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Episode 3-16 - "Home Invasion"

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Ship's Log: 14 October 2643 AST; ASV Aurora. Captain Julia Andreys recording. The Aurora is completing its final day in orbit over the planet Coromadir, the capital world of the Aurigan Coalition. We are finalizing trade negotiations with the Aurigan government that will provide for economic improvement in this region of the Periphery of Universe F1S1. In the long term it is hoped that an Alliance presence in this potentially-volatile region will maintain regional stability and contribute to the peace of F1S1.

Everyone aboard is eagerly awaiting the completion of these talks. We are due to return to New Liberty to observe the Endangered Nations' Summit and the crew is eager to see how the Colony has fared. It seems to grow faster every time we visit. I wonder what it will be like the day the entire planet is settled.

As Captain of the Aurora Julia took the job of giving the Aurigan ruler a tour of her ship. Kamea Arano, High Lady of the Aurigan Coalition, was following Julia through Deck 20, along with her entourage. She was wearing a rich white gown fringed with red. A fine gold circlet sat her brow, the equivalent of a crown. A fringe of gray was showing through her locks of black hair and there were some lines on her face, especially around her brown eyes, to mark her as middle-aged. Given the data on the politics of the region Julia wondered if the gray also came from the delicate statecraft High Lady Kamea had been forced to practice over the last three decades. Her small nation was in a strategic position in the Near Periphery, on the Rimward border of the Capellan Confederation and Anti-Spinward frontier of the Taurian Concordat. The Federated Suns half of the Commonwealth was a few jumps away using Kearny-Fuchida space-fold drives. That combination was volatile enough, but the Rimward Frontier area of the Near Periphery was also of interest to the Free Worlds League and the Magistracy of Canopus. The Aurigans were thus at a balance point among mutually-conflicting powers, and such positions were inherently stressful for even interstellar nations, especially when they were comparatively less-advanced and developed than neighbors. This made the Foreign Office's interest in improving Alliance relations with them obvious.

That information aside, Julia found herself enjoying the company of High Lady Kamea, who showed genuine wonder and interest in the Aurora. There was a quiet strength to her, an idealism tempered by political reality, but not broken. "I remember well the media broadcast of your vessel's first journey through our universe, Captain," Kamea noted. "I'm quite pleased to get a chance to see it firsthand."

"I'm glad to give you that opportunity, Your Highness," Julia replied.

"The stories I've heard about your ship, about you…" Kamea's eyes turned distant. "I am familiar with what it means to become a legend."

"I did read up on your people before we arrived," Julia said. "I admire what you did when you were young, Highness. You saved your people from a brutal dictator, at repeated extreme risk to your own life."

"Yes. Though that had not been my intention at first, I am sorry to say. I launched the War of Restoration to restore my birthright. I had to have my eyes opened by my uncle's brutality before I realized what I should be fighting for." Painful old memories showed on Kamea's face.

"I know what you mean."

"Do you, Captain?" There was no challenge in the question, just an honest interest in determining the matter.

"I've seen my share of forced labor camps and gulags. Outright concentration camps," Julia admitted. She stopped walking, prompting Kamea and her guards and entourage to do the same. "I've seen pogroms in process. I've seen slavery at its worst. Even before the Reich."

Kamea's eyes met Julia's. "I see," the Aurigan ruler said. "It never quite leaves you, does it? That kind of brutality leaves a mark even when you've never suffered it yourself."

"You find out just what people can do to each other. Whether it's hate or ideology or just greed that drives them," Julia replied. "It's why this summit is important. There are so many nations, Human and non-Human, that have suffered. We can do something for many of them."

"Though I am aware of the peoples that suffered under the Reich, I am afraid there is little I can effectively due," Kamea said. "If my people were wealthier, we could contribute. But we are not a wealthy people, not by the standards of interstellar giants such as your Alliance. We strain ourselves just to implement the terraforming technology your Multiverse has provided for our marginally-habitable worlds."

"Given your reputation, your voice alone would help," Julia pointed out. "Sometimes a strong voice can be more important than a deep bank account."

"On rare occasion." Kamea's response to the idea was bemusement. "Although my experience has shown that the bank account is often more useful."

"I'm sure you had to deal with that issue when you were freeing your people," Julia observed.

"I had help," Kamea admitted, frankly. "I suspect you and yours had a similar motivation when you approached the nations that formed the Alliance."

Julia didn't have to affirm that yes, having wealthy and powerful interstellar states backing you up didn't hurt at all. Without the nations that formed the Alliance, the loss of the Facility would have ruined them. Instead the Alliance provided them the means to do even more to help the peoples of the Multiverse, even if it sometimes required political games and restraint.

"The world always balances on the scales of ideals and reality," Kamea continued. "I suppose I am fortunate enough that I have not lost sight of the ideal, despite my position."

"Ideals are important," Julia replied. "They give us something to work toward. Let us imagine making things better."

Kamea laughed lightly. "Yes, you would be the idealist, wouldn't you Captain? If only everything worked that way."

"It doesn't, I know. I've seen it." Julia let Kamea start walking before she did the same, signaling the others to follow. "Even the Alliance has member states that signed up for their own interests, not the greater ideals. I just hope they come to accept those ideals too. Just because idealism doesn't always win out doesn't mean we give it up. From what I've heard, you didn't."

A small smile crossed the face of the older woman. "There were times I wondered. When the war was still fresh in my mind, and all of the choices I had to make. The hard choices."

"Such as?"

"Guldra," she said simply. "Leaving my closest advisor, my friend, to captivity at the hands of my cousin. All so I could gain the information I needed to divide my uncle and his regime from his allies. I had to harden my heart." Again old pain flashed through those striking brown eyes. "It was the hardest decision I made in the war."

Julia nodded in understanding. A conversation two years in the past came to her mind, on the eve of the Nazi War, when she and Robert had argued about the possible necessity of leaving someone behind to save the ship. She'd argued in favor of the need to prepare for it, emotionally. Even if it meant she was the one left behind. It wasn't an easy thing to consider, and it was clear Lady Kamea once made that choice and still had a scar on her heart due to it.

"I sometimes wonder if it makes me so much different from Santiago and Victoria," Kamea mused. "Everything they did, every hard choice, every sacrifice, was because they felt it necessary for our people. How different am I when I made such a choice?"

"But you were, you are." Julia recalled the notes she read on the Aurigan Civil War, and the four year rule of the Aurigan Directorate. Santiago Espinosa and his daughter Victoria had been monsters, and the renegade Commodore Ostergaard's obsession with vengeance had crossed the line repeatedly. "You don't run gulags, Highness. You respect the civil rights of your people. You give them a voice in their government. You're in a completely different league from the Directorate, a better one. No matter what their motivation was."

"That is kind of you to say, Captain. Very kind." The smile grew, a knowing look shining in her brown eyes. "History chooses heroes. I never expected it would choose me, and I still wonder if I deserve it. It pleases me to meet those who do deserve it, unquestionably."

"I didn't start this to become a hero."

"That is the fun part, Captain," said Kamea. "We never do." When Julia let out a small laugh, Kamea looked at her curiously. "This amuses you?"

"I'm just thinking of what you've said," Julia answered. "And the fact that at least one of us always tries to be the hero. Honestly I think he's the reason President Morgan named his operatives 'Paladins'."

"You are speaking of Captain Dale," Kamea remarked. "I was led to believe he lives on the Aurora. He is away?"

"He is," Julia said. "No doubt trying to be the hero, as always."

A universe and a galaxy away, the planet Alignon continued its quiet orbit around its star. The planet was not the most hospitable, even with its atmosphere being marginally breathable by the standards of oxygen-breathing species. A molten, rapidly-rotating core gave the planet a powerful EM field, shielding those who chose to stay on it from easy detection. Only a handful of very sophisticated communication technologies could pierce the interference of said field. Thus the planet was the place to go to hide or deal clandestinely with others.

It was more than enough to explain the presence of the Shadow Broker's base on the planet.

Gunfire filled the loading bay of said base. The security teams were made up of several local species - Turian, Batarian, Human - and armed with the mass effect firearms unique to the M4P2 Universe's Milky Way. They maintained fire at the group seemingly pinned in at the side of the bay.

But only seemingly. With a moment of focus and a rush of metaphysical power bound to the life force of the universe, Robert Dale willed them to go flying back out of the bay. All did, thrown off their feet by a force they couldn't see. Using the momentary slack in the incoming fire, Robert tapped at his omnitool. "North bay, Talara!"

"On it!" replied the Falaen woman.

Behind him, Dr. Liara T'Soni lunged forward and planted a biotic punch to the face of a Collector entity, driving it away from a cryogenic preservation pod. The Asari xenoarchaeologist's attack forced the creature back. Nearby her ally, a Drell named Feron, wrestled with an enraged Salarian, both seemingly intent on killing the other.

The Shadow Brokers' guards were returning, but Robert's purpose in knocking them to the floor hadn't just been to stop their shooting. It'd been to buy time for the last of their group to get in position. The guards found this out to their detriment as Lucy Lucero dropped from the ceiling, creating a shockwave that sent them flying back again. Those who tried to stand their ground had their weapons cleaved into pieces by the shining blue lightsaber in Lucy's hands. A couple of them lost hands and forearms as well.

Robert was free to act. He did by first sabotaging the Collector's ship, a standard model craft the being had undoubtedly procured to look like normal traffic to the rest of the galaxy. His lightsaber flashed to life with green light and he rushed aboard, running it through machinery and then jamming it into the controls. When he left he came to Liara's aid, sending projected force against her Collector foe that not only forcefully threw it away from her, but sent it flying into Feron's foe in the process. As the red-skinned Salarian fell in a heap with the Collector, Liara rushed back to the cryopod. "Where's our ride?" she asked.

Robert answered by looking up as the bay doors opened. The Jayhawk descended, its shape making it look like a great dark-gray bird swooping down toward them. Under Talara's control the ship turned to present its rear cargo bay ramp door to them. It was already in the process of opening before the ship landed.

"Get aboard!" Robert cried out. "It's time to go!" At that Lucy backed away from the fallen guards and the handful still standing, lightsaber scything through the air to deflect incoming fire. Liara pushed the pod up to the ramp door and through it.

"Your defiance will not avail you," the Collector hissed as it got back up, the red-skinned Salarian doing the same. The latter pointed a weapon at them. "You cannot stop what is coming."

In lieu of a more badass kind of reply, Robert replied with a confident "We'll see about that" while helping Feron up. Liara stepped to the edge of the ramp with a pistol raised, her shots barking as she gave cover fire to the others. Lucy turned and ran, crossing the distance with speed beyond that of normal Humans. She got to the ramp as Robert did with Feron.

The Collector charged at them. Robert turned and gripped the creature with invisible force. "They are coming," it said. "And there is nothing you can do to stop them."

Before he could reply Liara's gun came up and fired once. The round slammed between the Collector's four yellow eyes, blasting through the brains of the being and killing it instantly. "We're done here," she said to Robert.

He nodded and followed her into the armory. What guards still had weapons and intact limbs did their best to fire at the ship, but the deflectors easily caught their fire. The pulse guns on the wings blazed away, auto-tracking the Broker's men and forcing them to stay in some cover to avoid getting blasted. This ongoing fire disappeared from view when the cargo bay door came up and closed. The Jayhawk's inertial dampeners kept them from feeling more than a slight sense of gravitational force as the ship lifted off and shot up through the atmosphere. "We're entering orbit now. Engaging cloak," said Talara.

"Well, that was fun," Lucy sighed. "I'm starting to get used to being shot at so often, Rob. I'm not sure I like it."

"Tell me about it," he replied. Robert walked up to the pod, but he couldn't bring himself to look inside. "Is it…?"

Liara finished a scan and nodded. "It is. It's her."

"Shepard." Emotion suddenly threatened to choke Robert. It was one thing to be told Jen Shepard was dead. To feel it in the depth of his being when the moment came. But to actually have her body, to confirm it… He wiped at the tears forming on his face. "At least Hannah Shepard will have something to bury," he said.

There was a… sense from Liara in response to that. As if she suddenly felt guilty about this whole arrangement. Which, to be fair, he could understand, since they'd nearly gotten killed fighting the Shadow Broker's personal troops, and had undoubtedly made enemies of the Broker himself.

"Thank you for your assistance, Captain," Feron said suddenly. His voice had the unusual timbre Robert knew to come from Drell. "I'm not sure we would have made it off Alignon if you had not come to assist."

"With everything I owe Shepard, you don't have to worry about apologies. And you're probably going to need to lie low. Going after me and Lucy is one thing; we're Alliance operatives, and the Broker may not want to declare war on the Allied Systems just yet. But you and Liara…"

"I have contacts in other universes I will pursue," said Feron. "But thank you for the concern."

"Sir, are we returning to Omega?" Talara asked over the comms.

"Yes, and I'm on my way to relieve you, Talara," Robert said. "Excellent flying."

"Thank you," she answered.

As Robert climbed the steps to head to the main deck and the cockpit, Lucy finished hanging her robes up. She sensed Liara's discomfort, her uncertainty, and turned to see her looking over the pod holding Shepard's remains. "Are you okay?" she asked Liara.

"I am… no, I am not." Liara put a hand on the pod. "Although I did not travel with Shepard, we touched minds twice. I felt a link to her, a bond. It hurts to have it severed. And to know she died so terribly and so alone."

"I get that," Lucy said. She walked over and set a hand on Liara's shoulder. "But you did the right thing going after her. These people, who knows what they planned to do with her body?"

"Yes, I agree with you there." Liara sighed. "I suppose I will have to go to another universe as well. If that is enough to stop the Shadow Broker from pursuing me."

"You talked about signing up for the Alliance before," Lucy said. "Why not now? With the war over, the fleet's shifting its way back to emphasizing scientific missions and exploration. A xenoarchaeologist would easily get a berth on a star cruiser. Especially one who knows how to defend herself."

"It is an idea, and I will consider it. But right now I just want to get back to Omega. My contact will take responsibility for returning Shepard's remains and I can move on."

Lucy wondered why they didn't just head to the Citadel and hand the remains over there, but then again, they'd arrived later. Liara's own arrangements were already in place. Less hassle, and it'd get them back home more quickly than putting up with Systems Alliance bureaucracy.

"I am tired," Liara admitted. "I need some rest." She went to the stairs and added, "Please inform me when we arrive at Omega."

"Of course," Lucy replied.

It was the new day on the Alliance calendar before the Jayhawk departed Omega. The massive space base and habitat, built into an eezo asteroid, was a center of commerce for the lawless Terminus Systems. Thus it was an open port, provided you paid the docking fees, or had someone to do it for you. Robert's operational budget was enough, but Liara directed him to a dock that was already paid for by her contacts. Given the time crunch they were under if they were to get back for his next job, Robert and his team opted not to explore the notorious station. They didn't even leave the Jayhawk, merely seeing Liara and Feron off with Shepard's remains.

Omega's star system was peculiar as having not one but two Mass Relays. The Omega Relay was one of the most notorious in M4P2. No other ship that went through ever came back. Lucy put them on a course for the proper relay. "It'll take a few transits to get back to our space," she observed. "But we should make it to the Aurora soon. Just in time for us to join Meridina in visiting Gersal."

"Enjoy," he said. "And take the Rio. Just in case something comes up and I need you back immediately."

"Since you say so," Lucy replied. "You?"

"I'll be monitoring the Endangered Nations' Summit. Under orders from Morgan," Robert said. "A 'just in case' measure."

"Have fun with the diplomats," Lucy said, smiling as she brought the Jayhawk up toward the main relay. Lightning crackled from the relay's eezo core and within seconds the Jayhawk was thousands of light years across the galaxy.

The United Alliance of Systems was the dream of trillions of people. The promise of a Multiverse united against terrible threats. Because of the peculiar nature of Humanity across the universes, many Earths were included in its membership rolls. And Humans, while just averaging a few centuries of interstellar travel among the various universes, were a plurality of the population. One of those Earths, of L2M1, was where the Alliance was based. Other Human nations provided influence to the body; the humanitarian interventionism of the British Stellar Union of Universe C502 (among other states with similar views), the ability to include different economic systems and concepts through the memberships of the Sol System Republic and the Colonial Confederation from D3R1, the emphasis on personal rights and tolerance for voluntary modification of one's body from the Sirian League of L2M1.

But the world that many considered to have the strongest influence on the young Alliance, the world with the strongest economy, the most advanced society, and the greatest population, was not one of the Earths at all. It was in a universe where Earth was a shattered, radioactive mess.

That distinction belonged to Gersal.

The irony was that the Gersallians themselves classified as near-Human. Externally they completely resembled Humanity. Internally, the differences in physiology were obvious, but yet not significant, such that many theories abounded, ranging from parallel evolution from similar environmental factors to the idea that some ancient species might have seeded modified Human genetic material on primordial Gersal.

One of the things that made Gersal, and the Gersallians, a unique part of the Alliance was the Order of Swenya. Founded three millennia in the past by a great heroine who influenced all of Gersallian society, the Order stood as guardians of peace and justice and defenders of the innocent. The Code Swenya passed onto them, the metaphysical beliefs she taught, informed their actions, telling them to make the universe, the Multiverse, a better place by the alleviation of suffering. The Knights of Swenya - known as swevyra'se in their tongue - would always be the first to raise their blades in defense of the helpless. Each and everyone would give their lives in the name of protection, believing their actions made the Multiverse a better place.

But even such good intentions were not always enough. Now there was a growing ill feeling in the halls of the Order. Even as the Alliance spread its influence, aiding many other societies and crushing the Nazi Reich of S4W8, one of the most horrific hegemons to ever be known, the Order itself was becoming uncertain. Many felt a darkness growing in the world, a sickness of the spirit. And it could not be decided what had brought it about.

Mastrash Ledosh knew this, and knew it keenly. That knowledge pressed him onward in his work, the difficult work of translating an ancient tome: the Life of Reshan. Its secrets held the key to what was wrong, he was certain, and as he read more and more translated text, the more convinced he was of it.

His apprentice entered his office. Gina Inviere was not Gersallian. Nor was she entirely Human, or baseline Human anyway. She was a Cylon - a manufactured infiltrator model of the machine civilization notorious for having committed genocide against the Humans who built them. Gina herself had suffered horrifically at the hands of the Humans she infiltrated. She would have ended her own existence, and possibly that of many thousands of Humans, had it not been for the intervention of Ledosh's former apprentice Meridina, who showed her compassion and mercy when she'd long given up on both sentiments. Now, she followed the footsteps of her benefactor, seeking to use the energies her own being connected her to in order to make the Multiverse a better place, even in opposition to the others of her kind.

There was no hiding that Gina was concerned with Ledosh. For the past several months he was becoming more and more secretive. He performed only the minimum tasks necessary to his position in the Order, then retreated to his office or his cottage to continue studying the Life of Reshan. Sensing that concern coming up again, Ledosh closed the books together and looked to her. "Is everything alright?"

"No, it is not, Mastrash," Gina said. "Everyone can feel it."

"As can I. We are becoming an uncertain people, it seems."

"Is it Goras?"

"He was a symptom, not the source," Ledosh asserted. Below them, the fallen Mastrash brooded in his cell. By all rights he should have been slain as a swevyra'kse - a wielder of the Flow of Life turned to darkness by giving in to his most negative emotions - but every time the motion came up the Order Council shied away from the choice. Ledosh suspected none wanted to admit Goras even existed now. He was a shame to the Order's record, having attempted to seize control of both the Order and the Gersallian Interdependency itself, until defeated in combat by Lucy Lucero. Ordering his death would mean admitting that shame. And after such a long existence without such issues plaguing it, the Order and its leadership were divided on how to proceed.

"Through all of this, you devote yourself to the book," Gina said, her voice betraying the confusion she felt at this. "As if it is more important than the Order."

"That is not the issue, Gina," Ledosh replied. "Far from it. This book and the information within may be our only hope of salvation."

There was no hiding the skepticism Gina felt at that thought. But after consideration she realized her own being felt the same thing. At a deep fundamental level, at the part of her connected to the Flow of Life, Gina realized he may be right.

"Time is short," Ledosh said. "I should resume."

"Meridina is coming," Gina said. "To speak with you. Lucy Lucero and her student are coming as well."

"I look forward to meeting them," Ledosh remarked quietly. "Until then, I must continue my work. Everything depends upon it."

Like many worlds, Gersal had a traffic control authority to oversee ship traffic in orbit, especially craft going or from the surface.

But none of its observers could see the vessel that descended through the atmosphere. Unseen, unheard, it flew toward the mountains outside of the planetary capital before coming in for a landing on the side of one of the mountains. Aboard, the single occupant brought up a viewer that showed the Great Temple of Swenya. Individuals milled about, small as ants, and that was how she thought of them. A brief snarl formed on her face, reflexive of her thoughts toward such beings, followed by a bemused smirk at their total ignorance of her presence.

Her communications controls chirped and the woman turned, her ashen gray features focusing on the holographic projector built into the console. With a press of a button the projector came alive, creating a blue-tinted projection of another woman. A projection of her master.

"Master, I have arrived," said the ship's pilot. "Undetected."

"Good," her master replied. "Keep only to your objectives. The Circle must be kept whole, Tisiphone. Do nothing that might break it."

"I am aware of the stakes, Master. I will not fail you." There was, perhaps, a hint of frustration in the woman's voice. As if she didn't need her master's reminder of the stakes at hand when it came to the Circle. That was the entire point, after all.

The transmission ended. The Tisiphone made sure her ship was still hidden before departing it. She looked down on the Great Temple of Swenya and grinned inwardly. She could sense the darkness even now. Fools, she thought contemptuously. You have no idea what is coming...

Undiscovered Frontier
"Home Invasion"



The orbital space around New Liberty was busier than the Aurora crew had ever seen it. Ships from across the Multiverse were present, bearing representatives of many governments to the summit being held below. This was certainly going to be the most attention that the Colony had ever received in years.

Finding a geosynchronous position not far from a Federation Excelsior-class vessel, the Charleston, with the Battlestar Pegasus to her starboard, the Aurora took her place among the plethora of vessels currently present. Asari, Turian, Narn, Bajoran… all were among the present vessels. A new Federated Commonwealth Alexander Davion-class battlecruiser, the Melissa Steiner, kept a further orbit, representing the F1S1 universe's continuing adoption of Multiversal technologies.

Aboard the Aurora, Angela Delgado walked through azure-sheened corridors that mirrored the coloring of the ship's external hull. She passed some crew on the way, unavoidable on a ship of over two thousand personnel, before entering Science Lab 2. Her younger sister Caterina sat at one of the work stations, examining what looked like a simulation of a star. Cat was so completely fixed on the sim that she was visibly startled when Angel loudly asked, "Staring at stars again, Cat?"

After recovering from her startlement, Cat turned in her seat to face her sister. While the family resemblance was clear, the two were definitely not twins - indeed, Angel had half a decade on her sister - and they were very different physically. Angel was solid and muscular, with slight curves, her body honed by daily fight training that she'd followed with little deviation since she was an adolescent. Cat, on the other hand, was short and thin, being particularly conscious of the latter. She could run, but she'd never throw a punch capable of flooring a two hundred and fifty pound man.

"The Maimonides just finished a few weeks in the Fracture," she explained. "They found two more T'Vral Distortions, and Philippe sent me the logs so I could compare them to the one I found. This is really interesting stuff. It's giving us a better idea of how space is messed up in the Fracture.

"Philippe? As in Philippe Duwala?"


"I thought he was science officer on the Challenger?"

Cat shook her head. "No, he's been promoted. He's first officer on the Maimonides now."

"And that's a… what, another star cruiser?"

"It's one of the first of the new Juvap Ky-class science cruisers, actually," Cat corrected matter-of-factly. She quickly accessed the Alliance database and displayed the ship in question. It looked smaller than the Discovery-class, with a flatter primary hull and drive hull with no neck between them, and two warp nacelles elevated slightly above both hulls. Between the nacelles, a large rollbar structure was fixed to the top of the primary hull where the shuttle bay normally went on Alliance designs; that was instead built into the top of the drive hull. "Nasira was promoted to command the ship, so she brought Philippe along to be her First Officer."

"A science cruiser?" Angel asked, sounding almost incredulous. "We could end up at war with the Dominion any day and they're building these things?"

"Well, science missions are still important," Cat replied defensively. "They started building them during the war so they could handle that stuff. That's what the pod is for. It's got the best sensor equipment in the Alliance fleet in there."

"Well, I guess it's fair the nerds get a ship. In the meantime, want to get a meal tonight at Carranza's?"

"Oh, uh, I was just going to have dinner in the Lookout," Cat said. "Or maybe just from my quarters' replicator unit. I've got some papers to look over. They're supposed to reschedule that symposium that I was going to present the T'Vral Distortion readings to and I've got to keep up on things."

Angel gave her a look. "You're not going down? You always like to visit Carranza's."

"Senora Carranza is good, yeah, and she cooks it like Mama did… but I've got things to do, Angel."

Angel wasn't fooled. With Violeta gone, Cat was becoming more insular, more withdrawn, as if all of her interest in socialization came through her girlfriend and without her, there was just the science. But Angel was tired of letting Cat remain a recluse and wasn't about to take no for an answer. "I was hoping to introduce you to Tony," she said. "And maybe we can go shopping through the old Market, afterward? You always did have fun with that."

"Angel, I just… I don't really intend to go down this time. I've got things to do up here."

"But Caaaat…"

A bewildered look crossed Cat's face. She turned and watched Angel put on the Pout and continue, "I miss you so much, sister, I want to spend some time with you. Pleeaaase?"

"You're… you're using the Pout." Cat blinked. "You're wheedling me and using the Pout."

Angel nodded. The Pout stayed on her face. It looked almost comical on her, since Cat always saw her big sister's face fitting anger and determination more.

"That's… that's my thing," Cat said. "You're using my thing on me. I'm supposed to be the one doing this to you!"

"Pleeeeeease?" Angel put her hands together in a pleading gesture.

"This is so not fair," Cat protested, but a little giggle came from her. "You're not playing fair at all."

"When it comes to family, I do what I have to," Angel said. She kept the pleading hands and the Pout up.

"Okay, okay, dinner at Carranza's," Cat said in defeat. "We'll beam down in what, two hours? Around 1700?"

"Sounds great." Angel wrapped her muscled arms around her sister, a tight hug just shy of rib-crushing. "I'll see you there!"

Julia, as was her custom for this time of the standard day, was in her ready office going over paperwork. A glowing report from Consul Hreep, the Alakin diplomat assigned to Coromadir, brought a small grin to her face. The Aurigans' Parliament had already ratified the new trade treaty with the Allied Systems and negotiations were underway for a military assistance treaty to provide them with ships for fighting pirates. That was going to be a trickier thing, Julia imagined: the Taurians and Canopians would likely not feel too threatened, but the Capellans were already suspicious of the Alliance's expansion in influence on its Periphery border. Any further agreement would have to be delicate to avoid Capellan hostility.

She was moving on to a report from Chief Talaverda on crew readiness when Robert arrived. She gave him a sardonic look; after all of these months away, he still hadn't shaved that damn beard or cut his hair back to normal length. "You know, your Grandpa would've thought you were a hippy looking at you now," she pointed out. "And Dad would've agreed."

Robert chuckled and sat down across from her. "I'm sure they'd say that about this too." He playfully levitated a reader from the surface of her desk. "I'll probably cut it eventually."

"The sooner the better," she insisted. She grinned only a moment before asking, "How is Doctor T'Soni?"

"Grieving, like the rest of us," Robert replied. "Something's going on with her, but I didn't want to pry given how raw her feelings were."

"She did the right thing. Finding Shepard's remains. Now Captain Shepard can bury her daughter."

"That's what I thought." Robert put his hands together on his knee. "I am a little concerned about the Shadow Broker. He's not going to take what happened well. I'm a little worried he'll retaliate against Alliance interests."

"He might, or he might stick with his reputation of business being business," Julia pointed out. "The last thing he needs is to get an entire interstellar government after him."

"He usually manipulates those. At least the people inside of them," Robert noted. "I offered Feron and Liara asylum in the Alliance. But they turned me down. Feron's going off to who knows where and Liara, well, I'm not sure what she'll do after making the arrangements for Shepard's remains. Lucy recommended she sign on with the Stellar Navy as a civilian science specialist."

"That's one thing she could do," Julia agreed. "So, the summit."

"It's important to a lot of people," Robert said. "I'll be helping to provide security."

"And to help Dr. Meier network," Julia added, grinning. "When's he arriving?"

"Within the hour, on a Gersallian transport. I'm going to meet them at the terminal." Robert gestured toward the window and the view of the planet below. "Are you going down at all? Besides Beth's pre-summit dinner, I mean."

"Oh, I'll be spending some time with Lee," Julia admitted. "The Pegasus is here escorting Vice President Zarek to attend the summit on behalf of New Caprica."

"Ah." Robert nodded once at that and gave her a reassuring grin. "I'm happy you're enjoying… well, I'm not sure what it is?"

Julia matched the look. "Beyond really good sex with a handsome man who understands what this all means…" She gestured toward her desk and all of the report-laden digital readers on it. "'s really not much. I'm not exactly in love with Lee, Rob. He's just…"

"Someone who understands you," Robert offered. "What you are, what you do. You can find companionship with him." Almost as an afterthought he added, "And enjoy sex."

"Well, I've not exactly had a lot of luck in that department," Julia remarked drolly. "Before Lee, and outside of you and the others, the only guy I spent any time around turned out to be a clinical sadist and racist who tortured one of my friends because she was going to get him and his dad convicted of abusing immigrants."

The reference to Phil Duffy was not a welcome one. Robert remembered the detestable jerk and his vicious father. He thought back to the night that Duffy Senior had held the gun on him, the same day that Robert had discovered the Darglan Facility. "I try not to think of the Duffys," Robert admitted. "Or what they did to Lucy." What Phil might have done to you, if he had the chance.

Whether or not Julia actually knew what he was thinking, it was clear that came to mind too, the way she shivered for a moment. "He was an evil piece of crap, and after I broke up with him… well, if he wasn't also a coward, I bet I might have ended up in that room," she admitted. "His dad wouldn't have stopped him. At best, he would have killed me to protect Phil."

"I'm glad it didn't come to that." Robert shuddered at the idea of it. "As for you and Lee, whatever it is, I hope it works for you. You always focus so much on work, Julie, that I worry about you. You deserve happiness beyond fitness reports and requisitions."

"Thank you," she said. "I wish you had something like that." A small, wry grin formed on her face. "Although the way Zack talks, I'd almost think you and Druni had a thing." The moment Robert blushed she clapped her hands and laughed. "A ha! You did, didn't you?!"

"We became friends," Robert replied.

"Did you count her spots?"


"Well, did you?" Clearly enjoying herself, Julia added, "And I hear things about those Silver Moon types. They get a little freaky, I mean. Some real BDSM stuff."

"No, not anything like that," Robert sighed. "Tom and his damn porn…"

Julia's reply was another giggle of amusement. "Cultural appropriation is what they call it, I think?"

"Something like that."

"So you didn't tie Druni up while counting her spots." The giggle and matching grin turned lecherous.

"I'm… dammit, I'm going to wring Zack's neck, I swear."

"Good luck, the Koenig is at DS9 doing the joint fleet exercises with Starfleet," Julia said, still grinning in a way that spoke of how much she enjoyed teasing him. "And here I always thought Zack would be the first of us to have sex with an alien."

As the blush on Robert's face deepened, Julia's laugh filled the room.

The Rio Grande dropped out of warp at the edge of Gersal's Orbital Traffic Control Zone. It took only seconds for the computer systems to verify a safe landing course for the small ship. As Ledosh's apprentice, Gina had given them an access code to the Great Temple's small spaceport annex, located on the far end of the Temple complex. While Lucy brought them in for a landing, Talara was given a chance to admire the Temple's great structures, the rounded buildings being unlike the Human buildings she'd yet seen or her own species' favored methods.

Gina was waiting for them when they landed. "Now is not the best time for a tour," she said quietly, nodding to Talara in particular. "The Council is in session again."

Meridina was frowning. "I sense a… darkness here. Is this truly what the Order has fallen into?"

"It is, I am afraid. All efforts to bring the others out of their uncertainty have failed so far." Gina gestured to a nearby skycar. "I've already made the arrangements. I would go with you, but I must remain here to help Mastrash Ledosh."

"Of course. Mi rake sa swevyra iso, Gina Inviere."

Gina returned the blessing and left them to the Gersallian-make skycar. It was of a dark blue coloring, an utilitarian look that seemed to put function over elegance. Lucy was aware of how Gersallians designed somethings. Certain things, like their buildings, got elegant-looking appearances, while others were function over form designs.

Lucy took control of the craft so that Meridina could helpfully point out the sights to Talara. The gleaming spires of Jantarihal glinted in the sunlight as they flew down from the mountains into the valley where the city center was placed. "This reminds me of the Royal City," Talara said, thinking of the capital city of Fala. Jantarihal clearly impressed.

"When you're the capital city for an interstellar civilization for a few millennia, you tend to get impressive," said Lucy, admiring the view herself while flying them through the approved traffic lanes toward the residential areas. An arcology at the edge of said area was their destination. It was a sky-rise in appearance. A parking garage for skycars was built into the twentieth floor, which is where she flew them. Meridina's personal code opened the garage for them, allowing Lucy to quickly park the craft.

They found the Lumantala gathered as a unit. Meridina's family greeted all warmly. Gamaya led the way in giving Talara a close look. "You're the first Falaen I've personally met," the young woman replied cheerfully. "And you're a swevyra'se too! By the Light, that is fascinating!"

"This is Lucy's first student, then?" asked Mastrash Karesl, Meridina's father, sizing up Talara as well.

"She is, Mastrash," Lucy said politely.

"The first student can be the most important. They shape the teacher as much as the teacher shapes them," Karesl noted. Beside him, in the two-seated chair, his wife Drentiya remained quiet and content.

This was the first time Talara was meeting Meridina's family. She recalled Lucy's explanation of the relationships. Meridina was the eldest of the four children and the only one to be like their father, someone with a life force sensitive to the Flow of Life. In order from her came her brother Qalkrsl, sister Gamaya, and sister Leniraya. Qalkrsl's wife Utiriluma sat beside him. Her belly was swelling, doing much to explain the contentment in Karesl and Drentiya, as they prepared to become grandparents. Like Qalkrsl and Drentiya, Utiriluma was a telepath, although the two had decided to become farmers.

In addition, Penrine, Leniraya's enthusiastic girlfriend and former partner in all sorts of childhood mischief, was snuggling next to the youngest of the Lumantala, making their physical relationship no secret. Leni was a telepath as well, although Penrine was not. Gamaya, the third of the children, was the only one without life energy talents or telepathy. She was a budding scientist that Meridina and Lucy likened to Caterina.

"I hope I do well, then," said Talara. "Lucy has taught me much already."

Lucy said nothing, but the others could sense her bittersweet feelings. She viewed herself harshly for bringing Talara down to Germania, causing her student emotional and mental anguish beyond the strain of combat.

"I do so enjoy seeing your world," Talara continued, sensing her teacher's feelings and wishing to change the subject. "It is every bit as beautiful as Fala. It makes me eager to see Fala join the Alliance."

Immediately Talara sensed she might have touched on something of a nerve, but Karesl gently replied, "If that is the wish of your people, I hope they do as well, and that they help make the Alliance stronger."

Mastrash Karesl is opposed to Gersallian membership in the Alliance, Lucy quietly informed Talara mentally.

Oh. Talara couldn't stop herself from blushing in embarrassment.

Karesl smiled gently at her. "Do not concern yourself, Talara. My political views do not preclude my belief that the Alliance is a good thing. It can be, and your people would make it stronger and closer to the Light."

"Ah, yes, I believe so as well, Mastrash," Talara said respectfully.

The gathering started to move to the dining area. Meridina remained behind, sensing her father's interest in speaking. "There is much wrong with the Order," Meridina said. "The darkness there… it has been many months since I last visited, but I can hardly imagine it would come to this."

"Goras' fall damaged us in ways we could not foresee," said Karesl. "If Maklir were alive we might have come through it. He had sufficient respect to overcome the uncertainty. But Tinaran is not Maklir. He is content to give it time, and continues to hope for Goras to overcome his feelings."

"He will not. A rage and hate that strong…"

"I know. He was one of my closest friends, but he always stood closer to darkness than the rest of us. He felt very strongly about everything." Karesl's face fell. "I have lost all those I called friend."

Meridina immediately knew what he was saying. "I have heard Mastrash Ledosh has been preoccupied."

"Obsessed, some are saying. He spends all of his time in 'private research'. The Council is beginning to grumble about his failure to perform all expected duties of his position," Karesl confided. "If you have a chance, Meridina, please go to him. Find out why he is keeping us out. Keeping me out. I know we've had our disagreements, but I still consider him a friend."

Meridina nodded. "I will try." As she spoke, she wondered just what was causing such behavior in her old master. Why had his work with that book taken over his life?

She decided she was going to find out, even if she had to camp out in Ledosh's office to do it.

The New Liberty spaceport was busier than ever, given the number of people coming to petition the Endangered Nations' Summit or to otherwise follow it. Robert couldn't remember ever seeing so many people around it. He suspected, given the number of people, that every hotel and inn in the Colony was fully reserved. At least the spaceport seemed capable of coping with the increased flow, but that was little surprise. New Liberty's status as a thriving colony of cultural and social significance to the Allied Systems meant it had the largest spaceport for a colony of its size. It reminded Robert of the airport in Kansas City he'd seen as a child when taking family trips to see his mother's family in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

He stood out among the crowd, if only due to his uniform. His Stellar Navy uniform used the silver branch color for those in intelligence. A aiguillette chain from the left shoulder to the middle of his chest was meant to mark staff officer status, although that was mostly a blind. Sometimes he thought of simply ditching the chain since Paladins, like Citadel Council Spectres, were not operating under cover. His status as a Paladin was not hidden, even if some of his operations could be considered classified.

His presence was due to one of those operations, as was the man he was accompanying. Chaim Soloveitchik was a senior member of the New Liberty Rabbinical Council. He came dressed officially in that role with all of the adornments of a rabbi from what was once the Russian Empire of an 1850s Earth. He was an older man, with a graying beard and hair, and a face that could easily pull of everything from a stern look of disapproval to the warm, polite look he had now.

The display gave official notice that the transport liner Halraca was disembarking at Gate 3. The two men arrived as the first people disembarked. Not many did, as the Halraca had other stops on its route. Taking up the rear of those exiting were three men. Two Robert recognized, the third he did not, but he could guess at the man's identity given those he was expecting.

Colin stepped out of the gate first. He cut a somewhat imposing figure despite his medium height, he was on the athletic side of a medium build but that wasn’t what created the visage. It was the way he moved, the way he looked at his surroundings. He wasn’t relaxed like he was around other telepaths and his husband in particular, he was on edge; like he felt vulnerable. Immediately behind him was Max, who was in his late fifties and looked it. His hair was steel grey under his kippah and his face was care-worn. He was talking animatedly with a third man who had to be Rabbi Isaac Liebgott in a cheery-sounding Yiddish. He looked like he could be anywhere between fifty and his early eighties depending on how well-preserved he was and the well-manicured beard disguised any wrinkles on half his face. He wore a nice suit and Kippah, mostly because his function here was secular.

Colin spotted Robert and cracked a smile. “Guten Tag, oder ist es Abend?”

"Guten tag," was Robert's response, returning the smile. Outside it was only starting to get into the afternoon of the planet. New Liberty had something like a 24.5 hour day, so it was close enough to Earth to not be too disruptive on the Circadian rhythm. Switching to English, Robert said, "Everyone, this is Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of the New Liberty Rabbinical Council."

"Shalom. It is good to see you, Isaac." Chaim extended a hand and nodded his head in greeting. His English was thickly accented with what generally sounded Slavic, reflecting his family's origins in Lithuania. "Thank you for coming to see us. We are quite interested in discussions with the Jews of the E5B1 universe."

Shalom!” Isaac replied and shook hands. “It’s a pleasure, believe me. On our Earth we have lengthy medieval discussions in our Mishnah about what multiple universes would mean for Judaism. Now I live to see those discussions realized.”

"Rabbi Lipsky of the C5O2 universe's Rabbinical Council of Israel and Palestine is with us as well, so the discussions should become quite involved."

They are part of the British Stellar Union, Robert thought openly. In the C5O2 timeline the British Empire adopted inclusionary practices and became the Union over time, so it didn't fall like in our timelines. Their capital is in New Delhi now, and the Royal Family is primarily Indian.

Max relayed that information to Isaac who lit up like the sun. “Oh this should be fascinating. On our Earth, it took World War Three for the Palestine issue to be resolved. That said, I would like to introduce you to my associates. This is Max Cohen, nominally here to protect me from unregistered telepaths, but really he’s a friend and can speak about the experiences of Jewish telepaths in our universe. And then there’s his minder, Dr. Colin Meier, he’s a goy and mostly German but we don’t hold that against him.” Isaac winked.

"Germans are fine. Russians, well, another story. Especially Cossacks." Chaim happily accepted handshakes with them both.

Robert kept the smile, given Chaim was clearly going for humor with the exchange. But there was an old pain there, one Robert easily came to from the reference. Memories of a violent pogrom he and the others intervened in briefly came to mind before he banished it.

Meanwhile Chaim turned his attention to Max. "Please, Mister Cohen, feel free to join in the discussions when they begin. The point of view of a Jew who can see into our minds and hearts… I can only imagine what it means for you to have that ability. A blessing and a burden, I suppose."

“Mostly a blessing,” Max remarked “Were it not for external considerations… but I’d be more than happy to.”

"Yes, Robert has spoken to me of these things." Chaim's expression took on gravity. "There have been misconceptions that must be cleared. I am grateful to serve the truth by helping to do so."

"It's good to meet you in person, Rabbi Liebgott," Robert said amiably, offering his hand as well. "Welcome to New Liberty."

“Good to meet you too Captain. My congregation was close with the telepath community on Omega, thank you for helping them.” He enthusiastically shook Robert's hand. He might be old but he was far from frail and managed a firm handshake.

Meanwhile, Colin had yet to actually speak beyond his initial greeting, he seemed lost in thought or worry of some sort, but then he finally did. “It’s good to meet you Rabbi Soloveitchik, and thank you for your hospitality. We are… somewhat unaccustomed to being welcomed so well.” He’d known what to expect intellectually, but he’d been so used to fear and suspicion walking into a room or exiting a spacecraft that it was strange when it wasn’t a thing.

"I understand. I spent most of my life under Tsar Nicholas's rule. I am told the word that future Humans use for him is 'anti-Semite'." Chaim raised a hand toward him that Colin accepted, while using the left to gesture to Robert. "But my young friend here and his comrades, they gave us a world where we would be welcome. Where all would be welcomed. It has not always been easy, politics is completely mishegas I will say… but it is better than the Cossacks and their knouts!"

Colin and Max laughed and Isaac greeted that knowledge with a wry smirk. “I can imagine… Probably a bit like the League of Non-Aligned Worlds that way, and the name says everything you need to know about how that body used to function.” Colin replied.

Before the conversation continued, a woman's voice called out, "Robert Allen Dale, just where do you come off not coming by to say hello?"

Robert chuckled and turned in time to see his cousin, Beth Rankin, approach, wearing a formal suit. Her secretary, an African man, and a bronze-skinned woman followed, both similarly attired. "I'm already invited to the dinner tonight," he reminded her.

"So I've heard." The grin told him she was directly responsible for that.

"Gentlemen, my cousin, Elizabeth Rankin, Governor of New Liberty," Robert said, now looking at them.

"My aide, Yasmin Ghali, and my secretary, Ndedi Kiessou," Beth said, introducing the woman and man in that order.

Isaac stepped into his role immediately, with just a touch of humor. “A pleasure to meet you Governor. I’m Rabbi Isaac Liebgott and this my ‘mental bodyguard’ Max Cohen. Also his co-conspirator and ‘minder’ Dr. Colin Meier.”

“If you’re cut from the same cloth as your cousin I suspect we’ll get along well.” Colin followed up with a grin.

"I hope so, Doctor," Beth replied, grinning.

"I take it you're here to welcome Senator Sriroj?" Robert asked.

"I am. Her ship is due soon," Beth revealed. "As is Princess Syrina's." Her thoughts, and Robert's, made it easy for the telepaths to pick up the respective identities: Sriroj Thiang was a Thai woman and Senator from the Sol System Republic and the Alliance Senate President, and Princess Syrina, ruler of the Principality of Daynuro on the Dorei-colonized planet Astranai, was the current President-General of the Dorei Federation, the Head of State of the central Dorei government, a slightly ceremonial position that was elected annually by the assembled Heads of State of the component Dorei governments.

"Director Anjilo is here too, isn't he?" Robert asked, knowing full well the answer was yes given the materials he'd read. Having the Alliance Senate President and two Heads of State of Alliance member governments was of prime importance to a Paladin assigned to observe the meetings.

"He is." Beth nodded. "My staff is going insane. We haven't had this many leaders on planet since the Alliance Constitution was signed." She turned her attention back to the others. "Rabbi Liebgott, you and your entourage are welcome to attend the pre-summit dinner tonight. As my personal guests."

“Excellent! Thank you. Formal dress code or can my associates relax a little bit?”

“Isaac, you know what happened the last time I wore a turtleneck in public…” Colin faux-scolded him.

"It is an unofficial function," Beth said. "Although many of those here for the summit will attend, so I'm afraid it's not a case of Casual Fridays."

“Oh casual friday for us is still somewhere between business casual and business semi-formal…” Max nodded. “But Colin doesn’t need to wear dress-blacks or anything?”

"I wouldn't think so," Beth said. Colin visibly relaxed. The peacoat was far too stuffy and restricted movement far too much.

Miss Ghali looked up from her active omnitool. Unlike Robert's, it was greenish in color. "Madame Governor, Traffic Control just informed us that the Tratan finished landing. They'll be at the terminal in five minutes."

"Princess Syrina's personal yacht," Beth said. "I'd better get going. I look forward to seeing you this evening, everyone. I'm sure we'll have a lot to discuss."

The way she said that sounded innocent, but Robert could sense she had something more in mind, and he suspected the others did too. He said nothing as she walked away with her staff members, not quite rushing to the private gate at the end of the terminal where Princess Syrina would be disembarking.

She’s scheming something. Max thought to Colin. It would be rude to pry so I didn’t…what do you think? Good, bad, unrelated?

We’ll find out…
Colin replied, but he felt uneasy. Robert gave him a concerned look, but it wasn't hard for him to guess why.

You okay? Max asked.

No, but it’s not related to this. Since we got into this universe…

Oh. I guess there are limits to that after all.
Max replied patted Colin on the back. You’ll be back home soon enough.

While Robert wasn't privy to the actual context of their thoughts, he sensed something of them. He was curious as to what Beth was planning as well. My big cousin the politician, he thought. And when this began, she was struggling to keep a crafts supply store from closing down

After dinner, Meridina excused herself from the family home and left the arcology. She flew the skycar back to the Temple. Again, she felt a darkness permeating the area, a malaise of the spirit that she knew unsettled the others as much as it did her. Not only did she ache at the sensation, a small part of her burned with a single worry.

Is this my fault?

The Temple Knights gave her no problem in entering the office area. They could tell what she was coming to do, to say, and she thought they actually appreciated that. This did not bode well to her, not at all, and she entered Ledosh's office determined. The inner door was locked, so she set off the door chime. "Mastrash, it is Meridina," she called out. "I wish to speak with you." When no answer came she insisted, "I am here and we must speak, Mastrash. We are all concerned for you. You have changed so much. You ignore those who are concerned with you. You ignore your own student! This is not the Ledosh who trained me to be a swevyra'se."

Several moments of silence passed before the door slid open. Meridina entered and found Ledosh at his desk, two books open and his hand in motion on a blank piece of paper. An ink pen was in his hand, writing in plain, flowing Gersallian. It was not the beautiful lines he normally drew when writing, but it was clear Ledosh was more concerned with rapidly writing information, not making it look impressive. Indeed, even now he clearly placed more importance in writing than her presence. She watched him closely examine one book, the older looking one, before turning to the other and rifling through pages until he found an entry that satisfied him. "Meridina, my apologies," he finally said. "I am simply very occupied."

"So I have heard," she said. "And it concerns many who care about you."

Ledosh nodded. "I was certain Gina was speaking to you. I would have explained, but the Council… they would not understand. They would take the book from me."

"I am told the Council is starting to become concerned as it is." Meridina slipped into a seat. "Mastrash, this research is consuming you. I can feel the burden of it on your swevyra. Please, speak to me."

"The darkness grows," he said. "We all sense it now. But nobody seems to understand what it means."

"It is a darkness of fear. Uncertainty."

"No. Not just that." Ledosh looked up from the books at her. His eyes pleaded for understanding. "Our time is running short, Meridina. A great darkness stirs in our future. The Order itself is threatened."

"You refer to the Darkness? The ancient threat that Swenya helped to fight?"

"Perhaps it is them. Perhaps not. What I do know is that I feel it growing stronger with each passing day. We are running out of time, my student." He tapped the book. "The Life of Reshan. So many secrets, but we never thought to look for them. The answers were right there the entire time."

"The answers to what?"

"To everything we lost when Kohbal rose up against the Order and the Interdependency," he replied. He tapped the book. "This changes everything, my student. It reveals the truth of what is happening. It is why we must be ready."

"For what?" Meridina leaned in. "What must we be ready for?"

She sensed Ledosh's worry and it frightened her. The knowledge he was carrying, that he was learning, it was dangerous. She felt that keenly. It would challenge the very core of what their people knew. To spread the word might divide them. Make them even more susceptible to the forces of darkness.

Just as it seemed he might confide in her, a tone came from the comm system. A voice, speaking in Gersallian, stated, "Mastrash Tinaran has called for a Council meeting. All Mastrasham of the Council, please assemble."

Ledosh let out a sigh. He thumped both books closed. "They are agitated enough with me, so I must not keep them waiting," he said. His eyes fixed on Meridina. "I will explain all in time. For now…" Keep yourself and Lucy safe, and be ready for anything. There are dark forces at work, and the Order is not ready to face them.

Meridina wanted to know what he meant, but his defenses went up. He waited patiently for her at the door, signifying his desire that she depart with him. She was of a mind to insist on taking the books with her, to get to understand what he was working on, but he didn't need to point out that wouldn't work. The Order kept security trackers on all copies of its most venerable and old texts. If she removed it, it would be detected, and only those on the Council could do so. The Temple Knights would quickly apprehend her if she tried.

"Go now. Tomorrow, return with Lucy and the others. I will explain everything I have learned."

Let me take your notes, she urged. We can…

No. No, this must not leave the Temple. Now go, I cannot make them suspicious

Meridina wondered what he meant by that, but she could not bring herself to distrust his judgement. Ledosh knew what he was doing. She could sense that much, at least. If he said there was a threat, there was one. She carefully constructed her mental defenses as she left. He followed her out and they went their separate ways,.

Caterina opted for civilian clothes for the visit to New Liberty. A white skirt that went to just below her knees, with pink lace fringing, and a pink and purple sleeveless blouse were her picks for the trip. She arrived at the Transporter Station to find Angel ready for her, wearing a sleeveless tank top over a visible sports bra that bared her muscular belly as well as her arms. The jean shorts were higher than Cat's skirt, revealing her legs.

The reason why her sister was wearing that kind of clothing was the figure beside her. Cat had yet to meet Lieutenant Anthony Zah, a security officer assigned to the Aurora after the Battle of Germania. He was a handsome man, bronze-skinned, with his dark hair long and kept in what Cat couldn't help but think of as Native American fashion even though she knew that the tribes could have differing styles. Brilliant gray eyes glistened with a sort of amusement, but were warm and welcoming. He was in a plain white muscle shirt and jean shorts that, like Angel's, stopped at the knees, but darker in color than her's. Like Angel he wasn't just fit but muscular, built like a professional fighter.

Cat wondered if she'd be jealous if she were straight. But she doubted it, since she didn't really go for muscle-ly girls. At least, not for how Tony would look if he were a girl and not a guy, but then again, if Tony was Toni instead, "she" would look a bit like Angel, and that was just eww to think about and Cat abruptly cut off the entire chain of thought, blaming it on the fact that she'd been separated from Violeta for nearly three months now.

"Hey Cat, you made it," Angel said, grinning. "So this is Tony, my new sparring partner and boyfriend."

"Sparring partner seems to be the more important part for her," Tony teased, grinning. He didn't speak with as much of an accent as either. "So, it's been a few years since I've been down to New Liberty."

"Oh?" Cat asked. "You came from our Earth, right?"

"Yeah," he said. "I came to the Alliance through New Liberty, but that was just a few months after the Alliance was founded. New Liberty wasn't as big then. And I didn't get a chance to find out about Carranza's. Thought it was Italian food, honestly, going by the name."

"Ha!" Angel matched his grin, looking very happy. "Let's go correct that."

Carranza's was one of the first eateries to open in the Colony, founded by one of the first wave settlers plucked from a bunch of "coyotes" by the Facility crew early on. Among those so-plucked was Julio Carranza, who had identified his older unmarried sister Beatriz and his mother Luisa as family that would be endangered by what happened, resulting in Robert and the others picking them up from Ciudad Obregon before the coyotes' friends could come after them. Luisa and Beatriz, it turned out, were great cooks, and as the Colony's economy developed they opened the restaurant to cater to the laborers planting the first fields and building the first non-prefab housing. Replicated food products were eventually replaced with "proper" food as interplanetary and interuniversal trade opened up and locally-grown food was made available. The Carranzas now had a successful restaurant in the heart of the Colony, one recognized by all residents as a place to enjoy good food and good times.

Julio, who ran the tables and the busboys while Beatriz and Luisa ran the kitchen, quickly responded personally to the arrival of the Delgado sisters. He brought them to a favored table and personally set about taking Tony's order. "It is good to see you with someone who makes you smile, Angela," he said to Angel, who made her relationship with Tony clear by the way they held each other. "What will you have?"

Tony inquired into the available drinks and ordered a beer. Cat made a small face. "Beer? Ew, not for me."

"That's because you were used to your prim and well-cultured Sirian gamer girl," Angel retorted playfully. "You two had wine. We go for beer."

They finished ordering and settled into their place at the table. Angel and Tony kept their behavior just proper enough for being in public, but Cat had the feeling her sister was eager to get her boyfriend back to her quarters. She banished that mental image with the thought of Ick!

"Your sister tells me you're the smartest person on the ship," Tony said. "Everything people say seems to back that up."

"Jarod's the smartest, really."

"Yeah, but Jarod's got some kind of mutant brain or something, he cheats," Angel said. "If you had that kind of brain you'd be even better at 'Pretending' or whatever it is than he is."

"If I had that kind of brain, I wonder if some corporation would have come along and kidnapped me too," Cat wondered aloud. "Then I'd have grown up a prisoner."

"Only until I found you," Angel swore. "Then I'd punch a lot of people and get you out."

Cat knew she'd try, but given what the Centre was capable of, she knew that a similar organization wouldn't be so easily dealt with. "I'm just glad something like that didn't happen." She turned her attention to Tony. "So you're… Navajo, right?"

"Mostly. One quarter Mexican. Or more like one eighth Mexican and one eighth Tohono O'odham, or Papago as some people call them."

"Tohono O'odham works," Cat said. "Doctor Walker is one too. Although I'm not sure your tribes got along?"

"They mostly don't like Apaches. We're cousins of the Apache, don't always get along with them either. And as always the whites loved to take advantage of that," Tony noted.

"Then they turn around and growl at us to 'go back where we came from'," Angel groused. "Like they've always owned the land."

"Rob and his family weren't like that," Cat said quietly, remembering a lifetime of getting picked on by at least some of the kids. Usually it wasn't so bad, if only because the bullies knew that Angel would find out, either from Cat or from Susannah Dale, who was in the same grade. But that didn't always work. Some bullies were smart despite the fact they were bullies, and Cat was always a small girl for her age and class.

It could've been worse, of course. Cat spent years terrified of what they'd do if they found out she was into girls instead of boys. The habits that resulted certainly helped keep her in the closet even after the Facility was found.

"It's all different now anyway," Cat said. "We've got the Multiverse. Actual aliens. Making fun of other Humans is silly. Not that I want people to start being bigoted toward aliens, of course…"

"There are always bigots," Tony remarked. "Always."

"They're just not as common here," Angel noted. "So, Cat, have you had any messages from Vee lately?"

"A couple," Cat confided. "Her ship might still be at Gersal. They were repairing after some big fight they had in one of the new universes being explored. But things have been crazy for the Huáscar since their shakedown ended so she's been real busy." Cat made a face. "And misses having a Captain who lets crew book holodeck time for recreation."

"It's not that uncommon. Captains only allowing holodecks for training and such," said Tony. "Captain Kreeptk had the same rules back on the Talsham."

"Captain Creep-k? Some of those Alakin names are really…"

Angel stopped speaking when she noticed a woman walk by the table. A hand with dark skin briefly passed over their table and a piece of paper fell out, as if absentmindedly dropped. Angel kept her eye on the woman, convinced from the momentary glance that she'd seen her before.

This allowed Cat to be the one to snatch the paper. She read it and frowned.

"What is it? A secret admirer?" Tony asked. "Or some stalker?"

"It's not for me," Cat said, looking to Angel before reading it aloud. "'Need to see you Angry Angel. Now. Problem for Colony. Corelo.'" The look on her face betrayed her desire for an explanation.

The bewildered look on Angel's face indicated she wasn't going to get one.