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Episode 3-04 - "The Whims of Fate"

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Ship's Log: 8 March 2643; ASV Aurora. Captain Julia Andreys reporting. We have been dispatched to Universe S0T5 to begin the Alliance's first expedition into the region of space known as the Fracture. An unknown calamity caused a portion of the galaxy around Earth to become partially warped in this area, leading to the apparent destruction of the Sol System itself and a number of phenomena not seen elsewhere in the Multiverse. Because of the fluctuations in space standard navigation is unreliable, forcing us to rely upon star readings from outside the Fracture zone to chart courses.

There is a mental component to the phenomena as well. Every Dorei on the ship has reported symptoms to the medbay. Commander Meridina and Lieutenant Lucero have been particularly hit by our surroundings.

The viewscreen of the Aurora showed the A sequence star as best as it could. The crew on the bridge was intrigued with how the star seemed to shimmer and contort in space. Caterina Delgado, the ship's exuberant science officer, was busy at the science station examining what she could on the sensors. "This place is… I can't even begin to describe this. This is a T'Vral Distortion. A real T'Vral!"

"A what?" her sister Angela asked from the tactical station.

"Doctor T'Vral of Vulcan. She was a subspace physicist and theorist of the 21st through 23rd Centuries in S5T3," Cat explained. "She theorized the possibility that the gravity well of a star in an area of space compromised by intense space-time distortion could allow for the bleeding of subspace into real space, causing a distortion effect around the star from the resulting interaction. And this… this is it, exactly as she theorized! It's never been seen before!" Cat excitedly tapped away at her console. "I've got every sensor on the ship recording this. The Vulcan Science Academy is going to love this!"

Julia had to stifle what would have likely been a giggle at Cat's behavior. This was helped by a sympathetic glance to Meridina. She was seated quietly in her chair beside Julia. While her position in the chair was not, in of itself, a sign of something wrong, the pale skin of her face made Meridina look like she was suffering from a stomach ailment. "You're still not adjusting?" Julia asked.

"I am afraid it is not that easy," answered Meridina. "This place feels wrong."

"So wrong it makes you physically ill?"

"To a degree. Given time, I will adjust," Meridina insisted.
Meanwhile Caterina was still gushing. "I need to examine these readings more closely. I am going to write the most awesome paper on this! It's going to take me all night, but it'll be worth it!"

Angel loudly cleared her throat. "Cat, while you're normally adorable when you get crazy geeky like this, I think you're forgetting something?"


"You're already due for something tonight." Angel gave her sister a significant look.

"Huh?" Cat turned to face her sister. "What do you mean? I don't… oh." Realization, and a heavy dose of guilt, made her blush.

"Yeah. And if I'm coming dressed up again, you're coming to."

"Are you going to wear the feather this time?" Cat asked.

"Never," replied Angel.

A few hours later found the two sisters in the holodeck, standing on a winding mountain path. Caterina was in a voluminous set of blue robes that looked a few sizes too big on her small frame. She topped this with a floppy yellow hat on her head. Angel had a cheongsam of red with gold designs. Caterina's girlfriend Violeta was in her light-colored vest and shirt with billowy pants. She had a complexion similar to their own, but her hair and eyes were a vivid purple color, with her hair covered by a broad pale blue hat with a feather. She held an elaborately-carved bow out to nock an arrow into it.

Angel dashed ahead at the foe barring their way. The dragon was large and powerful. Muscle rippled under its crimson and yellow-tinged scales, and wide red eyes burned with fury. Angel's fists landed several blows on its chest before she had to fall back to avoid a swipe of the immense claw. The arrow in Violeta's bow struck next. It lodged into one of the dragon's big ferocious eyes. It shrieked in rage and blew a wide column of flame into them. Although they didn't actually feel any pain, the HP indicators they kept all showed the damage had sapped at least one quarter of their health.

"Blizzaga!" Cat shouted. She raised her staff and a column of pure ice shot from the end of it. The ice grew upon impacting the dragon's head, encasing it in seconds.

That was when the fourth member of the party made their move. Or, rather, when she landed. A blur of blue slammed into the neck of the creature with an elaborate spear. The impact drove the point through the thick armored scale of the creature. Though it did not sever the head, it did puncture clear through to the other side. The dragon's iced-over head flailed about. As it did the attacker jumped off and landed with them. She was the tallest member of the group by far and the only one wearing armor, blue armor that shined in the artificial daylight and covered her torso and her arms. Only her mouth and nose were visible under the mask of the blue helmet, which was itself shaped like the head of a dragon. Her visible skin shared the same basic shade as the sisters and Violeta.

Once the dragon's head slammed into the ground, definitively showing the creature was dead, the helmet retracted upward partially, revealing the long pointed ears at the sides of her head and her blue eyes. Blue marks were painted on her cheeks that looked like wide, slightly-curved half-moons. "That was fun!" Ensign Talara declared. "Being this… what is it again?"

"Dragoon," Violeta answered. Her Sirian accent sounded almost English with a little tonal difference.

"Yes. It is quite fun. Thank you for inviting me."

"You won't be thanking me when we get to the Hall of the Dragon King," Violeta said. "I've heard horror stories about how hard that fight is."

"Well, I'm looking forward to it," Angel declared.

"You're just looking to hit something," Caterina teased. "And you're still not using the chakras right!"

"I am not spouting that pseudo-Chinese gibberish whenever I throw a punch," Angel insisted.

Violeta giggled at that before leading them onward.

Caterina woke up tangled with the sheets and with Violeta. With one arm asleep and a leg cramping she had difficulty getting free without waking her girlfriend up. After this task was managed she took to the usual morning routine. Within forty-five minutes of waking up Cat was in Science Lab 2 with a bowl of colorful marshmallow cereal and a plate of scrambled eggs. She ate breakfast while going over the sensor logs from the star with the T'Vral Distortion. Examination of a debris field and the infrared emissions indicated the star could be Beta Pictoris, but it was at least five parsecs off from where that star was located in other universes even accounting for the extra stellar drift of S0T5's progressed calendar. Cat put down her spoon long enough to jot the necessary notes. She was looking forward to Professor T'Rya's response to them, especially to the witnessing of a bona-fide T'Vral Distortion.

A T'Vral Distortion! She was the first scientist to discover an actual T'Vral Distortion! Caterina felt goosebumps at the thought. It made her think of Spock's log, and all of the things he had been the first scientist to encounter. And now she was doing it! She would have to organize the readings and write a paper!

Cat's eggs were consumed, and most of the cereal eaten, when her omnitool's comm unit went off. She slid the bowl to the side and tapped the blue light that appeared. "Delgado here."

"Lieutenant Delgado." It was Julia. And she didn't sound very happy. "Would you like to explain why you are ten minutes late to your post?"

Cat blinked. "Wait, I'm…" She activated her omnitool and checked the time. A wordless shriek of disbelief was her reaction to the time flashing 0810. "Oh no! I'msosorryI'monmywayDelgadoout!" She jumped from the chair and ran for the door.

At which point she turned and ran back to snatch up her unfinished cereal bowl from its place beside the console she'd been seated at.

A bemused Ensign Tagas had graciously accepted Caterina's frenzied apology when she arrived on the bridge. She took her station immediately and slouched a little in the chair at seeing Julia's "I am not amused" look. Stupid! Stupid, how could I lose track of time like that?! She dutifully went to work monitoring the sensor returns. It was easier said than done in this twisted section of space. The Fracture was living up to its name. It was the space equivalent of a haphazardly-spread blanket that curled up at some points and was stretched out at others. Light that seemed to be coming from one direction would suddenly shift, showing its origin point to be from an entirely different heading. Gravity sources were revealed as being less massive, or more massive, than their sensor returns otherwise indicated.

"Lieutenant Delgado, I'm having trouble locating Gamma Serpentis," she heard Locarno say. "I can't be sure we're on our proper course if I can't see it."

"Right." Cat looked over her sensor returns and the logs. The star was one of those outside of the Fracture that they were using for the purposes of astrogation in this area of space. Losing it meant that Locarno no longer had the exact frame of reference he needed to ensure he knew their heading. Given the powerful states that resided in this region of space, that could be dangerous, and she lost no time determining that one of the Fracture's twisted sections of space was distorting the light from the star. "We can't see Gamma Serpentis from this angle," she said. "Here, I'm highlighting Delta Serpentis for you."

"Thanks," he answered. "Re-calculating course."

"Make sure you keep us clear of borders, Commander," Julia said. "The last thing we need is to wander into Aurigan space. Much less NEUROM space. I don't have any desire to deal with those people again."

"I don't blame you," he answered. NEUROM agents had gotten involved in their mission to Solaris several months before, and Julia and Zack Carrey had narrowly avoided being dragged back to NEUROM space with them. "Course correction entered. We're back on course."

Caterina returned to her balance of looking over sensor logs and examining the twisted nature of the Fracture. She wondered just what could have caused such damage to space-time here.

A blip appeared on one of her sensors. Caterina blinked and checked it over. For a moment she thought it was a false return - not surprising given where they were - but when she saw it again she was certain it couldn't be. "I've got some kind of energy signature on sensors, Captain," she said aloud.

"What kind?" Julia asked.

"I can't tell. I've never seen one like this. Although I can't rule out that it's being distorted due to the Fracture. We'll need to get within visual range for me to confirm what it is."

Julia took only a moment to make her decision on the matter. "Commander Locarno, change course. I want a look at this."

"Aye sir."

After making that decision Julia glanced toward Meridina. She still looked pale. But her expression was no longer one of misery but of interest. "Commander, what is it?" Julia asked.

"I am sensing something," Meridina said. "Despite this… wrongness in my swevyra."

"Is it dangerous?"

"I do not think so. It is… I feel power of some sort. Light."

"We're almost there," Cat said. She counted down the seconds by observing with her sensors.

"Dropping out of warp now," Locarno said. The ship thrummed briefly from the warp drive disengaging. "We're approximately a hundred thousand kilometers out from the object."

"Can you get us a visual, Commander Jarod?"

"In a moment." At Ops the born savant was working on the ship's visualization systems, which took both raw light and other sensor data to form coherent images for the holo-viewscreen. "The local effects of the Fracture are distorting the image. I'm trying to clear it up."

"I'm picking up trace remnants of neutrinos and tetryons," Caterina added. "And a few other exotic particles."

"There we go…"

Interested in the sight of her find, Caterina looked up from her console to the holo-viewscreen. The image on it started as a vague blob of green and a few pixels of white. "Magnifying," Jarod said, pre-empting Julia's request.

The blob became a close-up image. Initially pixelated, Jarod's efforts gradually sharpened the image until they could make out the object. Caterina's eyes widened as she made out the shape. Julia breathed out a "Is that a…?"

Caterina double-checked her sensor returns briefly. They were now indicating the shape that had formed on the viewscreen.

The image finished sharpening. It confirmed what they were seeing. "Well, I didn't expect that," Jarod said.

The first inclination had been that the source of the power signature was a ship. And Caterina considered it might still be one. It was primarily green and white in color. The black object showing on the top of the craft had a design she couldn't make out given that they were mostly looking at the side of the thing.

But its design was not simply that of a ship. The four pieces sticking out from the ventral side of the craft, originating on the sides, were clearly limbs. Legs, with sharp claws. A motionless tail was visible from the rear. And the front of the craft had a module that was clearly a head, with dull yellow eyes and a white mouth, framed in the same green as the main body.

"Is that what I think it is?" Julia asked aloud.

"Yeah, I think so," Cat said. "It's… a metal lion. A big, green metal lion."

Undiscovered Frontier
"The Whims of Fate"

Starships could come in many shapes and sizes. Differing design aesthetics, or the requirements of specific systems, could determine how a ship was laid out or shaped. Sometimes resemblance to animals could even be had; the Alakins, Dorei, and Romulans all likened their starships to birds.

But this went further than that. This was a craft that, for some reason, had been built to look like a four-legged metal lion.

"Lieutenant, what is this thing?" Julia asked.

Caterina was already working on her readings. "Whatever it's made of isn't registering on our sensors. And I can't make out the power supply itself." Something came to her attention. "I am picking up a life sign aboard."

"There's somebody in that thing?"

"Yeah. The life sign is showing as Human. I think they're unconscious."

"Commander, can we get a transporter lock?"

In response to Julia's question Jarod checked his instruments and answered, "Once we're within five hundred kilometers. Any more than that and I'm worried about how the Fracture might distort the transporter."

"Getting close is advisable if we are to take it aboard," Meridina noted.

"Will it fit?" Julia asked aloud.

"In the landing bay for the fighter wing, yes," Jarod answered.

"Then tractor it in." Julia tapped a key on her command chair. "Bridge to medbay. You're about to get a patient."

"We're ready," answered Doctor Leonard Gillam.

The Aurora drew closer to the craft with her sublight drives. Caterina kept her scans going the entire way. "I can't tell you anything new about the lion. The level of neutrinos does make me suspect a wormhole opened recently. And there's something about the tetryons…"

"I'll leave that to you, Lieutenant," Julia said.

"We're in range," Jarod said. "Transporting now."

"I'm bringing us into position to tractor the craft into the hanger."

"The flight deck reports all craft stowed," Meridina added. "They are ready to bring the vessel aboard." She looked at Julia. "May I recommend sending Lieutenant Lucero to oversee an investigation of the vessel?"

Julia nodded her assent.

Lucy Lucero had seen a number of things she would once have called "bizarre" in the prior few years. That included herself now, given what she was capable of. Finding new surprises was becoming harder.

But sometimes it seemed the Multiverse was determined to keep surprising her despite that.

The metal green lion was a snug fit on the flight deck. It had been tractored in on its side, giving it the appearance of a cat laying on its side and asleep. Lucy tapped at her omnitool to access the scanner functions. The scan showed the material was something that even the Darglan had never encountered. "We're going to need an atomic analysis scanner," she said out loud.

"Yes sir. I'll let Lieutenant Barnes know." The voice speaking to her was strained. Ensign Jampa was a Dorei of teal complexion, with dark purple spots running down the sides of her face at the hairline. Her light purple, almost pinkish hair was pulled back into a bun.

Normally Jampa was one of the excitable junior operations officers. Every technical problem or question was a mystery demanding she solve it. But there was hardly any indication of that attitude right now. Lucy imagined it was for the same reason she was feeling sick.

Ever since the Aurora entered the Fracture, Lucy felt ill at ease. The force within her, the life force power that the Gersallians called swevyra, was telling her that the universe itself had gone wrong. That the Flow of Life was warped beyond recognition.

But there was something else. Lucy walked up to the inert machine's head and concentrated. Her stomach twisted at the attempt. Taking in a breath, Lucy focused and resumed her effort.

And there it was. She could feel something in the machine. The Flow of Life, distorted as it was in this space, radiated at this spot. Something in this spacecraft resonated with her power. As if it were, itself, alive.

Lucy's hand went to her omnitool and the key to open comms. "Lucero to Meridina," she said into it.

"Meridina here. Do you have a report?"

"Not yet. But… I need you to come here. I need your opinion on this."

There was a short pause. "Very well. I am on my way."

Lucy looked back to the occupant of the flight deck and stared. "Just what are you?" she wondered aloud.

The command staff was gathered in the conference lounge with the Koenig officers, as well as Tom Barnes and Lucy. The latter had a pale look to her lightly-tanned brown complexion. Like Meridina she was not finding staying in this space easy.

Julia started by looking to Jarod and Cat. "Any suggestions on where this ship comes from?" She motioned to the holodisplay above the table that was showing the green lion, now laid out on the flight deck for the Aurora's starfighters.

"It doesn't match anything we've been given on ships from S0T5," Jarod answered. "In fact, the design doesn't match anything in our records period."

"Could it be a ship from a Fracture nation we have no records of?" Julia asked.

"I'm not seeing any sign of technology consistent with the star nations in the Fracture," Jarod replied. "And the materials aren't anything we know of."

"I can confirm that," Lucy added. "The atomic analysis scans we've taken show this is a completely new element we're dealing with."

"Although people in this universe are nuts enough to build spaceships shaped like lions," Angel mused.

"Actually, I think it might be from another universe," Caterina said.

Everyone looked to her. A brief surge of her old anxiety toward such attention held Cat back for a second. There was no sign of stuttering, however, when she resumed speaking. "The neutrino and tetryon traces are consistent with an interuniversal jump point's profile within twelve hours of opening," she explained. "Normally those kinds of traces fade from external effects so they're not actually detectable after so long. But with the Fracture the way it is, I think this specific area of space is a sort of null zone that keeps them from being affected as usual."

"So the lion ship has an interuniversal drive?" Julia asked.

"Well, I don't know about that," Cat replied. "I haven't had a chance to examine it."

"We have," Lucy said.

"And I didn't pick up any indications of an IU drive on the damn thing," Barnes added. "Hell, we can't even get in. There aren't any hatches."

"It's probably in the mouth," Lucy remarked. "Which is remaining shut."

"It's possible something else might have caused an interuniversal shift," Cat said. She went into deep thought. "Not likely, but possible. I'll need to examine the lion ship more closely. Or talk to the pilot."

"What about the pilot?" Julia turned her head toward Leo Gillam.

Leo was still wearing his white lab coat over his black-and-blue-trim uniform. His dark brown eyes looked toward Julia. His hair, black in color, was cut short to his head, and his dark skin was only a shade lighter than his hair. Leo tapped a key and brought up the image of a figure in a set of what looked like armor, prominently white with green segments and what looked like a black-colored suit beneath the armor. A head of brown hair was settled onto a pillow.

"The pilot looks rather young," Meridina observed.

"She is a Human female, primarily Caucasian, estimated to be between fourteen and eighteen years of age," Leo recited. "I'm leaning toward the lower end of the estimate myself, as there's no sign of malnutrition to explain the relative lack of growth if she were older."

"That is… really young," Locarno said.

"Until we know more about the culture she comes from, I don't see any point in idle speculation." Jarod looked at Leo. "Do you have any idea what's wrong with her?"

"I haven't found any inherent problems in her body's systems, so I'm ruling it as an incidental episode," Leo answered. "That is, something specific shocked her system and caused her current condition. I imagine she'll be awake in the next day or so."

"Post a security officer nearby, but not in the open," Julia ordered. "Let's not scare her when she wakes up."

"I'll have the rotation up by the time we leave," said Lieutenant Commander Phryne Richmond, the chief of security.

Julia nodded in acknowledgement. She returned her attention to Lucy. "Is there anything else we should know about the lion ship?"

"It's… well, it's got a feeling to it," Lucy said.

"As in with your powers?"

"Yes. Meridina and I both felt it."

"I would almost suspect the lion ship of being alive in some way," Meridina said. "I can feel its presence in the Flow of Life."

That brought uncomprehending looks from the others, with the sole exception of Caterina. Pure interest was bubbling in her voice when she asked, "You're saying it's a living being?"

"I cannot say that. But it is not merely an inanimate machine," Meridina noted.

"Either way, I don't know if we'll be able to learn more until the pilot wakes up," said Lucy. She gave Leo a curious look. "Can you give us an estimate?"

"I'm not seeing any reason our patient shouldn't wake up soon," Leo said. "Whatever shock made her fall unconscious could mean she'll wake up in a minute, or in a week."

"We'll just have to wait," Julia said. "Cat, is there anything more you can learn from this area?"

"I'd like to finish a couple of in-depth scans," Cat answered. "They'll be done in a couple of hours."

"Let us know when they're done. Then we resume the rest of the survey mission. And Lieutenant?"

"Yes?" asked Cat.

"I know you're enormously interested in this ship, and in the Fracture as a whole, but make sure you're keeping watch on the long-range sensors. I want warning if we end up running into someone."

Cat nodded quietly. She had been expecting a dressing down for her late arrival. This was preferable.

Julia stood. "Everyone's dismissed. Except Commander Carrey."

There were nods from the assembled. They stood and filed out of the conference lounge. Within a minute only Zack was left with Julia.

"How are you feeling?" Julia asked him.

He gave her a forlorn look in reply.

"I would feel better if you agreed to counseling," she said. "You've been through alot this year."

"A counselor's only going to tell me what I already know," he lamented. "They'll say I've got survivor's guilt, and that's why I feel the way I do about losing Clara. And that if I want to get better, I have to accept it's not my fault and that she's gone for good. Since I know this, what's the point in wasting time?"

"There could be more to it than that," Julia pointed out. "I…" She stopped and sighed at seeing his pointed look. "Why do I get the feeling you want to suffer, Zack?"

He turned away briefly before looking back to her. A sad smile was on his face. "Maybe we've been friends for too long, and you know me too well," he suggested. "We know each other's' moods. Same with Rob and Tom."

A question arose in Julia's mind. One that she was afraid to ask, one she dreaded hearing an answer for.

"Do you need me for anything else, Captain?" Zack asked.

"Just… be on standby with your crew," Julia said. Her voice betrayed her continued inner struggle over her concerns for him. "Just in case something happens and we need the Koenig out there."

"We're ready for when you need us," Zack promised. He waited to see if she would ask anything else, if indeed she would ask that, but she didn't, and he departed.

Lieutenant Commander Patrice Laurent was not entirely happy. His fighters were, for the moment, completely grounded due to the lion ship on their flight deck, which made landings unsafe and thus forbade any launches. This meant that there was little for him and his pilots to do but sit around, grouse, and maybe log simulator time.

He arrived on the flight deck to see all of the engineers and operations officers looking over the craft. It was another sight that he would have to log away in his mind on the list of miracles his life had included since that day, four and a half years before, when a group of well-meaning people had saved his family and many others. Not simply saved them, but introduced them to an entirely new life, one that had led to Patrice serving as the head of a wing of starfighter pilots and his sister Madeleine commanding an entire starship.

"Who would build a ship like that anyway?" The question came from beside him. Lieutenant Gwen Skydancer was a Sirian woman with striking green eyes and vibrant purple hair drawn back into a pony-tail. She was tall, with a statuesque build. Her uniform, like his own, had light blue as the branch color on the collar and trim areas. "I can understand a starship with an avian look. But a lion? What's the point?"

"I suppose one could use the legs for vectoring thrusters," he said.

"It is a really unique design!" another voice stated. This one had pitch that was distinctly non-human. The two pilots peered down at the short form of Lieutenant Jebediah Kerman, the Aurora crew's lone Kerbal. The species had yet to join the Alliance, although they were rumored to be close to finalizing their admission, but that hadn't stopped Kerman from joining the Stellar Navy within a few months of the Alliance's foundation. He had been the first of his people to fight the Reich as a result, although the Kerbals were now a full member of the Allied Powers and contributing their experienced (and to Laurent, near-suicidal) starfighter corps and carrier ships to the Allied fleets.

"I suppose it's the kind of thing you Kerbals would build, if you could make it work," Gwen teased.

"Maybe I should send the images back home," Kerman answered. "We can fit trinium claws to the legs and shred up enemy ships! And the armoring…"

Patrice couldn't help but chuckle at the enthusiasm of the Kerbal pilot. Kerman had been his wingman for over a year now, even turning down a flight command to keep his place on Patrice's wing. After so many combat flights with the Kerbal Patrice wasn't sure he'd want another wingman himself. Kerman had saved his life too often.

"I just want that thing gone," Gwen said. "I don't like being cooped up on the ship, unable to fly."

"I know the feeling, Lieutenant," Patrice sighed. "I know it all too well."

A short distance away, Meridina and Lucy were looking at the machine intently. While Barnes and the others were examining it with their devices and instruments, the two were sensing it through the Flow of Life. The power within it was quiet but still steady. A gentle thrum rippled in the Flow.

They were finding that this had a pleasant side-effect. The power of the thing, the life in it, was helping to improve their connection to the Flow of Life. For the first time since the Aurora had entered the Fracture they felt content.

"Do you think the Council might know something about this?" Lucy asked her.

"I do not think so," Meridina replied. "Nothing like this vessel has been recorded in Gersallian history."

"Hell, the Darglan might not have known something like this," Lucy pointed out. "This could be entirely uncharted ground. And you and I are the ones here to learn about it."

"It is a great responsibility." Meridina closed her eyes and breathed in. "But I must say I enjoy it as well. A machine powered by the Flow of LIfe, Lucy. Can you imagine it?"

Lucy nodded. At the same time, her mind briefly wandered. She thought of her Trial in the Temple of Perception back on Gersal and the vision of a bizarre machine that had also been permeated with power. Not the power of the Flow of Life, but something else, something stranger and more foreboding. If this was possible, then maybe such a thing was as well.

It was something to think over, but for the moment she focused entirely on her work, sensing the power source of the machine and, slowly, starting to understand it.

The end of Caterina's bridge shift couldn't have come soon enough. Not only did she have the data on the T'Vral Distortion at Beta Pictoris to go over, she wanted a look at the lion ship and its pilot.

Lieutenant al-Rashad was checking the scanner board while Caterina watched. "Nothing strange, or at least stranger than we've seen since entering this blasted place," the Arab woman murmured. She turned the chair and looked up to Cat. "Although there is that bit at bearing 221 mark 098."

"221 098?" Cat asked. She looked at the screen herself. "Oh yeah, that. Given how space is warped around that spot I think it's a result of the gravitational distortion. I suppose it could be something more. Keep an eye on it?"

"I will." Al-Rashad smiled at her now. "So, how goes the paper on the T'Vral? I was looking at some of the readings. It was lovely, wasn't it?"

"Did you see those variances in the mid to low Groenitz-Hallen bands?" Caterina asked, enthusiasm brimming in her voice. "Even T'Vral didn't expect that."

"An artifact of the A sequence star itself?"

"Possible. If we can find another T'Vral around a different kind of star that would be great." Cat checked her time piece and glanced toward the front of the bridge. Violeta was on duty at the helm for another three hours. When she was off duty they were due for dinner together and then what they usually dubbed "cuddle time".

But I've got so much to do… a part of her complained. Another part of her retorted with She's your girlfriend, she's more important than stuff you can make time for later.

"Let me know if you see anything," Cat said to her. "Have a great shift."

"Oh, I always look forward to it, don't you know?" al-Rashad teased.

The Fracture was thousands of years old. And in those thousands of years, it had always been inhabited. Living in the Fracture was not a pleasant experience, and never an easy one.

But like always, life found a way to do it.

Many cultures lived in these twisted spaces and over their existences they learned how to cope with the challenges it presented. They discovered ways to use it to their advantage.

One such method was to use the warping of space to hide a ship in such a way to spy on other vessels. Just such a thing was happening to the crew of the Aurora, as a distance away from them a vessel was hidden in the twisted spaces of the Fracture, carefully watching.

The vessel in question was not large. It wasn't even a quarter the size and mass of the Aurora. The main body was made of an exotic blend of metallic alloys and artificially-grown tissues from an Aurigan man-of-war, a giant species of cosmozoan that could wipe out ships by tangling them in its tendrils and sucking the energy out of them until their crews were deprived of life support. The ship-crafters of Cabea had discovered how to cultivate these void-dwelling denizens of the Fracture and produced ships that made use of their energy-resistant hides and minimize their ships' detectability by one of the few scanning methods not afflicted by the properties of the Fracture. Specialized grasping lines could then be employed on unsuspecting targets to debilitate ships by draining their energy. The Cabeans had won some regard for this successes in bio-adaptive engineering from their allies in the organization known, and feared, as NEUROM. They had even been granted a semi-permanent seat on the guiding committee of CORTEX, a rare honor for one of the weaker members of the alliance.

The Cabean ship Judgement of Fate observed its prey with the same quiet deliberation of the creatures it was designed to emulate. On the bridge of the vessel Sub-Commander Hayten Tothwallad considered his circumstances. The vessel Aurora's presence had been known of for some time. The word from his superiors had been simply to observe her and not engage. So long as the Alliance respected NEUROM's frontiers, they had no quarrel with these strangers from another universe.

That had been then. This was now. Tothwallad looked to the dark-clad being sharing his bridge. "You are sure, my lady?"

A pair of yellow, angry eyes glared at him. In other circumstances Lady Dolores would have been attractive. She had smooth skin the color of bronze and a fit figure that her bodysuit hid little of. Tothwallad was himself a fine example of Human fitness, courtesy of a demanding physical fitness regimen programmed into him from childhood by memetic compulsions ordered by the Cabean Republic's Ministry for the Complete Health of the Citizenry.

Whatever her attractiveness, no sane person wanted to be near such an agent of the Ministry of Fate. They thrived on Human pain and suffering. If they feared anything, it would be the Fates themselves, and those were just a myth (or so it was sometimes said). Dolores would leave nothing of Tothwallad if he crossed her. Which, through his question, he had come dangerously close to doing.

"I sense that power even here," she said. "It is a power that will be ours."

"We cannot fight a ship of that size," he protested. "We would not survive long enough to put even one arm on that ship."

"Nor do we have to. We need only maintain contact until the Ministry's ships arrive." Dolores frowned. "Can you manage this without mewling, Captain?"

Tothwallad nodded. It was, in the end, the only answer that didn't involve dying right then and there.