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1a. Book 1 - Double, Double - Part 1: Arrival

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Part 1 – Arrival

Chapter 1
August 2268
Captain Matthew Gideon sat in his office surrounded by paperwork. Why did it never go away? Why, no matter how much he cleared, did it always come in faster than it went out? He picked up the next report and groaned aloud. Another crew disciplinary problem.
In the second year of their search for a cure to the Drakh plague, these were becoming increasingly frequent. His crew had all suffered losses of family and friends back on Earth, and the sense of desperation was building in them all. This led to friction, and small things irritated. The case on his desk was a classic example. Two crewmembers, usually friends, had come to blows over a game of chess. He smiled to himself, [I never thought of chess as a contact sport!] Verbal abuse had led to physical violence and both had ended up in Medbay.
Now he was supposed to discipline them. He felt more like putting them both in a ring and telling them to slug it out. Hell, he'd join them there given half a chance. Maybe that would work off some of the pent-up anger and frustration he carried around every hour of every day.
What could he do to punish these guys? A couple of days in the brig would just make them even crazier. [Oh well, scut work it is.] Maybe they could take out some of their aggression on the inside of the bullet car tubes.
Gideon had just picked up the next piece of paper when the office door buzzer sounded. "Enter. PLEASE enter."
Lieutenant John Matheson, Gideon’s Executive Officer, came in carrying a new pile of reports. Gideon groaned and dropped his head to his desk. Resting his head on his arms, his muffled voice emerged. "Take them away. Burn them. Throw them out of an airlock. I don't care which. Just don't put any more reports on my desk!"
He lifted his head and smiled at his First Officer to indicate he was joking, but the pain was real enough. "Most of them are just for information. You don't need to do anything other than read them when you get a chance."
Gideon snorted with laughter. "OK, I'll toss those out of the airlock. Which ones MUST I read?" Matheson handed over a single sheet of paper, which brought a relieved grin to Gideon's face. "Thank Booji for that. I must have done something good today. What is this?"
"Latest communication from the Rangers. They've found another planet which they think we should investigate." Gideon straightened in his chair. Such reports had become less frequent of late; they had already explored most of the easily accessible planets in the sector. New leads were becoming increasingly hard to find, and they were having to spend a lot longer getting to them. And every day spent traveling from one system to another was a day when another few thousand people died on Earth.
"What have they found for us?" Gideon gestured towards the chair on the other side of his desk, and Matheson sat.
The young Lieutenant glanced at the report and the captain watched as he gathered his thoughts. Gideon liked a summary that was brief and pertinent. "Eriadne B. Earth type world previously thought to be inhabited only by a small Brakiri agrarian community, colonized about 60 years back"
"Previously thought to be?" Gideon raised an eyebrow "So what's the latest thinking on the subject?"
"The Rangers have detected F band emissions, which would indicate a much higher level of technology than should exist there. In fact, some of those emissions indicate a higher level of technology than we currently have ourselves. An Earthforce ship couldn't have detected them. Only a White Star."
Gideon's eyes glittered. "It's them isn't it? Isn't it, John? Do you think we've found the bastards at last?"
Gideon leaped to his feet and charged through the doors of his office, barely giving them time to open. Matheson arrived on the bridge just in time to hear Gideon barking orders to Navigation and Helm to set course for Eriadne B. The captain paced the bridge for a few seconds until the response came that they were ready to jump to hyperspace.
"Jump." He turned to his First Officer. "How long Lieutenant?"
"Three days, Captain."

For the next three days Gideon prowled the ship like a caged animal. Matheson seriously thought about asking the doctor to tranquillize him. If Sarah Chambers had been around, he would have done so. But Sarah had reached her own limits a couple of weeks before, and after a bout of hysterics in Medbay, Gideon had shipped her off to Babylon 5 for a month's rest and recuperation. They’d been sent a temp to fill in, but Matheson hadn't got to know the new doctor yet. He wasn't willing to ask a stranger to sedate his captain. He made a mental note to spend some time with the new doctor. Luke Raven seemed like a good guy, but Matheson didn't trust easily or quickly. It was a trait he'd picked up from his captain and friend, Matthew Gideon.

In the evening of the third day, Gideon sat at the desk in his quarters, again surrounded by papers and reports. Contrary to his threat to Matheson, he hadn't tossed a single file out of the airlock. He took them back to his quarters with him every night and diligently read through them all.
"Just a martyr to duty," he said aloud and smiled at his own self-pity. He didn't much like the person he'd become during the last couple of days. He knew that he’d been growling and snapping at everyone who came near but he didn't seem to be able to stop himself. He looked up from his desk to the closet where he kept the Apocalypse Box carefully secured.
He'd been holding back for three days now, but at last his resistance snapped. He just had to ask the damned thing about Eriadne B.
Gideon stood up with a jerk and moved to the closet, tapping in the code which only he knew, and opened the door. Taking the box carefully from its shelf, he placed it on his desk. As usual, a thrill of… something ran up his arms when he touched the outer casing. He'd never dared touch the box itself, he just knew that such familiarity would be punished. He didn't quite know how but was sure it would be unpleasant.
Opening the outer case, Gideon revealed the box inside. It sat glowing gently and he was sure it was watching him. He stood silently in front of it for a while, part of him screaming to throw the thing away, get rid of it, never touch it again, never speak to it again. He knew that every time he consulted the damn thing, it took a part of him away.
Perhaps that was why when it spoke it sounded more and more like his voice. Over time there would be less and less of Gideon in his body and more and more of him in the Box. Perhaps one day they would totally change places and he would be inside the Box, while the thing that inhabited it walked around in his body. But if that was the price to be paid for finding a cure, then so be it.
"What can you tell me about Eriadne B?" Gideon knew better than to ask it what it knew. He’d learnt that what it knew and what it would tell were very different things. He knew it lied, not often, but enough to make him doubt its word. So why did he keep going back to it like an addict to a drug? Gideon couldn't or wouldn't answer that.
The box was silent. Then, with a slow rasp, the voice that sounded so familiar but so strange emerged.
"Much danger." A pause. "Much pain." A longer silence. "Much pleasure."
Gideon knew that it had said all it was going to say, so he closed the case and carried it back to the locker. Danger and pain. Well, what's new? But pleasure? That was different. The box had never promised him that before. He laughed to himself and decided it was playing games again. Pleasure? He couldn't remember the last time he'd had any of that.

Matheson sat in the mess hall having finished dinner, wondering which of five million jobs to do next. He was tired and didn't feel like doing anything. He just wanted to sleep for a week and hope the world would leave him alone. The more tired the XO got, the harder it became to block the random thoughts of the crew from his mind. He had to focus on doing so or his next evaluation with Mr. Jones might be his last.
Pressing his fingers to his temple, Matheson tried to increase the block. "Are you alright, Lieutenant?" The voice that jerked him awake was kind and concerned, deep with a hint of an English accent.
Matheson looked up into the dark brown eyes of their new doctor, Luke Raven. "Fine. I'm fine." He stammered out the words, embarrassed by his weakness.
Raven sat down opposite him, smiling, "Well, you didn't look fine, and you still don't. If you don't mind me saying so, you look nearly as bad as the captain and that isn't easy!"
Matheson smiled back. "I can't look that bad and still be moving, can I?"
"So, what is it that's making you and the captain, and most of the crew for that matter, look so terrible? Or should I take a wild guess that carrying the responsibility for saving ten billion lives on Earth is getting to you?"
"Well, no. Actually, it's because we lost the last round of the hopscotch league to the Washington. We think they pulled in a ringer from the Defiant but can't prove it. We take our hopscotch very seriously on this ship."
Raven laughed out loud.
Matheson went on, "And of course, the captain was too busy to join the team, and he's our best player. Did you know he was Galactic Champion in 2260?" He couldn't keep his face straight any longer and broke into a grin.
"Much better. I'd rather prescribe a dose of humor than anti-depressants any day." Raven's smile faded and his eyes became concerned again. He pushed a strand of floppy dark blond hair out of the way. "But I am worried about the captain. He really does look terrible. He's lost weight that he can't afford to lose, and he seems constantly on edge. I've wanted to talk to you for a while, but an opportunity never arose. So I thought I'd make one"
Matheson stood. "And I've wanted to talk to you, too, but not here." They walked to Medbay in silence, Matheson trying to think what he was going to say. Could he ask this man to order the captain to take R&R? Would it do any good if he did? The captain in his current state was quite capable of refusing that order. And anyway, the last time Gideon had taken leave on Babylon 5, he'd returned looking as bad as when he left. It appeared that he and Captain Lochley had not parted on good terms.
They entered the doctor's office and Raven closed the door. Matheson sighed, "I'm worried too. He's never been the easiest captain in the fleet and he's NEVER suffered fools, but these days, he can be just plain vicious. He tore a strip off an Ensign yesterday for no reason at all, and he's never behaved like that before."
Raven looked thoughtful. "Stress affects us all in different ways, and I guess the captain is under more of it than anyone has ever been before. You probably know him better than anyone aboard. Do you have any ideas on how we can help him deal with it?"
"Find a cure for the plague."
Raven smiled, sadly. "I wish I could. And not just for the sake of the Captain's sanity. Well, I'm not planning to prescribe him drugs. I suspect he would have me thrown out of an airlock if I even suggested it." Matheson nodded and Raven went on, "So, I need to find another way for him to let off steam. Hmm. Leave it with me Lieutenant."

Max Eilerson had been hiding in his quarters for days. He'd had just about enough of the captain's snide comments and innuendoes about his failure to find anything useful on any of the worlds they'd visited. What did the man expect? Was it his fault that they kept picking lousy planets? He could only work with what he found. He couldn't invent a cure, dammit!
What made it worse was that Max hadn't found any useful technology for Inter-Planetary Expeditions to exploit, either. They may not be as nearby as Gideon, but they could be even more acerbic. And they’d just told him that they were changing his contract, so now Eilerson’s income would be totally commission based. No regular income. Just payment by results.
There was nothing Max could do about it. He could hardly resign while the Excalibur was in hyperspace. And who else would have him? He'd pissed off most potential employers by using his brilliance to expose their stupidity. So there really weren't any alternatives to IPX.
And just to make his life perfect, they were on their way to a planet where the only recorded presence was an agrarian colony. But that detail of the F band emissions sounded interesting. There may be something there for Max after all. He just had to think of the right way to exploit the opportunity.
Max went back to looking at his latest pornographic data crystal. He was still trying to work out exactly how they got into that position and more importantly, who he could persuade to give it a try.

When they jumped back from hyperspace, Gideon had assembled his team on the bridge. Dureena, the little thief he’d recruited to be a member of his crew, had moved in behind the Helm chair to get a better view of the planet as they approached. Only by pushing to the front could she see the viewer.
Max stood behind her and made the mistake of standing a little too close. The impact of her elbow and his gasping for air could be heard around the bridge.
Matheson stood by his Captain's chair as always, and Dr. Raven stood on the other side. There was an air of anticipation which none of them could have explained. As they emerged from hyperspace, the planet appeared immediately in front of them.
"Nice driving," was Gideon's only comment; the ensign at the helm breathed a sigh of relief.
The planet was blue and white and looked so much like Earth that it hurt. Gideon, Matheson and Raven, the Earthers among them, closed their eyes for a moment, unable to cope with the beauty of the planet below. Dureena and Max looked indifferent.
"Sensor readings?" Gideon looked quizzically over to the Sensor station.
"Earth class planet. Rotation 23 hours 42 minutes. Numerous life forms, various types. Small cluster of humanoid lifeforms located in the Northern hemisphere."
"Radiation readings?" Gideon wondered if the combined Earth/Minbari/Vorlon technology used to build the Excalibur would be any more effective than a standard Earthforce ship.
"Yes, sir. F Band emissions detected"
Gideon sat forward in his chair. "Source?"
"Unknown Captain. They're coming from the same location as the humanoid lifeforms, but I can't pick up any machinery or other technology that could be producing them." The Sensor Officer sounded fretful, obviously worried that the Captain would blame her for the failure of her equipment to give him all the answers he wanted.
"Exactly what I expected." Gideon sat back in his seat, a satisfied smile playing around his lips. "Put us in stationary orbit above the source of those emissions." He looked at his senior team. "Conference room." He stood and stalked off the bridge.

"It's them, dammit, I know it's them." Gideon paced the floor as Dureena, Max, Matheson and Raven took their seats around the table. "But how do we approach them without them blasting us out of the sky? I'm sure they could do just that if they wanted."
Max looked alarmed. "Shouldn't you have thought of that before you put us in orbit above them? Or are you trying to get us all killed? And who are ‘they'?"
Gideon glared at him but didn't answer. He continued to pace.
"Will you please sit down? You're making me dizzy!" Dureena grabbed Gideon's arm as he passed and pulled him down into the chair next to her. Her strength always surprised him on those rare but memorable occasions when she chose to use it.
"Recommendations?" Gideon snapped out the word and stared straight at Matheson.
The Lieutenant took a deep breath and said, "I think we should make a very low-key approach initially. Just one shuttle. Minimum numbers of crew. Just me and Mr. Eilerson."
"Rationale?" Gideon was having one of those days when it was an effort to get the words out. He felt that if he tried to speak more than the bare essentials he might start screaming and never stop.
"We want them to see that we mean them no harm. I can fly the shuttle. Max is the best equipped to tell us whether we've found what you expect. If they attack, I may be able to fend them off telepathically. Or if I can't defend us, I might get a message through to you, even if they block our instruments. If they attack us with their technology, we're dead no matter how many troops you send."
Gideon nodded. He was reluctant to send his first officer into danger; he preferred to lead from the front and would expose himself to danger before he risked his crew. But this time Matheson was right; he would stand a far better chance of success at this mission than Gideon would.
"Now wait a minute." Max sounded worried. "You haven't answered my question. Who or what are you expecting down there? And why should I risk my life to find out? Just how easy do you think it would be to replace someone of my caliber?"
A voice that sounded like Dureena's murmured, "Oh, you're irreplaceable Max, you're unique."
Max whipped round to stare at her and got back one of her most malicious smiles.
Gideon intervened. "I'm expecting Technomages."
Galen hadn't appeared aboard Excalibur for several weeks now. For once, Gideon was glad of his absence. There was no way that Galen would let them investigate the planet that hid his people. He'd hi-jacked the ship for his own purposes before. God knows what he’d do to protect his people from Excalibur… or to protect Excalibur from his people? Gideon was never quite sure which. "And if anyone can help us find a cure it's those bastards. If we can persuade them to help us."

 

Chapter 2
Gideon sat in his chair on the bridge watching the view screen. Such a serene looking planet; quite beautiful. Just the sort of place the Technomages would choose to hide out: well off the beaten track, and if there were colonists already there, so much the better. They'd probably use them as servants.
Matheson's voice sounded over the speaker. "Leaving the landing bay now, Captain. We'll check in when we're five minutes from landing."
Gideon nodded to the Communications Officer to confirm. He smiled at the memory of the trouble Eilerson had made on his way to the shuttle. He kept telling everyone who would listen that he was too young to die. But Gideon knew that when the chips were down (and how Max would hate that cliché!) Eilerson would come through for them. He might be a pain in the butt, but he was their pain in the butt.
Turning to the sensor station, Gideon said, "Track their progress, I want to know if anything unusual happens. And I mean anything!" The sensor officer nodded nervously and watched her instruments intently.
The captain sat watching the view screen for the next half hour. He had a stack of reports to review but couldn't concentrate on reading. He hated sending his crew into danger, far preferring to be there himself. And he would never forgive himself if anything happened to John. Oh, and Max, too… maybe.
The Sensor officer suddenly started in her seat. "What?" Gideon was at her shoulder.
"They're… gone" Gideon grabbed her shoulder and squeezed.
"Gone? Gone where?"
"I don't know Captain, they were there on the screen, then they were gone. Just gone," the young office gasped. Gideon looked down and realized what he was doing; he was hurting her. He released the woman's shoulder at once. How could he have done that? Was he losing it completely?
"I want a full sensor sweep of the planet. As detailed as you can make it. And I want it now." His voice sounded calm and controlled even though he wasn't calm at all. What the hell had gone wrong? This was his fault.
"Communications. Call the Sergeant at Arms, Doctor Raven and Dureena. Conference room. Five minutes. You have the conn." Gideon swept off the bridge like a black crow alighting from carrion.

Gideon was pacing again when Dureena arrived, quickly followed by Dr. Raven and Sergeant Healy. Dureena didn't think she had ever seen him look so out of control. He looked like he wanted to take someone, anyone, apart with his bare hands.
"Well, that didn't work." He spat the words out before they had finished sitting. "So now we go to plan B. Sergeant, assemble sufficient crew to fill 2 shuttles. Full assault gear. I want them ready for anything. And I want them ready in 30 minutes. Dismissed."
The sergeant saluted, turned on his heel and fled the room. Dureena knew he’d rather face a fighting Narn than the captain in this mood.
Gideon turned towards the doctor but was interrupted by a voice from the screen. "Sensors reporting."
He spun towards the image of his sensor officer saying, "Report."
"Nothing sir. Absolutely nothing. We can't even get the previous readings of the humanoid lifeforms. All we can read are the F band emissions. They increased by 400% at the same moment the shuttle disappeared."
"Thank you." Gideon turned back to the pair watching him. "I want you both on board the shuttle. Doctor, I need you in case John and Max have been hurt. Dureena, we may need your ‘unique' skills if they've been captured. Questions?" They both shook their heads. There was nothing to say. "Then I'll see you in the landing bay in 28 minutes."

The first thing he noticed when he woke up was his headache. The second thing was the aching muscles in his neck, shoulders, and arms. Max Eilerson opened his eyes and lifted his head, unable to suppress a moan when his neck muscles protested. He tried to see something in the twilight that filled this place.
Gradually the different shades of darkness revealed some details, and he could see that he was in what looked like a large cellar. What little light reached this room came in one shaft from the wall above him—probably a small window there. He turned his head slowly to the right and found that he was manacled to the stone wall. From the depth of the ache in his muscles, he deduced that he must've been hanging there quite a while.
[At least I'm sitting ... But how did I get here?] He wondered, trying to collect his thoughts. [Oh yes -- Gideon's mysterious Technomage planet... I told him—hold on! Where's Matheson?]
Max turned his head slowly to the left and found Matheson in the same miserable position as himself. He seemed to be still unconscious. Max was about to call out to the young Lieutenant when he heard something from the door in the opposite wall.
[Sounds like a key in a rusty lock], he thought and looked towards the door just as it was opened.
Two small figures entered. Max's jaw almost dropped to the floor when they stopped in the weak shaft of light. He’d seen and dealt with many species in his life, but the two women who were standing there, although human or at least humanoid, seemed more extraordinary than all of them put together.
The smaller of the two, maybe five feet tall, seemed to be the embodiment of "petite." She had furious red curls, flowing down to her waist, and surrounding her pale face like a halo, with green eyes that made it hard to break her gaze. Her clothes had a gypsy feel to them, with an emerald-green bodice of a velvet-like fabric, its plunging neckline revealing a snake tattoo just at the inner base of her right breast.
The other, slightly taller woman was still paler, almost albino, only her eyes were not red, but lavender, and they had an Asian look to them. Her powder blue hair was piled up on her head. The full sleeves of her sapphire blue satin shirt were gathered at the wrist, with generous lace flowing out, and her legs were clad in tight black trousers. She looked almost fragile, with her delicate features and her child-like expression.
Max's eyes darted back and forth between them. Then, the taller of the two started giggling and said, "Aren't they cute? Especially..." She threw a sideways glance at her companion.
The redhead sized him up and smirked, then went to check on Matheson. "He's waking up," she whispered, squatting down before the lieutenant, and looking into his face expectantly.

Matheson uttered a guttural sound and carefully lifted his head. He slowly opened his eyes and found himself staring into a pair of incredibly green eyes. He jerked back so hard that he bumped his head on the stone wall behind him and couldn't prevent a loud "Ouch!" from escaping.
The red-haired woman squatting before him grimaced sympathetically and reached out to stroke the back of his head with her left hand. "Ooh, my poor darling," she purred.
Matheson couldn't tear his eyes away from her intense stare. Suddenly, he became aware that she was leaning very close. [I must be dreaming! This can't be true; I must be lying in bed on board the Excalibur…] But before he could finish the thought, the woman covered his mouth with her soft lips, sending lightning bolts through his body as she kissed him ferociously.
Before he had the chance to react, she broke contact and stood, leaving Matheson to gape up at her. "I'll see you later, Sweet-Face. We have to welcome your friends appropriately," she said. She smiled and winked at him, then turned around and walked out with another woman with blue hair—he hadn't even noticed her before—who giggled and waved at Eilerson, who was manacled to the wall to his right.
Max looked at him, eyebrows raised, with a sarcastic grin on his face. Suddenly, Matheson started and stared at the women's backs. [Wait... she said something about welcoming our friends... Matthew! He must be coming for us.]
Without thinking, Matheson concentrated on the redhead to scan her, to find out what they were up to before they were out of reach. At the same moment, the woman stood stock-still, grabbing her companion's arm, and he was surprised to find himself blocked before getting the slightest glimpse into her mind. When he tried to scan the blue-haired woman, it was the same.
The redhead turned around and stared at him excitedly. "Ilas! he's a..."
The other woman eyed him with her lavender eyes. "Are you sure?" she asked, her voice expressing the mixture of excitement and doubt she was feeling. Red looked at her for a few seconds, threw Matheson a quick sideways glance and smiled pleadingly at Blue, who shrugged. "We'll see... after we've welcomed their friends and discussed this with our sisters."

 

Chapter 3
Gideon emerged from the shuttle behind the security force that had already taken up positions outside. They were followed by Dureena and Luke, who almost fell over Gideon. He’d come to a dead stop at the bottom of the ramp. He was scanning the terrain in front of him before he turned to the sensor officer "Anything?" he asked tensely.
The sensor officer shifted nervously as he glanced from his Captain to the reading on his instrument. "Sorry, sir, but I'm not picking up any signs of Lt. Matheson or Mr. Eilerson."
Gideon barely managed to keep himself from swearing. "Well, what are you getting, Roberts?"
"The same as we picked up on ship's sensors; basic life forms and a small cluster of humanoid life forms… in that direction." Roberts raised the sensor to indicate the area to the north of them.
Gideon moved past the sensor operator, unaware that Dureena and Raven were watching him with concern. For what seemed like hours he stared off into the distance. Roberts, Dureena and Raven almost jumped out of their skins when he swung back around and spoke. "Is there any sign of their shuttle?"
Before Roberts could even reply Gideon answered for him "None, right?"
The Sensor Officer nodded. Gideon drew in a deep breath and then walked to where Dureena and Raven stood. "I want you and Dureena to stay here with a couple of men, while I go and see what the hell is going on here."
Before either could say anything, he turned and ordered the unit's commander to leave two men while the rest went with him. He then turned back to Dureena. "If we're not back in 24 hours I want you to notify Excalibur and get two more units down here to come look for us." Gideon's tone was harsh and brooked no argument from Dureena, who nodded.
"Good," was all Gideon said and with that he turned sharply on his heel and headed off northwards at a pace that left the others scrambling to follow.

The four women stood on the battlements of the castle, looking down to the plain below. The shuttles were clearly visible, as were the dozen or so people scrambling quickly in their direction. One man strode out in front; the rest seemed to be trying to stay with him. Four people stayed with the shuttles.
"Are you sure they can't see us, Ilas?" The tall blonde spoke.
The petite blue haired girl looked up from the instrument she was holding. "I don't think so. What are they feeling, Demon?"
The tall blonde closed her eyes. "Concern. Fear. Excitement. All except the one in front. All I get from him is anger. He really is very angry indeed". Her dry clipped tones made the others laugh. Demon knew there was nothing to laugh about. These strangers could be dangerous.
"We're going to have to link to make this work." The black-haired woman spoke for the first time. She looked around at the others. "Lily will have to keep the block on that sender. Ilas needs to keep focusing on the illusion we've created. Demon, you'll need to keep them calm, and I'll hold them until the guards can disarm them." Demon knew that her sister needed to verbalize her thoughts to make sure they made sense. Usually she didn't bother but would send her thoughts directly to the others. Pleased with her plan, the brunette turned. "Do you think that will work?"
The redhead nodded. "Yes, I can keep blocking him, Angel. He's still trying to break through, you know. Naughty boy. I'll have to teach him some manners later." She grinned at her ‘sisters' who smiled indulgently at the tiny girl. They all knew that the sender wouldn't forget that lesson in a hurry, but he might enjoy learning it.
"Well, don't be too hard on him, Lilith, you might want to save something for later." The tall blonde, Demon, turned and called to the Brakiri guards gathered in the courtyard below. While the women could send messages to each other, they needed to talk aloud to others. "Form a three-sided cordon around the gate. A trap for them to walk into. We'll tell you when to disarm them." She turned to the raven-haired Angel and spoke again. "Why don't you open the gates before they run into them, Angel?"
Angel laughed and focused her attention on the large gate at the end of the courtyard. It swung open, apparently on its own. The four women looked down on the approaching party. This might just be fun after all.

Gideon was out of control. He knew it and he could tell that his people knew it. But he couldn't stop himself. His pent-up anger was bursting out now that it had a target to focus on. Those bastard Technomages were messing with his instruments and given half a chance they'd start messing with his head. He'd seen the mind-games Galen could play. Well, enough.
He thrashed through the heavy foliage, leading from the front as usual. The others struggled to keep up. Where was this settlement that the sensors picked up? They should be there by now, surely. He stopped abruptly and turned to Roberts. "Well? Where is it?"
"I don't understand, Captain. According to these readings it's right here. In fact, according to my instruments, we're right in the middle of a group of humanoid life-forms"
Gideon started and looked around. Nothing; just trees and bushes. What the hell was going on here? He took a step forward and the greenery around him rippled. It was the weirdest sight. It flowed away from him like a viscous liquid. He shook his head, closed his eyes then opened them again.
The trees had gone. And the bushes, too. In their place were high walls, and about 50 tough looking Brakiri. And just to make it more interesting, Gideon couldn't move a muscle. So why wasn't he worried?

The little blue-haired girl looked up from her instrument and giggled. "Screen is down now. They can see us. Well, they could if Angel let them move their heads."
Demon smiled down at the lavender-eyed beauty. "Thanks, Ilas, that was a really great job." She looked back at the group surrounded by the Brakiri and concentrated on projecting calm and tranquility. The key was to keep them under control until they could be disarmed. She glanced at Angel standing alongside her. "Are you OK?"
Angel bit her lip, showing her struggles. There were sixteen people to control, to lock rigidly into position and make them unable to move. That was a huge effort for the raven-haired woman and Demon could see it was getting to her. Sweat broke out along her forehead. "Please, move the guards in. NOW!"
Demon signaled to the guards below. They moved in on Gideon's security force, expertly disarmed them then removed their wrist communicators. Three Brakiri stayed with each prisoner. One held each arm and the third held a knife to the prisoner's throat. The remaining Brakiri left the courtyard, taking all the weapons and communications devices with them.

Gideon couldn't believe what was happening. He'd lost his entire force within seconds of finding the enemy. What sort of leader did that make him? He knew he should feel shame and anger at what had happened, but he didn't feel anything. Just this strange sensation of calm and tranquility. Gideon knew he ought to care about what had just happened, but it seemed too much effort.
He saw the leader of the Brakiri glance up and tried to see where he was looking. If he strained really hard, he could move the muscles in his neck just enough. Four women stood looking down at him. Women? And they didn't look like any image of a Technomage that he had ever seen. What was going on here?
He studied his captors. Starting with the tallest, an ice maiden of a blonde all dressed in figure-hugging black. It was quite a figure, but that one looked as if she could give frostbite if you tried to touch her. Her face was utterly blank, not a sign of emotion. Next came a total contrast. A raven-haired stunner all dressed in red. If the first woman was ice, this one was fire. She reminded him of Dureena; her clothes fitted her slim figure in the same way.
The next tallest was… strange. Blue hair? White skin? Dressed in sapphire blue satin and tight black pants that left little to the imagination. And finally, a tiny but perfectly formed pocket Venus. Flaming red hair curled to her waist, while her bodice was cut low in the front showing everything a red-blooded man could want to see. Well, nearly everything. If Gideon could just ditch the Brakiri who held him fast and had the knife at his throat, this could be a nice place for a vacation.
The tall blonde stepped forward, saying "Which one of you is the leader?" Suddenly the calm, which had held Gideon’s mind a moment before, disappeared and he found he could move again. And he was angry.
Gideon's throat relaxed enough for him to speak. "I am. Captain Matthew Gideon, Earth Alliance Ship Excalibur"
"Captain, we can play nice or we can play rough, whichever you prefer." He didn't know what he'd expected, but it wasn't that deep sultry voice, with a strong English accent. Gideon’s head jerked upwards to look at her, and he felt the prick of the knife at his neck. "Be careful, the knives are sharp." She sounded amused.
"So, what do you want, and what have you done with the two men we sent down earlier?" Gideon spat out his questions, his anger building further. If these women had hurt his men… suddenly the calm descended again.
"Calm down, Captain, no one has been hurt… yet. What we want is your co-operation. We will escort you to a secure area, and then we can talk. If your people resist, they'll be hurt. I'd rather that didn't happen. If you will order them not to struggle, it will go easier on them."
Gideon considered. He was suddenly able to look at his situation in a cool rational way. What she said made sense. "Agreed." He raised his voice to his security force. "Don't resist. As long as they don't harm you, go with them. But if they even try to hurt any of you, do your best to kill the bastards." He glared up at the tall blonde defiantly.
The sense of calm disappeared again, and Gideon’s anger started to rebuild. The tall blonde didn't even flicker an eyelid, just nodded at her guards, who started to leave the courtyard taking their prisoners with them.
The black-haired stunner in red stepped forward alongside her taller companion. "Not the captain. I want him, Demon" The guards holding Gideon’s arms froze in their tracks, and he felt his muscles go rigid. Dammit, he couldn't move again.
What was going on here? Something was holding him still. Was it a device of some kind they used? Or some form of mental powers? Gideon suspected the latter, as he could see no instruments other than the small box the blue-haired beauty held in her hand. And were those same powers responsible for the sudden calm that kept descending on him?
Black hair turned to the blonde. Demon? What sort of name was that? "Ilas wants the big one and Lilith has the sender. I want this one. He's cute."
Cute? That worried him. What exactly had she got planned for him? He could only assume that Blue and Red were Ilas and Lilith. But which was which? Did it matter at this point? Hmmm, the big one and the sender. Would that be Max and John?
Demon looked down at her sister. "Are you sure? He's not your usual type, Angel." Her face was still a mask. Angel. Now he had a name for Black. So, Demon, Angel, Ilas and Lilith. Interesting line-up.
"How would you know?" Angel flung the words back. "We haven't seen a human male since we’ve been here. I don't even know what my usual type is any more. But this one will do nicely until I see something I fancy more."
"Very well, take him, but don't play too rough, you know you can get carried away." This sounded interesting, if somewhat worrying. What did this Angel have in mind? Mind you, when Gideon watched her moving down the steps towards him, he couldn't help but admire the sinuous sway of her hips and the way her high, firm breasts moved under her revealing tunic. Quite a neat package.
As she drew closer, Gideon could see her face in more detail; it took his breath away. She had the most piercing blue eyes he’d ever seen. Her skin was pale and just a few freckles stood out across her nose and cheeks. Her long, straight black hair swung across her back as she walked towards him. Well if he wasn’t her type, she was definitely his. He’d always had a weakness for slender women with generous breasts, dark hair and blue eyes.
Gideon still couldn't move. Angel swayed right up to him, pressing against him with her lithe body. "Come along, Captain, we've got games to play."

Demon watched Angel towing Gideon out of the courtyard. His walk was stiff-legged while she had him under her control. Should she intervene? No, not while they still had enemy forces to cope with. She turned to the other two women who were also watching Angel with some amusement. The thoughts passed easily between them, now they were alone.
[[I need to make sure that those soldiers have been properly secured. Can you handle the four left at the shuttle?]]
Ilas giggled. [[You're just trying to keep us away from our new pets!]]
[[I wouldn't dream of it.]] Demon smiled at the little blue haired girl. [[I know you won't hurt them ... well not too much. It's Angel I worry about. She can get a little over enthusiastic at times.]]
Lilith nodded. [[Never mind Demon. It's not your fault, and yes, of course we'll deal with the others. Just leave it to us.]] Two heads, one red and one blue, close together, plotted as they left the courtyard.
Demon sighed and left to take care of the prisoners.

The illusion was still perfect from where Dureena and Raven stood, watching anxiously for any sign of their captain through the dense shrubbery that apparently surrounded them.
Dureena leaped up from the rock where she had been sitting. "That's it. I've had enough waiting; I'm going after them"
Raven grabbed her arm from where he sat and held tight. "You heard the captain's orders. They've only been gone an hour or so. There's no need to start panicking yet. Whatever is stopping the sensors from taking proper readings is blanketing communications too. We won't hear from them until they get back here." His deep voice spoke reasonably and quietly.
The doctor walked over to one of the crew Gideon had left with them. The woman had her commlink to her ear and was listening intently. "Anything?"
The woman shook her head Raven turned back to Dureena and as he did so the scenery rippled. He'd never seen anything quite like it. He was wondering whether he should get his eyes checked out when the rippling effect stopped, and the surroundings faded into something quite different from what had been there a moment before.
Instead of lush green foliage, he was now looking at a grassy landscape. And above Dureena's head, on a hill, he could see the outline of a large castle. He was about to tell Dureena to turn around and look when he glanced down and saw that her attention was focused behind him. He spun around to see a large number of Brakiri in uniforms, led by the biggest Narn he had ever seen.
Incongruously, this strange party was accompanied by a tiny, delicate-featured woman, with a mass of curling red hair. He couldn't take his eyes off her, at least until the Narn's clawed hand clamped around his throat, which dragged his attention away.
The Narn lifted him into the air and growled at Dureena and the two crewmen who had rushed towards him, "Move any closer and I'll break his neck," it said, then giggled! He'd never heard a Narn giggle before; it was a seriously strange noise.
Dureena and the crewmen stopped dead in their tracks, watching as Raven hung in mid-air, suspended from the Narn's large hand. The little red head stepped forward. "We are now going to disarm you, tie you up and take you back to our castle." Her voice was like a cat's purr, soft and throaty.
The Brakiri surrounded them and began restraining them, removing weapons and communicators. The Narn lowered the doctor to the ground and stepped back. Again, there was a rippling effect and the Narn faded from existence. Instead, a blue-haired, lavender-eyed exotic stood in front of him. Fascinating! He'd heard of shapeshifters before but had never seen one.

Demon was waiting for them when they got back to the castle. She watched the group crossing the courtyard and called down for them to stop. She had sensed something from the woman dressed in brown leather that disturbed her—a sense of quiet satisfaction that a prisoner should not be feeling. Demon descended the stairs from the battlements and crossed to where the woman stood, held by two Brakiri with her wrists bound behind her.
"Did you search her for weapons?" She asked the Brakiri guards. They nodded. "I somehow don't think you got everything." Demon turned to the woman and stepped close, well within her personal space. "Did they?"
Demon knew how to use her height to intimidate when she needed to. She was half a foot taller than this woman, and probably weighed nearly half as much again. But the woman just looked up at her with cool yellow eyes, showing and feeling no fear. Why was that?
Demon leaned down to whisper in the woman's ear. "Remove all remaining weapons or I'll have them strip search you here in the courtyard." The small woman flinched. She moved her wrists and the bindings dropped away. Demon stepped back and watched, impressed, as the woman removed at least a dozen knives from places the guards had never even thought to look.
The woman looked up at the tall blonde. "That's everything."
Demon could feel that she was lying. She turned to the guards "Strip her," she said, then turned back to look down at the other woman. "And when they've finished, I’ll have them pin you down while I conduct a full internal examination to make sure there's nothing else to find. Right here in the middle of the courtyard."
The small woman’s eyes widened at the threat. She knew Demon wasn't bluffing, that she would do exactly what she promised if she didn't get full and instant co-operation. Demon felt Dureena's fear and hated herself for provoking it, but she had to protect her sisters. The woman removed her last holdout knife and the garroting cord she kept at her waist. "That really is everything." Her voice sounded defeated, and Demon could feel her sense of loss without her weapons. This time she was telling the truth.
Demon turned to the guards. "Put them with the others." Ilas and Lilith had watched the whole episode in silence. This was why they relied on Demon. She knew what people felt and kept them safe.
Lilith had been watching the retreating guards and in particular the back of the man who wasn’t in uniform.
"Wait a minute!" The guards stopped and awaited instructions. Lilith hurried over to the man and touched his arm "You can come with me. My name is Lilith, but you can call me Lily if you like."
Demon watched, smiling indulgently as Lily left the courtyard with the guards and her new plaything.
She then turned to Ilas as the young blue-haired woman smiled happily up at her. "Can I go now? I have a new toy and I want to play!"
"There's just one last thing, Ilas. Their ship will be concerned if they don't hear from them. So, we'd better make sure they hear something. Could you impersonate them, do you think?"
Ilas bounced around Demon, laughing and clapping her hands at the idea. "Oh yes, Demon, you know how much I like to play pretend! Can I be the captain first? Can I? Please?"
"Of course you can, darling, whatever you want. Just call them now, and again every few hours and tell them that there's no news yet, but that you're still trying to track down the planet’s inhabitants. Tell them there’s some sort of field that interferes with transmissions, so they can only call when the field weakens. That way their ship won’t get suspicious at the gaps in communications."
Ilas made the call on one of the communicators they had taken their captives, given a first-class impression of the angry and impatient captain. She returned the communicator to Demon then trotted off in the direction of her rooms.
Demon gazed around the now empty courtyard, biting her lip. She wasn’t worried about Lily or Ilas, but Angel was another matter. She didn’t always know when to call a halt. With a sigh of exasperation, the tall blonde left the courtyard, entered the castle and climbed the stairs to her rooms. Alone, as usual.

Raven looked down at the tiny redhead and was utterly captivated. She was beautiful with green eyes and pale skin. Her shapely figure was clearly outlined by her exotic clothes. Lilith gave him a smile that seemed to be half promise, half threat. The guards released him, and he didn't resist as she led him away to a room high up in the castle. But every time her eyes rested on him, he felt a shiver go up and down his spine, as if her look was something physical stroking his skin.
She pushed him through a doorway then stood chewing her lip. "Which one first?" she mused. He didn't have a clue what she was talking about. The redhead made a decision and smiled cheerily at him. "Oh well, first come first served. See you later," she said and shut the door behind him. Raven heard the lock click into place and wondered what he should do next.