty paces. At this distance it was like few armoured battles that had ever been witnessed, and was a bloody carnage where the explosions of tanks wounded, maimed and killed soldiers on both sides.
Glacis to glacis, they fired on each other. It was over in minutes, it seemed like every single one of the tanks was on fire, but two of the Alliance ones kept moving, grinding over the rude entrenchments. As they did, they crushed the piled dirt of the berms back into the positions, burying Reich soldiers alive as they crossed and swung their turrets rapidly to deliver enfilading fire down the line to support the attack.
Tra'dur witnessed the battle while continuing to play. Now the enemy was hard-pressed. Agan and again the tanks fired, ripping through entire long sections of the trench and clearing them away for the infantry to press on and over. The danger to her seemed to have faded, the enemy infantry having more pressing foes to shoot at, and incredibly she considered for a moment that she might survive.
Her attention was drawn to a soft moan nearby. She turned, still playing, and watched Talara drop to her knees. The Falaen woman was pale from exertion and exhaustion.
At that moment, the enemy cannon righted itself… and pointed right at Tra'dur.
The combat in orbit was taking on a desperate air as the numbers of SS fleet pressed down on the support fleet. The Aurora and the Enterprise remained in close formation to support one another while Koenig continued its difficult struggle to thwart destroyer attacks on the two ships.
The Enterprise was currently busy fighting off an enemy battlecruiser while the Aurora exchanged fire with another. The Lützow-class ship was an equal adversary even under the best conditions, and the damage to both maintained that equality. Disruptor beams and plasma beams lashed back and forth, degrading shields, while missiles and torpedoes strove to batter through weakened shields to damage hull.
After another of the exchanges with the enemy battlecruiser Jarod read off the shield status. "Fifteen percent."
"All available generators are engaged," Mallory added "That's all we can give."
Julia nodded in understanding. Given the current situation there wasn't much in the way of maneuvering they could do, not without exposing their weak starboard side. Although soon that wouldn't matter, as below ten percent the shields would start losing cohesion completely. She kept an eye on the tactical display beside her and Locarno. After considering it she said, "Helm, change heading, zero nine one mark zero zero six. Relay that change to the Enterprise and ask them to follow. Tactical, all weapons on the Enterprise's target."
"Locking on," Angel confirmed.
"The Enterprise is acknowledging and joining us," Locarno added.
The maneuver turned the Aurora to present her port side to her foe. It also cleared the way for her powerful bow armaments to unleash their full power on the Enterprise's foe. Said enemy recognized the change and attempted to maneuver as well, but the realization came too late to prevent both ships from unloading a full torpedo and energy weapon barrage. Amber and sapphire beams carved into the SS battlecruiser, joined by the sapphire pulses of the Aurora's pulse plasma cannons. Quantum and solar torpedoes followed up to exploit the increased strain on the enemy battlecruiser's shields. Some made it through, striking hull and inflicting significant damage.
As another exchange of fire occurred, Jarod's attention was drawn to a system alert. "I'm detecting a power loss."
"Where?" Julia asked.
"It's the naqia reactors, Captain," Mallory remarked. "Commander Scott has to take them offline due to the damage to the coolant system."
Julia didn't like the sound of that. While the ship's fusion reactors could power most of the basic systems - lighting, life support, gravity - the more power intensive systems like the shields and weapons required the energy provided by the naqia reactors. She pressed the intercom key on her chair and said, "Bridge to Engineering. Mister Scott, I need those reactors."
"I've got a couple online for ye, Captain, an' th' rest shud be back on soon. But we cannae run th' reactors on full with th' coolant system leak. They'll melt themselves down an' wreck th' ship."
Julia bit back a remark about Nazi weapons doing the same to the Aurora. "Understood. We'll do what we can. Bridge out." As she spoke the ship shook from a super-disruptor hit, a violent shaking that made Julia sure their hull had taken it. "Status?"
"Shields are at five percent, cohesion is failing," Jarod said. "Damage on Decks 18 and 19, Section J."
"Auto-repair systems are fully engaged," added Mallory.
Julia checked the tactical display again. She'd maneuvered away from their initial opponent to help the Enterprise face theirs with a certain expectation. Had she been wrong…?
No, she hadn't been.
The battlecruiser now to their port almost fired again when two powerful graviton bursts smashed against the ship. The nature of the weapon rendered the shields helpless to stop their effect, a violent shaking that caused the SS crew no shortage of problems. Further weapons fire struck at the shields, missiles and energy fire. From "above", the Aururian battlecruiser Maya-Mayi seemed to dive into the fray, her massed batteries of plasma cannon firing as the turrets stayed fixed through her manoeuvre, taking advantage of the disorder induced by the graviton cannon to bracket the Nazi with plasma fire.
Aururian destroyers positioned on her port flank broke for the opposite side of the Battlecruiser and dashed in on attack runs, their own smaller graviton weapons adding to the debilitation of the enemy battlecruiser, ‘ringing her bell’ from stem to stern as they prepared their torpedo attacks. The characteristic orange glow of the gas-pumped shields obscured both ship and the battlefield beyond.
The distraction allowed the Aurora to focus on her other foe. With the Enterprise contributing repeated phaser fire, the enemy battlecruiser was unable to resist the incoming salvo. It returned fire with desperation as it was carved up by the two ships.
The foe to port wasn't quite done, however. Being battered by the Aururians as she was, the SS battlecruiser kept some of her firepower on the Aurora, including her spinal-mount disruptor cannon. This again flashed to life, forming an emerald spear that pierced the Aurora's non-existent shields and slashed into her hull. The beam was powerful enough that the armor failed at the point of impact, allowing the beam to carve a wound deep into the Aurora's stern sections.
Including Section O.
The stern sections of the ship were mostly machinery spaces. Instead of the smooth corridor walls and ceilings of the rest of the ship, it more closely resembled submarines with the confined spaces and the tubing and other machinery parts that the engineers were tasked with directly accessing. Surfaces were more gray than blue and warning markings were on several surfaces, especially those that channeled the hyperconductive plasma used to draw heat from the naqia reactors and fusion reactors. They were more prevalent in this area of the ship, the guts of the vessel's primary heat exchanger.
The shunt that would re-direct plasma coolant around the break was nearly in place when everything went to hell. Barnes felt the ship shudder beneath his feet in the second before everything went sideways. The damage wrecked a portion of the plasma line, creating another breach through which super-hot plasma seeped through, filling the machinery space with a green mist that could virtually vaporize even bone with its sheer heat. The only reason Barnes and the others survived the following seconds was that their suits were designed to survive prolonged periods in these kinds of environments.
The problem was that the rupture was an explosive one. The heat and force of the plasma sheared through the structural bulkhead above their heads. Recognizing that the section was no longer safe, Barnes yelled, "Move on! I've got this!" to the rest of his team. They acknowledged and went to work on the rest of the shunt, leaving him to deal with the damaged section. He reached into the pack the team brought with them and drew out a sheet of specialized alloy material, made to resist the heat of the conductive plasma and a vital component in the plasma system. Using both hands he carefully set it over the breach in the shunt line, stopping the plasma from flowing out. He pulled a plasma welder from the suit tool belt and, with one hand on the sheet, welded the sheet into place.
The entire job took maybe a minute. Barnes was confident it would hold. Spying another break from the damage, he picked up another sheet and went over to fix the breach.
"Scott tae Barnes. What's th' status of th' coolant system?"
"I'm repairing the shunt now," Barnes replied. "This section's full of plasma too. The others may have gotten out, but I'm sure I'm sealed in."
"Do what ye can. Th' secondary heat exchangers took a direct hit an' we've lost them. Th' reactors are…"
Barnes didn't hear Scotty complete that line. Another thunderous roar filled the ship, likely from a torpedo or missile impact, with an explosion that sent a tremor through the hull.
Under ordinary circumstances this would not have been a problem. But with the prior damage from both the weapon impacts and the plasma leak, the entire section wasn't up to taking more of a pounding. The hits were the final straw, wrecking the decks above, breaking them up…
...and bringing them down on Barnes' head.
The Aururians finished off the enemy battlecruiser with a rippling destroyer salvo of close-range heavy torpedoes. The ship erupted across her beam, huge sections of plate blowing out cross the hull, the warp nacelle to port erupting in an explosion. The battlecruiser tumbled away, electric arcs from severed mains rippling across a ruined hull venting air and power. It had not been fast enough to stop her from loosing one last volley of missiles that now flew out from the stricken battlecruiser toward the Aurora.
Given their situation Violeta did what she could to evade them, but with a kilometer long vessel it wasn't possible to do so, not without a warp jump that was itself suicide in the great mass of ships, and bluntly, against orders. They had to stay and fight, for the sake of their friends on the surface. So she did her best, and hung on like hell. The particle interceptors did their work in attritioning the strike, but in the end three missiles still struck home. One slammed into the lower port warp nacelle and caused an explosion that tore the rear quarter off. The second and third both hit near the stern, exacerbating the prior damage.
On the bridge Jarod quickly confirmed the damage. "We've lost a warp nacelle, warp drive is offline. Major damage to Decks 23 through 27, Sections M through Q. The secondary heat exchanger's been destroyed."
Julia immediately realized how bad the situation was for them. "What about the primary?"
"The main coolant lines into the primary exchanger are still down," Jarod said. "The tertiary exchanger is running, but it's not designed to handle the amount of heat our reactors produce at full combat power."
"Head buildup has already begun," Mallory confirmed. "Engineering recommends a reduction of 40% to power output."
"In this fight?!" Locaron's incredulous outburst was punctuated by another hit to the ship. "We'll lose maneuverability and weapons power."
"And we'll lose the ship if the reactors melt down," Julia pointed out.
It was one of those tough decisions that could mean life or death for her ship, her crew, and herself… not to mention the friends she had aboard. Julia pondered the issue over the course of the following seconds before making her decision.
"We keep fighting," she said. "Give me everything you can, and hope the battle ends before we melt our reactors down."
The SS detachment, a reinforced squad from the Liebstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, was tasked with a special mission from Oberführer Fassbinder; hold the entrance to the backup stairway for the Führerbunker, buried below the similarly-named Führerhaus. Said structure, regardless of the name, was not entirely a residence for whomever was considered the leader of the Greater German Reich, rather it was an adjunct to the nearby Reichkanzli, where the ruler kept his offices. The Führerhaus was partly for social receptions, partly for housing the Führer's guests if any were in the capital. The actual leader rarely lived regularly in the structure, but it was still maintained over the centuries for the presence of the bunker complex beneath the building, a relic of the 20th and 21st Centuries when the Reich might still expect attack from foreign powers. This assured the bunker's reactivation as the Coalition forces drew closer and closer to Earth.
With a rapid fire disruptor pulse cannon, crew-served, watching the only approach to their position, the SS felt confident in repulsing any would-be assassins or attackers.
But for all of their confidence, the SS had one problem.
They didn't know anything about Krogan.
When Wrex came bursting through the wall beside them, their shock was complete. The gunner for the disruptor cannon barely had a moment to react before Wrex shot him in the face with his Claymore shotgun, making for a messy result. Behind Wrex Ashley and Kaidan poured through the hole in the wall, the latter throwing a biotic shockwave that knocked two more members of the squad down while Ashley gunned down another. The SS soldier nearest the disruptor cannon turned to go for the weapon. This allowed Shepard to blindside him with a biotic charge. After she slammed into him and sent him flying into the wall nearby, Shepard shot him with her Crusader shotgun, blowing a hole in the man's chest.
Not to be outdone, Garrus got the last with a pinpoint shot from his assault rifle, and Tali shot the two soldiers Kaidan had knocked down in quick succession.
A couple more shots for the remaining members of the detachment were necessary, but it was all over in ten seconds. "Looks like we found the entrance," Shepard said. She triggered her commlink. "Shepard here. We found a backdoor into the bunker."
"Still busy," was Robert's reply. "Good luck."
After the call was over, a bewildered Ashley asked, "Was that lightning I heard in the background?"
"Sounded like it to me." Garrus checked his rifle. "Probably some arcing power conduit. So, I've always wanted to capture a genocidal dictator."
"Just in case, I'd like some backup," Shepard said. She used her omnitool to tap into the Coalition military comms. "This is Commander Shepard of the Systems Alliance. My team has secured an entranceway into the Führerbunker."
Several moments later a reply came. "General Kylarjha here. I have troops on the north end of the Führerhaus that I can divert to your support. They will arrive shortly."
"Thank you, General. We'll hold until they arrive. Shepard out." Shepard looked to her team, who all responded by assuming defensive positions.
I wonder how the university assault is going Shepard thought to herself.
The assault cannon swung Tra'dur's way as she continued playing, and she knew there was no chance of getting away. She had already survived several minutes longer than she should have after Talara’s collapse thanks to the need of the Nazi commander to recall his gunners from small arms positions in the flak tower. The blast from its superheated plasma striking the ground would claim her even if she stopped playing and jumped. In that one crucial moment, she felt the supreme fear of imminent death that probably any mammal had, certainly her sister Nah would have said so, and yet she pushed it away. So, mother, she thought, and it was not about Shai’jhur, will we meet? Why were you … She shook away the vision and tried to think chants to the Gods at the same time she played.
The gun never fired.
There was a spurt of blood from control room. The gunner tried to scream, but it was little more than a gurgle through his opened throat accompanied by a brief bubbling of the blood now flowing freely into his lungs. The other gun crew sought out their comrade's killer, scrambling for their sidearms, but saw none. Not even as blades pierced their chests and throats did their killer appear before them.
In five seconds it was over. The gun crew lay slain upon the concrete decking around their dormant weapon, and the wraithlike figure descended, killing and killing again, sweeping through the tower from top to bottom.
Tra'dur played on. From the distance she couldn't see the fate of the gun crew, only that someone had gotten to them before they could fire on her. She celebrated her survival by playing the Blue Bonnets ever more enthusiastically, as if to spur on the weary soldiers of the Black Watch in this final assault.
In the end, it certainly worked. It was a squad of Black Watch soldiers who reached the flak tower first and another that secured the entrance to the Von Braun Academy. When they entered the flak tower, they found its defenders already dead. Few people in combat that fierce spend much time worrying about good fortune. Instead, they pushed on to fully clear the tower while a Lieutenant who had survived and spoke German raced to the top. The Nazis had been slain too quickly to lock down the controls, and he was successful in spinning the gun around to turn on its former owners. Now they would be the ones conducting a massacre.
The Dilgar went to work gathering surviving foes for captivity--when their officers could actually force them with shouting and punching to obey the laws of war--and the Marines and Naval Infantry flowed into the Von Braun Academy, rushing toward the labs that were their target. Tra'dur ceased playing when the firing stopped. She turned toward Major Trewen to thank him for his confidence.
She found Talara kneeling beside Trewen. A massive burn mark covered his failed armor over the heart. Tra'dur felt a rush of sadness for the brave man that died at her side, unnoticed in the heart of the fighting.
“He was exactly the same mettle as the Canadians at Balos,” she murmured, and dropped down at Talara’s side. Wresting his helmet from his armour, she closed his eyes and then used her combat knife to cut off some of his hair, thinking his family might want it as a Dilgar’s would if he were not recovered from the field.
“The Canadians at Balos?” Talara looked up.
“Yes, the Canadian Black Watch. They played their pipes as they died, covering the retreat of the rest of the human army into the tunnels during the old Imperium’s war. They fought like each of them was worth twenty Dilgar. I can barely believe I did the same.”
“I can barely believe this! How do you Dilgar survive it? How do humans survive it? Was this what my ancestors knew…” She looked down to Trewen’s face and started to cry.
Tra’dur reached out and hugged her, impulsively. “You fought as bravely as any other, and saved my life once already this night.”
Talara pushed away. “And that’s not enough, Tra’dur. There are people dying. Now.” She shook herself, and spun away to find the wounded and try to help.
Tra’dur stood there and watched her go. Then she swept her gaze across the battlefield. The big gun was firing now at the Nazis instead of her side, driving them further back from the University. The tanks were burned out by the dozen along the line of the entrenchments. There were medics working everywhere, but just as many dead bodies simply abandoned.
She turned to head into the university when an invisible fist knocked her into the dirt. “You stupid, stupid kit.”
“Mrroff...” She rolled on the dirt, blinking her eyes and realising her vision was obscured because her night-vision goggles were covered in dirt. She pulled them off, blinking hard.
Fei’nur was standing above her, glaring. “How could I survive the Supreme Warmaster’s wrath if you were killed that stupidly, fighting a war for glory and not survival? How could I live with myself if one of the girls I raised since before they could speak were dead? How could I survive the quiet sadness in the Warmaster’s eyes when I returned?”
“She’s not alive, she’s not coming back… And my mother-Shai sent these girls off to die, the least..”
Fei’nur kicked her. “Do not do such things. By rights, you should not have survived. The enemy spared you because they thought you were mad, because they had not faced such a lunatic in so long that they did not realise until too late the moral effect you had on your human troops. Learn your lesson, girl!”
Tra’dur groaned. “I’ll never do it again,” she whispered softly.
“Good. The death of many is not solved by the death of one. It just means you’re dead.” She reached down and hauled Tra’dur up by the scruff of her neck, the girl collapsing into a mass of relaxed muscles under the enormous strength of the Spectre.
And then Fei’nur hugged her tightly and kissed her cheeks. “You scared me so much, girl. Now, don’t forget this lesson.”
“I won’t… Thank you, Fei’nur.”
“You’re welcome,” the old commando snorted softly, and gestured on to the university. “Now, come on, I’ll help you catch up with what you were actually supposed to be doing down here.”
The battle in the Führerhaus foyer showed little sign of abating. Lucy continued her careful dueling between two adversaries, anticipating their attacks enough to eliminate their numerical advantage. Her blade stayed in near constant motion, parrying and deflecting strikes. Her concentration was absolute; her defensive stance unyielding.
Meridina had little time to note this, although she still did. Her opponent's unique style and talent with the blade forced careful attention from her. She attempted another mental attack just for the SS duelist's mental defenses to block it. While he was not a telepath, his darkened swevyra gave him some protection. Enough that she could not focus her mental gifts enough to break it without leaving herself open to attack.
There was a common concern for both; Robert. He remained in the fight as well, but his relative lack of skill with a lightsaber required him to fall back on the raw power he now wielded. He used his blade for defense only, deflecting lightning and lightsaber strikes from his foes while giving ground as necessary. He was not above an attack with his powers either. One of his foes leapt at him with a raised lightsaber, looking to catch Robert on his weak side. With a flick of his wrist and a greater surge of focus, Robert sent a table in the foyer flying into the man. He caught his foe in mid-air with the table and sent both flying to the ground. He immediately shifted his attention back to his other foe. Lightning, hued purple and full of cold, deadly hate, crackled at Robert. He caught it with his green lightsaber blade, deflecting the lightning into the ceiling.
Meridina sensed the growing frustration of her opponent. He was used to winning more swiftly than this, and he found her dueling style simplistic but difficult to overcome. This frustration was to his detriment and her aid, turning his movements into aggressive but ill-thought strikes she easily parried. She watched her footwork carefully until the moment to strike came. Her enemy misstepped in a strike at her, allowing Meridina to evade said strike and get a clean attack of her own. Her lightsaber plunged into his chest, striking the lung. A surprised look came to the scarred man's face. He choked something before collapsing.
Meridina readied to go to Lucy's aid. She turned toward her former student to find Lucy being attacked from both sides. Her foes had maneuvered themselves so that one could get a clean strike at her back.
Which was exactly what Lucy wanted.
She sensed the lunge coming and ducked down, spinning as she did. Her foe's blade nearly struck her despite the maneuver, landing a glancing blow her armor absorbed. She swung her lightsaber in an upward cut that passed cleanly through her foe's forearms. The SS man cried out in shock and pain at his sudden dismemberment. Lucy kicked him hard enough to send him to the ground.
The kicking motion continued, letting her spin and catch her other foe as his weapon came for her. Her lightsaber parried that blow, then the next. Her foe's frustration turned to anger. The dark power within him intensified, but Lucy gave him no time to bring it into play. She parried the third blow and followed up with a swipe of her own that grazed the shoulder of the SS fighter. He reached instinctively for the wound before returning his attention to the fight. Lucy attacked again, then yet again, and it was soon clear she had her opponent on the backfoot.
Meridina turned her attention instead to Robert, still holding off two opponents with his abilities if not his blade work. She rushed forward and used her weapon to parry a blow from his second opponent, who backed away at facing a new foe.
Robert's other opponent responded by generating as much dark lightning as he could. Robert met it with his blade, shielding Meridina from the attack to let her focus on her new adversary. As soon as the lightning weakened he pushed his free hand forward. A bolt of force slammed into his enemy, throwing him back into a portrait of what looked like Goering. The SS trooper nearly got back to his feet when Robert gripped him with life energy and sent him flying into the far wall, then into the ceiling.
While Robert kept his lone remaining foe in the air, slamming into the walls and ceiling of the foyer, Meridina found her new opponent an inferior duelist. She easily parried his frustrated blows with his crimson-bladed lightsaber. In a flash of blue light her own weapon slashed across his left arm, wounding and distracting him. Her next strike was barely deflected in time, but it left her opponent open to a powerful push with Meridina's swevyra that threw him into the wall. Meridina followed that by using the same power to grip his weapon and pull it from his weakened grasp. Disarmed and wounded, he was now susceptible to fall to mental attacks. Meridina forced a sleep command into his mind.
Lucy's remaining foe made one desperate attempt to regain control of the duel, throwing a series of wild strikes toward Lucy's head. Lucy deflected them easily, one two three, and on the fourth maneuvered into place. Again her lightsaber flashed and again a pair of severed limbs struck the floor. She whipped her lightsaber around in a brief flourish before pointing it toward the SS trooper's hate-filled face, triumph showing on her own.
Sensing the others were finished, Robert slammed his opponent into the ground. All of the impacts left the SS man so dazed he didn't resist Robert reaching out with his life energy to pull the lightsaber from his foe's weak grip.
His opponent glared hate at him, as did the others still conscious. Then, one by one, each bit down on something. There was a small cracking noise before they started to convulse.
"Suicide pills." Robert frowned.
Meridina went over to the only one of their foes who was in no shape to commit suicide, the enemy she'd rendered unconscious with her telepathy. "I will attempt to find and remove the suicide capsule from this man."
"Sounds good to me." Robert looked toward the lift Fassbinder had gone down in. After sensing Lucy's readiness to join him, he pressed a key on his omnitool. "Dale to Shepard. We're done here."
"We're going in. You're free to join us."
"We're on our way," was his immediate response.
More weapons fire played across the hull of the Aurora, preventing her weakened shields from regaining the coherence needed to repel fire. They left scorch marks across the azure skin of the vessel, marks slowly disappearing with the operation of the armor self-repair system.
On the Aurora bridge Julia watched Angel return fire against the responsible foe, a Nazi cruiser. The vessel, a slant-hulled design, suffered immediately from the pulse plasma cannons on the Aurora's bow. With its shields failed, the cruiser couldn't endure the strikes to its unshielded hull. Its own weapons blew apart under the fury of the Aurora's firepower.
"Heat levels in the reactor systems are approaching the redline, Captain," Mallory reported. "We need to power down most of the reactors."
Before either Julia or Locarno could disagree, their case against this was provided by the approach of another Reich dreadnought. Once, the presence of a single one had been attended with terror, but in this battle they had fought, and destroyed, more than Julia could even remember at the moment, a fact that drove home the intensity of the fighting, and her own grueling exhaustion.
The ship completed a sharp turn to contact, and the spinal-mounted "super-disruptor" assembly opened fire immediately. Only by a tight maneuver, one impossible with the desired shutdowns, did Violeta evade enough that only of the three beams struck the ship. That blow was severe enough, carving a deep gash through the primary hull and destroying one of the pulse plasma cannons.
Julia re-opened a channel to Engineering. "Mister Scott, we're still under heavy fire, we need those reactors running!"
"I cannae do much more, Captain," was his response. "Th' stern's taken tae many hits, we dinnae have th' time t' cut through th' wreckage an' make repairs!"
"What if we shut down power to weapons?" Locarno asked. "We focus entirely on evasive maneuvers until the coolant system is repaired or we can break free of the battle?"
Julia considered that. The Aurora was taking heavy fire and suffering from it with her lost shields. Trying to pull back in the formation to make quick repairs made sense.
The problem was there was nowhere to pull back. While Maran was engaging the bulk of the enemy fleet out past Neptune, the SS fleet was numerically larger than the support fleet. Every ship was needed at its place in the line. The slightest loss of offensive capability could turn the battle against the fleet. Until the battle was decided, she needed to keep the ship firing as long as possible.
"No. We keep weapons and engines going." Julia re-opened the channel to Engineering. "Mister Scott, shut down all non-essential systems and dial down the reactors as much as you can to keep us flying and fighting."
"It willnae be nearly enough…"
"I know, but the fleet needs our guns in the fight." As Julia spoke the Aurora's weapons battered away at the damaged enemy dreadnought. An Aururian dreadnought--the Silver Sea--was alongside the SS ship, pouring fire into it as well, and on the holo-viewer she watched the Enterprise execute an attack run with the Koenig while the Maya-Mayi and the Thunder Child directed heavy fire into the beam opposite the Silver Sea. Given the defenses of the SS vessel, these ships still needed the Aurora's guns and torpedoes in the fight. "Do what you can, Mister Scott. But keep us fighting. Bridge out."
"Primary Reactors 1 and 4 are at maximum safety threshold for heat. 2 and 3 are at 95% and still climbing," Mallory warned.
Julia said nothing in reply to that. She'd already said everything she needed to.
The same data was showing on the boards of Main Engineering. The chamber itself was heating up as well. Sweat dripped down Scotty's face while he looked over the board. "Ensign Aung, have ye got th' new shunt line through yet?"
"Negative, sir," Aung answered. "We can't get through the wreckage to Section P and the heat exchanger hook up."
"I sent ye a team…"
"They're trying to cut through, but there's so much damage…"
"Do what ye can, lad, or we're losin' th' ship!" Scott turned away and noted one of his teams spraying a reactor down with liquid helium, trying to cool it. It was itself a dangerous method, and it might even require extensive repairs to the reactor, but if it saved the ship Scott considered it worthwhile.
He eyed the damaged sections in the stern again before keying the comms. "Scott tae Barnes. C'mon lad, are ye there? I'm showin' a life sign…"
"....lad, are ye there? I'm showin' a life sign, Tom, I know ye're alive in there…"
His mentor's voice helped coax Barnes back to consciousness. He tried to move his right hand, but couldn't. Pain shot through the arm, terrible pain. He ended up reaching with his left hand until he was able to get a grip on the shattered plating over his head and move it.
His legs moved more easily. He wasn't completely buried under the wreckage of the deck that had fallen upon him. Barnes used his legs to begin pushing himself free, whimpering as he did at the savage pain shooting up his right arm. Only as he got himself free did he look toward said arm to confirm his suspicions.
For one thing, the arm was broken in at least two places, courtesy of the heavy structural member that landed on it. His hand hung limply from the pieces his arm was sandwiched between.
But on top of that, there was the sharp piece of broken, blood-stained metal showing through his bicep and thrusting into the debris below. His arm wasn't just stuck, it was pinned in place.
"Frak me this Goddamned hurts!" he shouted.
Scotty's voice helped him gain focus. He nearly bit his tongue from the intensity of the pain. "My arm… it's pinned. Frak me it hurts!"
"Tom, ye're th' only one who can save th' ship now."
That remark drew Barnes' attention through the pain. "What?" he croaked.
"I cannae get any teams in t' restore th' shunt. Th' last break is right there by ye. If ye dinnae fix it, th' reactors are goin' tae overheat. We'll lose th' ship."
Barnes immediate recommendation was to just shut reactors down until the cooling systems could handle the load. But he immediately knew that wouldn't work. The Aurora needed power for its weapons, its engines, its sensors. Maybe not as much power as it needed to open IU jump points or power the warp drive, but enough that the some of the reactors were still needed and, in turn, needed to be cooled. And if the secondary heat exchangers were down…
He swallowed. Heat wouldn't destabilize naqia by itself, rendering it delicate and unstable, but it would still wreck the reactors and they, in turn, would ruin the drive section with the resulting meltdown. The Aurora wouldn't survive that in the middle of a battle.
A distant hull breach had sucked all of the plasma out of the compartment, at least, so he could see clearly. He looked up to the breach in the plasma line he'd been about to fix when it all came crashing on top of him. It was still open. "Scotty, just the one breach, right?"
Nearby his plasma welder and the plate to cover the breach were still intact. He reached with his left arm and pulled the plate over, then the welder. His attempt to stand up quickly showed he couldn't. His right arm was still locked in place by the wreckage. He pressed his body against it, but nothing would yield. He was stuck and it hurt.
"Lad, we dinnae have much time left! All o' th' reactors are overheatin'!"
Tears of pain were starting to obscure his vision. He didn't dare remove the helmet to wipe them away. He glanced from the damaged shunt line, out of reach from here, and back to his pinned arm.
And he knew there was only one way this was going to work.
"Frak me," Barnes grumbled, picking up the welder again. "Frak me frak me frak me…"
In orbit over the burning Reich capital, the fight between the support fleet for the invasion and SS naval forces raged in all of its fury. The Aurora, despite her increasing damage, remained in the thick of the fight. On her bridge Julia could do nothing to relieve the tension of waiting to see if the reactors would finally melt down. Both the tactical viewer and the main holo-viewer showed the ferocity of the battle raging around them. The Aururians were now taking the brunt of the fight and giving as good as they got. She watched a burning SS dreadnought, one of the long-dreaded Aryan-class ships, skewer the Maya-Mayi right before their eyes at close-range, with a solid hit from its spinal-mount disruptors while the Aururian battlecruiser was evading the same weapons mounted on a Reich battlecruiser.
The shot tore through the primary armour and straight through half the hull before coming to a stop. A moment later a massive explosion from one of the reactors vented straight out the hole the disruptor had just created. Half of the dreadnought-sized battlecruiser’s engine banks immediately went dark. “Shit,” Violeta muttered from her station. Julia was for a moment expecting the worst, but the massively armoured internal subdivision of the ship held. When she realised it would, she sighed in relief.
The Aururian ship was only wounded, not dead, and given the reputation of her captain, the famed Margrethe von Lohringhoven, she retaliated with a tremendous fusillade from her missile batteries, turreted plasma cannon, and point-blank heavy torpedoes. The enemy ship's shields were degraded enough that they couldn't stop every missile, causing explosions to flower along the ship's dark surface. Without orders Angel assisted, scourging the enemy dreadnought with the Aurora's remaining plasma cannon emitters on the port side. The double lightning bolt insignia of the SS was erased by the sapphire beams ripping along her hull.
The bombardment allowed the Koenig and a pair of Trigger-class attack ships to make a successful attack run. Solar torpedoes blew apart the spinal mounts that had just damaged Iron Margrethe's vessel. Pulse phaser cannons ripped up hull and further damaged the dreadnought. The Aurora's weapons thundered again, blasting chunks of hull and material away from the stricken bow.
The battlecruiser the Maya-Mayi was facing opened fire on the beleaguered ships as well. But while its disruptor beams played along the damaged hull of the Aurora, the heavier bombardment it loosed did not strike the Maya-Mayi as intended. A Traynari-class emergency-construction cruiser in Dilgar colors, the Ghatarn, soared in to take the blow on partially-intact shields, giving the overwhelmed gravitic shielding of the Maya-Mayi an important reprieve. Julia smiled tightly. She knew that was Zhengli Varma over there, fighting as courageously as she had at Tira.
Of course, for all that, none of it could save them as long as they stayed in action at full power. Like an old waterborne dreadnought damaged by a torpedo and electing to strain her bulkheads by staying at full power to keep in the line of battle, Julia’s command was literally killing herself to keep fighting. Dreading the answer to the question before she’d asked it, Julia looked to Mallory. "Reactor status, Mister Mallory?"
"All reactors are overheating," he said. "If we don't power down now I estimate… wait."
"Ensign?" Julia asked pointedly, not particularly patient on the survival of her ship.
"Heat levels are decreasing." Mallory checked his readouts. "The primary heat exchanger is dumping heat again. The coolant flow has been restored to 80% capacity."
Julia's initial thought was that Scotty really was a miracle worker. Her second was that she had to keep the ship alive long enough to thank him for being one.
The Wernher von Braun Academy was several stories tall, not counting the subbasement. Through it's halls the 5th Naval Infantry Company and the Aurora Marines moved on. Each hallway corner, each room, was a potential strongpoint for the defenders, as scattered and disorganized as they where.e the space the
Zack and Anders led their forces cautiously as a result. Every room was carefully screened. The slightest resistance resulted in grenades or heavy fire from the remaining power-armored Marines. As each section of the building was secured, the Alliance and Dilgar troops behind them moved in to hold these areas.
Zack sent Tachibana and one platoon to begin securing upper floors. He and Anders headed down. Lifts were avoided - they were too easily booby-trapped - and the stairs utilized. Locked doors were quickly blasted open. Zack kept glancing back toward his omnitool, following the particle trace Caterina had found.
This led them to the third subbasement, which was where they found their heaviest resistance in the structure. Rapid disruptor fire, from disruptor pulse cannons, filled the hall leading to what the signs' translations indicated was a lab. Zack kept to cover with Anders, who motioned for his Marines to double around. "Sonic imaging of the floor indicates a side approach," Anders said to him.
"They probably have that covered too."
"But by how many weapons? If that's their only heavy weapon, they can't easily cover both approaches."
The answer soon came: it was the only weapon. With that knowledge in mind Anders quickly formulated a plan. "Coleman, have your squad link shields. It'll buy time for us to take them out."
Moments later Coleman's squad came from the closer approach. Four power armored Marines with their armor's protective fields linking together. The heavy weapon's shots dissipated against the shields. They wouldn't for long, though, so Anders and Zack had to act immediately.
They did, moving up behind the armored Marines and tossing grenades over them. The one-way shields allowed the grenades to pass and land near the enemy. There were surprised cries in the moments before the blasts thumped through the hall. The Marines' shields held back the blast, but the enemy light infantry had nothing to do the same with.
The unit moved onward into the lab, spreading out to take control. Men in white lab coats surrendered the moment guns came up. The fear in their faces made Zack wonder if they expected summary execution or something of the like.
King was soon behind him. She looked as ragged as everyone else, a look enhanced by the bandage wrapped around her head. "The trace is strongest here," she said.
Looking at the center of the lab, Zack nodded. "Yeah, and it's pretty clear why," he noted.
In the middle of the lab, covered in wiring and cabling, was the familiar sight of an interuniversal jump drive.
For centuries the Liebstandarte SS Adolf Hitler remained named for the First Führer, proudly serving as the bodyguard unit (and occasionally Praetorian Guard) for the rulers of the Reich. Nominally an infantry regiment it was occasionally raised to the level of division depending on the whims of the Führer or, now, in a war with a vast Multiverse of species and nations who stood in agreement that the Reich should be destroyed.
Now some of the best soldiers in that regiment, members of the bodyguard company of their Führer, were holding defensive positions in the war room of the Fürherbunker. The holographic displays told everything about the Reich's dire situation, with half of the Reich's territorial space lost to the enemy or to revolt, the fleets scattered and broken, and Welthauptstadt Germania herself ablaze over their heads. For these desperate men, this was nothing less than the Gotterdammerung. But each was ready to drag a hundred enemies of their Reich and Volk with them into the Abyss.
When the far door blew open, each man opened fire with their disruptor rifles, spraying the entranceway with deadly green light. Only after several seconds of firing was it clear no foe was entering.
When the attack came, it came from above. The ceiling above them was blown downward by an incredible force, the debris smashing the central holotank of the chamber. Through the hole dropped two foes, both hated untermensch females of bronze coloring.
Lucy and Shepard landed back to back, Lucy's lightsaber flashing to life in the seconds before she landed, and immediately went to work. The sapphire blade of Lucy's weapon cleaved through the air and sliced a disruptor rifle in half, after which an invisible shockwave of force threw four of the SS soldiers back. Shepard's arm shot forward and a wide ripple of biotic explosions raced across the floor, wrecking more of the war room displays and throwing SS soldiers backward and sideways. Biotic energy formed around Shepard and she shot forward, the dark matter thick enough to distort a disruptor beam that stabbed at her shoulder. The shooter was blown into the far wall with enough force that he blacked out. One of his comrades was a half-second from firing when Shepard's shotgun barked, blasting a hole through the soldier's armor.
Through the door the assault now came. Robert rushed in first, the green of his weapon flashing through the air and deflecting the disruptor beams of his foes. Behind him Ashley and Garrus entered, assault rifles blazing, with Wrex and Tali behind them and a squad, then a whole platoon, of Aururian soldiers joining the fight. Kaidan dropped down through the hole in the ceiling in the company of an Aururian soldier. Both fired as they landed and began moving, clearing the way for more Aururians that jumped down through the hole.
The SS men were caught by surprise and never really regained their footing. The room was overrun too quickly for them to do so, and in less than a minute from the initial breach they were utterly defeated.
In their resistance they did manage some return fire. One disruptor bolt clipped Tali. Shepard and Robert immediately went to her where she collapsed, seemingly more stunned than in pain, but Robert sensed a surge of fear before she confirmed, "My suit is breached. I need help," Tali insisted with a voice on the verge of panic.
Robert knelt beside her and focused his hands toward the breached suit. It took a lot of focus to generate invisible, airtight force around the break, such that Shepard had to nudge him when an Aururian corpswoman was ready to slap a wound sealant on the breach. He let her do so.
"My suit's been breached," Tali said again.
"Her species has a non-existent immune system," Shepard said to the Aururian. "Any infection is dangerous. If you can arrange for the SSV Normandy to land and pick her up, Doctor Chakwas is equipped to care for her."
"I understand, Commander," the woman replied with a thick Russian accent.
"You're in good hands, Tali," Shepard assured her.
"We'll be right back," Robert added.
"Get the bosh'tet," Tali demanded.
They walked on to join the others. Lucy and Ashley were in the lead, Lucy's lightsaber already melting through the armored door to Führer Sauckel's inner office and living quarters. "The room's shielded, so sensors can't tell if there's anyone on the other side," Ashley informed them.
Shepard glanced toward Robert, but it was Lucy who said, "I don't sense anyone alive on the other end." She finished a circular cut that left a glowing box in the middle of the door. Robert did the honors of smashing the door in, sending the cut portion flying in with enough force to ruin the day of anyone inside. Once the gap in the door existed, Shepard rushed in, shotgun at the ready, with Lucy and Ashley behind.
Within seconds the entire team was inside, the Aururians close behind. The moment was surreal to Robert: here he was, in the inner sanctum of the leader of the Nazi Reich, and ready to face that same leader. He knew from captured images and propaganda broadcasts that Führer Ludwig-Friedrich Sauckel was hardly the image of Aryan perfection. He was a slight, balding middle-aged man of dark hair and brown eyes, unmarried, a life-long Party bureaucrat who was elevated to his position as a compromise following an indecisive internal struggle between the various factions of the government. Half of the reason he was picked was apparently due to his ancestry as a descendant of Fritz Sauckel, one of the first generation of Nazi officials, and the propaganda benefits of this familial link.
Now Robert might finally get to meet this man, the embodiment of the evil that had shed so much blood over the last five centuries of the S4W8 universe.
He was still wondering how Sauckel would react to capture when he stepped with Shepard into the bedroom. It was barely furnished, with a hard cot. The only sign of habitation was a desk with miniature starship models laying upon it, some only half-painted, and a painting set to one side. A figure was slumped over on the table.
Disappointment welled up within Robert. He said nothing as Shepard went up and examined the figure. "He's dead," Shepard said. She seemed disappointed as well.
Robert stepped up and pulled the body back. There were no marks on it. No disruptor burns. Just a look of pain and resignation on the face of the German Führer, testament to his final moments. He quickly keyed his omnitool. "This is Captain Robert Dale to all Coalition commands. We have captured the Führerbunker. Sauckel is dead. I repeat, the Nazi leader is dead."
"Damn," Garrus mumbled. "I guess that one's going back on the… what did Doctor Chakwas call it again?" He looked to Kaidan. "The pail list?"
"Bucket," Kaidan answered numbly. "Bucket list."
"All of this way and the bastard suicided," Ashley grumbled. "Goddamned Nazi coward."
"I'm not sure he suicided," Lucy said.
"Why do you say that?" asked Shepard.
"There's no disruptor burns," she replied. "And he didn't hang himself. I don't sense poison, and his lips aren't blue. I guess there are poisons that wouldn't show themselves, but I… no, I don't think it's poison. Plus, there's another problem." She gave Robert a worried look.
"Oh?" asked Wrex.
"Fassbinder came down here," Robert said. "So where the hell is he?"
While word quickly spread through Germania that the Reich's Führer was dead, the battle in orbit continued between fleets that seemed locked into place by their own desperation. Both sides were fighting until their ships died or simply quit from excessive damage. The Aurora was one ship still in the fight while clearly at the edge of her endurance. Her azure hull was marked with battle damage that her overtaxed self-repair systems had yet to patch. Multiple weapon emplacements were down. The ship's stern section was a mess from extensive battle damage with two nacelles mutilated by attack.
Yet despite her damage, the Aurora remained at her place in the battle, continuing to fight alongside the rest of her comrades and allies.
An enemy cruiser, Sedan-class, was coming up on the starboard side. Ordinarily the Aurora was more than a match for a vessel of that design, but in her damaged state a Sedan was a dangerous foe and demanded attention. Julia considered the tactical map as another series of disruptor beams cut into the Aurora's hull. "Damage on multiple decks, multiple sections, primary hull," Jarod said, his way of informing her the actual list of decks and sections would take too long to mention aloud. “And the armour self-repair mechanisms on the primary hull have also failed.”
"I just lost two starboard plasma emplacements," added Angel.
"Helm, one six two mark three four four, on my mark," Julia said.
Julia waited another moment, just to be sure, before affirming the order. 'Mark!"
The Aurora turned to starboard and raised her bow, a maneuver meant to bring heavier weapons to bear on the cruiser. The cruiser commander, aware of the threat posed, maneuvered to keep his ship to the Aurora's starboard.
As Julia had hoped, this maneuver doomed the SS cruiser.
The SS commander was so focused on the Aurora he didn't notice the other threats taking an interest in his command. Not until it was too late. The Sedan-class ship was suddenly struck on two arcs by the Ghatarn and the Wrath. The two Dilgar ships--one a rebuilt relic from the terrible glory days of the Imperium, the other a brand new ship provided to the new Dilgar state by the Alliance they sought to join--worked together admirably to slice the Reich ship to pieces, delivering blow after blow. When the Hyach lasers on the Wrath fired, they stuttered down the length of the cruiser and tore completely through the hull. The dying blast left the ship annihilated, just blazing sparks disappearing into space to mark the deaths of her crew and steel alike.
Angel was already directing fire on another target when it all ended. The SS ships suddenly broke away from orbit. After a final exchange of fire with the battered support fleet, the vessels all jumped to warp speed.
For a moment there was no reaction on the Aurora bridge. Finally Angel asked, "Is that it? Did they all leave?"
Cat nodded. "The space around us is clear. The SS fleet… they just warped out."
Despite the intense curiosity Julia felt at that announcement, she knew she had other things to deal with. "Stand down from combat alert. I want every repair team we can spare getting the ship ready for another fight, if it comes." She pressed the key on her chair to open the ship intercom. "Bridge to Engineering, we're secure from combat for the moment. You can commence shutdown of all overheating reactors."
"Great job with the cooling systems, Mister Scott." Julia permitted herself a relieved smile.
"Th' credit goes tae Tom, Captain. He did th' work."
"I'll thank him now, then, and let you get back to work Mister Scott. Bridge out." Julia promptly tapped the key again. "Andreys to Barnes." After a moment with no answer she said, "Andreys to Barnes. Is everything okay? Mister Scott says we have you to thank that the reactors didn't melt down."
"Yeah, I suppose."
Julia felt worry fill her at the sound in Barnes' voice. "Are you alright?" she asked.
"I could use some medical attention, actually… frak this hurts."
Given the clear anguish in his voice, Julia didn't even pay attention to his use of obscenities in an open comm call. "We'll get you a medical team immediately."
At seeing her worried look, Jarod confirmed the order. After he was done Jarod said, "Incoming call from the Magaratha. On the fleet channel."
"Put the Warmaster on."
It was clear from the image that Shai'jhur was as exhausted as they. But the small Dilgar woman, still clad in the red blood slash that would hide the blood should the spores of her homeworld bring another round of bloody coughing, projected nothing but confidence, strength, and triumph. "My people and comrades in arms, I bear good tidings to you all. We have received confirmation from our soldiers. The German Führer is dead. Our forces hold the heart of the city and the flags of the Union and the Alliance fly proudly from the Volkshalle! Germania is ours!"
The news was good, and Julia allowed her friends and crew their cheers and applause. For her, it wouldn't be a victory until Rob and Zack and the others came home.
By the time Robert stepped out of the Führerhaus with Lucy, Shepard, and the others, exhaustion had set in. It felt like real effort was required to walk the rest of the way to the waiting command vehicle sent by General Kylarjha to bring him and the others to rejoin Zack at the Friedrich-Wilhelm University. A second vehicle, a requisitioned ambulance, was present to bring Tali with them. She was holding up well although already showing signs of a potential infection. Due to the city's damage, the University common was the closest spot that the Normandy could land to pick her up.
The trip was a quick one. Some debris on the roads had to be avoided, as did the burning remnants of a German Lion tank, but the street was mostly clear. The same couldn't be said for the city at large, of course. The burning remnants of the city's massive high rises belched smoke into the sky. Together with the flames, it gave the city a crimson look that matched the blood shed upon its ground. In the distance the colossal Volkshalle still stood, albeit with a hole in its great dome. The flag of the Allied Systems fluttered in place beside that of the Union of Tira and Rohric, both placed by the Dilgar troops that swept the Nazi structure of its defenders.
For a moment Robert's exhausted mind considered just how destructive the fighting had been. How many families had been wrecked or killed by the fighting? How many more would suffer the same if the struggle continued? He didn't speak of these thoughts to the others. And they did not speak on their own. Everyone was too exhausted to do otherwise.
They arrived at the university just as the Normandy swooped in for a landing. The Aururian medics brought Tali to the cargo door while the others went for the entrance to the Von Braun Academy. Nearby Robert noticed an Alakin sky-hopper, an anti-grav short-range aircraft that was likely that of General Threek's. There were also a couple of towering BattleMechs with light blue camo patterns and the likeness of a ghost painted on them and a third painted black with a red hourglass symbol.
An Alakin soldier led Robert, Meridina, Lucy, and Shepard deeper into the academy, down into its subbasement levels. They stepped into a large lab area where Robert found he was in exalted company. General Kylarjha was joined by the other general-ranked officers of the Coalition forces. Threek and General Victus were also in uniform, as was a Free Worlds League army commander. Natasha Kerensky and Prince Victor were in MechWarrior BDUs, new full cooling suits developed for F1S1 'Mech pilots with the aid of Multiversal technology. The Dilgar ranking General, Gar'nak, stood with them. As a Paladin agent Robert was relieved of most usual niceties, but for diplomacy's sake he stood at attention. He sensed the commanders were nearly as fatigued as he was, especially Victor and - though she'd deny it fervently - Natasha. "Prince, Khan, Generals."
"Captain." Victor nodded. He was officially the commander of the invasion army, so the other generals deferred to him despite being older in most cases. "We've heard the news. It's already spreading through both armies."
"Sauckel is dead. I wonder if that will really change anything," Robert said.
"Time will tell."
"We've already secured most of the city center, including all of the bridges over the Spree," Victus remarked. "There are some holdouts in the middle of the park of the Tiergarten and a concentration of forces at the northern edge of the Volkstrasse. We believe the remaining enemy commanders are using the Rathaus as a command post."
"They won't be for long, my Wolf Spiders are already in position to smash the whole thing," Natasha boasted.
"It might be best if they be given the chance to surrender," Threek said. "It may end the fighting more quickly."
"It would be preferable." Victor looked toward the center of the lab. "I am more interested in what our people have found here."
Robert followed his eyes and noticed what he was looking at. His heart skipped a beat at the sight of the long, cigar-shaped metal object laying on a table, colored dark blue with cabling and wiring covering it. It was at least fifteen meters long, which was to be expected for an interuniversal jump drive.
The assembled commanders, with Robert and the others, approached the work area. Robert noticed Lieutenant Tra'dur was working at one of the stations in the company of a much larger Dilgar. Meridina and Lucy both recognized her and mentally informed him of her name: Fei'nur, the cyborg Dilgar bodyguard of Tra'dur's mother, Warmaster Shai'jhur. Nearby King was consulting with an engineer in an Stellar Navy field uniform, a blue-skinned teal-spotted Dorei with Lieutenant Commander rank insignia. When she noticed the assembled senior commanders she stood at attention. "Highness, Khan. Generals."
"Were we too late?" Victor asked.
King looked back to Tra'dur and the Dorei. The Dorei shook his head. "I do not think so," he said.
"Everyone, this is Lieutenant Commander Tauram Sjitas, Chief Engineer of the Starship Thunder Child," King said. "With the battle above over I asked for a naval engineer to come and confirm some of our findings." She noticed the look of constrained fear on Robert's face. To his surprise, a mental thought clearly meant for him surfaced in her thoughts, free of the usual shields she kept her mind under when in the presence of potential mind-readers. The Aurora is intact, Captain Dale, but Commander Scott is busy with repairs, and I am informed Lieutenant Barnes was wounded and is not fit for further duty.
Thank you, he thought back, feeling a tinge of warmth in his heart. King was notorious for opposition to anyone reading her thoughts with telepathy, regardless of the kind of telepathy. An unshielded thought to relieve his worries privately was a huge gesture on her part.
"Commander, what have you found?" asked Victor.
"I have not finished my examination entirely, Highness, but I am at least able to confirm that this unit is not yet ready for operation," Sjitas said. His purple eyes showed palpable relief. "The projectors are not capable of creating an interuniversal jump point."
"Then we were not too late," said Kylarjha.
"We were not," Sjitas agreed. "Nearly so, I believe. They were getting close. Going by the testing rate and results I've seen, I believe that in a week or so they may have found the appropriate mechanism to form a jump point."
Robert felt a cold shudder at that. Not just from how close they'd cut it, but from thinking about what happened at Earth W8R4, when the Daleks had also played around with the jump drive… and what they'd nearly awoken. They might very well have prevented the Nazis from awaking the Darkness as the Daleks nearly had...
"Then the attack came at just the right time," Shepard said, not knowing what Robert was thinking. "Any later and they'd have a working drive."
"Yes. One that they could have easily manufactured off-world."
"And undoubtedly they already had arrangements to commence such manufacturing," King noted. "Even the fall of Earth would have done nothing to stop them."
"Then the sacrifices were not in vain," said Victus.
Robert sighed in relief. "No, they weren't."
"I will want to debrief the scientists here before finalizing my report to Admiral Maran and to yourselves," King said. "But I am in concurrence."
"Thank you, Captain King," said Victor.
"Highness." With that King stepped away to get back to work.
As King stepped away with Sjitas, a Turian soldier stepped up and saluted Victus. "General, we just received word from Captain Hadran. An enemy officer has approached the allied line near the town hall. He came under a flag of truce and wishes to speak to a representative of Coalition Command."
A short time later Robert walked out to the University commons and approached the enemy officer, flanked by Turian infantry. He wore the gray uniform of a German Army officer with the rank insignia of an Oberst, a Colonel. His brown eyes were full of pain, pain and shame that Robert felt radiate off of the man. Graying hair of dark blond color was visible under his officer's cover, marked with a German eagle. Upon looking Robert over there was visible recognition from the man. He snapped a salute. "Kapitän Robert Dale?"
Robert nodded. "Ja. Ich bin Kapitän Dale."
There was a flicker of surprise on the officer's face. Whatever he knew of Robert, apparently Robert's fluency with German hadn't been part of that. There was instinctive relief from the man as he continued, in German, "I am Oberst Karl Baumann. I come representing General Wolfgang Kleist, commander of the Germania Armeegruppe. He has sent me to request terms from the Alliance."
"Terms of surrender?"
"Ja." Again the pained look. "For all German army forces in Germania and the European continent."
"But not for the whole planet? Or the Reich?"
"He lacks the authority. Planetary command was transferred out of the capital."
Robert nodded. It had indeed been too much to hope for a wider surrender, not yet. But at least a local surrender would end the killing around the capital. He nodded to the officer. "Follow me then, and you can see what terms Prince Victor and the other commanders are willing to give."
The images had already gone out to the Multiverse. Shai’jhur would have accepted nothing else. Billions of beings watched them through thousands of media sources in awe, happiness, amazement. The triumph of the allied forces and a new Liberation Navy was at hand. And she had helped engineer it.
One entire brigade had been devoted to the task of assaulting the Volkshalle. They had stormed through the lower levels and into the great hall itself. Then with the help of their engineers, the Dilgar had climbed the maintenance scaffolding high into the dome. Intermittent fighting with the remaining Nazi defenders was filmed by the correspondents as they stormed forward through the offices of the Nazi Party itself.
Leaning into ropes and clambering up steep access stairways, they reached the top. A few dispersed Nazi troops in detachments offer resistance. They are quickly killed. The cameras carefully avoid showing a few of the wounded sliding, falling off the sides of the dome, disappearing into the sky.
They reach the top, and look at the shattered damage to the dome, at the shattered city beyond it. A combat engineering team reaches the cupola at the top of the dome. A minute’s application of plasma cutters is all that is required, and a group of thirty Dilgar troopers roaring and cheering as they push.
The great bronze bird totters, and then it topples into the side of the dome. The dome holds, and it tumbles down the side, scouring the rock facing, down, down, until it reaches the lip of the dome and bounces off, crushing itself in the great carved and fit marble of the plaza. As it falls, a flagpole is hoisted in its stead, a Dilgar flag. The other flags will come later. The camera focuses on it, waving over the Volkshalle.
In two weeks of fighting, the Dilgar have taken 62,000 killed on Earth, ten percent of their forces engaged. It was the highest of any of the allied armies in proportion to those committed to action. But they don’t talk about that. They cheer, and celebrate wildly, for on this day, finally, they have buried ghosts and won a triumph.
Shai’jhur watched the broadcast on her screen. She quietly ignored the cheers of her bridge-crew around her. Her eyes dimly follow each detail of the screen, committing them to her memory. They cannot deny me now. Gods, but it has to have been enough. It must have been enough!
Lines of weary soldiers formed along the Volkstrasse. Around the Rathaus, the capital's city hall, men in feldgrau were standing at attention. For Robert there was again the onslaught of shame and broken pride from enemies who had presumed themselves the pinnacle of Humanity and the superior of all other forms of life; enemies who were now vanquished.
To the south and north of the Rathaus, Coalition troops stood as well. Exhausted, but eager. They were hurting from wounds and lost comrades and ready to see the bloody business terminated. Among their number were various vehicles and war machines of the victorious powers, from Alakin urban combat cars to towering BattleMechs.
As the leader of the ground forces, Prince Victor took the lead in approaching the Rathaus. Robert joined the other commanders in following him. Halfway to the lines, General Kleist and his subordinate commanders met them. The surrender went off without a hitch, without any sign of resistance from the vanquished Reich troops. Kleist and his officers surrendered their weapons personally and their soldiers formed lines to do the same. Enemy troops scattered around the city and the entire continent were receiving orders to do the same.
Once the formalities were observed and the captive Germans led off to confinement, the commanding generals dispersed. Victor turned and looked up at the damaged dome of the Volkshalle. In the fading daylight the flags of the Coalition powers fluttered together. The Union flag of the Dilgar seemed to flutter the most proudly. "I wonder what the Drazi will have to say about that," Robert murmured. "The Dilgar just guaranteed that the Multiverse will never tolerate another genocide attempt against them."
"They earned it," Victor replied. There was a tired look on his face. "Proportionally they took the worst casualties of all of our forces."
"They have something to prove to the rest of us."
"During the Tira Crisis I was briefed on the history. It is fitting that a people who once rivaled the Nazis in atrocities shed so much of their blood in the cause of stopping more. Maybe the Germans of this universe will find inspiration in their example." Victor glanced Robert's way. "So you are an operative now?"
"Something to that effect."
"You once spoke to me of right making might. Many would say your current job is intrinsically opposed to such views."
"I'm sure they would," Robert replied. "And maybe they have a point. But President Morgan wants to keep us honest. We're not going to be Spectres or anything like that. Our purpose is to protect the Alliance while upholding its values."
"It will not be easy," Victor said. "I am familiar with how statecraft and ideals can conflict."
"If anything, the Harris Station Charter situation has reminded me of that," Robert said darkly. "We signed that charter to protect worlds from exploitation, not to promote a carving up of the Reich's empire."
"The moment this became a coalition war effort, such a carving up was inevitable," Victor remarked. "But the important thing is that we've laid the Reich low. It won't pose a threat to our existences any longer."
"We have that at least," Robert agreed.
Generalfeldmarschall Konrad von Schoenburg sat in the reserve command centre of the Planetary defences at Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The city had a proud old civic tradition and had been enormously pleased to receive this installation a century ago, and had since developed a strong connection to the Luftraumwaffe. It had been German majority even when it was ruled by the "Jewish cabal" of the United States and in no small part served as the cultural capital of German North America.
Once upon a time, of course, it had also had a large African population, but unlike the primitive tribes of Africa, it had no anthropological value and had been removed centuries ago. Only Aryans lived in Milwaukee now. Not for much longer. Konrad considered himself a cultured man, and he was not overcome with fury or despair. Confirmation had come through that the entirety of OKW was dead, the primary Ministers were dead, the SS leadership was missing. As second in command of the planetary defences, the weight of the Reich had settled on von Schoenburg’s shoulders.
He could see the situation clearly enough. They were going to be forced to surrender in total. The surrender of Europe already made the situation on the surface untenable. They retained considerable industrial resources on interior colonies, but the fleet had been destroyed. The SS had fled without orders and without explanation, removing his only chance to continue to defend Earth while Admiral von Platen’s fleet was concentrated.
In theory, he could order the concentration and transfer command of the Reich over to Von Platen. He would not escape the surface, but that would not matter. Von Platen could contact the remaining commanders of the SS and they would acknowledge him as the Führer--or not. But regardless, they could concentrate maybe fifteen hundred ships to defend the whole rest of the Reich.
At that point, the war would grind on for another six months. The enemy would redouble their production, the innumerable allies they had found across many universes would do the same. The destruction would spread to countless additional German worlds. A few more billion Germans would die without result.
Konrad, personally, had been in the Luftraumwaffe his entire life and had been in command of planetary defence networks for most of that time. He was confident he could win acquittal in any serious trial, and if the enemy wanted to shoot him, the outcome was preordained. His own survival was immaterial, though. He was a German patriot, by definition.
Quite logically, he decided to surrender the entire Reich. Highly placed enough to see documents on the other universes, he knew they had defeated the Reich centuries before, in places where it had even existed. They had crushed the German soul and spirit up before it had a chance to spread. But here there were hundreds of billions of Germans. Scandinavians, the Low Countries -- Milwaukee -- and all of their children in the stars had collectively come to see themselves as German. These victorious allies could crush the Reich, but they could not change the fact that in this universe, unlike other universes, there were a hundred billion Aryans in a compact mass of settled planets, possessed of shared culture and language.
The more intact the Reich was, he felt, the harder it would be for the allies to destroy what it meant to be German. It was time to end the pointless resistance. He would endure the unendurable, and someday a Fourth Reich would rise from the ashes, in some new form better capable of surviving the Multiverse.
“Major von Kechler?” He was a good lad, a smart man of a noble family originally from Holland, capable and brave with the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross around his neck. He would have to do for the one thing that actually truly mattered at the moment.
“Sir!” The young fighter pilot, assigned to the ground duty while recuperating from wounds suffered in the war, stepped forward. His handsome face was still marred by pink scar tissue.
“My daughter Mathilda lives at 1171 Seeuferstrasse.” He pulled something out of his pocket. “Remove your uniform, take these keys, and go there immediately. You are to take her into the Multiverse. Anywhere! I don’t care! Find a way and get her to safety.”
“Sir!?” The man paled, as silence slowly began to spread in a cone around him in the command centre.
“You have your order, and that is a direct order from the ranking surviving officer in the Reich, Major. Take my daughter, and get to another universe. That is all.”
“Why another universe, Sir?”
Konrad tugged on his own collar and turned toward the banks of comms. “Because in another fifteen minutes every single surviving SS man will want to kill her in revenge for what her father did. I believe we have no choice but to begin negotiations for the surrender of the Reich. She’s quite the handful, Major. She’ll want to stay and fight in some kind of resistance even though she’s a woman. Get started, you’ll need some time to get clear. Go hide up in the North woods until an opportunity presents itself.”
With the combat over, paperwork was now the order of the day. Combat reports had to be filed, damage reports collected and signed off on, requisitions for repair material made. Given the extensive damage list Jarod and Scotty provided, Julia was certain they were due for weeks of yard work to get the Aurora back in shape. Given the ferocity of the previous few days, it was no surprise.
But before touching the paperwork, Julia had something else to do first.
As expected, the medbay was full of combat casualties. With all of the hull breaches it was not surprising. The ship was also taking overflow from more damaged vessels. Thankfully Julia didn't have to hunt for help. Nasri found her immediately and brought her through to the Standard Care Ward of the medbay.
She found Barnes in a corner bed, laying with his eyes closed. She couldn't keep the gasp from forming. His right arm ended a few inches below the armpit, the stub covered in bandaging. "Tom?"
"Hey." Barnes opened his eyes. His voice sounded weary. "So it's all over?"
"Yeah," Julia said. "It is. The German Army in Europe surrendered an hour ago. Shai'jhur and the other admirals are already discussing terms with the remaining planetary command officers. They're holed up in Milwaukee of all places…"
"Huh. I guess they like the cheese," Barnes joked.
"My God Tom, how did that…"
"Plasma welder," he said. "My arm was pinned, and I had to fix that coolant shunt."
"Christ," Julia swore. "You… you cut off…"
"Yup. Hurt like all fraking hell too," he said. "But it was lose my arm or lose the ship. Couldn't do that. The Aurora is my girl too, y'know."
Barnes sighed and then let out a small moan. "I feel like I could sleep for a year."
"I think we all do." Julia smiled softly at him. "Thank you, Tom. You… you're the reason we're still here. And I'm sure Leo can save your arm."
"Maybe. He says the welder damaged the nerves and I'll need nerve regeneration therapy before I can think of anything else." Barnes shrugged. "Maybe a robot arm would be cool? I could have it fit with engineering tools or something."
Julia giggled at the mental image, but she couldn't keep the sadness out of it. On top of everything else the war had cost them, in time and lives and blood and terror and pain, it had added to it by forcing Barnes to mutilate himself. "I'm sure you'll think of something."
He nodded mutely in reply. When he spoke, it was a subject change. "Did Zack and Rob…?"
"They did," Julia assured him. "They're alive. Okay."
"Good. They're coming home then."
"Eventually, for Zack. He'll probably be back on the Citadel within a week. He's got duties there."
"Make sure he gets the Koenig back, dammit," Barnes insisted. "It's his ship. Atreiad's cool, don't get me wrong, but Koenig is Zack's ship."
"It is," Julia agreed. She started thinking of something else to say when her omnitool made an electronic tone. She tapped the blue light that appeared over the back of her left hand. "Andreys here."
"Good news," said Jarod, and his voice, weary as it was, sounded like it. "The fleet just got back. Maran won. His fleet wrecked the Reich's battle fleet. Their survivors are already in full retreat or have surrendered."
"That's great news," Julia agreed.
"He's already in talks with the Wehrmacht's planetary command bunker in Milwaukee," Jarod continued. "Warmaster Shai'jhur's confirmed they're asking for surrender terms."
"No," Jarod replied. "For the entire Reich."
Ship's Log: ASV Aurora; 16 July 2643. Captain Julia Andreys recording.
It's over. I almost can't believe it.
We've been at war with the Nazis for two years. Since it started we've faced fight after fight with them. Even when we were off on other missions the war was always there in the background. Always there to remind us that at any time we might get pulled back in.
And now it's all over. Earth is ours. The remaining leadership is preparing to surrender the entire empre to the Coalition. All of the sights from the fall of Germania - the Dilgar on top of the Volkshalle, the Alliance and Aururian troops meeting at the Alexanderplatz, the Federated Commonwealth BattleMechs stomping through the park in Tiergarten - they're all being broadcast across S4W8 as we speak. We're already getting reports of worlds rising up in revolt. Of Gauleiters begging Coalition commanders to take over to protect German minorities on some of the planets. After all of this fighting… it's like we finally hit them hard enough that the entire Reich is just… falling apart.
It's come at a cost. The Aurora has suffered severe damage to several systems. We nearly lost the ship. We survived only because Tom sacrificed his arm to save the ship. And between the battle at the Citadel and the battle for Earth, we've taken over a hundred casualties to the crew and the fighter wing. Everyone is worn down to the point that the entire crew feels like it's about to collapse in place.
But I can't complain. It could be so worse for us. So much worse.
Julia waited quietly at the transporter station for the return of the others. Meridina, Lucy, and Talara were the only ones to materialize. Julia was immediately struck not just by their exhaustion, but by the looks they had. Talara especially seemed worn down to a nub emotionally.
She went to ask about the others, but Meridina sensed her questions and preempted her. "Robert is remaining to coordinate the surrender negotiations with Admiral Maran and Prince Victor. Zachary is seeing to his unit. Tra'dur is remaining to assist King in examination of the technical intelligence we recovered."
"Oh." Julia couldn't keep the disappointment from her face. "I…"
"It's fine," Lucy said. She smiled weakly. "You wanted to see us all come back at once. It'll make us surviving it real."
"You got me," Julia confessed. She focused her attention on Talara. "Ensign Talara, are you okay?"
"No, Captain, I am not," Talara said, her voice quivering. "So much death and pain and loss… so much of it, I can't…"
"It's okay." Lucy put a hand on her student's shoulder. "Come on, you need some rest."
Julia sighed and shook her head. "Some of the junior officer quartering took damage from enemy fire. We've had to seal off some of the sections."
"She can stay in my quarters if she needs to," Lucy said. "Do you need anything else?"
"No. You're dismissed."
Lucy nodded at that. With Talara present, and the transporter operator, Julia would want to maintain at least some formality. She quietly guided her suffering protègè out.
"It was very hard on her," Meridina said. "She is quite sensitive."
"It was bad, then?"
"That city was already a place of great darkness. The deaths suffered there only make it worse." Meridina visibly shivered. "I can feel it even now…"
"Do you need some time off?" Julia asked. "I'll understand if you do…"
"We all do, Captain," Meridina said. "For now, I will seek out Commander Locarno and learn from him what must be done."
"And I need to talk to Zack." Julia clearly wasn't enjoying that thought. "There's something I have to tell him."
Meridina sensed what it was. "Swenya's Light, he actually…?"
Julia nodded. "And he saved the ship."
"Yes, it is best if you inform Zachary. So it is not a terrible surprise."
The Enterprise was better off than the Aurora, Robert could see. Her shields had nearly fallen during the thick of the fighting, but she came out with little in the way of hull and system damage, and things were already returning to normal on the ship.
The invitation to come aboard brought him up to the bridge and on to the ready room. There he found Picard sitting at his desk, a cup of Earl Grey in his hand, with Admiral Ross on the monitor. "I feel fortunate that we never signed the Harris Station Charter," Ross was saying. "The territorial disputes are already beginning."
"That's to be expected when you have a large coalition of states that include empires," Picard observed drolly. He noticed Robert's presence and nodded. Robert remained quiet to let the conversation continue. "I can't imagine a man of Admiral Maran's reputation is enjoying the experience."
"He isn't. And there's little he can do about the issue, this is a matter for the diplomats. But the need to put the occupation plans into practice is forcing him to deal with the complaints on top of getting ready for the final surrender ceremony." Robert couldn't see Ross from the angle of the screen, but he imagined Ross looked way momentarily. "They're ready to resume another meeting. I'll inform you if anything important develops. Ross out."
Once Ross was gone, Picard looked up. "Welcome aboard, Robert," he said. "Have a seat."
"Thank you, Jean-Luc." Robert took one of them. He looked around the room. Gone were the fish that Picard once kept on the last Enterprise, but several of his mementoes were visible. "I guess we shouldn't be surprised that this may turn into a carving contest."
"History shows that disparate coalitions rarely survive the wars they were formed to fight," observed Picard. "Once the threat of a common enemy is gone it is easy for the victors to turn their energies against one another."
"It's been a subject that's come up before. That we had to amend the Harris Station Charter at all…" Robert shook his head. "Before I came up General Lenarov and General Victus were already arguing about one planet on the Turian list. Drachenfeldt apparently has a significant Bulgarian population that wasn't reported, so the Slavic Union is insisting that the planet be re-assigned to them. Victus doesn't have authority to negotiate the matter so they just yelled at each other for a bit before Victor asked them to stop."
Picard sighed at the news. "They will race toward the world, I suspect."
"It's in the Anti-Spinward, so maybe. Or maybe the diplomats will make a deal." Robert shook his head. "I never liked that the Charter was amended. We're supposed to be liberating these people. The Turians are more interested in expanding their territory. And they're not the only ones…"
"The important part will be to keep all of the partners from deciding that rearmament of the German population is favorable. That would inevitably escalate the situation."
"Nobody's talking about that right now, but I suppose it might one day happen." Robert's voice made it clear he wasn't happy with the thought.
Picard took another sip of tea. "Well, it seems things have rather changed for both of us."
"You have a new Enterprise," Robert noted. "And I'm not a captain anymore."
"How do you feel about that?"
"I… don't know," Robert admitted. "I've mostly gotten used to it now, but there are still times I catch myself thinking about taking command." He shifted in the chair. "So much for my potential, I suppose."
"They won't give you another vessel?"
"No. Maran's made it clear that the Admiralty won't let me captain another ship," Robert said. He shook his head. "The damned thing is… I'm not sure I feel angry about it."
That drew Picard's attention immediately. "Oh? I admit I would be rather unhappy should Starfleet forbid me another command."
"I don't doubt it. And Julia would probably resign right there." Robert rested his elbow on the desk. "But I… I don't feel that way. I think I understand why they've done it, and it's entirely on my end. The fact I've often left my ship to accomplish other missions. Julia even warned me about taking to the field too often."
"That was her role, among many."
"And I still went. Every time. Because I felt it necessary."
"I imagine this has to do with this… metaphysical power you've discovered within yourself?" Picard asked.
"Oh, I'd say so." Robert thought again to that moment in the TARDIS. "'Your life will end.'"
"It's what it said to me. The Doctor's TARDIS. It said my life would end if I did what I did to save the Aurora," Robert explained. "I thought it meant I was going to die. But that wasn't it."
"You believe it meant your life as a starship captain," Picard observed.
"I do. And that's how things have gone for me," said Robert.
"And now you're… something of a secret operative?"
"Not so secret. The Paladins aren't black ops agents, we're… I suppose we're the troubleshooters," said Robert. "I suppose you can say we're a cross between the Citadel Council's Spectres and the Aururian Empress' Imperial Marshals."
"That will not be easy," Picard warned. "The kinds of operations you might be called upon to complete…"
"...they might not be on behalf of very good people, I know," Robert said. "That's why Morgan asked me and some of the others. He wants people who won't decide the job lets them solve every problem with a gun. I'll happily avoid such myself." Robert glanced toward Picard. "Are you disappointed?"
"You once told me that good starship captains were rare enough that they had to be encouraged. Now, after everything, I'm walking away from it."
"Perhaps in name, you are, but I suspect that as a Paladin, you will find yourself in situations not dissimilar to what you would experience as a starship captain," Picard observed. "Diplomacy, problem-solving, critical thinking, tactics… the stakes will be just as high as well."
"They already have been," Robert said, thinking of the campaign against Saren and Sovereign.
"Then in the end, I do not consider my efforts to encourage you wasted, Robert. Whether or not you are in the captain's chair or not." Picard set his cup down. "Now, since it has been some time, I would like to extend an open invitation to you and your comrades. Since Mister Worf's assignment to Deep Space Nine and the general disinterest of his successors, I'm afraid the weekly poker game has never been the same."
To that Robert laughed. "I'll extend the offer as soon as I get back."
Admiral Heinrich Rudolf von Platen was commander of the 4th Antispinward Grenzland Fleet, responsible for patrolling the inner frontiers of the Reich. He heard the orders from headquarters to stand down and commence a cease-fire in preparation for surrender. He heard the reports of the fall of Earth.
“Admiral, the fleet transmission is live,” Kapitan-zur-Raum Mattias Erlaucher approached and tossed the more relaxed salute of the space-forces.
“Thank you, Kapitan.” Heinrich sank back into the command chair of his flagbridge. Truth be told, thinking about his family on Earth, he couldn’t really compose himself enough to appear in a visual before the fleet.
But he could compose himself will enough to say what he was going to next. First, though, there were a few formalities. “Mattias, have we dealt with the Gestapo men?”
“Yes, Sir. It’s been arranged. The Naval Infantry are with us, and we’ve secured their quarters.”
“That will be enough, then.” Admiral von Platen had been competent, but he had also seen the bravery of countless aliens on the frontier. His commands had not been marked by any particular atrocities, though the very nature of the Reich meant that, certainly, the allies could find something to try him on, simply because near the borders there were always unpleasant tasks.
But he was not, and never had, been motivated by any love for the Party and the SS. Indeed, he believed he blamed them quite justly for the way they had lost the war. He could clearly see how both also motivated their enemies to incredible feats against them. And knowing what he did about the strategic situation, he had the smallest bit of hope that this story had not yet reached its final chapter.
He seized that hope, formed it together, held onto it, and began to speak. “Comrades, sailors, Germans. You doubtless have heard the reports from the capital of the Reich, our Earth, and I must, bluntly, confirm them. Earth has fallen to the enemy. The Reich has fallen to the enemy.”
“This is due to no fault of yourselves, comrades. You had the best fleet, a fleet much better than theirs, stronger and more capable in every respect. It is however a maxim of the study of warfare that those with strategic mobility have the true advantage. Interuniversal drive protected the centres of power of the enemy, while allowing them to attack us at will from many unexpected directions and deep behind our own lines.”
“With the surrender of the Reich, the hatred of our enemies will necessarily fade. They will be at each other’s throats within two years, mark my words now, men! They are a hundred races and nations, combined only because of ancient legends and propaganda written by those who in other universes defeated the great German nation, ground us down and destroyed our spirit!”
“Today, I offer you something plain and simple: Hope. The hope that comes only by choosing the hard course, by enduring the unendurable. I ask you to stay loyal to me, comrades. No more Reich, no more NSDAP. No more Führer! No more women and precious little wine! Just comrades, and the strong decks still under our feet!”
“I will never again fight for a Reich, I will never again obey the orders of the SS men, the NSDAP men! The party is dead, wasted, it has failed the German nation. What I promise you is the black flag of the freikorps! They will call us pirates and hang us if they catch us, but comrades, while we fight, our nation will know hope like it did in the dark days when Napoleon occupied all of our lands, or when the communist traitors fought to seize the Reich! Give me swords around a black flag, comrades! We have eight hundred ships, and if they are mostly light, that means they are handy. We will head coreward, and hide in broken and distorted regions of space.”
“When our enemies have turned on themselves to fight over the spoils, we will return and liberate our nation and our families, comrades! The German nation will not perish as long as it has a fleet in the stars. All ships prepare for warp trajectories. We will set our course beyond the frontiers of the Reich, and pray to Njoror for fortune in our travels. No surrender, though it makes us pirates. Comrades, long live the Free German Nation! Come with me to fight another day under a black freikorps banner!”
Among the ships that prevailed in the Sol System, the Starship Thunder Child proved the most fit for her current mission: command a squadron of ships for a reconnaissance-in-force of Himmlerwelt, the garden planet gifted centuries before to the SS and the seat of their power off of Earth. He was to either secure their surrender now that the Reich was collapsing or report on the extent of their defenses for a later assault, all while ensuring the safety of his still-damaged starship.
Seated in his command chair at the center of the bridge, Captain Phillip Wallace listened patiently as his Navigation Officer, Lieutenant Harold Wells, counted down to their arrival in orbit. His first officer was an Alakin female, Commander Taham Tolu, a bronze-feathered blue-skinned member of one of the minority nationalities of the Alakin species.
At the science station sat a young woman, Lieutenant Emilia Alessandria, with a porcelain complexion and raven-dark hair. She spoke with a pronounced Italian accent. "Still nothing new on sensors in the system, Captain. All we are reading is the space station and the lunar orbit shipyard."
His reply came in a faint Scots burr. "The damage to the sensors, could it be affecting your scans?"
"No sir," she replied. "The starbird Yatan and the Starship Aguinaldo both confirm our readings."
Both ships - a Layama-class Dorei starbird and a Nehru-class star cruiser - had been reinforcements to Earth after the battle so there was no prospect of combat damage to undermine their readings.
"Bringing us out of warp in three, two, one…"
With a flash of Cherenkov radiation and wayward tachyons, the Thunder Child dropped her warp field and decelerated to Newtonian Law-regulated sublight speeds, as did the ships accompanying her. Ahead of them Himmerwelt glistened in the light of her life-giving star. A toroidal space station hung in nearby orbit. Cities were visible as gray circles on the planet's surface.
"Put me on," Wallace instructed his Ops officer, Lieutenant Commander Mikhail Kirov. Upon receiving confirmation that the channel was open, he began speaking. "This is Captain Phillip Wallace of the United Alliance of Systems, commanding the Alliance Starship Thunder Child, to the planetary authorities of the planet called Himmler's World. On behalf of the Alliance and its allies, we call upon you to accept the surrender of your government and end…"
Before he could finish, a bright light flashed on the bridge holo-viewer. As the light died, more lights flashed, and soon it became apparent that the space station in orbit had been detonated, and in such a way as to drive the fragments to slam into the planet.
He had no time to request his officers report on this when there were sudden visible flashes on the planet's surface. "My God," murmured Lieutenant Alessandria. "They're… they're setting off atomic devices all across the planet! I'm picking up high levels of radioactive elements being thrown into the atmosphere by the detonations! Life signs across the planet are falling!"
"By the Maker," Commander Tolu gasped.
"Bloody bastards," Wallace said, his expression grim. "Bloody narcissist Nazis. They're killing themselves and making sure nobody else can use their planet when they're gone." He looked to Operations. "Raise the Kentan. Admiral Maran needs to know about this."
High above the ruined capital of the fallen Nazi state her handful of surviving leaders prepared to signal her defeat to a galaxy that, just two years prior, believed the Reich unstoppable. It had been, they might flatter themselves to believe, right up until the moment many universes had converged upon them with technology they had not foreseen to smash their fleets from a dozen directions at once, with waves of reinforcements as yet more powers joined the fight against them. But flattery did not and would not change the end.
The surrender would be received by the Reich's conquerors aboard one of the many star-faring vessels they brought to the task. The initial expectation had been that the Gersallian flagship Kentan would host the ceremony, or the Allied Systems' newest dreadnought, the Unity.
Admiral Maran had another candidate in mind, as it turned out. A candidate he considered the most fitting given her history.
Battle damage had been cleared in the hours before the assembled personages arrived on the hanger deck of the Starship Aurora. Dress uniforms dominated among the assembled, some more ostentatious than others depending upon the traditions and regulations governing the wearer. A great table was set into the middle of the hanger with the articles of surrender laid upon it.
Not far from the table, forward and to port from its location, the command crew of the Aurora stood in a group, all in the dress whites of the Alliance Stellar Navy save Major Anders, who wore the dress blues of the Alliance Marines. Commander Shepard and her team from the Normandy, as well as Joker, Pressley, and Chakwas, stood to one side of the Aurora crew, wearing formal uniforms in the case of those in the Systems Alliance military and formal suits (or something of the like) for those who were technically civilians. On the other side stood the command crew of the Federation Starship Enterprise; the command officers of the Alliance vessel of the same name were nearby as well. Warmaster Shai'jhur's officers stood almost opposite of them astern.
Shai'jhur herself stood among the seniormost officers of the Coalition. They remained assembled at the port side of the table, facing the surviving Nazi commanders to the starboard side. Generalfeldmarschall von Schoenburg was joined by other officers of the Luftraumwaffe, the Reich's aerospace fightercraft service, and a surviving deputy minister from the cultural and education ministry. They were all that remained of the central government. Teams had already found the bodies of the former OKW and the Reich Ministers, scattered about their offices and command posts in the center of Germania. Like Sauckel, they'd died without obvious use of poison or physical damage, leading to many presuming suicide.
Many, that was, except Robert and some of the others, who had a more viable suspect in mind.
The Coalition leadership was assembled around Admiral Maran. General Threek stood nearby, but the figures flanking Maran were Prince Victor, Khan Natasha Kerensky, and Warmaster Shai'jhur, as the highest ranking leaders. As Heads of State and Commanders-in-Chief (or near-equivalent to such in Natasha's case) they technically outranked Maran, but as he was personally representing President Morgan and had been the architect of the victory, they did not object.
One officer gave them a head's up to let them know that the comm systems were live, broadcasting them across the Multiverse. A great hush filled the room. Maran and the representatives of the Coalition states stepped forward, as did the Reich officers representing what was left of their central government.
Maran quietly invited the Nazis to examine the articles of surrender. They did so perfunctorily, fighting to restrain their emotions, save for von Schoenburg who seemed to have taken everything in stride. A few visibly failed. Robert, Meridina, Lucy, and Talara could all sense the shame and guilt these men shared, a feeling of despair and hopelessness, that they had failed their nation and that their lives were over. Many knew full well they would be bound for the dock to stand trial for the many atrocities and war crimes committed by the Reich. These men were convinced they were destined for a one way trip to an airlock or gallows, with a hope that maybe the Coalition would be merciful and send them to the firing squad instead. A few were convinced they had done nothing the Alliance would find illegal, but most of those still felt they would be executed anyway, believing what the Alliance said about fair trials was to be nothing more than a charlatan’s propaganda to cover victor's vengeance (much as the Nazis themselves had often employed).
More than that, everything they believed in was being swept away. A foe they could not have imagined a few short years ago had crushed the nation they'd been raised to serve. All of their certainties were gone. They had been evil certainties, yes, and all of the peoples who had suffered or might have suffered from them were rightfully glad to see them destroyed. But that meant little to the doomed men signing away everything they ever believed in, and their emotions were just as real as the happiness in those that might have become their victims. Robert didn't know if he could, much less should, feel sympathy for their broken spirits.
Once the Nazi generals and officials had signed the articles of surrender, the Coalition representatives took their turn. One by one the officers stopped and signed: Admiral Ross, Warmaster Shai'jhur, Prince Victor, General Marrisa Morgan of the Free Worlds League, Mandrissa Huang of the Capellan Confederation, Fleet-Master Dartanrilam of the Gy'toran Interstellar Forces, Fleet Commander Telnarro of the Phosako, General Lenarov of the Slavic Union, General Franklin of Earthforce…
Maran waited until all of the allied commanders had signed before stepping forward and signing for the Alliance. Once he had affixed his signature in the flowing calligraphy of High Gersallian, he placed the pen squarely on the paper and took a step back. Again silence reigned across the hanger deck, an anticipatory silence. There was a weariness in Maran's spirit that Robert and some of the others could sense. While Gersallian physiology might not have lent itself to graying his dark hair from stress, it was clear there had been a price to pay for his burdens in the war.
Despite that weariness, he began to speak, his Gersallian lilt subdued and his words clear. "The war is over. The Nazi Regime is no more. For the first time in centuries, this galaxy, this universe, may know peace."
"It has been a long and bloody struggle to bring us to this point. Over the last five centuries many brave beings have lain down their lives to end the darkness planted centuries ago by the madness of Hitler and his followers. Some did so gratified by the thought their deaths would bring victory. For many others, there was no such hope, only a refusal to submit to that darkness."
Julia couldn't help but notice the pained look on the face of Ariel Shaham. So many of his people had died over the centuries in just that manner, in a cause that seemed hopeless. He and the last survivors of S4W8's Jews had nearly joined them.
"It would be a simple thing to believe that with the destruction of the Nazi State the darkness will be expunged," Maran continued. "If only it were so. The darkness, for all the destruction and pain the Nazis wrought from it, is not unique to them. Any beings, any people, can succumb to darkness, through pain or fear or anger. None of us are immune from this. And nothing can bring a being to darkness like the experience of war."
Maran gave everyone a moment to consider his words. Robert felt he may be considering his own as well, picking carefully what he said to bring his point home. "In war, we were resolute," he finally said, his voice strong and clear. "When defeated, we stood defiant. Now that we have achieved victory, we must show magnanimity. If we are to keep the peace, we must sustain goodwill. Otherwise, our own darkness may claim us in turn."
Again he went silent. Robert knew Maran had no gifts, no telepathy or life force powers, to tell him what others were thinking of his remarks. But he seemed to recognize that the reactions were varied. Some were in agreement, some seemed bored, and there were those who inwardly seethed in irritation, even fury, at what they saw as a moralistic lecturing.
Regardless Maran continued. "Today, our weapons may be silent, but our struggle is not over. It has only changed. The long years of darkness have tainted the worlds that our peoples are now responsible for. Nations that have long known the boot of oppression upon their necks must remember what it means to be free. The lies the Nazis used to control them must be visibly stripped away from their eyes, lest the hatreds the enemy spread among them bring further suffering. Just as well, the German nation itself must be reformed, it must be cleansed of the toxin the Nazi State poisoned it with, so that the German people of this universe will join with us in the Light."
"That is the charge we all face. And no matter our differences, we must never let our own anger and fear turn us from that charge. For our beloved dead, we must hold true to the cause of the Light of Life, and with justice and fairness, we can banish the Nazi darkness from this galaxy for good." After one final moment of consideration, Maran nodded once. "Thank you, that is all."
From that point the ceremony continued to its conclusion. The Nazi officials would be taken to their confinement on the Unity until a secure location elsewhere could be arranged. The rest of the assembled eventually dispersed. Some would return to their ships or to the planet below, and some would take up Julia's offer for a reception in Conference Room 2 being catered by Hargert.
The broadcast of the surrender went out on all bands, subspace and interuniversal and on specialized tachyon transmissions, ensuring that within the next few days every corner of the Reich would be aware of it. And while some Nazi leaders in the other worlds might momentarily resist, or try to negotiate further, it was clear to all that there was no turning back.
The war was over. The Nazis had lost. The Humanity of S4W8 was free.
Just as the surrender was transmitted across S4W8 to a stunned galaxy, it was also transmitted across a jubilant Multiverse.
The result was joyous celebration. They could be found everywhere. The majestic cities of Thessia reacted with the same enthusiasm as the new colonial settlements of the Systems Alliance; New Liberty Colony's celebration was as enthusiastic as the one in the Alliance capital of Portland, Earth L2M1. From the great cities of Gersal to the crystal cities of Minbar, each people of the Multiverse commemorated the end to a bloody interstellar war in their own fashion.
The fireworks and holo-light displays set off in celebration by the Gersallian Interdependency's government over their capital of Jantarihal could easily be seen up in the mountains outside the city, where the Great Temple of Swenya stood as it had for millennia. In the Temple itself there was a feeling and sense of great joy at the vanquishing of a foe more terrible than the most bloodthirsty Coserian Emperor or the most avaricious Jeaxian warlord.
Mastrash Ledosh watched the surrender with quiet joy, noting the presence of his greatest student and her proteges among the victors. And then he returned just as quietly to his work.
Below one hand was a guide written centuries before by a Gersallian linguistics scholar, Gartanam of the Teshmatal. It displeased Ledosh that it took him so long to find a volume of Gartanam's work, and not even in his own Order's vast library, but in the vaults of the Interdependency's Linguistics Academy.
His need for the book was under the other hand: the Life of Reshan. There, the Order's only copy of the ancient tome was open, its archaic Gersallian defying all previous attempts to translate it. The language itself predated Swenya, and the evolution of the Gersallian languages since her time had rendered much of it incomprehensible. Gartanam's work into ancient Gersallian texts made translation of this critical work a possibility.
As he read onward, Ledosh felt a chill in his being. It was one that recurred for months. A feeling that something was wrong. They were under threat. But he could never sense a specific threat, simply that uncomfortable feeling of lingering menace. He knew some of the others on the Council sensed it as well, and many elsewhere, and it was clear the Order was in a growing malaise
The traditionalists charged that it was from continued change brought on by the Multiverse, the same traditionalists who defiantly clung to their lakesh blades instead of training in the new lightsabers that Lucy Lucero taught many to make.
But Ledosh was certain it was something else. A dark force was stirring. Connected, perhaps, to the Prophecy of the Dawn.
And the key to this might yet be found in the Life of Reshan.
Thus Ledosh was not joining in the celebration of the defeat of the Nazis, but rather continuing his work. Because despite the nebulousness of the darkness he sensed, there was one thing he knew for certain. He was running out of time, and everything he cherished might be lost if he did not ensure this work was complete before the dark forces made their move.
Conference Room 2 was smaller than Room 1, sometimes called the Main Conference Room, but battle damage made the larger room unavailable. Hargert made good with what space was available, however. A feast worthy of the victory was ready for the attendees. The Aurora's officers and crew came and went - the business of running a starship continued regardless of other matters - and were joined by numerous officers of the other Coalition states.
Robert, Julia, and Zack stood in a corner together. They had the offered non-alcoholic drinks, for Zack's benefit, and watched the mingling quietly. Finally Julia lifted her glass and smiled. "To a half decade of insanity."
"It's only been five years?" Zack asked. "I feel like it's been twice that."
Robert chuckled at that. "Sometimes I feel the same way. It seems like it's been so long since I walked up to the mound that day." He took a sip. "It's something to think about, isn't it?"
"What?" Zack asked.
"It all came down to me dropping to my knees at the exact right spot," Robert said. "If I'd moved an inch to the left or right, or if I'd taken another step before I let it get to me… I'd have never triggered the Darglan transporter. We never would have found the Facility. There'd be no New Liberty, no Alliance, and the Nazi Reich would still be going strong."
"Sobering to think about." Julia's look was thoughtful. "It makes you wonder how much history can revolve around something as simple as putting your knee at the right spot."
"Yeah. Instead of trying to make a life in boring old Kansas, we're out here flying spaceships and fighting wars."
Robert sensed the pain in Zack. Images came with it. Robert had seen similar with his own eyes. "It's been a regular circus of horrors for us, ever since we entered our first North Korean labor camp," he muttered.
"Or finding Lucy in Patrick Duffy's own personal torture dungeon," Julia pointed out. "We've all seen a lot of terrible things out here."
"But at least we've done something about them…" Robert's attention was drawn to the door. "Well. Leo let him come after all."
The Conference Room 2 door swished open and admitted a hoverchair. A weary-looking Tom Barnes was seated in it, head leaning on his left arm. His dress uniform's empty right sleeve was folded and clipped into place. Nasri was pushing the chair in and Leo followed. The three walked up to join them. "It's nice that you let him come," Julia said to Leo.
"I think he might have driven the other patients in medbay crazy otherwise," Leo said, sighing as he did. He got a baleful look from Barnes at that. "As long as he doesn't exert himself, everything should be fine."
"Does eating the biggest damn slice of Hargert's cake count as exertion?" Barnes asked irritably. "Because if so, I'm fraking exerting myself."
"Tom, language," Julia scolded playfully. "There are general officers present."
"Right. Muckety-mucks." Barnes clasped his left arm over his chest, as if to fold his arms. He remembered himself after a couple of seconds. His expression became resigned.
"You'll get used to it," Leo said. "And in no time, we'll have another arm for you."
"And you'll be back to helping Scotty run Engineering," Zack promised him.
"You'd better be back too," Barnes said to him. "No more walling yourself off, Zack."
"Not going to happen," Zack promised. "Sydney's been hammering that home to me in therapy."
"Well, maybe things will return to normal around here then," Robert said, knowing full well they wouldn't.
Before the conversation could continue further, a knot of officers in blue and gray full dress uniforms approached. It was Shai’jhur, Kaveri Varma, and her eldest daughter Tia’jhur. “Captains, Commanders, Lieutenant,” Shai’jhur started. “I have some business with the lot of you,” she added, a smile touching her lips.
"Warmaster Shai'jhur." Robert nodded to her. "It's good to finally speak with you outside of work."
"It is a pleasure to meet the remarkable man who made this all possible--with a lot of help from a talented cadre of friends,” Shai’jhur answered. “However, I am here for a bit of business. Lieutenant Thomas James Barnes?”
"That's me," Barnes piped up. "Well, most of me now."
“About that, Lieutenant. Battlemaster?”
Kaveri stepped up and presented a small box, the older Indian woman grinning down to Barnes. Then she snapped the box open.
“Lieutenant Thomas James Barnes, on special permission of President Morgan and my personal insistence as commander of the First Support Fleet, I present your formal citation: ‘Lieutenant Thomas James Barnes, Assistant Chief Engineer of the ASV Aurora. Whilst gravely wounded, trapped by debris and almost the only survivor after the explosion of enemy missiles penetrating throughout sections P and O of the primary engineering spaces, with great presence of mind and devotion to duty, took decisive action to repair a critical loss of reactor cooling, extricating himself by severing his own right arm with a plasma cutter, and being right-handed, successfully effected repairs on the heat exchangers with his left arm while in such a profoundly crippled condition, thereby saving the ship. For this meritorious conduct Lieutenant Barnes is hereby awarded by declaration of the President and the Select Defence Committee of the Senate for Personnel, the Alliance Order of Valour.’” With that, she picked the ribbon and medal up from the box Kaveri was holding, and settled it around Tom’s neck.
During the whole recitation Barnes remained quiet, with increasing indication that he was stunned by what was happening. Once Shai'jhur settled the medal over his neck he looked down at it, utterly quiet. His friends assembled around him began applauding. When he finally found his voice, his reply was almost whispered. "I never thought I'd get something like this," was the candid admission.
"But you did," Zack pointed out. He put a hand on his close friend's shoulder. "You saved the Aurora. Not for the first time…" Zack thought back to the Facility, and how the Aurora would have never gotten out had Barnes not risked damage to himself inside the impulse engine housing.
Barnes looked up to Shai'jhur. "Thank you," he said.
“Oh, it’s quite all right. Warmaster Jha’dur used to personally decorate such brave conduct in her crews, on the spot. If I can’t behave at least as well as she did, then what the bloody hell kind of person am I? You have earned it, young man, and you will certainly go on to great things as an Engineer. You are the epitome of your profession, in what matters most. But don’t let it go to your head, either, we do this so that if someone hesitates in your place in the future they have a little bit of motivation to do what’s right. There can be deeds that are both the epitome of true courage and something I should like to think any engineer would do to save his ship. I don’t believe one being true makes the other any less true, and so you are precisely the kind of person who should receive this reward.”
It was the praise of Barnes as an engineer that brought a proud look to his face, of no surprise to his friends. Recognition of his talent as an engineer was far more important than being a hero.
"The part about it getting to your head is the important thing," Leo teased gently.
Finally the small hint of a grin came to Barnes' face. "Well, I'm sure you'll be happy to deflate my Goddamned ego if it becomes too big, Leo."
Julia couldn't stop the giggle that formed in her throat. "Now that sounds like the Tom Barnes we all know and love."
"I'm one of a kind," he answered. "And if I get one of those robot arms, it'd better be one of the cool ones. With tools built into it."
"We'll discuss that once your treatment's farther along," Leo assured him. Beside him, Zack laughed. "Now, you said something about cake? I'm normally worried about your sugar intake, but today's an exception."
"Thanks again, Warmaster," Barnes said to Shai'jhur, after which Nasri and Leo moved him onward.
A forlorn look appeared on Zack's face. Robert sensed his bittersweet feelings. "Christ, I can't stop thinking about all of those people that died down there." He looked to Shai'jhur and a thought came to him. "There were kids down there. Teenagers."
“The age limit was two years higher than it was at Third Balos,” Shai’jhur replied softly. “And this time, they died so that men could be free. I remember the thirteen year olds in the crews of my Ochlavitas in those dark days very well, if I did forget them I would deserve hell I think. Some of them died doing things as heroic as Lieutenant Barnes did. Our population is very young, and so the conscription classes had to be prepared appropriately.”
Kaveri reached out and put a hand on Shai’jhur’s shoulder, but said nothing.
Julia and Robert gave their friend concerned looks. It was clear that a part of Zack wanted to be angry at her. Just as much, Robert sensed the very real pain in the older Dilgar. A crushing responsibility, more acute than he'd felt in Prince Victor or President Morgan, and a quiet fortitude to bear it.
Ultimately Zack's voice showed he had his anger under control. "I'm just tired of the death," he said. "We came out here to help people, to stop all of the dying. I want it over."
"It is over," Julia assured him.
For a moment, Zack felt it. The need. The want. Stronger than it'd been in months. He could see Robert knew what he was feeling, and that gave him the strength to say no to the desire.
“Well, I hope that with our acceptance of Alliance membership, I can end conscription in the Union except for the planetary defence militias that won’t be deployed off our homeworlds. I understand, Commander Carrey, that things were very bad on the surface. But it is over. And, I leave you to celebrate that with your friends.” She nodded quietly to Kaveri and Tia’jhur, and the group stepped away.
After a moment Robert said, "They needed this, in more ways than one." He set each hand on his friends' shoulders. "And honestly, I think we all need some time to just unwind. It's been a terrible week."
"A terrible year, in some ways," Julia said quietly. "But you're right. Whatever work we have to deal with tomorrow, today it's time to enjoy the celebration."
"Count me in," said Zack, grinning at his oldest friends.
And they did just that.
After five days in orbit over S4W8 Earth, the Starship Aurora made her jump home, accompanied by the Koenig and the Normandy.
The intense fighting in the recent weeks meant that every drydock space in the Fleet Base was being used for repairs. The Aurora slipped into the only remaining dock for her size and the Normandy into another. Even the Koenig, though not as badly hurt, would have to content herself with repairs in her own dock on the Aurora due to the lack of space.
Shortly after arrival, the time came for goodbyes. Everyone was gathered at the airlock into the station to meet the departures. Shepard and her team were joined by King and by Zack. Julia spoke to King as she walked up. "I heard the Excalibur beat us here," she said.
"Yes. Commander Stirling was able to effect sufficient repairs to allow a mass relay transit," King said. Her head was no longer covered in a wrapping. "Due to my injury and Doctor Gillam's excessive caution, Commander Granville will be directing repairs for another few days while I undergo enforced recuperation."
Leo responded to the polite barb with an equally polite, "I'm used to my patients overestimating their recuperative abilities, Captain. So I try not to take chances."
"And that is why you are a marvelous physician, if rather frustrating to deal with," King replied jovially. "Although even recuperation has to wait. General Hatcher is awaiting my arrival."
"The intelligence from the Von Braun Academy?" asked Robert.
"Exactly," King said. "The Nazis were working on several projects there. Our analysts will have months of work ahead to go through this data." She nodded to Shepard, now arriving with her team. "Commander, a pleasure to work with you again." She extended a hand.
Shepard took it. "Same here. Watch your head."
"I shall." With that King departed.
The Normandy and Aurora crew exchanged looks and started to shake hands. "It's been quite the ride, hasn't it?" Shepard said to Julia and Robert.
"It has," Robert agreed.
"You got everything off of the Normandy?" Shepard asked.
"I did back at New Prussia," Robert confirmed. "And as much as I enjoyed the company of your crew, it's good to be home."
Shepard barked a teasing laugh at that. "You mean it's good to be back on this luxury cruise liner of a starship you've got. No more sleeping pods."
"I confess, I do miss a normal bed," Robert conceded.
"You Systemer types are spoiled," Ashley complained. "Completely spoiled."
"You're just jealous you don't have Hargert cooking your meals," Jarod retorted playfully.
Kaidan grinned. "I'm in the wrong service."
"Tell me about it," Garrus said.
Nearby Tali was leaning over the hoverchair Barnes was sitting in. "I'm so sorry, Tom," she said. "They're going to make you a new arm, right? Humans can have those?"
"One way or the other, eventually," Barnes answered. "I guess the immune system thing means Quarians can't have prosthetics?"
"It's… very difficult," Tali said. "Very expensive too. Sometimes we just attach mech limbs to our suits and use VIs to control them. But for a Quarian to do what you did? I think the Admiralty Board would agree to pay for a proper prosthetic."
"He may end up with an organic limb, actually," said Leo. "Our technology allows for cloned or replicated limbs. It just takes time. We can give this technology to the Quarians."
"If you don't already have it," added Locarno. "Relations with the Migrant Fleet are pretty good these days."
"Perhaps. I hope I never have to find out." Tali patted Barnes on the shoulder. "Keelah selai, Tom. I hope you get your new arm soon."
"I do too," he replied.
As the Normandy crew filed out, Shepard made sure to extend a hand to Robert, having saved him for last. "Good luck out there, Robert," she said.
"The same to you, Jen."
And then Robert surprised even himself by turning the handshake into a small, friendly embrace. Shepard accepted it, even if she was clearly surprised as well by the gesture.
Once she was walking through the airlock, Julia asked, "What was that about?"
"I… I'm not sure," Robert admitted. The feeling that drove him to the small hug was already faded. It wasn't that he was upset with himself for doing it. Shepard wasn't just an ally, she'd proven a good friend and a brilliant leader, and her advice on the matter of his abilities was something that he felt would always guide him. She'd earned it. He just couldn't think of why he felt the need to give it. It was like he was never going to see her again…
Zack stepped up next. "Do I get a hug?" he asked with amusement.
"Always," Julia said. She and Robert were the first; everyone else lined up to give one. "A week of mandatory leave sounds about right after everything that we've gone through."
"It does," Zack agreed. "I've got some trips to make. People I need to talk to."
"Clara's parents?" Robert asked quietly.
To that Zack nodded. "Yeah. And what about you?"
"I've got no standing missions," said Robert. He gave Julia a look. "I was thinking that I'd keep an eye on the Aurora's repairs so that Miss Responsibility could go have some fun. Before Leo sedates her and leaves her on a Pacific island paradise for an enforced vacation."
"Now that sounds like a good plan…" Leo said thoughtfully.
Julia shot him a playful glare. "I've got plans," she said.
"The Battlestar Pegasus is in drydock for repair at Fleet Base Alexandria, I hear," Zack remarked. "And Alexandria's got a really nice selection of romantic getaways."
The glare was now directed to Zack. "Don't you start."
"I surrender," he said, holding his hands up. "Anyway, once I'm done with leave and my tour on the Citadel is over, I look forward to coming back. It's about time we got the gang back together."
"It is," Jarod agreed.
At that final farewells were given and Zack departed. As the others walked away, Lucy stepped up beside Robert. "Speaking of leaves and assignments…" she began. When she had his attention she said, "The answer is yes."
Robert sensed her meaning and nodded. "Welcome to the team," he replied.
Lucy chuckled. "A team of you and me, right now. Or are you going to take Shepard's route and put together a team of badass fighters?"
"Who knows? Maybe. Right now, though, I just want to enjoy some peace and quiet. You?"
"Same here. But I also need to be there for Talara. She…" A guilty look came to Lucy's face. "I may have hurt her more than I realized by bringing her down there with us, Robert. She wasn't ready to sense that much pain and death."
"You'll be there for her," Robert said. "I know you."
"Yeah. We're taking the leave to go to Fala, actually. She wants to see her parents. And I think she needs to go home for a little, to feel peace." Lucy felt a thought come to mind. "Have they confirmed what really happened to those dead Nazi leaders?"
"The autopsies are done," said Robert. "They were all asphyxiated. There's signs of trauma in their windpipes, like something clamped down on them."
"That's what I'm thinking."
"Just what is the SS up to?" Lucy asked. "They nuked their main world, they killed off the Reich's leadership, and they turned tail at Earth. And Fassbinder went missing. You don't suppose…"
"...that Fassbinder was beamed up to the fleet during the fight and got away with them? That sounds like what happened to me."
"And how did he and his lackeys get that well-trained in barely a year?" Lucy asked. "When we fought on New Brittany, he was pathetic."
"I'm more worried about what the SS is up to," said Robert.
"Whatever it is, I'm sure it's going to be trouble."
"As if it'd be anything else," he sighed. "But whatever they're up to, we'll stop them."
Lucy grinned at that. "Damn right."
Far from the now-dead world of Himmlerwelt, Oberführer Erik Fassbinder stepped off of the transporter pad of the SS dreadnought Heinrich Himmler and raised his arm in a salute. "Heil Hitler!" he cried.
Oberst-Gruppenführer Hans Kranefuss responded. "Heil Hitler!" The elder SS leader was the highest ranking officer of the Schutzstaffel still alive. "Report, Oberführer. Your team is lost?"
"They died so that I could accomplish my mission," Fassbinder replied.
"Then the reports about the death of the Führer…?"
"He would not come." Fassbinder showed contempt. "Our defeats poisoned his mind. He did not accept my arguments. I spared him the indignities of capture."
"Excellent." Kranefuss led him from the transporter room to the corridors of the Himmler. "And the Oberkommando and the Reich Ministers…?"
The contempt was joined with glee. "I removed them as instructed. Generalfeldmarschall von Schoenburg was the only one we could not kill. He relocated to the secondary command facility in Milwaukee before the enemy resumed the attack."
"A pity, as von Schoenburg has surrendered the Reich," Kranefuss spat. "They signed it upon the Aurora. The Alliance has been transmitting the image since. While we expected as much…" Disgust showed on the older man's face. "The surrender is being acknowledged by Gauleiters and commanders across the Reich, frightened of the untermensch laborers on some of our worlds. There may be some that hold out, but they are scattered. Von Platen at least refused to surrender but he has declared his fleet a freikorps and disappeared from known space."
"This is why the SS should have seized control long ago," Fassbinder grumbled. "We would have purged the damned 'von's and strengthened the Reich under orthodox Party leadership."
"We compromised to preserve the order of the Reich. But now that we are all that is left of Hitler's Thousand Year Reich, never again shall we compromise," Kranefuss declared. "We will endure!"
Their trip brought them to the bridge of the Himmler. SS men were at all stations. The Donner Nebula crackled with plasma energies on the main viewer. More SS starships were gathered here. Some were transports, some armed auxiliaries, and many were combat starships of varying type. And the Himmler was their beating heart.
Fassbinder felt two other presences before he saw them. He turned to his allies, the only two females on the bridge, clad in dark jumpsuits and bearing the same energy blade weapon he had on his belt. One was, despite a lighter skin texture, a dead ringer for one of the Aurora officers, Lucilla Lucero; the other was a gorgeous woman with wavy blond hair down to her neck. Fassbinder might have felt an interest in her if he wasn't aware of her true nature.
For they were not fully Human, but machines in Human bodies. Machines known now to Fassbinder as the Cylons.
"It is a shame you wasted some of the best students, Oberführer," remarked the blonde, "Six". "They were not ready to face our foes."
"It was required," he said. Fassbinder sensed Kranefuss' unease. It reminded him of the delicate balancing act he had to play; he could not alienate his allies, but if Kranefuss lost confidence in him, it would destroy this alliance before it could bear fruit. "There are others to train."
"There are," agreed the Lucero clone known as "Twelve".
Nearby Kranefuss accepted the salute of the Oberführer in charge of the Himmler. "Are we ready?"
"Then put me on with the fleet." Kranefuss waited until this was done before he began speaking. "Loyal Germans of the Schutzstaffel, this is your new Führer. I am Hans Kranefuss. You know my lineage. My family has served proudly since the days of Hitler. And we serve still!"
"Our Reich has been betrayed, comrades! Betrayed by the spineless cowards in the OKW and the weakling spoil-seekers of the Ministries! Our old Führer Sauckel was forced to take his own life to avoid capture by the horde of untermenschen that even now tear down our glories from the heart of Welthauptstadt Germania! Our fleets lie broken and Germans everywhere are losing heart to despair."
"But not us! We are the beating heart of Hitler's vision! We are the raging fist of his Party! We are Schutzstaffel, the purest among the Aryan Race, and we still stand! We go now to rebuild our strength and ensure that one day those who have brought the Reich low will die at our hands! The order is now given!" Kranefuss clenched a triumphant fist from where he was standing. "Activate the drives!"
Fassbinder's heart was swelling with pride even before the viewer showed space splitting open ahead. One by one, swirling green vortices formed in the space of the SS fleet. The deck plates below his boots thrummed as the impulse drives of the Himmler powered up to send their vessel through the one ahead.
Finally it was too much. Fassbinder jubilantly lifted his right hand and kept it at the firm angle over his head demanded of his perfection, hand perfectly flat. "Heil Hitler! Heil Kranefuss! SIEG HEIL!"
One by one the other officers on the bridge stood and joined his salute, hailinging the names of the first and the newest of the great Nazi leaders before beginning the chant of "Sieg Heil!"
And this they did until their vessels slipped through the interuniversal jump points, freed from the overrun home universe they were all determined to reconquer.
When Robert told her that President Morgan wished to see both of them, Julia felt some surprise. She'd met the President before, of course, during the negotiations that led to the Alliance. But since then her contact had been entirely with Admiral Maran. That Morgan summoned her as well as Robert made her wonder just what was going on.
The security escort was as humorless as Julia figured they'd be when they ushered her and Robert into the presence of the President of the Allied Systems. Foreign Secretary Onaran and Defense Minister Hawthorne were in the room as well, as was Admiral Maran. Hawthorne gave them a level look. Julia didn't need Robert's abilities to know his dislike for the two of them and everyone they called friend. He was the leader of the anti-metaphysical talents camp of the Alliance government, with his in-service ally being Vice CNO Admiral Davies, who was even more bigoted than he when it came to "mind-readers" and metaphysically-capable individuals.
Morgan nodded to them. "Captains," he said. "My thanks to you and to your crew, Captain Andreys, for their bravery over Germania. It's fitting that the Aurora has yet again played an instrumental role in bringing the war to a satisfactory conclusion."
Hawthorne's eyes narrowed slightly. It was clear he didn't agree with that assessment.
"Thank you, Mister President," Julia replied. "I just wish the cost of winning hadn't been so high."
"You and me both," said Morgan.
At that point Robert felt the weariness in Morgan was not just from the war. He could tell Morgan was upset with something, something new since the surrender. Had there been severe trouble over the division of the Reich into occupation zones?
"My intention when I called you was simply to give personal thanks to you both," said Morgan. "You are both being named for commendations, for service at Germania and prior operations. But there has been a new development that, I fear, may bring us on the path to another war."
"With the war's aftermath, or something else?' Robert asked.
Morgan reached to a control and looked toward the holo-viewer on the wall. "This message just went out on subspace all across Universe S5T3."
A moment later the holo-viewer came alive. On the screen was a Cardassian, one neither of them had met. But Robert recognized him from an intel briefing on the ongoing problems in S5T3. "That's Gul Dukat," he said. "And is that Cardassia? Did he come back from exile?"
"You could say that," Morgan said, after which he triggered the message to play.
"You might ask, 'Should we fear joining the Dominion?'" Dukat said. "And I answer you, not in the least. We should embrace the opportunity."
Robert felt his stomach begin to turn, realizing just what Morgan had met by Dukat's return.
"The Dominion recognizes us for what we are. The true leaders of the Alpha Quadrant. And now that we are joined together, the only people with anything to fear will be our enemies…"
President Morgan shut off the image of Gul Dukat before turning to Robert and Julia. "Now you see what we have to deal with," he said. "The Dominion has a foothold on our side of the S5T3 Milky Way. Our worlds, and those of our allies, are in danger."
For Caterina and Violeta, it was to be their last night together aboard the Aurora. Violeta's transfer to her new ship would be official following their leaves, requiring her to begin the process of traveling to the Huàscar for her new post. They spent the time enjoying a meal before settling onto the couch in Cat's quarters, the same piece of furniture they'd first cuddled together on. It was only fitting that they cuddle again.
"You don't have to go to Sirius if you don't want to, Cat," Violeta assured her. "There's nothing else you want to do?"
"I cost you the last chance. It's only fair that I go through with it this time," Cat answered. She pressed herself against Violeta, enjoying the sensation immensely. "I guess it'll be awkward with your parents…"
"...but still, I… I want to do it. Meet them, see the places you grew up. If we end up moving on, I want to at least have the memories."
Violeta responded by playfully toussling Cat's dark hair. "We already have a lot of good ones. But I'll be glad to make some more with you."
Tears formed silently in their eyes, both aware of how likely it was that after Sirius their relationship would end due to distance and time. Whatever happened, neither wanted it to become a bitter outcome. A sad one, but not bitter.
Quietly, both fell asleep in each others' arms.
Cat woke up to empty quarters. At first she thought Violeta had left for some reason, but quickly it was clear something was wrong. The ship seemed too dark.
No. Not this again. No no no no…
But it was. The same dream of a dead, dark ship. The bridge filled with the bodies of dead friends. Even her own body.
And then, when she stepped back from her corpse, she backed into someone. She turned in confusion and only remembered what came next when the hands pressed against her temples, unyielding, refusing to move. Pain filled her head. She screamed "Stop!" while trying to escape and failing, feeling herself begin to fall.
A voice spoke. And her eyes widened in recognition at hearing the words spoken.
"I'm sorry, Cat. I'm so sorry."
And then she fell, fell into darkness, into nothingness...
...and awoke still on the couch, cuddled up beside Violeta. Her girlfriend remained fast asleep.
Cat sat up and rubbed her face with her hands. It was the dream again. Why was she having it?
And why was he the one hurting her?
"Why?" she whispered to herself. "Why?"
And for the moment, the answer did not come to her.