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nUF Origins Episode 7: Golden Triangle

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“I screwed up. Sometimes the regs aren’t enough,” Janice Richards was sighing. “If we had done pat-downs we might have found those grenades and recognised them for what they were, instead of the sensors failing to recognise what they were.” Her face twisted into a grimace. “And we nearly lost several people from it.” 

The atmosphere around the table was quiet and serious. After returning to Earth-that-Was, the Huáscar had jumped and ultimately arrived at Doreia and the dockyards there. The sustained high speed running in both directions meant that the Huáscar would spend a week undergoing maintenance for her drives and reactors. It was time for the debrief. 

“That’s not on you, Janice,” Will offered, shaking his head. “We all pulled through together. The only question is how to fix it in the future.” 

“That’s easy. We go above and beyond the automated weapons-and-contraband detectors. We get actual images. Use the computers to address privacy concerns… Ugh, that puts us back in being dependent on the computers, y’all.”

“As much as it is a lot of effort, pat-downs for anyone except ambassadorial parties and such?” Violeta proposed, well into the spirit of the sessions now, having fully grasped the logic behind how Zhen’var ran the Huáscar. 

“We should also task a Mha’dorn to just passively be around entering parties to detect any kind of hostility that may justify further surveillance,” Elia added. “We can set up a rotation among the Marines, it makes sense to keep them busy in regular operations.” She glanced to Fei’nur.”

“The fourth company allows the flexibility to do so, certainly, though we are asking much of the Mha’dorn of late. A rotation of those with such talents in general would help with any possible morale effect.”

“There is a certain esprit d’corps in the Mha’dorn,” Elia answered, “which helps. However, we also have three Gersallian farisa and Leftenants Seldayiv and de Más.” She didn’t mention Abebech since, as a Commander, rank hath its privileges. Really even Daria and Artesia was stretching. 

“It’s true. I’ll speak to the contingent and determine if they even want the help.” Fei’nur made a few notes. “You are right, they can be quite closely knit, though a designated reserve will be welcome.”

“Can we do anything to improve upon our performance with the rules for escalation of force?” Elia asked. “I mean, the end result of that was that let those Reaver ships get way, way too close to us before we opened fire. That didn’t have to happen. Or did it?” 

“I’m not really sure if we could have changed the escalation rules very much,” Arterus shrugged. “The Alliance, Commander, has made its decisions on what is acceptable and not for warships. We could backpedal, but that would encourage some foes.” 

“With limited intelligence on whom we are facing, the existing standing orders cannot be justifiably modified. If we had known that the ‘Reavers’ existed, going astern would have been a logical response to allow completion of the ladder.” Fei’nur offered.

“I think that one is just part of the reality of serving on an Alliance starship,” Lar’shan interjected a bit sadly. “We’re expected to act according to a certain moral course of conduct, and it may impose excess risk against us.” 

“Well, that may not have a solution,” Will sighed. “Anything else?” 

“I left us temporarily limited to Warp 6 by not being more careful with the drive around the jamming field. It had no negative consequences, but it could have. I’m also not sure that taking the mains offline automatically in such a circumstance would be wise,” Anna added, going next. 

“It seems like a specific technical problem related to the disruption field on the de Trier. Did we ever identify what was causing?” Elia looked around. 

Fera’xero nodded. “It was a Wave Field Generator which produced powerful distortions in subspace. We are not sure how a Wave Field Generator works yet, however.”

There was some back and forth about that. Next, Will went. “I shouldn’t have pressed for the launch of the assault force as quickly as did. The burst transmission because the doors were open to the parasite bay was unforseeable as being the consequence that came about, but with an incident aboard the ship I should have been more cautious about committing to action even so.”

“Aggression is a valued trait in action,” Zhen’var corrected gently. “I think it was right, even with the consequences.”

Lar’shan was quiet during it, and very composed. He waited for the others to finish. Finally, with his hands folded, he began to speak. “Our fighters are optimised for the way the United Federation of Planets fights wars. They assume very limited numbers of fighters, close range engagement with energy weapons. The micro-torpedo launcher is ineffective against highly manoeuvrable fighters and the failure to increase the number of missile hard-points means we are constantly resorting to guns plane to plane when outnumbered. It removes our advantages. We should be fighting primarily with missiles. The Mongoose is inadequate for the full spectrum of threats we face, and we lost many good pilots because of it.”

“The Warmaster has heard similar complaints from other Dilgar pilots.” Fei’nur spoke, glancing about and shifting in her chair. “But they are what is issued, are they not?”

“Dilgar pilots back home are still mostly flying Centauri marks,” Lar’shan shook his head. “They were, but we are in an unusual circumstance. Still, it’s at least just something to bear in mind.” 

“Maybe more than that. Give me a more detailed spec list of what you need, I will see what I can do.” the Marine officer finished.

“Certainly,” he answered, with a shake of his head. “The strategic mobility of warp drive helps, but when you must fight, to defend or attack a particular place, you cannot overcome fighters with warp strafing techniques.”

“It’s something we’ve got to get fixed,” Elia agreed. “The hardest challenge, but it’s hurt us the most.” 

“Well, I think that’s about everything. Thank you all for the suggestions, and of course there will be progress updates. Dis-missed.” Will waited for them to file out, quietly shaking his head when the door finally closed. “I almost think Fei’nur and Lar’shan are really planning to get us new fighters.” 

The next day, Vice Admiral Lakshamaran commed Zhen’var. He was the new commander of the Explorer Squadron, a Dorei man who had been given the job when Maran had found it too much to stay on top of his CNO duties and also directly order around the Alliance’s tiny fleet of, so far, only seven Explorer-type ships. Basically the same size as battlecruisers and the most prestigious ships in the fleet, they still needed some kind of order and organisation. Lakshamaran, though, still reported directly to Maran. 

“Vice-Admiral Lakshamaran.” Zhen’var nodded politely. “Good morning. I have my first after-action reports and analyses ready to brief you upon, at your convenience. A pleasure to meet you, sir.” His appointment while they had been on their long mission had been something of a surprise upon their return, even if the Dilgar woman thought it overdue in hindsight.

“Thank you, Captain Zhen’var. Send them forward to me and provide your brief in summary as quickly as possible. I will then discuss the main reason for my contact, which is your next assignment.” He was level and calm, certainly a suitable subordinate for Maran in maintaining the same style of command. 

“Of course. I secured a forward operating base on a planet long abandoned, and assisted in the overthrow of an oppressive government, while making certain discoveries that I will only send by courier. Short operational analysis is that the ship and crew performed reasonably well, but I cannot say the same of the Wing due to materiel shortcomings. Sickbay efficiency continues to remain several deviations above Alliance norms.” She replied in short, clipped sentences.

“There may be a full debriefing later this week. Thank you for the summary.” He paused. “You have a week at Doreia, Captain, to complete the adjustments to the engines. Cut leave as appropriate for your crew, it’s also authorised for yourself. After that, we have a special assignment for you to support what may be one of the first positive developments in reforming the League of Democratic Worlds in A2M6.”

“Of course, sir. I would request as much background brief as possible to start work on planning immediately, around leave blocks.” Zhen’var replied, eyes alert.

“The world of Garatnam has been occupied by the League of Democratic Worlds for the past sixty-two years, essentially as a colony. The indigenous population are the Numeraians, ‘root-building ones’, a semi-specialised pseudoinsectoid species. They have maintained resistance to the League occupation the entire time, and the League decided to bring in Alliance mediation to negotiate a withdrawal as the maintenance of the garrison no longer made economic sense. Our lead negotiator has indicated a desire for a cease-fire force to hold position during the evacuation.”

“Thank you, Vice-Admiral. That gives me a good starting point. I would request the full reports from Intelligence and the negotiating team on scene as well. As much as I would wish this to be a simple presence mission, Huáscar is often in harm’s way.”

“Certainly, Captain. You will see them shortly. Until then, make sure your crew has the opportunity to appreciate their return, and when the Huáscar is ready, I am confident you will go forth with your usual alacrity.”

Zhen’var gave a sharp nod. “Until then, I am at your service, sir.” As soon as the screen blinked out, she reached for her comms panel. “Commander Atreiad, we will be docked for the next week. Leave for all hands is authorized, schedule accordingly.”

“Damn good news, Captain. I’ll get started. The crew was really hoping for this, too.” 

“They need it… and, Commander? I shall be taking a leave block, too.”

“I promise the ship will still be intact when you get back, Captain.” There was a grin in Will’s voice. “Go ahead and go first.”

“Thank you, Commander.” Zhen’var’s face broke into a smile as she switched channels. “Colonel Fei’nur, leave is approved, would you care to take an excursion to Doreia…?”

“That sounds like an excellent plan, Captain. Same plan as Gersal?”

“Indeed, Fei’nur, indeed. Would you inquire as to possible destinations?”

Undiscovered Frontier Origins : Golden Triangle
Season 1, Episode 7

Act 1

“Lieutenant Seldayiv, this is Colonel Fei'nur.” Her omnitool beeped. “Might I trouble you for a personal question?”

“Colonel.. A personal question?” Daria blinked in surprise in her quarters. She had been preparing to decamp to the Temple of Amilra where she had taken training. “By all means, I do suppose.”

“Captain Zhen'var and myself are about to take our leave on the surface. Would you be able to suggest any places of special interest to a pair of interuniversal tourists?”

“Well, the Temple of the Great Goddess in Felunura is certainly considered to be the most beautiful on all Doreia,” she answered. “And the Royal Gardens of Tirambina are open to the public. And there’s the Tirramka Falls, which are three hundred metres high where a great river sharply drops from a plateau--it’s like the Amazon going over a waterfall three times as high as Niagara Falls. And then there’s the Oulanta Bay, which is filled with ship-clans who live on boats around all of these tiny limestone islands left over from erosion which can be a hundred metres high with vegetable on top, rising out of the blue surface of the sea. That’s incredible. There’s arches and caves and such an entire floating bazaar.”

Brilliant! That sounds wonderful , thank you, Lieutenant! Enjoy your own leave as well.”

“Thank you very much, Colonel. I hope you and the Captain enjoy Doreia a great deal.”

“I hope so too. This crew is the most well-traveled Dilgar there have rather ever been, I think.”

“I am sure this is just the beginning. Until later, Colonel…”

“Until later, Lieutenant. Again, thank you. Enjoy your time at home.”

She finished packing and headed to the transporter room. Zhen’var was already waiting. “No Libo Briefing?” 

“Will volunteered to do it,” Zhen’var answered. Her grin was distinctly… giddy, in the way a woman with a death sentence lifted might have.

“Well then. Brave man. Let’s go visit Doreia!” Fei’nur, for all her reputation, looked almost ebullient.

“Certainly, one moment. I’m waiting to make sure we don’t have to remove someone from the ship by force.”

Captain ?”

Just that moment, Anna Poniatowska arrived in the transporter room with a duffle bag wearing mufti. 

“Excellent! Commander, you are to take five days of leave!” Zhen’var spun about with a grin on her face. “No arguing, they just need you to make sure they actually fixed the engines.”

As they spoke, Fei’nur was checking her omnitool. She had one last thing to follow up on. Nah’dur, you are such a silly kit sometimes for your age, but I think despite the fact your contact is much less than you think, the contact will still matter. Satisfied, she turned to the conversation between Zhen’var and Anna.

“Of course, Captain.” She sighed in an effort to relax. “So we part ways on the planet and I’m free and clear then?” 

“Correct, as long as you are enjoying yourself.”

“Alright then.” She took one glance around. “Leave. What is that, again…?” The transporter twirled away the answer. 

William Atreiad was standing in the main hangar on a small roll-out podium with a PA connection. Rick Dugan was standing next to him. In front of them were several thousand people who badly wanted to be on leave: Spacers, Marines and Airmen. The Officers, both commissioned and warrant, had already gotten their assignments. 

Will read the cliff notes and then read them again. His expression got progressively more dubious. Then he leaned over to Rick and was about to whisper, before he paused, tapped the mic to make sure it was off, and then whispered. “..Do we really have to read them this crap?” 

Rick whispered right back: “Well Sir, what if one of them comes back with two DWIs, a thousand credit bar tab, three women knocked up and a venereal disease? You ask them how the hell they did that all in five days before starting their Captain’s Mast, and they say ‘nobody told me not to.’”

Will twisted his face into a grimace, and then shrugged and stepped back behind the mic, and this time turned it on. “ Huáscarenos, ” he began, and everyone was standing at parade rest but the anticipation was bubbling out of control in the room. “All enlisted personnel have been authorised five days of leave.”


The hangar erupted into cheering. Will cracked a grin. “Officers will get eighty-four hours in two rotations and have already received their assignments. Ranks get five days starting now--as soon as we’re done.” That was a hard sell, they all wanted to leave immediately. 

“There’s a few things we have to go over first.” The holoprojector behind him flashed with the first holoslide. “Anti-Terrorism Awareness is a critical part of who we are in the Alliance Military. Nazi and Cylon terrorist attacks can occur anyplace, any time. Recently in universe M4P2 there has been a large upsurge in terrorist activity by a mysterious group called the ‘Collectors’. I’ve seen them work first-hand, they wipe out colonies indiscriminately, focusing on innocent civilians. But they’re also involved in sapient trafficking. And sapient trafficking is usually linked to terrorism. There is a strong nexus between Nazi-Cylon operations and human trafficking by the Eubian Concord, for example. Because of that we need to make sure that everyone has the iSee App properly configured on their omnitool before going on leave so you can make reports while on Liberty. Remember, if you see something, say something.”

Next slide. People were already getting shifty on their feet. 

“Alcohol is serious business. The Huáscar has had lots of problems with alcohol consumption and I want to make it explicit that we expect you all to come back from Liberty sober. Observe a two-drink limit when operating motor vehicles and any kind of machinery. Remember that you should not be seen drinking more than two drinks while in uniform or while wearing identifiable government property, such as an omnitool. Especially remember that a single alcoholic beverage may contain more than one serving of alcohol. Use the buddy system: If someone is having trouble with their alcohol, look out for your shipmate. And remember, lots of spaceport bars are centres of sapient trafficking. If you’re out enjoying libations tonight and you see dancers or sex workers who may be held against their will, file an iSee report.”

Next slide. “Motor vehicle safety is critically important on Liberty. Seven thousand Alliance personnel die a year from motor vehicle accidents; it’s the second leading cause of death after combat. Obey all traffic and operating restrictions on Doreia, familiarise yourself with the local traffic regulations before you get in the driver’s seat, and use public transit wherever possible. Remember that at all times when on Liberty, traffic violations can lead to Captain’s Mast. And most importantly, if you’ve had too much, don’t operate machinery.

Next slide. “Sex is a part of life. Look, Huáscarenos, it’s been a long haul, and I don’t want to get out there and stop you from having fun. But remember that if you’re with a member of your own species or a related species, this can have consequences, even the kind of consequences that Surgeon-Commander Nah’dur can’t fix. Any sexual activity also carries a risk of disease, and there are some pretty nasty space bugs out there. Use appropriate protection for your gender and species and familiarise yourself with the age of consent for a species and the jurisdiction you are in before having any kind of sexual contact with a stranger. Furthermore, again, if you see something, say something. It is a Courts Martial, not just Captain’s Mast, to knowingly have sexual relations with a victim of sapient trafficking. But don’t try to go into a situation where you may be outgunned--don’t be a vigilante if you detect this. Use iSee as soon as you can.” 

Next Slide. “Remember that it’s important to keep government information systems safe from cyberterrorism and espionage. Never share access on your omnitool with anyone. Never download programmes on your omnitool from any source except the AllNavy App Store’s approved download list. Do not use your government omnitool to interface with non-government computer systems.

Next slide. Will felt his soul puddling out of his body and draining into the deck of the hangar bay. 

“Sailors and Marines are popular targets for financial scams. Keep yourself safe by making sure that you only use an approved banking app on your omnitool. Never pay credits to a vendor for something that you don’t receive at the time of purchase, unless it’s through a bank-authorized app interface. Avoid carrying more than thirty credits of cash at a time. And also remember to store valuables in your hotel safe, and always ask for a hotel room on the middle floors--never stay in the top or bottom floor of a hotel, and make sure your hotel has window bars, security cameras, and is on the Government Travel Approved List.” He manfully avoided a deep sigh, stepping away from the microphone after turning it off. “All right, that’s everything. Chief?” 

Rick Dugan grinned at him, and then stepped up to the podium. There were no slides. His hand formed a knife shape as he leaned over the podium, but stayed high. He didn’t need the microphone. “Alright you benighted boys and girls, all that stuff the Commander just said boils down to three things: Headlines, Handcuffs, and Hospitals! You better sure as hell stay outta all three! And remember, the Surgeon-Commander is on leave too, so you need to come back actually sober, not show up staggering drunk to get some Niltox! Now with that said, keep the jackassery to a minimum and if you’re an idiot, I might as well know it now, so go right on ahead and drink and drive and do random alien drugs and knock a ho up and get in barfights, so we can get you in front of the Captain’s Mast and get you the hell off this ship! As for the rest of you, act like adults, do whatever it is that lets you come back here and be awesome again. And if you do have to start a fight, Huáscarenos, follow escalation rules and make damn sure our crew wins it ! Now get out there and enjoy Libo! Dis- miss .”

Nah’dur was still onboard for the first half of the leave, approximately. She had been granted an extra twelve hours that would overlap with Nah’dur and Zhen’var’s vacation. For the next three days, then, she’d be holding down the sickbay for the rest of her staff. She was the only Doctor onboard, but with only half the officers onboard and none of the enlisted, there was essentially nothing for her to do. 

With Nurse Ritaram able to call her if someone actually needed something, she wandered over to the Mess. There were not many in it; however, the crew of the Heermann was busier. Their heavily damaged attacker had actually been fully repaired inside of her bay, using the massive number of spare parts they had stocked for the long duration operation. Now a few jury-rigs were being fixed by the dockyard, but these would also be done within one week. 

Still, it was much more involved than for the Huáscar. The enlisted had been given the same leave as everyone else for esprit de corps, but most of the senior officers on the Heermann were staying around to make sure the repairs were completed in time for the next deployment. Nah’dur remembered Zhen’var mentioning that she was plotting some way to make up for that and was still gunning on giving them forty-eight hour passes at the end of the docking because they could run a shakedown from the Huáscar while in transit.

Still. It left them fully on the ship for the moment, and Nah’dur wasn’t surprised to see Ca’elia settling down for her own replicated meal. “Ca’elia,” she offered, padding over the replicator to make her selections, ytar and terama-fish steak with a garnish of acara berries and seshma leaves. “How is the work going on the Heermann ?”

“Surgeon-Commander. Well enough. On schedule, at least.” The young helmswoman looked up at her and blinked widely. “... May I help you in some way?” A piece of Beef Wellington, with what looked to be a small carafe of coffee next to it sat before her.”

“Oh, I just wanted to talk. There is nobody left in sickbay except for myself and a nurse, and most of my acquaintances have gone to the surface,” Nah’dur explained as she sat down. “...You are eating human food, I see. Does it taste good?” 

“Very much. Would you care to try some? A few modifications from different human chefs to make it more palatable for Dilgar, but it was near enough to perfectly all right beforehand, Mistress.”

“It looks like beef.” Nah’dur looked around, and then added, a bit softly, “I confess, I think those who take the imitation of the teachings of dharma that far are overdoing it. I believe in dharma, but we are not humans.”

Ca’elia winced sharply. “I apologise, Mistress. I had not intended to offer insult. It is, of course. Beef Wellington, they call it.”

Nah’dur reached out and took a piece. “You misunderstand. I am saying I don’t hold to the same belief about those restrictions. Thank you, Ca’elia. My mother let us form our own opinions of how to integrate our beliefs.”

“I think I understand that. I admit, I’m not very religious, but that wasn’t much encouraged on New Eden.” came the reply from the young woman before her, as she popped another piece of the filet into her mouth and reached for her cup. “Warmaster Shai’jhur seems very wise, an ideal regent for our people.”

“Mother-Shai is a cool hand on the tiller; which was exactly what we needed. She’s said to me in retrospect that if she had been in charge in the days of old, she’d have conquered the Alacans and declared to the people they were another breed of Dilgar so they could be integrated; and Tirrith and Roth and some border worlds from the Drazi, and then made peace and moved a few billion Dilgar. Jha’dur would have been tasked with curing the spores, and her brother given a scouting fleet to explore far beyond us, which might have found Tira and Anakamos. But instead, the Council was made up mostly of idiots, not the wise, and so she could only save scraps. The food’s very good, by the way.” 

“If anyone left alive can kill those spores, it’s you, Mistress. I already know that you offer the best chance for the crew come out alive on the other side of these missions they give us if anything goes wrong.”

“I’m working on it, among other projects. I’ve had a few major steps along the way. Maybe another two years? That’s my current timetable, but biology is not rigid like engineering,” Nah’dur answered innocently. 

“Another two years? Mistress, that is… wonderful .” Ca’elia remarked with a tone of awe in her voice.

“It’s personal with me and those spores,” Nah’dur answered with a somewhat baleful expression. “I’m not letting them escape alive.” She stretched and looked curiously at Ca’elia’s cup. 

“Camp coffee, Mistress.” the young officer offered, to the unspoken question.

“...Coffee? But I have been looking for coffee to drink, and so far I have only found the national drink of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Coffeemilk, and that is served cold. Nothing else really seems tolerable to Dilgar tastebuds. That is hot coffee, Ca’elia. How do you stand it?” 

“It’s Camp Coffee , Mistress. Normal coffee…” She made a face of disgust. “They kept trying to get us to drink it on New Eden, as it was in the rations. This, this is different.” She would drain her cup, and refill it halfway from the carafe, adding a bit of cream. “Here.”

Nah’dur took a drink from the cup. “... It’s wonderful! Thank you, Ca’elia. I have finally found a kind of coffee I can like. This is quite amazing.”

The young helmswoman dared a smile. “Thank you, Mistress.”

“You are most welcome,” Nah’dur looked so pleased, so stretched contentedly and then drank more of the Camp Coffee. 

Looking over the rim of her cup, Ca’elia grinned openly at her. “So… are there any other human foods you are looking for tolerable versions of? I have quite the experience with trying to find them.”

“That would be amazing. I’m looking for authentic ones. Usually, the Captain has helped with the ones from the Indian Subcontinent, and some from China.”

“Well, we’ll have to synchronize our meal-times whenever Heermann is docked, Surgeon-Commander. I’d be happy to help.”

“Oh, I shall be most enthused. The only exception is when I get a chance to eat with Colonel Fei’nur, but that doesn’t happen often… Isn’t Colonel Fei’nur quite incredible? She’s actually very smart, you know, beyond the whole part of being the last Spectre.”

“So I have heard you say before. She… really is , but you mean she’s… more intellectual than most would expect? It feels strange to be talking about her like this, Surgeon-Commander.”

“Well… She’s been close to my family for a long time, but yes. I suppose, it’s all well and good.” her eyes glimmered. “Thank you so much, Ca’elia. You have shown me a kindness in introducing me to these things.” 

“You’re welcome, ma’am. I look forward to our meetings, even if I can’t keep up with you in conversation!” Daringly, she offered a hand. “It’s nice to meet you… Nah’dur, if you will permit me the informality?”

“Oh yes, I do.” Nah’dur smiled. “Thank you again, Ca’elia. I must obtain my own Camp Coffee now.”

“I think I can help you with that.” Inside, Ca’elia thrilled. She’d made a friend on Huáscar!

Nah’dur had plenty of tasks to keep up on, including inspections and operational planning and various paperwork, but she considered this conversation more important than any of the others. Of all the things she was working on, the genophage was the most sincerely challenging, and she relished that challenge, she also relished the comeuppence to the arrogant Salarians who thought they were good at science, and to teach a lesson to those who though the Krogan dead, as people had accounted the Dilgar dead. 

Also, it let her boast a little. She was following up with Wrex on her latest developments now that they had returned to Alliance space. She made the extranet connection request and waited. 

The scarred Krogan Battlemaster’s face flickered into view. “Nah’dur. Been a few months.”

“We were operating outside of extranet connection range for an extended period. Very interesting set of events, I’m sure you’ll hear some about it eventually. Telepaths to save and governments to overthrow and that sort of thing,” Nah’dur answered cheerfully, waving idly at the screen. 

“It’s been interesting here too. What do you have?” The Krogan was a gruff as his reputation implied, watching her carefully. She was remarkably cheerful.

“I have a strategy for correcting the genophage in part, it will restore the rate of viable births to about two-thirds of what it was before. It will require a retrovirus to apply, and is a genetic modification. So it will take time to come into effect. But it has worked successfully at the laboratory scale in all trials over the past months. It doesn’t cure the genophage, it just introduces a small genetic modification into how embryos form to make them resilient to the main mode of effect of the genophage. This should, however, build on the previous work to push you back into a positive population growth.”

He glanced at something out of view for a moment, before leaning in. “That gives us hope. You’ve done good. Now you be careful before someone tries to stop you from continuing your work, got it?”

“I understand. Mother has permanently assigned Spectre Fei’nur to this ship, and there are a lot of Mha’dorn here. I sleep with a pistol under my pillow even aboard the Huáscar, and I carry a top-rated Solarian personal shield. There are people who would kill me for my clan name, Wrex, let alone what I’m doing for you and the Krogan.”

“You are a friend to the Krogran. They won’t like what’ll happen if one of us catches up to them, heh.”

“Well, thank you. I do appreciate the relationship. We distrusted species need to stick together for our own mutual safety.” She grinned. “So, I’ll send the specifications with the usual encryption. However, I really need to go to living embryo trials before we release this retrovirus. For that, we are going to need to meet somewhere or have isolation tanks with sperm and eggs sent for me to work with. If that works, I’m going to have to get close enough to some Krogan to do a full-scale clinical trial. I can take a leave of absence for that, or the deployment schedule will work out. One of our officers has a contact with her own ship, a Rihannsu. She might be able to help.”

“All right. Difference between your homeworld and mine is that rather than the air trying to kill you, it’s the Krogan. I’ll be in contact. Good work, Nah’dur.”

“Thank you, Wrex. I have appreciated the challenge greatly. I am certain the Salarians will not leave it be… But I’ll blow that bridge up when I come to it. Actually, wait. I think I have a plan for spreading the retrovirus to Tuchanka. Do you think you could fund a month’s worth of operations from a dreadnought?”

“Kid, I’m not sure where you’re going with this, but let’s say I could…”

The two Dilgar women, for safety’s sake, were in their uniforms as they explored the planet. It was best to make it clear to those around them that they were Alliance personnel, even here on Doreia where they refreshingly didn’t encounter a single expression of fear or anger the entire time, just like Gersal. Instead, the first day was a whirlwind of temples and gardens, and on the second they had gone to the great falls. 

“Divine, Fei’nur, it’s beautiful here, is it not?” Zhen’var marveled, looking skyward, through the rainbow-dappled mist that rose high from the base of the waterfalls.

“All of that water… It’s so wonderful to look at. There are falls just as big on the rivers leading to the great central seas on Rohric, though, as they drop down into the sea-plains. But it’s not exactly tourist territory.”

“Perhaps some-day they will be, when Nah’dur succeeds. Do you want to try the path up-top? It will take most of the day, if we try, and we have that reservation for tonight to try and make.”

“..We should both be able to handle that, since Nah’dur isn’t along,” Fei’nur grinned. 

“Still not managing to get sister up to your standards? Your fitness regime certainly transformed my scores. I am all the way up to the top end of Tier Two!” Teeth flashing in a smile, Zhen’var slung her pack of her shoulders. “Come on, then, daylight is wasting, we can call an aircar from the cable station and ride it down to meet them when we are at the top.”

“Certainly!” Muscles pumping, the big Dilgar woman and the smaller beside her started up the long hike across the sheer granite switchbacks--with safety rails long installed, granted--to the top, showing incredible views of the far side of the great horseshoe falls. For the moment, then, they were perfectly happy and as far from Duty as possible. 

Zhen’var was visibly exhausted, but triumphant when they reached the top, with the sun hanging low in the sky. “That… was… wonderful!”

Kind of damp, but at least it’s very clean water,” Fei’nur laughed. “It was a great hike.” She took out her camera to capture some 3-D’s at the top, too. For a moment, a pang over the lack of kits struck her. She wasn’t sure it was healthy for a Spectre and the Warmaster had come first. But her smile surged again. The Warmaster’s six daughters were a fine prize to have nurtured and there might yet be time. She took several of the captain, and traded the imager to get some of herself, too - another tourist, up top where the usual landing point of the cable cars was, would serve to get them both in a few shots as well.

“It was.” Breathing hard at the exertion, Zhen’var was feeling remarkably accomplished. “ Worth it .”

“Completely worth it.” Fei’nur agreed with a comfortable laugh, the sheer, staggering immensity of the water just continuously pouring off, the falls stretched almost to the horizon it seemed, they were 10-km wide here with a series of islands along the top dividing them into a series of massive channels. This was an otherworldly sight, as grand as any which could be imagined, a fairy-tale book of clean water and nature’s artistic hand.

A wistful sigh slipped out of Zhen’var’s black lips as she stared out over the landscape. “Until I began performing my work-outs with you, I would not have been able to do that in anything less than twice the time, Fei’nur.”

Fei’nur looked suitably pleased. “I’m glad I’ve justified myself. You’re a nice partner for leave excursions, Zhen’var. And friend.” In that moment, Fei’nur didn’t even stop to think for a moment what Zhen’var had once been. It had passed completely beyond her.

“Much the same, Fei’nur. Shall we linger a bit longer, or begin heading to our lodging for the evening? I confess a sonic shower sounds wonderful at present.”

Fei’nur snapped another Tri-D image and grinned. “We’ll go for sonic showers. I could stay, but then I’d have less time for other interesting things. Let’s go!”

Chapter Text

Act 2

The temple of Amilra at Kelumar sat deep in a rain-drenched forest. Daria put on the robes of the temple, as was required for an initiate visiting it, and hiked the six kilometres in from the railhead. To her it was a light walk, as she had made many longer both in the service and in her training, or even in scouts in her childhood. Still, it was a chance with the rain dripping down onto her massive, wide-brimmed conical hat, to reflect on her renewed service.

Fighting the Cybermen had been to play with dark ones. Unstoppable, relentless, devoted to inflicting an evil fate worse than death on all sapient life, they had ground the crew of the Aurora down into nothing. It was natural, the priestesses had said, that for someone with any of the power at all, that, seeing as it had not manifested in childhood, it manifested then. 

Then the Daleks had come. Everything that they thought they had faced as the worst that could be put against them was instantly redoubled. It could, and did, get worse. It very much didn’t stop. Daria stopped, standing on a natural log bridge over a creek, and minded her balance for a moment, as the thought had been so distracting and uncomfortable. She wondered how anyone else had managed to avoid going mad. How they all seemed to be going on with their careers. 

To face training after that had been a true struggle, a struggle about becoming at peace with a universe which permitted the very nature of things to be unbalanced, unsettled, cruel and ill as few things were to imagine. Growing in the powers of the Mother, learning the power of the Goddess, it was like returning to the depths to contrast her love with the ill they had faced.

She quietly carried on past the hewn, mossy log and back onto damp ground of well-trod thick mulched soil. Her homeworld was at peace with itself and she could feel the life in every rock. That sense of growing strong in her connection to the multiverse carried her on to the vast temple of Amilra, with the Hall of Infinity stretching out over a massive rock-hewn outcropping and the great, sweeping arches supporting high curved-peaked roofs towering over hall and lodge, looming abruptly from the trees of the forest, where the falling of water around it obscured the sound of singing until the moment one was upon it.

Gliding into the temple, surrounded by other Dorei voices of women lifting their hearts to the Almighty, she felt perfectly calm as she approached the halls of the Matrias, and disrobed at the temple baths to cleanse herself before entering them. 

Honoured Matria Rivalana was waiting for her in her cell, contemplating a half-finished calligraphic painting. “Child, I am thankful for your return. I will not ask you to continue your studies; I too have seen your course.”

“Thank you, Matria. I confess, it is hard. My shipmates are not what anyone would expect. Some of them have, I think, committed crimes in the past.”

“Do you think they serve the principles of the Alliance now?” The Honoured Matria looked archly.

“Unambiguously so, Matria. Even from one who walks with a pallor about them does righteous and heroic deeds in the service of the Alliance come.”

“Life is a journey. We are children of the light, daughter, ” she said, allowing the more intimate term for an Initiate of the Goddess. “Some are not so fortunate…. In ancient times there are tales of them. Dark Ones who could still reason…”

“Oh, it’s nothing like that! Mercenaries, commandos, killers. Not …. That.”

“Daughter, the difference is only in the power with which they were born,” the Matria replied. “It’s more than that anyway, is it not?” 

“The Dilgar dominate the ship, as well as veterans of sterner services. They are harder in how they approach their duties and challenges. Sometimes I feel… Put upon to walk in a direction I should rather not. The Captain’s expectations are high, and I have let her down.”

“Do you really think their resort to violence is evil? The laws of the Alliance exist precisely to prevent it.”

“No, Matria. I don’t think they do wrong. But in the heat of the moment, I wish to err to the side of Good.

“They err to the side of action, do they not, and order? Consider, daughter, the soldiers marching through the village to protect it. Still, they form, as tight as the teeth of a comb. Their file-closers are stern, their officers arrogant. Yet without the order, they would break. Nothing our Mother gives comes free. The Harmony of the universe would otherwise be lost. You know that, Daughter.”

“You once opposed this path for me, Matria.”

“Our Mother moves in strange ways to perform her wonders. I have seen you on that ship, daughter. Take courage, they value you more than you realise. And you are more needed than you realise.”

Daria’s eyes widened. As usual, the insight was there. It was her wondering if she was valued from whence grew the suspicion. She bowed her head and made the pentacle. 

“Rest with us, Daughter. But return to your ‘white ship’ confident in your friends. There is a plan… Though I know it not yet. There is a plan.”

Perhaps it was too much to assume that a Captain could really spend 84 hours on Libo without receiving some kind of call or other notification that something had gone wrong. Fortunately, Zhen’var had already gotten a full night’s sleep by the time her omnitool, on the side of her bed, was insistently chirping with the chirp that meant it was from the Huáscar .

Oh Divine, what is it now… Huáscar Actual here, go ahead.” She was still groggy, but waking up quickly as she hit the audio-only response key and pulled on her omnitool.

“Captain, it’s Will. The Minister of Security of the Dorei Federation is personally on the line for you and she is not happy. She’s, uh, very upset about some kind of security alert that she’s accusing our people of having triggered.”

Oh no , what… give me one minute, I shall take the visual. Thank you, Commander.” Rolling out of bed, she hissed at the feeling of a brush roughly ripping knots and tangles from her hair, before pulling on her uniform quickly. She counted fifty-seven seconds before she tapped ‘ Ready to Connect’.

A blue-and-purple spotted Dorei woman in what passed for a business suit among the Dorei appeared on the screen. “Captain Zhen’var. What is wrong with your crew? They generated a terrorist nexus assessed as a threat against government stability by the central intelligence database computers with no less than one thousand, three hundred and sixty-seven iSee reports in the space of two days!” 

Her face barely managed to stay calm, when she wanted to gape in shock at the receiver, until her train of thought caught up to her reaction. It still came out a bit lame to her ears. “Madame Minister… they are Dilgar.”

“Well, what, so are you? Our computers alerted us to a potential terrorist incident at the space-port, but they’re just filled with all of these reports that are ridiculous… Like ‘suspected treason, I overheard a person criticizing the Alliance President’.”

“The discipline of the Dilgar starfleet, which more than half my crew has come from, Madame Minister, is such that the pre-liberty briefing, which as I believe you know, includes much emphasis on the use of the iSee application…” She looked sheepish. “The standard briefing includes a reminder that failure to report is cause for a Captain’s Mast. Dilgar military discipline is extraordinarily strict by Alliance standards.”

“You’re telling me… But they reported things like casual political debates between bar patrons, Captain!” The woman looked incredibly flustered, like Daria caught out. 

“Our own democratic development is still within the earliest stages that the Alliance permits associates to have, Madame Minister. They will report anything that might fall under any of the iSee catagories… exactly as the briefing animations tell our people to do.”

“But nobody does that, Captain!”

“A Dilgar rating does, Madame Minister.” There was a hint of long-suffering patience in Zhen’var’s tone.

“...You’re telling me… They just didn’t know any better ?” 

“Incredible discipline and an indescribable naivety about the norms of the multiverse are the baseline for my people at present, I fear. I apologise for the alarm and confusion caused by such strict adherence to instructions.”

“...If we hadn’t been relying on the programming of the automated system, it wouldn’t have triggered automatic alerts,” she answered after a moment. “It is a legitimate fault you’ve found, Captain. It seems even though individual iSee reports were weighted low, the sheer number made the computer erroneously claim there was an imminent threat.”

“Perhaps thankfully, there is only one Dilgar-crewed multi-versal starship, Madame Minister. As a temporary solution, perhaps secondary pre-processing of reports from Huáscar- flagged omnitools… but such is your field of expertise, ma’am.”

She flexed her ears. “Very well. It’s clearly a programming vulnerability to false alarms we need to address. But do you crewers… Really, that many reports, Captain? There were fourteen omnitools that sent more than three dozen each.

Zhen’var half-mumbled; “Likely from my newest Marine company, they are relatively newly-arrived from Tira, Madame Minister.” This is not going well.

The woman sighed. “Very well, Captain. Please see to it that they learn some important lessons about our democratic freedoms.”

That isn’t going to go well at all. “I understand, Madame Minister. I shall add it to the ship’s ongoing education programmes.”

With a huff, the Minister nodded. “That is all, Captain Zhen’var. The alert is cancelled and we will have staff manually filter the iSee alerts until further notice.” With that, her image blinked off the screen.

Letting out a long sigh, Zhen’var flopped back onto her bed. “Commander, you caught all that, yes?”

“Yes I did, Sir.” Will rubbed his head. “How… How do I deal with that?” He finally admitted his helplessness in a sheepish expression.

“Form a study group of NCOs to add it to the ship’s ongoing education programmes, of course. If we are fortunate, the matter will be forgotten before the next round of Strategic Learning Initiatives is handed down.”

Will groaned. “And how do we actually keep the ratings from doing it again, Captain?” 

“Find some movies about representative government that Dilgar will find interesting.” The smile couldn’t be hidden from her voice.

“...But most of them will think that representative governments need to know about traitors, too. Our sailors are good people, Ma’am.” He was grinning wryly. 

“Ones with a Loyal Opposition , Commander. Surely in the Multiverse there must be enough of those, do you think?”

“...Actually, with how bad filmmakers are at representing democratic dissent, I’m not so sure.”

Zhen’var’s sigh was loud enough to nearly cause feedback over the omnitool link. “I will worry about it when my leave is over, Commander. If that is all?”

“Ma’am.” Will tipped a salute.

Arterus had known Duty his entire life, as governed by Mnhei’sahe, even when exiled from the Rihannsu Empire and the Starfleet, he had known that he was a Prince of the Imperial Family and that his duty to his cousin mattered. So he didn’t think much by spending almost two days traveling at high warp out to a rendezvous at an asteroid trading post on a third-rate liner, though he did pay for a first class cabin to make it relaxing. 

There, on the edge of Dorei space, the Far Star had quietly docked. Heavily armed ships were less welcome deep into civilised sectors and space. Even just seeing the Orion ship, which Lial had already heavily modified, made his heart soar. 

Lial wore a cloak to conceal her appearance and her old-style uniform, with the hood up, but he recognised his cousin the moment he stepped out of the liner, and the exiled Princess and rightful ruler of the Rihannsu spun her relative into an embrace. “Elements, my blood, you look well, and I am thankful.”

“Cousin, I owe you much for your encouragement to join the Alliancers. This crew I have found myself on is worth its water, the Dilgar…”

“Are a good fit for us,” Lial finished with a smile, reaching out and taking Arterus’ hand and leading him through the station. “Shai’jhur is like one of the great Mothers of the Ship-Clans of ch’Havran, it is a shame their people fell so, but they dared their Gods and paid the price for it.”

“Sometimes I fear we Rihannsu have done the same,” Arterus shrugged. “Still, you are right. Captain Zhen’var, Colonel Fei’nur, I am very honoured to work with them.”

They boarded the Far Star, and with partial armour in uniform, clenched fists held high, the guards interrupted them, until Lial made the countersign. “Those off the ship must be in civilian dress and cloaks, I broke that a little, but aboard we follow the old ways.”

“Are the crew mostly of us?” He asked, carrying on in English lest it bleed over to them as they walked.

“Mostly, but of course, many from lost colonies who have never known the Empire. Many half-breeds and such too. I have met a very brave woman of that extraction who has her own outfit, and I have taken into service some of the people she works with and rescues, who are more suited for me than to her. She is half-Japanese, and in the days before the Federationers forgot so much of who they were, their honour was ken to our own. I believe she also has contacts with the Tal Shiar, but is controlled by none.”

“Double games turn the blade of the knife into you soon enough, cousin,” Arterus answered with concern as they arrived at Lial’s tiny, three-room suite, just enough for Lial to settle down in with a table. 

“I know, but you cannot avoid it when you play this game. It is a game that requires risks and trusts which a normal person, secure in her halls and the loyalty of her blood, would not seek out.”

“You do not speak these words without meaning,” Arterus frowned. 

“You are correct, I do not, our friend will be arriving… Right about now.” The door chimed, as Arterus’ eyes narrowed. 

A similar figure with a cloak tossed over a spacer’s set of overhauls and jumpsuit in black strode in, with a guard on each shoulder who saluted. 

Lial returned the fist, rising. “Miss Corday,” she said politely. 

“Your Majesty,” the woman tossed the hood of her cloak back and bowed, her boots clopping together gently in an old, old gesture, her hair tightly pinned back, gray-silver-platinum on otherwise youthful body, eyes… That shade like no other. 

“Cousin…” He said, a bit darkly.

“She saved our lives, Arterus, I would give her shelter to the bitter winds of the fate her people deserves.” 

Before departing, one of the guards placed Aafvun'in'hhui from the replicator and bread on the table, and the woman smiled fondly as she sat, crossing her legs. “I understand the initial distaste, and don’t think it ingratitude for the past, my dear friend Prince Arterus,” she continued in a slightly wheedling speech, eyes levelly on Lial.

“Some introductions are in order for the current circumstance,” Lial smiled. 

“Of course. So, Charlotte Corday is an alias, but you all knew that when I gave it to you.” She said something of the exchange with Lial before. “You may call me Danaine Taruar. And I am here officially, as a personal emissary of His Majesty, Jaibriol Qox the Third of His Name. We have much to discuss.”

Am I Sayla or Artesia? That was something that was hard for her accept at this point in her life. She had enlisted under the actual spelling of her stepfather’s name, de Más, instead of the Mass she had used in the Earth forces, but she had taken back her given birth name of Artesia. Like as not, though, she’d find it easier to answer to Sayla. What did that mean to her identity? 

Flopping onto the bed of her resort hotel room she turned on the tri-dee with a gently content sigh while she interfaced the hotel website with her omnitool to order a maniped and reserve a massage. Artesia took no shame in being a perfectly normal girl as well as a fighter pilot and honestly, the temptation of dancing and maybe just going on an idle date or two with no intention of anything serious sounded very strong at the moment. The tri-dee was more for mindless noise in the background than anything else. 

Abandoning the omnitool, she rolled over to activate the comp-pad she had as a personal item, updating and interfacing with the network. There was the usual personal information--bills for the apartment she was renting that she hadn’t visited since she was assigned to Huáscar , ads and pointless adverts--as well as an update from the bank account her brother had set up for her. It was a significant sum of money that kept increasing, but she hadn’t touched it. She had her own, a much smaller amount, that came from her Alliance salary. 

Artesia pursed her lips and rolled over on the bed. She could go back “home” to a place she hadn’t been since she was a small child--Zeon--and instantly be a noblewoman. People would grumble, but her brother was The Red Comet, would any turn against him for welcoming her back when she had fought against the opposite side? Well, possibly, actually. Her mind flickered back to the tumult and chaos of the rise of Zeon and she winced, remembering the bombings and poisonings. 

Even without those lingering threats, she still wouldn’t have gone back. She was wedded to the Huáscar now. The dead in the fight over the de Trier had seared the squadron together just their losses had bonded them on the White Base. And she had sought that out again. At an intellectual level, Sayla knew that wasn’t necessarily healthy. Artesia… Wanted it anyway. But the burning need to prove herself had been finally quieted. 

She pushed herself up and started changing into a cocktail dress, unpacking her libo bag as she did. Wandering into the bathroom to check her appearance, she headed down to the line of cabanas behind the hotel bar next to the massive set of pools that was nearly a water-park, with scantily clad Dorei waitresses in abundance. It was a dive that catered to foreign tourists, and she liked it that way. A massive pair of sunglasses firmly set on her face, she got herself something that called itself a mojhito using a local equivalent to mint, and found an open spot at a cabana. The surf was rolling in, and at least for a little while, as she gathered her thoughts and let the memory of the fight at the de Trier fade from her mind, the alien birds, the alien music, the very familiar scene of tourists, it all blended together, and that was just all right. 

She couldn’t help but have her thoughts drift back to Elia Saumarez and Abebech Imra. Elia, who saw Artesia as one of her own, and Abebech, who… Probably did. Elia’s blushing embarrassment for her bare hands made her rather self-conscious about them sometimes. Even now, she spared a glance down at them. Isn’t that the truth of life? It was forced on them, and now they enforce it on themselves. Abebech, though. Abebech… There was no reason for her to wear gloves, though there were rumours from the de Trier that she had basically taken out an entire company of troops single-handedly. Everyone knew about her codes that had let her take the ship, now.

But she was a woman, like any other; she smiled when they interacted. Artesia even felt that her newtype senses, attuned somewhat differently than those of a Psi-Corps telepath, could make out a fond affection. The same that, despite the standoffishness, she had for Elia. 

Artesia shook her head, and brought up an image of her brother and Lalah on her slimline, nightclub styled omnitool. It showed them on a balcony somewhere in Zeon, waving to an adoring crowd. To them he was as much Char Aznable as he was Zeon Zum Deikun’s son. To Lalah Sune, he was a lover and husband now. Together they made a glamorous couple. They would be leading Zeon into a peaceful future, Artesia hoped--together. They deserved it. Zeon deserved it. The old dichotomy for the Spacenoids was broken; Zeon, Riah, and the Earth Federation ruling the remaining ‘Sides could all prosper together. 

Artesia wasn’t really sure what she deserved. She thought of Abebech, and the wild stories from the de Trier. Of what she had seen, of the girl, River, in her crisp white uniform with black trim. Somehow, Newtypes had a history. Not so new, she thought, wondering if she should get a Mai-Tai next, or maybe head down to the beach. She was not depressed, just acutely aware of her own lack of belonging. By working to make peace between Zeon and the Federation and save both her brother and Ray, she had taken this course voluntarily, but she had walked it nonetheless. 

With a gentle little sigh, feeling airy, Artesia got up and adjusted her sunglasses, preparing to wander over to the open air bar. Everything about the place was exactly what you wanted in a beach resort, and the bar was surrounded by lush, soft, smooth tones of some local music. She felt it sounded a little like bossa nova. Settling at the bar, she mused about being adventureous and decided against it. “A Mai-Tai, please.”

Next to her at the bar, two brown-burnt human men were conversing with the relative anonymity of the vacation and the omnipresent sunglasses. 

“Heh, I live on New Rauchmer. Same sector. We’ve got the same Senator, don’t we? What’s his name? Ro…”

“Rosati.” The second guy was staring intently at his Margarita. “You thinkin’ what I’ve been thinkin’ about?”

“His speech about the dangers of telepathy and all these metaphysical powers? Yeah. The ‘dangers of living in a comic book’, right?” 

“Just right, man.” 

A certain wryly intolerant expression of immaturity in others briefly flickered across her face, but then she tamped it down. No reason to get involved. The liquor, though, was reminding Artesia of just how much their words applied to her. It enabled a certain ill-discipline of the mind, loosened inhibitions and made them stronger. Newtype abilities had begun to manifest in different ways, but Artesia could certainly reach out and feel their thoughts and fears. 

Their fears that right now, someone was doing that and more, much more, to their minds, even as they talked about the need to … “ Find some way of dealing with these dudes, maybe like that Psi-Corps thing. Gotta have a law about it.” 

Gotta have a law about it. Artesia looked down at her bare hands. Elia wore those gloves so that nobody had any doubt at all about what she was. She was courageous because she refused to hide herself. Even here, the sentiment seemed to be one laced with real suspicion. Sayla wouldn’t stay quiet. 

She got out of her chair and grabbed her drink in her left hand, holding her right for emphasis. “Telepaths and other sensitives are people just like you, they just want to have normal lives like you do. You want to throw them all in boxes and think those regulations will protect you and that you can forget about it. That’s the exact opposite of what we need, which is virtue. If we cultivate virtue then you won’t have to fear the powers of others and they won’t be afraid of you, either, because everyone will treat each other with respect. You can’t have a republic without virtue, and when you lose it, you become a totalitarianism. It doesn’t matter what the final form is, once the virtue is gone, it’s a joke. And you’ll lose it the moment you start passing laws like that, that you stop thinking of your fellow citizens as people and start thinking of them as threats. Your beliefs might be casual, but they are a poison to freedom, and if you’re repeating what a Senator said, then I’m afraid for the Alliance that we have such people in the Senate.” 

The two men were taken aback, staring at her. She stared back. 

“What the hell do you think you know about these powers, girl? They’re capable of seeing everything you’ve ever thought, telling you what to do.. And you feel comfortable with that?”

“In orbit right now there are twenty Alliance starships, any one of which could override an authentication and level these city with two hundred megaton solar torpedoes. That’s a very scary power, isn’t it? What are you going to do about it? I think most people trust the virtue of the people in the armed forces. How is that any different? It’s not.” 

“How do you know that?”

“I am one,” she answered, taking a sip from her Mai-Tai. “An officer, and a telepath. And a classy woman, I might add, not a girl.”

For the moment there was a completely, dangerously real confrontation. But the two men saw something in her eyes. They were not the eyes of a random blonde at a resort bar. The two men beat a retreat. 

As they did, a Dilgar came padding up behind her. “Leftenant, do you need any help?” 

Artesia turned in surprise, and then laughed. “No, Spacer, it’s all fine,” she answered, seeing the group of five more Dilgar behind him who were getting up from their chairs. Apparently the cheap drinks and chance to sunbathe had lured them to the same place. Grinning and shaking her head, she reflected on what would have happened if one of the officers had gotten into the Chief’s handcuffs, and then headed over to the table to impose herself on her shipmates. It just felt warmer at the moment. 

When Nah’dur had received her invitation, she had very nearly bubbled over. The giant bay filled with floating bazaars and homes and unusual rock formations sounded like a positively splendid place to capture tri-dee images, and spent time with her elder sister, and most of all, Fei’nur. She had not taken a vacation in quite some time, and affixed her backpack and hiking gear and sun visored cap with neck flap and all the other things which made her look like a proper explorer, and then headed to the transporter room to beam down for the rendezvous point. If Wrex is right, I’ll have to be much more careful with shore leaves after this, she thought to herself. 

A moment later, she was near the maglev stop which led to the beginnings of the interlocking ferry and boardwalk routes which traversed the bay, her giant sunglasses proudly settled onto her face. 

Oh dear gods, she looks… Fei’nur’s thoughts didn’t reach her face, at least. “Nah’dur!” The commando waved, Nah’dur’s elder sister beside her, both still in their Alliance uniforms.

“Fei’nur! Zhen’var!” She took a few bounds over, grinning. “Have you been having fun without me? It was very quiet on the Huáscar, since nobody’s come back from shore leave yet.”

"That has not stopped me from getting work comms, even so." Zhen'var was smiling as she reached out for a quick hug of her youngest sister.

“Oh, that’s such a bother. What about girlfriend comms?” 

Nah’dur!” Zhen’var looked momentarially mortified. “I have been… I… no, but…” The subject could leave the woman’s normally quite formal speech tied up in knots.

“Have you been faithfully sending her pictures, hmm?” Nah’dur grinned chipperly and saddled over to stand close to Fei’nur. 

Occasionally we have short vid-chats, but…” Zhen’var trailed off as Fei’nur scanned the area around them reflexively.

“Well, are we to get aboard one of the ferries now, then?” Nah’dur asked, her eyes behind the sunglasses scanning everywhere, and obligingly taking her tri-dee imager to take pictures of various flocking crowds of Dorei.

“Indeed we are, Nah’dur. Please, stay close to one or both of us.” With the young doctor there, Fei’nur’s professional wariness was on full display as Zhen’var started to lead the group along the street.

Nah’dur really didn’t mind a suggestion to stay as close to Fei’nur as possible, and promptly did so as they headed down to one of the small, open ferry terminals which shuttled people about the bay and got in line to board.

Fei’nur looked down at the auburn-haired doctor with a flash of long-accustomed resignation, before shaking it off, as Zhen’var presented herself at the ticket booth. “Three day passes, please.”

“You can get a family pass for the two of you and your daughter for only half the price,” the Dorei woman behind the counter offered cheerfully.

Fei’nur barely kept a smile off her face, as Zhen’var’s face froze in a look of surprise. “Ah… well, we are family, yes...” Nah’dur explosion when she hears about this? Inevitable.

The major delay suffered was by the fact that Nah’dur was distracted taking tri-d images of the boats. She jerked her head up abruptly and stared, words half processed. “But-but, Zhen’var, we are… Fei’nur!” The busy lady behind the ticket counter didn’t even miss a beat, handing the ticket over to Zhen’var and calling “Next!”

Ushering them on, Zhen’var started giggling as soon as they were on the way down the gangway. “We are family, Nah’dur… and…” Impishly, she used her omnitool drone to snap a holo of the three of them. “You can see the reason, can you not?”

“But I want Fei’nur!” 

Nah’dur …” the Spectre in question let out a softly warning growl.

Nah’dur abruptly grinned. “All right, all right. You’re my mother now, and I suppose that means I shall just have to be an Islander.”

“Nah’dur!” Zhen’var sounded scandalized, as Fei’nur rolled her eyes. 

“Oh, oh, all right.” A sigh, and she took out her tri-dee again. “Look! I can really see some of the rock pinnacles, and they even have palm trees on-top… There must be lots of nesting places for birds. I wonder if we shall see many.”

“The colourful ones are always so fascinating to look at.” Fei’nur offered, as she leaned down to look closer. “Sea-birds, I‘d think, there would be plenty? Unless birds here are nocturnal, but I don’t think they are.”

“I think that hardy likely… Ooh, I think I spotted one, come, here, see, Fei’nur..” Nah’dur had been thoroughly distracted, and forgotten the earlier comment. That was also Nah’dur. 

Leaning in, the elder Dilgar looked to the viewfinder. Zhen’var mentally let out a soft sigh of relief. Never change too much, little sister.

They did, all things said, look very much like a family, clustered together on the deck as they approached one of the great rock-towers and a massive cluster of floating homes and barges around it.

They were a family, to Captain Zhen’var’s eyes, and she leaned on the railing, letting her eyes roam. “It is utterly beautiful…” And so is having friends and family as this.

After everyone else had gone on leave, the Heermann ’s crew, with all the repair work and integration to do, was finally getting their own. Abebech had given a succinct and terse Libo brief which gave no doubts of her expectation for her crew, and then changed into mufti and fallen in with her officers heading down to the surface.

“What are you plans, Leftenant?” She would ask abruptly of Ca’elia as they walked. 

Is this a trap? Flitted through her thoughts, as the young Dilgar turned her head sharply. “I… am not sure, Captain. New Eden and Tira didn’t prepare me well for liberty taken planetside.”

“I had thought as much,” Abebech answered. “You did an excellent job aboard these past days. The rest of the crew is fairly well sorted out, but I was a bit concerned that… If I may be indelicate, you might be feeling a bit lost. Well, I am heading off on my own, but I can point you in the right direction first if you’d like.”

“I would much appreciate that, Captain!” Her enthusiasm was visible, and immediate. “It’s not indelicate at all, if it’s true!” Her wide green eyes looked up at Abebech with keen interest.

“Well, I suppose it is,” Abebech laughed wryly. “I’m going to Deramom, which is commonly held to be the second city of Doreia, though it isn’t a usual tourist destination. We’ll get you sorted out and off on some package tour you’ll find interesting, or you can figure out how to do explore yourself..” She moved to stand on the transporter next with the Leftenant at her side, eyes as sunglassed as ever.

“Well, if it’s the right sort of package tour, ma’am…” Reflexively, she stiffened to parade rest, wearing her uniform. Most all of the Dilgar were. The pre-liberty briefing had suggested it, after all.

“What are you interested in?” Abebech asked, carrying through the teleportation effect from ship to surface, where they materialised under the sun. Abebech grimced, popping an old-fashioned parasol open that went very well with her traditional Ethiopian dress.

“Oh, everything, really. I love seeing new things, ma’am, and I love adventure legal adventure, ma’am! I’d planned to meet up with Aur’ma, but our leave blocks don’t overlap this time, unfortunately.”

“I’m sorry you couldn’t spend time with your sister,” Abebech answered with the casual comfort of a veteran of urban areas as she navigated their way to a tram and hopped on. 

“It happens. We’re fortunate enough to be part of a married pair of ships already, Captain.” Natural agility allowed her to keep up, but Ca’elia’s experience with cities had only begun when she’d joined the Alliance service.

“Do you have any preference at all about what you’d like to see?” Abebech glanced at her omnitool on one arm as she used the other to hang onto a strap.

“I read many grand human adventure novels… Hornblower, for instance, one of the officers was kind enough to leave a set for our library.”

“Did you know Commander Saumarez is also a great fan of those novels?”

“I… can see it, ma’am, but I haven’t had much chance to talk to her. She’s the Operations Officer, I’m just the lead helm.”

“You are an up-and-coming Leftenant, Ca’elia. We are all officers, you must be able to dare to make friendships up. Mentors and guides are a necessary part of a career.”

“Is that what you’re encouraging me to develop now , ma’am? If I could be an officer half as skilled as you are.. If you will permit me to be informal, Captain!”

“I think you can be such an officer. Perhaps more than half as skilled, if you bear in mind that much of what I do is experience. That is, indeed, exactly what I am encouraging.”

“I will try and reach out to her then, ma’am, and anything you ever have to offer a young officer such as I, I am most keenly interested to learn…”

“I like educating others in how to be successful at our profession, Leftenant. I regard it as one of my jobs as Captain,” she smiled, almost shyly, with her glasses and her parasol tucked under an arm while in the relative cover of the train car, flipping up when she led them off again.

“I am very grateful, ma’am.” The Dilgar woman’s green eyes blinked widely as they debarked, taking in the area around.

It was a relatively run down neighborhood comparatively, but in the distance there gleamed the golden spire of a Dorei temple to the Great Mother. “This is the Temple of Alaminat, it has a unique custom around it, which is that anyone, no matter who or what they are, is welcome to worship. It’s said to be the place that the great sage Theremi Sarinteriya found a devil praying for mercy because it wished to be more than it had been created to be. So she blessed it and built a temple on the spot where the priests will turn away no-being, for anything, and they are safe as long as they remain. Under Dorei law, even a war criminal can find shelter in those walls if they do not leave them and do not cause trouble in them.” 

“Sanctuary, as the humans would call it… is there a specific reason we are going there, ma’am? I understand the virtue of such a place, there were even such places on Omelos, they tell me.” I suppose I wasn’t expecting leave here, but… it certainly is new. I wonder what sort of people there are there?

“Oh, I just wanted to visit it,” Abebech answered. “My hotel is nearby. I will go to it later. I intend to get you set on your vacation first. You still haven’t yet related to me what you actually want to do, Leftenant.”

“I don’t truly know, I fear, ma’am. All I did on Tira was get a small sailboat and break her in, a little, my house is barely even finished. Certainly no tourist cruise would be anything but unbearable, but this planet is exhilarating to see first-hand.”

“Hmm.” Abebech was heading toward a hotel which was a bit shabby now, but once had clearly catered to interstellar business travelers. She started tapping on her omnitool. “The largest sea near here is anaerobic and it seems unlike humanity, the Dorei didn’t love bottom-feeding fish so much as to destroy all the wrecks with trawling. They offer a submarine shipwreck tour over a couple of days, would that excite your interest?” She shot the information off to Ca’elia’s omnitool with a fond and almost motherly smile creeping into play below her glasses. 

“Oh! That sounds wonderful, ma’am! Mayhaps a bit maudlin, but certainly! Thank you , Captain!” She tapped through the omnitool with an eager grin.

“Well, you can do it a day at a time, so if you want to see something else, you can follow up recommendations from the tour submarine docent,” Abebech offered, and waved a hand around. “This planet is grand. With luck, you will leave wishing you had more time on it; that means it was worth it.”

“I shall take the advice to heart, Captain. I hope you enjoy your leave as well, if you’ll permit.” She stiffened, not saluting her superior while Abebech was in civilian clothes. “I shall stop taking time from it.”

“Thank you, but I think it was time well spent… And I assure you, Leftenant, I will. What else am I going to spend it on? Have a good leave, Leftenant.” Abebech wandered off toward the hotel entrance, that smile still on her lips.


Libo had passed, and the crew returned in varying states of functionality. There had only been two barfights and the Captain’s Mast list was only twenty-three long… “Which considering the cultural issues with the crew is totally an excellent result,” Chief Dugan continued with a kind of perfect mock cheerfulness. “The critical thing is, NO HEADLINES and NO HOSPITALS. We did get some handcuffs, but the crew’s just rough, ma’am. Most of ‘em were over that station-side barfight last night and the crew of the Minkoma started it to be honest. There were just a couple of Dilgar who didn’t understand that using chairs to beat people with was not an appropriate escalation.”

Around the table, the usual mugs of coffee and tea were steaming. The ship’s senior officers were settling back in their routines, all of them from Zhen’var and Fei’nur and Will down to Violeta. The crew of the Heermann wasn’t present, due to their abbreviated Libo Zhen’var was letting them stay out until the very last minute, they could prep the Heermann en route to their next destination inside the bay. There were still bleary eyes as they were all catching up, but Chief Dugan had more to say.

“Now, I’ve got one case to bring to the attention of the ship’s officers to try and figure out what to do. Private Lak’kar in the 15th Assault Company,” referring to the fresh Dilgar unit brought onboard to beef up their ground troops, “filed an iSee report which led to the successful apprehension of a pimp trafficking runaway alien teenagers at an illegal spaceport brothel. But he also filed a total of fifty-three other iSee reports including on how someone complaining about the President’s Agricultural Trade policy was conspiring to overthrow the government.” 

Zhen’var impassively sipped at her chai. “So the local security minister wished to tell me… personally… at dawn… on leave. We are apparently responsible for a local imminent terrorist activity alert due to our crew’s… enthusiastic interpretation of the Libo brief.” She gave Chief Dugan a thoroughly deadpan look.

“Well, Ma’am, maybe we should just tell ‘em they programmed their computer wrong.” 

“Already done, Chief, but I fear I must ask you to increase the rotation of Your Government and You targeted service insertions on the ship intranet to the Dilgar crewers from the Union.”

“You mean the ones that talk about the government in a way that a six year old could understand?” 

Unfortunately .” Zhen’var replied in a very long-suffering tone, as she took another deep draught from her mug.

“But those go out to everyone !” Anna protested.

“Then write a targeting schema , but it is a requirement, unless you truly want an Inspectorate General investigative agent to come aboard in response to local government complaints.” The Captain looked like she was nursing a massive headache already.

“Yes, Captain.”

“We’ll get ‘em up there, right alongside ‘Black Ice, Not Nice.’” Rick had an utterly massive grin under his mustache. 

“Thank you. Next item on the agenda; we have our next set of orders. Commander Saumarez, if you would kindly begin the briefing, please.”

Elia rose and activated the projector. “Fellow officers, we have received orders to deploy to Universe A2M6 to provide peacekeeping support for a negotiated withdrawal of League of Democratic Worlds forces from the planet Garatnam which they were occupying as a colony, and have recently agreed with Alliance negotiation to grant independence to after a long and extremely brutal insurgency with the Numeraian, the indigenous insectoid species. The objective is to use our onboard forces to prevent terrorist attacks on League units during the final two weeks of the withdrawal when they have pulled enough troops off the planet that they can no longer secure the installations that the remainder of their personnel are in without help.”

“I note Huáscar appears to be developing a speciality in putting Colonel Fei’nur and her ground troops in-between people with weapons who want to kill each other.” Zhen’var remarked, leaning back in her chair.

“Because of how the agreement between our governments formed out the ground complement, we have much more troops than the average explorer,” Lar’shan answered. “It will also press the wing heavily on overwatch.”

“I do not think we are going to be able to get Dartfighters as easily as an assault company; what do you need, Commander? It will be two weeks of very high tempo operations, it is true, we cannot show any sign of weakness.”

“See if we can’t take on spare drop-tanks, Captain,” he answered. “And increase the store of air-to-ground munitions and atmospheric capable surveillance drones.” He glanced to Fei’nur, who so far hadn’t spoken about the mission. “I’ll defer the rest to the Colonel.”

“We will be overstretched. We still have our full war complement of troops and equipment, but given the mission, I do not regard the situation as optimal, nor calming. I intend an agile deployment, with limited static tripwire forces with heavy air and surveillance support, backed by larger reaction forces with pre-cleared transport areas. Command continues to under-estimate the level of troops and equipment required for presence operations as this, which can quickly deteriorate… especially, as, Commander, A2M6 remains dangerously tense, does it not?”

“Yes it does. We are warned that the Aururians regularly patrol regularly close to the border there and they have funded, extensively, the armed movement on Garatnam, including covert provision of guns and arms, but since this is a withdrawal, they were rated unlikely to intervene.” 

“Whom-ever made that rating has not looked into the universe very closely. They have a pattern - the Banyuwangi Doctrine, which is spelled out in several of their academic journals. The simple form of it is, ‘One who supports the breaking a state is responsible for the actions of their agents in so doing.’ Commander Saumarez.”

Everyone was staring at Fei’nur. ‘Colonel Muscles’ had just said something worthy of an academic professor. Nah’dur barely avoided clapping her hands together in a gesture of adoration, which was really quite valiant of her. 

Elia smiled. “Thank you for the explanation, Colonel. I actually agree with you. It’s foolish to assume that there’s going to be no intervention. They will try to manage the aftermath.”

“‘ If you break it, you bought it’, would be the the human colloquialism.” She looked to Chief Dugan. “That was a correct use, yes?” 

“Better than some humans use it, Ma’am,” he grinned. 

“Wonderful. It means I will be requesting, though I do not expect to receive it, sufficient reinforcements to turn the breakthrough armour company into an assault armour company. A planetary garrison support unit, too, but, alas. We will like, as not, have to make do. That Empire is one of the more militaristic unfriendly neutrals we have encountered, I remind us all. Is there any further intelligence?”

“Yes,” Elia answered drolly. “You’ll love this. It’s just a note that part of the agreement for the League’s withdraw required us to work with them to eliminate a major drug trafficking and production network on the planet associated with the liberation movement.”

Fei’nur put her face in her hands. “Gods preserve us. Thank you, Commander.”

Zhen’var’s expression had become studiously blank. “I believe I should sign off on your request for further reinforcements, Colonel. We are to work to eliminate a major drug network, which is associated with the new government, with the former colonial overlords… very well, we have our work cut out for us. So we have been charged, so we shall accomplish.”

“It doesn’t really seem like the Foreign Ministry was taking this one seriously when they negotiated it,” Anna groused. 

“They decide, we execute,” Arterus shook his head. “It will be a messy business.”

“We’ve dealt with worse already,” Elia reminded them with a smile. “We’ll make it work, because we’re Huáscarenos .”

“Yes, El’sau, but they got worse. This one is starting off at almost that level, before it degenerates.” Fei’nur remarked, already starting to sketch out requisitions on her data-slate.

“Well, at least the Aururians are rational…”

“And more dangerous for it. Finish your preparations, everyone. Commander Saumarez, if you would stay after the others, please?”

“Of course, Captain.” While the others filed out, Elia got herself another cup of Guernsey cream tea. 

Without a word, Zhen’var slid a security chit across the table.

Elia looked at the chit, and then scanned it once she had confirmed it wasn’t marked classified. “...Six hours a week of holodeck and no explanation, Captain?” Her dark eyes flashed surprise. 

Zhen’var’s teeth flashed as she smiled proudly at Elia. “I put in the request to Training and Development, and it was approved. You are hereby authorized and instructed to take Remote Learning Course 1062195, Commanding Officer Development and Duty Certification .”

“...Command Officer School Prep?” Elia’s eyes widened. “But I barely have any experience.” 

“You have a baton in your knapsack, El’sau, let none tell you otherwise. My reviews and Commander Imra’s concurrence appear to have been sufficient to convince higher command.”

“...Thank you, Captain. And I will thank Abebech as well. I am truly honoured, and I will not let you down with your confidence in me. I hope I can soon follow from…” A sheepish grin, as she had to read the number, “RLC 1062195 to formal command school… Though I will miss being on the Huáscar even a short time.”

“Ah, but El’sau, I remind you that being command certified permits a brevet to independent command in an emergency at the discretion of local authority?” Her captain winked at her.

“And on Huáscar, may that emergency never come. I like you and Will. And Abebech. But still, thank you. Ma’am!”

“Dismissed, Commander. And, El’sau? Good luck.”

Chapter Text

Act 3

The gray-green of Garatnam appeared before them as they dropped out of warp, the ship at Condition Yellow. A squadron of the slick warp-equipped cruisers of the League of Democratic Worlds orbited the planet as well as a civilian Gersallian courier. 

“Announce our presence, comms. Bring us to orbit, Helm.” Zhen’var watched the tactical displays. “Give me local scanning, tactical picture, please.”

Under the chorus of acknowledgements, the new Petty Officer Remaria, a Dorei woman at comms, sent the message as Violeta settled them into orbit and Elia started scanning the planet. 

“Responding transmission from the League flagship, Captain,” Remaria reported. 

“On the main display, please.” Zhen’var leaned back in her chair, folding her hands in her lap.

The white uniforms of the Admiral’s staff and the flag-bridge of a League cruiser resolved before them with the Admiral standing in place. “Captain Zhen’var of the Huáscar ?”

“That is correct, Admiral. We have arrived, as the withdrawal agreement requires.” The Dilgar woman took in the bridge before her, scanning the League officers and their comportment.

“I am Admiral Pierre-Jacques Bonnet, Captain, aboard Justicia . We will need a meeting to coordinate the withdrawal as well as the operation to eliminate the Hularya drug production. I will allow you to reach out to your negotiator before scheduling it. We will provide mutually supporting top cover as required.”

“Of course, Admiral Bonnet. I thank you for the opportunity. We shall meeting shortly, I am sure.” They certainly seem professional, at least.

“Certainly, Captain. We will be waiting further communication. Justicia out.” The screen blinked clear with an already waiting message from the Gersallian courier standing by.

“Bring the courier on-screen, please. Let us hear what they have to say.” Zhen’var spoke over to the communications console, shifting in her command chair.

“This is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Peace Outreach Yulassana,” the Gersallian woman, older with whisps of gray in her hair, introduced herself, wearing traditional Gersallian robes, as she resolved into view. “Thank you for your prompt arrival and correct introduction with Admiral Bonnet. I wish to transport aboard to discuss the situation on the planet with your command staff.”

“I receive the idea with congeniality, ma’am. My transporter room will be standing by for your arrival, and I shall call a meeting of my officers.”

A few minutes later, a CPO led Yulassana into Briefing Room 1, where the command staff was assembled to await. 

The Captain was in her usual place at the head of the table, with the lectern swung out for the briefer, projector brought to stand-by, and the Dilgar woman nodded politely. “Secretary Yuassana. Welcome. My officers.” She indicated the assemblage with a gesture of her hand. Each rose to introduce themselves in turn.

“Thank you, all,” Yuassana offered before moving to sit. “I am pleased with the progress we have made here on Garatnam. It offers, perhaps, the first sign of a new direction for the League, and that may have great influence on the Alliance diplomatic posture in this universe. Your crew will be an important part of that.”

“I am most keen, ma’am, to know what that part will be.” Colonel Fei’nur rumbled from her position at the table. Her gaze was narrowed, and she sipped at a cup of ytar with a wary look to the diplomat who had come aboard.

“Unfortunately, the Garatnam Liberation Force, a broad-based coalition of clans and political sectors, was funding its liberation movement with drugs. You have been briefed on that much. The League considers the drugs enough of a problem that they are prepared to withdraw in exchange for Alliance support in eliminating the drug production. We believe that there is a convenient, biological solution for the elimination of the drug production.”

“A targeted retrovirus,” Nah’dur yawned. “That would be much easier than a counterinsurgency. What are the drugs made from, Madame Minister?” 

“...It’s an enzyme Numeraians create when partially digesting the Tiral plant to cement the walls of their hives. The idea is to use a targeted retrovirus so the Tiral plant process no longer produces this enzyme,” the Secretary explained.

Nah’dur’s eyes narrowed. “So we’re genetically modifying a plant which is a major part of the cultural practices of the Numeraians based on … Data from the League?” 

Yulassana coughed. “Of course not, Surgeon-Commander. We’ve vetted the information in Alliance contractor laboratories. Eliminating the enzyme process won’t negatively impact the Tiral plant.” 

“But I assume I am to organise this effort as the ranking medical officer on the scene?”

“Yes, Surgeon-Commander.” The Gersallian woman folded her hands with a polite smile. 

“Then pursuant to Alliance Unified Code of Regulations 28-1-1 subpart D I am going to have to conduct a final on-site environmental impact assessment before commencing the operation,” Nah’dur replied. 

The Gersallian’s smile vanished. “One has already been completed, Surgeon-Commander. All of these operations are intensely time-sensitive to secure the League withdrawal. That won’t be possible.”

“Including subpart D paragraph 4--site assessments? I don’t see how that’s possible without physical sampling of the impacted area.”

“Captain…” Yulassana glanced to Zhen’var. 

“The Surgeon-Commander does have valid concerns, ma’am. It is possible for her to receive the assessment before commencement, I do hope?” Zhen’var had weighed it for a moment; Nah’dur clearly had qualms, and she trusted her sister to have good reasons for them.

“A site assessment wasn’t done,” Yulassana admitted. “We relied on the Alliance Review Board for Socio-Environmental Impacts in the Foreign Ministry, which issued a FONSI. Is that adequate, Surgeon-Commander?”

“No, Paragraph 5 explicitly excludes the issuance of a FONSI for planetary-scale impacts, and the Numeraians are a planetary-scale civilisation and this impacts their traditional agricultural and building practices, which means planetary-scale impacts. I don’t see how anyone could have signed a FONSI on those grounds.”

“Because it only impacts drug production, Surgeon-Commander,” Yulassana answered in rising frustration.

“No, it doesn’t, it impacts the use of the Tiral plant planet-wide,” Nah’dur’s eyes narrowed. 

“But it has no impact, it just removes the necessary proteins for processing to create the enzyme!”

“How do you know that has no planetary impact, Madame Secretary, if you have not conducted a site assessment? As the authority for the executing agency, which is the legal position you just gave me in this briefing, I have both the right and duty to expect a site assessment. I can’t accept the FONSI unless Alliance Naval SEMO’s legal office says there is no planetary-scale environmental impact, and I seriously doubt anyone will actually sign that opinion unless a site assessment has been conducted.”

The only thought Zhen’var could muster was Little sister is learning Alliance bureaucratic technique very well.

Half of the senior officers looked desperately like they wanted to fall asleep. Violeta was staring at Nah’dur with this partially amazed expression, not necessarily in a good way. Stasia and Rick were exchanging a look which pretty much said it all: Yep, we work for the Government. 

“We are trying to end an insurgency that has lasted for seventy years, Surgeon-Commander, and taken more than three million lives in that time,” Yulassana, a Gersallian, was at least very good at remaining calm. A human in the same spot would have probably lost it, pulled rank, and started punching the table by that point. 

“Ma’am, do we have an irreconcilable dispute between two rulemaking agencies as described in 28-1-2?” Zhen’var finally spoke, already regretting it. “If so, shall we begin the emergency mediation procedure in Subsection C?”

“We don’t have time for this,”  Yulassana protested. “Please, be sensible. We need to get troops down to the surface immediately as part of the agreement.”

“We can deploy peacekeeping forces without settling this matter,” Anna offered. “We were already planning to do so before it came up.” 

“Anna is right,” Abebech added drolly.

“...We’ll speak about this after the meeting, Captain, alone,” Yulassana said, signalling her assent. She looked to Fei’nur with a frown. “Are you ready to land your peacekeeping troops?”

“I am, madame. I have misgivings of the intelligence analysis underpinning the deployment, but beam-down can begin immediately.” The veteran Marine Colonel answered without hesitation.

“It is merely a temporary measure to allow the League personnel to evacuate without casualties. We trust the people of Garatnam to organise themselves once the League is gone,” she answered mildly.

“If they are given the chance.” came the counter. “I have concerns on that front. The Aururian frontier is not far.”

“We are realising a long-held objective of their’s, why would they cause another diplomatic incident, Colonel, when they only have to wait a few days to open trade with the free government of Garatnam?”

“That may not be their objective. Certainly it is not within their strategic doctrine, Deputy Assistant Secretary Yulassana. Their doctrine speaks to the responsibility of a great power in times of disorder.”

“That may be the case, but it is important for us to guarantee self-determination for Garatnam as a demonstration to the League that it may trust us to assist in more withdrawals of this type,” she answered, “and so we must proceed with the operation.” The woman was clearly frustrated by the resistance she was seeing from the Huáscar ’s crew and she wanted to move ahead quickly with the mission she felt was so important. 

“As I have said, I am ready to begin deployment immediately.” Fei’nur had said her piece, and inclined her head in assent.

“Then do so, Colonel. Captain, if I may speak to you alone now?” Yulassana inclined her head stiffly. 

“Of course. Officers, you stand dis-missed.” Zhen’var spoke calmly as she rose to replicate a new mug of chai. She waited for the door to hiss closed before returning to her chair, her gaze placidly calm as she looked up at the Alliance diplomat.

“Captain, what is wrong with your crew? I hope you understand that the whole point of the creation of the Huáscar experiment was to demonstrate that your people were worthy of being a full part of the Alliance, and it seems like you actively don’t want to participate in a process which could bring peace. I don’t understand it, we are talking about millions of lives, and most importantly, about creating a new era of good relations with the League so that we can actually stand up to the dangerously expansionist Aururian Empire.” 

Zhen’var’s eyes flashed, but her voice was exceptionally calm when she replied. “Ma’am, my crew is demonstrating their desire to stand for the forms and ideals of the Alliance! Colonel Fei’nur is a long-service veteran whose independent initiative and planning was critical in preventing the situation on Drachenfeldt into deteriorating into bloody civil conflict. Lieutenant Commander Nah’dur is a brilliant doctor and biologist whose very well known clan name means she is most scrupulous in following the principle of Vergangenheitsbewältigung. What we are concerned of is what appears to be failures of intelligence and planning driven by a desire for expeditious resolution of the situation and over-focusing on the desired result rather than the process of achieving it.”

Yulassana settled back, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. “The League would agree to no other terms, Captain. We tried, but these were the only conditions under which they would withdraw from Garatnam, and the Foreign Ministry desperately wants to establish new grounds under which to collaborate with them and show them it is safe to give up their colonialist practices.”

“My crew is wary of being caught in an impossible situation, Deputy Assistant Secretary.”

“Do you feel they have given us an impossible situation, Captain?”

“The lack of discussion of the Banyuwangi Doctrine in our briefing documents did not fill Colonel Fei’nur with a great deal of confidence, ma’am.”

The woman frowned. “The Banyuwangi doctrine, Captain? I am… Not familiar with it, I confess.”

Zhen’var’s face twisted into a pained grimace. “It is an Aururian geo-strategic doctrine which is… several centuries old by now. Colonel Fei’nur knows more of it, but as I understand the matter, they regard a power which destabilizes a regime as responsible for the consequences; they have been supporting the insurgency here, have they not?”

“Yes, that’s a known fact. That’s precisely why we are moving in… To reassure the League that if they decolonise, that we can prevent the Aururians from entering the vacuum,” Yulassana explained flatly, “and thus turn them into friends we can live with. I will be honest, Captain, I know about Warmaster Shai’jhur’s contacts with them about the restoration of Omelos.” Her eyes were narrow. “And it seems to me as if perhaps that is behind some of your reluctance.”

Zhen’var’s look of confusion was honest. “The restoration of Omelos … Divine, but that would be…” A look of honest, wild hope flared in her eyes, and she smiled without thinking. “I had known there were some formal contacts, but, a project so grand…? I can see the reason behind it now, but I had not known. Likely to ensure that I would not be tempted from even-handed pursuit of duty.”

Yulassana frowned, pursed her lips, and then nodded. “I will take you at your word, Captain. That was an intensely genuine reaction. Yes, Warmaster Shai’jhur asked for assessments of the feasibility of using solar concentrators and Aururian terraforming techniques--which are the best in known space--to restore Omelos. It is somewhat concerning, I will be honest, the Aururian Empire is aggressively seeking influence in many places in the multiverse.”

“Of course they are. They are used to being a Great Power in their galaxy - a wider multi-verse has opened, and left their relative standing much diminished. They practice power politics, as any other outward-looking state does.” Zhen’var shifted in her chair, sipping at her mug. “They also look at the world through a Mohist lens.”

“Please explain, Captain. There are many human philosophies.” She was on the back foot against the starship captain, she knew it, but she wasn’t exactly going to get out of it by simply denying it. Gersallian culture pushed back against the very idea of that. 

“Mohist consequentalism is, to be simplistic, defining the morality of an action by how it contributes to the basic needs of a state. It is the business of the benevolent man to seek to promote what is beneficial to the world and to eliminate what is harmful, and to provide a model for the world. What benefits he will carry out; what does not benefit men he will leave alone. It is inexact, I fear. Proper followers of Mohzi would say ‘ promoting the benefit of all under heaven and eliminating harm to all under heaven’ - by what Colonel Fei’nur has read, if you replaced ‘heaven’ with ‘The Empress’, you would have what the Aururian state believes to be its’ own philosophy perfectly.”

“That sounds like a perfectly reasonable moral philosophy,” the Secretary answered. “And yet we are here with an expansionist Empire which you say will threaten us peace-building on Garatnam, which granted, we were not un-prepared to encounter, but you certainly speak of it as being more urgent than we anticipated.”

“They were likely planning to move in as soon as the League left for their own peace-building efforts. Theirs is an older type of politics; we should expect them to intervene to protect what-ever they see as their own interests. Depending on the reach of the drug-running… they may not be willing to sit back and let us establish ourselves. Have they not replied with full-throated efforts short of violence to any of our efforts, near or within their space, or within the enclaves of influence they are establishing elsewhere?”

“You are correct,” Yulassana conceded. “Captain, while you are correct, the fact remains that our national interests mean we cannot simply cancel this operation. You must make it succeed. Work with me. What can we do to speed up the implementation of the anti-drugs measures?” 

“Nah’dur is brilliant, but Dilgar are incredibly wary of anything... involving virus-bombing a planet.” The last part of the sentence came out hesitantly. “We are not seeking to cancel it, but our operations have had a habit of spiraling outside briefing parameters. We will do our utmost, but… the local populace, they are not likely to cooperate, are they?”

“It is their livelihood in many areas most impacted by the insurgency, but many Numeraians oppose the fact their people rely on the drugs trade,” Yulassana countered. “We hope we can reach in to provide alternatives and conduct nation-building that will keep them out of the hands of the Aururians.”

“We can hope, but it will not be simple. It never is. Forgive me, ma’am, but my people are used to being burned and left to pick up the pieces. We will be pressed. We may well be attacked if they realize why we are here, and I confess I am hesitant of the retroviral plan… are we certain it will have no ill-effect? If we are wrong… we will have handed the planet to the Empire with a gift wrapping.”

Yulassana sighed. “Can you do the site assessment, Captain? With the resources onboard your ship, right now? That would avoid the jurisdictional dispute and let us proceed.”

“Yes, I can. We are an Explorer, after all.” That was ground the Captain understood, and she straightened in her chair. “I can order Lieutenant Commander Nah’dur to begin field work as soon as Colonel Fei’nur has the first landing sites secured.”

“Please do so, Captain. I will acquiesce and not file a protest, if you can proceed quickly with the site assessments. We need to keep the timetable as best as we can, or the entire agreement could fall apart.”

“We will do our utmost, ma’am. Huáscar has not failed in a mission yet. I can offer no more than that.”

Yulassana rose. “Then we have an agreement, Captain. I will entrust you to your own duties, and seeing to it that the Surgeon-Commander understands her role.”

“Thank you.” Rising, Zhen’var offered a hand. “Your support is most appreciated.”

Yulassana took it, and dipped her head. “Harmony for you and your ship, Captain.”

If fate is kind, which it rarely is.

Having selected the landing zones, the Huáscar deployed her assault shuttles to secure them, using the lead Marine companies of her now six-company strong “battalion”. Two companies went down on the assault shuttles, which was the normal complement, and in doing so secured the LZ’s. L’tenant Har’un reported the first LZ. “LZ Alpha secure.”  

Bikie was on the second. “LZ Bravo secure.” In total there were eight LZs, one for each platoon, staged around the capital region of the twin cities of Cite-Liberte and Nova Murcia, located about seventy-five klicks apart; this area with the large human population the League had already organised its withdrawal into. 

Major Armstrong looked to Fei’nur. “Colonel, we have the first two Landing Zones.” Once each Landing Zone was secured by a single platoon, then they were supposed to beam down two platoons of marines and one platoon of security personnel. The cargo transporters would deliver heavy weapons as support personnel from the additional support companies arrived after that point. 

“A good start. We will see how long it lasts.” Fei’nur leaned over to watch the displays. She would keep herself with the rapid reaction force on Huáscar , under the current plan. That was the power armour company--and the heavy tanks.

Slowly the reports trickled in. At least coming down to the surface, they were not encountering resistance, but wasn’t that how it always was with counter-insurgency operations? Going in was easy, staying was hard. “We’re all down, Colonel. Eight company-tripwire positions to cover the urban areas of two million person cities.” Janice grinned ruefully.

“Such as it always is. Full long-term force-protection measures. I am doubtful hearts-and-minds will work once they find out why we are here.” Fei’nur grumbled like the grognard she was.

“Confirming now…. FPCON Charlie in effect. We can organise watches for the QRF now?”

“Yes. I expect it to take it some time before they start probing.” Fei’nur glared balefully at the readouts. “Be ready to move to FPCON Delta when necessary.”

“Understood, Colonel.”

Major Kel’dar arrived and saluted. “QRF and Tanks in readiness, Battlemaster,” he offered with a true Dilgar contempt for the Alliance informality. 

“Thank you, Major. I will lead them down, whenever it is. You will relieve me if I am needed back on the Huáscar and Major Richards will take the QRF” Fei’nur returned the gesture. “Gods preserve us, for the plans of the diplomats will surely not.”

Sickbay was not very busy, fortunately. There were a few follow-up appointments for people who had gotten minor injuries on Libo, but beyond that it was generally a downswing following the heavy casualties in the ‘Verse. Nah’dur was in her office with a steamy, giant, bowl-shaped mug of ytar. 

“Nah’dur.  You look quite pleased with your mug. May I come in?” Zhen’var leaned on the hatch coaming with a soft smile on her face.

“My mug is large, and it is filled with tasty stimulant broth,” Nah’dur said in perfect seriousness… And then her lips curled into a big grin and she nodded. “Of course, sister.” it was impossible, except when Nah’dur wanted you to, to tell when she was being serious or not with her sometimes odd behaviour, but in fact she was perfectly mature when she wanted to be.

“You have come up with a plan to proceed by now, I assume?” the Captain asked idly, dropping into a chair before the surgeon’s desk.

“I have been assembling my reports and assessments on the situation... What do you mean by a plan to proceed, Captain?” Nah’dur blinked owlishly. “We’re not actually going to do that utter foolishness, are we?”

You are going to do the site assessment, Surgeon-Commander. We will proceed only if you deem it safe to do so. So it was agreed.”

“Oh. Well, good.” She sipped her ytar. “Yes, I have a backup plan for that. Of course.” 

“May I hear it?” The older Dilgar asked, leaning forward in the chair with honest interest.

It was in the middle of the night for Zhen’var, because of course everything happened in the middle of the night, when Will called her. “Captain, we’re getting an all-channels broadcast from the surface, not originating from League positions.”

“Understood, you know the drill from Drachenfeldt!” She was already rolling out of her hammock to bring up her terminal, grabbing for the uniform that hung on the wall, ready to hand for this exact sort of circumstance.

“Roger that, Captain.” Will immediately ordered full power jamming of the signal, letting it go to space where the Alliance could track and record it, while at the same time preventing it from being repeated or heard except in the immediate vicinity of the broadcast back on the ground. 

“All right, let’s see what this one involves…” Please be just a normal political broadcast, not some new call for violence...?

It was in Numeraian, but the autotranslator worked perfectly and even captured a certain amount of the flare, with the usual expected awkwardness.

“People of the Home-rock, people of our race and nation, the hour has finally come where our enemies retreat from us, where the humans of the far stars, the evicted, the homeless, retreat back to their far-stars and pull away from our home. The rooted, who helped us, now will preserve us against the threat of the rootless, and the countries of our people shall know freedom. On this day we declare our liberty, and permit nothing to stand between us and the aspirations of our people to once again hold fast our homes. We will face the homeless of far-stars as a sovereign, proud, people, indivisible for our land, who could not be conquered and will not be beaten. Together, arise, and make forth a clattering which lets the far-star kin know their day is done, the home is reclaimed by the people! The liberty of our Queens and our Countries is at hand through all the federation! Our sovereignty is resumed, and henceforth shall not be abandoned!”

“Well, that does not sound positive for our efforts, Commander, unless we are the ‘rooted’. Which I doubt.”

“Should I increase our readiness posture in orbit at this time, Captain?” Will answered, his throat going dry as he did. The Aururians. 

“That would be wise, I believe. We do not know when they will arrive, but we must assume this was pre-planned, and this transmission will get out on the surface once they realize they were jammed. Please get me Deputy Assistant Secretary Yulasanna on the line. I think certain assumptions have just collapsed...”

“Understood, Captain. I’ll have you patched through to the DAS now.” 

She had just enough time to replicate a mug of chai for her desk before the connection went through.

“Captain Zhen’var, Harmony to you. There’s something going on planetside, I take it?” Yulasanna’s image resolved before her.

“Subchannel one. I will wait for you to view. The transmission was jammed, but enough regional stations picked it up to where we have only delayed, not stopped it from going planetwide.”

She could hear Yulasanna pursing her lips and frowning. “They mean the Aururians, do they not?” 

“If they do not mean us, there is none other that meets the inference, Secretary Yulasanna. My ship is moving to a higher alert state as we speak. My ground troops are already on the highest possible long-term alert.”

“What will you tell the League commander?” She seemed to sound almost demoralised by the event. 

“That is now a political question, Deputy Undersecretary. What do you wish me to do? You are the ranking government official on the scene.”

Yulasanna froze for a moment, like she had been expecting Zhen’var to just go haring off on her own. Now she was on the spot, and legitimately so. Finally, she smiled a little. “Tell them the truth. That we expect the Aururian Empire will be arriving, and that we will keep the peace even with this additional complication. We will have our work cut out for us, Captain. I will ask for reinforcements, but they may further inflame the matter.” 

“I think the matter is already inflamed, by the last time a direct contact was made between the Alliance and Empire.” And the League being here adds as much complication as then.

“Do you want the reinforcements, then, Captain?”

"They may worsen the situation. Not having them if they are needed will be far worse. I request them, yes." 

“I will put in the request. We can instruct them to hold and await further orders at a trans-universal point from which they can arrive in a minute or two, Captain. When they come, and of course, with no guarantees on their strength. But it will be taken seriously from a negotiator.”

“Then I shall hold the situation to our favour as long as I am able, and pray it does not become untenable, madame.”

“Of course, Captain. Stand by for an update as soon as we receive a response from headquarters. They may contact you directly. You may reach out to the League forces at your discretion, based on this discussion, Captain. Military to military comms to keep the peace.” 

“Understood, Madame Secretary. Huáscar is ready.” I hope ready enough…

It was easy enough for Will to link her through. The ship’s alarms were still at Condition Yellow, but they had just gone to ZEBRA. Zhen’var, of course, was in her sea cabin and attached ready room, and could be on the bridge in less than thirty seconds even at full ZEBRA. 

Admiral Bonnet’s image appeared before her on the screen. “Captain, I thank you for jamming the message from the Garatnam terrorists. You have helped preserve the peace and the agreement between our nations.”

“We have only delayed the transmission, Admiral, not stopped it, and in so doing, we have intervened decisively in the planetary politics. It is the belief of myself and the Deputy Undersecretary that an Aururian presence is en-route under a pre-planned scheme. The Alliance intends to keep the peace in this system.”

“I will conform my movements to your own, Captain, despite the difference in rank. The League is absolutely committed to defending the peace process on Garatnam and the elimination of drugs cultivation on the planet. If it comes to hostilities, we will have your back.” It was with a sharp promptness, really almost too prompt.

“Of course. Thank you, Admiral.” They so desperately want a flashpoint that binds us into a war alongside them, don’t they? It made her almost sick to her stomach, informed from a read of the after-action report of Aurora’s encounter.

“Thank you, Captain. We will place our ships on alert. Vive la Liberté!” The screen blinked off. 

Divine protect us … “Commander, Admiral Bonnet will conform his actions to ours if fighting breaks out. We will not fire unless fired upon in space.”

“Isn’t that what they offered the last time too, and they probably caused all of that?” Will asked trenchantly.

“The Admiral responded with that offer very quickly, you are correct, Commander. Sleep is not going to come for me any longer tonight, if you need me, I will be in my ready room.” Zhen’var had a resigned tone to her voice.

Will knew better than to suggest she get something from Nah’dur. Even speaking that aloud, Zhen’var would frown on. She took her duties so seriously. “Of course, Captain. But I have the Night Watch well in hand.” 

“You still have the ship, Commander.” A hint of a fond, if chiding tone came through the comm link, before the connection closed.





It was four hours later, when Zhen’var was finishing her Chai and Chicken 65, far into the land of guilty pleasures by that point. Will had just been preparing to hand the watch off when the lights snapped red in Zhen’var’s sea cabin, which could of course only mean one thing. She was starting to move even before the klaxon started to sound.

On the bridge just beyond, the clipped tones of General Quarters--Condition Red--could be heard. With the ship already at Condition Yellow and MC ZEBRA set, there was not much time required for her to be fully ready for action. The screen flashed with the image of Aururian ships arriving in a dispersed formation. 

“Captain has the deck. Tactical picture.” Zhen’var headed straight for her chair, adrenaline surging and driving fatigue away for now. 

“It’s a standard Aururian frontier reaction squadron with one battlecruiser detached, reading three repeat three battlecruisers and one fleet carrier, four heavy cruisers, one light, action group of eight destroyers…” She trailed off and shook her head. “The League squadron is raising shields and arming weapons, but they’re not making any moves, Captain.”

“Good enough. Hail the Aururian squadron, request their intentions.”

“Aye, Captain,” Tor’jar answered at communications. “They are answering the hail with full visual-audio comms.”

“On the screens, then. Standard focus on me.” Zhen’var straightened her uniform jacket and stiffened her spine, crossing her hands in her lap and folding one leg over another.

The screen blinked on to reveal a sharp looking shortish woman compared to those around her, with mahogany skin and a single tied braid that forced curly hair into order. She was addressing someone, and then turned to face the screen in a crisp motion. The uniform was a crushed peaked cap, a jacket with visible fleece lining on the collar flaps over a skirt, and it was predominantly in white. She was almond eyed and oval of face, and her expression was completely composed. “Commander ASV Huáscar , I am Rear Admiral Afyhovindriyambohimanga of the 29th Quick Reaction Squadron.” The Universal translator blerped and tried to translate the name from Malagasy to English as ‘Fire-servant lady of the Royal Hill’ before giving up and unmasking it, considering she was speaking in excellent English. Tor’jar stared in blank aghast amazement. 

“I am Captain Zhen’var. State your intentions, Rear Admiral Afyhovindriyambohehmanga?” She tried her hardest with the name, but Dilgar vocal cords weren’t meant to produce some of those sounds.

She pursed her lips. “You may address me as Afyhova,” the woman allowed. “Captain, we are here at the request of the national government of Garatnam on the basis of their declaration of independence.” 

There was a flicker of a frown, and Zhen’var wanted to swallow before she replied in a calm voice; “The Alliance recognizes no declaration of independence, Rear Admiral. We are here to oversee a decolonization per an already negotiated agreement.”

“Decolonisation ends in independence, Captain. The League is withdrawing from Garatnam and your government has recognised the independence of the planet. We are making sure that the liberty the people of Garatnam now enjoy shall not be disturbed by disorder. At the invitation of their lawful government. Accordingly, we will be remaining in the outer system to observe the final withdrawal of the League occupation forces. We have never accepted their colonisation of Garatnam, we merely extended the courtesy of not contesting that illegal action to them per the Treaty of Caldane. Now that they are voluntarily withdrawing from the planet, Caldane no longer applies.”

“Of course, the Alliance is working to guarantee the League completes their withdrawal in safety. At that point, you are correct, Garatnam will be fully free and independent.” This has become a diplomatic tinderbox.

“Perhaps it is not very respectful toward freedom for the enslavers to get to choose when their slaves become free,” the Aururian Admiral answered, her voice turning dark, as she glanced over to a Ralsan of Captain’s rank who saluted and came to her side. Then she looked back to Zhen’var and smiled. “Still, we have no quarrel with the Dilgar. I will hold position in the outer system, as I stated.”

“In negotiations, not everything is as one wishes.” She felt shame flicker across her face, but the Alliance was rapidly getting into a cold war with these people. “Thank you for your forbearance, Admiral Afyhova.”

“Your reputation precedes you, Captain, I thank you for the consideration.” She raised her hand formally, and the screen blinked off. The Aururian squadron hung, posed in space, gleaming like gunmetal in the faint light of Garatnam’s star.

Chapter Text

Act 4

A few hours later, Nah’dur was standing in front of the exhausted Captain. She had methodically worked through her test plan, and considering the way the chemical was used in its normal, non-illicit drug application, it became quite clear what she needed to understand to complete an EIS. The paperwork presented fascinating new challenges in the dark arts of bureaucracy and had certainly been entertaining, but now she was confident that she could use some VIs she had helped Fera’xero to programme to actually execute all of the writing and save her a great deal of time, so she really only needed to get the data, which would keep her interest longer than the paperwork ever could.

“Ma’am, I’m going to need to enter a hive-city and conduct sampling. You’ll need to get me permission from the locals. There’s no other way to assess the Environmental Impact.” Fera’xero nodded glumly. “It involves quite a lot of testing that can only be done from sampling. Biospheric environments are too complex to model at the micro-scale.” 

“Finding of no significant impact my…” Zhen’var grumbled, the only sign of how exhausted she was being that she actually let the thought slip into speech. “Understood, Surgeon-Commander. How much of a team, and how noticable will it be?”

“Four or five technicians. I should lead them. I mean, the issue is any cultural risk of scraping things off and taking core samples and so on,” Nah’dur gestured. “They might get upset.” 

I will consult with our local expert and detail Colonel Fei’nur for close-in security. I am not taking chances.” came the Captain’s response. “Prepare your team, Surgeon-Commander, and expect the worst.”

“Ooh, I get to be with Fei’nur. Everything will be fine then.” 

Fera’xero stared at his colleague in blank incomprehension.

Zhen’var gave her stepsister a look . “Even the Colonel can not manage every eventuality. Be about it, Commander.”

“You will let me know when permission has been obtained?” Her eyes shone. “I will prepare the briefings and review the documentation in the meantime, and make sure everyone understands what we need for the sampling plan and the security plan.”

The older Dilgar woman nodded, face showing hints of a fond smile. “I shall, Commander. I have full confidence in your leadership of the detachment. Dismissed.” Once they had departed, she reached for her console; “Comms, I need the Deputy Undersecretary at her earliest convenience.”

Three minutes later, Yulassana answered. “Captain Zhen’var, firstly, I want to thank you for keeping the situation calm with the Aururians. What do you need?” 

“We need to send a team down to take samples in a hive city in order to complete the impact study, ma’am.” She mentally grimaced, doubting this would result in any sort of pleasant reaction.

“The official hand-over hasn’t happened, we need to conform with the requests of the League until that point, Captain. They don’t want us leaving the secured Massif. We just have one diplomatic contact with the Numeraians…” She looked at Zhen’var. “You are really causing a … We can’t meet our obligations to the League without this, can we?”

“Not in a timely fashion, no.” The picture of the ship in her report is not going to be a very flattering one…

“Let me reach out to Admiral Bonnet. He is acting as the Planetary Governor for the course of the withdrawal. Please stand by, you should likely expect a meeting.”

“Understood, ma’am. I will be awaiting further communications.” Zhen’var nodded her head fractionally before the connection dropped. As soon as it did, she leaned back in her chair and let out an explosively loud sigh of exasperation.

“Captain,” Elia’s voice chimed almost a moment later. “The Aururian Admiral has invited us to dinner on the … Resolution, I think the name translates as.”

“... Wonderful. As a forewarning, I am expecting Admiral Bonnet to invite us to dinner in about five minutes...” Gods, but this is a comedy waiting to happen.

“...What does that mean for what I should tell her, Captain?”

“We accept, but caution her that I may be unable to attend, and extend my apologies. Colonel Fei’nur is my equal in rank and can stand in my stead, while Commander Atriad keeps the watch aboard.” Her mind could just see all the ways this could go wrong, and it showed in the grimace on her face. “The mission comes first, if Admiral Bonnet wishes a meeting, the Deputy Undersecretary will expect me to prioritize it.”

“She acknowledged,” Elia answered a moment later. “That seemed a little tense, though.” 

“I am not surprised. It looks, diplomatically… bad , in a word. I shall hope for there to be no schedule conflict between the two. Your read of the current situation?”

“I really want to see the results of the EIS,” Elia answered after a brief hesitation. “I think we’re getting had.” 

“I have concerns along similar lines, but we will, of course, remain even-handed until such time as we have proof, one way or another. Be as wary and careful as you were raised to be, and perhaps we shall come out the other side to our credit.”

Her persocomp indicated another incoming call from Yulassana. That had fortunately not taken long.

“Secretary is calling; brief you later, Commander.” Zhen’var had an apologetic smile before she transferred links. “Yes, Madame Secretary?”

“Admiral Bennet will see you, as well as Director Merenteram of the National Transitional Council. Dinner going to work? I will host it aboard my ship to use the replicators to comply with species dietary requirements.”

The Captain was very proud she managed not to groan audibly. “It shall, ma’am, certainly. I shall attend; is a selection of my officers wished as well?”

“Please, the League will certainly bring their own.” 

“Of course, I thank you for hosting the event. Link it to my calendar, and we shall be there.”

“Thank you, Captain. I will see you shortly.” The screen blinked off and the invitation appeared a moment later.

Zhen’var silently tapped up an invitation to a staff meeting to her senior officer’s and senior NCO’s omnitools; with a note attached; Arrive in dress uniform if you wish an opportunity for attending a diplomatic dinner . She added a note to Fei’nur that, unfortunately, for her, it was required .

Which of course begged the question of who would be going with Fei’nur, a matter Zhen’var was still musing over when she arrived, in her dress whites. Fei’nur looked less than well pleased as she sat there; the look she gave her Captain was almost a glower. Almost.

In the meanwhile, Will and Fera’xero and Anna had all volunteered for the diplomatic dinner with the National Transitional Council and Admiral Bonnet, and that left… A different sort of crowd of potential officers to go along with Fei’nur. Will of course got the short stick; he was the XO, and the ship needed a commander. 

Nah’dur had expressed an interest, at which Fei’nur tried not to cringe; her eyes scanned the room as to whom else was left. Elia… and Commander Imra. Ye gods . “It seems I have my volunteers to meet the Imperial Admiral, Commanders?” She could hear Zhen’var starting to brief her group on the other end of the table.

“Of course, Colonel,” Abebech smiled. “I always love being sociable.”

“...They are an intensely interesting people,” Elia added. She seemed to be, in part, coming out of loyalty to Fei’nur from a Mha’dorn.

There is no need for you two to go if you do not wish to do so. Nah’dur wishes to get a chance to make medical contacts with a people who fascinate her. Fei’nur ‘thought’ rather hard at the two of them. 

< Why Fei’nur, that’s nice of you, but don’t worry. The Aururians are interesting to me. They seem like… Fundamentally decent people, actually.> 

< Actually, I’m certain of that,> Abebech rejoined.

“We will talk more on the way, then. Surgeon-Commander?” Fei’nur’s gaze fell to Abebech. “How are you certain, if I may ask? Most of the Alliance does not share the opinion.”

Nah’dur fell in cheerfully with them. 

Abebech smiled at that and looked sharply to Fei’nur. “They don’t ask how Aururians actually solve disputes internally, which at the lower levels of their society is very collegiate. They have made the Ralsan very collegiate as well. The Alliance just looks at the position of the Empress, and proceeds on stereotype. A failing of our’s.”

“An Empress which has a lineage of…” She trailed off. “Obeying the constitutions they grant when it is wise, and overthrowing them when necessary. I believe the multiple and open voting is also a matter of poor optics to much of the Alliance, without even bringing up the issue of classical power politics.”

“I never thought I would hear of a state where the entire population returns to the towns of their foremothers in some great assemblage like Caesar’s census to hold elections,” Abebech shook her head wryly, “but the wonders never cease. Her line is one of the oldest around, though even in other universes where their fate is much less strange and filled with glories, the peoples of Australia had an unparalleled history in oral storytelling of high fidelity and accuracy.”

“Possibly as good as telepathic memetic transfer,” Elia explained. “I mean that literally. Though you won’t hear many other telepaths admitting to it. We have our own biases.” 

“Yet we know relatively little about them. I have read the League’s reports, that of the crew of the Aurora , and that of our own analysts, and it all-together tells me very little useful; what I saw on Germania told me more than all those. Enough to be… filled with disquiet over them so rapidly becoming a concern to politicians.”

“We will find out a little bit more today,” Elia offered. “War with them would only come through a mistake, not their conscious act.” 

“There are plenty of opportunities for mistakes in situations as this. I am concerned by how matters have developed thus far.” Fei’nur worked her hands into fists, before forcing them to relax. “My galaxy has seen this road walked repeatedly.”

“Then we will be honest with them. The Captain did not restrict what we can say, and we really have nothing to hide,” Abebech observed. “Well, pardon me. There is one thing. I really don’t think we should mention the plan to use a genetically engineered plague to eliminate the drug-producing enzyme. Not yet.”

“Commander Nah’dur will be discreet about that, I am certain, with how badly she regards the idea.” Fei’nur answered, her own expression showing a flicker of distaste.

“I need to get to the surface of the planet,” Nah’dur answered as she prepared to peel off and get her dress uniform. “Then I will know a lot more. I am certainly not going to admit to the Aururians that I may have been ordered to commit a crime.”

Elia grimaced. “I suppose that’s where we find ourselves.”

“I prefer to think of the matter as attempting to correct an imbalance of diplomatic effort.” Fei’nur shrugged. “We shall see. I do not think this invitation was offered from mere politeness.”

Arriving on Yulassana’s ship, Zhen’var, Anna, Fera’xero and Arterus were  greeted by a brace of guards who led them to a tastefully laid out, calm-projecting Gersalian conference room. Admiral Bonnet and his staff, minus the Chief of Staff notably--who presumably would handle the squadron if anything went down--and three Numeraians, six-limbed but able to stand on two with multifaceted eyes, regarded them sharply. Admiral Bonnet watched carefully and Yulassana rose.

“Captain Zhen’var and her officers, being her Chief Engineer, Science Officer and Navigating Officer,” she presented, supplying names. “Ter’int’mahn of the National Transitional Council and staff; Admiral Bonnet of the League of Democratic Worlds and Staff.” 

An smile crossed Zhen’var’s face as she clicked her heels and gave a small bow of her head to Ter’int’mahn, and another nod to Admiral Bonnet. “A pleasure to meet you, and finally in person, Admiral Bonnet.”

“Captain,” Bonnet rose. His staff reflected the inherent tension the League had with aliens, but they were all strictly professional. Now the food was laid out, a different meal for everyone at the table, except Anna and the League men, who shared dietary options. It almost - to Zhen’var, at least, who was a special case - seemed like some strange dream, where the concerns of nations were discussed over genteel place-settings.

“You want access to our hives,” Ter’int’mahn observed. “They are our traditional motherlands. Many live outside of them now in artificial structures, but each Numeraian has a clan into which they were born and a Mother-Queen to whom they ultimately owe their loyalty, to whom they have their heritage. It is a system we were working on reforming to conform with the progressive ideals of the League for independence, so we could keep the Mother-Queens in certain traditional roles while incorporating ideas of liberty for primary decision-making.”

“It is so. We wish to ensure that no harm comes to them via what may be introduced from the wider multiverse. Ecologies are complex things, as are traditions. I understand that it is an imposition, Ter’int’mahn.”

“Traditionalists are the greatest problem to our reforms. The problem is that inside the old hives, you will find the supporters of the traditional rule by the Queen-Mothers, who have long conducted an insurgency against the League,” the Numeraian answered.

“We certainly cannot guarantee your safety, nor can the government,” Admiral Bonnet said. 

“That said,” Ter’int’mahn continued, “There are several hives directly under the Xiteran Plateau that your troops are on. They are aligned with the NTC. We could try to set up secure conditions for one of your teams to enter one.” 

“However, there is a very real risk of attack,” Bonnet interjected again.

“It is necessary, Admiral, I fear I must insist, even with the risk.” Zhen’var turned her gaze back to the Numeraian. “The effort would be greatly appreciated.”

“We will do everything we can to guarantee the security of the team,” Ter’int’mahn replied with a soft chitter. “Completing the withdrawal is important to the legitimacy of the National Transitional Council and our interests in receiving help and assistance from the Alliance to maintain our reforms.” 

“For that, you have my thanks. We shall continue to do our utmost to ensure the success of the League withdrawal and the transitional period thereafter.” Zhen’var was honestly pleased by the helpfulness of the NTC’s representative, at least on the surface. It was, however, an open question of what was happening on the Aururian flagship with Colonel Fei’nur…

Fei’nur, Abebech and Elia had arrived by shuttle on the Aururian flagship.

Brushing away imaginary lint, Fei’nur turned to stride down the gangway. She had almost worn her Dilgar uniform for this, thinking it would give a better impression. She had resisted the urge, however, and she stepped down with medals and ribbons adorning the green dress jacket. “Permission to come aboard?” She asked crisply, in untranslated English, saluting the sunrise-adorned Imperial Crest on the bulkhead.

“Permission granted!” A fleece-coated Ralsan woman saluted with sharp pride and then extended her hand. “Captain Mirrawi Kerolit of the Resolution, Colonel. Admiral Afyhova is waiting for you with the rest of her staff.”

“Thank you, Captain. May I present Commander Abebech Imra, Surgeon-Commander Nah’dur, and Lieutenant Commander Elia Saumarez, who are of the Heermann , and the last two of the Huáscar, respectively.

“This way, Colonel, Commanders.” She started off. “We are very proud of our battlecruiser, she is certainly one of the finest ships in the frontier fleet. Admiral Afyhova was an upperclasswoman in my section when I was new in the Academy,” the Ralsan woman’s tail flicked. “She sets a very fine table.” 

“We look forward to the opportunity to sample her hospitality, Captain, it shall certainly be more congenial than some I have had the misfortune to experience.” The side of Fei’nur which had been the secret emissary of the Dilgar to the multiverse on full display.

“You are a carnivore are you not? The Admiral sets her table from Madagaskarian tradition and she certainly has prepared on that assumption.”

“Preferential, yes. I do not believe we have any specific dietary restrictions amongst our party. It will be most welcome. I do not believe I have as yet had the experience of sampling cuisine from that isle.”

“The more raw it is, the better,” Abebech confessed with a wry smile. 

“Oh, I am sympathetic. You might like Ralsan dishes then, we often like to cook with marinades instead of heat,” the Captain explained. “There will be some.” It was a large group of officers, with the Admiral in her dress uniform coming up as the Captain saluted. 

“Colonel Fei’nur. I understand you were sent as the commander of the ground expeditionary force?” Afyhova asked.

“I am so serving as, yes, Admiral. I am the commander of the Huascar ’s Marine contingent, and second only to Captain Zhen’var on her rank table. She extends her most sincere apologies she could not make it this evening.” She herself saluted Afyhova out of reflex, trying to be on her best behaviour with a foreign Admiral.”

Afyhova returned the salute. “Then please, sit with me at my table as my guest with your fellow-officers. You are welcome among us, Colonel Fei’nur. Indeed, is your not your Dilgar rank Battlemaster, so that really you should be something of a Senior Colonel?” She was very well informed, and for whatever reason in what the Aururians were planning, willing to share it. 

“That is correct. Captain Zhen’var ranks me by less than a week of time in grade.” A hint of wariness coloured her voice, and Fei’nur wondered just how thick the file on her species that this Empire’s intelligence services held was .

“I take it that the Captain is meeting with my counterpart from the League?” She asked, her smile affable, as the table was set out and glasses filled around by liveried attendants, mostly young Ralsan women. 

“She is meeting with the Alliance Deputy Undersecretary. Admiral Bonnet may also be a guest.” Fei’nur hedged carefully, glancing about the compartment, and she offered a nod and murmur of thanks as her glass was filled. “There is every reason and incentive to ensure the League’s withdrawal is expeditious.”

“Well, I regret the lack of ability to meet her,” the Admiral answered. “With that… Let us get started.” She tapped her glass. The Aururians began to rise, and of course it was the youngest officer, a shining dark eyed black woman with curly hair, who rose eagerly at the table in her dress uniform and presented her glass. “Her Majesty, the Empress of the Sun!”

“Her Majesty!” 

Fei’nur raised her glass herself and joined in the toast; it was polite and diplomatic, even if she wanted to raise her own - most impolitic - one in response.

As the toast finished, though, the next seniormost officer raised her glass. “To His Excellency the President of the Alliance.” 

That hadn’t been the toast Fei’nur had thought of, but she raised her glass by rote in the classic style. “His Excellency!”

But the Aururians were quite aware of some of the nuances here. Now a Lieutenant Commander rose. “Her Eminence Warmaster Shai’jhur of the Honourable Union of Tira and Rohric!”

That was enough to make a smile cross Fei’nur’s face as she quite enthusiastically returned that toast. The Alliance President was not her President quite yet.

“I confess that we would all like to see the Dilgar remain independent,” Captain Mirrawi admitted boldly to Fei’nur, with Nah’dur blinking in interest. “In fact, there is a children’s adventure book about the Warmaster and her wife available in the Empire these days; my own eldest daughter had a copy at home, much to my surprise.” 

It was not often that anyone at that table had seen Fei’nur at a total loss for words. “A… children’s adventure book? That is… I admit, I had not expected such a thing. Certainly there are debts to be repaid, however, that cannot be ignored.”

Afyhova looked bemused. “That’s Lady Rawlins’ ‘ Adventurous Romances in Foreign Lands ’ chapbook series, is it not, Captain?” 

“Yes, it’s entitled The Castaways, ” Mirrawi explained. “Colonel, Battlemaster, we understand perfectly that you are not in a place to do anything except go all-in for the Alliance, because otherwise you would be chopped to bits. But still, we were excited to be able to help with Omelos, and I think us Ralsan especially feel a kindred with you. Once we thought we were tops, too, until we ran into humans. It only went differently because of the Her Majesty’s Ancestresses.”

Fei’nur gave a single quick look to Nah’dur. “I… admit, I also have real excitement at the prospect. We have found peoples amongst the stars… painfully similar to ourselves.”

“Wait, you’re doing some kind of project with Omelos? Why, surely…!” She almost bounced out of her chair. 

Admiral Afyhova looked at Fei’nur.

“It has been kept a close-held secret so far, Admiral… Surgeon-Commander, the Warmaster has been in negotiations with the Aururian Empire for the purposes of contracting with them to restore the biosphere of Omelos to an extent that it may once again support Dilgar life upon the surface. Initial surveys have this far proven to be promising."

“You would, really? ” Nah’dur’s eyes lit up. 

“We would, even if you become Alliance members as I fear you must. It is an unmitigated Good thing,” Afyhova answered. “Healing a world such as that always is, that was once a healthy biome, and restoring it to what it was.”

“There’s still life in the deep ocean abyssals,” Nah’dur immediately started musing. “It takes a long while to freeze the sea, if it would ever happen at all…”

“Indeed, and we shall protect that.” 

“I will ensure you are copied on the various briefing and proposal papers, Commander.” Fei’nur added, into the pause after the Admiral’s comment, though she did give a glance to the other two Alliance officers there. This was the sort of thing the Alliance government was concerned of, the relentless Aururian efforts to expand their influence in other universes.

“It will be good to see our homeworld restored,” Elia answered, taking a defiant stand as another Dilgar officer.

“You are a citizen of the Union?” Afyhova looked surprised.

“I am, Admiral. As a telepath…”

“Ah, indeed. No need to say more. We are aware of that situation.” Her eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “Colonel Fei’nur, I am not interested in a fight here. What I am interested in is making sure that the Numeraians have a safe, truly free transition to self-governance, and we have concerns that the National Transitional Council, a creature of the League, really plans to take that course.”

“We are, thus far, proceeding off the briefing we have been given by our diplomatic office. It indicated the Council was endeavouring to establish a constitutional and democratic regime.” Fei’nur sipped at her glass. “I understand Banyuwangi requires you to ensure the end state is as noble as the aim.”

Afyhova tipped her brow with a gesture of her hand. “You are correct, Colonel. In this case we have serious concerns that the NTC really intends to represent the will of the Numeraians and indeed whether or not this is just an attempt at continued economic domination in disguise.”

“I am…” Fei’nur paused, before she went on with a mental wince that did not show on her face. “ Reasonably certain the Alliance would not permit such a thing to come to pass. We will be investigating conditions ourselves, of course, as much as we are permitted and able.”

“The NTC need only sign those agreements with League corporations,” Mirrawi leaned in. “Even in sovereignty, their nation would be destituted to foreign powers. How do you propose to prevent it?”

“Would one say the Union is destituted to the Empire, if we sign agreements with you ?” She asked, with a hint of challenge to her voice. “The Captain must weigh what she sees while she is here, and give the wisest council she may to the government.”

“Of course, but we will not tolerate a government for Garatnam that does not represent its population. The NTC has never been anything other than a creation of the League,” Afyhova answered, all too calmly.

“Nor will any Alliance we are sworn to. Huáscar has something of a reputation, I am certain your files will indicate.” Fei’nur was starting to see the direction the conversation was going; it was a warning , and she started to feel a worming current of tension in her gut.

“One question is whether or not there is any sincerity in what the League does,” Mirrawi leaned, her green eyes flaring and ears flexing down. “Colonel, I still have the pictures that my grandmother took when she was liberating the camps, when she was part of the Army which brought the honour of the Empire to liberate the remains of the Ralsan Imperium. They are the children of genocidaires. They speak from two mouths at once, and have no respect for any but their own blood.”

“You understand, Captain, why the matter is less certain to the Alliance government.” She had a real disquiet that was making this feel awkward. She did not wish to defend a people she did not trust. “Much has been staked upon this negotiation being successful.”

“They take advantage of simplistic comparisons and easy moralising.” she countered.

Afyhova raised her hand.” “Be not so unkind, they come to us honestly. Colonel, you may be assured that we would render aid to your forces if the locals attacked, and try to restore the peace.”

“While I thank you for the offer, I do not think the League would see it as any but an invasion, until such time as they have formally withdrawn.” The Dilgar veteran murmured, glancing to the well-experienced Abebech. Why does it always rain when you left your tent behind…

“You are right, but we will still come if it is necessary to restore the peace.”

Abebech straightened slightly. “Admiral, you have spoken many kind words but what remains is the fact that it is your allies who can dial the tension up or down against us.”

“Commander, we cannot control the anger of others at the defilement of their homes.”

“It can be cautioned that we of the Huáscar are not here to support the League. We are not the team that has been here before.” Fei’nur looked down at the table for the moment. “Captain Zhen’var does not accept what she is told without verifying it.”

“Then you may find answers you do not like, Colonel.”

Very early the next ship’s morning, Nah’dur stood in front of Zhen’var and Fei’nur. “So there’s my plan for the mission,” she was concluding, “and our personnel are already preparing themselves for departure. Do you have any questions, Captain, Colonel?” 

Zhen’var looked up at her with a mildly quizzical look. “Correct me if I am wrong, Surgeon-Commander, but can not your security plan be distilled down to ‘Colonel Fei’nur’?”

There was a twitch of muscles on the Spectre’s face as she valiantly avoided a grin appearing.

“Well, one merely has to have Fei’nur identify a threat, and then the rest follows,” Nah’dur answered nonchalantly. “She really is highly effective.” 

“And if the Colonel is, fate being unkind, neutralized or separated from your team in some way?” Zhen’var’s tone was not sharp, but she was expressing her own line of thought and trying to solicit further elaboration.

“Oh, then of course I’ve covered the tactical dispositions for the tac-com net for interfacing with the NTC forces, I’ve gotten a plan down to exfiltrate to their nearest post, and how we will overcome transporter interference. I’ve also covered rules for joint coverage of teams and staying together against kidnapping attempts and have a complement of anti-bomb detection drones linked into our omnitools,” she answered nonchalantly. 

“That is all I was looking for. Thank you, Commander. Colonel?” Zhen’var glanced over.

“I have no questions. The Surgeon-Commander has carried out the planning to her usual high standards. When Commander Nah’dur is ready?”

Nah’dur looked like she was almost going to jump in the air, though she just came to attention. “Of course, Captain, Colonel. I will be departing within thirty minutes, then.”

“Leave is granted. Good luck, and be careful , both of you. Dismissed.” 

After they left, Nah’dur sniffed gently. “You know I would never neglect those things,” she protested gently to Fei’nur. 

“I know that, and the Captain knows that, but she wants to hear your planning. It soothes her fears as your sister, and her worries as your Captain. You will not be a Commander forever.”

“You think she is actually afraid for me?” Nah’dur’s skin rippled with a sheepish look crossing her face. 

“As much as your mother and I am, sometimes. Fate is often most cruel to Dilgar.” came the reply, in a lowered voice.

Nah’dur paused, and looked around them. “Another woman would have told me to change my name,” she answered bluntly, getting to what she felt was really the point.

“Perhaps, Nah, but none of us have. Nor will we.” Fei’nur’s gaze swept the corridor. “When you grow famous enough, you must be ready for what is to come. Until then, you are Zhen’var’s sister.”

“I think she’s braver than I am,” Nah’dur said idly. “Braver than you. Maybe not Tra’dur and Mother-Shai, though.”

“If you define bravery as you are doing, I would not disagree. Everything I did during the war, I did to try and get home.” The sentence ended in a quiet growl. “I intend to get you home, too.” 

Nah’dur curled a bit and reached out to Fei’nur. “I’m sorry, Fei. I won’t be so trite anymore, or at least I’ll try very hard. I…” I forget that you lost everything. We were your only reason to live. 

“All I will ask of you, child of Dur. Come, we have a mission to execute.” She squeezed Nah’dur’s hand, before her usual detachment settled across her features as they turned onto a main corridor.

Chapter Text

Act 5

Arriving on the surface of the planet, Nah’dur and her team got to work. As promised she had five technicians, plus Fera’xero, a security squad, and of course lurking somewhere around, Fei’nur. They rode vehicles from the Marine vehicle pool out to the entry-tunnel gates of the selected hive-city so that they could beam down inside of a secured area, but they were unarmed utility vehicles, in case they had to be abandoned. 

A bejeweled and robed older Numeraian bowed and scraped his upper limbs to the ground when they met their welcoming party. “I am Sub-Vizier Ter’mitran. Queen Tisararam is ever-pleased to be of assistance to the National Transitional Council, and you shall be follow us to let you begin your sampling.”

“Sub-Vizier, we are honoured. I am Surgeon-Commander Nah’dur. Please do lead on.” With a nod, they started below, Fera’xero with a drone at his side, sampling as they moved further down into the hive city. 

While the appearance of things was as expected, that had not stopped Fei’nur from flexing her fingers on her sidearm during the entire journey, starting as soon as they had headed underground. She could never forget Balos.

As they approached the lower caverns, they saw before them, illuminated with bioluminescence and some artificial light, an immense expanse of open caverns, in which buildings were made of stalactite and stalagmite-shapes inside of open halls, with many of the Numeraians moving about. Nah’dur stopped for a moment. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?”

“And all natural, they’re converting the dirt to cement with their own bodies’ enzymes through the Tiral plant,” Fera’xero added, studying the output from his sensors. “They’re able to build underground caverns as large as we can with those techniques.”

And that is what this… targeted lacing of the planet might interrupt… Fei’nur glanced about. The open spaces, at least, were quite different. “It is impressive, I admit.”

“All right, let’s start by sampling the main structural supports,” she gestured to the columns that had been left in place and successively plastered again and again with enyzmes until they were like concrete bridge pylons. 

“Agreed, Surgeon-Commander,” Fera’xero concurred, and started for one at the centre of the great market down in the depths of the city. Around them, tens of thousands of Numeraians hummed and chattered. 

Gods, but could it be more exposed? Fei’nur shifted to at least get a wall at her back. I have an ill feeling of this. As long as her tactical links stayed up, the Colonel could convince herself it might be nothing.

Back aboard the Huáscar, life went on. The regular watch rotations held, and Zhen’var was in her office while an Officer-of-the-Watch held the ship, going over reports and holding meetings. Toward the end of her office hours, Lieutenant Arterus tr’Rllaillieu, the ship’s Rihannsu navigator, came in for an appointment that he had requested. 

“Lieutenant tr’Rllaillieu. Sit, and be at ease.” Her ever-present mug of chai was on her desk, as she folded her hands before her and leaned fractionally forwards.

He moved to sit, but being at ease seemed beyond him in that moment. “I meant to have this meeting sooner, but the needs of our deployment made it impossible, Captain. As you know, I visited my cousin while I was on leave.” 

“You are here now, and I am so aware, Lieutenant.” Her tone was casual, as Zhen’var tried to divine the direction the meeting was going.

“She reintroduced me to the woman who saved our lives from the Tal Shiar,” Arterus said, and hesitated. “I do not understand it at all, Captain, but… She introduced herself to us. Her name is Danaine Taruar. Captain, she was one of the most honourable humans I know, she had Mnhei’sahe in her veins, she was a woman of fire as the Elements go, and stronger and steadier than many Rihannsu.” He looked down for a moment. “And she’s an Aristo.”

The Captain’s mouth opened fractionally, her eyes widening in shock. “You… mean to say… are you certain , Lieutenant…? That matches nothing we know so far of them, as you know. Do you think there is anything untoward about her actions thus far..?”

“Captain… I shall be plain with you. She introduced herself as a personal emissary of the Eubian Emperor. And she said she wanted to meet with someone in the Alliance who was absolutely trustworthy, with whom she could establish a line of communication.”

Without even thinking, Zhen’var let out a soft puff of a sigh. “Arre, you mean me , do you not, Lieutenant? If so, very well.” 

“Khre’Riov,” he addressed her, stumbling and then pushing himself up to attention. “It is uncomfortable for me. Her people are thought the most evil known, now that we have beaten the Reich. But she said she needed our help and that her Emperor needed our help, and she wants to talk. And I owe her my life, and my cousin’s life as well.”

Veherr , Lieutenant, I do not speak dismissively. I am willing - eager, even, to, assist. Even if I feel io stelam 'nil io cehlaer sometimes.”

He laughed, the tension broken. “Thank you, Captain. I have secure comm codes to the Far Star for you. I owe it to do right by her, and you.” He extended the small chit. 

“Thank you. I shall use them when there are not multiple warships who might be far too eager to eavesdrop within hailing distance.” Taking the chit, she stood. “If there was nothing else, I need to take supper before standing watch.”

“Of course, Captain.” It was as they both rose that the alerts started. 

On the surface, Nah’dur and Fera’xero had been carefully leading the sampling effort when Fera’xero, inscrutable under his mask, took a few steps over toward Fei’nur and activated the short range commlink channel. “ Colonel, we are being watched. There is an automated sensor grid feeding information out on us. Inconspicious and very sophisticated.

“I am not surprised.” the burst transmission came back, as her cybernetics started to move to a higher energy consumption state. “Be ready for ambuscade.”

“Surgeon-Commander!” She called out, with a hint of exasperation projecting into her tone. “How much longer will it be?” When Nah’dur turned, Fei’nur delicately scratched at her cheek, with a single extended claw.

“Thirty tango charlies,” Nah’dur answered. That sounded like some form of time measure to confuse the person surveiling them, but actually it was a warning to the rest of the team in turn. She had gotten it, and immediately, too. 

The sensors were foreign, Fei’nur could divine that much, which meant her people were - to her reckoning - about to end up in the middle of some proxy skirmish. As to which power vying over the planet it was, that didn’t matter, not yet. She started to wander off - trying to break contact enough to have a chance to activate the stealth gear that was her equalizer in such a situation.

A group of Numeraians rushed out from the midst of the market toward one of Nah’dur’s outer sampling teams. One of the security team with them spun toward the attackers. “ TIC team four engaging !” Crackled over the comm as a burst of charge fire seared into the carapaces of the group of attackers. 

Shovel to White, we are under attack! Beam up if possible!

The request was met with static, nothing more than static, as the distinctive sound and sight of Aururian guns firing from the group of Numeraians. The security personnel who had accompanied them from the NTC forces were already gone, disappearing just as the group from the Huáscar prepared for the ambush. 

Nah’dur was already on her belly with her main group, firing in enfilade down on the group attacking her team, even though they only had sidearms. The other four outlying sample teams were pulling back when a cart next to a stand in the market exploded, and one of the science techs and a Security Corporal collapsed from the massive shock from an IED overwhelming their personal shields.

Fei’nur bit back the curse that wanted to slip from her lips, as she activated her stealth gear and tried to break contact to repay the ambush. Nah’dur’s efforts were going to be tested; Imperial weapons would do heavy damage to anyone not in full armour, and most of the team was very much not . The massive number of shield activations the distributed flechettes produced would also serve to quickly drain the shields

Nah’dur’s central group was laying down a heavy fire with their pulse pistols, which led to Team Four begin to fall back toward the base of the column. Hundreds of Numeraians were fleeing in every direction, but dozens were also approaching. 

Shovel, ” Nah’dur’s voice crackled over the comm. “ Smarty .” Some wondered if Nah’dur actually grasped her callsign, but she had accepted it regardless. “ Can you finish supporting team four? I can try to reach the wounded from team two if you do.

Two clicks over tactical comms were the reply as Fei’nur started moving. If she could be picked up by the enemy’s sensors, this was going to be very painful.

Nah’dur, covered by two security personnel, dashed down toward the fallen from team two. Ostensibly an ambush, Fera’xero’s drone began to attack the ambush position, having detected it from where it flitted above. Nah’dur fiddled with something and threw an object through the air which exploded in a sheet of flame nearby, before rolling down under the cover of the two pulse rifles toward the wounded. A few flechettes spattered off her shield to no effect. 

Fei’nur’s stealth held up. She was down among the attackers in an instant, and using first silenced gun and then knife began to methodically demolish them as Team Four retreated back toward the central column. Splashes of ichor and shattered carapace as knives found chinks and rifle made them, the Spectre demolished her enemies invisibly, sowing panic in them. Practicing to survive encountering the Gaim had served her well.

Team Four was exfiltrating its own wounded back into the central position. Nah’dur went over the two wounded by the bomb. She paused, pale for a moment, at the question of which one to pull back, as they were both bad off. But then Fera’xero was at her side. 

“Surgeon-Commander, you could use a stretcher-bearer.”

“I haven’t any stretchers, Fera’xero, but here we are.” And with that, Nah’dur grabbed the science tech and slung her over shoulders with her pistol out and barking to keep heads down. By contrast, Fera’xero could only half-drag the security man back, but he kept up with Nah’dur’s frenetic sprint. 

As they fell back, Fei’nur did too, but she left behind an annihilated attack force in a carnage of shattered limbs and bodies. The fire was still coming at them from the curved walls of buildings rising like droplets from the floor of the cave around them, where Numeraians in position fired up at them, but it didn’t offer the same kind of cover as buildings above would have. 

There had been sixteen, and four were wounded, two seriously. Nah’dur looked at her patients and then at her pistol, and spoke aloud, as though she were simply absolutely confident that Fei’nur was there as her broad feline eyes under that distinctive bob of red hair swept around, seeing clearly in the bioluminescence as a human might not, seeing the dashing groups of Numeraians converging.

“Battlemaster, thank you. We succeeded at our tactical objective of evacuating the wounded, but I am concerned that this has all the makings of a last stand.” 

“Fera’xero, try and get at least a pulse code through the jamming. Nah’dur, prepare your teams to attempt extraction!”

Nah’dur nodded and issued the order, and then dropped her voice. “Fei’nur, I have the samples. Someone really wanted us to not get those samples. Please take them and exfiltrate yourself beyond the perimeter of the jamming. You can send for help, and you can get the material they didn’t want us to have, out.”

Damn you , Nah’dur. Damn you for having your mother’s pragmatic wit. Hold , Nah, hold , I will be back. Samples, now , seconds count.” The Colonel’s voice was thick with emotion.

Nah’dur handed them up and smiled. “I’m no more interested in dying than she was. Give me your rifle, Fei?” Fire cracked into the cemented dirt around them.

Appearing was a combat pack, ammunition, and rifle, as the samples vanished. A quick feeling of a hug was the last Nah’dur felt, before there was a soft; “Good hunting.”

Nah’dur checked the rifle and looked around at her group. She had thirteen effectives, two of them wounded, and there must be around two hundred Numeraians shooting at them. She sighted down the barrel of the rifle on which Fei’nur had taught her to shoot quite a long time ago, and caressed the familiar trigger. A Numeraian clinging to a building toppled off in a desperate screaming skitter of legs still trying to work. 

“Fera’xero, make sure the drones are still up and focus them on covering us from being flanked!” The Surgeon-Commander was unquestionably in command of the defence as she adjusted the positions of what was really a squad. 

“Commander, I’ve got three hundred and sixty degree coverage.”

“Then I’ll synch with my omnitool for targeting…” She watched as a holographic heads-up display was projected from the omnitool that automatically adjusted for the capabilities of even the old but highly effective rifle in her hands, a derivative of a Centauri make. Crosshairs centred around another Numeraian and she fired again. “Synch your omnitools to the drones and project targeting aids!” She ordered, mostly for the effect of the science techs who weren’t trained in the technique. Even as she spoke she focused in on another target with the assistance of the drones and fired again. Another Numeraian dropped. 

As Fei’nur reached the bottom of the hill, she did what she could to make the odds better for the young woman she had raised from a kit. She didn’t have her rifle, but she had her knives. A squad of Numeraians pressing in on the flank of Nah’dur’s position disintegrated into a flurry of ichor and death as she passed through them, not sparing even a second to come to a stop as she escaped, because even one second could be one second too late--but that didn’t stop her from descending on them like a ghost and killing or maiming or wounding a half-dozen as she passed through them. 

Above Fei’nur on the hill, Nah’dur made the familiar sound of her rifle bark again. As long as it was firing when she returned, all was well.

On the bridge, Zhen’var and Arterus reached their stations at the same time. 

“Report!” Zhen’var’s voice cracked across the bridge as she moved in a beeline to her command chair.

Will Atreiad, on duty as the ship’s XO and tired, bags under his eyes, but now sharply alert, rose to give Zhen’var the chair, finishing off the last of his coffee. “Captain, we just received a burst transmission from Colonel Fei’nur. Nah’dur’s team is pinned down inside the city under attack by hundreds of insurgents. They’re being jammed. Once we knew what to look for, we were able to pinpoint the jamming field. It’s preventing comms and transport. She wants the QRF and fast movers, ASAP.” 

“We can launch Alert Five and have fast movers over the city in eight minutes, Captain,” Stasia Héen’s voice came in over tactical comms from her position in PriFly.

“Do it, Chief. Comms, deconflict with the other ships… and prepare to Away the Reaction Force, with alacrity! Major Richards, bring everything !”

“We’re going to need a secure perimeter to bring down the tanks since they can’t beam manned,” Major Richards answered from tactical control in the Marine wing. 

“Can we have the wing secure the perimeter?” Will asked as the tactical plot was brought up by Elia as her first action on arriving on the bridge straight from sleep. She was somehow as perfectly made up as ever. That let Will point to the tunnel entrances. “We could establish a clear perimeter and attack anyone who moves into it.”

“Chief Héen?” She threw the question to the Air Boss; not the Wing leader who was still in the midst of scrambling and sorting out his squadrons.

“Each ready bird launched with two cluster bomblet dispensers, Captain, precisely for CAS. We could do it. Need some way to warn people to stay clear by the ROE.” 

“Options, everyone?” Zhen’var was throwing problems at her subordinates, and trusting them to come up with solutions.

“We can beam drones down first to warn the locals,” Janice answered. “I’ll start implementing immediately.”

“As soon as the drones are in place, we’ll prep the cargo transporters for the tanks and then execute as soon as the ready flight is in position to intervene,” Elia answered. 

“Execute immediately.”

“Roger that, Captain,” Janice answered. “Ops, stand by for drone transport tags…”

Come on, come on… Zhen’var quietly murmured a prayer inside her own thoughts, as Fei’nur, her mission completed, had reversed course, sprinting back the way she came.

“Drone transport complete,” Elia reported. “We have an incoming communication from Secretary Yulassana’s ship.”

“Put her on my side screen. What is our estimated time over target?”

“Two minutes, thirty seconds. I cleared them, Captain, but they’re not cleared hot yet,” Stasia answered. 

The Gersallian Undersecretary appeared on splitscreen, looking furious. “Captain, I don’t know what you’re doing, but I must make it clear, under no circumstances can you damage the integrity of that city. It’s a critical base of support for the National Transitional Council. Firing into it and opening it to light would be a grave act by Numeraian morality.”

“Undersecretary, I have troops in contact and multiple wounded, they are under heavy attack and on the verge of being overwhelmed. I am deploying my QRF. Unless you wish me to ask for help from the Empire or League forces, we are at extreme risk of losing the entire survey team under those restrictions.”

“A survey team may be a necessary price for peace,” Yulassana answered. “I am truly sorry, Captain, but you must not damage the city.” 

Zhen’var’s claws scraped across her armrests, and her lips pressed into a flat, thin line. “ Huascar Actual, Out.” She killed the connection herself. “They can courts-martial me if it becomes necessary. Alternatives?”

They were looking around uncomfortably at each other. Stasia broke the silence, thinking back to her life in the opening years of the 21st century and all the lore of that time. An idea hit her. “As much as I hate to set someone else up for a shit job, Captain, why not have the tanks do a thunder run to reinforce their position?” She added, quietly: “Ready flight capping.” Nobody had told Stasia to stop working, after all.

“Transporting tanks now,” Elia affirmed. This was the Huáscar, they didn’t need orders to do their jobs. 

“It is an acceptable plan. Keep the ready flight orbiting on station as long as possible.”

“We have armed locals approaching the tanks, Captain!” Stasia’s voice pitched more urgently. She brought up the drone footage which showed Numeraians dashing and covering toward them before the entrance to the city. As she did she was saying “continue continue continue” in the background to the pilots who had asked for weapons release authority, indicating directives to maintain holding pattern and not engage.

“Combat beam-ins commenced,” Elia stripped everything from her speech except that needed to convey the urgency of the situation. 

“Ground forces are fire free. Wing, I need craft down there with weapons that will not cause structural damage.”

“They can’t establish a perimeter in time, Captain,” Elia went to the wide-screen view of the drones as a tactical output. “Does the Wing have permission to engage hostiles on the surface?”

“They cannot damage the hive. With that restriction, they may engage!” 

“You are cleared hot for popcorn,” Stasia directed immediately with her old-school headphones fixed over her hair in the glass dome of PriFly.

The Ready Flight lead was Lieutenant Artesia. “Four-Eee Lead,” she identified herself, meaning SC-4 Flight Epsilon, “to PriFly Actual, we confirm, cleared hot for popcorn.” She flipped to her inter-bird channel. “We’re rolling hot--popcorn only. Arm and confirm.”

As the chorus came back, she brought them around on heading November Echo zero-five two. “Engage as fragged,” she ordered, bringing up her tactical display that linked to the drones. Cluster munitions were assigned to individual areas of armed activity, she could even see the guns firing as they engaged Major Richards’ QRF. Her in-flight computers confirmed targeting assignments and adjusted the cluster munitions pattern. The HUD indicator went red. 

“Pickle One.” Her leftside cluster munition dispenser flushed eighty taclink guided grenade-sized bombs whose fins popped out and began to guide them into the pattern. Engines roaring the four fighters completed their attack with a scream in the distant sky. 

Eighteen seconds later, the bomblets, “popcorn”, started to detonate in a crackling series of explosions, sparks and smoke around the beam-in position of the QRF. 

“Check turn one-eighty left.” Artesia brought the wing back around as the smoke cleared and activated the short-range taclink. “Motown,” she addressed Janice by her code name, “this is Ready Lead. Are you clear?” 

“Hostiles neutralized Four-eee, we are clear.”

“Four-eee to Flight, cease fire and cap.”

“Targets neutralized, the QRF is assuming defensive positions and Leftenant Har’un’s tankers are mounting up, Captain,” Elia reported with quiet satisfaction. 

“Shastra se shakti. They are released to push to the survey team’s location with all dispatch.”

“Confirmed,” Major Richards reported. “We’ll follow them in, Captain.”

Will and Elia exchanged a glance. Elia looked at her chrono. “Twelve minutes since we went to alert, Captain.”

“Thank you, Commander.” Her hands had not moved from where they clutched her armrests all the while. In a firefight as had been reported, that was an eternity .

“The tanks are going in.” The viewscreen flashed to the drone view showing the three massive beasts, repainted in Alliance Marine colours, lunging into the tunnel. 

“Gods help them,” Will muttered under his breath.

When Fei’nur had reached the column, she could see the chatter of many rifles around her as the Numeraians fired into the base of the column. She could see, still, the sharp, crisp shots of the rifles from the top. The drones had been taken out, all except for one, Fera’xero’s personal drone--but one was enough, the rifles kept methodically taking shots and kept methodically killing. Fei’nur had not been too late to get back. The Surgeon-Commander had now held her position for twenty minutes--thirteen against hundreds, she had done well by any measure, but there were fitfully few in the way of rifles still shooting, and the enemy pressed closer and closer.

Her eyes swept the scene - it was taken in with a moment’s pause, then she was moving again, scrambling up. One of the enemy with a proper long range weapon, or a satchel of grenades... that would be her first target. She had to turn the situation, and fast .

She saw a knot that had been delivering a barrage of rocket-grenades while working a light squad weapon, and moved toward them decisively. The fire kept up a methodical tempo from the base of the column, so accurate that they were firing slowly, aimed shots that didn’t miss, to conserve ammunition. 

It was a movement of second nature, her first knife slipping into her hand… She moved, low and quick, from cover to cover, using the noise of combat to mask her approach. Close enough for a final rush, then contact , as she lept, the first strike sinking deep between chitinous plates. Already she was moving, the blade yanked free by her off-hand and another striking for another of the gun crew.

It was a massacre in stealth. Wounded Numeraians retreating, chittering in fear, the entire line in that area again quieted as the ghost returned, this invisible figure who had been tearing through them before, and now returned to tear through them again. Stumbling away from where Fei’nur was, it left her a free path with the weapons to the top of the scree slope. 

Fei’nur lost no time in grabbing the launcher and as much ammunition as she could, lifting it with a grunt, displacing from the scene of slaughter she had created… for another firing point. Fire and move before they counter...

Arriving at the best firing point she could, the gunfire against the position of Nah’dur and her team was starting to increase again, as the Numeraians recovered their situational awareness and once more pressed the attack. 

Burn. She opened fire, three rounds, as quick as she could, then displaced at a run, targeting enemy heavy weapons. Once clear, she fired again, then repeated the tactic.

Against any lesser concentration of numbers, she might have single-handedly defeated the attack, but now, crawling over the bodies of others, Numeraians continued to push closer to the position of the Surgeon-Commander and her technicians and Marine guards on the unengaged side of the column, even as Fei’nur worked her way around, disrupting the attack as best she could. 

This is not going to work… Fei’nur thought to herself, almost in despair, as she read the tactical situation. There has to be an enemy command group for coordination… Working blind, she tried to use her omnitool to trace Numeraian tactical signals. She found there were none, though there was a troubling anomaly that the omnitool kept trying to classify as a chemical weapon. 

It was enough for her to activate the built in filtering she had been given, which replaced most of her sinuses. Pheremone-driven communication, like other insects… Nah’dur will be interested later. It was an idle thought as she, in that moment, wished Aururian weapons had power cells that overloaded as easily as Klingon disruptors.

Then there was a rumbling in the distance, growing swiftly louder. It was familiar to her heart and soul, it was the brutal, churning, clanking, grinding of a heavy tank. And it was drawing very rapidly closer to her. A moment later, a distinctive, hideous sound of a heavy disruptor cannon tore through the air and disturbed the bioluminescence around her.

Her heart surged. This close… “This is Shovel. Stand by for tac-link.”

“Shovel, this is Panzer!” Leftenant Har’un’s voice came through. But it scarcely needed introductions. The shattering and crashing sounds of the deflector shields on the tanks having been configured like cattle catches and plows on locomotives, battering aside any vehicles in their way as they charged down the streets, was soon clearly heard. The main guns weren’t firing, but the pulse disruptors used as light guns on the tanks were firing continuously at anyone armed that came within sight of their HUDs. 

“We’ll be at your position in two minutes, Ma’am! This city isn’t big!” One of the tanks power-skidded through a turn with one track locking, bashing two cars outside of the way with its deflector shields, setting off airbags and crumpling metal. Now it was lined up in a straight shot to the column. 

People were fleeing absolutely as fast as they could, emptying the streets and running. Soon there were no more vehicle impacts because there was no more left in their way as the tanks rushed onwards. 

“Painting targets, Panzer. Friendlies marked.” Fei’nur’s clipped voice came back. She knew by the original plan that the power armour company would be following. “Fire free.”

The tanks zoomed down the radial streets that converged with the column, and now they opened up once more, firing as they drove, tracking and engaging with both of their light guns each, the one normally for anti-air/anti-missile and the anti-personnel cannon. Flames and searing energy criss-crossed the battlefield from the disruptors until the tanks rushed out toward the column and began to circle it into defensive positions, firing as they did. 

On top of the hill, the firing slacked. Nah’dur, fastidious and practical, put down the rifle and picked up her medikit. All of a sudden, they had gone from barely hanging on to a surfeit of firepower. They had gone from hopeless, personal shields down, to an overwhelming position.

“We are in position, Shovel!”

“Prepare to extract multiple wounded! Hold the perimeter via fire!” Fei’nur was clambering up the column as quickly as she could. “This is Shovel, away team, give me a status report!”

“Seven C-200’s, two tulips,” Nah’dur’s voice answered methodically. “I’m treating everyone.” 

By now there was no more shooting in the city. As the power-armour came charging down, the attackers melted into the mass of the fleeing and hiding civilians. Except for the howling of automated alarms and the confused warnings of loudspeakers to seek shelter, a kind of brief silence, punctuated by occasional shots and by the whine of the tank engines, now fell over the entire hive-city.

“Shovel to White, prepare for emergency evacuation of the survey team! We will investigate the scene.”

There was still static from the jamming. But now, Elia’s voice came through. The powerful transmitters on the tanks could burn through, partially. “White Actual to Shovel, you’re going to evac them by ground, we still can’t beam.”

“Understood! QRF, prepare detachment to evacuate casualties! Scan your local areas and gather what evidence you can!”

The personnel from the QRF went to work securing the perimeter as a group brought up the light tactical vehicles to evacuate casualties. Major Richards stepped up to Fei’nur and saluted. “We came as quick as we could, Colonel.”

“I know. We have losses. We need to get them to beam-up as quickly as possible. Back the way you came is quickest, but they might attempt another attack. Unlikely, however. Opinions?” Clipped and sharp, the old Spectre was taking in the scene and weighing her options.

“The faster we move the better. Do we have what we came for? Let’s bug out, Colonel. Unless they left anyone for us to interrogate, but I doubt it.”

“I will sweep. Thank you, Major. Be ready to depart as soon as the Surgeon clears us to.”

“Understood.” Above them Nah’dur was supervising loading the casualties. Now that she came into view, it was clear she had understated a few things; she actually had a bandage wrapped around one of her arms, with blood leaking through it, but seemed completely unaffected.

Fei’nur snapped holos, grabbing samples and weapons for later study, working her way up towards Nah’dur.

“Colonel,” she nodded almost formally as she got another casualty secured, and then looked up with guileless eyes. “Are you proud of me?” 

All Fei’nur could get out, seeing Nah’dur wounded, but having kept her team alive, was a silent, jerky nod of affirmation.

“It’s nothing. I’ll run the dermal regenerator on it on the way back so I can start the surgeries myself,” Nah’dur answered mildly, and then reached with her good hand for the grab-iron. “Shrapnel from a rocket grenade, that’s all. They managed to burn through my personal shield, you know.”

“Of course. We… will speak later, Nah’dur.”

On the bridge of the Huáscar, there was no time for the tension to lessen. Elia’s lips were tightly pursed as she looked to Zhen’var. “Captain, the Imperial fleet has raised shields.” 

“Get me communications before this escalates further, please.” Tension underlay the command, as Zhen’var frowned darkly.

“Commander Huáscar, this is Admiral Afyhova. You have conducted an engagement against the surface of Garatnam. Why?”

“A scientific survey team was attacked by a heavily-armed and numerous unknown force inside a hive under the Xiteran Plateau, Admiral. I deployed my Quick Reaction Force to attempt a rescue. The survivors are being extracted now.” Her voice was clipped and quick.

“You have my condolences for the attack, Captain Zhen’var. However, one of my duties is to insure the safety and security of the Numeraian people. You have informed me that the sovereignty of this planet remains under the League. Why didn’t the League respond instead of your forces, Captain? Why didn’t Admiral Bonnet respond?” 

“The situation devolved rapidly, Admiral, and the Alliance is providing security for League forces during the final period before their withdrawal.”

“If the League cannot maintain order on the planet, then they do not have effective sovereignty over it, Captain!” As though to someone just outside of the audio pickup, and very intentionally so that her own voice was in the audio pickup, she spoke again immediately. “Move the Task Force into orbit of Garatnam and prepare the Fleet Marine Forces for a landing. I want a brigade on the planet in one hour and the full division on the planet in eight.”

Zhen’var’s finger reached for a button on the arm of her chair. An ear-piercing klaxon began to sound. “ Admiral , if you take this action, I shall be forced to interpose my ship between yourself and the planet. My orders are explicitly clear. The situation on the planet is under control .”

“You are killing Numeraians, Captain. That is not under control.

“I was not going to leave my crew members to die.” Zhen’var was being forced onto the defensive, and she hated it. This entire mission had pushed her to the back foot and kept her there.

There was a pause, and the feed was good enough to pick up the sound of the Malagasy Admiral’s breathing. “Very well,” she said after a moment, perhaps having put herself in Zhen’var’s position emotionally. Perhaps having been deterred by the prospect of a fight with the Alliance. Perhaps both. “Let me see if there is any information we can provide you about the attack.” 

Elia almost physically sagged in relief at her post. A slow string of tension started to ease from the bridge.

“Your help would be appreciated, Admiral. Operations, stand the ship down to Condition Two until the survivors and QRF are back aboard, thence resume Condition Three.” She didn’t let the relief show , but they had come dangerously close to a war.

“Now, Comms, please get me the Deputy Undersecretary. I will take it in my ready room.” Time to pay the piper…

Chapter Text

Act 6

Yulassana looked like the legendary calmness of a Gersallian had been badly impacted by the recent events when her image formed on the holo about five minutes later. “Captain Zhen’var?” She asked almost hesitantly. 

“Deputy Undersecretary.” She nodded her head sharply. “The science team was extracted with two fatalities. The Imperial squadron has been held off by threat, for now. The local situation is, in a word, catastrophic.”

“...To put it mildly. Do you believe it was instigated by the Aururians, then? Shall we begin to coordinate with Admiral Bonnet to hold the planet? I could go over to the Aururian flagship and negotiate for us, Captain…” 

“I believe someone wishes us to, ma’am. As to whether it was , that is less certain. I would not have confidence in such an assertion at present.”

Yulassana took a breath, and looked at Zhen’var narrowly. “Captain, powerful people back home want us to be friends with the League. Regardless of what the facts on the ground are.” 

“I do not think a friendship built on a foundation of lies is one worth having, ma’am. Once my teams are back aboard, I will be attempting to move forward with decolonization support, as per my orders.” Her voice was deceptively calm.

“You will keep your tripwire forces in place on the planet?” 

“As long as they can carry out their mission, yes. I will regenerate my quick reaction force as rapidly as I can, Madame Deputy Undersecretary.”

“When will you have the results of the analysis? The Surgeon-Commander’s, I mean.” 

“She was also wounded, as soon as she can be spared to give me an estimate, it shall be shared.” While she understood the impatience, Nah’dur was also her best surgeon.

“I understand, and you have my condolences about the entire situation, Captain… But if violence begins on the surface of the planet at this point it is now very unlikely that we will be able to keep it from spiralling.

Zhen’var’s expression stiffened. “If open violence begins, the Aururians will land, ma’am. I cannot stop them. What we are at in orbit is now as the surface; a tripwire that will not stop what-ever force trips it.”

“Then ask the Aururians what we need to do to make sure that we secure the independence of Garatnam,” Yulassana answered, plainly. “It is our shared objective, after all.”

“You may not like the answer, ma’am, but I shall get it for you.”

“I can work with the answer, Captain. Let’s not let Garatnam down.”

“I understand. Until later.” Zhen’var would wait for the connection to drop, before letting out a soft sigh. “Communications, I need a channel with Admiral Afyhova, without any other vessels outside her fleet knowing.”

“Let me speak with Commander Poniatowska for a moment, Captain,” Bor’erj answered from the comms section. 

“Thank you, Ensign.” While she waited, she sent a normal-priority request for updates to Nah’dur’s omnitool.

The evacuees had reached an evac transport, since some were not stable enough to be recovered via transporter, and were now on their way to the ship. We’ll be able to begin surgeries in five minutes, Nah’dur said cheerfully when she got the alert. 

Thank you. We have just almost gone to war with the Aururians, so your original mission retains a priority second only to life-saving. Was the admittedly somewhat terse reply sent back.

Oh, well, I don’t want to go to war with them! Don’t worry, I think I can save everyone.

Thank you, Nah’dur. I will buy you the time you need. Dropping the connection, Captain Zhen’var reached for her mug and cradled it, leaning back in her chair. It never seemed simple for her ship, never at all…

“Message coming in for you from the Resolution, Captain,” Elia’s voice sounded over the intercom. “We’ve got the link secure.”

“Thank you, Commander. Link it to my Ready Room terminal.” Straightening, Zhen’var squared herself to face the pickup. She was not a diplomat… but, just perhaps, she could avert the conflict that seemed to threaten to erupt over this world.

“Captain, we speak again rather quickly.” Afyhova looked like she was in her own ready room and perhaps completely alone, which would help, perhaps. 

“We do, and on a more pleasant note, I hope . I wish to extend an invitation to you; to present the terms under which that your Empire would support the independence of Garantam.” It was the first time the Aururians had even been consulted in the matter.

Afyhova was actually silent for a moment, staring sharply at Zhen’var. Then, a faint smile touched her lips. “Of course, Captain. We want the Assembly of Queens to have the ability to veto the sale of land or mining rights on the surface, and the assumption of foreign debt. If the constitution of the National Transitional Council is amended to include those terms, specifically that the Assembly will include all the Queens, regardless of their political orientation, then we have a basis to be confident that the government of Garatnam is protecting the interests of the Numeraian people.”

Zhen’var’s expression froze for a moment. “That… is all?” Disbelief coloured her voice. That seemed so simple to her, at least. Perhaps she was mistaken, but… Oh. The conservative and reformer divide. That is likely the issue .

“Of course, we want guarantees Garatnam’s system will not be used by League forces. But that is a matter between the two of our nations,” Afyhova said modestly. “Yes, we are satisfied the Numeraian Queens will find their own way to protect their people, if they are given the chance to. The concern is that the brave women who have ruled their hives by custom for centuries, whom we have worked with to free their people, were seeing themselves be sold into economic slavery under the simulcra of independence. Our intention is merely to preserve for them their freedom of action and thus the liberty of the Numeraians. They have committed not to resort to arms in that case, and so we will satisfy our own obligations viz. the planet, since their hives were who we armed.”

“May I have a moment with the representatives of my government to communicate your terms, Admiral?” It seems a breakthrough, if the NTC will accept it… if.

“If you want, but the Ambassador in Portland communicated those terms a month ago,” Afyhova sniffed. “I am sorry, Captain, but your government has not left you in an enviable position. It seems they were led astray by the slick League briefings on the drug production problem on the surface.”

The Dilgar woman’s face visibly fell. “I… see. I shall still make the utmost effort at a local resolution, Admiral, even if it may take longer than I had hoped.” She was holding the situation together by the tips of her demi-claws, barely, and was unsure how much longer she could.

“I will give you your time. We can wait. We have requested the Queens not make any moves, and they assented.” 

“If they have any information regarding the attack upon my survey team…” Her voice grew leaden as she glanced down to Fei’nur’s initial report. “The attackers were armed with Imperial weapons, Admiral.”

“I am not surprised. Send me the serial numbers and I am sure I can match them to weapons captured by the League during our past wars. Might I remind you that probably a million or more small arms have fallen into their hands in major battles? We have not been victorious in every fight, and even in a victory the enemy may capture some of our arms,” she answered, looking sincere. “Of course, they’ve probably been burned off.”

“You understand the optics of the situation, I am sure. I shall communicate your terms, and if you wish, we can continue the negotiations in person, aboard your ship?” Trying to show trust, for now, this was the danger point in space. The planet was another matter entirely.

“That’s agreeable. You’ll bring the Undersecretary?”

“That is my intention, correct. Thank you for your kind forebearance thus far, Admiral Afyhova. My communications officer will be in contact. We will speak again shortly.” As soon as the connection dropped, she was back on her console; “Captain to Flight Operations, please prepare my yacht for departure. Communications, get me Deputy Undersecretary Yulassana once again, please. Commander Atreiad, I will be departing the ship for negotiations.”

“On it, Captain,” Stasia’s voice came back. “We’ll have you ready to go in twenty minutes.”

“I’ll update the Watch rotation,” Will Atreiad answered back.

“Deputy Undersecretary on your line, Captain,” Bor’erj reported. 

“Well done, thank you.” Her expression was guarded when the comms-line flickered back into view. “Deputy Undersecretary, I have the Aururian terms, and have arranged on your behalf an in-person negotiation with Admiral Afyhova. My yacht is being prepared for the two of us to depart.”

“Thank you, Captain. I will beam aboard and meet you at your yacht, then,” she answered after a moment. “I am thankful you were able to obtain the willingness of the Aururians to meet.” 

“We will speak once you arrive, ma’am.” Zhen’var’s voice was starting to show some of the stress she was feeling, being balanced on a knife-edge so long. As she cut the connection and moved to get her dress uniform, the Dilgar woman shook her head slightly. It was getting harder and harder to divine the true motives of everyone around.

Meanwhile, Nah’dur had arrived back on the Huáscar. Having already run the dermal regenerator until her wound was healed, she flexed confidently at it, sprayed over with plastic synthflesh to keep the regenerated tissue from cracking open. It hurt, and it was a bright hairless pink blazon across her arm, but it was fully functional. 

“Commander Fera’xero?” 

“Surgeon-Commander?” The Quarian Science officer looked back.

“My team can prep the surgery. Let’s get the samples started before I go in for the first one, it won’t slow it down, and you can finish the analytics while I’m in the surgical theatre.” 

“You think it’s that important?” Fera’xero’s vocoder flashed. 

“I believe it is a matter of objective fact that it is so important,” Nah’dur replied. “Possibly far more important than the lives of anyone I’m operating on, though don’t repeat that, please.” 

“...Of course, Surgeon-Commander. Let’s get started.”

“Good!” She was already off at a brisk pace to the biohazard lab. “Even all that said, we don’t have much time.”

Fera’xero had mixed feelings about the biohazard lab. A suit breach there was definitely instant death, but on the other hand, it also put all of the other humanoids on equal terms with him. He followed, shaking his head at the young Dilgar. She was not afraid of the biohazard lab. Their universal vaccine remained a source of wonder, awe, and for Quarians, envy. 

Ten minutes later, Zhen’var’s Captain’s yacht was pushing off from the Huáscar, with Yulassana seated by her in the travel lounge. It was a short trip, with warp drive. 

“The short briefing, Madame Undersecretary, is that the Aururians want certain traditional rights of the Queens protected as part of the constitutional regime after independence.That their Assembly can exercise a veto upon the assumption of external debt, or upon the sale of land and mining rights on the surface of the planet. Their suspicion comes from them having communicated these terms to Portland a month ago, and having received no reply to them.” She spoke quickly, accent rising and falling.

“A decision was made that the Aururian terms were anti-democratic and that by working closely with the League we could successfully transition Garatnam to independence without consenting to those terms,” Yulassana answered, finally admitting to the background behind the entire affair. “So here we are.”

“Aururian negotiation, Colonel Fei’nur tells me, rarely involves retreating from a formal position. Once it is so stated, so it remains, to be accepted or rejected.” Her shoulders visibly slumped. It had seemed so simple to her .

“You are really upset about this, Captain,” Yulassana said softly, maybe even a little wondering. The Mess Tech on the yacht brought them both tea, the Gersallian woman looking thoughtfully at the Dilgar for a while. 

“It had seemed a very simple solution, given my own complex history and the cultures I have known. India was birthed in agreements of accession, as were elements of the Imperium.” The Dilgar woman paused, and sipped at her tea. “I have no interest in being the Captain responsible for starting an inter-universal war, Madame Deputy Undersecretary.”

“You’re an interesting case in the Alliance, Captain. There are some who think the concession of appointing you was too great, that you are too friendly to autocrats and laws which lead to bad ends. There are others who think you are too soft. Your appointment was at a high level for diplomatic purposes, and of course, some people have second thoughts at Warmaster Shai’jhur’s structure of government, and at the independence of her policy. Your late exploits have definitely made your name known in Portland as one of a dozen or so of our active Starship Captains who make waves.”

“Not all states…” She paused. “ Why is a monarchy with a constitution guiding it considered so ill? Sometimes autocrats create good ends, when the situation is unfortunate enough. What we must do is manage the transition back to one founded in freedom and natural law, for autocracy has never stayed good. My family, we are aristocrats, if relatively minor ones. My thoughts should be expected, should they not? I seek to follow my oaths and my orders.”

“I don’t know… Yes, harmony is better. Customs are better followed than abrogated. It’s a complicated situation, Captain. Numeraian Queens are far more intelligent and capable than their specialised children, but the hive population is still individually sapient. They came from insects that were not quite as controlled as stereotypical species of ants or bees, they are like, ironically considering the connection with Aururia, Australian bees in that case. So there is a certain measure of resentment by the social reformers the League created toward involvement of the Queens in politics. Namely because the majority of a hive-city’s population will vote in lockstep with the Queen, trusting her to have the best judgement, it happened that way during past experiments the League conducted in allowing limited self-government, so they ended them, which started the insurrection.” 

“By which you mean, the NTC will find such a concession nearly intolerable, do you not?” Zhen’var’s face was stiff. “Not to mention the League.”

“You are correct,” Yulassana affirmed. “You are correct.” 

“Captain, we’re approaching the Resolution now,” the yacht’s Dorei pilot reported from ahead on the flight deck. 

“We are talking, at least. If we can get something from that…” Zhen’var fell silent and tugged her uniform straight. “We must, for Huáscar cannot hold against them alone.”

“I will do my very best, Captain. Thank you. You have been a better exemplar of our virtues than I have been, so far, on this mission.” She rose. “Let us.” 

The Aururians met them with a full side party. Captain Kerolit led it. She regarded Zhen’var sharply and crisply, her own broad, purple eyes almost catlike as well, ears sticking through hair, tail swishing. They had swords and dress uniforms in the old style. The Ralsans and the indigenous Aururians stood together as sisters, a single uniform, a single service, speaking English as their language of command. It was gloriously weird, and it was a sisterhood of arms. 

Stiffening sharply, Zhen’var clicked her heels together. “Permission to come aboard Her Majesty’s Ship?” Voice pitched to carry, her gloved hand made a motion, as it would have if her Dilgar blade had been drawn up in salute before her.

“Permission granted. Welcome to the Admiral Afyhova’s hospitality, Captain.” She raised a gloved hand of her own in a tipped salute and the whistle blew and the side-party announced her. Then Captain Kerolit fell in alongside the two, walking with them. “The Admiral extends her compliments and thanks you for proposing the meeting aboard Resolution, and as her Captain I am honoured to be your hostess, Captain.”

“Thank you. I wish to extend my apologies for not attending at the earlier invitation, if I may. I present Deputy Assistant Secretary for Peace Outreach Yulassana, whom you have certainly heard of, if not met. She is the ranking Alliance diplomat on the scene, and will be the primary negotiator.”

“Deputy Assistant Secretary,” Captain Kerolit gave a hint of a smile, showing her sharpened teeth. “A pleasure.”

“Of course, Captain.” Yulassana made a bow of greeting as they arrived at the meeting room, where Admiral Afyhova was waiting.

“Deputy Assistant Secretary,” Afyhova clicked her heels and bowed in return. “Captain Zhen’var. A pleasure to meet you at last. Be seated, we have some tea and hors d'oeuvres for you.” 

“Thank you, Admiral. If the Almighty is kind, we may find success in our meeting this day.” She moved to sit, beside Yulassana, whom she left the central seat across from the Aururian admiral.

“I don’t want to go to war,” Afyhova answered with plain bluntness. “It would be a terrible thing in every respect. But I am not going to leave Garatnam without ensuring that the planet is at peace and is free, either. Isn’t the liberty of a world worth something?”

“Of course, Admiral. The Alliance has no wish for a war either. We share objectives , at the least, do we not all agree?”

“That is so,” Afyhova agreed. The tea was put around, and a plate of chicken satay placed in front of Zhen’var, a Gersallian dish for Yulassana. “Our terms were straightforward, Captain, Undersecretary. Why are they so unacceptable?” 

“Because they would lead to the undermining of support for the National Transitional Council,” Yulassana answered. “In an undemocratic fashion.”

“If you held a plebiscite, the NTC would never have legitimate power,” Afyhova answered drolly, drinking her own tea. 

“Only if you allowed the Queens to endorse positions,” Yulassana countered. “As figureheads of their hives they must be silent about politics to allow democracy to flourish.”

Afyhova snorted softly. “In many third-world countries abandoned by the northern nations in the 21st century, the traditional monarchies continued to function because the people implicitly respected their rulers even when their legal power was stripped from them. Now you’re telling me the Queens will be integrated into the system by banning their right to endorse political platforms, essentially making them slaves of the few ceremonial roles they will be given. Breeders for a people.” She looked archly at Yulassana. “If they were merely private citizens, then the NTC would last until the first election. No more.” 

“The definition of democracy is… cultural.” Zhen’var said, quite hesitant and wary. “It can still be democracy.”

Yulassana leaned back and looked at her. “The Alliance has accepted the very unique Dilgar democracy Warmaster Shai’jhur implemented, yes. Go on, Captain.”

“Is it… possible for the Malaysian system, or… some form of…” She paused. “The Aururians want the Queens to have a voice. We do not wish them to dominate the system. They must have power and debate amongst themselves , a… legislative chamber, or ability to elect a… tribune?”

“The traditional function of the Queens is to preserve the integrity of the hive and the land on which it depends for its survival,” Afyhova answered. “We are not, and have not, ever tried to make the system a collegial autocracy.”

Zhen’var’s omnitool chirped ominously, then. “Captain, it’s Colonel Fei’nur.”

Afyhova nodded significantly to Captain Kerolit.

“An Imperial Marshal has approached one of our forward posts with a group of Numeraians under arms and several more under guard. She says as she has an important message.” 

“... Go ahead and patch it through, if that will be acceptable. I am with the Deputy Undersecretary and the Aururian Admiral.”

“That will be appropriate,” Fei’nur answered after a pause. An Imperial Marshal was no-one to be trifled with.

“Captain Zhen’var,” a very calm voice speaking Received Pronunciation came onto the line. “I am Marshal Kerowalas. I wish to turn over to you some prisoners involved in the attack on your forces. They have not been interrogated by my person or my forces, however, I do know the content of what your own interrogations will reveal. The League was behind the attack on your forces.” 

The Dilgar Captain’s face visibly twisted in a real concern, as she turned her gaze to the Gersallian woman beside her. “It is a serious charge, one that you understand we must confirm with our own people, Marshal.”

“That’s why I am handing the prisoners over to you, Captain,” the Marshal answered, unperturbed. Very faintly the woman might seem Ralsan from her accent, but of course a Ralsan could be an Imperial Marshal too.

“Thank you, Marshal. You have… been most helpful. Admiral, I believe the Deputy Undersecretary and I must withdraw for consultations, if we may…?” The reason why they would have risked so much… still eluded Zhen’var, but she had a rapidly growing suspicion.

“I am sorry our visit was short. I hope you enjoyed the chai and the satay, at least.” Afyhova nodded to Captain Kerolit, who rose.

“It was quite excellent, thank you.” She rose, and nodded politely, before heading back where they had came. As soon as the hatch cycled closed, Zhen’var growled in frustration. “I have a concern that the survey team will find something very worrisome , ma’am.”

“Like what?” Yulassana was clearly very tense. “Do you really believe this allegation in the slightest?”

“If it is, and I must plan on it being so, as such would be the worst-case… the original plan of whom-ever is attempting to arrange this, would have, I think, likely have been for our deployment of the agent to be the catalyst for conflict.”

Yulassana’s face turned grim and cool. “How long will it take Surgeon-Commander Nah’dur to have a result, then?” 

“She had begun work before I left the ship; my science officer is currently running tests while she is attempting to save the lives of the other survey team members, Deputy Underscretary.” The stress was getting to her, by how her voice held an edge to it.

“My apologies.” She stiffened. “But we may soon have many further casualties here.” 

Nah’dur came out of the first operation looking tired, but the expression vanished the moment that she saw Fera’xero standing there. She started pulling off her scrubs. “You have data so soon, Commander?” 

“Yes, Surgeon-Commander, I do. It’s very simple, actually. The enzyme the League wants us to destroy will, if the retrovirus is allowed to spread through the planet, destroy the structural integrity of the bio-concrete in the hives. It’s still, in a sense, alive, through the bacterial growth, and the enzyme is still reactive. This proposed retrovirus would cause uncontrolled corrosion of the hives’ walls, columns, and other structural members. It would literally rot every hive-city on Garatnam out if we deployed it.”

Nah’dur sniffed sharply through her button-nose. “That is about what I thought.”

“The Captain returned in great haste, and got back about five minutes ago. Shall we go report?”

“Of course,” Nah’dur answered, taking the flimsy from him and abandoning taking off the rest of her scrubs. “Nurse Terixamu, delay the next surgery thirty minutes, it can wait! Get the other two into stasis. I have a genocide to prevent.” 

Three minutes later, Nah’dur breezed onto the bridge with Fera’xero and chimed the door to the ready room where Zhen’var and Yulassana had returned. “Captain, we have our results!”

“Come ahead, Commanders.” Zhen’var’s voice betrayed her stress, though she masked her frustration with the diplomatic corps reasonably well in the calm expression she wore.

The two stepped in together. “I will be brief with you, Captain,” Nah’dur said urgently. “Destroying the enzyme will literally make the bio-concrete of all the Garatnam cities rot. It’s a living system, if you remove the enzyme the bacteria in it will tear it apart, break it down. The structural strength of the cities will literally rot.” She flung the flimsy down on the table, almost vibrating. 

“By the Almighty, Nah’dur, this… this…” Horrified eyes swung to the Gersallian woman. “If the League refuses to withdraw after we refuse to use this , I am tempted to open fire, ma’am!”

Yulassana sank back in her chair slowly. Even to a Gersallian, she was completely shocked, and rather deflated. “That corroboration, that’s more important than actual interrogations, isn’t it? To know what they really intended?” 

“It is. Shall I contact Portland, or act immediately, ma’am? I know our orders come from very high in the government.”

“Act immediately,” Yulassana swallowed. “I will defend you, Captain.”

“Of course, Deputy Underscretary. Captain to Bridge! Set Condition One , get me the Aururian fleet! I shall be on the bridge shortly! Colonel Fei’nur should prepare her forces for possible operation against hostile forces. Order the courier to break orbit and move to the outer system with dispatch!”

“Back to medbay for me!” Nah’dur answered, looking chuffed. “First genocide prevented!” She shook her fist in the air before she ran off, as Fera’xero moved to take his post with the Captain. 

Still in her dress whites, Zhen’var burst onto the bridge at a jog, as the alarm klaxons began to sound. “Possible threat is the League squadron and ground forces , comrades! Stand to it!”

That left her looking far more military and professional than the rest of her crew as she settled into her command chair and the Huáscar rapidly came to quarters. Elia looked down at her from Ops. “Captain, the possible target is the League squadron?” She bit it off, though; “Admiral Afyhova coming through for you on main comms.”

“Thank you. Admiral , I am inviting your squadron to join me in orbit. This also serves as notice that the terms presented by you during our discussion are acceptable.” From the last time they had met, Zhen’var looked far more confident and put-together. Her doubts were gone.

“You found out something about Garatnam, I take it, Captain? I will not turn you down.” She turned to the side and started crisply addressing Captain Kerolit for a moment before looking back. 

“You may say so. I do not intend to encrypt my communications with Admiral Bonnet. I do ask for your restraint, Admiral.” Her black demi-claws were out, and pressed tightly into the stone of her armrests.

“Of course,” Afyhova said, and there was a twinkle in her eye and almost a wink. “We will conform to your movements, Captain.”

“Thank you, Admiral.” She cut the connection. “The League’s anti-drug agent would have resulted in the rot and collapse of the structure of every hive city on the planet.” Zhen’var announced, glancing around at her crew on the bridge. “We have as yet unproven claims they were also responsible for the attack upon our survey team to prevent the discovery of this effect. They will be withdrawing from this system, one way or another. It is possible, perhaps even likely, Admiral Bonnet is not aware of this.”

Elia sucked in her breath sharply. “It would have guaranteed total war between the Aururian Empire and the Alliance,” she said, gaining her composure first, perhaps because telepaths were so used to bad things happening. 

“And painted the Dilgar with an old and bloody brush; the willing agents of xenocide.” There was an audible scrape as her fingers clenched. “Someone wished that to happen. Whom, we are not aware as yet. You may draw your own conclusions, but we have our orders. This world shall be free .”

“When the Aururian fleet enters orbit, the League is sure to go to stations,” Elia warned, noting the thermal spikes commencing on the League ships. 

“I know. Our timing just be precise. Get me a channel to their squadron, no encryption, as soon as we are cleared for action.”

Elia looked at her indicator as the counter went down. 

“We’re prepping the side launch tubes for a mass fighter strike,” Stasia reported over the horn. 

“...Green across the board,” Elia confirmed a moment later. 

“Hail Justicia, Comms.” Zhen’var forced herself to sit still in her command chair, gaze looking across at the main screen rather than her usual personal comms pickup.

“Admiral Bonnet, your line, Captain!” The main screen flashed into view of the bridge of the Justicia. 

He looked tense, certainly not ready for this. “Captain Zhen’var, what has taken place? You have brought your shields up and we see the energy signatures aboard both your vessel and the Aururian fleet, we are going to alert ourselves.” 

“The Alliance has lost confidence in the League as a decolonization partner worthy of trust, Admiral Bonnet.” Her voice was flat and cold. “You will withdraw your ships from orbit. We will oversee the departure of the remaining League citizens.”

“That is contrary to the agreement between the League and the Alliance, Captain, I…”

The Aururian fleet jumped in. The carrier positioned in the rear immediately began to launch her area CAP as the lead battlecruiser’s gun turrets swung out to starboard to clear on Bonnet’s flagship. 

Captain, the Aururian fleet! Now is not the time for this!” Alarms were blaring on the bridge of the Justicia behind him.

I called them in, Admiral. This is not a negotiation, it is an ultimatum!” A snarl and hiss accompanied her words, eyes flaring with fury. “You will withdraw, or we will force you to do so . The League’s solution to the drug trade would have resulted in the total structural failure and collapse of the hives! Claim ignorance if you wish, but agreements are made between partners . The League has forfeited that consideration.”

“What kind of mad talk is this, Captain? How could the elimination of a drug cause structural problems for the bugs’ damned cities? ” he looked incredulous--and more than a little scared. Indeed, the fear that this might be the beginning of a war was real, and without the Alliance on their side, the prospects were not good. It was not the fear of a coward, but a sane man facing a grim fate. 

“The retrovirus your scientists provided, to eliminate the enzyme responsible for the creation of drugs from Tiral ? It does not effect the plant , That enzyme is also responsible for controlling bacteria in the hive structure that would otherwise rapidly rot and decay what the Numeraians create.. I am giving you the opportunity to withdraw. I suggest you take it.”

“Third party comms request coming in from the Resolution, ” Elia said, temporarily muting the line. 

“Feed it to my omnitool earpiece, Commander.”

“We are prepared to issue an ultimatum to the League, if you like, Captain,” Afyhova’s voice sounded through the earpiece.

“Captain, you have no proof. You have only supposition. We had no intention to harm the Numeraians--the Amazons are using you, Captain!” Bonnet was almost shouting--at the end he was shouting. 

“My survey team, which was attacked on the surface, confirmed via their sampling and laboratory results that this is the case, Admiral.” Zhen’var’s voice had lost all emotional tone but that of frigid formality. 

“My God Captain, we are on the same side! Have you gone mad ?” He looked beyond her, to the bridge crew of the Huáscar within the feed. 

Side , Admiral? I am an officer of the Alliance , not the League! Withdraw your ships .”

He stiffened, and glared at her. “We will defend the National Transitional Council, Captain, we have honour. They will be against the wall if you let the Aururians impose their precious reactionary regime! That is what this is really about, you know. That is what it is always about.” 

“I find it unlikely they will have much interest in standing with you after what has been done, Admiral.”

Elia muted the channel. “I think we need an ultimatum at this point, Captain,” she said softly, almost biting her lip. 

“Admiral Afyhova, the time has come, I believe.”

The channel synched into a three way. Afyhova looked to Bonnet for a moment. Their lines descended from the same world. But they had been irrevocably separated by a symbiot which existed only in this Earth, this timeline. The uniforms nonetheless shared a European influence, they both spoke western European languages, at least in command. Afyhova switched to French for this. 

“Will you get to Antananarivo in time for Vespers, Admiral?” Afyhova asked, her voice filled with scorn. It was a deep historical allusion of two orders, the kind the Aururians, so conservative by the nature of the Australian peoples, had bestowed on their entire Empire.

“Perhaps you may believe that the Alliance and League are on the same ‘side’, as you have said, Admiral. Perhaps that is even true. It does not change that if you do not depart orbit within one hour, I am willing to use force to compel your compliance.”

“France does not abandon her obligations, Captain,” Bonnet answered. “The League is her daughter, we will not surrender the National Transitional Council to you.” 

“One hour,” Afyhova repeated simply, refusing to be baited, and nodded through the line to Zhen’var before the image blinked off. 

“Commander, you have the bridge. Undock the Heermann. The Deputy Undersecretary and I need to urgently relay the situation to our superiors… and summon our reinforcements.”

As the two women--Yulassana in the jumpseat--rose and the Heermann deployed, they couldn’t help but feel the terrible inevitability of war.

As it turned out, it was only twenty-two minutes until Elia commed the two of them, having made their reports up their respective chains of command and called for reinforcements. 

“Captain, there is a transmission from the surface.” Elia shot a significant look and put the proclamation on the ready room screen instead of her own face, with the autotranslation. “I am Queen Tisararam of Xiteram’mer,” the youthful Numeraian queen, still an immense and ominous figure, began. “I have supported the National Transitional Council; however, the com-interception broadcast which was displayed around the planet shortly before has changed this matter, my children. Though it is certain that the comms eavesdropping capability was the result of the technology of the Aururian Empire, many of my sisters trust the Aururians. Furthermore, it is clear that they are sincere words of the League. Nobody would have trusted them, or the Council, if they had known of any kind of risk to the saliva which builds our cities. Nobody would have seriously believed that the silly inebriation of the humans from our hives would justify any Action of this kind. The humans have lied to us, children. Accordingly, the government they proposed ends now. I have seized the National Transitional Council. I will negotiate with my sisters to establish the government of independent Garatnam. Remain calm, and follow the instructions of the sub-Viziers. The hour of our independence remains at hand. The rootless aliens in orbit do not know how to untangle themselves from the risk of war to have free reign to threaten us again. The centuries of our oppression are at an end, and the subterfuge of our oppressor undone!”

Zhen’var was quietly shaking her head. “... Colonel Fei’nur has her orders. Almighty willing, she will be able to carry them out. This is… what I had feared would happen when Admiral Bonnet was stubborn.” The two women looked at each other, and returned to the bridge. 

“Captain, we are receiving a communication from the Justicia, ” CPO Bor’erj reported. The bridge remained as tense as a knife, nobody having gone off-post in those twenty-two minutes, every station crewed. 

The Dilgar captain paused, before returning to her command chair. “I will take it, Comms.”

Bonnet looked relieved. The truth was out now, and one could see the next steps written on his face. He was a man of honour, who had been left looking for a way out. A way to save face as a military man. And the Aururians had given it to them. The supposed warmongering Empire had known that unless they flipped the Queens supporting the NTC, it would be a war. They had avoided it by working that angle in the background. 

“Captain, in light of the failure of the National Transitional Council to retain control over the planet, and in the interests of interstellar peace, we are prepared to withdraw from Garatnam within the one hour you have given us.” 

“In the interest of continued peace, you have my thanks, Admiral Bonnet. I will stand my ship down from combat stations, and my ground forces will continue to protect your cantonments until all your citizens are withdrawn.”

“The military did not know, Captain. You have my word of honour as an officer, the military did not know,” he answered stiffly, repeating himself emphatically, shaken.

Zhen’var believed him. Growing up, serving as an officer in the Earth Alliance, she believed him. But somebody did, she thought stiffly as the message blinked off. “Get me Admiral Afyhova, please.”

The screen flashed promptly back to the bridge of the Resolution. “Captain,” Afyhova acknowledged. “I am given to understand the League Admiral has agreed to withdraw.”

“Correct, Admiral, within the hour he was given. You have my thanks for your cooperation in helping keep the peace.” Left unsaid was how the Aururians had outmanouvered them.

“It was not really me. The Lady Marshal acted according to the dictates and judgement of her position,” Afyhova answered frankly. “I am just glad it did not have a recourse to arms.”

“Your forebearance made it possible. Again, you have my thanks. My ground forces will shield the League civilians until they are evacuated, as per my orders. Garantam is free.”

“I will make your job a little easier for you, then, Captain. I will withdraw as well,” she answered, significantly, a flicker of expression of surprise from Captain Kerolit behind her. 

There was a flash of relief across Zhen’var’s face. With the Aururians withdrawn, their allies on the surface would be much less likely to act against the Massif. “ Namaste , Admiral.” She pressed her palms together and inclined her head.

Afyhova reciprocated the gesture. “ Namaste,” she replied, “Alinga be your sure friend, you travel the solar vastness fast and sure, Captain. You have done honour today.”

Zhen’var nodded, and broke the connection, mentally mumbling to herself I doubt Portland will see it that way.

See it one way, or see it another, when the sun set on the Massif that night, Garatnam was a free nation, the Numeraians a free people, and there was peace. 


“Have you ever actually testified before a Military Oversight Committee meeting before, Captain?” Abebech asked, sitting at a table with Zhen’var and Fei’nur, collectively (and embarrassingly for Will as the XO) the highest ranking officers on the ship, as they settled into the vast dockyard around Portland in geosynchronous orbit which up until that point the Huáscar had never actually visited before. It was their first trip to the capital of the Alliance. 

“No, but I was with General Leftcourt as his aide when he did in Geneva, Commander.” Her hands desperately wanted to do something, but she held them rigidly in her lap. “It will be unpleasant, I know.”

“Project confidence and focus on the soundbytes, most of them will follow along with what you say if they think the media will like it,” Abebech answered, sipping her coffee. She was as enormously composed as ever, having returned from her trip to Doreia looking a bit healthier and with the Heermann having avoided action on the late mission. The scuttlebutt aboard the Huáscar was that she had gone back to the Solarian League for some kind of medical treatment, but Nah’dur flat-out insisted she wouldn’t need it. 

“It remains to be seen. I am sure the Foreign Office wants my head.” Her nerves were so shaken, Zhen’var didn’t even have her usual chai before her, just water with a lemon slice.

“They haven’t cancelled our next mission to negotiate with the Quarian Admiralty, Captain,” Abebech reminded her gently. “It will be fine.”

“I will remember your words after the hearing, Commander Imra. Until then, my fears have reign of my mind.”

“I have always admired your honesty most of all,” Abebech said, abruptly. She rarely delved into such things. “Not simply telling the truth. But the honesty of self. You may let your fears reign over your mind, but someone like you doesn’t have anything to be afraid of, really.”

“What the Deputy Undersecretary told me on my yacht indicates otherwise, Commander.” Zhen’var murmured, gaze flickering about. “But I shall try and remember your counsel.”.

“You have as many powerful friends as enemies, Captain. Bear that in mind when you go.”

“Thank you, Commander.” It was a conversation Zhen’var kept in mind the next several days, including during the long several hours before the Military Oversight Committee’s inquisition into her actions. She never flinched from taking full responsibility for the outcome and process of the action; on behalf of her crew, and even the Deputy Undersecretary. It had been her actions which had led to the outcome; a Garantam that was in the orbit of the Aururian Empire, and a massive setback in relations with the League.

On Omega Station, under Aria t’Loak’s thumb, interuniversal connections meant the scale and scope of crime had only unfathomably multiplied. 

The group of Salarians, hyperactive and nervous, almost screamed ill-intent as they leaned in together with their contractor. Contractor was a good word for it, neutral, divorced. 

“It is not enough to kill the Dilgar scion, no, no,” the lead Salarian insisted. “We need the destruction of the plans confirmed as well. There are other Dilgar of that house, it is famous for its outlier intellectual potential. We need the plans.”

“That increases the complexity of the operation massively.”

“Cost is not a concern; cost supports the increase in complexity. The plans must be destroyed, the family is extremely capable at cross-functional intellectual performance. One of the others may finish the work even if the scion is eliminated.”

“That ship is a very tough nut to crack, gentlemen…”

“Two hundred bars of gold pressed latinum,” the first Salarian said simply. 

“I’ll see what I can do to put a team together.”