The Jeaxian and Miqo'te guards of the M'nhra Clan Trading Company warehouse were well-armed, well enough that the local security forces of the independent Miqo'te colony T'Chana always gave the facility a wide berth. They had extra incentive given that the operation was one of many for a powerful warlord of the Jeaxian statelets, Uharas avam Tithsa. Tithsa's past responses to police interfering in his operations had been suitably brutal to encourage the forces of the law to stay away.
So it was a great shock to the assembled when the door was ripped from its hinges. Through the door came Robert Dale and Lucy Lucero, in Gersallian robes and body armor, with a green and blue lightsaber blade flashing to life in the hands of each.
The guards brought their weapons up just to be jolted by a powerful blast through the ceiling. Combat-armed Alliance Marines dropped down on zip lines. More blasted through a side door, including in their number a squad of Marines in full power armor. Major Gabriel Anders lifted a rifle and put a shot between the three eyes of the biggest of the Jeaxians. The other Marines opened up as well while Lucy and Robert rushed ahead, slashing with their weapons while using their abilities to their fullest.
When the dust settled, the remaining defenders were zip-tied and under control. The Marines began an inspection of the crates around them. Many had weapons, including the distinctive disruptor rifles of the defeated Nazi Reich of Universe S4W8.
Lucy's expression hardened when she opened another crate and found a stasis crate inside. Within were two Miqo'te children, a male and a female, who were about the age of four in Human terms. Each wore a collar. Another crate revealed an adolescent Dorei of teal coloration.
With that sight Robert looked back to the line of guards. "You cooperate, you get leniency," he said. "Don't cooperate, we give you over to the Miqo'te and the Dorei for supporting slavery."
"You do not make us fear, Human," one Jeaxian rumbled. "You are a weakling. Why should we fear those who cannot defend their own worlds?"
"Oh, but we did, and we can," Robert retorted. The cold tone of his voice brought Lucy's concerned attention. "We've tracked the SS shipment to New Liberty through this warehouse. Tell us what you know."
"I will not betray Lord Tithsa," replied the Jeaxian. "You do not…"
Robert's voice dropped to a cold hiss. "Tithsa isn't here. I am." He swept his gaze down at the others. "Do any of you want to try my patience further?"
It was, perhaps, something in his voice. Something in his eyes. Something that told them this man, with all of these powers, was a desperate man, and like all desperate men, would be willing to do anything.
So they talked.
The orbital space over New Liberty was nearly clear of debris from the efforts of the Quarians. The broken remains of the ships lost to the SS attack were treated carefully, the dead within collected for return to their homes. The process was still underway below as the thousands of dead were identified and prepared for burial.
Among the ships in orbit the Starship Aurora kept her place. Work crews were steadily laboring to repair the battle damage she'd endured, trying to restore her warp power and other systems.
In the Conference Lounge off of the bridge, the staff officers of the Aurora were seated. There was a depressive air to them that none could avoid noticing. A weight on their spirits, not just from the attack on the colony they'd founded, but for the missing figure of their captain. In Julia's place sat Meridina.
On the main screen Admiral Maran spoke to him from his office in Alliance Defense Command, the six-towered structure that stood on the north bank of the Columbia River across from the Alliance capital in Portland. "The death toll on Gersal is still being counted," he informed them quietly. "Currently we expect it to reach at least five million. Proportionally speaking, I am aware that New Liberty suffered greater loss."
"Twenty thousand and nine hundred fifty-three dead," Jarod clarified. "Estimates are as high as twenty-five thousand when you account for vaporizations."
"The death toll on Gersal would have been higher if they didn't manage to get some of their shields going," Jarod added. "We should feel lucky for that.
"We do." Maran's expression slipped briefly. He was clearly exhausted, emotionally and physically. "We've moved fleet units to protect all major worlds. The reactivation of the reserve fleet we established after the war is proceeding. In time we will be able to protect all of our key systems from surprise attacks. And an overhaul of the communication system is being implemented to prevent another failure."
"And the Nazis?" asked Tom Barnes. "What will we do to pay them back for this?"
"Intelligence efforts are still ongoing. When we locate a central base, the fleet will go and wipe it out. I suspect it will be some time before we can finish annihilating them, however," Maran noted. "They will be a persistent threat for years with their current capability. How are your repairs proceeding?"
"We're gettin' there, Admiral" Scotty answered. "Warp power should be up soon."
"Alert me when you're ready to depart. On a related matter… Commander Meridina, as of this moment, you are Captain of the Aurora. Depending on matters here in Portland, we will have a new captain out to you in a week or so."
"A new Captain?" asked Locarno.
"I am afraid Commander Meridina's current command experience does not justify a promotion, at least according to the Promotion Board," Maran said.
"You mean Davies would have an epic hissy fit if Meridina got to be a captain," groused Angel.
"It is alright," Meridina remarked. "If we can recover Captain Andreys first…"
"Personnel is listing her as missing in action and presumed dead," Maran informed them.
"But, we've got no proof she's dead," Cat protested. "And if she's alive…"
"I'm told the vaporization issue is undetermined," Maran said. "And given their proclivities during the attack, it is considered likely she was killed resisting, whatever orders to capture they may have had. That is the current determination of Personnel on the matter. Either way, you do have my condolences. Captain Andreys was proving herself to be one of our best. The Alliance will mourn her loss."
"She's not dead," Angel insisted. "They have her, and we need to find her."
"Given their reputation, Lieutenant, I sincerely hope not. For her sake."
The cold metal of the chair was uncomfortable against the bare skin of Julia's arms and shoulders. Bands over her wrists and ankles chafed the skin there, rubbing it raw from when she would press against them.
She couldn't help but do so. They were too strong for her, but it was an inevitable consequence of the writhing from the spasms shooting through her body.
Standing about five meters in front of her, Erik Fassbinder gave her a delighted look with his unnatural yellow eyes. "One would think you would grow tired of this," he said. "That you would start to cooperate."
Her green eyes flashed defiantly at him despite the lingering pain in her body. "Andreys, Julia Megan," she replied, her voice hoarse. "Captain. Serial Number Bravo Zero Zero Zero Three One Zero One Hotel One Echo Four."
Fassbinder's face curled into a manic little smile. His hands came up and purple-tinged lightning shot from them. The lightning enveloped Julia with pain, an agony that seemed to reach from her flesh right into her soul.
She couldn't hold back the scream.
"In Enemy Hands"
With the aid of other ships, the Jayhawk returned to the Aurora swiftly once the mission to T'Chana was complete. Once they were back, Robert, Lucy, and Anders went straight to the conference lounge to meet with most of the others. Scotty and Locarno were not in attendance, as the engineering teams were still incredibly busy, and Locarno remained for the bridge watch.
"We know how they beat our customs scanners on New Liberty," Lucy revealed to the others. "They smuggled the SS operatives and their weapons in on sensor-shielded cargo containers layered with legitimate goods to fool visual inspection."
"We should relay this data to customs authorities. Greater care will be necessary," noted Meridina.
"Did you find out where their base is? Where they might be coming from?"
It was clear the answer was no. Robert confirmed it. "They got the shipments through another neutral world in N2S7. We couldn't track them past it."
"So it's a dead end," Cat sighed. She was taking it as bad as the others.
"They're not stupid," Angel grumbled. "They knew we'd look."
"A usual tactic," Jarod noted. "We have to face the likelihood that the SS aren't based in any universe we are familiar with. Hunting them down will be like finding a needle in a haystack the size of a solar system."
"I don't care," Robert insisted. "We don't give up. They have Julia, and we're getting her back."
"The Alliance is listing her as killed," Jarod said.
"I know. And I understand it. But they're wrong," Robert insisted. "They took her. And we're getting her back. It's just that simple." I made a promise… Seeing their expressions, Robert forced himself into a new conversation line. "Did Dr. Meier and the others manage to get a ship?"
"Beth pulled some strings with Defense Command," said Jarod. "The Maimonides is taking them back."
"Right. Nasira's new ship. I'm sorry I missed her." Robert noticed the concerned looks of the others, especially Meridina, and sighed. "I… thank you for helping with this. I know you're all busy trying to get the ship back into working order after the attack."
"You don't need to thank us," Leo said. "We're here if you need us, like always."
"I know. If you'll excuse me, I need to go file my report to Admiral Maran." Robert got up and departed.
Soon the others did as well, save Lucy and Meridina. Lucy, like the others, couldn't help but notice the fourth gold strip on Meridina's collar. "So you're Captain now," she said.
"Temporarily," Meridina answered. "Admiral Maran does not believe I will be given the permanent promotion from the Board. He is looking into a new Captain to assume command soon."
"That's going to go over really well," Lucy mumbled. It would, of course, not go over well at all. Unless someone like Li Ming-Chung or Madeline Laurent got the command.
"Robert concerns me," Meridina said. "I can feel the weight pressing on his being, on his swevyra. I worry that his worry for Julia may drive him toward darkness."
"Tell me about it." Lucy thought back to that warehouse on T'Chana. Robert had been cold and quiet and utterly terrifying in interrogating the guards there. She hadn't sensed any compulsion, of course, but she remembered their fear they'd felt at being confronted by him. And his emotions, the desperate need he had to get information… "He got a little intense on T'Chana."
Meridina nodded in acknowledgement. "His emotions are raw. I have never felt him in this state. He seems unbalanced."
"Robert and Julia… well, you know how they are. They've been together since they were toddlers. They grew up in each other's company to the extent that everyone considers them inseparable. That kind of bond, it can be pretty powerful. I can even feel it, like their souls aren't entirely separate."
"I have sensed the same. But Robert must be cautious. And in the end, he may have to accept she is gone. Or he could become something terrible."
"I'll keep an eye on him," Lucy promised, knowing full well what Meridina was afraid of.
In his quarters Robert silently read over the reports from Portland. The hunt for the SS base was on, but they had so little to go on. The SS had done an excellent job in covering their tracks when they abandoned Himmlerwelt and flew off to God knew where. All of the leads gleaned from M'nhra went nowhere, it seemed.
He stopped reading and closed his eyes. Tears of fear and frustration welled in them. She was out there. He could feel it. Julia was alive and she needed him to find her, to get her away from Fassbinder.
It's your fault, a part of him said. You could have helped her first! You could have stopped them from taking her!
His mind flashed back over two years. The eve of the war, when they'd just rescued the last surviving Jews of Universe S4W8. Julia had given him a dressing down for staying too long under the guns of the Eichmann, for refusing to accept sometimes people had to be left behind. She'd told him that if it came down to her or the ship, she'd want to be left behind.
The words came back as if they'd been spoken yesterday.
"If that day ever comes, Robby... if you ever have to leave me behind to save everyone else, and the bad guys take me and... start hurting me… I want you to forgive yourself."
"I won't be able to."
"Let me finish. Forgive yourself. Focus on your job. Because I won't give them a thing. And no matter what they do to me, I'll know one thing. I'll know you're coming for me, okay? That you're going to save me. Just as I'd save you. Because we'd all do that for each other."
I'm coming, Julie, was his response to the memory.
His personal system's controls lit up with a green light, showing an incoming communication. He checked and saw that it was on an encoded frequency. He tapped the key, wondering who it was.
The person that appeared surprised him. Indeed, it was someone he'd only met once, and not on the best terms. His called was an older man, dark-hair just turning gray, clad in a dark uniform with just one adornment on it: a brass pin with the Greek letter Psi.
"Good day, Captain Dale," said Alfred Bester, the most notorious of the Earth Alliance's Psi Cops. "You and I need to talk."
After more hours spent alone in the dark, still strapped to the cold metal chair, Julia was finally released from the confinement. Two medium-sized men in SS suits grabbed her arms and roughly bound her wrists with a strip of zipcord. One barked at her to follow, although with their grips on her arms they didn't give her much choice.
She was brought to an SS shuttle. The Reich craft had a wide-winged design, the warp nacelles at the extent of the wings and lifted slightly above the main body of the shuttle. Inside a pilot was already in a seat. Fassbinder was in a black SS uniform as before. Julia felt distinctly underdressed in her gym clothing. The tank top she wore was still damp from sweat.
Fassbinder grinned at her, but said nothing as the pilot confirmed launch checks. The shuttle lifted off and descended toward a planet that looked like a marginal garden world. The seas were more green than blue, it seemed, and the landmass was whiteish when it wasn't brown or dark green.
They descended toward the northern continent. Julia watched the empty space became less so. As they neared the surface, specifically a series of river valleys flanked by rocky ridge lines, the shuttle raced in on one. In the distance a tower was visible. As it drew closer, Julia noticed that the tower was not alone. Spreading out from the tower and linked structures at the center were five more groups of structures that seemed to be based within the soil and ground below, although none were nearly as tall as the central tower. They were laid out in a pentagon pattern around the central tower, not unlike the secondary towers of Alliance Defense Command in Portland. But the design was unique. Like nothing Julia had ever seen before. It was certainly not of Reich construction.
The shuttle landed at an open area between the central tower and the southwestern section. "Out," Fassbinder instructed. After a moment of refusing to move, Julia prompted them to force her out of the shuttle's rear hatch.
An entrance to the southwestern structures was beyond the shuttle pad. Along the path from the pad to the door, lines of men in SS uniforms were standing at attention.
"Go on, Kapitan," Fassbinder instructed. "Go through the door beyond."
Julia knew it wasn't so easy. At first she refused to move, so Fassbinder pushed her ahead. Sensing she would gain nothing from continued defiance, Julia stepped forward and entered the area between the two lines. She kept a steady pace, steeling herself for what was coming.
It didn't take long at all. One SS man lashed out with a baton, smacking her across the back. A fist flew in and caught her in the stomach. After doubling over for a moment she kept on. A few steps later another baton smacked her in the hip, a fist split her lip, and the attacks of the soldiers lining the way picked up. There was nothing she could do but endure the blows as best as she could, trying to maintain forward progress.
And then a blow came lower than usual. A baton smashed into her knee with enough force to damage the bone. It also knocked her off her stride. She dropped to a knee. A voice barked, "Who said you could stop?!"
At that point all pretense was dropped. More blows rained on Julia. She collapsed to the ground and tried to adopt a fetal position, to protect herself in some way, even with her wrists cuffed behind her back.
But there were too many. Fists and clubs rained on her, joined by shouts and enraged cheers. Muscles burned with pain, skin bruised, bones threatened to break. For a terrible moment Julia wondered if she was going to die here and now.
Then a powerful blow struck her in the head. Everything went dark.
Robert considered the image of Bester on his screen. A year before, Bester tried to capture him and Meridina to turn into lab experiments. Whatever his amended views of Psi Corps since meeting Colin Meier and the others at Tau Atrea, Robert did not have any kind thoughts for Bester. "Mister Bester," he replied. "What can I do for you?"
"Nothing. I, however, can do something for you." Bester kept a quiet expression. His left hand, gripped as always in a fist, was balanced against his open right hand. "To begin with, I have been ordered to apologize for the Kalnit Station situation last year."
"Alright." Robert didn't keep the impatience from his voice.
"I know you've got other things on your mind, so allow me to get to the point," Bester said. "Psi Corps recently raided a slaver vessel aligned with the same people that attacked Tau Atrea. We've obtained intelligence from them, intelligence that confirms the Aristos are trading technology to the SS remnants. They have an alliance forming."
Robert frowned at that. "What's in this intel?"
"We're not sure yet. We just got it ourselves so we've yet to finish analyzing it. But I'm aware of your situation and I'm sending you a copy on an encrypted subchannel."
Robert checked the system and confirmed the incoming subchannel. He directed it into an isolated computer drive. Looking back to Bester he said, "Thank you. I owe you."
"No, you don't," Bester said. "At Tau Atrea you risked your life to protect my telepaths. Your people saved over fifty of them from the Aristo ship. While I may disagree with Doctor Meier's decisions on some matters, he and I do see eye to eye on the matter of the Corps' position toward you. You saved over three hundred of my family members, Captain. As far as I'm concerned, I'm the one in debt, and this is toward that."
Despite Robert's suspicions, there was no denying the genuine feeling in Bester's voice, or the subtle shift in his expression. "You're not used to owing non-telepaths, are you?"
"No, I'm not. I'm not used to cooperating with them either. It's a rather… interesting feeling, I must admit. It's not very easy. The last time I worked with mundanes, Captain, thirty of my people were used as weapons. But you've paid up in advance. I'll forward you any further intelligence on the SS if we acquire it. Good luck finding your friend, Captain. Bester out."
Bester's image disappeared from the screen. Robert turned his attention to the intelligence pouring in. He finally tapped the key on his desk to open a commlink. "Dale to Lucero, Richmond, and Jarod. I need to see you in Science Lab 1 in fifteen minutes."
Sixteen minutes later, the three were watching the data Bester provided flash in code format across a screen on an isolated system. Jarod looked up and nodded. "It's clean," he said.
"I figured it was," Robert remarked. "But with Bester, you can't be too careful."
Lieutenant Commander Phryne Richmond, the ship's Chief of Security, went to another screen and started pouring through the actual data files. "Shipping manifests, vessel IDs, IFF codes, bank accounts," she read off in her high-class Australian accent. Her green eyes read along the flowing papers. "And personal identities. A Lord Karex seems to be the primary link in the chain for extrauniversal Aristo operations. He's listed as a Silicate. I'm not sure what that is."
"They're the least-important of the Aristo castes," Robert said. "According to our intelligence on them, Silicates are responsible for economic matters and trade. Primarily the internal slave trade of the Concord, but also foreign trade with the Allied Worlds of Earth and, to some extent, the Skolians."
"Why would anyone trade with slavers?" Lucy asked, incredulous.
"Because they want to make money," Jarod replied.
"That's not what matters right now," Robert said. "There could be a clue in this intel. The next link in the chain leading us to Julia. We need to find it."
"I'll get Lieutenant Liton and his team on this right away," Richmond promised.
"I'll help," Jarod added.
"So will I, but I'm… well." Lucy sighed. "I'm not sure I like getting intel from a bastard like Bester. We all know he got it by mind-raping people."
"Right now, the important thing is that we have it," Robert said. "However he got it, we need it."
Lucy gave Robert a perturbed look. Jarod looked at him carefully. After a few moments he nodded in understanding. "Yeah. We'll go through it and let you know if we find anything useful."
"Thank you," Robert said before departing, Lucy's eyes watching him the entire time.
An interuniversal jump point over New Liberty drew concerned looks from tactical officers across the system. That concern evaporated when the arriving ship's IFF code registered. The ASV Koenig immediately requested landing clearance from the Aurora. Operations officer Sabiha Neyzi agreed to it, opening the support dock to allow the Koenig to dock.
Zack stepped through the airlock and met Tom and Leo. The look on his face said it all. "How's it going?' he asked immediately. "The search, I mean. Robert's been sketchy with the replies."
"The search is just us right now," Leo said. "The Alliance is listing Julia as missing and presumed dead."
Zack's expression turned stormy. "They're what?" he demanded. "What… why would they?!"
"We're still not sure if the SS vaporized her or ran off with her," Leo replied.
"Don't tell me you believe that for a damn moment," Tom growled. "That bastard Assbinder's been after us for forever. He's taken her and we all damn well know it."
"I'm sure of it too," Leo said. "But Maran's trying to get defenses up across the Alliance. That's what he's focusing on right now."
"I don't give a damn," Zack said, heatedly. "We have to find her, and if the Alliance is going to abandon her, I'm going to Goddamned resign."
Leo flashed him an annoyed look. "I'm not happy with it either," he said. "But the Alliance has a lot on its plate right now, walking away won't get Julia back. Julia would want us to focus on protecting the Alliance."
Given the glare on Zack's face, Leo was certain his point was accepted, but not liked.
In one of the smaller quarters on Deck 6, Meridina stepped into the suite to find Gina Inviere sitting at a work desk. The blond-haired Cylon woman was intent on the two books she'd laid out on the table. Meridina immediately recognized them as the Life of Reshan, and Gartanam's translation guide to Swenya-era Gersallian writing. "Mastrash Ledosh would be pleased to see you continuing his work," Meridina said, fighting back the pain in her heart. She and Gina were both trained by Ledosh, and both felt him struck down by the fallen Mastrash Goras during the attack on the Temple.
"He died for this," she replied. "He believed the key to defeating the Brotherhood and the Inner Circle was in this text."
"What have you found so far?"
Gina looked over one paper of notes. "From what I've seen, the translation guide reveals errors in the text. That the book's text does not completely match the dialect of the time."
"Our people suffered much in that era. More than one language was changed or died out," Meridina pointed out. "This may have been written in an alternate dialect."
"Gartanam's guide suggests differently," Gina said. "Or so Mastrash Ledosh felt. He believed the errors were intentional. Extra characters, extra words."
"As in a code."
"Yes," said Gina. "If he is correct, the first chapters of the book speak of something called 'the Circle', which is vital to the future and the past." Gina set the paper down. "I'm not sure what it means yet."
"We will find out, I promise you that."
Gina nodded and turned her head to face Meridina. "How are you feeling?"
"I am… recovering, I suppose," Meridina replied. "As things are, the crew need me to be strong. I am in command, and everyone has taken a shock."
Gina's expression betrayed her own. "I never imagined the Inner Circle was like that," she said. "They were our leaders. The wisest. They knew God's Plan. But it was all a lie. They weren't wise beings leading the Cylons to a better world, they were… power mad monsters out for revenge. That's all it was in the end. All I suffered for, all the blood on our hands, all for… revenge in some millennia old vendetta."
"I am still wondering how the Brotherhood of Kohbal became involved with the last Humans of our home universe," Meridina admitted. "Or why those same Humans began to worship ancient gods their ancestors hadn't followed in millennia. What were they doing?"
"I'm not sure," Gina said. "Maybe it doesn't matter in the end. The only thing that does is defeating the Brotherhood and the Inner Circle. And if Mastrash Ledosh was right… we need to finish his work."
"For the time being, you can focus on this," Meridina said. "Robert is preoccupied with the SS matter, but Lucy is inquiring about your admission to his team."
"If the Alliance will allow it," Gina said, sighing. "I do not wish to cause him trouble. I can't imagine his superiors being pleased with a Cylon on one of their teams."
"Robert has great leeway in these matters, I am told. And your record since coming to Gersal has been irreproachable. None can deny you stand against the evils committed by your people, Gina."
"Even if they can't, that's not the problem. Trust… it is a fragile thing." Gina glanced back to the books. "I shall resume my work. I know you have much to do. If you need anything, let me know."
"Of course," Meridina answered. "May your swevyra grant you the insight you need." With that said, Meridina departed.
Julia's head still throbbed when she woke up. She was aware of a strange feeling of… weightlessness. Was she in a zero G chamber? A moment's sensation told her no to that. She felt wet. As if suspended in water. But her face was (mostly) dry, and she was breathing.
When Julia opened her eyes, everything took on a greenish tint. She was in a canister of green fluid. Her arms and legs wouldn't move. She glanced toward her sides and downward to see, through the green fluid, her wrists and ankles secured by metal stocks, holding her feet to the bottom of the canister and her wrists to its sides.
She faced forward again. Through the green haze of the fluid she noticed Fassbinder standing outside of the canister, not far from what looked like controls. "You are awake," he said, his voice distorted in her ears. "How do you feel? Wait… an answer is unnecessary. You undoubtedly feel rejuvenated, yes? Stronger than you have been these past days?" She noticed the satisfied smile on his face. "We healed your worst injuries. I cannot afford you dying just yet, you understand. And this remarkable substance did the rest." He walked over to the controls. "We found it in a stasis field of some sort. Three thousand years and the field never lost cohesion. The technology in this city… magnificent. And yes, it is a city, Kapitan. We are unsure of its origins, save that it is not Darglan, merely used by them. But its secrets will be ours soon enough." Fassbinder seemed to fiddle with the controls. "This is a substance that the Darglan listed as 'kohltou'. It is a wondrous biological material with quite potent healing capability. It can stabilize the condition of even the most gravely wounded and even provides needed nutrients to a body. We have also provided you with sustenance. Intravenously, of course. I have no intention to give you even the most basic pleasure of food or drink."
Julia pulled at her restraints, but they did not yield at all. She said nothing.
"Now, you may wonder why I've used such a wonderful healing material on you. The answer is that we have many questions to ask you, Kapitan. In your position, your… special status even as a Captain, you are undoubtedly aware of all sorts of interesting facts that the SS might find useful. Collaborators in the fallen Reich, for instance. Alliance plans. Diplomatic arrangements. Things that it is in your best interest to share. Do you understand?"
Julia's response was immediate. "Andreys, Julia Megan. Captain. Serial Number Bravo Zero Zero Zero Three One Zero One Hotel One Echo Four." She spoke plainly, but there was no mistaking the defiant glimmer in her eyes.
Fassbinder responded with a chuckle. "I am aware of your prisoner of war conventions. The Reich did away with such sentimentality long ago. Whatever it is you wish to hide, we will find it out." Fassbinder's hand went to the control. "There is another aspect about this kohltou you should know about. So you don't get too comfortable." He gave her a grin of sheer, sinister anticipation. "It is very conductive." With that, he twisted the dial.
Electricity coursed through the tank.
Light years and a universe away, Robert was at his work desk, asleep from exhaustion. Suddenly he sat up straight, a scream of pain erupting from his lungs.
Lucy felt Robert's anguish across the ship and raced from Science Lab 1, fueled more by Hargert's Milchkaffee than anything else. Once she made it to Deck 6 and arrived at Robert's quarters, she smacked the chime repeatedly. "Robert!" Robert, I know you're in there, what's wrong?!
After a few moments the door opened. Robert was sitting on the couch, shirtless and in pajama pants, his head cradled in his hands. When he looked up, baggy-eyed and tired, Lucy saw tears streaming from his eyes down to his bearded chin. "I… I felt her, Lucy," he said hoarsely. "I felt Julie. She's alive… Fassbinder… he's.. he's hurting her."
Lucy stared at him for a moment, but she felt his conviction, his certainty. The feeling that he'd personally felt something like an electroshock reverberate through his body, inflicting terrible agony. He certainly wasn't lying.
But the idea of it. Of a connection across universes. It was beyond anything she'd ever heard of. "Are you sure it's that?" she had to ask. "This… it's never happened."
"I know. It sounds insane," he said. "From what we've experienced, the Flow of Life doesn't traverse universes like this. Connections don't. But I feel her, Lucy. I feel Julia! She's alive and she's in pain and we have to find her."
"We will," Lucy said. "We're making progress on the intel, we should have something later today."
Robert's response was an impatient look. "This is taking too long," he insisted. "It's been days, Lucy. Days. I promised her I'd come for her if this happened!"
Lucy felt his desperation and impatience and it made her heart ache. She wondered how Robert would survive if something would happen to Julia, or if the pain might destroy him. "And you'll get to keep that promise, we all will," Lucy said. "Just… you need to hold it together, Rob. Julia's going to need you to, if we're going to rescue her."
There was a surge of irritation at Lucy's words, as if she was patronizing him. But Robert bit it back. Lucy was trying to help, as always. "I… yeah. I know. It's just…" Robert swallowed. "I saw this coming, Lucy. I've been dreaming of this for years and I still let it catch me by surprise."
"Your dreams of the future have always been potential futures. Not prophecies of what will be. Don't blame yourself for not seeing this coming. None of us saw it." Lucy sat down beside him and put a hand on his shoulder. "Robert, get some sleep. Get Leo to give you something if you have to. But you need to rest, really rest I mean, because we're going to need to be at tip-top shape for this to work."
Robert nodded slowly to that. "Right. I'll… I'll go to bed."
Lucy looked to his work desk and noted the telltale signs of someone having laid their head on it out of fatigue. He stood and she followed, making sure he laid down before she departed back for Science Lab 1 and the intel that might yet lead them to Julia.
Among other things, the attacks on Gersal and New Liberty had brought Defense Command in Portland back to its peak wartime level of strenuous activity, with the officers and personnel present directing the reactivation of the reserve fleet so recently taken out of service, along with the necessary infrastructure to support and man those extra ships. The prospect of SS or Cylon ships launching another surprise attack ensured the presence of a fleet in orbit and the heightened activity of the planet's assigned fighter units.
The need for defense fleets for the Alliance's major worlds occupied much of Maran's time now, as this need had to be balanced with other defense needs, like the maintenance of the 5th Fleet at Horizon to face potential Dominion aggression, and the demand for ships to protect the spacelanes of the fallen Nazi empire. The Defense Committee was meeting daily, requiring updates, and President Morgan required the same activity.
It was thus after a long day that Maran retired to his office in Defense Command. The skyline of Portland showed the twilight visage of the Alliance's capital city, located at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers. He allowed himself a moment to enjoy that sight before he turned to one matter he'd been required by duty to hold off: the Aurora's command situation.
The sad truth was that it was unlikely that Captain Andreys would be recovered soon, if at all. It pained him to think that the promise she'd shown was going to be cut short in this manner. Even if she were eventually rescued, after a prolonged period in SS captivity she would be in no shape to resume her command. Likely not ever. The Alliance had lost one of its leading lights and an excellent starship captain.
Another sad truth was that Maran doubted he could arrange a promotion from within the ship's crew. Meridina, as capable a woman as she was, had only the past year of suitable command experience, and Maran doubted he could talk Personnel into giving her command of the Aurora. A year ago Commander Carrey would have been an acceptable candidate, even if his experience was primarily in attackers, but his difficulties with alcohol since New Caprica were not unnoticed by Personnel. Restoring him to the Koenig had required extensive work and Zachary Carrey's own continued sobriety, not to mention his conduct on the Citadel and Germania. A promotion and command of a star cruiser was a less likely prospect at the moment, when his restoration was still a fresh one.
Assigning another Facility hand with command experience was Maran's first choice, but only so many of them had command experience, and they were all in the middle of assignments on key vessels. Personnel would resist such a reassignment, and on the sound grounds of those existing assignments being more important. Thus, after days of thinking it over and testing the waters at Personnel, Maran had one prospect left that didn't involve causing such a struggle with his own people.
He returned to his desk and, after noting the local time for his intended contact, brought his interface online. "Computer, activate IU comms, standard encryption. I need a channel to Rohric. The office of Warmaster Shai'jhur." He waited patiently for the system to work through the needed protocols until it opened the requested channel.
The screen on his desk activated. The tired expression of the gray-tinged figure of the Dilgar Warmaster blinked into appearance, with wide yellow eyes gazing, a bit hoodedly, at the Gersallian Admiral. Maran had trusted her to lead the support forces over Germania, and she had served the cause of light with the same calm aplomb which had let her save the rearguard at Third Balos. “Admiral Maran,” she acknowledged, harboring no ill-will to any. “It has been a tumultuous week.”
"It has," he acknowledged. "I have heard no reports of attacks on Dilgar space. I trust this holds true?"
“Nothing. I thought the Nazis might regard us as a convenient target for their terror attacks, but we also have a fleet out of proportion to our population, and quickly re-mobilised it,” she answered.
"That is good. I am uncertain as to why, but it appears the SS exiles have gone quiescent for the moment. Whether or not this is to build up for a large attack, or if their numbers are lower than we expected and their losses at New Liberty were prohibitive, I cannot say. But I have called you on another matter." Maran set his hands down before him. "You have heard about Captain Andreys?"
“I am afraid not. She was slain at New Liberty, I take it, then?” Shai’jhur’s face twisted into a peculiar sort of grimace.
"She is considered missing, and is presumed dead," Maran clarified. "There is some uncertainty on the matter. Her crew are insistent that she was taken captive, and some of our analysts believe that a possibility given what we know of the attack's commander."
“Admiral… I must say that she would be better off dead. This is truly unfortunate. The Nazis will hate her for destroying all they had.”
"I said as much to her officers." Maran's expression was grave, as Shai'jhur's point hammered home the horror of that outcome. "Either way, the issue at hand is the command situation on the Aurora. That is the reason I have called you."
“I have already given you my eldest daughter, Admiral. I am grooming Tia’jhur for my heir, and the others did not follow command tracks, or are too young. Of the ones not my blood, War Captain Fiy’jash is a psychiatric casualty after the death of one of her children to the mercenaries during the Tiran crisis. I am not sure who else I would recommend.”
Maran nodded. "I understand. But there is a candidate I have in mind, who could make the transition more smooth for the ship's crew." With gravity in his voice, he said, "I would inquire as to the availability of Captain Kaveri Varma."
“My wife.” A fond look crossed Shai’jhur’s face for a moment. “Admiral, she may have commanded Explorers, and have been used to being a negotiator, a conciliator; but she is an Earthforce officer, and a Dilgar officer, and stricter than your Aurorans will like.”
Maran nodded in acknowledgement. "That is true. But the same can be said of many other candidates being considered. I feel that Captain Varma may be the best chance to prevent the crew from splitting up. I…" Maran, for a moment, felt uncomfortable. The thoughts he had were not those he shared. The one man he might have spoken to on the matter was Mastrash Ledosh, and he was now gone. "There is a… matter, Warmaster. It is a delicate one, and one I myself wrestled with for some time, and it pertains to the crew of the Aurora and my efforts to keep them together despite the opposition in my own service."
“By all means, Admiral, you have my confidence. You know I have faced delicate matters before,” Shai’jhur answered, her tone and posture creeping into some sympathy. Shai’jhur’s wounds were old; Maran’s homeworld had been hammered but days before.
"The crew of the Aurora are the standard bearers of our Alliance. That, alone, merits to me every measure I take to keep them intact, regardless of my peers," Maran said. He kept any remaining doubt about this measure from his voice. He would have to trust someone, after all, and Shai'jhur was among the few he would do so with. "But they are more. To a number of my people, a growing number I suspect, they are the Dawn-Bearers."
Shai’jhur braced her hands against her desk and leaned closer, as if to share a secret in person.
"I myself have only come to this view slowly, after consideration and discussions with the late Mastrash Ledosh," Maran continued. "You are aware of Swenya, and what she was to our people. While we lost much in Kohbal's uprising a hundred years after her death, among those things we remember is a prophecy she is said to have given late in her life, using the gift of foresight that the Flow of Life grants to those sensitive to it. That is the Prophecy of the Dawn." Maran reached over to transmit the text to Shai'jhur, in its entirety, the final line once omitted restored due to his correspondence with Ledosh and Robert. He watched her note the incoming data and waited quietly for her to read it.
“To a Dilgar, without the benefit of thousands of years of context and Swenya’s stories, it seems maddeningly vague, Maran,” she said, informally. “But, I also recognise a real power when I see it. I saw what Lucy Lucero and Meridina showed. I would never discount this power… Being guided by a hand, toward a purpose. One might disbelieve, but one would truly be a fool to disregard. And frankly, from what I have heard of the attack on Gersal… Your enemies may believe it more than we do. That begs the question of whether or not they know something we do not.”
Maran nodded grimly. He'd read the reports from Gersal himself. The things said, the things seen. All of the indications that the Cylons were in truth guided by the survivors of Kohbal's dark brotherhood. Given the knowledge lost in that ancient war, how much more did they know of the past than Maran's people? And what was their plan for the future?
With these thoughts still on his mind, Maran continued, "The final lines are, to me, the most important," he said. "There is much my people forgot due to Kohbal, but we remember the stories of Swenya confronting an ancient darkness, and our contact with the time traveling being known as the Doctor confirms that the Darkness do exist. That they are an ancient force, and they are still out in the Multiverse somewhere, on some level of creation, a threat to everything we know. And according to Swenya, the crew of the Aurora may very well be the key to defeating them."
“And if we accept that there is anything good in the universe at all, then… You wish to try and preserve their relevance to prophecy, and also their relevance to hope, as a symbol of the Alliance. You cannot be sure it is enough, but you must try. Am I right?”
Maran nodded. "Yes. We need that symbol. Not just my people, but the Alliance, indeed the entire Multiverse. Especially if our worst fears come to pass, and we do face this ancient threat ourselves."
“Well. Maran, Kaveri is commanding the Wrath, on peacekeeping duties in the former Reich. With this mobilisation her battlecruiser is needed as part of the fleet. But I will raise the idea with her. I will impress upon her the importance, and I will impress upon her the gravity of the request. I had hoped we could be together, but this is serious, and I must convey to her the seriousness of the opportunity. And you can tell the other Admirals of the Alliance that you have her in mind, perhaps that will give you a little more time to find Captain Andreys in.”
There was real gratitude in Maran's expression, as stoical as it usually was, and the same was in his voice when he replied. "My thanks to you, Warmaster, and I do understand that I have asked much of you and of your wife. I can indeed buy more time from Personnel with Captain Varma's candidacy. Enough time for Captain Dale's efforts to be fruitful, if they are not done in vain." For Shai'jhur, or anyone that might observe him and know Maran's usual demeanor, there was a visible weariness to Maran he did not normally evince. The attack on Gersal had left its mark on him as thoroughly as any other Gersallian.
“Then you have my blessing, Maran. The storm breaks, still shall we remain.”
At the bar in the Lookout, Zack sat without saying a word to anyone. He asked for no food, no drink, nothing but quiet. He needed the quiet. He felt like his heart was going to break into pieces.
The idea of Julia being dead was bad enough, and the year had already been terrible. He'd lost Clara, lost his self-respect and only painfully rebuilt it, then survived the attack on the Citadel and the Battle of Germania. For the woman he loved to die too… there were few things worse than that.
One of those things was the alternative. That Julia was a captive of the SS. An SS which didn't have other factions holding it back anymore. The things they'd do to her, the kind of torture and humiliation they'd put her through, he could barely stand the thought of it. He tried and failed to keep his imagination from considering all of the possibilities.
After letting out a breath Zack started looking for Albert, figuring a small meal or at least a soda were necessary. It was when his eyes scanned across the shelf on the wall that Zack spotted the tall, square bottle of green liquid. He recognized it immediately as Aldebaran whiskey.
For the first time in months, it struck him. A deep, raw need for the haze, the obliteration of his senses. To make everything numb and forget, for even a moment, his pain. Zack looked at the bottle and craved its contents like a man dying of thirst craves a bottle of water. One is too much, he reminded himself. But with his imagination tormenting him with the idea of Julia suffering, with his fear giving him grief that she was dead, or worse than dead, that he would never see her again, would never hear her laugh, never get to exchange jokes or tease each other or put up with her well-intentioned take-charge mother hen bossyness…
Zack's hand twitched. Just a motion and the bartender would come, and he could enjoy a drink and just… no, no he couldn't do this, not again, not after he promised, not after all he went through… he couldn't give in and yet he just needed a drink, just a little one, just to take the edge off, just to dilute the anguish. One drink to make the pain easier to bear...
Jarod's voice got Zack's attention. By the time Zack looked over Jarod was slipping onto the stool to his right, the last stool at this end of the bar. He motioned with a raised hand for the bartender to come over and said, "Another pitcher, your best."
"Yes Commander," the young man replied in a thick accent.
When Zack gave him a wondering look he answered, "Coffee. For those of us in Science Lab 1 going through all of the intelligence Robert got from, well, an unexpected source." Jarod gave Zack a close look and then followed Zack's eyes to the shelf. "We're all worried for her. And we're all wondering the same thing. That it might be better if she died fighting. If they took her…"
"She's a fighter. And we'll do anything to find her."
"Even if it means going rogue?" A dangerous look came to Zack's eyes. "The Alliance is writing her off as dead."
"MIA, presumed dead."
"This is Davies isn't it?" Zack asked aloud. "He thinks he can get one of his people in command."
"It's a lot of things, I'm sure. But we're not going to stop looking for her, you can be sure of that." Jarod noticed the dangerous look in Zack's eyes. At that moment he fully believed that Zack would, if it came down to it, steal the Koenig if he needed to in order to save Julia.
Although by that same measure, Jarod was certain the crew would steal the Aurora if they needed to accomplish the same.
After glancing to the Aldebaran whiskey on the shelf again, Zack asked, "Did Sydney ask you to come see me?"
Jarod nodded. "He did. But I would have come anyway."
Zack blinked back tears. "Thanks. To both of you."
While Science Lab 1 was the center of the hunt for Julia, Cat was utilizing Science Lab 2 for the same purpose. It was meant for physics and materials sciences, after all, and analysis of the debris from SS ships was part of that. She looked over the twisted, blackened sample she'd acquired from the debris collection now sitting in the lab's analysis chamber. A formidable array of advanced scientific equipment was giving her everything she could imagine on the debris. Its material composition, remnant radiation traces, atomic makeup, every piece of data she might find useful, data that might yet provide a vital clue.
Results from scans flashed over her screens, and Cat set up comparison analysis to see if anything matched. Maybe a unique radiation trace from exposure to a pulsar or some other unique space phenomena. Or if the piece had a unique element or isotope, the origin of which could indicate a possible base.
Minutes passed, hours. Bit by bit, the results came in. And…
...and nothing. Nothing unique. Nothing she could use.
Cat didn't initially notice that she'd started to weep. She just did. She sniffled and let out a small sob full of despair. Julia was out there, she needed help, and Cat could do nothing for her. She didn't have anything to lead her to Julia. Not one damn thing.
The tears were dripping from her chin when the nearest door to Science Lab 2 opened. Tra'dur entered and approached. The young Dilgar pulled up a chair and sat beside her, her feline eyes focusing on Cat. "Cat'Delgado," she said quietly, using the combination of personal and family or clan name that Dilgar always did. "What is wrong?"
"I thought… I thought maybe I'd find something," she said. "Something that would give us a clue on where they came from. Where they might have taken Julia." Cat sniffled and wiped away at the tears flowing from her reddened, fatigued eyes. She glanced at the time display on the nearest screen, which showed the time as 2350. She was due to be up in less than seven hours to report for her morning watch. "But there's nothing. Nothing I can use."
"I see." Tra'dur nodded in understanding. "I know you want to find her desperately, but there will be the next watch to keep the data reduction going. You also need sleep to do your best, Cat’Delgado. That’s science, too.”
Cat nodded. "But if we don't find her, if I've missed something…" Cat stopped and wiped again at the tears. "I've known her since I was little. I wasn't even ten years old yet, and she was this awesome big kid who could fight my sister and win, and was really cool and nice and… well, she was the first girl outside my family I really liked. Her, and then Susannah. I've already lost Susie…" Cat drew in a breath and the resulting sniffle. "It's funny. Rob was the one who led us into this, and he was the Captain at first, but she was always the one to take the lead for us. To get us to do the job right. And she's done so much and always looked out for us, for me… now I can't even help find her."
"You have tried," Tra'dur replied. "She, the Captain, would understand. She would be proud."
"Yeah, she would. But I just feel… I feel like I haven't done enough."
"Everyone feels that way. Everyone."
"And you?" Cat asked. "Do you feel that way?"
Tra'dur nodded quietly. "Captain Andreys has done much for my people. And she sponsored me through the Officer Training program and gave me my post here. I'll always be grateful to her. I pray that the Gods give her strength and us insight so that we may bring her home."
Cat sniffled again and nodded. "I guess that's all we can do. Pray, I mean." After running her hand over her eyes again, trying to clear the tears, Cat treated Tra'dur to a hug. "Thank you," she said.
Tra'dur, surprised briefly by the embrace, returned it carefully, uncertainly. "You really should get some rest, Cat'Delgado," she said quietly.
Cat responded with a mumbled, "Yeah", and with Tra'dur departed the Lab, bound for her quarters and a good night's sleep.
Even with everything that happened, daily routines were still a part of the lives for those on the Aurora. This included the daily training regimen of Angel Delgado, who was busy pummeling away at one of her punching bags as part of said regimen. Sweat coated her bronze skin, her muscles visibly bulging beneath.
While Angel had a reputation for being hard on the gym punching bags, she was usually not so rough on them. Today was one of those exceptions, as she cut loose, punching and occasionally kicking with enough ferocity that the material of the bag was giving way.
She only stopped when Tony Zah, her boyfriend, called out her name. She turned to face him. He was fresh from a jog, shirtless and in gym shorts. Usually the sight of him like that, with his developed musculature under his tanned complexion, made her appreciate having Tony as a boyfriend. Today she barely gave him a glance.
Tony didn't mind that. He knew why, and he said nothing more until he was beside her. "Want a partner?" he asked.
"I'm fine." She focused on the bag and slammed her fist into it.
"Babe, she's your friend," he said gently. "I understand."
"This wouldn't have happened if we'd been more careful," Angel insisted. "The war ended and we decided it was back to business. We should have been scouring for the damn SS the moment we found out some of them got away! Not building Goddamn science ships!" As she spoke each sentence she picked up the pace of her punches.
"Hey, Babe, look at me?"
Angel turned to Tony, snarling. She looked like she was ready to explode from fury. Wordlessly he stretched his arms open, offering an embrace that by all appearances she was too furious to be interested in.
And yet, she took it, moving up to him and putting her arms around him, letting Tony do the same to her. Tears welled from her hazel eyes. "She's my friend, Tony," Angel said. "They've got my friend."
"I know," he said.
"Aside from Cat, she's the one… I mean, you know about me and Rob, but I met her first. She's my match on the mat. Back in the day, back in Kansas, it was always awesome with her. I'd win, she'd win, and we always shook hands and… and we stayed friends, and did things, and she brought me into the group with the others. As bossy as Julia is, you could, you can always count on her."
"We're getting her back, Angel. Doesn't matter what Portland says, you and the others, you'll find a way. You always do."
The term prompted a small giggle from Angel. The giggle was the only thing stopping a sob instead. "Trying to make me think you're some brilliant therapist type?" she asked.
"I'm just a lunkhead with muscles, what do I know about therapy?" Tony kissed her on the forehead.
"No more than me, I guess." Angel let out a yawn. "I guess I should shower and get to bed. You're due to go on duty soon?"
"Soon, yeah." He let go, and she did too. "See you later for dinner?"
"Your dinner, my breakfast," Angel answered. "Sure."
Tony nodded and walked away. Angel admired the view of her boyfriend from behind before going over to collect her water bottle and towel, which she used to wipe the sweat from her face. He's a keeper, she thought, after which her mind went to the main topic for her. We'll find you, Julia. We'll get you back. Just hold on until we get there, wherever you are…
After being shocked into unconsciousness, Julia spent untold hours in the tank. Her wounds were fully healed by the point that she was fished out, which jolted her back to consciousness.
The men who took her away, two of Fassbinder's troopers, handled her roughly, half-dragging her across the ground. It took several minutes for them to arrive in what was clearly a confinement area. The cells they passed were empty and inactive. All save one, which was to Julia's right. It was to the opposite cell on the left that they took her. One bellowed "Get in!" and drove a black stick in his hand into Julia's ribs. Not only did the impact itself hurt, the stick delivered an electrical shock into her body much like a taser would. Her body seized up painfully. With a contemptuous look they picked her up and tossed her into the cell. The lights around the entrance lit up, warning of an energy field to keep her in.
As they stomped off Julia took in the empty chamber. There was nothing here for her. No bedding, no seats, nothing but a bucket and the hard floor. Fassbinder was determined to make her suffer.
With her energy waning, Julia turned enough to glance to the opposite cell. It was also occupied. She got a glimpse of a figure in red clothing. Before she could notice further detail, her eyelids dropped, too heavy for her to keep them open any longer. Within seconds she was asleep.
Robert's sleep was restful enough. When he awoke he checked for further messages. Finding none, he took the time to process the necessary paperwork to confirm Gina Inviere, as a naturalized citizen of the Gersallian Interdependency and member of the Order of Swenya, was being signed on as a non-military operator for his operations team. He expected it to cause some waves in Portland, but he had the leeway in the Paladins' operating charter, and plenty of character witnesses to Gina's capability and trustworthiness.
Next was a check on the new day's intel reports. There were no further reports of SS or Cylon activity. A major Jem'Hadar and Cardassian force was on sensors near Horizon, drawing in the 5th Fleet, but intelligence believed it was a Dominion test of Alliance defense response after the attack. Another report marked the Romulan activity near Altharra and incidents there. Alliance Intelligence believed it had to do with the pretender to the vacant Romulan throne.
He was just starting to read that report, if just to get his mind off things, when he received the call from Lucy to come to Conference Room 1. He turned off his systems, donned his uniform, and went straight there.
Richmond, Lucy, and Jarod all looked exhausted. Meridina and Anders were present as well, as was a small table with breakfast pastries and treats from Hargert's kitchen. And several pots of coffee. He poured himself a cup and snatched up a jelly-filled strudel to appease his hunger.
Once they were all seated Richmond took the lead. "We've found an item of interest," she said, bringing up an image of several manifests and the image of a space station. It was a ring station with an inner cylinder. Some weapon emplacements were visible. "Toutaine Station," she said. "In orbit over the third moon of a rather nasty desert world in SOT5 Wild Space. The planet is neutral and is home to the Yildiz, a Human nation or tribe of sorts. Toutaine has a marginal habitable zone in the temperate and subpolar regions, and they are for the most part a non-industrial agricultural society going by Solarian records."
"And yet there's a space station in their space," Robert said. "Black market?"
"Officially independent by charter from the planetary government, with links to certain Cevaucian figures of import. They do a hefty traffic in various illicit goods, including, going by this evidence, slavery. In fact, the Amir of Toutaine sells families into off-world slavery as a sort of ultimate punishment."
"And the Aristos are involved now?"
"They're using Toutaine Station as something of a customs point. We're still determining the exact nature of how they get jumps back to A5R0."
"Probably the same way the Orion Syndicate and the Batarians and all of these other criminal organizations do it," Lucy noted. "They pay for jumps like any other ship. And if the jump station network ever gets put into operation…"
"However they do it, Toutaine Station is currently a central point for the trade. Not really surprising given that S0T5 also has a large population of telepaths." Richmond tapped a key and highlighted documentation. "The important part is that we have journal entries and manifests confirming the link to the SS. The SS has been trading captive telepaths and certain technologies to the Aristos in exchange for examples of Eubian technology they consider of interest. And Toutaine Station's position in Wild Space, far from standard Solarian patrols, is an optimal location for these exchanges."
"So we need to go there and find the next link in the chain," said Jarod. "Which is the hard part."
Robert already knew what he was getting at. "The distance is too far for the Jayhawk," he said. "At Warp 6 it would take weeks to get there."
"The Aurora could manage the trip in a few days," Jarod replied. "But Scotty's still working on repairing the warp drive. We're at least a day from warp capability."
"And with the fleet mobilization, we are not free to join you, Robert," Meridina remarked.
"Even if not, I doubt the Aurora could make the journey," said Richmond. "Toutaine is past the far end of Solarian and Cevaucian space. Neither state would appreciate the Aurora entering the area. The Bragulans are another threat. Frankly all of the powers in that region would react badly to the Aurora warping in."
"So what we need is a ship that won't tick them off," Lucy said. "One fast enough to get the Jayhawk to Toutaine." A thoughtful look crossed her face. "Meridina, do you think Kasszas might help? Maybe someone at the Enclave has a ship…"
By this point everyone noticed the thoughtful expression on Robert's face. Lucy and Meridina could sense his distaste and growing resolve. He was about to do something he didn't want to, something he knew would come back to bite him in some way, but at this point he'd do anything to help Julia. "I've got someone better in mind. I'll be back as soon as I'm done." With that he rose from his chair and left.
The walk back to his quarters on Deck 6 gave Robert time to run what he was about to do, about to say, through his head. Over and over he considered his options and knew this was the only viable one. Julia couldn't wait for them to get another ship, a slower one, or to get permission from the Solarians, or any other thing they'd have to do in order to get to Toutaine. He had just this one option. And for Julia, he'd do it, even if it cost him in the long run.
When he arrived in his quarters, Robert immediately sent out a message over the interuniversal comm network. It wouldn't take long for it to go along the relays to its destination. Indeed, only a few minutes passed before the system notified him of an incoming encrypted communication. He confirmed his identity with the system and waited for decryption to process.
When it was done, he was treated to the view of an office desk, behind which a sunset sky was filled with skycars and other vehicles. High rise buildings were plainly visible in the distance. But they weren't the focus of his attention. The figure in the fancy chair was, the chair with the emblem of a winged Moebius sign.
"Hello, Captain Dale," said Sidney Hank.
"Mister Hank, thank you for responding so quickly."
"It was nothing special. I've been waiting for your call," he said. "I have been since I learned Captain Andreys is missing, likely dead."
"She's not dead," Robert said.
"Agreed. Anyone bothering to analyze Erik Fassbinder's known history would know that. He's been after you for a while now." Sidney smiled. It was a very unsettling smile, as if he was savoring the moment. "So what can I do for you?"
Robert had to fight back the urge to scowl. He drew in a breath. It's for Julie, he reminded himself, before answering, "I need your help, Mister Hank."
"Ah." Sidney shifted himself in the seat slightly. His sky blue eyes focused on Robert. "Well, let's be honest, Captain, you can't afford me on a Paladin's salary. Frankly it wouldn't matter, I have more money than I honestly know what to do with, so at this level I don't accept cash payments anyway. And while you have President Morgan's ear, I have other ways of exerting influence with the Alliance Government, I don't need a Paladin to speak for me. In short, there isn't anything you can give me as payment for my services."
"You're right, I can't," Robert said.
"Then you know my price?"
Robert swallowed and nodded. "I do. Just as you offered to me in your office."
"...for a favor," Robert finished for him.
"And you accept this? Unconditionally?" There was no denying the immense pleasure Sidney showed at the occasion. While he said nothing, the overtone was clear: he was seeing just how far Robert would go, and if Robert was desperate enough to sell his soul. Given that Sidney Hank epitomized the image of being "a man of wealth and taste", there was a certain foreboding quality to the idea.
"Don't make me act against the Alliance, New Liberty, or those I love, and don't ask me to commit mass murder," Robert said. "Those are my conditions."
"Oh Captain, you needn't worry. I'm not a cruel man. I have no intention of ripping your precious conscience to shreds by forcing you to do something you'd find reprehensible. I have people I pay for those kinds of things. People who don't share your peculiar obsession with heroism." The tycoon snapped his fingers. "Your condition is accepted, Captain Dale. Now…" Sidney leaned forward. "...how may I be of assistance?"
Every muscle in Julia's body hurt when she woke up. Her spine protested all of the time spent on the hard floor and her stomach growled a demand for food, food that she was not going to be provided. Her throat was parched dry. Even boiling water would be satisfying.
With her eyes open Julia looked across the cell hall to the other cell and its occupant. Now she could see her fellow prisoner was a Human, a young woman with East Asian coloration and facial features. She had shoulder-length black hair that was disheveled and unkempt. Her clothing was predominately red, a set of loose pants and a short-sleeved vest. Gold trim on the cuffs and neckline, and on the cuffs of the pants legs, provided extra color to her clothing. Julia guessed she was a teenager, or just past twenty at the oldest. Physically she was built solidly, but not thickly, with the faint hint of muscle on her visible arms. The girl's eyes were closed and she looked like she was in a meditative stance.
After a moment's thought Julia prepared to call out to the girl. The sound of stomping feet stopped her. Moments later figures appeared outside of her cell. Fassbinder looked down at her, his unnatural yellow eyes focused intently on her face. One of the troopers with him turned off the cell. "Have you rested well, Kapitan?" he asked, sardonically. "Either way, it is immaterial. The time has come for your interrogation to begin in earnest."
The chamber Julia was brought to was dominated by one large chair with wrist and ankle restraints built into it. A control panel was visible nearby and, along one wall, a flat viewer screen. Fassbinder stood beside it while his troops put her in the chair.
After she was strapped into it a headpiece was lowered, pushing up against her forehead. THe chair began to spin until she was orientated facing away from the viewer. Fassbinder walked into her vision, wearing that small sadistic smile he'd held ever since Julia was brought before him. "This device is a remarkable interrogation tool, Captain Andreys. I admit the Schutzstaffel did not develop it ourselves. We discovered the builders in our initial extrauniversal explorations. Among them was a rather willful, biologically unique individual who was quite willing to trade technology for data on… wurmloch, I believe is the term? Either way, we had data he found useful, and he gave us this." Fassbinder chuckled, as if privy to a brilliant joke. "I am quite amused by the irony. His people refer to this device as the 'Aurora Chair'. It will allow us to pull information from your mind. You will not hide anything from us."
Julia stared at the wall past him, giving no indication she heard him.
"Activate the Chair, Untersturmführer."
Something ripped into Julia's mind, eliciting a strangled cry from her throat as her entire head became alive with pain. She felt like someone was running drills into her brain. Fassbinder diverted his attention past her, where the screen came alive. She felt the chair grab at a memory in her head, the day Maran asked her to become the Captain of the Enterprise, and heard the conversation play over a speaker.
This memory was followed by others. Memories of battles, memories of meetings. Every moment brought searing pain. She struggled briefly against the braces holding her wrists and ankles before letting out another cry.
Whether it was desperation to escape the pain, a desire to feel better, a subconscious impulse to fight the machine… whatever her motivation was, Julia focused on her happiest, most cherished moments. She focused on memories of warm days under the Kansas sun, playing in the Dale farm's endless fields of golden wheat. She thought of sitting and watching movies with her parents. She immersed herself in these happy memories as if they could shield her from the pain.
They didn't. They couldn't. The device continued to burrow into her mind regardless. But all the pain managed to do was redouble her efforts.
She was too focused on these efforts to notice the growing expression of irritation on Fassbinder's face as those same childhood memories played out on the screen. The pain in her head only seemed to grow worse, as if the machine sensed the defiance in her efforts and was determined to thwart her.
It would be some time before the pain became too much, and everything went dark.
The jump point generated by the Aurora deposited the Jayhawk in the S0T5 universe. Upon exiting the jump point a wave of nausea filled Robert and the others. Lucy was used to this feeling, but Gina and Talara were not. "I… I do not remember feeling this bad the last time," Talara admitted. "I just felt a little worn."
"You're more sensitive now," Lucy pointed out from the piloting seat. Her skin paled a little. "God, I hate this place."
Robert's stomach was twisting. He could see why the reports on the Fracture were fully justified. The place was simply wrong. Everything felt distorted, as if space itself, as if reality, had been smashed with a sledgehammer and twisted up afterward. Robert noticed something on his screens. "There's a ship nearby. Sending you coordinates."
Lucy activated the main engines on the Jayhawk. The impulse drives gave the ship excellent speed and maneuverability. It closed the distance to the incoming ship in record time. Everyone looked out at the vessel with increasing incredulity. "It's… a giant donut?" Lucy asked.
The craft ahead was a torus in shape, much like the pastry Lucy compared it with. Its hull was a fine, brilliant silver. Robert noted it was at least a kilometer in diameter. Its surface was mostly smooth and unmarked, but he noticed white light pouring from one section facing slightly toward them. The center of the torus was visibly empty, although sensors detected energy fluxes within the center that would certainly keep them out of it.
From the spare seat Gina was monitoring communications. "We're being hailed. Audio only."
"Put them on."
An electronic voice spoke. "Greetings, Captain. I am the Joyride Madonna, and I take great pleasure in saying I am the fastest ship in the Pan-Empyrean fleet. I am here to bring you to the Toutaine System posthaste. Mr. Hank's other agents will be waiting for us there. Please land in the designated landing bay. For your safety, it is advisable that you remain aboard your vessel during our flight."
"What do you mean you're the ship?" Talara asked.
"I am a Computational Intelligence," the voice replied. "I am aware that those outside of Solarian space can be perturbed by excessive interaction with CIs, so I will endeavor to make your trip a pleasant one. Please, inform me if there is anything you need."
Course data came through over the channel, which Robert relayed to Lucy. Their destination was the source of light along the surface. Lucy flew the Jayhawk in. As they neared it, no further detail appeared on the vessel. Its surface appeared completely smooth. Robert checked the sensor readings and noted that while it could determine some of the minerals in the hull, the specific material was not on file.
The landing bay itself had a red and gold interior. Several fighter craft were visible, as were personnel shuttles. Worker drones were visible in one corner, inactive but presumably ready to service returning vessels. When the bay door closed it did so as if it were a liquid. "Memory metal?" Robert asked aloud.
"Maybe," Lucy said. "I'd need a sample for an atomic analysis scanner, and I doubt Mr. Hank will approve." She relayed sensor data to the pilot station. "It looks like the ship is building up to a transition to hyperspace. But this pattern, the wavelengths, it's all atypical for S0T5's drives."
"File it for later," Robert said. Everyone felt a sudden, minor shift through the ship. The sick feeling of the Fracture dissipated.
"We are now in hyperspace," the operating CI said. "Estimated Time of Arrival to Toutaine is six hours."
They exchanged surprised looks. "Only six hours?" Lucy asked. "That's… amazing. I'm not aware of any drive that fast."
"I am built with only the best in technology developed by Pan-Empyrean, Lieutenant Lucero," the CI replied cheerfully. "I am fully justified in stating I am one of the most advanced, capable vessels that exists in the Multiverse. If you wish to know more, I am happy to provide answers so long as they do not counter the interests of Pan-Empyrean Holdings."
"Right. Well, there's nothing for now," Lucy replied.
"Very well. I will inform you when we are ten minutes from hyperspace egress. Good day." The line cut.
"This is… I mean, I thought Sidney Hank was just some ludicrously wealthy tycoon," Lucy said to the others. "But this is… why would someone like him want a ship like this?"
"I have a feeling there's a lot more to Mr. Hank than any of us realize," Robert said quietly. "And we may not enjoy finding out just what he's really up to." As Robert spoke those words he thought again on the deal he'd made. He'd given Sidney Hank something close to a blank check. He wondered when it would be cashed, and just what it could cost him in the end.
Another thought quickly came. Whatever it cost… it would be worth it if he rescued Julia.
Julia awoke with a jolt, her right cheek stinging from the impact of a backhanded slap against it. She opened her eyes to find herself laid out on the ground. A set of cuffs held her wrists behind her back. An iridescent powder, something like fine glitter, covered her skin. She blinked at that, wondering just why she was covered in glitter.
"It is good that you are awake," Fassbinder said, standing over her. On his left hand and forearm was a gauntlet with a control panel of some kind. "I sense you are curious about what we have coated you with, Kapitan. Allow me to explain." He knelt down beside her and looked into her face while she turned away. "We acquired this technology from another of our new trading partners. They were quite… eager to acquire our telepathic prisoners of war and provided us with useful technology and resources in exchange. This… glitzerpulver is actually composed of nanobots. You are familiar with nanobots, yes?" She didn't have to answer, as he could sense that familiarity. "It can be keyed to DNA. We have done so with yours. The nanobots hook themselves into your skin and extend threads that attach to nerve endings. Allow me to demonstrate." He reached for the gauntlet and pressed a button.
The pain was unreal. The surface of much of her body came alive with it. General, unspecified pain, as if the pain was itself a sense. A choked scream came from her throat at the intensity of the sensation.
Fassbinder let out a satisfied little sigh, as if her agony brought him physical pleasure. He knelt there for several seconds, enjoying the sight before him, the screams and cries of pain sweet music to his ears, before he keyed the gauntlet again. The pain receded and Julia sucked in a greedy breath, the screaming have driven the air from her lungs. "Now, Kapitan, what do you know about the defenses over the Reich's homeworld?"
Grim resignation was in Julia's voice as she responded, by instinct more than intent, with, "Andreys, Julia Megan. Captain. Serial Number Bravo Zero Zero Zero Three One Zero One Hotel One Echo Four."
"Still uncooperative. Let's see how much pain you can endure, then." His finger stabbed at the gauntlet.
The pain returned.
Across the Aurora the repair crews were putting the finishing touches on their work. In Engineering Tom looked over the ship systems status display and noted nearly everything was green. The last yellow or red lights went green one by one.
Given that they didn't have the aid of a dockship or a full repair yard, the completion of so many repairs in such a length of time was an accomplishment to be proud of. Ordinarily he would have. But the sick feeling inside of him kept him from that sense of accomplishment. The repair work was all well and good, but it did nothing to get Julia back.
For all of his excitability, Tom Barnes was not normally a hater. He could be angry at someone, utterly livid, but hate was too strong for his usual feelings.
But now he knew what it was like to hate. To hate the SS, who had caused so much misery on his adopted world. Killed so many good people and taken a friend he admired and respected.
The last system went green and there was some applause from the assembled. None came from Tom.
"Tom, how are you feeling?"
The line might have come from Julia, who was missing, or Scotty, who wasn't there. Instead it came through a machine, a vocoder, built into the suit of the speaker. Tali'Zorah took a place beside him and looked over the control display. "Your ship is ready," the Quarian woman said.
"Yeah. Thanks for the help." He glanced toward her. "So you're back with the Fleet? Your Pilgrimage is over?"
"It is, yes," Tali replied. "I offered the Neema captain the Geth data that Commander Shepard allowed me to copy. I'm a member of the Neema engineering crew now."
"Good for you," Tom said, with as much sincerity as he could muster. "How long until you reach chief engineer?"
Tali let out a small laugh. "It will be some time, I imagine."
"I'm sorry about Captain Andreys, Tom. She… she was a good captain."
"Is," he insisted. "She's still out there, she's alive, and we'll find her. That's for damn sure."
Tali went quiet at that. She could see how much Tom was hurting, regardless of what he said. It was a familiar pain to Tali. She felt it whenever she thought of Shepard.
"I'm sorry about Commander Shepard," Tom said. "She was good people."
"Yes. And it's how I know what you're going through."
"Right. Except you didn't have jerks planning on replacing her." Tom made a fist. "There are people in charge who hate us because we don't salute right or whatever. They'd love to take over the Aurora."
Tali looked at his face and understood. Losing his friend was hard enough. Tom was afraid that in the end, he'd lose everything he cared for. His ship, his friends… he might get split from all of them. "I understand, Tom," she said. "What you're afraid of."
Given where they were Tom had already said too much on his private feelings, so he didn't respond audibly. He replied with a nod. "Thank you," he finally said. "Well, I'd better get back to work before Scotty finds me standing around."
"Of course. And I need to get on a shuttle back to the Neema," Tali replied. "Keelah selai, Tom. If she's out there, you'll get her back."
Tom nodded in reply and returned to work. Tali left Main Engineering. Down the corridor she found Commander Scott in an office space, checking a report. "I did what I could, Scotty."
"I thank ye for it, lass," he replied, his accent strange to Tali's ears. "Th' lad's hurtin' more than he lets on."
"How are you feeling?"
Scott gave her a knowing look. "She's still out there, an' we'll go get 'er, even if I have tae steal th' Aurora t' do it." A dangerous glint in his eye made it clear that this was something he'd given thought to. Tali had the feeling that it was something he'd even done before and wouldn't care about doing again.
"Good luck, then," she said before walking out.
The nanobot session was followed by another period of immersion in the "kolhtou", although this time Fassbinder did not turn on the electricity. When the healing session was over Julia found herself being escorted to another section of the "city". That she could even walk was entirely due to the green fluid she was being immersed in. Nevertheless her guards had to half-carry her at points, at one point earning her a vicious punch to the stomach out of frustration and endless insults and curses, some in German and some in German-accented English.
The place she was brought to was essentially an auditorium, or had at least been refurbished as one by the SS. In the seats were various figures, who had just finished listening to an actual SS Choir that had sung the Florian Geyerlied for them, the muscular blondes in uniform filing away as she was brought in. Some were in SS uniforms, others had dark clothing. She recognized one as one of the Cylons, the older male model, indicating the others were Cylons as well. A third visible group were in fine suits and uniforms. She glanced long enough to note their skin was marble white and their hair dark as night--save for one woman, of average height in the group but a powerful figure, whose haughty, perfect face was set with splendid ashen silver-platinum hair and whose eyes glimmered in a lush red bordering on purple, dressed in a black formal dress with white opera gloves. Several other sets of carnelian eyes settled on her, the eyes reminding her of Robert and Lucy's reports from Tau Atrea of the slaving "Aristos".
Her guards marched her up on the platform. The Aurora Chair was sitting in the middle of it, with attached viewer and controls. She was placed in the chair as before.
Fassbinder approached from the other side of the stage. "My fellow Aryans, treasured allies, allow me to introduce our prisoner, the Captain of the hated Aurora, and one of the founders of the Allied Systems. I will now demonstrate the efficacy of this device on her." He walked to the controls.
Julia steeled herself for the chair, but it did little to offset the immense pain of the device drilling into her mind again. She cried out from the intensity of the experience.
"As you can see, it is quite unpleasant," Fassbinder said. "We are still learning how to tune the machine to more accurately attack a Human mind, allowing an efficient extraction of information from the subject. In time we hope to adapt it to other species, including Gersallian."
"Herr Brigadeführer, can the subject trick the device? Resist it?" asked one of the SS officers.
"They may potentially try to guide it, according to our tests so far. We are learning ways to make more targeted scans of the subject's memories. Testing will tell how successful we are." He glanced with amusement toward Julia. "It is that consideration which is currently determining the pace of our subject's interrogation, in fact."
This conversation continued with the backdrop of Julia moaning and struggling against the braces holding her to the chair. Her face was twisted in a rictus of agony all could recognize. Behind her, the screen displayed the sight of a number of Africans, adults and children, running past the viewer. A bolt of blue light appeared from the bottom of the screen and struck an approaching armed man.
The memory of rescuing people during the days of the Facility bubbled up from Julia's suffering psyche. It was a silent plea to the universe, a subconscious one, that after helping so many people, she now asked for the same.
Fassbinder sensed that sentiment and turned, laughing. "As you can see, the subject remembers her days of aiding the weak and unfit," he declared loudly. "The machine shows us this image. In time, it will show everything in her mind. Every memory. Fine-tuning needs aside, there is no secret she or any other prisoner can hide from us once they are in the chair. Over the passage of time, they will be revealed to us."
That brought agreement from the audience, but Fassbinder was more satisfied with how it felt for Julia. He sensed the sentiment of violation building inside of her. While the pain in her head was excruciating, she still had the other senses, enough to hear, enough to know everything being said. Her pain was for the pleasure of others, and the most private memory might yet be plucked out by the Chair for their entertainment.
The idea that her happiest memories could be made into entertainment kept Julia from seeking solace in them. She fought the machine as best as she could, but wherever its drilling probes went, her mind yielded. Memory after memory flashed on the screen.
The pain finally faded. When she was released from the chair Julia thought her head might explode. Her guards roughly handled her, pulling her up and dragging her away.
"Now, if you will follow me, I will answer all questions, while our subject is healed once more," Fassbinder offered.
Another of the halls in the city was now made up as a reception hall. The best food and drink the SS could acquire was on display for the delectation of their visitors. The Cylons were clearly not as interested, mostly staying to themselves, but the Aristos behaved as if this was their due, indeed, as if it was insufficient, but accepted regardless as a gesture of magnanimity toward the SS.
That part made Fassbinder bristle a little. While he appreciated the wealth of the Eubian Concord, not to mention their own approach to racial hygiene and their ruthlessness, he found the Aristos' love of luxury utterly undesirable. It gave them a softness he found palpably irritating. Nor was he blind to the idea that they were out to use the SS, and would reduce Aryans to slaves as swiftly as they reduced others.
At the approach of their delegation's leader, Fassbinder forced those thoughts away. "Yes, Lord Karex?"
"An impressive display, Brigadefuhrer. Your prisoner's pain was an enjoyable diversion." The Aristo smiled with remembered pleasure. "And such a pretty specimen. If only she were a psion, she would make a lovely provider." Karex laughed at the remark. "But onto more important matters. From what you have said, the machine does not work properly on Humans."
"There are certain inefficiencies that time and testing will wean out, Lord Karex. It is one of many reasons why I intend to keep Captain Andreys alive as long as possible."
"Yes, your leader implied you had a special desire to deal with the Alliance founders yourself," said Karex. "Much as any Aristo would love to deal with the so-called 'Ruby Dynasty'... ah, Lady Taruar?"
“Lord Karex,” the woman with her brilliant white opera gloves arrived, her hair pulled back into a bun and still long enough to fall from that in a braid down her back, with a tremendous line of alternating rubies and black opals in a silver necklace around her neck. “You must absolutely take the time to introduce me to the Brigadeführer.”
"Of course. Brigadeführer Erik Fassbinder, this is Lady Danaine Taruar, the personal representative, and a most excellent conversationalist I might add, of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Jaibriol III."
Fassbinder appraised the silver-haired woman with interest. He sensed something odd about her. Something he didn't feel in the other Aristos. It may simply be from her being of the higher Diamond caste. Or perhaps she has the metaphysical gifts too, but if so, they are woefully undeveloped. "My Lady," he said politely. "I hope my demonstration will meet the approval of your Emperor as much as it does my Führer."
She answered in flawless upper-crust old-style German of the First Führer’s days. “Seine Majestät der Kaiser Jaibriol ist am meisten interessiert diese Wunder das Deutsche Reich uns zur Verfügung stellen kann.”
Fassbinder found his estimation of Lady Taruar increasing. "Such elegant use of my race's tongue," he said in the same. "I was led to believe the Earth of your universe was another sad example where the German people proved incapable of fulfilling Hitler's dreams for them."
“Unfortunately you are correct, however, during the course of my studies into the humanity of Earth, I had the opportunity to take an education in Germany, at the University you likely still knew as the Königlich-Sächsisches Polytechnikum, and I became quite fascinated with the history of that which was, to me, then, without knowledge of the Multiverse, this brief flowering of potential in which the Germanic race seemed poised in the Sun and Lightning to become a true Master Race. Now I meet you, Brigadeführer Fassbinder, and even in your hour of trial, I do not believe the hour of the Germans has passed. You surely must take heart in the stories of Frederick, in Berlin’s occupation and liberation during his wars, in the Miracle of the House of Brandenburg.”
"Yes," said Fassbinder. "We will yet reclaim Germania, our Earth, our worlds. And the Alliance will burn before this is over."
By this point it was clear to Lord Karex that he was being left out of the conversation intentionally. He stated, in Eubian, "It is pleasing that initiative always wins reward, is it not, my Lady?"
“The only certain rewards are in initiative, when one permits the rival or the enemy to gain initiative one wins victories and rewards alike only by luck, and then rarely. That we have taken this initiative against the Ruby Dynasty means much.” She returned her attention to Fassbinder, but kept speaking in Eubian and let the translators handle it. “Brigadeführer, let me assure you, we are also aware of the risk that the Alliance poses with their interuniversal drives, because of the initiative they provide. We would never be concerned about a trifling alliance of weaker, misguided races and peoples united by the popular passions of democracy, except for the enormous strategic advantages of the drive. But because those strategic advantages accrue against all practicality or sense, we are grateful for the profitable relationship we have established, and pleased to see our estimation correct, in that the hour of your possession of the drive at once brought powerful blows to the Alliance.”
Fassbinder's own translator - a hated concession compared to what things were like before the Alliance - allowed him to understand all that was said. He felt an impatient tic against the Aristos' love of hearing themselves talk and indirect remarks with potentially hidden meanings and allusions. But his orders from Kranefuss were direct; diplomacy was necessary. "It was a great pleasure to watch New Liberty burn," he said. "That it brought pain to my enemies made it all the more satisfying." As he spoke he decided not to say a thing about the IU drive. There would be no opening given for the Eubians to believe the SS had promised the technology to them, for that would never happen. "Do you have any more questions or concerns I may answer for the Emperor?" Fassbinder felt the flicker of suspicion and dislike from Karex. He fears the Emperor will assume control of this connection, depriving him of profit. "I would be honored to assist."
“If I could schedule a meeting with your technical personnel personally to review the documentation and specifications, I would deeply appreciate it. I would like to thank them, and also to ask some questions, on the matters of the faster than light communications and the warp drive. This would be a lovely possibility as well for me to answer any technical questions on our information as well… Of course, Taskmakers deal with the petty details of such things, so we will keep ourselves to high theory and other interesting matters. Your people are much accomplished in technical affairs theoretically and we… Appreciate integrating your worthy contributions to science into our own.”
Fassbinder considered his orders and the request. Warp drive was of little consequence, and he'd already made arrangements with Karex for subspace radio, so there was no harm there either. "I will make the necessary arrangements," he replied. As he spoke Fassbinder allowed himself a grin. By now Captain Andreys was back in the kohltou tank. He would have to check in on things when he was done here, and perhaps, test the nanobots on her again. They hurt quite a bit, he sensed.
Lady Taruar saw the grin and how similar it was to the ones on the faces of her compatriots during the public torture session. “My, my, Brigadeführer, we have heard much about the not-psion abilities of these other universes… Can you actually… Sense her continued agony at this remove?”
"If I focused, I would," Fassbinder said, and did. Yes, he did feel his prisoner's lingering pain. "She is not like me, or I would sense her more strongly." As he said that Fassbinder pondered on just how it was that he did sense her as he did, more than others. Did she indeed have a slight capacity? Was it something else? "My enjoyment is not so visceral as yours is. It is not a physiological enjoyment for me, my Lady, simply the satisfaction that my hated enemy is suffering at my hand."
It was quite clear to the others, indeed, that Fassbinder hated his prisoner. It was the kind of hate that you didn't get just from a sense of superiority. It took wounded pride, deep loss, and a need for savage revenge.
"That is why Skolians make such pleasing providers," Karex remarked. "The hate makes transcendence sweeter. Now, my Lady, may I introduce you to one of the Firsts? I am reminded that a common enemy can make for profitable relations."
Fassbinder observed them departing. There was something about Taruar he found vaguely unsettling, but it made her interesting, in a way Karex never was.
In the long run, the only thing that mattered was that these powerful allies were providing him the means for both revenge against his foes, and the chance to reclaim the Reich from those that had destroyed it.
Talara sat on the bed in the quarters assigned to her on the Jayhawk. The room was small, given the size of the ship, but it was not uncomfortable. In here, she had time to meditate.
On her lap, a digital reader showed the report from Fala. The Defense Fleet was on full alert and ready for a Reich attack. Fala was sending aid to both New Liberty and Gersal. Her parents' reply to her message confirming she was okay was loaded as well. She read it again, if just to reassure herself that they were okay, and returned her focus to herself. To the power within her being.
But it wasn't easy. Robert, across the way in his quarters, seemed to have lost his usual friendly, kind qualities. She sensed anguish and yawning despair. A desperation, a need. He had to rescue Captain Andreys, had to, and she feared that if he were to fail, it would break him.
Any further consideration ended when Gina's voice came over the comms. "We're ten minutes out from Toutaine," she said.
A moment later Robert replied. "Suit up," he said.
Talara left her quarters. Robert was already on his way to the cargo/armory area. Lucy emerged from the engineering division at the back of the main deck, discarding her tool belt. "How are you feeling?" she asked him.
"Horrible," he answered. "But I'll live."
He passed her by and Talara approached. Lucy stopped her from following for the moment. "I have something for you," she said.
Lucy led Talara back toward the four cabins. Her cabin was a little more lived in, with discarded spare suits and clothes over the one available dresser and in the small closet. A collapsible tray by the bed had tools laid on it, along with a crystal of lavender hue, much like the color at the center of Talara's irises.
Talara gave Lucy a surprised look. "You… you believe I am ready?"
"I think you are. But that decision is yours." Lucy put a hand on Talara's shoulder. "Gersal was as bad as Germania. Worse in some ways. And I know it hurt you. But I also saw how you handled it. I think you've found your way to deal with darkness regardless of how sensitive you are. And with everything happening, I want you to be fully prepared. It's up to you, of course. I'll support you either way."
Talara looked to the tray and back to her teacher's face. "I understand," she said, after which she sat down and concentrated on the contents of the tray. She quieted her mind and felt the connection to the Flow of Life, allowed that connection to flow freely, unobscured by thought.
Piece after piece lifted from the table. Talara sensed those pieces, the way they were supposed to flow together, and her will commanded the same of the objects provided. She felt them move toward one another, matching up as they were built to, creating a device of such precision that only those with this power could hope to assemble them.
For a moment, a brief moment, she stopped. This was not a work of art. It was a weapon. It could defend, true, but like any weapon, it could cause harm. It could kill. By crafting it, making it, Talara was accepting that. And a part of her didn't want to.
But Lucy thought she was ready, or she would never have presented the parts to Talara. And as much as she disliked what the lightsaber could do, Talara knew what it represented. What it meant for an increasing number of people in the Multiverse. It was a symbol of hope, of good. The weapon of what she aspired to be, a Knight of Life.
The moment of hesitation passed. Talara's will resumed the task of assembling the pieces and planting the lavender-hued crystal into its cradle in the mechanism. She shifted the housing into place and felt the final pieces snap together. Only then did she open her eyes. She reached toward the silver and blue-colored weapon hovering in the air before her, her will summoning it to her hand. Nearby Lucy watched quiet pride for her to complete the last step. In the confined space of the small quarters there wasn't much room for Talara to do so, but she found enough space to hold her arm out and activate her new weapon. A blade of lavender-colored light surged from the device with a lingering electronic snap-hiss sound.
"Think fast." Lucy tossed a slab of metal toward Talara. Her blade easily intercepted the slab, sending its severed halves between her to thump against the wall of her quarters. "Congratulations, Talara," said Lucy. "You've successfully built your first lightsaber."
Talara extinguished the blade and nodded with respect. "Thank you for your faith, Lucy. I will not cause you to regret it."
"I'm sure you won't. Now let's go suit up. We should be at Toutaine in a few minutes."
The Joyride Madonna emerged from hyperspace in the Toutaine system. With unseen engines the toroid moved toward the space station. From the Jayhawk the assembled group monitored communications. They detected the larger ship transmitting a code into the space station. The ship's operating CI spoke again. "The Wild Geese have secured much of the station. They are awaiting your arrival at the transmitted coordinates."
Under Lucy's control the Jayhawk launched and flew from the Joyride Madonna. Again Lucy kept the ship clear of the inside of the torus, flying around the Pan-Empyrean vessel and toward the similarly-shaped space station ahead. They entered the provided landing bay and found several combat-armed figures with Solarian rifles waiting for them.
Jason Chandra, the head of the Wild Geese, was waiting when they emerged, all four in the Gersallian-style of robes - Lucy, Gina, and Talara in blue, Robert in brown - and armor - again purple and blue respectively. Her new lightsaber now dangled from Talara's belt, and the others could sense her quiet pride in the accomplishment. It was evident to Chandra too.
"Captain Dale," he said. "Nice to see you again. I hear you've had a career change." He gave a diplomatic, welcoming smile. "I didn't take you for the black ops type."
"We're more white ops," Lucy replied sardonically. "Black ops, but without the ruthless jerkiness."
Chandra flashed her a knowing grin. "We'll see how long that lasts. Follow me."
As they emerged into a corridor of rust-colored metal, they found the station mostly empty save for Solarian combat drones and armed men in Pan-Empyrean markings. "Under Mister Hank's orders we've secured the station. Most of it, anyway. There's a section near the middle that's holding out. We considered storming it, but you might be better able to take it and leave us captives alive to be interrogated."
"Good call Captain Chandra," Robert answered. "Take us there."
"Already was." As they continued on to a cross-walk to the inner core of the station, he continued, "We've rescued about a dozen abducted espers, mostly from Wild Space worlds. Looks like they were being sold into slavery to some foreigner with red eyes."
"An Aristo," Robert growled. "Just as we expected."
"Well, he's in the isolated zone with some cyborg troopers. With your abilities we should be able to break in and take prisoners without needing excessive force."
Chandra brought them to a hall with a corridor ahead. Energy fire occasionally blazed through it, stopping at a deflector field. At the field were several troopers with the unit. Robert recognized the cyber-modified assassin Matsubara - the one Zack called a "cyborg ninja" after the mission to Solaris - and the diminutive form of Scirocco Montague, the specialist psion of the unit. Her eyes were about as large as any Human's could ever get, her head larger than normal, and otherwise looked physically puny. Robert had good reason to know she was anything but that; her appearance was from the Apexai DNA that she, as a hybrid, possessed, significantly boosting her psionic power.
Scirocco gave him a penetrating look. Robert felt her presence at the edge of his mind, viewing his surface memories and thoughts. Her look lost some of its intensity. "My condolences," she said. She motioned beyond. "Whatever that… thing is, he's nasty. A Blank of some kind. Just feeling his mind is… annoying."
"He's called an Aristo, Universe A5R0," Lucy said. "They're a bunch of slavers who feel pleasure when they sense the pain of others, especially telepaths. They keep telepaths as slaves to torture them for the pleasure it brings."
Scirocco's face hardened. 'Well, I look forward to shredding this one's mind," she said. "I've faced worse."
The others could believe it. "We'll take the lead," Robert said.
"Right behind you," replied Chandra. He started issuing orders.
The four stepped up toward the deflector field. They ignited their lightsabers in tandem. Lucy's and Gina's were blue, Robert's blade emerald green, and Talara's new weapon the same lavender color as the crystal she'd used. "We'll take the lead," Robert said to Talara. "Just watch our backs."
"Yes sir," she replied.
Together they went through the field, the three experienced fighters in front and Talara behind. The energy fire descending on them was vicious and lethal, and each seemed to come within microseconds of taking a deadly hit, but every time their lightsabers intercepted the shots before they could land. They advanced down the corridor and into the besieged section of the station, a residential hall and attached dining area. It was richly decorated, if now bearing the marks of battle.
The defending enemies, cyborgs all, continued to fight back, even as the Wild Geese stormed in behind Robert's team, even as they fell one by one. The last went down to a strike from Gina's lightsaber.
There were survivors left. Human beings, mostly in immaculate, pressed robes and uniforms that Lucy recognized as similar to those she'd seen on the ship that attacked Tau Atrea. They were the servants then, slaves themselves, if favored ones.
Among them was a red-eyed man in the finest garb, his black hair combed immaculately, his skin almost porcelain in its coloring. He stood at the back, unarmed and no threat, but clearly unbowed as well. He looked them over and a sullen smile came to his face. "I recognize you," he said in an accent Robert previously heard at Tau Atrea. "You are the Alliance founder. The one who helped kill Lord Tyral and his wife." He laughed. "Oh, such timing. Such timing… which, it occurs to me, is the point, isn't it?"
"We know you're trading things with the SS," Robert said. "Start talking. Tell us where their base is."
"I am Lord Haron, and I will do no such thing, Alliancer," the Aristo replied. "Do you think I fear your pathetic people? The SS may be pathetic in their own way, but at least they understand how the universe works. They have a will to power, an understanding of racial greatness, not unlike our own."
"Comparing the Nazis favorably to yourself isn't going to do you any favors, jerk," Lucy pointed out.
"Are you aware of what I sold to them?" asked Haron. When they didn't answer he laughed. "In exchange for captives, I gave Brigadeführer Fassbinder a supply of the nanobots we use on our providers. They are specially made just for what he needed."
"The base. Where is it?" Robert demanded.
Haron ignored him. "The machines are keyed to DNA. Once this is done, they affix themselves to the skin of the selected provider. They thread themselves to touch the nerve endings."
Lucy didn't like where this was going. "The base!" Robert shouted. "Where. is. IT?!"
"I have no idea," Haron asserted. 'I do not study the interuniversal system very closely. The universe coordinate is beyond my knowledge. Or that of my taskmakers." He laughed. "Your friend is a captive of the SS, isn't she? Oh, how awful for her. Brigadeführer Fassbinder will certainly use the nanobots on her. Will coat her with them and leave her screaming from the agony the bots will inflict. I can hear her cries now…"
Lucy felt Robert's patience snap. Before she could stop him he lashed out, grabbing Haron with his power and tearing him from the floor. With a wave of his arm Robert sent the Aristo into the ceiling with bone-jarring force. He slammed Haron into the nearby wall next, smashing the Aristo's nose in with the impact. Blood poured down Haron's face as he went flying backward into the opposite wall for another hard impact.
Gina and Lucy exchanged worried looks as they felt the rage in Robert release. He snarled at Haron and held him in the air. "WHERE IS SHE?!" he thundered.
"Screaming," Haron replied, defiant and vicious. "Screaming like a new provider."
Time slowed for Robert, or so it seemed. He felt cold power surge behind his hot, desperate rage, dark power tied to the most visceral and primal of his emotions. In that moment he felt the temptation to give into it. To smash Haron into things until the Aristo's broken body was at his feet. To give release to the fear and anger in his heart.
But he felt Talara's worry, her sensitive nature, and her warm heart. He felt Gina and her devotion to the ways of Swenya, her ability to rise above the pain of her past. And he felt Lucy, who had taught him through example, who understood the anger in his heart but was even now readying herself to intervene and stop him. For his own good.
Ultimately, as much as Robert wanted the Aristo dead, he wasn't going to pay for the pleasure with his soul.
Robert's hand opened and the wounded, battered man fell to the ground, hitting his knees. Blood poured from his smashed nose. His red eyes glared murderous hate at Robert, as if he could incinerate Robert for his deeds.
But that look went blank, replaced by brief terror and then a loud, strangled cry. Haron's body tensed up, his muscles contracting until they started to tear, ligaments and tendons snapping like twigs from the unnatural pressures Haron's body was being forced to exert. His eyes poured blood as well before rolling up into the back of his head.
And then Haron collapsed like a puppet with his strings cut.
Lucy knelt down and examined him. "No pulse," she said. "He's dead."
"That was the point," said Scirocco. "Something like him doesn't deserve to live." She looked a little pale, but just a bit. Contact with the Aristo's mind had been painful. She turned to face Robert, who was breathing heavily and staring down at Haron's body. "I learned a lot of things from his memories while I tore his mind to pieces, but I'm afraid universal coordinates was not one of them. I'm sorry."
"You were able to tear his mind apart? By yourself?" Robert asked quietly. "It took twenty telepaths to do it the last time I saw it happen."
"I'm not just any normal telepath, Captain, as you well know," she replied.
Robert nodded. In his head he did the calculation. If he wasn't wrong, Scirocco was probably one of the strongest telepaths alive. She may even be at the level of someone like Lyta Alexander, if not stronger.
Chandra stepped up. "Command center's this way. CI should be finished soon with an analysis."
Wordlessly Robert walked away, causing the others to follow.
The woman calling herself Lady Danaine Taruar, as haughty and regal as any of the Aristos, settled into her private quarters on her starship which would, with the assistance of an SS cruiser, take her back to Eube’s Glory, or simply Glory to most. She began to compose the message, written in her native tongue, which none in either universe knew, but that she had taught the Eubian Emperor, for the secrecy it provided.
At her side was a glass of some immensely calming natural beverage of one of the worlds of the Carnelian throne, which a taskmaker had provided to her. She was naturally in command, utterly prideful, spectacularly perfect by Eubian standards, a Diamond who had clear hints of pretension toward being a Highton, the perfect kind of person to be used as a high-level functionary by the Emperor himself, and discarded just as perfectly if she pushed beyond her station. Some, of course, made mock of her imitation of the Empress’ natural hair colour, the white-platinum which was all the rage now that ranking Aristos near the Emperor were displaying it, instead of sculpting to correct that sign of age. It made her look odd, for she could be a woman in her twenties otherwise, but that was normal enough for a bodysculpted Aristo.
The subtleness of the shade of her eyes, a bit more purpleish than the Carnelian norm, different in a completely opposite and more regal direction from those of interbred half-caste Taskmakers, was remarkable and had helped lead to a few marriage offers already. Those she had demurred. She was the Emperor’s woman, not in that sense, she would never think to disrespect the Empress Tarquine so, but if this all worked, she might yet be remembered in the same breath as Talleyrand.
Your Imperial Majesty, Hail!
Sire, the situation is dire. The Schutzstaeffel are providing subspace communication capability including all the necessary equipment to arrange for mass production, and also tactical warp drive. Because of the dissemination through the connections of the Silicate caste, it is now inevitable that these technologies will proliferate throughout the Concordate, and thus give us inestimable tactical and strategic advantages over the Imperialate.
If Your Imperial Majesty desires to complete Your objectives geopolitically and morally, they will be limited by the realities this situation imposes. Of course, it is clear that the SS does not wish to share IU Drive with the Concordate, however that is not of any particular benefit to Your objectives, it merely reduces the pressure for interstellar war. I would nonetheless warn that such a war is entirely possible due to the activities of the Silicates who have been very aggressive in diversifying the sources of Providers. In short, it is necessary and required to consider kinetic alternatives to the current plan.
The woman smiled for a moment, satisfied at the characters she had put on paper. She folded it up and slipped it into her bodice. “Markeina, prepare my bed for me, I am tired after all these discussions with the Reich officers and scientists, and should rest on my return to Glory.” The words slipped from her with all the ease and comfort of someone used to directing servants, and that much about her was indeed very true.
The station's command center looked as worn and used as the rest of the station. Some of the surfaces used hardlight construct controls, others flat panel touchscreens, and yet others physical switches and dials. Screens showed sensor readings and data files. At the center, Robert and the others joined Chandra and his tech people. "We've completed a search of the systems," one man said to Chandra. "Indexing is finishing now. Give us a search parameter and we'll find whatever's in here."
Chandra looked to Robert, who said, "Anything on SS bases. On the SS period. Universal coordinates too."
"Searching now." After several moments the man shook his head. "While I'm getting some info on SS-linked trade, there's nothing in the files on their bases. Definitely nothing on universes."
Lucy tied her omnitool into the system. She ran her own search parameters. Moments passed and she shook her head. "Nothing," she said. "They probably kept it off the systems on purpose." She gave Robert a worried look. "I'm sorry, but the station's not giving us anything."
She felt the little snap in Robert's heart. He grabbed at a console to right himself as the despair filled him. He let out a low sob at the weight of it all.
He'd promised Julia he'd come for her. He'd promised. Now she was being held by one of their worst enemies, one of the most sick and vicious beings they'd ever faced, and there was nothing he could do. Every time it looked like he had a way to find her, it didn't pan out, no matter how hard he tried or how much he gave. He'd put himself in the debt of Sidney Hank, a debt he was already certain would be something he regretted, and yet… and yet it would be for absolutely nothing. Julia was still beyond his reach, suffering, waiting for him to come for her like he'd promised.
Lucy set a hand on his shoulder, feeling Robert on the brink of breaking down completely. "It's not over," she assured him. "Trust me. We'll find…"
One of the Pan-Empyrean operators looked up from a console. "Gravimetric spike. Incoming interuniversal jump point."
"Put it on," said Chandra.
The holographic viewer came alive, showing empty space. A green vortex expanded into view. From it flew a blocky, ugly-looking space vessel painted utterly black. Only the lights of its warp nacelles and the visible lightning rune insignia stood out in the void around it.
Lucy was already checking the profile. "It's an SS ship alright. An armed transport ship, Calypso-class."
As she spoke, Lucy felt hope light up inside Robert's being. He looked up with a look of utmost determination. "We've got to get aboard!"
The others followed Robert as he raced for the Jayhawk. Enhanced speed allowed them to get there quickly. By the time they did, Chandra spoke over the comm line. "They're suspicious, but I've got them on approach again through codes we extracted from Haron's personal CI implant. We'll fire to cripple as soon as they're in range."
"And we'll board." Robert rushed up the ladder to the port-side airlock. The others followed.
They were rushing toward the cockpit when all felt a fifth presence on the ship. They turned and faced the black-clad figure of Matsubara. He appraised them with cold eyes. "You will need my services," the figure said in a quiet, cold tone. "Mister Hank ordered me to ensure you recovered the data on your friend's location."
Lucy and Gina felt uncomfortable around the cybernetically-enhanced assassin. Robert merely nodded. "We'll go over by short-range transporter once we're in range. Strap in."
The Jayhawk cloaked and launched from the station. Lucy flew them on a course to keep the ship out of the crossfire when the station opened fire. "They're still on approach," she noted. She turned back briefly. "No shields. We could beam over, but we'd have to decloak."
"Let's leave that on the table for now. Continue the approach," Robert replied. He glanced to Talara. "You'll stay behind and bring us back. The transporter can only handle four at a time at an absolute maximum."
"Yes sir," she replied. Robert sensed she was quietly gratified that she wouldn't face any more violence today.
"They're stopping," Gina observed. "I think they're suspicious."
Robert watched the transport as it hung in space for a moment, not moving. "You're right, they suspect," he said. He glanced at the sensor readings. "They're building a particle charge for a jump. We've got to move now before they…"
Without warning the weapons emplacements of Toutaine Station opened up. Brilliant ruby light played over the warp nacelles of the vessel, wrecking both. More fire cut into the ship's navigational deflector and the sections behind it. On the sensor screen the particle charge dissipated, much to Robert's relief. "Take us in!" he shouted.
Lucy answered and the Jayhawk accelerated, its course and speed now bringing them up to the other ship in seconds. Talara took the helm controls from her so she could join Robert and the others. Lucy tapped at her omnitool. "Remote transport in three, two, one…"
The transporter on the infiltrator snatched them away. The Jayhawk cockpit disappeared in a burst of light. When the light faded they were on a bridge full of men in SS uniforms.
The ship's captain lunged for a control, intending to lock down his ship's database. Just before he could key in the command Robert's power flung him into the air, smashing him first against a roof and then the far wall. Matsubara became a sinister black blur, his superhuman speed and monomolecular-edge blade letting him dismember those whom he targeted. Gina sliced the hand from another officer raising his pistol and pushed away others with force. Lucy cut down one foe before getting to the doors.
Within the span of five seconds the bridge was secure. Two seconds later Lucy declared, "I've locked down the door!" She rushed for one of the nearby control panels and started working her omnitool.
Matsubara seemed to materialize beside her. An interface port emerged from one of his fingers. He pressed it against one of the control surfaces. "Commencing download," he said. "Decrypting enemy database."
"That's fast," Lucy observed. With Matsubara's help her job was easier. The cyborg's software ran smart-decrypt procedures that allowed them to progressively crack the encryption.
Gina looked to one of the consoles. "You'd better hurry. It looks like the engineer is in the middle of shutting down the anti-matter containment system." She started operating the console. "I'll do what I can to stop him, but he's going to cut off my access soon."
Robert went over to the captain and picked him up. "Where is your base?" he asked.
The captain narrowed his eyes at him and said nothing.
"I'm losing access," Gina warned. "We don't have much time left."
"I'm into their navigational data and drive database. Downloading logs, viewing…" After precious, terrible seconds passed, Lucy grinned and looked up. "I've got it! Interstellar coordinates and… universal! N1C4!"
"Containment field going down!"
"Talara, now!" Robert shouted into his omnitool.
The transporter on the Jayhawk yanked them away. They materialized on the small pad in the armory section and dashed for the stepladder leading up to the main deck. Just as Lucy made it to the first step the ship rocked violently, pitching out from under their feet. The lights flickered and went out, replaced by weaker blue and white lights after several moments.
The ship exploded, Talara explained mentally. I tried to get us to a safe distance, but we were still too close. I'm reading multiple systems damaged across the ship.
We'll get to work on the repairs. Do we have IU comms?
Negative. The transceiver took a direct hit.
Then get to work on repairs. Lucy, the data…
His heart skipped as Lucy looked over her omnitool with consternation. She smiled and nodded, relieving his worry. "It's here," she said. "Computers weren't damaged, and I saved the coordinate data anyway. Universe N1C4. That's where we're going."
Robert let out a sigh of relief. I'm coming, he thought. I'm coming for you, just like I promised I would.
Another blow from a stun stick jolted Julia's body and caused her to collapse into her cell. The SS guard who'd happily caused the shock spat into her face before departing. The field imprisoning her popped back into existence. Julia, motionless on the floor of the empty cell, heard the guard walk away. Her clothes were soaked from the green healing fluid and days of sweat. Her muscles twitched from the shock of the stick.
Despite this Julia began to move, crawling slowly on the floor until she was facing the opposite cell. There her fellow prisoner was sitting, leaning across the far wall of the small cell. Her brown eyes were of a light tone, approaching amber. For the first time Julia noticed a collar on the girl's neck. A persistent green light blinked at the front. The look on the girl's face suggested barely-hidden frustration laced with resignation.
After a ragged breath came from Julia's lungs, she spoke, her voice still hoarse, "My name is Julia Andreys. Do you understand me?"
After a moment the younger woman nodded. "I can. They put a device in me so I could understand them."
"An auto-translator," Julia noted. "Who are you?"
"My name is Miko," the girl replied. She gave Julia a discerning look. "They've only put me in that chair a couple of times. They just leave me here usually. They must really hate you."
Julia, despite everything, chuckled at that. "Oh, yeah, they do," she said.
"Because my friends and I founded the Alliance. And the Alliance destroyed their empire. We liberated all of the enslaved nations under their rule."
A satisfied little grin crossed Miko's face. "Good," she said.
Julia grinned back before setting her head on the floor. She needed her rest if she was going to endure.
With their mission accomplished on Toutaine Station, the Jayhawk returned to the Joyride Madonna. The Wild Geese withdrew from the station as well, prisoners and freed slaves in tow, leaving the station's former operators to reassert control when they could manage to regain command of the station's systems.
"It was interesting working with you again," said Chandra on the screen in the Jayhawk's small galley. "I hope the intel you picked up is what you're looking for."
"Thank you," Robert replied, seated at the table. Gina and Talara were seated with him. Lucy was at the stove frying an egg for her meal. All four were out of their armor, wearing an assortment of civilian clothing. "I hope those freed captives can find a better life."
"My boss has some connections to Lyra Saxon and her fellow philanthropists. They'll be well cared for. Chandra out."
The viewer disengaged. "Commencing hyperspace transit now," the Joyride Madonna's CI informed them. They felt the subtle shift of the ship around them at the transit.
For a moment afterward the only sound in the room was the sizzle of the egg on the stove. "Anyone want some?" Lucy asked, checking the small spice cabinet as she did. "I'm making my mother's recipe."
"Sounds delicious," Robert replied. As he spoke there was a clear weight to his voice, mirrored by the feeling within him that the other three all sensed. He held up a digital reader. "From the information we picked up, it looks like the SS got the universe coordinates from Gamma Piratus. They've set up shop in a Darglan outpost."
"Fassbinder must have accessed the databanks of the Facility during the fight," Lucy observed, glancing back to Robert before cracking open another egg. Again the pan let off a dizzle as the yolk hit the hot surface. "Or maybe some kind of data siphoning device was planted where we didn't see it."
"Possible," Robert agreed, distracted.
"Do we know for sure that Captain Andreys is being held there?" asked Talara.
After a moment of silence Robert nodded. "I can sense it. She is. But even if she wasn't, this is still a lead worth pursuing. Going by the logs this N1C4 universe base they have is one of their major ones." He eyed something on the files he was looking through. "And look who's listed as being in charge?"
With a swipe of his finger he loaded the file onto their omnitools. Gina and Talara read it. "Fassbinder," noted Gina.
"Exactly," said Robert.
"Gina, Talara, can you give us a minute?" asked Lucy.
The two glanced from her to Robert before nodding and leaving. Robert looked at Lucy as she came over and sat down beside him. "Let's talk about what happened on Toutaine Station," said Lucy.
"Not much to talk about," Robert said.
"You almost lost yourself," Lucy said. "I felt it. You let your anger take control. You know better, Robert."
"Yeah." He clenched a fist. "I do." There was clear shame in his green eyes, shame and pain. "But I… Lucy, I've felt Julia in pain. Hearing that monster mock what was being done to her, I just couldn't... "
"I know. I understand. But it worries me. This feeling you have of sensing Julia, I think it's causing you a lot of harm." Lucy reached over and set her hand on his arm. "I'm not saying you're not sensing her, I'm just worried about what it's doing to you. You're becoming unbalanced, frustrated. Angry. You're allowing your darkest emotions to come out."
"Yeah." Robert nodded. "It's just, I… I can feel it, Lucy. He's hurting her. He's hurting Julie. She's in terrible pain from what he's doing to her. And we have to get her back, but always seems like something's in the way…" He broke off speaking as a low sob broke his voice. "I can't lose her, you understand that, right? I can't lose her too. I… I don't think I can even stand the thought of it."
"I know." Lucy shifted the chair over and put her arm around his shoulders. "Rob, I do understand. I just don't want to see you break. I don't want you to become something she'd hate."
"I don't either," he said. "But I… what if I can't save her, Lucy? What if… what if Fassbinder moves her before we get there? What if we never get her back, and he just goes on hurting her until she dies from it, and… and I don't keep my promise to her?"
"Don't dwell on that," Lucy urged. "You're just hurting yourself. We will get her back."
He nodded in response. Lucy felt the fear within him persist, fear he struggled against, knowing what it was doing to him. He couldn't quite banish it despite everything. "Maybe Zack was right," he murmured. "Maybe I dragged everyone into this life without appreciating what it could mean."
"We made our choices, Robert, not you," Lucy said.
"But I'm the one who put the idea in your heads. And now… now it might… I feel responsible for this. For this all." Robert gestured at their surroundings. "I know it's not just me, I know you all signed up for your own reasons, but if I hadn't jumped at it, we wouldn't be out here, and Julia wouldn't be…" He shook his head, trying to regain composure, fighting to, and losing. Tears clouded his eyes. "I promised her I'd come for her. I promised."
"And you are. But right now, you need to get a handle on your emotions so you can keep that promise. And you need a good meal." Lucy stood up and returned to the stove. "Including a slightly-singed egg."
He gave her a knowing look. "Only slightly-singed?"
"Well, one is. The other… egh." Lucy made a face and shook her head. "I should've finished cooking before playing therapist."
Despite everything, Robert let out a low chuckle. He wiped at his eyes. "Well, I need to get my game face on."
"We should be at Avalon soon," he said. "And I'll need to get King Galahad's help for what I've got in mind."
"It won't take much to get him on your side," Lucy remarked. "As long as your epic storytelling has improved since last year."
A determined look came to his face. "I guess we're about to find out."
The command staff of the Aurora gathered again in the conference lounge off the bridge. "All systems repaired, sir," Scott confirmed for them. "Th' Quarians did a fine job with th' work, I'll tell ye. Widnae mind havin' a few of them on my staff."
"Perhaps you will one day, Commander Scott," Meridina said. She noted the feelings of the others at seeing her in Julia's chair, wearing a Captain's rank insignia. They bore her no dislike, but the entire situation was a frustration. An understandable one.
"So what are our orders now?" Angel asked.
"Admiral Maran will call shortly to give us our assignment," she replied. "It will most likely be to join a defense fleet. For the time being, Lieutenant Tra'dur will act as Operations Officer and Commander Jarod as First Officer."
Jarod frowned at that, but his nod was one of assent. Tra'dur was up to the task of fulfilling his job. Locarno's second, Rawlins, was still in training for a command role. "It makes sense," he said.
"Have we heard anything from Rob?" Cat asked. "Has he found any clues?"
"Nothing yet, and the Jayhawk isn't responding to hails," Jarod replied. "But given were they're going, I'm not surprised. Whatever means they found of getting out to Toutaine, they're probably still in hyperspace. IU comms don't work."
"Do you think they'll let us go after Julia?" Cat then asked, looking concerned. "I mean, if Robert finds her?"
"It depends on whether they have the response fleet ready, and if they assign the Aurora to it," Locarno said. "I wouldn't get my hopes up."
There was a soft little sound of disappointment from Cat. Her sister, seated beside her, put a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
"Regardless of where we are going, we should make certain the ship is ready for combat. Commander Laurent?"
"Twenty fighters were lost in the battle, twice that number were damaged. Eight pilots and nine sensor officers survived from the lost craft," Laurent said. "That is the final count. We haven't replaced the lost fighters yet, and we won't unless the fleet sends them out. I have deactivated Fox Squadron and reorganized the others to bring the other squadrons up to full strength once fighter repairs are complete. Give us another ten hours and all remaining fighters will be ready for combat."
"We've got a fresh load of solar torpedoes," Jarod confirmed. "And we replaced crew losses with transfers from the Pisces, Rembrandt, and Maimonides. If we end up in a combat situation, we're stocked for it."
"Very well. I…"
Meridina was interrupted by a tone and the voice of Tra'dur. "Captain, we have Admiral Maran on comms."
"Please relay him to the conference lounge, Lieutenant." Meridina and the others looked to the main viewer behind her head, where Maran's image appeared. "Admiral, the Aurora is prepared to resume field operations."
"Good. We're sending you to Avalon, Universe S0T5. King Galahad personally requested your presence to secure the system. You will be under Avalonian command until further notice."
Meridina nodded. Behind her the others exchanged looks, many of them hiding their feelings. "Understood. We will arrive as quickly as possible. Might I ask on the effort to find the SS operating bases?"
"We've made some headway, but we're still gathering the response fleet. The need to establish defenses is delaying us. But we can't afford to allow the Reich to raid our worlds at will, so it's a sacrifice we must make."
"Indeed. Is there anything else?"
"When you have a target, can we be with the strike force?" Angel asked.
Maran considered Angel's request. "I'm afraid that's unlikely, unless Avalon is secure by that time." After a moment he gave them a reassuring look. "If we secure an SS base and discover Captain Andreys or her location, I will inform you as soon as it is practical. You have my word."
"Thank you, Admiral," Meridina said on the others' behalf. "Mi rake sa swevyra iso."
"Mi rake sa swevyra iso," he responded, after which he disappeared.
There was no hiding the disappointment in the assembled. Meridina acknowledged it with a nod. "Julia would want us to ensure the Alliance's security," she reminded them gently. "Should the worst come to pass, that is how we should honor her memory."
There was clear anger on the faces of Zack and Angel, but aside from that nobody said anything. Meridina gave Zack a worried look before saying, "You are all dismissed."
The assembled officers got up to leave, all save Zack, who lingered while deep in thought. Meridina turned back to him. "Your anger is misdirected," she said.
"No, it's not," Zack retorted. "It's damn well not. Davies is playing politics, I know it. That's how he operates. It's why Julia's being listed presumed dead, he doesn't want us looking for her because he wants an opening to put one of his people on the Aurora."
"I suspect Admiral Maran will be unwilling to do so."
"You're assuming he can stop it. Think about it, Meridina. These attacks happened on Maran's watch. Even if there was nothing he could have done to prevent them, people are going to blame him anyway. It's what people do. And Davies is going to take advantage."
"Perhaps. Either way, we must trust in Robert's efforts, and that Julia will be found."
"I just hope she's alive. And… whole."
Meridina sensed his thoughts at that. Of the catatonic, or nearly-catatonic, prisoners liberated from Nazi control. He was tormenting himself with finding Julia alive but such a broken shell of a person that she was never the same again. Or with not finding her alive at all, but merely confirmation of her death, a lonely and painful death at the hands of SS cruelty. "You dwell very much on such terrible possibilities. Do not forget that Julia is a strong and willful person. She will do what she can to resist, and we may yet recover her whole."
Zack nodded. There was little conviction in it. "That's what I hope to see," he said. "But we all hoped the war was over, and yet… it never was." He stood up. "I'd better get back to the Koenig. You may need us."
"A good idea, Commander. Thank you for anticipating the possible need."
Zack said nothing before leaving.
The journey to Avalon required two interuniversal jumps and a few hours at warp between them. The second jump deposited them in the arrival zone of Avalon's system. Nearby the garden planet and its single moon continued their slow orbit of Avalon's G3 sequence star. Multiple ships were on site, enough that Jarod outwardly mused, "The system looks pretty secure to me."
"They may fear a major attack, either by the SS or other elements seizing advantage of our current situation," Meridina pointed out. "Inform System Command that we are ready to assume system defense duties."
Tra'dur nodded. "Aye Captain… we are getting a signal."
"They wish to speak with us?"
"No Captain." The Dilgar shook her head. "Captain, it's the Jayhawk. They're asking permission to dock and..." She turned back to face Meridina. "...and are advising us to prepare for interuniversal jump."
Robert and Lucy arrived on the bridge to find the others waiting, clearly mystified. "We did it," he said, walking up to Jarod and handing him a data disk. "Universal and spatial coordinates for the base where Fassbinder operates from, straight from an SS armed transport."
Jarod took the disk and used his omnitool to scan its contents. "Universe N1C4," he noted. "It's not on any of our lists."
"They got it from the Gamma Piratus Facility." There was an eager tone in his voice. "We should get going. The longer we wait, the more time the SS has to bail out when they realize their location is compromised."
"I am afraid we cannot," Meridina said. "We have direct orders from Admiral Maran to secure Avalon. We are under Avalonian command until further notice."
The others expected Robert to react negatively, or at least insist on taking the Koenig. Instead he actually grinned. "Go ahead and put King Galahad on, then. Since he's effectively in command. Actually, if you'll let me…"
Using his omnitool Robert re-established the short-term comm channel he'd used to talk with Galahad earlier. The stout, solidly-built King of Avalon appeared on the bridge holo-viewer, his full beard of gray and white long enough to cover his upper chest, partially obscuring the rich regal robes he was clad in. He looked almost like Santa Claus, if Santa Claus were a hard-partying, boisterous bruiser of a monarch who seemed to be permanently bellowing. "Ah, Sir Robert!" he declared. "I see your vessel has arrived!"
"It has. Captain Meridina is currently in command."
"Ah, good, good! A Knight of Gersal you are, Lady Meridina, I do recall that. Perfect for the mission of securing Avalon's honor!"
Meridina sensed the confusion of the others, much like her own. Robert and Lucy did not share it. "My orders were to secure Avalon, Majesty," she replied politely. "I am ordered to place my ship under your command."
"Indeed, and as I requested, you will secure our honor by reclaiming the Lady Julia from the foul clutches of our enemies!"
Jarod gave Robert and Lucy a bewildered look.
Meridina took a moment to consider the situation before nodding politely. "I understand, Your Majesty. And I thank you for giving us the opportunity to perform this duty. Our honor is also at stake."
"I would assume so, and it warms my heart to have the chance to grant you this quest! The stories they will tell of this day, why, they will be grand! Knights rescuing knights always makes for glorious tales! Now, I will not keep you any longer. Sir Robert, I will relay the information you provided to Admiral Maran upon your departure. Now go forth, heroes of the Alliance! Go forth and bring Lady Julia home!"
Galahad's image disappeared from the screen. The others all looked to Robert and Lucy. "This was all you?" Cat asked.
"Much of it," Robert admitted. "The response fleet isn't going to be ready for another day, at least, and Maran would be reluctant to go in before then. But we can survey the area and be in position to call ships in if they start to flee. And if we have an opening..." His green eyes hardened. "...then we go in. I'm not leaving her with them one moment more than is absolutely necessary."
"And since we took out one of their armed transports at Toutaine, it won't be long before they know we're coming," said Lucy. "So we should get going."
"We've made two IU jumps today already," Jarod noted.
Meridina responded by triggering the ship intercom. "Bridge to Engineering."
"Engineerin' here," answered Scott.
"Commander, we have the location where Captain Andreys is being held, and orders from King Galahad to see to her rescue. We will need to commence another interuniversal jump. Can the drive take it."
There was no hesitation from the other end. "To get our lass back? Ye dinnae need t' ask, sir. She'll manage. Might need some time t' get her ready for th' jump home, but she'll get ye there."
"Understood," said Meridina. "Lieutenant, set drive coordinates to N1C4. Mister Locarno, use the positioning data provided to plot a course the moment we are through."
"Aye Captain" and "Aye Ma'am" were the responses.
Moments later the Aurora generated and entered an emerald-colored vortex, off to reclaim her captain.
As always, Julia had no way of knowing how long she'd dozed off. When she awoke she looked across the way and into the other cell. Her fellow captive was seated up by the field now. One of her fists was clenched with what seemed like frustration. Julia noticed her eyes were reddened, as if she'd been crying. "Hey," she said weakly.
Miko glanced her way. Her amber-toned eyes focused on Julia with equal parts pity and frustration. "You're awake," she said. "What are they doing to you? It's not just the chair?"
"No. They're torturing me between sessions," Julia admitted frankly. She gestured to the way her skin seemed to glitter. "Some kind of nanobots that signal pain into my nerve endings."
Miko's other hand clenched. "I'm sorry," she said.
"Not your fault," Julia said. "You're just a prisoner too."
"How did they take you?" Miko asked.
"They attacked a world, well, it's basically my home," Julia answered. "When I'm not on my ship."
"Your ship? What kind of ship?"
"I command a starship called the Aurora," Julia replied. "I'm a Captain in the service of the United Alliance of Systems."
"A vessel that travels between solar systems, through deep space," Julia elaborated.
Miko nodded in understanding. "A voidship, then. You command a voidship? My mother used to as well, when I was little. She left the service to raise me."
Julia felt intense curiosity over Miko. Was she Human or simply Humanoid? What kind of culture did she come from? After considering all of the possible questions, Julia started off with the same Miko gave her before. "How did they take you?"
Miko's expression betrayed anger, at the SS and herself. "I was visiting an outlying colony when the SS attacked it. I joined the colonists in trying to fight them off, but they were too powerful. They… they killed so many…" Miko let out a low, pained sob. "And they threatened to kill more if I didn't surrender. So I did, to protect the other people. But…"
Julia immediately saw where this was going. "The SS killed everyone anyway."
"They're so vicious and just evil, I…"
Their conversation came to an abrupt end at the sound of boots on the floor. Fassbinder appeared with guards. He looked into Julia's cell and smiled thinly. "I have seen off my guests and had a short rest, now it is time to resume our session. You may yet have secrets we can find of use."
At the snap of his fingers the two guards lowered the field and entered to grab Julia. She couldn't resist beyond scowling at Fassbinder. They forced her to her feet and dragged her off.
Once in the uncharted universe, the Aurora immediately warped away from her arrival point, bound for the coordinates the recovered intel showed for the SS-held base in N1C4. On the Aurora bridge Cat was focusing entirely on her sensor returns.
In the center of the bridge, Jarod gave Meridina an interested look. "You seem distracted," he said.
"I feel an… oddness about this place," she answered. "Within the Flow of Life. But it is not debilitating to me as the Fracture was, so please do not be concerned."
Jarod nodded. "Right." After a moment's pause he said, "Have you thought about appealing to the Promotion Board on the issue? With the fleet re-mobilizing we need all of the experienced Captains we can get."
"That is true. But I have less than a year of starship command experience. A vessel like the Aurora would be unacceptable as a first command to many. Julia's appointment undoubtedly cost Maran much influence."
"A new captain is going to be hard on the crew," Jarod observed.
"I know. But we must persevere. Julia would want that from us." Meridina focused inward for a moment before asking, "Lieutenant Delgado, do you have anything on sensors?"
"No ships yet. Something that might be a faint warp trail. And there's a sort of spatial distortion in this area of space. From what I can tell, we're along the outer edge of it. But unless we get closer I can only speculate on the source. And it could be just about anything."
"Log the results and keeping scanning. We may come upon an enemy ship at any time."
Cat nodded in reply. "Yes sir," she said.
Sharp pain filled Julia's head. The Aurora Chair was on, full-power, drilling into her mind to extract memories to display. She let out a breath and focused herself on happy memories. Memories of playing with Robert when they were little, running through the wheat fields of the Dale family farm under a warm summer sun. She thought back to those peals of laughter at all of their games and chases.
The same memories played on the viewer beside the chair. Fassbinder watched the scene with growing frustration. She couldn't hold out much longer… could she? The chair was so powerful. Her mind should be failing to it. But so far… nothing. Nothing even remotely useful, indeed, very little even remotely relevant.
With a curt hand signal Fassbinder had the chair turned off. Julia lost some of the tension in her body while under the machine's mental invasion. Fassbinder stepped up to the chair and glared into her eyes. "This defiance is pointless," he said. "The more you hold out, the harder the Chair will break you in the end! This petty resistance will do nothing for you!"
Julia met his eyes and bit into her lip, as if denying herself the passionate response she felt in her heart. Instead she leveled a look at him and said, in measured tones, "Andreys, Julia Megan. Captain. Serial Number Bravo Zero Zero Zero Three One Zero One Hotel One Echo Four."
"Still fighting, Kapitan? Do you think fighting will make it easier? That resistance will reduce your suffering in some way?" Fassbinder's right hand went for the gauntlet on his left forearm. "We'll see about that." His finger found the key for the nanobots.
Robert and Lucy were in the Lookout when she noticed the color drain from his face. He gasped in shock and gripped the table. His right hand locked up, releasing his fork to clatter onto the plate before him.
He took in a breath. "He's torturing Julia again," Robert finally said. "I… I can feel it."
Lucy swallowed and extended a hand. "We're going after her, okay? Focus."
"I… I am. It's different here, though. I can feel it. Not like before, stronger. Like… like whatever he's doing… " He let go of the table. While he was still pale, Robert was at least moving his hand again. "God, Lucy, the pain she's in."
Lucy didn't sense the same, but she sensed how Robert was feeling it. A constant, savage pain, general to the whole body, no obvious cause to promise relief. "She won't be for long," Lucy urged. "Now, focus and try and block it out. Will the connection to quiet."
Robert drew in a breath, a long one. Color started to return to his cheeks. Lucy could sense that he hadn't entirely banished the feeling, however. His connection to Julia was too intense for that. "Doesn't this place feel odd to you?" he asked.
"A little, I suppose. It's not the Fracture, at least."
"God no, just one visit was enough for me." Robert shook his head. "It's just… there's something with the Flow of Life here." As he spoke, Robert felt the pain intensify. He winced in sympathy and kept his focus. It's not my pain, he thought. I have to block it out, I have to be functional. As those thoughts filled his head, angrier thoughts about Fassbinder followed, and he forced them away too.
Lucy sensed all this. To help Robert keep his attention focused, she continued their current conversation. "It feels like the Flow of Life is diverted," she said. "Not weakened, just… like it's weaved in with something. Something we can't sense."
"Right." Robert nodded. "I don't think it'll have an effect on what we do, though. It won't undermine us like the Fracture would."
"Agreed." Lucy took another bite. "Something to consider for later anyway…"
Klaxons filled the Lookout, red lights appearing by the doors. "Ship Status is now Code Red. All hands man battle stations. Repeat, status is now Code Red…" the computer informed them.
Robert and Lucy rose from their seats and left for the bridge.
By the time they arrived the command crew was in position. Jarod was now in a uniform with burgundy red command trim color, although his rank insignia remained that of a Lieutenant Commander. He sat beside Meridina at the First Officer's chair, turning and looking up at them. "We picked up an SS cruiser on long-range sensors," he explained. "We're on an intercept course now."
"The Koenig just completed in-warp launch, Captain," Tra'dur confirmed. "They are cloaking."
"Fighter squadrons are ready for launch," Jarod added.
With nothing to do on the bridge, Robert and Lucy took seats toward the rear and harnessed themselves in. At her station, Cat called out, "SS cruiser on sensors, Tannenburg-class. I've also got another ship, but the configuration is unknown. And the power signature, it's… new. It's not matching anything I've seen before. Nothing in the databanks either."
"Interception in five minutes," Locarno said. "Maintaining Warp 9.8."
"Are they allied to the SS or opposed?" Robert asked.
"I'm not sure yet. We're not close enough for me to…" Cat stopped long enough to check her sensors. "...okay, they're fighting. I'm picking up weapons fire."
"Accelerate, Mister Locarno," Meridina ordered. "Bring us in now."
"Accelerating to 9.86. Interception in fifteen seconds."
The Aurora dropped out of warp within weapons range of the two ships. The Nazi cruiser looked like any other they'd seen under SS command: black hull, a swastika emblem on the dorsal bow, and the sides of the ship marked with the twin lightning bolt runes.
It was now beside a vessel of dark gray coloring. It was a single-hulled ship, broad and flat in shape. Visible warp nacelles pulsed red, integral to the ship's hull to either side of its aft sections. A visible bridge area was built into the bow. Any markings were in the areas of the hull burnt black from weapons fire, with multiple hull breaches present.
"Hail the other ship," Meridina said.
Tra'dur attempted to do so. "No response," she said.
"Looking at the readings, I think their comm systems are down, possibly destroyed," Cat added.
"SS ship is locking on," Tra'dur warned.
"Fire," Meridina said.
The Aurora's main guns opened up on the Tannenburg-class ship. The cruiser's shields held briefly under the barrage from the sapphire bolts… and then yielded, broken down by the full power of the Aurora's bow batteries.
"Alpha Squadron, on me," Laurent said over the comms. "Bravo and Charlie, engage."
The three squadrons raced ahead of the Aurora and hit the cruiser with a full barrage of torpedoes. With its shields broken down, the SS ship was helpless against the attack. One by one, white-blue sparks collided with the SS ship, blasting through armored hull into sections below. A strike to its antimatter fuel reserves atomized it in a white fireball.
"Enemy ship destroyed. And going by these readings, I think they were beaming people over to the second ship while we approached," said Cat.
"Boarding parties," suggested Jarod. "We should probably render assistance."
"Agreed," said Meridina. She tapped her command chair control. "Commander Richmond, Major Anders, prepare teams immediately to repel boarders on a possibly friendly vessel."
As the two gave confirmation, Robert and Lucy released the harness straps holding them to their chairs. "We'll join the counter-boarding teams," Robert said.
"Mi rake sa swevyra iso," Meridina replied.
By the time Robert and Lucy were at Transporter Station 1, the Aurora was alongside the unknown vessel. Over the comms they consulted with Anders and Richmond. Lucy would join Anders in beaming near the other ship's engineering spaces, where weapons fire was being detected. Robert, Richmond, and security forces would beam in close to the bridge. Talara was joining the second wave, as was Gina.
Once they materialized Robert and Richmond headed forward through the ship. The corridors were lined by walls of dark red metal with gray flooring. Along the way they found bodies at some of the junctions. Some were SS, and others were Human or Human-like forms in uniforms of dark red and gold.
Behind him, Richmond and her teams swept forward. "Weapons fire in this direction," Richmond said, facing a corridor leading to port. "Disruptor fire and an unknown signature."
Robert nodded. At the fringe of his senses he could sense something, a ripple in the Flow of Life. "You go that way. I'll go this way." He indicated the way ahead.
"Right. Lindstrom, your squad is with the Captain. The rest of you, with me."
WIth Lieutenant Lindstrom and his squad behind him, Robert moved on. After passing several closed spaces, he found metal steps that led to an upper deck. Robert vaulted up them, leaving his security escort behind. He wouldn't get too far ahead of them, or at least he wouldn't try to, but he was eager to find the source of this feeling he was sensing. The sense was not quite like a biotic, he thought, remembering how Shepard and Kaidan and Wrex sometimes made his heightened senses feel whenever they employed biotics.
A port door ahead slid open. He emerged onto an upper deck area for a large bridge area. Control stations nearby were empty and below him the sounds of fighting continued. He went up to a railing looking out over the main bridge of the ship.
It was clearly meant to be a flag bridge, with what looked like a large command holotank in the center. Around it were stations for command staff officers. Further forward were seats for the command crew and stations for, Robert presumed, the rest of the ship.
The SS boarders were mixed. There were no Panzergrenadiers among them, but there were men in combat armor, and all were firing disruptor weapons at the bridge crew. The bridge crew in turn, clad in the same uniforms he'd seen among the slain, sticked to cover while firing rifles. Beams of purple energy sizzled in the air, a couple hitting SS targets, some not.
But his attention was immediately drawn to figures who were not armed, yet emerged from cover. Again he felt a ripple through the Flow of Life, such that despite the difference he half-expected to see them hurl dark matter or some other form of biotic power at their foes.
But instead of the purplish-blue bolts of biotic power he was familiar with, Robert watched as red-hot flame erupted from the palms and fists of the defenders, creating violent projectiles. It was a surprise to see it, especially as it became clear they weren't using mechanical flamethrowers of some kind, but generating flame from nothing.
No, not from nothing. From their own life energy.
One figure in particular jumped past the others, using the return fire as cover to close with the boarders. The woman was on the lithe side and quite agile, evading a shot as she drew close. She jumped in the air and twirled, her leg outstretched in a kick. Pure blue flame seemed to erupt from her heel as it swept through the air, creating a powerful arc of blue flame that slammed into the SS forces, setting them alight or otherwise forcing them back. The attacker turned when she hit the ground and made a punching motion with her fist. Another tongue of blue flame moved through the air at another of the SS boarders. The man screamed as blue flame enveloped him.
All the while, Robert sensed these attacks through the Flow of Life. It was something he'd never seen before, that he'd never known was possible. But there was no denying the truth of what he was seeing.
Below him more SS forced themselves through a side door. The lead figure was exposed; she would be gunned down before she could retreat to cover. Robert jumped down between her and the SS reinforcements, his lightsaber igniting in mid-air. He intercepted the fire, sending the beams back into their shooters. One disappeared in a haze of emerald energy, two more going down to the reflected beams as well. Robert lifted his hand and willed their compatriots to fly backward. The universe answered his will and they did just that, slamming into the far bulkhead with enough force to knock them out. He repeated the action with the squad behind them, knocking them back through the door they'd entered through. With his will he forced the door shut, cutting off that entry to the bridge. A check of his omnitool confirmed that Lindstrom and his squad were approaching the same, taking the SS under fire. Trapped against the bridge door, they went down quickly.
Robert turned and found the armored figure staring at him. Her eyes were a light brown, amber in tone, and there was an intensity in them beyond the rush of combat. Her hair was dark, brown bordering on black, pulled into a tail at the back of her head kept in place by a gold metal band with a red flame crest on it. Robert sensed she was older than her barely-middle age appearance suggested. Behind her, her crew were turning their attention to him now that the SS boarding teams were driven from the bridge. "Who are you?" the woman demanded. "What are you doing here?"
Given how on edge the woman was, not to mention her crew, Robert extinguished his lightsaber to emphasize he wasn't a threat to them. "My name is Robert Dale, a Paladin of the United Alliance of Systems," he replied, trusting in the auto-translator to make his speech understandable for them. "I'm here to find a close friend of mine captured by our enemies." He gestured toward the fallen SS on the bridge. "We'd like to help you, if you'll let us."
The woman's eyes narrowed slightly. But only slightly, and only for a moment, as she made her judgement of him. Robert felt her concern and surprise give way to curiosity… and a flicker of hope. "I see. We did not expect to find friends," she said.
"Can I ask your name, and what you're out here for?" Robert asked.
"Yes," she replied. Her voice took on a firm, determined tone. "I am Princess Ursa of the Fire Nation, a Captain of the Fire Nation Void Navy, and I have come to free my daughter Miko." She gave Robert an inquisitive look. "We accept your offer of aid."
Lucy felt the danger and rushed through the engineering spaces of the vessel. The dead and wounded were around her, but for the moment they were best served by stopping whatever the SS had in mind.
She found an entrance leading onto catwalks in an engine chamber of some size. The power plant was visible enough, purple light glowing from its inner compartment, while wounded and dying figures were visible on the catwalks and below on the main deck. Near the wounded, two armed SS men were raising rifles to fire.
Her lightsaber flashed to life with an electronic snap-hiss. The noise drew their attention, too late for Lucy to rip the weapons from their hands with her will. She closed the gap as they went for other weapons. Two slashes were all that was necessary to put them down for good.
Ignoring the sensation of life extinguishing, Lucy looked down at the lower level. The SS teams were trying to get to the power plant, from the look of things, but were being held off by two figures who either were or resembled Humans of East Asian heritage. One was a woman, shaved mostly bald save for a tail of brown hair at the back of her head, wearing monastic robes of yellow and orange that left her thin arms of corded muscle bare. Beside her, a tan-complexioned man in a suit of green and beige stood in a ready stance, his dark hair cut short. Lucy noticed his left hand was held out toward a floating plate of what looked like a metal. It absorbed green disruptor beams that tried to strike both.
Recognizing the danger to the two, Lucy ran up to a point above the two groups before she jumped down. She landed in time to deflect a shot with her lightsaber and into another trooper, who went down with a bad disruptor burn on the shoulder. To keep the SS off-balance Lucy threw out a wave of force, an inelegant but effective strike that knocked two over and left the rest unsteady.
The two defenders behind her joined the attack. She felt energy rippling around her through the Flow of Life, in a way that reminded her somewhat of biotics. The woman twirled on one foot, as if gathering energy, and then thrust her hands forward. A gust of tornado-strength wind slammed into one of the boarders, throwing him back into the bulkhead near the entrance with enough force to knock him unconscious.
The other man made motions in the air with his arms, as if throwing something. Metal plates flew from the man's belt in time with these motions. Some flew in at an angle to cut flesh, others seemed to curve, forming solid bands around the wrists or ankles of the boarders, subduing them and disarming at the same time.
The return fire could have easily killed both, but Lucy's arms were almost a blur as she caught said fire, directing it away. Her lightsaber zipped through the air intercepting every shot while her new comrades of the moment used their unique abilities to their fullest. It was easy to notice the theme; one seemed to control the air, moving and shifting it, and the other focused on guiding his metal weapons in to bind or disarm the SS.
The arrival of Anders and his Marines swiftly brought the fight to an end. Through the doors they came, pulse rifles blazing, and the remaining SS were caught in the crossfire. Seconds after their arrival the SS were down, defeated or dead.
Seeing Anders, Lucy shut off her lightsaber and called out, "I think they were planting bombs."
"They were," he confirmed, his voice somewhat tinny through the electric speakers of his helmet. "I'm trained in EOD, my Marines will handle it."
"Right." She turned and faced the two defenders, who were astonished and curious. She sensed the questions forming in their minds and said, "I'm Lucy Lucero from the United Alliance of Systems. We're here to help."
The two nodded. The woman spoke first. "We are grateful for your intervention, Lucy Lucero. I am Yeshe Beifong. This is my cousin Komin."
"The man I was just talking to is Major Gabriel Anders, the Commander of Marine Troops on the Alliance Starship Aurora, where I'm based from," she explained. "We're already clearing your ship of boarders. We're here to…"
"Attention all assistance parties." The voice was Tra'dur, over on the Aurora. "Nazi vessels are entering range. We are raising shields and engaging."
The arriving SS cruisers were a formidable formation, another two Tannenburg-class ships accompanied by two smaller ships, Innsbruck-class cruisers. Together they posed a formidable, though not insurmountable, threat to the Aurora.
On the bridge of the Aurora Meridina responded to the arrival with engagement orders. The holotank beside Jarod's seat showed the relative position of the Koenig, nearby and under cloak, ready to engage. "Are they launching fighters?"
"Yes," Tra'dur confirmed.
Jarod was already at his controls. "I'll detail the fighters and Koenig to deal with one of the cruisers."
"Excellent. Tactical, fire when they're in range."
That range came moments later. The Aurora's main batteries opened up, battering away at the shields of one of the smaller Innsbruck-class ships. The Koenig rippled into view from "above" the ships, adding its firepower to the attack. The fighter wings of the two groups met in the space between the Aurora and the cruisers, exchanging missiles and energy fire.
Disruptor beams sliced through the open space and into the Aurora's shields. Angel triggered plasma fire in retaliation, focusing her fire on the weaker Innsbruck-class ships to knock them out of the fight.
Meridina activated the comm system to link to Robert and the others. "Boarding teams, what is the status of the friendly ship? We may need their assistance."
On the other vessel, Robert was being joined by Talara and a couple of security personnel when Meridina's call came. He looked toward Ursa, who was seeing to the wounded of her crew. "Enemy reinforcements have arrived," he said. "Can your ship help to fight them off?"
"The General Iroh has suffered extensive damage in our previous battle," Ursa answered. "But we may be able to get sufficient power to our weapons and engines to aid your ship. Another matter is that many of the crew have been wounded or lost in this battle, including our helmsman."
"We'll provide what aid we can," Robert replied. He glanced back to Talara. "Lieutenant, take a look at their helm controls, if you think you can operate them…"
"Yes sir," Talara said, recognizing his intent. While it was likely many personnel on the ship had at least some helm training, helm operation in combat demanded more. She approached the vacant station forward of the command pit and glanced at the controls. They were physical controls, switches and levers and a prominent wheel. She couldn't read the ideograph-based language on the controls. She drew in a breath and focused inward, sensing their intent through her power instead. As she came to recognize the controls in question, she started working them slightly, getting a feel for them.
Gradually she became aware of intense attention from the others. She glanced toward a uniformed man standing beside her. "Is there something wrong?"
"I have never seen a spirit like you before," the man said.
"Spirit? I am a Falaen." A tone from the helm station drew Talara's attention back to it. She didn't recognize the characters that flashed red, but a moment's consideration gave her insight into the meaning. "It would appear that the ship's engines are inoperable. We cannot maneuver."
At her chair Ursa flipped a switch. "This is the bridge. Engineering, concentrate repairs on the engine systems. We need combat capability." Several moments passed without a hint of reply. "Engineering?"
Robert tapped at his omnitool. "Dale to Lucero. What's the status of Engineering?"
"Secured, but there's some damage in the section. And a lot of dead and wounded."
A hard look was on Ursa's face. "Is Chief Lee there?"
A couple of moments passed and another male voice, one Robert was unfamiliar with, came over the line, "He was wounded, Highness."
Ursa seemed relieved to hear the voice. "Komin. You are well?"
"I am, and so is Yeshe. We received aid from these newcomers just in time."
"Can you restore power? More enemy voidships have arrived. Our new allies are fighting them off, but they will need the General Iroh in the fight."
"I'll get right to it," was the reply.
When Komin's conversation with whomever was on the bridge was over, Lucy watched him turn to the reactor. His cousin gave him a look Lucy thought of as wry. "You have always wanted to work on a Varrick generator," she noted.
"I never imagined doing it in a situation like this," he confided.
Lucy walked up to them and to the power plant. She felt a ripple through the Flow of Life from it. It reminded her, somewhat, of what she'd felt from the Balmera crystal powering the Castle of Lions. Although the energy itself didn't seem to come from the Flow of Life, merely disturbing it, making ripples in it.
As she examined it, Lucy felt a sense of something wrong. The machine was being held back. She realized it was likely broken or damaged power relays. She followed one of the lines until she found a point of damage, likely from a disruptor bolt. "Here," she said aloud. "Damaged lines."
Komin followed where her eyes were looking. "Good eye."
"Not just my eyes. Let's get to work."
With a friendly ship to protect, the Aurora was at an inherent disadvantage. Multiple disruptor bolts struck at her shields, green beams causing blue energy to flicker into view where the deflectors resisted their power. On the Aurora bridge Tra'dur stated, "Shields now at fifty-six percent."
At tactical Angel focused the ship's main weapons on a damaged Innsbruck. The pulse plasma cannons built into the bow sent ten distinct streams of thick, sapphire pulses into the enemy ship. This time they slammed through the shields of the SS cruiser and ripped into the main hull, wrecking entire sections of the ship. A spread of torpedoes inflicted further carnage on the light cruiser, leaving it with great massive wounds.
Angel didn't get a chance to finish it off, as one of the heavier Tannenberg-class ships moved into position to take her next shot instead. Missiles erupted from its launcher, aimed directly at the Aurora. The particle interceptors spewed fire into the missiles' path to take them out before they struck, but only some were destroyed before the salvo crashed into the shields. "Shields now at forty-nine percent," Tra'dur said.
"I'm doing what I can," said Locarno, "but keeping us in a position to shield the other ship is reducing my choices."
"We must give them time," insisted Meridina, while the ship shook around them again.
Lucy's lightsaber made another cut, severing the damaged trunk line for one of the General Iroh's main power conduits. "There," she said.
Komin nodded. Lucy watched with interest as he used his gifts to move a new section of trunk line into position. She felt his power ripple and the result of it, as the interior lines pressed together until the connection was restored. He rotated his hands together and motioned as if compacting something between them. Metal shrieked lowly and the new section of trunk pressed into shape with the rest.
"That was a five minute welding job," she said aloud. "You did it in less than a minute."
"I'm a Beifong of Zaofu," he replied. "I've been training in Metalbending since I was a child. It runs in the family."
Lucy felt a number of questions welling up within her that she would file away for later. "What's the status on the power systems?" she asked into her omnitool.
"Looking at their readouts, main power is still cut from the engine assembly," replied Anders. "But you've restored full life support and weapons."
"Relay that to the bridge. We'll go to the next break." Lucy moved on, Komin following, both carrying the necessary materials to effect repairs.
"That sword you have," Komin said. "I've never imagined anything like it."
"It's a lightsaber," Lucy said. "It's a personal weapon for people with my abilities."
"I've never seen Bending like yours," Komin said. "I thought you were an Airbender for a moment there, the way you threw those invaders back, but Yeshe didn't feel you move the air."
Lucy gave him a look brimming with curiosity, but she held it back for the moment. "I can discuss my abilities later, but right now…" They came up to another damaged section of power line. "Let's get this ship going."
Komin nodded and pulled out another section of power trunk cabling. Lucy measured it and re-ignited her lightsaber to make another cut. She felt the sense of warning just in time to brace herself. The deck lurched below them. "The ship's under fire," she said. "Let's get this done now."
A second barrage of disruptor fire sliced along the General Iroh's port side, sundering armor and carving a wound into the ship's hull. Weapon emplacements twisted to face the Tannenburg-class cruiser responsible for the wound. Brilliant purple energy retaliated, meeting the ruby gleam flaring of the Nazi cruiser's deflector shields.
On the other side of the SS vessel, beams of sapphire energy impacted against the cruiser's shields as well, the ship gaining the full attention of Angel Delgado on the Aurora. She acquired a hard target lock and continued the barrage, firing the port plasma cannons. Bigger brilliant beams of blue energy stabbed at the SS ship.
Nor did she ignore the other two craft. A spread of solar torpedoes erupted from the aft launcher toward the more stricken of the two Innsbruck-class cruisers, already badly hurt from the attack runs of Commander Laurent's fighters. The sparks of blue-white light crashed into the unshielded hull of the Nazi cruiser, exploding the blood-red port nacelle and blasting huge wounds in its port side. The aft-facing plasma pulse cannons erupted in sapphire furry, the bolts crashing into those wounds. The enemy cruiser blew apart in a series of explosions.
But that was merely one of four ships in the fight. Even as the Aurora moved to aid the General Iroh, two cruisers remained to focus fire on her. The larger of the ships, another Tannenburg, also fired a disruptor barrage into the path of the Koenig, slashing across the attacker's shields as it bore down on the remaining Innsbruck.
The bridge shook under Zack's feet. At Ops Lieutenant Commander Magda Navaez, his Operations Officer and First Officer, reported, "Shields now at sixty-two percent."
"Continue attack run," he responded
"Yes sir," came the replies from Lt. April Sherlily at Tactical and Lt. Jean Hajar at the helm.
The pulse phaser cannon emitters installed beside the forward-swept warp nacelles of the Koenig opened up, spitting furious amber-toned energy in bolts at the smaller of the two cruisers ahead. Solar torpedoes followed the bolts in, all crashing against thee cruiser's shields and continuing to degrade them.
As the Koenig peeled away to begin another attack run, Delta and Echo Squadrons from the Aurora fighter wing followed them in, firing torpedoes as well and evading the rapid-fire disruptor bolts of the cruisers' point defenses. One fighter took a direct hit from said defenses and nearly disintegrated, the pilot and sensor officer ejecting from their stricken craft a moment later.
The torpedoes hit home. The Tannenburg-class ship's shields held, but the other cruiser's shields faltered, losing cohesion. Recognizing his opportunity Zack bellowed, "Attack Plan Whiskey on secondary target, now!"
"Aye sir!" Hajar responded while performing the ordered maneuver. Under her control the Koenig whipped around in space, straining the G force-absorbing inertial dampeners as she did.
The moment Sherlily spoke, her finger triggered the pulse phaser cannons again. The Koenig's main battery was tremendously effective for a ship of her size. She was, essentially, a flying cruiser battery, and that meant her weapons were a threat to cruisers. With failing shields, the Innsbruck-class ship took damage directly from the Koenig's bow weapons. The bursts of phaser fire ripped into the Nazi vessel's hull, blasting chunks of metal and material from the wounds in said hull. Flame and atmosphere erupted in the wake of the hits.
And then the torpedoes hit home. One blew off a piece of the cruiser's nacelle, another wrecked a disruptor emitter. The others hit at points along the four hundred meter-long ship's hull, blasting more debris away from it, leaving the Innsbruck-class cruiser with significant system damage.
The cruiser's return fire continued, playing green disruptor beams over the Koenig's shields and over the Aurora's. It wasn't out of the fight yet. And its two larger allies were bracketing the Aurora with energy fire.
"Aurora's shields are down to thirty-five percent," Magda said. "They can't take much more of this."
"Return our focus to primary target," Zack said, frowning. That other ship had damn well better join us soon...
Another disruptor beam played over the dark-colored hull of the General Iroh, slicing away armor and hull material and exposing more sections to vacuum. "Breaches in void hull, forward decks, Sections 3 through 6," stated one of the bridge personnel.
Robert noticed Ursa and one of the older men, a man of kept dark hair and a stern expression, exchange looks. Ursa pressed at an intercom on her armrest. "Engineering, what is our status?"
The reply was from a young woman. "They are nearly done."
"We are under fire, we need power back now."
"That is understood."
The ship rocked again under Lucy's feet, nearly throwing off her aim as she cut free another damaged portion of the trunk line. The moment it fell away Komin moved a replacement into place with his Metalbending, tightening it and twining together the new connections..
"Princess Ursa is insistent that the ship's power must be restored shortly," Yeshe said over the internal comms.
"I'm sure she is, whoever she is," said Lucy. "But this takes time, even with abilities. We…"
"...are done," Komin pronounced. "That should be the final repair necessary."
Lucy ran a scan with her omnitool, confirming Komin's assessment. "Power's circulating freely through the system."
"Yeshe, the board in Engineering, is it…"
"...it is, cousin," came the reply. "The ship's engines have power once more."
Lucy immediately keyed her comms to Robert. "We've got engine power," she said.
On the General Iroh bridge, Talara noticed the warning signal disappear, turning to another ideograph glowing green. "The engines have power, Captain," she said. "Engaging drives." From her examination of the control board, she identified the engine thrust lever and pushed it forward.
"Present strong side to the enemy," Ursa ordered. "All weapons, fire at will."
Talara nearly asked what she meant, but she sensed Ursa's intentions and turned the ship to port.
The General Iroh's engines were firing already, due to Talara's initiative. Now they roared to full power. Powerful cannon mounts tracked toward what Robert considered the ship's starboard side. With power fully restored, the weapons were at full effectiveness again. They focused on the Tannenburg-class ship between the General Iroh and the Aurora. Brilliant beams of purple light lashed out in sequence, stronger than before, straining away the ruby-tinted shields of the SS vessel.
The Aurora's maneuvering picked up, the other ship freed now from the need to protect the motionless General Iroh. Robert watched its sapphire beams playing over the SS heavy cruiser's shields and knew Angel and Meridina saw the same opportunity; the chance to overwhelm the SS cruiser's shields and finish it off. Its sister ship was still laying into the Aurora, with the Koenig and the Aurora's fighters harassing it in turn, and the remaining Innsbruck-class cruiser contributing what fire it could given its damaged situation.
The battle wasn't over, but at least they had a shot now.
At that moment, his attention was diverted. Robert collapsed to his knees as phantom pain flooded his being, with it a distant scream of agony echoing in his mind.
Ursa noticed with concern. "What is wrong? Are you injured?" she asked.
"No. Not me," he croaked. "Julia… I can feel it… they're hurting her…"
In the healing chamber with the kohltou tanks, Fassbinder observed with satisfaction at the scream coming from Julia. She spasmed from the Eubian nanobots flooding her nerve endings with pain signals. From where he stood he sensed the enormity of it, the inescapable agony, and he delighted in it.
And there was something more to it now, he felt. He could feel something in Julia's being, the faint hint of a tether, a connection. What was it? Who was she connected to? His grin grew as he considered the possibilities and found further cause for enjoyment in them.
That satisfaction faded when he felt Julia's mind shut down. He'd pushed her too far. She was no longer conscious, and her body was failing from the abuse. He tapped the gauntlet key to shut down the nanobots and dialed down the electrical current to nothing. Another step and the kohltou's circulation picked up, ensuring she would heal effectively. That was the important part, indeed, the entire point of using the miracle fluid. It healed her body, restored some of its vitality, and ensured she would not die from the tortures he was inflicting. And there were so many more he had planned once they finished testing the Aurora Chair with her...
He sensed his approaching subordinate a moment before the Sturmbannführer entered the room. "Sieg Heil!" the man shouted, arm held up ramrod straight in a proper salute.
"Heil Kranefuss," Fassbinder replied, returning the salute. "Report, Sturmbannführer."
"We have received a message from Oberführer Franck of the Dogger Bank. His squadron is engaged with the Alliance vessel Aurora and one of the local civilization's ships."
Immediately Fassbinder realized the implications. A part of him surged with irritation: he'd hoped to have more time to make preparations before being discovered. But then again, this was precisely what he hoped, wasn't it? If they were coming in alone like this, that meant the Aurora and the Alliance were likely not ready for a major effort either.
"Well, how intriguing," he said. "Thank you, Sturmbannfuhrer. I now have much to plan." He looked to Julia's unconscious form floating in the kohltou. "Oh so much to plan," he said, cherishing the anticipation for the scheme forming in his mind.
Another disruptor beam struck at the Aurora, making the ship shudder. "Shields now to nineteen percent," Tra'dur reported. "Cohesion is faltering."
Angel did so happily as she directed more plasma fire to port on the faltering Tannenburg there. Their new ally likewise maintained a full barrage of brilliant purple energy, scouring the enemy ship and keeping its shields at the brink of collapse. Angel likewise directed a solar torpedo spread to aft at the Innsbruck-class ship limping up toward the rear.
The enemy cruiser's disruptors fired, weakening further the Aurora's. With her own gone, however, there was nothing to stop the solar torpedoes from striking. The hits to damaged hull proved too much. The light cruiser was blown apart.
"Two targets remaining," Angel crowed.
Meridina replied with a nod. 'Return fire to our main target"
"Koenig is moving to engage as well," added Jarod.
Meridina observed that process. Zachary's ship threaded the needle of friendly and hostile fire, coming in from a third angle on the enemy ship's ventral arc. The belly of the SS cruiser was barely-protected, their faltering shields desperately directed to repel the batteries of the Aurora and General Iroh.
With the rapidity of a bird of prey, the Koenig struck, diving "down" (by her own relation) at the belly of the enemy ship and opening up with full forward batteries. The shields on that arc failed after the first torpedo spread. The Koenig swung from left to right (relatively speaking), zig-zagging around oncoming fire as her pulse phaser cannons continued to rip through bare hull. Explosions flowered from the enemy ship at every impact. More solar torpedoes erupted from Koenig's launcher, each blowing out more and more guts of the cruiser.
The damage was telling. The enemy ship's shields failed, and now the General Iroh and Aurora joined in the slaughter, blue and purple beams cutting into the ship as it fell apart around its crew. The SS ship fired a last few shots in defiance, but did no appreciable damage before the cruiser went completely dark.
The Koenig shot away from it, and with good reason. Meridina steeled herself at the sensation of what was coming. Somewhere on the SS ship, someone on the crew intentionally shut down the magnetic fields confining the ship's antimatter fuel, allowing the volatile substance to make contact with ordinary matter. Opposites met and annihilated each other in a flare of brilliant energy, one that utterly consumed the cruiser in a white fireball.
That left one foe, the second Tannenburg, which was still firing on the Aurora while fending off the remaining fighters of the same. With the odds so clearly against them, the SS cruiser turned away. "They're preparing to go to warp," warned Cat.
Meridina considered the option of pursuit. But a glance at the battle damage told her it was not wise. This cruiser was still fairly intact, not very damaged at all, and the Aurora's shields were faltering with several systems already harmed in some way. A pursuit would be unwise. "Allow them," she said.
A moment later, the enemy ship warped away.
"Stand down to Code Yellow status, recall all fighters. Lieutenant Tra'dur, signal Robert and the others on the other vessel," said Meridina. "It would appear that we have conducted a first contact mission under fire."
"Yes Captain," replied Tra'dur.
Ship's Log: ASV Aurora; 23 October 2643 AST. Captain Meridina reporting. Our mission to recover Captain Andreys has resulted in an unexpected outcome, a first contact with a space-faring Human civilization native to N1C4. They are pursuing the SS exiles for their own purposes involving SS raids on their outlying colonies. We are currently providing assistance in repairs for the vessel we assisted, known as the General Iroh. I have alerted Defense Command to the first contact situation.
While there are certain aspects to their technology that are of interest, their 'Bending' capabilities are of the greater interest. It would seem the local Human civilization has developed a unique connection to the Flow of Life. I sense this may be why the Flow of Life feels different in this universe.
The Aurora and the General Iroh were now side by side in the middle of interstellar space. Mongoose fighters from the former were flying outward, forming a perimeter defense should SS ships arrive. The Koenig was patrolling the parsec around them for the same purpose.
Meridina and Jarod beamed aboard the General Iroh with one of the repair crews sent by Scotty. While the engineering personnel went off to help with repairs they were met by Yeshe. Meridina sensed a serenity in the young woman that would have fit well with the more contemplative members of the Order of Swenya. "You are Meridina and Jarod?" she asked.
"Please, follow me."
Yeshe led them further into the ship. Their ultimate destination was the officers' wardroom, with a table and chairs of tropical hardwood, the wall adorned with red banners and a gold flame insignia in the middle. Robert, Lucy, Talara, and Richmond were waiting there, with Ursa and Komin present. Meridina sensed vibrant life energy in both, as she did in Yeshe. It was a peculiar feeling, clearly linked to what her people considered an active, connected swevyra, but yet different than she was used to.
"Princess Ursa, Mister Beifong, this is Meridina and Jarod, the Acting Captain and the Operations Officer of the Koenig respectively." Robert turned to the two new arrivals. He seemed pale and tired. Meridina knew it couldn't just be from the fighting. "Meridina, Jarod, Princess Ursa of the FIre Nation and Komin Beifong. You've met his cousin Yeshe."
Meridina nodded. "I am pleased to meet both of you. Your ship's aid was timely in the battle."
"Your arrival was rather more timely," Ursa replied evenly. "We did not expect to find allies against the Invaders."
"That is your name for the Schutzstaffel, then? It seems fitting."
"These… 'Nazis' as you call them have raided several colonies on the frontiers of the Five Nations." Ursa was a woman of clear self-discipline, but the worry of a mother showed through it. "It was their last raid that claimed my daughter. The survivors told us they took her as a prisoner."
"Have they tried to ransom her?" asked Robert. "The SS wouldn't take a prisoner if they didn't need her for something."
"No. Nothing." Ursa clenched a fist. "We have been tracking them for two weeks in the attempt to find wherever their forces are based. We are certain it is not far from here, but the void is vast and the stars spread out."
"It is likely that they took your daughter to the same place they took Captain Andreys," Talara noted.
"The friend you have come to rescue?" Ursa nodded. "We have common cause then."
"That we do."
"You say you are from an Alliance. Will more of your people come to aid us?" asked Komin.
"We've informed them of where we are and of the first contact with your people," Jarod replied. "As things are, we're gathering our fleet to hit the Nazis back, but it may be a day or so before they can join us. We have many worlds that need protecting now that it's clear the SS have copied our interuniversal drive."
That last term caused clear bewilderment and uncertainty in the others. "Interuniversal drive?" asked Yeshe. "What do you mean by that?"
"It is a jump drive that generates temporary transit points between universes," Meridina replied. "It makes our civilization possible. Unfortunately, toward the end of our war with their Reich, the Reich's leadership completed the project to replicate the technology. Or, at least, their SS did."
"I see. So that is how they came to our space, and now you are here as well."
Robert nodded. An old feeling of guilt welled up within him. "We never intended for people like the Nazis to get our technology. I'm sorry that our failure to stop them from copying it has caused your people loss."
"The fault is not yours," Yeshe said. "The fault is theirs."
"We've been telling him that for years now," Lucy remarked drolly, giving Robert a knowing look. He returned it and sighed. "Anyway, your ship should be good to go soon enough. But since we have time, I'd like to know more about your people. The abilities you showed, for instance…"
"I feel the same toward you," said Komin. "You don't move the air or earth, and you don't throw fire, but you seem to know where your enemy's attack is going to be every time. And you threw back the invaders without using any elements."
"We use the connection of our life energy to the universe. Well, it can be more complicated than that, but it's a good starting point. And you?"
Ursa was the one to answer. "The people of our world are divided into the Four Nations. I am from the Fire Nation. Komin is Earth Union, from the state of Zaofu, and Yeshe is from the Air Nation. And there are also the Water Tribes who dwell at our world's poles, Northern and Southern."
"You mentioned that your colonies are from five nations earlier," said Richmond. "The fifth is…?"
"The United Republic," Yeshe replied. "The Republic was founded in the aftermath of the Hundred Years War as a home for people from all nations. Over the last two and a half centuries, the Republic became its own nation. It is the heart of the Five Nations Compact."
"I'm guessing that members of each original nation wield the elements they're named for," Lucy observed.
"Some, although many are non-benders."
"Huh," Jarod murmured. He glanced toward Robert and Lucy. "Is this like your abilities?"
"They may be related," Robert said. It was clear his mind wasn't on the conversation, even with the speed of his reply. "It's something to consider for later. Right now we need to figure out what we know about the SS presence, and how we can get back Julia and Miko."
"Agreed," said Ursa. "Please, tell us more about these SS, and what kind of foe they are."
"I'd like to hear more about your Alliance, and the non-Human life like Talara," Komin added. Noticing Ursa's look, he almost sheepishly added, "When you're done, I mean."
"Very well," replied Meridina. "Allow us to explain."
In the quiet of his room, Erik Fassbinder read the reply from his leader. Kranefuss was displeased to learn their prize had been compromised so quickly after the operation. The SS would have to abandon this remarkable place. And they would do so with maximum destruction.
It would be quite a shame.
But an even greater shame would be losing this opportunity. He sensed what was coming. The Aurora crew were aware that they were running out of time, that if they didn't come soon, they would lose the chance to reclaim their friend. The same was true for the local untermenschen and reclaiming that brat in the holding cells. They weren't going to wait for the friendly fleet. They were going to come now.
And Fassbinder would be waiting for them.
Another stun stick blow caused Julia to collapse into a heap on the floor of her cell. Her guards retreated back across the threshold of the cell's forcefield before activating it, confining her again. She heard them walk away and began to stir. While that green fluid healed her body, it did nothing to ease the ill feelings within her. She crept slowly over to the cell door. Contact with her fellow prisoner was the only thing to help her stay sane.
Across the way, Miko regarded Julia with compassion and clear frustration. Her hands balled up into fists and tears flowed from her eyes. "I'm sorry," she said.
Julia looked toward her, thankful to see mercy and sympathy in at least one set of eyes in this hell. "There's nothing you can do about it."
"I know, but still…" With an ever-more furious look, Miko finally drove her fist into the ground beside her, not quite hard enough to crack the knuckles at the impact. A wince came to her face, but it mattered little compared to the tears flowing from her eyes. "What you're going through, the way they keep taking you to be tortured, it's terrible. I should be able to stop it."
To that Julia chuckled. "That sounds familiar," she sighed, thinking of Robert. "Save your energy for battles you can win."
Julia didn't expect the vehemence that came from Miko. "That's just it! I should be able to fight back! To… to get out of this, but I can't!" She gestured toward the collar. "This keeps me from bending! And… and I don't know how else I can fight them, I don't know how to use their weapons…!"
"Be patient," Julia advised. "You never know when we'll get an opportunity." As she spoke she looked over the collar on the younger woman before returning to looking into her eyes. "It's not your responsibility to protect me, Miko."
"That's where you're wrong," Miko insisted.
Miko nodded. 'You are."
"Alright," said Julia. "Can you explain? You're responsible for helping me because…?"
Miko nodded and drew in a little breath. She was regaining composure from the outburst of emotion.
"Because," Miko said, "I'm the Avatar."