Ship's Log: ASV Aurora; 10 August 2643 AST. Captain Julia Andreys recording. After weeks of repair work, I am pleased to report that the Aurora is only a couple days away from returning to active duty. Our battle damage from the battles against Sovereign and over the Reich capital has been completely repaired. I think I speak for everyone when I say that we're all eager to get back out there.
The medbay of the Starship Aurora took up a sizable portion of Deck 12, providing the ship the medical facilities necessary to care for its own crew and assist with humanitarian efforts. Today it was quiet and mostly inactive, with much of the crew beginning to filter back aboard as the ship neared the day it returned to full service.
Ordinarily the repair work to bring her back into service would have been directed in some part by Lieutenant Thomas Barnes, the ship's Assistant Chief Engineer. Under the guidance of his mentor, the legendary engineer Montgomery Scott, Tom knew every system on the Aurora like the back of his hand.
This time, however, he would not be joining the repair work. To save the ship in orbit over Germania Tom had mutilated himself, cutting off his right arm, broken and crushed and pinned in by debris as it was. He was still having dreams about it. The debris that buried him, the pain in the arm after enduring the punishment of broken bones and a metal spike through the bicep…
...the white-hot glare of the plasma welder as it sliced through flesh and bone, removing his arm in seconds.
The mutilation had been necessary. The Aurora's cooling systems were damaged. The ship faced a meltdown without the systems back up and running.
And so he'd saved the ship, his ship, at the price of his arm.
The empty sleeve of Tom' medical gown was rolled entirely up, revealing the stub of his arm. Doctor Leonard Gillam examined the stub with a medical recorder.
"So?" asked Tom.
Leo took another minute before nodding. "The nerve regeneration treatments are working as intended. You should be ready for the next stage in a week or so. That means you have a choice to make."
"The organic or prosthetic thing?"
Leo nodded. "It doesn't take long to actually make an organic arm, and the surgery to attach it is quick. But then you'll have weeks of therapy ahead to gain full functionality in the arm."
"While a prosthetic starts working almost right away."
"Yes," Leo said.
Tom nodded. Now came the important question. "Which will let me get back to work sooner?"
"The prosthetic," Leo said. "I can't clear you for standard duty until your arm's functional enough. The prosthetic will only take a day or two."
"But I could get an arm made later, right?" asked Tom. "Like, at any time?"
"Well, yes. It means going back into surgery, of course, and you'll still have to do the therapy," Leo said. "If you ask me, if you really want your arm to be organic, you should just get that over with now."
"Even though I won't be able to get back to work for a while."
"You could do some light duty," Leo suggested.
Tom gave him a look. "To run engineering, I really need two hands. And all ten fingers. Otherwise all I can do is run around and give orders, I can't actually operate stations as well."
"Do me a favor and give it a thought," said Leo. "Maybe consult Dr. Tusana."
Tom didn't recognize the name. "Who?"
"She's our new psychiatrist," Leo said.
"What happened to Ewing?"
"He's transferred away," said Leo.
"Oh." Tom sighed. "So you think I need a shrink?"
"I think you need some therapy," Leo said. "A little mental self-care. People who've lost limbs often do. People who had to maim themselves? Definitely." Seeing Tom's skepticism Leo sighed and silently cursed the toxic mentality toward mental illness that they'd all grown up with. "If my mom asked you about your missing arm, would you talk to her?"
Tom remembered the late Dr. Coretta Gillam and nodded. "Your mom was cool. Yeah."
"Well, Doctor Tusana is no different than my Mom. So how about I schedule a session for you before the time comes for you to make your decision?"
Knowing full well Leo wasn't going to take "No" as an answer, Tom answered, "Alright, fine. I'll go see the shrink."
"Psychiatrist," Leo corrected.
For Caterina Delgado, the excitement of the Aurora being days away from heading back out into space was undermined by the pain of loneliness she was feeling. Violeta Arterria, her girlfriend for over a year, was gone, promoted and re-assigned to the Starship Huáscar as its Navigation Officer. Now she sat alone on a couch they formerly cuddled on and thought of Vee, of those brilliant purple eyes and matching purple hair, created by the cosmetic genes that the Sirians were so known for. Cat wondered if this was how Angel always felt whenever her relationship with Robert entered its "breakup" phase.
Sniffling to herself, Cat walked into her sleeping quarters. The closet door was closed, keeping her from seeing the costume she wore for the Ultimate Worlds of Fantasy holodeck game Vee had gotten her into. Now it was just another painful reminder.
Laying on her bed, Cat closed her eyes and, even as early as it was, she felt herself nod off to sleep.
That's when the dream started again.
The ship was dark, silent, dead. She made her way to the bridge and found everyone in the same state. Locarno sprawled out on the floor between the First Officer's seat and navigation, another body nearby that she didn't make out. Jarod was slumped over Operations, Angel over tactical. Julia lay back in her command chair, her skin ashen gray; she'd been dead for a long time.
And there, at Science, was Cat herself. Also dead.
Cat backed away from the sight. As always, she brushed up against someone and turned to face them. Hands grabbed her head, fingers clawing at her temples, and something started to press upon her mind. She felt like she was falling into a dark void. "Stop!" she screamed.
At that, a familiar voice replied, "I'm sorry, Cat. I'm so sorry."
Her eyes snapped open in recognition of the voice. The shadows parted from her vision enough for her to see the face of her attacker.
And then she fell into the void.
Cat awoke on her bed with a start, crying the name of her attacker in confusion.
"The Coming Storm"
After collecting her thoughts, Cat got back out of bed. The dream was getting stronger as the days and weeks passed. And now, she didn't have Vee to hold her and assure her everything was fine. She was alone and all she could think of was those images in the dream. Of her and the others dead. Just the thought of it… it seemed so crazy. The dreams felt more like visions of a sort, but she wasn't a clairvoyant.
More than anything, Cat wanted to talk to someone about this. She had to. She felt like she was going mad. She tapped her omnitool, brought it to life, and made the call.
Angel arrived in Cat's quarters wearing a white tank top with a faded design on it and high-cut jean shorts. The two might be sisters, but aside from hazel eyes and black hair they were very dissimilar. Angel's choice in clothing showed off the thick fighting muscle of her body, a contrast to Cat's thin limbs and build. Angel was several inches taller than her younger sister and had wider shoulders, looking every inch like a star MMA fighter. Which, had life taken them down a different path, she might have turned out to be.
Cat blinked at her sister's appearance. "I thought you'd be training," she said.
Angel flashed her a small grin. "I was on a date, actually." She sat down with Cat on the couch.
"Really?" Cat's eyes widened. "That's… I'm… that's wonderful, I'm so happy for…" She stopped with a horrible realization. "Oh no. You didn't end the date over me, did you?"
Angel laughed. "It's sweet of you to worry about me, Cat, but no. We finished our meal and he went back to work. We'll meet up later, and it'll be fine." She ran her hand through Cat's hair playfully. "And even if you did… you are my crazy little sister, and I'm used to it."
Cat smiled thinly at that. "I'm sorry when I do."
"I know. Anyway, what's the matter?"
"It's these dreams," Cat confessed. "I… I dream that I'm on the ship, and there's no power, and everyone's dead, even me. And then someone puts their hands on my head and it's like I'm falling…" She sighed. "I know it sounds weird, but it doesn't feel like a normal nightmare. It keeps happening the same way each time. And now… well… now in the dream, I see and hear the person attacking me… and it's the Doctor."
Angel's brow furrowed. "Okay, so what… it's some nightmare of him turning on us?"
"No. Not that, I don't think. It doesn't feel like that. He apologizes to me. Says he's sorry. Like attacking my mind is something he has to do." Cat shook her head. "It's not just a normal nightmare, though. I'm having it more often now. And it's getting more clear each time."
Angel waited for Cat to finish her answer before putting an affectionate hand on her little sister's shoulder. "It may just be a nightmare. Whatever it is, it sounds like it's bothering you a lot."
"Then you should probably see Doctor Tusana," said Angel.
"The new psychiatrist?"
"Yeah. Leo's been getting on us all to meet her and have a session. 'Mental self-care'. The man's as bad a mother hen as Julia, I swear to God." Angel smirked. "I told him I didn't need some shrink rummaging around in my brain."
"It's actually not a bad idea," Cat said. "I mean, mental illness is more widespread than people realize, and even people without it sometimes need to, y'know, talk about things. Secrets and stuff."
"If I need to let things out, I've got a punching bag in the gym and a new boyfriend," Angel reminded her. "I'll be fine."
Cat sighed at that. She knew there was no arguing with Angel on the matter. "Alright. I won't push. And I'll call and ask when I can see her."
"Good." Angel leaned over and kissed her sister on the forehead. "And you can talk to me whenever you need. You know that."
"Then I'll see you later. I want to get some time in the gym tonight." Angel hugged Cat and left the quarters, leaving Cat to sit on the couch before working her omnitool to set up the appointment she'd agreed to take.
A universe and half a galaxy away from the Earth of Universe L2M1, the current location of the Starship Aurora, was the massive space station known as the Citadel. With great arms forty kilometers in length, the Citadel was home to millions of sapient beings and stood as the heart of organized galactic government in Universe M4P2's Milky Way galaxy.
It had, regrettably, seen better days. Barely a month before, a great battle raged in nearby space. The Geth, a machine race built by the Quarians centuries before, laid siege to the station in the name of their "deity", the ancient Reaper machine known as Sovereign, in an attempt to call the Reapers back to the galaxy to begin another cyclical purge of organic life. The subsequent Geth invasion of the Citadel, and the attacks on communications that resulted, led to widespread chaos and violence. Thousands were wounded or killed during the attack and nearby space was choked with debris from the ships lost on both sides. Even now some of that debris remained, not yet cleaned away, and the damage to the Wards was still being repaired.
And that didn't account for the sentiments of the Citadel's residents. From them one thing was clear to Robert Dale, Captain in the Alliance Stellar Navy and one of the twelve Paladin agents of the Allied Systems: nothing on the CItadel would ever be the same.
The lab space was in Aroch Ward, a vacated warehouse claimed from its owners by the Citadel government to be used for the purpose of the investigation into the debris from the attacking force. While most of it had been catalogued, some had yet to be collected and stored, and much still had to be analyzed. The Citadel, and the Alliance, were putting great emphasis on this process to ensure greater understanding of the Geth as they'd progressed in the centuries since the Morning War.
On the tables and scanner assemblies around him, Robert watched some of his friends and comrades at work. Lieutenant Commander Jarod, the Operations Officer of the Aurora, was leading the Aurora officers assigned the task. Currently he was examining the remnants of a Geth platform with the aid of one of his officers, Lieutenant Tra'dur, a Dilgar woman.
Nearby Lucy Lucero, formally a Lieutenant in the service and now a member of Robert's team as a Paladin operative, was checking a shard of blue-tinged material from the wreckage of Sovereign. An emissions field surrounded the piece as a precaution. Newly-promoted Lieutenant Talara, nominally a member of the Aurora's bridge crew and a student of Lucy in the metaphysical powers they shared (as did Robert), stood by waiting to provide another piece for Lucy to examine. She was a Falaen woman, a species of Universe A7R6, with a brown complexion and blue hair and eyes with blue half-moons between her cheeks and eyes. Her ears were elfin in shape, with pointed ends, although not as long as the ears of a Dorei.
The third table was taken up by two other experts present and newly arrived: Lieutenant Commanders Data and Geordi La Forge of the United Federation of Planets' Starfleet. The Operations Officer and Chief Engineer of the Federation Starship Enterprise, they were on loan from Starfleet to assist in the analysis efforts while the Enterprise assisted in the recovery efforts around the Citadel itself. Data, constructed decades before by Dr. Noonien Soong, looked mostly Human save for his pale gold skin and eyes. Geordi La Forge was of African ancestry, with a moderate build and height. Where he had once worn a special visor to replace the sight he was born lacking, now ocular implants provided said sight, giving the appearance of blue eyes that showed clear circuitry when viewed closely enough.
In Robert's company stood a close friend. Commander Zachary Carrey and Robert had known each other since Zack was about six years old. They'd grown up together as one another's closest male friends. As grown men, this bond hadn't wavered, although it had certainly been tested over the years, especially since Robert's discovery of the Darglan Facility that changed their lives. Robert sensed his friend's quiet boredom. Zack was not a technical expert and this was hardly something he considered a valuable use of his time. His presence was from his current position, soon to end, as liaison officer between the Alliance and C-Sec.
"Intriguing," said Data. "This debris is giving off a weak electromagnetic field."
"How is that even possible?" asked Geordi. "We don't have it connected to any power source. Does this material generate its own power?"
"The other samples I've seen do," Jarod said, looking up from the Geth debris. He prompted Tra'dur to move it. "Although I'll be damned if I know how."
"The material is a unique composite structure outside of known science," Data said. "We will need further examination to determine the source of the power for the field."
"I'm more interested in what the field does."
Robert and Lucy exchanged uncomfortable looks at Geordi's remark. "It might be the method used for indoctrination," Robert answered.
Geordi looked toward him. "Indoctrination?"
"It's an effect that came from being in proximity to Sovereign," Robert explained. "Over time, those exposed to Sovereign gradually lost control of their minds. From what Saren's experiments revealed, the highest exposures frequently left beings as mindless husks or drones. Or they would go mad from imagining whispers and orders. It's how Sovereign converted followers."
Geordi winced. "Well, it's a good thing we're keeping all of these samples in containment fields."
"Even then, I'd be careful about being around them for too long," Lucy said. "There's still so much we don't know about the effect. It's possible that even the fields don't entirely contain it."
"Sensors show that the EM fields are contained, Lieutenant, I do not believe there is much need for worry," Data assured her. "Although given the scope of the problem, I do understand your caution."
Tra'dur brought another piece of Geth technology over to examine with Jarod. "There's no sign of a similar field with pieces from the Geth," she said. "And the atomic materials scans are clear on the component elements."
"That is to be expected," said Data. His gold eyes returned to the readouts for the shard of Sovereign on the table before him. "From the pieces I have already examined, it is clear that the Geth and Sovereign were not of the same technological base. There are clear, unmistakable differences."
"Make sure that goes in the report, please," said Robert. He gave Zack an uneasy look. "Sources close to the Council have already claimed otherwise on the extranet."
Jarod frowned at that. "We're not even close to done with this work. It's not possible for them to judge either way."
"It's not about scientific truth, Jarod," Zack sighed. "It's about politics. The Council's probably afraid of the results if they confirm what Sovereign was. Anderson's the only one voting for complete disclosure, from what I've heard."
Robert smiled at that. "How did Anderson get tapped for M4P2 Humanity's seat on the Council, anyway?"
"The Council asked Shepard's advice, Shepard picked Anderson," replied Zack. He grinned. "Although they probably didn't want Udina either. He's always a pain in the ass. Anderson's not a diplomat, but he gets stuff done, and he's still less annoying than Udina."
"I'm sure Ambassador Udina isn't happy," Lucy remarked.
"No he is not," said Zack. "And personally, I don't give a damn."
Robert chuckled. "I bet Shepard doesn't either."
"Have you heard from her lately?" asked Lucy. "Or the Koenig?"
"They're still out in the Attican Traverse," Robert said. "Investigating those missing ships. The Normandy and the Koenig will be back in port in a few days." He glanced toward Zack with a wide grin. "Just in time for Zack to get his ship back."
Given the twinkle in Zack's eye, it was clear he was eagerly awaiting that day.
Alone in the middle of interstellar space, the Starship Koenig moved along at superluminal velocity within the warp field her drives generated for the purpose. The ship was flying openly, cloaking device unengaged, her sensors actively scanning her environment.
Koenig was a special ship. While she shared many similarities in capability and design with the Alliance Trigger-class attack ship, she was a unique design, created by Carlton Farmer and Montgomery Scott for the use of the Universe H1E4 Facility crew in the year before the Alliance was founded. The Koenig's purpose was to supplement the Darglan-designed scouts by being a pure combat vessel, sacrificing living space and independent operation capability for combat power. This was why the ship was rarely out on her own for longer than a week, maybe two, before returning to her home base, normally the Starship Aurora. She made up for this sacrifice in independence by having the firepower to threaten ships two, even three times her mass and size.
In command of the vessel was Commander Will Atreiad, who sat in the office on the bridge deck, sipping at coffee and reading reports from the crew. They were doing their utmost to make this, his final mission on the Koenig, as smooth as possible. Once they were back he would be relinquishing command to Zachary Carrey, ending what now felt like a short caretaker command by returning the ship to one of her original officers and moving on to his new post as First Officer of the Starship Huáscar. While command of the Koenig had been intimidating to him in the beginning - the ship had a legendary status among Will's people, the survivors of the Colonies of Kobol from Universe N2S7 - the Huáscar presented its own intimidating nature. He would be responsible for a ship of two thousand ship and crew, half of them Dilgar, with all of the potential for trouble that entailed.
It will be like the early days of the Colonial Confederacy, when the Navy started integrating crews from multiple Colonies, he thought.
"Bridge to Atreiad," said Lieutenant Jean Hajar, one of the watch officers of the ship, with piloting and engineering as her specialties. Hajar was, like Atreiad, a former member of another service from the Alliance, having come over from the Federation's Starfleet. "Commander, I have Commander Shepard on subspace for you."
"Put her through." Will sat up in his chair and looked to the flatscreen monitor panel on his desk. The image shifted to show Commander Jen Shepard of the Systems Alliance, commander of the SSV Normandy and the first (and only) Human Spectre of the Citadel Council. She was a bright, passionate woman with a brown complexion. Her red hair was cut short on her head. There was an almost bored look in her green eyes. "Commander, anything on your side of the cluster?"
"That's a negative," she replied. "There's no sign of these ships or their attacker. Or attackers. What about you?"
"Nothing here either," he said. "Definitely nothing confirming Geth involvement."
"I suspected as much. I suppose we can't be too surprised. The Batarians have already gotten their hands on some extraversal technology, and there's no telling what the groups in the Terminus Systems have access to by now. They could have a couple dozen warships cloaked nearby and we'd never see them until they attacked."
"Any further news?" Shepard asked.
Certain as to what she was asking about, he replied, "The latest dispatches from S4W8 are that the Turians and Slavic Union are still disputing Drachenfeldt. Defense Command's assigned a brigade of British Stellar Union troops to garrison the planet until the situation can be negotiated. The Capellans and the Star Adder Clan nearly started shooting on New Lotharingia over the Hassenfeld Valley, but they've accepted Minbari arbitration in lieu of a Clan Trial of Possession. The Minbari are also arbitrating the Turian and Federated Commonwealth dispute over the Delta Serpentis System…"
Shepard's expression betrayed displeasure. "Damn. Udina was right. I hate it when that smug bastard is right."
"If it makes you feel better, Captain Dale made the same prediction."
"He doesn't count. He's got that life force clairvoyance thing," she replied.
Will laughed at that. "The priests are still trying to figure out how to explain that stuff," he chuckled.
Shepard grinned, but the grin turned brittle. "And the Cardassian situation?"
"Nothing new as of late. The Dominion sent another convoy through the wormhole two days ago. But ever since they kicked the Klingons out of Cardassian territory, the only thing they've been doing is clearing the Maquis out of Cardassian-claimed worlds in what used to be the De-Militarized Zone. Or 'Re-Militarized Zone' as Apley put it in our last status briefing."
"We finish one war and another one is already brewing." Shepard looked away for a moment. "Well, I've got a watch coming up. Keep me informed."
"The same to you, Commander. Koenig out."
Shepard nodded once before her image was replaced by the stylized symbol of the Systems Alliance.
Will slid back in his chair and sighed deeply. Lords, I know the reward for hard work is more work, but couldn't we get something of a break? he thought ruefully, after which he resumed his work for the day.
Cat stepped into Dr. Tusana's office on Deck 12 wearing off-duty clothing, specifically a knee-length purple skirt and a pastel pink T-shirt with a stylized rearing unicorn carrying a lab coat-clad figure on its back with a Greek-style laurel on the figure's head. The text below read "Princess of the Geeks" in purple lettering.
Dr. Tusana was a Gersallian woman of dark skin tone, wearing a loose fitting robe of brilliant green color over a cream white tunic. Amber-toned eyes looked over Caterina with great patience, and her chestnut-colored hair was pulled back into a looped braid, a hairstyle Cat hadn't seen before. She sat comfortably in her chair in the middle of the office.
The office was remarkably well-organized for a newly-arrived occupant, with mementos already placed and displays and items that, one suspected, were to help people relax. There was an earthy, sweet smell to the room, and Cat realized it was from the burning incense on Tusana's table.
Tusana noticed her interest and smiled gently. "It is hrata," she explained. "An incense that quiets the mind and helps focus thoughts."
''It does smell good," Cat said. She took the offered seat on the chaise lounge. "You're civilian?"
"I am, yes," she replied. Her accent had the same melodic lilt that Meridina's had, although the tone was slightly different, in the manner that Cat's Midwestern accent was different from Angel's, which sounded more Spanish than Cat's. "Does this trouble you?"
"Oh, no. I was just wondering. Doctor Ewing was commissioned, I was wondering if they did the same thing."
"They did not," replied Tusana. "I am pleased you came to see me. Doctor Gillam informs me that your culture has a negative view of mental therapy?"
"Well… I'm not sure it's all negative. It's…" Cat shrugged. "People from our area of Earth associate psychiatrists with mental illness, and being mentally ill… it's a shame thing, really. Everyone assumes being mentally ill means you're insane or a psychopath or something."
"I see. An unfortunate perception certainly. Another cultural difference between us, it seems. Now…" Tusana sat up in her chair. "What is it you wish to see me about, Commander Delgado?"
"You can call me 'Cat', Doctor," Caterina insisted.
"Very well, Cat." Tusana said nothing more, letting Caterina reply on her own time.
Cat took in a breath. "Well, it's these dreams I've been having. They… they don't feel like dreams, and they're getting worse, and there's more details as I have them…"
Tusana nodded. She leaned forward in her chair. "Would you object to allowing me to see your dreams?"
At first Caterina was taken aback, but then she remembered a fact she'd briefly forgotten. "Oh, right, you're a telepath. Okay, sure. How does this work?"
Tusana gave her an intrigued look. "You are the first patient I've had to react so openly to the idea. Aside from my people and Dorei, most have initial discomfort until reassurances are given, and a few have refused consent even afterward."
"Well, I guess it's scary having someone in your head. They might find out your deepest, darkest secret or something. But I told everyone my deepest darkest secret over a year ago, and they hugged me for it," Cat replied. Tusana easily picked up her warm thoughts for the day eighteen months before when she, still recovering from Morinth's attack on her, revealed to the others she was a lesbian, to clapping and hugs and a big Hargert-made cake. (Although this being Hargert, he'd have made a cake anyway.) "Anyway, yeah, it can be scary I guess to have someone who can mess with your mind. But I think it's pretty cool. And I've always wondered about the limitations of telepathy. Like, how many minds can be accessed at once, or how far apart minds can touch. Anyway, I'm just rambling, so let's start?"
Tusana's patient smile didn't waver. "Of course. When you feel me enter your mind, allow the memories of the dream to come up."
"Okay…" Cat closed her eyes and relaxed. Moments passed and she felt it. A little pinprick at the edge of her mind, like a small needle pressing against her skin. She fought off the instinct to push back and let the needle enter. Someone's in my mind! This is so cool! was her sentiment, and she felt amusement that wasn't her own. Knowing that the psychiatrist was in her mind now, Cat allowed the dream imagery to come up. It was a horrible sight and she couldn't keep herself from feeling that way about it, even if she knew it wasn't real.
She let the images continue, until the Doctor grabbed her head, and the pain started and darkness came.
Something shifted in the alien thoughts in her mind. The needle was gone, replaced by a series of what she could only think of as probes that moved through her mind. What is it? she thought.
I am using your dream to search your memories, to see if there are matching memories. I believe I…
What came next was not so much pain as a sense of pressure. The probes began to coalesce, becoming a solid sense in Caterina's mind again. The pressure increased as the solid needle pushed on. Again and again it seemed to move and press, and every time the pressure held it, becoming uncomfortable as it did.
And then, like that, the alien thoughts in her mind were gone. Cat opened her eyes and was stunned to see that Tusana seemed worn down. As if she'd just had to sprint across the ship. Sweat glistened on Tusana's forehead. Her expression was full of bewilderment. "I have never felt a mental block that powerful," Tusana confessed.
"A block?" asked Cat.
"Yes. I felt an echo in your memory from the imagery of the dream. But when I reached for it, I was blocked."
"It felt like… a kind of pressure."
"Yes. Which means the block was not meant to harm," she said. "A cruel telepath would make blocks that could harm both the target of the block and any other telepath that tried to access it. But this was made to be gentle in its refusal to break." Tusana ran a hand over her forehead. "And it is powerful beyond imagining. I have trained extensively to deal with mental blocks and repressed memories, and I have felt nothing so strong in my life."
Cat frowned. "So you can't remove the block?"
"Well, maybe if Meridina…"
"No, not even with her. It would take many of us to even hope to, and the process of that many minds exerting themselves inside your mind would inflict incalculable harm upon you, Cat." Tusana shook her head. "I am at a loss to figure out how to fix this. The telepath who placed the block has power beyond anything I have heard of."
Caterina's brow furrowed. Hearing that, it was becoming clear to her what she had to do, if she was to learn what was going on in her mind.
Tusana sensed that thought from Cat. "Which doctor are you referring to?" she asked. "It's not one of the ship's doctors, is it?"
"No," said Cat. "The Doctor isn't a member of the crew." She stood up. "I need to go see Captain Andreys, Doctor. Thank you for your help."
"I wish I could have done more," Tusana said. "Please, do come back. I wish to have a normal session with you."
"I promise, I will," Cat pledged, after which she left the room.
After the day's work, Zack returned to his office at C-Sec headquarters to finish his day's paperwork… and the last day's paperwork as well. With his departure just a few days away he wanted to ensure his successor had nothing to complain about.
On the screen now was paperwork for a disputed invoice between C-Sec and a company from the Colonial Confederation that won the bid for installing updated software defenses for C-Sec's internal communications, a response to the way Saren sabotaged the same during his attack on the Citadel. C-Sec was disputing some of the charges and Zack was stuck firmly in the middle, the company expecting his office to threaten C-Sec into a settlement and C-Sec expecting him to report their negative findings to his government. I think I'd rather be shot at by Nazis again, he muttered to himself.
He was drawn from this scintillating subject by a call over his comm unit. It took ten seconds or so for the call to finish finalizing through the linked networks of the M4P2 galaxy and the Alliance interuniversal communications system. When it was done, his screen blipped to show the face of Tom Barnes. "Hey Tom," he said. "How's it going? Feeling better?"
"Starting to," he replied. "So… it's decision time, man."
"Oh?" Zack considered what he was saying before figuring it out. "Your arm?"
"Yeah. Leo says he needs to know in a couple of days. So now I've gotta figure out how I'm gonna do this Goddamned thing. The prosthetic is quicker and will get me back into service faster, but… I dunno, I don't know if I want a fake arm."
"Is it reversible?" Zack asked. "I mean, if you get the prosthetic, are you stuck with it?"
"Apparently the answer is no, but it means having to go through this again next time. And I'm tired of living with one Goddamned arm, man."
"I'd be too," Zack admitted. "Well, I guess you could go with the prosthetic then? I mean, it's not permanent, if you don't like it…"
A weary sigh came from the other end. "Yeah, it makes sense. I just want to get this over with."
"Well, if that's the case, I'd say go for organic. I mean, it's all up to you, man. What's more important, coming back early? Having an organic arm and not a metal one? Getting it over with?" As he laid out his questions, Zack could see Tom was not entirely happy to have these reactions. Finally he asked, "This isn't what you want to hear, is it?"
"I guess I was hoping you'd just advise me to do one thing."
"Well, you were talking about cool tools in your prosthetic arm."
Tom chuckled. "Yeah, but apparently those kinds of custom jobs aren't covered by the Stellar Navy's treatment. I'd have to spend a fortune to get a specialized arm attached."
"I suppose you could always go to Solaris," Zack pointed out.
To that Tom laughed. "Yeah, no. Those people are nuts, man. I'm not going into surgery and waking up with a fraking tail or some other weird crap."
"Fair enough. Still, I don't know what else to say, man. It's your call."
"Yeah, and I'll make it. I'm probably overthinking it. I just… I've had nightmares, man. Waking up with my arm pinned again, the ship blowing apart around me…"
Zack nodded. He'd had his own nightmares, of fifteen year old Dilgar kids blowing up around him. Of all of those wounded and dead from his provisional naval infantry unit. "The battle left its mark on us," he said quietly.
"Yeah, and now I've got Leo busting my balls to visit that new Gersallian chick shrink we've got. Because what I need is someone to hold my hand and ask me what I Goddamned feel. A waste of time."
"Not really, Tom," Zack answered quietly. "I might still be drinking if not for Jarod's mentor." Not that he hadn't been tempted, especially after the fighting in the Nazi capital. "It's not just touchy, feely-hand stuff."
Tom clearly wasn't sold, but he stopped groaning about it. "Well, maybe I'll consider it, then. Anyway, I'd better go. Leo let me volunteer to do some of the Engineering paperwork so Scotty and the others can focus on the actual work. I've got a frakload of Goddamned requisition reports and repair orders to read through."
"Take care, Tom, I look forward to seeing you when I get back."
"About damn time, man. I'll see you then." His image disappeared.
Zack leaned back in his chair for a moment. He couldn't help but turn to look out his window. Below and outside, one of the Presidium's open-air establishments had a visible, very nice-looking bar. It looked classy and they were said to serve great drinks there. And he'd heard so many good things about Serrice Ice Brandy, that it was like drinking pure, soothing cool…
No Zack. Bad Zack. One would be too many! With that thought he returned his attention to his paperwork.
Again his comms went off. Since he was in his office, the call was relayed to his computer unit in his desk instead of his omnitool. He tapped a key to accept the call. "Commander Carrey here."
"Commander." The voice was familiar. Armando-Owen Bailey, now a Captain in the C-Sec service, had fought at Zack's side during Saren's attack on the Citadel. They'd nearly died fighting the Geth. "We've got a problem."
"Yeah?" he asked.
"Something tripped an alarm at the debris repository," Bailey explained. "We just responded and, well… we've had a break-in."
That was not a good thing to hear. Zack frowned. "What did they steal?"
"A big damn pile of our uncatalogued Sovereign debris, Commander."
Zack let out a groan. "Of course," he signed, thinking again how nice just a single drink would be. One would be too much. One would be too much...
With the ship's departure from drydock approaching, Julia found she was yet again dealing with something close to a proper paperwork load. There were systems reports to read, requisitions, promotions and personnel transfers to approve, everything necessary to get the Aurora ready to return to active service after the beating she took in the victory over Welthauptstadt Germania.
After taking the time to visit the restroom attached to her ready office, Julia returned to her desk. She was picked her digital pad up to resume reading when the door chimed. "Come in," she said.
Caterina entered. She was in the "Princess of the Geeks" shirt that Tom had given her for her birthday earlier in the year and a matching skirt. Since the ship was still in drydock Julia decided to let the lack of a uniform while on the bridge slide. "What can I do for you?" she asked Cat.
"I need… I need to go do something," Cat said, her voice restrained.
Julia folded her hands on the table. "Alright. What is it?"
"I need to go to Earth, Universe W8R4," Cat said. "And I need to find the Doctor."
For a moment Julia said nothing. She let the request work its way through her mind. The obvious complications related to it. "Earth W8R4 is under a special contact limitation," she reminded Cat. "No contact is permitted with local population, only a few specially designated officers of the UNIT organization."
"I know," Cat said. "I studied the order first, just to make sure. But Sarah Jane has a link to UNIT. And since she already knows about us, the limitation doesn't really apply."
"I'm not sure the Admiralty will agree with that reading of the regulation," Julia remarked. "Why do you need to see Miss Smith?"
"Because she can help me find the Doctor, and I need to speak to him. He… I think…" Cat swallowed. She could tell she wasn't winning Julia over to the request. "Julia, I know it's bad timing and I know it could cause trouble…"
"Yeah, it is and it could," Julia said, although she immediately regretted it. She hadn't meant to sound that hostile.
She was impressed with Cat, however. While Cat might have once let the firm opposition cause her to yield, just to avoid the confrontation, now she held firm. She wasn't looking for a fight, but she had a good reason for something and she was going to push for it. "Doctor Tusana found a block in my mind, Julia," she said.
Julia frowned at that. "A block? As in…"
"As in my memories have been blocked," Cat said. "She says it's the strongest block she's ever seen. And she's sure it's beyond anything a normal telepath could make. But I know one that can."
"The Doctor," Julia realized.
"Yeah. He… I don't know what's behind the block, but it's related to my nightmares over the last few months, and I need to find out. The nightmares, they won't stop, and I don't know how much more of it I can take," Cat insisted. "If the Doctor put it there, he can lift it, or at least tell me why. If he didn't, maybe he can remove it. Either way, I really need to see him!"
There was clear heat in Cat's voice by the time she finished laying out her reasoning. Julia found it a sound argument. And she didn't want Cat suffering. If this was some leaking memory blocked away from Cat's conscious mind, Julia had no idea how much it would damage Cat mentally over time.
And yet, the regulations were clear.
Julia tapped away at the hard-light keyboard projected on her desk until she brought up the relevant contact orders. She was surprised to see that she, Cat, and Angel were all listed as authorized contact points for relations with UNIT, presumably due to their experiences in that universe. She gave the rules a quick read and finally nodded. "I'll sign off for you to use a shuttle craft, and I'll see about getting you a jump to W8R4."
Cat smiled at her and nodded. "I could hug you for this one."
"Ah, your thanks are fine," Julia said. She allowed herself a warm grin for Cat's benefit. "Go find out what's wrong, Cat. And then get your butt home, we'll have things to scan."
"Aye Captain!" Cat declared enthusiastically, giving a well-meaning, playful, and entirely unnecessary salute. "Uh, I'm doing it right, right?" she added with uncertainty.
Julia now allowed herself a small giggle. "I'm not sure, but since salutes aren't in the regs yet, don't worry about it."
"Okay. Let me go pack then. And I'll be back before you know it!" With that Cat rushed from the room. Julia watched the door slide close behind her before returning to the paperwork that still demanded Julia's attention.
Cat was getting the last of her things together - since she didn't expect to be gone long, she was only taking a small bag of clothes and personal necessities - when there was a chime at her door. She sighed, knowing full well who it was even before she called out "Come in!"
Angel came in, wearing her usual exercise combination of brown sports bra and shorts with her hair pulled back in a bun. Muscle rippled under her visible skin, still glistening with sweat from whatever exercises she'd abandoned to come argue with her "crazy little sister". "Are you crazy?!" she demanded. "You're actually going back to that damn Earth?!"
"Well, just for a bit," Cat replied.
"Considering what happened the last time we went there? Or the time before that?!"
Cat sighed. W8R4's Earth had proven dangerous twice so far, the first time with that alien with the bio-absorption cane, the second seeing them nearly killed due to the Cybermen and the Daleks. And the time before that, visiting had led to the Dalek invasion of the Facility…
...and that was just from Angel's point-of-view. During the year she spent with the Doctor - a year from her perspective alone, anyway - Cat had faced quite a number of dangers on that Earth, albeit in entirely different periods of time.
Okay, so W8R4 is crazy dangerous. In any era. Of course Angel's going to freak out that I'm going back there. With that in mind, Cat avoided getting frustrated with her protective big sister. "I know how it looks to you, but I need to do it," Cat assured her. "The Doctor may be the only being in the Multiverse who can remove the block in my mind."
"You're telling me Meridina can't? If not, why not get Rob and Lucy to help, they've got that metaphysical life energy stuff…"
"It's not the same as telepathy," Cat insisted. "And no, it won't help. Whatever happened… the Doctor's the only one who can help. He can remove the block, or explain why it's there and can't be taken out. So I need to find him."
"And you're going alone?"
Cat shrugged. "Well, yeah. I'm just taking a shuttle."
"Dammit, Cat, that entire universe is a death trap!" Angel shouted. "And shuttles don't have IU drives! You won't be able to jump home if something goes wrong!"
"There's an observation post in the Jovian orbit that can help me get home," Cat said. "They're equipped with an IU drive to send ships back since there are so few visiting ships to the universe."
"But that assumes they don't get blown up first!"
Caterina let out an exasperated sigh and walked up to her sister. She set her hands on Angel's bare arms as if to brace Angel from falling. "Listen to me, Angel. I'm going to be fine! I know you're worried about me, you always are, but I have to do this. These nightmares are getting worse and they're going to drive me crazy! Please, trust me!"
"I trust you, Cat, it's that damned universe I don't trust," Angel responded. Now it was her turn to sigh, as she could see the determination in her sister's hazel eyes and knew Cat wasn't going to be swayed. "Okay, you're going. I get it. Let me go with you."
"Don't you have a date tomorrow? Or tonight or whenever?"
"You're more important."
Cat frowned. In between her failed attempts to romance Robert, Angel had occasionally tried other guys, and most of them walked away once they realized they had to compete with Cat for Angel's attentions. And now Angel was yet again putting Cat ahead of her own romantic relationships.
But she knew there was no point arguing. Angel couldn't dissuade her from going to W8R4, but that same Delgado stubbornness would keep Cat from getting Angel to let her go alone.
"Julia set aside one of the new shuttles, the Moffat," Cat informed her. "She's in the Main Shuttle Bay, I'll meet you there after you shower?"
It seemed that only now did Angel realize she'd stormed up six decks in her exercise wear. She sighed and nodded. "I'll go shower and change now."
"Cool. See you there!"
When booking living quarters for their stay on the Citadel, Robert ended up picking Tulara Tower, a residence in Aroch Ward about three kilometers from Zack's rented apartment at Laranis Complex. While they'd only been around for a few days, they'd found that among the alien restaurants and cafes in the districts of Aroch between their residences, there was a single Human restaurant called A Taste of Home, a family-owned business that boasted being the first Human restaurant on the Citadel. The menu was diverse, with the cooks capable of cooking everything from classic North American diner fare to the spiciest Thai concoction (as Talara had learned to some humorous result).
The two were enjoying a meal there now, Robert eating a classic diner-style patty melt sandwich and Lucy indulging in a decent plate of chicken enchiladas. After taking a bite Robert looked around and sighed. "You can feel it too?" he asked.
"Fear. Anger. Disbelief." Lucy nodded and sighed. "I can. But we can't be surprised. Nobody here ever imagined the Citadel could be attacked like that."
"Nothing in this galaxy will be the same again. No matter how much the Council or Udina wish otherwise."
"Are they really trying to cover up Sovereign's origin?" Lucy asked.
"I think they're undecided," said Robert. "They're trying to keep their options open. The longer they delay in confirming the truth publicly, the more time to let the population's fears settle, or for new evidence that will let them avoid the uncomfortable parts of the truth."
"You mean that Sovereign was just one of what might be thousands of genocidal squid robots that want to exterminate us all?" Lucy asked drolly.
"Yeah, that." Robert shrugged. "I suppose I can see some of their concerns."
"Well, think about it. Do you really think the Batarians or the Terminus Systems are just going to nod and agree to the Citadel suddenly implementing the kind of armament scheme needed to face something like the Reapers?"
Lucy shook her head and set her fork down, a half-eaten chunk of enchilada still on it. "No. They'll arm too."
"Yeah. And while that might be useful, since everyone will be better off in fighting the Reapers… that's not true if one side decides to attack the other due to a miscommunication or some Machiavellian calculation," Robert pointed out. "I'm sure there are going to be Turian and Systems Alliance generals advocating using a temporary advantage in power to impose Citadel authority in Terminus, or to put down the Batarians' border defenses to hinder their piracy campaigns. Hell, maybe even our own side might suggest something like that. And the more people in this galaxy fight each other…"
"...the weaker they'll be when the Reapers get here," Lucy finished for him.
"Yeah. So I guess I can see why the Council may want to be more careful…"
Hearing their names being shouted was enough to redirect Robert and Lucy's attention to the speaker: Zack. He came up in his field uniform. Robert frowned. "What's wrong?"
"We need to get to the debris repository," he said. "There's been a theft."
"And just as I was on my last one," sighed Lucy, setting her fork down again. She turned toward a nearby Asari waitress. "Check please! And a to-go box!"
The repository thieves had been careful in their entry, not damaging any major systems and causing alarms to go off. It was clear to the assembled officers that they were dealing with something more than a lone thief.
"This was a team job," noted Garrus Vakarian. The gray-skinned Turian was a former member of Commander Shepard's personal team and again serving with Citadel Security. He was in the Turian model of the blue C-Sec duty uniform. An Alliance-made pulse pistol was on his hip, the result of new C-Sec guidelines mandating use of personal firearms capable of non-lethal settings. Now he looked over the empty bins of what had previously contained suspected pieces of Sovereign. "There wasn't enough time for one person to carry all of this out."
"I concur with your assessment," said Data. He and Geordi were now examining the computer panels that controlled access to the bins. "Additionally, the method used to overcome the computer lock was quite sophisticated. I would theorize that the thieves used an invasive algorithm that insinuated itself into the running parameters of the security system, causing a general fault."
"You would be right," Geordi said. Unlike Lucy and the other Alliance officers, he still held a Starfleet-model tricorder. "Whatever it is just tried to hack into my tricorder."
"Purging the system's going to require a complete wipe, then," said Lucy.
"I'm more worried about where this stuff has gone," Robert said. "Between our examinations and Saren's research it's clear that it poses a threat to anyone in proximity."
"Beyond that, what I want to know is 'who'," Garrus said.
"Presumably the thieves believe the debris is of great value on the Citadel black market," noted Data.
Garrus shook his head. "My colleagues in the Organized Crime department have reported the opposite."
"I'd think crooks would be quick to grab anything that might be valuable," remarked Lucy. "And why wouldn't this stuff be?"
"That's what has us confused. All sorts of groups should be paying top credit. But it's like the entire criminal underworld is uninterested."
Hearing that, Bailey gave Garrus a look. "I've got some contacts, a CI or two, that might be able to sniff something out on that angle."
That prompted confusion in Talara. "If the criminals are uninterested, would that not be a waste of effort?"
"No," said Lucy, shaking her head. "If they're not interested when it seems like they should be, it means there's a reason why. That reason might tell us more about the situation, it could even give leads to whom is responsible."
"Continue cataloguing everything that's missing and find out everything you can," Robert said to Lucy. "Keep Talara and Tra'dur with you. Commander Data, Commander La Forge?"
"We shall assist," Data confirmed.
"Thank you," Robert replied. He nodded next to Garrus, Bailey, and Zack. "And the rest of us will see what we can find out. I have an idea on someone who might know something."
The shuttle Moffat was about four meters longer than the usual shuttle, allowing for a larger living space in the back for long-range trips. The shuttle glided into far Earth orbit with all systems set to hide it from early 21st Century radio detection methods, making the Moffat visible only to the advanced, alien tech-derived sensors of UNIT, Torchwood, and other government agencies with access to said technology. Theoretically a satellite or spacecraft with short-range cameras might have seen the shuttle, but only if it came close enough.
At the altitude she set on the piloting console, Cat ensured that planet-based weapons would not be able to launch an attack on the Moffat, at least not one that the shuttle couldn't evade. With this safety precaution taken Cat immediately commenced scans. Almost immediately she spotted what she was looking for. "There it is," she said. "The TARDIS is in London."
"Lucky timing," Angel replied. "So what now?"
"I'm sending a signal to the TARDIS to get the Doctor's attention. Of course, if he's not in it, then this could be a while." Cat finished this process before glancing awkwardly toward Angel. "So, this boyfriend of yours…"
"If you must know, he's one of the new security officers," Angel remarked. "Tony Zah. Richmond has him in charge of Gamma Shift."
"So that means that your dinner is his breakfast and vice versa," Cat noted. "But doesn't that make things… difficult?"
"Well, we don't actually sleep together, if you catch my drift." Angel smiled at that.
Out of sheer curiosity Cat asked if that meant the relationship had gotten to home base yet, but she stopped herself. The slight reddening of her cheeks gave her unspoken question away, however, and Angel chortled with amusement. "It's not the kind of action you're interested in anyway, Cat."
"True." She shook her head. "At least one of us is getting laid, I guess."
"Well, I'm sure that if this long-range thing with Violeta really doesn't pan out, you'll find another sweet girl. And she'd better be sweet right back to you, or…"
"...or you'll punch her, yes," Cat sighed, a sad little grin forming on her face. As much as it could be annoying, letting Angel have her way sometimes kept her happy. And Cat liked her sister happy. "I'd like to meet him. Tony, I mean."
"I'll see about it," Angel promised. "So, anything yet?"
"Nothing. But let's give the Doctor some more time…"
The mess hall of the Koenig was the attack ship's social center. It was the only recreational space large enough for the fifty to sixty officers and crew to meet in a large number due to the combat-oriented design of the warship. Its replicators were maintained as well as could be managed, at least under the oversight of the ship's Chief Engineer, Karen Derbely.
Given the way the ship's watches were arranged, it was off-time for the ship's Second Officer and Operations Officer, Lieutenant Magda Navaez. Magda was a woman of solid build. Like many of the people from her nation, she was mestizo - of mixed European and Amerindian ancestry - with brown-toned skin and dark hair down to her shoulders. She was seated at a table enjoying a plate of replicated aborrajados and rich coffee from Colombia, the nation she once called home. The nation she'd called home, in fact, until the day she and her surviving family were plucked from the FARC hostage camp by a bunch of well-intentioned but sometimes naive-sounding Americans with an alien base buried far beneath the plains of Kansas. Those Americans - now the Aurora crew - had in turn inspired her to join them (and to identify and target some of the violent paramilitary groups that were not so well known to Americans), and now Magda considered her home to be the New Liberty Colony with most of her family dwelling there.
Sitting across from her, with a plate of Gersallian liyume that she was curiously trying out, was Lieutenant Ana Poniatowska. She was a woman of slight build with honey-colored blond hair and windswept gray eyes. She made a tentative try at the meal and nodded in acceptance. "Quite good."
Magda smiled thinly. "I've heard some of the others insist the replicator became the best in the fleet after Tali fixed it up."
Ana nodded in agreement. Her face shifted to show a hint of concern. "How is she? I heard she was wounded in the final assault on the Führerbunker."
"Well, she was at the surrender ceremony. I believe Doctor Chakwas got the infection under control." Magda sighed. "Since I met her, I've felt nothing but sorrow and pity for the Quarians. To live their entire lives in those suits, never getting to know the joy of a sun's warmth or a cool breeze…"
"I hold out hope that we might find a way to help them," Ana said. "I've spent some time lately reading up on the Quarians."
"Well, I will be working closely with one. The Huáscar is going to have a Quarian science officer."
"Good for them," Magda declared.
Ana nodded. She finished chewing on a piece of her food before continuing to speak. "How is your family?"
There was something in Ana's voice that made Magda feel this wasn't small talk. Regardless she replied, "They are well. Uncle Cristobal is still deciding whether he will run for election next year. Aunt Luz just returned from Colombia with a new load of immigrants. The Aid Society is doing well."
Ana nodded and smiled. "We may not raid labor camps and prisons any longer, but it is good to know we are still bringing in those looking for a better life."
There was something in the smile, and in Ana's voice, that made Magda realize the sadness within the statement. She quickly realized what was going on. "You couldn't find any of your family?"
"No," Ana said. "My cousins were in France, mostly in Paris, and those butchers from the Avenger destroyed the city when they ravaged my home Earth. I must face the possibility that I may be the last of the Poniatowcsy left. At least, from my Earth."
Magda went silent. She'd lost her parents to guerrilla violence, just as she nearly lost her life. But Ana's entire world had suffered far more grievously. The fate of Earth C1P2 put in perspective how fortunate everyone was that Robert and Julia and the others had the personalities and ideals they did. For all that the governments of our world have said about us, we never wrecked a planet. We never blew up cities. And we did everything we could to avoid killing. "I wish we had caught them at Tira," Magda grumbled. "If the damn Drazi hadn't nearly overwhelmed us with Sunhawks, maybe we could have disabled the Avenger and kept her from escaping…"
"There will be justice for my planet one day," Ana vowed. "And for every other life taken by Hawk and his crew. And for the suffering that has never ended." Seeing Magda's look, she further explained, "My world is being ripped apart in wars. The Alliance could put an end to the fighting. It could save more lives." She frowned. "It could save Poland from the Regime of National Salvation."
"And now that we're not fighting the Nazis anymore, we have the ships and troops to do it," Magda agreed. "Hopefully someone in Portland is already planning it."
Ana nodded in final agreement before focusing on her meal.
The theft from the debris repository required an exhaustive inventory to make certain of what had or hadn't been taken. With Data directing that effort, Tra'dur was seeing to the debris already catalogued. Talara aided her, bringing her pieces for checking against the database.
They'd worked for some time before it became clear to Tra'dur that Talara's subdued mood stemmed from intense discomfort of some kind. "Are you alright, Lieutenant?" she asked quietly.
Talara looked up from where she was lifting one of the larger pieces of debris with a drone, a safety precaution to maintain the emissions containment field around the piece. Her blue eyes passed over Tra'dur before looking away. "I am simply… uneasy. I almost feel Sovereign's malevolence even in these lifeless pieces."
"The containment field is intact, I assure you." Tra'dur glanced at her readings to reassure herself as well. The readings did just that. "Perhaps your feelings are from something else? I am aware that the battle for Germania was quite difficult for you."
It had, truthfully, been difficult for everyone. For all of the triumph of the fall of the Reich capital, the city itself was a nightmare of death and violence beyond anything either of them had experienced before. Talara's growing abilities with her life force - the Gersallian concept of swevyra - had made her particularly susceptible to sensing the mass death from the fighting, layered on the inherent darkness from what the Reich stood for. Two weeks on her homeworld of Fala to spend time with her parents and younger siblings had, to some degree, alleviated this problem. But it had not banished it.
Talara sensed Tra'dur had her own harsh memories of the battle. "You are still surprised you lived," said Talara.
The Dilgar woman nodded. "I am. In hindsight it was quite reckless of me to do what I did."
"Yet you turned the tide. I sensed the Human soldiers you inspired."
"Perhaps I did, but it doesn't change the fact that I was needlessly reckless." The memory of Fei'nur's angry strike that knocked her down came to Tra'dur. So too did the reaction of her mother, who was as happy to dress her down as she was to commend her bravery. "What of you? By controlling the enemy cannon for as long as you did, you ensured our victory. You deserve commendation as much as I."
"I've been rewarded well enough." Talara shook her head. "But I do not think I will ever feel the same again. The killing and dying was all so much."
"It was sadly necessary." Tra'dur examined another scan. "Alright. Another confirmed."
Talara nodded and sent an order to the drone to retrieve another piece. "Lucy assures me that time will heal the wound on my soul. I hope it is true."
"My mother tells me it will heal with a scar. Which seems the right and proper thing. Those of us who still live must carry the burden of living on when our comrades did not."
"Your people suffered more greatly than any other in the attack," Talara noted.
"Yes. It was our place to do so."
Talara frowned at that. She was aware of the sentiment, that due to the terrible crimes of the Dilgar Imperium a sacrifice was necessary, but it struck her as unjust. Most of the Dilgar who died in Germania had not yet been born when their parents or grandparents were slaughtering their way through the League of Non-Aligned Worlds. To make them suffer for the crimes of others…
...and there Talara caught herself. If it had been the Galra instead of the Dilgar, would she feel the same way? Or would she suspect them of duplicity, of continued intent to genocide her people, until they made a similar sacrifice?
Her realization there was that Meridina was correct. It became a vicious cycle, bloodshed inviting more bloodshed, and that she was sworn to oppose with every fiber of her body.
Talara heard an audible cough. It brought her from her thoughts to a quietly impatient Tra'dur. Talara remembered herself and resumed providing samples for Tra'dur to check against their list. They still had quite a lot of work ahead of them.
Zack was curious where Robert was heading when they exited a lift and entered the Presidium's Financial District. "You really think you'll find a criminal gang here? Maybe their financial advisors…"
"I'm looking for something bigger," Robert remarked. Together they went into one of the structures. A sign above flickered from Turian script to Human English, showing the name of a financial broker. Robert nodded at it and walked in, Zack following and still confused.
Inside was a small waiting area. At a desk stood a Volus, inside an environmental suit that kept the ammonia breather alive in an atmosphere lethal to his physiology. The Volus looked up at them. ""Ah, Captain Dale," he said, after which he wheezed. "And Commander Zachary Carrey. I wish you the best of luck at returning to your command."
"Uh, thanks," said Zack.
"Commander, this is Barla Von," Robert said. "On top of whatever other services he provides, he happens to be the local man for the Shadow Broker."
Zack gave Robert a surprised look. Part of his temporary position on the Citadel included reading required intelligence files, including that on the elusive Shadow Broker, the M4P2 galaxy's most powerful broker of information. He was a private spymaster said to know everything there was to know in the known galaxy. Just being in the same room with one of his agents could lead to Zack facing an exhaustive investigation from Alliance Intelligence.
Robert glanced his way and shook his head. Zack felt a thought, a sense, that wasn't his. I won't be investigated for this, it's covered.
"What can I do for you today, Captain?" asked Barla Von. "Is it information you seek, or financial services?"
"I suppose you could say both, and either," Robert answered. "You may have heard what my mission is right now?" Without waiting for Barla Von to confirm, Robert continued. "I'm sure you have. Well, you may have also heard about a theft that just took place. Someone is so interested in pieces of Sovereign they went after the government repository for the debris."
"So I have heard," was the reply. "And you wish assistance in tracking the thieves? The suspects in the CItadel's criminal underworld are quite numerous."
"So they are, save that they've been doing nothing about the debris," Robert remarked. "Despite whatever value it might have on the interstellar or Multiversal markets, the criminals here are staying away. Now why is that?"
There was a moment of quiet from Barla Von. "The most reasonable answer is a combination of bribery and intimidation. Another organization is removing them from contention in recovering the pieces." A moment's pause later and the Volus added, "I can assure you, the Shadow Broker has nothing to do with this."
Zack glanced toward Robert. "You believe him?"
"I do," said Robert. "To an extent. While the Broker may not be behind it, I wonder if the Broker's facilitated this unknown organization's efforts."
"The Broker has not," said Barla Von.
Robert felt no immediate deception, but he knew that didn't mean it was absent. "You're quick to volunteer that," he said. "I would imagine the Broker would prefer to be paid for the information."
Had he caught Barla Von in a slip, Robert would have felt something, he was sure. And it might have even provoked a reaction. But it didn't. The Volus shook his head. "In this case, we have greater concerns. Whomever has made these maneuvers displays a great deal of knowledge and influence. For such a force to exist without the Shadow Broker knowing of them indicates an extrauniversal origin. Such competition for influence in the dark economy of our galaxy is unwelcome to the Broker. Should you eliminate them this would benefit the Broker."
"Sounds reasonable, I guess," Zack remarked.
"But it would require you to know something," Robert added.
"Precious little, I'm afraid," replied Barla Von. "Our contacts with the criminal gangs of the Citadel have remarked upon their associates' lack of interest in the debris. It extends to threats against any member who might act independently."
"So whatever's influencing them, they want the gangs out of the way completely." Robert crossed his arms. "Which makes me wonder who is working for them."
"Of that I can say little. The one lead I do have are rumors among the Citadel's poorer communities of great cash rewards for Sovereign debris, if it is genuine."
"If you're not having the criminals work for you…" Zack began.
"Yes. The attack has not been easy on the less fortunate," replied Barla Von. "And some of them have become quite desperate. No amount of threats from criminal gangs will restrain the starving. I suspect that the repository is not an isolated case."
Robert frowned deeply at that. It was bad enough that people could starve even in this era, but someone using that against them? And exposing their minds to indoctrination in the process…
"Thank you for your assistance, Mister Von," Robert said. "Your insights have been useful."
"Of course, Captain," was the reply. "I hope this cooperation will be remembered in the future."
"It will," he answered. Although you should be careful how you try to cash in on it, he thought as they walked away.
Once a few hours passed with no response from the Doctor, Cat decided to investigate herself. She put on contemporary clothes and checked her omnitool before stepping toward the shuttle transporter. Angel took the controls. "Are you sure?"
"I just want to check real quick," said Cat. "Then I'll be back."
It was clear Angel was opposed to the idea. "And if he's facing space monsters or whatever?"
"Then I help him?" There was an unspoken "Duh" there.
Angel shook her head. "Crazy little sister," she murmured while operating the transporter controls. Cat provided her coordinates in London A buzz and a flash of light later, she was gone.
Angel returned to the co-pilot seat and waited patiently for Cat to resume communication. When she didn't, Angel tapped the comm key on the panel. "Cat?"
A few moments later her sister responded. "Sorry, I was in public. At a police station."
"Find anything yet?"
"Something. If my sensors are right, the TARDIS is in this parking garage below the station. It's kinda weird, though. There's some kind of exotic energy signature in the environment… woh, it just spiked massively. It looks like it's not far from the TARDIS."
"Be careful," Angel insisted.
"I am… I am…"
A minute passed before a response came. "Huh. It's right here, in the open." Cat went quiet for a moment. "There's nobody else here though."
"Well, he's probably somewhere else right now," said Angel. "I'll beam you back up."
"Give it a moment, I'm curious about these energy signatures. One's right… huh."
Angel felt increasing aggravation with her sister. "What?" she asked.
"It's… a statue. Kind of a weird place to put one, really. I mean, in a parking garage? What kind of benefit..."
"Cat, you're babbling."
"Sorry. I'm just flummoxed. They've got a statue down here. Some cement angel. One of those fancy types, I guess it's from a cemetary. Anyway…"
Cat's voice trailed off. At least, that's what it sounded like at first. But after a moment Angel noticed that the line was no longer open. Her worry about Caterina intensified. She glanced toward the sensors to see where she'd gone.
Nothing. That's what the sensors showed. Cat was gone.
"…I think I'll…"
Cat stopped speaking as the vertigo hit, causing her to fall to the ground. She was in the open air of a night sky, now at ground level. In the distance she heard cars running down the street, but here it was dark, with deep shadows. It took several minutes for the vertigo to go away.
Cat looked down at her omnitool. Scan results showed a powerful energy signature around her. Something had been done to her. As she pondered that, the life sign reading she'd been looking for showed, approaching her steadily. With a sense of urgency looked up in that direction, in time to see two figures come from the shadows. One was a woman of African ancestry, the other…
"Doctor?" she called out.
The tall Gallifreyan Time Lord looked down at her, wearing a long brown coat over his usual business jacket. In his hand was an object with bright lights on it. His eyes, usually so gentle, now showed bewilderment. "Cat? What are you doing here?" he asked.
Caterina and the Doctor exchanged bewildered looks. "Well, what is here?" Cat asked. "Everything looks different."
"We're in 1969 London," said the woman beside the Doctor. Her accent was what Cat thought of as English, much like the one the Doctor himself used. "How do you know the Doctor?"
"Well, it's a bit of a story…"
"That it is." The Doctor helped Cat to his feet with his spare hand. "Ah, Caterina Delgado, meet Doctor Martha Jones. Martha, this is Cat."
Martha offered her hand and Cat accepted a handshake. "What are you a doctor of?" Cat asked.
"Medicine," was the reply.
"Cool." Cat returned her attention to the Doctor. "So, this is the past? What… how did I end up here?"
"The same way we did, I expect," the Doctor said. "The Weeping Angels."
"The kindest predators in the universe, well, this one anyway," the Doctor replied. "They feed off of the temporal displacement of sending members of other species back in time. So they don't have to kill you. They just take away the life you knew."
"Oh. That's…" Cat swallowed. The statue in the garage had been a threat without her realizing it. Most likely it and those of its kind were the source of the anomalous readings she picked up. How many people had they done this to so far?
And then another consideration came. "Oh God, Angel. She's going to be freaking out. I've got to find a way to get a message to her, to the Alliance, to tell them where we are and they can send a ship to do a slingshot or something…"
"No, don't worry about it, Cat," the Doctor insisted. "I've been making arrangements."
The Doctor reached into his jacket pocket and took out a thick folder and packet with a notebook and other things. "Let's just say I came forewarned, and I knew how to handle this. All we have to do is sit tight and let history take its course." He handed it to Martha before facing Cat. "So, Cat, you clearly came looking for me. What can I do for you?"
With investigative work done, to a degree, everyone met again at the repository. "All catalogued pieces of debris have been accounted for," Data noted.
"That's good news," sighed Robert. "Any leads on the criminal element?"
"They're scared," Garrus said. "Someone's warned them off the hunt for Sovereign salvage. Someone with enough power to make them listen."
"Well, isn't that ominous?" Lucy asked with a flippant, almost-joking tone.
"I'm not sure this situation is proving very humorous," Robert answered. "Intimidating criminal gangs on the Citadel means we're dealing with real heavy hitters."
"Especially considering the Asari gangs, since they're all biotics," Bailey noted.
"There are Asari crime gangs?" Lucy asked.
"As much as the other Asari wish there weren't… yeah," Garrus said. "So the thieves are people who can intimidate them. Or bribe them into keeping their hands off. Neither sounds very good if you ask me." He looked at Robert. "Did you find anything?"
"Possibly. For one thing, I'm 90% convinced the Shadow Broker isn't involved in this," he said.
"You've spoken to Barla Von, then," said Bailey.
"Yeah. He says the Broker isn't involved. More to the point, the Broker isn't happy with the apparent competition from someone capable of this much pull with the gangs."
"And he suggested our thieves might be working with the poor residents of the Citadel instead of the criminals," Zack added.
"In other words, taking advantage of them in the aftermath of the attack," Lucy noted darkly.
"Exactly. But we have an advantage there," Robert said. "They're far less likely to be loyal to their employer than a professional crook."
"Assuming their employer hasn't intimidated them," Bailey added.
"True. But the important thing is that we talk to them. And since they're being offered cash rewards for turning in Sovereign debris..."
"Oh. I get where this is going," said Geordi. "You want to build a trap."
Robert replied to him with a knowing grin.
The final requisitions reports and requests were piling on Julia's desk throughout the day, representing the ship's departments preparing the Aurora to return to service. She was reading through them when the hail came in.
Angel's face appeared on the monitor and immediately Julia knew something was wrong. There was a wild, terrified look there. "She's gone! Something happened and… and she's gone!"
"Cat?" Julia felt a little twist in her gut. "Where? What happened?"
"She… ugh, I can't stand how stupid she gets about this sometimes," Angel continued. "She beamed down and found the TARDIS, but nobody was there and then there was a power surge and now she's gone and there's no trace of her, just some sciency readings and I don't know what they mean! I need help here, Julia, I need Jarod and the other science whizzes to get to WR84 and help me!"
"They're still at the Citadel," Julia noted. Sensing this was not the reply Angel wanted, she added, "I'll get the crews to configure the Warri for scientific examination and send it to you. But it could be several hours."
"I'll be here waiting to see if Cat reappears," Angel said. She killed the line without saying anything else.
Julia felt sick to her stomach. There was no telling what might have happened to Cat. Maybe she was just being hidden in a stealth field. Or maybe she'd been instantly vaporized by something.
Either way, Julia knew what it meant for Angel as well. Angel would be driving herself mad with fear and guilt before long. And if something had happened, even if there was nothing she could have done… Angel would always blame herself, would hate herself, for Cat dying.
So Julia got to work immediately to get Angel that help. Then she sent a message to UNIT asking for their input as well. They might at least confirm whether or not Cat could still be alive.
Nearly a half century in the past, Cat was sitting in a small flat the Doctor and Martha were using for housing without the TARDIS around. She waited for everyone to get situated before she started explaining what the problem was. "These dreams have been getting worse for months," she said. "I mean, it was just a thing once and awhile, and I'd be alone on a dark ship. But now it seems like I have it every week and it's me on the wreck of the Aurora with everyone dead and… and me being attacked. And now I'm seeing your face… and the telepathic psychiatrist is saying there's a block more powerful than anything she's seen in my mind."
As she spoke the Doctor's expression became more dour. A frown formed on his lips. It was Martha who replied, "You think he…" She glanced at the Doctor. "Did you?"
Cat didn't need a reply from the Doctor to know. She saw it in his face. "You… blocked my mind," she said.
"I did," he admitted.
"I had no choice. You saw something… terrible," the Doctor said. "I had to block it from your mind to make you functional again."
"I hope you're not doing that to me," Martha said, frowning. "Doesn't that strike you as wrong, Doctor? To just go into someone's mind and take their memories?"
"It's not something I did lightly," he replied. "At the time I had no choice. What you saw, Cat… it crippled you mentally. You were so overcome I had to block it."
Cat nodded slowly. "Okay. I understand, really. We were still trying to find a way to reach Rose in Pete's World." Seeing Martha's curious look she added, "An alternate 5th dimensional location to this one. I'm from a 6th dimensional alternate Earth."
Martha seemed bewildered by that. "It's a complicated thing," the Doctor said to her. "5th Dimensional difference means the same time. 6th Dimensional is a different cluster formed by a different pulse of what you call the Big Bang. Different timeframe there. It’s more complicated than that really, but only Cat would be interested in the full explanation."
"Right. Well, it wouldn't be the first complicated thing I've seen while journeying with you, Doctor," Martha remarked. She sipped at a cup of tea she'd made for herself in the small kitchen at the side of the living area.
Cat giggled. "It's always like that, I guess. He showed me some insane things I never thought could exist. And I was used to discovering new things, I mean, ever since my sister's sometimes-boyfriend found an alien base under his Kansas family farm."
"Now that sounds like a story," Martha said.
"It is. Maybe we can talk about it later." Cat turned her attention back to the Doctor. "The psychiatrist on the Aurora said she can't remove the block. Can you?" she asked.
His reply was immediate and unwavering. "No," said the Doctor. "No I will not."
With another change in the watch, Karen Derbely was released from her duty as Chief Engineer of the Koenig. After finishing the change of watch by briefing Ana on everything she needed to know, Derbely headed to the mess hall and replicated a personal favorite she'd installed in the system: a big greasy Latian hamburger, made from the meat of a bovine-like quadruped native to the planet Lata, one of the member worlds of the Colonial Confederation of Universe D3R1. Her home, the space habitat and asteroid mining center Littlefield Station, was in the same government. Now a member of the United Alliance of System, the "Colonials" - as they were proud to call themselves - had long run a free market-orientated, private interest economy based off of North American libertarianism.
It was not always an easy system to live in, especially for those with jobs that didn't pay as well, but Derbely grew up enjoying her life on Littlefield Station with her father Jack, the pilot of an ore hauler. Eating Latian-made hamburgers reminded her of her childhood of joining Jack Derbely in his long haul trips to Jury Station and its ore refineries. Every trip there, he'd take her to the same greasy spoon diner in the habitat sector and spend the per diem of his unloading day buying the both of them the biggest, juiciest (and greasiest) burgers on the station, loaded with toppings and joined by French-cut seasoned potato fries…
"Your mind is back on Jury Station, isn't it?"
Derbely looked up from her half-eaten hamburger to face Lieutenant Commander Creighton Apley. The ship's Executive Officer and Navigation Officer - on a ship this size, the XO would always have a second role in the command crew - was a handsome man from the North American Midwest. His brown hair was a few shades darker than hers and cut to professional perfection. Apley had a plate of waffle-cut fries and a grilled chicken sandwich fresh from the replicator. "So it was," Derbely replied.
He nodded. "I still remember the sector blowout they had there in… what was it?"
She frowned. "2455," she answered, referring to D3R1's calendar. Their home universe was not quite two centuries "younger" than the L2M1 universe that was used for the Alliance Standard Calendar, given the UAS capital was located on its Earth. "Dad and I had just left a day before the incident. I was thirteen. I remembered a lot of whispering about how the place was an accident waiting to happen."
"Insufficient safety inspections by the new managers of the station," Apley remarked. "Back home a lot of people saw it as another sign of how badly off people were in your Confederation."
"I'm sure they did." Derbely smiled thinly. In D3R1 the Earth and surrounding star systems were under the Sol System Republic, an interstellar state with democratic-socialist economics that were at odds with the Confederation's philosophy. And they too were members of the Allied Systems; unsurprising since neither could stomach the thought of the other with an apparent advantage. "But we handled it our way."
"The residents of Jury Station voted to remove the station operating contract from the people responsible for the safety violations," Apley recalled. "And the replacement contractor made Jury Station the safest place in D3R1."
"That's how the system works. You screw up, people stop working with you."
"Not unless you have something they need, then you can force them to stomach it," Apley remarked. "And given our safety laws, the blowout never would've happened on a Sol station. Not like that."
Derbely finished chewing a bite of hamburger and smiled. "Because the wise, all-knowing Sol government never, ever had someone screw up."
Apley didn't answer that, since he knew the answer was no. He merely grinned and ate a fry.
"I'm up for another round of arguing about economic systems if you really want," Derbely said, "but I get the feeling you were just baiting me for fun."
"I suppose it was for old time's sake," Apley admitted. "A last chance to tweak your sensibilities."
Derbely looked at him curiously. "What are you saying?"
"I just got the word from Personnel," Apley said. "I'm being promoted." When Derbely replied with surprise but nothing further, he continued, "They're giving me command of a new Flight III Trigger-class attacker, the Reichert. After we get back, I'm off to report for her shakedown cruise."
"Wow," Derbely said. "That's… good news. Taking anyone with you?"
"U'ruhn's earned a shot at being Ops," Apley replied. "And if Ana wasn't getting that shiny new Enterprise-class ship I might've asked her to come along."
"U'ruhn has earned it, yeah." Derbely considered one of her last fries. "So… congratulations on your new command."
"Thanks. I don't know where we'll end up for our first assignment, whether we get assigned to a cruiser or a fleet unit, or an attack squadron. Either way…" Apley smiled sadly. "I'm going to miss you. All of you." He chuckled. "I think I'll miss being called 'Ap', and Commander Carrey used to make me grimace whenever he called me that on duty."
"You always were the straight-laced officer type," Derbely noted. "I guess it's a bit of a surprise that you came around to Carrey's command style in the end."
"He proved himself over time. So did his friends." Apley let out a little sigh. "I think I'm going to miss it all. Being on the Aurora, always getting pulled in whatever crisis they wound up in the middle of…"
"Hargert's cooking," Derbely pointed out.
"Oh yeah. I'll definitely miss that. Hopefully there are other good cooks out there working with the service."
They chuckled at that. It let Derbely hide the small sense of hurt she felt. Just as it seemed we were getting everyone back together, things are still going to be different, she thought before returning to her meal.
In the months since she accepted the position of First Officer, Meridina had long adjusted to the paperwork load her new position required. The needs of her position were, if anything, a fresh challenge compared to what she was used to before, a challenge that she did not so much relish meeting as consider a worthy obstacle to overcome. There was, perhaps, a faint bit of amusement at the fact she had never considered she might be doing something like this while she was training hard to become a swevyra'se of the Order of Swenya.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the computer terminal in her office bringing up an incoming communication over the interuniversal comm network. Meridina tapped a key and put in her passcode to accept the call. To her interest, the face that appeared was that of Gina Inviere. The blond-haired woman was biologically near-Human, created as one of a number of infiltrator models for the Cylons. They'd first met when Gina was preparing to kill herself to destroy the Colonial Refugee ship Cloud 9. Meridina successfully convinced her to relent and offered her asylum on Gersal due to her suffering at the hands of some of the Colonials. Gina's decision to join the Order had been a pleasant surprise.
"Meridina, how are you?" Gina asked. There was a clear concern in her voice.
"I am well. But you seem not to be," Meridina observed.
"It is… I am worried. About Mastrash Ledosh."
Meridina nodded once. Ledosh was Gina's mentor and teacher in the Order, just as he had been for Meridina. "What is wrong?" she asked.
"He's… I don't know. He's been spending so much time with that book…"
Meridina blinked. "What book?"
"The Life of Reshan," Gina said. "He's been translating it over the last several months. And it's like that's all that matters to him now. He is becoming distant. Distracted. He often leaves the Great Temple for the family cottage in the foothills to study and meditate. He speaks with no one outside of Council meetings and barely observes my training. Many on the Council are starting to voice concerns about him."
As Gina explained what was going on, Meridina thought on the book she mentioned. She knew Ledosh was trying to learn more about the Darkness and the Prophecy of the Dawn. The book clearly held some importance to his research. Once Gina mentioned the Council Meridina started to openly frown. "Have you spoken to him about his concerns for the Council?"
"I have. He assures me that it is fine and he is explaining matters to them frequently. But I am still worried for him, Meridina. It's clear that there is something weighing down his mind and swevyra. He's not the only one to feel there is something wrong around here. It's setting people on edge."
"I see." Meridina drew in a little sigh. Her visit home after the fall of the Reich had included a visit with Ledosh, but he seemed no more than a little perturbed, and she already knew him to be. Especially around her, as deep down he blamed himself for not persuading the Council against the order for her to leave the Aurora, the order that led to her departing the Order of Swenya instead.
The wound of leaving behind everything she believed in was mostly healed by this point, but recalling it did bring a small ache to Meridina's heart. She pushed it aside to consider the problem. Why hadn't she realized how bad things were for Ledosh? Had he hidden his concerns from her?
Yes. It was quite possible he had.
"Thank you for speaking to me, Gina," Meridina said. "I will contact Mastrash Ledosh as soon as I am able. Hopefully he will speak of his worries with me."
"Thank you, Meridina," said Gina. "Mi rake sa swevyra iso."
"Mi rake sa swevyra iso," Meridina replied, after which she ended the call. She found herself in quiet contemplation for the moment. Ledosh, what is wrong? Why will you not confide in your students? she thought quietly, until she finally resolved to ask him that directly.
Even if it meant going to Gersal herself.
The silence in the flat was a stubborn one, replete with tension. Cat kept glancing at the Doctor with a combination of frustration and disbelief. Sitting to the side in a ragged chair, Martha looked to them both with her own growing irritation.
"It's my mind," Cat finally said. "Doesn't that give me the right to decide?"
"If your sister wanted to plunge her head into an active plasma stream, would you let her?" the Doctor asked pointedly. "Or would you stop her?"
"That's not the same thing."
"It is," he insisted. "You're asking me to risk your sanity, Caterina. I sealed those memories away for a reason."
"Your seal isn't perfect though," Cat replied. "I'm getting nightmares from whatever happened! Over and over! And now that I know they're repressed memories, it makes it even worse!"
"I could reinforce the block," the Doctor offered. "Clear your memories of the nightmares."
"Right," Cat scoffed. "Repeat the same thing you did before. And it's not like Doctor Tusana isn't going to notice I suddenly forgot about them!"
"You could tell her it was your choice."
"But it isn't! And don't you dare say you can make me think it was, because we both know that's no better than just compelling me to agree with you!"
"I don't want to compel you to do anything, but I don't want you going mad either!" the Doctor shouted back. "What happened was... " A frustrated look crossed his face. "I should have said no. I should have told you no, that I could handle finding Rose myself, and sent you on your way with your friends."
"Really?!" demanded Cat. "After everything we accomplished together, you can say that?"
It was clear he made the remark without truly meaning it. More to the point, Cat noticed the discomfort on his face. The hollow look forming in his eyes. A thought came to her. "You were hurt by what we saw too," she said.
He gave her a level look. Though he tried, the Doctor couldn't hide the pain in his eyes. Martha noticed it as well.
"I get it," Cat said. "You… you want to protect me. You don't want me to hurt. I understand. But it's my mind, Doctor. My memories. And whatever you want, something in my head is fighting through the block. Even if you rebuilt it, you'd really just be delaying the inevitable. Whatever this memory is, it's refusing to stay in the block."
"You have no idea what you're asking for, Caterina," the Doctor warned. "You'll wish I'd left the block in place."
"Maybe she will," Martha said, joining the conversation. Her eyes met the Doctor's. "But it's her mind. Her choice. Not your's, Doctor. Never your's."
The Doctor gave Martha a quick look before returning his eyes to meet Cat's. She met the hardness of his look with her own. If he was going to be stubborn, so was she.
"Please don't do this, Cat," he pleaded. "You're asking me to hurt you."
"Maybe," Cat said. "But I won't have any peace until I know."
Again silence filled the flat. It stretched on and on while the Doctor and Cat kept their eyes locked, an unspoken battle of will between them.
Martha sat back, again locked out of the conversation, and wondered who would win in the end.
In general, the further down one went through the Citadel wards, the further one got from the brighter, glitzier sections. While nothing on the Citadel quite resembled an urban ghetto, there were areas that were clearly less well-off than the others. Not every area could have the glamorous look and feel of the Silversun Strip.
These were also the areas that had suffered the most from the destruction of Sovereign. The Reaper vessel exploded directly overhead of them, at a time when the Citadel's arms were closed to bring them even closer to the point of destruction. The result was a rain of debris on all five Wards that wrecked buildings and tore up streets. The death toll was highest in this area, even accounting for the Geth attacks closer to the Presidium, as Sovereign's debris broke open the residential towers and exposed some of the apartments there to vacuum. The damage was extensive enough that simple surveying of it was just now coming to completion, with full repairs expected to take months. Years, perhaps, unless further (and likely extrauniversal) assistance was received for the reconstruction, and such remained to be seen.
It was in the far sections of Aroch Ward that Robert's trap was laid. A sizable piece of Sovereign was signed out from the repository, albeit with some grumbling from C-Sec and the Council, and slipped into rubble from a warehouse just now being cleaned up. Robert and Lucy spent an hour maneuvering chunks of debris about to make it look like the piece had truly just been excavated before they joined Garrus and Bailey for the stakeout. They rented a second level apartment from an adjoining tower, giving them a sight line on the warehouse ruins in question. The inside of the apartment was cramped but otherwise looked well. Robert imagined that the owner of the tower would appreciate the "confidentiality" bonus he'd paid to ensure nothing was said of their presence.
Garrus finished setting up the scope. Nearby his sniper rifle was in position. "It's been a while since I had a stakeout," he said. "Twelve hours of boredom at a time, punctuated only by frustration and irritation with your partner." He let out a long sigh. "Good times, right Bailey?"
Bailey shot him a bemused look. "Oh, wouldn't miss them for the world," he remarked sarcastically.
Lucy, for her part, finished setting up the bank of holo-displays and turned them on. Three showed images of the debris they'd left. The fourth showed Zack and Data, still at the repository. "Are you certain you do not wish my assistance?" Data asked.
"Commander Data, you would stick out like a sore thumb," Garrus said. "There aren't many gold-skinned Humans in the galaxy."
"True. However, I am quite capable of donning a disguise, including an application to approximate a more normative skin pigment."
"Maybe so, Data, but we still have cataloguing to do," Robert noted. "And by cross-checking where the pieces are coming from, and comparing them to the survey lists…"
"...we can maybe figure out if there's a pattern to whomever's taking them," Zack said. "Makes sense to me."
"True," Data conceded.
"Although I don't envy you," Zack said. "Stakeouts are boring as hell."
"A good thing we can't have the publicly known Alliance liaison to C-Sec around, isn't it?" Robert teased.
"Yeah. Although having one of the Alliance founders around would probably draw attention too." Zack smirked. "Or do you seriously think a beard and mustache and long hair makes people not recognize you?"
Lucy giggled at that. "People always diss the hair," Robert sighed.
"I think Julia and Angel are plotting to drag you to a barber soon if you don't handle it yourself," Zack remarked playfully. "That whole 'I'm a hermit' look is really…"
Garrus' voice drew their attention. He was looking through his scope. "Well, will you look at that," he said. "So much for a long stakeout."
Robert almost asked what he meant, but one of the monitors in the room showed shadows approaching the debris in question. With the exception of Garrus, everyone's eyes turned to observe the monitors. In moments every one of the monitors was showing the newcomers. "Well, I'll be," Robert muttered.
Lucy frowned at the image of the would-be thieves and felt a pang of sadness… and fury. "They're using Quarians," she grumbled. "The bastards are using the Quarians."
The Quarians never had a chance to fight back or run. Lucy and Garrus, combining their technical know-how, arranged a particularly solid trap for whomever came to pilfer the debris. It was Bailey who was left to spring the trap the moment the other three arrived at the door. "Look out!" a female among the half-dozen shrieked, and a moment later projectors emerged from the rubble and created a force dome around them. One went for the dome anyway and was gently repelled.
"We don't want to hurt you," Lucy said aloud. "Please…"
They didn't listen. Two of them triggered omnitools and attempted to use neural shock defense apps against the field, to no effect. Two more, being more technically knowledgeable of the technology, used their omnitools to attempt to disrupt the field, only to find that Lucy was adjusting the field on the fly to counter them. One simply fell to his knees whimpering, terrified of what they were going to face.
The last pulled a gun, a Klingon disruptor undoubtedly found in the black market. Sensing the danger this posed to the wielder and his friends, Robert immediately reacted. He gestured with his hand and, with the power within him, ripped the gun from the Quarian's hand before he could fire. The Quarian stared at the disarmed hand, startled by the unseen force that had taken away his weapon.
"Calm down, all of you!" Garrus shouted. Seeing him in his C-Sec uniform had something of that effect, although it was more terror at what punishment they would face for getting caught. "Okay, that's better. We have questions to ask. Specifically, who hired you?"
"We don't know," one of the girls volunteered immediately. "It was from an anonymous extranet address."
As honest as she tried to sound, Garrus could tell she was saying something rehearsed. He glanced toward Robert and Lucy, who shook their heads, sensing the falsehood. "Lying to a C-Sec officer isn't going to help your case," Garrus said. "Now, let's try this again. Who hired you?"
This time there was no reply. They all went silent. "Well, since the Council announced ownership of all pieces of debris from the dreadnought," Garrus began, "that makes you six guilty of attempted theft of Council property. That's a minimum of three years in prison. And that's assuming I can't find other charges to stick on you."
Lucy frowned at Garrus' attempt at intimidation. The fear coming from the Quarians was troubling and not easy at all to feel for either her or Robert. But the fear wasn't just about imprisonment…
"You're from the Pilgrim's Shelter? In Zakera Ward?" Lucy asked them.
One, a male, nodded. "We are."
"Is Oresta still running it?" Lucy thought back to the female Turian who ran the shelter, relying on help from her friends from C-Sec days and from sympathetic merchants to keep the shelter going.
Mentioning the name of Oresta won their attention. A cautious reply of "Yes" came.
Lucy considered asking them what Oresta would think of their behavior, but she decided on another tack. "How's that replicator I left doing? Still holding out?"
"Wait, that was yours…?" a second girl asked.
"It was," Lucy confirmed. "I'm a friend. If you know Viya or Lan, they know me." She let that news sink in before speaking. "I can feel your fear. You're not just afraid of going to jail, are you? You're afraid someone will hurt Oresta and the others at the shelter."
There were uneasy looks.
"Whoever is behind this, we're going to shut them down. We won't let them hurt you or the others. I can have Knights of Swenya come and protect you if we must."
Robert glanced toward Lucy. Do you really think the Order will approve that?
Whether their Council approves or not doesn't matter. I know who to ask was Lucy's mental reply. Aloud she said, "Please. This debris is dangerous. It can damage beings mentally, turn them into mindless drones. We have to stop the people stealing the pieces."
There were several seconds when it wasn't clear if Lucy successfully go through to them. Robert sensed what was coming a moment before one of the male Quarians sighed. "There is a Human man. Ashford. He's paying a lot of credits for debris from Sovereign. We're supposed to deliver this piece to his warehouse in Zakera Ward."
"What do you know about him?"
"Little," one of the girls said. "I mean, he sounds like any other Human. But the word is he has a lot of connections off of the Citadel."
"He's working for someone. A Human named Yellow," another of the male Quarians added. "There are rumors on the street that she's killed several gang leaders that tried to take debris from the Geth dreadnought."
"I've never heard of this 'Yellow," said Garrus. "But we'll look into it. Give us the location of the warehouse and get back to the Shelter."
There was a nervousness among them that couldn't be missed. A fear that they'd just caused trouble for their fellows. Robert tried to allay it by saying, "It'll be okay, we promise. If it'll make you feel better, we can put you somewhere else for the night, get you off the street."
Garrus eyed him. Lucy looked his way too, but smiled. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" she asked.
"That I've got a budget with some leeway? Yeah," Robert replied. "So let's use it. That hotel across from Zack's place is really nice."
Garrus chuckled. "You realize half of the local residents will be double-checking their security systems when they see this?"
"If specieist bigots want to make their lives harder, who am I to stop it?" Robert asked playfully. He nodded to Lucy, who dropped the field. "Let's get you somewhere safe," he said to the Quarians. "Then we're going to go have a chat with Mister Ashford."
As the silence in the flat continued, Cat pondered the sheer ridiculousness of her situation. She was here, nearly half a century in the past, trying to get a millennia-old face-changing alien to remove a block he'd planted in her mind telepathically while they'd spent a subjective year, from her point of view, traveling across time and space in his home universe.
To think that six years ago, my biggest concern was finishing school with high enough grades to get a scholarship, she thought.
The distracting thought didn't deter her from her purpose. Cat refused to pull her eyes from the Doctor. She wouldn't let him intimidate her or cajole her into giving up. The block in her head had to come out, before the nightmares it was causing her became too much to bear emotionally.
For his part, the Doctor was impressed. When he'd first met Cat, she'd been tremendously curious, but also rather less willful. Between their journey together and her time since with her sister and friends on the Aurora, it was clear Cat was becoming rather more willful.
Perhaps… perhaps she was ready.
A small grin crossed his face. "You've become rather more stubborn over… however long it's been for you," he noted. "It must be your sister."
"She says I've always been stubborn," Cat answered.
"Right." The Doctor folded his hands together in front of him. "Are you certain, Cat? Truly certain?"
"You're aware that I might not be able to easily reform the block if you decide you preferred it," he pointed out. "Not without leaving it even weaker than it's become. Your mind is already resisting it, it seems."
"That's fine," said Cat. "I need to know."
The Doctor studied her hazel eyes for a moment before clapping his hands together. "Alright. Fair enough. Let's get this started." He knelt forward, reaching across the short distance between their chairs to come close. He brought his hands up to her face, touching his fingers to her head at the temples. "Quiet your mind. I'm going to open the block slowly, letting you remember everything one bit at a time…"
Cat felt her mind quiet. As she did, another presence came through. Stronger, older, than Tusana's had been, and it immediately made her feel the same pressure she'd felt with Tusana. She drew in a breath and felt the pressure shift a little, changing shape and intensity…
The memory came back as the Doctor said it would. Cat recalled it as coming in the later half of their time together, shortly after a technovore had nearly destroyed her omnitool. The TARDIS came closer to home again, a solar system in the Milky Way galaxy. They stepped out off the TARDIS onto a street similar to a macadamized road on Earth, the Doctor in his usual suit and Cat in a sea-green blouse and blue pants. The structures were tall and spindly, with bars along the exterior.
The reason why came up a moment later. The world was home to a species of octolimbed creatures with dark, scaled bodies. "Tash'shash'tishish," the Doctor said, pronouncing the word despite its tongue-twisting sounds for an English speaker.
"Tash'shash'tishish," Cat repeated, managing to make the sound come out right.
"Ah, look at you," the Doctor said, beaming. "That's a tongue-twister, isn't it?"
"Yeah, but I'm used to it by now," she replied. "So, that disturbance…?"
"It should be visible from here," the Doctor said. "Now…"
About this time it was clear to both that the Tash'shash'tishish were not in the most hospitable mood. In fact, most were clearly in a state of some panic, gathering belongings into carts. Cat looked to one and asked, "What's wrong?"
The reptilian looked at her with four eyes. A snake-like tongue flickered from the alien's mouth. "We must evacuate." The Gift of the TARDIS translated what would otherwise have been nearly unintelligible speech. "Space debris is going to strike our world!"
The Doctor overheard that as well. He looked up into the twilight sky above them. Cat did as well, but with her omnitool still mostly non-functioning she had to rely on her eyes, and she wasn't sure she noticed anything.
The Doctor was already retreating back into the TARDIS. Cat turned and followed him, finding him bringing over one of his monitors. He quickly operated the controls. "There it is," he said. "Coming in from the system zenith, wide parabolic, looks like it'll impact in about a day." He frowned. "And at that speed… oh dear, that's not good."
Cat went up and glanced at the monitor. The object was not close up, looking like a blue-silvery streak, and figures were displayed below it. Her eyes widened at the numbers. "That could be an extinction-level impact," she said. "Can we stop it?"
"We'll certainly try," the Doctor said, now at the TARDIS' flight controls. He started twisting dials and sliding levers. The TARDIS shifted below them. "Allons-y!"
Cat didn't need to look outside to know that the TARDIS had just shot off the ground like a rocket. The technology of Gallifrey brought to mind the Clarke quote about sufficiently advanced technology being like magic. Time Lord technology certainly seemed like it, often enough. Even the advanced science of the Darglan seemed insufficient to match them, indeed the best the Darglan ever managed was to emulate Time Lord dimensionally-transcendental technology, and they could only implement it for stations, not vessels.
The TARDIS approached the unknown debris at a rapid clip. As it drew closer, the external camera gradually enhanced the image, making the space debris more and more detailed. The relative dimensions and the shape soon made it clear the debris was a ship, presumably dead and adrift, having achieved sufficient velocity to be a deadly threat to the world of the Tash'shash'tishish should it make impact.
Cat watched as the profile of the vessel soon became obvious. Width was about a third of length at the widest point, and height was yet indeterminable. At first it seemed a single hull shape, but as more of the profile became visible it seemed to be a ship with a dual hull…
And then her eyes widened in realization. "That… that's an Alliance ship," she said. "It's a star cruiser."
"So it appears to be," the Doctor concurred.
Please don't have four nacelles please please no no NO NO NO! Cat's horror became evident to the Doctor as the vessel's rear section came into view enough to show the flat X of warp nacelle pylons there. Only three nacelles were present, the lower port nacelle missing with about half of its pylon, and the upper port had been sheared in half from just behind the pylon.
Was it one of the new Enterprise or Excalibur-class? Or maybe an even newer one, if this was from the Alliance's future? Cat wondered as they closed in, waiting and hoping to see a name other than…
The others joined Robert and Lucy in Zakera Ward. Bailey was gone, to join C-Sec's assault teams, leaving Garrus with the Federation and Alliance officers. They were seated on the second floor of a vacant residential building facing the suspect warehouse, technically off-limits while engineers ensured the damage from the battle hadn't made the building unsound. Lucy and Data had taken a moment to assure everyone with scans that, for the eight of them at least, it was safe.
Geordi was examining the building with his ocular implants. "I'm definitely reading the debris' emissions from the building," he said to the others. "We've found our place."
"What is it you need us to do, Captain Dale?" asked Tra'dur. She set a hand on her pulse pistol.
"You'll be responsible for cataloguing any debris we find after we clear the building," Robert said. "You're not here to fight. Frankly, if you're in this fight, we screwed up."
"The same with me?" asked Talara.
Lucy gave Robert an uncomfortable look. Talara was still recovering emotionally from the Battle of Germania, but at the same time leaving her sidelined might impact her confidence. Robert sensed the young Falaen woman's uncertainty and said, "I won't order you into a fight you're not ready for, but if you can do it, we could use your help."
Picking up on Robert's intent, Lucy added, "It's your decision, Talara. Are you ready for this? There's no shame if you're not."
"I see." Talara drew in a breath. "I am… I am ready. Yes." They felt her will assert itself. "I am ready to assist you in a fight against this Ashford man, the threatener of innocent beings."
Lucy smiled at her and nodded. "Then you're with us."
Garrus looked up from where he was talking with Bailey. "They're still twenty minutes out," he said. "We should be ready to go in at about the thirty, thirty-five minute mark."
"Right," Robert said. "Then we'll…"
Lucy's remark prompted him to look to the warehouse. Data and the others did as well. There was activity inside, a lot of it. Robert brought up a pair of binoculars. They zoomed in to show armed beings, mostly Asari and Salarian, putting crates into cargo vehicles. He narrowed his eyes at the black insignia on their combat armor. "Eclipse mercenaries," he murmured.
"Eclipse. A mercenary outfit known for technological and biotic combat capability," said Data. "They will be quite difficult opponents in a tactical encounter."
"That's not the real problem here," Robert noted. "They're pulling out."
"Damn." Garrus frowned. "They must have someone in C-Sec. Or one of those Quarians decided to hedge bets and warned Ashford."
"We can figure it out later." Robert nodded. He felt inward for a moment, to decide if they had time to wait for C-Sec or not.
The response from within, almost instinctive in how it came, was that no, they did not. If they didn't act now, Ashford would get away with all of that Sovereign debris.
Robert pulled his weapon from his belt. "Change of plans. We go now." He turned to face Garrus. "Garrus, can you give us cover fire?"
Garrus reached down and picked up his Mantis-model sniper rifle. "I've got you covered. Commander La Forge, would you mind staying to be my spotter?"
Geordi and Data exchanged a brief look before the Starfleet engineer nodded. "You've got me."
Robert nodded and led the others out. They rushed down the stairs and out into the street. The door of the warehouse ahead was closed but not guarded, not from the outside anyway. Thanks to his superior speed Data was the first to the door. He immediately went to work on the panel. As they approached he said, "There is a locking mechanism, but it is not very sophisticated. Standby."
Data went back to work on the lock. As he did Robert focused his senses around him. He tried to detect the alarm that would come from the enemy realizing they'd come. For the moment he felt nothing, and when the door started to open he was ready to go in.
The sense of imminent threat kept him from doing so. Lucy hissed, "Get clear!" to the others, and they moved out of sight of the door.
Which was a good thing, as the moment it finished opening a missile came streaking out. It struck the street behind them and exploded, just far enough away that it didn't catch them in the explosive shockwave.
Lucy's lightsaber ignited and she rushed in, Robert behind her. A seven foot tall combat robot, or "mech", in Eclipse colors was swinging its gun arm toward them. They dashed in opposite directions, prompting the machine to pick a target. It chose Lucy, who swung her lightsaber as rapidly as she could to deflect incoming fire.
Robert, unengaged for the moment, reached out with his life force. A solid, invisible wall of force slammed into the combat walker's feet, unbalancing it. Its firing at Lucy went wide. Its head, with dual red eyes to provide proper depth perception, turned toward him. It had reevaluated him as a target and judged him the more tactically dangerous foe.
Robert smiled at that. The robot had no idea how wrong it was.
And it barely got the chance. No longer being fired upon, Lucy dashed into range. The machine was just tracking its gun arms into place to fire on Robert when she zipped by, her lightsaber slashing in the air in a sapphire blur. The gun arms fell away from the machine. Its VI was busy trying to process this loss of its main firepower. As the shoulder-mounted missile launcher revealed itself, an amber phaser beam sliced into its head, vaporizing half of the matter and burning the rest.
Data entered, his phaser up and ready to fire again, and the others came in with guns raised.
This was advantageous, as moments later the first Eclipse mercs appeared on the upper floor nearby. "Intruders!" a Salarian female shouted. "Open fire!"
Everyone went for cover as mass effect firearms, mostly assault rifles, began raining projectiles on the lower level. One by one everyone returned fire, Talara's fire being the most accurate thanks to her gifts. Jarod, taking cover with Data, allowed himself a bemused grin while readying his pulse pistol. "So much for a peaceful cataloguing mission," he said.
"Indeed," Data agreed.
The two operations officers slipped out of cover long enough to return fire; with their respective gifts - Jarod's super-savant nature and training and Data's android control - allowing them to make shots close enough that the more heavily-armed enemies had to take cover regardless.
Robert and Lucy moved ahead, finding their own pathways to the upper floor. As they went Robert opened his tac comm line. "Garrus, anything new?"
"Well, you've… hang on…" Garrus' rifle fired. "There. As I was saying, you've certainly got the mercs attention. I'm making sure they don't take off with those cargo trucks. Bailey's ETA is now ten minutes."
"Glad to hear he cut it in half," Robert said. As he did, he had to raise his weapon to deflect shots from a semi-automatic mass effect gun in the hands of an Asari. She started to generate biotic energy in her hand, but before she could throw it he reached out with his life force and twisted her hand down, causing her to throw it at her feet. The singularity she generated crackled on the ground and yanked her off her feet. "Keep me informed," he added before racing on.
There was a whimper from Caterina as the memory of finding the Aurora hurtling toward the world of the Tash'shash'tishish returned to her. Martha glanced from her to the Doctor. "What is it?" she asked. "Her breathing's picking up…"
"She's remembering something unpleasant," he said, not turning his head. "Please, let me concentrate, I have to be careful."
Martha nodded and sat back down, watching with worry as the Doctor continued to unravel the block he'd placed on Caterina's mind.
The memory of finding the Aurora was the space debris they'd come to stop nearly jolted Caterina out of the mind link. The Doctor held onto her and kept her mind on track, allowing the memories to return carefully as he'd planned.
The memories continued on from that horrible realization. Caterina examined the reading on the TARDIS repeatedly. As they drew closer the grievous damage to the ship was more and more visible. The bow was gone, blasted away, as was the front of the drive hull. Entire sections of the ship were gone or open to vacuum. There was no trace of life present.
"What… how?" Caterina stuttered. "H-how is th-this…"
"I don't know," he said. "Let's find out."
The Doctor flew the TARDIS toward the ruined vessel. While Caterina struggled to deal with what she was seeing, his expression betrayed his own somber feelings. He liked the Aurora crew and what they'd done with the legacy of the Darglan. And the ship was beautiful, as many Darglan vessels were, elegant in design and brilliantly engineered. He'd seen enough of those lovely Darglan ships reduced to wrecks...
It wasn't hard to find a hole leading into the heart of the ship. It was slightly harder to find one leading directly to the interior of the primary hull. He managed this anyway and flew them until there was nowhere else to go but into the turbolifts. Before stepping out of the TARDIS he affixed a device to his belt and gave another one to Cat. "Here. From the 119th Century of your Common Era, well, of what you call W8R4's anyway. It'll generate an atmosphere around you and give you a couple hours of breathable air. Plus it produces its own localized light so we can see what we're doing. Nifty, isn't it?"
Cat accepted the device quietly and latched it to her waist. A blue light showed it was coming online and ready to generate the atmosphere needed.
They stepped out of the TARDIS and into dark halls. There was no gravity operational, but Cat noticed she felt, if not weight, a general pull that held her feet to the ground. "The atmosphere things provide gravity too?"
"Not so much gravity as a general pull toward your feet… so yes, I suppose it's gravity. And..."
The Doctor quieted, and Cat immediately saw why when she followed his saddened eyes. Nearby was a body hovering lifelessly in the zero gravity environment around them, illuminated by the light being emanated around their atmospheric fields. The body looked female with an Alliance uniform, a species that Cat thought might be Falaen, but the ears were a little too long for it, the grayish skin a bit too light, as if it had been pearl-white before the crewwoman died. As they continued they came upon another pair of remains, one Dorei and the other either Human or Gersallian. Cat didn't recognize any of them, but that was small comfort for her.
"This place… something is… not normal," the Doctor remarked.
Cat gave him a flat look. "What else isn't normal about my home dead in space, about to crash into an innocent planet?"
"The space we're in, it's all… off," the Doctor insisted. "But it's still real enough to ruin the Tash'shash'tishish if we don't stop it."'
The lifts themselves were out, but the main shaft leading to the bridge was intact. "Tricky bit here. Watch that first step," the Doctor said just before taking the same. Cat squeaked out a cry of "Doctor!" before looking down into the dark shaft and seeing the Doctor standing on the side of the shaft as if nothing was wrong. He moved out of the way and smiled at her. "Come on, then. It's a tricky first step, but it's all about keeping your feet down."
Cat drew in a breath and stepped out into the open air. As she fully expected, her foot found nothing and she tipped out into the shaft. She "fell" until her foot, now level of the side of the lift shaft, pressed against the wall and stayed. Her sense of gravity effectively turned ninety degrees on her in the process. Tentatively she set her other foot down. It took her several seconds to accept the new orientation of gravity, after which she giggled despite everything.
"This way then," said the Doctor, starting to walk "up" the shaft. "I need to access the sensors and find out what's going on here…"
The Eclipse mercs proved every bit as potent as Data had forewarned. More than potent for a few officers with pulse pistols.
Robert and Lucy were another matter.
Enough time had passed since first contact for such groups to become aware of the existence of the Order of Swenya and similar organizations. But such knowledge alone didn't suffice to prepare fighters to face their abilities or understand the power that was at their fingertips. The Eclipse fighters treated Robert and Lucy like powerful biotics and used tactics suited for fighting such beings.
But they weren't biotics. Biotics didn't move as fast as they could. They couldn't rip weapons from hands or send someone flying with barely a gesture. They didn't wield blades of light that could intercept gunfire and send it flying back to the shooter.
The two thus advanced the most quickly against the mercenaries. Data and Talara followed behind, Jarod and Tra'dur further behind them, exchanging fire where they could with the mercs.
They were all in the upper floor of the warehouse now, at the loading bays. The vehicles loaded with pieces of Sovereign hadn't moved. More crates, with that same cargo, remain stacked and ready for transport to those transport vehicles, but no such transport was taking place. Garrus had cut off that avenue of retreat.
That left the Eclipse mercs with no remaining options save to fight and hope they won. So they did so, with the ferocity of the desperate, still trying to concentrate fire on Robert and Lucy, still using their omnitools' specialized apps to fling bolts of flame and cryo energy, still flinging biotics of their own. One bolt of biotic power rushed as a shockwave along the ground, simply to be dispelled by Robert. Lucy zipped ahead and her lightsaber swept in a quick, blue slash. The Asari who sent the bolt cried out in shock and rage as her right arm, her gun still clasped in the hand, flew away from her body. A nearby Salarian raised an assault rifle to shoot at Lucy before being shot himself by Talara.
And then, in a moment, the battle went lopsided. C-Sec vehicles soared down to cover the loading bays. Heavily armed officers, the C-Sec equivalent of SWAT, jumped free from the vehicles and stormed into the warehouse. "Citadel Security! Stand down!"
The Eclipse mercs did not, and they paid for that. Robert found it incredulous that they continued to fight even when it was clearly hopeless, but they did just that, and C-Sec's officers responded with precise, careful tactics, throwing flashbangs and stun grenades while advancing.
One flashbang landed close enough to Robert he had to turn away, doing so just as it went off. As the afterimage blur started to fade he noticed a figure on the uppermost level, an office area overlooking the warehouse floor. Even with the distance the figure looked Human, likely male, wearing the kind of jumpsuit common to M4P2 Humanity, this one of dark blue color. He was carrying a duffel bag. Robert focused on him. He felt fear and panic, also irritation, some rage… and an intent to escape. He glanced toward Lucy next. Lucy, Ashford's escaping. He's on the upper level and heading for a carpark.
Got him, thought Lucy back. She took off for the stairway to the offices. Robert followed. He felt Talara give chase.
Even with their speed, and Lucy making a superhuman jump onto the upper floor once she was in range, Ashford had the advantage of a head start aided by knowing where he was going. He was also quite swift on his feet. By the time they rushed through the offices and stepped out into the car park area, he was already strapped in and gunning it. The red aircar shot from the carpark at a speed that might have cost Ashford his life had he less space outside to maneuver.
Lucy had been a half second from throwing her lightsaber to disable the craft when it vanished. "Dammit," she hissed.
Robert triggered the tac comm. "This is Dale. Ashford's running, I repeat, he's left the building in an aircar, red coloring."
"I see him, Commander La Forge is tracking," Garrus said. "Bailey, where's the cover on that exit?"
"That car park doesn't exist on the Citadel Archive schematics for this building," Bailey groused. "I don't have anyone in position to…"
Another aircar pulled up to the three from the outside. It opened, revealing seating for four. Data was at the controls. "I have commandeered transportation," he stated. "We should hurry."
"Shotgun!" Lucy cried out, grinning, before plopping herself down beside Data. Robert and Talara sat in the rear. It was somewhat tight seating, but comfortable.
"Please fasten safety harnesses, this craft's inertial dampening systems will be insufficient," Data said. Before he finished the statement he was already hitting the throttle, throwing the three back into their seats as the commandeered aircar shot out of the building as well.
"We're in pursuit," Robert said into the tac comm.
The Aurora turbolift shaft came to its end on the bridge deck. The door to enter the bridge was beneath the Doctor's feet as Cat stepped up. He knelt down beside it and hovered his sonic screwdriver over it. Its blue diode blinked repeatedly as he examined the door. "Atmospheric seal," he said. "The systems are dead, so…" With a grunt of effort the Doctor forced the door open enough to slip through. Again it looked like he'd intentionally stepped into thin air, just to set his feet on the floor of the bridge. Cat did the same.
Like the rest of the ship the bridge was dark. Only one console seemed to be flickering in and out of life, over at ship operations. The light of the console was dim, so dim that Cat could only just make out a figure slumped over the inward side of the L-shaped console. A horrible thought came to her and she rushed to the other side of the bridge, the rear starboard, where the tactical station was. A figure was slumped lifelessly over the control station. She grabbed the shoulders of the body and pushed it back…
...and stared into her sister's dead eyes.
Cat shrieked and fell back onto the floor. Her letting go allowed Angela Delgado's body to tip backward into her chair. The Doctor walked up, his face locked into a thoughtful, grim expression, while Cat stared in mute horror at her sister's corpse. Angel's face was locked into an expression of grim resolve. Her brown skin had paled considerably in death. It was the same uniform as always, save a strap over the left shoulder that seemed to latch the front of the uniform into place, the strap and latch colored the same orange as the uniform's undershirt and the visible collar above the uniform jacket. The section of the strap above the latch had something attached, two horizontal bars of gold and a black one above it.
"New uniform," the Doctor murmured. "Lieutenant Commander rank, I believe. Your sister was only a Lieutenant, right?"
Cat didn't reply. She kept staring into Angel's lifeless eyes. Tears started rolling down her cheeks.
The Doctor moved ahead of her and swept his hand over Angel's face. His fingers forced her eyes closed. This seemed to slightly jolt Cat from her mute stupor. She stood back up carefully and continued looking around, as if desperate to keep her eyes away from the sight of her dead sister. While the Doctor watched with concern, Cat walked toward the front of the bridge. She was dazed enough to nearly trip over a body. She glanced down and gasped "Nick" at the sight of Locarno's remains. He was on his belly, his head turned to the side enough to see it was him. Another form was nearby, laid out near the helm.
Cat kept on to Ops. She'd seen the figure before, thanks to the slight illumination from the flickering console, and drew close enough to verify that it was Jarod, staring lifelessly toward his control board.
The Doctor stepped up behind her and looked down. "Clever," he murmured. "He rerouted battery power to keep the console running…"
Cat didn't really hear what he said. Physically she did, at least, but it didn't process mentally. Her mind, as bright as it was, was still reeling from what she was looking at. She turned toward the command chair, if just to verify what she knew she'd see.
Julia was laid back and to the side in the chair. Her light skin had turned nearly gray, as had her blond hair. She looked a little older from the stress lines that had formed on her face..
"Julia," Cat murmured, stifling a sob. "Jarod. Nick…" She couldn't bring herself to look to her dead sister again. She turned tentatively toward the port side of the bridge. She didn't recognize the figure at Engineering and so immediately continued on to the station beside it. The Science station… her station.
A figure was hunched over it, in the same different uniform as the others. Cat stepped up carefully and put a hand onto a shoulder on someone who was quite short, and quite slim, maybe a little filled out now...
She pulled back and the body fell back into Cat's chair.
And even without looking, Cat already knew it was herself.
This Cat looked a few years older. Her hair was slightly longer. Like Angel, a Lieutenant Commander's bars were on the strip over the left shoulder, and yellow color had replaced the dark blue Cat's uniform currently used.
And like Angel, there was nothing but death in her hazel eyes.
Cat stumbled back one step… then another. Her breath picked up, her heart hammered. The enormity of what was around them…
Was this how it was going to end? All of their good deeds, all of their hard work… and this would be it? Dead on their broken vessel, their broken home, as it flew toward a helpless world to destroy countless lives?
This was how their lives would end?!
That realization… it was just… it wasn't fair! They deserved more! They deserved better!
"Cat." The Doctor's voice was gentle as he stepped toward her. "Cat, look at me."
"This… this is how…" Tears flowed freely down Cat's face, glinting in the ethereal light her atmospheric field gave off. "This is how we end? We… we just die? Our ship becomes a graveyard? How… how can… this isn't fair!"
"Cat, please listen!"
"Oh God this isn't fair! This can't be how…!"
And that was the last coherent word from her. At that point, Cat collapsed to her knees and screamed wordlessly at the unkind fate facing her and everyone she loved.
In the flat Martha watched Cat cry out and gave the Doctor a worried look. "Doctor, she's…"
"I know," was all he said, struggling to keep his grip while Cat whimpered.
Cat's scream echoed in the dark bridge. It was followed by her clenching her fists and smacking the floor with them. No coherent words came from her throat. Her mind could find no words for the feeling inside of her, the deep despair at what awaited her and those she cared for.
"Cat, please!" The Doctor knelt beside her and grabbed her shoulders, compelling her to face him. She blubbered a deep sob. The light of their atmospheric fields glinted off the tears flowing freely down her face. "Cat, this isn't what it looks like!"
Her reply was another wordless sob. The Doctor sensed the despair overwhelming her. The thought that everyone she loved was going to die here, on the ship she called home, was crushing Cat. She couldn't think, she couldn't feel…
He pressed a hand to her temple. The raw despair, the fear, flowed into his mind from hers. Even a Time Lord might have been stunned by it, but the Doctor, sadly, was no stranger to either emotion. He knew fear, he knew despair, and he let it pass. He felt the raging, chaotic turmoil that Cat's mind had become and forced thought into it. Cat, this is just a possibility! That's what that odd feeling was, those odd readings we saw! This is a… What he sent wasn't a term so much as a concept, into the center of her mind. The concept of a possibility given form due to an exotic interaction between space-time and dimensional instability. This is a might-be, not a will-be! he continued, switching back to words.
If she'd been calmer, perhaps Cat would have understood. She was brilliant. The Doctor didn't often have Human companions who could grasp some of the exotic physics he dealt with on a regular basis. But in this state there was no response to him. She was emotionally shattered by the prospect that this might-be of the Aurora's future had presented her. Cat was convinced, utterly convinced, she was seeing the future, and it was too much.
So the Doctor sighed. There was one thing he could do. Something to let him deal with the situation and maybe, just maybe, keep Cat's mind intact.
And so he did what he felt had to be done.
The Doctor let go of Cat's head and sat back. He didn't look exhausted, but he did look worn, emotionally raw, as Martha knew he could be.
Cat's tan brown skin had paled during the course of the telepathic interaction. Tears were flowing down her eyes and her expression betrayed her horror. "I… I remember…"
The despair flowed back into her. That she and her sister and Julia and all of the others would die, their ship would be wrecked, would crash… crash?! That thought was a lifeline she seized to focus her mind on something before the restored memory overwhelmed. "What… what happened? To the Thash'shash'kishtish?"
"Tash'shash'tishish," the Doctor corrected gently.
"Yeah. Them." She rubbed at her forehead.
"Their world is fine," he said. "I removed the Aurora before it could hit the planet."
"Removed?" She blinked.
"Like I tried to tell you before, the Aurora and everyone aboard her… that was all a might-be, not a will-be," the Doctor explained. "A shadow of possibility, you might say."
"A shadow with mass?" asked Cat. "Of actual matter?"
"They can have it, yes," he replied. "Think of the shadow being in a bubble…" He made a face. "Actually, that analogy's better. Forget the shadow." He gathered his hands to form a sphere with his fingers. "Think of what we saw as a bubble of possibility. Once I knew what I was dealing with, it was a simple thing to use the TARDIS to…"
"...pop the bubble," Cat finished for him. A little color showed on her face again. "You reimposed normal space-time over the distorted space-time and the might-be disappeared."
The Doctor flashed a grin. "Oh, there we are. The same brilliant Cat who always used to make squeaky little shrieks when I introduced her to something new. You don't know how many times I enjoyed seeing you figure things out. Always ready for new ideas. Come to think of it, I should have realized a mind like yours would defeat my block."
"Everyone else calls them 'squees'," Cat replied, grinning slightly. "The shrieks, I mean." Her eyes focused on him. She seemed more and more in control with each second. "So that was it? You put me to sleep, slapped a memory block on me so I'd forget the Tash'shash'tishish…"
"Pretty much," the Doctor replied. "There was no need to fiddle with your omnitool given the number that technovore did on it. I just let you sleep naturally and we went on our merry way."
"So… that's it, then?" Cat swallowed. "It's not… we're not going to…"
"I won't lie, Cat. That bubble, that was a possibility," the Doctor said. "It could happen."
"Yeah." She swallowed. The memory was back in her mind in all its ugliness. The thought that all of their adventures might come to an end like that… "And since it's only a possibility, we might still get killed by something else."
"Right. So be careful out there," said the Doctor.
"Assuming I get back out there," Cat said. "I'm going to be a senior citizen if I get back to that day the long way."
"Ah, don't worry about it," the Doctor said. "I've got a plan for the TARDIS. Although until it shows up, well… I do hate to ask…"
It was Martha who sighed. "We have an opening at the shop I work at," she said. "Although the American accent will lead to quite a few questions."
"Well, I could try to use an English accent. Like thes, roit?"
Cat's attempt at the accent made Martha wince. The Doctor chuckled and said, "Yeah, I don't think that's going to pass. But we'll figure something out…"
Around the buildings of Zakera Ward the hovercar dipped and weaved and twisted. Other vehicles zipped by in their wake, some transmitting protesting alarm buzzers to the hovercar under Data's terrifyingly-precise control. In the back seat Robert felt like he was on the world's deadliest theme park ride.
"Almost there," Lucy said. "He should be… there."
Ahead of them a red aircar shot from their left to right, heading toward the tip of Zakera Ward. Data twisted the wheel of the aircar and brought it up behind Ashford's. "How can we force him down?" asked Talara. "This vehicle is unarmed. And a collision at this speed…"
"...would be inadvisable," Data replied, forgoing any further details. "I am transmitting our coordinates to C-Sec. They should have pursuit craft capable of…"
"Wait, he's going down," Lucy observed.
Ashford did indeed begin to dive. Data followed him, utterly relentless in his pursuit, even as Ashford made a series of crazed maneuvers that nearly got him (and then them) killed.
"We appear to be entering the industrial docks," Data observed.
Robert concurred. While passenger traffic and much commercial traffic went to the docking facilities at the base of the Wards, where they connected to the Presidium, the industrial areas at the far ends of the Wards had their own loading facilities. The materials needed for the Citadel's own manufacturing capability were brought in and finished goods, less regularly, shipped out. Some commercial traffic found its way here as well, usually bulk goods being imported for the Citadel population.
Ashford flew his aircar into one of the smaller docks. The dock itself was a hanger, so they did not see the vessel in question. Sensing danger, Lucy and Robert gripped their weapons while Data swung the car to present its passenger side, allowing the two to get out first.
Ashford was already out of his vehicle, still carrying a case. He rushed toward the door and a couple of armed guards there, Humans in dark-colored combat armor. "Stop them!" he shrieked.
One of the guards generated a hardlight combat shield and a hefty-looking machine gun, the other pulled a mass effect model assault rifle.
"I'll get Ashford!" Robert shouted, racing ahead with every bit of energy he could gather. He generated a blast of force with his will, throwing the guards away from the door so he could enter.
Lucy got to them before they could recover. She side-stepped and twirled, seeming to barely avoid a barrage of fire before she brought her lightsaber down on the armored man's weak side. The strike sliced his weapon in half. She brought up her hand and sent him flying into his compatriot. The other guard began to recover before Talara put him down with a stun shot.
Lucy went to pursue Robert, but more foes appeared from another door, presumably to a guard post, and she was forced to swing her weapon to face them.
The layout of the loading area put the docking collar close to the car park entrance. The nearness of the docking collar was the only reason Ashford got to it first. A figure was standing at the entrance, a very short hooded woman in a brown robe which at first glance looked like a barnous. Robert could make out nothing of her face as he moved ahead, her head mostly shrouded by a broad, loose headscarf, but he sensed something strange in the woman. Not just the darkness in her, darkness that told him she had abilities like him, but a sense of a greater presence in the Flow of Life. A presence that seemed not entirely in tune with it.
Ashford spoke with an accent that sounded almost Australian. "It's all gone tits up and you still owe me! Get me out of here!"
"Ashford, you're under arrest!" Robert shouted. He raised his lightsaber, its emerald light filling the chamber as he approached the collar. The woman seemed oblivious to him and his approach even so.
"What are you bleedin' waiting for?!" Ashford shouted at the woman.
“This,” she rasped. There was a sudden, familiar electronic snap in the air. Red light flickered across green, coming from her midsection, and Ashford screamed and toppled to the ground, the blade completing its course. The lightsabre hummed and glowed, with a blade brighter, redder, more intense, even a bit longer, than any the Nazis had possessed. It was the same tenor as Swenya’s in every respect, except for the piercing, ominous red that shadowed his own green. The woman’s head was downcast and she said nothing else.
Robert felt Ashford's life fade within seconds of the weapon cleaving through his body. His eyes fixed on the lightsaber glowing in the woman's hand. He brought his weapon to a ready position and in stunned outrage demanded, "Why did you kill him?!"
She looked up at the question, as though it shook her from a reverie. He could see then that her eyes were solid white, like those of someone who was profoundly blind, but she had no difficulty in detecting his presence. The lightsabre was simple chrome, resting in black gloved hands of a utility suit under her barnous. “He had already started to walk the road of indoctrination,” she said in words that were not English, but which he knew anyway. “That is a one way road, once it begins you are lost.”
Robert's eyes widened. His mysterious foe was speaking High Gersallian, and with only a little of an accent compared to actual Gersallian speakers. "Who are you?!" he demanded in the same language, speaking it as clearly as he could manage.
“A servant. I will be leaving now, Captain Dale. Destroy the remains of the Old Machine.” She turned on heel.
"Stop! You're under arrest!" With Lucy coming up behind him, Robert rushed forward, gathering his power defensively, ready to meet any attack.
Or so he thought.
“You understand nothing of the true power of so-called swen’kse, Dawn-bearer,” she said dismissively, taking no attempt at a fighting stance. At the moment that Robert was upon her, she just spun back toward him, and raised her hand, palm open.
The strength she showed was incredible. It battered aside his defences like so much of a freight train coming at him. One moment he was confident in himself, rushing forward to face her. The next, he was flying through the air backwards into the dock at a lethally high rate of speed, his lightsaber toppling away.
Lucy caught him with her power, slowing him enough so that he hit the ground at a substantially safer speed. With Robert safe she turned to face his attacker, her blue eyes focused on the crimson blade still shining in the dim light of the dock receiving area. She could feel much the same thing Robert had. Darkness, cold and powerful, and a unique feeling to the woman's energy, one that Lucy thought she might have felt once before. She didn't bother to verbalize a challenge to Robert's attacker, bracing herself instead, doing everything she could to be ready to absorb an attack like the one that sent Robert flying.
Instead, the woman stared directly at her with those white eyes. I was, and am, here to help. DESTROY THE FRAGMENTS OF THE OLD MACHINE. There is no shielding that is perfectly effective, only swev’a and farisa are safe, reach out with your power and know this is true! Her soul was an ancient melancholy bitterness, like regret itself given sapient form. But the telepathic contact conveyed utter certainty.
The contact gave Lucy a moment of pause. Despite the darkness, despite the dead body of Ashford, she sensed that she was not facing anything like swevyra'kse. She didn't feel the kind of malevolence, the malice, that Mastrash Goras or Fassbinder and his SS had given off.
The woman deactivated her blade and turned. The bag Ashford had been carrying, filled with debris from Sovereign, flew through the docking collar with a gesture from the hand which held the cylinder. A moment later, a black gloved hand pressed a control inside the ship, and the hatch closed with the speed of a guillotine.
Robert scrambled to his feet and touched his omnitool. "This is Captain Dale to C-Sec. A suspect in the debris theft is getting away from the Zakera Ward industrial docking area. Unknown vessel and configuration."
"Acknowledged," came a reply.
In the space beyond the wards, the Federation Starship Enterprise was in position with the Citadel's much-reduced defense fleet. The Citadel had been a remarkable opportunity for the crew of the Enterprise, and many regretted the circumstances under which they had had the opportunity to visit this remarkable structure.
The alert came with little warning, but the information from C-Sec was enough to identify the vessel coming out of the Zakera Ward. At 70-metres long it was smaller than most freighters but almost the size of the smallest marks of Klingon Birds of Prey. It somewhat resembled them, too, with sharply slanting downward wings, except they carried up almost to an A-frame above the main hull, which was configured to like a preying insect ready to pounce, with seven massive swiveling thruster blocks of three engines each and huge armoured shields which manoeuvred around the hull, sliding back to cover the aft arc as the craft, despite its size, accelerated and turned with the speed and manoeuvrability of a fighter.
As the vessel flew past, the Enterprise began to turn as well. As she came about, the big Sovereign-class starship locked onto the ship with a tractor beam, a ribbon of blue light that held the fleeing craft in place.
On her bridge, Captain Jean-Luc Picard exited his ready room and approached the center of the bridge. Commander William Riker stood from the command chair. "What's the situation, Number One?"
"Citadel Security asked us to intercept a vessel fleeing Zakera Ward," Riker explained. "It's believed to be carrying stolen debris from Sovereign. We've already raised shields as a precaution."
"The tractor beam is holding, sir," Lieutenant Kadohata reported from Ops. Of mostly East Asian descent, Miranda Kadohata was one of Data's subordinates in the ship's operations branch.
Picard turned to face the viewscreen and take in the appearance of the ship. "Is this design on record?" he asked.
"It does not appear to be, sir," Kadohata said.
"I wonder what capabilities…"
Before he could finish the sentence the Enterprise tactical officer, Lieutenant Padraig Daniels, spoke up. "They're firing!"
A projectile erupted from the vessel. Picard braced for impact against the shields.
But there was none. The projectile went off in the middle of the Enterprise's tractor beam. When it did, an abrupt burst of rapidly spreading debris was sucked into the tractor beam, which obligingly pulled them at high speed back toward the Enterprise as the computer mass balancing loop was thrown off. The resulting disruption to the tractor beam freed the vessel, which shot ahead of the Enterprise. Kadohata blinked at her screens. "Sir, they're not on course for the mass relay."
"Intercept course. Put a tractor beam on them as soon as you can, Lieutenant," Picard ordered.
"Re-establishing tractor lock… I'm detecting an energy surge in the vessel. It appears to be…"
In an instant the unknown vessel seemed to just zip away. Picard could almost swear it vanished, only barely noticing the blip of movement before it was gone, like a video of a ship jumping to warp in fast playback.
Kadohata was staring at her screens. "I've never seen a drive signature like that, Captain. It bears a resemblance to S0T5 hyperdrive technology, but the profile is all wrong."
"So you say." Picard frowned slightly. "Quite a mystery vessel. I want a recording of this encounter dispatched to Starfleet immediately. Lieutenant, get me Citadel Security."
"Maybe Data and Geordi can make something of it?" Riker suggested.
"Maybe, or maybe not. Either way… we are clearly dealing with an unseen power," Picard said. "And they seem to have us at a disadvantage."
With the ship departed and the mercs protecting the dock and hanger subdued or retreating, Data and Talara joined Robert and Lucy in examining the abandoned structure. Unlike Ashford's warehouse, there was no sign of Sovereign debris anywhere.
But that wasn't what was bothering Robert and Lucy. Talara sensed they had other concerns on their mind, and they did. When the examination was complete they walked off into a corner to speak privately. "You hesitated," Robert said to Lucy. "I don't blame you," he added to reassure her. "I've never felt that much power before. I think even Goras would have been knocked on his ass."
"That's scary as hell, yeah," Lucy agreed. "But that's not why. I… there's something familiar about that woman, Robert. I've sensed that kind of thing before."
"I'm not sure. It's faint. I think it was a subconscious thing." Lucy shook her head.
"Did you hear her?" Robert asked.
"No. She connected to me mentally. She called Sovereign ‘The Old Machine’. I think she was trying to warn me, to warn us, about the debris. That no defense could stop the indoctrination effect." Lucy swallowed. "And I believe her."
"Yeah." Robert had his own worries about whether the fields being used could really stop the effect. "She told me that's why she killed Ashford. That he was already indoctrinated."
"Did you sense it in him?"
"No." Robert shook his head. "But it took me effort to sense it in Saren, and he was an egregious case, even if subtle. Maybe given time and more indoctrination victims I could figure my limits, but…" He shuddered at that. He didn't want that opportunity. "I didn't sense any falsehood in her either. And that's not the only thing."
"She also warned me to destroy the debris. And called Sovereign 'the Old Machine'." Robert met Lucy's eyes. "And she did it in High Gersallian."
Lucy's jaw dropped partly. "Then she's Gersallian?"
"No. I mean, maybe, but I'm pretty sure she was Human." Robert shrugged. "You know how it is."
"Yeah." The vague sense that their swevyra - their life force bound to the Flow of Life - could give on a matter's truth was occasionally vexing with how immaterial it could feel. "Did she have an accent?"
"Barely," he said. "It wasn't a Gersallian accent I've heard before. But not like our accents either when we try it."
Lucy frowned. "And no name?"
"None. Only that she was 'a servant'. But given what we know, I'm betting she was the one that the reports referred to as 'Yellow'."
"Well, since Yellow supposedly killed a bunch of badass crooks here on the Citadel… yeah." Lucy drew in a breath. "I don't like this, Robert. I feel something… elusive about this."
"Same here. We'll talk to Meridina about it when we get back to the Aurora. Until then… let's get back to work. I don't want to leave any Sovereign debris here, in case we just haven't found it yet."
With that, they got back to work with the others.
In orbit over the Earth of W8R4, Angela Delgado thought she'd go insane. There was no sign of the Warri yet, no sign of anyone that could help her find her little sister. As far as everything looked, Cat was just gone.
The first thing to get her attention was that the Moffat's sensors suddenly recorded some kind of spatial disturbance. She wasn't sure what it meant so she ran it through the library systems, requiring a comm link to the Alliance Stellar Navy's database. Yet more impatient minutes passed during which Angel really wished she had someone to punch. Preferably a slaver. Slavers always made her feel better when she punched them (and kicked them and elbowed them and just beating their slaving jerk faces in…!)
Then the result came back. The disturbance had been detected before. By the Aurora, in fact.
It was the Doctor's TARDIS.
Angel was just starting to wonder what that meant when the sensors lit up with another disturbance. Just as the computer identified it as the same, she heard a kind of whooshing sound from the back of the shuttle. She reached into the emergency armory cabinet and pulled out a pulse pistol, turned…
...and faced the TARDIS, now fully materialized in her rear.
The door opened and the Doctor stepped out. He faced Angel and made a hmph sound. "You always did seem the type to be ready to fight," he noted.
"Where is my…?!"
Before Angel could finish her demand, Cat ran from the TARDIS and grabbed her into a hug. "Angel! It's so good to see you!"
Surprised, Angel dropped the pulse pistol and returned the hug, embracing her little sister tightly. "You crazy, reckless, infuriating little nerd, you've had me worried sick. Why…?!" She put her hand to Cat's head and suddenly shifted the intended question. "Why is your hair longer?"
"Oh, I've been letting it grow a bit again. I'm probably going to cut it back down now," she said.
Angel blinked and then sighed. "You… were time traveling again?"
"Well, not by choice. A Weeping Angel sent me back to 1969 London where the Doctor and Martha were… oh!" Cat turned back as Martha stepped up to the threshold of the TARDIS. "This is Doctor Martha Jones, she's from this Earth and is traveling with the Doctor now."
"Oh, uh, hi," Angel said, waving quietly.
"Hi," Martha replied. She looked around at the interior of the Moffat. "So… this is a spaceship?"
"It's a shuttlecraft," Cat replied. "We live on a much bigger spaceship called the Aurora."
"Give Robert my best," said the Doctor. "And if he doesn't mind it, let him know I'd love to talk with him about what he experienced during his coma."
"How do you know he experienced anything?" asked Angel.
The Doctor gave her a look that just screamed, "You really have to ask?" Aloud he simply said, "Oh, it's just a little guess of mine, that's all. Now, I've promised Martha a trip somewhere sunny and warm and very relaxing, so I'm off. You be careful out there!"
"Bye," Martha said. "And Cat, be careful for a few more days, that pull might get aggravated if you aren't." After she spoke the Doctor closed the TARDIS door. Moments later it started to dematerialize.
Cat sat gingerly in one of the piloting chairs. Angel noticed the little wince on her face. "What happened to you?"
"Oh, just a little muscle pull," she said. A frown crossed her face. "I'm never going in a retail shop again. Never."
"Just how long were you with them?"
"Oh… three weeks? Four? No more than five," Cat insisted. "The Doctor's calculations for summoning the TARDIS were a bit off so we had to live in London for a while. That meant getting a job so we had enough food. I hated every moment of it. Ugh, so boring… well, except for…"
Cat grinned sheepishly. "Well, Martha is really cute…"
Angel chuckled and took a seat. There was no hiding the relief showing on her face and in her eyes. Cat felt a warm, fuzzy feeling at her sister being so happy. The unwanted image of her sister's dead face on that dark bridge popped up and she forced it away. She'd been learning to do that an awful lot these past few weeks.
After tapping in keys to put them on a course back to the Jupiter Observation Post Angel returned her focus to Cat. "So, did you get what you needed? Or what you wanted?" She was immediately concerned to see the uncertain, frightened look on Cat's face. "What's wrong?"
"It's… it's nothing important. Not right now," Cat said. "Just something I have to think about."
Angel knew there was more to it than that, but she let it go. If Cat didn't want to discuss it, that was her choice. She was just glad to have her sister home and safe.
With the timing of their watches, the command crew of the Koenig were all at stations as they continued their patrol of the Traverse. Their location wasn't far from Virmire now, which meant they were very close to the Terminus Systems, requiring the ship to remain at Code Blue standby alert instead of the relaxed Code Green of normal running.
Seated in the command chair, Will Atreiad was observing operations quietly. He wondered how it would be on the Huáscar and how that crew would fit together. He already knew that Captain Zhen'var was rather more formal than Julia was. Her Earthforce experience would likely lead to an entirely different command concept being shown on the ship, and as her XO it would be Will who had to support it. From fifty crew to two thousand. At least I won't be entirely responsible for them.
He was considering what to write home to his sister and nephew when Magda looked up at her station. "We're getting a distress signal, Citadel standard," Magda said.
"Looks like we're finally going to learn more about those disappearing ships," he said. "Identify?"
"ID code… Mother of God." Magda's face showed her shock when she looked toward him again. "Commander, it's the Normandy."
Will forced a neutral expression on his face. "Ap, set course, maximum warp."
"Doing so now." As Apley keyed in the course, relaying on Magda's data, he said, "They're well on the other side of the cluster, sir. Even at our best sustainable warp, it'll be at least an hour before we arrive…"
"Then give me more," demanded Will. He tapped the intercom key. "Engineering, I need the best warp speed you can give. The Normandy is in trouble."
Derbely wasted no time in replying, "Yes Commander, we'll give you everything we can get. I'll see if I can get us past Warp 9.89."
Will knew that was considered the maximum warp speed the Koenig's engines were capable of, and even then they'd be burning the drives down in the attempt. But every second counted. "Let's set a record for the Koenig," he said. "Ap, engage!"
The Koenig's course through interstellar space shifted and her warp drive began accelerating, as fast as her crew could push her, in the hopes of rescuing a valued ally and friend.
When Robert and the others returned to Ashford's warehouse, having relinquished the dock to a C-Sec CSI team, they found Zack, Geordi, and Tra'dur standing around the main storage area.
The empty storage area.
"Did C-Sec get all the debris out that quickly?" Lucy asked Tra'dur.
"No, Lieutenant," the Dilgar woman replied. "We were busy securing the offices when there was a sudden power surge. Everything in the storage area was vaporized by an intense disintegration field."
"It was like nothing I've seen," Geordi added. "I found no traces of nadions, so it wasn't based on phaser or disruptor technology."
"Yellow," Robert said.
"You refer to the woman that killed Ashford?" Data asked.
"That's what we think, given the reports C-Sec gave us," Lucy said. "She escaped with a ship using an FTL system we've never seen. She didn't even bother going to the mass relay."
"Well, where is she going to go then?" Zack asked.
"She might be laying low on some of the other settled worlds in the systems around the Serpent Nebula," Talara said. "Perhaps Bekenstein?"
"Well, that'd confirm her wealth, if anything," Robert said. As he spoke, he didn't feel right about that guess. He glanced to Lucy, who was operating her omnitool. "What is it?"
"Establishing a communication line," she said. "I want to speak to Meridina about that woman."
A few moments later Meridina appeared, wearing her uniform and at her office desk. "Lucy, Robert. What is wrong?"
They explained, in brief, what they encountered, which doubled as filling in the others and the now-arriving Garrus. When they were finished explaining Meridina's expression showed concern. "You are certain her Gersallian sounded native?"
"It sounded better than Lucy's, and definitely better than mine," Robert said. "And she had a lightsaber of her own, but it wasn't like the SS ones we found, or that Cylon lightsaber Lucy's Cylon clone was using."
"It looked… well, I hate to say it, but better," said Lucy. "The blade at least. I can't imagine a crystal managing that kind of hue and brightness."
"Rather disturbing. Did you see her face?"
"Not well, she was wearing something like a headscarf," Robert said. "Her eyes were the weird part. They were entirely white, like her pupils and iris never developed. Like she was blind. But she saw us coming, and in a way that didn't feel like it was reliant on sensitivity."
"And there was one term she used in her mental communication," Lucy said. "When she was warning me about Sovereign's remains. She said that only farisa and what she called swev'a were safe from indoctrination."
Meridina blinked. "I am unfamiliar with that word, but it does sound like she was referring to one with swevyra. Curious. I shall ask Mastrash Ledosh. Perhaps he will shed some insight on this 'Yellow' and what she might be."
"Thanks," said Lucy. "We'll see you when we get home."
"And we await that eagerly, Lucy. Mi rake sa swevyra iso." Meridina ended the call at that point.
"So that's what happened at the dock," said Garrus.
"Yeah." Robert nodded. "Anything from the investigators?"
"Nothing useful. It looks like Yellow, if that was her, hired a group of Human mercenaries called CAT6 to protect the dock. They're a bunch of thugs, dishonorably discharged from the Systems Alliance military."
"Explains the name," Robert muttered. Seeing the unknowing looks on the others, he said, "Dishonorable discharges from the Systems Alliance military are known as Category 6 discharges."
"They sound very unpleasant," Tra'dur remarked drolly.
"Well, we've got these men in custody for aiding theft of Citadel property. So they'll be spending time in jail." Garrus looked back toward the empty bin. "Too bad the evidence itself is gone."
"We have recordings of it, if your courts need it," Geordi said. "What I'd like to know is how."
"Well, we can guess why," said Lucy. "She says these pieces are dangerous, even inside of protective fields. That no protective field can stop them."
"How does she know?" asked Zack. "I mean, did you find evidence she was studying them as much as we were?"
"No, but then again, we didn't get her ship." Robert glanced toward the bin again. "I can't help but think she did us a favor. I still think…"
Before he could continue, Robert suddenly doubled over and went down on a knee. A stunned, pained look crossed his face. Lucy and Zack went to help him. "What is it?" Lucy asked. "What are you feeling?"
"I… I'm not sure," he said. "I feel like I've… lost something. Something's gone, it's been taken."
He shook his head. "I… I'm not sure." He drew in a breath. "I just need a minute. We should probably let C-Sec handle the rest of this."
"Well, we still have more work to do at the repository," Geordi said.
"And I will investigate whether or not this individual may have had an insight we lack on the danger of the debris," Data added.
"Yeah, thank you," said Robert. "Let me know what you find."
Meridina was surprised that it took her an hour after she first called to get a response from Ledosh. She was more surprised by the worn look on her mentor's face. He was in his office, it seemed, which made her wonder if the time had been for him to get back from the cottage. She said nothing of this consideration, simply saying, "Good day, Mastrash."
"Meridina. It is good to see you." While she knew he meant it, it was also clear he was mentally distracted. "I'm afraid I've been rather busy as of late. You are due congratulations for defeating the Reich and its evil."
"You are aware of the swevyra'kse we faced?"
"Robert informed the Council, yes." Ledosh's expression was grave. "How they acquired the lightsaber weapons as well… I feel great concern."
"I am afraid I must add to this, Mastrash," Meridina lamented. "Robert and Lucy encountered a swevyra'kse of incredible power on the Citadel, overseeing an operation to steal debris from the Reaper machine Sovereign. She too had a lightsaber..."
"...and she may have been Gersallian," Meridina added.
Ledosh's expression betrayed the grim thoughts in his head. "Did they capture her?"
"No. They are not sure of the woman's species, but they say she spoke High Gersallian with something close to a proper accent. As if it were her first language. Or one she was long practiced in. And there is more… She said a word to them." Meridina watched her mentor's expression grow more grim and wished she didn't have to speak of these things. Whatever was going on, Ledosh was under strain. "'Swev'a."
Ledosh's eyes widened. "They are certain?"
"It was transmitted mentally into Lucy by this swevyra'kse." Meridina sighed. "I can see you recognize this word, Mastrash, and that you are under great pressure. I am sorry to add to it."
"No. It is important that you tell me these things."
"Why are you so upset, Mastrash? You seem under great strain."
"It is simply… a discomfort. Goras still lingers in our dungeons. We have never allowed a swevyra'kse to live this long. I fear that his fall has brought a malaise upon our Order that even Lucy's discovery of the swenkesh has not lifted. There is a darkness here, a darkness I feel in our future."
"And the Council…"
A bitter look came to Ledosh's face. "Frightened. That is what they are. Save a few such as your father, they wish to ignore all signs and portents. I find myself missing your father's opposition to my views. He at least showed feeling toward them. All the Council does is move to table discussion and go on to other things. As if I cannot feel their fear."
"Surely they know we must…"
"They know only that there is something wrong, but they have no idea what to do about it. The Multiverse's many injustices weigh upon them, as does the continued low-level Dissenter activity. I suspect many now wish Robert had never found that Darglan Facility." Ledosh shook his head. "We do what we can. Your Father and I, whatever our differences, will work to keep the Council from going too far. I trust everything else to you and the others, Meridina. Now, I am afraid I must go. I have much work yet to do. Mi rake sa swevyra iso."
"Mi rake sa swevyra iso," she replied, and barely had a moment before Ledosh disappeared. A terrible feeling came to her stomach. What is wrong on Gersal? she wondered.
Ledosh returned to his cottage in haste. Only there did he feel safe in continuing his work. Upon transporting in he went to his desk and unlocked the storage box below. From it he drew his translation guide. The work of the long-deceased Gartanam made his efforts to translate the outdated Gersallian of the Life of Reshan easier. He was learning so much in these days. Knowledge that, in the wrong hands, could be dangerous.
Before resuming his work, however, he went back through the book, flipping through the text, reading the raw ancient Gersallian and wondering whether it would be better if he was right or wrong…
And there it was.
"Swev'a," he murmured, reading the text. The context soon told him what it meant, a term for one with active swevyra. Such an interesting term, displaying how much had changed in Gersallian thinking since that era. The idea of such a word existing… Just to double-check his translations he went back to Gartanam's guide.
Yes, there it was. Swev'a. The possession of sensitivity to the Flow of Life, but with a word that divorced such sensitivity from any connection to the Light, or even darkness for that matter.
And this mysterious woman had spoken it. What did that mean? What kind of omen was that?
Ledosh shook his head. He could consider that mystery at another time. He still had so much translation work ahead of him…
It wasn't long after their return to the repository that Lucy felt Geordi's immense displeasure at finding something from the debris. "Well, I'll be," he muttered. "Maybe that thief was right."
From their place at another set of scanners, Lucy and Tra'dur turned their attention to Geordi. So did Garrus, who was double-checking the inventory for C-Sec. "What did you find?" asked Garrus.
"This debris… it's not just giving off that EM field," said Geordi. "I've been testing some of my ocular implants' wavelength functions. They're also giving off a light photonic pulse and emissions in several other bands and wavelengths. It's not as powerful as the EM field, but that might be intentional. It's certainly harder to detect."
"And how many of those can interfere with sentient brains?" asked Tra'dur.
"We will have to consult with Doctor Crusher to give a definite answer," replied Data. "But most of these emissions are theoretically capable of affecting or interfering with neuro-electrical patterns in many species. I would theorize that this effect was intended to maximize the possibility of such an interaction with numerous forms of brain patterns."
"So it could indoctrinate anything the Reaper encountered," Lucy remarked grimly.
Garrus' question was more to the point. "And can we block them?"
"Maybe if we could build an isolation field capable of blocking every kind of emission," said Geordi. "But that would include blocking light, so we wouldn't be able to see anything. And a field like that… well, I'm not sure we have something that can do it. At least not practically."
"Then that lady was right about what we need to do," Lucy said. "We should destroy them."
"I'm afraid it's not that simple," Garrus lamented. "The Council will have to make that call. And they're not going to make it quickly. Valern still wants to study the debris, for starters, and Sparatus seems to have decided Saren and the Geth made this all up."
"He's an idiot," Tra'dur hissed.
"He's also the Turian member of the Council, and so represents the Council's military power," Garrus said. "Between him and Valern, don't expect any decision on this quickly."
"And in the meantime, this stuff is just sitting here, slowly exposing everyone to the indoctrination effect," Lucy said. "We've had enough exposure ourselves lately. We should probably leave."
"Now that we know this much, I have to agree," said Geordi.
"That's your call. I'll inform C-Sec of what you've found. From outside."
With everyone in agreement they all went for the exit. After they stepped out into the streets of the Ward, Garrus' omnitool came to life. He tapped at it and a screen showing Bailey popped up. "Have the repository sealed, Bailey, and inform the Council we've found evidence that these things aren't going to be contained by the fields we're using, or any field."
"Roger that," was the response.
After everything that happened over the course of the day, Robert appreciated the quiet meal he was enjoying with Zack in Zack's apartment. It was a cozy place to live, he decided, although pricey given what Zack quoted as the monthly rent.
The place would have looked more cozy if it wasn't in the state it was in. Zack's bags were mostly packed. The next day they would all be departing on the Enterprise, which would rendezvous with the Koenig before jumping for S5T3. The Koenig would in turn take them home just in time for the Aurora's return to active service.
Finishing that packing would be their chore after dinner. For now, though, they were enjoying a good meal, an expensive one. "It's my last per diem, so why not splurge?" Zack chuckled as he cut loose another piece of steak.
Robert finished chewing on his. "Why not indeed. Although I'd hate to know how much this cost?"
"Well, ignoring relative costs and such… this is basically about thirty bucks a pound out here. Basically."
Robert shook his head. "Damn."
"Well, it's grass-fed. From Earth. Argentinian I think. Some of the colonies have cheaper beef. But I've heard stories that letting the cattle eat non-Earth grass makes the taste funny, so what the hell?" Zack drank from a glass of orange juice, authentic, another luxury.
Robert did the same, although his drink was a soda. "Looking forward to returning to the Koenig?"
"I can taste Hargert's cooking already," Zack answered. He grinned. "Well, not literally…"
Robert chuckled at the joke. "With you coming back… that's everyone. We'll all be back together for the first time since…"
"...since we saw you off to Gersal," said Zack. "Or since we left Ys'talla to drop you and Meridina off at Minbar."
"It's been, what, ten months?"
"Just about." Zack sighed. "It'll be nice to have everyone back together, but let's face it… it's still not back to what we used to call normal."
Robert nodded in agreement. "Yeah. Julia's captaining now, Meridina's XO, I'm a special operative answering to the President and Lucy's on my team…"
"...and I'm losing Ap," said Zack. "He's getting his own ship."
"Good for him," said Robert. "But he'll be missed."
"Yeah, he will." Zack scooped his spoon into a pile of mashed potatoes. "I guess things always change."
"That's life," Robert murmured. "Things always change."
They quietly finished their meal. When the were done Robert eyed what was left to pack up and sighed. "We might as well finish it now," he said. "Then we can just sit and relax."
"Are you crashing here tonight?" Zack asked.
"Nah. Still have a night available over at Tulara Tower, and I might as well use it," replied Robert. "As soon as I leave here I'm heading back there to get some sleep. I didn't bring much, so there's not much to pack."
"Lucky you." Zack smirked in amusement. "Anyway…"
He stopped speaking when he noticed Robert look to the door with an intent look. Moments later the buzzer sounded. Robert stepped forward to open the door. When it slid open, Garrus walked in. His time on the Citadel gave Zack just enough exposure to Turians that he knew something was wrong.
Garrus eyed Robert. "I… thought you should hear this from me. We just received word from the Traverse. The Koenig picked up a distress call and…"
"She's dead," Robert murmured hoarsely.
Garrus gave him a knowing look.
Robert swallowed as his face continued to pale. "That's… that's what I felt. That was the loss…"
"What?" Zack was clearly confused. "What loss? Who's dead?"
"Jen," Robert said with a pained voice. "Commander Shepard. She's dead."
Lucy got the news from Robert just before she left Tulara Tower, her features hidden by the hood of her cloak. It at least gave her an excuse to be away. Shepard had been a comrade and even a friend. Maybe not as much as she was with Robert, given his time on the Normandy, but still…
Her thoughts wandered to Shepard's stay on the Aurora. Those training missions and simulations, all the times Shepard and Worf caused her to "die" in the sims by throwing curveballs at the teams. The meal they'd had in the Lookout on the trip to Babylon-5. The desperate fighting on Gamma Piratus. And then there was Germania. To survive all of that and die out there…
Her thoughts kept going until Lucy arrived at her destination. The debris repository was quiet. Whatever the Council was deciding, at least C-Sec was honoring the stay away order. For now…
Lucy's hand went to the pack she was keeping under her cloak. This wouldn't be as clean as what Yellow or whomever she was did to Ashford's stash. Undoubtedly C-Sec or Geordi or Data would find the leftover nadion particles when her jury-rigged phasers went off and vaporized the debris. Let them. That technology was fairly wide spread after all. The important thing was that the damn debris would be gone. It wouldn't destroy anyone else.
It wouldn't take another mother away from her daughter, as Sovereign had done to Benezia and Liara.
She was almost to the door when bright light flashed within the building. Lucy stepped back, sensing danger, and her omnitool confirmed it a moment later. Nadion emissions.
Someone had beaten her to the punch.
She was about to turn around when she sensed someone approaching her. She whirled about, her hand on her lightsaber and an instant from pulling it free.
"This probably isn't the best place," Garrus said. "Follow me."
Quietly Lucy did just that. She followed Garrus into what came off as a dive bar. A holo-screen showed what looked to be a biotic sport being played. Garrus led her away from that to a corner table where Bailey was sitting. "Did it work?" asked Bailey.
"Like a charm," said Garrus. Lucy could sense his grim satisfaction. But it didn't hide the hurt he felt inside.
"I'm sorry about Shepard," Lucy said. "She was… well, I'm going to miss her."
"We all will," Garrus answered in a low voice. "But we did right by her today. Sovereign's gone for good. No more indoctrination. Not from him anyway."
"You think there's other Reaper tech out there?" Lucy asked.
"I don't doubt it. If the damn things return every fifty thousand years, well… they'll have left something behind," Garrus remarked. "And there's always reports about expedition teams going out of contact around strange alien ruins."
"Probably just tall tales," Bailey noted. "Either way though, that crap was too dangerous. With Yellow gone and Ashford dead, you know damn well the crooks on this station would eventually start going after it."
"Did we get it all?" Lucy asked.
"Well, there may be a few pieces still here or there, but we haven't had a new report in days," Bailey said. "Whatever else they were, Yellow and Ashford may have finished our job for us."
"And good riddance to that crap," Garrus said. An Asari waitress walked up and handed them all drinks, even though Lucy hadn't ordered one. "It's on us," he said. "Nothing heavy."
Lucy looked at it and decided that even if alcoholic, it wouldn't hurt.
"To Shepard," Garrus said, holding his container of liquor up. "This is how you Humans do it, right?" he asked Bailey.
"It is," he said, lifting his own. "To Shepard."
"To Shepard," Lucy agreed, finishing the toast.
On another Earth, in a place hidden from the majority of said Earth's citizens, a lone figure walked into a lab. A Human male of mixed Caucasian and East Asian ancestry, he was clad mostly in black with gold trim, and an elongated vertical hexagon insignia on his shoulders. His eyes were covered by a visor. Said visor scanned the room and all of the scientists present. Some he had personally delivered here. Others were personnel from indigenous allies. All were working on the object in the middle of the room, a piece of a machine, gray-colored with blue lighting.
A tone drew his attention to a nearby holo-projector. Two figures appeared on it. "The piece is secure?" asked one of them, a man with mechanical blue eyes and a cigarette held in two of his fingers, still burning.
"Yes sir," Kai Leng replied, nodding to the Illusive Man. "We are beginning our analysis."
"The Triumvirate wishes to know more," asked the other man in a hoarse, raspy voice. He was bald and decrepit, a corpse stuck in a wheelchair, but there was no denying the intelligent glint in his eyes.
"Of course, Mister Raines," the Illusive Man replied. "Your Centre is going to help Cerberus understand the peculiar nature of this alien technology. And we will be more than happy to share the results. It will require sacrifice, of course, but with it we will gain information needed to protect Humanity."
"We have plenty of test subjects," said Raines. "And we can always acquire more."
"I have no doubt about that."
"I'm ready to return to the Citadel and acquire more debris," said Kai.
"I'm afraid that is no longer a possibility. An unknown player has intervened. All of the remaining debris from the dead Reaper has been destroyed. Secure the project and prepare to report back to Headquarters," the Illusive Man ordered. "I have other assignments for you."
Ship's Log: 13 August 2643; ASV Aurora. Captain Julia Andreys recording. It relieves me to say that despite what happened on the Citadel, not to mention Lieutenant Commander Caterina Delgado's situation, everyone has returned safe and sound to the Aurora. Tomorrow the Aurora returns to active service and everyone on the crew is ready to face what's coming.
It is not as happy an occasion as was planned, however. Everyone knows what happened in the Attican Traverse. The loss of the Normandy, which fought by our side at the Citadel and over Germania, was terrible enough, especially with the casualties to her crew. That one of those casualties was Commander Shepard… I, and everyone else, owe the Commander for what she's done as our ally, as our friend. That she's gone is… it's hard to accept. Hard to grasp.
But that's what we have to do. We still have a job to do, and Shepard would want us to do it. It's the least we can do for her memory.
Some final pieces of paperwork needed completion and filing before the launch, and Julia was hard at work on them when the door chime to her ready office went off. "Come in," she said.
Robert walked in. He was wearing his usual uniform when aboard ship, with the silver branch trim of intelligence and a staff aiguillette. Julia wondered if it was Robert's choice to wear such a uniform. It seemed like a joke given that Paladins were far from being intelligence staff officers. "Hey," she said. "I heard things on the Citadel got crazy."
"I got thrown like a rag doll by possibly the most powerful life force user I've ever met," Robert said. "I never imagined anyone could be that powerful. And that focused."
"Aren't you carrying a lot of power yourself now?" Julia asked.
"Maybe, but I wasn't ready for what Yellow hit me with," Robert admitted. "Raw power often loses to channeled power. Unless the gap is really damn big, and it wasn't."
"Right. Well, I know little about metaphysics. Running starships is my thing." Julia lifted her digital reader.
"Yeah." Robert shook his head. "They still don't know just what did it. The Koenig only found escape pods with the Normandy's surviving crew aboard."
"Who made it?" Julia asked.
"Adams. Chakwas. Ashley and Kaidan. Joker." Robert shook his head. "Pressley's dead. So were a bunch of the normal crewers. They… they never saw it coming, from what I've read."
"She got Joker into the escape pod, but weapons fire cut her off. The last Joker saw of her was an explosion throwing her away from his pod." Robert still felt the grief in his heart. "I don't know how many times she saved my life. Our lives."
"A lot," Julia said. "Back at Gamma Piratus." After a moment of silence she asked, "Are we going to do anything about this? I mean, it's got to be connected to those missing ships. And I can't help but think the Reapers might be involved…"
"I don't know. President Morgan turned me down when I asked for permission to investigate personally. Things are too sensitive for the Alliance right now. The territorial squabbles in S4W8, all of the ships we have hunting down von Platen and his so-called 'Freikorps', the Dominion taking over Cardassia, a reported increase in Multiversal slaver activity…" Robert shook his head. "There's even been reports of the Cylons jumping around on the Gersallian frontier, so we've got ships out there to make sure they don't attack again. And with everything going on, Morgan and Maran say we can't afford to trigger anything with the Terminus Systems."
Julia nodded. She was familiar with these facts herself, but she let Robert repeat them since it was clearly part of him venting frustration with the situation. "I can't fault them. But I can't help but feel that Shepard deserves better."
"She deserves far better," Robert agreed. Having said all he wanted to on the subject, Robert asked, "So what's this I hear about Cat going to see the Doctor?"
"Something about her nightmares. Doctor Tusana said she had a telepathic block on her head," said Julia. "So I let her go to W8R4 to see if she could meet the Doctor again. Since it had to do with her trip with him."
"And she came back with longer hair?"
"And a pulled back muscle from working in a shop in 1969 London," Julia noted drolly. "Apparently she spent over a month living in the past until the Doctor got his TARDIS back or something. And something about how if anyone in that universe sees a statue of a winged angel weeping, they should stare at it until they can beam it into the heart of a star."
"I won't ask."
"Apparently the Doctor's curious to see you," Julia added. "Cat told him how you woke up."
"If we ever see him again, I'll be glad to share," Robert said. "And to thank him. And now, I should probably go finish filing my final draft report on what happened on the Citadel. I want to make sure everything's in the clear if the Citadel Council decides to try and blame us for all of that Sovereign debris being destroyed."
"Have fun," Julia remarked. "I'll be here doing paperwork as always."
In the privacy of her quarters, Cat sat at her desk. An icon on her computer display there showed it was ready to accept dictation, a video message. The recipient field was labeled "Lt. Violeta Arterria, Navigation Officer, ASV Huáscar".
Cat wasn't quite sure what she was going to say. For the second time in, well, a year, she had to re-adjust herself to living on the Aurora. It wouldn't be as hard this time, given she was only gone for a month instead of nearly a year, but this time she didn't have Violeta. Sure, she had the others, but that was… different from having someone like Violeta. Even Angel's tightest hug didn't have quite the same reassurance Cat felt at Vee's embrace.
"Hey Vee," she said. "Uh… I know you're busy getting ready for the launch, so I don't expect a reply to this for a while. I just… I need to get something off my chest."
"Those nightmares… I found out about them, Vee. They were repressed memories from my time with the Doctor. While we were traveling, we… we found the Aurora. At least, what was left of it, what was left of us. It… it was from somewhere in the future, and our uniforms were different and everything, but…" Cat tried and failed to stop the tears. "I saw everyone dead, Vee. Jarod. Nick. Julia. My sister. Even me. We'd been killed. The Aurora was a wrecked derelict on course to crash into an inhabited planet. I'm not sure how it happened, I just… I…" She swallowed. "...maybe I should've just asked the Doctor to seal away those memories again, tighter, so they wouldn't come back. I've had a few weeks to get used to the memories but… it's just so weird coming back and seeing everyone and knowing, I mean, actually seeing how we could die out here."
"The Doctor says it's not fated or anything. It was a 'bubble of possibility', a 'might-be' caused by some kind of exotic dimensional effect, probably involving a failed interuniversal jump or something. So this doesn't have to be how we end up. But it was so real to see it. And it reminds me of how dangerous it is out here, for both of us."
With warm tears still flowing down her eyes, the memory of her dead sister slumped over the tactical station in her mind, Cat swallowed and drummed her fingers on the desk briefly. "I haven't told any of them about it. Not even Angel. How could I? How could I explain what I've seen? And… and what good would it do, Vee? I'd just make them worry too, and it's not like we don't already know we could die. We almost died over Germania, and at the Citadel. We could've died over Tira, or when those automated Shadow ships attacked us last year… what's the point of telling anyone something that we already know?" As she spoke, Cat let the argument play out in her head. The outcome was the same as before: there was no point in telling them.
"I miss you. I… I want you back already, even if I know this is better for you. And… there's always going to be a part of me that loves you, I think. Maybe, maybe if things go certain ways, maybe we'll be together again anyway. I don't know… I just want you to know how I feel, in case that might-be happens, or something else like it. Goodbye, Vee, and good luck on the Huáscar." Caterina drew in a breath and, with it, a sniffle. "End message."
The computer verified it was no longer recording. The text showed it was ready to transmit it to Violate, a universe away right now, getting ready for her new assignment. Off to start a new chapter in her life, with a new crew, different adventures… maybe even someone else for her to care for, to be with, now that she was away from Cat.
Whatever happened, Cat hoped that Violeta would be happy. After everything they'd shared, she couldn't help but feel that way.
Which was why she said, "Computer, delete that entire message."
It obeyed. The prompt to record a new one came up. Cat tapped a key to do so.
"Vee, I know you're busy with the launch…" This time she said nothing about the repressed memory, only repeating how she felt about Vee, and ending, again, with "Goodbye, Vee, and good luck, to you and the other crew of the Huáscar."
This time, she hit the key to transmit.
With that done, Cat finished undressing and went to bed. She had work to do tomorrow.
With Martha enjoying a relaxing sleep in an opulent resort's finest suite, the Doctor returned to the TARDIS. Without delay he went into the heart of his machine, past the shard of the Eye of Harmony that fueled the ship, and into his engine room.
In one part of the engine room was a non-functional piece. A part that hadn't been attached for, to his perspective, centuries.
Despite that, re-attaching it was quite easy, and the checks to make sure it worked? Even easier. He returned to his control room and started the flight mode. The TARDIS rocketed into space. Only there, once he was a safe distance away, did the Doctor initialize his engines.
For the first time in a long time, a monitor display showed flowing data showed up on his displays. And when it was over…
The Doctor stepped out of the TARDIS and into an office. It was opulent in a way that oozed arrogant power, but alleviated by the touch of personal photos along the walls. He glanced toward one showing the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Another had Mt. Kilimanjaro. Once he'd taken in the sight he looked toward the office desk in front of him and the figure sitting there, sitting back in repose with a glass of amber-colored fluid - likely alcoholic - in his hand. "Well," said the man with sky-blue eyes, his dark hair well-combed, and a nice suit. "It's been a long time since I heard that." Those sky blue eyes were directed right at the Doctor's own eyes.
"So I imagine." The Doctor smiled thinly. "You're looking awfully good for a man of your age, Sidney."
Sidney Hank smiled and shrugged. "Healthy living, Doctor. Nice new face. I see you're not going for scarves and curly hair anymore?"
"Ah, grew out of that look a few regenerations ago," the Doctor replied flippantly.
"Do you still offer candy to people?"
"Not since I had that face."
"Ah." Sidney set the glass down. "A shame. Swenya always loved those jellybabies you'd offer."
"That she did."
"So. You're here now." Sidney laid his hands on the desk. "Traveling to other universes again. What are your people going to say to that?"
"Nothing." The Doctor's expression blanked out, save for the distant pain in his eyes. "They're gone."
Sidney blinked. "What?"
"The Time Lords are extinct," the Doctor said. "Wiped out. All except for me."
For a moment Sidney became very quiet. He finally leaned forward in his seat. "My condolences," he said, and both men knew every syllable was sincere.
"Thank you." The Doctor took a step closer. "But that's not why I'm here."
"You've met the Aurora crew," Sidney said. When the Doctor nodded once Sidney sighed. "We knew this day was coming. They warned us it would come."
"Have you given it to them?" the Doctor asked pointedly.
Sidney pursed his lips for a moment before shaking his head. "Not yet," he admitted.
"Because I'm not sure it's time yet," Sidney said. "Besides, I have other opinions to consider beside your's. If I hand it over and she thinks it's too early, she's going to cause trouble."
"Oh?" The Doctor narrowed his eyes. "You mean…"
"The Neanderthal," Sidney said, chortling a little at the pet nickname. "She's at it again, you know. Got her own damn empire. So to speak. If not for the Bragulans it'd be our universe's most absolute totalitarian state."
"You didn't stop her?" asked the Doctor, with a tone that was mildly accusing.
Sidney leveled a look at him. "As much as I prefer my so-called rivals to believe otherwise, Doctor, I am very much a Human being. A very long-lived one, yes, and with extensive modifications, but still technically mortal. How am I supposed to stop a thing like her from doing anything she likes? Not to mention all of the Pretenders at her beck and call and that damned Sith assassin. I've only got one Pretender on my payroll."
The Doctor frowned. "And what about…"
"She's gone," Sidney said. There was a touch of grief in his voice. "Ascended or whatever you want to call it. It's a long story that I don't want to get into. Why else do you think I came out all this way?"
At that news the Doctor gained a distant look. "She was your universe's best hope for something better."
"Now there's, well…" Sidney let the sentence trail off. "So you came all of this way to harangue me about that damned relic?"
"You and I both know the stakes," said the Doctor. "This has to be done right or the damage…"
"...will be incalculable, I know," Sidney growled. "I'm damn well aware of the consequences if the Circle is broken, Doctor. That's why I'm being careful about this. If I give it to them before I'm supposed to…" With frustration Sidney smacked his hand on the table.
"Don't wait too long. You may not have it," the Doctor warned.
Sidney narrowed his eyes. "What are you saying?"
"I've seen what their future might hold," the Doctor remarked. "I've seen them fail against the Darkness, Sidney. I don't know the details of how, but I know it might happen, and it won't be too long from now. And we both know the consequences if that possibility comes true."
"Yeah, we do." Sidney picked up his brandy glass and drank from it again. When he was done he looked at the Doctor again. "Thanks for stopping by. And I have to say, I like the look. You look better when you're taller."
"And your new body looks rather good. Really going for the cultured, powerful tycoon look now, are you?"
"If the shoe fits…"
"Right." The Doctor turned back to the TARDIS and stepped in. Just before closing the door he looked back. "We already had one close call, Sidney. Don't wait too long."
His only reply was a mute nod. The Doctor closed the TARDIS door.
Sidney was pouring another glass of brandy as the TARDIS dematerialized. After it was gone he took another long drink from it. His body's modifications, and long practice, allowed him to endure the sensation. When the drink was done he considered his level of inebriation and sent the mental command to the gland in his brain to secrete the right amount of de-toxicant to bring him to just the right point of sobriety for what came next.
"Things are progressing, I see," said a computerized male voice, speaking from one of the many speaker modules hidden in the office and, indeed, across the Villa Straylight. "The Doctor himself comes to visit. I suppose we should be happy he didn't scold you for that Xel'Naga artifact on the mantle." When Sidney didn't respond with a smile at the attempted humor Dionysus, his corporation-running CI (computational intelligence) and the electronic repository of millennia of Sidney's memories continued to speak. "It has been a long while since you were this inebriated. I believe the last time was when President Sinclair betrayed you on the Senate reform bill."
"I've got more important things on my mind than Vicki's two-faced bitchiness and hunger for power," Sidney grumbled. "Bring the hyperwave transceiver online."
"Really, why would… oh. You're going to…"
"Yeah. I have a call to make." Sidney refilled his brandy yet again. "It's time for me and the Neanderthal to have a talk…"
The mess hall of the Koenig was standing room only, as the only space in the ship big enough for everyone on the crew to attend the ceremony. Officers from the Aurora attended as well, standing among the Koenig officers. Everyone was in normal duty uniform save two figures; Will Atreiad and Zachary Carrey, who for the occasion were in the dress uniforms and stood out due to the white color among black uniforms. They were standing at a makeshift podium at the far wall of the mess near the replicator bank. Around the two conversation was quiet as various attendees spoke.
Creighton Apley's voice spoke up. "Attention to orders." The order gave everyone the signal to cease speaking and focus their attention on the podium.
Once everyone's attention was given, Will lifted a digital reader and read from it. "'To Commander William Atreiad, Commanding Officer ASV Koenig, 13 August 2643 Alliance Standard Time. You are hereby requested and required to relinquish command of your vessel to Commander Zachary Carrey as of this date. Signed Admiral Tashan Tiyari, Alliance Stellar Navy Personnel Command.'" Will lowered the reader and looked over everyone. "As my final words as your Commanding Officer, I wish everyone the best. The Koenig and her crew have proven to me time and time again how deserved your reputation is among the fleet. May the Lords bless and aid you wherever you go." He swallowed. "Computer, this is Commander Atreiad. Transfer all command functions to Commander Zachary Carrey, authorization code Atreiad Delta-Nine-Two-Tango."
"Code confirmed. ASV Koenig is now under the command of Commander Zachary Carrey," the computer's feminine voice replied.
Zack smiled at hearing those words, as did many of those he called friends and comrades. He extended his hand to Will. "Thank you for taking care of my people and their ship, Commander," he said warmly. "I think I speak for everyone when I say we wish you the best on the Huáscar."
Applause was the response, an affirmation of Zack's remark.
"Thank you, Commander," Will said in reply. He accepted Zack's hand in a hand shake of mutual respect. "You turned this crew into one of the best attacker crews in the Alliance. I'm grateful of the opportunity I was given to lead them."
With the mutual compliments done, Zack returned to the script. "I relieve you, sir."
"I stand relieved."
Once Will stepped away, Zack stepped up to the podium and looked to his crew. "Hello everyone. It's good to be back." There was applause at that. Zack waited for them to die down. "A lot's happened since I relinquished my command of the Koenig. I'm grateful that you came through your trials since then under the superb leadership of Commander Apley and Commander Atreiad, whom I again give my best wishes for their new postings. And I extend to same to Lieutenant Poniatowska, whose last name I am finally using properly."
There were titters of laughter at that, not the least from Ana herself, for the prior mistake of referring to her by the masculine "Poniatowski".
"Things are always changing, it seems," Zack said. "For our ship and for the Aurora. Nothing's like it was. Some of our friends, our comrades, are going on to new and bigger things. Others have had to deal with what our jobs have thrown their way." At that he looked briefly to Tom. His friend nodded in reply. "I've had to adjust to things too. To loss. To things I've learned about myself. About my flaws. I never said this before I left, so I'm saying it now: I apologize for my behavior earlier this year. I put this ship, this crew, at risk because I was too wrapped up in my own pain. I humbly ask for your forgiveness." A number of nods and other appreciative gestures indicated it was given. "And I thank you for giving me renewed trust. Together, we're going to continue to make the Koenig the best damn attacker in the Stellar Navy."
The reply to that was cheers.
"Again, thank you, everyone," Zack said, to conclude his remarks. "You are all dismissed."
Some departed at that moment. Others began to have conversations with each other. Zack was intercepted by Tom first, who gave him a one-armed hug. Julia's hug came next, and Cat's, until everyone had given at least a partial embrace and, from Scotty, a hearty, "Welcome back, lad. It's good t' have ye home."
"Thank you, Scotty," Zack answered.
"Some things have changed," Robert noted, smiling. "But at least we're back together."
"Right. And we're staying that way," Tom declared. He looked to Leo. "Give me the techie arm, Leo. I'm not leaving everyone for the therapy."
"It's your choice," Leo replied. "I'll get the preliminary exam scheduled. Tomorrow evening, probably."
"I'll be there."
"So Tom's going to have a robot arm?" asked Cat. "Maybe one of those cool ones with tool attachments?"
"There aren't many that do," said Leo, grinning at her. "Odds are I'll only be allowed to give Tom a basic prosthetic."
"It won't be basic when I'm through with it," Tom announced, smirking.
Leo sighed. "Somehow I feel like I'm going to be seeing an awful lot of you in the medbay now…"
To that, everyone laughed.
The next day everyone did their routines up until the 1200 hour mark. At that time the Aurora crew was assembled on the bridge. Leo and Scotty, Zack and the remaining Koenig command officers, the ship's fighter commander Patrice Laurent, the security chief Lieutenant Commander Phryne Richmond and the Marine Commander of Troops Major Gabriel Anders, Robert and Lucy… all found a spot to sit or stand. Tra'dur and Talara found a corner as well, near Robert and Lucy.
Julia came from her ready office at 1200 exactly and went to her command chair. Meridina met her while Julia gave everyone a knowing look and smile. "All departments report ready, Captain," said Meridina. "All personnel are aboard, all provisions and equipment loaded."
"Very good, Commander." Julia didn't set just yet. She turned in a slow circle, taking in the sight of everyone. Jarod and Locarno were turned in their seats to face her at the center of the bridge. All eyes were indeed on her. "Well, everyone, it's been a crazy year so far, and it might get crazier. But I think we're ready for it. After all of this time, we're back together. Maybe doing different jobs now…" She glanced to Robert and Lucy, who nodded. "...but I think you'll agree that doesn't matter. The important part is that we're all here again and whatever the Multiverse has in store for us, we'll face it together. Right?"
"Right!" Cat shouted, prompting others to do the same.
"Then let's get out there." Julia took her command seat. "Mister Scott?"
"My wee bairns are ready an' waitin', Captain," Scotty assured her. "Give th' order an' we'll give ye th' power ye need."
"Well then, that's good to hear." Julia smiled and faced Locarno next. "Mister Locarno, prepare thrusters. Mister Jarod…"
"...we're on with Fleet Base Traffic Control.," he said.
"Traffic Control, this is the Aurora," Julia said happily. "We're ready to depart."
A moment later an Alakin voice replied, "We are opening dock doors now, Aurora."
"Thrusters, Mister Locarno," Julia said.
Locarno's fingers keyed said system. The thrusters accelerated the kilometer-long starship gently, pushing her at a steady pace toward the opening double door. The lights of the dock illuminated the azure hull of the Aurora. From several ports her crew watched their ship, repaired and restored, depart, all enjoying the view.
Once the Aurora was clear Locarno keyed the impulsor drives. The ship's acceleration rate rose sharply. Her inertial dampening fields powered up fully, protecting the crew from the high G-forces of the impulse acceleration as she flew into Earth orbit and then departed the same. Around her were more vessels, representing species and nations from across the Multiverse, going about their business over the Earth of Universe L2M1.
In no time at all they achieved the required distance for Julia's next order. "Let's check on the repair teams' handiwork," Julia said. "Mister Locarno, pick a course. Time for our ship to stretch her legs."
As he put in the course, Julia let her smile grow. While the Multiverse could be dangerous, the war was over. The Alliance had peace again. And best of all, her friends, her family, were back together after nearly a year apart.
So let the Multiverse throw what it could at them. It always had. And they'd always come through it, sometimes bloodied, sometimes battered… but always alive and triumphant.
And she had faith - faith in herself, faith in those she loved, in those she commanded - that this would not change.
"Course laid in, Captain," said Locarno.
Her reply was short and to the point.
With a flash of her four great nacelles, the Starship Aurora jumped to warp speed and made her return to the Undiscovered Frontier.