Beams and pulses of varying color filled the open void of space, creating flickers of light or plumes of flame and wreckage in their wake. Such was the visual sight of combat between starships of this level of technical sophistication and capability.
One such ship engaged was the Starship Koenig, even now twisting her way around the wreckage of one enemy to refocus her firepower upon another. A vessel of unique design - similar to the Defiant-class of the United Federation of Planets' Starfleet, itself the basis for the United Alliance of Systems' Trigger-class - the Koenig was made for this work, a dedicated combat vessel that sacrificed comfort, versatility, and cruising range for sheer firepower in as small a hull frame as could be managed.
Her foe was a Z-2500 destroyer starship of the Greater German Reich of Universe S4W8; known colloquially to the rest of the Multiverse as the Nazi German Reich. To the denizens of the Multiverse (and even others in S4W8) the very existence of this nation was a horror, an aberration, virtually a mockery of everything they held sacred. The Reich felt much the same way, leavened with their pride in their uniqueness and the sense that it made them special, and with their fear, indeed terror, in a Multiverse that now sought to eliminate them as well.
The Reich destroyer tried to evade. But it was itself committed to an attack run that its crew would not break off lightly. Even as the amber pulses of the Koenig's powerful pulse phaser cannon battery blew away the Z-2500's rear shields and battered away at her engines and hull, the destroyer finished the work of preparing her own weapons. Torpedoes raced from the launcher built into her bow seconds before the anti-matter that fueled her delicately-maintained reactors was freed by enemy weapons fire. The ship and her crew of a hundred men disappeared in a burst of light and energy.
Their torpedoes continued on, until intercepted by blue-white pulses and ultimately the flickering blue shields of the target of the doomed ship: the Starship Aurora.
The kilometer long ship was big, but the rapier-sharp lines and smooth, sleek shape of her hull gave her a feel of being far more agile than her size and mass suggested. Indeed, while certainly not as nimble as the Koenig, the Aurora was surprisingly agile. Under the expert helmsmanship of her navigation and piloting officer, Lieutenant Commander Nicholas Locarno, and guided by her captain Julia Andreys, the Aurora was even now dodging fire from the looming shape of a Nazi dreadnought, one of the dreaded Aryan-class. Thick, powerful super-disruptor beams lashed out at her. Only one of three actually stuck the ship.
On the bridge Julia felt her ship shudder regardless. At Operations Jarod didn't even turn his head. "Shields still holding at fifty percent."
"Maintain evasive maneuvers and continue fire on the dreadnought," she said in response. Julia's eyes ventured over to the tactical holotank, which was being utilized by Meridina as well in the Gersallian woman's function as First Officer of the ship. The markers there showed the Alliance combat group with the Aurora. Multiple Dorei starbirds, an Alakin warbird, three cruisers from the Federated Stars of Universe L2M1, a carrier battle group from the Kingdom of Avalon from S0T5, and new Alliance-model ships led by her own vessel and the Igasana-class heavy cruiser ASV Rotama. The Discovery-class ships Gagarin, Kitana, and Challenger were also present. Although as star cruisers they did not have the dedicated combat capability of the Rotama and other ships like her, they were still quite capable of combat and demonstrating that capability admirably.
Against the Nazi combat fleet the Alliance ships were facing even this force would have been woefully insufficient. But this was an allied fleet, with contributions from the other ships in the coalition assembled to fight the Reich. Ships from the Slavic Union, the Kerbals, the Dre'kari Community, and the Gl'mulli Directorate were present, as were a number of refitted combat-capable ships of the Federated Commonwealth, Free Worlds League, and Draconis Combine. A squadron of starships from individual clans and tribes of the United Clans of Ys'talla were a new addition, from those pro-Alliance Miqo'te tribes and clans exercising their rights to commit to the Alliance's efforts without requiring their planetary government to join in. Altogether, that gave this combat force equality with the Reich ships they were fighting.
Which was the point of it all, even if Julia wished she had more as the Aurora barely evaded another super-disruptor shot. Her plasma beams played sapphire energy over the flickering red shields of the Reich dreadnought to no effect. They needed more firepower to break its shields.
"What's our countdown?" Julia asked Jarod.
"Ninety seconds until mark," he answered.
She smiled confidently. It wouldn't be long now...
Deeper in the Aurora, over a dozen decks below the bridge and a few dozen meters astern, the Aurora's security office was on standby. From here Lieutenant Commander Phryne Richmond and Major Gabriel Anders, the chief of security and Marine Commander of Troops respectively, would work to protect the ship from boarding parties or prepare their own.
The two had their assistants with them, as was normal, but they were joined by another. Robert Dale, still officially a Captain in the Stellar Navy, was not in the same action uniform or combat armor as the other two. His own armor, colored blue, was based on the field armor worn by the Gersallian Order of Swenya's field knights. A pulse pistol was holstered on his hip, making him appear poorly-armed compared to the others until one considered he could bat them around the room with a few moments of effort and a matching will. The hard part for him, in fact, would be restraining the power he was using, not simply using it.
Despite his superior rank, however, Robert was not their superior in operation. He had nothing to do with the ship's functioning now, a fact that left him nowhere to go during a combat alert. Working with security simply seemed the best choice for his actual job description: one of the new Paladins, operatives under the command of the Alliance President invested with great authority on missions given by the same.
Had Meridina and Carter Kane, the predecessors of Richmond and Anders, been the ones present, Robert might have at least been in the company of people who knew him more closely. But Anders had never served with him before and Richmond had barely known him. The two seemed determined to focus on their jobs and leave him to his thoughts.
I feel like I should be on the bridge, he mused to himself. It couldn't be helped. Two years of commanding the Aurora made him want to be there. It was ironic given his actions in the past, and why so many admirals thought him unsuited for starship command.
"You get used to it," Richmond said, her Australian accent very refined, to the point it sounded almost like an English accent. Her green eyes met his, on a face of light, almost literally white skin - as white as the Human complexion spectrum permitted, virtually - framed by black hair. "Although I'm sure it's quite a change for you, Captain."
"It is," he admitted.
"Given your tendency to go out into the field instead of staying on the bridge, that's surprising," she pointed out.
To that he chuckled and grinned. "The thought crossed my mind too. God's sense of humor, I suppose."
"And we, the audience, are yet afraid to laugh."
"That's how the saying goes."
And again everyone went silent, waiting for a call from the bridge that might never come.
The ship shook again, bringing the shields further down. But Jarod had another fact to report first, as he finished his ten second countdown. "...three...two...one. Mark."
From the ship's science/sensor station, Caterina Delgado looked up. Her chair seemed larger, if only because her frame was the smallest on the bridge. "Subspace spikes! We have ships jumping in! It's the rest of the fleet!"
"Thank you, Lieutenant," Julia said. She noted with pleasure the arrival of the incoming ships. Markers for them also indicated their identities. The ComStar cruiser Avenging Sword led several lighter ComStar ships, reflecting that organization's first foray into the war. The Clan fleet contingent included a number of cruisers and destroyers of their fleets led by the Snow Raven cruisers Storm Cloud and Avalanche. By far the biggest contingent were ships from the Aururian Imperial Federation of A2M6 that included, much to Julia's delight, the battlecruiser Maya-Mayi under Margrethe von Lohringhoven, her opposite number during the crisis over the Oakland Colony of Phi Perseus.
The command of the force came from the two ships at the center of it, vessels larger than the Aurora that were even now launching their wings of starfighters and larger gunboat vessels: the Battlestars Galactica and Pegasus, sole surviving warships of the Colonies of Kobol.
"First Group, continue engagement," said the voice of Admiral William Adama of the Colonial Navy, speaking from his flagship Galactica. "Second Group, commence attack, priority targets are enemy dreadnought and supporting ships."
The jump-capable allied ships moved into engagement range immediately. Naval PPCs and lasers, phasers, and other weapon types opened up on the Reich force that now found itself outnumbered and facing an attack on a second vector. The enemy ships' formation soon began to disintegrate at the renewed attack.
For her part, the Aurora continued engaging the enemy dreadnought as best as she could, with the assistance of the Challenger. As the two ships poured their plasma beams into the flickering ruby light of the Aryan-class ship's shields, Kerbal bombers raced in at their typical breakneck acceleration, supported by fighters from the Avalonian carrier and, now, by Vipers from the Pegasus. The enemy fighter screens were fully engaged with the Alliance Mongoose starfighters from the Aurora and her Discovery-class cousins; what little remained were swept away by the Avalonian and Colonial fighters. The Kerbal bombers hit hard, focusing on the dreadnought's escorting ships. A Sedan-class cruiser faltered, its disruptors blazing away at the Kitana until the enemy ship succumbed to the attack from the Alliance cruiser.
Behind the Kerbals, Colonial Raptors and the various aerospace fighters of the Clans and ComGuards began their attack runs, shielded by more Vipers and a contingent of Aururian fighters.
With the dreadnought's escorts falling away due to the attack, the Aurora could focus more fire on the big ship. Locarno brought them about and Angel Delgado, Caterina's sister, opened up with the ten bow-facing particle pulse cannons built into the Aurora. Thick sapphire pulses battered away at the enemy shields. From "above", the Maya-Mayi moved in and engaged with her own cannons. Solid lances of gravitons from the weapons built into her bow struck the enemy dreadnought, bypassing its faltering shields entirely and subjecting the Nazi ship to vicious structural stresses that would easily damage internal systems over even a short exposure period. With the Reich ship faltering the Aurora's torpedo launchers opened up, sending the blue-white sparks of solar torpedoes into the ship's hull. They continued the attack run...
Hours later the mood in the Lookout, the Aurora's crew lounge built into the bow of the ship, was one of merriment and excitement. The victory celebration was ongoing to allow the entire crew, all two thousand of them, a chance to attend at some point between watches or shifts. The view outside the window showed the garden world that, appropriately enough, was New Liberty in their home universe. In this universe it was the site of one the early Nazi colonies, New Prussia, which had fallen to an invasion by Alliance and Aururian troops. The orbiting starbase was busily being repaired from Nazi sabotage to serve as an Alliance fleetbase, while in the interim yardships were helping with repairs to the damaged ships.
The Aurora was one of the luckier ships from the battle, with minor physical damage to her systems that wasn't tying down the crew from celebrating the victory and enjoying themselves. The celebration was taking on the air of a victory feast, much like the one undoubtedly being celebrated by the Avalonians. The Lookout's devoted host, Hargert, had an ongoing buffet of foods that the crew most loved, and given the versatility and skill of the old German cook, there was a diversity of choices to be had.
Another victory cake was being brought out when Julia entered the Lookout. Robert watched her enter from the bar with Barnes, Leo, and Angel. All of them kept quiet for the moment while Julia got her share of the dinner. Once this was done she murmured something at Hargert. Moments later a tone sounded over the speakers of the ship's comm system. "Attention, everyone," Julia said, her voice loud and clear here and, Robert suspected, across the ship. "The celebration we're throwing right now isn't just for one battle. We just received the official word. Admiral Maran and his fleet have beaten the main Nazi fleet at Epsilon Indi! The operation is a complete success!"
The Lookout erupted in applause.
"Command's estimating that the enemy's lost over a thousand ships in the operation," Julia continued. "All Nazi fleets around Earth have been routed. The Alliance and our allies are clear to begin the liberation of Earth itself from the Reich!"
The applause erupted again, even more loudly.
"You've all done well!" Julia continued. "And I'm proud of this entire crew. With your efforts and those of the other ships in our fleet and our allies' fleets, the war should soon be over, and we're going to win! I expect everyone to get their share of the victory meal. And I hope it's only the appetizer for the big victory we'll throw when the Reich surrenders!"
The loudest applause yet came, joined by cheering and hooting and other sounds. When it was over everyone settled back into what they were doing.
Robert kept watching Julia for the moment. For all of the awkwardness Robert felt sometimes while he was Captain, Julia clearly fitted the role like a glove. She was, indeed, in her element as a Captain.
"So, what were you doing during the battle?" Tom Barnes asked.
"Huh? Oh." Robert turned to face him. "I was in the security office with Commander Richmond and Major Anders."
"Why'd you pick them?" Angel asked.
Robert shrugged. "I figured I had to be somewhere to contribute. Helping with boarding actions seemed the best bet."
"That must've been new for you," Barnes said. "I mean, not being on the bridge while we were in the thick of it."
Robert nodded in admission. "Yeah, it was. It'll take some getting used to, I think."
"Now you know how I always feel," Leo remarked jovially.
"Just what will you be doing now that you're back?" Barnes considered his glass while asking. A bit of amber fluid - beer, Robert figured - swirled inside. "I mean, you obviously won't be doing Paladin stuff all of the time. It's going to be weird being around and not having anything to do…"
Before Robert could answer, there was a tone over the comms. This time the voice was Meridina. "Captain, we're picking up a distress call on all Alliance bands on the IU radio."
The look on Julia's face was concerned. She looked to the other command officers and Robert, who all approached her as she asked, "Where is it coming from?"
"Universe M4P2. The Dorei colony on Adrana."
"The Batarians?" Jarod suggested.
"No." Meridina had evidently heard them. "According to the distress call, they are being attacked by the Geth."
The assembled officers exchanged puzzled looks at the response. The Geth were barely known in the Alliance; a species of intelligent AI programs created by the Quarians and still occupying that species' homeworld of Rannoch, beyond the Perseus Veil at the far corner of the M4P2 galaxy. They were supposed to be a reclusive race that never interacted with the rest of their copy of the Milky Way. The idea of the Geth launching such a bold attack was shocking. "Meridina, are there any ships that can respond before us, given where we are?"
"Unfortunately not, Captain. Alliance and Systems Alliance patrols in M4P2 are out of position, and much of the fleet is assigned to the follow-up operations against the Reich. Ops has confirmed we could make it in two interuniversal jumps to Adrana, if we hurry."
"Meridina, commence the jumps immediately. Put us on combat alert, Code Red." With that, she left the Lookout with the senior officers.
Most of the crew followed as the electronic klaxons began to blare.
"A Distant Thunder"
The spatial aspect of their last jump kept the Aurora from arriving in the Adrana System, but she was close enough that it wasn't more then ten minutes before the ship, her warp drives pushed to their immense capability, dropped from warp speed near the planet. Adrana was a garden planet settled in the first wave of Alliance colonies in M4P2, most of which were settled by Dorei colonists as part of the fair division of new extrauniversal colonies among Alliance member states.
As the planet loomed on the holo-viewscreen, Julia found herself considering the sad coincidence of their visits; the last time they'd come coincided with the beginning of Batarian attacks on Alliance colonies with the slaver raid on Yamalia. Now Adrana herself had been hit by an attack.
"I'm picking up three vessels in orbit," Caterina said. "Drive signatures are eezo-based, but the output… I've never seen an eezo power system with this capacity before." After a moment Caterina added, "I'm also detecting smaller craft coming from the surface. Landing craft, I think."
"Time to weapons range?" Julia asked.
"I'm already getting locks on them," Angel said. "But our approach vector puts Adrana behind them. Any misses could hit the planet."
"Right. Mister Locarno?"
"Adjusting course now, giving tactical a clear field of fire," Locarno said.
"While you do that, Jarod, put me on." She waited for Jarod to nod. "Attention Geth vessels, this is Captain Julia Andreys of the Alliance Starship Aurora. You have committed an act of aggression against the Alliance. I insist you surrender immediately or we will open fire."
Seconds passed with no reply. "It does not appear they are concerned," said Meridina.
"Lieutenant Delgado, you are clear to fire when ready. Commander, signal the Koenig, commence combat launch."
It took another ten seconds for Locarno's course change to clear Adrana from the field of fire. During this time, the dock built into the rear of the primary hull section opened up. The Koenig backed out of her berth and triggered her own drives, twisting relative to the Aurora so she could make her own course toward the Geth ships.
As the Aurora was still pointed "upward" compared to the perspective of the Geth and the planet, the initial fire was with the ventral-facing plasma banks. Repeated beams of sapphire energy crossed space and sliced into the Geth ships. Their particle barriers were not meant for reflecting energy weapons of this type so the power of the shots primarily acted against the bare hull. The wounds carved into the Geth ships did not spew atmosphere like another ship might, although there was still debris and flame from the impacts.
The Koenig accelerated to combat thrust and opened fire as well, her pulse phasers adding to the damage inflicted on the Geth ships.
The Geth ships seemed more interested in evading than attacking, although for the latter it was soon clear they were pursuing a different approach. "They're launching fighters," said Cat.
"Alpha and Delta Squadrons are launching," Meridina said. "Echo and Fox are on standby to join them."
With their fighters moving to intercept their Geth counterparts Julia was free to observe the effect of their fire on the Geth ships. The first ship was taking the brunt of Angel's focus while the Koenig focused on the second ship. Locarno maneuvered the Aurora to bring the bow weapons to bear. The forward pulse plasma cannons fired. These had more effect on the lead Geth ship. Already slightly damaged, the thick sapphire pulses of the bow cannons blew entire sections out of the lean, bug-headed Geth vessel, which reminded Julia somewhat of a dragonfly if it had no wings or legs. The silver ship's acceleration died down.
"Picking up energy spike," said Cat. "It looks like they're activating their FTL drives."
By that time the first spread of solar torpedoes was already in flight. The spread crashed into the lead Geth ship. This time the shot was undeniably fatal. The explosions broke the Geth ship into pieces.
A few more shots began to hit the second Geth ship, but it was the Koenig that finished them off with her own spread of solar torpedoes.
The third Geth ship, untouched, seemed to blink out of existence with the activation of their FTL drive.
"I'm tracking them in subspace," Cat said. "It looks like they're on course for the mass relay in the G1SV system."
"Pursuit course laid in," Locarno said.
Julia didn't need to glance toward Meridina to know what her XO was thinking. And she already agreed with the sentiment. "No. Have the Koenig pursue. Atreiad is to engage only if he can do so without risking his ship, otherwise just observe until they depart through the G1SV relay. Helping the colony is our priority."
"Aye sir," Locarno replied. "Making standard orbit."
"I am alerting medbay to our situation," Meridina added.
"Securing from battlestations," said Jarod.
Julia nodded and sat back, letting the others implement her orders. Aid had to come first. Then the investigation could begin.
Ship's Log: ASV Aurora; 12 May 2643 AST. Captain Julia Andreys recording. We are still investigating the Geth attack on the Dorei colony of Adrana. More importantly, we are rendering all of the aid we can to the planet below.
Commander Atreiad on the Koenig has confirmed the last Geth ship has departed the area through the G1SV Mass Relay. I've ordered Koenig to remain cloaked in G1SV for the time being to monitor any traffic coming through the Relay, just in case the Geth come back with reinforcements.
Julia found herself staring at her report to Defense Command on the attack. Every fact was present, everything told exactly as she knew it, but it still felt off. The lack of knowing just what the Geth were after with the attack was frustrating. Hearing her door chime was welcome just for the distraction. "Come in," she called out.
Meridina was the one who entered, carrying a digital pad. She handed it to Julia. "The governor of Adrana has compiled preliminary statistics on the attack. Currently the death toll is at two hundred and six people, three quarters of them civilians. There are over a thousand wounded as well. The planet's medical infrastructure is overwhelmed."
"Is Leo bringing any of them up here?" Julia started looking over the data pad.
"The critical cases and some of the overflow. I have ensured the St. Johns and the Warri are available for his use." The two names were familiar: the St. Johns had long been the runabout fitted with a medical module, the Warri was a new Ebro-class runabout assigned to the ship that had a multi-mission capability and could thus be fitted for medical work.
"Alright. Command is trying to get response ships out, but for the moment we're the only ones here to tend to this." Julia tapped the pad. "As for the raid investigation itself, doesn't it strike you as odd?"
"The Geth attack. It looks like they only had a raid in mind, but they left entire sections of the colony untouched." Julia put the pad down. "And the things they took were minor pieces of technology and machinery. Nothing like what they might need. If I didn't know better, I'd say the raid was staged." She noticed the look in Meridina's face and knew she wasn't the only one to feel that way.
"Indeed," Meridina confirmed. "And I do have a suspicion as to their target."
"You will note that a number of the casualties were personnel at the excavation site examining what is left of the ancient Adranians," Meridina said.
Julia glanced and noted that. "This would be the dig site with the computers that Zack's mind was linked to when we were last here?"
"And where Caterina, Jarod, and myself nearly perished," Meridina reminded her. "Going by the casualty data, it looks like the Geth directed quite a lot of attention to this place. The casualties were extremely high, indicating that the excavation was swiftly overrun."
"In other words, you think it was the target." Julia frowned. "Why?"
"I am unsure," Meridina admitted. "The computer systems' directing intelligence was only a fragment of an old personality and there was little in the way of advanced technology stored within. Nevertheless, I would like to take a team to investigate what the Geth did there."
Julia nodded. "You've got my approval. See what you can find out."
"I will assemble a team immediately, Captain. May I be dismissed?"
"You are dismissed." Julia watched her go and considered what Meridina had found. Could the answer be that this was all to get at that ancient ruins? And if so… why?
The changes to the dig site in the two years since they'd last visited drew the attention of Meridina, Jarod, and Cat. More tunnels were present and more equipment as well, although some was now badly damaged, including the lift that had to be repaired before they could go down into the main complex. Blue blood spots could be seen from the victims of the Geth attack, although no bodies were evident.
A grim-faced Dorei man of dark blue complexion with purple spots and hair drove the large cart ferrying the team through the underground site. Joining the three who had visited previously were Lieutenant Lucy Lucero, in her ops officer uniform with her tool belt visible and her lightsaber hooked to it, and the newest ops officer on the Aurora, Lieutenant Tra'dur, the Stellar Navy's first Dilgar officer. Red-haired and dun-furred in coloration, her feline eyes took in the entire site. "So you have been here before, Caterina'Delgado?"
"Yeah. Two years ago," Cat said. "It wasn't a fun visit."
"The computer system we are here to examine forcefully linked to Commander Carrey's mind," Meridina explained. "We came to find a way to free him. Unfortunately, there were complications."
"An ancient booby trap that sealed us in, then the guiding intelligence of the computer system deciding to kill us rather than let us free Zack," Cat clarified, frowning. "It tried to gas us. We barely got out."
"Then this is potentially dangerous," Tra'dur noted.
"Maybe, maybe not," Lucy said. "Zack apparently had the computer system upload his mind into the system as well. Basically, a digital copy of himself to keep the intelligence inside company."
"Yes," said Meridina. "In the end, the intelligence's actions were warped by her incomplete upload when her people were wiped out. Most of her personal memories were lost, and all she had were the memories of her people's destruction. Commander Carrey showed great compassion in how he chose to deal with her."
"I would not count on them being intact," the Dorei driver warned. "The attackers inflicted much damage. As you will now see."
The cart came to the end of the tunnel. An open door led the five into a chamber, the same they had seen two years prior. But now the computer hardware showed visible damage. Scars from weapons fire covered nearly every surface of the main cylinder. Meridina and Lucy both suppressed an impulse to shudder; they could feel a lingering sense of hopeless despair and rage and grief that permeated the chamber.
Everyone began scanning, with Jarod and Cat focusing on the table on which someone could lay and interface with the system. "It looks like this part was undamaged," Jarod said. He checked the interface piece, now fully restored by the Dorei archeologists from the rusted state it had been in two years before.
"They were focusing their attack on the computer banks, or what they thought were computer banks," Lucy said, standing over one set of them. "And they definitely took out some of the physical memory bank."
"Tra'dur, can you help me examine the intact code?" Cat asked. "If we can verify the interface is safe, someone can go in and see if the personalities inside survived."
"Of course, Lieutenant." Tra'dur activated her omnitool and joined Cat.
"Curious that the Geth were most concerned with this device," Meridina said. "And they were not here to take it but to destroy it."
"Given the nature of the attack, this was clearly their real objective." Jarod checked another part of the interface. "Are you sure you want to go in? The last time the intelligence inside attacked you."
"I do not think she will do so again," said Meridina. "She has no reason to."
"Unless something happened to the copy of Zack," Cat pointed out. "If she's alone again…"
"Then the rest of you can do what you must to free me," Meridina said. "But I still believe it best if I go."
"Let's make sure it works first," said Lucy, who gave Meridina a concerned look. "If it does, then… I suppose it makes the most sense if you do."
"It does." This was from Tra'dur. "The four of us have the training and knowledge to deal with problems. No insult meant, Commander, but your skills are not the same."
"Indeed they are not, and I do not see your statement as insulting," Meridina assured her. "I await your findings on the matter."
An hour later Meridina was laying on the table, steeling herself for the pain that would accompany the uplink. She felt concern from the others, particularly for Lucy, but allowed no apprehension to form on her expression. "I am ready," she informed them.
"Alright." Jarod nodded to Lucy and Tra'dur. "Initiating the interface."
Meridina watched the device above her come alive with light. A sharp pain filled her head to the point that she could not help but cry out.
The pain ended abruptly. When Meridina could see again, she found herself standing on a field of dirt and grass. Beneath her feet was a square white bag of sorts with chalked lines leading out in two directions from it. A glance around led her to recognize just what she was standing on: a baseball field.
She turned her head and saw two figures standing at the mound. Zack, or rather the uploaded copy of himself in the computer, was wearing a white baseball jersey. Beside him was a woman of pink skin with red hair and bright, purple eyes, clad in what Lucy once called a "sun dress". She nodded at Meridina. "Mindwalker."
Meridina permitted herself some relief. "You are intact? We feared the damage might have harmed you."
"We sensed attackers coming," Zack said. "And we had time to move ourselves into the innermost data drives." He frowned. "It was still a close thing. And we've lost a lot of data capacity to the damage. I'm actually surprised you could come in here."
"Jarod and the others have repaired the interface to permit my entry," Meridina explained.
"Who attacked us?" asked the alien woman, whom Meridina recalled was named Gylao. "Why?"
"We are uncertain. They are called Geth, a machine race…"
An anguished look came over Gylao. "Is it them? Was it our destroyers?"
"I cannot say for certain," Meridina stated. "Yet… perhaps there is a link."
Zack nodded. "I doubt they mind my memories, and they were trying to eliminate our memory banks." He turned to Gylao. "It must be you they wanted."
"But why?" Gylao asked. "All I have are fragments of memories."
"Maybe that's what they're after, then. Those few memories you do have."
Meridina nodded. "You remember your destroyers, correct? Zachary - the Zachary who woke up I should clarify - mentioned that you thought of them as Reapers?"
Gylao shuddered and nodded. "I remember them. Great towering machines. And those of my people they turned into their servants. They showed no mercy. We were wheat before their blades."
"You think they wanted to eliminate Gylao's memories of these 'Reapers'?" Zack asked.
"It is the most likely explanation." Meridina frowned. "Why they would seek this, however, I cannot guess. Although the most obvious reason would be to deprive us of any knowledge about these ancient destroyers. That leads us to disturbing implications." She looked to Gylao. "May I see these memories? I know it asks much of you…"
"I would rather you not," Gylao admitted. "Zachary's memories have been my shelter from that horror..." Zack held her hand more tightly.
Meridina nodded. "Of course. I understand."
"But it may be necessary," Gylao continued. She didn't hide her sadness. "Whatever was in them, it may be important. Through Zachary I have learned much of your Multiverse. If something like this could happen to you, I…"
She said no more. Instead Gylao held a hand up. The baseball field disappeared. Meridina witnessed a cityscape of beautiful, turquoise structures, piles of blackened rubble among them. Flames filled the air.
As horrible as it was, and despite the pain she sensed from Gylao at the images, Meridina forced herself to watch the slaughter of a species.
Seconds passed, or perhaps hours. When it was over Meridina felt warm tears flowing from her eyes. She would see those terrible machines forever in her memories, like great giant beasts that came to devour and annihilate. It was so easy to picture them doing the same thing to Jantarihal, to see the giant things stomping about and leveling the gleaming towers of her homeworld's capital… to see them destroying the Great Temple and Swenya's legacy to her people.
It reinforced her appreciation for, and pity for, Gylao. It was no wonder this last remnant of the ancient Adranians had been so broken when they first encountered her. With nothing but these memories, no intelligence could remain sane.
"Thank you for your help," she said. "I appreciate the sacrifice you've made."
Gylao nodded. Beside her, Zack rested a comforting hand on her shoulder. "How long do you think it will take the Dorei to repair the device?" he asked. "It's a little crowded in here now."
"I will inquire," Meridina promised.
"Thanks." He smiled at her. "Is everything alright for the rest of you? How are Rob and the others?"
"They are well, for the most part. Although there have been difficulties for us. The Multiverse is, as ever, a dangerous place."
"Please let them know I said hello. Including, well, me."
"I will do so." Meridina smiled softly at them. "Take care, Zachary, Gylao."
The image of Meridina and Jarod filled the screen on Julia's desk in her ready office. "We're about done here," Jarod confirmed. "Lucero and Tra'dur are almost finished attaching that data drive to the systems. It won't completely restore the prior capacity, but it should give Zack's data duplicate and the Adranian intelligence inside some more room to stretch, so to speak."
"I've already cleared it with the local authorities," Julia said. "As soon as you're back, we'll have a meeting to go over everything."
"Understood. Jarod out." A moment later the image ended.
Julia went back to her paperwork, at least until the door chime sounded. "Come in," she said. She looked up and watched Robert enter. He was wearing a uniform again, but his rank insignia was missing, and the branch color was silver instead of red with a silver aiguillette, as if he were just an intelligence staff officer now. "That's what you're going for?" she asked. "You're pretending to be staff?"
He chuckled and shrugged. "Well, I figured it fit better than wearing command trim. And rank insignia might give the wrong impression."
"True." Julia set her datapad down while Robert looked over the ready office. The furnishings were the same as when he had used it, but she'd added her own touches with a few mementoes. One of her basketball trophies and several photos were on one stand. A model of the long-lost Kelley was on another. "What can I do for you?"
"I was hoping to discuss an idea I've been considering," he said. "It's about…"
Before he could finish a tone came over the ship intercom. "Bridge to Andreys," said the voice of Lieutenant Sabiha Neyzi, Jarod's number two as operations officer.
"Go ahead," Julia answered.
"We're picking up another distress signal on Alliance bands."
Julia frowned. "From where? Is it the Geth?"
"I'm not sure yet. The distress call is from a Systems Alliance colony. It's Eden Prime."
"Damn. Even using mass relays, we're hours away. We'll never get there in time." Julia shook her head. "Make sure Command knows about it and see if they can vector a ship in to help. Keep me posted."
"Andreys out." Julia tapped a key on her desk to close the intercom channel. She noticed the concerned look on Robert's face. "The timing makes me say it's Geth," she said. "Not to mention the location."
"Yeah. And there's another common factor too. I was on Eden Prime several weeks ago," Robert said. "The Systems Alliance found intact Prothean ruins near their colony site. The excavation is still ongoing."
"The Protheans. They were from about fifty thousand years ago," Julia noted. "They disappeared about two hundred millennia after the Adranians were wiped out."
"Right. So in the span of a day, two worlds with ruins from long-dead cultures are both attacked." Robert shook his head. "I don't buy that's a coincidence."
"Nor do I," Julia agreed. "We'll bring it up with the others when they return."
The command officers of the Aurora and Koenig met in the conference lounge adjacent to the bridge, as they often did. As always Barnes attended alongside Commander Scott. Jarod was joined by Lucy and Tra'dur, given their part in the work in the ruin.
And down at the opposite end of the table was Robert, still in the rankless uniform with silver trim.
There was a peculiar feel to his presence in the room now. He was sitting at the exact opposite end of the table from Julia, taking up the last seat currently available, but it could be easy to imagine he was at the head of the table instead. And for most of those present, he had been in charge for nearly two years, the one directing the conversation as Julia was now doing (at least theoretically given the difference in their command styles).
"The Geth were definitely out to destroy the Adranian computer system," Jarod said. He kept his eyes on Julia. "It's the only case where the damage caused can't be consider collateral damage to the attack."
"So they wanted to eliminate whatever the Adranians left behind," Julia mused. "Why?"
"It may have been to eliminate any records of the unknown enemy who annihilated the Adranians," Meridina said.
"But why would they want to do that?"
Robert's question was a reasonable one, certainly, and just as certainly it was one everyone was already asking themselves. But it didn't change the subtle thrum of tension that now seemed to permeate the room.
"A good question." Julia leveled a quieting look at Robert, who nodded sheepishly and settled back into his seat. "Any ideas?"
Cat spoke up. "Maybe the Geth found something in their region of the galaxy? I mean, like an old ruin or something, and it's of these attackers, and the Geth don't want anyone else to know anything about them?"
Julia nodded once to acknowledge Cat's proposal. "The attack on Eden Prime may have a similar motive, then? Maybe they think the Protheans also left evidence of this same group?"
"It's a possibility, but really, we don't know enough to know for sure," Cat said.
"Could they just be out to destroy evidence of past civilizations?" asked Tra'dur. "Do we have any samples of Geth coding that can give us an idea of their thought processes?"
"No." Julia shook her head. A thought made her frown. "The only thing we have relating to the Geth was that sabotage device that was attached to the Aurora during our failed conference with the Batarians."
"Right." Robert matched her frown. "Could the Batarians be behind this then? Using the Geth as proxies, or maybe manipulating them into attacking us so they have plausible deniability? A way to escalate their attacks without risking their own forces?"
"Maybe they even found a way to control the Geth." This suggestion was from Apley.
Will Atreiad crossed his arms. "These Geth, they're like the Cylons, right?"
"According to our data from the Quarians, there are only partial similarities," Jarod said. "We know the Cylons can network themselves together, but the individual Cylon units are still autonomous. The Geth, however, are operating programs that form a neural net when connected. The more Geth you have operating together, the more intelligent the whole becomes."
"An' th' Quarians dinnae mean for th' Geth t' get that sophisticated," added Scott. "But it was t' late t' shut th' blasted things down."
"So they revolted. Just like the Cylons?"
Barnes nodded. "Right. And the frakkers ended up driving the Quarians off of their homeworld Rannoch, and clear out of their own Goddamned space. The Quarians have been living in space since." A dark, angry look appeared on his features. "And the other races have been treating them like crap too."
A thoughtful expression came to Atreiad's face. Whatever thoughts he had, they went unspoken.
It was nearly Robert who spoke next. But as his mouth opened he sensed Julia with the same thought, the same imminent remark, and he stopped himself. "So far it looks like we have nothing but speculation on the motives of the Geth attack, aside from their target. Am I right?"
She was answered with nods.
"I'll report what we have to Maran. Doctor Gillam, Doctor Epstein, what about the wounded?"
"We've taken over the most critical cases," Leo said. "Right now we're at two hundred and twenty-eight dead and eleven hundred and six wounded, with a hundred critical and major cases being tended to in our medbay. The colony's medical establishment is at full capacity."
"Alright. I'll let the Admiral know. Until I get orders to leave, we'll maintain our current relief efforts. Mister Jarod, Mister Scott, I'll leave technical relief up to you."
"Aye, sir. I have teams standin' by t' help with damage."
"And I have security teams ready to assist with law enforcement officials," offered Lieutenant Commander Phryne Richmond, the ship's Chief of Security. "Should they need the assistance with maintaining law and order."
"I will coordinate all aid with the Governor's staff," Meridina offered. "I will inform you of any such needs."
"Good. Then, unless there's anything else, we're done here." When nobody offered any further matters of discussion, Julia stood. "Alright, everyone, you're all dismissed.
The assembled officers stood and filed out. Julia remained standing where she did until they were gone, at which point she walked along the table until she met Robert. "That was kind of awkward, wasn't it?" she asked.
"Yeah." He met her eyes and sighed. "Old habits, I guess. I'm sorry, I'm not looking to undermine you or assume your responsibilities, even if it looks otherwise."
"I know." Julia crossed her arms. "I guess we're all going to have to get used to this.."
Robert nodded in agreement. "It's an adjustment thing."
"But we'll make it work." A smile crossed Julia's face. She set a hand on Robert's shoulder. "You know I've missed you, Rob. You and Zack."
"I missed you too," he confessed easily. "We've been together… although not in that way…" Robert stopped briefly when Julia chuckled at the clarification. "...for so long that it was hard to not have you to talk to."
"I don't know if I could have gotten used to it," Julia admitted. Her smile didn't fade. "But you're back now, and that's the important part. So, what did you want to ask earlier? When we were in my office?"
"Huh? Oh." Robert quickly recalled it. "Well, I've been back long enough to know that there's an issue with Lucy."
"I wouldn't call it an issue." Julia shrugged. She briefly considered the best way to word what she wanted to say. "It's more of a question. Lucy's role on this ship has become complicated. Honestly, it's been getting that way since you were captain."
Robert nodded in agreement. "I agree. She's an operations officer we frequently use for field combat missions thanks to her abilities."
"Commander Richmond recently asked me to consider re-assigning Lucy to security," Julia revealed. "And I think the idea has merit."
"Maybe a little," Robert conceded. "But I don't think that fits her well."
"And she personally doesn't want it. I asked. But at the same time, she's clearly not a standard operations officer either, and I would rather free up her position in Jarod's department for someone who is more dedicated to the needs of operations." Julia shook her head. "But I don't feel comfortable pushing Lucy into a role she doesn't fit either, and I can't help but think that's what it would be for her to be in security."
"It would also be putting one of our original people under the command of someone who wasn't in the Facility back in the day," Robert pointed out.
Julia frowned. "That's not an important distinction. Honestly, Rob, I'm trying to diminish the feel that we've got a clique on this ship."
"I understand, and maybe I should have done more to do the same," he admitted. "But consider the position it would put you and Richmond in. Lucy has personal connections to both you and Meridina, especially Meridina. How long before those connections make Richmond feel like she's being undermined?"
"A good question."
"I have a solution," Robert said. "Assign her to me."
"Oh?" Her tone indicated Julia's interest, but perhaps a bit of uncertainty as well.
"As a Paladin, I'm authorized to recruit a small number of personnel to directly assist my operations," Robert explained. "Obviously I don't get an entire ship, and my staff has to be small…"
"...but I could use Lucy," he continued. "Soon I'm going to get a personal craft for use in my missions, when they take me away from the Aurora. Lucy can pilot it better than I can. Not to mention how much help she'll be on those missions."
For a moment Julia said nothing. Her expression was intent, showing she was considering it. Robert didn't let himself sense her feelings and waited patiently for her to react. "As things stand, Jarod and I have been wondering where Tra'dur would fit on the crew," she admitted. "If Lucy's permanently assigned to you, it solves that problem. And if we need her for something…"
"Lucy will have standing orders from me to help you and the crew," Robert assured her. "Just as I intend to help if you ever need it."
"Right." Julia smiled softly at that. "I'd expect that from you. Anyway… the idea works for me. You have my blessing."
Robert smiled back. "I'll ask Lucy later and see if she likes the idea. I'll let you know what she says."
"I'm sure she'll say yes," Julia said. "Either way… it was good working this out with you." Her aquamarine eyes twinkled with delight. "I missed this."
"So did I."
"And now I have a question for you," she asked.
Her smile curled on along the left side of her lip. "Are you ever going to get a haircut? Or at least a shave?"
Robert couldn't help himself. He laughed, and Julia laughed too.
It felt good to be home.
Robert's quarters on the Aurora were smaller than the ones he'd enjoyed as Captain, not that he minded as he had plenty of room for personal effects he'd picked up from storage on New Liberty. The quarters were, in fact, second tier VIP quartering on Deck 6, about the same size as those of the command staff and meant for the senior staff of visiting admirals or state officials. If he had any complaint, it was that visiting Julia or anyone else now necessitated a ride in the lift.
For the moment that wasn't his concern. He was seated on the floor beside his bed for pre-sleep meditation. His breathing was controlled and quiet while he focused on the warm energy he felt within himself, the energy around him. The Flow of Life resonated on the ship. He could feel the bright warmth of Meridina's life energies, the intensity of Lucy's, and the quieter energies of the others. Some bright points indicated a few among the two thousand crew who had their own deeper connection to the Flow of Life that could one day be widened. The planet below had even more life on it. Over fifty thousand souls, all but a few Dorei, psionically sensitive and feeling different than Humans of equal number would.
But it wasn't as warm a feeling, and for good reason. He sensed fear, grief, shock, anger, rage. They had been attacked. Their neighbors harmed, even killed. Their sense of security smashed.
And there was something else. An even older sense from the planet. The same emotions, but intensified by despair and hopelessness. And a cold feeling. So cold that Robert actually gulped in realization; this was the feeling of an extinction. The extermination of the Adranians left an imprint in the Flow of Life. Death on a massive scale.
Without thinking about it, Robert felt his connection spread out further through the Flow of Life, a reach impossible to him before his exposure to the Time Vortex in the Doctor's TARDIS. On Gersal and while on the Keyeri he had tested his reach similarly, usually with little difficulty.
But not this time. This time he felt a… wrongness in the Flow of Life. An imprinted coldness that ran within it, detectable only by reaching as far and wide as he could, otherwise that cold would be overwhelmed by the warmth of life.
Robert's heart skipped a beat. This… this was the same remnant cold as he felt on Adrana. A lingering remnant of death, of the destruction of life, that seemed to be permanently woven into the Flow of Life in the M4P2 universe.
What could cause this? That was Robert's thought.
And then they came. The visions. Not in his dreams, as sometimes happened, but in his meditative state. He could see the burning cities. Piles of corpses. Giant, metallic things leveling a city. Crimson beams carving through majestic skylines, through vehicles, through living beings, destroying all. Alien forms covered in ghastly blue circuitry rushing through a crowd, biting and ripping and maiming, beings screaming as metal spikes impaled them…
And that sound. That horrible sound, like the Devil himself blowing a trumpet through an electronic synthesizer. It vibrated within his very soul.
He was standing in the Citadel Tower again, in the chambers of the Citadel Council. Flames and wreckage surrounded him. Robotic figures stood before him, weapons raised…
Not just robotic figures anymore. He knew them now. He'd seen them in the records from the attack on Adrana. "Geth," Robert murmured aloud.
And then there was the figure, standing at the end of the audience platform facing the Council. The cyborg Turian, with those glowing, ghastly blue eyes, the circuitry embedded into his skin. "This is our only hope to survive," he insisted. "We must prove we can serve. Or we will suffer the same fate as all the other species this galaxy has ever known."
"We can fight them!"
Robert thought the sentiment came from him. But he glanced to his side. He was joined by others. But only one he could see. She was in unpowered combat armor, Systems Alliance issue. An N7 was above the right breast of the suit. Her green eyes blazed with defiant will underneath the visor of her combat helmet.
And immediately Robert knew who she was.
His eyes opened. And the name escaped his lips.
The end of her work day saw Julia enjoy a warm, comforting shower. Muscles still tense from an end-of-the-day workout relaxed under the spray of the warm water. She sighed with deep content at the feeling, as if the water wasn't just washing away sweat and a day's worth of dead skin, but the worries that the day's events had brought her. From a victory celebration to a mysterious attack by even more mysterious robots, she thought darkly. Why do I feel like God is amusing Himself at my expense now that I'm the Captain?
A familiar tone sounded, even here in her bathroom. "Bridge to Captain Andreys," stated Lieutenant Takawira, the Gamma shift watch officer on the bridge. His accent still bore the thick tones of the Zimbabwean colony of Nkomo.
I think God just answered me, Julia thought, sighing deeply. She called out "What?" with some ferocity, and lied to herself that it was just to ensure she was heard over the shower.
"Admiral Maran is waiting for you over IU comms, Captain. He says it's urgent."
"I'll be right there. Relay the call to my quarters." Hoping she had rinsed off sufficiently, she left the shower. She wiped off the excess water with a couple of swipes from her towel and immediately pulled on a terry-cloth bathrobe, white in color, that she tied closed. She took a towel for her hair and began wrapping her wet blond locks inside of the white towel while walking to her desk. She sat, double-checked her robe, and satisfied that she met the bare minimum of modesty for speaking to her superior, she tapped a key on the desk control to accept the call.
Admiral Maran appeared on the screen. He was still on the Gersallian flagship, the Kentan, instead of his office in Defense Command, given the lack of a window behind him, much less the skyline of 27th Century Portland that Julia was familiar with. His dark hair had gray at the temples and along the fringes of his trimmed beard. "Captain, good work with your relief of the Adrana Colony," he said. "Governor Tamas has been forthcoming with praise at the aid you've provided."
"Thank you, Admiral."
"I've read the reports from you and your officers on the Geth attack. I admit that it's deeply concerning, especially given the Geth link to the Batarian plot to sabotage and seize the Aurora last year. If the Geth are allied with or controlled by the Batarians, it could trigger a wide-scale interstellar war in M4P2 we cannot afford."
"That's what we're wondering too."
Maran nodded. His expression darkened. "There are other, worse possibilities, however."
That comment surprised Julia. "Oh?" she asked.
"You've heard of the attack on Eden Prime?"
"The Geth caused a lot of damage, including the loss of a Prothean beacon discovered there, at least according to a friendly source on Arcturus Station. If this same source is correct, and if the evidence that the Systems Alliance intends to present is true… we may be dealing with something even worse than a Batarian-Geth alliance."
Only one possibility seemed worse. "The Nazis," Julia hissed. "Is it them? Did they…"
"No. We still have no indication that the Reich is fielding interuniversal jump drives at this time. What we do know is that Captain Anderson of the Normandy is being ordered to the Citadel to present evidence of Spectre involvement in the attack."
Julia's jaw dropped in surprise. "A Spectre did this?"
"That is what Anderson claims." Maran shook his head. "I find it hard to believe the Citadel would sanction a strike against us or against the Systems Alliance, not like this. And definitely not using the Geth. But if they have a rogue on their hands, given the resources a rogue might have access to, and the damage he or she could do even if the Council cuts them off… we need to know one way or the other, Captain. That's why I'm giving you new orders. I want you to depart Adrana immediately and head to the Citadel. Report to Ambassador Atama and be ready to observe what Anderson's evidence is, as well as providing whatever evidence is requested on the Geth attack on Adrana. If we have a rogue Spectre on our hands… we need to be ready."
"Right away, Admiral. We'll depart immediately."
"Just what I wanted to hear. Maran out." His image disappeared.
Julia hit a second key on her table. "Andreys to Bridge. Recall all personnel from Adrana immediately and set a course for System G1SV. Prepare the ship for mass relay travel. We're headed to the Citadel."