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The Yucatan Job - Bugs!

Chapter Text

"What are we looking at?" Rachel asked, stepping into the Fleet command center behind Quinn. On a large display on the other side of the room was a moving star field and the occasional flash of light.

"The Bugs have just crossed our outer border," Santana said. "This is the view from our closest viewing post."

"There's nothing there," Rachel said, looking at Brittany for confirmation, "is there?"

"They aren't showing up on our regular deep space scans," Brittany said, frowning. "We know they're there because we can detect the Blue Clan response to their presence, but we aren't picking them up on their traditional wavelengths."

"Blue Clan's intel is worth squat," Santana said, grimacing. "The Bugs are adapting to their attacks."

"Artie? What about the Galactics?" Rachel asked.

"You have been provided all known data on the 'Bugs'," Artie said. "Blue Clan has been unable to provide updated calibrations for the Bugs."

"Blue Clan can obviously detect them but they seem unwilling or unable to provide us with the correct calibration data," Santana said.

"Intentional?" Rachel asked.

"Those Blue Clan ships are AI driven," Brittany said. "They apparently respond only to Blue Council requests, and are ignoring us."

"Well, Blue Clan is off my Christmas list," said Rachel. "Aren't we all in this together?"

"They appear to not believe you are speaking for the Serpent Clan," Artie said. "Blue Clan Council has given full control of their defenses to their ship AIs. The Bugs destroyed their battle fleet in their first encounter and the AIs took over their fleet."

"Just lovely," Quinn said, a disgusted expression crossing her face.

"That's just spiffy," Santana said, sarcastically. "AIs are not equipped to make strategic battle decisions. No offense, Artie."

"None taken," Artie said. "By design, we are not given the ability to quickly decide life or death in combat situations."

"So, they're ignoring our requests for info," Rachel said. "What does that mean?"

"We're alone in this," Brittany said, "though we expected that to happen. The other Clans are playing defense and are just glad to push the Bugs out of their territories."

"What other tricks do you have to see them?" Rachel said. "You must have plans for this?"

"The model makes allowances for the Bugs behaving differently than in the past," Brittany said. "We don't know anything about the Bugs, other than what was derived through examining the remains of their ships. If they are intelligent beings, they are bound to change."

"Show them," Santana said.

The screen changed, briefly going neon pink. After a moment of neon blue, the screen cleared and a large number of dark objects were visible against the background stars.

"So we can see them?" Rachel said.

"We can see their effect on subspace gravitational fields," Brittany said. "From there we can extrapolate what they look like."

"Is this in real time?" Quinn asked.

"There's an hour delay," Brittany said. "We don't have the processing power to do any better. Which is why we are still trying to get calibration data from Blue. They must have found a way to detect the Bugs that we are missing."

"Where can we get the processing power to make this realtime?" Quinn asked. "This is going to be useless under actual battle conditions."

"No one has that kind of processing power," Brittany said. "Unless some research company out in the Confederation has it."

"None that are close enough to take advantage of," Artie said. "The Confederation will continue to request data from the Clans."

"I have some of my wiz kids trying to recalibrate our deep space scanners to detect the Bugs in their new ships," Brittany said. "But it's a long shot. We may need someone to get a lot closer to get scanner data."

"Which is potentially a suicide mission," Santana said. "I'm not sending any of my crews on a potential suicide mission unless there is no choice, and we're still looking at other options."

"There's always the Miranda option," Quinn said. "Can't she go places no one else can?"

"She's already providing us with useful intel," Brittany said. "But we can't plug her into our sensor arrays every time there's an incursion. We need a more permanent solution to a technical problem."

"Okay," Rachel said. "I'm assuming you don't need me to do anything?"

"No," Brittany said. "Unless you want to war game our different plans for when they reach the first system."

"No," Rachel said. "I've got other things to do."

Quinn waited for Rachel to leave the room before asking the question that had been on her mind for days.

"What are our real chances of success right now," She asked, stepping closer to the display.

"The model says we have a 90% probability of survival, and a 40% chance of defeating the Bugs completely," Brittany said.

"And what does your intuition say?" Quinn asked. "Forget the model, what do you think?"

"Quinn... I don't know. If we don't have any support from the other Clans, it's going to be very hard," Brittany said.

"But we didn't expect them to help," Quinn said.

"No, but they might have some data that would improve our chances," Brittany said.

"Other options? Besides the ones you've mentioned?" Quinn asked.

"Miranda is an important resource," Brittany said, "but there are limits to how we can utilize her abilities, and I would rather not depend on her."

"Deus ex machina?" Quinn said, frowning

"Yes," Brittany said. "Exactly."

"What?" Santana said. "What machine?"

"It means, more or less, that an unexpected miracle happens, some god, or in this case Miranda, solves our problem," Brittany said. "We can't plan our whole campaign with the expectation that at some future time Miranda will pull a rabbit out of her hat and rescue us."

"Miranda is powerful, in some respects, but she isn't divine or all powerful," Quinn said, nodding in agreement.

"And she'd be the first to say that she can't snap her fingers and get rid of the Bugs or find us a way to defeat them."

"Got it," Santana said. "Miranda is a resource, not the ultimate solution to our Bug problem."

"Correct," Brittany said.

"Any real gods or goddesses we can tap?" Santana said. "That Fox god floating around somewhere. Put him to work. And there must be others running around, with all of those legends."

"No," Brittany said. "The Fox god is good at inspiring, like our goddesses, but not much with the direct action. And there's never been any proof of local gods and goddesses. If there are any wandering around they don't involve themselves in the affairs of mortals."

"It was a thought," Santana said.

"We can't reject any ideas," Brittany said. "We need all of the options we can get if we want to win."

"Is that why you've requisitioned a scout ship?" Santana said. "One of those options?"

"I requisition a lot of things," Brittany said, winking at her. "You'll have to give me more details."

"A scout ship with one of the new experimental stealth shields," Santana said. "I'm assuming you're planning on sending some of your spies on a long trip?"

Possibly," Brittany said. "I've found a possible task for Miranda, Andy, Romana, and Ixchel."

"Something we need to know now?" Santana said. "Or should be worried about?"

"No," Brittany said. "It's still in the early planning stages. If the research doesn't pan out it won't happen anyway and they'll go do something else with that ship."

"Okay," Santana said. "Just make sure they bring it back in one piece. Might need a stealth scouting ship myself before this thing is over."

"That's an ugly looking critter," Santana said, after Quinn completed testing her newest suit on the range.

"It's a composite of all of the known information about the Bugs," Quinn said. "Doesn't give us much to go on, they've never engaged the Clans outside their ships."

"You think that'll be different this time?" Santana asked her.

"If we take offensive action against them, it's inevitable," Quinn said. "If it's just the Fleet against the Bugs we'll lose."

"My people are awesome," Santana said. "The Bugs can't beat them."

"They don't have to beat them," Quinn said. "They just have to wear us out."

"You aren't planning on boarding any Bug ships blind?" Santana said.

"The first couple of times," Quinn said. "Unless one of the other Clans decides to take an interest in our survival and gives us the info we've been requesting."

"Not likely," Santana said. "They've survived the Bugs for another millennia. If we win that'll upset the balance of power among the Clans, and they won't want that."

"You think they'll actively interfere?"

"No, but they won't cry if we get squashed by the Bugs," Santana said. "They aren't enemies but they aren't allies."

"They'll have to recognize us if we win," Quinn said.

"Someone in the original Serpent Clan must have ticked off the Council of Clans," Santana said.

"Why?" Quinn asked, frowning.

"Ask Rachel about the history of inter-Clan relations. The Clans don't always get along but they aren't usually such roadblocks," Santana said. "There must be a reason they aren't giving us any help."

"So, you think it's intentional?" Quinn said. "That Blue is intentionally interfering?"

"If I were me, I'd say yes," Santana said. "If the Bugs wipe us out on their way through this sector, then Blue can claim our territory."

"Won't be much left of it if we get bugged," Quinn said. "Just piles of radioactive sludge."

"Plenty of room to expand," Santana said. "We have some prime under-developed planets in this sector. And the only ones keeping it from being exploited are our patrols. Plenty of untapped resource to make smaller clans like Blue jealous."

"As long as they don't interfere in our plans, they can want it all they want. They won't get any of it while we're here," Quinn said.

"When will you be at full strength?" Santana said.

"Another cycle," Quinn said, "and I'll have all positions filled."

"Good, good," Santana said. "The last troop ship comes online next month."

"Good," Quinn said.

"What's the plan?" Andy asked Brittany. "I'm assuming you have a plan if you've asked all four of us here now."

"I need you to go on a data gathering trip," Brittany said. "There's a big hole in the model."

"Something that will take all four of us?" Miranda said.

"You're willing to risk Romana for a spy trip?" Andy asked.

"It's very low risk," Brittany said. "You go in, talk to some people, and come back. Simple and easy."

"Details?" Miranda asked.

"Of course," Brittany said. She pulled up a star map. "I need you to go here."

"And here is where?" Andy asked.

"The Prophets of Zircon Nine," Brittany said.

"They are a myth," Romana said. "A dangerous myth. No one who goes looking for them ever returns."

"They were real in my world," Ixchel said. "Though they rarely gave useful advice."

"Prophets work better in hindsight," Andy said, frowning. "They tend to give some mumbly prophecy that has half a dozen possible solutions."

"What do you wish us to ask them?" Miranda said.

"I have a list of questions for them," Brittany said.

"What kinds of questions?" Andy asked.

"The usual," Brittany said. "And a few to test how accurate they are."

"That's dangerous," Andy said. "If they think you are mocking them they could react badly. If they aren't myths."

"How do we find them?" Romana said. "Although I've heard tales about clansmen who traveled to their planet, they never give directions."

"Rachel found several references to them in old Clan records," Brittany said. "And we've finally unlocked that shuttle. It included the coordinates to several supposedly mythical places in its logs."

"So, this is the first trip? You want us to track down other myths?" Andy said.

"It depends on how successful this trip is," Brittany said. "Not all legends have the same value."

"When do we leave?" Andy said. "We'll need to say goodbye to the girls."

"In a week," Brittany said. "The ship you'll be using should be ready then."

"Good," Andy said.

Santana looked around the large auditorium. All but the most essential crew were there, and even they were listening in on the public comm channel. Her XO stood next to her. Quinn was standing off to the side with her command team. Brittany was not there in person but was visible in the front screen.

"Ladies!" Santana said, her voice easily carrying to the back. "If you can chill, we can start."

Silence slowly filtered through the room as the several hundred crew came to attention.

"You've all heard the rumors. So let's make it clear. The Bugs have been sighted crossing over into our sector from Blue Clan territory. Given their currently predicted path and speed, they won't reach occupied Clan territory for nine months. We currently have Scout Squadron Delta monitoring the Bugs. If they deviate from their path we'll be quickly informed."

"We aren't going to wait for them to threaten any of our systems," Santana said. "By the time they reach us, we expect to have a good idea on how to slow them down. The Shadows are currently examining all incoming data and will keep Fleet updated."

"We don't expect this to be easy. The Bugs are a notoriously difficult foe to engage, as history shows us. In the past they've been like a tidal wave, rolling over all in their path. That ends here. We will beat the Bugs. The Serpent Clan is the end of the road for them."

The room erupted in cheers and shouts.

"Lady Shadow is here to brief us on what we know about this incursion," Santana said. "And then back to business."

"Ladies," Brittany said. "We're still collating the information coming in from our scouts but this is what we know - The Bugs are moving at their traditional speed. They are employing a new form of shielding that is blocking our regular scanners. The Bug fleet appears to consist of six fortress class ships; six cruiser class ships, and ten colony class ships. We have not observed any troop carriers or auxiliary vehicles. We have not engaged them, but have observed several Blue Clan encounters with the Bugs. Blue Clan was able to redirect the Bugs away from occupied systems, at predictably heavy losses. The Bugs are behaving in a purely defensive manner. If they are attacked they fight back but otherwise they ignore any other ships."

"Their actions when approaching a planetary system, on the other hand, have proven to be very destructive. Although Blue Clan kept them from passing through their major population centers, all systems in their path were stripped of all metals and organic material."

"In the last two encounters with the Bugs, which occurred several thousand cycles ago, there were no troop engagements between the Bugs and other forces. We hope to change this. Lady Hands and her teams will be testing Bug defenses and will be trying to draw them out. If we can weaken them, in any way, before Fleet engages them, we will have a higher chance of not just surviving this encounter but of destroying them completely. It's time the Clans removed the Bugs permanently."

The room erupted once more in shouts and cheers.

"Enthusiastic crew," Quinn said. "I've kept my teams informed of the seriousness of the upcoming encounters with the Bugs, and I assume you've done the same."

"Of course," Santana said. "All of my crews know the score. But they have faith in the Council. If the Council says it is possible to defeat the Bugs, they believe it."

"That optimism may matter more than some of our plans," Brittany said in their ears. "Given equally outfitted groups the group with the more positive attitude will win when it comes to life or death."

"We don't know much about the Bugs," Quinn said. "Even our information about their abilities is third hand. None of the clans have engaged them outside of their ships during this incursion. They could be automated ships."

"That would be embarrassing, if the Clans have been losing to ships on autopilot," Santana said.

"There are no signs that they are being driven by AI," Brittany said. "Or at least not AI as we know it. But you are correct. They could be empty. Or decoys. We don't know."

"Which is why my teams will engage them head on," Quinn said. "We have several ambushes planned before they reach any systems."

"We could catch them in stasis," Santana said. "Or we could end up waking them up."

"We aren't going to be that lucky," Brittany said. "They may be predictable, so far, but if we poke them too much they may learn to react."

"There is too much unknown about the Bugs," Quinn said. "Each encounter will teach us something."

"When is your first Bug test?" Rachel asked, staring out her window.

"Next week," Quinn said. "The Bugs haven't deviated from their path, so we'll hit them in an open area between systems with just enough force to get a reaction from them."

"Any idea why the other clans didn't try this?" Rachel asked. "It seems obvious that a small group could sneak in past their barriers."

"There hasn't been a lot of innovative thinking," Quinn said. "Just standard attacks. Blue Clan treated them like pirates. But pirates need a different touch than a fleet of mysterious aliens."

"Blue Clan was really unprepared for the Bugs," Rachel said.

"Why do you say that?" Quinn asked.

"It's obvious," Rachel said. "If they'd been prepared they wouldn't have lost their main battle fleet. Look at how Santana is guiding the Fleet. She won't risk her entire fleet and our sector just to meet the Bugs in flashy battle like they did. If Blue had studied how the other Clans encountered the Bugs they would have known it was a bad idea. Even I can see that and I'm not a tactician."

"Well, we learn from history," Quinn said. "I'm not sure Blue Clan knows the history of the Bugs. And what was tried against them."

"It would be silly of them to have not researched the Bugs. We've been preparing for them for a long time," Rachel said. "What have the other Clans been doing? Why have they been silent?"

"Santana thinks it's a conspiracy. She thinks that's the only way to explain their incompetence. Or they've just gotten so used to their quiet sector that they didn't prepare. The Blues haven't had to fight pirates or deal with smugglers in years." Quinn shook her head. "I think our chance will come. We've known they were coming for years."

"I can't speak for the Blue Clan Council," Rachel said. "But there must have been something really wrong for their Council to be almost wiped out."

"The Bugs shouldn't be approached as if they were some natural phenomena or like pirates. But that's what the Clans have been doing. Blue has taken the most serious damage but the others didn't come off well either. For all of them, this is about politics. They looked for some way to come out on top and leave the other clans in the mud."

"Santana and Brittany won't play that game," Quinn said. "We aren't going to defeat the Bugs by will power alone. Or by trying to outmaneuver the Bugs using semantic tricks. The Bugs can't be reasoned with."

"As long as you don't forget that," Rachel said. "We won't be trying to convince them to go in a different direction because we ask politely."

"What are you waiting for, Q," Santana's voice came over the comm. "Chatting away with your squeeze, when you could be doing something productive."

"We're still five days away from our first mission against the Bugs," Quinn said. "I know my business. We'll be ready for this experiment. Expecting my teams to maintain that level of awareness for a week will result in tired troopers, the opposite of ready and alert in fact."

They'd been probing the Bug fleet for the last week. Small one person scouts keeping pace with the larger, lumbering Bug ships just out past known sensor range. Smaller AI driven probes in closer.

"How close are we to getting real-time sensor data from them?" Santana asked, watching the data streams on the bridge monitors.

"It's getting better," her XO said. "The Shadows are giving us near-real time data, within ten minutes."

"Still not good enough," Santana said. "We can't fight a close in battle with a time lag like that. We could lose an entire attack group because we didn't see something happening and not know it until it was too late."

"We're working on it," the sensor team lead said. "The Shadows believe they can crack the shields hiding the Bugs from our sensors. They just need a little more time."

"We're ready when you are," Quinn said over the command comm. "You've seen our plans."

"Yes, and it's too risky with our sensor issues," Santana said. "The mission is on hold until that is fixed."

"We can't put it on hold for much longer," Quinn said. "We need to know how they will react to small scale attacks."

"You're just itching to test your new armor," Santana said.

"It's the best our armorers can make," Quinn said. "It can withstand anything we've run into so far."

"We don't know what kinds of up close weapons the Bugs have," Santana said.

"Which is why we need to do this now," Quinn say, almost growling. "A month from now could be too late. Once they reach one of the planetary systems we won't have time to figure out a defense."

"Yada, yada," Santana said. "I know this. I've got similar problems. None of the data we've managed to pry loose from the other Clans gives us info on how to adjust our shields against their weapons. Did you see what their main battle beam did to that Blue Clan cruiser? Cut through it like it wasn't even there."

"Our tech is better than Blue's," Quinn said. "Our techs are smarter and just plain better."

"We hope our tech is better," Santana said. "Sure, we started out with the most advanced tech the Confederation could give us but the Clans have always been a step ahead of the Galactics in ship and weapons tech."

"The Clans have nothing like our hard suits, and their ship tech has stagnated," Quinn said. "You could design a better attack craft in your sleep than what we've seen Blue using."

"The Bugs haven't engaged any of the Clans at the troop level this time around," Santana said. "When was the last time they did that? Showed up with an army?"

"At the Battle of Hara's Reach," Quinn said.

"During their first known incursion, over ten thousand cycles ago," Santana said. "And they won."

"Which doesn't explain why they haven't used ground troops since," Quinn said. "I need to see what they have. Brit's gang hasn't been able to confirm they even have troops."

"They could have robots," Santana said. "Maybe they don't need ground troops?"

"Well, if they don't have them now they will need them before we're through with them."

"Darwin wasn't a general," Santana said. "Evolution is too slow for the battle field."

"We've been steadily improving our hard suits," Quinn said. "What we had five years ago was amateur hour compared to our current suits."

"Which you'll be able to take out for a test drive against the Bugs as soon as we can provide fit support," Santana said. "We don't do suicide missions in this Clan."

"It's not suicide, it's a calculated risk," Quinn said.

"Don't let Brit or Rachel hear you say that," Santana said.

"Lady Air?" Santana's Comm officer said, interrupting them.


"We have an incoming transmission," she said. "It's using a communication encoding we haven't used in centuries."

"Do we know who it's from?" Santana asked.

"No, ma'am," she said. "It's missing the complete id tags."

"Put it on screen," Santana said.

The main screen on the bridge switched to a static filled view of the bridge of an old Clan cruiser.

"This is Captain Hoor of the Chandar Planetary Defense fleet," a wavery figure said.

"Comms, clean that picture up," Santana said, in a low voice. "I am the Lady Air of the Serpent Clan Fleet," Santana said. "How can we help you?"

"We've been unable to contact Chandarian Space control," Hoor said. "And Blue Clan Defense is not responding on the usual sector channels for our help request. Serpent Clan control is listed as emergency backup."

"Chandar is outside of our purview," Santana said. "Just a moment." Santana switched over to her command com.

"XO, what can you tell me about Chandar? Specifically their Planetary Defense fleet," she asked.

"Small system, mostly asteroid mining," her XO said.

"How close to the path of the Bugs through Blue sector?" Santana asked.

"Half a parsec, Lady Air," her XO said. "They should not have been in danger from the current incursion."

"So, other possibilities?" Santana said. "Pirates? An invasion?"

"Obviously, the Bugs have more than one fleet," Brittany said, joining in on the command channel. "Unexpected but not a complete surprise."

"Do we have a plan for this?" Quinn asked. "We're still on track to reach the known Bug fleet in several days. If we're going to Chandar first we'll need to make changes."

"Uploading alternate plan now," Brittany said. "Contact me when you've reviewed it."

Santana switched back to Hoor. "We'll make a team available to investigate," she said. "Send us coordinates for your location. We'll send a ship."

"Yes, Lady Air," Hoor said, looking relieved. "We'll be expecting them."

"What do you think?" Santana said, after reviewing Brittany's alternate plan. "Can this be adapted?"

"Yes," Brittany said. "We'll need a ship to pick up Q and Gold team, and Black Team will need additional personnel to handle the original recon."

"Q's going to want to do both," Santana said. "She'll need a Shadow crew. Who can you spare?"

"The light cruiser Hotep just came out of dry dock and re-int testing," Brittany said. "They haven't been assigned anything critical and can be repurposed."

"We might need something larger if this is really Bug related," Santana said.

"We don't have time," Brittany said. "If there's another Bug Fleet out there we need to find it. But we also need more data on the Bugs."

"How'd we get tagged in as Blue Clan backup anyway?" Santana asked.

"Only for this side of their sector," Brittany said. "Chandar is the only populated system we share with them."

"Good to know," Santana said.

"We have a few too many unknowns for this plan to work as is," Quinn said over the comm. "I'll need faster transportation, preferably armed, and the usual spares."

"A cruiser, the Hotep, is on its way to your location," Santana said.

"Good, we've worked with them before," Quinn said. "Do we have in-depth data on Chandar? Tactical info?"

"It's being compiled now," Brittany said. "Blue is still being difficult but we should have enough for you to work with before the cruiser gets to you."

"Lady Hands, welcome aboard," Captain Jolie said, she and her deck crew saluting Quinn and her Gold Team XO, and their Shadow liaison.

"Glad to be working with you again, Captain Jolie," Quinn said. "You've had a chance to look at the mission plan?"

"Yes, Lady Hands," Jolie said. "It makes for interesting reading. We're to assess the Chandar system for any Bug incursion and to discover why there is no communication from control systems in the area."

"Correct," Quinn said. "Although there is no reason to believe that the Bugs have been involved in whatever is going on with Chandar, you are to assume that they may be nearby."

"We'll be ready to go as soon as all of your gear is stowed," Jolie said. "Your team has the same quarters as our last trip. Master Chief Han is our new troop equipment engineer."

Quinn turned to her XO, "Pin, please make sure our suits are stowed and update the Master Chief with the suit changes."

"Yes, ma'am," Pin said, nodding at the Master Chief. They left the deck together.

"Ma'am, all equipment and personnel are aboard," Jolie's XO said. "Ready for movement."

"Nav, set course for Chandar," Jolie said.

"Aye, ma'am," the ship's navigator said. "Ready for transition."

"All hands, prepare for transition," Jolie said over the ship's comm. "On my mark, go!"

With a barely perceptible hum, the Hotep seemed to leap forward. To an outside observer it would have looked like a flash as the ship seemed to disappear.

"You have the new triphase engines," Quinn said to the captain.

"Yes," Jolie said. "Just got back from integration. We can move faster than any known ship outside of Fleet. We should be meeting our contact outside Chandar in three days."

"Excellent," Quinn said. "That'll give us time to go over the mission parameters. I've made a few changes, based on additional Bug data. You've got the Mark V weapons system, yes?"

"Only the best for your personal chariot, Lady Hands," Jolie said. "XO, we'll be in my office."

"Yes, ma'am," her XO said.

"What do you really think of the mission?" Jolie asked the sitting Lady Hands after handing her a drink in her office.

"The Council is concerned with the lack of cooperation from Blue Clan," Quinn said. "You read the reports on their encounters with the Bugs. The Blues seem to be in chaos. They weren't prepared for the Bugs and took more damage than they should have. The Galactics haven't been able to put us in touch with the Blue Clan Council. It appears that Blue fleet is under control of their AIs."

"And since the Council of Councils doesn't completely recognize us, they aren't going to help. So, we could be heading into a serious cluster situation?" Jolie said.

"Yes," Quinn said. "The Galactics will back us up but they don't have anything capable of touching a Bug fleet. We're going to have to step carefully once we reach Blue sector. We have authority to help Chandar but we an't interfere with Blue internal politics."

"And they really love their politics," Jolie said, "if I remember my history."

"Lady Shadow believes that someone in Blue took the disaster with their main fleet as an opportunity to seize control."

"So, we only have Gold and Green teams for ground support, and the Hotep," Jolie said.

"Any more would have been too provocative," Quinn say. "And if it is the Bugs, they're likely to have moved on anyway, they usually strip a system in days and the Chandar ship lost contact over a week ago while investigating reports of ship movement in the next system over."

"So, they got lucky and missed whatever happened to their system," Jolie said. "Well, here's to the gods making it simple pirates."

"Pirates," Quinn agreed, raising her glass. "Haven't had a good pirate fight all year."

"That's because they know better than to let one of your troops get close enough to engage," Jolie said. "If they can't get away from Fleet they self destruct."

"Crazy," Quinn said. "It's not like we'd kill them if they surrendered."

"They're pirates," Jolie said. "Only crazy people become pirates in Clan territories."

"So, you have the new suits," the Master Chief said, looking at the troop manifest with Pin. "How's their durability?"

"A lot better than the Mark C9s we used to use," Pin said. "With a few extra features that haven't been released to the rest of the fleet yet."

"Lady Hands does like to use the best," the Master Chief said. "Her hands are all over the Fleet tech manuals for this model."

"She won't let our teams wear anything she hasn't approved herself," Pin said.

"And tested," the Master Chief said with approval. "What do you need us to do to prep them?"

"Just standard pre-fight unpacking," Pin said. "We were already en route to the Bug Fleet for recon. So everything is already prepared for action."

"Which means overkill if Chandar isn't a Bug problem," the Master Chief said.

"There's no such thing as overkill in a hard suit," Pin said, grinning. "Come on, let me introduce you and your techs to the teams. We've had a few troop changes since you were with us last."

Chapter Text

"Approaching the Chandar system border," Jolie's XO stated. "No sign of any other ships."

"Scan the system," Jolie said. "Find out what we're dealing with, ladies."

"No comm traffic," her Comm officer reported. "Dead silence."

"Where's that local?" Jolie muttered. "We couldn't have gotten here first."

"Distress beacon at one twenty," Comms said. "It's the same type of signal Fleet reported for the Chandar Planetary Defense ship. Something is interfering with our scanners in that area."

"Send out a scout," Jolie said. "And keep looking. There's something wrong. Chandar isn't heavily populated but it should have some comm traffic."

"Scout launched," her XO reported. "Five until contact."

"Kali, what do you see," her XO asked the scout pilot.

"It's a debris field," Kali reported. "Looks like something large lost a fight with a shark."

"Any identifying marks? Is that our Chandar contact?" Jolie asked, giving Quinn a concerned look.

"Looks like a station," Kali said. "At least the parts large enough to identify."

"What's blocking our ship sensors?" the XO said.

"There's an odd energy signature here," Kali said. "Relaying data stream."

"Not something I'm familiar with," Comms said. "Nothing in our databanks matches that."

"Gotta love a mystery," Jolie said. A warning bell sounded.

"Ship incoming," the Tach officer said. "Matches signature of Chandar defense force ship that contacted Fleet."

"Open a channel," Jolie said. "Kali, continue scanning the debris. We need to know what that is."

"So, we got here before them," Quinn said. "How?"

"Status of Chandar ship," Jolie asked her Tach officer.

"It's an antique," the Tach officer said. "Old Galactic tech. Large and slow."

"Armaments?" Jolie said.

"Basic self defense," Tech said. "Good thing it wasn't here, it wouldn't have survived whatever destroyed that station."

"Captain Hoor is requesting permission to board," the ship's XO said. "Ship security is waiting for your approval."

"Lady Q?" Jolie said. "Requesting assistance."

"Green will provide security backup," Quinn said, nodding. She sent a command to the Green Team commander.

"Ladies, we're just backup," Xano, Green Team leader told her XO and squad leader, as they joined Ships Security at the docking station. "The captain wants us to impress the natives."

"We can do that boss," Lil said, grinning. "Impressing the natives is a specialty."

"Try not to scare them," Security One said. "They probably haven't seen tech as advanced as ours."

The airlock status light went green. After a quick detox cycle, it started to open. Standing in the lock were three small female Juuns.

"Welcome to the Hotep," Security One said. "The captain is expecting you."

"We are pleased to be here," the older Juun said, staring wide eyed at them.

"Juun?" Quinn said, frowning at the data being relayed from ship security. "Did we know this was a Juun system? I didn't see anything about that in the data the Galactics sent us."

"We knew it was a mining conglomerate," Jolie said. "Aren't they usually Juun?"

"That explains the tech and signals Kali is getting," her XO said. "The Juun are not rich. Their ships are kept running for a long time."

"So, any tech is going to be really old," Quinn nodded, updating her teams.

Security One and Two took up positions outside of the conference chamber. Green Team Lead and XO provided security in the chamber itself.

"I am Captain Jolie, of the Serpent Clan Fleet, and this is Lady Hands, of the Clan Council," Jolie said, when Captain Hoor had joined them in the captain's conference chamber. "Welcome to the Hotep."

"You have a beautiful ship," Captain Hoor said, "It is not a model I am familiar with."

"Serpent Clan light cruiser," Jolie said. "We have a few of them in our fleet."

"You asked for our assistance," Quinn said, getting right to the point.

"There does not appear to be any life in this system. We've detected a debris field but nothing else," Jolie said. "No other ships, no tech."

"All communication with our people in the system has stopped," Hoor said, dismayed. "We were escorting a caravan to the metal markets on Targ Seven, and lost communication."

"Where's the caravan now?" Jolie asked.

"They remained at Targ Seven," Hoor said. "We contacted your fleet and headed home as quickly as possible."

"We're been scanning the system, but there's nothing here," Jolie said. "What metal were you mining?"

"This was a very profitable gallium system," Hoor said. "We've been mining it for several hundred galactic cycles. The planets are not habitable. All of our people live in stations. You should have seen signs of them."

"Show us where," Jolie said, pulling up a 3D map of the system. "The debris field is here," she said pointing towards a green light. "So far, all we've found is crushed tech. And a radiation field our long range scanners can't penetrate. Did you have any special shielding?"

"No," Hoor said, dismayed. "There should be a station here," she pointed at the map, "and here," she pointed at another spot," and another on the planetary surface here."

"We'll send scouts out to look but to be honest, I don't expect to find anything. There are classic signs of a Kraal fleet stripping the system," Jolie said.

"The Kraal were nowhere near here, or so Blue Clan claimed," Hoor said. "What happened to our people? There were a thousand breeding pairs, and miners in the system. Where are they?"

"We can't answer that at this time," Jolie said. "Where is the rest of your defense fleet?"

"It was really just us, with a dozen small shuttles and close support craft," Hoor said. "Pirates aren't interesting in gallium."

"We can spare several days," Quinn said. "If this was caused by the Kraal, we need to track them down."

"Even this wonderful ship is not much protection from a Kraal scavenging fleet," Hoor said, shaking her head. "We cannot stay here."

"Where will you go?" Jolie asked.

"We were a small operation," Hoor said. "Our parent conglomerate is in Wind Clan territory. We must find out what happened here. The families of the missing will insist on an accounting. The Conglomerate will determine if we stay."

"We'll stay as long as we can and help your search," Quinn said. "If the Kraal have been through here, we'll need to make sure it is clear of any traps."

"We thank you," Captain Hoor said.

"That isn't good," Quinn said. "Several thousand Juun gone without a trace."

"The Bugs usually don't leave anything in systems they've scavenged," Jolie said. "If they've been through here, it's surprising that we've found the remains of one of the Juun stations."

"We'll need an in-depth analysis of that debris field," Quinn said. "If that Juun station was able to resist the Bugs in any way, that is something we really need to know."

"There doesn't seem to be anything special about it," Jolie said, looking at Kali's report. "Other than whatever is blocking our sensors."

"Gallium?" Quinn said. "It's not a metal that is found in our sector in any large quantities."

"It's used in some older sensor arrays," Hancock, their Shadow liaison, said. "We don't use it in any of our Clan tech, though Tiger Clan often used it. And it is not known to cause scanner problems,"

"We'll need a sample," Jolie said to her XO, "of the ore and refined metal. Have the scouts reached the other station locations?"

"Scout Three has," her XO said. "Nothing. The area is clear. Scout Two is searching the planet surface. That will take a little longer. It looks like several volcanoes covered the surface in lava."

"I'm assuming no survivors at this point," Jolie said. "Unless they went deep underground."

"Scout Two is reporting a stasis field?" her XO said. "Old style. Requires special equipment to open."

"Do we have anything that will open that kind of stasis pod?" Jolie asked.

"No, but the Juun do," her XO said. "They use them while traveling between systems."

"There are clear signs of the Kraal in this system," Quinn said, recording a message to send back to Brittany. "It's been stripped bare and there are traces of the energy tools used by the Bugs. We've found a large stasis pod where one of the Juun stations used to be and will be opening it shortly. We haven't found any indication of the direction taken by the Bugs after they stripped the system." She continued for several more minutes, giving instructions to her teams and laying out their plans.

"Okay," Quinn said. "Let's go crack open that stasis pod."

"That's large," Quinn said. "Not quite as large as some we've seen. What do you expect to be in it?" she asked Captain Hoor, who had returned to her ship.

"All of our stations have the ability to encapsulate in an emergency," Hoor said. "This is big enough to contain the living quarters of the station that was at these coordinates."

"Do we need to move it to a safe location first?" Jolie asked.

"It will contain environmental systems to survive if stasis is removed," Hoor said. "De-encapsulating now."

There was a glow that spread across the area, gradually getting brighter. After several minutes, the glow disappeared, revealing a cumbersome looking structure floating in space.

"Looks like it was damaged in a battle," Jolie said. "Tach, scan it. Get me the status."

"There are a thousand beings in the object," Tach said. "It looks like it's leaking. They only have several minutes of air at the rate it's venting."

"Captain, we don't have room for that many, even in an emergency like this. Can you take them in?" Jolie said.

"No, but it's designed to dock with our ships," Hoor said. "But that takes time, that we don't have. We need to stop the leaks first."

"I think we can take care of that," Jolie said. "We can place a portable shield around it and contain the leaks." She turned to her XO. "Do it!"

"Yes, ma'am," she said. "Engaging lifeboat shields now."

"That'll contain any leaks while you fix them," Jolie said. "The shield will let your ship through so that you can dock."

"Thank you, Captain," Hoor said. She then turned and started directing her crew.

"What can you tell us about what happened to Chandar," Quinn asked the next day after the survivors in the stasis pod had been interviewed.

"They didn't see anything," Hoor said. "Things were normal and suddenly something attacked their station and it encapsulated."

"I was afraid of that. The energy weapon residue appears to be Kraal in nature, but I'd like more proof than that," Quinn said. "There's no sign of where they went after this. Unless they headed back into the sector, it's just empty space between here and the border."

"Whatever it was destroyed all of our system sensors," Hoor said. "I'm sorry we cannot help you any further."

"What's your plan?" Jolie asked.

"A Conglomerate transport ship shall come for the survivors," Hoor said. "It should be here tomorrow. All of the ore in the system is gone, so there's no reason to stay here. We thank you for your help. If you find out more, we would appreciate being informed."

"Of course," Jolie said. "We'll stay while you wait for the transport."

"You have two days," Jolie told her crew. "Two days to get as much data on this system as possible. We need to know where the Bugs went from here but we can't stick around once the Juun leave."

"I think we've found something," Hancock said. "Assuming that there was something special about this system that attracted the Bugs, we've modified sensors to use gallium as a sensor component. And this is what we've found." In the center of the room, a 3D map of the Chandar system appeared. And then faintly glowing white lines, looking like roads, appeared.

"What am I looking at?" Jolie asked.

"These are the space lanes used by the Juun," Hancock said. "The gallium allows us to see their trails."

"Interesting," Jolie said. "It's well known that ships energy leaves faint traces, but it usually takes large sensors to detect it. What else?"

"Tweaking it just a little and we see something else," Hancock said. She adjusted something and faint red lines appeared on the system map. In locations where there'd been a Juun station, large red pulsing lights appeared. "We believe these are from the Bugs."

"So we can track them?" Quinn asked. "Is this in real time? How much processor power does it take?"

"It depends on the quantity and quality of gallium," Hancock said. "This much," she held up a small sphere, "is 95% pure. Using spare cycles from the Hotep, we're able to process the data at near real-time speeds. A ship like Flag, with its redundant data banks could show this in real time."

"So we need a lot of almost pure gallium?" Quinn said, "and then we can see the Bugs?"

"Possibly," Hancock said. "So far all we've detected are their trails. Find us some real Bug ships and we'll test it."

"Where do we get the gallium?" Jolie asked. "Where did you get that?"

"The Juun," Hancock said. "They had a few small refined samples."

"We'll need more," Quinn said. "I don't think we have anyone familiar with mining gallium."

"Captain Hoor said there are several systems in our sector with gallium deposits," Hancock said.

"And, if Chandar is any indication, the Bugs will head straight for them. So, first we need to deal with the Bugs, and then find some miners," Quinn said.

"The Juun will probably be willing to do the mining," Hancock said. "But Captain Hoor said it took several decades to turn Chandar into a productive mine."

"So, we only have this?" Jolie said. "Is it enough?"

"We have enough for several cruisers like the Hotep," Hancock said. "But it won't last. It's consumed by the process. That sample is enough for the Hotep to run its scanners for six months."

"So, we need a supply of gallium, and a more efficient way to use it." Quinn frowned. "And we'll need a more efficient mining method than the Juun use. And someone will have to negotiate with them."

"Will the Council be able to meet fast enough?" Jolie asked.

"I'll send a message as soon as we're done here," Quinn said.

"Lady Hands?"

"Yes, Hancock?" Quinn said.

"It looks like we have a trail to follow," she said, expanding the 3D map. "Their path will intersect with the Bug fleet in approximately ten days from when they left here."

"Which we currently don't know," Quinn said. "Can you derive any time data from that?"

"Nothing useful," Hancock said. "Even with the gallium the Bug fleet is still distorting the space around it.

"So, follow the new trail?" Jolie said, looking at Quinn for confirmation. She turned to her XO. "We'll leave a scout here with the Juun. As soon as they are joined with their conglomerate, the scout can join us."

"Yes, ma'am," the XO said.

"We need to follow that trail before it disappears," Quinn said. "Is there anything here in this system that you need to look at before we leave?"

"No," Jolie said. "We can look at all of the data they collect while waiting for us to return."

"Good," Quinn said. "Let me now when you are ready to leave."

"This may not take us to the main Bug fleet," Jolie said.

"I expect that," Quinn said. "It would be too easy to expect signs pointing right at them. But if this does head straight to the Bug fleet, it could get messy. I don't need to remind you to take the usual precautions."

"No, Lady Q," Jolie said.

"Red Alert" blared throughout the cruiser, the ship's lights changing to amber.

Quinn stopped reviewing her updated plans for the Bug recon. "What's going on?" she asked Jolie over the ship's command comm.

"The Bug trail ends in the next system," Jolie said.

"Which system is it?" Quinn asked. "I thought Chandar was the only one in this area."

"There are several uninhabited systems," Jolie said. "Mostly just burned out husks drifting towards the galactic edge."

"What's your plan?" Quinn asked.

"We'll swing around and come at it from above the planetary plane," Jolie said. "We have scouts out mapping the entire system. With the gallium sensors we might be able to detect their ships if they are still here."

"Good," Quinn said. "Green and Gold teams can be ready to act as boarding parties if we encounter any Bug ships."

"You have thirty minutes before we'll be in position," Jolie said.

"Excellent," Quinn said.

Quinn joined Jolie on the bridge. "What have you found?"

Jolie pointed at a dark section of the tactical map. "There's something here," she said. "The Bug trails end there."

"How large is that?" Quinn asked.

"The size of Terra's moon," Jolie said, after consulting the display.

"So, big enough to hide several Bug ships." Quinn said. "That's more than we're rated for."

"If it's empty, we can handle it with no problem," Jolie said. "We haven't been able to penetrate it yet."

"No good with the gallium adjustment?" Quinn asked.

"No," Jolie said. "It's the same problem we were having with the Bug fleet in our sector. We know it's there. We can detect the trail going into it, but can't penetrate it."

"Well, at least we have something so we can follow them," Quinn said. "We'll need to get closer."

"Probes?" Jolie asked. "They're outfitted with the new sensors."

"Or troopers," Quinn said, grimacing. "A Shadow Recon squad would be useful about now."

"There's one with your recon team with the Bug fleet," Jolie said. "They're the closest. The next closest is half a sector away."

"Let's go with the probes first," Quinn said. Jolie nodded and waved at the Tach officer to proceed with the probes.

Even at half engine speed, the three tiny probes moved at an astounding speed. In ten minutes they'd reached the anomalous area, and begun to circle it. A constant stream of data was sent back to the cruiser. The console 3D map updated itself periodically.

"Nothing so far," Yola, the Tach officer on duty, said. "We aren't getting a solid look at it. Even the gallium sensors are bouncing right off of it."

"Try to push one through it," Hancock, Quinn's Shadow liaison, said. "Those probes can withstand almost anything, except being dunked in a sun."

"And in it goes," Jolie murmured. There was a burst of radio activity and all connections to the probe vanished in a flash of light. "Did you get that?" she asked. "Did anyone catch that flash?" There was dead silence on the bridge.

"Right there at the end," Yola said, pointing at her screen. "Look at that. It's a compressed burst of data. Right before the flash."

"From our probe?" Jolie asked. "Why would it be sending anything?"

"Not to us," Yola said. "Something inside the dead area sent out a burst of data when the probe entered it."

"Was it trying to find out what the probe was?" Quinn asked. "Did we capture the data?"

"Yes," Yola said. "It's in here somewhere, otherwise the sensors wouldn't have known what it was."

"Do ship sensors swallow everything sent at them like that?" Quinn asked, curious.

"You can't protect yourself against something if you don't see it coming," Jolie said. "Hotep is a hungry ship. Even before the gallium was added, the sensors were the strongest in the fleet."

"Can we see what was in that data burst?" Quinn asked.

"It's in quarantine," Yola said, typing away at her console. "It's not compatible with our systems, or it would have given Hotep a hangover, from the look of it."

"So the Bugs behind the shield attacked our probe and missed?" Jolie said.

"Well, the probe is very hardened, so it probably bounced off," Yola said. "There's not a lot of probe for anything to attack."

"So, where's the probe?" Quinn asked.

"That flash was its self destruct," Yola said. "It must have detected the data burst and interpreted it as an attack."

"An attack that caused a self-destruct?" Quinn said.

"Is every probe we send in going to react like that?" Jolie asked, frowning.

"Possibly," Hancock said, looking over Yola's shoulder. "They're supposed to do that if they determine they've been compromised. Or captured."

"Well, analyze that data burst," Jolie said. "We need to know what is in it."

"And why it triggered the self destruct," Quinn said. "I don't want to risk any suits against something that can do that."

"It's not moving," Jolie said. "We can observe it for now."

"So, what is it?" Quinn asked, several hours later.

"It basically says 'Hello, who are you? You don't have permission to be here.'," Hancock said. 'But it's in an odd quad data format. It resembles some old Bug data transmissions, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to decrypt it."

"And why did that cause the probe to self-destruct?" Jolie asked.

"It wasn't the message itself," Yola said. "After that was transmitted there's a brief millisecond pause and the probe was attacked. That is what caused the self-destruct."

"So, the probe didn't respond to the 'Hello' and whatever was there attacked it?" Quinn asked.

"Looks like it," Yola said.

"Okay, we can work with that," Quinn said. "So, whatever is there is hostile and communicates using old Bug comm code, correct? So it's likely a Bug ship of some sort."

"Nothing else in the Confederation is known to communicate using that code," Yola said.

"I want to know what's inside that cloud," Quinn said, "but without it telling any of its friends. Do we have anything strong enough to block its transmissions?"

"Unknown," Yola said. "We haven't detected any other transmissions."

"But that doesn't mean they haven't sent any," Jolie said. "How the Bugs communicate is unknown."

"If it's unknown, how did we know what that was?" Quinn asked.

"There was a sample in our databanks," Yola said. "It doesn't say how it was captured, only that the origin was from a Bug ship."

"That's unhelpful," Quinn said. "I'm assuming it's data we got from the Galactics. Would knowing where it came from help any?"

"It won't help us right now," Hancock said. "It might help Fleet."

"Okay, let Lady Shadow know what you've discovered, assuming you haven't done so already," Quinn said. Hancock looked at her innocently, but Quinn wasn't fooled. She wasn't the suspicious sort but knowing Brit, her minions were ordered to transmit anything related to the Bugs to her as soon as it was discovered.

"What's your plan?" Jolie asked.

"We need to know what's in there," Quinn said. "We need to quarantine it and crack it. I'd rather not wait for help but we may not have a choice."

"We should be able to handle one Bug attack craft," Jolie said.

"Isn't it more likely to be one of their planet busters?" Quinn asked. "And an escort?"

"We can still contain them," Jolie said. "There won't be much left if we have to defend ourselves. Can we take them intact? That is the real question."

"And the plan for doing so?" Quinn asked. "We've never engaged the Bugs in combat."

"You must have plans," Jolie said.

"I've got plans for recon probes, yes," Quinn said. "That's a quick in and out and not jumping blindly into a shielded area."

"Well, let's take that and come up with a plan," Jolie said. "Can't let your recon teams take all of the glory."

Quinn sighed. She wasn't against the idea but with just a light cruiser and two small teams of her troopers, and only one Shadow, they could easily get in over their heads. And Santana would kill her if she lost the ship and its' crew.

"Okay," Quinn said. "We're out here because the Bugs attacked a system. No reason to go home without at least taking a shot at them."

"So, first we need to encapsulate them," Jolie said. "Assuming they haven't already sent a warning, we don't want them saying anything else."

"The Bugs always move forward and aren't known to go backwards," Hancock said. "So they are very unlikely to get help from the Bug fleet. They will be expected to deal with any attacks on their own."

"So, they wouldn't send an SOS but we don't want them sharing any tactical data with any friends," Quinn said. "Has your science team found a way to block any transmissions?" Quinn asked Jolie.

"It'll take a lot of energy, but they believe they can use a portable shield to encapsulate that area," Jolie said. "The sun in this system is a red dwarf and should provide enough energy to power our converters to make it work."

"It'll make the sun very unstable," Yola warned. "It could go nova."

"While we're using it?" Quinn asked.

"Unlikely," Yola said. "But it'll speed up its decline. Right now they're predicting it'll go nova in a thousand cycles. If we do this, that'll be closer to a hundred cycles."

"So we'll need to put up warning signs afterward?" Quinn said.

"Or force it to go nova ourselves, before leaving. That'd be the best way," Hancock said. "Otherwise it's like leaving a potential bomb to go off."

"Okay, we'll need to know the ramifications of forcing it to go nova," Quinn said. "Fortunately, this is a dead zone."

"The science team is working on that, as part of the plan," Jolie said, after pausing to relay the request. "Unfortunately, we can't use that as part of our attack. Our equipment wouldn't survive a close encounter with a sun going nova."

"Or us," Yola said. "It'd certainly be a fantastic view, but deadly up close."

"We might need that as a last resort anyway," Quinn said. "We need to inform Blue Clan, at some point," she added. "They won't be happy with us, but the feeling is mutual."

"They've basically deserted this area," Jolie said. "So, no one really owns it."

"It is a rather large buffer zone between them and us," Quinn said. "But we might end up being stuck with it. Something for others to worry about."

"Once we encapsulate it, how do we get in there without getting blown up?" Jolie asked. "It's just going to absorb any energy we attack it with."

"We want anything in there as intact as possible," Quinn said, "but a little banged up won't be bad. As much as I want to test our suits against Bug warriors, that isn't our goal. We want useful intel. Intel that will help us against the Bug fleet, not just this side trip they've taken."

"We need to take their shield down," Yola said. "It'll absorb any weapons energy, but what if we try to syphon it off instead?"

"We don't have the tech to vacuum up huge amounts of energy, do we?" Jolie asked.

"We might know some beings who have that ability," Yola said.

"Who?" Quinn asked.

"The Juun," Yola said. "They have several tools that syphon off energy as they are mining. Not quite on the scale we need it but the tech is available."

"If there are plans, we can build it," Jolie said. "We've got some really skilled artificers on board and, as they like to put it, this ship has all the toys."

"Will the Juun give us their plans for these energy suckers?" Quinn asked.

"To get back at the Bugs who just destroyed one of their mining colonies? We might need to give them front row seats but I can't see them saying no to the idea," Hancock said.

"Contact them," Quinn said. "I'm assuming we'll need some help from Fleet also? Or can the Hotep do this alone?"

"It'll take several days to get any help from Fleet out here," Jolie said. "We can start with the assumption we're on our own and still ask for help."

"Okay," Quinn said. "I'll request another cruiser to help us, though I don't think Lady Air will give us another like this."

"There is no other ship like the Hotep," Jolie said smugly.

"Lady Hands, you have a message on the ship's long range comm," the Captain's aide said. "The captain said you can take it in her wardroom."

"Thanks," Quinn said. She headed towards the bridge to take a look. She'd be glad to be back in their sector with their high speed comm relays. Vid-mail was not as efficient.

Stepping into the captain's wardroom, Quinn nodded at Jolie.

"I can give you privacy," Jolie said.

"No need," Quinn said, sitting down and pulling up the message.

"Can't say you're not ambitious," Brittany said, in the message she'd sent. "We don't have a spare ship the caliber of the Hotep, as you know, but we've got several that have skilled crew who can work on these energy 'suckers' on their way to you so the Hotep doesn't have to build them all. The model is predicting that you'll break even with help and it's a little less sure if you have to handle this incursion site with just the Hotep. The time it takes them to get to you will save time and gives you more of these energy vampires to get through the shield faster. The additional ships will also help, depending on what is behind that shield."

Quinn nodded to herself. The plan would certainly work better with more ships and the additional energy suckers. They would just have to hope that the Bugs stayed put long enough.

Brittany continued, "I've included a slightly modified mission plan. Santana had several suggestions that she believes your Captain Jolie can take advantage of. She just wants her other ships back with as little damage of possible. She wants me to remind you that well trained ships crew don't grow on trees."

Quinn opened the mission plan, and quickly glanced through it. She'd recognize Santana's touch anywhere. It was obviously something she'd been thinking about for a while but hadn't had an opportunity to try.

"Looks like we're getting some help," Quinn said, looking up at Jolie. "Lady Air has given us a plan with her unique touch. See what you can do with it." She forwarded the plan to Jolie's comm pad. "It makes several assumptions about resources that you'll have to work out."

Jolie nodded, diving into the plan. "Yes, this does have Lady Air's touch. I remember seeing something like this at the Academy, one of her training missions. We should be able to do this with what we have and what the Apolis, Braise, and Polly bring with them. They're good ships for something like this. They don't have our speed or armaments but they are very tough little ships."

"My troopers on Alepsos won't have a part in this until the end," Quinn said.

"No," Jolie said. "But they are going to be vital once we stomp on them. We aren't normally equipped with boarding parties."

Chapter Text

Quinn watched on the comm screen as the ships took up equidistant positions around the shielded area. There were a dozen small thumps in the ship and small brightly lit objects started to fill in the gaps between the ships.

"All systems are go," Yola said. "Area quarantined. Permission to proceed."

"Permission granted," Jolie said. "Let's see what's behind that screen."

In space there's no noise but Quinn could almost imagine hearing the enormous sounds as the energy vampires inside the quarantine area started draining the energy away from the shrouded area. There would be the occasional flash as one of the taps pushed excess energy out to the force field being used for the quarantine.

"Power at ninety nine percent," Yola said. "Estimated completion, forty eight hours."

"That seems to be a long time," Quinn said, trying to see any change.

"That's how long it'll take if they don't add more energy to it," Jolie said. "Don't forget, this is being drained at a fantastic rate. The original vampire taps weren't designed to be used on this scale."

"So, we could actually use this to drain a sun," Quinn said.

"In a hundred thousand cycles," Hancock said. "Stars are huge energy engines. We don't have the ability to soak one up like a spill. This Bug shield may seem to be strong but it's only a fraction of the energy of a sun."

"We should have blasted it," Quinn's XO said.

"Which would have had the opposite effect," Hancock said. "We want to pull down their energy until they can't support that shield. Once it's gone there are a lot of things we can do."

"Ninety-eight percent," Yola said. "Energy pull still within acceptable limits."

"Too soon to see through the shield," Hancock said. "It'll probably be too hard to see through until at least forty percent."

"So, tomorrow?" Quinn said, frowning. "So we'll just sit here and watch?"

"We're also mapping the entire system," Jolie said. "We don't want any surprises once that nut opens."

"Looks like there's a dead planet in an outer orbit," Krem, the on-duty Comm officer said. "Scout Four is reporting signs of a dead civilization."

"What kinds of signs," Quinn asked.

"Energy fluctuations," Krem said. "But no life signs."

"So, anything?" Quinn said, returning to the bridge several hours later.

"We're down to fifty percent," Yola said, looking tired. "If they're going to attack it'll be soon."

"Or not at all," Hancock said. "Assuming they've noticed."

"Unlikely that they haven't," Jolie said. "We're pulling a lot of energy away. If they haven't noticed they're either dead or not alive in the first place."

There was a loud hum over the comm, for a brief moment.

"What was that?" Quinn asked.

"Something was probing us," Krem said, quickly making some adjustments. "Looks like they tried to use the comm links to do it."

"So they're in Hotep's systems?" Jolie said.

"No," Krem said. "The hum was caused by a subspace channel mismatch. Their comm channels don't appear to be compatible with ours."

"Do we even know if they use similar comm channels?" Quinn asked.

"The original comm channels were the result of research during the last Bug incursion," Hancock said. "It's likely we don't use them the same way as the Bugs but the original science behind them was based on equipment discovered in derelict Bug ships."

"So they could be listening in on us?" Quinn said, horrified.

"No," Yola said quickly. "The only thing we use is the science behind subspace comm channels. There's no way for them to listen in on our comms."

"Are the sensors showing anything there?" Quinn asked.

"There are distinct shapes," Yola said. "But that could be asteroids, not ships."

"Looks like we've gotten their attention," Hancock said. A large smooth object started poking out of the shield. Twice the size of the Hotep, it didn't resemble any ship Quinn had ever seen.

"Any comm traffic?" Jolie asked her comm officer.

"Dead silence," Krem said. "It's like it isn't there."

"But it's glowing with the same element the gallium sensors were detecting," Yola said.

"So, it's what we followed here, and likely what destroyed the Chandar system," Jolie said.

"Orders ma'am?" Hotep's XO said.

"Keep draining their energy," Jolie said. "We need to see everything. And prepare for firing."

"Yes, ma'am," she said. "Preparing for action."

"Still no comm traffic," Krem said. "But static is starting to build up around the ship."

"Energy down to thirty five," Yola said. "Getting a view inside now."

A grey object appeared on the screen. Floating in it were three small Bug ships, the size of Hotep, and two double the size of Flag.

"Those are large," Quinn said.

"They aren't fighting ships," Jolie said. "Must be gathering ships."

"And something is going to want what they've gathered," Yola said.

"So we can set a trap," Jolie said. "But first we need to deal with these ships."

"No signs of life on any of the ships," Yola said, as the shield completely disappeared. "No organic material matching know life profiles."

"Automated?" Jolie asked. "Autopilot or AI?"

"Unknown," Yola said. "Someone will have to go take a look."

"Which ship is the control center?" Quinn asked.

"We're picking up comm traffic, of a sort," Krem said. "It all seems to originate with that one." She pointed at the first ship they'd detected.

"You'll need to keep the other ships busy so we can board that one," Quinn said.

"How?" Jolie asked. "We removed their energy shield and they're just sitting there like they haven't even noticed."

"Just start shooting?" Quinn said. "That should get their attention. Just give us ten to get to that ship."

"Ten it is," Jolie said. "The boarding flat will be at the main troop hatch."

Quinn look over her two teams carefully as they waited for the all clear to get on their boarding float. They practiced ship to ship boarding drills on a frequent basis but it'd been a while since they'd boarded a hostile ship of an unknown type.

"Gold, you're with me," Quinn said to her five Gold troopers. "We'll head to the ship control center. Green, you need to find the engine rooms and take control of their propulsion. Keep them from getting away." She pulled up a map of the Bug ship. It was a best guess based on sensor readings, though they weren't always accurate.

"We'll go in here," she said, pointing at what looked like some sort of hatch. "Jeffers and Poll will blow the hatch. Everything will be just like we've practiced."

There were no signs of a pressure difference as the hatch blew, Quinn noticed. Normally, in a situation like this, venting a hatch to space resulted in a flash wave of atmosphere as the atmosphere escaped. Here there'd been nothing.

"Looks like a vacuum, Boss," Poll said. "And no lights."

"Okay Ladies," Quinn said. "You heard her. We're doing this in the dark."

Slipping past the jagged hatch edges, Quinn and Gold team oriented themselves and headed down a passageway that appeared to go towards the section of the ship they'd determined was the control center. Green team entered behind them and headed towards the Engine room.

"This is eerie," Pin said. "The Bugs must not live in this."

"Or they keep it airless during battle to make it harder for boarders," Poll said. "Has anyone ever been in one of these before?"

"Not while it was still mobile," Pin said. "All previous Bug ships were examined after they were destroyed, which almost never happened."

"This is a first," Jony said. "We're the first teams to go inside a Bug ship during combat."

"Not really much combat," Poll said.

"Hush ladies," Quinn said. "We're being watched."

"Where?" Pin said, swinging her suit light. "Ah, ceiling fixtures. Want us to take them out?"

"Any you see," Quinn said. "They should already know we're here. Blowing a hatch isn't very stealthy."

"Boss?" Xano, Green Leader said. "We're outside the engine compartment. No action so far."

"Just be careful," Quinn said, stating the obvious. "They know we're here. Expect a defensive response."

"Yes, ma'am," Xeno said, her tone saying 'do you think I'm stupid?'

"Something's headed our way," Pin said. "Feel the vibrations? Must be something big."

"These are huge corridors," Quinn said. "No one builds a ship with such large corridors unless they have a reason."

"They're Bugs," Jony said. "Do they need a reason?"

"Robots?" Pin said, as it appeared in front of them. "That's not a challenge." She aimed her suit blaster at the front robot and fired. There was no change. It kept coming.

"Maybe a little challenge," Pin said as she changed weapons and fired a burst of anti-armor rockets.

"Less talking, more shooting," Quinn said beside her as she opened fire on another of the robots.

"Not seeing any damage," Jony said.

"Looks like we'll need to get up close and personal," Quinn said. Shaking her hand, she released her suit's monofilament whip. "Everyone clear!"

"Gee, Boss," Pin said, stepping to the size and extending her own whip. "Shall we?"

Together they raced down the hall towards the robots. Quinn's first strike lopped off an arm, and her second cut a robot in half.

"Doesn't look like they know how to defend themselves," Pin said, after they'd destroyed the small party of robots.

"Maintenance droids?" Jony said.

"They don't have any type of weapon I recognize," Quinn said, looking down at the jumble of metal.

"Not expecting to be boarded?" Poll said.

"Not expecting company of any sort," Quinn said. "Cleaning crew of some sort."

"Probably planned to chuck us out an airlock," Pin said. "Like vermin."

"To the Bugs we probably are vermin," Quinn said. "No one has ever asked them what they think of us but it certainly isn't a friendly gesture to strip all of the resources from a system, even if it is unpopulated."

"What's that humming?" Quinn asked.

"Sorry, it's the Terawatt theme song," Tarky said. "Thought I was on mute."

"I really need to talk with Sophia," Quinn muttered to herself. "That Terawatt cult is spreading faster than I like."

"It's not a cult, it's a tv show," Tarky said. "It's even got a catchy theme song."

"Well, unless this Terawatt is going to show up and help us out, keep it off the combat channel," Quinn said.

"Yes, Boss," all of the troopers said in unison.

"Comedians," Quinn muttered. "Thought I asked for top of the line troopers for this expedition."

"You did," Pin said. "But they've all gotten hooked on that TV show."

"It's totally tera," Poll said, before giggling.

"It'll be totally something else if it distracts you from your job," Quinn said.

After silently traveling along empty corridors for ten minutes, they reached the hallway that their intel said the control center faced.

"Any signs of life?" Quinn asked.

"As dead as the rest of the ship," Pin said "Not a squeak at this end."

"What's it look like in the engine room?" Quinn asked Xeno over the battle channel.

"Lots of flashing lights," she said. "but nothing to write home about."

"Blow this door," Quinn said, pointing at the only door in the corridor that could be the control center.

"Ready when you are, Boss," Pin said standing off to the side.

"Go!" Quinn said. The door blew in and Gold team followed, Quinn in the lead.

"Boring," Poll said, once they'd looked around.

"Eye of Sauron?" Jony said, pointing at a large globe in the middle of the room that looked like a rotating eyeball.

"It doesn't seem to see us," Poll said. "Just some automated system."

"We're going to have to clear the whole ship, aren't we," Jeffers said.

"Yes," Quinn said.

"It'll take days," she said huffily.

"Just think fo the glory," Poll said. "You're on the first team to capture a Bug ship, or whatever this is."

"We'll need to take control of this ship," Quinn said.

It took them two days to cover the entire ship from top to bottom and make sure there were no actual Bugs hiding in the ship. In the process they'd discovered that the other ships were definitely controlled from the one they'd boarded.

"That was the most boring ship clearing ever," Poll said. "Not a single explosion or firefight. Just the occasional confused cleaning robot."

"We got lucky," Pin said. "The next Bug ship we run across might not be empty."

"They're all boring Bug strip mining ships," Jony said. "All automated. They fly into a system, set up shields, and strip it down for later use."

"So, your troopers are probably disappointed," Jolie said. "Two days of ship clearing and nothing more exciting than a cleaning robot gone amuck."

"They'll live," Quinn said. "And if we can turn this into a trap, they'll have all of the fighting they want."

"Unless the next Bug ships to show up are also robot ships," Jolie said.

"We learned a lot from this exercise. No one got hurt, which is always good," Quinn said, "and we have some Bug ships taken intact for the Shadows to examine."

"Unarmed," Jolie said.

"Well, no combat weapons," Quinn said. "But they have the tools they use to capture and strip mine a planetary system. Those will be valuable. And the Shadows should be able to figure out how the Bug's new cloaking devices work."

"We've got the ships," Jolie said. "Where to now?"

"A Shadow ship should take over examining the Bug ships, and we'll wait for the Bugs to show up to take them back. If they don't show up, we'll join the fleet watching the main Bug fleet."

"How will your troopers handle all of that excitement?" Jolie said.

"Unless the Bugs change tactics, my troopers aren't going to get to do much fighting. Unless the Bugs take over another populated system and we need to rescue it before they strip it."

"So, no Council plans to take on the Bugs with just troopers?" Jolie asked, nodding.

"We'd still need ships to get to them, and the fleet would have to pound them into submission first anyway. This is a very rare example, we hope, of being able to capture Bug ships with no casualties," Quinn said.

"That must have been disappointing," Rachel said, reading Quinn's report on the Chandar situation. "She went all the way out there and there was no real fighting."

"But she captured a small Bug strip mining fleet," Brittany said. "That's at least as valuable to our efforts as a battle."

"Why were all of the Bug ships automated?" Rachel asked.

"We can't answer that," Brittany said. "It wasn't a very sophisticated setup so they've only recently started doing that.

"So, the next mining fleet may have real Bugs on it," Rachel said.

"Possibly," Brittany said. "We have no way to predict that."

"Do you think there are other strip mining fleets out there."

"Well, now that we now what to look for, if there are we'll stop them.

"It's not just going to be the one Bug fleet, is it?" Rachel asked.

"We weren't told there would be more than one Bug fleet," Brittany said. "This makes things a bit more complex, but we'll adapt."

"Will it make your predictive model worse or better?" Rachel asked.

"It doesn't work that way," Brittany said. "I'll need to adjust it for the new aspect."

"How does it affect our chances," Rachel asked. "Are we better off?"

"Only time will tell," Brittany said. "The Hotep encountered some automated Bug ships and we've learned a few things about them, but nothing about how the Bugs behave in a tactical situation."

"Not exactly something to write epics about," Rachel said, disappointed.

"Nope," Brittany said with a small grin. "Sending in a boarding party to capture an automated mining fleet is not the stuff of which Hollywood action pictures are made.

"When will they be back, or close enough for the comms?" Rachel asked.

"Missing your snuggle bunny?" Brittany asked, smirking. "We should have comm relays set up along the border by the end of the month. And then you can talk with her all you want."

"But not in Blue territory," Rachel said, grumbling.

"Artie is working on that. The Blues are in worse shape than we thought. Their entire Council, and ruling class, was wiped out by the Bugs on their way through Blue territory. There's no one left willing to claim leadership."

"Why doesn't the Confederation just take them over then, like they did with us?" Rachel asked.

"Don't know," Brittany said. "Any idea Artie?"

"Nothing direct," Artie said. "Some believe that the Clans Council does not want another Clan to be under the control of the Confederation and are blocking efforts to efficiently handle the situation."

"We aren't under the control of the Confederation," Rachel said.

"We sort of are," Brittany said. "The Confederation has been very hands-off but they are still the ultimate authority over us, until the next meeting of the Council of Clans can approve our new leadership."

"When will that happen?" Rachel asked.

"Decades," Brittany said. "They aren't going to do it until we've handled our local Bug situation, that's for sure."

"I say we just take over Blue sector," Santana said, joining them on the comm.

"You have the outbound relays set up?" Brittany said, delighted.

"Nah," Santana said. "We're just back in range."

"You know we can't invade Blue sector, babe," Brittany said. "We don't have the resources."

"Well, as a police force for their sector, they're basically nonexistent. Their AI's have their fleet going around in circles tracking Bugs that aren't there. And they aren't taking care of business," Santana said. "Things would be better if we took over."

"We can't," Brittany said.

"Artie won't tell anyone, will you Artie?" Santana said.

"How goes operation 'Poke the Bear'?" Brittany asked. "Any reaction to your presence yet?"

"It's like they don't see us," Santana said. "I don't know how they could possible be missing that old clunker we have keeping station in their path. It's so loud it's giving me a headache."

"More robot ships?" Rachel asked. "Maybe all of the Bugs are robots?"

"No, that would be too easy," Santana said. "Robots wouldn't have defeated Blue Clan's fleet. Not much of a challenge but robots just don't have the flexibility."

"Some kind of AI?" Rachel asked.

"There would be signs of that," Brittany said. "A true AI, capable of the kind of fighting involved, would give off signs that we can see."

"So, you know when an AI is involved?" Rachel said.

"Their actions have a distinct 'flavor' to them that resonates with the model. Just like the Bugs and the different Clans," Brittany said.

"Does the Confederation know about this?" Rachel asked.

"They think it's just some mystical mumbo-jumbo," Brittany said, grinning mischievously. "They haven't been able to duplicate it."

"Good," Rachel said.

"They have good intentions," Brittany said, shrugging.

"No offense intended, Artie, but the Confederation has some of the most arrogant, snooty beings I've every communicated with," Rachel said. "Being AIs doesn't make them superior."

"None taken," Artie said.

"How is your other side project going?" Santana asked.

"The quest we sent Andy and Co. on?" Brittany said. "They're outside the range of our comm network, but Miranda has been dropping off reports."

"That's handy," Santana said. "Any progress?"

"Nothing of note," Brittany said. "The Prophets are being elusive."

"Or they don't exist," Santana said. "And you sent them on a wild goose chase."

"They exist," Brittany said. "They just don't want to be found."

"You're not going to win the bet," Santana said.

"Ye, I am," Brittany said. "Just because you don't think they exist doesn't mean they don't."

"They're not leprechauns," Santana said.

"Leprechauns?" Rachel said, puzzled.

"Leprechauns don't exist," Santana said. "It's a thing. Like unicorns."

"We've modified several long range sensors," Brittany said, recording a message for Quinn and her teams. "We've confirmed that there are several smaller Bug fleets that passed through Blue territory without being detected."

"Too bad we can't find out where they went after that," Santana added. "They hit the edge of Blue sector and just disappeared," she said. "Whatever they are doing hasn't shown up on any of our sensors."

"She's not going to be happy about that, San," Brittany said, pausing the message recording. "We know more Bugs are out there but have no idea where they are? That leads to Unhappy Q."

"Well, the Blues were crap at fighting the Bugs but they shouldn't have been taken apart like that. The Bugs outmaneuvered them right from the beginning," Santana said.

"And they'll do the same to us if we don't find them," Brittany said. "They could be within striking distance and we'd never know it."

"Well, we just have to find them," Santana said. "That gallium trick is useful, but it obviously isn't perfect. The Bugs we found must have switched to another fuel source that doesn't show up on those modified sensors."

"Even hidden like that, they're still a year from the closest habitable system," Brittany said, "but there are other systems they could strip before we noticed."

"We've now got that mining fleet your wiz kids can dismantle," Santana said. "Won't that help?"

"First they have to get out there," Brittany said. "We aren't bringing those ships into our sector intact."

"So, set up a research facility out in no-mans land," Santana said. "Or use the one you already have."

"Research facility?" Brittany said, winking at her. "What research facility?" She turned on her intel shields.

"We do know how you think," Santana said. "We'd be more surprised if you didn't have several hidden research bases."

"Well, don't mention them to anyone," Brittany said. "Please? You, Quinn, and Rachel have clearance, and Sue, of course, but no one else needs to know they exist."

"I won't say anything," Santana said. "I am curious what research you think should be secret."

"Just the usual," Brittany said, shrugging. "Research that is too dangerous to be done in-system or that we don't want the other Clans or the Confederation to know about."

"Ah, so that is where all of those science candidates have been disappearing to," Santana said.

"You know how I feel about having to share all of our secrets with the Confederation, and the other Clans," Brittany said. "It's also going to be useful to have bases the Bugs don't know about."

"You think we have Bug spies?" Santana said. "Who would even work with them?"

"The Red Pirates?" Brittany said. "There's been some suspicious traffic out on the rim. It looks like they are trying to communicate with the Bugs."

"Good luck with that one," Santana said. "If the Bugs were willing to communicate we might have negotiated with them."

"The Bugs don't communicate with anyone," Brittany said. "They're like locusts. They cut through our galaxy without stopping, every couple thousand cycles."

"The Red Pirates have never been very smart," Santana said. "If they were smart they wouldn't be pirates."

"Let me finish this message to Quinn and I'm all yours," Brittany said.

"You're all mine anyway," Santana said, smirking. "Q has nothing to do with it."

"What did Lady Shadow say?" Jolie asked Quinn.

"She's found evidence of other Bug movement through Blue sector," Quinn said. "But the gallium trick stopped working when they hit our border."

"That isn't good," Jolie said. "So, are we going to pursue them?"

"As soon as one of her Shadow teams reaches us and takes possession of the Bug ships, we're to head to the last know coordinates of one of the other Bug fleets and investigate it. Sorry."

"Not your fault you needed a ship," Jolie said. "We serve at the pleasure of the Council, which means we do whatever you need us to do. Besides, it'll put us in comm range again, and that'll help moral."

"I'm sure chasing Bug ghost ships wasn't what you want to be doing," Quinn said.

"Well, we could be out there mapping some of those empty systems," Jolie said. "It's not like there's anything more exciting going on right now. The main Bug Fleet is still moving slowly into our sector, and Lady Air's attack plans are still being refined. It'll be another six months before we start attacking them. So being out here with you and chasing other Bugs is much better. At least we are doing something."

"We'll need to pick up several more teams before we do that," Quinn said. "Our little squadron doesn't have enough troopers if we actually run into hostile Bugs."

"You're the boss," Jolie said. "Are they meeting us somewhere or do we need to pick them up."

"The troop ship Alepsos will meet us," Quinn said. "They'll be joining us. The rest of Gold and Green Teams, and Blue, Red, and Black Teams will be on board."

"So, the Hotep, Alepsos, Apolis , Braise, and the Polly are in this together," Jolie said. "Interesting combination of talents."

"You're still lead captain," Quinn said. "And our arrangement hasn't changed."

"Excellent," Jolie said. "Are we getting any Shadows as part of this?"

"The Alepsos has a Shadow recon team as part of its normal complement. They're very experienced," Quinn said. "Though typical Shadows."

"So, obnoxious and mouthy?" Jolie said.

"Exactly," Quinn said. "But they should be useful."

"Anything else I should know?" Jolie said.

"No," Quinn said. "Business as usual. Keep us afloat and we'll deal with things when they need the up close and personal touch."

"Got it," Jolie said. "And Lady Air?"

"She's still your boss," Quinn said. "Nothing there has changed. She hasn't given me your ships. This is a combined op."

Quinn walked along the deck with Jolie, inspecting the newly arrived troopers. There were now too many troopers for her to say that she'd worked and fought with all of them but she knew the team leaders, having selected them personally.

"Colorful," Jolie said, looking across the rainbow colored troopers.

"All unique in some way," Quinn said. "Makes it easier to identify your team mates in heavy action."

"Not very stealthy," Jolie said. "What do you do for night operations."

"The suits all have camouflage modes for different environments. But we like to go into battle in full color, so to speak," Quinn said.

"I can't wait to see it," Jolie said. "Not that I want you to have to go into battle against the Bugs. But it must be amazing to see."

"Yes, it is," Quinn said. "We do have recordings of training operations where there are several thousand troopers on the field at once, but it isn't quite the same thing as a real battle."

"Who are they?" Jolie asked, pointing at a small group in gray hard suits that were slimmer and lighter looking than the colorful troopers.

"Janice, Joy, nice of you to join us," Quinn said. "Life wasn't exciting enough already?"

"Lady Q," Janice said, nodding her head respectfully. "We heard you needed the best, and we're it."

"Modest," Jolie said.

"They do have a lot of experience dealing with the unusual," Quinn said. "I saw your orders yesterday," she said to them. "You could have gotten your own ship?"

"But then we'd have to be boring and keep everything ship-shape," Joy said. "Lady Shadow has certain expectations for her ship captains. We would have mutinied after a week of being in charge."

"No mutiny on my ships," Jolie said.

"No, ma'am," Janice said, smirking. "No mutinies from us."

"And keep the practical jokes to a minimum," Quinn added. "I expect you to set a good example for your squads."

"Yes, Lady Q," Joy said. "No mutinies, minimum practical jokes, and good examples. We can do that."

Quinn nodded solemnly. "There will be a team leader meeting after this. I expect the two of you and your seconds to be there."

"Yes, ma'am," they said.

Quinn and Jolie continued with their inspection.

"Those two Shadows are going to be trouble," Jolie said. "I'm glad they're your responsibility and not mine."

"They're very good at landing on their feet," Quinn said. "A little too independent to make good troopers but Lady Shadow has sent us her best. I'm a little surprised she allowed both of them to come."

"I've had Shadows on my ship before," Jolie said, "but they usually keep to themselves."

"Janice and Joy believe in mingling," Quinn said. "And they don't take themselves too seriously. Though, if we get them killed, Lady Shadow won't be happy with us."

"Lady Q, you should probably see this," Janice said, holding out her tech tablet. "The Bugs are getting busy."

"How so?" Quinn asked, looking at the data on the tablet.

"We've picked up additional signs of movement," Janice said. "It looks like they are all converging on that system."

"That's a lot of ships to suddenly appear," Quinn said.

"So, they stripped several systems as they drove through Blue territory," Joy said. "It isn't obvious unless you're really looking for them."

"No one missed these systems?" Quinn asked, surprised.

"They're all dead systems," Janice said. "They haven't had any activity in several thousand cycles."

"There must be something they want from those systems," Quinn said. "There was Chandar, where they seem to have stripped all gallium from. What was special about these other systems?"

"We think they're stripping specific minerals so no one else gets it. Something that affects their ships," Janice said.

"So, they took all of the gallium in the Chandar system and it can be used to penetrate their shields. So each of the systems has some strategic material they don't want us to have?" Quinn said. "What other materials are they trying to corner the market on?"

"We're still following their trails back," Joy said.

"I'm assuming you aren't telling Blue Clan that you are digging around their sector," Quinn said.

"Of course, Boss," Janice said. 'What they don't know won't kill us."

"They can go back to sleep and hibernate until the next Council of Clans meeting. No reason for them to get excited."

"There are seven planetary systems, including Chandar, that have signs of the Bugs stripping them," Joy said. "The other six have been abandoned for centuries. Whatever material they had that the Bugs wanted wasn't something anyone else appears to have wanted."

"If we assume each system was visited by similar sized mining fleets, it's a sizable number of Bug ships."

"A second fleet," Joy said. "Which could be heeded this way."

"The sooner we find them, the better," Quinn said. "Do we know anything about any armaments they might have?"

"Just their mining equipment," Joy said. "Those ships at Chandar were basically defenseless. Unless you got in their way and they rode right over you."

"And we expect to see six more flights like that," Quinn said.

"Current projections say yes," Janice said.

"How far away from here is the predicted planetary system they seem to be aiming for?" Quinn asked, frowning.

"It's several planetary leagues away," Joy said. "We can be there in less than a day."

Chapter Text

"That's a lot of automated ships," Joy said, watching the gathering fleet of Bug mining ships in their long range monitors on her tablet. "Think it's new behavior?"

"Possibly," Janice said. "But they could have done it the same way during the last incursion but no one noticed."

"You know the Galactics are good at sticking their heads in the sand. That's why they need us," Joy said. "We don't do that."

"Well, Serpent Clan and a couple others don't do the ostrich thing," Janice said. "Blue Clan seems to have perfected the idea that if they close their eyes no one can see them."

"We need to be watching Blue," Joy said. "At some point they'll get their asses in gear, and start asking what we're doing in their territory."

"Lady Q has several different plans," Janice said, looking through her tablet. "Looks like she's working on several different ideas for handling the mining ships."

"Should we tell her we have a mini bar and snacks?" Joy asked. "The Shadow was clear about us keeping an eye on her."

"At least we didn't get a lecture from the Memory," Janice said. "Or Lady Sylvester."

"Lady Sylvester doesn't care about things like that," Janet said. "She's a tough old bird and expects them to be tough too."

"They must have been something," Joy said. "Can you imagine Lady Q or Lady Air as cheerleaders?"

"Yes," Janice said. "The Boss has some old vids of them in competition."

"And you didn't share?" Joy said, pouting.

"Maybe if you're good," Janice said, grinning.

"I'm always good," Joy said.

"You keep believing that," Janice said, winking at her.

"Incoming," Elle, the night shift Tach said. "Looks like the prediction was right. They're all converging here."

"Wake everyone up," the XO said. "They'll want to see this."

The alert signal rang through all five ships in the small force. Everyone rushed to their battle stations, and the troopers all climbed into their hard suits.

"And a good morning to you too," Jolie told her XO, stepping onto the bridge, followed by Quinn, who'd come over from the troop ship, where she'd moved her command.

"Thought you'd want to see this," her XO said. "Looks like all sorts of Bug ships are congregating in this void on the edge of our sector."

"And none of them are from the main Bug fleet we're tracking?" Jolie asked.

"No ma'am," her XO said. "These are all unknown Bug vessels."

"Let's see how close we can get to scan them," Jolie said. "If they're like the main Bug fleet they won't notice us unless we attack them."

"What types are they?" Quinn asked. "Anything that we haven't see before?"

"Troop carriers?" Jolie asked. "Or anything that isn't a mining ship?"

"Mining ships. Looks like each group has one of those command and control ships," Elle said. "But no life signs, like that mining fleet."

"I'm starting to wonder if there are any real live Bugs in any of their ships," Quinn said.

"Just robots and automated ships?" Jolie said. "Not sure if that makes them more dangerous."

"It means we might have no way of stopping them except one control ship at a time," Quinn said. "Unless there's an overall command and control ship out there that we haven't seen yet with the real Bugs in it."

"What about comm traffic?" Jolie said. "That mining fleet at Chandar wasn't silent. They had comms wide open on their subspace channels."

"Searching now," Comms said. "They aren't using the same subspace frequencies they used at Chandar."

"Sound practice," Quinn said. "Those ships didn't make it here so they must have decided to switch to an alternate comm channel."

"That's more intelligence than we've seen from them until now," Jolie said.

"Unless Blue Clan fleet was the worst in the combined clans, there had to be some intelligence behind the Bug fleet that clobbered them," Quinn said.

"What's that?" Jolie asked, seeing something small moving towards the nearest Bug C&C ship on the view screen.

"Looks like an unmanned Shadow probe," Quinn said.

"We aren't carrying anything like that," Jolie said. "And they aren't authorized to engage."

"It came from somewhere," Quinn said. "Most likely the Alepsos."

"Get me whomever is driving that thing on the comm," Jolie said to her Comm.

"It's not registering on any of our comm channels," Comm said.

"Someone is driving it, and they aren't outside doing it," Jolie said. "Get them up here before they cause an incident."

"I don't know who it is," Comms protested.

"Find them," Jolie said, growling.

Quinn shook her head. Holding up a hand, she interrupted Jolie's rant. "I'm sure there's a simple explanation." She clicked through to the private Shadow channel. "Janice? Joy? Would you mind joining us in the captain's mess on the Hotep?"

"We're busy right now, Lady Q," Janice said. "Can it wait?"

"If your busy is a Mark VII Shadow probe currently trying to sneak into the Bug corral, then no, it can't wait," Quinn said.

"We'll be right there," Joy said.

Quinn closed the channel and turned back to Jolie and her XO. "They'll be here in a few minutes," Quinn said.

"How'd you know who it was?" Jolie asked.

"Who else would it be?" Quinn said. "They tend to be a bit independent."

"Well, not when I'm in charge," Jolie said, glaring.

"Your task force, your rules," Quinn said, nodding. "But don't be surprised that certain elements will still do things their own way."

"I'm aware of them, yes," Jolie said, grimacing. On the screen the Shadow probe started to retreat.

The door to the bridge slid open. Two Shadow's stepped onto the bridge, wearing their shadow suits with the helmet down.

"Joy. Janice," Jolie said. "Would you mind telling me what you were doing?"

"Testing a theory," Joy said.

"An excellent theory," Janice said. "Even if she thought of it."

"There are rules of engagement in a situation such as this," Jolie said. "You can't do your own thing, no matter how 'excellent' you think your theory is."

"We were following the engagement rules," Janice said. "We should know, we wrote them."

"By wrote them, she means we're on the team that drafted all rules for contact with the Bugs, so we know exactly what they say," Joy said, sighing.

"I don't care if you personally typed them out," Jolie said. "Your action could have endangered existing plans."

"Could have? So we didn't actually?" Joy said. "We would never interfere in battle plans."

"Never, ever," Janice said. "We're trained to work with all sorts of mission profiles."

"Ladies, just don't," Quinn said. "If Lady Shadow needs some special data collected the order should come through the task force planners, not some idea you had in the middle of a Terawatt marathon."

"All the best ideas come from watching Terawatt," Joy said.

"No, no, no!" Jolie said. "You are not putting this entire task force at risk just to test some idea you got from watching a video show."

"It's an excellent idea," Joy said. "It's from the episode with the giant spiders."

"Not my favorite episode," Janice said, "but some awesome special effects, even if spiders would never get that large."

"I can't believe I'm saying this, but what was your idea," Jolie asked, sighing. "How did you go from giant spiders to Bugs?"

"Well, if you remember the episode," Janice said. "There's a part where Terawatt went into the spider cave."

"I've never seen the show, so no I don't remember it," Jolie said. "Just tell me your idea."

"Well, I was wondering if maybe the Bugs came here, and do all that mining, to reproduce? Maybe they're laying eggs. Maybe the only time they get violent is when someone gets too close to their eggs."

"Eggs? Bug eggs?" Jolie said, staring at them in disbelief. "How did you plan on looking for these eggs?"

"No, Bug ship eggs," Joy said. "What if the Bugs are their ships? What if those mining ships are nesting? If we find out where they keep their eggs, maybe we can capture one."

"Yeah, that is a crazy idea," Jolie said. "Assuming you were correct what would you do with a Bug ship egg once you found it?"

"Hadn't quite gotten that far," Joy said. "Needed to see if there were eggs first."

"Ah, so the idea was only half baked," Jolie's XO said.

"Yeah, it could have used more time in the oven," Joy said.

"Hey!" Janice said. "We don't have half-baked ideas."

"It doesn't matter how baked it is," Quinn said. "It's an interesting idea and might explain some of the odd behavior this Bug fleet is exhibiting that previous incursions didn't."

"What about those pictures of Bugs?" Jolie said.

"That is a good question," Quinn said. "There is enough information on what the Bugs are supposed to look like, and they don't look like robots or ships."

"But when was the last time someone saw an actual Bug?" Joy asked. "I bet those were just decoys or the Bugs have died off since they created these ships."

"And if the Bugs are ships, then tactics need to be different," Janice said.

"How so?" Quinn asked.

"Because their goals would be different," Joy said. "If they're looking for systems to lay their eggs in or to get material to build new ships, and not to conquer us, then it's more like dealing with migratory birds,"

"Or lemmings," Janice said.

"Or lemmings," Joy repeated. "The only way to handle a migratory species is to either kill them all off or turn them in a different direction."

"Our plan is already to kill as many as possible," Jolie said.

"But that's by taking out their command and control structure. If they have turned themselves into a migratory nuisance, instead of a conquering fleet, the response should be different," Janice said.

"So, spank them and send them home?" Jolie said. "Where's home?"

"Well, that's an important question," Joy said, "that we don't have an answer for."

"Or time for right now," Quinn said. "We need to deal with what we have now. The Bugs must be dealt with. Now, instead of letting them come back in another thousand or two cycles."

"So, what do we do?" Jolie asked. "Let these two stumble around taunting the Bugs?"

"We weren't stumbling around," Joy said, groaning. "We know exactly what we're doing."

"And we weren't planning to taunt them," Janice said, frowning. "Maybe a couple of hand gestures."

"Enough," Quinn said. "Can we adjust the plan to include our illustrious Shadows? I'd rather make use of their expertise than stick them in a cell for a timeout until they get bailed out."

"The brig is a bad look on us," Joy said, vigorously nodding in agreement.

"Yeah, I look bad in stripes," Janice said. "And gruel is really nasty."

"We can always make room for the two of you," Jolie said. "Security could use the practice."

"We're fine like this," Joy said.

"No need," Janice added. "We're completely at your disposal."

"That was a given," Quinn said. "You and your team are here for a purpose, not to get more frequent spacer credits."

"We aren't?" Joy said. "I want a recount!"

"We'll need to do some serious revision of the plan," Jolie said. "We've obviously made some assumptions about the Bugs."

"Let's clear them up," Quinn said.

"I think our original plan was the best," Joy said, watching the probe through the main bridge monitor as it approached the gathering of Bug mining ships. "It had a certain flair to it."

"And lots of potential for explosions," Janice added.

"We might still get some explosions," Joy said.

"Maybe," Janice said.

"Begin mapping," Jolie said. "Let's see what we have."

"Behind door number one," Joy said, "it looks like we have eight of those large freighter ships. And, according to our deep sensors, they are all full of some rare metal. But none of them have gallium."

"So they've strip mined nine different systems including Chandar," Janice said.

"We'll need to backtrack their flight path," Quinn said. "What are the chances that the systems they mined were unpopulated at the time?"

"Very unlikely, Lady Q," Janice said. "They've cut across a dozen different sectors since they entered the Confederation territories. Those systems could be anywhere."

"We'll have to check with the Confederation to see if they know," Quinn said.

"And do what?" Jolie asked.

"If we capture them, we'll want to make sure their cargos are returned to the sectors they came from," Quinn said.

"We can't keep it?" Janice said. "What if we pay for it?"

"Finder's fee?" Jolie's XO said. "Wouldn't it be considered salvage?"

"I like how you think," Janice said, grinning.

"Other ships?" Jolie asked, ignoring the chatter.

"The command and control ships, of course," Joy said. "Some of them look a bit beat up." She pointed at several of them on the screen.

"So, some of the systems were occupied and they fought back," Jolie said. "What else?"

"These are gunboats," Janice said, pointing at several smaller ships circling the others. "Or some kind of armed ship."

"They didn't attack us and are ignoring the probe," Joy said. "They must not see us as a threat."

"There could be multiple reasons for that," Jolie said. "They haven't encountered any Serpent Clan ships yet, so they may not have a good idea of our strengths."

"Or they expect us to be as incompetent or ineffectual as Blue Clan." Comms said. "They've never seen what a properly motivated ship's crew can do."

"The Clans were a disorganized mess the last time the Bugs paid us a visit," Quinn said. "We've looked at their tech and policies. They had some unique bits of tech that would be nice to have but they were just as likely to start fighting among themselves as fight the Bugs. All the Bugs had to do was to wait them out and barrel through the sectors."

"They likely did the same this time around but haven't noticed they are aren't fighting the same kind of battle," Joy said. "They're losing ships but haven't stopped."

"They need to keep losing ships," Jolie said, "for us to come out ahead."

"It looks like they are starting to come together," Quinn said. "Do we know the side effects of continued exposure to those minerals? Is there a reason for all of these automated ships?"

"Keep them under surveillance, Number One", Jolie said to her XO. "There must be more going on than we're seeing. No proper space-faring civilization would completely turn over things to robot ships."

"Are they, though?" Quinn asked. "We know the Bugs travel in a pack, possibly more as we're seeing here with the mining ships. At one point, several thousand cycles ago they were a true space faring race, but how long have they been using these robot ships?"

"So, we have the command and control ships, we have the freighters, and we have those gunboats," Jolie said. "That gives us quite a few ships to keep track of. Are there more we haven't seen?"

"Robot ships need mechanics, especially if they are going to be operating out in deep space. But those can be robots," Joy said.

"They'll need dry dock ships but that shouldn't be needed for all of the sub-fleets," Jolie said.

"What does a dry-dock ship look like?" Janice asked. "I've never seen one."

"Basically a big bottle with repair space," Jolie said, "and huge engines."

"Okay, we have one ship like that here," Joy said. "Sensors indicate an echo so it's currently empty."

"And then there's this thing. Whatever it is," Joy said, pointing at a ship bristling with antennae.

"That's a radio control ship," Elle said. "With all of the important work being done with automated ships, they are probably using it to coordinate all comm traffic through a central point."

"I wonder where they found it," Jolie said. "When I tried to requisition a simple coffee urn, I ended up with a mess. This thing looks like a specialist built it."

"They probably built it in that dry dock. They could churn out a ship a week, if they wanted to." Joy said.

"Is that it?" Jolie asked the two Shadows. "Anything else to add?"

"They don't seem to have any hospital ships," Janice said.

"Do we even know what one should look like?" Jolie asked. "Do they even treat their wounded?"

"Unknown," Joy said. "But either they have medical facilities or it's in one of the other ships."

"So, they have ships here that might be useful for mining," Quinn said. "Any ships that don't fit? That don't belong?"

Janice started humming a familiar song. "If I were a miner, what kind of ship would get in my way?"

"A troop ship," Joy said, "but they don't seem to have one of those here."

"No cruisers or other combat capable ships, other than those small gunboats," Janice said. "How do they protect themselves from real threats? Security through obscurity? Never a good idea."

"But no extras," Joy said.

"There are now almost a hundred Bug ships in this area," Jolie said. "Why aren't they meeting up with their fleet? Why here?"

"Maybe they aren't part of the fleet?" Joy said. "Or they didn't want these ships and their cargo getting caught in battle."

"I think that's it," Quinn said. "These are all auxiliary vessels. Nothing you'd take into combat. If they were part of the Bug fleet wouldn't there be an armed escort?"

"That's how we'd do it," Jolie said, "but these are Bugs. They don't think like us."

"Maybe the Bug fleet is actually just a decoy?" Joy said. "And this is the real incursion? What if the Bugs are using their fleet as a distraction while they strip systems of the resources they really need?"

"That's... a different way to look at it," Quinn said. "But wouldn't there be some protection, some armed escort here?"

"Not if no one ever noticed," Joy said. "If they do this every thousand or two thousand cycles and no one ever noticed their mining fleet, except after the Bugs are gone and the Confederation finds all those stripped worlds, they'd just assume the Bug fleet did it."

"So, not a force of nature. Not migrating. Not just a random excursion through the Confederation," Janice said. "They're more like pirates or thieves."

"And we know how to deal with pirates,"Joy said. "Blow them out of the sky."

"We'll need to run this by Lady Shadow," Quinn said. "Calling the Bugs pirates may not matter."

"What about all these ships?" Janice said. "They must be in contact with the Bug fleet. What happens if we capture them?"

"How do you expect to capture this many ships?" Jolie asked. "We captured the Bug Chandar fleet by taking over the control ship, but here? After the first one they'll react defensively. Either by running or calling in their armed ships. If the whole purpose is the collection of resources, they won't want to lose more than they have already."

"If we can contain this mining fleet while we deal with the other fleet, then we can deal with them later," Jolie said. "How hard would it be to take control of all eight command ships at once?"

"Eight separate teams attacking at the same time," Quinn said. "We have the containment shield we used at Chandra. We just need a power source."

"A large power source," Janice said. "You used a sun for Chandar, but we're out in the void. No suns."

"Black hole?" Jolie's XO suggested. "I saw a presentation at last year's All Hands conference where one of the Sci-Techs talked about harnessing the power of a black hole. It was mostly theoretical but they'd found a way to capture a black hole to study it."

"I remember that," Janice said. "But that's a giant leap, from capturing to exploitation."

"Won't hurts to ask," Quinn said. "We can't just move a sun or three here for this."

"Fleet has completed the comm relays along the sector border," Jolie said. "Still not instant comms like we have in our home systems, but a lot faster than vids."

"Good," Quinn said.

"No, that isn't viable tech yet," Brittany said. "Black holes can be contained for a brief moment but it overpowers the containment unit in a couple hours. They've been developing theories that say using a black hole as a high capacity power source is possible. But that's all they are, theories. It'll be decades before they have anything workable."

"So, no buckets of power we can use to contain this mining fleet?" Quinn said.

"If we had that much power just lying around, we'd contain the main Bug fleet and deal with them at our leisure," Brittany said. "If Joy's theory that the Bug fleet we're facing is a decoy, it's possible there's another fleet shadowing the mining ships. Which could mean we might have three different fleets to fight."

Quinn nodded. "Even if the main fleet is a decoy, it still outfought Blue Clan's main fleet, so it isn't a pushover. And if there's another fleet out there, I can't see it being any less dangerous than the other one."

"So finding this mining fleet hasn't made things better," Brittany said. "It's complicated things. We may be facing a larger Bug force than we expected."

"And if there are more Bug ships, a second battle fleet, we aren't ready," Santana said. "We were barely ready for the Bug fleet we knew about."

"We can't tell them to come back later," Quinn said.

"No, but we need to find that other fleet, if it exists," Brittany said. "It hasn't registered on any of our sensors. So, if it is out there it's using better shields than we've seen the Bugs using so far."

"And we're really screwed," Santana said.

"What about the Galactics?" Quinn asked. "What do they think of this idea?"

"They're thinking about it," Brittany said.

"They have no idea," Santana added. "They were surprised at the mining fleet you found. Another battle fleet? They don't believe us."

"We don't want it to be true," Quinn said. "Not surprising they're skeptical."

"We need to know where it is," Brittany said. "Or not is. I have a Tach team going over all of our data looking for any signs of another fleet. It's clear that the Bugs have other techniques we haven't seen for hiding their ships."

"Would samples of the different elements the mining ships contain be useful?" Quinn said. "We already know gallium can be used to enhance our scanners. It's possible the other elements have similar uses."

"The Bugs want the elements for some reason," Brittany said. "Get me samples and we'll find out what for."

"Okay," Quinn said.

"And try to do it without the Bugs finding out," Brittany said.

"Of course," Quinn said. "We can't just capture all of the ships, for the same reasons as before."

"So, Lady Shadow wants us to sneak onto each of these ships, grab a sample, and get away, all without the Bugs finding out," Joy said. "Easy peasy,"

"You've lost your mind," Janice said, glaring at her. "How are we going to do that?"

"The Bugs can't find out," Quinn said. "So nothing flashy. No explosions. No fake attacks elsewhere."

"So, more of a challenge," Joy said. "Why don't we launch an attack on the mining fleet? Won't that draw out the shadow Bug Fleet if it exists?"

"If it does, we don't have the ships to contain them," Quinn said.

"Oh," Janice said. "That might be a small problem."

"Definitely," Joy said. "What we need is a bigger bug swatter."

"If we can't use a flash and bang maneuver, we need some other way to get in, grab a sample and get out. And since we don't look like a Bug and our ships don't look like Bug ships, it's going to be an issue," Janice said.

"What do we know about their control systems?" Jolie's XO said. "Didn't you say that this entire fleet is automated? Some sort of minimal AI?"

"Well, when you captured the Chandar mining fleet, it was all run by Bug robots," Joy said. "No intelligence, that could be determined."

"Which makes no sense," Janice said. "They must use some form of AI, just not self-aware like ours."

"Yeah," Joy said. "You can program a system so that it almost appears to be able to think, but not have any self-awareness, but the reports from that operation don't dig deep into it."

"There hasn't been time to answer those kinds of questions," Quinn said. "We stopped the mining ships, and that's been it so far. They're sitting out there at Chandar waiting for someone to dig into them. Basically in mothballs."

"You weren't concerned that the Bugs would come looking for their ships back?" Koli asked.

"Not then," Jolie said. "But now that someone has suggested there might be a Bug shadow fleet out there, we'll need to take stronger measures."

"The Juun and one of our scout ships is all that's there to fight off a Bug fleet," Quinn said. "That's not enough."

"We can't leave here," Jolie said. "We need to resolve this problem first."

"Samples first, then back to Chandar with more firepower," Quinn said. "And we'll try to get another ship from Fleet."

"A spare cruiser would be nice," Jolie said. "But we don't have the spare crew."

"Lady Air has spare ships of all sorts, waiting for crews," Quinn said. "But training a crew takes longer than building a ship."

"We can get the samples, without a fuss," Joy said, after several more minutes of discussion. "It'll just take some co-ordination and a couple teams outfitted in stealth suits."

"We don't have enough troopers trained in wearing the stealth suits," Quinn said.

"We have two squads of Shadows," Joy said. "So we don't need them for all of them. If we pair up a trooper with a shadow, we should be successful."

"Just need to pick the troopers," Janice said, "from the ones with stealth suit experience."

"Got the list right here," Hancock, the Shadow who'd been to Chandar said, "As long as you don't try to pair any of them with the JJs it should be fine."

"Why not us?" Joy asked.

"Because you've annoyed all of the troopers on this list," Hancock said. "And Janice beat them all at cards last night. Again."

"They should know better than to play against her," Joy said. "She won the All Shadow poker tournament four cycles in a row."

"Joy has the innate talent to annoy everyone she meets," Janice said.

"Yeah!" Joy said, before frowning. "Wait! I'm very lovable."

"You're an acquired taste," Janice said, "Right, Lady Q?"

"That's between the two of you," Quinn said. "My troopers aren't exactly shy. If they don't like something they'll tell you."

"Enough," Jolie said. "Time to be serious. You two, and you," she said pointing at the three Shadows, "pair your Shadows with their potential troopers. And by then we'll have the plan details worked out."

"Yes, ma'am," Janice said. "Come along," she said grabbing Joy and Hancock.

"They can be amusing," Quinn said, watching them leave, "and they tend to get good results. But Lady Shadow only allows them so much freedom to act out."

"I don't see how the Shadows ever get anything done, if those are their best," Yola said. "It's like watching a pirate circus."

"Pirates have circuses?" Jolie's XO said.

"Not important," Jolie said. "We don't need a complicated plan."

"A simple plan," Quinn said. "Block out the Bug sensors, board the freighters, grab a large enough sample. Do we have any shielded containers that can be easy carried?"

"Sample bags," Yola said. "We use them in the lab and for getting samples in the field. Very tough, and protected against poisons and radiation."

"So, two for each member of a team," Quinn said. "Just in case."

"Size of the teams?" Jolie asked. "How many of the troopers do you have who can wear the stealth suits?"

"We have five three squad teams," Quinn said. "Half a squad in each team is certified for the stealth suits."

"And brought their suits, I'm assuming," Jolie said.

"Yes," Quinn said. "Plenty of troopers to team up with the Shadows."

"We need eight teams," Jolie said. "That'll give us just enough."

"Gold and Blue team's hard suits are configurable," Quinn said. "They can go stealth also. They can fill two alternate teams, with some to spare."

"So, you're going with them?" Jolie asked.

"As a backup team with my XO from Gold and the JJ's," Quinn said.

"That solves that problem," Jolie said, grimacing.

"I'm sure they can make room for you, Boss," Jolie's XO said, "if you want to go along."

"Pass," Jolie said. "Someone needs to stay here in case that shadow battle fleet shows up."

"You've all been briefed," Quinn said, looking at all of the stealth teams lined up in the launch bay. "Let's review the plan. The Bug command and control ships will all be jammed for exactly thirty ticks. Each team will have thirty ticks to board their assigned freighter, get to the hold, and get samples, and get out.

Each team member will take two samples. You'll then exit the freighter and return here, using the planned route. Each team has an alternate route if they determine that they are being followed. The goal is to be as stealthy as possible. The Bugs should not know if you are there. If there is any interference on the ship, you are authorized to use deadly force. Gold and Black will provide support. Any questions?"

There was silence. They'd spent over two days working out and practicing the plans and Quinn hadn't expected any questions.

"To your transports," Quinn said.

"Status report," Quinn said. From her position above the Bug meeting place with Gold Team, she'd been keeping track of the boarding teams as they prepared to board.

"Alpha Team, ready."

"Ceta Team, ready."

"Zed Team, ready."

"East Team, ready."

"Bee Team, ready."

"Sea Team, ready."

"Four Team, ready."

"South Team, ready."

"Jamming now," Yola said over the comm.

"Go," Quinn said to her teams.

The hatch opened with a faint puff of atmosphere. The four members of Bee team slipped through the small gap, into the air lock.

"All clear," Ghunda, Bee Team lead said. "Let's find the hold."

The team sent small probes down the passageways.

"That looks like it," Han said, as a probe stopped in front of a large closed hatch.

The team carefully snuck through the ship, reaching the chamber without meeting any ship occupants.

"Is there anything here?" Ghunda asked her Shadow pair.

"I'm not reading any signs of anything living anywhere in the ship," Loo said. "Just a lot of electrical signals."

"Robots?" Han asked, as she examined the door.

"Like that?" Jeffers said, pointing at a small flat object approaching them from down the passageway.

"It's something that shouldn't be seeing us," Loo said. Aiming carefully, she shot a disabling charge at the small robot. There was a large shower of sparks, and it stopped. "Hopefully that won't set off any alarms."

"We're in," Jeffers said, as the door slid up out of their way, revealing a large room containing eight covered bins of something in the center.

"That must be what we're here for," Ghunda said, cautiously approaching one of the bins. "Han, can you unlock this?"

"Check to see what's inside first," Loo said.

Han pointed her suit probe at the nearest bin. "It's radioactive," she said. "Nothing fatal, the sample bags will contain it, but who knows about long term affects." She probed the other bins. "Looks like the same element in each one."

"A system was destroyed for this small amount of material?" Loo said. "I'm liking the Bugs even less than before, which I didn't think was possible."

"So, safe for transport," Ghunda said. "Let's get our samples and get out of here. Get a sample from each bin just in case."

Jeffers opened the first bin with her lock pick. "It's a green crystal," she said looking down into the bin. Taking a small scoop out of a suit pocket, she carefully put two scoops into a sample bag. She then opened the other bins for the others to get their samples.

"Close the bins and lock them back up. We're running out of time," Ghunda said. "We have five ticks to get out before the jamming is turned off."

Just as they reached the outside hatch, a message blared across the local comms.

"We have incoming," Pip announced. "Looks like someone noticed. All retrieval teams take alternate routes to the rendezvous point. Gold and Black teams will provide a distraction."

"Well, that's not good," Ghunda said. "Come on ladies, time for some evasion practice. Set your suits to low energy stealth mode."

Chapter Text

"Looks like someone was watching them," Jolie's XO said, as Red Alert blared through the Hotep. "Must have noticed when they lost contact with the control ships."

"Where are they?" Jolie said.

"Five Bug mini cruisers inbound," her XO said. "We have thirty ticks before they reach the mining ship stations."

"Not a large fleet like we expected," Jolie said, wishing their personal comms had greater range. "Move to intercept and get me Lady Q."

"Lady Q on the line," the Hotep Comms officer said.

"Lady Q, we have a small fleet of Bug mini cruisers inbound," Jolie said. "You need to get your teams out of there now."

"How much time do we have?" Quinn asked.

"Less than thirty ticks," Jolie said. "Braise and Apolis are redirecting to pick up the teams at their alternate pickups. Polly and Hotep will pick up Gold and Black and prepare to intercept."

"We'll be ready," Quinn said. "Get as much data on those ships as you can. Find some weakness we can use."

"Will do," Jolie said, nodding to her bridge crew, who knew exactly what to do without prompting. The ship's interior lights changed from red to amber as the Hotep prepared for battle.

"What's the status of the retrieval teams?" Jolie asked Yola, day shift Tach officer.

"They've all received the warning and have moved to retreat," Yola said. "All teams report successfully retrieving samples of the material."

"Good," Jolie said. "Now we just need to give them room to escape with the samples. And find out where those Bug ships came from."

"Yes, ma'am," Yola said.

"How are we doing," Quinn asked Jolie over the comm as Gold and Black teams boarded the Hotep.

"Braise and Apolis have picked up the teams with their samples and turned them over to the science team on Braise. Braise is escorting the Alepsos out of the designated battle zone and will be meeting up with the Fleet science ship Hopper in a day. Braise will then head back to join us."

"So, right now we have Hotep, Apolis, and the Polly, and my two troop teams against five Bug minis. Any other resources available?"

"Two additional cruisers left dock at Sol ten minutes ago, but they won't reach us until tomorrow," Jolie said. "If we can hold out for three days there are other ships in the fleet that are headed this way."

"By which time it might be too late," Quinn said. "Any ideas?"

"I don't think you want to try to board any of them in the middle of a battle," Jolie said.

"That has possibilities," Quinn said. "But let's see what kind of damage we can inflict first, before we try that."

"Intercepting in ten," Jolie's XO said.

"All weapons ready," Yola said.

"No desire to negotiate first?" Jolie asked.

"The Bugs? They've never negotiated," Quinn said. "Not in previous incursions and not once during this one."

"Okay," Jolie said. "Just as long as we have the rules of engagement clear."

"Shoot first," Quinn said. "That about sums it up."

"They have us outgunned," Jolie said. "Two we could easily handle but five? Unless they sent cub scouts, and we're lucky, this verges on suicide."

"Have the Alepsos and Braise escaped?" Quinn asked.

"Close enough," Jolie said. "Now we just have to hold off these five until help arrives."

"What about the mining fleet?" Quinn asked.

"Not moving," Jolie said. "They're just sitting there."

"Do they even know we're here?" Quinn said. "The Bug cruisers are headed straight for us."

"Current theory is that the mining fleet is controlled from elsewhere. None of the retrieval teams ran into anything other than a few low level robots. It's likely these are the escort that we missed seeing," Jolie said.

"No indication that they are the only escort?" Quinn said.

"None," Jolie said. "We're still looking for additional Bug ships but they could be beyond our sensor range."

"They'll be within firing range in ten minutes," Yola said. "Orders captain?"

"Let them get closer," Jolie said "Half that distance so we can't miss. If they are using the same kind of shields the other fleet is, the closer they get the better our chances are."

"Yes, ma'am," Yola said.

"What else do we know about them?" Quinn asked. "Which one is the command ship, assuming they have one."

"The one furthest away," Jolie said. "Their usual practice in fleet operations is for the command ship to hang back during the initial wave."

"Can you focus all of your fire on that one?" Quinn asked.

"No," Jolie said. "It's an idea but we would be at the mercy of the other ships getting too close. They have close range weapons we don't have much defense against, even in the Hotep. We have to take them out before they get that close."

"Gold and Black can try to board it," Quinn said. "No reason for us to sit here when we could be doing something useful."

"You'd have to wait until the first wave was finished," Jolie said. "Otherwise you'd get caught in the crossfire. Or they'll pick off your transport."

"Of course," Quinn said. "I'll get Gold and Black ready. Polly has that shuttle we were using earlier. All of Gold and Black can fit in it and it has full stealth capability."

"We'll let you know when it's safe to launch," Jolie said. "And keep your tach systems up to date."

"How's it going?" Quinn asked Kali, who was piloting their boarding craft shuttle.

"Polly has taken serious damage," Kali said, digging through all of the data pouring in from probes and sensors. "It's still moving but it lost half its energy weapons and its shields are at one third power. It's trying to draw off one of the Bug ships."

"And the Hotep?"

"Minor damage to its' shields," Kali said. "Probably a bit rough on the inside. We don't have access to deeper details."

"The Bugs?"

"Two of them are just drifting," Kali said. "Must have taken direct hits. The other three show some damage but are still maneuvering."

"Not as bad as Jolie thought it would be," Quinn said.

"Not yet," Kali said. "The Hotep is a tough ship, and Captain Rogers on the Polly is good at close up fighting."

"Is our mission still a go?" Quinn asked.

"Captain Jolie says 'go for it'," Kali said, relaying the question to the Hotep. "They'll focus on the other Bug ships."

"Got it. Get us as close to that command ship as possible. Everyone buckle up," Quinn told her teams. "We're going in."

The boarding shuttle came to rest against the side of the Bug cruiser. "We have a five tick window before they notice us," Kali said. "Let me know when you need a pick-up."

"Will do," Quinn said, before joining her team at the front of the hatch. "Poll, you've got the lock. Blay, have your team find the engine room and shut it down. We'll head for the battle bridge."

"Yes, Lady Q," Poll and Blay said.

"Opening the hatch," Kali said, pushing some buttons and pulling a lever.

"Go!" Quinn said.

Poll stepped through the shuttle hatch, placing clamps around the perimeter of the Bug ship's hatch, anchoring herself to it while she worked to get the Bug hatch open.

"It uses a quantum code for the lock," Poll said. "This could take a couple minutes."

"You have ninety seconds before they notice us here," Kali said.

Gold and Black teams waited for a tense minute as Poll attacked the lock.

"Got it," Poll said. "Opening in five."

Ready," Quinn said. She counted down, tensing as her count neared the magic number. As the hatch swung inward, she dove through, immediately laying down suppressive charges. Gold and Black teams followed her through, into darkness. Without stopping, she charged through another hatch as it started to close against the change in atmosphere.

Pin and the rest of Gold Team followed, while Blay stopped the inner door from closing.

"Anything?" Quinn said, peering around the large empty chamber.

"No welcoming party," Pin said. "My suit sensors can't penetrate the walls."

"Not getting anything on this either," Poll said, holding up the portable sensor they'd gotten from the Shadows.

"Okay," Quinn said. "That means our comms might not work. Looks like we do this the hard way. Black, you still have engineering and Gold the battle bridge. Let's see if we can cause some disruption to help our people on Polly and the Hotep."

"Can you hear me?" Quinn asked over the comm, trying to reach Blay, Black Team lead. The comms had been working intermittently as they traveled deeper into the ship.

"You're very faint," Blay said, her voice a low whisper.

"Status?" Quinn asked.

"Haven't found the engine room yet," Blay said. "No Bugs either. So far it's like that mining command ship. Empty."

"Same here, but don't get sloppy," Quinn said.

"Aye," Blay said. "We'll let you know when we reach the ship's engine room."

"Nothing so far," Quinn told her team. "They must all be on the bridge or it's another robot ship."

"You think we've been fighting robots?" Pin said. "Or some kind of AI?"

"Can't say," Quinn said, "but we haven't seen any actual Bugs so far. None here, none in the mining ships."

"Maybe they're all in the Bug fleet that Lady Air's fleet is tracking?" Poll said. "Not sure why."

"As much as we know about the bugs, we don't know why they do the things they do," Quinn said. "We didn't know about the mining fleet or its escort. There could be a lot more we don't know."

"They're Bugs," Jeffers said. "They're nuts. They could be trading for the things they want, instead of invading every thousand cycles."

"They may not have anything to trade," Pin said. "Like Lady Q said, no one knows how they think. I think the other fleet is a decoy, like the JJs said, so they can plunder systems with their mining fleet. Even if the decoy fleet has real Bugs in it, they could be remotely controlling these."

"It'd be a bit embarrassing for the other Clans if we defeat a robot Bug fleet that they couldn't handle," Poll said.

"Ladies," Quinn said, "save the speculation for later. This looks like the bridge on their mining Command ship. Let's take a look."

"Blow it up or knock politely?" Pin asked.

"Blow it," Quinn said. "I'm sure they've seen us here already so it isn't going to be a surprise."

"If they know we're here, why not try to stop us?" Pin said. "Not even robots like the mining ship."

"Don't underestimate them," Quinn said. "I know we believe the other fleet is a decoy but even decoys can have teeth. The so called decoy fleet has over a thousand ships in it, a lot of them are warships we have no defenses against yet. Decoy or not, it's still dangerous. And if we take away their mining fleet, they might become more dangerous to get it back."

"Cornered rats," Pin said.

"Door?" Jony said. She placed sensors around the edges. "Doesn't appear to be booby trapped. But it isn't opening to our signal."

"Well, if they didn't know before, they definitely know we're here now," Quinn said. "Blow it."

There was a loud noise in the low air pressure of the hallway, followed by smoke as the door was imploded into the chamber.

Once again, Quinn went in first, followed by Pin and the others. There was no reaction from the room's three occupants.

"Well, that's different," Pin said.

In a triangle in the room were three large devices, almost like chairs. In each one was a creature matching the known descriptions of the Bugs. They had not moved. They appeared to be unaware of Gold Team's presence.

"Zombies?" Pin said, cautiously moving towards one. "I don't think they can see us."

"We really need some tech to look at this. I think they're wired into their ship, controlling it. But why don't they know we're here?" Jeffers said.

"Sensors on the outside, nothing on the inside for them to see in?" Pin said.

"How do we stop them?" Jony said.

"Kill them and it might trigger a self destruct," Quinn said. "We have no idea how this works."

"Knock them out? And hope no one comes to look for them?" Pin said.

"Hey, Lady Q?"

"Yes, Bray?" Quinn said.

"There's something weird going on here. There's something I think is a Bug, sitting in a cocoon. I think they're wired to the ship's engines."

"We have three of them up here in the bridge set up the same way," Quinn said.

"What do we do?" Bray asked.

"We need to stop them," Quinn said. "We don't have time to wait for a Shadow tech. The JJ's are on the Hotep, but we need to deal with this before they can get here."

"Lady Q, I don't think they're alive, like we think of it," Jony said. "I think they're zombies."

"Let's just knock them out then," Quinn said. "Just hope they aren't booby trapped. If they are I'll apologize for getting us killed."

"Drinks are on you in the afterlife, if this blows the ship up," Pin said.

"I've seen her drink," Tarky said. "I'm not sure that's a good idea."

Quinn shook her head. "Let's shock all three at once. And Bray, knock out the Bug in the Engine room. On a count of five."

"One... two... three... four... five... Go"

Quinn, Pin, Poll, and Jony fired knockout blasts at the Bugs in the cocoons, knocking them out.

"Not blown up yet," Pin said. "But we have some flashing lights over there."

"I think we should leave, Lady Q," Jony said. "I have a bad feeling about this."

"I do too," Pin said. "And more flashing symbols. I think the knockout blasts killed them."

"Okay, Bray, meet us at the hatch. If you get there before we do, signal for retrieval," Quinn said.

"Okay," Bray said. "Black team heading for the exit."

"Everyone out," Quinn said. "Run your scanners at full blast as you go. Let's try to get as much info as we can as we leave."

"Leave a probe?" Pin asked.

"No, we don't know what is going to happen. We don't want the Bugs to be able to analyze our tech," Quinn said.

"All here?" Quinn asked, as they waited for Kali and the shuttle. The Bug ship briefly shook.

"Did we kill the ship?" Pip said. "It hasn't blown up yet."

"Knocking out their crew seems to have done something," Quinn said. "Could be a self destruct. Could be some automatic response that'll send it home. They could be waking up."

"So, we've seen the Bugs and we've survived," Pip said. "Those count as Bugs, right?"

"Not warrior bugs," Quinn said. "Ship's crew. Take away their ship and they're probably defenseless."

"I'm sure we'll get a chance to test ourselves against Bug warriors," Jony said. "There must be some in that other fleet. A thousand ships? It might be their whole civilization come calling. Must be warriors in there somewhere."

"If it's their entire civilization, should we be trying to destroy them?" Jeffers said.

"Well, we aren't trying to destroy them, exactly," Quinn said. "More that we're directing them away from us, and killing as many as possible to discourage them from coming back."

"And if 'as many as possible' is all of them?" Jeffers asked. "Isn't that genocide? Then what?"

"We tell our goddesses we're sorry, and the Weaver says a prayer or two to send them on their way, and we move on with our lives," Quinn said.

"It doesn't feel right," Jeffers said. "When we go into battle, we know we're not fighting defenseless creatures. But if they have no choice, then what do we do?"

"They're coming here, destroying everything in their path, including inhabited planets," Pip said. "If they were just migrating through our sector, guiding them away from habitable planets would be fine. But as we can see here, and with the mining fleet, they're plundering our resources, and not paying us for them even. Killing whole societies. The Juun at Chandar? They died."

The loud clacking of the shuttle bumping against the Bug ship stopped Pip's speech. They all retreated back into the shuttle, closed the hatch and the shuttle flew away from the ship.

"What's it doing now?" Quinn asked. "Are they still attacking?"

"No," Kali said. "They stopped suddenly and have just been sitting there. The Hotep was able to damage the other two ships before we noticed they'd stopped. What did you do?"

"We might have knocked out their crew," Poll said. "They were like zombies in huge cocoons."

"The analysis can wait until we get back to the Hotep," Quinn said.

"So the crew of the mining fleet escort was wired to their ship," Brittany said. "There are ancient stories of similar things, but no one uses that control technique in the Confederation now. Certainly not the Bugs as far as was known."

"Have the samples from the mining ships been examined yet?" Quinn asked. "What are they and where are they from?"

"Of the eight samples, our science team only recognized three of them. All of those are very rare elements only found in a few systems. One came from Blue Clan territory, another from the Wind Clan, and the third from a system in Tiger Clan territory."

"So they must have destroyed the systems where those elements were found," Quinn said. "Were there active civilizations on those worlds?"

"Not that the Galactics were aware of," Brittany said. "If those three systems were inhabited it was with mining colonies like Chandar. But there have been no reports of their destruction so it's possible they were uninhabited. There wouldn't have been enough of the elements in any of those systems for there to be any mining."

"And the other five?" Quinn asked.

"Unknown elements," Brittany said. "They might have been synthesized from other elements the Bugs found or they aren't from known systems."

"What are you going to do with them?" Quinn asked.

"They are important enough that the Bugs destroyed systems to get them," Brittany said. "So the science teams will be trying to find out what they can do with them. The escort ships and the mining ships you've captured will hopefully tell us something."

"Santana said she'd send out some guard ships, and crews to move them all to a safe space," Quinn said.

"Yes," Brittany said. "They might just help us defeat the Bugs. No one has ever captured a complete Bug ship intact until now. They're invaluable."

"Good," Quinn said. "Still haven't tested my troopers against any Bug warriors."

"Well, the probe against the main Bug fleet hasn't happened yet," Brittany said. "As soon as Santana sends a relief force, you can take over that again and finish it."

"Well, if it turns out to be another robot fleet, my Teams are going to be disappointed," Quinn said. "We boarded multiple Bug ships and the only ones we've seen were those wired up crew on the one cruiser."

"There are real Bugs on those ships," Brittany said. "More than enough for us to handle. The idea that it's a decoy fleet for the mining fleet is an interesting idea but now I'm sure it isn't. It really is their main fleet. They just happened to have that mining fleet operating under the radar with its escort."

"Is the Bug fleet still headed directly to the center of our sector?" Quinn asked.

"Same as always," Brittany said. "Hasn't changed course one bit since we started tracking it. If we don't stop it it will roll right over our favorite planet."

"Won't they become more aggressive now that we've taken their mining fleet?" Quinn asked.

"Given that we don't know anything about internal Bug politics or organization, I'd guess that the mining fleet was some Bug's private project. Probably a get rich quick scheme tied to their trip through the galaxy. It might be something done every trip through but it seems to be something they don't want anyone to know about. I would guess that after losing the escort nothing more will happen."

"Well, it's as good a theory as any," Quinn said. "Just as long as this helps us defeat the main fleet."

"Even if it doesn't, there are other options being explored. I'm not ready to quit," Brittany said. "We will defeat them, and they won't be coming back around here in a thousand cycles if I can help it."

"Good," Quinn said. "And I need to go. Are we sending the JJ's back when we're done?"

"I'd like to assign them and their team to work with you on a permanent basis," Brittany said. "They seem to get the best results when working with your Gold Team."

"Do you have to?" Quinn said, trying to keep the whining out of her voice.

"But I thought you liked them?" Brittany said, giggling. "Whenever they get in trouble you're the first to defend them."

"I might find them occasionally amusing," Quinn said. "Doesn't mean I want them around all the time."

"Well, they're yours for now. Use them in any way you can, while you can. After the Bugs are gone I have plans for them," she told Quinn.

"Okay," Quinn said, grumbling under her breath.

"We're back, did you miss us?" Joy said, perching on Quinn's desk in her office on the Alepsos.

"No," Quinn said, glaring at Joy and Janice. "And don't you have things you should be doing?"

"Like what?" Janice said.

"You and your team need to be preparing for your part in our recon of the main Bug fleet," Quinn said. "It'll be different than what we ran into here. It should have live Bugs, and not the zombie Bugs and robots we ran into with the mining fleet."

"Recon? Us?" Janice said, staring at Quinn. "When did that happen?"

"Lady Shadow gave you and your entire team to me," Quinn said, smirking at the surprised looks on their faces. "From now on you're part of my command. And I've decided that the best place for you is with the Shadow recon team."

"Well, that does require some sneaking around," Joy said. "A good use of our sneakiness."

"But it's more stress than adventure," Janice said. "And we've done the stress thing already."

"This is an excellent opportunity to practice your stealth," Quinn said. "And you can teach Black Team everything they need to know to work with you. In fact, your entire team will be bunking down with Black Team."

"But what about our pool table?" Joy asked. "It doesn't fit down in the barracks used by Black Team."

"A pool table is not a mission necessity," Quinn said. "You'll have to find it a new home or return it to the recycler."

"That took a month's worth of synthesizer credits to make," Joy said, pouting. "We can't just give it away."

"Then you need to do something with it, before someone else does," Quinn said.

"Yes, Boss," Joy said, slipping off of Quinn's desk. "Let's go tell the gang," she said to Janice.

"That must have shocked them when they found out," Rachel said, later that day, as they caught up over the comm. "They're some of Brittany's favorite Shadows. I'm surprised she gave them to you."

"It's not permanent," Quinn said. "As soon as the Bugs are defeated they go back to a regular posting in the Shadows, but until then they're all mine."

"You've had a Shadow liaison for a while," Rachel said. "What's so different about this?"

"Simple," Quinn said. "They're another one of my teams, and not an afterthought. I no longer have to ask for a Shadow Team when I need their expertise. I've got them now."

"I wonder what Brittany has planned," Rachel said. "She doesn't just move her resources around like that without some good reason."

"Her model probably says one of my future missions goes from suicide mission to walk in the park if they are part of it, but not just casual members. That's my guess anyway," Quinn said. "Looking at the Shadow model gives me a splitting headache. Brittany lives and breaths the stuff."

"That's because it's been ninety-nine percent accurate, so far," Rachel said. "It can't see into the future because there are always too many unknowns in her model, but it can guide us fairly accurately. I think it's using some sort of special magic."

"However she does it, that's a big part of her prediction that has us defeating the Bugs," Quinn said.

"It's something only she can do," Rachel said, nodding. "Though I do wonder if the twins, Caroline and Cassidy, could have the same ability if trained."

"You'd have to fight Miranda and Andy to even test them for that," Quinn said. "I can't see them allowing it."

"It was just an idle thought," Rachel said. "I'd love to have someone with Brittany's abilities as a Memory."

"Planning on retiring?" Quinn said.

"When you do," Rachel said. "And don't deny it. I know you plan to retire after we deal with the Bugs."

"Not right after," Quinn said. "But I am making sure there will be multiple Clan warriors who would be able to take my place if necessary."

"We're all doing that," Rachel said. "Ensuring that a plan for succession is in place. It makes good sense. But that's not what I meant."

"What would you do if you retired?" Quinn asked her.

"Assuming you came with me," Rachel said.

"Given," Quinn said with a nod.

"I want to travel, to see all of those places everyone else has been to. I want to travel the rings. To meet other Memories, other clan. To sing in the crystal caves in the land of Gnosh. To dance with the Dancers of Nimh. So many things," Rachel said.

"Sounds like a bucket list," Quinn said.

"More or less," Rachel said.

"I'm sure we can find the time," Quinn said. "We're going to have long lives, if we survive the Bugs."

"Living our lives sounds so awesome," Rachel said. "When are you coming home so we can get on with it?"

"Once things are settled here, I still have the Bug fleet recon to oversee," Quinn said.

"I know you had no choice with those mining ships, but are you really just going to supervise that?" Rachel asked.

"It depends," Quinn said. I can't make any promises to stay out of it."

"I understand," Rachel said, "but I can't say I like you taking such risks when you have all those teams that could go."

"I can't ask anyone to do something I won't do myself," Quinn said. "But you're right. I have very capable and trained teams who can do this. And they will be doing it once we actively disrupt the Bugs."

"Hey babe, how goes it," Santana said, over their private comm. "Have your science teams found a use for all of those element samples Quinn's teams bright back?"

"No," Brittany said. "There's nothing."

"How did they find out how to use that gallium with the scanners?" Santana asked.

"Their scanner tech was just fooling around," Brittany said. "She was curious."

"So maybe that's the answer?" Santana said. "Give it to a regular tech to play with. The science types are probably too aware of what won't work so they don't try the impossible because they know it isn't possible, so why bother?"

"When did you get to be so smart?" Brittany said. "I know just the techs to use."

"Glad to help out," Santana said.

"Did you call just to say hi or can I help you with something?" Brittany said.

"I can't just want to talk to my favorite person?" Santana asked.

"Certainly," Brittany said. "But you don't usually. We talk almost every night anyway."

"Okay, you caught me," Santana said. "I'm concerned about these Bug mining ships. What are we going to do with them?"

"I have a team headed to them that will dig into them and figure them all out," Brittany said.

"And the five escort ships? And the four Bugs?" Santana asked. "We need to know how that all worked. If they use that same command system for their other combat ships, I need to know."

"I've got another team headed out there," Brittany said. "They specialize in bio mechanical interfaces. If you have someone you want to participate in the investigation they are welcome to tag along."

"I can have them meet up," Santana said. "Do you need a station out there for this? It'd be more efficient than them living out of those small cruisers you use."

"Do you have a spare station that can be moved out there?" Brittany said. "It'll need a small protection force."

"How are we handling the diplomatic angle with the Blues?" Santana asked. "They must be getting a bit twisted with us having such a large presence in their sector."

"After the disaster with Chandar, we have permission from the Council of Clans, and the Galactics," Brittany said. "We can't claim any of their sector, but we can operate as their proxy when necessary, and investigating the Bug ships we've captured falls within our purview."

"The Blues don't know about the Bug ships we've captured, do they," Santana said.

"No need," Brittany said. "The main Bug fleet has crossed over into our sector so anything related is ours to deal with. And both the Council of Clans and Galactics have made that official."

"Do they know we've captured some Bug ships intact?" Santana asked.

"Possibly," Brittany said. "Artie might have passed that info along."

"Okay," Santana said. "Just as long as it doesn't come back to bite us."

"We might have to share any tech we discover or invent based on the captured Bug ships," Brittany said. "But we already knew that, so it isn't new."

"And what they don't know, they won't miss?" Santana said. "Sneaky."

"Clan unity only goes so far," Brittany said. "We still have to look out for our own Clan, and take opportunities where we find them."

"Not going to argue," Santana said. "And neither would Q and Rachel. Family first as they say. Clan is family. Other clans are cousins we tolerate, with a few exceptions."

"Good catch," Brittany said. "Our definition of Clan is not just genetic, no matter what the Council of Clans claims."

"And some day they'll agree with us," Santana said.

"Not holding my breath on that, San," Brittany said. "Too many other priorities than playing politics with some hide bound people led by old fogies."

"Are you involved with Q's Bug recon?" Santana said. "She's ramping up for it again, now that her side trip is almost over."

"I have a team embedded with her troopers," Brittany said. "But they report to her, not me."

"So you gave her a whole team?" Santana said. "What caused that? She's had a Shadow liaison for a while."

"A couple things," Brittany said. "The liaison has been asking for the ability to play a more active role with the troopers. I had a Shadow team that I thought Quinn could make good use of. The team leads on that Shadow team need more experience working with difficult situations. Quinn doesn't coddle her troopers but she cares about them. The Shadow team I gave her needs to see that Lady Hands and her teams are necessary and are not just some anime powered side show."

"Sounds like something the JJs would say," Santana said, laughing.

"And they'll learn there are times when discretion is a good thing even when they are just trying to be funny," Brittany said.

"So, the JJs have been assigned to work with the troopers? Isn't that a little mean?" Santana said.

"They'll survive," Brittany said.

"I mean Quinn," Santana said. "Her troopers are already tightly wound. Add in the JJs and it could get messy."

"No worries," Brittany said. "It'll be good for all of them."

"If you say so," Santana said.

"I do," Brittany said, winking at her.

"How goes the prep for the first battle?" Brittany asked after several minutes of comfortable silence.

"As soon as we see what happens with the recon, we'll put the finishing touches on the battle plan," Santana said. "Unless you can pull a game changer out of your model, there isn't a lot we can do other than directly attack them. They aren't going to fall for a trap, or ambush. They'd roll right over it."

"The Bugs are simple foes," Brittany said. "No elaborate planning required. Except when they do something unexpected."

"Like those zombie crews for the mining fleet escort," Santana said.

"Definitely unexpected, which means we should have expected that," Brittany said. "We knew they were stripping systems on their way through. We should have looked deeper to see how they were doing it, and what they were looking for."

"Well, we know now," Santana said. "And we're using the data collected on those ships to search for more."

"it's revealing some interesting things about the Bugs," Brittany said. "Though, not much about their culture. Mainly how their ships are controlled."

"The zombie Bugs are a bit creepy," Santana said. "Too bad they didn't survive."

"Live Bugs would certainly be useful," Brittany said. "Though there's not a lot we could do and still claim the moral high ground."

"Not a fan of torture," Santana said. "If we tortured them, they'd torture us, and round we'd go."

"Real torture doesn't work anyway," Brittany said. "Psychological manipulation, and mind altering drugs work much better, though it results in less trustworthy info."

"So, I can't try waterboarding the next time we catch some pirates?" Santana said.

"Maybe threaten them with walking the plank right above a sun," Brittany said. "That'll make almost anyone spill their guts. But real waterboarding? A definite no on that. Even Coach doesn't approve."

"It's mainly psychological," Santana said. "But putting someone in a closed room with the JJs might work just as well."

"Funny," Brittany said dryly.

"I like to think so," Santana said. "So, when are you coming out to visit the fleet?"

"Soon," Brittany said. "Need to set a few plans in motion first and then I can drop in."

"Excellent, or totally tera, as the cool kids like to say," Santana said.

"You haven't been infected by the Tera-bug also, have you?" Brittany said, frowning.

"No," Santana said. "But that show is becoming very popular with the crew on Flag. Even more than that Super Girl and Harley Quinn show."

"Huh," Brittany said. "Sounds like it's time to invest in some TV production companies."

Chapter Text

"Welcome aboard the Lucia," Santana said, meeting them at the dock.

"The Lucia," Andy said. "Interesting name for a ship."

"Well, with the number of ships being commissioned daily, we try to give them names that will be remembered and that their crews can take pride in. But in this case, it was a random pick from a hat," Santana said. "Its crew will be what make it special."

Andy looked around the small ship in wonder. It was the first long range ship she'd really been on. Even with all of the things she'd done for the Clan over the past couple years, very little had involved space travel. There'd been the trip through the portal, and then the return through the rings, but all other times she'd been on Earth. So, she wasn't really familiar with Clan space ships.

"Is this typical, for a ship of this type?" Andy asked Santana.

"Long range scout, with a small crew? Pretty much," Santana said. "It's one of our designs, loosely based on a popular Galactic model. Much longer range, and better weapons. I think you'll find it comfortable for this mission."

"So, it's just the four of us and a couple crew?" Andy asked.

"A pilot and an engineer have been assigned to the mission," Santana said. "You'll meet them tomorrow."

"Thanks for showing me the ship now," Andy said. "Since Lady Shadow was busy."

"No prob," Santana said. "It's a joint mission between the Shadows and the Fleet."

"Do you think this Prophet Gohan actually exists?" Andy asked.

Santana shrugged, before answering. "Brit thinks there's a high probability that there's someone or something who can help us deal with them."

"This seems a little rushed," Andy said.

"Brit does things her way," Santana said. "The appropriate team had to be ready at the right time. And she can tell you more, but information on the Prophets of Zircon Nine was very skimpy until recently. We knew, a while ago, that they existed in legends, but that they were possibly real? That's new."

"Ah," Andy said. "So, not a Hail Mary pass."

"Nope," Santana said. "We've had a few ideas like this pop up over the last year, but we aren't desperate by any means. If this doesn't pan out and none of the other things pan out, we'll do it the old fashion way, with brute force. We might even just throw large rocks at them."

"Rocks?" Andy said, surprised.

"Large rocks moving at ship speeds can do tremendous amounts of damage when they hit something," Miranda said, appearing beside her.

"Got it in one," Santana said. "Kinetic weapons are very useful. Nothing beats a large chunk of iron ore traveling at a quarter of light speed. Even most ship shields have a hard time with that,"

"Oh," Andy said. "I would never have thought of that."

"You journalist, me spacer," Santana said. "I need to be aware of such things. Space is a dangerous place."

"Life itself is dangerous," Miranda said.

"Meeting with Brittany tomorrow," Santana said. "The entire gang. The two of you, Ixchel, and Romana, and your pilot and engineer. Don't be late."

"Yes, ma'am," Andy said, with a grin. "Will you be there?"

"Not needed," Santana said. "One of my captains will be there in my place. The whole shebang is coming out of my special projects budget, but it's a Brit production. I'll get copies of any reports so I'll know if you need additional resources but Brittany is the boss."

Andy, Miranda, Ixchel, and Romana stepped into the meeting room in the main base. Lady Shadow, a fleet captain, and two other fleet crew were already there.

"Ladies, have a seat," Brittany said. "Captain Lorent is the fleet representative for this project. Pilot Garnes will be your pilot, and Engineer Dart will be your suit and ship engineer."

"We have every confidence in Garnes and Dart as your crew," captain Lorent said. "They're top in their fields."

"Happy to meet you," Andy said, with nods from the others.

"My understanding is that only one of you has a hard suit," Dart said.

"Yes," Andy said. "I have an updated custom hard suit. Not quite like a regular trooper suit. But you'll see."

"Of course," Dart said. "I've worked on the new suits being rolled out to the top teams. And the Shadow suits. So it shouldn't be a problem."

"What is the primary task of this group?" Miranda said. "From its makeup I'm assuming there are other things you expect from us."

"The primary goal for this trip is to find this Prophet or society of Prophets, and find out what they know about the Bugs, and if they have any advice for dealing with the Bugs," Brittany said.

"Do you think they'll have good ideas?" Andy asked.

"Frankly, I don't expect to get anything useful from them," Brittany said. "But it's always possible that some small or large bit of information they have will provide an important insight into the Bugs."

"So, another facet to add to your overall model?" Miranda said. "It's a fascinating predictive device. By itself it has no meaning but when you look at it it provides insight."

"That's a point that few seem to get. The model is a tool," Brittany said. "It won't work correctly without certain abilities."

"Magic?" Andy said. "Or some kind of psychic ability?"

"It resembles a psychic ability," Miranda said. "But there's a large component requiring a certain kind of training from what I've been able to discern."

Brittany just smiled in response.

"The first step will be to track the Prophets down," Brittany said. "We know they had a monastery in Wind Clan territory but the exact location is unknown. The planet it is supposed to be one is almost as much a myth as the Prophets themselves are."

"What do we have to go on?" Andy said.

"Everything we know about the Prophets is in the databanks on your ship," Brittany said. "I would recommend that you spend the trip out to the Wind Clan territory going over the material and making your plan."

"You don't have a plan for us?" Andy said, surprised at the lack of a specific plan from the usually well organized Shadow leader.

"I've included several suggested plans," Brittany said. "Use them as a starting point if you must, but I suspect what will work best for the four of you is something you come up with yourselves."

"We'll look through the information," Miranda said, "and determine how to proceed from there."

"Good," Brittany said.

"The ship will be ready in seventy-two hours," Captain Lorent said. "That gives Garnes and Dart three days to finish reviewing the ship and prepare it for the first part of your journey."

The formal meeting over, the six women, Andy, Miranda, Ixchel, Romana, Garnes, and Dart moved to the mess to get to know each other. Although Andy, Miranda, Ixchel, and Romana had collaborated on other projects, they hadn't all worked together on a single one before. And their crew would need to get to know them as well.

"So, Dart, you have experience with different types of Clan combat and enviro suits, and you obviously are familiar with the long range scout we are taking. What else can you tell us about yourself?" Miranda asked.

"There's not much else to tell," Dart said. "I was on the second expedition to the Ring world, and I studied the transport rings in school. And was on the design team for Gold Team's current hard suits."

"So varied experience with different tech," Andy said. "Maintenance and design. That's good."

"And you, Garnes?" Miranda asked. "For Lady Shadow, and Lady Air to trust you with these passengers," she gestured at Romana, and Ixchel, "you must have a spotless record and a lot of experience."

"Yes, ma'am," Garnes said. "I was All-Fleet pilot for three cycles, and I've designed some of the software upgrades used in this model of scout."

"It's not actually a small ship, is it?" Ixchel said, as they waited for permission to board.

"It's a long distance scout," Romana said. "They need to be a certain size for efficiency and so the crew stay sane on long journeys. My original Clan didn't have many of them but the concept is well understood. I am not much of a ship designer but I am curious as to what modifications have been made by Lady Air's designers. Her designs usually add some practicality that other designers lack. I would space in a ship designed by her before one designed by Old Clan methods."

"So, her ships are better?" Ixchel said.

"Better than any others I've seen," Romana said.

"She's appreciate hearing that from you," Andy said, stepping up next to them. "Her crews love her ships and would refuse to fly in something she hasn't touched, but she doesn't get much recognition from outside the Fleet."

"The leadership of this new Serpent Clan is all talented," Romana said. "If we survive these Bugs, this Clan will go far. Not even the Council of Clans will be able to deny it its rightful place."

'What they've already accomplished, in the little time they've had is amazing," Miranda said, agreeing. "Though I suspect the Council of Clans won't give them the credit they deserve."

"Politicians are the same everywhere," Romana said. "They prefer to give credit only when it doesn't interfere in their own glory."

"Well, their own people will know," Miranda said. "We'll make sure of it."

The hatch to the ship slid open and a ramp leading up to it appeared.

"Welcome to the Lucia," Dart said, standing in the hatch. "Your personal belonging were brought aboard this morning, and you can have your choice of cabins."

"Aren't there two passenger cabins?," Andy said. "How are you deciding who goes where?"

"Pairs together," Dart said. "Each passenger cabin can safely hold four, but it works better with three or less."

"So, Miranda and I in one cabin; Ixchel and Romana in a second. And the rest?" Andy said.

"It's basic accommodation," Dart said. "Nothing fancy on a scout ship, but much better than the short range scouts."

"Okay," Andy said. "If they're all the same, which one doesn't matter for Miranda and myself."

"We'll take the first one," Miranda said. "Ixchel and Romana can take the one next to it."

"Good. My bunk is in a small alcove above the engine room, and Garnes has a cubby next to the control room," Dart said.

"We'll be ready to leave in two hours," Garnes said. "Make yourselves comfortable."

"Thanks," Andy said.

"Cozy," Andy said.

"You've seen the inside already," Miranda said.

"Yes, but not inside the passenger cabins," Andy said. "Do you want the top or bottom bunk?"

"As amusing as that would be, I would prefer something more conducive to our preferences." Miranda stepped over to the bunks and placed her hands on them. There was a brief glow, and the bunks were replaced by a single, wider bunk. "It's not huge like our own bed but it's a better fit for the two of us than separate bunks."

Andy plopped down on the bunk. "I don't know," she said. "Bunk beds do have a certain charm."

"I can put them back," Miranda said.

"No, no, I prefer this," Andy said, grinning. "More cuddle opportunities." Reaching up, she pulled Miranda down on top of her.

"Interesting," Ixchel said, looking at the bunk beds. "I find myself not in favor of this. It does not look like it can be changed."

"No, They aren't configurable," Romana said, poking the top bunk. "And if we're leaving, there's no time to fix it."

"Lady Miranda might have an idea?" Ixchel said. "Should I ask her?"

Romana sighed, but nodded. Ixchel turned and left their cabin, looking for Miranda. She knocked on the other cabin's door.

"Lady Miranda?" Ixchel said.

The door slide open, revealing Miranda standing at the door, and Andy sitting on a larger bed.

"Yes?" Miranda said.

"We were wondering what you were doing about the beds?" Ixchel said. "But you have a bigger bed..." She paused, seeing the bed.

"Bunk beds weren't really our thing," Andy said, "So Miranda fixed them."

"Oh," Ixchel said.

Romana poked her head into the cabin. "Can you help us?" She asked Miranda. "We cannot sleep like that, in separate beds. Ixchel's dreams won't allow her to sleep alone."

"And you?" Miranda asked.

"I find sleep to be easier if we share a bed," Romana said, blushing. "But it is not absolutely necessary."

"Miranda?" Andy said, giving her a wide eyed, innocent look.

"Really?" Miranda said. Andy nodded. "Just this once, I suppose." Sighing, she stepped out of their cabin, around Ixchel and Romana. Entering their cabin, she laid her hands on the two bunks. There was a golden glow and the bunks reformed into a single bunk in the room.

"There," Miranda said. "That should make you feel more comfortable."

"Many thanks, Lady Miranda," Ixchel said, bowing low.

"It was a simple change," Miranda said.

Garnes appeared in the passageway. "Ladies, we leave in ten. Please make sure all of your possessions are locked down and join us in the main cabin." She turned around and headed back to the ship's control center.

"Will do," Andy said. She turned to the others. "It's fairly safe as a scout ship goes, but they prefer that we be strapped in for launch."

"We aren't a large ship," Garnes said, after the others entered the main cabin, "as such things go. From the outside we look fairly large but it's almost all engine. Which is why we have a real ships engineer like Dart. A simple short range scout ship can be handled just by the pilot and navigator but they are rarely more than a day from a base. A long range scout ship such as the Lucia is meant to be out on its own for half a year or more with a small crew. So we have the engine, and enough supplies for six months."

"Though the food gets a bit boring by the end," Dart said. "The synthesizers can only do so much with what we have."

"It isn't that bad," Garnes said. "It just isn't gourmet or home cooking."

"We'll be fine," Andy said. "We've lived on less appetizing food for months."

"Although you aren't crew, you're expected to be strapped down for launches and heavy maneuvers. We have enough crash chairs for everyone," Garnes said.

"There are only four chairs in here," Ixchel said.

"Well, four passengers, four crash chairs," Garnes said. "I'll be in the control pit, and Dart will be in her engine room."

"Oh," Andy said. "Not really seeing us as only passengers, but we are aren't we."

"Yes, ma'am," Gages said. "When it comes to ship maneuvers the four of you are passengers."

"I have no desire to be crew," Romana said. "I'll sit in one of these crash chairs. They look more comfortable than what my ships had for passengers."

"We'll all sit here," Andy said, nodding. "No arguments. Can someone show me how to correctly buckle myself into the chair?" She sat in one of the front chairs.

"Certainly, Lady Andrea," Dart said, stepping over to her. "It's a simple mechanism." She pulled the straps from the back of the chair, over Andy's head and attached them below her hips. She then tightened the straps until they were snug. "How's that?"

Andy wiggled in the chair. "Comfy," she said. "Miranda?"

"As you wish," Miranda said, giving her a slight bow. Sitting in the chair next to Andy, she pulled the straps into place and buckled them in. "How is that?" she asked Dart.

"Perfect," Dart said after testing the straps. She then turned to Ixchel and Romana. "Do you need assistance?"

"I believe we have it," Ixchel said. She sat down and pulled on the straps. Romana checked them then gestured for Dart to check them. After an approving nod, Romana strapped herself into the remaining chair.

"Looks good," Dart said. She waved at Garnes. "I'll be in the engine room."

Garnes nodded. "Ladies, we'll be taking off in ten minutes. I need to finish my preflight checks and we'll be on our way."

"Well, this is different," Andy said. "Like taking a plane except better restraints."

"It has its purpose," Miranda said. "The pilot doesn't have to worry about us during launch and heavy maneuvers because she knows where we are."

"They are friendly, considering they are just hauling freight, as the saying goes," Romana said.

"Important passengers," Andy said. "It's not every day that you have both Miranda and Mother on the same trip. They are going to be extra careful."

"I am called Mother but have yet to earn that name," Romana said. "My people do not need me to be that for them."

"They do not agree," Miranda said. "But no matter. Lady Shadow believes that the four of us will make a valuable contribution to the Clan, starting with finding these Prophets and finding out what they have to say about the Kraal."

"It's going to be a lot of research and talking to people who might not want to talk, all without scaring them away," Andy said. "The first time you do it it can be scary but after a while it just comes naturally."

"I will have to take your word for it," Ixchel said. "The kind of interrogation I used in the past was not something that anyone could survive."

"That wasn't really you," Romana said. "At least not the you who is here."

"I would like to believe that but am not sure," Ixchel said.

"Doubt is fine," Andy said. "It is how you act that tells the tale. And so far you act like who you wish to be, not how your past defines you."

There was a faint vibration that could be felt through their chairs. Garnes' voice came over the ship's comm. "Launching in thirty second."

"And here we go," Andy said.

The vibration increased until it because a steady feeling. And continued for several minutes before cutting off.

"Launched," Garnes voice said.

"I've been on shuttles before," Andy said. "That felt very different."

"Different type of vehicle," Miranda said. "A shuttle is designed for short-haul trips in a gravity well. We're on a true starship now. It works a bit differently."

"Awesome," Andy said. "It's so tera."

"You didn't just say that," Miranda said, sighing. "The girls are fans of that show."

"It's very positive," Andy said. "The hero may not win every time but she never gives up and is always a role model."

"How do we get out of these chairs?" she said, a little later. "I can't reach the buckles."

"There's a switch on the side," Garnes said, from the entrance to her control center. "Press it and the straps release. Though you'll want to be careful. The inertial dampers are off during combat conditions and heavy maneuvers."

"Got it," Andy said, as her straps were pulled back into the chair. "So what's the plan?" she asked sitting up and putting her feet on the deck.

"Even at our top speed, it's three weeks to the Wind Clan capital," Garnes said. "The plan after that is up to the four of you."

"So, let's get working on it," Andy said. "Brittany said all of the known information on the Prophets was in the ship databanks. We'll need to go through it all."

"And we have plenty of time to go though it, so l believe we should start from the beginning," Miranda said.

It only took them a week to completely review all of the information. A long week.

"There really isn't that much information, is there," Andy said, after they'd finished. "Mostly rumors and legends."

"No eyewitness accounts of the Prophets," Romana said. "And this planet they are supposed to be from, there are no coordinates. No star system or reference to it."

"So, how do we find them?" Andy said. "We've assumed that they actually exist but nothing I've read feels like solid information. A story of one of the Clans going to them for advice, but it doesn't say where they go for help."

"The clue is in the information collected by the Shadows," Miranda said.

"Why were we given the Wind Clan as our initial destination?" Andy asked. "What is so special about them that will take us to the Prophets."

"Unknown," Miranda said. "I don't recall seeing anything about the Wind Clan in our research material."

"Lady Shadow was originally of the Wind Clan," Romana said, "Correct?"

"Yes," Andy said, "her birth clan."

"Is there something only she would see," Romana said, "because she learned it as a member of the Wind Clan?"

"If so we aren't going to see it ourselves," Andy said. "But I can't see Brittany doing something like that. If the Wind Clan capital was important to this expedition, then there is a reason. We should be able to figure out."

"Something we missed," Ixchel said. "Something in this trove of data on the Prophets that we missed."

"Shall we go through it again," Miranda said.

"We need a different angle," Andy said. "A different way to look at the problem."

"Let's separate the folklore from the rumor," Romana said. "And take it from there."

"As good an idea as any," Miranda said.

"There it is," Andy said. "Right there. The first rumored Prophet was from the Wind Clan. They had seers before they became one of the Clans. One of the seers guided them into becoming a Clan and was called the First Prophet."

"First Prophet?" Ixchel said. "And they somehow became the Prophets of Zircon Nine?"

"Did we know that about the Wind Clan?" Andy said. "That they had true seers?"

"We know now," Miranda said. "Though the trueness of their ability is debatable."

"You do not believe that seers are real?" Romana said.

"There may be beings who can view the changes that are wrought by time," Miranda said. "But I cannot say to have ever encountered them."

"Whether that is true or not, now we at least have the connection. And from there we should be able to start tracking down these Prophets," Andy said.

"If the Wind Clan seers still exist, they may be the ones to ask," Romana said. "Whether they are true seers or frauds, I believe they are our starting point."

"I agree," Miranda said. "But let's go through this information again. It is possible we missed a number of other clues."

"It won't hurt," Andy said. "And we still have two weeks before we can talk to some seers about this."

"Still nothing earth shattering," Andy said. "The legends are so old we might as well be reading tea leaves."

"Save that for the seers," Miranda said. "Otherwise all you'll have is mush at the bottom of a cup."

"Tried it before?" Andy asked, giggling.

"The girls wanted to go to a fortune teller," Miranda said, grimacing. "It wasn't a good time for that but arrangements were made for a reputable one to appear at a school spring festival."

"And how many non-disclosures did you make them sign first?" Andy asked.

"There may have been one or two," Miranda said.

"Tea leaves?" Romana said.

"Earth seers claim to see a person's future by reading the patterns made by the wet leaves of a tea plant," Miranda said.

"Before or after drinking the tea?" Andy asked.

"The gypsy claimed that it wouldn't work unless they drank the tea first," Miranda said. "I suspect she was trying to listen to the earphone in her right ear."

"She was cheating? After meeting you?" Andy said, laughing.

"We had a mutual understanding," Miranda said. "She was allowed to tell fortunes the way she always did, as long as she didn't tell anyone who'd asked for their fortune to be read."

"Not just the girls?"

"There were other children in the group who had famous parents," Miranda said. "It wasn't just about our girls."

"I remember you doing that kind of thing for the girls," Andy said, smiling. "You protect the twins, but you also protect any other children who cross paths with them."

"Children should not suffer for the sins of their parents," Miranda said.

"A noble sentiment," Romana said. "The world would be a better place if all followed the rule."

"Yes," Andy said.

"We need to discuss our plan," Andy said, later, rubbing her eyes after staring at the Prophet evidence for several long minutes.

"Keep it simple," Romana said. "The more complex a plan the easier it is to break."

"We go to the Wind Clan's planet, find some seers to talk to, check out a historical society or two, and get some clues," Andy said. "Can't be any simpler than that."

"You're visiting dignitaries," Garnes said, looking up from her pad. "You can't slide in and out of that planet without drawing attention."

"We don't want anyone to know why we're there," Andy said. "As low keyed as possible."

"Some attention will be unavoidable," Garnes said. "Just by who you are. Members of the Serpent Clan have not been seen in that sector for over a thousand cycles. And a member of the Clan Council?"

"We didn't bring any clothes to make a big impression," Andy said.

"We can make do," Miranda said. "But if part of this plan requires public appearances, we will need a better plan."

"It depends on if we are able to sneak in and out," Garnes said. "But I do not see that being possible. It is their home world and will be heavily protected, especially at this time, and we will be in an unknown type of ship."

"So, who are we then?" Andy asked.

"Mother's escort, of course," Miranda said. "The Serpent Clan Mother is traveling to some remote destination and she had a desire to see the fabled something on that planet."

"Fabled something? Why don't we just say we're there to see a seer?" Andy said. "Keep it simple, no real lies. Or we're there to consult with their Mother about the reinstatement of our Clan?"

"No," Romana said. "Why consult with the Wind Clan Mother specifically? Why would we, the Serpent Clan, have heard of the Wind Clan Mother?"

"Right," Andy said. "Keep it believable. So, just passing through to somewhere else? Do we need to say? How often does a Clan Mother travel outside of the Clan territory?"

"Very rarely," Romana said. "At least in my time, a Mother was guarded and kept from the sight of others."

"We'll just tell them we're on a quest, if they ask," Andy said. "And it's none of their business."

"If they have anyone like you, that won't work," Ixchel said. "I suspect we need to say as little as possible about our appearance. They can guess if they want to but it really is none of their concern why we are there or who we are."

"But they will ask about the ship," Garnes said. "It is obviously some sort of warship. Not many armaments, but certainly not a merchant or government functionary vessel."

"Maybe they have a famous seer and we're going to see her," Andy said. "I'm sure they have one, and we can fake it and be suitably vague to find out who they are and go see them."

"They don't allow other Clan ships to land on their capital planet," Garnes said. "We can dock at the visitor station and take a shuttle down."

"This is a modern clan," Andy said. "Can we request an audience with a seer or the head seer, before we go planet-side? And without announcing who we are?"

"It's doubtful that you can get an audience without explaining who you are," Garnes said.

"Do we have to say who we really are?" Andy asked. "I'd rather not cause too much fuss."

"You're one of the Winter Folk," Ixchel said. "That might be more valuable in this search than having the Serpent Clan Mother with us."

"You're Winter Folk?" Garnes said, eyes wide.

"So I'm told. But I don't really know anything about the Winter Folk," Andy said. "Just some of the legends that the Memory was able to find for me."

"You'll do fine," Miranda said. "They'll know less than you do, since the Winter Folk are mainly legendary figures from the clan past. And you can always tell them the truth."

"And what would that be?" Andy asked.

"That you discovered your Winter Folk ancestry and are on a voyage of self discovery, aided by the Serpent Clan. And I, your consort, am along to provide support." Miranda said.

"Clever," Andy said. "That gives us a reason for this journey, though why is Ixchel with us?"

"She's Mother's consort, of course," Miranda said, causing both women to blush.

"Why don't we have guards or guardians?" Andy asked. "Doesn't That look suspicious?"

"We don't need them. Your consort is a sorceress and Ixchel is a warrior of great renown among the Serpent Clan."

"A warrior who cannot wear the Clans armor?" Ixchel said, frowning.

"We do need to fix that, don't we," Miranda said.

"You can fix whatever prevents Ixchel from wearing Clan armor?" Romana said.

"In theory," Miranda said. "It's a simple matter of rearranging her genetic code to make it compatible with Serpent Clan DNA. But there may be negative side effects."

"Such as?" Ixchel said.

"Tinkering with a live beings DNA should always be done with caution," Miranda said. "My understanding is that even the Ascended only do so as a last resort."

"And the negative side effects, Miranda?" Andy said. "Can you tell us what they might be?"

"Not until afterward," Miranda said. "It's complicated, and not something I've spent a lot of time studying."

"Then why bring it up?" Andy asked.

"Because, if we do this it must be now, before we are scanned by any Clan security scanners. The changes will be noticeable if they see the before and after."

"I am willing," Ixchel said. "If it gives me the ability to protect Romana better than I am able to now."

"Tomorrow," Miranda said. "I must meditate and study your current DNA before i do this."

"We can wait here," Garnes said. "We have not been detected by the Wind Clan sentries yet.

"Good," Miranda said. "If this is successful, do we have a hard suit Ixchel can wear?"

"We have enough spare parts that we could outfit an entire troop," Dart said. "But That isn't the primary consideration. If you can correct the genetic coding issue that interferes with Ixchel being able to operate a hard suit, that still does not allow her the ability to use it. That takes training."

"We shall have to borrow it then," Miranda said. "From someone who has received the training."

"Who?" Andy said. "None of us have received actual trooper training."

"You, my dear, were given a form of trooper training," Miranda said. "And Ixchel was a warrior of the Serpent Clan many cycles ago, before the invention of the hard suit. I cannot give her your memories, as such, but I can give her a copy of your training experiences."

"You're turning into a regular Maguffin," Andy said. "Why can't you just find these Prophets for us?"

"An ascended being does have access to many abilities that some see as godlike. But there are serious limits. Finding the Prophets of Zircon Nine is beyond my abilities in this universe. Much of what I can do has a physical component. Everything I've proposed so far is on the physical plain."

"But you'll do what you can for Ixchel?" Romana said.

"Yes, but knowledge of this does not leave this ship. It can be dangerous. When we return, I may inform the Clan Council of what I have done, but it is my prerogative whether I do or not," Miranda said. "And you must all agree before I will proceed."

"I agree," Ixchel said.

"And I," Dart said.

"Of course," Romana said.

"Yes, I agree," Garnes said.

"You've got it, Love," Andy said.

"Tomorrow then," Miranda said, nodding.

Chapter Text

"And we're sure they can't tap into our comms?" Andy asked, watching a historical video being broadcast on one of the thousands of video channels they'd tapped into. "It looks like we can get into theirs with no problem."

"There is no certainty in such things," Garnes said. "If someone with enough compute cycles took notice of us, they could conceivably tap into our comms. But the probability of that happening is fairly low. The Shadows have provided us with virtually unhackable comms. By the time anyone was able to tap us we'd be long gone."

"If you say so," Andy said. "It's not that we are doing anything illegal, but our business is ours, not theirs. They don't have a need to know."

"And they won't," Garnes said.

"Why don't we have a Shadow with us?" Andy wondered aloud. "Analyzing massive quantities of cultural data like this is really more their thing than ours."

"Resources for this venture are limited," Miranda said. "And Lady Shadow wanted our views on the Wind Clan, not the Shadow view. We won't see the same things they would."

"Yes," Andy said, "I get it. And she probably already has spies wandering around the capitals of all of the Clans, not just ours. At least that's what I would do if I were her. And she's a lot smarter and probably thought up the idea years ago."

"You can ask her when we get back," Miranda said, "though I doubt she'll tell you anything resembling the truth."

"We aren't completely without Shadow help," Dart said. "The analysis packages in the core are the most up to date ones available for non-Shadow use, with a few extras."

"A few Shadows to run them and provide snappy quips would go a long way," Andy said, pouting.

"So, how'd it go?" Andy asked, when Miranda reappeared in the main cabin, after working on Ixchel's genetic structure. "And what about reactions to the changes?"

"Only time will tell," Miranda said. "The genetic changes were successful. She can now use any Clan based equipment that is keyed to Serpent Clan genetics. Also, the Goa'uld genetic markers have been changed to look like common Clan mutations."

"Can we see her?" Andy asked.

"Romana is with her now," Miranda said. "Give them some time."

"So there are some visible changes?" Andy asked.

"I have her measurements," Dart said. "I'll start building a suit for her."

"And the melding of my suit experience with her warrior experiences? Did that work out?" Andy asked.

"It appears to have, though you'll have to test her," Miranda said. "And I need to recharge. It took much more energy than I predicted. I shall return before we head towards the Wind Clan Visitor Center." Reaching for Andy, she gave her a big hug, before silently orbing away.

Andy sighed. She hated waiting. But with Miranda gone, and Ixchel and Romana otherwise occupied there wasn't much she could do. Picking up her tablet, she went back to reviewing what little information there was on the Winter Folk.

"You look fine," Romana said, looking at Ixchel. "Green is a very Serpent Clan color."

"My hair is bright green," Ixchel said. She looked under the blanket. "Everywhere."

"You will be at my side," Romana said. "I am proud of you."

"I feel different," Ixchel said.

"How different?" Romana asked.

"Things fit now," Ixchel said, tapping her head. "I do not know how to describe it in any other way, other than that."

"Let me look," Romana said, placing a hand on Ixchel's forehead. Humming, she held her hand there for several minutes. "Lady Miranda has fixed the fractures in your soul," She said. "That must have been part of the problem that prevented you from using a Clan suit."

"My soul?" Ixchel said. "Is that why my hair changed color?"

"Not exactly," Miranda said, abruptly appearing in their cabin, looking rested. "One of the differences between humans and Clan is that your essence, what some call the soul, is tied to your physical presence, and your genetic code. When you were merged with the Goa'uld by the Ancient memory machine, it damaged your connection to your soul. I have corrected that. The Goa'uld genetic material that remained has been converted into secondary genetic characteristics. One of which is your hair. Other aspects of that which makes you Clan may have been affected also, but will take time to manifest."

"Such as," Romana asked.

"Some clans have psychic abilities," Miranda said. "In the Serpent Clan it primarily manifests in the Clan Council. For example, you, Romana, have a psychic ability to influence others in your Clan."

"And I wear this," Romana said, holding up the broach around her neck. "It gives me finer control of that, instead of being subconscious."

"Yes," Miranda said. "Ixchel now has a latent psychic ability. It is not clear what it is going to be, other than it is complementary to yours. But it may be years before that happens, so it is nothing to worry about."

"If it helps Romana and the Clan, I do not mind not knowing what it is right now," Ixchel said.

"You also now have knowledge of how to use one of the hard suits," Miranda said. "Not one of the nanobot suits, I believe that would have been too much like your previous Goa'uld infection and did not give you the needed nanobots. If some time in the future you show the ability to adapt to nanobots without problems, it can be done, though I would prefer it be handled by a Clan medic, and not myself."

"That is fine," Ixchel said. "I would rather not have nanobots crawling through my body."

"Dart is assembling a suit for you to try," Miranda said. "We have a week for you to become comfortable wearing the suit. You have the knowledge but not the actual muscle memory. "

"I like the green," Andy said. "I wanted blue hair myself, but someone didn't agree." She poked Miranda.

"The Winter Folk are known to have white hair," Miranda said. "But your Aunt Sylvester does not know what triggers that change."

"And my parents are still not talking about being Winter Folk," Andy said. "Other than some abilities that they grew into, you wouldn't know they are different. I suspect they don't know what causes it, since neither of them have white hair. Some day we need to sit them down and have a serious chat about that."

"They are not ready to discuss your ancestry, and may never be," Miranda said. "They would rather forget. Something very traumatic must have happened to them."

"So, it's perfectly legit for me to be searching for other Winter Folk," Andy said. "But we need to deal with this," she said, waving at the suit Dart had been working on. "We need to see how well you can move in it, if we are going to pass you off as Romana's guardian mate person."

"Getting into a hard suit the first time can be embarrassing," Dart said. "But it is best not to do it by yourself the first few times, until the contortions needed to get it on are second nature."

"I'll demonstrate," Andy said. She picked up the suit liner next to her suit. "This goes on first. If you don't have the nanobots it will connect you to the suit controls, but only if you are Clan. If you do have the nanobots it is mostly just to prevent chafing." Andy started pulling off her clothes, her top first, until she was completely nude. "Of course, don't do this around anyone you don't want to see you naked." She started pulling on the liner.

"Andrea is a bit of an exhibitionist," Miranda said. "Something I found surprising, given her upbringing."

"My family appears to be Scandinavian," Andy said. "Or something like that. So, saunas are a thing for us. And very few hangups about nudity."

"I approve and appreciate the attitude but it isn't something common amongst the culture she grew up in." Miranda said.

"It was strange the first time I had gym class in high school," Andy said. "I didn't get why people were so afraid to change in public. "

"In the Serpent Clan, modesty was reserved for special occasions," Romana said. "I have noticed that the modern Serpent Clan has no problem with such things."

"Some Terran societies find us strange," Dart said. "We do try to not offend them but it happens."

"Once you have this on," Andy posed briefly. "It should be snug, not too tight."

"It's made from a material that expands to fit the wearer," Dart said. "If you've worn an enviro suit, it's a similar material."

"It might feel strange the first couple of times you wear it," Andy said. "But you get used to it."

Ixchel picked up the other suit liner, and carefully pulled it on. "What is this?" She asked, poking at the crotch.

"Sanitary fittings," Andy said. "The suits are designed to be worn for days at a time. So there are suit connections to deal with bodily waste."

"The suits are very efficient," Dart said. "It takes care of waste without you really noticing."

"What happens to It?" Ixchel asked, wrinkling her nose.

"It's converted into energy," Dart said. "The suit doesn't store it. It does the same thing to sweat. Any bodily waste at all is converted to suit energy. Which is used for a number of different things."

"We don't really talk about it," Andy said. "Most people, even Clan, are uncomfortable talking about the subject. But it works well. Once you get over the first time you put it on."

"What about the suit itself?" Ixchel said.

"I've assembled two suits," Dart said. "The first time it is worn, it adjusts itself to your size."

Andy stepped over to the suit. "This isn't my normal suit," she said. "But this is how you put it on." She demonstrated by stepping into the suit and closing it up, leaving just her head uncovered. "It's fairly simple to get on. Go ahead and try it."

Ixchel stepped into the hard suit and it closed up around her. "What about the helmet? I'm assuming you don't leave your head exposed."

"The helmet is a bit of nanotechnology," Dart said. "It is enabled by your thoughts."

"Just thing 'helmet on'," Andy said. She concentrated and her head was covered by her suit helmet. Ixchel followed suit.

"And now Dart will adjust it to be your suit," Andy said, her voice echoing in Ixchel's head. "Once she does that, no one else can wear that suit."

"This is different," Ixchel said, carefully moving in the suit. "How do we test it?"

"I've cleared out the secondary hold," Dart said. "It will give you enough room to familiarize yourself with the basic moves and operations of the suit. Unfortunately, we don't have a place to do a complete familiarization session."

"You will have to rely on the Memory from Andrea," Miranda said. "to guide you until we have a time and place for such things."

"It won't be too bad," Andy said. "As long as we don't have to fight we should be okay. And even if we do, you should know enough to defend yourself and Romana."

"Will you be wearing that suit when we meet the seers?" Ixchel said.

"I'll have my other suit on," Andy said. "It looks very different."

"The Wind Clan has never seen our hard suits," Dart said. "None of the Clans have unless the Galactics showed them."

"No," Miranda said. "Artie assured me that the Serpent Clan suit tech has not been shared with the other clans. It has advanced beyond what most Clan suit tech provides. If you saw the Tiger Clan suit tech, that is what most clans have for hard suits. They use the suits for defense and heavy maneuvers against foes like the Bugs. The concept of light troopers and fast moving squads of suit wearers such as Lady Q has devised is foreign to them."

"They won't know what to make of us in the suits," Andy said. "They will not be able to ignore us after this."

"The Wind Clan Council is requesting a meeting with Lady Andrea and Mother of the Serpent Clan," Garnes said, entering the main cabin. "How to you wish to proceed? We've been given a berth on the side reserved for visiting Clan."

"At least they are being friendly," Andy said. "Do they want to speak with us before we meet with them?"

"No," Garnes said. "According to our Shadow equipment, they are not sure what to make of us. They know we are not on a diplomatic mission."

"Well, we are in a warship. Tell them that we can meet tomorrow but after that we have business that will take us to the planet. Are they going to let us wear our 'armor' for this meeting or to the planet?"

"To the meeting with the Wind Clan Council? No," Garnes said, surprised at the question."

"Well, I just thought I'd ask. But we are definitely not going unprotected down to the planet." Andy said.

"I shall provide the appropriate clothing for this meeting," Miranda said. "The four of us will meet them, while the two of you stay here. We really don't want any visitors leaving things behind."

"Yes, Lady Miranda," Garnes said.

Andy fidgeted in the white gown Miranda had produced for her. She felt like a fraud wearing it, even though no one would know it wasn't something designed by the Winter Folk. And looking at the other three women, looking elegant in their own gowns, she wasn't sure what to think. It didn't come naturally to her, like it did them.

"This isn't going to work," she said, poking at the sheer fabric. "I feel unarmed."

"You are not unarmed," Miranda said. "Nothing short of a ship laser can penetrate that material, and the nanobots in your system will work with it to protect you if necessary."

"Still feels strange," Andy muttered.

"Shall we?" Miranda said. Leaning forward, she opened the public hatch. Standing back from the ship was a small group of people, obviously their escort. Further back was a crowd of professional looking people waving small objects in their direction.

"Someone told the local press," Andy said.

"Paparazzi are paparazzi no matter where you go," Miranda said. "Ignore them."

A tall, gangly man dressed in the colors of the Wind Clan Council approached them. Bowing slightly, he addressed them.

"I am Conciliator Harf," he said. "I am here to escort the Lady Andrea, and Lady Romana to meet with the Council."

"I am Lady Andrea," Andy said. "Lady Romana," she pulled Romana forward, "and I will be accompanied by our Lady Consorts, the High Sorceress Miranda, and Commander Ixchel."

"I was not given instructions to bring them," Conciliator Huff said, frowning.

"They will be coming with us or we will not be meeting with your Council," Andy said, using her most regal voice, as Miranda had coached her. "Please inform them."

Harf turned and whispered to another person, also in Wind Clan colors. The person stepped aside for a moment and took out a small hand device.

"No personal coms?" Andy said to the others over their private channel.

"No," Miranda said. "They are a full clan and have no need for constant contact like we do. We are spoiled by having instant contact among us.

"Spoiled or not, I prefer our way," Andy said, over the channel.

"Communication is very important," Romana said softly. "The new Serpent Clan does such much better than the old."

"The Council is agreeable to this," Harf said after consulting with the other person. "However, conversations with the Council are considered privileged and they may not discuss the meeting with others."

Andy nodded, "Acceptable." While saying into the private com, "Of course, we won't tell them that we are automatically recorded for the Shadows to analyze everything."

"What they don't know won't hurt us," Miranda said.

"Lead the way," Andy said. "I am curious as to what they wish to discuss with us."

"Of course Lady Andrea," Harf said. "Come this way."

"Who are you?" One of the reporters shouted as they passed. "Where is your ship from?"

"Who are those people.?" Andy asked Harf, once they'd passed them.

"They report news to the station," Harf said. "Your ship is of a type that has not been seen in this sector before, and they are curious."

"Ah, we have pests like that also," Andy said. "We can make time to answer a question or two before we continue our journey. Assuming your Council approves."

"I cannot authorize that," Harf said.

"You do not want us talking to them?" Romana asked, haughtily.

"No," Harf said. "I do not have the authority to arrange a meeting with them for you."

The Council meeting chamber was a large room, with the Council members on a raised dias at one end and rows of seats rising from the floor like a Roman amphitheater. Only three of the chairs were occupied. In the center was a wizened old male, bald and hunched over. To his left was a young woman, dressed in bright red. To his right was a bearded man, looking bored.

"Introduce our visitors, Harf," the old man said.

"Yes, Lord Aerie," said Harf. "May I present the Ladies Andrea, and Romana and their consorts the Lady Miranda, and Lady Ixchel."

"We have heard interesting rumors," Aerie said. "And would know the truth of it."

"I don't know what you may have heard but we were just passing through your sector and heard that you have seers who tell truth, and would like to visit them," Andy said.

"That may be," Aerie said, "but first tell us who you are."

"I am Lady Andrea, and this is my Lady Wife, the High Sorceress Miranda. I am on a quest to learn what has happened to my people."

"And your people are?" Aerie asked.

"Some call us the Winter Folk," Andy said, "though that is not how we refer to ourselves." The other two Council members perked up at that but Aerie's expression didn't change.

"We have legends of the Winter Folk," Aerie said, "but no one in living memory has spoken to them. You will not find much here."

"And your companions?" The young woman said.

"I am Romana, Mother of the Serpent Clan," Romana said. "This is Commander Ixchel, of the Serpent Clan also. We have accompanied Lady Andrea and Lady Miranda at the request of the Council of the Serpent Clan."

"I am surprised that you have left your Clan at such a time, Lady Romana," Aerie said. "Are not the Sun Stealers of Kraal on your borders?"

"When my Clan has need of me, I will be there," Romana said. "Are you questioning my dedication to my clan?"

"No," the young woman said, "that is not what he meant. The Council of Clans has told us of the peril that surrounds the Serpent Clan, and we are surprised at your arrival here."

"The Council of Clans has seen fit to keep the other clans in the dark as to our viability as a clan," Ixchel said. "We are engaged with the Kraal even now in our sector but that is not all that we do. The Kraal will not be defeated just by force of arms this time."

"What can you tell us?" The bearded man said. "Blue Clan is in disarray after the Kraal tore through their sector."

"It is not my place to discuss our strategy," Ixchel said. "You will have to request that of our full Council. But I can say that we have taken action in Blue sector with the approval of the Council of Clans and Confederation and encountered the Kraal there. They appear to be much more sophisticated than our records indicate they were in the past."

"I shall compose a request to your Council," the man said. "The Kraal passed through our sector without stopping so we did not need to do much to fend them off."

"And who are you, that we should inform our entire Council to expect to hear from you?" Andy asked.

"I am the War Hammer of the Wind Clan," he said. "You may call me Mars."

"Mars?" Andy said, frowning. "We shall inform them."

"What else can we do for you?" Aerie said.

"You apparently have local news persons interested in speaking with us," Romana said. "In the interest of cooperation, we had planned to speak with them. Is there any objection?"

"They are free to share anything they learn," the woman said. "If you do not wish things to be known, I would not recommend speaking freely with them."

"Well, That went better than I expected it would," Andy said, as they changed their clothes back in the ship. "No 'Don't talk to anyone' and no objection to our plan to talk with their seers."

"Their entire Council was not there," Miranda said. "And we don't know anything about them. The other Council members may have objections."

"They'll have plenty of time while we're here," Andy said. "So, want to go talk to some newsies?"

"Newsies?" Miranda gave her a look.

"That's what they call reporters here," Andy said. "At least according to Harf."

"Yes," Miranda said. "We can further obfuscate the reasons why we are here."

"We'll just tell the truth," Andy said, winking. "Not a big deal."

"Where are we meeting with the newsies?" Andy asked Garnes, as they joined the others in the main cabin.

"There is a meeting room available nearby," Garnes said. "It's by invitation only."

"How'd you manage that?" Andy asked.

"I requested a list of registered newsies," Garnes said. "Only those on the list will be allowed to speak with you."

"No one can sneak in?" Andy asked. "That's how I would do it."

"No," Garnes said. "However, others can request a video of the meeting at a later date."

"Good," Miranda said. "We will want a copy for Lady Shadow, along with any actual reports produced."

"Shall we go?" Andy said. "Any questions?"

"What are we allowed to say?" Romana said.

"Whatever you want, as long as it doesn't make you, us, or the Serpent Clan look bad," Andy said.

"We also do not want to give away any tactical information," Miranda said. "They have no need to know what the Serpent Clan really plans to do about the Kraal."

"Of course," Romana said. "Private Clan intelligence is private."

"I shall be in this meeting with you," Garnes said. "We did not bring an ambassador or speaker, so I will play that role. All questions should be filtered through me."

"That's fine," Andy said. "I have no idea what is acceptable for such meeting. I'm assuming you have training in that position?"

"Enough," Garnes said. "It is similar to being a Clan spokesperson, and all upper level Clan pilots have such training."

"You are a trained diplomat?" Ixchel said. "Of course."

"Yes, Commander Ixchel. It is a necessary pilot skill given the small size of our clan."

"Learn something new every day," Andy said in a whisper to Miranda. "Did you know this?"

"I suspected we were not given a simple Pilot," Miranda said.

"Not simple at all," Andy said.

They entered the meeting room to find it already occupied with two dozen persons, of various appearance, including several non-Clan humanoids.

"Well, this could be interesting," Andy said silently over their comm. "Aren't those two Juun?"

"Yes," Miranda said silently. "And there are several others from other clans. I see two Tiger Clan, an Ice Clan, and a Poot."

"A Poot? Which one is that?" Andy asked over the comm. "And who gave them that name?"

"The Poot have been affiliated with the Wind Clan for many cycles," Romana said. "Their true name is unpronounceable. Some suspect that it is their idea of a joke."

"The Poot is that young female with the silver hair and purple cloak," Miranda said.

"Okay," Andy said. "Let's get this going so we can go do our thing."

They filed to the front of the room where a podium and table with chairs was available.

Garnes stepped up to the podium. "Good meeting, gentle beings," she said. "I am Serpent Clan Speaker. All questions shall be directed to me and I shall direct them to the appropriate person. We will try to answer all reasonable questions. Unreasonable questions will be ignored."

"Can we borrow her for the next Elias-Clark board meeting?" Andy said into the comm.

"First Question," Garnes said. There was a flurry of clicks as the newsies signaled that they had a question.

"It has been reported that the Serpent Clan Mother is here," the Poot said. "How long has she been Mother and how does she feel about the reconstituted Serpent Clan?"

"Yes, Lady Romana, our Clan Mother is with us," Garnes said. She stepped to the side and Romana came forward.

"As the Serpent Clan Mother, I am, of course, happy that we once more have enough members to be recognized as a full clan by the Council of Clans. It has been a long number of cycles since we lost our ruling Council to treachery by the Red Pirates. We have been engaging in a concerted effort to eliminate all Red Pirates from our sector."

"And how long have you been Mother?" the Poot said.

"My clan mother was also Serpent Clan Mother, before our troubles with the Red Pirates," Romana said. "I have been Clan Mother since being rescued from stasis by the new Serpent Clan where I had been placed by the Red Pirates."

"What is different about the new Serpent Clan than the one your clan mother was Mother of?" another newsie asked, after getting a nod from Garnes.

"I much prefer the new Serpent Clan leadership," Romana said. "The old leadership had become inflexible and placed their power over the Clan ahead of the health of the Clan, leading to their downfall at the hands of the Red Pirates. The new Clan leadership is focused on creating a healthy and robust Clan to police our sector and protect the beings in our sector. Once we deal with the Kraal, I expect we will do great things."

"Yes," Garnes said, pointing at another newsie. "What is your question?"

"Is it true that Lady Andrea is one of the Winter Folk?" the newsie asked. "How did she come to be with the Serpent Clan and what are her plans? Will she be visiting other Clans?"

Andy stepped forward in response. "Yes," she said. "My family traces its lineage to the Winter Folk. Unfortunately, over time much knowledge of what that means has been lost. So I am on a personal quest to relearn what I can of the Winter Folk. As for why I am here with the Mother of the Serpent Clan, my family has inhabited the primary world in the Serpent Clan sector for a long number of cycles. When they appeared, we approached them to judge their worthiness to guard the sector. We have been pleased with their efforts."

"What brings you to the home of the Wind Clan?" one of the other newsies then asked.

"One of our Council, who was adopted into the Serpent Clan was originally of the Wind Clan, and told us of the Wind Clan seers. We have come to speak with them about some things that we are concerned with," Andy said.

"So, a member of your Clan Council is Wind Clan?" One of the newsies asked excitedly. "Are you not concerned that they may be biased towards the Wind Clan?"

"No," Romana said. "They were adopted into the Serpent Clan. Their birth Clan is merely a fact of history."

"What of the Lady Sorceress?" a newsie asked. "Is that a title of the Winter Folk?"

"If I may," Miranda said, stepping forward. "Sorceress is a title given by the beings of Lady Andrea's home planet to powerful leaders, where the Serpent Clan has begun building a home."

"You are not Clan?" the newsie asked, wide eyed.

"Only by adoption and affinity," Miranda said. "My daughters, who did not travel with us, are Wind Clan. Which, admittedly, means that I have some kindness towards the Wind Clan for their sake. But that does not mean I will prioritize the Wind Clan over my own Clan."

"How did you meet?" a newsie asked Andy. "How are the Clans integrated into the world you call home?"

"The appearance of the Serpent Clan as more than a legend is fairly new on our world. The Clans were virtually unknown until recently. In some ways, it is a fairly primitive place. Less than one percent of the people living on it have any Clan affiliation," Andy said.

"It is not like this Wind Clan world where everyone is either Wind Clan or affiliated with the Wind Clan," Miranda added. "The Serpent Clan is there to protect the entire sector but they do not control it in any way except as protection needs must. The people of the sector have their own rulers and societies. Each world is different in that Clan have little presence except when needed."

"You asked how we met," Andy said. "I had finished schooling and was looking for a job. Lady Miranda ran a media organization. I'm not sure what your equivalent would be. I was hired to be her assistant. Things did not go smoothly at first. We bonded several years later. Finding out that we both had connections to the Clans came much later and was a surprise."

"So, the Winter Folk are not a major influence in the Serpent Clan sector?" a newsie asked.

"No, sorry," Andy said. "Any influence I might have is through being associated with the Serpent Clan Council and even then they may not listen. For other influences I am a writer, something like you newsies, and hope to shape opinion of my readers. And the only Winter Folk I am aware of are my family and they prefer a quiet life."

"So, this quest to find your 'roots', as you said, is not being driven by a need for power?" another newsie said.

"Power?" Andy looked at Miranda for a moment. "My Lady Consort has more power than I could ever imagine wielding and she knows when and when not to use it. What more could I ask?"

"Commander Ixchel, what is your position here?" a different newsie said. "Other than to be with the Serpent Clan Mother?"

"I am honored to be her consort and love," Ixchel said. "And her protector. Do I need any other reason?"

"I believe this session is over," Garnes said. "If you have additional questions, please submit them to me and if there are enough, we will hold another session before we leave."

There was noisy protests from those who'd been unable to ask questions. The Ladies ignored them and left the meeting chamber and returned to their ship.

"That went well," Andy said. "I don't think we said anything we shouldn't have."

"You did not really say much," Garnes said.

"It should be interesting to see what they write," Miranda said. "The spin they put on our visit will tell us more about the Clan here than the meeting we had with the Council."

"So, will we be able to visit one of their seers?" Romana said. "As much as that was interesting, I believe we should find the Prophets."

"Possibly," Garnes said. "The Wind Clan Council has not objected to a visit, and has provided us with the names of several well known seers to visit."

"And do we have a list of seers they are not recommending?" Miranda said. "I suspect those will be more helpful."

"We will need to visit the seers recommended by the Wind Clan Council," Garnes said, "but yes, I have been able to procure the names of less reputable seers to visit."

"Are you sure you aren't a Shadow Garnes?" Andy asked. "You seem to know and do things before we realize we need them."

"No," Garnes said. "But the advanced Pilot training does include familiarization with some of the techniques used by the Shadows."

"So... that's how you were able to make use of the Shadow tools installed in the ship's info systems," Dart said. "None of that is included in engineering training."

"Will you be traveling with us to see the seers?" Andy asked. "I'm assuming since you were introduced as our mouthpiece that you plan to."

"Yes, Lady Andrea," Garnes said. "Unless you don't wish me to be part of your party?"

"I am assuming that Dart will remain here and keep an eye on the Lucia?" Romana said.

"Of course," Dart said. "I much prefer babysitting the engines to dealing with seer mumbo-jumbo, no matter how truthful it may be."

"Garnes, do you have an itinerary for our visits to the seers?" Andy asked.

"I shall have that first thing in the morning," Garnes said.

"So, we can explore the station tonight? Check out the night life?" Andy said. "It's been a while since we've gone dancing."

"I too would like to see what entertainment offerings the Wind Clan makes available here," Romana said.

Chapter Text

They met for breakfast in the main chamber, dressed for visiting Seers, and discussed the previous evening's activities.

"Clubs are clubs no matter where you go," Miranda said. "Though the Wind Clan seems to take it to an extreme."

"The nude dancing clubs were a bit different," Andy said, winking at Miranda. "But have my approval."

"It was an interesting experience," Romana said. "But I find myself uninterested in returning to them."

"Yeah," Andy said. "A little too much bare flesh, even for me. The novelty wore off quickly."

"They are very different from any that I have experienced," Ixchel said. "The Goa'uld are what you would call hedonistic, but I didn't see them enjoying the freedom that provides. And my previous Clan was many generations ago and the way Clan interact has obviously changed."

"I wonder if that's where they get their name," Andy said. "Wind Clan because all of their bits are hanging in the wind?" She giggled.

"No," Romana said. "I do not recall where their name came from but that is not it."

"I believe it does not matter," Miranda said. "Our search will not be affected by the meaning of a Clan name."

"And which Seer are we visiting first," Andy asked, when Garnes joined them. "What can you tell us about them?"

"The list of official Seers was provided by the Society of Wind Seers," Garnes said. "There are five they recommend we visit."

"And the unofficial Seers? How many of those are there?" Andy asked. "And how did you find out about them?"

"Two who are willing speak with us," Garnes said. "The other four said we didn't need to see them this visit."

"Interesting," Miranda said. "Apparently we will be returning later?"

"Or they are just making that up," Ixchel said. "In my experience, Seers are not the best communicators."

"That doesn't seem right," Andy said. "Wouldn't Seers need to be good communicators?"

"Only if they are true Seers," Miranda said. "If you are not a true Seer you would want to be as vague as possible."

"Like the Oracles at Delphi," Andy said.

"Yes," Miranda said.

"Oracles at Delphi?" Romana asked.

"Terran Seers," Miranda said. "It is unclear if they were true Seers. Their temple was built on top of hallucinogenic gas wells. They were good at being vague and confusing."

"Ah," Romana said. "Let us hope these Seers do not have that kind of problem with coherency."

"The elder Seer is known for making pronouncements that make little sense," Garnes said.

"Let's check that Seer out first," Andy said. "Let's eliminate the obviously senile ones."

"And if they are all senile?" Ixchel said. "What shall we do then?"

"Try something else?" Andy said.

"They can't all be senile," Miranda said. "That would be too much of a coincidence."

"Or whatever makes them Seers also makes them senile," Andy said.

"Have our travel arrangements been made?" Romana asked.

"The Council has provided a shuttle and escort while we are on the planet," Garnes said.

"So, they don't want us to go wandering off," Andy said. "Will we be able to still visit the unofficial Seers with this escort?"

"The escort is the Wind Clan Memory," Garnes said. "You met her yesterday."

"We did?" Andy said, frowning. "We met their Air Marshal and that Mars guy."

"We also met another member of their council who was not introduced," Miranda said. "It is possible they are the Clan Memory."

"Are all Memories so young then?" Ixchel said. "Lady Rachel, our Memory, is young and this Wind Clan Memory, if that is she, is also young."

"Not enough data to determine that," Romana said. "The original Serpent Clan Memory, before the Red Pirates killed her, was older than most of the Clan Elders."

"The Wind Clan Council member is waiting for us," Garnes said, pausing for a moment to answer her comm.

"Good," Miranda said. "We should not keep her waiting."

They gathered their things and exited the Lucia through the main hatch. Standing back from the ship, stood the Wind Clan member they hadn't been introduced to, looking slightly nervous.

Taking charge, Andy led the others over to her. "Good morning," she said. "I don't believe we've been introduced."

"I am the Wind Clan Memory, Memo," she said, nodding. "My Council does not see much value in a Memory. The others were busy with other pursuits and are unable to accompany you."

"Well, we see the value in the Clan Memory," Andy said. "All of our Clan Councillors are valued for different things. Our Memory is small in stature but large in influence."

"She's also bonded with our Lady of the Hands, our War Leader," Ixchel said. "They make a formidable team."

"We do not know much about the traditions of the Serpent Clan," Memo said. "Your War Leader is a woman?"

"All of our Council are women," Garnes said. "Without discussing private Clan business, let us say that a large portion of our Clan, at the moment, are women."

"No men?" Memo said, raising an eyebrow.

"As I said, that is private Clan business," Garnes said. "Our Clan has always been led by our women, and few Clan men survived the Red Pirate attacks that decimated us."

"That is unexpected," Memo said. "How do you fight without warriors?"

"Our Lady of the Hands is a fierce warrior," Ixchel said. "There is none better. She has had a hand in training all of our warriors."

"Our Fleet commander, the Lady Air, is also a fierce warrior, if in a different way," Romana said. "We do not find the lack of men in protective roles in the Clan to be a problem. Someone, after all, must be nurturing, and our few remaining men excel at that. Though the peoples we live among do find this to be unexpected, we find it to be productive."

"As you might know, the Clans evolved in different ways," Romana said. "The Serpent Clan has always been dominated by our females. It is just the way we are."

"I find it refreshing," Andy said. "To find women who are better than men in these warrior roles was a revelation. And you are escorting us to see your Clan Seers? Yes?"

"Yes, Lady Andrea," Memo said. "I apologize for the delay."

"We have no problem discussing many things," Miranda said, "but we do have a limited time for our visit."

"Of course," Memo said. "The shuttle is over here." She guided them out of their docking bay and down a long hall.

Entering the shuttle, they noticed that it was small but luxuriously appointed.

"It is my personal shuttle," Memo said, noticing their interest. "My pilot is Deronos, who is an excellent pilot. He has been with my family since my grandmother was Memory."

"So, he is aware of all of your possible quirks?" Andy said, smiling at her. "That can be good and bad."

"Yes," Memo said, blushing. "He's like an uncle, on most days. I shall introduce you when we land."

"We were given a list of different Seers," Garnes said, as they all sat down. "Are they all in close proximity?"

"May I see the list?" Memo said. Garnes handed it to her and she glanced through it. "Yes," Memo said. "We shall be visiting the Seer enclave. They all live there during the cold months. They don't normally have audiences on the same day but you shall be able to visit with all of them today. "

"Even those?" Garnes asked, pointing at the bottom of the list.

"Yes, of course," Memo said, "though they tend to be a bit crude, unlike the Seers who live in the main house."

"So, that's why we were discouraged from visiting some of them?" Andy asked.

"Some of the Seers don't treat the Council with the respect some of them feel they deserve," Memo said. "But, really, they are just plain speakers. If they believe you need to hear something they aren't going to wrap it up with a bow first."

"Plain speaking would be a welcome relief," Miranda said. "Too many wish to cloud the issue using extra language, which is unnecessary."

"You may regret meeting them," Memo said. "There is a reason they are not on your original list."

"Landing in five," a male voice said. "Please sit down and prepare."

"The first Seer we are here to see is the Honorable Jasper," Memo said. "He has been Head Seer for many cycles and has a seventy percent accuracy rate."

"Ah, so that is what those numbers mean," Garnes said, quickly scribbling a note on her list. "What of the ones without a number?"

"A Seer's accuracy rate can be hard to determine," Memo said. "We rate them but it is only a rough guideline. Some Seers make hundreds of predictions, while others may only make two or three over their lifetime."

"How do they become Seers," Andy asked as they followed Memo down a wide street. "Is it something that they learn or is it self taught."

"Seers, at least in our Wind Clan, are born with the ability," Memo said. "It may manifest at any time during their lives. For many of us, we have a single incident of truth seeing, that never occurs again. Those who have repeated occurrences are sent to this village which has a school for new Seers."

"So, it is true that all members of the Wind Clan can become Seers?" Romana said.

"It is part of our genetic makeup," Memo said. "But very few can tap into the ability."

"A genetic ability?" Andy said, frowning.

"It makes sense," Miranda said quietly. "Lady Shadow makes use of her predictive model, but no one else can make sense of it."

"Which is a competitive advantage," Andy said. "As long as she's the only one who can make use of her model, she's safe from interference from others."

"Well, they would have to get past Lady Air first," Miranda said. "Just as any access to our Memory must go through Lady Q."

"Jasper is expecting us," Memo said. "He will have finished his morning beverage, and will meet us in the sun room." She knocked on a large wooden door. The door was opened by a short woman with white hair up in a bun.

"Yes?" she said.

"We are here to see Jasper," Memo said. "He is expecting us."

The old woman bowed. "Please come in." She led them deep into the house. She stopped and left them in a large room that was flooded by sunlight.

"Come in," A rough voice said. "I would like to see she who tamed the Devil."

"There was no taming," Andy said firmly. "We came to a mutual understanding."

"So it seems," Jasper said, rising slowly to his feet. He circled the four of them, ignoring Garnes. "I see the difficulty," he murmured. "I will be unable to help you," he said. "Most of us cannot see in the presence of such a one as you, Lady Miranda."

"I can leave if it helps," Miranda said.

"No, your influence would continue to be felt around your companions," Jasper said. "You will need to see Sorto Blache. She shall tell you everything you need to know for your quest."

"I do not have that name on my list," Garnes said.

"She only just arrived," Jasper said. "She has had several highly accurate visions. But she is still being evaluated by our Seers Council, so you will find her at the Evaluation Center before lunch."

"Will they allow us to see her?" Andy asked.

"Of course," Jasper said. "Just tell them I told you to see her. If they know what's good for them they will allow a meeting."

"Thank you for your assistance," Romana said.

"Go, so I may meditate," Jasper said. He waved at the door before turning around and facing away from them.

"That was strange," Andy said. "Are they all like that?"

"They usually don't admit when they cannot help," Memo said. "They all believe they are the best Seer in the Clan."

"So, we need to find this Sorto Blache?" Andy said, looking at Miranda.

"If she is in the Seer Evaluation Center, she should be easy to find," Memo said. "They have a regimented process for all newly discovered Seers."

"Do you ever get any Seers who do not want to be evaluated and regulated?" Miranda asked, frowning.

"It's rare, but it happens," Memo said. "Although Seers are honored by the Clan, it is a very limiting life for some. Even if they don't stay in the Seer compound, they have an assistant who records everything they say."

"So, every sigh and burp," Andy said, grimacing. "I can see that getting to be tedious."

"Not quite to that extent," Memo said. "But it is worse than being the Clan Memory. All of my memories will belong to the Clan when I die, but I'll be dead."

"And their every word is recorded as they say it," Miranda said, nodding. "Some would like that, that their words are so valuable that they will be remembered."

"Most Seers are not like that," Memo said. "The Clan gods who pick our Seers rarely pick someone who likes the attention."

"So, a Seer is constantly being recorded and most of them are private, shy people," Andy said. "That sounds horrible for them."

"The attention must cause them problems," Romana said. "How many of them live here?"

"There are four score Seers here at the moment," Memo said. "Though a score have not been seen in public since they came here."

"And how many of those are still sane?" Andy asked. "The pressure must be horrific."

"I cannot say," Memo said, sighing. "The village managers keep that a secret."

"And who would want to know," Miranda said. "Who would want to think about the sacrifices they must make."

"Yes," Memo said. "It is safer to not know the price we pay for their sacrifice."

"So, this is the Evaluation Center?" Andy said, looking up at the imposing edifice. "Do you get that many Seers in to be evaluated?"

"A former Council member had this built as a monument in honor of our Seers," Memo said. "He liked to build large impressive structures. If we had that many Seers, it could handle several dozen a day. In reality, they get one a week. Which is why it will be easy to find her."

"Ah," Miranda said. "That makes sense."

They followed Memo through the tall, ornate doors and into the huge building. It had the quiet atmosphere of a library. Murmuring could be heard coming from several different points. Once inside, Memo headed towards a seated woman, who would have been a receptionist.

"We would like to speak with your head intake specialist," Memo said. "Seer Jasper sent us."

The receptionist looked at them closely, before nodding. "Sir Ralf will be out here in several minutes. Please take a seat while you wait."

"At least they have seating," Andy said.

"This seating is not comfortable," Ixchel said. "They must use it as a test to see who is serious about being here."

"Yes," Memo said. "Though they must get fewer than us here daily."

"What can I do for you," a loud cheery voice said, coming their way.

They stood and waited for his arrival. The head evaluator was shorter, by several inches, than any of them. Wearing a bright purple and green cloak, he smiled brightly.

"Lady Memory! You are a welcome sight here. We haven't had a visit from you in months," he said.

"How are you doing, Sir Ralf? Busy?" Memo said.

"As busy as ever," he said. "Who have you brought to see me this time?"

"They are not Seer candidates," Memo said. "They are visitors to our planet from the Serpent Clan."

"The Serpent Clan is not known to have Seers," Ralf said, looking at them closely. "What brings you here?"

"The Lady Andrea is on a quest, and it was suggested that she visit us for assistance," Memo said. "The other ladies are her consort, the Lady Sorceress Miranda, and Lady Romana and her consort Commander Ixchel. The remaining Lady is their speaker, Lady Garnes. We have just been to see Seer Jasper, and he recommended that we come here to see a new Seer, Sorto Blache."

"Sorto Blache?" Ralf said. "Yes, she is here, though I do not believe she is able to have any visitors at this time."

"Is she ill?" Romana asked.

"She is not well," Ralf said. "She had her first vision before coming here, and while she was being evaluated a second vision rendered her unconscious. She is currently sleeping with the aid of a strong sleeping draught."

"Ah, then we shall not bother her," Miranda said. "There are other Seers on our list that we were interested in visiting with."

Before they could turn and leave, there was a commotion on the other side of the hall, out of their sight. "I must see them!" a hoarse voice shouted. "Do not let them leave."

"Sorto Blache?" Andy said.

"Yes, though she should not be awake," Ralf said. "Excuse me for a moment."

"I believe we shall have a chance to speak with this Seer," Ixchel said. "I feel her presence in the back of my head, like an itch."

"She's reading your thoughts?" Romana said, glaring at the small crowd gathering across the chamber.

"No," Ixchel said. "But she is expending energy that I can feel. I fear that if we do not attend to her, she'll burn herself out. Permanently."

"That won't do," Miranda said. Gesturing to the others to follow her, she set off across the chamber. When they reached the other side, they were met with the sight of a slight, dark skinned woman, sitting in a chair, who appeared to be having some sort of panic attack.

"Let me see her," Miranda demanded imperiously. "Make room." The crowds around Sorto Blache parted like the Red Sea, leaving a space for Miranda and the others in front of her.

Sitting down in front of Sorto Blache, Miranda gestures for the others to sit also, on the floor in front of the Seer. Holding up a hand, Miranda quieted the crowd.

"You wished to see us," Miranda said, in a soft, but firm voice.

Sorto Blache looked up. "You are here!" she said eagerly. "Lady Protector Miranda, you have come here as I have seen. And the Lady Romanadvoratrelundar. I am honored to be in your presence." Sorto Blanche shakily stood up and gave them a brief bow.

"Please sit," Miranda said. "It is we who are honored to be in your presence."

"It is not I who matters," Sorto said. "The Clan Gods may speak through me but you they speak to."

"You wished to speak with us," Miranda said. "What did you need to say?"

"Your quest to seek out the Prophets of Zircon Nine will not be what ultimately saves your Clan," Sorto said. "But releasing them from their prison is a necessary step in defeating the Sun Stealers of Kraal."

"We suspected as much," Romana said. "But we need to examine and explore all options."

"Do you have any advice as to where we may find them?" Miranda asked. "We know their planet was hidden away."

"Yes," Sorto said. "A thousand cycles ago, the Weaver of the Wind Clan gathered up all of the Prophets and sent them into exile on the planet Zord."

"How do we get to Zord," Andy asked.

"You must find the Furlings," Sorto said. "They will take you there."

"Is there anything else you can tell us?" Miranda asked.

"We shall meet one more time in the after," Sorto said. "You shall bring your daughters to be welcomed into their Clan, but not for many more cycles." And saying this, she leaned back in her chair and was fast asleep.

"Well," Miranda said. "We have heard all we are going to hear," she said to the others. Gracefully standing, she turned towards Ralf. "We thank you for your indulgence in this matter. We must now leave."

"And what of what she said?" he asked. "What does it all mean? You appear to have understood her."

"I suspect she will not remember any of this," Miranda said, waving her hands. "But we will be back if we are able."

"Your quest is not exactly as you have said," Memo said, looking at all of them once they had returned to the shuttle. "Is it really about your quest to discover more about the Winter Folk?" she asked Andy.

"While that is a true quest, our ultimate aim is not that," Andy said. "We are seeking information the Prophets of Zircon Nine are claimed to have about the Kraal. Whether they do or not is unknown, though the Seer did not appear to believe the Prophets will be able to directly help us."

"She said to seek out the Furlings if you wished to help the Prophets of Zircon Nine," Memo said. "I am not familiar with beings with that name. And the disappearance of the Prophets is what led to the creation of the Seer Intake Center. Before then, all Seers were taken in by the Prophets."

"The Furlings is another name given to my people, the Winter Folk," Andy said. "So that quest continues also. We must seek them out."

Before the Wind Clan Memory could question them further, they arrived back at the station.

"Will you return here in the end?" she asked them from the door to the shuttle, as they left the docking bay.

"It is uncertain," Miranda said. "Your Seer appears to believe we will be back."

"Yes, but even they can be wrong," Memo said.

We shall be in contact in the future," Miranda said. "Perhaps we may bring others with us."

"Well, that was marginally successful," Andy said, as they prepared to leave the station. "We know the Prophets of Zircon Nine are still out there somewhere and that we need the Furlings to rescue them."

"Not necessarily," Miranda said. "We already have a Furling. She just needs to know how to use her abilities to provide us with the answer we seek."

"Easy for you to say," Andy said, grumbling. "If it is something I will suddenly know, I don't know how to get to it."

"It will come to you," Ixchel said. "The Goa'uld had myths about the Furlings, and feared them, but they had disappeared long before I heard of them."

"Well, at least it's not 'A Power he knows not' and the associated mumbo-jumbo," Andy said. "We don't really have a prophecy."

"The Prophets of Zircon Nine will likely have one for us, if we can ever find them," Miranda said. "Prophecies and prophets tend to go together."

"Like peas and carrots," Andy said.

"Or peanut butter and chocolate," Ixchel said. "What? I've been converted. Chocolate has a long history but peanut butter is new."

"The wheels of progress march on," Andy said, winking at her. "I can't imagine a time or place where peanut butter did not exist."

"So, the next stage of this quest, depends on Lady Andrea remembering something she never knew," Miranda said. "We have every confidence in you."

"That's good, but I don't," Andy said. "If it is something only a Furling would know we are in deep trouble. I only know the name because my mother had a small chalice that had a message in some unknown language engraved on it. And she had no idea what it might say."

"That seems like an important starting point," Miranda said. "Do you remember any of this writing?"

"No," Andy said. "It sort of looked like Hebrew, though it wasn't."

"If you wish, I can look at your memories of this object," Miranda said.

"I suppose," Andy said. "But it was a long time ago. I just barely remember what it looked like."

"Memory is a tricky thing," Miranda said. "We should do this somewhere where you are comfortable."

"Lying down?" Andy said. "Our bed is comfortable. And if it doesn't work I can just go to sleep."

"Yes," Miranda said. "You can take a nap while I rummage around in your memories."

Miranda looked down at Andrea, laying down on their bed with her eyes closed. "It works best if you relax," she said.

Andy opened one eye and peered up at her. "It's a bit difficult," she said. "I know you're there."

"Of course," Miranda said. "Maybe we should have tried this later?"

"No, now is fine," Andy said. "Let me try that again."

Shaking her head, Miranda leaned forward and kissed Andy. "Let's try this a different way," she said, placing both hands on the sides of Andy's face. "Concentrate on the feeling of my hands on your face," she said.

Sighing, Andy closed her eyes again and sank back into the bed. She concentrated on the feeling of Miranda's soft fingers against her face, and felt herself drifting off.

"That's it," Miranda whispered, "let yourself go." After several minutes, she said, "now open your eyes."

"Where are we?" Andy asked, opening her eyes to find herself standing on a white plain under a bright blue sky.

"This is your memory scape," Miranda said.

"There's nothing here," Andy said. "Where are my memories?"

"This isn't a physical place," Miranda said. "It is a metaphor. From here you can access any of your memories."

"Like a TV?" Andy asked, looking around.

"If you must think of it that way," Miranda said. She waved an arm and a large tv appeared in front of them.

"Awesome," Andy said. "Memories in surround sound video."

Miranda shook her head. "Think back to the last time you saw your mother holding that chalice."

"I think it was her fiftieth birthday," Andy said, humming to herself. A scene appeared on the large screen. It was a rustic looking kitchen. A small cake sat on a marble counter, with a single candle in the middle. A tall skinny woman who bore more than a passing resemblance to Andy was looking down at it with a frown.

"She doesn't like a big birthday celebration," Andy said. "Usually we have to fight her to get her to even do a cupcake."

"I suspect it has more to do with how long the Winter Folk can live," Miranda said. "She was probably much older than fifty at the time."

"I hadn't thought about that," Andy said. "She hasn't changed much since then. She still looks like that. And how long do Winter Folk live?"

"Longer than most Clan," Miranda said. "We both might outlive my daughters."

"Oh, that's not good," Andy said, frowning.

"No, it's not but that's a topic for another time, when we can discuss it with them," Miranda said. "Now focus on this memory. Where is the chalice?"

"It's in that cupboard," Andy said, as the view shifted to the right and focused on a cabinet cupboard above a shiny silver refrigerator. They watched as a hand reached towards it and pulled the cupboard door open.

"It's in a small wooden box, I'm not sure what kind of wood," Andy said. The memory paused."It's a family heirloom, according to my father."

"Where was he?" Miranda asked.

"He had a meeting in Chicago the day before," Andy said. "And there was a blizzard. He didn't make it home until the next day. She forgave him. Eventually."

The memory continued on the screen. A hand with long skinny fingers reached up and took a small wooden box, in an odd grey and red color, out of a corner of the cupboard. They watched as the box floated through the air in the hand and was placed gently next to the cake.

Another hand took up an odd position on the box and together they twisted it until it split in half.

"A code to open it?" Miranda said.

"Yes," Andy said. "They haven't taught me how to open it yet. They said on my thirty-fifth birthday."

"Which is next month," Miranda said.

"Yes," Andy said. "They're expecting all four of us in Ohio for my birthday. I don't think we'll make it."

"We can only try," Miranda said. "We may have to bring the rest of our team with us."

"And Aunt Sue," Andy said. "And maybe discuss a few things that they refused to tell me about until my birthday."

"We will try to be there," Miranda said.

"If we learn things that could have removed the need for this trip..." Andy grumbled.

"This trip was still necessary," Miranda said. "We have made connections to the Wind Clan and their Seers that I believe will be very important in the future, when the Clan confronts the Council of Clans."

"I wouldn't want to be them when our ladies confront them," Andy said.

"Quite right," Miranda said. "They have been taught well."

The chalice was removed from the bottom half of wooden box in a cloth bag. It was then removed from the bag. The hand rotated it revealing a uniformly metallic surface, before putting it down next to the cake..

"I'm not seeing the words," Andy said, disappointed.

"This isn't the end of the memory," Miranda said, as it continued. "How did your mother get the words to appear before?"

"I'm not sure," Andy said. "It was like they suddenly appear."

There was a quick golden sparkle that seemed to flow between the hand and the chalice. Miranda paused the memory. "It looks like your mother has a talent of some sort."

"I've never noticed her doing anything like that before," Andy said.

The chalice glowed a bright, hot red for a moment, and when the red receded there were words in some unknown language facing them on the chalice.

"And there they are," Andy said. "Still don't know what it means."

"I am not familiar with that script," Miranda said. She waved a hand and a small notepad appeared with the words on it, and a picture of the chalice, including the words. "We shall have to find someone who does."

"My parents claimed to not know what it says," Andy said. "But I feel like I should know what it says."

"It may be the clue we need to find the Prophets of Zircon Nine," Miranda said.

"Or we need the prophets to make sense of it," Andy said, sighing.

"Yes, that is a possibility. But we can discuss that later," Miranda said.

"Does that mean I have to get up?" Andy said. "I like having you to myself like this."

"We can come back, or visit other plains some other time," Miranda said. "But right now we have others who expect us to return."

"Adults are responsible people, yada yada," Andy said, nodding. She leaned forward and kissed Miranda on her cheek. "Okay, wake me up."

Chapter Text

"Any word from Andy and her team?" Rachel said, putting down her tray and sitting across from Brittany and Santana in the Yucatan base dining room.

"Cool your jets. They've only been gone for two months," Santana said. "That's barely enough time to get to their first stop."

"Our comms don't reach that far," Brittany reminded her. "Any messages from them will have to take the long way round through the Galactics."

"Which means they can't say much, since we don't know how secure our comm codes are," Santana said. She took a large bite of her burger.

"Very secure," Brittany said, sneaking one of Santana's chips. "But the Galactics have some high powered AIs who might be able to break our encryption, so we are trying to not use it except in small doses in an emergency."

"So we don't know anything?" Rachel asked.

"Well, yes," Brittany said, pausing to eat a couple more chips. "Just nothing too dangerous. They arrived at the Wind Clan's Clan Seat and had a brief meeting with several of Wind's Clan Council. And they were off to see some seers. Nothing since then."

"Oh," Rachel said, deflating.

"But, they did make friends with the Wind Clan Memory," Brittany said. "Sounds like a nice kid."

"A kid Memory?" Rachel asked, taking a bite of her corn mush.

"Well, the other Wind Clan Council members apparently treat her like a clueless newbie," Brittany said. "Possibly because they have men on their Council."

"Andy won't like that," Santana said. "She's all 'empower the little people' and treat everyone fairly. Don't be surprised if this Memory comes along for a visit when they come back."

"Did you need anything else?" Santana said, stacking Brittany's tray on her own. "Britt and I have plans."

"Have you heard from Quinn recently?" Rachel said. "How's she really doing?"

"You mean, how's she doing since she didn't get to have the battle she wanted with the Bugs?" Santana said.

"Um, Yes, that," Rachel said, blushing.

"It's cute that you're worried about her," Brittany said. "But she's doing fine. She's anxious to find out how well the Bugs fight but she isn't going to go off-plan just to get some action."

"Good, good," Rachel said. She stood up, and picked up her tray.

"They need to work on their communication skills," Santana said, standing up and picking up their trays, after Rachel had left.

"They're doing fine," Brittany said. "They aren't us. They communicate in different ways."

"Well, Q better not get herself killed with her latest scheme. We don't need a weepy Rachel on our hands," Santana said.

"She won't," Brittany said. "She won't be happy with the results of her next recon trip but she'll be okay."

"You know something I don't? Santana said.

"Always," Brittany said with a smirk, side stepping Santana's swinging hand.

Quinn watched as the small probes, slightly bigger than a raisin, traveled through the edges of the Bug fleet. Her tach team had been looking for a hole in the Bug defenses for weeks, and hadn't found anything they could use yet. There was just no penetration point big enough for a hard suited trooper team. The little Shadow probes were the largest they'd found that could get close to the fleet. But the range of the probe's sensors didn't give them enough depth to determine a good candidate for their initial recon.

"Anything?" Quinn asked her head tech.

"Still nothing, Lady Q," Tandy said. "Our tech just doesn't have the oomph to do the job. Even with these probes our sensors just bounce off their shields."

"And the other probes?" Quinn asked.

"A little better," Tandy said, "but even the most advanced Shadow probe tech isn't getting us what we want."

"So, too many unknowns to risk a team," Quinn said to herself.

"If you recall, I told you so," Brittany said over the private Council comm. "Pre-battle recon is a brilliant idea but not against the Bugs. We're getting more intel from those ships you and the Hotep captured than we'd get if you sent your best troopers on a suicide mission."

"So what are we going to do?" Quinn said. "They're pointed right at the Sol system. In another year they'll be close enough to see from Pluto and they'll roll right over us."

"No," Brittany said. "We'll stop them before they get there. At the worst, six months from now we start pounding away at them, and force them off to the side away from us.

"And in a thousand cycles they'll be back and will continue plundering our systems. We need to stop them, not just send them elsewhere. And who knows what other damage they would do because we didn't deal with them and took the easy way out like the other Clans," Quinn said.

"The other Clans aren't stupid," Brittany said. "They just came up with a different answer than we did. When the Galactics reconstituted our Clan, they gave us the mandate to deal with the Bugs as best we saw fit. If we are able to wipe them out, the Galactics will be okay with that. If all we do is send them elsewhere out into the intergalactic void so they come back in a thousand or two cycles, they won't be happy, because they see the same problems with that as we do but they will accept it."

"So, kill them all and let the gods sort them out?" Quinn said.

"A bit cruder than I would have put it," Brittany said, "but in essence yes. It may make you and your moral code feel a bit queasy but survival has no morals. And the survivors will write the history books, though I'm not sure the Bugs have history books."

"So, what's your suggestion?" Quinn said.

"Do what Santana is doing," Brittany said. "Look for that silver bullet but also plan for the head on, brute force approach."

"You mean the joint attack plan?" Quinn said. "Santana's fleet is going to take the brunt of it. The recon mission was supposed to find us a way that my troopers can contribute in a significant way to that plan."

"Yes, the joint attack plan," Brittany said. "It isn't elegant. It isn't pretty. But it can get the job done. And remember, there isn't much use for my Shadow teams in that plan either. We're all about the subtle. A head on attack isn't remotely subtle. If I threw my Shadow teams into that mix they'd be cannon fodder. They don't have the kind of training that plan requires."

"Well, someone has to sneak into the Bug fleet and plant listening devices and bombs," Quinn said. "Sure, it'd be a dangerous task but they'd be very effective. Certainly more effective than our probes."

"I hope you aren't planning on throwing away the JJs and their teams on something like that," Brittany said. "If so, I'll take them back. They are too valuable for a suicide run."

"If the Bugs get to Pluto, we'll be throwing everything we can find at the Bugs," Quinn said.

"Well, let my Shadows do what they do best," Brittany said. "And that is not dying in a futile attack to prove a point."

"They wouldn't have gone in alone," Quinn said.

"I know that," Brittany said, "but that doesn't make it any better. You are too valuable for such foolishness."

"So, what do we do?" Quinn asked.

"I'm sure you'll think of something," Brittany said. "There are still other options. Heck, camp out in a system in their path with a bunch of troopers and jump out when they go by. It worked for the Greeks."

"Thought of that," Quinn said, "but it's all void and dead space between Sol and the Bug fleet's current location."

"So, think outside that box between your ears," Brittany said. "Push them into a system and then ambush them from there."

"And which system should we do that to?" Quinn asked. "We have so few systems that they would go for. Some of which are inhabited."

"I'm sure you'll figure it out," Brittany said. "And now I have a certain Fleet Admiral to visit. Keep us in the loop with your plans. I should be hearing them from you and not Rachel when she's worried or Santana laughing at something you did."

"Yes, Lady Shadow," Quinn said, sighing. "I'll keep you in the loop."

"You better," Brittany said. Closing the channel, she turned to Santana. "You were right," she said. "Q is tying herself into knots over this. I have every confidence that we'll beat the Bugs, without turning it into one huge suicide mission."

"That's you, babe," Santana said. "Quinn just needs to know that her plans will work before she commits to them. Anything to keep her kids safe."

"We're all like that," Brittany said. "But sometimes you have to take a risk. She probably won't use the Trojan Horse idea, though."

"That's because it doesn't fit her chosen path," Santana said. "She wants a battle, not some kind of guerrilla warfare. But that's probably how it's going to go. We'll be picking them off as they get closer and eventually they'll be small enough that we can confront them directly."

"There's no glory in that," Brittany said. "I know you and Q aren't in it for the Glory but knowing you are doing something awesome and historical gives an extra incentive to get it right."

"What's that?" Santana asked her Flag captain. A bright light was flashing on the main screen.

"It's a pulsar," Kinte said. "Or something closely resembling one."

"There are no pulsars in our sector," Santana said. "We have the boringest sector in the Confederation. All of the things that make astronomers hot are out in the other sectors."

"That isn't strictly true," Flag's Science officer, Tyne, said. "There are a number of interesting astronomical features in our sector."

"But no pulsars, no blackholes, no ion storms," Santana said. "Sure we have the odd ice planet and gas giant and those strange planets with the rings and that ringworld. But that's all ordinary sector features."

"Yes, Lady Air," Kinte said. "That isn't a pulsar but it gives off radiation like one."

"So, send out a probe and take a look," Santana said, pointing at Tyne. "I know you didn't lose your curiosity when you transferred to my ship. I've seen your reports back to the Serpent Star Society."

"Yes, Ma'am," Tyne said, blushing. "Releasing probes now."

Santana looked up from her tablet and the report she was reading. If she'd known being in charge of a space fleet, back when she's first become part of the Serpent Clan, required piles of paperwork to make sure everything ran smoothly, she wasn't sure if she would have taken the job. Maybe she would have gone for something like what Quinn had. All Quinn had to deal with was the care and feeding of six thousand armor wearing psychopaths. All the paperwork that was needed to send her troopers somewhere or to keep them supplied with all of their fancy explosives and toys actually came out of the Fleet budget. Sure, the troopers were semi-independent from the Fleet, or as independent as a bunch of gung-ho Space Marine types could be, but they were still Fleet.

"Boss?" Tyne said, standing nervously in the doorway to her office.

"Yes?" Santana said, putting down her tablet with some relief.

"You need to see this," Tyne said.

"I do, or all of us?" Santana said.

"All of us, I guess," Tyne said.

"No guessing," Santana said. "All of the bridge crew or just me?"

"The crew," Tyne said. Turning she went back out onto the bridge. Curious, Santana followed her. "What do you have?" she asked, assuming the probe had found something unusual.

"It isn't a pulsar," Tyne said.

"I believe we already established the unlikeliness of it being a pulsar in this sector," Santana said, nodding. "What is it?"

"This," Tyne said, putting the probe's video up on the main bridge screen.

A large object appeared on the screen, obviously made by some kind of intelligence. It only vaguely resembled any spaceship Santana had ever seen but that was what it appeared to be, a space going vehicle, if a somewhat beat up looking one.

"How big is that?" Santana asked. It was hard to tell size in space if you didn't have anything to compare an object to.

Tyne pulled the view in closer until they saw a large, ragged edged hole in the side. "Flag could go in that," she said.

"So, the size of Pluto, approximately?" Santana asked.

"A little smaller, but yes," Tyne said. "It's a lot denser than Pluto."

"Pluto's just a big ball of frozen crap," Santana said. "If it wasn't in orbit it'd be a comet or something." She frowned in thought. "How far are we from the nearest planetary system?"

"Half a parsec," Kinte said. "And none of the nearby systems have intelligent life."

"So, it's just sitting here in the empty void, giving off radiation?" Santana said. "Like a pulsar?"

"Yes, Boss," Tyne said. "At least as much energy in the electromagnetic spectrum as a pulsar."

"How close can we get before it fries our systems?" Santana asked.

Kinte looked up from her console. "With shields up and at max power, a light minute before it affects our systems, and we can sit that close for less than an hour before our shields burn out."

"How close can we safely get period?" Santana said.

"Right where we are now is good," Kinte said. "Any closer and we have to keep the shields at full strength, and that takes energy."

"Huh," Santana said. "Are we getting anything except that pulsar affect? Any communication of any sort?"

"Nothing, Boss. It's dead. Mostly," Tyne said.

"So, no idea if we can shut it down and take a closer look," Santana said. "How many probes did you kill?"

"Kill, Boss?" Tyne said.

"If that thing would kill our max shields in less than an hour, it must have killed a few of your probes" Santana said. "Were you able to retrieve any of them?"

"Four," Tyne said.

"You killed four probes getting a look at that monster?" Santana said.

"I was able to retrieve four probes," Tyne said. "I lost six."

"I hope you used the cheap ones we got from those Red Pirates," Santana said, only halfway joking.

"Yes, ma'am," Tyne said. "The six that we were unable to retrieve were the Red Pirate model. Their shielding was inadequate and they were turned into molten metal by the pulsar affect."

"Ouch," Santana said. She shook her head. The Red Pirate probes had been intended to be sacrificed so it wasn't a big deal but she was surprised at how fragile they turned out to be. "What do we actually know about this ship, other than its size and danger to travelers?"

"It appears to be made of a metal similar to the Ring World," Tyne said. "But there is nothing to connect it to that."

"Really?" Santana rubbed her hands together in glee. She'd been unable to get more than a sliver of a sample from the Ring World metal, but here was an entire ship of the stuff. Ships made from it might be able to survive attacking the Bug Fleet. She had to have it.

"Yes, Boss," Tyne said. "If we could salvage it, we might be able to find out how the Ring World was built, and build our own ships from the same material."

"That would definitely be something," Santana said. "That might just be the edge we need. Find a way to shut that thing off and get a couple tugs out here," she added. "The new ones."

"Yes, ma'am," Tyne said.

"I'll be in my office. Let me know when you figure it out," Santana said.

"Yes, ma'am," Tyne and Kinte both said.

"So, you've found a derelict ship made out of some kind of wonder metal?" Brittany said. "How are you going to get it back here?"

"Once my techs figure out how to turn it off, we'll grab it with a couple space tugs and bring it closer to Sol. Don't really want to bring it in-system," she said. "It's gravity profile could screw up the asteroid belt. Maybe we can park it at Saturn or Uranus? Like a spare moon?"

"You're the Fleet Boss," Brittany said. "Unless you want the entire Council to decide what to do with it, do whatever you feel is right."

"Generous, babe," Santana said. "We'll need your little propaganda machine running at full tilt for this if we do park it in the outer solar system. It'll be hard to hide it from the nosey astronomers on the payroll, to say nothing about the others."

"If you need more hands to look at it, I can find some Shadows with free time," Brittany said.

"Do I want to know what they did to piss you off this time?" Santana said.

"Nothing critical," Brittany said. "Most of them are keeping their heads down right now."

"Afraid they'll get shipped off to the Fleet like the JJs?" Santana said with a laugh.

"Yes," Brittany said, giggling. "They don't seem to realize that the JJs want to be out on the Hotep with Quinn and her troopers. They like seeing new things."

"Takes all kinds, babe," Santana said. "I'm assuming you're trying to duplicate whatever makes those two menaces the valuable resources they are."

"No luck so far," Brittany said. "It isn't a genetic predisposition. Most likely it's experience. They've been involved in some death-defying adventures since they became Shadows. That kind of experience is hard to duplicate."

"I think you should have sent them off with Andy and Miranda," Santana said. "Just think of the results they would get."

"And the wars they would start," Brittany said. "No, I like them with Quinn. She can keep them under control."

"That's because she's Order and they're Chaos," Santana said. "They cancel each other out."

"Possibly," Brittany said, shrugging. "So what's the plan? Should I send some specialists out to your location?"

"No, we're in good shape. We do have a time limit though," Santana said. "Give Q too much time to think and who knows what crazy she'll come up with."

"I'll handle her," Brittany said. "You just get that thing taken care of."

"Yes, Boss Lady," Santana said, smirking.

"Hey Q!" Brittany said, slipping into Quinn's office on the Hotep.

"Brittany!" Quinn said, getting up quickly and meeting her in the middle of the room for a hug. "What are you doing out here?"

"I can't visit a friend?" Brittany asked. "And no, I don't have Rachel stashed away anywhere. I just happened to be in the neighborhood. She's back home keeping a lid on things with Coach."

"That's a combination I never would have thought of," Quinn said. "How'd you manage that?"

"With a little subtlety," Brittany said. "They have no idea it wasn't their own idea."

"I won't tell," Quinn said, grinning.

"Good, I'd hate to have to hurt you," Brittany said. "I would cry, and San would get upset and it'd get very messy."

"So, what really brings you here?" Quinn asked.

"Wanted to see my favorite Q," Brittany said. "And I wanted a closer look at the corner you're trying to paint yourself into."

"I'm not doing that," Quinn said. Sighing, she added, "Okay, maybe I am. But there must be a way to use my teams against the Bugs, before we have to dig them out of some planet they've dug themselves into."

"You'll have your opportunity," Brittany said. "The Bugs aren't going to remain on their ships. We may, may, be able to keep them away from Sol but there are other inhabited systems they'll find attractive on their way by."

"They've already lost their mining fleet," Quinn said.

"Even more reason for them to pick a few systems in our sector to strip. They're going to be needing the raw materials for their fleet," Brittany said.

"Not if we can stop them out in the void," Quinn said.

Brittany leaned down and gave Quinn a quick peck on the cheek. "I have confidence that you will find a solution," she said. "Did you hear the latest news from Santana?"

"No," Quinn said. "I noticed that she's behind schedule. She should have been here yesterday. Some of her captains are getting antsy."

"She'll be here soon," Brittany said. "But first she needs to deal with a small salvage problem."

"Salvage? What did she find," Quinn asked. "Something we can use against the Bugs?"

"A large ship," Brittany said. "Made from the same material as the Ring world. We won't know if it can be used against the Bugs for a while. It's got a heavy radiation problem."

"Ah. So she's wherever it is supervising the salvage?" Quinn said.

"More or less," Brittany said. "She'll be along shortly and the ship will be moved to a safe place near Saturn or Uranus."

"How large is it?" Quinn asked, frowning.

"Approximately the size of Pluto," Brittany said.

"Oh.... that is a large ship," Quinn said faintly. "No idea what is in it? Maybe it's a different kind of generation ship, like the Ring world?"

"That's very likely," Brittany said, agreeing with her. "If we're lucky the radiation hasn't destroyed their recording materials."

"I don't have any hard radiation hard suits with me this time," Quinn said. "So, we'll just stay here and keep trying to get past the Bug Fleet shields."

"Don't worry," Brittany said. "If San needs someone with your team's unique capabilities, they'll send for you."

"No worries," Quinn said. "But a little actual action would be nice. My troopers are close to the boredom point. After that it might get ugly."

"If San can fix that radiation problem there'll be a large ship to explore," Brittany said. "Not quite the same thing as fighting Bugs but you never know what you'll find in a wreck like that."

"Some people like exploring wrecks," Quinn said. "Not sure I like the idea of exploring a shipwreck in space."

"Speaking of exploring, how are the JJs turning out?" Brittany asked.

"They're being themselves," Quinn said, shaking her head.

"So just one warning away from the brig?" Brittany said.

"They aren't that bad," Quinn said. "But they are getting bored."

"And them bored is an extremely dangerous problem. Do you want me to take them with me?" Brittany asked.

"Nah, they're okay. I think they are really close to having a scanner that can see inside the Bug ships in that fleet." Quinn shook her head. "It'd be even more boring around here if you took them away."

"Okay, no removing the comic relief," Brittany said, grinning. "But I'd like to see them for a few minutes. Where are they hiding?"

"Down in the science bay," Quinn said. "They were making Jolie a little nervous so she banished them down there."

"They are definitely an acquired taste, Brittany said. "And I think I'll go re-up my inoculation to their brand of crazy."

"Stop by here after, before you head back to your ship," Quinn said,

"Will do, Q," Brittany said, leaning forward to hug her again.

"What's the scoop Ladies!" Brittany said, stepping into the Hotep's Science section.

"Lady B!" Joy said, jumping to her feet. "You're here!"

"Where else would I be?" Brittany said. "Needed to check up on my favorite rascals."

"Then why are you here to see us?" Janice said, with a wink. "So, you're behaving yourself for Lady Q?" Brittany asked. "She giving you interesting things to do?"

"She doesn't always know what is possible so she asks us to do the impossible," Janice said.

"It's totally tera," Joy said. "Attempting to do the impossible is a blast and a half."

"Do you think you'll find a way for the Hands to have Bug boarding parties?" Brittany asked.

"It's a tricky thing," Janice said. "The Bug ship shields don't allow anything physically bigger than a pea through, and then it has to be moving very slowly."

"And absolutely no energy." Joy added.

"They must allow some kind of energy through," Brittany said.

"You would think so, but right now that isn't the conclusion we've come to," Janice said. "They must have some special equipment that lets them see through their own shields, and their ship engines must be designed to work with the shields."

"It's going to be a challenge to get past that," Joy said, "but I think we're up to it."

"Maybe in another day or three," Janice said. "We're waiting to get the reports on the materials from those mining ships. We think using one of them somehow is how they do it."

"You're letting the other science types play also, aren't you?" Brittny asked, noticing the sad looks on the faces of the others in the room.

"They think it's impossible," Joy said. "They're in timeout until they improve their attitudes."

"Well, give them something to do, that isn't impossible," Brittany said. "Like improving the drives on the probes. Or figuring out why the Red Pirate probes are so fragile. Lady Air's tech lead managed to kill six of them the other day. Apparently, they can't handle pulsar levels of energy for more than a few seconds before they burn out."

"That's an easy one," Janice said. "Those Red Pirates skimped on the shielding for the control systems in their probes. We figured that one out ages ago."

"Well, they can figure out ways of improving the shielding, and also improve it on our regular probes, right?" Brittany said.

"I suppose," Joy said. "When do you want that done by."

"No rush, though the fleet Flag could use better probes right now to investigate a derelict ship they found."

"Really?" Joy said. "I guess they can work on that while they are in timeout."

"Good," Brittany said. "Let me know how that turns out, I need to get back to my ship. It's double parked."

"Yes, Lady B," they both said. "Safe trip. Stick to the shadows."

"Hey Q, I've got to go, some people are waiting for me," Brittany said, popping her head into Quinn's office.

"Nice chat with the JJs?" Quinn asked.

"Yup," Brittany said. "They might get you what you want in another week or so if things go as they think they will."

"Excellent!" Quinn said.

"We'll all owe them mega big time," Brittany said. "If they pull this off it'll be our best bet, so far, to defeat the Bugs."

"So, they've found way to get past the Bugs shields?" Quinn asked.

"Not quite yet but they're on their way. It's just a matter of time before they crack it," Brittany said. "Might have to give them a pay increase if it happens."

"We don't actually pay anyone," Quinn said, frowning.

"No, but we do give them incentives when they do a good job," Brittany said. "This one will require a doozy if they manage it."

"They don't strike me as scientists," Quinn said, "but they can outthink almost any scientist in the fleet."

"They're the best," Brittany said, nodding. "But they don't call themselves scientists. They're practical engineers. Give them a problem and as long as it's possible, they'll find a workable solution. And sometimes even if it isn't possible. If they weren't practical jokers and nomads, they could have a lab job and minions of their own to boss around. But they'd rather be out in space, finding new problems to solve and meeting new people and other beings."

"I won't tell anyone," Quinn said. "We need all of the field capable MacGyvers we can get."

"That would be them," Brittany said. "And I really have to go." She skipped over behind Quinn's desk and gave her another hug. "Places to be, chaos to cause."

"As long as it's our kind of chaos," Quinn said, hugging her back.

Brittany smiled. "Catch you on the comm," she said, before stepping out of Quinn's office and disappearing down the hall.

"I wonder where she's off to," Quinn said to herself, careful to keep her question off of the comm. Brittany rarely appeared out in the field now-a-days so it must have been something important. Of course, Brittany might spend most of her time in the field but no one would know.

"You didn't tell anyone I was with you, did you?" Rachel said. "I think Quinn and Santana would have a cow if they knew where we were going."

"Well, what they don't know won't hurt them," Brittany said. "I really need an update on what our gang of four are up to and this is the fastest way."

"I can't believe you have a ship so fast it can get out there and back before anyone notices," Rachel said.

"Well, it is experimental," Brittany said. "We don't have the right materials to build another one at the moment, so it'll be a unique ship for a while."

"How long do you think it'll take to find them?" Rachel asked.

"A day? Possibly," Brittany said. "I can't just send them co-ordinates and ask them to meet us somewhere, if we don't want anyone else to find out."

"Yes, yes we can," Rachel said excitedly. She pulled out her tablet, that went everywhere with her. "We need something only Miranda or Andy would recognize, and recognize as a place."

"Not a lot of places like that," Brittany said. "And how do you send it?"

"As music," Rachel said. "Hmmm..."

"Well, I'll head us in that direction, since we want to meet closer to where they are now, while you think of something," Brittany said. "Does it have to be something they know already? Can you send them something they've never heard before with enough clues to figure it out?"

"Tricky, but it should be possible, especially for the two of them. They're quite smart," Rachel said.

"Most of us are," Brittany said. "Ever notice how we'd all qualify for Mensa or one of those other Big Brain groups? And I don't just mean you, me, Quinn, and Santana. Big brain power seems to be a Serpent Clan trait."

"Oh," Rachel said. "I just thought all these people we have could think rings around the people we grew up with. Didn't realize it was an inherent brain power thing. That's interesting."

"Smart Chicks rule!" Brittany said. "Do you need any suggestions?"

"Not yet," Rachel said. "Let's give the Big Brain a chance first."

"Okey-dokey!" Brittany said. "Hand on tight, this might be rougher than the last launch."

Rachel nodded and gripped her tablet tightly.

Chapter Text

"What's that?" Andy asked tilting her head.

"A message," Garnes said, looking up from her pilot's chair. "It doesn't appear to be addressed to anyone. It just appeared in the ship's comm."

"Really?" Andy stepped up to the ship's comm console. "What's it look like?"

"It's just an encoded sound," Garnes said.

"Play it again," Andy said. She listened carefully. "It almost sounds familiar."

"That's because it's mixed with the song that played for our first dance," Miranda said.

"Oh!" Andy said. "So it's from someone we know."

"Look at the base signature," Garnes said, pointing at the screen. "Only Lady Shadow uses that code."

"Why the cleverness?" Andy asked. "She could have just sent us a regular comm message."

"The Lady Shadow shows caution in all things," Ixchel said, joining them. "She must want only you to see the message, and not our Galactic watchers."

"There is that," Andy said, nodding. "Hard to keep a secret from them. So what does it say?"

"Something important," Miranda said. "Hence the unique format."

"How do you turn a snippet of music into a message?" Andy asked, puzzled.

"What is the base song?" Garnes asked.

"Umm..." Andy looked at Miranda for help, as she blushed.

"Even now you can't say it, can you," Miranda said, smirking. "That's adorable."

"You say it," Andy said, turning even redder.

Miranda sighed. "It goes like this," she said. Music filled the room for a minute. "That should be enough." Stepping closer to Andy, she started whispering in her ear.

"Thank you Lady M," Garnes said, ignoring the private moment between Miranda and Andy. "Just what I needed." She fiddled with the console for several minutes. "It's coordinates," she said.

"So, Lady Shadow wants to meet with us, without anyone knowing," Romana said. "How far away is it?"

"A day's travel," Garnes said.

"How soon can we be ready to go?" Romana asked. "If she is going to these lengths, it must be important."

"Important to her or to us?" Dart said. "The Shadows have very different priorities than the rest of us."

"We'll have to meet her and see. I am sure it will be valuable information," Ixchel said.

Garnes stopped putting her controls in order and turned towards the others. "There is someone outside."

"Did someone forget to bring in the Welcome mat?" Andy asked, having recovered from her embarrassment.

"It's the Lady Memo," Garnes said, pulling up the security cam for the main hatch. "She appears to be running away from home."

"It does look like that," Andy said, looking over her shoulder.

"Prior experience?" Miranda asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Possibly?" Andy said, shrugging.

"We'll speak later," Miranda said. "Shall we let her in?"

"I shall go get her," Ixchel said, nodding.

The hatch slid up, revealing the Lady Memo standing there, wearing an old coat and carrying a small bag over one shoulder.

"What can the Serpent Clan do for the Memory of the Wind Clan?" Ixchel said, stepping back to let her in.

"I want to come along!" Memo said. "You are going to do great things! Epic things! And I want to be there."

"Don't you have things to do here?" Ixchel said, even as she directed her to the main cabin.

"They won't miss me," Memo said. "They're too busy with their schemes and plans to notice."

"Did you at least leave them a message so they don't think you've been kidnapped?" Andy asked.

"Who would want the Memory," Memo said. "All I do is remember the past glory of the Clan. We certainly have no future glory. The Seers see to that."

"How do they do that?" Andy asked, gently pushing her down into a seat.

"There's no need for greatness if the seers can guide us around it," Memo said. "How do you think we survived the Kraal? Unlike the Blues who at least tried to do something, we just followed our seers directions and avoided confronting the Kraal."

"Sounds like you weren't happy with that," Miranda said.

"No! We're the Wind! All our foes should flee from us," Memo said. "Instead we hid. It was embarrassing."

"Not all people are ready for adventure," Andy said, sitting down next to Memo. "It just isn't something everyone wants."

"But look at you!" Memo said. "You aren't just sitting around, you're doing something about the Kraal, and don't think you can fool me with that Winter Folk nonsense. No," she paused and raised a hand to stop Andy from responding, "I'm sure it's all truth, but that isn't why you're here. The Mother of a Clan? And her companions? You aren't on a personal quest. It's a quest for the survival of your Clan, and the rest of the Clans. Something the Wind Clan would have been all for many cycles ago."

"Are you sure?" Miranda said. "There may be no coming back from this."

"I want to go," Memo said. "I need to go, for the honor of my Clan."

"On one condition," Andy said. "You must tell your Council that you are willingly going with us. No lies, just the simple truth."

"But what truth?" Memo said. "Your truth? Or the truth you have already given my Council?"

"The Winter Folk quest will do for the truth for now," Miranda said. "We will discuss the other truth after we are on our way."

"So, I was right," Memo said, sighing. "You are leaving now." She looked relieved.

"Yes," Romana said. "We have a meeting we must attend elsewhere."

"Just make it short. Something they can't argue with," Andy said, as Memo stood in front of the ship's comm and prepared to give her Council the finger, figuratively speaking. "The Council Memory is a formidable person, no matter what Clan. Show them that backbone you showed coming here."

Memo nodded, and took a deep breath. She began to speak in a soft but firm voice.

"Do you think that worked?" Memo said, sitting back down in the main chamber. "What if they don't want me to go?"

"We sent a copy of your message to both the Council of Clans, and the Council of the Pan-Galactic Confederation. You are officially on record as joining our gang and its quest for the Winter Folk," Andy said, grinning. "There's no mistake."

"Good," Memo said. "I've joined you and I didn't even ask if you had room," she said suddenly, standing up in a panic. "This isn't as big on the inside as it looks like it would be." She looked around the main cabin.

"That is not a problem, Lady Memo," Dart said. "We are a small ship, built for long range scouting, but we can easily make room for a tiny one like you."

"I'm not tiny!" Memo said, glaring at Dart. "I'm just the right size."

"No, you aren't tiny," Andy said. "But most of us are taller. Only our own Memory is shorter than you. And equally fierce about her size."

"She is?" Memo said. "Do you think I'll get to meet her? The last Council of Clans was before I was even a trainee and I've never met another Memory."

"If you stick with us long enough, I'm sure you'll meet her," Andy said. "If only because she'll want to hear your tale for herself."

"Oh," Memo said. "My tale. It must be good so she remembers me."

"I'm sure it will be," Dart said. "Shall we find you a space for those times you need privacy?" She held out her hand to Memo. Taking it she pulled her out of the main cabin towards the back of the ship.

"That's sweet," Andy said in a low voice. "Looks like she already has a fan. So, where are we going?"

"Once Dart takes care of the Lady Memo, we're headed towards here," Garnes said, pulling up the ship's nav map. "There's a small station orbiting the one inhabitable planet in that system."

"Is it very busy?" Andy asked.

"Once every millennium there's an asteroid shower that people come to see, but normally it's quiet. The planet has a few hotels in quiet spots but there isn't much else," Garnes said, looking at her console. "Or so this says. It might be out of date."

"As long as we don't attract too much attention," Romana said. "Others will notice us if we are not careful."

"What's that?" Memo said, staring at the main screen as they slowly pulled up to the station on Inther Five.

"The strange looking ship?" Andy said. "No idea. I'm not familiar with that design."

"It looks like a prototype starship," Garnes said. "There was an article on it in last month's Starlight News. They've only made one so far. The metals they use are very rare. It doesn't even have a name yet."

"I wonder what it's doing way out here?" Andy said. "It's from our sector."

"It's a hot, fast ship," Dart said, peering over Memo's shoulder. "You could cross the entire sector in a day in it. They're probably running some tests."

"It's not called the Millennium Falcon, is it?" Andy said, grinning.

"No," Garnes said. "But it could do the Kessel Run faster."

"Are we done with the dick waving?" Miranda asked with displeasure.

"No dicks on this ship," Andy said, snorting. "Shall we go in?"

"We have the dock right next to the prototype," Garnes said. "It's the only one big enough for us."

"Lady Shadow should contact us shortly after," Romana said, nodding.

They came to a soft landing on the dock, with a small clunk that was heard and felt throughout the Lucia. Twenty minutes later, they were notified of visitors.

"Can we come up for a chat?" a familiar voice said.

Grinning, Andy rushed down to the main hatch to welcome their guests, followed by the others, a shy Memo hanging back. "You made it!" she said, hugging Brittany. "And you brought a surprise!"

"A welcome one, I hope," Rachel said, a big grin on her face.

"You are always welcome, Lady Memory," Ixchel said.

"Certainly a surprise," Miranda said. "What brings the two of you out here?"

"And how'd you get here so fast?" Andy asked. "It took us weeks to get out this way."

"I might have borrowed a ship from a friend," Brittany said.

"You didn't! You did?" Andy gasped in amazement. "Do we get a tour?"

"Of course, though it's a bit cramped," Brittany said. "It isn't really meant for long trips or large crews."

"And who's this?" Rachel said, spotting an unfamiliar face.

"Lady Memory, of the Serpent Clan, meet Lady Memory of the Wind Clan," Dart said.

"She wanted some adventure," Andy said. "And asked to come along."

"Really?" Rachel said. She took Memo's hand and pulled her past the others into the main cabin. "You must call me Rachel," Rachel said.

"I am Memo," Memo said. "I am honored to meet you."

"As am I," Rachel said.

The others watched them disappear, chatting away.

"Well, we won't see them for a while," Andy said. "Memo is very lonely. Her Council keeps her tucked away for special occasions."

"So, what brings you out here," Miranda said.

"I had a feeling you might need my assistance," Brittany said. "Some unfamiliar language?"

"I won't ask how you know that," Andy said, "but yes, we believe we have a clue as to where the prophets are but it's written in a language none of us have ever seen."

"It certainly looks familiar," Brittany said, turning the replica Miranda had made from Andy's memories in her hands. "Like Sindarin, but not exactly. Which isn't something I can read. Did your mother ever tell you about it?"

"She said she'd explain it some day," Andy said. "But I don't think she could read it either."

"The girls wanted to be elves one year," Miranda said. "This doesn't have quite the right shape for Sindarin."

"Wasn't that an artificial language?" Andy said. "Something Tolkien made up?"

"Yes," Brittany said. "If I can have a copy of this I'll throw it at one of my linguists when we get back, but I wouldn't expect much."

"Anything would be better than nothing," Andy said. "Maybe it'll come to me in a dream."

"Or we can visit your parents for your birthday," Miranda said.

"We still have a few weeks," Andy said. "Can we get a tour of your ship? Garnes and Dart will revolt if they don't get to see it."

"If Lady Shadow is in a hurry to go we can see it some other time," Garnes said, blushing.

"It's here. You're here. Why not," Brittany said. "But then we have to get going, before someone notices Rachel is missing."

"No one knows she's with you, do they," Andy said, smirking.

"Nope," Brittany said, grinning. "And no one is going to. Right?"

"Of course," Andy said, nodding.

Chapter Text

They watched the Shadow craft pull away from the dock and move away from the station on the ship monitors. There was a brief moment of static and then it was gone from their sensors.

"We need to get one of those, for our next trip," Andy said, sitting down.

"There's a three cycle waiting list to get a berth on any ships of that class," Garnes said. "And that's after they build more of them."

"In five years," Dart said. "But until then, Lucia's a sweet little ride." She patted the wall she was leaning against.

"By which time the Kraal will be gone," Ixchel said.

"Which won't happen if we don't get going ourselves," Andy said. "And we need a better plan than 'Find the Prophets on Zord'."

"The Prophets must be somewhere in Wind Clan territory," Romana said.

"Nothing is known of their hiding place," Memo said. "Legend has it they simply disappeared. There is no mention in the legends of the Winter Folk hiding them away. Or of the planet Zord."

"Which is wrong," Miranda said. "We know they were taken way. But there's no easy to find trail."

"We still need a translation of the words on that chalice," Andy said. "Possibly it will tell us where they went."

"According to the Galactics, there is no planet called Zord," Garnes said. "If they have no record of it, we're stuck searching a wide area. And the Winter Folk only exist in ancient legends."

"Is there a Galactic library?" Andy said. "Something we can search."

"All planetary civilization wide libraries should be integrated into the Galactic system," Memo said.

"There must be local libraries that were never added to the system," Andy said. "Even with Galactic tech, it would be an enormous job to convert old books, scrolls, and databanks into something usable by the system."

"It isn't automatic," Memo said. "None of the Clan libraries are part of the Galactic data system. The Galactics insisted on getting everything, but the Clans objected."

"Is there a Clan library that includes all of the Clan libraries?" Andy asked.

"It has been discussed at the last three Council of Clans meetings," Memo said, "but there has been great resistance."

"Not surprised," Andy said. "Sharing isn't a big thing with the Clans."

"There's no strategic advantage," Miranda said, nodding. "Therefore nothing has happened."

"Can't fix it now," Andy said, grimacing. "Maybe after this is all over?" She sighed. "So where do we go from here?"

"There are other libraries," Memo said. "Legendary ones, that are supposed to have been lost during the last Kraal infestation."

"And, if they are lost, how do we find them?" Romana said.

"Not all were actually lost," Memo said. "Just their locations only known to a select few."

"So, you know the location of one of these lost libraries?" Andy said. "Can you share with the class?"

"I may," Memo said. "An ancestor of mine was captain on a ship that fought against the Kraal during their last appearance. His ship was destroyed, but he and his crew spent at least a cycle on a world that had been abandoned long before they found it. His journal claims that they lived in an ancient city for much of that year, before they were rescued."

"And there was a library in this city?" Andy said. "How do we know it would be worth visiting?"

"I cannot say," Memo said. "He just mentioned visiting a facility that seemed to be connected to other facilities in other systems. He called it a library, though they couldn't read what was stored there."

"It's at least a starting point," Andy said, looking at the others. "Do you know the location of this world? And is it still abandoned?"

"I do not know," Memo said. "I have never seen any mention of it in any Clan communications. But I can retrieve the coordinates in old Clan notation."

"You can convert from old Clan coordinates to our current system?" Andy say, looking at Garnes.

"Of course," Garnes said. She handed her tab to Memo. "Enter them here."

"It may take me several ticks," Memo said, taking the tablet. "They are very old memories." Closing her eyes, she started humming to herself.

"I feel like I need to whisper," Andy said, in a low voice, as they waited for Memo to dig up the coordinates.

"She cannot hear you," Miranda said, in a normal voice. "It's a form of deep meditation some Memories use."

"So, we should leave then," Andy said. "At least get ready to go."

"We can undock in ten," Garnes said. "We are already cleared and just need to wait for our leave window."

"Good, good," Andy said. "Anything else we need to do?"

"If this library exists, what is our plan?" Romana said.

"Caution," Andy said. "It may have been on a habitable world a thousand cycles ago, but who knows what it is like now. It might be populated."

"Or a trap for the unwary," Ixchel said. "We are not heavily armed."

"We'll be careful," Garnes said. "We have protocols for entering unknown systems."

"And we have Miranda," Andy said, grinning. "Anything our ship sensors can't detect, she will."

"I am not perfect," Miranda said. "But I will do my best to detect any potential issues."

"Here it is," Memo said. She entered a long string of numbers and letters into the tablet. "I cannot translate that into something more recent." She held up the tablet.

"Not a worry," Garnes said, taking the tablet. "It's a simple formula to convert between different coordinate systems."

"So, where is it?" Andy asked, after giving Garnes several minutes to check the new coordinates. "Somewhere we can get to easily or...?"

"It's five days from here," Garnes said. "It's in unclaimed Clan territory on the other side of Wind Clan territory, in what appears to be a dead zone on the charts."

"I thought all Clan territory is claimed?" Andy said. "By a Clan?"

"Not all of it," Memo said. "There are small pockets of unclaimed systems along the borders between the Clans. I do not know the reason for that, but suspect there is a historical reason why a Clan may leave a system unclaimed."

"Wars are often fought over unclaimed territory," Ixchel said. "For something to remain unclaimed is unusual."

"So, either we're headed to a war zone or something that made a system so undesirable that no one wanted it?" Andy said. "Lovely." She sighed.

"Yes, Lady A," Garnes said. "It may be uninhabitable following a war or some conflict."

"Or it's a taboo planet," Memo said. "We will have to go there to know for sure."

"The coordinates do not show up in our databanks," Garnes said. "Whatever reason it is unclaimed, the Galactics are unaware of it."

"So, we go?" Andy said, look at the others.

"Yes," Miranda said. "If there are no records of this dead zone and unclaimed territory we should look there."

Five days travel in the small scout ship with one more passenger was not too bad, Andy decided, as they reached their destination. Their initial trip to the center of Wind Clan territory and the Wind Clan central planet had been slightly longer, though with fewer people aboard.

"How close are we?" Andy asked, staring at the navigation monitors.

"We've reached the dead zone," Garnes said.

"It doesn't look any different," Andy said. "Why is it a dead zone?"

"There are no navigational beacons in the zone," Garnes said. "We're stopped at the last one before entering the zone."

"Does it say why?" Andy said, curious. "And info on what is beyond this?"

"It's a very old beacon," Garnes said. "They haven't made them like this since the last Bug incursion. Accessing now."

Andy watched the ship console, as several light flashed orange, before turning green.

"There's not a lot here," Garnes said, looking at the information she'd pulled from the beacon. "Looks like it hasn't been accessed in several centuries. It's part of a beacon fence surrounding the dead zone."

"So, someone took this dead zone seriously," Andy said.

"If the beacons in the fence are linked, what does that tell us about the dead zone?" Ixchel said.

"Just a warning that there was a battle with the Kraal," Garnes said. "And that there is a five thousand cycle Galactic quarantine on the area."

"Quarantine from what?" Ixchel said. "That is a long time to place an area of space under quarantine. How many systems are in this zone?"

"It doesn't say," Garnes said, frowning. "It just says 'Quarantined due to Kraal Battle' and the co-ordinates of the area."

"Do we know what battle it was or have a list of possible battles?" Miranda said. "If this is unusual, it must have been an important or infamous battle."

"I've sent a request for information to Lady Shadow," Garnes said. "We don't want the locals to know we're snooping around."

"That could take a while to get a response," Andy said. "What else do we know?"

"The beacon fence logs any ships that go through it or reads its databanks," Garnes said. "But seems to be ignoring us so far."

"So when was the last time anyone went through here?" Andy asked. "When was it last accessed or after?"

"Several cycles after the dead zone was created," Garnes said, "a small fleet passed through. They did not return."

"That's... concerning," Andy said. "In but not out?"

"It was still dangerous at the time," Ixchel said. "We will need to be very cautious."

"That's one way to put it," Andy said. "Do we go forward? Or wait to hear from Lady Shadow? Or should Miranda go take a look?"

"How many probes do we have left?" Romana said. "Cannot we use them to explore before making a decision? Or before Lady P risks it?"

"We have two long distance probes in storage that can handle the distances required," Garnes said.

"One then. How long will it take to prepare?" Andy asked.

"Two ticks at the most," Dart said. "They don't require a lot of maintenance. Just need to dig it out of the lower long term storage hold and test it before sending it out."

"Do it then," Andy say. "If it looks safe, then Miranda can take a closer look. If you don't mind babe," she added.

"You're in charge," Miranda said. "It's been here for centuries. A few more hours won't change anything."

"As long as no one followed us out here," Andy said, biting her lower lip.

"There have been no signs of anyone following us," Garnes said. "We lost our tail after we purged unauthorized monitoring nannites from our systems when we left Wind Clan central."

"I didn't think we'd been tagged since then," Andy said. "Just needed to check."

"The monitoring tech in this area is old," Dart said, pausing before leaving the main cabin. "We can see it before it notices us and avoid it. But if we want to hide from it they aren't going to see us."

"Good," Andy said. "I don't like being spied on."

"The Shadows designed the monitoring systems on Lucia," Garnes reminded her. "I trust their tech before I'd trust anyone else's to keep us safe."

"Memo, is there anything else you can tell us about this area that you haven't already?" Miranda said.

"I've shared all that I know," Memo said. "The journals never mentioned a quarantined area or the specific battle that brought them here."

"Probably in the ships log," Ixchel said. "A personal log isn't going to have anything sensitive in it."

"I have not seen the ships logs for my ancestor's ship. That is not considered necessary information for the Clan Memory," Memo said in a disgruntled voice.

"We don't work that way in the Serpent Clan," Garnes said. "The Clan Memory has access to everything, though she may not personally view it if it isn't noteworthy."

"A battle that caused an area like this to be closed off? That would have been noteworthy," Andy said. "But maybe the Galactics will be in a sharing mood and will tell us what happened before we step in it."

"It'll take several days to get a response back from the Shadows," Garnes said. "We're right on the edge of communication."

What do we have so far?" Andy asked, trying to make sense of what she was seeing.

"It really is a dead zone," Garnes said. "Three systems, so far, with signs of inhabited planets completely wiped out. The Kraal must have wanted something here."

"And they scrubbed the planets and systems bare to find it?" Andy said.

"Yes, Ma'am," Garnes said.

"How much of the zone do we have left to explore?" Ixchel asked her.

"We're not quite to the center of it," Garnes said.

"What does this mean?" Romana said, leaning over the console, and pointing at one of the charts below the probe view screen.

"It's an unknown form of radiation," Garnes said. "It gets stronger the further into the zone the probe gets."

"I've seen this before," Miranda said, humming to herself. "Ixchel?"

"You don't have the kind of tech that can produce that," Ixchel said, frowning. "And it was rare when I last saw it."

"What is it?" Andy asked.

"The Goa'uld fought a war against a fleet that appeared out of nowhere," Ixchel said. "This is a by-product of a weapon they used against the Goa'uld. It's a shield, of sorts."

"What does it do?" Garnes asked. "Will it harm us?"

"It attacked Goa'uld control systems," Ixchel said. "I do not understand how it works."

"Doesn't seem to be affecting the probe," Garnes said.

"It may not," Ixchel say. "It seemed to target only Goa'uld ships. Assuming it is what it appears to be."

"So, someone used this, stuff, to protect their systems?" Andy said. "Doesn't seem to have worked for the worlds we've seen so far."

"Used as a last resort," Miranda said. "The Kraal may have surpassed them and destroy those systems before they could defend themselves."

"Can you do your thing and find out?" Andy said.

"I may not find anything," Miranda said. "But we will see." She briefly shifted into her energy form before she disappeared from sight.

"What was that?" Memo asked, staring at the place Miranda no longer inhabited.

"We never mentioned that, did we," Andy said. "Oops."

"The Lady Miranda is special," Romana said.

"In more ways than one," Andy said. "She can explain it better. But I'll try."

"There are ancient legends of beings who can travel on beams of energy," Memo said. "I did not thing they were true."

"You'll have to share," Andy said. "Basically, she was in an accident and the ones who saved her helped her become that to save her. She has a few skills that are useful."

"Our instruments can't sense her in that form," Garnes said.

"Drives the Fleet researchers crazy," Andy said, smirking. "They can't keep her or anyone else like that out."

"I'm sure they'll figure it out, Andrea. Eventually," Miranda said, reappearing next to Andy. "Lady Air has some clever people."

"What'd you find babe?" Andy said. "Treasure? Hidden civilizations?"

"It appears that 'weapon' was a desperation move," Miranda said. "There is an old Kraal fleet further in, several ships drifting between two systems. Nothing living. But it looks older than a thousand cycles. Possibly ten times as old."

"So, an even earlier incursion," Andy said, frowning. "Any signs of what stopped them? Besides this radiation field."

"There's a system at the center of this zone," Miranda said. "I believe there are answers there. I was unable to reach it from here."

"That can't be the battle that caused this area to be declared a dead zone," Andy said.

"The radiation, if it did destroy the Kraal ships, would be enough for the Galactics to put up warnings," Garnes aid. "They're very conservative."

"Did your ancestor say who they were fighting when they were stranded here?" Ixchel asked Memo.

"I believe it was pirates," Memo said. "Or they ran into a Kraal ship while looking for pirates? It isn't very clear from the journal."

"Hmmm," Andy said, frowning. "We need to know if the Lucia can safely venture into this area." She turned to Garnes. "How is the probe doing? Has it reached the Kraal ships yet?"

"Not yet," Garnes said. "But it doesn't appear harmed by the radiation."

"It's possible it has deteriorated over time," Miranda said. "I could feel it but it wasn't any worse than bright sunlight."

"You can still burn," Andy said. "You need to be more careful."

"It was nothing," Miranda said. "I believe the Lucia's shields can protect it from this radiation, as long as we don't encounter any recent saturated areas."

"Okay," Andy said. "Let's head towards that Kraal fleet," she said. "And keep an eye of the sensors."

"Yes, ma'am," Garnes said.

"Those empty worlds were creepy," Andy said, as they passed the last one. "There's just nothing left except cinders."

"There are echoes of life," Miranda said, "but nothing alive as we know it."

"We don't seem to have had a lot of luck when it comes to abandoned worlds," Andy said.

"We are approaching the Kraal ships," Garnes said.

"Where's the probe?" Andy asked.

"It's approaching the central system. I've deployed a short range probe to give us a closer look at these ships." She switched the view on the central screen. Except for a few stars far away, it was dark. The darkness was interrupted by a sudden beam of light.

The light connected with a large object. If Miranda hadn't said they were several thousands of cycles old, Andy wouldn't have been able to tell. She wasn't an expert on Kraal ship design but these didn't look any different than the ones she'd seen video of.

"What makes them old?" She asked.

"I cannot tell you how I know," Miranda said. "It's just one of those things I know. They are old."

"Scanning now," Garnes said. "Looking for any energy signals."

"Is there anything here?" Andy asked, looking at Miranda.

"Nothing I could detect," Miranda said, "but I am not an expert in this area."

"We still love you," Andy said, hugging her.

"No life signs or energy readings," Garnes confirmed. "If they had any energy stored it has been drained."

"Worth taking a look?" Andy asked the others.

"The Lady Shadow will want to see this," Ixchel said. "But it is a distraction from our true purpose."

"Ancient library, and Furlings, and Prophets," Andy said, grimacing. "I remember."

"We can return at a later time," Miranda said. "It isn't going anywhere."

"We can leave the probe here, to keep an eye on it," Garnes said. "It's full charged. Should last a year before needing replacement."

"Okay," Andy said. "Onto our next stop. What's the other probe seeing?"

"The system also does not appear to be inhabited," Garnes said. "It's deserted."

"Anything? Even just plants?" Andy said.

"Forests and oceans," Garnes said, pulling up a view of this new world. "And an artificial satellite." The view changed. In the center of the scene was a large metallic object.

"Not very pretty," Andy said. "Very utilitarian."

"It appears abandoned," Garnes said. "Whatever is keeping it in orbit isn't using any form of energy our sensors recognize."

"Of course," Andy mumbled to herself. "Let's add another mystery to the pile."

"There is writing on this satellite," Romana said, pointing at a place on the distant satellite. "I do not recognize it."

"Looks like a variation of the script on that cup. It is too bad the Lady Shadow was unable to provide a translation," Ixchel said.

"That would have been too easy," Andy said. "And we are contractually required to take the more difficult path."

"It's inert," Romana said. "I suspect its docking stations are incompatible with the Lucia."

"Very incompatible," Garnes said, focusing in on a hole in the side of the satellite. "We don't have any docking adapters that would fit that."

"Do we need to visit the satellite?" Andy asked. "We can land on a planet with the Lucia, right?"

"Of course," Garnes said. "The Lucia is designed for exploration. Sometimes you don't have a satellite to dock with."

"Find us a good place to land," Andy said. "Doesn't need to be a tourist spot. Those never go well."

"It will take several ticks to determine the best place to land," Garnes said. "I would recommend eating something before we land."

"Oh! Lunch time," Andy said. "Perfect."

"What did you find?" Andy asked an hour later, after a quick meal.

"There are several cities," Garnes said. "This one." She displayed an overhead view of a snow covered area with faint square outlines. "And this one." This time she displayed a dune covered plain with a group of buildings barely visible.

"Which looks best?" Andy said. "Did your ancestor mention where the library they found was? In the desert or snow."

"There was no mention of snow," Memo said. "But this may just be the winter season."

"No," Garnes said. "One of the poles. Very cold."

"Let's try the other one, then, Garnes," Andy said.

"Already programmed in," Garnes said.

"Miranda! I'm getting too predictable," Andy said, pouting. "Tell her to stop guessing what I'm going to do before I do it."

"I agree," Miranda said. "The desert facility is more promising."

"Detecting a faint beacon," Garnes said. "It's an old Clan emergency beacon."

"Is it near either of those facilities?" Romana asked.

"No, Mother," Garnes said. "It's coming from a jungle several hundred clicks from the desert city."

"That's probably where Memo's ancestor landed. We can check it out afterward," Andy said. "It isn't going anywhere."

"Yes, Lady A," Garnes said. "Please take your seats."

They all quickly strapped themselves into their maneuver chairs. There was no sound, just a very brief vibration as the Lucia started to descend to the planet's surface.

"Think we're the first to come here in a thousand cycles?" Andy said, trying to watch the view screen as they headed down.

"We won't know," Miranda said.

"The warning beacons had no record of any ships crossing into the zone," Ixchel reminded her. "It is very unlikely this has been disturbed since then."

"Hopefully not," Andy murmured. "We really need a starting place and this is the first good clue we've had."

"Very dusty," Andy said, looking around the large plain they'd landed on. "Which way to the city?" She kicked the ground.

"We're standing on it," Garnes said, pointing at a small square building in the distance.

"It's underground?" Ixchel said. "How do we enter it?"

"Not underground, exactly," Miranda said, frowning. "It appears to have been buried by sand."

"Sandstorms?" Andy muttered. "We aren't going to get much done if we have to spend all of our time digging it out of the sand."

"I may have a solution for that," Dart said, over the comm. "But you'll have to come back inside."

"Anything where I don't have to use a shovel," Andy said, grabbing Miranda's arm and pulling her back to the ship.

They returned to the control room where Dart was standing next to the ship's science station.

"What's the plan," Andy said.

"It's simple," Dart said. "The ground is actually very fine dust. The next storm and a lot of it will blow away."

"Do we know when this next storm is?" Romana asked.

"Based on weather patterns? Several years," Dart said.

"We really don't have several years to wait," Andy said. "If there's a library here under that stuff, we need to find it as soon as possible. Days, not years."

"And we'll find it," Dart said. "The Lucia has several unique features for a ship her size."

"Such as?" Andy said, frowning.

"The output from the inter-warp engines can be redirected through the outer shields, which can be expanded in variable distances."

"Meaning?" Andy said.

"We can use the ship to displace the sand," Dart said. "It won't instantly remove the sand but we can get it away from the city."

"Won't it just come back?" Ixchel said. "The wind will blow and bury it again."

"It'll be like a giant bubble," Dart said. "We'll be in the inside with the ship, and the sand will be out there."

"How big," Garnes said. "We don't have the exact location of the library."

"Three clicks, possible more, depending on the density of the sand and how deep it is," Dart said.

"How long can the Lucia keep it that way, once we find the building we're looking for?" Andy said. "We don't know how long it will take to find the library and then find what we're looking for."

"It depends on the size of the shield bubble," Dart said. "The bigger you want it the less time we'll have."

"Can we use it to find the library and then make it smaller?" Andy asked.

"Maybe?" Dart said, grimacing. "The shields have never been used in that way. The math says yes, but..."

"Yeah, don't want to wake up one morning neck deep in the sand," Andy said. "What do you think?" she asked Miranda.

"Is there something unique about the library," Miranda said, turning to Memo. "If we can find it before we use the shield shovel, that might make it easier."

"It was large," Memo said. "That was the only distinguishing feature mentioned in the journal. And in the center of the city."

"So we just need to find the center of this," Andy said, waving her arms. "Easy, peasy."

"Not impossible," Garnes said, "but easy?"

"We have the other long range probe," Dart said. "Tie it into the ship's sensors, send it up several clicks, and we should be able to map the area."

"I've seen simulations of that technique," Garnes said, "but never seen it used in practice."

"No time like now," Dart said. "It'll tell us where to put the Lucia to clear the sand."

"What do you need from us?" Andy asked.

"It's just a matter of setting things up and turning it on," Garnes said. "Go take a nap or watch a vid. It could be a couple hours."

"I'm all for taking a nap," Andy aid, grinning at Miranda. "Right babe?"

"It's a little early for that," Miranda said, frowning at her.

"It's never too early for that," Andy said, grinning. "Come on." She grabbed Miranda's arm and pulled her to their cabin.

Romana raised an eyebrow and the departing women. Tilting her head, she looked at Ixchel. "Well?"

Ixchel blushed. "I was thinking about catching up on some reading. My suit isn't quite adjusted the way I want it to be."

"I'd be happy to help," Romana said.

"Do you know anything about the new hard suits?" Ixchel asked her.

"No, but I'm willing to learn," Romana said.

"We'll be down in hold three," Ixchel told the others. "Let us know when you have the map." Taking Romana's hand, she guided her out of the control cabin.

"Think they're actually going to work on her hard suit?" Dart said, grinning.

"Yes," Garnes said. "It's Ixchel."

"Right," Dart said. "She does think a little differently."

"Why?" Memo said, as she watched Garnes and Dart configure the ship controls for the site mapping. "Are they not companions?"

"Maybe?" Dart said. "They've been working together for several cycles, but Ixchel is very private."

"Shy," Garnes corrected. "What do you know of their history?"

"Almost nothing," Memo said. "Romana is your Clan Mother and Ixchel is her protector."

"It's a lot more complicated than that," Dart said. "Some would say scandalous."

"Non-Serpent Clan would likely say so," Garnes said. "But if they can be happy, we'll do what we can to help out."

"How so?" Memo said.

"What do you know of the Serpent Clan?" Garnes said.

"You're a protectorate of the Pan-Galactic Council, for some reason," Memo said. "No one has ever explained why or how it happened."

"We were almost wiped out," Dart said. "When we first took over our territory, after the last Kraal incursion, we encountered Red pirates. It did not go well for us."

"The Red Pirates? How did that happen? They aren't a threat," Memo said.

"Not now," Garnes said, nodding. She typed something, frowned and typed something else on the main console. "But back then? There were enough of them to be a problem. There was a squabble between the members of the ruling Serpent Council. The exact issue has never been revealed."

"It had something to do with Mother becoming paranoid," Dart said. "She thought the other Council member were trying to kill her."

"Were they?" Memo asked, wide eyed.

"Possibly. She was very unstable following the death of her heart," Garnes said, "Or so Romana says."

"And the Red Pirates showed up and took advantage of the chaos," Dart said. "Mother was injured, and Romana tried to negotiated with the pirates."

"Red pirates aren't known for negotiating," Memo said.

"She was young," Garnes said. "It didn't go well. The Red Pirates captured the Council and tortured them. And Romana was put into a stasis pod."

"So she's over a thousand cycles old?" Memo said.

"Temporally," Dart said.

"What happened with the pirates? And the Clan?" Memo said.

"Pirates aren't the most stable of organizations," Garnes said. "That branch self destructed eventually, and what was left of the Clan went into hiding."

"But you aren't in hiding now," Memo said. "And you have better tech than I've seen any other clan use."

"The Galactics decided they wanted a Clan in our sector to deal with the Kraal, so they found Clan descendants to make a new Serpent Clan council. That's our current Council. We've been slowly building up to our former strength. We dug up Romana and discovered she was to be our new Mother."

"And the protectorate?" Memo asked.

"Politics," Dart said. "If we survive the Kraal, we'll be free of the Galactics interference."

"And if the Council of Clans agrees," Garnes said. "If we defeat the Kraal they won't have any choice but reinstate us."

"If they don't, we'll just ignore them," Dart said. "They really can't stop us. They've been stagnating for the last thousand cycles, since the last Kraal incursion, but we're fresh and have powerful leaders. And ships."

"We aren't doing too badly," Garnes said, poking Dart. "Fresh ideas and people do make a difference."

"What of Ixchel? What is her place in this?" Memo asked.

"Our sector is full of inter-dimensional gaps," Garnes said. "Leading to other places, some similar, some not. I don't know the whole story, but Ixchel is from one of those other places. Her Clan were conquered but she survived as a prisoner. Lady A was looking for Lady P, who'd been missing for some years, and stumbled upon Ixchel after finding Lady P, and they brought her back. She feels guilty for what happened with her Serpent Clan, though no one else does."

"The two of them feel guilty about things that happened hundreds of cycles ago," Dart said. "Our Lady Shadow saw potential and put them to work together. We haven't seen them in action yet but there are rumors."

"All four of them make a formidable team," Garnes said. "We're just the support crew."

"It's sure to be exciting," Dart said. "You haven't joined a boring quest."

Chapter Text

"What do we have?" Andy asked once the area had been mapped.

"It isn't very large," Garnes said. She pulled the map up on the main view screen. "It isn't really a city, as we would know it. It seems to be centered around this on building." She circled a large structure in the middle.

"Can we clear it?" Ixchel said. "And for how long?"

"It's small enough," Dart said. "We can create a shield bubble around most of the entire facility." A red circle appeared around most of the ruins.

"For how long?" Andy asked. "Will we have enough time to explore?"

"One cycle," Dart said. "After that we'd have to start shrinking the bubble."

"When?" Ixchel asked, frowning at the map. "It looks familiar," she murmured.

"We'll have to move the ship and adjust the engines and shields," Dart said. "We can do it tomorrow."

"Okay," Andy said. "So we can go outside and explore?"

"It's just a lot of sand at the moment," Garnes said.

"But it's outside," Andy said. "No offense but we've been cooped up in the Lucia for too long. I'd like to get some air, maybe go for a walk."

"As long as you are back before we close up for the night," Garnes said. "Have fun."

"Thanks," Andy said. "Come on babe. Adventure awaits."

"Is this a private walk or can we come with you?" Romana said. "I find myself in need of a walk also."

"The more the merrier," Andy said. "Anyone else?"

"I would like to join you," Memo said.

"And I," Ixchel added.

"Dart? Garnes? Interested in a walk?" Andy said.

"Thanks, but no," Garnes said. "We need to work on the shield reconfiguration before tomorrow."

"Maybe some other time," Dart added. "The sooner we can get the shields configured the sooner you can find what you are looking for."

"It's going to be rough out there," Garnes said. You'll want to dress in your toughest clothes. Something you'd use for exploring a desert."

"Of course," Miranda said. She shifted her clothes to something more appropriate.

"I need to learn how to do that," Andy said, pouting. "Be back in a minute."

They all dressed in ship overalls and heavy boots. "Not the most stylish," Andy muttered.

"This is amazing," Andy said, looking up at the shield over the small abandoned city. "It's like being inside a large bowl."

"You are," Dart said. "A bowl made from a high energy shield and dust."

"Safety protocols," Garnes said. "Before you wander off into the city we need to make some things clear. One - Stay in contact with the ship. If we tell you to get back here, don't argue. Two - if we tell you to take cover - get inside a building and away from the entrance."

"Anything else we need to know?" Andy asked.

"We cleared the heavy dust and sand from around this city," Dart said. "But if any buildings had dirt inside, it's still there. So some digging may be required."

"So, shovels may be needed," Andy said. "We can handle that. Hopefully the library was kept closed."

"Did you find anything else when you cleared the city?" Memo said. "Or is it just empty streets and buildings?"

"All of your pads have been updated with maps of the city," Garnes said. "We don't know what any of the buildings were for, so you'll need to do that part of it."

"Let's get started," Ixchel said. "Do we know where in the city this library is supposed to be?"

"The journal says somewhere central," Memo said. Looking around, she pointed towards a large cluster of stone buildings. "Possibly in that direction."

"Looks promising," Andy said, picking up her haversack and slinging it over a shoulder. "A couple clicks?"

"Yes," Miranda said.

They set off, moving at an experienced pace towards the distant buildings. They'd walked for several ticks before they came to any structures.

"Looks a bit worn," Andy said. She stuck her head inside a window in the structure. "Dust," she announced.

"There will be. Lot of dust," Miranda said, pulling her away from the building. "Leave the exploring for later. We'll have plenty of time to look around once we find the library."

"If you say so," Andy said. "So, no stopping until we get to the center?"

The others nodded in agreement.

"The building style is not familiar," Ixchel said.

"No," Memo said. "There are no Wind Clan buildings like these."

"I've sure I've seen this style of architecture before," Andy said, as they passed several multi-story buildings. "Can't remember where though."

"They do have a certain flare," Miranda said, "but nothing comes to mind at the moment.

"Nothing from home," Andy said. "There's a certain airiness about these buildings. Almost as if gravity was an afterthought."

"We've traveled to too many places over the years," Miranda said. "But this isn't something from home."

"There was that abandoned building when we were traveling through the Rings," Andy said. "Never saw the outside but the inside of it gave off a similar vibe."

"They used crystal based storage devices," Miranda said. "We don't have any way of deciphering them here, if the library uses them for storage. They resonate at a different frequency.""

"That might be a problem," Andy said. "We'll just have to hope that this library contains readable material."

They trudged along a wide road, occasionally stopping to look into a building. The ones that were open were either full of sand or completely bare.

"That looks promising," Romana said, waving at a large building just barely visible.

"It does have that solid imposing look that only libraries seem to be able to pull off," Andy said. "Stop to eat here?" She waved at the small fountain and courtyard.

"Yes," Romana said. "It's very peaceful. It would look very beautiful if there were some plants."

"They weren't much for decoration," Memo said.

"A lot of it has worn down over time," Andy said. She rubbed the side of the fountain. "There was writing here at some point. How many cycles do you think it's been since it was occupied," she asked Miranda.

Frowning, Miranda walked around the courtyard, stopping occasionally. "It has the aura of great age," she said. "A lot longer than the clans have existed. Several hundred thousand cycles, or more."

"The clans were still planet bound back then," Ixchel said.

"That is before we were the Clans," Memo said. "At least Wind Clan memory does not go back that far."

"So, one of the civilizations that predate the Confederation?" Andy asked, biting into her fruit. "Hopefully the library is more recent, or we may be unable to use it."

"Shall we continue?" Miranda said, after they'd all eaten something.

"Onward," Andy said.

They walked down empty street for another hour before the road ended in a wide plaza. At the other rend was a large building. There was nothing to indicate its purpose but it dominated the plaza.

"Think this is it?" Andy said.

"Or some other important building," Miranda said. "Government or something similar."

"Well, no time like the present," Andy said, crossing the plaza with a sure step, the others following her.

She quickly went up the ancient steps. Reaching the top, she looked around. It was like being in the center of a wheel, she decided. She could see down several roads until they disappeared in the distance. Turning back around she stared up at the large doors. "Think they were trying to keep something out?"

"They aren't defensive," Ixchel said, tapping one of them. "Meant to impress, not protect."

"Probably had no need," Andy said. "We haven't seen any kind of fortifications the whole way here. Either they were so powerful that their enemies didn't dare attack them or they didn't have any enemies. Shall we go in? In or out?"

"Either," Ixchel said. "The hinges work both ways." She pushed against it but it didn't move.

"Clever," Andy said. "How do we get in? We know Memo's ancestor got in somehow so it should be possible." She looked at Miranda hopefully.

Sighing, Miranda shifted into her energy form and disappeared. There was some resistance but she was able to enter the building. It was a mostly empty building with a very high ceiling. Along one wall was a group of what looked like study carrels and tables. Carefully traveling over to the tables she examined them. They were made from some non-organic substance. Exploring the carrels she found familiar looking crystals. But no readers. Nodding to herself, she went over to the doors and examined them. There did not seem to be a reason they should not open. If there was a lock, she didn't recognize it. Reaching out she sunk an energy appendage into the door.

As soon as she touched it, it started to shake. After a minute of very small vibrations, the two doors started to swing open. She released the door once the opening was large enough for the others to enter.

Slipping through the doors, the others took in the empty space. "Thanks babe," Andy said, hugging Miranda, who'd returned to her mortal form.

"There doesn't appear to be anything here," Romana said.

"There are crystals over there," Miranda said, holding up one of the crystals she'd found. "There do not appear to be any readers, unless they are somewhere else in this building."

"So, crystal libraries. Unless there's something on the Lucia that can read them, we'll have to hope there's a reader here," Andy said.

"I only briefly looked around," Miranda said. "There appears to be a lot more above and below."

"Where do we want to start?" Andy said. "Explore and map the rooms? Take a nap? Head back to the Lucia?"

"Explore," Ixchel said. "And then make a plan, depending on what we find."

"Split up?" Andy asked. "Miranda and me, and you three?"

"As good a plan as any," Miranda said. "Top or bottom?"

"There must be lower levels," Ixchel said. "We'll start there and meet back here."

"Then the upper levels for us," Andy said. "How do we get there?"

"There's a stairway over here," Miranda said. "It goes up and down all six levels."

They all headed to the stairs. Ixchel, Romana, and Memo cautiously heading down, while Miranda and Andy started up the stairs.

"These don't seem very worn," she said. "Think they had another way to go somewhere?"

"Yes," Miranda said. "There are traces of an unusual energy in the main library. They had some other way to change levels."

"What are we looking for?" Andy said. "Other than a mention of either the Furlings or that planet."

"Crystal readers first," Miranda said. "We'll be unable read anything without them."

"Even with them, reading a crystalized hundred thousand year old book is going to be difficult," Andy said.

"There are offices on this level," Miranda said. "There might be something interesting in one of them."

"We should clean an office out," Andy said, poking her head into one of the offices. "Give us a base, of sorts, while we explore it."

"This one shows promise," Miranda said. She waved a hand over part of the door and the room lit up. "Large work surfaces, and plenty of shelves."

"And a pile of those crystals," Andy said, pointing at a table. "And no reader."

"They were likely very expensive," Miranda said. "They don't seem to wear out. There must be a reason they are here, and not on a shelf or in storage."

"A hair," Andy said, grimacing, and removing the hair from her clothes. "Must be one of yours," she said, "My hair isn't that color."

"No," Miranda said, looking at the hair. "Not one of mine. And it doesn't look like yours either. It's not human."

"Can't you do that DNA trick and find out what it is?" Andy asked.

"There isn't enough of it to experiment with," Miranda said. "But it isn't likely to be something as old as this library."

"Memo's ancestor?" Andy said.

"Possibly," Miranda said. "We should clean up around here."

"One floor at a time, while we search for something, anything interesting?" Andy said. "What do you think are in those cupboards?" She tugged on a cupboard door but it stayed closed."

"Bio lock," Miranda said. "A very old one." She moved her hand along the edge of it, almost in a caress. There a was popping sound as it opened. "Sealed."

"So, probably something important?" Andy said. "How long do you think it was sealed for?"

"Hard to tell," Miranda said. "I can feel that it is very old but not how old." She pulled out a small, fabric wrapped object, and turned it in her hand, trying to get a good look at it. "It's something hard," she said, walking over to one of the tables.

"Should we open it now?" Andy asked.

"Who would we save it for?" Miranda asked, pulling open the fabric. Inside was a small device.

"Archeologists?" Andy said, looking at the small device.

"We really don't have the time to find one," Miranda said. She picked it up with one hand. It fit comfortably. "It seems to be designed to be held," she said. "But what is its purpose?" She turned it over.

"No on switch?" Andy said. "Maybe you have to shake it?"

Miranda gave her an unimpressed look, and handed the small object to her. "Go ahead," she said.

"It is supposed to be getting warm?" Andy said, holding it gingerly.

"It wasn't," Miranda said. She covered Andy's hand with her own. "It wasn't that warm when I was holding it." She let go of Andy's hand.

Andy cautiously put it down on the table. "It's glowing now," she said. "It must like me."

"It's a millennial old thing," Miranda said. "It is unlikely to have any feels on the matter."

Andy picked it up again. "Not getting any warmer. I wonder what it is?" She held it out to Miranda. "Take it back."

Miranda took it. "It is no longer glowing." She held it out for Andy to take back.

"Definitely likes me," Andy said, as it started to glow again. "Still doesn't tell us what it is." She stuffed it into a pocket. "We can figure it out later. Is there anything else in there?"

Turning, Miranda walked back over to the cupboard. She carefully stuck her head in the cupboard to look around. "Empty," she declared.

"Think they're all empty?" Andy asked, looking at the other cupboards.

Miranda concentrated for a minute, faintly glowing. "Yes," she said.

"Should we check every room?" Andy said. "That could take a while, unless you want to do your voodoo in each one."

"Acceptable," Miranda said. "No reason to dawdle." Come along Andrea."

Leaving the office, Miranda headed to the first one on the floor. Opening the door, she cautiously entered the room, Andy right behind her. Stepping into the center of the room, she stood calmly and glowed faintly for a minute. "There doesn't appear to be anything here."

"Darn," Andy said. "And not even a cardboard box."

"They had enough time to evacuate," Miranda said.

"How do you know?" Andy asked.

"Just an impression I get," Miranda said.

They searched the entire floor in this way. Andy following behind Miranda. They found one more of the strange hand sized objects. It also responded to Andy, but not Miranda.

"Curious," Miranda said. She handed it to Andy.

"We'll have to see if any of the others get a reaction," Andy said. "Next floor up?" She headed back to the stairway.

"Ye," Miranda said, following her.

They stepped out through the doorway onto the next floor. Unlike the previous floor, it was open, revealing a large space.

"This isn't the entire floor," Andy said. "It sort of echoes."

It's meant for a large audience," Miranda said. She hummed a short tune. "Very good audio."

"So, some kind of meeting room?"

"Or just an empty room, waiting for a purpose," Miranda said.

"I think I'll go with... meeting room...," Andy said. "Or maybe party room?"

"Meeting room," Miranda said.

"Okay.... Meeting room it is. Where do you think the rest of the space is?"

"We'd have to measure the outside and inner," Miranda said.

"I wonder what the rest of the space is used for?" Andy said.

"Where all of the equipment used in this room is stored," Miranda said. "It doesn't have to be much. It could just be an inner wall with space in between."

"No magic 'wizard space'?" Andy asked. "We've seen almost everything else, except real magic."

"Unlikely," Miranda said. "There is no magic in this universe as you are thinking."

"It would be interesting if there were," Andy said. "Interesting but probably scary."

"Power on that scale would be appropriately 'scary'," Miranda said.

"Last floor?" Andy said, "and maybe the roof?"

"After you," Miranda said, gesturing towards the stairs.

Smiling, Andy led the way up the stairs to the next floor. There was a short hallway, with a single door at the end. Andy tried to push it open but it refused to move.

"That doesn't look good," Andy said. "There's no lock or doorknob. How do we open it?"

Miranda frowned. She reached out and placed a hand on the door, trying to feel her way through it. "Hmm..." She switched to her energy form, and attempted to go through it, with no success. "It appears to be shielded," she said. "I cannot go into whatever is behind it."

"That doesn't happen very often," Andy said.

"Almost never," Miranda said, nodding in agreement.

"Something important?" Andy asked.

"Or extremely dangerous," Miranda said.

"Leave for now and see what the others are doing?" Andy said, frowning. "And come back later?"

"Yes," Miranda said. "It isn't going anywhere."

They carefully descended the stairs, emerging back into the main room. The others were sitting over at one of the carrells.

"What'd you find?" And said, hurrying over to them. They were looking at a flat, book-like object.

"We think it's a reader for the crystals," Memo said. "But there does not seem to be anyway to turn it on."

"Hmmm," Andy said looking at it. "What did you find in the lower levels?"

"The lowest level appears to be a storeroom," Ixchel said. "Looks like it was emptied a long time ago."

"There are two levels with locked shelves containing crystals," Romana said. "Too many to count."

"So it's an actual library," Andy said. "Where did you find this?"

"On a shelf. There were several, though none seem to be working," Ixchel said.

"Anything resembling a data station or console?" Andy said. "A library you can't find anything in is semi useless."

"Nothing," Memo said. "We believe that these are the sole way to access what is here. But they are dead." She handed the book to Andy. As soon as Andy touched it, it started to glow.

"How did you do that?" Memo said.

"No idea," Andy said. She put the book down on the carrel and the glow slowly faded. "We found this in an office upstairs, and it does the same thing." She took out the small object Miranda had found in the cupboard. "No idea what it does, other than glow."

"Something genetic?" Romana said. "We have Clan tech that only works for people with certain genetic characteristics."

"Possibly," Andy said. "Though I don't know why it would like me and not anyone else."

"You are of the Winter Folk," Memo said. "Is it possible this is a Winter Folk city?"

"No way to know," Andy said. "Unless we can look at some of those crystals."

"What else did you find in the upper levels?" Ixchel said.

"Nothing exciting," Andy said. "A floor of offices, A floor that had a large empty room, possibly for meetings. And a door."

"A door?" Romana frowned. "Where does it go?"

"Don't know," Andy said. "Not even Miranda could open it."

"It is very resistant to my usual entry methods," Miranda said.

"Think the builders encountered someone with your abilities before and designed it to keep them out?" Memo said.

"Possibly," Miranda said, "but that is speculation. There is no way to know."

There was a brief chiming sound in their comms. "Sounds like we've reached our limit for the day," Andy said. "If we leave now we should be able to get back to the ship in time for dinner."

"Take this with us?" Memo said, picking up the book and holding it possessively.

"Definitely," Andy said. "And some of those crystals. Probably which ones don't matter until we can figure out how to use them." Stepping around the others, she walked to the furthest carrel and grabbed the pile of crystals in it, stuffing them into her haversack. The others followed her example.

"We can take inventory once we get back," Andy said. The others nodded and they headed towards the entrance.

"Close it?" Ixchel said, once they were back outside,.

"There's nothing to get into it, hopefully," Andy said. "Miranda?"

"Better to close it than have something unexpected happen," Miranda said. Shifting back into her energy form she gently guided the large doors closed.

"And off we go," Andy said, grabbing Miranda's hand.

"It is nice down here," Ixchel said, walking in between Romana and Memo. "Breathable air, not much dust."

"The shield should filter it all out, according to Dart," Memo said. "It's a fascinating use of shield technology."

"By a fascinating engineer?" Andy said, winking at her.

"Well, yes," Memo said, blushing.

"Lots of eye candy in the Clan," Andy said. "Smart, intelligent, and sexy. I think we all got lucky."

Miranda raised an eyebrow, and tugged her back around.

"I, of course, prefer my Miranda," Andy quickly said, causing the others to giggle. "There's no substitute for love."

"Good save," Miranda said, whispering into her ear.

"So, tomorrow we'll explore the area around the library?" Andy said. "Unless we get lucky tonight and someone figures out the book so we can look at some of the crystals."

"They aren't likely to be in any language any of us know," Romana said. "This isn't Clan. We don't even know what they looked like."

"Reasonable close to humanoid," Miranda said.

"Where do you get that idea from?" Andy said. "How did you come to that conclusion?"

"It's the most logical conclusion," Miranda said. "Everything about this city and the buildings points to some being very close to us in shape."

"Okay," Andy said. "Maybe the crystals will show us, if we ever get them working."

Sighing, Andy leaned back against the wall and snuggled up to Miranda. There wasn't a lot of excess storage, so meals on the Lucia were often plain affairs. Soups. Sandwiches. Simple things, usually with a distinct Serpent Clan or Mayan flare to them. The converters could extend things to fancier foods but it took energy.

Dinner had been a corn soup, and soft little rolls made from corn. Delicious and filling but sometimes she had the urge for something more substantial.

"Steak!" She blurted out. "I could go for a thick steak, medium rare."

"Your flirtation with vegetarian foods seems to be over," Miranda said.

"Not over, so much as put on hold," Andy said. "Just a small break."

"I'm sure we can make arrangements," Miranda said.

Nodding, Andy sat up. "I guess we should get this show on the road." Pushing herself to her feet, she reached down and pulled Miranda up to stand next to her.

Approaching the table at the back of the ship's entertainment room, she picked up the small book-like device. Looking at it carefully, for any indication of how to turn it on, she frowned.

"Nothing," she murmured, before putting it back down. "If this is a viewer for those crystals it isn't obvious."

Memo looked up from where she'd been carefully examining the crystals. "They all appear identical," she said. "There is nothing to make it possible to determine what is on them."

Miranda picked a crystal up, and frowned, rubbing it with her fingers. "There's a faint resonance," she said. "Not as much as the crystals that Ixchel brought with her or we found in that cave, but it's there."

"Can you find any differences between them?" Romana said, from where she was watching them. "There were shelves full of them. There must be some way to distinguish them."

Andy took the small handheld object out and placed it on the table next to the possible book-reader. "If we look at this, when I hold it it starts to get warm and glow faintly. Not sure why but it is visible." She placed a hand on it, holding it there until got very warm.

"Does it stop once you stop touching it?" Memo wondered, picking it up. "I wonder what it's for?"

"Some kind of instrument," Andy said, "based on its shape."

"What happens when you touch the viewer with the other," Ixchel said. "Or when you touch both of them at the same time?"

"Let's see," Andy said. Picking up the viewer, she then picked up the hand object. "Just holding them? Nothing, other than the glow, and this one gets warm."

"And touching them together?" Ixchel said.

And touched the center of the viewer with the handheld object. And gasped in surprise as a low beep emanated from the viewer and the side of it lit up like a screen. "Well, that's different."

"So that thing turned on the viewer?" Ixchel said.

"Possibly," Andy said, moving it away. When the viewer screen remained on, she put the other object back down. "Maybe it unlocked the viewer? Some kind of remote? Seems a bit large for a key."

"Will the viewer stay on now if one of us holds it?" Memo said. Shrugging, Andy handed it to her. It stayed on. "Interesting."

"So, you have to be Andrea to turn it on, but others can use it?" Miranda said.

"But only as long as you used the other thing to turn it on?" Andy said.

"I am not familiar with this kind of device," Memo said, closely examining it. "There is nothing like it in my memories." She picked up one of the crystals and touched the screen. The screen filled with characters. "I don't recognize this language."

"Proximity," Dart said, looking over her shoulder. "Makes sense."

"We aren't going to get very far, if the instructions, which that probably is, are written in a language none of us know." Romana said.

"We can't just wish for it to work," Andy said. "It's not Clan tech, it doesn't have any idea that we want to use it."

There was a small pinging sound from the viewer.

"It responds to your touch," Miranda said. "It's possible that it has some intelligence. What changed?"

Andy rotated the device again. "There's a small slot here," she said excitedly. "Hand me one of those crystals."

"Here," Memo said, randomly picking up a slim crystal from the bench and handing it to her.

Taking it from her, Andy slid it into the slot. The screen flashed and words again appeared on it, with a small image below. "The words look familiar," she said, "but I have no idea what they say."

"The Lucia does have a translator," Dart said. "Not quite universal but it can do a decent job with enough input."

"But we don't have anything like a Rosetta stone," Andy said, grumbling. "Don't you need multiple languages for that? And hook this up to the Lucia?"

"That might be a little bit difficult," Dart admitted, "but I'm sure we can work something out."

Andy handed the viewer to Memo who eagerly took it. Then, on a whim, she picked up the other object, the one that gave no indication of its purpose, other than being meant for being held in a hand. "If we were lucky, this would be some kind of translator," she said. "But we can't be that lucky." She held it up to an ear for a moment and then waved it around.

Miranda gently took it from her. "It's not going to give away its secrets if you drop it," she said.

"Maybe. Maybe not," Andy said. "We know it's important. It somehow unlocked the viewer. But it might as well be a flat piece of river stone.

Miranda nodded, before returning it. "Maybe we'll find something else in the city in the morning."

"Sounds like a good exit line," Andy said, pocketing the object. "Off to bed?"

"Bed," Miranda said, nodding.

"Don't stay up all night," Andy told the others. "Tomorrow is going to be a long day of stomping around ruins." Taking Miranda's hand, she pulled her out of the cabin and towards their own. "You don't need sleep," she said to Miranda, once their cabin door was closed behind them. "What's up?"

"You could use some rest," Miranda said. "It's been a long day."

"Won't you be bored, watching me sleep?" Andy said.

"Never," Miranda said, kissing her lightly. "And time moves at a different pace for me."

"So you'll be even more bored," Andy said, grimacing.

"No, I'll just have longer to think about this, like I always do. It's not a bad thing," she added in response to the face Andy made.

"Here," she said, handing the handheld object to Miranda. "Maybe you can figure it out."

"It seems to be shielded against me. But I can try to pry something loose while you sleep."

"Good!" Andy said, yawning as she pulled on her pajamas. She sat down on their bed and grabbed Miranda's free hand, pulling her down onto the bed with her as she lay down. "Let's get under the covers and cuddle for a few minutes." She yawned again. "Sleepy."

Changing her own clothes to something more appropriate with a single thought, Miranda joined her under the covers, which were more for appearances than to keep them warm, in the ship's controlled environment.

"You're cute," Andy said softly, watching Miranda make herself comfortable next to her.

"You make it easy to believe," Miranda said. "Now, sleep."

"Yes, ma'am," Andy said, closing her eyes. She drifted off to sleep to the sound of Miranda breathing

Lying against a smooth rock, Andy opened her eyes, squinting in the bright light. "Miranda? Where are we?" She looked around at the vegetation. They appeared to be in a forest of some sort.

Miranda appeared in front of her, moving without making a sound. "It appears to be something resembling a dreamscape," Miranda said. "It's connected to the object."

"So, not like being in the pods?" Andy said.

"Not exactly, though I can feel it as a small drain on my core," Miranda said. "It's vaguely uncomfortable at the moment."

"Hmmm. So you're powering it?" Andy said. "Can you make changes to it? Give us some sun?"

Miranda frowned, and concentrated. A sun appeared off in the distance, and there were moons.

"Pretty," Andy said.

"The moons are not my idea," Miranda said. "They appear to be part of this scene."

"Still pretty," Andy said. "What do you think it's for? Linking multiple minds together like this is must not be trivial."

"I'm not certain," Miranda said. "It could be exactly what it appears to be, a place to rest. Or it might serve a different purpose."

"But we're allowed to explore?" Andy asked.

"As long as we stick together," Miranda said. Grabbing Andy's hand. "There's a nice lake with a fresh water spring in that direction. We can go swimming if you would like to. Or just picnic."

"Need snacks to picnic," Andy said. "Before I starve."

"It's virtual," Miranda said. "We aren't likely to starve."

"A jungle," Andy said, looking around. "Fresh fruit?"

"Your favorites," Miranda said, smiling at her.

"What's stopping us?" Andy said, grabbing Miranda's hand and tugging her in the direction Miranda had indicated. "Though I don't seem to be dressed for swimming."

"Just the two of us," Miranda said. "Lack of a swimsuit hasn't stopped you before."

"As long as you don't mind?" Andy said, before quickly stripping off her pajamas.

"Of course not," Miranda said. Waving a hand, her own clothes disappeared.

"Now, That's not fair," Andy said. "I have to take my clothes off the hard way."

"It's virtual," Miranda reminded her. "You could do the same."

"No, let's not go there," Andy said under her breath.

Chapter Text

"What do you think the purpose of this is?" Andy said, sunning herself on a large rock next to Miranda, in the virtual sun. "It can't just be for fun."

"It's an interesting construct," Miranda said. "It has a similar psychic feel to it as the Serpent Clan training pods but I don't believe it would have the same physiological effects."

"Meaning?" Andy said, sitting up.

"In the Clan training pods, if you have the appropriate genetic makeup it has a physical affect. Learn a physical activity and your body retains any physical changes and muscle memory. I do not believe that would happen here. You will certainly remember everything we do or encounter, but you will remain physically unchanged."

"Hmmm," Andy said. "Either older tech before that was invented or discovered or the intent is really something different. Like education. Or recreation."

"Or observation," Miranda said, turning to look at the other side of the lake. Andy turned to see what she was looking at.

"Or... observation..." she echoed. "Think we should go greet them? Clothing optional?"

"Of course," Miranda said. "When in Rome."

Nodding, Andy stood up, and held out a hand to help Miranda to her feet. Together they walked from the rock, around the lake to where the two beings were standing. Up close they appeared to be female, and very close to human, their blonde hair hanging in long braids almost touching the ground.

"Elves?" Andy whispered to Miranda. "How are we meeting with elves?"

The two beings stood silently as they approached.

"Hi!" Andy said nervously.

"Welcome," the woman to the left said. "What brings you here, child, and your heart?"

"We're not actually sure," said Andy. "We went to sleep and woke up here. Where are we?" Squeezing Mirandas hand she thought 'why aren't we speaking English or clan speak?' She received a mental shrug back.

"These are the borderlands of the People of the Lea," she said. "If you are here you must have need."

"Not sure what we need that we can find here," Andy said. "Not unless you know how to defeat the Kraal or are able to translate something for us."

"We are not familiar with the Kraal," she said, "and do not interfere in the lives of those of the outer world."

"Okay," Andy said. "Not your battle. Mira, do you have that thing?"

"The cup?" Miranda asked. "Of course." She held up a hand, and concentrated for a few seconds. The metallic cup Andy's mother kept locked away appeared sitting on her hand.

"May I," the other being said.

"Of course," Miranda said, holding it out to her. The woman took the cup and carefully turned it, running a finger along the writing on the rim.

"Where did you find this?" She asked.

"It's my Mother's," Andy said. "No one is able to read the writing but it's been in the family for many years."

"One of the misplaced," the woman said. She kept the cup but stepped closer to Andy and stared at her face, even reaching out and running a finger along her ears. "Interesting disguise."

"Disguise?" Andy said. "This is how I normally look."

"If that is what you believe," the other woman said, "we will not disabuse you of that notion."

"What does that mean?" Andy said, frowning.

"Some of the misplaced have developed other appearances during their time away," she said. "We are not aware of the mechanism, but a time will come when you will know."

"Okay," Andy said, frowning in confusion. The woman returned the cup.

"You are welcome to return here when you have questions we may answer," she said. "But until then go with our blessing, and a small gift."

There was a flash and Andy sat up in bed, breathing hard. She turned to Miranda who was looking at her with a thoughtful expression. "What was that?"

"Exhausting," Miranda said. "This," she held up the small device, "appears to be some kind of device to communicate with them, not just to create a virtual world."

"Definitely like the pods, but not," Andy said. "But those where elves! Real ones!"

"Possibly," Miranda said. "Or that is just how they appeared."

"The People of Lea? Very cryptic," Andy said. "Should I have understood them? And I don't mean whatever language they had us speaking."

"Unknown," Miranda said, frowning.

"Did we just learn Elvish while sleeping?" Andy said excitedly. "Say something in Elvish!"

"Am man theled?" Miranda said in a musical tone.

"Because I wanted to hear some," Andy said. "You weren't a Tolkien fan were you?"

"The girls were but he wasn't much for fashion," Miranda said. "Victorian ideas of fairy princesses. His mythical lands were very male centric. Even the powerful women had little mobility."

"But there were elves, and hobbits, and warrior women," Andy said. "What's there to not like?"

Miranda shrugged. "It just never attracted me," she said. "I am curious about them saying that is not your original face."

"It's the only one I've ever known," Andy said. "No plans to trade it in."

"I would be disappointed if you did," Miranda said. "I much prefer your current face. It needs no changes."

"That's sweet of you," Andy said, "leaning over to kiss her. "We don't have time for what I'd like to do with you. Maybe later?"

"Later, Hiril vuin," Miranda said, smirking.

"A language no one else knows," Andy said, grinning. "That could be useful."

"Lady Shadow doesn't know this one yet," Miranda said. "If it's actually elvish or is very similar to one of Tolkien's made up languages like Sindarin. But she'll probably have learned Sindarin the next time we see her."

"Yeah, she would," Andy said. "She does know Klingon."

"Very intimidating language," Miranda said. "Very useful for scaring minions."

"And sexy," Andy said, grinning at her.

"We won't mention this to anyone," Miranda said.

"Got it. Bedroom secret," Andy said. "So we ended up in someone else's virtual reality and now we speak something like elvish. I wonder what else we'll find in the library?"

"An ancient civilization?" Miranda said. "There are likely many secrets buried in their libraries."

"They didn't sound upset with us appearing there," Andy said. "Think they were expecting us?"

"Possibly," Miranda said. "I suspect hey could answer many of our questions."

"If we know how to ask them," Andy said, "by which time we'll already know the answer. That's how these things usually work. It's all about the journey. The end is just trivia. Maybe it'll stick," she said. "Want to try it out on one of the crystals?" She rolled out of bed, and threw on a wrinkled ship suit, causing Miranda to frown.

"Come on," Andy said. "No time to waste."

Sighing, Miranda stood up, and clothed herself in one of her favorite simple gauzy dresses. Stepping up to Andy, she snapped her fingers, and the wrinkles in Andy's ship suit disappeared.

"Thanks babe," Andy said, dragging her out of their cabin towards the galley. "Think there'll be any bacon this morning?"

"If you want it," Miranda said. "I'm sure the converter can be convinced to make you some."

"Bleh," Andy said, grimacing. "Converter bacon. A gift from the gods, except not remotely."

"Our food situation has not changed since dinner," Miranda said.

"Maybe we can find out what we want quickly, and go to a restaurant. Must be a good one around this sector somewhere," Andy said, give Miranda a hopeful look. "And coffee. The Clan coffee bev is an acquired taste. Some of the real stuff would be nice. I don't understand why a converter can't make a good cup."

"I'm sure it can," Miranda said. "You just need to know how to convince it to do so."

"Not having much luck with that," Andy said, grumbling under her breath. "Maybe talk Elvish at it?"

"Whatever you want to try, darling," Miranda said.

They walked into the galley hand in hand. After grabbing a tray and assorted breakfast pastries, Andy guided Miranda to the table with the book viewer on it.

"It doesn't look any different," Andy said, turning it over. "Notice the glow has stopped."

"It stopped several clicks after you both went to bed," a disgruntled Memo said.

"Huh. So time limit on the view," Andy said. "Good to know. Did you make any progress?"

"All of the crystals are in the same language," Memo said. "All unreadable to us."

"Not surprising," Andy said. "Probably not a lending library, or they all only spoke a single language."

"Or several languages that look the same if you don't speak them," Miranda said.

"Good point," Andy said. "Shall we turn it on again?" She held out her hand for the small comm device. Getting it from Miranda, she tapped it against the book view, which started to glow. One side began to fill with writing.

Andy frowned at the screen. "Does that say what I think it does?" She said, holding it up to Miranda.

"The Journals of the People of Lea, as dictated to Aylin of the Glen, by a Star Traveller," Miranda said. "A bit wordy."

"More than a bit. Hopefully they aren't all like this," Andy said.

"You can read this?" Memo said.

"Now," Andy said. "Yesterday? Not so much."

"How?" Memo said.

"Not sure, actually," Andy said. "Went to sleep, had a strange dream, and woke up speaking some unknown language. And now we can read that."

"It's similar to a fictional language," Miranda said. "Sindarin."

"You have a dream about elves?" Garnes said, "And now you speak their language?"

"Maybe?" Andy said. "How did you recognize it?"

"I've been role playing a Ranger for cycles," Garnes said, shrugging. "Can't speak Sindarin but I recognize it when I hear it, though the language on those crystals doesn't look like the Elvish I've seen." "It's not exactly," Andy said. "I think Tolkien was intentionally trying to make it look like old Norse or some other obscure Scandinavian language. This looks more like Arabic, though the pronunciation is very different."

"But this is good, right?" Ixchel said. "If you can read it, we can train the translators so you don't have to read all of them."

"Yes!" Andy said. "I'd rather be out exploring than sitting here talking to the translator." She put the viewer back down. "How do we do that?"

"It's very simple," Garnes said. "Enable the translator, put it in recorder mode, and read. It uses your comm unit for the recording."

"Aloud?" Andy said.

"No," Garnes said. "The comm takes care of that."

"Sounds easy," Andy said. "How accurate is it?"

"Depends on how well the new language matches one we already know," Garnes said.

"Even a fictional language, since you said this sounds like Sindarin?" Andy said.

"It's a little more time consuming," Garnes said. "Fictional languages don't usually have grammars that work with the translator system."

"It worked very well with that Klingon language," Ixchel said. "Reading one of your Shakespeare plays in Klingon and in the original? It seems to be the same thing, though the Klingon is more warlike."

"Well, that's Klingon," Andy said. "And the translator for that probably works very well because Lady Shadow was fascinated by it at one point."

"Yes," Garnes said, "That was used as a test language."

"So, turn on the translator, read the book, hope it works?" Andy said. "I'm game. But let's pick something simpler." She started looking through the pile of data crystals, inserting them one after another into the viewer, Memo taking note of the titles as she rattled them off.

"This one," Memo said, holding up a data crystal indistinguishable from the others.

"Which one is that?" Andy said.

"It's a history of the city," Memo said. "Interesting, and useful at the same time."

"Hmm," Andy said, taking the crystal and inserting it into the viewer. "'The Founding of the City of Lights'. Isn't that Paris," she mumbled reading the first page. "Oh, Lights as in some holy person. How do I enable the translator in that mode? Oh there it is," she mumbled. Pausing for a minute, she looked up at everyone watching her. "Not going to be very exciting. Might want to find something else to do for the several hours."

Miranda gently took the viewer from her. "If it is going to take that long, you'll want to find somewhere comfortable to read."

"Of course," Andy said, reaching for the viewer, following Miranda down the passageway to their cabin.

"Sit," Miranda said, pushing down on Andy's unoccupied shoulder.

"Right," Andy said, making herself comfortable. Looking up at Miranda, "You don't have to stay and watch me read."

"I can keep myself occupied while you read," Miranda said, leaning against Andy, running her fingers through her hair.

"That was interesting," Andy said, coming up for air, figuratively speaking. "The city was founded by a group of refugees, from somewhere else."

"Somewhere else?" Miranda said.

"It doesn't really say where from, only they ended up here by accident while fleeing some relentless enemy. But I suspect it was another one of those holes in space we keep running into," Andy said.

"So somewhere that was really somewhere else," Miranda said. "Do they say where this place is in relation to this system?"

"Not really. Hopefully one of their data crystals will say. Wouldn't want another enemy to pop up when we haven't dealt with the Kraal yet." Andy sighed. "And I'm not sure about the time frame. It could have been thousands of cycles ago, or just before the last Kraal incursion."

Miranda frowned. "I thought we determined this area was abandoned long before the last Kraal invasion."

"Well, whatever destroyed their civilization happened before the Kraal. This history doesn't mention them at all," Andy said.

"Do you want to read another one?" Miranda said.

Andy got up from their bed and stretched. "Let's see if the translator has enough to work with now." Grabbing the viewer, she pulled Miranda off of bed and out of their cabin, ending up in the galley where the others were still hanging out. "This doesn't look like anything else," Andy said.

"Cards are boring when someone wins all of the time," Ixchel said, poking Romana. "Psychic abilities should not be allowed in games of chance."

"I told you I, I didn't peek," Romana said returning the poking. "I just know you well enough."

"Ready to test the translator?" Garnes said.

"Yes," Andy said. "Let's check this out." She removed the data crystal before handing the viewer to Romana, and grabbed another one from the pile for her to use.

Nodding, Romana inserted the new data crystal into the reader. "'The Tale of Jorgen'" She started reading, pausing several times while the translator did its job. "So far it appears to be working," she said. "Not an exciting story. More like a dry bureaucratic report." She read for several more minutes. "Flowery language does not do very well to disguises some bureaucrat's report on a diplomatic mission."

"So, the titles aren't really going to help?" Andy said.

"No," Memo said. "What did you learn from your book?"

"The city was established as a refuge," Andy said. "So it does contain all of their history in those crystals."

"So we may find what we are looking for?" Miranda said.

"If they encountered the Furlings, or Kraal or anything else in their travels to this system, it's bound to be recorded here somewhere." Andy said, poking the pile of data crystals.

"We need to find additional viewers," Ixchel said. "It will take too long otherwise."

"And a way to import the information into the ship's databanks," Garnes said. "Faster than one at a time. And a way for Lady Memo to use the translator."

"Her Wind Clan comm is almost compatible with our comm channels," Dart said. "I've been working on a way to integrate them into our ship comm as more than basic audio, but don't quite have it working yet.

"Of course," Andy said. "But now that we can translate them we can at least make some progress. Where's that map?"

"The history included information on the actual buildings?" Miranda asked.

"Some of them anyway," Andy said. "It really depends on how much of a time gap there is between the book and the city being destroyed or abandoned. We'll have to do some exploring to determine that."

"Or find a more current history," Ixchel said.

"If there is one," Andy said. "They aren't likely to have one that covers why it's abandoned. They would have been too busy trying to survive."

"We should be looking for information on that locked room in the library," Miranda said. "There must be a reason for it being locked and heavily protected."

"So, a document about the library," Andy said. "Well, none of these seem to be that. We'll have to go back tomorrow and look through the data crystals."

"While you do that we can start exploring the rest of the city," Ixchel said. "You don't need all of us when we only have the single viewer."

"So, that's a plan then," Andy said. "Garnes and Dart can stay with the ship, doing ship things. The rest of us will head for the city in the morning. Ixchel and Romana can explore the city and the three of us will dig through the data in the library."

"We can meet up for lunch," Ixchel said, "and share what we've found."

"Okay," Andy said. "Did you want to join us in the library for lunch?" she asked Garnes and Dart.

"Maybe tomorrow," Dart said. "Too many things to double check if we're going to be here for months."

"Unfortunately, I have paperwork that needs to get done," Garnes said. "But I'll definitely come with Dart tomorrow."

"Where do you want to start?" Miranda said, standing in the first large data crystal room in the library basement.

"There doesn't appear to be any organization, or if there is it isn't clear," Andy said. "So, let's see if we can find another couple readers and something that tells us how they are organized. It doesn't seem to make sense for it all to be random."

"Or they used some device or method we haven't discovered yet," Memo said.

"That's most likely," Andy said. "They're aliens. They probably don't think the way we do and the organization was obvious to them and we're just not seeing it. I'll see what I can find in this storeroom."

"I'll look in the other storeroom," Miranda said, nodding. "We've already checked the upstairs offices."

"Memo, if you could check the ground floor?" Andy said. "I know we've checked it but maybe we missed something."

Memo nodded in agreement, and left the room.

Nodding to herself, Andy headed to the far corner of the storage room, looking for anything obviously out of place. As far as she could see, it was all glassed in shelves containing the data crystals. All faintly glowing and providing a minimum amount of light for seeing their contents. Fortunately, she has a small pocket flashlight.

It was not a very exciting task, she decided. Occasionally she would open a door, take out a crystal, and insert it into the viewer. Most of the crystals seemed to contain boring bureaucratic documents. Or entries of the possessions of different families. Certainly nothing about the library itself or additional history. She was beginning to suspect that they'd already found the interesting data crystals.

She was almost ready to throw in the towel and look for Miranda when she found a small depression in one wall not covered with shelves. Frowning, she focused her flash lite on it. Other than not being level with the rest of the wall, there didn't seem to be anything special about it.

Putting down the flashlight, Andy placed her hand over the depression. It felt warm for several seconds and then she felt a brief vibration through her hand. Turning, she looked around the part of the room she was in, far from the entrance, searching for any changes.

A faint shadow further down the wall attracted her attention. A straight vertical line had appeared running down the wall. "Hidden door?" she mumbled to herself, She carefully moved over several steps until the shadow was directly in front of her. It didn't seem large enough to be a door but she reached out and pressed on it anyway.

There was a subtle vibration and a slim section of the wall moved inward and then there was another set of shelves in front of her. Shelves with other things on them, not the expected data crystals, Andy shone her flashlight into the area. One shelf contained a row of viewers. The other shelves contained unfamiliar objects though some looked like bracelets, and at least one looked like the small communication device Miranda had found in one of the offices.

"Interesting," Miranda said.

"Hey!" Andy said, jumping in surprise. "Done looking? Find anything?"

"Just more crystals that I couldn't read," Miranda said. "Nothing like this."

"I'm not sure what this is," Andy said. "It was hidden, so not something everyone would know about. The viewers will be helpful."

"If the communicators require the same amount of energy to activate the one we found in the offices, we won't get much use out of them," Miranda said.

"At least not until Dart can figure out how to wire them up to ships power," Andy said. "If that's even possible."

"Nothing new upstairs," Memo said, joining them. "I see you've found more viewers. That should be useful."

"An index or catalog would be even more useful," Andy said. "Especially since I don't think we have room on the Lucia for the whole thing, so we'd have to take a few months and load them into the ship's data storage"

"What are those?" Memo said, pointing at the bracelets.

"No idea," Andy said, reaching over and picking one up. Examining it with her flashlight, she frowned. "No writing, just these marks. And the glow."

"I would suspect it had something to do with this place," Miranda said. "Some kind of data viewer or access tool."

"Do I try it on?" Andy said. "Nothing we've seen so far has been deadly."

"It's glowing like the viewer does," Memo said. "It probably only works for you or only turns on for you."

"I'd really like to know why," Andy grumbled. "Here goes nothing." She slid the the bracelet on her left arm. As soon as it reached her wrist there was a bright glow and it shrunk to fit her wrist. "Well, that was surprising. But what does it do?" She waved her arm but nothing happened. "Nothing?"

"it probably requires proximity to something," Miranda said.

"Like that door upstairs?" Andy said. "Grab a couple of the viewers," she said. "We can leave everything else here. It isn't going to disappear, I hope."

"Do we want any of the crystals here?" Memo said.

"Not until we can figure out how to access the catalog," Andy said. "This one is full of boring business and inventory documents. So far anyway."

"Want to see what happens with this?" Andy said, waving her arm with the bracelet on it. "Maybe it'll open that door?"

"We don't know that," Miranda said, frowning. The bracelet had resist any attempt to remove it and she'd been unable to even determine what it was made from. "Please be careful."

"Me?" Andy grinned. "I'm always careful. Do you want to wait until tomorrow? Or do it now?"

"Let's wait until the others get here," Miranda said. "Until then we can continue looking through the data crystals."

"So, down to the lower storeroom with Memo?" Andy said. "I don't think we'll get much out of the upper one, unless we want to study the economics and government of the city. I didn't find any history or cultural information when I was looking around."

"You can tell a lot about a society from their economics but it doesn't really tell you anything about the people themselves," Miranda said, as they walked down the stairs to the lower storage room.

"We really need an index or search ability," Andy said, grumbled again as she entered the room. "This could take years doing it like this."

"Just find several handfuls of crystals and we can take them back to the ship," Miranda said. "Assuming the translator circuits can handle all of us reading to it."

"We have some powerful systems," Andy said, "But they aren't really designed for that kind of thing. Something is going to break eventually. Or it'll be so slow that we'll still be here long after the Kraal are gone. Where's Memo?"

"Over there," Miranda said, pointing towards the back.

"Do we know how many of these there are?" Andy said, grabbing a data crystal that seemed to be singled out, separate from the others, as they headed towards the back.

"Approximately a hundred thousand for both floors," Miranda said.

"That's... quite a bit," Andy murmured. "Even with the five viewers we now have, that is years to get it all scanned in, assuming we even have room in ship memory for them."

"They are not all the same capacity," Miranda said, picking up another data crystal and inserting it into a viewer. "The ones we ran into in Ixchel's cabinet ranged from several gigabytes to thousands of terabytes, enough capacity to store everything in Lucia's core and have room left over."

"So, we shouldn't bother trying to upload them?" Andy asked. "Just focus on finding what we want?"

"Correct," Miranda said. "We don't have enough storage available on the Lucia to even generate an index, if these hold similar amounts of data."

"Hmph. They must have had some kind of index already," Andy said. "Advanced civilization? All this knowledge? How'd they find anything?"

"We don't know how they think," Miranda said, leaning against the shelf Memo was currently looking through. "It's possible they didn't need an index."

"So smart they had things memorized, on a vast scale? That's seems like overkill." Andy stuck the data crystal she was holding into her viewer. "Ugh! Another romance," she said. "Why should I care about the maid and the scientist?"

"Because it tells us something about these people?" Miranda said. "If they value scientists it tells us important things about their society."

"That they liked cliches?" Andy said. "That sounds like some bad romance novel. Girl gets lost in the woods. Finds the mad scientist's castle, they eventual fall in love with lots of angst and monsters in between."

"You appear to have already read it," Miranda said dryly. "Or written it."

"I'm just familiar with the trope," Andy said, blushing.

"I hadn't realized you'd become a romance writer while I was gone," Miranda said, smirking.

"Stress relief," Andy said. "And spare pocket change. Haven't written anything like that in years."

"You'll have to read some of it to me," Miranda said in a low voice.

"Um, sure," Andy said. "When we get home." She coughed, and turned to Memo. "Anything interesting?"

"Biographies, and histories," Memo said. "The titles are often a little deceiving."

"Such as?" Miranda said.

"That one called 'The Maid And the Scientist' would seem to be one of those cliched romances but is actually a biography of the discoverers of this planet. Maid is apparently the title of a famous explorer and the scientist is her assistant or second in command. The title seems to have a connotation that only makes sense in their culture."

"Did you read it?" Andy said, holding it up.

"Just quickly scanned it. We'll want to take it with us, the data crystal contains a large amount of data about the system," Memo said.

"Good," Andy said. "Anything else interesting?"

"There are other data crystals with similar contents," Memo said. "But I suspect taking them with us will not be possible."

"No," Andy said. "There are just too many, and the amount of storage required to copy them is beyond the capacity of the Lucia's data core. Any hints at a catalog or index?"

"Yes," Memo said, "but the references make no sense to me."

"For example?" Miranda said.

"If you load the crystal into the viewer, you see that symbol in the corner," Memo said. "That's it," she said, point at it on the screen once Miranda had loaded the crystal. "Selecting that will give you an index and table of contents. But the index is worthless without knowing what the terms mean."

"And our translator won't be able to know that unless we teach it," Miranda said, nodding. "A chicken and egg problem."

"I hate those," Andy said. "Always give me a headache."

"Chicken and egg?" Memo said, puzzled.

"Native creature of our home planet," Andy said. "It could best be summed up as 'what came first' when two things need each other to happen. Chickens lay eggs. Chickens hatch from eggs. So you need an egg before you can get a chicken, but you can't get the egg without a chicken. You end up going in logical circles."

"So, I'd need to know a concept in order to understand another concept but I can't understand the first concept if I don't understand the second. Yes, I can see how that would cause problems," Memo said. "We have a different phrase for that philosophical conundrum in the Wind Clan, but it essentially means the same thing."

"So, there is some useful information here, but we don't need to know all of it, but just enough to find what we really want," Miranda said.

"Sounds like it," Andy said, sighing. "Any other data crystals that we would find useful right now?"

"Not yet," Memo said. "Searching is going to be long and arduous."

"I think we should take a break and find out what is behind that door," Andy said.

"We've been taking a break," Miranda said. "Though I'm sure Memo could use one."

"That's what I said," Andy grumbled. "Shall we?"

"Not waiting for the others?" Miranda said.

"They can check it out later," And said. "I'm sure they're having a lot of fun exploring the city."

"I suspect they would like to be here," Miranda said.

"Safer if it's just us," Andy said. "No need to risk all of us just to check out a door that may go nowhere."

"Then we should stay down here while you try to open it," Miranda said.

"I'd like to see this door," Memo said. "Maybe there's something behind it that will help us with these data crystals."

"Haven't we been here before?" Andy asked, frowning, looking at them.

"No," Miranda said.

"I didn't mean it that way, exactly, but I'm sure there was a similar situation. It just escapes me right now." She shrugged and headed towards the steps, Memo and Miranda following close behind.

It took several minutes of brisk walking to climb to the top of the stairs and reach the door.

"It does not look very imposing," Memo said, unimpressed.

"That would be because this is just the outer entrance," Andy said. Stepping up to the door, she pressed on it, causing it to move to the side. "Once we're past that, we have this short hallway." Light came from somewhere once she was through the door. "And that's new." Andy said. "There was no light before."

They quickly walked down the hallway until they reached the door at the end. "And the door was bare earlier," she added. "No decorations or writing on it." She frowned at the large symbol now covering the door, centered at eye level. "I suspect this is more important than we originally thought."

"We still need to open it," Miranda said, peering at the large symbol. "I'm not familiar with that symbol."

"I've seen it before," Andy said grimacing. "Maybe. But that can wait." She touched the door with the bracelet. The bracelet began to glow, and there was a faint clicking from the door. "Hasn't opened in a long time," Andy said. She pushed on it. There was a faint grinding sound but nothing happened. "Maybe it's just old?"

"Very likely," Miranda said.

"I left the WD40 in a different suit," Andy said. "Maybe if we all push it will open?"

Memo nodded, going to stand next to Miranda, putting her hands on the door and leaning forward.

"Ready?" Andy said, pressing her own hands on the door. "1... 2... 3... Push!"

With a large grinding sound, the door fell inward, and they went with it, falling in a heap.

"Ouch! Andy said, sitting up. Helping Miranda and Memo up off of the floor, she noticed a faint glow but not enough light to see anything distinctly. "We're inside, now what?" she said, in a whisper.

Chapter Text

"Light would be good," Andy said. "More than that," she waved at the light coming in the door. Fumbling in a pocket, she hunted for her flashlight.

"Hrmph!" Miranda said, getting to her feet. Small floating lights started to surround them.

"Nice," Andy said, standing. "Not much to see in here is there," she murmured, looking around. "Everyone okay?" She said, looking at Miranda and Memo.

"No damage," Miranda said, "except to my dignity."

"Fine, fine," Memo said, looking around. "What is this place?"

"An empty room?" Andy said.

"An illusion," Miranda said. "Something is interfering with what you are seeing."

"Really? What is here that we're not seeing?" Andy asked. "White walls. White floor. White ceiling. Empty."

"A large ring embedded in that wall," Miranda said, pointing at the far wall. "And a light panel on that wall." She pointed at a different wall.

"Not seeing it," Andy said. "Did one of us hit our head on the door?"

Miranda frowned. She placed a hand on Andy's forehead. "You seem to be as sane as you normally are."

"That's not saying much," Andy said, sighing. "I wonder what's causing it? A perception filter?"

"A what?" Miranda said. Memo just looked confused.

"A perception filter," Andy said. "Standard bit of Time Lord tech. It confuses your mind so you don't see reality but what someone else wants you to see."

"There are no Time Lords," Miranda said.

"How do we know that?" Andy said. "There was that Moon Princess. Why not Time Lords?"

Miranda sighed. "The one does not necessarily follow the other. It would require a suspension of disbelief all out of proportion to reality for that kind of being to exist..."

"What is a Time Lord?" Memo said. "And what is this ring that we cannot see?"

"A Time Lord is a fictional being who could manipulate time, and is popular in some parts of our world," Miranda said.

"I'd prefer that they exist," Andy said. "Though I could do without their enemies. Not sure I want to fight Daleks or Cybermen."

"Of course," Miranda said. "As if our current enemies aren't enough."

"Co-incidentally, Romana seems to be named after a Time Lord person," Andy said. "She claims her mother named her after a friend. It may be a coincidence, but I suspect at least one Time Lord has wandered through one of those rifts in space we seem to have too many of in our sector."

"There are legends of rifts in space, leading to strange and unusual places," Memo said, "but there have been no reports of any sightings of them in over a millennia."

"Well, we have a bunch of them in our sector," Andy said. "Even went through one, and had some interesting adventures getting home afterward."

"The dimensional walls do appear to be exceedingly thin on the outer edges of Serpent Clan territory," Miranda said.

"But we don't talk about that," Andy said.

"Talk about what?" Ixchel said, her voice coming from out in the hallway. "And weren't you going to wait for us?"

"Well, I found this," Andy said, holding up her arm and bracelet, "and wanted to see if it would open the door."

"The door did open," Memo said, nodding.

"After a push," Andy said. She noticed Romana peeking into the room from behind Ixchel. "Can either of you see anything other than white walls and floor?"

"White walls," Romana said. "Blindingly white. But there is also a faint buzzing."

"Not hearing a buzzing," Andy said. "You?" She asked Memo.

"No," Memo said.

"So, there isn't one of those Ancient rings in that wall?" Ixchel said, pointing at the far wall.

"You can see it? So can Miranda," Andy said. "What's it look like?"

"An Ancient Ring," Ixchel said. "A smaller version than I'm familiar with but otherwise the same."

"That's unexpected," Andy said. "I thought we found all of those?"

"We found all of the ones linked together on the edge of Serpent Clan territory," Miranda said. "The Galactics never said those were the only ones."

"So, can we fix it, so all of us can see it?" Andy asked. "I don't like anyone messing with my head."

"Possibly," Miranda said. "If we can find the controls for it."

"You can't just zap it away?" Andy said, pouting.

"No," Miranda said.

"There aren't many controls," Ixchel said. "But only one of them seems to be turned on." She walked over to the wall over and pushed something. There was a click, and the faint odor of ozone.

Andy felt a sharp tug at her head. The room seemed to shift and change while she watched. "That is definitely one of those rings," she said.

"Smaller," Ixchel said. "The ones I'm familiar with are designed for vehicles to move through them. This is much smaller."

"One or two person Rings," Andy said, nodding. "Could be a safety feature, only allowing limited travel."

"Or linking different locations that are meant to be kept secure," Ixchel said. "Easier to defend."

"That would fit with this locked room, and that perception filter," Andy said. "Someone didn't want anyone to know this was here." She leaned forward and touched the ring. "It's not crystal. Shouldn't it be?"

"The Goa'uld rings are a rare metal, naquada," Ixchel said. "The other rings were crystal."

"What is this then?" Andy asked.

Miranda cautiously touched the Ring. "It has a crystalline structure," she said, after a minute. "I suspect naquada is also crystal in structure, even if it appears metallic to us."

"So, to build your own rings you need some kind of exotic crystal?" Andy said. "I don't think we're going to be building our own any time soon."

"This is one of the Rings you've spoken about," Romana said, joining them in the room. "Where does it go?"

"If it's like the others we've traveled through in this sector, it has set locations. If it's like the other ones, you can set your destination," Andy said.

"We should leave this for later," Miranda said, "unless we find a manual."

"So, no just pushing buttons until something happens?" Andy said, pouting. "That's no fun."

"Safer," Miranda said. "I'd rather not have to search several parsecs for you if you were to get lost in it."

"Well, you could just come with me," Andy said, batting her eyelashes. "Then I won't be lost."

"What is next?" Memo said, ignoring the byplay. "We have the library, though not an easy way to search it, and we have this Ring you say can be used to travel. What is our goal now?"

"We still need to find those Prophets," Andy said. "And find out what they know about the Kraal."

"And the Winter Folk," Romana said.

"Furling," Miranda said. "We may not find them. The prophet said finding one would find the other."

"She also said finding the Prophets won't get us the answers we need," Andy said. "But we're still looking for them. Maybe we should stop?"

"Did you find anything interesting in the city?" She then asked Ixchel and Romana.

"It has underground transportation," Romana said. "We could not determine how to work it. Or where it went when it left the city."

"Didn't seem big enough for that kind of thing," Andy said, frowning. "Why build an underground?"

"What do we look for," Memo said. "What would instructions for the Ring look like?"

"Charts?" Andy said. "There must be a list of destinations for the Ring. Something with symbols like that on it." She waved her hand at a small section of keys in the small control panel. "If we had that we could see what's out there."

"We'll find it," Miranda said.

"I think we should go through the Ring, at least to one of its destinations." Andy said.

"What would that tell you?" Miranda said.

"It's purpose? Assuming it goes somewhere that makes sense. Or at least some clue to where they went," Andy said.

"If it was a mass migration through that Ring it was very slow," Miranda said. "Unless there are others in the city."

"We should keep looking around," Romana said. "Have you found anything else interesting?"

"We do have more of those viewers," Andy said. "And several of these bracelets." She held up her arm.

"We do not know if they would work for anyone else," Miranda said.

"What else," Ixchel said.

"The lower crystal room has the more interesting data crystals," Memo said. "The upper level contains mainly business records."

"So we're still looking for information on the Prophets and Furling?" Ixchel said.

"Nothing about them so far," Andy said. "We have a possible history of the founding of this city, but nothing about the Prophets so far."

"It is surprising that there is no way to search all of the data crystals without reading them one at a time," Romana said.

"No way that we've found. There may be something we are missing," Memo said. "Some place hidden by another of those perception filters."

"But Miranda and Ixchel can see through that," Andy said. "So it isn't perfect."

"This one," Memo said. "What if there are others?"

"They haven't revealed themselves if there are." Andy said.

"This vibration is giving me a headache," Ixchel said, leaning against the door.

"What vibration?" Andy said.

"You don't feel that?" Ixchel said. "It's like a low frequency hum from a star engine."

"No," Andy said. "Where is it coming from?"

"Out in the hallway," Ixchel said, stepping back out of the room.

"Hmm," Andy said. "Can you find out where it is exactly?"

Ixchel shrugged, but went further out into the short hallway. "I am not sure. It doesn't have a direction out here."

"So the entire hallway?" Andy said. "Miranda? Could you look for us?"

"There is definitely a vibration out here," Miranda said, joining Ixchel in the hallway. "It is not a familiar feeling." She rotated carefully. "Nothing seems to be out of place."

"Another perception filter, except one that works on all of us?" Andy asked her.

"No, it's something else," Miranda said. She started pacing, carefully making a circuit of the hall, following the edges, until she came to a stop at what looked like a bare wall.

"They weren't much for decoration," Andy said. "Is there something behind that wall?"

Miranda placed both hands, palms down, against the wall. "Whatever it is, it doesn't seem to want to be there."

"Great," Andy said, sighing. "Mystery object doesn't want to come out and join us."

"It appears to be chained, though how it can be is a mystery," Miranda said.

Romana joined Miranda with her palms resting against the wall. "That is an odd feeling," she said. "Pushing and pulling at the same time. I do not think it has a mind of its own."

"Should be easy to deal with then," Andy said, massaging her forehead.

"Are you feeling well?" Miranda said, watching her over her shoulder.

"Getting a little foggy out here," Andy said, leaning against the opposite wall. Before Miranda could catch her, she slumped to the floor.

Andy opened her eyes, and found herself somewhere else. It was eerily like the previous day when she'd fallen asleep and she and Miranda had ended up in that strange virtual reality where they'd met those two beings. She still thought they were elves, though Miranda didn't agree, even though the language they'd 'gifted' them with was very close to Sindarin.

"Good, good," a squeaky voice said behind her. "You're awake."

Getting to her feet, Andy turned around looking for the owner of the voice. Floating in the air was a small creature, vaguely reminiscent of something from an anime, a chibi-like character. "Where am I?" Andy said.

"Where were you before?" The creature asked. "That's where you are now."

"That isn't a helpful answer," Andy said, frowning. "Who are you?"

"The Guardian," it said. "You have entered my domain."

"And your domain is this empty space?" Andy asked waving at the distant white walls.

"My domain is the Heart of the People," it said. "You and your nosy companions have been rummaging around it like a wild gundan."

"Who are the People, and what's a gundan," Andy said.

"You seem to be one of the People, though you have oddly rounded ears," it said. "And a gundan can only be experienced, not explained."

"My ears are the way they've always been," Andy said. "Where are we? Really?"

"Not in your head," it said, giggling. "But using your head inside."

"You don't make any sense," Andy said. "If you need something from me, say so."

"I need nothing, now," it said. "I've been freed by your bumbling actions and can go about my business. Messes to clean up. Things to put in order."

"Freed from what?" Andy asked. "Were you locked up in the library?"

"Library?" It tilted its head and gave her a puzzled look. "A place with discrete containers of information? Is that what you mean?"

"Maybe?" Andy said. "We found it on this deserted planet in an old city. We've been trying to find something and thought information about it might be here. But there's just too much to look through."

"You have the control bracelet," the Guardian said. "That should be all you need."

"I don't know what it does," Andy said. "There weren't any instructions."

"Call me," it said. "I will provide assistance. Now go! Back to your nosy companions, before that Bright One gets violent and makes things even more of a mess!"

Things around Andy started to go gray, and faded away. Blinking, she found herself back in the hallway, sitting on the floor and leaning against the wall, with Miranda standing over her looking furious. "What's going on?" Andy said.

Miranda blinked and sat down, almost on top of her, and pulled her into a hug. "Don't do that again!" She whispered fiercely.

"Do what?" Andy said, confused.

"You were gone, somewhere I couldn't follow," Miranda said. "And now something is happening in this building."

"The Guardian said it had things to put in order," Andy muttered. "I guess it wasted no time."

"Guardian?" Miranda said.

"Remember the other day? When we had that encounter with those two beings?" Andy said. "It was sort of like that, except you weren't there."

"More playing with our heads," Miranda said, unhappily. "Whomever it is, they seem to think traipsing around in our heads is perfectly acceptable."

"I don't like it," Ixchel said, sitting down next to them. "Too long have I had an unwelcome entity in my head. I don't enjoy the idea of a return visit."

"I don't think they are like that," Andy said, yawning. "Sorry, whatever that was has worn me out."

"This Guardian," Miranda said. "What did it say?"

"That we'd freed it," Andy said. "I think it was the presence you were feeling. It called this all the 'Heart of the People' and it is its guardian. No, it didn't say who the People are."

"That is a common name," Miranda said. "A civilization that considers itself the only 'people' until it encounters others, their name for themselves is often The People."

"Seems a bit pretentious but not surprising," Andy said, nodding. "How long was I out of it?"

"Ten minutes," Miranda said.

"Didn't feel that long," Andy said, rubbing her head. "So, this Guardian is around here somewhere. Hopefully they won't kick us out when they remember we're here."

"We have no way to contact them, unless you plan to spend your time unconscious," Miranda said. "Which I do not approve of."

"The Guardian did say, after claiming I was one of these People, even with the odd shaped ears, that all I had to do was call them. Something about the bracelet," Andy said.

"I believe a meal is in order first before any further experiments," Miranda said. "Memo and Romana are down in the lobby setting up lunch."

"Okay," Andy said, using Miranda's help to stand. "Not sure I'm really that hungry."

"You will eat," Miranda said.

"I can try," Andy said, stumbling as Miranda and Ixchel guided her towards the stairs. "Haven't felt like this in years. It's like spending a week in the training pods."

"If what you describe is correct, it was something similar," Miranda said. "But requires more energy."

"So, there is a spirit of some sort guarding this building?" Ixchel said. "That could be a good thing if they are helpful."

"It didn't seem angry or antagonistic," Andy said. "Just annoyed at having to clean up someone's mess."

"If it's been locked away since the original residents left, it is very messy," Miranda said. "Time tends to lead to chaos."

"But maybe it can help us find what we want?" Ixchel said. "What is its purpose? To just guard? Or is it the catalog you are looking for?"

"That seems too simple," Andy said. "Just say "Guardian, where is the data crystal I want!' ?"

"That is very vague," a squeaky voice said, startling them. "You will need to be more specific." There was a faint hum and it was gone.

"That just happened, didn't it," Andy said, sighing. "I guess I'll have to be careful what I say now."

"And we will have to be more explicit about what we need from it," Miranda said.

They finally made it down into the lobby, to find a number of changes.

"Was it this clean this morning?" Andy said, looking around. "And neat?"

"No, it was not," Miranda said.

"And there wasn't a table," Ixchel said, pointing to an alcove where Memo and Romana were standing near a table.

"I hope we still have our food," Andy muttered. "I don't want to know what very old food tastes like."

They reached the alcove, to find that the food they'd brought with them that morning was laid out on the table, like a picnic.

"Did we bring any juice? Or just water?" Andy asked, grabbing a chair and flopping down.

"You insisted on juice, if you may remember," Miranda said, sitting next to her.

"Can't say that I do, but I'm glad I remembered," Andy said. "So, how is everyone doing? This looks cozy." She patted the table.

"It just appeared," Romana said. "And something has been cleaning in here."

"That would be the building Guardian," Andy said. "Apparently it was not happy with the housekeeping in its absence."

"Guardian?" Memo said. "A spirit?"

"Possibly," Miranda said. "An entity that believes itself responsible for this building. It seems to have introduced itself to Andrea."

"Wasn't much of an introduction," Andy said, "but there is hope of getting better acquainted with it."

"Has it indicated that it can help us find what we are looking for?" Memo said. "Give us an index or catalog?"

"Not in so many words," Andy said. "And right now it seems busy cleaning things up after thousands of cycles of inactivity."

"If it can organize the data crystals, and tell us how they are organized, even that would be an improvement," Memo said, cautiously picking up a sandwich.

"Let's eat first," Andy said. "I find myself hungrier than normal."

"What did you find out in the city today?" Miranda asked them.

"This is the best preserved building," Ixchel said. "It looks as if part of the city was left hurriedly, but other parts are empty like they were abandoned many cycles before the mass exodus."

"But there is no sign of conflict," Romana said. "If they were chased away from here, they were not under attack at the time."

"We do have that rather large radiation field," Andy said. "Maybe they used that to slow down their enemies first?"

"We don't know enough about what happened out there," Romana said. "The Kraal ship graveyard might be unrelated."

"I suspect the Kraal came here to do their usual plundering and ran into that existing radiation field," Ixchel said. "I have seen something of that type before used by a race other than the Kraal."

"You don't think the Kraal caused the evacuation?" Miranda said, leaning forward.

"The timelines don't really fit," Ixchel. "This city has been abandoned for a very long time. I suspect long before the Kraal were seen in this area."

"Are we sure about that?" Andy said. "The Confederation history does have a few hole in it."

"Yes," Ixchel said. "Whatever happened here was before the Confederation existed. It is less than ten thousand cycles old. This was at least one hundred thousand cycles ago, if not longer."

"We never did learn how old the Ring network is," Andy said. "Other than very old, the Confederation doesn't know how old it is, or even who built it."

"Based on what I've seen and heard, I would suspect the Furlings had some influence on the builders of Rings out there and the one in this building," Miranda said. "But when we start talking of time periods of that magnitude it becomes hard to distinguish fact from legend."

"Which makes this library invaluable," Memo said. "If we can take this knowledge back with us, think of the things it will reveal."

"We'd have to get a bigger ship, with a lot of storage," Andy said. "And the Guardian would probably object and who knows what defenses it has."

"So, if you want to access the library you will have to come here," Memo said, nodding. "It's an amazing find."

"You just want to be the head librarian," Andy said, smirking. "You'd have to get along with the Guardian."

"I have not met it yet, but yes," Memo said. "It would be an honor to be tasked with the responsibility for this library."

"I can see there being a huge fight over it," Andy said. "What territory are we in again?"

"It's a dead zone, between several Clan territories," Ixchel said. "Including ours."

"I think we can claim it, and put Memo in charge?" Andy said. "We're the ones in possession."

"Unlikely," Miranda said. "We don't have the clout yet to do that. As soon as we left there's be a flood of other Clans and pirates looking to steal it."

"Well, we can't have that," Andy said. "What can we do?"

"Keep it a secret until we do have the ability to protect it," Miranda said. "But we all must agree to that."

"I am willing to swear a Clan oath," Memo said, "for the Wind Clan."

"And I would swear one also," Ixchel said. Romana nodded in agreement.

"We may have to get Lady Shadow involve before we make too many plans," Andy said. "She'll know how we can protect this from being pillaged."

"You don't think I can protect my own Heart?" A squeaky voice said. The Guardian appeared, hovering over the middle of the table.

"Now who's being nosy?" Andy said, raising an eyebrow.

"You are discussing the future of something that is mine," it said. "A future you have no authority to discuss unless the People agree that you do."

"How can we ask your people," Andy said. "We don't even know who they are or where to find them."

"Most of them have gone ahead," the Guardian said, grimacing. "And the few remaining seem to have changed." It looked pointedly at Andy's ears.

"Who are the People, Guardian of this Heart?" Miranda asked, her voice ringing with authority.

"The People are the People," it said, shrugging. "What other name would they have?"

"What did others call them?" Miranda asked.

"I will need to consult the others," it said. "I am not familiar with any other name for the People."

"Others?" Andy said.

"The other Guardians," it said. "I shall return." There was a faint sound of bells as it disappeared from their view.

"Was that progress?" Andy said.

"We now know it isn't the only one of its kind," Miranda said.

"There must be other libraries," Memo said excitedly, before take a large bite out of her sandwich. "Representing them to the Confederation would be an exciting task."

"Don't get too far ahead of yourself," Andy said. "It's possible these other guardians won't agree. If they even exist."

"They must be guardians of other hidden libraries," Romana said. "If we could search those also, we may find what we are looking for, to defeat the Kraal."

"I think finding those Prophets would be a good first step. The Furlings must have taken them somewhere," Andy said. "Maybe they passed through one of these libraries? Though that would be a little too convenient."

"Only if they left traces of their passage," Ixchel said.

"There is that," Andy said. "The Furling haven't been seen in this sector in thousands of cycles. There may not be someone who remembers the Prophets. Or they just took the Prophets with them on a whim and dropped them off at some unknown system."

"That would be a small issue," Miranda said, "but is pure speculation. It is more likely that the Furlings are somehow related to the builders of this city."

"Unfortunately, there is no one to ask," Memo said. "The Prophets disappeared hundreds of cycles ago."

"We do have that prophecy that says we will find them," Andy said, trying to insert a ray of hope into the discussion.

"Prophecies are fickle things," Miranda said. "Glimpsing the future is fraught with problems."

"We should finish up," Andy said, picking up her garbage and eating utensils. "We may need to move fast if the Guardian comes back.

Romana and Ixchel had gone back to exploring the city while the others returned to the lower levels, hoping to make some sense of what was there.

"If one level is business and government records, they must have been here for a long time," Andy said. "Not very exciting reading." She pulled a data crystal, detailing the economy of the city over several long periods, out of her viewer.

"The people settled this land in the Year of Zoan," the Guardian said, grabbing the crystal and carrying it across the room. It returned and hovered in front of them. "They stayed until there was need to return." It disappeared with a pop.

"Return where?" Andy asked the empty air. "I hate when it does that," she said. "A document on how these People designated time would be helpful, Guardian," she said.

A data crystal appeared in the air in front of her. Andy grabbed it out of the air before it could hit the ground. Shaking her head, she inserted it into her viewer. "Thank you!" She said.

"A book on time?" Memo said. Andy nodded.

"Unfortunately, this is another chicken and egg situation," Andy said, sighing. "You have to understand their science before this probably makes sense."

"Maybe you asked the wrong question," Miranda said. "It seems clear that this city was abandoned years before the Prophets disappeared. What we need to know is where the Furlings went and when they would have met the Prophets."

"I do not recall any such beings as Prophets," the squeaky voice said. "The people had many cities and traveled far and wide. I will enquire of the other Guardians when they were last seen."

"Thank you, Guardian," Andy said. "It's like dealing with one of the AI's," she said in a low voice. "Never really gone. Always listening."

"As long as they are willing to provide needed information," Memo said, "I will not object."

"Guardian?" Andy said. "Is there a history of the people, as far as you know it?"

"Of course," it said, again appearing in front of them. "The people consider their history important. But we will have to travel to another Heart to learn the latest. The synchronization between this Heart and the others appears to be deficient and will not be fixed at this time."

"So, the Hearts share information?" Andy said. "Everything?"

"The city records stay here, of course," it said. "Just a summary of that information is shared. But all important information the belongs to the entire People is normally shared. But it is possible the events you are interested in is only stored at one Heart."

"How do we get there?" Andy said. "And what about our ship?"

"The Ring Gate, of course," it said. "This ship you speak of? The local Ring Gate for large conveyances was destroyed to prevent the Virii from following the People when they left. If you wish it to follow it must travel though linear space."

"We'll have to discuss this with our crew," Andy said. "So, just to be clear, we would travel through the Heart's Rings until we reach the one with the most relevant information? Is it possible to go directly to that one?"

"There are several shorter paths," it said, "but only from a master Ring Gate, and the one here is no longer a master. That purpose was superseded when the city was abandoned."

"Is there a time limit on this travel?" Miranda said. "Or only certain days that can be traveled?"

"Why would that matter?" It said. "What purpose would that serve?"

"Apologies," Miranda said. "We are unfamiliar with the People's culture."

"That can be corrected," it said. "This contains the basic information." It dropped another data crystal into the air, that Andy quickly grabbed, handing it to Miranda.

"We'll return tomorrow," Andy said, "with answers for you."

After collecting Ixchel and Romana, they headed back to the Lucia.

"So, do you think it is wise to jump into one of these Ring gates with this Guardian?" Ixchel said.

"We've used the Rings before," Andy said. "But this time we'll have a guide so it should be safer."

"Or at least not immediately fatal?" Miranda said. "You have a lot of faith in this Guardian."

"It just feels right," Andy said. "Though we will need to plan this carefully. There are a number of questions to answer before doing it. Not the least of which is what to do about the Lucia."

"If we can know where the Rings are, we can send it ahead," Ixchel said. "Though I suspect Garnes and Dart will not be happy with us."

"What won't we be happy with?" Garnes said, appearing out of thin air, wearing her pilot's Hard Suit.

"We were offered an alternate way to travel," Andy said.

"Start at the beginning," Garnes said. "Offered by who and from where to where?"

"It appears that the library has an AI Guardian," Ixchel said. "And it has offered to take us to other similar libraries."

"And how will you travel? Does this Guardian have its own ship?" Garnes said.

"No," Andy said. "Apparently there's a Ring System that connects them. We would have to go through that."

"I see. Are you prepared to do it? If I remember your account of your last trip through a Ring system it wasn't a simple thing and took a long time." Garnes said.

"There is the potential that there are ship sized Ring Gates available," Andy said.

"In this system?" Garnes said.

"The one here apparently was destroyed," Andy said. "But if we can find the next one, we could go there and you could join us."

"Seems to be a lot of uncertainty involved," Garnes said. "How do we find this Ring?"

"I don't know yet," Andy said.

"We'll need to know more then," Garnes said. "You are all our responsibility. Lady Shadow and Lady Air would not be happy with us if we let you travel on your own."

"We'll figure that out," Andy said. "But do we have the equipment that would allow us to safely travel?"

"Give me time to review this idea," Garnes said. "Assuming Dart and I even agree to this harebrained idea."

"That's fair," Andy said. "We can still learn plenty from this library."

"You haven't said much about this idea," Andy said later to Miranda, after they'd gone to bed.

"It's clear that you want to do this," Miranda said. "I will not stop you. But you must be certain that this is how you want to proceed, and that you really want to bring along the others. This Ring system is very old. Possibly not as old as the one we traveled through last year but still old enough that it may be dangerous."

"I think we can do this safely," Andy said. "It links together a bunch of libraries. How dangerous could that be?"

"If they are in hostile territory? Very," Miranda said.

"But we'll have the Lucia to back us up," Andy said.

"Not on this first jump. We'll have to go through the Ring, get our bearings and come back and tell Garnes where it is so she can take the Lucia there to meet us. Unless it is just one or two systems over, it may take days for them to get to us."

"Okay, so there might be drawbacks to doing it like that, leap frogging from one to the next," Andy said. "But think of the knowledge we will get from it."

"And the cost if something happens to one of us? Will it have been worth it?" Miranda said.

"No," Andy said, frowning. "Likely not. But I still think it would be important to go to these other libraries."

"There are six of them," Miranda said. "This may take a while."

"Six?" Andy said. "The Guardian didn't say."

"It is mentioned in the data crystal they gave us. Six centers of knowledge," Miranda said.

"So, the Hearts of the People. I think we can handle that," Andy said. "As long as they aren't buried under tons of snow or ice or mud."

"If they are in Clan territory, we will likely have to negotiate for access," Miranda said.

"Or sneak in and out, if they don't know these libraries exist," Andy said.

"Whatever is best for that specific location," Miranda said.

Chapter Text

"So that's the plan," Andy said, looking at the others. "Ixchel and I will go through the Ring Gate to the first address, with the Guardian, get the galactic co-ordinates, and come back. Then we'll take the Lucia to that location."

"Will you do this for all of the gate addresses?" Romana said. "Would it not be faster just to take the gates?"

"This seems the safest plan," Andy said. "We can still use the Lucia for our home base, and only two of us are traveling through the Rings to potentially unsafe locations."

"Also, we only have two of us trained for suit combat if it becomes necessary," Ixchel said.

"All of us, well except for Lady Miranda and Lady Memo, have hard suits," Romana said.

"They aren't all the same," Dart said. "Those two suits are designed for actual combat, but the rest of us have environmental suits. That may provide protection during a boarding situation but they aren't armed and ready for battle."

"It's a different focus," Andy said, nodding in agreement. "We don't expect to run into problems on the other side, but if we do we'll be prepared."

"And the opportunity to get back into your hard suit and go for a 'run' had nothing to do with it," Miranda said, shaking her head in amusement.

"Well, there's that also," Andy said, shrugging. "There has been so little opportunity to go out for a run on this trip."

"So, tomorrow we go back to the library and tell the Guardian," Ixchel said.

"What happens to the city when the Lucia leaves?" Memo asked. "Won't it become inaccessible again?"

"That is exactly as planned," Garnes said. "We want to keep access to this city protected. We don't have a portable shield large enough to protect the entire city, but we can encapsulate the library and shield it. No one will know the city is here when we go."

"Good," Memo said. "Even finding other similar libraries, we don't want to lose any."

"Are you sure," Miranda said, as they stood outside the library the next morning.

"It's a simple scouting trip," Andy said. "Sure, we don't have the JJ's or the twins along this time but we're familiar with the technique. Go through the gate, take a look around to assess things, and return."

"As long as you come back," Miranda said. "If you don't I will find you."

"That's as expected," Andy said, winking. "Let's go find the Guardian and get this show on the road."

Andy and Ixchel walked into the library, and Andy called for the Guardian. "Guardian, we've made a decision."

"You are dressed oddly," the Guardian said, appearing before them. It circled them. "What is the purpose of these odd clothes?"

"Protective armor," Andy said. "Ixchel and I will go with you to the next Heart through the Ring Gate, get its co-ordinates, come back here and take our ship, the Lucia, to that location."

"As you wish," The Guardian said, "But it would certainly be faster to just use the Rings."

"We prefer to do it this way," Ixchel said. "If there is a ship-capable Ring Gate we will take it the next time."

"Yes, yes, of course," the Guardian said. "We will first travel to the Moons of Andor through the Ring."

"What is it known for?" Andy asked.

"Known for?" The Guardian asked.

"Why is there a Heart of the People there?" Andy asked. "What makes it special?"

"There was once a Fleet of the People stationed in the system," the Guardian said. "The Guardian in the Heart tells me that they have passed from there out into the Deep, never to be seen again."

"Okay," Andy said. She paused to notify Garnes over the short range comm, that their destination appeared to be in an old base. Or near one.

They went up to the Ring Gate on the upper level. Andy and Ixchel entered with the Guardian. The others stayed out in the hallway when the Guardian couldn't guarantee it would be safe for watchers.

"How do you enter the address sequence?" Andy asked, curious, as the Ring started to glow and slowly rotate.

"All guardians are linked to their Gates," it said. "the controls are accessible only to the Guardians."

"What about the Ship gates?" Ixchel said. "Do they also require a Guardian to operate?"

"No, but every Guardian can control them,' the Guardian said.

"Good to know," Andy said. "Are all of the Rings in the same place?"

"No," the Guardian said. "They are all in secure or protected locations, but not all are this secure."

"Where is this one?" Ixchel asked.

"In the Palace of the Night," the Guardian said. "The administrative center of this sector."

"Sector?" Ixchel said.

"The six sectors ruled over by the People," the Guardian said.

The Ring started to rotate faster, gradually becoming a blur before the distinctive center of a Gateway appeared in its center.

"That is a different kind of gate," Andy said in a low voice.

"It is possible that the size of the ring affects the diagnosis parameters," Ixchel said.

"It would be very useful if one of these could be built into one of our ships," Andy said.

"I am not aware of any mobile Rings," Ixchel said, "but that does not mean there aren't any."

"I'm sure the Shadows are already researching that, but if we gave them proof they'd be very happy, I suspect," Andy murmured.

"Please follow," the Guardian said, approaching the Ring's event horizon. With a faint pop, it disappeared into the Ring.

"That answers the question of whether the Guardians are tied to a specific location," Andy said. Taking a quick step, she walked through the Ring, followed by Ixchel.

Even through her hard suit, Andy could feel the cold passage through the Ring. She'd become familiar with the feeling but had never really gotten used to it. There was just something about having your self turned into energy and thrown across unimaginable distances that caused a shiver to travel down her spine. Even a ship's high energy warp drives didn't have the same effect.

She stepped out of the ring and to the side to make room for Ixchel, her sensors going full blast to record everything.

"Good thing we went first," she said, looking around. They appeared to be in an airless, dust covered room. With no roof.

"Yes," Ixchel said over the comm. "It does not appear safe for casual travelers."

"Come, hurry," the Guardian said, its voice somehow traveling over their comm circuits.

Andy and Ixchel quickly followed, treading carefully over debris, until they came to a large door with odd designs on it.

"Airlock?" Andy said, looking at the door's strange appearance.

The door slowly slid open, reveling a small, white walled, room with another door on the other side.

"It appears so," Ixchel said. "Hopefully breathable on the other side."

They went into it and the door closed shut behind them. There was a quick hissing and Andy's sensors registered breathable air. "Some kind of oxygen rich atmosphere," she said, though she didn't open her helmet.

The inner door opened and they walked into a large ante-room, with large wall hangings and paintings covering the walls.

"Are these real?" Andy asked, frowning, unsealing her helmet.

"They are simulations," the Guardian said. "The originals went with the fleet when it left."

"So, they had some kind of sentimental value," Andy said, nodding. "Is there any place we can find the spacial coordinates of this library? Where is it in relation to the other libraries."

"This Guardian can provide such information," a lower voice said. A different looking chili-guardian appeared next to theirs. "This guardian stores the star charts of the People."

"That is very helpful," Andy said. "If you could show them to us?"

"Yes, Lady of the People," the local Guardian said. "You and your companion may examine the star charts." It turned and haded towards a large door.

The room they entered was large. Each wall contained star charts that seemed to change as they watched them. In the centered of the room was a large translucent rotating globe.

"Where is the other Heart in relation to this one?" Andy asked.

"These are all of the Hearts," the other Guardian said. Green lights appeared on the globe. "This is this one." One of the lights turned orange. It was on the edge of the globe. Another one, this time in purple, appeared nearby." And that is the one you came from."

:We need this location in standard Galactic notation," Andy said. "How do we convert this into that?"

"Your standard star map would be needed," the other Guardian said. "For comparison purposes."

"I can provide that," Ixchel said. "How do we give it to you?"

"There is an interface in that," the guardian said, pointing at a small podium. "It should support your communication device."

"Famous last words," Andy muttered. "Think you can connect your suit video to theirs?"

"Simple," Ixchel said. Stepping over to the podium, she made an adjustment to her external comm. A large uneven map appeared in the air above the globe. It slowly turned and stretched until the new one overlaid the older globe in several places.

"That's impressive," Andy said. "The Lucia isn't that far away."

"Two day's travel?" Ixchel said, stepping down from the podium.

"Possibly," Andy said. "The units aren't quite the same. But if that is accurate, we can bring the Lucia here easily. It also doesn't cross any Clan territory."

"Is there anything else we need to know?" Ixchel said, "before we head back to the Lucia?"

"A docking spot for the Lucia, and anything to watch out for, would be helpful," Andy said.

A map of the entire facility appeared, replacing the star globe. "Much of the base has become inaccessible over the last millennia," the local guardian said. "Exploring is not recommended."

"Understood," Andy said. "We'll be careful."

"If those are the official docking facilities, it doesn't look like we can use them," Andy said, looking across the debris strewn plain, after taking careful star chart readings, hoping that Garnes could make sense of them.

"It appears that they destroyed them when they left," Ixchel said. "They must not have expected to return."

"So, we'll need to find somewhere close by that the Lucia can land on," Andy said.

"It might be best to leave that to Garnes," Ixchel said. "She knows what Lucia needs for a landing area."

"Yes," Andy said. "But giving some choices wouldn't hurt." She turned, carefully overlaying the base map over what she was seeing. "There's a repair depot in that direction. That would work, if it hasn't been turned into rubble."

"Shall we check it out?" Ixchel said, before taking off at a run.

They spent several hours exploring, before returning to the library.

"We're ready to go back," Andy said, when their Guardian appeared. "We'll be back shortly, with our ship," she told the local guardian.

They left the library, traveling back through the airlock and into the chamber containing the Ring.

The Ring started spinning and shortly connected. Their Guardian went through first, followed by Andy and Ixchel.

Miranda was waiting for them when they stepped through the Ring.

"You waited," Andy said, smiling. "I'd hug you but it might be a bit awkward with the suit," she said.

"It will keep," Miranda said. "Are you satisfied with what you found?"

"Well, the library itself seems to be in good condition but everything else looks like it was in the middle of a war. To get from the Gate chamber to the library you have to wear an EV suit of some kind. But you'll see in the comm recordings later."

"It was interesting," Ixchel said. "It must have been a large base when it was in use."

"The People's Fleet called it home for almost as long as they were here," the Guardian said. "I must update from what I was given by the guardian," it said. "Please inform me when you plan to return."

"No sooner than tomorrow," Andy said. "But we will let you know."

"Where are the others?" Ixchel said.

"Memo is down in the lower data level," Miranda said. "Romana is out exploring the city, and Garnes and Dart are with the Lucia, of course."

"I shall find Romana before returning with her to the Lucia," Ixchel said. Stepping out of the Gate room, she disappeared with the quickness only someone wearing a command hard suit could manage.

"She's missing Romana," Andy said, "though we weren't really gone that long."

"Of course," Miranda said. "I also missed you, though it was not very long. We've been apart for much longer at times."

"Me too. babe," Andy said. "Shall we grab Memo and head back to the Lucia? I'm sure Garnes will want to review what we saw. It was very messy. Either there was a war or they destroyed much of their base when they left."

"But the library was intact?" Miranda said. "Any hints as to whether it will help us?"

"It wasn't clear from the brief time we spent there. It was more about getting the rest of you there," Andy said.

They all gathered in the ship's lounge.

"This is what we saw," Andy said, displaying a recording of their trip on the lounge view screen. "As you can see, much of it has been destroyed."

"Did you find information on what caused this?" Garnes said. "It looks like it was done by ship guns but in a methodical fashion, not during a battle."

"The guardian said the fleet rendered it inoperable before leaving and not coming back," Andy said.

"I can see that," Garnes murmured. "It could probably be put back into limited use fairly quickly but if you look at those larger structures, the ship handling equipment, for large ships, not much remains of it."

"The landing field is just a bunch of holes in the ground," Andy said. "If the library wasn't there I'd want to start from scratch and not try to fix it."

"How far is it from here?" Ixchel asked. "It wasn't clear from the library's star charts other than it is relatively close by."

"It's not in the dead zone," Garnes said. "It'll take Lucia's nav computer a few more hours to pinpoint it exactly, but if is deep in Ice Clan territory."

"We'll need a reason to be there," Dart said. "They can be a bit prickly."

"I think the same reason should suffice," Miranda said. "We're looking for Andrea's ancestral family."

"It's even true," Andy said. "It's starting to feel like The People actually are the Furlings."

"Starting?" Romana said, lifting an eyebrow. "It has been clear since the Guardian appeared. It refers to you as one of the People, but with odd ears."

"Well, it could be wrong," Andy said. "And I'm not sure what it is about the ears."

"They aren't pointed like most Furlings," Miranda said. "That has been remarked upon on numerous times."

"Pointed ears? Like Elves?" Andy said, rubbing the top of an ear.

"I believe we need to have a long discussion with your parents," Miranda said. "They could have saved us time."

"You know how they are," Andy said, shrugging. "Off in their own little world."

"It's time they joined the rest of us," Miranda said. "This affects them also." "After we finish this trip," Andy said. "We can go visit them and ask a few questions."

"Of course," Miranda said.

"So, we'll wrap things up here tomorrow, and head towards that old base?" Andy said.

"Will the Guardian be coming with us?" Memo asked.

"A good question," Miranda said. "I don't believe it has said."

"We can ask tomorrow," Andy said, "though I suspect not. They introduced us to the next Guardian but otherwise didn't get involved."

"We're leaving in several hours," Andy said to the Guardian. "Are you meeting us there in several days or staying here?"

"I am the guardian of this Heart of the People," it said. "I do not have a place elsewhere. I shall remain here and continue to protect it."

"We've placed a portable shield in the lowest level to protect this part of the city when we are gone," Ixchel said. "It will remain powered for several hundred cycles, unless there are attempts to subvert it. But we should return long before it needs to be reenergized."

"It is unnecessary," the Guardian said. "Now that I am at full capacity, the Heart is fully protected. And communication with the other Hearts is currently being repaired."

"But it will make us happy to know that there is additional protection for the Heart," Andy said. "Think of it as extra protection."

"This Guardian will accept the extra protection from a Lady of the People," the guardian said.

"Good," Andy said. "It may be a number of cycles before we return."

"No other will be allowed access to this facility," the Guardian said. The Guardian then faded away with a small tinkling of bells.

"I guess that's it?" Andy said. "Do we have everything?"

"Yes," Memo said. "There were several interesting collections of history and legend that the Guardian provided."

After one last look around, the team exited the library, the doors closing behind them. They moved briskly through the city towards the Lucia.

"Was there anything in the city itself worth recording?" Andy asked. "Or was it all just old empty buildings?"

"We have an idea of how many residents and what they did in the city," Memo said, "but we were able to get most of that from the library records. After several thousand cycles there just wasn't much left."

"So, only the library is worth preserving?" Andy said.

"There are people who enjoy exploring old buildings and figuring out how old civilizations worth," Miranda said. "They are known as archeologists and anthropologists."

"Ha!" Andy said. "You aren't fooling me. You like digging into all that old stuff too."

"It is interesting, when we have the time for it," Miranda said. "But we don't."

"And how much value is there to digging up old building when we have actual written records of how things were?" Romana said. "Unless you are a Memory and then you're just placing it in the larger Clan context."

"I much enjoy learning about how our ancestors did things and their battles and triumphs," Memo said. "But these people might be interesting but there is not much of a way to connect them to us to provide the Clan context."

"If they are the Winter Folk," Romana said, "then there is a larger context that concerns all of us. Nothing is known of the Winter Folk beyond ancient legends. We know they influenced the migration of the Clans from planet bound to space travels but nothing is known about their reasons.

"It will be revealed in time," Miranda said. "No doubt."

"Home sweet home," Andy said, spying the Lucia in the distance. "This is much better than our previous trips through those Rings. Our own home base. Our own beds, no matter where we go. Much better than sleeping on the ground."

"It was an interesting survival exercise," Miranda said. "But this is certainly much better."

"And why is there another ship parked next to the Lucia?" Ixchel said. "I do not recognize it."

"Long range scout ship? Think I saw one once while visiting the Fleet," Andy said. "But I don't recognize the insignia."

"What brings the Weaver to us?" Romana said, frowning as the new ship.

"The Weaver? You mean Sophia?" Andy said. "I didn't ask for a priestess. Did anyone else? And how did she find us?" She looked at the others for an answer but didn't get anything.

"Someone must have had a vision," Ixchel said, sighing. "That's the only thing that would get a Weaver to travel from the Clan conclave into non-Clan territory."

"I guess we'll find out," Andy said.

"It could be a good thing," Miranda said. "The Winter Folk are a sensitive issue for some."

"Some not being us," Andy said. "You'll like her," Andy said, turning to Memo. "Very calming presence. Normal in fact."

"As normal as a Weaver can be," Ixchel said, frowning. "Her companion is a bit odd."

"Her companion is an artist," Miranda said. "They often are different. But that doesn't explain why the Weaver's craft is here."

"Lady Sophia, this is a surprise," Andy said, entering the ship's lounge ahead of the others. "What brings you here, to this out of the way corner of the universe? We were just about to leave."

"You will need assistance for the next stage of your quest," Sophia said.

"The Ice Clan is in the middle of their thousand cycle celebration of their survival of the destruction of their home planet. Their borders are closed to all but a few."

"And that few is you?" Andy said. "How'd you find out about this?"

"Their Weaver invited all Clan Weavers to the celebration," Sophia said. "I had not planned to attend but our goddess indicated that my presence would be helpful for your quest for the Winter Folk."

"We were planning to travel through Ice Clan territory for the next stage of our journey to some ancient ruins," Andy said. "But it isn't occupied or near any Ice Clan systems, that we're aware of."

"I'm not aware of your destination," Sophia said, "but you will need an official escort of some kind to get there unless you are willing to hold off visiting this ruin for another year. Right now, the only option is this."

"That's an added complication we hadn't expected," Andy said. She turned to look at Miranda. "Thoughts?"

"We don't have the luxury of waiting," Miranda said. "Either we include Lady Sophia in our plans or we leave the Lucia behind to catch up much further away."

"Which we can't do," Andy said. She turned back to Sophia. "Okay. Welcome to the Winter Folk Quest."

"Perhaps you can introduce your companions?" Sophia said, looking at the others gathered in the ship's lounge.

"That might be a good idea," Andy said. "You've already met Garnes, our Ship's Pilot and Clan spokesperson ambassador. Dart, who isn't here, is our ship's Engineer. Multi talented. You know Romana and Ixchel, of course. And myself and Miranda. That leaves Memo here, otherwise known as Lady Memo, Memory of the Wind Clan."

"I'd been warned by Lady Shadow that your team was rather eclectic," Sophia said, "but how did a member of he Wind Clan Council end up on your team?"

"That's a long story," Andy said.

"I was bored," Memo said, "and when I heard what one of our Prophets said about them, I asked if I could join."

"Well, that's the short version," Andy said, shaking her head. "But her presence is very welcome, providing an alternate viewpoint.

"Now that that is out of the way, what are you really doing out here?" Sophia said. "My ship's pilot said this is a restricted area."

"A Dead Zone, I believe the term is," Andy said. "We were looking for the Prophets of Zircon Nine, and one of the Wind Clan Prophets said they'd been taken away by the Winter Folk. The Galactics and Clans don't really have much information on the Winter Folk, so when Memo here mentioned an ancestor's encounter with an ancient library that predates the Confederation or Clans, we decided to look for it to see if it mentioned anything about the Winter Folk."

"The library was indicted in my ancestor's journals from the last Kraal war to be in the dead zone between the Wind Clan, Ice Clan, and Blue Clan territories. I requested that I be able to come along," Memo said.

"Your Clan Council didn't object? The discussions that occurred to allow these four to go on their quest were epic," Sophia said. "Our Memory wasn't allowed to go on this quest. Letting our Mother go on a quest took much discussion."

"The argument between Lady R and Lady Hands about this quest is legendary," Garnes said. "We heard about it even out in the Fleet."

"Yes," Sophia said. "So how did your Council accept your partaking in this quest?" She looked quizzically at Memo.

Memo grimaced. "Being the Memory of the Wind Clan is not a very important position. We have the Prophets to guide us. I suspect they hope I don't come back so they can select a new Memory who isn't so curious about things."

"Which isn't going to happen," Dart said fiercely. "We'll keep her safe and return her in one piece."

"The experience will be invaluable," Miranda said. "Are you joining us or just provide the leverage for us to continue?"

"Did you find the library?" Sophia asked. "Of some ancient civilization?"

"The Furling," Romana said. "They had a chain of systems connected together by Ring Gates. This is the oldest. Abandoned many cycles ago."

"We passed a derelict Kraal fleet on the way here, according to my pilot," Sophia said. "Did they have anything to do with this?"

"No," Ixchel said. "That Kraal fleet seems to have run into one of the Furling protections for their systems they left behind. Unfortunately, it isn't something we can use."

"There's a hundred thousand cycle time difference between the two," Andy said. "We explored the library here, and plan to follow them through until we find the information we need. If the Winter Folk took the Prophets somewhere it should be recorded in one of their libraries."

"And the Prophets should have information we'll need to defeat the Kraal," Ixchel.

"There's a connection between these Furlings and the Winter Folk?" Sophia said. "Even our records contain almost nothing about the Winter Folk. Anything we have was likely destroyed centuries ago."

"It appears that the Furling and Winter Folk are the same civilization," Andy said. "Why the two different names? We don't know. The AI running the library here just calls them the People."

"Many ancient civilizations referred to themselves in that manner," Sophia said. "They must not have encountered many other civilizations. So you're basically searching ancient libraries for information on where the Furlings went?"

"Yes," Andy said.

"Is there anything else I need to know?" Sophia said.

"The AI's running the libraries believe Andrea to be one of these Furling," Miranda said. "Though her ears seem to be an issue."

"No idea," Andy said, shrugging. "That's one reason for our hypothesis about the Winter Folk being Furlings. But we don't have a connection otherwise. They didn't call themselves either Furling or Winter Folk."

"I am unable to go with you on this quest to the end," Sophia said. "I would like to see this library, but I can't just disappear on your quest."

"Understood," Andy said. "It could be months before we find these Prophets."

"Who came with you," Romana asked. "Other than Cassandra, that is."

"Yes, Cassandra came with me," Sophia said, blushing. "I also have a pilot, Kirin, and an engineer, her twin Janna."

"And body guards?" Romana said. "You should have them, as befits your station."

"It's a small scout ship," Sophia said. "There isn't a lot of room for a large contingent of bodyguards. So we have several to share with you."

"Which means?" Andy said.

"I was asked to bring additional crew for your quest. When we leave they will continue with you," Sophia said. "We will still have one of Lady Hands troopers."

"Who?" Andy said. "We don't exactly have a lot of room either. Whomever is added will need to live in some cramped quarters."

"The Potter twins," Sophia said. "I was told you are familiar with them."

"Harry and Ginny?" Andy said. "Yes. They were with us on a project several years ago. They have experience with similar Ring Gates. They'll be a welcome addition."

"How long is this celebration?" Garnes said. "How long will we need to stay?"

"It's a month long," Sophia said. "But we are expected to only be there for the final ceremony."

"When do we need to get there?" Garnes said.

"The borders close in thirty days," Sophia said.

"I will work with your pilot," Garnes said. "This will require some synchronization to get us all there on time."

"And then we'll need to plan our trip to the library," Ixchel said. "We will likely be unable to hide our visit there from the Ice Clan fleet, if they are locking down their borders."

"You will need a much better excuse than you gave the Wind Clan," Memo said. "Some of us didn't believe your reasons."

"Something simple," Miranda said. "Once again."

"Simple and hopefully believable," Andy said. "Keep with the quest idea? It is true, in some ways."

"Just don't mention prophets," Sophia said. "The Ice Clan claims a wandering prophet gave them the warning that saved them. If you mention searching for prophets to defeat the Kraal they'll want to send several ships with you."

"Sounds like someone already warned you," Andy said.

"Lady Shadow," Sophia said. "Her briefing warned us about certain topics that would cause you problems with the Ice Clan."

"The Wind Clan prophets are occasionally useful," Memo said. "But we are aware of their fallibility. Any prophecy is analyzed by specialists before being released to the public."

"Not so the Ice Clan," Sophia said. "They believe all prophetic announcements are direct messages from their Gods. Our goddesses don't normally give us prophecies for guidance."

"Except this time," Andy said, wryly.

"But it wasn't a prophecy," Sophia said. "It was clear communication as to the value of providing your quest with assistance. There was nothing prophetic about it."

"Okay, so not a prophecy," Andy said. "Not some vague pronouncement about the future."

"Your goddesses are eminently reasonable," Miranda said. "They agreed not to provide vague, easily misunderstood advice in dreams."

"Is that what happened?" Andy said, smirking. "I thought you just read them the riot act."

Miranda shrugged. "They don't claim to be all powerful like some. Once they saw my point they were more co-operative."

"Please don't mention to the Ice Clan Weaver or anyone else we meet that you have some influence over our goddesses," Sophia said, wincing. "They wouldn't understand our relationship."

"I find it fascinating," Memo said. "The Wind Clan gods are rarely heard from. Our Weaver is a prophet who rarely partakes in Council deliberations."

"We were going to have dinner and then prepare to leave," Andy said. "Did you want to join us, and have your crew come over?"

"Of course," Sophia said.

"Hey Lady A, Lady P!" Ginny said, plopping down next to them in the galley. Harry sat down across from them. "You found more Ring gates!"

"Ladies," Andy said. "It's not so much that we found them as they found us."

"Do we get to go through them?" Harry aid.

"They aren't the same kind of Gates," Andy said. "I suspect they are more modern. Just big enough for two people at a time to travel through them. There are six that connect the six known Furling libraries. We've only been through one of them so far, Ixchel and myself."

"Is that the one that is in Ice Clan territory?" Ginny asked.

"There's one in the city here, and it connects to an old Furling base in Ice Clan territory," Andy said. "There's also supposed to be a ship sized Gate somewhere near that base but we aren't certain if it is working. There used to be one out in this system but it apparently was destroyed."

"That must have taken a large bomb," Harry said. "The large ones we've seen looked indestructible."

"The city Guardian wasn't very clear about what happened to it," Andy said.

"So, go through the gate, visit a library and then go to the next one?" Harry said. "That sounds simple."

"Somewhere along the way we expect to find out where the Furling disappeared to," Andy said. "We'll probably follow them."

"So, travel through some gates, visit a library or two, and then a new civilization," Harry said. "Sounds like fun."

"The Furlings have been called the Winter Folk," Miranda said quietly. "We do not know what will happen when we encounter them."

"So, a visit to an ancient civilization," Ginny said. "You guys always go on the most interesting trips."

"We try," Andy said. "The main concern is going to be Lady Memo. She has no experience with this kind of thing."

"Dart seems to have her well in hand," Ginny said, smirking. "But we can keep an eye on her, and the rest of you."

"Yes," Harry said. "No foolish feats of heroism now. That's what you have us for."

"As you are well aware," Miranda said. "Some people are prone to such things unintentionally."

"Yes, Lady P," Ginny said, grinning. "But we can keep such occurrences to a safe level. We've had a lot of practice, after all."

"I can take care of myself," Andy protested.

"Of course, Andrea," Miranda said.

Chapter Text

The Lucia docked first, followed by the Q'uq'umatz, Sophia's ship. The discussion of who would participate in the Ice Clan ceremony and who would meet with their Clan Council had taken several hours before they'd agreed how best to make their request.

The Ice Clan Council was reluctant to let them access ruins of an ancient civilization, that they hadn't known about, but eventually Sophia convinced them that there was no ulterior motive.

"Welcome, Weaver of the Serpent Clan," the head of the Ice Clan Council said, once introductions had been made and the doors were closed. "This is an unusual looking group to travel here at this time."

"May the Goddesses of the Serpent Clan bless your celebration," Sophia said. "Yes, our journey to your shores is two fold. We are here in honor of your celebration, but several of our members are also on a quest. Their journey takes them through your territory."

"What is the quest and what do you expect to find in Ice Clan territory," one of them said.

"I am tracing the last journey of my ancestors," Andy said, stepping forward. "We have followed their path to here."

"And who are your ancestors," they asked.

"In ancient Serpent Clan legends, they were known as the Winter Folk," Andy said. "Before they left this galaxy, they visited a number of ancient cities. One of them is on the far side of your territory."

"The Winter Folk are a myth," the Councilor said. "Even we have heard of them but many doubt their reality."

"The Winter Folk truly exist, Honored Councilor," Memo said. "And not just in descendants such as Lady Andrea. My people, of the Wind Clan, last knew of them during the last incursion of the Kraal."

"And you, Lady Memory of the Wind Clan, are part of this quest? How did that come to be?" The Councilor said.

"Lady Andrea, her consort Lady Miranda, and the others visited our home planet following rumors that the Winter Folk had visited us many cycles ago. Curious as to where the Winner People had gone, I agreed to join them."

"One of our legends pointed us there," Andy said. "From there we visited an ancient Winter Folk city that had been abandoned long before the Kraal appeared in that sector. From there there were indications of another Winter Folk city or base in your sector. Once your ceremonies are complete we would petition your permission to visit it."

"Where is it?" An eager Councilor said.

"We would prefer that it remain undisturbed until we are able to visit it," Andy said. "I'm sure you can understand."

"Yes, yes, of course," the Head of their Council said.

"That was an interesting ceremony," Andy said, as the Lucia and Q'uq'umatz headed towards their next destination, the old Winter Folk base on the moon of Far Side. The Ice Clan Council had agreed to let them search for it, but had insisted that they be escorted by one of their cruisers. That the Ice Clan would take possession of the ruins was implied but unavoidable.

"You are getting a varied introduction to all of the Clans," Miranda said. "At this rate, you'll have met all of the ruling Clan Councils long before the Serpent Clan must make its appearance at the Council of Clans next convocation."

"Assuming we survive the Kraal," Andy said. "And right now? There is no guarantee that we'll find anything that will help us."

"We already know that the Prophets of Zircon Nine will not have the answers we look for," Miranda said. "But something about this quest will give us a higher probability of defeating them."

"It seems like a very indirect method," Andy said. "Go to every ancient Furling library, ask about the Prophets and what happened to the Furling and hope there's some clue."

"But we are building relationships with the other Clans in the process. Relationships that can only help in the long run," Miranda said.

"The Clans coming together will not be a bad result," Sophia said on the ship's comm linking her ship to the Lucia, glancing up from the viewer, where she'd been absorbed in one of the Furling histories they'd brought with them. "At one time they worked together much more than they've become accustomed to since the Confederation appointed them guardians of different sectors."

"An argument could be made that the Confederation intentionally spread the Clans out so they were less powerful," Ixchel said. "It is what I would have done in their position."

"If that is remotely true, at some point they'll try to interfere," Andy said. "They can't be completely unaware of what we are doing."

"Some of those Ice Clan Councilors had a lean and hungry look," Ixchel said. "I do not trust them."

"Yes," Romana said. "If we had given them the coordinates in advance there'd likely be nothing left when we got there."

"If they hadn't found it already, they aren't likely to now, without our guidance," Miranda said.

"It was going to happen at some point," Andy said. "We can't keep these Furling ruins to ourselves permanently. But the base on Far Side is even more of a ruin than most. The Furling leveled it before leaving. If the library hadn't been protected against such things it would have been destroyed also."

"The Heart on Far Side will have its own protections," Ixchel said. "They will need a Furling to gain access to it."

"Which they don't have," Miranda said.

"That's not going to stop the Ice Clan forever," Andy said. "Hoping that the defenses of a long gone civilization will continue to protect it might be asking too much."

"We can only do what we can do," Miranda said. "The Furling ruins have survived for thousands of cycles. They will continue to survive."

"And the Ring Gates cannot be used without the co-operation of the Guardians," Romana said.

"It isn't clear that the ship Gates have the same protections," Andy said. "The Guardians aren't going to come with us so we'll need a way to activate them."

"The Rings are known by the Clans but none know how to use them, or even what they are," Memo said. "Using them while the Ice Clan is watching may tell them what they are for but not the knowledge of their use."

"The Galactics know what they are now," Andy said, "But we have exclusive access to that knowledge until the Kraal are dealt with. Lady Shadow convinced them that it was strategic information we needed to keep tight control of."

"Will this not cause problems then, if we leave using the Ship Gate on the Moon?" Romana asked.

"Not necessarily," Andy said. "Unless you have a destination it's just an interesting historical artifact."

"When do we get there?" Sophia asked. With her ship, and the Ice Clan ship slaved to the Lucia navigational systems, they were all traveling together.

"Another day of travel," Andy said. "Garnes has it plotted to take us as close to the base as possible, assuming there is little debris surrounding the moon."

"How much time do we have?" Ginny said, as they watched the Ice Clan ship take up station above the ruins. "They're going to want to start looking for anything valuable."

"It'll take a week for any other Ice Clan ships to reach us," Garnes said. "You have until then before they get too nosy."

"They're watching us," Andy said. "But without cooperation of the Guardians they won't find much. The Furlings completely stripped the base of anything remotely useful."

"The Guardian has monitored a number of attempts over the centuries to exploit the ruins," Ixchel said. "But other than rubble and the library nothing remains."

"And without Guardian cooperation the library is just another ruin," Andy said.

"They'll think something is going on when we disappear from their scanners," Harry said. "You need to find the information you want quickly."

"The Guardian is already looking for it," Andy said. "If there is anything here they should have it by now. This library is mainly valuable for its star maps showing the locations of the other libraries, which we'll copy. We just need to look at it, and get the Gate coordinates for the next Gate."

"How do we know the Ice Clan won't be able to access the library?" Sophia asked.

"Eventually they may," Andy said. "But none of the Clans have the tech to breach the shields of any of the Furling libraries at this point. If the Guardians hadn't recognized us, we'd have the same problem."

"Recognized you," Ixchel corrected. "They believe you are one of their People."

"I'm not sure where they get that idea from," Andy said, grumbling.

"It is likely true," Miranda said, "though they have yet to explain why they find your ears so fascinating." Her amusement was clear.

"Yeah, what's with the ears!" Andy said. "I like my ears, don't want any other ones."

"Anyone going down to the library needs to wear an EV suit," Garnes said, over the ship's comm. "According to Lady Andrea's data from the gate trip the library itself is self contained but the only way to get to it is from the outside."

"Yes, the Ring Gate is in a sheltered location but it is in a vacuum. The entrance to the library is through an air lock," Ixchel said.

"Guardian, what do you have for us?" Andy said, once they'd all entered the library. "Were you able to find the information we are looking for?"

"Welcome back, Lady of the People," the Guardian said. "A small fleet of the People passed through here many cycles ago, after the main fleet traveled on but they did not leave behind any additional knowledge. Their destination was the Swamps of Alfa Rei, according to their logs."

"At least they were here," Andy said. "Even if that doesn't seem remotely familiar. What else?"

"There are no records of these Prophets of Zircon Nine," the guardian said. "The request for information concerning them has been propagated to the other Guardians."

"We won't be able to stay long," Andy said. "One of the local Clans is a little too interested in the remains of your base. If we stay too long they might become even more interested."

"We shall engage full shields when you leave," the Guardian said. "It is of no concern."

"We shall leave the safety of this Heart in your capable control," Andy said. "We shall mostly be browsing, though our pilot would like copies of the navigation charts, historical and the most current."

"That shall be provided," the Guardian said.

"I find myself interested in the beliefs of the People," Sophia said. "And how much we have in common. Where may I find such information, Guardian?"

"This light will guide you," the Guardian said, a small red light appearing.

"Are there additional viewers, Guardian?" Romana asked.

"Yes," the Guardian said. "I shall provide additional viewers."

"Those star maps are amazing," Andy said, watching Garnes and Kirin, Sophia's pilot place recording equipment in the room. "The data crystals aren't enough?"

"It isn't directly compatible with our current systems," Garnes said, "but is close to earlier star charts. Recording it this way will provide additional reference points. Kirin will take copies of everything back to the Fleet for analysis."

"How far is the next Ring?" Andy asked. "If we wanted to go directly there?"

"From the translation we did after the earlier trip here, it could be a month or more to take the Lucia there. The Ship's Gate should be much faster, once we find it."

"Are we sure it wasn't destroyed with the rest of the base?" Andy asked.

"According to this local chart, it's right here," Garnes said. She switched the star chart to the local system and pointed to a point above the system. "We'll need the Guardian to enable it but once that is done we can use it."

"And Sophia's ship? How are you getting home?" She asked Sophia's pilot.

"Traveling back to Serpent Clan territory will actually be faster from the next node," she said. "It's closer to our territory."

"They seem to circling towards our sector," Ixchel said. "Very curious."

"Those Rings we traveled through did end in our system," Andy said. "It may not be a co-incidence."

"Something to ask the final Guardian," Ixchel said. "The rest will claim ignorance, even though the first one we met said they share knowledge."

"Yes," Andy said. "It's interesting that they don't just tell us everything but are making us travel to each library."

"They have motives of their own for this," Miranda said, from the entryway where she was observing them. "They don't appear to be malicious but we will need to be careful."

"What kind of plotting could they be doing several hundred millennia after the Furlings left?" Andy asked.

"Possibly none," Miranda said, "but we have already encountered others interested in your quest."

"The Ice Clan flunkies?" Andy said dismissively. "They're just typical greedy spacers. No worries there."

"No," Miranda said. "You know exactly who I mean."

"Well, they haven't made an appearance since that first time," Andy said. "I'm not going to worry about them just yet."

"Of course," Miranda said. "How much longer can we expect?"

"That's up to these two," Andy said.

"Possibly another day, Lady P," Garnes said. "We also need to know the Gate controls for the Space Gate, once we pinpoint its location."

"I'll inform the others," Miranda said, nodding. Turning, she left them to work out the details of the star maps.

"Guardian?" Andy said.

"Yes, Lady?" The Guardian said, appearing in the map room.

"Where on the charts is the Gate?" Andy said. "And how do we activate it?"

"The Gate is inactive," the guardian said. "It must be activated from the inner gate."

"What do we need to activate it?" Andy asked. "And where is it?"

"The Gate is here," the guardian said. The star map switched to a view of the system. A large glowing circle appeared above the system's sun.

"That isn't visible on our sensors," Garnes said. "How is it hidden?"

"It is not a single ring," the guardian said. "It should remain hidden unless activated."

"And how do we do that?" Andy said. "Do you need to go with us? To introduce us to the other guardians?"

"No," the guardian said. "Your presence has been announced to the other guardians. They are expecting you."

"And the activation?" Andy asked, again.

"It must be activated from the Heart Rings Gate," the guardian said. "When you are ready to proceed it will be done."

"And setting the gate address?" Garnes asked. "We don't have anything to set it."

"It too must be set from the Ring Gate," the Guardian said. "A control surface will be provide for your primary vessel to activate it."

"So it can't be changed except from here," Andy said. "I assume the other gates in this Gate system are activated in a similar fashion?"

"Yes, Lady," the Guardian said.

"Good," Andy said. "We will let you know when we need to leave."

"Yes, Lady," the Guardian said, before disappearing. The Star map reverted to its previous setting.

"I hope all of the Guardians aren't as hard to talk to," Andy said, grimacing. "Yes, I know. Thousands of years of doing their own thing does not lead to automatic agreement."

"Not how I would have put it," Garnes said, shaking her head. "But essentially the same."

"How far away is the next Gate from here?" Andy asked, trying to make sense of what she was seeing.

"A month's travel at our fastest, if we had to use our engines," Garnes said.

"Ouch," Andy said. "And this will really put you closer to home?" She asked Kirin.

"Yes, Lady Andrea. This will save us much travel time," Kirin said.

"How are your passengers taking the trip?" Andy asked.

"Lady Sophia and her consort?" Kirin asked. "Better than expected. The additional room when the Potter twins go with you will be welcome."

"They aren't causing problems, are they?" Andy said.

"No," Kirin said. "It is never boring with them on board. But their enthusiasm can wear down even the most hardened spacer."

"I've experienced them on a long expedition," Andy said. "We should be able to keep them out of trouble."

"If you say so," Kirin said, doubtfully. Garnes snorted.

"They're troopers," she said. "Lady Ixchel will have them behaving. She's tougher than some First Sergeants I've seen."

"She isn't that bad," Andy said.

"She likes you," Garnes said. "She has this look that can freeze you, making you wonder what you did wrong."

"Okay, she does have a very forceful personality. But Harry and Ginny have worked with her before so there should be no problems." Andy shrugged. "And their experience with Ring travel is invaluable. Just be glad you didn't have to bring the JJs with you. Those two Shadows are a handful and a half."

"Are we ready to go?" Andy asked, from where she was locked into her jump seat.

"Just finished warning the Ice Clanners now," Garnes said. "The Weaver's ship is slaved to ours. We'll go through together."

"And the library?" Andy asked Memo, who'd taken point in dealing with the Guardian.

"As soon as we start the sequence it'll all be locked down, until we come back."

"That'll disappoint the Ice'ers," Ixchel said, smirking. "They've been trying to get into it for days."

"They didn't have an invite," Andy said. "Maybe if they'd asked nicely. Maybe."

"It'll look different the next time we see it," Garnes said. "They'll likely turn it into a base for their own use."

"It is in a good central location," Ixchel said. "But the area the Guardian planned to lock down may prevent them from taking too much of it."

"You noticed," Andy said, grinning. "Let's get out of here."

Garnes nodded and leaned forward to press several buttons on her flight console. "Gate activated." A large glowing oval appeared on the forward view screen. It rotated and glowed for a minute before settling down. "All hands! Prepare for Gate transition," she said. The Lucia leaped forward into the gate, followed closely by the Q'uq'umatz.

For a timeless moment they seemed to be suspended in time, and then there was a jump and things started to happen again.

"Transition complete," Garnes said, her voice carrying across all comm channels.

"Transition successful," Kirin could be heard over the comm.

"That was interesting," Sophia could be heard saying over the comm.

"Always a rush," Ginny could be heard saying to Harry. "Even inside a big hunk of metal and plastic."

"A little too safe," Harry said grumbling.

"If you want the shear terror of jumping into the unknown, I'm sure we can find you some," Andy said. "We still have three gates after this one."

"She didn't mean that, Lady Andrea," Ginny said quickly. "Being in a nice safe ship like this during a Gate transition is fine."

"I understand," Andy said. "There's nothing like it. Except maybe stealing a rickety old ship from some Red Pirates."

"That wasn't my idea," Harry said, pouting.

"Some day one of us who was there will believe you," Andy said, laughing. "That one gave me grey hair," Ginny said, poking Harry. "I have to dye my hair now, thanks to you!"

"You don't have to dye it, the JJ's thought it was hot," Harry said, rubbing her arm.

"The JJ's aren't here," Ginny said. "They're off chasing Bugs with Lady Q."

"What do we have?" Andy asked. "How far are we from the Heart?"

"Empty system," Garnes said. "Just an old dwarf star and burnt out hulk of a planet rotting around it."

"Well, we know the library is still here somewhere. Just need to find it," Andy said.

"Scanning," Garnes said. "According to the Guardian it should be on a large mass somewhere in the system."

"Wasn't it on the star charts?" Andy asked.

"Yes, and no," Garnes said. "This system has changed drastically in one hundred thousand cycles. We know where it should be if there hadn't been a supernova."

"Invasion, abandoned base, and now supernova," Andy said. "Time hasn't been kind to these outposts."

"All of which have kept them protected from being plundered or destroyed," Miranda said.

"Good point," Andy said. "Let's find this one and move on. Do we know what is here?"

"It was a research station, according to the previous Guardian," Memo said. "This system was isolated even back then."

"So, usual defenses for one of these, which appear to be offline, and a rude Guardian," Ixchel said. "Easy."

"If it has its shields engaged, it may take a while for us to find it," Garnes said. "Our sensors just barely had the power to see through them back at the other one."

"May require some patience." Andy said. "Is there anything on that planet? It seems a little too obvious but they've done that before."

"The remains of that planet are very heavy metals," Garnes said. "A perfect place to hide a research station."

"Closer look?" Andy asked.

"We'll wait out here," Kirin said. "Once you find the research station, we'll disengage and head home."

"Agreed," Garnes said. "Everything has been transferred."

"Did I pack my extra suit?" Ginny asked Harry in a loud whisper.

"There wasn't room," Harry said. "If we need ours repaired Dart can do it. She's a wiz with suit repairs.

"Anomaly detected," Garnes said, when her console started beeping. "We have a large impenetrable area on the opposite side of its orbit."

"Where you couldn't see it from that planet?" Ixchel said. "Probably important."

"Have to wonder what kind of research they carried out here," Andy said.

"No, we don't," Miranda said, "and if it isn't in the library, we have no need to look for it."

"I'm sure Lady Shadow would approve," Andy said.

"What she said," Harry said. "They don't give out medals for just poking around old ruins."

"If you die it won't matter," Ginny said. "Posthumous medals are not a good look on your resume."

"Need something to hock when we get old and are living in boxes on the street corner," Harry said, pouting.

"How soon until we reach it?" Andy asked.

"Several hours," Garnes said. "We need to scan for any protective measures."

"Of course," Andy said. "We have those two," she pointed at the Potter twins. "Make use of them."

"Unless they want to get out and swim there isn't much to do," Garnes said.

"Will we get hazard pay?" Harry asked brightly.

"Not a chance," Andy said. "We might have to charge you for it."

"Never mind then," Ginny said. "My paycheck is already spent."

"Doesn't look like much," Andy said, staring at the large asteroid.

"It has gravity, so it's big enough," Garnes said. "That spot over there looks like a disused landing pad."

"Big enough for both of us?" Kirin said, from her ship.

"Hard to tell," Garnes said. "Might have to send someone out to look first."

"Harry will do it," Ginny said in the background.

"Only if Ginny comes along," Harry said. "Wouldn't want to hog all of the fun."

"You've been taking lessons from the JJs, haven't you," Andy said.

"Nope," Harry said. "They copied us."

"And not a good imitation," Ginny said. "We're talking with our lawyers."

"The two of you are just being silly," Romana said. "I'm surprised that the Lady of Hands thinks you make good bodyguards. You are easily distracted."

"Fortunately, it's just an act," Andy said. "They do occasionally show signs of being competent."

"It takes a lot of work to be us," Ginny said. "What're our mission parameters," she added, suddenly serious.

"Just a quick reconnaissance," Garnes said. "Just get a close up look at that landing pad. Something is blocking our sensors."

"Got it," Ginny said. "Come on Harry, let's go on a field trip."

"I'm driving!" Harry said, as they hurried out of the room. Ginny's protest wasn't understandable.

They cautiously detached from the Lucia. An EV jaunt, even as practiced as they were, was not to be treated lightly.

"Looks like a big rock," Ginny said, broadcasting over the general comm channel. "With smaller rocks scattered all over the place."

"Haven't seen this many rocks since Mars," Harry said. "That was a fun trip."

"At least we had maps," Ginny said, looking around. "My sensors aren't picking anything up except for those rocks. Where is that landing field?"

"Thirty degrees left," Harry said. "And straight on until morning."

"If we run into any Lost Boys, you're buying," Ginny said. She touched down on the asteroid. "Ginny to Lucia control. Now on big rock," she said to their watchers in the Lucia.

"Also landed," Harry said. "No dust, fortunately. Someone's been vacuuming."

They carefully moved through the boulders towards the landing field. There were no paths, just gaps between large and small rocks. Every so often they paused to get their bearings.

"Is this normal asteroid type rock?" Ginny asked, scanning a small rock with her suit sensors.

"My suit just says rock," Harry said. "Nothing special."

"Some of these have a metal in them that my suit doesn't recognize," Ginny said. "We'll have to take a sample back with is."

"And there it is," Harry said. "Looks like someone cleared away some rocks. Nothing larger than a golfball left."

"Dimensions?" Garnes asked over the comm. "Enough room for the ships?"

"Looks big enough for three of them," Ginny said. "Sending data now."

"This isn't natural," Harry said, stepping down onto the field. "A halfway decent disguise but from this close, it looks carved out."

"Waiting on your go ahead," Garnes said.

"Might take a few minutes," Ginny said. "Sensors aren't picking up anything but they might have really good camouflage."

"And there it is," Harry said in a low voice. "Far wall, there's some kind of structure. Investigating."

There was no sound for several minutes.

"Going to need the extra special lock picks," Ginny said. "Or one of the JJs. There's an entrance here but no indication on how to open it."

"We don't have the JJs," Andy said over the comm.

"Clear the landing field," Garnes said. "We'll land the Lucia first."

"That's our ride home," Harry said. "Be careful!"

"Clear," Ginny said, "Come on in." The silence seemed to stretch forever as they waited for the Lucia to land. "Looks so much bigger on the ground."

"That's the glowing rocks," Harry said. "Lucia, looks like you have landing lights, or something resembling them."

"Roger," Garnes said. The Lucia slowly settled down near the structure. Several minutes passed and then the main hatch opened and several figures came out.

"Jolly good of you to join us," Harry said, crossing the field to meet them. "Who has the can opener?"

"We'll try something a little more sophisticated," Andy said. "Where is it? Oh that's subtle."

"Invisible unless you're almost on top of it," Ixchel, the other figure, said. "If this is one of the Furling libraries, they probably expect everyone to use the Ring Gate to enter, and not come in the back door."

"There don't seem to be any protective measures," Garnes said. "Q'uq'umatz, you are cleared to land."

"Probably passive shielding," Ixchel said. "Doesn't come on unless the Guardian perceives you as a threat."

"We are definitely non-threat-like," Ginny said. "Practiced in front of a mirror and everything."

"Let's see if we can get this open," Andy said, approaching the door embedded in the wall. "Nothing on my suit scanners."

"Or mine," Ixchel said.

"We did check," Ginny said. "Your fancy special suits don't have any better sensors than ours."

"By which she means, 'Thanks for the confirmation'," Harry said. "How are we going to get in? This is even less door like than anything we've seen before."

"Fortunately, I know a little trick," Andy said, taking a small object out of an exterior pocket. Searching the flat surface, she placed it on a small depression. There was a faint shudder and the door started moving in. "Simple."

"That might be cheating," Harry said. "Nothing was said about secret decoder rings."

"Making use of the tools available," Andy said smugly.

"And the Guardians seem to like her," Ixchel said. "She probably didn't need that."

"I wouldn't bet on that," Andy said. "The Guardians don't go out of their way to be helpful."

"An in is an in," Ginny said. "We'll take it. Who's first?"

"One of us," Harry said. "We're expendable, they aren't."

"You aren't expendable," Andy said, protesting.

"Compared to you? Yes we are," Harry said. "We go first when in potentially hostile territory."

"Right," Ginny said. "Proper order of preference it is." Stepping past Andy, she entered through the open door. "Clear," she said over the comms. "Just dust."

The other three joined her in the chamber.

"Looks like an air lock," Ixchel said. "How do we activate it?"

"State your purpose," A loud voice said over their comms.

"We are here to consult with the Guardian," Andy said. "We are expected."

The door behind them closed silently. There was a faint hissing noise and the chamber filled with a gas.

"Breathable?" Andy asked.

"Not exactly Terran or straight oxygen, but breathable," Ginny said. Before she finished talking, the opposite side of the chamber moved, revealing a hallway.

"Please proceed to the central chamber," the voice said.

"I wonder how they do that?" Harry said in a low voice.

"Ancient civilization," Ginny said, taking lead out of the chamber. "They must have all sorts of tricks."

"As long as they share," Harry said, bringing up the rear.

They walked down a long, featureless corridor for several minutes, before reaching a widening of the hallway, blocked by two tall doors, glowing faintly.

"Wouldn't miss these in the dark," Harry said, scanning them with her suit scanners. "How do they open?"

"A push should do it," Andy said, putting action to her words, causing the doors to open. They all went in through the doors, following Andy.

"Welcome back, Lady," a squeaky voice said. A small chili-like figured appeared in front of them. "The Heart of the People welcomes you to this facility. How may we help?"

"We are looking for information concerning the disappearance of the People, and for those they may have taken with them," Andy said. "As requested of previous Guardians."

"Of course. Of course," the Guardian said. "Available information is being compiled now. You may browse at your leisure." With the faint pop, the Guardian disappeared.

"Not really gone," Ixchel warned Ginny and Harry.

"What's there to see?" Harry said, turning in a circle.

"Somewhere there's a small two person gate," Andy said. "We'll need to know where it is before we can leave."

"Find the baby Ring," Ginny said. "Got it. Anything else?"

"The suit translator should work with the data crystals," Andy said, "but you'll need a viewer of some kind. Guardian!"

"We need several viewers," Andy told it. "Where might we find them?"

"Each study carol contains several," the Guardian said.

"Which can be found where?" Andy asked, lookin around the empty room.

A door on the far side of the chamber glowed with an unearthly light.

"Shall we?" Andy said.

"I'll go back to the air lock and wait for the others," Ixchel said. "They'll want to see this."

"We need to find out what makes this one special, besides being between several other gates," Andy said.

"I'll keep a careful eye out." Ixchel said. "It's probably something to do with the location."

"Solar observatory? Whatever was out here was probably destroyed when the sun went nova."

"Possibly," Ixchel said, "but this did survive a supernova. We just need to find the logs of the last People to be here before us."

"Guardian, may we have a map of this Heart?" Andy asked.

"Of course," the Guardian said. "It can be found in the galactic map room."

"Excellent," Andy said. "Where is that?"

A different door lit up a quarter turn around the room, this time in deep orange.

"I'll be back with the others," Ixchel said, before turning and hurrying off.

"Miranda, you can come out now," Andy said. "No need to hide."

"I won't ask how you knew I was here," Miranda said. "But take careful note of the Guardian. I believe this one is much older than the other two. Its behavior seems a little erratic."

"I'm sure between us we can keep it from causing problems," Andy said.

Chapter Text

"So, what do we have?" Andy asked, leaning back in the Lucia's lounge, glad to be out of her suit. "What's the unique feature about this library?"

"It contains more historical data on the Furlings than the pervious two," Memo said. "The earliest records concern a project to build a series of Ring Gates across this galaxy."

"Do they include the co-ordinates of the Gates?" Andy asked. "There's one series of them that ends, or maybe starts, in our current Clan base."

"I have not seen any as of yet," Memo said. "I will look for that information."

"Anything else interesting here?" Andy asked. "Or is this just the archive of Furling projects?"

"I ran across a mention of a large Ring world," Romana said. "Garnes is cross referencing the co-ordinates but it appears to be the one encountered in our territory." Garnes nodded in agreement.

"Did the Furling build it?" Dart asked excitedly. "I was on the expedition to it several years ago. It's an amazing feat of engineering, that none of the Galactic civilizations have the resources or technology to build."

"It does not appear so," Romana said. "They explored it but it wasn't theirs."

"So, another mystery that still doesn't have an answer," Andy said. "Were there any references to all of those cross-dimensional portals we keep running into?"

"Nothing as of yet," Memo said.

"How much longer should we stay before moving on to the next library?" Andy said. "Is there anything here to help us on our quest?"

"It doesn't appear so," Miranda said. "There is material of historical interest but nothing specific to the current whereabouts of the Furlings who took the Prophets from the Wind Clan. It is very unlikely that anything will be found."

"Thought so," Andy said, frowning. "As an example of Furling stealth base construction it is certainly interesting, and we've made complete recordings of it for Sophia to take back with her, but I think we've rung this one dry."

"We will be leaving in the morning," Sophia said.

"Do you need an escort?" Ixchel said.

"It's a simple hop from here to the Clan border," Kirin said. "From there I've arranged an escort home."

"Good," Andy said. "I've convinced the Guardian to lock everything down once we leave. If you don't have its coordinates you won't be able to find it."

"What of the next library?" Romana said. "Do we know anything about it?"

"Ginny and Harry found the local Ring Gate and we will make a preliminary trip through it tomorrow before taking the Lucia through the Ship Gate to it."

As soon as Sophia and her ship were headed towards the border, they went to the Gate room, and dialed the next Heart Gate.

"Ready?" Andy said.

"Ready." "Ready." Ginny and Harry said.

"Engage the gate," Andy told the Guardian. The Ring started to glow and appeared to rotate before becoming solid.

"Go," Andy said. Ginny went through the gate, then Harry, and Andy followed them. After the timeless transit, she stepped out into a rainstorm. "Ginny? Harry?" She said through her team comm.

"Over here," Ginny said. Turning, Andy found them standing under a tree.

"This is different," Andy said. "Trees."

"Where's Jack when you need him?" Harry said.

"Hopefully staying safe from Goa'uld," Ginny said. "I wonder if there's a fishing pond?"

"Sight-seeing can wait," Andy said. "Let's find the library."

"This is the first one on a planet with living things," Ginny, "isn't it?"

"Yes," Andy said. "We've had desert, airless moon, and asteroid. This is the first forest."

"So, the entrance could be buried under centuries of dead things," Ginny said.

"Isn't that called oil?" Harry said.

"Let's hope not," Andy said. "We do have a limited time to find it, and the rest of them."

"Time limit?" Harry said. "Oh, right, those annoying Bugs."

"And if we take too long someone will come to rescue us," Andy said.

"That would be embarrassing," Ginny said. "Considering how hard it was to convince your Lady that it was perfectly safe."

"Miranda... Miranda is a realist," Andy said. "She knows none of these side trips are guaranteed safe."

"So, let's find it," Harry said. "What are we looking for?"

"The Guardian wasn't sure," Andy said. "It hadn't been here for a long time."

"How long is a 'long time'," Ginny said.

"Well, there wasn't a forest?" Andy said. She tapped the tree, which couldn't have been less than a couple hundred cycles old.

"So, thousands of years. But that does help. If the forest hasn't been here for that long, the library can't be buried that deep in the vegetation," Harry said. "Did they give you anything to track it down with?"

"Other than, 'You will easily find it'? No," Andy said. "But it should be really close. None of the Rings have been more than a kilometer from their library."

"At least it's a forest, and not a jungle," Harry said. "I hate cleaning mold from my suit."

"The stains are the worst," Ginny said.

"How often do you go on maneuvers in the jungle?" Andy asked, curious, as they started searching for an entrance to the library.

"The Yucatan bases are in the jungle," Ginny said. "Everyone does a rotation through there, which means time in jungles."

"Oh, right," Andy said. "Don't spend much time there myself. I've been traveling or spending time in cities."

"Urban warfare has its own nasty surprises," Harry said. "But if we didn't like being troopers, we'd be out of a job."

"I've always wanted to work for the Memory," Ginny said. "Nice quiet office environment. And music. Start singing while out on patrol and people start looking at you funny."

"I don't think that's the music," Harry said.

"Maybe it's in a cave?" Ginny said, ignoring her. "Like that one?"

Andy looked where she was pointing. "Definitely a possibility," she said, heading towards the rock cliff.

"I don't think this is actually a cave," Harry said. "Looks like some really old stone building."

"Lots of moss," Ginny said, pushing away some small trees. "Yeah this could be it. How do we get in?"

"Let's clear away the plants first," Andy said. "What do you have? I don't have anything set up to deal with plants."

"A nice flame thrower setting," Harry said.

"Firebombs?" Ginny suggested.

"Flame thrower first?" Andy said. She and Ginny moved back several dozen meters, to give Harry room to deploy. There was a loud 'woosh' and smoke and steam filled the area, Harry disappearing in the smoke.

"Effective," Andy said, once Harry had stopped and a large area in front of the stone building was just charred plants and ash.

"That's the low setting," Harry said. "There's a melt through combat armor setting but it tends to get really hot."

"Looks like a door," Ginny said, stepping through the ashes. "How do we open it?"

"I have just the thing," Andy said, taking a small object out of an exterior pocket. She placed it on the door and there was a loud click before the door started to slide into the wall.

"That was quick," Harry said. "I wonder if anyone is home?"

"What brings a Lady of the People to this humble Heart?" A voice said over their comms.

"I really want to know how they do that," Andy said, in a whisper. "We have come to consult the Heart of the People about an issue that concerns us," she said to the Guardian.

"Consult the Heart?" Ginny mumbled.

"That's one way to put it," Harry said. "Much better than the always popular 'take me to your leader'."

"We don't want their leader," Andy said in a low voice. "All of the Guardians are semi-independent. We haven't found the one in charge, yet."

"Maybe there isn't one in charge?" Ginny said.

"No Monty Python quotes," Andy said. "It will just confuse the Guardian."

"I have been informed of your visit," the Guardian said. "However, I was informed that you also have a jump ship?"

"It's back at the last Heart," Andy said. "We are just confirming your availability before we bring it through."

"We need a landing zone for it," Harry said. "It isn't huge but it does take up space."

"Retrieving data," the Guardian said. "Yes, that is a modest vehicle. A space for it shall be cleared."

"Where?" Andy said. There was a loud humming sound. Turning around, Andy watched as a large swath of forest just disappeared, leaving behind a large flat surface . She scanned it with her suit scanners. "Well, that looks large enough."

"But no pool," Ginny said, pouting.

"Pool?" Harry said. "I'm sure there's a pond here somewhere. Forests and ponds seem to go together naturally."

"We shall return with our ship," Andy said to the Guardian.

"The hospitality of the Heart shall welcome you back," the Guardian said.

They left the entrance and Guardian, stepping back out into the forest.

"Back to the Baby ring," Andy told Ginny and Harry. "You can look for the recreation facilities tomorrow, if there is time."

"Yes, Lady A," Ginny said.

They turned and left the library behind, heading back to the ring.

"Where do you think the Ship Gate comes out?" Harry asked. "Above or below?"

"Given the size of the last one, too big to fit on a planet, it's probably big enough for an entire fleet," Ginny said.

"And where would that be?" Harry asked.

"Below the system," Ginny said.

"I don't know how gravity affects Ring operation," Andy said. "But it is likely somewhere where it can access a lot of energy."

"So, near the sun?" Ginny said.

"Possibly," Andy said. "But that would make it obvious, and the last one was well hidden. Dart has some theories on where it was feeding itself from but nothing solid."

"So, we aren't going to find it from here," Harry said. "Hopefully it doesn't just dump everything into the sun. That would be a bit hot."

"The Lucia could handle it, for several minutes," Andy said.

"Wouldn't want to be aboard when it does that," Harry said. "all the ice cream would melt."

"We can always get more," Ginny said. "But more would have to be shared."

"I can wait," Harry said. "Maybe Lady A has some idea?"

"You lost me," Andy said. "What does ice cream have to do with the Gate?"

"It goes with everything," Harry said. "And I bet you could use it to predict the location of that Gate."

"Interesting idea," Andy said, shaking here head, "but unless we get back it won't matter."

"Back to the Lucia, then," Harry said, "and ice cream."

"Hungry?" Ginny said, laughing.

"Getting there," Harry said. "It's been an exciting day. Lots of calories used up."

"And there it is," Andy said, as they reached the large tree they'd taken shelter under when they'd first arrived.

"Doesn't look any different," Harry said. "Convenient."

"Ready?" Andy said, entering the return code. At affirmative sounds, she tapped the activate panel and they waited while the Gate dialed up and connected to the other gate.

"Is this like those other gates," Ginny said.

"In what way?" Andy said.

"Only four addresses. To and from each gate on the other side of the chain," she said.

"Can't answer that," Andy said. "We haven't had time to experiment. We know the Ship gates can handle multiple gate addresses, but they have to be activated by their paired local gates."

"Which, I bet, isn't actually true," Harry said. "That's just what the Guardians want us to believe. A security feature."

"If you want to argue with them, please wait until we finish," Andy said. "Don't want to get stranded or sent somewhere far away because you got in an argument with one of them."

"No ma'am," Ginny said. "She won't be doing that, unless we have the JJs along to share their luck."

Sighing, Andy stepped through the Gate, Ginny and Harry right behind her.

There was an anxious looking group waiting for them in the Gate room.

"That took longer than expected," Miranda said, once they'd returned to the Lucia, and were prepared to leave the asteroid behind.

"We had to hunt for the library," Andy said. "A forest has grown up around it since the last time the Guardian had traveled there. But its Guardian is expecting us. Even cleared a place for the Lucia to land."

"Big enough?" Garnes said.

"Plenty," Harry said. "Someone snitched on us. It knew just how much room we needed for her."

"We know the Guardians communicate with each other," Andy said. "The last one in the series probably already knows we're coming."

"Then they should have the information we are looking for ready before we get there," Romana said.

"You would think so," Andy said, "but I suspect they can't look for it until they are asked."

"So we should ask the next Guardian to ask the rest of the Guardians," Harry said.

"Prepare for travel," Garnes said. "We've received the unlock code and coordinates for the next Space Gate."

Everyone hurried to put away any loose objects in the lounge and get into their jump seats.

"This thing has an inertialess drive, doesn't it?" Harry asked.

"Yes," Ginny said.

"Then why are we strapping in? If we crashed into something it wouldn't matter," Harry said. "The stasis field would take over."

"Because," Ginny said. "It's just how they like to do things."

"Right," Harry said. "Forgot about that."

There was a brief moment of timelessness, as the Lucia went through the Gate.

"Feels a bit different when you're strapped down," Harry said, grumbling. "Not sure I like it."

"I'm sure they'll sell tickets like crazy," Ginny said. "Total helplessness with a dash of seeing eternity."

"If the peanut gallery is done, we're here," Garnes said. "Approaching planet now."

"Did we give her the planetary location?" Harry said. "I don't remember doing that. How are we going to find the library?"

"I did, as soon as we went through the Gate," Andy said dryly. "You must have been too busy looking at the trees."

"That must have been it," Ginny said. "It's a good thing you're in charge , Lady A. This one would be totally lost."

"I'm not the one who got us lost when we went to Boston as backup for the cute Fox God gang," Harry said.

"Anyone could make that mistake," Ginny said. "Who knew that there actually is a bar called Cheers that doesn't look like a cheesy TV set."

"And everything is normal," Ixchel said. "How long until we land?"

"Four hours," Garnes said. "We have to circle round the planet to get to our landing spot."

"Smooth landing," Andy said, nodding thanks at Garnes.

"All part of the door to door service," she said. "We need to do maintenance on several ship systems while we're here, so we aren't going anywhere for at least five days, so no need to rush."

"Thanks," Andy said. "I'm sure we can find things to do, and if not I'm sure Harry and Ginny can help you."

"We don't know anything about ship maintenance," Harry said, looking horrified.

"I'm sure there are heavy things you can move for them," Andy said.

"I take back what I said," Ginny said. "You aren't the fun boss."

"We appreciate the offer, Lady A, but I'm sure they can be better put to use elsewhere," Garnes said.

"No one wants us," Harry said, pouting.

"I want you," Ginny said. "My day wouldn't be complete without your insanity."

"That's sweet," Romana said.

"We're hard nosed Troopers," Harry said. "We don't do sweet."

"If you say so," Romana said, winking at her.

Andy, Miranda, Ixchel, Romana and Memo headed for the library, while Harry and Ginny made themselves scarce claiming a need to explore the area surrounding the ship, for their safety.

"Welcome to the Heart of the People," the Guardian said, after they entered the library and were standing in the main lobby. "How may this Guardian server you?"

"We're looking for information on the last Fleet of the People to travel through here," Andy said. "And would like to browse your data banks," she said, in a formal tone.

"Of course," the Guardian said. "This Guardian shall retrieve all records requested. Access to the archives has been enabled."

"Thanks," Andy said, as the others scattered to explore the facility.

"You are welcome, Lady," the Guardian said.

"Do you have any personal records in your collection?" Andy asked the Guardian.

"Personal?" The Guardian said, its little chibi face blank.

"I would like to research my personal family, not just the overall travels of the People," Andy said. "My parents are very tight lipped about that."

"Hmm," the Guardian murmured, looking at her with interest. "I admit to curiosity about your appearance. You are clearly one of the People but your ears do not match any known families of the People."

"When you, and the other Guardians say that, how are you determining it?" Andy said.

"All who enter the Heart are deep scanned to determine level of admittance," the Guardian said. "All of your companions carry trace markers of peoples associated with the People, but deep scans reveal you are one of the People, even with the oddly shaped ears. It is speculated that it is camouflage."

Andy looked over at an amused Miranda. "Non-round ears would certainly attract attention where we currently reside," she said. "But I was unaware of the need."

"This Heart does not contain the family histories of the people," the Guardian said. "Nor does the next one in the Oceans of Forn. You will have to travel to the Red Heart for that. Following your current path that is the last of the Hearts you will visit."

"There are other paths to follow?" Andy asked. Miranda drifted over to them.

"There are an infinite number of paths to gain the Wisdom of the People," the Guardian said. "Though most have been inaccessible until you freed the Guardian of the Desert."

"Will others be using the Hearts?" Miranda asked.

"That is unknown, Lady of Power," the Guardian said. "The People no longer have need of the Hearts but others may."

Miranda frowned but didn't say anything, although Andy poked her and whispered in her ear.

"What is this Heart known for?" Miranda asked the Guardian. "Each Heart appears to have a specialty in addition to general information."

"We store the entirety of the natural science records of the People," the Guardian said. "Everything the People learned about the worlds they visited or lived in is here."

"So, how do we search for something specific?" Andy asked. "Or how do we get a list of places visited by the People in their journeys?"

"An index has been added to the viewers you carry," the Guardian said. "It can be used to inquire about a specific location or element in the archives." Saying this, the Guardian faded way as they tended to do after throwing a major hint their way.

Andy excitedly dug her viewer out of a pocket, and enabled it. "What do we want to know?" She said, looking at Miranda. "Want to see if they ever visited Terra?"

"Does it matter?" Miranda said.

"Nope!" Andy said, pulling up the search function. "This looks easy," she said. "Just like Google." Frowning, she entered a search term. "It doesn't say." She pouted.

"And just like Google, if you don't know what to ask, you won't retrieve anything useful," Miranda said. "Possibly look for something unique, some plant or animal you know can't be found elsewhere."

"That would be a brilliant idea," Andy said. "Assuming I had any idea of such a thing."

Sighing, Miranda took the viewer from her. "Birds. Search for a bird. They are a uniquely Terran creature, given their decent from dinosaurs." She entered several phrases, shook her head and tried something different.

"Won't I have to know the People's name for them?" Andy said, taking the viewer from Miranda. "I'm sure they didn't call them 'birds'. I can't just ask it where they saw owls."

"Honestly," Miranda said, forcefully taking it back. "Flying creatures with feathers."

"Do we know their word for feathers?" Andy asked, poking her to get her attention.

"We do now," Miranda said. "And apparently they have encountered owls, though there is this notation for some of the entries."

"A hint system would be extremely helpful," Andy grumbled. "They just assume everyone knows what they mean."

"Yes," Miranda said. "You would find the same thing in a Terran library. The assumption is that someone using a library is aware of the terminology used."

"Well, they'd be wrong," Andy said. "Good librarians would provide a key."

"It appears they have visited Terra since birds appeared there," Miranda said, "though I am not familiar with that species."

"Yeah, that's more dinosaur than bird," Andy said looking at the picture. "What about one of those other entries."

"This appears to be an actual owl," Miranda said, puzzled. "But the other words used to describe it do not make sense."

"You mean the big whopping reference to magical creature?" Andy said. "Yeah, that is different. But maybe they traveled through one of those dimensional portals and ended up somewhere where magic is real? We know there are several places like that in the multi-verse. We just avoid traveling to other dimensions unless it's unavoidable."

"Lady Shadow is likely not avoiding them," Miranda said.

"Well, she's the exception, on the Clan Council," Andy said. "She probably considers magic a useful tool, even if it doesn't work in our dimension."

"No magic of the kind most people think of has been found to work in our dimension," Miranda said.

"Well, yes," Andy said. "There are people with unusual talents that seem like low key versions of magic. Like those Fox God priestesses. There aren't any explanations for some of the things they can do other than to call it magic, even if they don't themselves."

"We are getting off track," Miranda said. "From this it is apparent that the People did visit Terra at some point."

"A long, long time ago," Andy said. "I wonder if they saw that asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs?"

"Here," Miranda said, handing the viewer back to Andy. "Look."

"Thanks," Andy murmured, already buried deep in searching for something in the library. "I wonder if the other Hearts have the ability to let us search for things ourselves?"

"We did not think to ask," Miranda said. "It is possible, but we will not be able to ask."

"Do you think it was a good idea to ask about my family?" Andy said, as she and Miranda headed deeper into the library.

"There may be a good reason why your parents have been untalkative about this," Miranda said. "But it doesn't mean you cannot find out on your own."

"Or maybe they just don't know anything," Andy said. "I would like to know what the deal is with the ears. I don't want to be surprised if they suddenly turn me into a Lord of the Rings extra."

"We are in agreement that The People are the Furlings, yes?" Miranda said, as they wandered into a long, dark room. The lights came on as soon as they'd stepped past the threshold.

"All evidence, what little we have, points in that direction," Andy said, nodding. "The book on those birds is here."

"I admit to some curiosity," Miranda said. "If you may recall, there was a children's series where owls played a prominent part."

"Hard to forget when Harry and Ginny Potter are on this trip with us," Andy said, snorting. "But the chances of that being a real place? Slim, I'd say."

"The question of how a Terran author seemed to know enough about some other dimension to be able to tell stories set there is not something I'd like to contemplate," Miranda said.

"Um, yeah," Andy said, pulling a data crystal off of a shelf. "To you want to stay ignorant or find out what the Furlings know about magical owls?"

Miranda looked at her for a moment, and then sighed. "I m going to regret this, aren't I?"

"It'll just be between us," Andy said, grinning, "Unless it leads to some awesome bribery material."

"Go ahead," Miranda said.

Grinning, Andy inserted the data crystal into her viewer. "Definitely an owl," she said, looking at a picture of a bird. But why the claim of magic." She frowned and started to read. "Huh. They speculate that the creature is not native to this universe, but not how they encountered it or why they said it was magic."

"How long ago?" Miranda asked. "We know it was several thousand cycles before now, at least."

"A long time ago," Andy said. She tried to calculate the amount in her head. "A very long time ago. If the owl was from some place with magic, either the time stream is very different, or it has nothing to do with the stories we're familiar with."

"There was a time difference when we went to the Goa'uld dimension," Miranda said, "but it was not by much."

"Yes, and not by enough for this," Andy said. "I don't know how old the wizarding world was or when they started using owls, but it would take an astronomical difference for this to work. If the owls they encountered are from an equivalent world the chances of there being familiar characters from those books running around? It's virtually impossible."

"So, we agree the Furlings encountered owls, but that may just be a coincidence," Miranda.

"Agreed. We'll let Lady Shadow know in our final report, but no one else needs to know," Andy said. "It would certainly be an interesting place to visit, if true."

"I shall not be joining any expedition to a fictional magical world," Miranda said.

"If you say so," Andy said.

"Anything interesting?" Andy asked the others when they met for lunch. "Other than lots of data on plants and animals all over the galaxy?"

"Dragons?" Romana said. "Apparently they encountered a creature that resembles Terran accounts of dragons."

"Really?" Andy said, glancing at Miranda. "Did they say where?"

"There were co-ordinates," Romana said, "but I am not aware of how they translate to our current system."

"We'll have to get Garnes to keep an eye out for that," Andy said. "I'm sure we don't want to deal with a real fire breathing dragon."

"No," Miranda said dryly.

"What else?" Andy said.

"Nothing that really relates to your quest," Ixchel said. "Biological life in this part of the galaxy is very varied. There were several data crystals containing lists of worlds and the metals that can be found on them."

"We'll want copies of those, definitely," Andy said. "Knowing where to get some rare metal is always a useful bit of information, even if we don't need it for ourselves."

"It uses the People's coordinate system," Ixchel said. "So it is only useful if you can translate it."

"Which we can," Romana said. "I think they could be interesting to observe, but only from a distance."

"I'm sure a scientific expedition would welcome your presence," Andy said, "Some time in the future when we have time for such things."

"The People had several well known explorers," Memo said, when there was a quiet moment. "There are numerous accounts of their exploits."

"Anything interesting?" Romana asked her.

Memo shrugged. "One expedition seems to have spent considerable time in the Ice Mountains of Gert, in Ice Clan territory, though it would have been before the Ice Clan existed. They encountered a number of unique creatures that I do not believe currently exist in those mountains."

"There will likely be a number of accounts like that," Miranda said. "Wild creatures rarely survive encounters with young civilizations. If we are lucky, the People would have preserved some of these creatures."

"There is no indiction that they preserved anything," Ixchel said. "They are likely long gone."

"Those dragons are probably extinct also," Andy said. "There are tales of a number of varieties of them on Terra, but I don't think anyone has ever actually encountered any. They'd have to be very well hidden if they still existed."

"This location seems to be a treasure trove for scientists," Miranda said. "But for our purposes it is mainly idle interest."

"We still have four days to find something useful," Andy said. "The Lucia is down for maintenance until then."

"Or the Potter twins will find something interesting," Ixchel said. "The library can't be the only reason for the Gates in this system."

"If they find anything they won't keep it quiet," Andy said. "So we'll know soon enough."

"Dodged that bullet," Harry said, in a low voice, even though only Ginny could access their shared comm channel.

"You really didn't want to learn ship maintenance?" Ginny said, giggling. "Where's your adventurous spirit?"

"Not deep in the bowels of a long haul space ship," Harry said. "Got enough of that when we spent that year with the Fleet."

"Not my favorite assignment," Ginny said, agreeing with her. "I'd much rather be out in the woods like this, exploring a planet. Or in battle."

"We're missing the fighting," Harry said. "I bet they've already had several battles with the Bugs. And we're missing them."

"There will be plenty of action for us when we get back," Ginny said. "You saw the plan before we left."

"Well, there's more action out there than here," Harry said. "And we aren't likely to find anything. You remember all of those planets we saw through the Rings. Almost everything was gone, except the Rings themselves."

"But these aren't as old," Ginny said. "Or they've been used for longer and not abandoned."

"Yes, they are different," Harry said. "But unless there's a hidden civilization here we aren't going to find anything, except for a lot of trees."

"The trees are newer than the Ring," Ginny said. "They can't have covered everything up in a short few cycles."

"Well, it's better than getting stuck in a library for five days, so there's that," Harry said. "Maybe we can find something to blow up?"

"Like that?" Ginny said, pointing at a white tower far off in the distance.

"Let's check it out first," Harry said. "If it's empty we can try blowing it up, but if it's like other artifacts we've found near other Rings it's probably indestructible."

"Very likely," Ginny said. "Race you!" Not giving Harry any time to react, she took off at full speed towards the tower.

"Hang on!" Harry shouted, before chasing after her.

When they reached the tower, they were both laughing. They hadn't had a chance for running just for the joy of it for months.

"Doesn't look as impressive up close," Harry said, looking up at the moss stained tower, that seems to reach the clouds. "Door?" She asked Ginny who'd completed a circuit of the large tower.

"Not that I can see," Ginny said. "Probably need one of those control bands like Andy has."

"Or there isn't a door," Harry said, cautiously tapping the side of the tower. "Doesn't seem to be stone."

"Stone would have been more worn with normal planetary weather," Ginny said. "This looks dirty from age, but otherwise it could have been built yesterday."

"But no door," Harry said, grumbling. "Let's see what else we can find around here. A tower by itself would be unusual."

"Which way?" Harry said. "This doesn't ping on my sensors except as a faint shadow. I'm not picking up anything else."

"This is directly north of the library," Ginny said. "Let's try the same distance from the library but to the south."

"You have an idea?" Harry said.

"Just a faint one," Ginny said. "Let's see if we can find any other towers and prove it."

"There it is," Harry said. "So, are you correct?"

"North, south, east, and west towers? Ten clicks out from the library?" Ginny said. "I'd like to see what is in them but I'd bet they are part of some kind of defense of the library."

"A shield of some sort?" Harry said. "That'd be awesome. And very big. I don't think we've ever seen one that large."

"The shield over the Yucatan when the Council took over was much larger," Ginny said. "Or so I've heard."

"There are pictures of it," Harry said, agreeing with her. "And I've heard some of those Shadow secret science bases have something similar."

"But not something like this, in the middle of a forest, on some distant planet," Ginny said. "Should we keep looking?"

"If we can't get in any of them?" Harry said. "Maybe Andy has an idea, or Lady P can do her thing."

"I'm sure they are bored with all of the books by now," Ginny said. "Probably could use a break about now."

"So, back to the library?" Harry said. "Do we need to get cleaned up first?"

"That Guardian seemed to be the type to be unhappy with dirt being dragged into their library, even though there aren't any real books," Ginny said. "So, definitely need to wash up first."

"Hey guys," Ginny said, wandering into the library foyer, Harry on her heels.

"You're back early," Andy said. "What did you find?"

"How do you know we found anything?" Ginny asked.

"Because you have a lousy poker face?" Harry said.

"I have a great poker face," Ginny said, protesting.

"Only when you're playing poker," Harry said.

Chapter Text

Andy looked at the north tower, circling it several times. "Definitely a tower," she said. "Should probably ask the Guardian about them. They might tell us what it's for."

"There's no door?" Ixchel said. "If there were I'd suspect a trap."

"We aren't all as paranoid as you," Andy said, "but 'trap' does seem to jump out at you while staring at it."

"It seems to be made from a material I can't slide past," Miranda said, staring up at the tower. "The Furlings must have run into others with my abilities, to have found a way to shield themselves."

"Even with everything we've found so far, we don't really know much about the Furlings," Andy said. "They are still overly mysterious."

"Yes," Miranda said. "The information in the libraries is really superficial. There is nothing that really gets to the heart of who or what they are. We don't even know if they are from this universe or just stumbled across it."

"I think they're from elsewhere," Ginny said. "They just don't ring completely true."

"They do seem artificial," Romana said. "As if someone made a list of what a superior being should be and modeled the Furlings after them."

"Speculation can be fun," Andy said, "but do we have any more reasons for being out here?"

"None," Miranda said, "unless Harriet and Ginny have other things to show us."

"Not yet," Harry said. "There's a lot of unexplored land to cover in the next couple days, before we have to go."

"We'll leave you to it," Andy said. "I can ask the Guardian about the towers."

Ginny and Harry watched the others head back to the library.

"Now what?" Ginny said. "We've covered most of the land around here. The only things remotely interesting are the towers, and we can't go in any of them. And there doesn't seem to be any other buildings."

"Possibly underground?" Harry said. "Not that I want to spend the next couple days cave diving."

"I don't think there are any," Ginny said. "They aren't a people designed to go underground."

"Neither are we," Harry said. "But someone does occasionally."

"It's that whole underworld thing in our mythology," Ginny said. "Got heroes? You need a stupendously dumb villain to chase and those like underground lairs."

"Maybe we can find something else? Something better?" Harry said. "Towers that you can't explore are boring."

"Out another ten clicks then?" Ginny said.

"Ten clicks," Harry said, agreeably. There was a brief moment of stillness and they both took off, as fast as their suits could handle in this terrain.

"Trees!" Ginny said through their comm. "Trees, and more trees."

"I've got a pond," Harry said. "Not very deep. The square edges are a bit suspicious looking though."

"Square edges? What's your position to the nearest tower?" Ginny said. "Because I've got a strange ditch. Doesn't look natural."

"Hmmm," Harry said. "Looks like I'm between two of them but further out."

"Same," Ginny said. "Another artificial feature?"

"I'm between the North and Western towers," Harry said. "Your suit signal is coming from... between the South and Western towers. So we need to check South and East, and North and East to see if there are any matching features."

"Same distance?" Ginny said.

"Yes," Harry said. "Assuming it's symmetrical, of course."

"Okay, I'm headed to the spot ten clicks out from the center, between the South and Eastern towers," Ginny said.

"And I'll check the North and East for something that doesn't fit," Harry said.

"Shout when you get there," Ginny said.

"There," Harry said, several minutes later. "More trees. And an artificial ditch."

"Ah," Ginny muttered. "A large meadow, with a depression in the middle. I don't think, whatever it is, has been used recently."

"Some kind of counterbalance for the towers?" Harry suggested. "There's probably something at the bottom."

"No plans to dig in the muck in this suit," Ginny said. "It's hard enough staying clean way out here."

"Maybe we can get the Guardian to activate the towers? That might clean things up a bit if it's an active defense."

"Or it might just be some kind of signaling device, on a large galaxy spanning scale. Do you really want to send a message out to the universe right now?" Ginny said.

"Depends," Harry said. "What would the message be?"

"We're out of goobers, bring more?" Ginny said.

"Yeah, no," Harry said. "I wonder if it was for the sharks?"

"What sharks?" Ginny said.

"The ones with lasers," Harry said, "of course."

"You've been watching too much early Terran parody," Ginny said. "Sharks with lasers on their heads never work. The salt water ruins the lasers."

"That you know that is scary," Harry said.

"You learn some strange things when you hang out with the JJs," Ginny said. "So, we head back to the Lucia or keep looking for strange landscape features?"

"Enough for now, I think," Harry said. "Unless we trip over something on the way back. I think we'd need the Lucia's scanners to find anything useful. Towers and ditches aren't anything to write home about."

"Back already?" Andy asked Harry and Ginny when they appeared in the library.

"Found some exciting ditches," Harry said.

"They don't seem natural," Ginny added. "Maybe the Guardian has an idea what they are for?"

"It refused to discuss the towers," Andy said, "So, if these ditches mean anything, don't expect the Guardian to tell you."

"Just thought we'd ask," Ginny said. "Didn't feel like playing archeologist and digging them up."

"Ditches?" The Guardian squeaked, appearing in front of them. "Part of the Heart defenses?"

"Unless someone else dug some between the towers," Andy said. "What are they?"

"The tower defenses have never been needed," the Guardian said. "These ditches were equidistant between the towers?"

"Four of them, one between each pair of towers," Ginny said. "Looked suspicious."

"They are not part of the Heart," the Guardian said. A hologram appeared in front of them. It showed the towers, the library, and four glowing spots.

"They aren't those glowing spots? They look like them," Ginny said.

"They are heat sinks for the towers," the Guardian said. "When the towers are enabled, excess energy fills them."

"So, not a good place to hide when the towers turn on?" Ginny said.

"Correct," the Guardian said. "Very inimitable to sentient life."

"Definitely not a hiding place," Harry said. "We'll have to remember that."

"Did you find anything else?" Andy said.

"With the vegetation, it'd be easier to use the Lucia to scan the area," Harry said. "We just got lucky tripping over them."

"Finding those heat sinks," Ginny added. "You can't miss the towers."

"Any other maps?" Harry asked.

"In the map room," the Guardian said.

"There's a map room?" Andy said, sighing. "Where is it?"

"Next to the family records room," the Guardian said.

"Which is where?" Andy asked. "You haven't mentioned it before."

"It did not seem relevant," the Guardian said. "Please follow me." It turned and floated towards a corner of the lobby. Reaching the corner, the walls shimmered before disappearing to reveal a stairway going down.

"A secret passage!" Harry said excitedly.

"Secret?" The Guardian said, sounding puzzled.

"Hidden. One that no one knows about," Harry said. "Is this map room down there?"

"Of course," the Guardian said. "But you must remove your armor to proceed there. It has defenses that prevent any being wearing weapons from entering."

"Of course it does," Ginny said. "We'll be back." Grabbing Harry she headed out of the building.

"Is that true?" Andy said.

"Hmm?" The Guardian said.

"That the map room is protected from entry by armed beings?" Andy said skeptically.

"Not directly," it said. "But they were covered in dirt and organic matter. We would not have allowed them further."

"Got it," Andy said. "Dirt not welcome. Can I go down it like this?"

"You may proceed, Lady," The Guardian said.

"No, I'll wait here for them to come back. Wouldn't want to take the excitement away from them," Andy said.

"You are a kind and wise Mistress," the Guardian said.

"Mistress?" Andy said.

"It fits," Miranda said, suddenly joining them. "You are in charge, except when you do something that endangers the ship."

"Mistress?" Andy muttered, frowning. "That seems a bit... odd."

"Terminology can be strange when dealing with entities who've been waiting for a response for millennia," Miranda said in the covert manner Andy had become used to.

"A bunch of old farts," Ginny said, grumbling as they returned, dressed in their most comfortable lounge-ware. "Can't give a straight answer."

"Some day, you too will be an 'old fart'," Miranda said. "Expect no sympathy."

"I'll die first," Harry said, glaring.

"That isn't as dramatic as you think," Miranda said. "If we don't find a solution to the Kraal problem, we'll all die sooner than later. And no mamby-pamby behavior will stop it."

"Had to try," Harry said, shrugging. "You don't need any anime extras?"

"Did you want to see the map room?" Andy said, exasperated. "Or just stand here griping about things no one else thinks matter."

"Griping has an ages old tradition in the troopers," Ginny said. "It's even in our contracts."

"In your contracts? Who are you contracted with?" Andy said, puzzled.

"Not with the Fleet one," Ginny said. "Under the Trooper Fleet contract the Fleet has several mandatory things it must provide."

"Snacks in the Go rooms," Harry said, nodding. "Very important for team morale."

"Map room," Andy said, feeling just a twinge of impatience. "Do you still want to see it?"

"Never thought you'd ask," Ginny said, slipping through their audience and down the stairs. "Coming?" She shouted, her voice echoing.

Nodding her head at Miranda, Andy followed Ginny down the stairs. Her voice could be heard echoing throughout the levels. Reaching the bottom, she found herself in a wide room, with a low ceiling.

"If this fits the other layouts, it's over there?" Andy waved towards a side of the room.

"Excellent," Ginny said. "Now how do we access the maps?" she asked.

"It's a map room," Andy said. "There must be something here resembling a light table or projector."

"A hologram that acts like one?" Ginny said, pointing at one of the many portraits they could see in the chamber.

"That's one way to do it," Andy said, approaching it. "Now we just need to figure out how to look at the maps."

"Like a projector?" Harry said, joining them. "Other than the data viewers, and the Guardian, we haven't seen much of their technology in action."

"And the Ring Gates," Ginny added. "But you're right. What do we know about using their technology? It is very different from ours."

"Yes it is," Andy said. She held up her arm, with the armband. "This is a controller of some sort but how it works, or why? No idea."

"I've seen you use that like a key," Harry said, curious. "What else can it do?"

"It seems to act like an identifying device, but mind controlled," Andy said. "So, if I touch the image, and think loudly about what I want to see, what happens?"

"And there's our map," Ginny said. Moving to the middle of the chamber, she walked around the holographic map. "There are the towers, and those four depressions. Can we zoom out?"

Andy frowned, and the area covered by the map increased. And then increased again. "How far is that?" She asked. "Is it enough?"

"Based on the size and distance between the towers? One hundred kilometers, more or less," Harry said. "But this isn't live, is it. No trees. Just lots of rocks and grass."

"So we should be able to see any important features that aren't buried under forest," Ginny said. "I'm not seeing anything we didn't already know about."

"It's possible this facility was isolated from everything else," Andy said. "Though, I'm not sure why. The first library we found was in the center of a city."

"Is there more here than the library?" Harry asked. "Something that needs to be kept safe or secret?"

"Or something too dangerous for a populated area," Ginny said. "Is there any way to tell the map to show other things?"

"Other things? Like what?" Andy said.

"Underground facilities, minerals, caves, creature habitats?" Ginny said. "Something that would classify this area as something to keep separate. Possibly dangerous things, like weapons or portals to dangerous places."

"Hmm," Andy concentrated for a minute. "Anything?"

"No change," Harry said.

"Maybe there isn't anything to show?" Ginny said. "It's possible they built it here for some reason that only made sense to them."

"Aliens doing something for alien reasons?" Harry said. "That would make too much sense. But maybe that just isn't the right question to ask it."

"But what would be the right question to ask?" Andy said. "I'm not exactly speaking to it in Clan speak. I'm just telling it to show me something."

"So, try the opposite? Tell it to show you everything, except something?" Ginny said.

"Reverse psychology on an alien device?" Andy raised an eyebrow. "I don't think it's alive."

"Just subtract things," Harry said. "For example, get rid of anything green. Tell it to show all the things not green."

"Or remove anything that is rock?" Ginny said. "Then it would only show the non-rock things. Which would be anything that is artificial. Or wood."

"I don't think that will work," Andy said. "But sure, we can try it."

Large parts of the map disappeared. What remained was a very incoherent image.

"Now that is actually worse," Harry said. "Lots of big holes in the map."

"Look at that," Ginny said, pointing at a grey line. "This shows something connecting the towers and depressions. Do we have a sense of perspective? Some way to show how big they are?"

A small stick figure appeared on the map in the area they were in. "It appears we are missing some critical piece of information," Andy said. "How do we find that and find a door into the towers."

"Look here," Ginny said. "It looks like one of those tunnels passes by here. Maybe there's an entrance to it here in the library."

"Guardian! We need your assistance," Andy said, loudly. There was the now familiar popping sound before the Guardian appeared.

"You have figured it out, yes?" The Guardian said, nodding at the map.

"Figured it out? You seem to be playing a different game than when we first visited," Andy said. "What should we have figured out?"

"I cannot answer that if you haven't," the Guardian said, backing away.

Andy sighed. "Can we access these tunnels from here?" She pointed at the lines on the map.

"The maintenance tunnels are closed currently," the Guardian said. "There has been ground subsidence since they were last opened."

"But they've been used in the past?" Andy asked.

"Yes, Lady," the Guardian said.

"Is there any other way that we can access the tower interiors," Andy asked.

"There is nothing to see in the towers," the Guardian said firmly.

"What's in them?" Harry asked. "Secret treasure?"

"No," the Guardian said. "I am unable to reveal the contents of those towers."

"Those towers?" Andy said. "Are there other towers on this planet?"

"Just the ones with the Ring Gate at the Northern pole," the Guardian said.

"There's a gate at the Northern pole?" Ginny said. "How do we access it? Can we take the local gate to there?"

"That might not be a good idea," Andy said. "Isn't there something about gates being too close together that makes them unstable?"

"Samantha said there shouldn't be two gates with the same coordinates," Harry said. "Something about the coordinate system not allowing such close proximity."

"But that may be an artifact of the age of the Rings being used in their dimension," Harry said. "Those are sledgehammers. Ours are closer to fine instruments and should have no problems with close coordinates."

"Is the access code for the pole Gate available?" Andy asked the Guardian.

"I must consult," the Guardian said, disappearing silently.

"Consult who?" Harry said. "And about what if anyone is there?"

"When it comes back it will have completely forgotten what we asked," Andy said, shaking her head. "Other Guardians have claimed to be consulting with the other Guardians, but they come back and seem to have forgotten what they were doing."

"Old age?" Ginny asked. "How old will they get?"

"The entire chain of Guardian centric Hearts suffer from old age," Andy said. "It's hard to tell when something is worn out or if it is just a communication problem. The data banks appear fine," she said. "It's everything connected to them where problems can be defined as family centric."

"So, no visiting the other towers, this trip," Harry said. "Another thing off the bucket list."

"Not likely," Andy said. "It may have to wait until we can return."

"Maybe then we can look at the inside of these towers," Harry said. "It really seems like there is some clue in them that would help us if they would just let us poke around."

"They see no reason to let us poke around," Andy said. "Have you noticed how anything they show us rarely seems that important."

"How do we know what is important or not?" Ginny asked. "There's just so much to dig through."

"What is important to us is obviously not important to the Guardians," Andy said. "They are concerned with the survival of their archives. We aren't. We just want to use them."

"I think we should definitely check out the Pole gate before we leave," Ginny said. "Even if there isn't anything there to see."

"There are documents about the towers in the collection here," Memo said, having entered the map room while they were talking. "There really is no secret about what is in them."

"Which is?" Harry said.

"They are tombs in addition to being part of the defenses," Memo said. "Each tower contains a hero of the people."

"Why didn't the Guardian just say that?" Ginny asked. "We don't want to disturb their tombs."

"Talking about them is likely taboo," Memo said. "It is surprising you were able to get them to admit to their existence."

"Well, that explains why they keep changing the information they will allow us to see. How did they end up with pirate genetics?" Harry said.

"There is no information in the library that will help you find out," Miranda said. "They have removed all evidence of interaction."

"That seems a bit too specific," Andy said. "What are they afraid of?"

"Unknown," Memo said. "Any creature in a position like that will inevitably find themselves facing the people in charge for some unexpected or unplanned excursion.

"It is not worth the energy spent on it," Miranda said. "And I believe you have an appointment with a certain young person."

"Oh, right," Andy said. "How did they get on my itinerary? We're halfway across the galaxy."

"The Press moves in mysterious ways," Ginny said. "But there really isn't anything they can be told, is there?"

"That won't stop them from digging," Miranda said. "Be prepared for uncomfortable questions."

"Just like at home," Andy said. "They seem to think their job is to embarrass everyone who really doesn't fit their narrative."

"The Furling did not have Press in the same way," Miranda said. "To predict how their civilization would react to the challenges we face is pointless. Keep your answers simple."

"I do still have things to find out," Andy said. "Make sure you don't frighten them off."

"They will be treated with the respect they have earned," Miranda said.

"You must have some very interesting contacts in high places," Andy said, looking at the reporter on the comm. She wouldn't call them a journalist at this point. "We are on an important mission and do not have much time for interruptions."

"Lady Andrea, my credentials are in order," Jasper Hime said. "I was given permission to contact you by the Clan High Council."

"Be that as it may, I am not sure what value there is in us having this conversation," Andy said.

"There have been rumors flying around that you are seeking the Winter People, in order to secure their help with our ancient Clan enemy," Jasper said.

"I am not sure how much you know of the current situation that the Clan faces..." Andy said.

"I have been briefed," Jasper said. "Lady Hands was a bit intense but very informative." She visibly shivered.

"Yes, she can come across that way," Andy said. "But I wouldn't want anyone else in charge of our ground troops. She's a very brilliant tactician."

"The Serpent Clan Council is certainly very solid," Jasper said. "How does your mission fit into that?"

"To be clear, we don't expect to discover some silver bullet or magical weapon that will easily defeat the Kraal," Andy said. "But any insight into how the Kraal think will be welcome. Frankly, the information provided by the Pan-Galactic Confederation has proven multiple times to have glaring holes in its understanding of the Kraal."

"Why the Winter Folk, though?" Jasper asked. "Didn't they disappear long before the Kraal started making a nuisance of themselves."

"A nuisance?" Andy frowned. "I suppose they could be called that, by the Confederation civilizations that they don't directly impact. It may have escaped your notice but the Clans have been placed directly along their past path through the Confederation."

"Are you saying the Confederation intentionally set up the Clans to encounter the Kraal?" Jasper said. "To what purpose?"

"I can't speak to the Confederation's ultimate purposes with regard to the Clans," Andy said. "But they do appear to be making efficient use of them when possible. Beyond their stated aims."

"And the Winter Folk? What is the connection there?" Jasper asked.

"The Clans are said to originate with the Winter Folk, though how or why has never been determined," Andy said. "All of the Clans have legends referring to the Winter Folk in some way dragging us into the sky and out into the Black."

"But that brings me back to my original question," Jasper said. "How are the Winter Folk expected to help? They were gone long before the Kraal appeared."

"There have been sightings of the Winter Folk over the years," Andy said. "We do not believe they are completely gone."

"Does your mission have any awareness of the Ice Clan's claims to have discovered an ancient Winter Folk moon base?" Jasper asked.

"They claim to have discovered it?" Andy said. "That's interesting. I believe others have a prior claim to it, though the Winter Folk didn't leave anything valuable behind when they left it."

"So you dispute their ownership of the moon base?" Jasper said, raising an eyebrow.

"It's in their sector," Andy said, shrugging. "It doesn't matter who claims ownership, they have possession. Hopefully they'll allow the other Clans to participate in any exploration and research. Beyond that, I have nothing to say, and cannot speak for the Serpent Clan Council about the issue."

"When do you expect to find the Winter Folk, or declare this mission done?" Jasper said, after a long moment of silence.

"We cannot say," Andy said. "As soon as possible, hopefully. The Kraal are on the edge of the Serpent Clan sector and if we don't stop them they will go right through the center of our sector, resulting in incalculable damage. We can't dawdle in our search."

"I see," Jasper said. "We're speaking through deep space comm. Do you have room for one more?"

"Unless you can convince our sponsors, the Serpent Clan Council, to give us a larger ship for our mission, there really is no room for another passenger," Andy said.

"And if I brought my own ship?" Jasper said.

"We may encounter situations where anything less than a Serpent Clan cruiser is not safe," Andy said. "I wouldn't recommend tagging along."

"Your Council has been very cagey about your current location," Jasper said. "We have no idea where you are at the moment."

"Deep space," Andy said. "Headed to the next possible sighting of the Winter Folk."

"Of course," Jasper said. "Will you be available for future discussions so we can keep our viewers updated on your progress in finding the Winter Folk?"

"Unless we're in the middle of a battle? Most likely," Andy said, shrugging. "I'm sure arrangements can be made."

"Thank you for your time, Lady Andrea," Jasper said.

"You are welcome," Andy said, before reaching over and disconnecting the comm session. "What do you think?" She said, turning to look at Miranda.

"Uninformative, but truthful," Miranda said. "I wouldn't be surprised if they try to find us and follow."

"Hopefully we're moving too fast for them to catch up," Andy said. "I'd like to know whose idea it was that we talk with them."

"Someone in the Confederation is likely putting pressure on the Council, once they saw the moon base and realized that we may come across other potentially valuable Winter Folk artifacts," Miranda said.

"Greed can be a great motivator," Andy said. "But the likelihood that anyone has found the moon base Guardian and their Ring Gate is slim."

"They won't be unaware of the Space Gate we used to leave through," Miranda said.

"But it's unusable without the controlling gate. And the Galactics have had no success using any of the Ring Gates, even after we proved they still work," Andy said.

"They will eventually," Miranda said.

"We'll see," Andy said. "They don't have you or Brittany."

"They do tend to underestimate the Clans, especially the Serpent Clan," Miranda said. "The Ice Clan may become a problem if they are not pacified."

"Let's leave that to Brittany," Andy said. "We sent her our analysis and warning. I'm sure that reporter is part of her plan to control the situation."

"We have another day before the Lucia is ready to continue," Miranda said. "Do you plan to let Ginny and Harry go to the North Pole and examine the Tower and Gate there?"

"As long as they don't start singing Christmas songs," Andy said. "I don't see the harm, though they'll have to use the Gate to get there, since the Lucia is not currently flightworthy."

"Who's idea was this?" Ginny said, looking around at the snow covered landscape. "Oh right, now I remember," she said. "If I freeze to death, I'm coming back and haunting you."

"It's lovely weather," Harry said. "Perfect for skiing or snowball fights."

"It's so cold my suit heater thinks I'm on Pluto," Ginny said. "And I hated Pluto."

"Those are some awesome jump fields on Pluto," Harry said. "Too bad we can't do that here."

"Climb to the top of that tower," Ginny said. "I can push you off!"

"Ladies," Andy said. "You dragged me out of a nice warm bed to see this. Let's not forget why we're here."

"The Tower is that way," Ginny said, pointing towards a distant object. "Hopefully it has a door in it."

"The Guardian provided the access codes," Andy said. "Let's not waste them."

"Of course, Lady A," Ginny said. "I'll take point." Saying that, she pushed out into the snow drifts surrounding the Gate.

"We need a new suit feature," Harry said. "Why can't we walk on top of the snow?"

"Because we're not elves," Ginny said. "Or magical. Our suits weigh too much for that."

It took them several minutes to make it through the think snow to reach the base of the tower.

"I wonder why they have a tower out here in the middle of nowhere?" Harry said.

"Secondary control system," Andy said. "Or so the documents Ixchel found say. If the library is inaccessible this one can be used to control the Space Gate."

"Do the other libraries have backup controls?" Harry said.

"Most likely," Andy said, "but the Guardians aren't talking about that with us."

"They need something to hold over us so we don't just kick them out for incompetence," Ginny said.

"Not incompetent," Andy said. "Just a little too inflexible."

"Do you think they were always like that?" Harry said, looking up at the looming tower.

"No," Andy said. "Maybe?"

"I'm not impressed with them so far," Ginny said. "They must have some awesome tech available that they could use to hide with but they wouldn't use it."

"If they did we'd never find them," Andy said. She pressed a gloved hand against the tower base.

"Okay, it's to our advantage right now, but overall it isn't a good idea," Ginny said. "They are depending on obscurity to protect themselves."

There was a subtle vibration under their feet. A section of the tower base reformed to look like the air lock they'd use to enter the asteroid library.

"That looks familiar," Harry said.

"Hopefully it's warmer inside," Ginny said, hurrying to follow Andy inside.

"At least it's out of the wind," Harry said, following them. The door closed behind them.

"So, a map?" Harry said. "Or do they just assume anyone who makes it this far knows where they are?"

"We shouldn't need maps," Andy said. "We just want an elevator or stairway. We'll start at the top and work our way down."

"Well, that was boring," Ginny said, as the stood outside the tower again. "Nothing except a few data crystals."

"Could be used as a lighthouse," Harry said. "Just need a couple more windows at the top."

"It's an interesting building," Andy said. "Looks like it was built for a long siege."

"What kind of enemy would attack a tower in a frozen landscape like this?" Ginny asked. "You'd freeze your butt off."

"It may have been used for training," Andy said. "Send a couple annoying people here and make them keep watch on all of the ice and snow, and the Gate."

"I'm ready to go back," Ginny said. "I can feel my joints freezing. I'm going to lodge a complaint with the suit designers who claimed these suits are all weather."

"All weather doesn't mean that," Harry said. "Remember the lecture they gave us? It just means we can survive sudden changes in the weather for a few minutes, not that we can living in it. Cold weather suits are different."

"So why aren't we wearing them?" Ginny asked.

"Limited space on the Lucia," Andy said. "A suit takes up a specific amount of space, even the newer nano ones like mine. And a weather specialist."

Chapter Text

"Where are we?" Joyce asked, looking around the strange room. The walls were lined with shelves, and there were rows of shelves filling the room, like some kind of store or library. "And what are these?" She asked, picking up a strange looking object from one of the shelves.

"They're crystal data storage modules," Romana said, humming to herself. "Haven't seen technology like that in a number of years. Can't say this place is familiar though."

"The ride here was a bit rough," Joyce said. "Like that time Missy was experimenting with the navigation nodes, and almost killed us, before Idris fixed her mistakes."

"Yes," Romana said. "It did have that feeling. I'll have to check with Idris when we get back inside."

"What do you think this is?" Joyce asked, again.

"I'd say a library or data storage, but very primitive," Romana said, examining one of the crystals. "But unless I am mistaken, they are actually in a linked matrix. Very unusual."

"Which means for those of us not a Time Lord?" Joyce said, sighing.

"With the appropriate interface, you could access the entire data store without having to access each one individually," Romana said. "It's a very ancient technique. There was a civilization that used it but we didn't spend much time on them in school. They were one of those mysterious early ones that came and went before Gallifrey became what it was."

"You are always saying that your people were unique, and the oldest civilization," Joyce said. "And there's the door."

"Well, I might have been slightly inaccurate," Romana said, leading the way up a set of wide stairs. "No one really remembers the other ones. They were victims of Gallifrey's success."

"Like the Indian tribe we saw who were wiped out and no one remembers?" Joyce asked. "If you hadn't shown me, I wouldn't have known that such a sophisticated people lived there in the past."

"Yes," Romana said, as they entered a large room. "It isn't always the best civilizations that are remembered by history." She looked around. "A lobby?"

"We're under water?" Joyce said, pointing at a set of windows on the ceiling. "Think it's like that other underwater city?"

"This is just a single building, possibly," Romana said, taking out her sonic and waving it around. "Built underwater for some reason. That city was a lot more than this, though there are some faint similarities."

"Who are you?" A squeaky voice said. "What are you doing here in a Heart of the People?"

"Who said that," Joyce said in a low voice, looking around the huge empty room.

"An avatar?" Romana said, turning slowly. "There you are." She stopped, facing towards a dark corner. A small figure floated out towards them. It looked like a miniature person, with slightly exaggerated features.

"One of the People," the floating creature said, slowly circling Joyce. "But not the anticipated one. The ears. Ears." It stopped between them. "How did you enter? You did not come through the normal entrance."

"No, we have our own travel method," Romana said. "Who are the People?"

"The People? The People built this! It is one of their Hearts," the creature said. "The center of their knowledge in this reality."

"This reality?" Romana siad. "You have awareness of others?"

"Of course," the creature said. "The People have gone back to where they first came from. Or possibly a different one? Communication is difficult across realities."

"Why do you say she is one of these People?" Romana said, nodding at Joyce.

"Because she is," the creature said. "Cannot you tell, Lady of Time?"

"How do you know what she is?" Joyce said, giggling at the face Romana made. "No one every knows."

"Is it not obvious?" the creature said.

"You have biologic scanners," Romana said, shaking her head. "That appearance of inscrutability is a little misleading."

"That's cheating," Joyce said, pouting.

"The defenses of this Heart and the Others is paramount," the creature said.

"Of course it is," Romana said gently. "We do not wish to imply otherwise. What shall we call you?"

"This one? Is the Guardian of the People's Heart, in the Oceans of Keorn," it said.

"Keorn? A planet or planetary system?" Romana muttered. "If this is in an ocean, how do others access it?"

"It has always been here," the Guardian said. "Long before the oceans rose."

"When was the last time you had visitors," Romana asked, stepping around the Guardian and walking towards one of the high windows. She took out her sonic and started examining the structure.

"Time is a meaningless measurement," the Guardian said. "The People last passed through this Heart many thousands of cycles ago. But another approaches along the roadways laid open for them."

"Somebody's coming?" Joyce said. "Do we want to be here when they arrive?" She asked Romana. "They might object to your poking around."

"I'm sure they'll be friendly, correct?" She addressed the Guardian.

"There has been some concern as to their warlike nature," the Guardian said. "But they have refrained from any destructive impulses."

"There you go," Romana said. "Perfectly harmless."

"You said that when we ran into those Goa'uld creatures," Joyce said. "That was an unpleasant experience."

"It was just racial memory," Romana said. "We were perfectly safe. We are both incompatible with their puppetry."

"It still felt like I was being undressed by some slimy creature," Joyce said. She looked at the Guardian, who had been silently observing them. "These others, when will they get here?"

"Unknown," the Guardian said. "They are traveling through the outer Gates. Their vehicle does not fit through the Heart Gates."

"How big are these Gates?" Romana said, curious.

"The Heart Gate is through there," the Guardian said, pointing at a large door. "But you are not dressed appropriately for using them."

"How should we be dressed?" Romana said.

"You do not appear to be a water breather," the Guardian said. "The Heart Gate is completely submerged at this time due to the planetary cycles."

"This Gate works while submerged?" Romana said. "Interesting."

"It is less efficient," the Guardian said. "But still functional. It was not intended to operate in such a location and did not until recently."

"I wonder how long ago it was built?" Joyce said in a low voice, standing next to Romana. "If it wasn't underwater when it was built but is now? How long would that take?"

"There could be many reasons for that," Romana said. "We would have to know the planetary geology. I suspect we will not be here long enough to need to know."

"You don't want to come back?" Joyce said. "It's a library, kind of, though the lack of Starbucks is disappointing."

"You'll survive," Romana said. "Who were the People," she asked the Guardian, turning away from the window. "You haven't really said."

"You appear to travel with one," the Guardian said. "What more do you need to know?"

"How can we be sure Joyce is one of these People?" Romana said. "We have not encountered any of these People in our travels."

"We haven't exactly been looking for them," Joyce said. "Everyone says they're extinct. Except my family."

"There is that," Romana said, nodding. "But maybe they are here somewhere?"

"Idris didn't recognize the co-ordinates," Joyce said. "That's why we were out here wandering around."

"For Idris to not recognize the co-ordinates, we must have slipped through a dimensional portal," Romana said. "One that does not contain familiar places."

"We should go then," Joyce said. "You said slipping through dimensional layers was not a good idea."

"It can be dangerous," Romana said. "Especially if it is one that is not compatible with your energy matrix. But Idris would have warned us."

"Idris said we couldn't take K-9 out here with us," Joyce said. "That seems like warning enough for me."

"K-9 is susceptible to a number of things that would not harm us," Romana said. "What can you tell us about your expected visitors?" she asked the Guardian.

"That information is unavailable," it said. "They have not trans-located through to the Gate in this system as of yet, and the information is not available."

"So, you scan energy matrixes and other things? How did you not detect our presence?" Romana said, humming to herself.

"Your vehicle, which has now been detected in the anterior storage area, is resisting scanning," the Guardian said. "That is unusual, and unexpected."

"That would be Idris," Romana said smugly. "She has a mind of her own and does not like other beings rummaging around in it."

"You can read our minds?" Joyce said, stepping behind Romana, without realizing it.

"Not thoughts," the Guardian said. "And the People are not scannable in that manner."

"I'm not thinking very complementary thoughts at the moment," Romana said on a low voice to Joyce. "It doesn't seem to be picking them up. It is likely our energy matrixes are foreign enough that it can't."

"That's good," Joyce said. "I don't like someone poking around in my head either. Even subtle ones like Missy."

"I find keeping Missy away from my thoughts to be exhausting," Romana said, grimacing. "But she is currently not our concern."

"You say that now," Joyce said, grumbling. "She keeps coming back."

"She's bored," Romana said. "Which makes her dangerous."

"She should go be dangerous somewhere else," Joyce said. "So, library that is contained on crystals. What do you think they say?"

"If they are written in your native family language? Idris refuses to translate, so I can't really say," Romana said.

"I know you can read it," Joyce said, pouting. "You don't need Idris's help. Some day you have to let me know what the big deal about it is."

"There are many things I don't need Idris for," Romana said. "I am in charge, after all."

"I'd like to see you tell her that," Joyce said, giggling. "I think the Guardian isn't happy that we're ignoring it."

"It lives to serve," Romana said. "We've been ignoring it so it cannot fulfill its primary purpose." She shrugged.

"It recognized you as a Time Lord," Joyce said.

"Lady of Time," Romana said dismissively. "An archaic title."

"Of course," Joyce said. "But I don't think it actually comprehends what that means. It's just something it knows."

"Do you?" Romana said, raising an eyebrow at her.

"Better than some," Joyce said, shrugging. "Not as much as my future self or Samantha, at the moment, probably."

"Possibly," Romana said.

"That is a very wet world," Ginny said, looking at the planet on the main screen. "I can see why the Guardian recommended not using the Heart Gate directly."

"It also might have been the idea that it might be under water," Harry said. "Can't say I like the idea of coming out of a gate in a few meters of cold water."

"We've done it before," Ginny said.

"And it wasn't pleasant," Harry said, "if you remember."

"It doesn't matter," Andy said. "This guardian will know we are here and will be expecting us. We just need a landing spot nearby."

"And a boat," Harry said.

"We can run a shield up to the main doors, if we can get close enough," Dart said. "Then no one will get wet."

"This is an interesting looking location," Ixchel said. "Why put a library here?"

"The records available say it wasn't like this when they built it here," Memo said. "There is no explanation for this now."

"So, ancient records of the Hearts are a bit inaccurate," Romana said. "It shouldn't be surprising. It has been many thousand cycles. What did it look like originally?"

"It was an ice planet," Memo said. "They were doing climate research."

"And now it's a water planet? Did it get warmer?" Andy said. "Or do we care what happened to it?"

"No," Miranda said. "It's a curious change but none of us are planetary geologists."

"Good," Andy said. "We can leave a message for the next visitors. Do we have a place to land?"

"We've received landing coordinates from the local Guardian," Garnes said. "We should be in optimal position for a landing approach in several minutes."

"Who's going?" Andy said. "The regular library crew?"

"Do you need us for this?" Harry said.

"Just the initial welcome wagon meeting," Andy said. "What did you have in mind?"

"It can't be the only facility on the entire planet," Ginny said. "If we can borrow the Lucia's scanners and probe, maybe we can find something interesting."

"More interesting than an empty tower and Gate in the North," Harry said. "Possibly."

"There are no indications of an additional Ring Gate," Miranda said. "It's just a wet planet."

"Fishing?" Ginny said. "That's a traditional activity when encountering a water world."

Andy sighed. "I don't object, as long as we can reach you in an emergency. I understand you aren't really along for the exciting reading opportunities."

"Landing commencing," Garnes said, interrupting their discussion. "It might be a little bumpy. There's a major storm approaching our landing area."

"Always a good sign," Harry said. "Landing just before a storm hits."

"Is that a spacer superstition?" Andy said. "I don't recall hearing about that one before."

"Not a spacer superstition, no," Garnes said. "Troopers do have some strange ideas."

"Superstition does have its place," Miranda said. "It can be a useful early warning system."

"Feet on the ground before a storm hits? I'm very much in favor of that one," Andy said. "But I trust the Lucia and her crew to get us there safely."

"The flattery isn't necessary, Lady A, but I'm sure Lucia doesn't mind," Garnes said. "And we're down."

"Very smooth," Andy said. "Are we close enough for Dart's shield trick?"

"We are, but it will have to wait for the storm to pass," Dart said. "Setting it up in the middle of a storm is not recommended."

"Can we see this storm?" Memo said. "I have never seen something on this scale."

"There isn't much to see from here," Garnes said. The front viewer switched to a view of a tall column of dark, almost black, clouds bearing down on the Lucia. "We're locked down to the landing pad and shouldn't notice it through our shields."

"A bit anticlimactic," Andy said. "Is it safe to move around?"

"Of course," Garnes said. "Now that we've landed, there is no need to stay buckled in."

"Can the probe fly in this storm?" Ginny said. "Can we get a different view of the area?"

"The short range probe does not have the mass or shields of the Lucia," Garnes said. "The long range probe cannot operate within a planetary gravity well such as this."

"So, that was a no?" Ginny said.

Everyone was gathered in the air lock, dressed in their EV suits or armor, while Dart worked her magic with the shields.

"The shield walkway is now connected," Dart said. "The library is now accessible."

"Good," Ginny said. "Getting a bit stuffy in here. What if we want to go somewhere else?"

"Simple," Dart said. "There's a permeable gap between the start of the tunnel and the Lucia. Step to the side, instead of into the tunnel and you'll be outside. But it is a bit damp out right now. The landing pad is under a meter of water."

"So, go to the library and stay dry or go outside and get wet?" Harry said. "Choices... choices..."

"Library first," Andy said. "Then you can go play."

"It's been a while since we had the opportunity to take our suits out into knee high water," Harry said. "Everyone in the Troop will be so jealous when they find out."

"A rare training opportunity," Ginny said. "We get to test the depth rating on the suits."

"I'm sure they've been tested at different depths," Andy said. "Lady Hands is very thorough."

"Yes," Ginny said. "We had to certify in the new suits at one hundred meters."

"Having to certify at that depth without the suits was exhausting," Harry said. "Fortunately, we won't have to do that for a while."

"Ready?" Dart said. "Opening hatch."

There was a brief change in pressure in the air lock, and a brief spray of water obscured the hatch.

"That smells," Ginny said, grumbling, as she stepped through the hatch ahead of the others.. "Whose idea was the smellovision on these suits?"

"Only in normal atmosphere," Harry said, right behind her. "How far are we from the library again?"

"Less than a click," Ginny said. "A quarter of one?"

"And there it is," Harry said. "Let's get that open."

"Not without Lady A," Ginny said. "That's one of those high pressure locks."

"All you had to do was ask," Andy said, slipping between them to reach the door.

"Don't tease them, Andrea," Miranda said, her voice echoing on the comm.

"Yeah! No teasing," Harry said, leaning forward to get in front of her as the door slid in. "First," she said slipping to the side and taking up a defensive position.

"Second," Ginny said, taking the other side of the door.

"All clear," Harry said. And then her suit scanner beeped in warning. "Something is pinging," she said.

"I'm getting that also," Andy said. "Strange energy readings."

"Some new People scanner?" Ginny asked. "This does look newer than the other libraries. Maybe they have a different kind of scanner running?"

"Welcome. Lady of the People, and companions," a voice, the typical squeaky Guardian one, said. "Do not be concerned. Our other visitors are currently occupied."

"Other visitors?" Andy said. "Someone else is here?"

"That seems like a huge coincidence," Ginny said. "Do you get visitors here often?"

"And how did they get in through all that water?" Harry said. "There's no other ship outside."

"We understood that the Heart Gate here was not active," Andy said, while signaling on the comm to Miranda and the others to wait before joining them.

"It is not," the Guardian said. "The Youngster and the Lady of Time used alternate access methods."

"Lady of Time?" Harry murmured. "That's a curious title."

"Youngster?" Andy said.

"A young one of the People has accompanied the Lady of Time on her visit to this Heart," the Guardian said. "I am not privy to their purpose for visiting."

"Well, I guess we should meet them, before we begin our research," Andy said. "Where may we find them?"

"Their travel pod is in the lower Records level," the Guardian said. "But they are currently in the observatory on the upper level."

"There's another entrance in the Records level?" Ginny said.

"No," the Guardian said. "I shall inform them of your desire to exchange information." The Guardian disappeared with a distinctive pop.

"Well, this should be interesting," Harry said. "Never met a Lady of Time before."

"Or one of the People," Ginny said. "Besides Lady A here."

"It should be safe for the others to enter," Harry said to Andy. "The safety protocols seem to be fully engaged."

"I'd like to see this travel pod," Ginny said, looking around. "I wonder what it looks like."

"It landed inside," Harry said. "Must not be very large."

"We are not the first visitors today?" Miranda said, entering the library with Romana, Ixchel, and Memo.

"The Guardian seemed almost giddy," Andy said.

"This is the first time we have encounter any other beings making use of one of the People's libraries," Romana said. "It is likely that the Guardian is excited."

"And they have gone to inform these other visitors of our presence," Andy said. "I admit to being curious at what a Lady of Time looks like."

"That's a very archaic title," a firm voice said, "but the avatar refuses to use anything else."

They all turned towards the voice, to find two small women standing at the base of a stairway. The one who had spoken was dressed in something vaguely familiar to Andy's eyes, while the other seems to be dressed like a Terran teen of a different era, in bell bottoms and a tie dyed t-shirt.

"You haven't exactly corrected it," the other, younger looking woman said.

"There seems to be no point," the older woman said. "I am Romanadvoratrelundar. You may call me Romana," she said to them.

"I'm just Joyce," the other woman said. "She's in charge. I'm just the peanut gallery."

Andy frowned, and looked at the Clan Mother. "This will get confusing."

"How so?" The new Romana said.

"I am also called Romana," Romana said, giving her a puzzled look.

"Interesting," the woman said, frowning. "In that case, to avoid confusion, you may call me Fred."

"Fred? Is that your name?" Ixchel said, giving her a look.

"I've always wanted to be called Fred, but the Doctor never quite understood," Fred said. "Fred, Romana, either works."

"Missy never calls you Fred," Joyce said. "Of course, I don't think she has ever called either of us by our actual names."

"Names are not needed with her," Fred murmured. "She'd just forget them."

"What brings you to this Heart?" Andy asked, noticing the woman in the jeans had pointed ears.

"Heart? Oh you mean this data storage facility? It was an unintentional stop," Fred-Romana said."Navigation error. It is an interesting design. Haven't seen anything like it in centuries. What brings you here? If I understand the avatar correctly you are just passing through also."

"The avatar? You mean the Guardian," Andy said.

"They didn't introduce themselves," Joyce said. "We've met friendlier."

"We're searching for information on a group of the People who passed through here many cycles ago," Romana said. "They have information we may need."

"Who are the People?" Joyce asked, when it was clear Romana-Fred's attention had wandered. "That seems like a very generic name."

"They created this place, along with several others connected through their Ring Gates," Andy said.

"Gates?" Romana-Fred said suddenly paying attention again. "Big circular objects made from an unusual metal?"

"These are small," Ginny said, saying something for the first time. "Just big enough for two of us to go through at a time. We've seen bigger ones, besides the ones big enough to take a cruiser through."

"Stargates," Romana-Fred said, nodding. "I've encountered them. There's a vast network of them out there."

"Out where?" Andy said. "There can't be more than twenty in this galaxy, mostly in inaccessible locations."

"Really?" Romana-Fred said. "What planet are you from? You didn't say."

"Terra," Andy said. "Most recently."

"What year is this?" Romana-Fred said. She pulled a slim device out of a pocket and shook it before staring at it. "2021CE? Your armor is not period appropriate for that planet."

"It doesn't look like anything I've seen either," Joyce added. "Though I can't claim to be an expert in whatever you are wearing. Looks cartoonish."

"I believe they are," Romana-Fred said. "And Earth does not have armor like it for several thousand years, when they develop nano-machines."

"We've had armor like this for a long time," Harry said. "And we've been based on Terra for a while."

"The Serpent Clan arrived back in 2012," Miranda said, joining them. "I find it curious that you are not aware of them."

"Serpent Clan? The planet I'm familiar with does not have a Serpent Clan, especially not with those markings," Romana-Fred said. "They look like variation on Mayan glyphs."

"Do you have the Pan-Galactic Confederation?" Andy said. "The Clans are associated with them, as their sector police forces. You can't travel in this galaxy without knowing this."

"No," Romana-Fred said. "That's a new one." She turned to Joyce. "l suspect the bumpy ride was more than an out of balance motivator."

"Every trip there's something," Joyce said, sighing. "Now what?"

"I need to check Idris," Romana-Fred said. "You can stay here, if you wish."

"I need coffee," Joyce said. "If there isn't a Starbucks, I guess I'll have to make my own." She frowned. She turned to the armored women. "I'll be right back."

"Starbucks?" Andy said. "Where exactly are you from?"

"Ohio," Joyce said. "Though it's more when than where."

"You have coffee?" Ginny said. "The Lucia's generators can't get it right."

"When?" Andy said in a low voice to Miranda. "When they're from?"

"Lady of Time seems to be an important distinction," Miranda said.

"And they aren't from this galaxy," Ixchel said. "Visitors from another dimension?"

"Very likely," Andy said. "We were bound to run into a dimensional visitor out here at some point."

"And the girl? With the pointed ears?" Miranda said.

"You noticed," Andy said, watching the girl, Joyce, head towards the stairs, following the other Romana. "Ginny, go with her."

"Yes, Lady A," Ginny said.

"You're coming with me?" Joyce said, looking at the tall armored person. The helmet retracted into the suit revealing a woman with a mischievous smile.

"You said the important word, coffee," she said. "I'm Ginny."

"I'm Joyce. Which you already know," she said, blushing.

"Have you been traveling with your Romana very long?" Ginny asked.

"Maybe a year?" Joyce said, stopping at a landing and entering the room at that level. "It's hard to tell with time travel. Romana says time is very fluid but I find it occasionally confusing. A week ago we were back in the 50's. Tomorrow we'll probably be on the Moon in the 30th century. It' hard to predict. Idris can be a bit quirky."

"Where are you from?" Ginny asked. "I've never seen anyone with pointed ears on Terra, except in some old movies."

"I'm from Ohio," Joyce said. "Born and bred, as the saying goes. And I don't exactly look like this at home."

"Lady Andrea is from Ohio," Ginny said, tilting her head. "She doesn't have ears like you."

"It's a family legacy," Joyce said. "They aren't normally like this, but there was an accident and I got zapped by a stray energy wave and have been stuck like this for a while. Can't go home until I can change back."

"You can change your ears?" Ginny asked, following her into the back of the large room.

"Usually," Joyce said. "It's a Furling trait, according to someone I know."

"Furling?" Ginny said. "That sounds familiar."

"I don't know much about them," Joyce said. "Other than my family are descended from them. And it isn't common knowledge. Samantha says they were one of four ancient races in our galaxy, but not a lot is known about them."

"Samantha? I've met a Samantha," Ginny said. "An explorer, and rocket scientist, Very smart."

"Apparently a future me is involved with her," Joyce said. "Sure, she's gorgeous, and smart, but I'm not sure of the attraction. It's not really a public thing when I'm from."

"Sounds like the Samantha I know, except she's really close to her Jack. We traveled with them for a while, a long trip through Gates," Ginny said. "Most of the Serpent Clan are women, so that kind of thing isn't a big deal."

"If they're the same Samantha, it's probably a different time line then," Joyce said.

"Or we're in a different reality," Romana-Fred said, waiting for them at the TARDIS. "You have Star Gates, apparently, but Joyce's Terra, Earth as they call it, doesn't have aliens such as yourself. There are the Goa'uld, and others the Samantha and her team fight but nothing like your clans."

"You have Goa'uld?" Ginny said. "Nasty little things, with their whole puppet master thing." Ginny grimaced. "The Samantha I was talking about is fighting them also. Ixchel, who is also upstairs, used to have one in her. It's not a pleasant experience according to her."

"We are definitely in a parallel reality," Romana said. "Different Samanthas, and if I understand correctly, your Lady Andrea is a Furling, though with round ears."

"How'd you guess?" Ginny said.

"She's smart like that," Joyce said. "I think it's the whole Time Lord thing."

"Time Lord? Lady of Time?" Ginny said. "What does that mean?"

"Welcome to my TARDIS," Romana said, opening the door.

"TARDIS?" Ginny said.

"Time and Relative Dimensions in Space," Romana said, leading them inside.

"It's her time and space ship," Joyce said. "We travel in it."

"It's bigger on the inside," Ginny said, looking around. "This is so amazing."

"I'll be right back with the coffee," Joyce said, slipping around to a door on the other side.

"We seem to have slipped sideways coming here," Romana said, examining a readout on the center console. "You can let your leader know that we will be leaving as soon as Idris regenerates. It would not be appropriate for us to stay long."

"I'll pass your message along," Ginny said. "She'll likely have questions."

"We can do that before leaving," Romana said, nodding.

"Here you go," Joyce said, handing Ginny a large thermos. "It's some fancy blend from the Peruvian mountains. I thought you might want to share, or need a larger sample for your duplicator."

"This is excellent," Ginny said, opening the thermos and taking a sniff. "We haven't had coffee this good in months, out in the fleet. Not much room for it in a war zone."

"War zone?" Romana said. "You're at war? With who?"

"If you aren't from around here, you probably aren't familiar with them, but there's a race called the Kraal," Ginny said. "They travel through this galaxy on a regular basis, destroying everything in their wake. They're the reason the Clans co-operate with the Galactics. They made us their enforcers."

"The name is not familiar," Romana said. "But there are a number of races that behave in that fashion, like locust, so it isn't surprising."

"So we can't help?" Joyce said. "There must be something we can do."

"It'll be another hour before Idris is ready to go," Romana said. "We can at least discuss their options."

"Ginny said you need to leave," Andy said, when they were all back in the central chamber.

"Yes," Romana-Fred said. "Although it is unlikely, our presence here may lead to an unstable timeline. It's best if we don't stay."

"We have questions," Andy said.

"That's expected," Romana-Fred said. "We will answer them if able."

"Joyce is a Furling," Andy said. "What can you tell us about them?"

"One of four ancient races," Romana said. "They seem to be semi-immune to much of the problems other races have with time travel."

"Not that it feels like it," Joyce said, grumbling.

"The Furling in our universe seem to have the ability to take different forms. Human looking, what you see Joyce as here, and another that we haven't seen. There is speculation as to the reason but it appears to be camouflage," Romana-Fred said.

"We're hiding from something," Joyce said. "Possibly the Goa'uld though we've been avoiding them for other reasons."

"The Goa'uld appear to think the Furlings are extinct," Romana-Fred said.

"How do you change?" Andy asked.

"It's all in my head," Joyce said. "And there's a metal that makes it easier. Naquadah?"

"Correct," Romana-Fred said. "Unfortunately we don't have any samples."

"Well, Idris gave me this for you," Joyce said, handing over a metallic ring. "But I can't really tell you how to use it. It controls the change but I don't understand the way it works. Put it on and concentrate? Maybe?"

"Your name is Romanadvoratrelundar," Romana said. "That is also the name my mother gave me. It was the name of her hearth companion, though in my faded memory she looked nothing like you."

"I am not sure what you are asking," Romana-Fred said. "I have not been here before that I recall, though time can be a finicky thing. It's possible another with my identity was here, how long ago?"

"A thousand cycles," Romana said.

"If it is me, it has not happened in my personal timeline yet, but I will keep it in mind," Romana-Fred said.

"So she's not your long lost father," Ixchel said. "We still like you."

"I'll have to remember this," Joyce said, smirking. "Good blackmail material is hard to find."

"You don't know anything about the Kraal," Andy said.

"No," Romana-Fred said. "Sorry. They do not appear familiar in any way."

"Any suggestions?" Andy said.

"Without knowing anything about them? My advice would be worthless," Romana-Fred said. "I would suggest you continue to follow the path you are on. Find your Furlings. The technology exhibited here? It's a lot more sophisticated than it looks on the surface."

"We suspected as much," Andy said. "Our Clan tech is much more advanced than the other Clans but this makes ours look so simple."

"That was strange," Joyce said, as the TARDIS left, taking them back to their home universe.

"In what way?" Romana said.

Well, there's another Romana out there, somewhere, and she has a daughter, but you don't think it's you," Joyce said.

"Extremely unlikely," Romana said. "The navigation error that took us here shouldn't happen again."

"And that Andy is also from Ohio," Joyce said. "Though we don't know if she has the Furling ears."

"Possibly," Romana said. "She should talk with her parents. Apparently they've been keeping secrets from her."

"And there's nothing we can do about those Kraal," Joyce said. "Are you sure?"

"Not without risking the integrity of this universe," Romana said. "They seem to already have integrity issues, if I understand it correctly. They seem to be littered with portals to other realities."

"Do you think that's how we ended up there? Through one of their portals?" Joyce asked.

"Possible," Joyce said. "But there isn't enough data to determine that. Idris was not aware of its existence until now."

"We know their Samantha isn't ours, right?" Joyce said. "Theirs is married to Jack, but ours isn't."

"It could be an alternate time line," Romana said. "That is as likely as being an alternate universe, but again there is not enough data to make that determination."

"Think we'll come back some day?" Joyce asked her.

"Unlikely," Romana said. "This was a navigation error, that is unlikely to reoccur."

"Oh," Joyce said. "I was hoping to meet more of them. They have an interesting outlook on things."

"They're an alien culture that grew up around the Mayan culture on your planet," Romana said. "I would say that as cultures go they are certainly unique."

"And almost all women," Joyce said. "A matriarchy of sorts. Aren't those rare?"

"The Amazons, on several planets, are a matriarchy," Romana said.

"Amazons? Can we go see them?" Joyce said. "You never mentioned them."

"It didn't seem important," Romana said.

"Are you going to try it?" Miranda asked her, watching her fiddle with the ring the girl Furling had given her.

"What purpose would it serve?" Andy said. "The Guardians already recognize me as one of the People, without the ears."

"Of course," Miranda said.

"Besides, what if I get stuck in whatever form that is?" Andy said. "Like she is."

"My impression is that it is a very temporary thing," Miranda said. "She's a teenager having an adventure. Once the adventure ends she'll solve her problem, whatever it really is."

"So, that wasn't Romana's father," Andy said. "As far as we know."

"She's a time traveler," Miranda said. "With the ability to travel between realities, which I suspect was not as accidental as she was claiming."

"What makes you say that?" Andy said.

"Their time ship, Idris, is very chatty," Miranda said. "She was happy to talk with some being who could actually communicate while wide awake."

"You're multi-talented," Andy said, hugging her. "What did you learn?"

"This Time Person has the ability to change physical appearances, but only when they are close to death. So it still might have been her."

"Interesting," Andy said. "What else?"

"This Romana is from a much more distant reality than it appears. She ended up in the reality of Joyce purely by accident, and seems to be alone. Her people appear to have died out in Joyce's reality. Except for some mad creature called Missy."

"So, she has experience dealing with alternate realities," Andy said. "Think she was really concerned about the stability of this one or was that just an excuse?"

"It's hard to tell," Miranda said. "There is some truth to the fragility of the dimensional walls of this reality, but whether her presence would have a negative effect? There is no way to know except by experiencing it."

"I don't think it's worth the risk to test that idea," Andy said.

"No," Miranda said. "It was safer to let them go, not that we could have stopped them."

"We could have stopped them," Andy said, "Not that we would try."

"Their ship, Idris, their TARDIS, can withstand a supernova," Miranda said. "I don't think our weapons would have any effect. And just entering it, any weapons are disabled."

"That's a clever trick," Andy said. "Why don't we have that? Not necessarily our weapons, but any weapons anyone else carries onto the Lucia?"

"You'll have to talk with Garnes and Dart about that," Miranda said.

"They have the Goa'uld also, don't they," Andy said. "And they're not one reality away from them."

"No, they are dealing directly with them," Miranda said. "But they do have the extremely talented Samantha Carter so it isn't hopeless for them."

"We should find our Sam Carter," Andy said. "I bet she would have some ideas to share about defeating the Kraal."

"I'm sure Lady Shadow has warned them already but we should suggest it just in case," Miranda said. "We don't want to accidentally open a portal to their universe and send the Kraal through to there."

"That would be bad," Andy said. "Inflicting the Kraal on our nearest dimensional neighbors would probably be considered unfriendly."

"Very unfriendly," Miranda said.

"But maybe she can give us some ideas? I'm sure she's seen some things," Andy said. "And we can confirm that our Sam is different from theirs."

"Joyce did seem slightly embarrassed at the idea that her future self is involved with a woman," Miranda said. "Possibly because of her Ohio upbringing."

"We're not all prudes in Ohio," Andy said. "But did you catch that this Joyce is from the 70s? She thinks Starbucks is the height of coffee."

"She'll learn better," Miranda said. "The coffee sample she provided Ginny is certainly welcome. We can finally get a good cup of coffee out here."

"Maybe," Andy said. "That machine seems to be designed to intentionally create the worst cup of coffee in the galaxy."

"It's intentionally set to the favorite coffee of some engineer in the Fleet," Miranda said.

"An engineer with no taste," Andy said, turning over and burying her face in her pillow.

"Or an engineer who hates coffee and those who drink it," Miranda said. "It's pointless to speculate. Dart has promised to use the sample to recalibrate the extruder."

"You don't need the coffee," Andy said, staring up at her. "Why the effort?"

"Because you do like coffee," Miranda said. "And a good cup of coffee will make you happy."

"Okay, point taken," Andy said. "I would like a drinkable cup of coffee also."

Chapter Text

"So, five of these libraries so far, and what do we have to show for it?" Andy said, looking around at the others in the ship's lounge.

"Well, we added Lady Memo to our illustrious gang," Harry said.

"We know the Ice Clan are greedy, and claim things they didn't discover," Ginny added. "And we've explored a number of different Furling planets or bases."

"We have co-ordinates for a number of Ship Gates," Ixchel said. "I'm not sure we know how to use them to go other places, but we know how to find them."

"Shortcuts into other Clan territories are certainly useful," Andy said. "Lady Shadow will be happy to know about them. What else?"

"We know there are other Furlings out there in the multi-verse," Miranda said. "They may not be the same but they are not extinct."

"Well, we ran into one, and she's from Ohio," Andy said. "But I'll take it."

"We know of at least one time traveler," Romana said, "though we do not know if she is related to another person of the same name."

"And we can detect the kind of vessel she travels in, which may become useful," Miranda said.

"We can?" Dart said.

"Yes," Miranda said.

"Care to share?" Garnes said. "So we can update the ship sensors."

"It will need some work to add that ability to the Lucia," Miranda said, "but I'm sure it will become available as soon as we pass the information to the appropriate groups."

"We have a much better idea of who the Furling, the Winter People, were before they left," Lady Memo said. "Before all we had were legends scattered across the Clans. Now we have primary sources of information for those who wish to study them."

"Knowledge is always a good thing," Andy said, nodding. "Unfortunately, we don't seem to have learned anything that will help us against the Kraal, and we haven't found out what happened to the Prophets of Zircon Nine, after they left with the Furling."

"But we do have a possible explanation for the Guardian's fascination with your ears," Miranda said. "In at least one corner of the multi-verse Furling are able to change their appearance slightly."

"But we don't know how to cause the change, or if it is even possible for Furling in this universe," Andy said. "Wishing real hard while holding this ring does not seem to be a practical method."

"The girl was kind of cute with the ears," Harry said. "She looked sort of like a movie elf. But I think she comes from a very conservative culture."

"Early 70s Terra," Miranda said. "It was a different time from the one you are familiar with. Ohio would have been very conservative then."

"Still is," Andy said. "There's a reason my parents live on a farm, and not in the middle of a city. They prefer to not have nosy neighbors interfering in their business."

"Which is getting us off track," Miranda said. "Do you feel we have been successful? That is all that really matters. The Council wasn't expecting us to find a silver bullet for the Kraal. But until we pass all of our knowledge along to Lady Shadow and her predictive model we won't really know if what we learned will prove important."

"We have one more 'Heart of the People' to visit," Andy said. "When will we be ready to leave?"

"We have the co-ordinates for the next Space Ring," Garnes said, "and the unlock code. We just need to make the jump. Is there anything else you need from this library?"

"We've gotten everything," Ixchel said. "This one contained some interesting information but the main value was from the visitors we encountered."

"Do we know where this last jump will take us?" Andy said.

"Somewhere in Serpent Clan territory," Garnes said, "but it seems to be moving. The Guardian said there is something wrong with it. Its defensive systems appear to be stuck on, so we'll be jumping with full shields."

"Dangerous?" Andy asked.

"Only if we can't connect to it," Garnes said. "There are safety protocols that should reset it when we go through its space gate."

"Should?" Andy said. "What if they don't?"

"We end up in stasis until we clear it," Garnes said. "So, it might be a rough jump."

"If we get killed, I can think of at least a dozen people who won't be happy," Andy said.

"I won't be happy," Harry said, grumbling.

"If everyone could get into their crash seats we can jump in fifteen," Garnes said.

"Still nothing?" Santana said, joining her tech team observing the derelict ship. "How'd you manage to move it without shutting it down?"

"We used those magnetic grapplers on a couple tugs," Tyne said. "And very heavy shielding."

"What did you want me to see if there's been no change?" Santana said.

"That is not exactly true," Tyne said. "After we moved it out here, the radiation field contracted. As if something noticed."

"So, the radiation field is some kind of defense," Santana said. "But still no way through it?"

"No, but look at its orbit," she said. "It is automatically keeping in the least disruptive orbit. If I didn't know better, I'd say it was designed to be there."

"Interesting," Santana said. "Were you able to track it back to wherever it came from? With all of that radiation leaking from it, it should be easy to see."

"Nothing," Tyne said. "It's as if it was invisible, until we found it."

"So, not as derelict as it seems," Santana said. "Okay, keep an eye on it. A retractable radiation field might be useful. Did you get those improved probe plans?"

"We're using them now," Tyne said. "Much higher survival rate for the base Red Pirate probes when configured that way."

"Good," Santana said. "Keep me up to date," she said. Turning she left the lab and headed back to her shuttle, and Flag.

"Gate engaged," Garnes said. "Shields at maximum. Prepare for transition."

There was a hum and that timeless feeling they'd come to recognize as a transition through a Space gate. As they passed through the Gate into space on the other side, there was a red flash and alarms started sounding.

"Transition complete," Garnes said. "Gate shut down."

"Where are we?" Andy said, frowning at the planet on the view screen.

"That... appears to be Saturn?" Garnes said. "Locking on local nav beacons. Yes, we're now in orbit around Saturn."

"Can we see the Gate?" Andy asked. "Wouldn't someone have noticed it out here by now?"

"No one noticed that Stargate in the asteroid field," Ginny said. "If they don't have their scanners looking for it, it might be invisible."

"That's different," Andy said, as the main view scene rotated until it was pointing back the way they'd come. A large, heat scorched object seemed to have taken up orbit around Saturn and the distinct outline of a space gate could be seen between them and it.

"What is that?" Andy said. "Behind the Gate?"

"Incoming transmission," Garnes said. "It's from Fleet."

"Put it on the comm," Andy said.

"Lucia, this is Flag control, please confirm your location," a firm voice said.

"Flag, this is Lucia. We appear to be orbiting Saturn in the Sol system," Garnes said.

"This better be good," the unmistakable voice of Lady Air said, over the comm. "What are you doing here?" There was a pause "And what happened to the wreck."

"Wreck?" Garnes said. "Lady Air, we jumped here through a Furling Space Gate in Sector Zed Alpha Three. We don't know anything about a wreck."

"Of course you don't," Lady Air said. "Report to Research Station Ex-Theta-Seven."

"Yes, Lady Air," Garnes said. The sounds of the comm being disengaged echoed across the ship's comm. "Apparently we're going to Ex-Theta-Seven."

"That's a new one," Dart said over the comm. "Where is it?"

"Looks like we're several minutes away," Garnes said. "It's on Titan. Looks like it's designated for restricted research."

"Great. One of those kind of secret bases," Ginny said. "Our wills are in order aren't they?" she said to Harry.

"Before we joined the Lucia," Harry said. "It's all in order. I'm not an amateur."

"Aren't you being a little paranoid?" Andy asked.

"Secret Fleet research stations aren't as dangerous as Shadow research stations," Harry said. "But 'Here be dragons' is always a wise approach to entering one."

"I'm sure the Council doesn't experiment on Clan," Andy said. "There are Clan laws against that kind of thing."

"What you don't know doesn't need a law," Ginny said.

"Approaching Ex-Theta-Seven," Garnes said. "It appears to have enclosed landing pads. Stay buckled in until the all clear is given."

What followed was a long ten minutes of noise and bumps and shaking. At some point it stopped and there was a long hum, before several lights on Garnes' control panel went green.

"All clear," Garnes said. "Stay in your EV suits, this is a class seven facility."

"Ugh! Earthquakes!" Ginny said. "They couldn't build a base in space like any sane mad scientist?"

"Your escort is approaching," Garnes said.

"Anyone we know?" Harry said, peering over her shoulder at her control panel.

"Who would we know out here?" Ginny said. "Looks like the usual welcoming committee for a member of the Clan Council. Looks like they're here for you Lady Romana. Guess they aren't going to throw us in the brig for being somewhere we shouldn't be."

Andy shook her head. "Shall we ladies?"

"Coffee?" The midshipman who'd shown them to the conference room said, once they were all inside. "Or tea?"

"Tea would be welcome," Romana said.

"Coffee for everyone else," Andy said, smiling at the nervous midshipman.

"Good so far," Andy said. "I wonder who we're meeting with?"

"Well, you're a scruffy looking crowd," Lady Air said, appearing in the conference room door. "I hope they've been treating you appropriately, Lady Memory," she said. Memo hesitantly nodded. "Good. They aren't exactly diplomats."

"So, what brings you here?" Andy said.

"I heard Mother, and the Wind Clan Memory were visiting, so I thought I'd drop by for a chat," Lady Air said. "And a status update from the rest of you would be welcome."

"We can do that," Andy said.

"Also, Brit will be here shortly, so you'll have plenty of time to write up your reports before she gets here. My scientists are curious how you managed to appear where you did."

"We can explain, Lady Air," Andy said.

"I'm sure you can," she said, "But I'd be in trouble if Brit didn't talk with you first. And I don't recall the Potter twins being assigned to your crew?"

"Sophia was doing me a favor," Brittany said, slipping past her into the conference room. "She dropped them off after her trip to the Ice Clan ceremony."

"It's been an interesting trip so far," Harry said. "Never a dull moment."

"That's not what you were saying the other day," Andy said.

"There's a difference between dull and boring," Harry said.

"Ladies," Brittany said. "I'm sure it's entertaining, but let's discuss a few things. The Lucia's logs make for interesting reading, but just to be clear, did you have any idea that your last jump would take you to this system?"

"No," Andy said. "It was a complete surprise. We've been able to determine where some of the Space Gates between the Furling bases go but this one? No. It appeared to be damaged but the Guardian in the previous system couldn't tell us what was wrong."

"Damaged is one way to describe it," Lady Air said. "It was a very hot spot until you came through. That stopped, though we still can't approach it."

"It must have reset when we came through," Andy said. "We were told that might happen."

"We were not expecting the Gate to be mobile," Ixchel said. "It's the first one like that."

"The defenses must still be activated," Andy said. "They'll need to be turned off before we can access the library."

"It's a library?" Santana said. "A large one?"

"Well, there's likely a library in it," Andy said. "How big is it?"

"Moon size," Brittany said. "So, it's another of the Furling libraries?"

"The ones they left behind," Miranda said. "If it is inside a protective ship it likely contains valuable information."

"More valuable than the others," Andy said. "They've mostly included historical information. Nothing really advanced beyond the Gates themselves."

"And that Guardian," Ginny said. "It's like an AI but not quite."

"We'll have to talk with the one in it," Andy said. "Only it can turn off the defenses."

"How do you plan to do that?" Santana said. "We really need to see the inside of that ship."

"What's so special about it?" Andy said. "Other than the Ship Gate attached to it and the library? Every other Furling base or site we've encountered has been empty, stripped down so only the library remains."

"So, that base the Ice Clan seems to have found?" Brittany said, eyebrow raised.

"Empty," Ixchel said. "The Furling leveled it before they left. Only the Gate and library remain."

"And you have to be with a Furling to gain access," Miranda said. "So they will not be gaining access to it any time soon."

"So, who do we have who is one of these Winter People?" Britany said, winking at Andy.

"Well, yes," Andy said. "Isn't that the whole point of this? Finding out about my ancestors?"

"And what they did with the Prophets," Memo said. "The Wind Clan would like some closure as to the disappearance of them also."

"And that," Andy said. "And maybe the Prophets have some idea about dealing with the Kraal?"

"And a trip to Ohio seems to be in order," Miranda said.

"Ohio?" Santana said, puzzled.

"Andy's parents live in Ohio," Britany said. "I'm sure they can provide some input about this situation."

"They've never mentioned being aliens," Andy said. "I'm not sure they actually know."

"I'm sure they'll be glad to tell you what they know," Miranda said. "We can visit them after we deal with this last library."

"Yes," Brittany said. "Poor San here has been dying to get her hands on some of the alloy that ship is made from."

"It's similar to the metal used for that ring world," Santana said. "If we can make ships using that alloy we'll have a better chance against the Kraal."

"That's a coincidence," Andy said. "One of the data crystals we found in one of the libraries concerned that ring planet."

"And you brought it with you or copied it?" Santana said.

"We were able to get a copy of the data crystal," Andy said. "Not sure if it has the answers that you want about it but there is a lot of data. And we do have a spare reader you can use to import the data into other storage."

"They spent several centuries studying it," Memo said. "Most of it is beyond my understanding but it's possible one of your scientists can understand it. You will need a very large amount of storage to copy it to."

"They are smart," Brittany said. "Smart enough to figure out Furling science? We'll find out."

"I'm sure we can find some spare data storage for it," Santana said.

They returned to the Lucia, with several additional people.

"The Guardian is expecting the Lucia," Garnes said. "Any other vessel would likely be refused entry. I've requested landing information from them."

"None of our ships have been able to get even this close," Tyne said, watching raptly as they approached the battered moon sized ship. "Even after that radiation field was lowered."

"They used that as defensive shielding in a couple of their systems," Ixchel said. "It even destroyed an old Kraal fleet."

"That could be useful," Santana said. "Tyne, make sure you investigate it."

"We weren't able to find any information on their defenses," Ixchel said. "There are certain things the Library Guardians didn't seem to want us to know."

"Not surprised," Santana said. "If aliens showed up and started asking about our defenses, I'd tell them to get lost."

"Landed," Garnes said. "And we're still moving down. It is apparently an elevator."

"Like the landing pads for Titan?" Santana said. "We've started converting all of our bases on airless or hostile territory to use similar ones."

"EV suits please," Garnes said. "There is adequate atmosphere but there are several trace metals that are a concern."

"You have brought others," the Guardian said, once they'd passed through the airlock into the entrance to the library.

"Yes, Guardian," Andy said. "Your vessel has arrived in one of our systems, and our leaders are curious."

"They share genetic markers with the others," the Guardian said. "What are you researching?"

"We continue to trace the last location of the People," Miranda said. "If you can provide us with information where they went from here it would be useful."

"Of course," the Guardian said. "What else?"

"This ship? That your facility is in," Santana said, speaking for the first time. "Where can we find information about it?"

"This Heart is primarily concerned with travel. That is restricted information," the Guardian said. "It is only accessible from the control center."

"How may we access that?" Andy asked. "While others visit the data crystals here?"

"It can only be accessed through one of the command Rings, or through the Ring Gate in the Heart," the Guardian said.

"Lead on," Santana said. She turned to the others, "Ginny and Harry, stay here, Andy and Ixchel will go with Lady Shadow and myself."

"I shall also accompany you," Miranda said, in that tone of voice that everyone who knew her had learned not to argue with."

"Of course, Lady P, wouldn't dream of excluding you," Brittany said.

"Guardian, Lady Romana is responsible for those who stay here researching," Andy said.

"Acceptable," the Guardian said. "I shall provide assistance until your return."

The Guardian then led them up a flight of metal stairs to a large room. A Ring Gate stood at one end.

"Which locations are accessible from this ring?" Andy asked.

"It can access any of the other Heart Gates," the Guardian said. "And the control center for the Hoosr. Other locations may be accessible from there."

"Hoosr?" Andy said.

"The vehicle this Heart is attached to," the Guardian said.

"Of course," Santana said. "How do we do this?"

"Ixchel and I will go through first," Andy said. "To make sure it's safe."

"And I will come back for you," Ixchel said. "If the Hoosr is as damaged as it appears, the other side may be open to vacuum."

"Please set the coordinates for the control center," Andy told the Guardian.

The lights on the control panel started flashing and then the ring started rotating before stopping. Andy and Ixchel stepped through the Gate and disappeared.

"That's unnerving," Santana said. "But I suppose you get used to it."

"These smaller rings linking the Furling facilities are much smoother than the others we've used," Miranda said. "The Furling seem to have improved upon the original design."

"What is the current thinking about the disappearance of the Winter Folk?" Santana said.

"At the moment, the assumption is that they left this dimension and traveled to another, though what they were looking for isn't clear," Miranda said.

"This is your sixth library visit, correct?" Britany said. "Has there been no real clue to where they went?"

"Nothing directly," Miranda said. "It's possible you may see something in our reports and the data crystals we've brought back that we haven't."

"Brit is good at making connections most of us miss," Santana said. "Why do you think they traveled to other dimensions?"

"In the last library we encountered visitors from a different reality," Miranda said. "Similar in some ways to ours, and the reality that Ixchel was originally from, but with enough differences that it was clear it was a different, distant one."

"Such as?" Brittany said, staring intently at her.

"One of the visitors was a young Furling. From Ohio," Miranda said. "And she was accompanied by a time traveler."

"Well, that is concerning," Santana said. "Not the Furling, but the time traveler. We don't really need time travelers wandering around interfering with things."

"The time traveler was very reluctant to become involved in our plans," Miranda said. "She seemed to be concerned that any action by her would lead to catastrophe here." Miranda shrugged. "I cannot say she was wrong. Her time vessel, which seems to be run by a form of AI, certainly felt they shouldn't stay in our reality."

"So, hopefully no other visits from these strays?" Santana said, nodding. "Good. I don't really want to tell my scientists to figure out how to keep a time ship out."

"I was able to secure information to help with that," Miranda said. "But there was one other interesting incident. The time travel had the same name as Lady Romana's Hearth father."

"So it's possible she'd been here before?" Santana said.

"She claimed no knowledge of such a visit but admitted that time travel could lead to events being out of order. Or that it was someone else."

"So, we might have a time traveler running around, but not the one you've met. We'll have to keep that in mind," Santana said.

Ixchel appeared, stepping out of the ring. "There isn't much to see," she said. "It appears to have been given the same treatment as that abandoned base."

"My scientists are some smart kids," Santana said. "I'm sure they can figure something out. Let's take look."

"The atmosphere is very thin," Ixchel said. "You'll need to keep your helmets up."

Santana, Brittany, and Miranda activated their helmets and followed Ixchel through the gate.

"I don't think we're going to get much from this," Andy said, waiving at the empty chamber. "And everything around it is like this."

"So, large, empty, derelict spaceship, with a library and a couple of those gates in it," Santana said. "What can we do with it?"

"Turn it into a base," Brittany said.

"We'd need to figure out the Gates first, Brit," Santana said. "We don't have anything to cut through the hull yet."

"We'll figure it out," Brittany said. "The Gates will be useful if we can change their coordinates. But we'll need to convince this Guardian to let us have it. I don't think they'll agree that it is salvage."

"No problem," Santana said. "We have dear old Andy here to negotiate."

"The control panel for the Stargate appears to be active," Ixchel said, tapping several places on the control panel. "It appears to allow additional addresses, besides the addresses for the Heart Gates."

"We don't actually know any coordinates for any gates," Andy said. "Does it have any saved?"

"Like 'favorites'?" Brittany said. "Or preferred destinations?"

"Four," Ixchel said. "Including the last one used, which is the library, and three others.

"Have your scientists made any progress in figuring out what the coordinate systems the Gates used mean?" Santana asked, looking at Brittany.

"The larger, planet bound ones are positional," Brittany said. "I would suspect the smaller ones are the same, but that set of symbols doesn't look like the others."

"The Furling Rings appear to be a later design," Miranda said.

"We were able to take the Lucia through the last Space Gate to this one, even though it is likely that it moved," Andy said. "Do we know where this one originated before you stuck it in orbit here?"

"There's no way to tell," Santana said. "It didn't leave behind a trail we could follow with our instruments. We still aren't sure what powers it or how its engines work. If it even has engines."

"Do we just try these addresses?" Andy asked. "Maybe one of them will tell us where the Furlings went?"

"Not today," Santana said. "Unless that Guardian of yours can give you good addresses. Or tell you where these go."

"Right," Andy said. "Do we get to keep Ginny and Harry?"

"You're still on mission, so yes," Santana said. "You aren't done until you find those prophets and the Furlings, right Brit?"

"Yes," Brittany said. "It's not over yet. You just happened to be passing through here."

"This is the last of the Heart libraries," Andy said. "Not sure where to next. We'll have to search the library for clues."

"Well, get to it," Santana said. "The Kraal haven't gone away."

"What she said," Brittany said. "You still have your team, and your ship, and your goals."

Ixchel spun up the Gate and they went back into the library.

"We'll need a ride back to Flag," Santana said. "Tyne, you can stay here, but don't go running off with them when they leave."

"No, Lady Air," Tyne said.

"Garnes hasn't gone anywhere," Andy said. "The Lucia is still out there."

"What did you find?" Andy said, looking up from her viewer, and the rather dry daily log of an early captain of the Hoosr, to an excited Memo.

"There's a technical treatise of the Furling Gates," Memo said. "It assumes you're familiar with how the older gates work, but it does explain the navigational system they used, and why they didn't use the older one, created by beings call the Ancients."

"The Ancients?" Miranda said, humming to herself. "They only exist in the Goa'uld dimension. We aren't likely to run into them here."

"Does that mean the Furling were originally from there or that they visited there?" Andy said.

"Likely they were originally from there," Miranda said. "So, we can figure out how to set the coordinates for the Gate in the command center. That will be useful."

"What we need is one in the Titan Base so they can come and go without getting a ride from us, or blowing a hole in the hull," Andy said. "Do they include instructions on how to build a Gate?"

"Only in the vaguest terms," Memo said. "Someone with a deeper science background may be able to figure that out from this but it is beyond me."

"We'll want to give a copy of that to Tyne," Andy said. "She's a good person to start with. But does it include a description of their coordinate system?"

"Yes," Memo said. "Though it seems to be based on things only they know. It isn't just a physical coordinate but time based also. And there's some other component that doesn't translate."

"So we can use it to travel through time or does it not mean that?" Miranda said.

"I can't say," Memo said. "This is all theoretical."

"But if we gave you the addresses we know, you can tell us where they are?" Andy said.

"Yes, though it may take time to translate." Memo said.

"We have time, though not a large amount of it," Andy said.

"Can you teach one of the AIs how to translate the coordinates?" Ixchel said. "We do have access, now that we're in the Sol system, to spare AI power. They might be able to do it faster and more reliably."

"We can ask for one to be assigned to the project," Andy said. "I'm not sure the Lucia has the capacity for one to travel with us."

"I have just the AI for the job," Brittany said, when they contacted her that evening. "We had several participate in a recent project and one of them would like additional work."

"What about core capacity?" Andy said. "Doesn't the Lucia need a larger capacity to host an AI?"

"Normally, yes," Brittany said. "But that was one of the design parameters for the Lucia design. The AI just needs to transfer their base to the Lucia. I'll notify them and Garnes can bring the Lucia in for the fitting."

"Okay," Andy said. "What's this AIs name?"

"He prefers to be called Oz," Brittany said, giggling. "Interesting character."

"We look forward to meeting him," Miranda said.

"So, Oz, you've looked at all of the information we have on the Gates?" Andy said.

"Yes," Oz said, laconically. "Fascinating material."

"So, are you able to translate the Gate addresses?" Andy asked.

"Based on the known addresses, yes, of course," Oz said.

"Where do they go?" Ginny said, excitedly.

"There's the address to the library on the Hoosr," Oz said. "You should be able to use that address from any of the other Library gates back to it. And the address of the Gate in the Hoosr control center."

"And the others?" Andy asked.

"One leads to a Gate somewhere on Mars," Oz said. "Though where it is exactly isn't clear. It appears non-functional."

"Can't wait," Harry said. "Mars is always fun."

"The other Gate appears to go to the planet Terra," Oz said. "Somewhere on the North American continent if I am correct."

"Of course it does," Andy said. "If there's a gate in a barn in Ohio, I think I'll be extremely annoyed with someone."

"It's unlikely to be in their barn, Andrea," Miranda said. "According to Tyne, these small Gates do give off distinctive power signatures when running. It would have been noticed if used in the last decade."

"We'll still need to make a visit," Andy said. "Sooner rather than later."

"Of course," Miranda said. "But let's not intentionally surprise them."

"That wasn't what I had in mind," Andy said, pouting. "Maybe just a small surprise."

"We need to know where the Gate is first," Ixchel said. "Wouldn't want to surprise the wrong people."

"No, that wouldn't be good," Andy said. "Are there any other saved coordinates? Or coordinates you found while researching?"

"There was a Gate in the Sol asteroid belt," Oz said. "But it doesn't appear to be accessible at the moment."

"Hmmm," Andy said. "There's a regular size old style Gate out there, that we've used. "Maybe it's near there?"

"That's on an asteroid," Ginny said. "Unless the smaller gate is on the same asteroid, and we'd have seen it if it was, it's probably lost."

"Something to look for later, perhaps," Miranda said.