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Episode 3-15 - "A Certain Point of View"

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Personal Log: Robert Dale; 22 September 2643 AST. The Aurora has returned from the Tanatis Frontier Sector in Universe A7R6, having completed a four week survey of several star systems. While I did not personally have any official duties involving this exploration mission, I am happy to have aided in our first contact efforts with the Dynielil and the Trenap while devoting the rest of the time to training myself.

All in all, given the year we've had, it was a welcome change to engage in a peaceful mission instead of dealing with another violent situation.

I am also happy to report that upon our arrival at Fleet Base Skret Tel, the Alakin had my personal operations vessel waiting for me, freshly delivered from the factory. I look forward to seeing the Paladin Special Operations Vessel in person.

 

 

The Aurora had two shuttle bays for its small flotilla of shuttlecraft and runabouts. The main shuttle bay was located at the rear of the ship's primary hull, about halfway down the ship's length from the bow. Just below was the dock for the support ship - in this case the ASV Koenig - and below there, on the top deck of the drive hull, were the flight and launch decks for the ship's wing of Mongoose starfighters.

The secondary shuttle bay sat by itself, on Deck 34 near the bottom of the ship toward the stern. The craft here were less numerous but included the specialized shuttles and runabout for the ship's Marine contingent.

And, now, one other vessel.

The ship was a re-purposed Dorei design of the Henjan-Kimati Shipbuilding company. Robert recognized it as resembling the armed courier Keyeri co-owned by the Minbari ex-Ranger Lennier and Druni Jestani, a Dorei formerly from one of their metaphysical orders. He'd traveled on their vessel for several weeks earlier in the year, after he departed Gersal. Now he had one of his own.

For one thing, the ship had to be in the secondary shuttle bay. There wasn't enough space for it in any of the other locations, and the air boss NCOs had with much grumbling re-assigned two of the shuttles to ensure this bay had the room for his new ship. It was larger than a runabout with a length of forty meters and a maximum wingspan of eighteen, shaped like a bird with its wings swept back in dark gray coloring. Darglan-tech pulse plasma cannons were built into the forward wings and warp nacelles were at the tips of said downswept wings; ball turrets with pulse guns were built into the top and bottom of the ship as well, four in total, in pairs arranged side by side. Its armament would let it pose at least some threat to larger ships like corvettes.

Beside him, Lucy Lucero was looking over the ship. Like Robert she was in a field uniform of the Alliance Stellar Navy, black with the intelligence branch color of silver for the trim, and a single aiguillette to mark her a staff officer. In this her uniform mirrored Robert's.

But neither was a staff officer. In truth Robert was one of twelve Paladins of the Alliance, a special operative given missions directly from President Morgan and his immediate subordinate Admiral Maran, the chairman of the Defense Command Staff. Lucy was the first member of his operations team. "They even fit a cloaking device on her," Lucy remarked. "A new topline model too. And a sensor suite better than any of our runabouts have. I'd almost call it starship grade."

"And the engine is badass." That remark came from the third figure with them. Lieutenant Thomas Barnes wore the beige branch color of engineering/operations and served as the ship's Assistant Chief Engineer under the Starfleet veteran Montgomery Scott, his mentor. "Warp 6. She can't sprint like a full-sized starship, but she'll get you places nice and fast. And the impulsors are the best I've seen in this weight class. You won't out-maneuver a starfighter, but just about everything else."

"I'm not surprised you couldn't resist giving my ship the once-over, Tom," Robert replied. He felt a bit of happiness to see Tom holding his right hand up to touch the surface of the nacelle. If anything it meant the replacement for his lost right arm was working, bringing his friend back to normal after losing his arm in the battle over Welthauptstadt Germania.

"Maybe I need to become a Paladin, man," Tom said. "This is a sexy, sexy beast of a ship."

"She's meant to be a quiet beast," noted Robert. "To get me into places people would rather I not be."

"Yeah, yeah…"

They approached the front of the ship and the cockpit area on what would be the "head" of the bird. "They spared no expense," Lucy said. "This thing has the best equipment the Alliance has developed in virtually every regard. Hell, I'm surprised they didn't try to jam an interuniversal drive in her."

"Given the places she might go, that would have been unwise," said Robert. "Anyway, now that…"

His voice trailed off as they rounded the cockpit and approached the starboard side of the ship. Robert's eyes followed the contours of the dark hull… until they were broken up by light paint. On the side of his new infiltrator, someone had painted, in bright and bold blue Gothic lettering with white outlines, the words "Noble Steed". A small decal of a white-armored knight on a similarly-armored charger was placed beside the name.

The others saw it a moment later. Lucy broke out giggling, but Robert felt the surprise that told him she knew nothing of it. As it turned out, he didn't need his life force - the "swevyra" he possessed, as the Gersallians called it - to know the culprit. The way Tom's burst of chortling quickly escalated to almost maniacal laughter was more than enough of a giveaway.

There was something infectious about the laughter, too, such that even Robert had to start chuckling at the prank. "Very funny, Tom, very cute," he said, grinning. He faced his friend, who was still laughing hard. "You got me."

"Ye-eah, yeah I did… Sir Robert!" Tom managed that before continuing to laugh.

"This is for all of the damage my training did to Holodeck 3, isn't it?" Robert felt a brief suspicion and looked up and around. "Okay, I'm sure someone's watching and enjoying this tease at the expense of my sense of right and wrong."

The shuttlebay intercom chirped to life. "Nope," said Commander Zachary Carrey, another friend and commander of the Koenig. "Not at all."

"Not us!" added an enthusiastic feminine, almost soprano voice. Robert could tell Caterina Delgado, a Lieutenant Commander and the ship's science officer, was fighting a fit of giggling in order to say those words.

"We're just figments of your imagination, noble Paladin," added her sister Angela, the ship's tactical officer, ranked a Lieutenant.

"But you have to admit it is fitting," added Doctor Leonard Gillam, the Aurora's Chief Medical Officer.

Robert leveled a look at Tom. "Just who else is in on this?"

He stopped laughing long enough to answer, "Nick, Jarod, Nasri, your cousin…"

Robert blinked. "What does Beth have to do with this?"

"Zack told her about it, we promised to get her video," Tom laughed.

"But you didn't tell me?" Lucy asked, sounding almost offended.

"You've got that same life force woo woo stuff," Tom pointed out. "He might have picked it up."

"Ha, he could try," Lucy declared, grinning wryly at Robert.

Robert sighed, but he was still smiling. "Alright everyone, yeah, the joke's on me," he said. "But I will need to give this ship a proper…"

His omnitool activated with the tone of an incoming comm. He hit the glowing blue button that lit up over the back of his left hand to answer. "Dale here."

"We have an incoming message from Admiral Maran," answered Julia, undoubtedly up in her ready office off of the main bridge. "I'm afraid you'll need to stop admiring your noble steed, Admiral Maran is on comms for us."

While her voice was all business, Robert thought there was a hint of amusement in Julia's tone. "You knew?" he asked.

"I'm the Captain," Julia replied. "Of course I knew. Now get your butt going, Sir Robert. Thy noble lord is awaiting thee to give thee a quest, O Paladin."

Tom and Lucy started laughing again. Robert let out a chuckle and departed.

 

 

 

After his trip across the Aurora, Robert stepped into the conference lounge from the bridge and approached the table. Julia was in Meridina's usual seat, to the right hand side of her usual seat at the head of the table. Robert took Jarod's on the left hand side and both faced the viewscreen built into the wall. On the screen Admiral Maran appeared. While always reserved and stoical, Robert was certain that the Gersallian man was happier than he'd been in years, relieved of the burden from fighting the Reich. To someone without a scanner Maran looked completely Human, like the rest of his people. His dark hair, including the beard and mustache, were fringed with gray, reflecting his age.

"Captain, I have reviewed some of your reports from the Tanatis Frontier. You've done well. High Minister Brepk and Regent Nalena have been quite fulsome in their thanks for your part in the expedition. We have high hopes for our future relations with the Trenap and the Dynielil. Both show promise as prospective Alliance partners, perhaps even members."

"Commander Delgado is really eager to visit Agynnielil," Julia said. Robert thought she looked brighter as well. She'd enjoyed their peaceful exploration cruise as much as anyone. "The Dynielil we met during the first contact have indicated their species isn't native to the planet and are likely transplants. Given the timing alluded to in their written histories, it may indicate the Darglan transplanted them to Agynnielil."

"Perhaps we should introduce them to the Miqo'te," Maran noted. "Captain Dale, I trust you've been keeping busy?"

"Yes sir," Robert answered. "While assisting the Aurora crew with their scientific and diplomatic endeavors isn't the kind of duty most people expect from Paladins, I actually enjoyed the chance for a peaceful exploration cruise and was pleased to assist in the first contacts." He thought about those first contacts. The Trenap had been the trickier one; they were a species of what were essentially molluscoids with an entirely different oral structure, and as such tremendous effort had been required to even begin to translate their language into something understandable. In contrast the Dynielil were humanoids, of varying blue or reddish coloration (although one national group had a lighter, Human-like complexion), and on average taller and bulkier than Humans and other similar species.

"I'm glad to hear it. But I'm afraid that cruise is now over." Maran's expression, while always stoic, shifted to show the weight of the situation. "Are you aware of the attack on Mars in E5B1 ten days ago?"

"I noticed a report on something to the effect," Robert said. He sensed Julia tense a little. Clearly Maran was intending something less peaceful than another exploration cruise. "Terrorism was suspected."

"And confirmed. Unfortunately, the culprits may be laid on our doorstep, given the evidence."

"What do you mean, Admiral?" asked Julia.

"Investigations have confirmed that the primary target was a Psi Corps facility on Mars," Maran said. "And the attack the responsibility of the Telepath Underground."

Robert and Julia exchanged concerned looks. "Lyta Alexander," Robert sighed.

"Yes. And you can imagine how EarthGov is spinning this."

"The Free Colony," Julia said. "They're using its existence to accuse us of being involved, or allowing it to happen?"

"That is a common view in Earthspace, yes. And it has led to violent incidents against Alliance citizens. The Foreign Office is already advising against travel to the Earth Alliance until the situation is resolved. And that's where you come in. Because of the tense situation, President Luchenko has agreed…"

Robert listened as Maran laid out the Aurora's mission. The idea of negotiating the problem was good, but he wondered how it would turn out for them.

"Understood, Admiral," Julia said, nodding. "Let me know where the rendezvous is and I'll get the ship underway."

"They'll be traveling aboard the Shenzhou. You'll be meeting them at the Darglan Homeworld."

That part didn't make sense to Robert, given the astrographical layout of the galaxy and the political boundaries. She'teyal, the Darglan Homeworld, was Rimward of Earth, but B5 was in the Epsilon Eridani system, which was more Coreward. "Isn't that in the opposite direction from B5? Or is the Secretary not on Earth?"

Maran nodded. "He departed this morning, actually, but the stop at She'teyal is important. The Aurora and the Shenzhou will rendezvous with the Huáscar there. Captain Zhen'var and members of her staff will be personally briefing you and Secretary Onaran's team on what happened at Mars."

To that Julia asked, "I thought the Huáscar was still on her working up cruise?"

"They were, but circumstances intervened. They were there for the post-attack cleanup and investigation and they have critical information on the attack that may be relevant to the talks." Maran leaned in slightly. "After you've picked up Secretary Onaran and his team, head to B5 to begin the negotiations." He put his hands together on the desk before him. Robert listened as he explained the Alliance government's hope to persuade Earth to relax its laws regarding telepaths, including the laws that established the Psi Corps as responsible for all telepaths, with membership mandated in its ranks.

"If there's no Psi Corps to chase rogues, then the Underground won't feel a need to lash out?" Robert suggested.

Maran nodded once. "That is one way of putting it. And that brings me to the other issue at hand…" The way his eyes moved indicated he was looking to Julia. "Captain, I must now discuss Paladin business with Captain Dale. Given you will soon be in personal contact with representatives of EarthGov, including a member of Psi Corps, I'm afraid I must insist on secrecy."

Robert glanced apologetically to Julia, but she nodded once and stood. "I understand, Admiral. I'll order a jump to E5B1 immediately. Permission to be dismissed?"

"Granted."

Julia nodded in understanding to Robert and left the lounge. After she was gone Robert called out, "Computer, initiate secure lockdown of conference lounge in accordance with Paladin security protocols, authorization code Dale Gamma-Tau-Epsilon-40."

A moment later the systems beeped in acknowledgement. "Lockdown and containment protocols confirmed. Security measures in place." By this the computer confirmed that the lift entrance and the door entrance to the lounge were locked down to prevent entry. An electronic field and a matching sonic isolation field to prevent any listening devices or other spy equipment from functioning was also enabled. Robert doubted the measures necessary, but it was part and parcel of his new job. Leaks could get him killed. "We're secure, Admiral," Robert confirmed.

"I'm initiating signal encryption now." After a momentary flicker, representing the Aurora's computers adjusting to the encryption, the image stabilized. "Confirm?"

Robert used the conference table controls for a moment. "Encryption in place." He looked to Maran again. "I'm listening, Admiral."

"We need you to take your new infiltrator and launch a covert investigation of a possibly-hostile facility," Maran said. With no further prompting he launched into an explanation. "Long range scans at the edge of Alliance space in E5B1 recently detected what might have been a hyperspace jump point near an uninhabited garden world in neutral space, in the Tau Atrea System. Apparently it was once an Earth Alliance colony site, but it was abandoned during the Minbari War and never re-settled afterward. Our own settlement plans have been on hold to avoid provoking trouble with Earth."

"And now someone's re-settled it?" Robert asked.

Maran replied with a slight nod. "When we confirmed the reading we sent observation probes. After days of careful scanning we didn't detect any electronic signals, nor any signs of life forms. When our probes were about to enter the inner system, their proximity alarms went off and kept them in the outer system. Observe."

With a press of a key Maran dispatched a video file to the Aurora conference lounge. Robert directed it to the holo-projector built into the conference table and activated it. The video showed a far shot of a pleasant-looking garden planet.

The empty orbital space was suddenly not so empty, as a blink of blue light expanded into a blue vortex. A large vessel emerged, an E5B1 Human-designed spaceliner from the looks of it. "Asimov-type passenger liner," Robert noted aloud. "But are those weapons arrays?"

Maran didn't answered. The video zoomed in, to get a better look at the vessel's detail. Robert could make out definite signs of modification, turning a civilian ship into what was at least an armed transport. But he soon realized the most important detail was on the spinning drum that provided gravity.

On said drum was a shield insignia, black in color, over which was laid a silver symbol. He easily recognized the Greek letter.

Psi.

"Psi Corps," he said. "On a world on the edge of Alliance space. What are they doing there?"

"That, Captain, is precisely what we want you to find out," said Maran.

 

 

Undiscovered Frontier
"A Certain Point of View"

 

The inside of the infiltrator had that kind of factory-fresh "newness" that many species could recognize. There were no indications of prior habitation, no smells or marks or anything to indicate past use. The inside of the ship had a pleasant blue color to it, contrasting with the dark gray exterior. Robert recognized that the internal design borrowed heavily from the armed couriers like the Keyeri. The cockpit was in the front in the "head" of the main body, with the pilot seat at the very front of the cockpit while the operations and weapons stations were behind and to the sides of the piloting station. Behind the cockpit was the ship's main access corridor. To either side of it were the personal living quarters, four rooms in total, each one fairly small but just roomy enough to include a small bathroom with a commode and shower.

Beyond the main quarters was the port-side access airlock to the ship. Further astern was the starboard access to the small kitchen and dining area with a table, chairs, a replicator, a two burner stove, and a pantry. To port of the kitchen was the entry to the cargo area and the ship's transporter, all at the lower half-deck level below the ship's main deck.

At the far end of the main access corridor was the ship's engineering space, where the bank of twin naqia reactors powered the ship. Access hatches led to the half-deck below that could be used to access the nacelle plasma feed lines, the plasma reservoir, the heat exchanger, and other vital systems.

The cargo area had a cargo bay ramp exit, and it was through this that Robert entered with Lucy. The cargo area was, at least on a Paladin's ship, the armory and outfitting station. A small industrial replicator allowed for part fabrication, and the wall mounts, bins, and racks had several firearms spread among them along with other equipment ranging from climbing gear to extreme environment suits to personal cloaking devices. "It's like they weren't sure what to do with all of the space, so they just gave you a bit of everything," she noted while closing the ramp door. It made a thunking noise as it shut and sealed. "This must be a hint to assemble your own squad of badasses."

"There's no telling what kind of missions I may need to do," Robert pointed out. "It's no wonder they gave me this much hardware."

"Speaking of missions, just what does Maran have you doing now?" asked Lucy.

"Psi Corps may be establishing a base on the frontier of Alliance space," Robert explained. "I need to investigate."

Lucy gave him a concerned look. "Are your mental defenses ready?"

"I've spent months refining them," Robert said. "It'll have to be enough."

"I'd think a telepath Paladin would've been chosen," Lucy said.

"There are only two, and they're both on long-term operations right now." Robert shook his head. "This is on me. Anyway…"

The two went up the steps to the main access corridor and ventured into the engineering space. "I half-expected Tom to mark his territory," Robert joked.

"Now now, he knows better than to mess with your Noble Steed," Lucy teased.

"You do know I'm not calling it that, right?"

"Yeah, I figured." She gave Robert a look that warned of further teasing to come. "If you're looking for a name, you could always go for Rocinante."

Robert blinked. "And that means?"

"Oh, nothing," Lucy said, although her grin said otherwise. She walked over to where the twin naqia reactors were located. Both were on standby, ready to energize and provide the ship with the bulk of its power. "Well, let me get the system checks started. I'll get your baby, whatever you want to call it, ready for her maiden voyage."

"There's something else I want to ask," said Robert. "What do you feel about Talara coming along?"

For a moment Lucy thought on it, hard. "Bringing her with us to Germania… she saved lives, and I'm proud of her, but she wasn't ready for sensing that kind of darkness. And all of the violence. Noveria and the Citadel were bad enough…"

"I understand," said Robert. "So you want to leave her behind?"

"No, I'm more concerned with having to do that sometimes," Lucy said. "Right now I'm focusing her training on her connection to the Flow of Life, not combat. I'd rather be around to make sure she continues to heal."

"Well, this time at least, go ahead and bring her," Robert said. "I'll clear it with Julia."

"Thank you," said Lucy. "I still have a lot to show her."

"I know," he answered. "And it'll be something for you to do while waiting with the ship."

"You're not taking me with you?"

He shook his head. "This is just a brief stealth recon run. The fewer we are, the least likely we are to get detected. And if things go south I'll want you on the transporter controls to bring me back."

Lucy nodded. "I've got you. Now…" She leaned over one console. "Let's bring this baby to life."

 

 

 

After completing a full inventory of his infiltrator's gear and getting some of his things transferred to one of the small rooms on the ship, Robert made his way up to the bridge deck. The Aurora was under way for B5 now, having completed her rendezvous. Word was that they'd brought aboard one of the Huáscar's officers for the assignment. But given his own mission, he knew not to pry.

He stepped onto the bridge and gave it a glance. He was used to not being the captain of the Aurora, so there was no instinctive reaction to head to the center chair or ask for reports. He noted Cat happily scanning away at things from her station while Angel was undoubtedly running tactical simulations of some kind. Jarod and Locarno were at their stations as well, their jobs quite important while the ship was at warp.

"So, how's your noble steed?" Locarno asked aloud.

"I'm not calling it that," Robert said immediately.

"Well, there's always Rocinante," Jarod remarked.

"Just what does that mean anyway?" Robert asked. "Lucy used it too."

At that Cat giggled and Angel joined in with an amused snort. When he shot them playful glares, it was Angel who looked up at him with a wide grin to reply, "It's the name of Don Quixote's horse."

"Oh. So you're saying I'm like Don Quixote."

"Yes and no," Jarod remarked. "After all, windmills don't really fight back. Your targets do."

"But there is something to the comparison," said Locarno.

In the command chair Meridina was listening in without commenting. Now, however, she finally asked, "Who is this 'Don Quixote', and why should Robert name his infiltrator for Quixote's horse?"

"I'll explain it later," Jarod promised. He glanced toward Robert as he approached the front of the bridge. "The Captain is in her ready office if you need to speak with her."

"Thank you," Robert said. He headed to the door and touched the chime key beside it, ignoring Cat's continued giggling from her station as he was admitted.

He found Julia at her office desk. As always, she was doing the paperwork, and with greater relish than Robert had ever felt for the same work. "Ready to go?" Julia asked.

"I am," he said. A little frown formed on his face. "I know you're upset that I can't tell you where, though."

"I understand it's part of the job," Julia replied. Robert could see she was upset at failing to hide her irritation with the situation, she knew it would just make him feel worse. "I just… well, Rob, I'm worried. For this to be top secret…"

"...it could be dangerous, yeah," Robert conceded. "And it probably won't be the last." This is what I signed up for, after all.

"It's not even the first," Julia pointed out. "But I know what you mean. Honestly I suppose I should be used to it. You spent nearly two months on the Normandy…"

"But at least you could talk to me when I was there," Robert said in reply. "And I was with Shepard and a team. Now it's just me and Lucy and, if you don't disapprove, Talara." He let the request stand on its own.

"I'll let Locarno know to circulate someone else into the helm watches. Do you want more support?" asked Julia. "Your ship has room for more."

Robert shook his head. "It won't be necessary with this mission. Really, it's just a quick reconnaissance," Robert assured her. "I may even link up with you at B5 if I get done quickly." He said that knowing he would probably not be that lucky, but hopeful nevertheless.

"Hopefully so," she said. Julia got up from her chair and rounded her desk so that she could pull him close for a hug. Robert felt her concern and happily accepted the embrace. "Just be careful out there, okay?"

"Yes, mom." That won him a sarcastic glare. He smiled and replied, "Turnabout's fair play, you know."

"I suppose it is," she said. "Now get thee to thy noble steed, Paladin."

"Right away, my noble lady." Grinning, Robert took her hand and pulled it to his mouth, looking to kiss the knuckles in knightly fashion.

His lips had barely brushed her skin before she yanked the hand from his grasp. "No kissing of the hand unless you shave," Julia insisted.

"Well, I suppose I do have an incentive to shave after all," Robert jokingly said before turning away and leaving the ready office. He enjoyed the warm feeling their teasing was causing within him and her as well. What they shared… he sometimes wondered if "love" was sufficient to describe it. All he knew for certain was that he would fight through Hell itself to come back rather than leave her behind.

Just a reconnaissance, he reassured himself.

 

 

 

Robert stepped into the cockpit of his unnamed Infiltrator - the "Noble Steed" lettering and icon had been removed, at least - and found Lucy and Talara waiting for him. Lucy was at the operations station and Talara at weapons. "I figured you'd like to do the honors," Lucy said to him, grinning. "Even if we both know I'll be flying this thing if things get dicey."

"I happen to be a perfectly good pilot, thank you," Robert said while easing into the piloting seat. Unlike the Keyeri, the helm controls were Stellar Navy standard. He brought his fingers up to begin the pre-launch systems checks. One by one the ship's onboard computer verified all flight systems. "Pre-launch checks are fine. Now, what's this button do…"

"Robert…"

Mentally he transmitted to Lucy an image of his tongue sticking out at her, which was her usual gesture when someone commented on her own mischief whenever it came up. Talara picked it up and giggled slightly. She'd been around Humans long enough to pick up the connotations of "giving the raspberry". Aloud Robert said, "Preparing to trigger thrusters."

"Paladin vessel, this is the Bridge," said Meridina. "Your launch readiness is confirmed. We are decelerating from warp for launch. Standby."

A few moments later the Aurora dropped from warp. As soon as he confirmed this, Robert triggered the thrusters. The Infiltrator lifted from the shuttle bay deck and, with a key press, moved to the open bay door. The atmospheric forcefield yielded before it, allowing the ship to depart in a cloud of blue light. Once it was in the void the shuttle bay door began to close. Robert flew their vessel away from the Aurora, triggering his ship's impulsors and gradually swinging them around. He did just in time to bring up the view of the Aurora's stern. A moment later her four warp nacelles surged with light and she zipped away in a flash, returning to warp velocity. "Alright," he said. "Engage cloaking device."

"Engaging," Lucy said. She checked her screens. "Cloak is engaged and all systems still functioning as intended."

"Alright then," he said, tapping his fingers across the astrogation system. "Setting course for Tau Atrea."

Moments later, they too made the jump to warp speed.

 

 

 

The warp speed chart was logarithmic, not linear, which meant that as numbers got higher, the speed difference grew between a set series. As a result, while Warp 6 was fairly faster than Warp 3, Warp 9 was even faster by comparison to Warp 6.

During the following trip, it occurred to all concerned that they were spoiled by the Aurora's powerful, fast drives. Getting to Tau Atrea would have been far quicker had the Aurora come this way. But it hadn't, and with Warp 6 as their best speed and the cruise speed being closer to Warp 5.8, it took days to make the trip. It was September 24th before they arrived at their destination, giving the three plenty of time for training Robert's mental defenses further and cataloguing all of the gear.

Tau Atrea was a G sequence star, a G4 to be precise, sharing a similar but not identical color and luminosity to Sol. The system had just five planets but two asteroid belts, indicating two potential planets had been lost in the system's primordial formation.

"There may also be a gravitational influence with the outer belt's formation," Talara was explaining as the infiltrator approached Tau Atrea 3, the one garden planet in the system.

"I'm sure Cat will be happy to discuss it when we get back," Robert said. He continued to look over the surface of the planet with the ship's sensors. There were still no life signs, no electronic emissions, but Robert was certain this was from electronic jamming of some sort. He could feel sentient life on the surface. He couldn't make out individual minds, not from here, but he knew there were people down there, at the old colony site.

"We should make as shallow a re-entry angle as possible," Lucy said. "To minimize friction. At our mass I'm not sure even the cloak will hide reentry friction completely. If we do it over the horizon, they'll only pick us up if they've got a wide sensor net, and I'm not seeing signs of that."

Talara nodded. "Do we fly to the settlement then?"

"No," Robert said. "That's too direct. I'll take the camping gear and you can drop me off a safe distance away." He brought up a map of the area and indicated a an area over the horizon from the colony. "I'll hike the rest of the available daylight and get there tomorrow."

"Really roughing it, huh?" Lucy asked.

"Oh, I'll hate it," Robert admitted. "Looking at the local environment it's pretty cool at that latitude and season. But taking us any closer risks putting the ship in line of sight. They might sense us. Especially us, given our talents." He shook his head. "No, I'll go in on foot."

"Your blisters," Lucy said. "And we'll be…?"

"Take the ship further in-system and monitor for incoming ships or communications activity," Robert replied. "I'll signal if I need pick up. And if you see something wrong…"

"Come pick you up," Lucy finished for him.

"Exactly."

"Huh." She gave him a wicked smile. "I dunno. With a sweet ride like this, I could just go off and become a pirate queen."

When that got her a bemused look from Robert, she stuck her tongue out.

 

 

 

The day of hiking and a night in a heated sleeping bag reminded Robert that when all was said and done, he very much preferred living with at least the option of some climate control… and preferably on windswept prairies, not alpine forest.

The planet's colors were mostly like Earth's, save a bit of a bluish tint to some of the leaves and the undergrowth and grass around him. At night the temperature had hovered at about four or five degrees Celsius, and as daylight broke on the morning after his arrival Robert enjoyed the warmth of the system's star where it managed to poke through the canopy of the forest. He packed up his camp, pulled his pack up on his back, and re-donned his traveling robe before he continued onward. He still sensed life, sentient thinking life, but did not reach for it should it give him away. It was still a distance away.

And then… it wasn't.

Robert kept walking. Under the folds of his robe he quietly removed his lightsaber from his belt. He didn't activate it yet, waiting to see what would happen.

When the attack came, it was not physical but mental. He felt a presence stab at his mind. Without the warning he'd sensed he would have likely gone down right there, put asleep by a strong command to his brain. Instead the presence struck at his mental blocks, reinforced by his life energy, the psionic blow skittering off of them.

Robert sensed the presence of his attacker through that blow and sent a wave of invisible force in that direction. There was a thump of impact against a tree nearby. Leaves scattered on the ground.

"I can sense you," Robert said. "There's no point in hiding…" He narrowed his eyes as frustration and a little reflexive anger washed over him. His finger found his weapon's activation key. The snap-hiss filled the air and his blade flashed to life with green light.

He brought it up in time for unseen weapons to slam into it. He responded by generating another wave of force that threw his attacker back. This time there was no thud against a tree, only against the ground.

While the first presence was still there, recovering, he felt another one move up between them. It vibrated with anger, an anger far more prevalent than in his attacker. It also felt familiar, if not immediately so.

A voice came from the apparent empty space ahead of him, and it kindled memory as well. "Damn metaphysical bullcrap." A human form appeared in front of him, wearing a dark-colored combat suit and protective helmet. Angry brown eyes stared through the faceplate at Robert.

Robert let out a breath. "Hawk," he said.