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The Coming Storm

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THE COMING STORM

Stories in the "Shadows of the Apocalypse" series:

Dance with the Reaper

The Coming Storm

Storm of Shadows

oOoOo

CHAPTER ONE
What the hell are they thinking…?

"The arrival of the Arcadia heralded a new era for humanity that would open new opportunities for the people of Earth. Yet, at this point in history there were many potholes and pitfalls in the road ahead, and the future seemed uncertain and bleak to all those involved…"

— excerpt from "The Arcadia Effect—Effects and Evolution of Human Society from 2003 to 2013"

oOoOo

"Captain?"

Megan rubbed her eyes, opening them and focusing on the voice talking to her. The lack of sleep over the last few days from installing the weapons system in Atlantis's cargo bay and preparing for the launch weighed on her. She'd only closed her eyes for a minute to rest them and hadn't planned on dozing off until the shuttle's copilot woke her.

"How you doing, Captain? You look a little green around the gills there," Commander Lorne Hodge said, giving her a tired-looking smirk.

"Not bad. Still a little queasy, but that shot they gave me before launch is keeping my dinner down for now," she said, adding her own tired smile.

"Yeah, the weightlessness will get you every time," he replied, eyeing her over.

Megan recognized the look in the Commander's eyes. It was one she'd had to battle against almost her entire adult life. At first glance, most people considered her a stereo-typical dumb, beautiful blonde, but it surprised them to find there were brains behind those good looks too.

Even after joining the Air Force and going with short hair, it seemed every man in heat-seeking range still considered her eye candy, and an opportunity. It wasn't all one-sided. She'd learned to play the game too, using her looks to her advantage when needed. But, other than occasional dating and in-and-out relationships, she was more than happy to devote her time and effort working in the Air Force's Weapons R&D program.

"You had a question, Commander?"

"Yeah, Colonel Harper wanted me to get an update on our weapons systems."

"You could have just asked over the radio channel."

"Yeah, but I needed an excuse to get out of my seat and float around," Lorne said, giving her a sheepish grin.

"Well, everything is green on my board, but then we've never tested this system in a live environment."

Lorne studied the console display in front of Megan, "I got just a preliminary briefing on this system before launch. Is it true it's based on the AGM-69 SRAM?"

"Yes, we designed an eight-round rotary launcher, based on the one used on the B-52, to fit in the shuttle bay. I can raise and lower it for firing," Megan said, warming up on her subject of knowledge.

Lorne smirked, "Yeah, I bet the Russians weren't too happy to find out we had a missile launcher designed to fit in our shuttles."

Megan's grin grew, recalling the briefings when their Russian hosts found out about this weapon system and that shuttles could carry nuclear weapons.

"Yeah 'not happy' is understating their reaction to finding out about this weapon system. It took a lot of convincing to ease their fears this prototype launcher was the only one built."

Lorne noted the Captain's expression and didn't quite believe the official line this was the only launcher built.

"If I recall my specs, didn't the SRAM only have a range of 110 miles? We can't turn like a bomber to avoid the blast."

Megan shook her head, "You're not wrong, but we made modifications to this system for space. The normal engine rating is 200 kilometers in atmosphere, but the modifications we've made and lack of gravity and atmospheric drag boost the range to 1000 kilometers. That's on full engine burn and includes the ability to make one major maneuver to avoid any anti-missile systems."

"Still sounds awfully close when you're talking about nukes, especially in space."

"The launcher itself fires… gives the missile a kick at a speed faster than the shuttle. We can then initiate the engines firing and the missiles increase their speed for the final attack phase. Considering our velocity, the launcher and engines, we can extend the range to 5000 kilometers with the missiles speeding up to about Mach 50 on their final run."

Lorne let out a low whistle, hearing how fast the missiles would go, "So what if these aliens have a missile defense system?"

Megan recognized the condescending tone and look the Commander gave her. Most men had a problem believing a beautiful woman could understand nuclear weapons and weapons systems.

She held back her sigh, "We don't have any idea what their defensive capabilities are. My mission firing plan is to stagger launch our missiles then initiate engine burns at different intervals to stagger our missiles to arrive spread-out at the target. I've also programmed two minor course corrections to bring the missiles in from different vectors. If we get lucky, our missiles will hit from three sides. Plus, the missiles have a rubber coating that should minimize their radar and heat profile to avoid or delay detection. If the target tries to evade, we've based the missile's guidance system on the AIM-120 AMRAAM, with fire and forget capability, so it will adjust. But then, we don't need a direct hit when using a 200 kiloton fusion warhead with Tritium boost… do we?" she said, batting her eyes at the Commander.

Lorne blinked, not sure how to respond, "Oh…"

Megan smirked, seeing the Commander put off-balance. As he turned to float back to his station, a question that had been nagging her since the mission briefing came to the front of her thoughts.

"Commander?"

Lorne turned back, taking in the woman who had her finger on a nuclear trigger, "What is it, Captain?" he said.

"Sir, I've been doing the math and calculating our speed and trajectory and several things…"

"Go ahead."

"At the velocity we're going, we have such a narrow window to hit, so we can slingshot ourselves back around the moon to get home."

"And?"

"Our projected trajectory path will take us right through where the alien ship is and where our nukes will detonate."

The Commander met Megan's eyes as his face took on a hard, sad expression. He saw the realization sink in, "What's your question, Captain?"

Megan took a deep breath as she grasped her situation, "No question, Commander. I wanted to clarify the situation," she said, trying not to betray any emotions.

oOoOo

The alarm beeping forced Paul to open his eyes. His half-opened eyes focused on his bedside table clock.

5:30am… God, I hate 5:30am…

As he began shaking off the last vestiges of sleep, an array of hazy, dream-like images flashed in his head. For a couple of seconds, an intense out-of-body experience gripped him, and he didn't know where he was.

The sensation, along with the images, faded quickly as he became more awake. He shook off the experience due to overworking. As he became more alert, he became aware of the body curled up next to him.

Faith stirred as the alarm continued to go off. A smile filled Paul's face, watching her, recalling what they'd done last night. He tried not to disturb her as he turned off his alarm. Faith stirred again, this time stretching her body with her eyes still closed.

"Why do all you army guys get up so damn early in the morning?" she mumbled while she continued stretching.

Paul smirked, shaking his head, watching her stretch, taking in her body. Despite the lack of sleep because of their "activities", he hadn't been this energized and refreshed in years. He looked forward to the day, ready to take on whatever awaited… after grabbing a coffee and breakfast.

"First, I'm in the navy, not the army. And second, I'm commander of this ship and I'm expected to put in a full day's work."

Faith opened her eyes, giving him a smile, "Don't you guys ever get a day-off?"

"You mean like a weekend or holiday?"

"Yeah, something like that."

Paul snorted as he considered the question. He couldn't remember the last time he took time off for himself. There always seemed to be another mission, training or squadron paperwork for him to do.

"You should take today off? We could spend it in bed. We still have the handcuffs, they're broken, but we can improvise," Faith said, giving him a suggestive smile.

Paul's body stirred, considering her suggestion as his eyes wandered over her body. Yet his personal wants and desires would have to wait. There was still too much to do with minor ship repairs and system checks, along with pilot training and getting the drones back on-line.

"I can't…" he said, seeing her disappointment, "How about we catch an early dinner and we can go from there?"

Faith rolled her eyes, "I dunno… maybe. I might already have plans tonight with somebody else," she teased. To add further, she rolled on her side, lifting the sheet to give him an excellent view of what he was turning down.

Paul laughed, taking the time to appreciate the view she was giving him, but surprised by the stab of jealousy at the thought of her being with someone else.

Even as he remembered how she moved and responded to his touch, old memories and emotions welled up, catching him by surprise. He pushed them down because they led down painful paths he didn't want to explore again.

"Well, if I can't have dinner then can we have breakfast together?"

Faith yawned, pulling the sheet back over intending to go back to sleep, "Man, you're assuming a lot I'm getting up now. I don't remember joining your army."

Paul shook his head, "It's navy… and no, you didn't join. I thought if we went for breakfast, I could first scrub your back while we take a shower," he said, running his fingers lightly down her shoulder.

Faith jumped out of bed, heading to the bathroom in one lightning fast move, catching him by surprise, "Hell, why didn't you say that in the first place!"

oOoOo

Colonel Harper checked his display console to make sure all systems were green. The moon, looming ever larger in his cockpit window, momentarily drew his attention away from his work.

He still found it hard to believe he was heading there like some of his childhood heroes. Except, rather than exploring new frontiers and expanding humanity's knowledge, he was going to attack an alien ship with nuclear weapons.

Harper shook off any doubts or misgivings about the mission as he focused back on his work, "Any sign they've detected us?"

"Ummm…" Commander Hodge said, checking his console

"What is it?"

Hodge shook his head while continuing to study his console, "The radar warning system they installed is detecting something, but the signal is nothing I'm familiar with."

Harper sighed, "So they've detected us?"

"I can't say for certain, sir. It looks like they might be scanning us, but I can't say for certain. Should I start our ECM protocols?"

"Negative. Until we can confirm they've detected us, we'll wait until we're at our firing point and then initiate counter measures as per mission plan."

"Yes, sir."

A moment of silence passed between the two men, Harper broke it, "So, what do you think of our passenger?"

Lorne smiled, "I'm trying not to, but the images include soft lights and drinks with dancing."

Harper smirked, "Easy there tiger, your wife might have something to say about that."

The Commander let out a soft sigh, "A man can dream, can't he… it's all we've got left, isn't it?"

It was Harper's turn to sigh, "Yeah, in about two hours we'll light up space like no one has seen since the planets formed. Can she do the job?"

Lorne considered the question as he recalled his conversation with the Captain, "Yeah… yeah, she'll put them on the target," he said, nodding.

oOoOo

Xander and Cassie were both still tired and had taken a quiet corner table in the cafeteria to spend breakfast together.

After work on the hanger deck, and grabbing dinner, they'd gone back to Cassie's cabin to settle in for the evening. The plan was to watch some videos and spend a quiet evening of snuggling.

Xander was glad for the chance to spend some quiet time with Cassie, even if that meant being forced to watch one of her favorite films… a Kung-Fu movie.

It wasn't exactly his genre, but what caught his interest was when Cassie told him they'd made this movie inside the SDF-1 while in space.

They'd cuddled up together intending to watch the movie, and maybe a little more… and both promptly fell asleep with exhaustion winning out over desire.

Cassie's alarm going off had been a rude awakening, and Xander rushed back to his cabin for a quick shower and a change of clothes. Before meeting up with Cassie in the cafeteria, he'd taken a glimpse of himself in the mirror.

He could honestly admit he cut an impressive figure in the fresh pair of REF work coveralls he was wearing. It seemed he'd earned himself a new job with Chief Larson wanting him back on the hanger deck. She'd planned on giving him a crash course in servicing and maintaining fighters.

In his wildest dreams, he'd never expected to be doing any type of work like this, let alone be in space. He realized his new job and duties might mean initially having less free time with Cassie, but it would give them something more in common.

Now at breakfast, reality was settling in as Xander tiredly picked at his food, listening to Cassie talk about her schedule for today. He didn't envy her job of training the new pilots, but at least she didn't have Chief Larson looking over her shoulder.

It took him a moment to realize she'd stopped talking. His attention immediately switched gears as he glanced up from his meal. Her expression caught him off-guard.

"What's the matter?" he said, wondering if she thought he wasn't paying attention to her.

Cassie motioned with her head towards the cafeteria's entrance, "Nothing… it's just surprising to see those two together."

Xander, trying to act nonchalant, glanced to where Cassie was motioning. His poker face failed him as his good eye arched in surprise seeing Faith and Captain Coleiro walking together.

They weren't holding hands, but their body language told a different story that anyone could see. He noted Faith's relaxed smile while the Captain, looking tired, also wore a smile.

It seemed he wasn't the only one noticing the couple's entrance, noticing how people at other tables smiled and whispered, looking towards Faith and the Captain. Xander was no rocket scientist, but then you didn't need to be a genius to figure out what those two had been doing last night.

"Huh…" Xander said, trying to reconcile what he was seeing.

"What's the matter? You seem surprised?" Cassie said. Even though she had little experience in this area, she'd picked up on what had happened between the pair.

"You mean about Faith and the Captain? Nah, I'm not surprised she hooked up with someone."

"Then what are you surprised about?"

Xander glanced again, studying Faith's happy and relaxed expression, "She's not the stick around for the next morning type. She's usually done and gone. I'm surprised she's still hanging with the Captain."

"Well, we are on a spaceship. There's nowhere else for her to go, so she can't really run off," Cassie said, turning her attention back to her meal.

Xander pondered Cassie's statement as he studied Faith and the Captain again, "Maybe…" he muttered.

Further considerations of Faith and the Captain took a back seat as he glimpsed Anya walking into the cafeteria. With his new found work preoccupying him, he hadn't talked or visited with her recently. Any growing guilt over his negligence died quickly upon seeing her with a big smile and holding hands with one of the crew.

A brief stab of jealousy gripped him as he stared at the couple as they grabbed breakfast. It threw him to see her with someone else, and for a moment thought she was hooking up with this new guy to get back at him for Cassie.

Yet, as he watched them, he realized there was something more between them. It caught him off-guard as Anya looked his way and their eyes met. In that moment, Xander replayed every moment and memory they'd spent together. She gave him a small, gentle smile before turning her attention back to the man she was with.

Goodbye Anya… Long life and happiness… you deserve it…

A momentary twinge of sadness hit him as his mind pondered the eternal question of "what if". The gloom didn't last long as the realization dawned on him they'd both moved on. Anya was his past and as he turned his attention to Cassie, a smile grew on his face, recognizing she was his future.

"What's wrong? You okay?" Cassie said, seeing his smile and the look he was giving her.

Xander laughed, "I haven't even finished breakfast and already I've had two surprises today. It makes me wonder what else will happen today."

oOoOo

At a table across the cafeteria, Chief Larson studied Faith and the Captain. She was already quite familiar with all the stories circulating around the ship about the pair and their activities. There were no doubts in her mind about what had transpired between the two, especially knowing Paul's colorful history from his younger, wilder days.

She shook her head, rolling her eyes, seeing the Captain's tired, yet cheerful expression, and the happy relaxed expression on the younger woman's face.

While she was glad to see the Captain happy, a growing sense of concern overshadowed that gladness. This concern along with her overprotectiveness of him was a well-worn path. The Captain had a tendency of not taking care of himself, and she didn't want to see him hurt again… repeating what happened after Sonia's death.

While warning bells echoed in her head, Larson swore not to let history repeat itself. The last time wasn't an experience she wanted to repeat.

A sigh escaped her, seeing the twinkle in the Captain's eyes, and she realized anything she said to caution him would go in one ear and out the other. For now, she decided to play a waiting game and not voice her concerns, but she would keep a close eye on the situation.

As the couple grabbed their food, the Captain caught Larson's eye and nodded. She waved him over to join her, watching how the Captain tried to nonchalantly bring Faith over with him without making it appear like anything was going on between them.

They're not fooling anyone. A blind man from low orbit can see what's going on, Larson snorted, trying not to laugh.

"Morning, Chief."

"Morning, Captain… Morning, Faith."

"Hey, morning," Faith said, giving a small smile and acknowledging nod to Larson.

Larson watched with amusement as the Captain and Faith sat down across from each other, trying to pretend like nothing had happened between them. An awkward silence descended over the table as the group ate their breakfast.

Larson waited for the perfect moment to break the awkwardness, "So, did you guys have a good workout last night?"

That perfect moment was as Paul was taking a drink from his coffee mug. The tone of the Chief's question and what it implied caught him off-guard.

He maintained some air of composure and didn't spill any coffee on himself. But any semblance of composure began to fail when he caught the look Larson was giving him, causing him to choke on his coffee. Before he could recover, Faith, reading the other woman's intent, jumped in with both feet.

"Yeah, the multiple sessions last night and the session this morning were great," Faith said in a matter-of-fact way, adding a smirk to reinforce her meaning.

Larson arched an eyebrow in surprise. The appraising look she gave Paul caused another coughing fit. It took him a couple of minutes to get control, and another moment of awkward silence descended over the table.

Larson, biding her time, started in again, "That's pretty impressive for an old guy," she said, looking at Faith.

Faith didn't bat an eye as she shoveled a fork full of scrambled eggs into her mouth, "Yeah, it was loads of fun. I'm looking forward to more workout sessions."

Larson studied Faith for a moment as she ate. All the while Paul dreaded what would happen next.

"I like her Captain… she's a feisty one," Larson replied in a deadpan voice.

Paul thought he would choke to death, as he tried to get his coughing under control. It didn't help his situation that his repeated choking was drawing stares from those sitting nearby.

The last straw was when Xander gave him a smile and nod from across the room. He was trying to figure out how to eject from this conversation when fortune gave him a way out with his name being paged over the ship's PA system.

Thank god!

Larson tried not to laugh at the Captain's not too subtle rush to the communications panel on the wall across from them. The relief on his face was obvious as he returned to the table.

"Sorry ladies, but duty calls… I have to go to the bridge. Chief, I'll be by the hanger deck later to go over the status on those drones. Faith…" Paul said, pausing as Faith gave him a smile.

"Yeah?"

"Maybe we can meet up later for drinks… dinner… you know."

"Yeah, I would like that, especially the 'you know' stuff," she said, grinning, causing Paul to cough in surprise.

The Captain rushed out of the cafeteria, leaving Faith and the Chief at the table. They sat there for a few moments in uncomfortable silence, sizing each other up, as they finished up their meals.

"You got something to say, Chief?" Faith said.

Larson didn't bat an eyelash at the question, "Not much… The Captain's a big boy and he's no novice…"

Faith's smirk grew, "That's for sure."

Larson let out a sigh, "What you two do behind closed doors is your affair, but the Captain is my friend and I've known him for years."

Faith became defensive at Larson's tone. A wave of anger grew, but along with it came jealousy, catching her by surprise. The idea of another woman having a history or being involved with Paul bothered her.

She quickly brushed it off, not wanting to think about the implications of these emotions, "What's your point?" she replied testily.

"You and the Captain can bump uglies all you want… Hell, he could probably show you a few things."

Faith snorted, but her body tingled remembering his touch.

Larson continued, "I want to make sure you don't hurt the guy… he's had some rough patches in his life."

This surprised Faith, she realized Paul was a deeply complicated person, but then they hadn't spent their time together engaging in any deep meaningful conversations. Yes, he carried around some anger, but then who didn't.

Faith brushed off Larson's concern with a shrug, "We're just having some fun together. It doesn't really mean anything."

Even as the words left her lips, a strange guilty sensation filled her… like she'd just told a lie.

Larson grimaced as she stood up to leave, meeting Faith's eyes with a hard glare which gave the Slayer a reason to pause, "Whatever… if you break the Captain's heart. Well, I know how tough and strong you are, but honey, you won't see me coming for you."

oOoOo

A sense of relief filled Paul as he neared the bridge. He didn't completely understand what was going on between Faith and Rachel, but he was glad to be out of their crossfire.

His smile grew as his thoughts shifted to Faith. He enjoyed spending time with her, and it wasn't only because of the sex. He'd spent more than his fair share with women when he was younger, but it was different with her.

The only other time he could remember being this comfortable with a woman was when he was with Sonia. Faith seemed the exact opposite from her and different from any of the women he'd been with. She was rough, outspoken and seemed fearless. Yet, he saw there was more to her which she kept buried. He recognized she kept parts of herself buried, afraid to open and share it to avoid getting hurt. It was only in those quiet moments after sex where they were lying together she seemed at ease. It seemed peaceful and right.

He pushed Faith to the back of his thoughts to go over his conversation with Lieutenant Evans. She'd caught up with him as he escaped the cafeteria, wanting to talk to him about an important matter.

The Lieutenant informed him a small group of the women—from the ones called Potentials—had approached her about the flight training program. They had heard she was overseeing training and expressed an interest in learning how to fly and become fighter pilots. Evans asked for permission to expand the training program to include these young women.

When questioning Evans deeper over why these Potentials wanted to become pilots, she blushed, reluctantly admitting that she'd apparently inspired these young women to want to join.

Despite some mixed emotions, he told the Lieutenant he would give her proposal due consideration.

He temporarily shelved thoughts of pilot training along with any lingering thoughts of Faith as he stepped on to the bridge. An Ensign was already moving to intercept him as he made his way to his command station. The Ensign's worried expression caused his gut to churn.

"Report," he said.

"Sir, we're picking up an approaching craft."

Paul's face now mirrored the Ensign's as he took his station, "Range and type?"

"Sensors still aren't at full capability, but it looks like a small craft, smaller than one of our shuttles. It's at 50,000 kilometers and closing fast relative for its speed."

"Why didn't we pick it up sooner?"

The crewman manning the sensor station answered, "Sir, we still only have limited sensors. From backtracking the craft's trajectory, it looks like they launched from the planet side facing away from us. Also, our position relative to the moon masked their approach."

"Threat assessment?"

"Sensors are still not fully reliable at that range, but we have detected no energy weapon signatures."

Paul took a moment to consider the situation. They had an enormous advantage in tech and firepower over anything this Earth could throw at them. Yet, a sense of worry filled him as he tried to figure out what those other people were thinking by sending out a single small craft.

It appeared as if whoever had launched this craft was trying to conceal the craft's launch from their sensors. Once again, he reminded himself this was not his Earth, and it was possible they'd developed a technology he wasn't familiar with.

An unsettling sensation continued to build in him as he studied the tactical display. It was blindingly obvious this unidentified craft was on an intercept course with the ship.

"Ensign, set the ship to Condition Yellow."

"Yes, sir!"

As the ship's alarms signaled yellow alert, Paul leaned forward continuing to study the display screen showing the plotted positions of his ship and the other craft.

"Sir, pin-point barrier and point-defense systems are on-line. Engineering reports engines on-line and we have full maneuvering capability," the Ensign reported.

"Good work, Ensign. Time to intercept?"

"If we hold our position and they maintain their current velocity, their ETA to intercept is one hour and twenty minutes."

Paul continued studying the tactical display screen, considering his options and the ramifications, "Inform Lieutenant Evans, I want her prepped in an Alpha for launch. She's to hold off launching for now."

"Yes, sir!"

oOoOo

There wasn't much conversation exchanged between Faith and Xander as they made their way to Buffy's cabin. Kennedy had shown up in the cafeteria looking for them. The only answer she gave to their questioning about this summons was that Buffy was looking for them and needed to see them ASAP.

What conversation there was to this point was Xander speculating out loud about why Buffy wanted to see them. He paused his aloud wonderings, noting how Faith seemed lost in deep thoughts, and he had a hunch about where her mind was.

"Sooo… I saw you and the Captain having breakfast together," he said, a smirk forming on his face

"So, what about it?" she said, giving him the evil eye.

"Uh… just saying you two looked… um… nice together," Xander stammered as his smirk died under her glare.

Faith sighed, realizing she'd snapped at Xander for no reason. Her hard expression softened as she considered his words, "Nice… huh?" she said.

He shrugged, trying to avoid making the same mistake as he carefully chose his words, "Yeah, you seem… happy."

Faith rolled her eyes, shaking her head as she tried to slough off his words. Despite this attempt, she found Xander's comments only adding to her growing inner discord.

Ever since her talk with Chief Larson, she was having a hard time trying to understand her feelings towards Paul and what their night together actually meant to her.

The sex had been great, but her modus operandi with every guy she hooked up with was to either take-off or kick him out when done. It was one of her principle rules to never stick around till morning because that only complicated things.

This time she'd broken her rule with Paul, and she now found herself a mix of emotions, not understanding what it all meant. What was even worse was that she hadn't even thought of leaving while lying there in bed with him.

It seemed unreal and beautiful, recalling the warmth of his body against her, his hand caressing her body, while they gazed out his cabin window into space. The view only added to the moment as the infinity of space contrasting with the desolation and solitariness of the nearby moon was both breath-taking and intoxicating.

A small voice echoed from the back of her thoughts, telling her to walk away. The voice kept telling her she'd had her fun, but it was time to move on… there were plenty more fish left to hook.

Yet, as this voice nagged her, other thoughts and feelings pulled her in another direction. A part of her wanted to follow their lead, but fear built upon bitter experience held her back. Giving into those "squishy emotions" only led to disappointment and pain, but then she had never met anyone like Paul before. A burst of anger caught her by surprise.

I feel comfortable with Paul… I can't remember ever being this way with any other guy… Damn it! What's wrong with me?

oOoOo

Faith shelved her personal issues as they entered Buffy's cabin, noting Willow and Spike along with Giles were also there. The worried expressions on their faces along with Buffy's pacing didn't bode well for why they were meeting. Something was happening… and it wasn't good.

Buffy stopped her pacing as the door closed behind Faith and Xander, "About time! Where have you two been? We've got a problem!"

Buffy's tone immediately put Faith on the defensive. Before she could say anything, Xander chimed in, "Whoa! Slow down there, Buffy. What's the problem?"

Buffy shook her head in frustration, "Tell them, Will…" she said, nodding to her friend.

Willow stepped forward, "As you know, I've been spending a lot of time in Engineering. You know, learning about their technology and trying to help them find a way back to their dimension."

Xander nodded, while Faith shrugged.

"As they've been repairing their ship, they have sensor systems that scan things with precise measurements we can only dream about. I mean it's…"

"Willow, get to the chase!" Buffy said, seeing her friend was drifting off topic.

Willow shook her head to focus her thoughts, "Huh… oh sorry. Where was I? Oh yeah. The engineers have been getting their sensors repaired and been scanning the area of space where they arrived here. During this scanning, they've detected some anomalous readings on board the ship."

Spike recognized the confused expressions on Xander and Faith and his frustration got the better of him, "Oh bloody hell, this is taking too long! The blokes on this ship found out that Little Bit is a little bit more than she seems!"

Xander and Faith were both stunned by this news, "They found out Dawn is The Key?" Xander said, his face now mirroring the concern and worries of the others.

Willow shook her head, "No! They don't know about Dawn. All they've detected is a faint energy signal on the ship, but they have no idea what's causing it."

"Does Dawn know? What are we going to do?" Xander said, trying to gasp at what this meant for them.

Buffy shook her head, "No, she doesn't and we're not saying anything to her right now… she doesn't need to get freaked out. What we're going to do? For now, we watch and wait. Giles and Willow are looking into ways we can get off the ship if we need to leave in a hurry."

Buffy looked at Xander, meeting his eyes, "Have you said or mentioned anything to Cassie about Dawn?"

"No… I haven't said anything or talked about Dawn being The Key."

Xander noted the relief on Buffy's face, but it conflicted him. He didn't know what he would say or do if Cassie and him found themselves on opposite sides. He knew in his gut she wouldn't do anything to harm or hurt Dawn. If there were any doubts, it was about the Captain as he glanced at Faith. Buffy's harsh voice caught everyone by surprise.

"Everyone out! I need to talk to Faith alone… now!"

No one argued as they left the cabin, leaving both Slayers alone. Faith sensed what was coming from Buffy's harsh tone. She didn't have to wait long after the door closed.

"What the hell are you thinking?"

"B… it was like—"

Buffy didn't let her finish, "I believed you when you said you weren't sleeping with the Captain, even though a little voice was warning me not to. Now imagine my surprise when I go for breakfast this morning and everyone is talking about how you and the Captain are screwing each other like there's no tomorrow. For crying out loud… handcuffs! And after he almost killed you!"

Faith couldn't help herself, "We took turns with the cuffs…"

It didn't amuse Buffy, "DAMN IT, FAITH!"

Faith closed her eyes, taking a deep breath to keep her growing anger in check. She opened her eyes to see Buffy glaring at her, "You finished?"

Buffy threw up her hands in frustration, "Sure, why not! What can you say?"

Faith took another deep breath, and pictured herself lying in bed with Paul holding her, gazing out his window to see the moon. A surprising sense of peace took hold and her anger slipped away, "First, when we talked nothing had happened between me and Paul yet."

Faith noticed Buffy's surprise at her using the Captain's first name, "I won't deny I thought about having sex with him, but we didn't plan for it to happen. Besides, it's not like he proposed or we're buying a house with a white picket fence. Second, if you're worried about me blabbing about Dawn in the middle of an orgasm… that ain't going to happen."

"That's not the point. What happens if you're forced to choose between him and us? What would you do?"

Faith paused because she hadn't considered that possibility. She searched her heart, and couldn't believe Paul would do anything to hurt Dawn or her.

"Buffy, he's not the enemy… he's not a vampire or a demon. He wouldn't do anything to hurt Dawn."

"I hope you're right for all our sakes," Buffy said, shaking her head.

Faith's face took on a grim expression, realizing she was staking a lot on what she thought she knew about Paul. A grin came to her face, "Besides, talking about your sister during sex… that's just creepy."

"Ugh! Thanks! I didn't need the image of that dancing through my head!" Buffy said, a painful grimace filling her face.

Faith was about to make some glib comment about Buffy joining her and Paul for a threesome, but a surprising spasm of jealousy grabbed her.

She was still struggling with these new feelings when the ship's alarms wailed. As both women stared at each other wondering what was happening, a voice came over the ship's PA system.

"ATTENTION ALL HANDS! SHIP IS NOW AT CONDITION YELLOW!"

oOoOo

The lights were off when the Vice-President of the United States entered his office. He tried the wall switch, but the overhead light didn't come on. Shaking his head, he cautiously stepped across his darkened office to turn on his desk lamp. Before he could turn on the light, a voice spoke from the shadows, surprising and scaring him.

"What's the status of the mission?"

The Vice-President recovered enough to turn his desk light on, turning to face the voice. He recognized the voice, and it filled him with even more fear.

"W-We're on schedule. They should be in firing range in just over an hour," he stuttered, trying to control his fear.

"That's good… I and my associates have invested a lot of time and resources to get you into this position. To put you one heartbeat away from being President and make you the leading candidate for a run at the oval office when this term is up."

"Y-Yes… T-Thank you, M-Master."

"Is she aboard the shuttle?"

"Yes, Master! It took some doing. There were questions asked because there were more senior and experienced officers to fill that position. I still wonder why it was so important to get her on this mission."

The demon's face took on a grim smile, "My Master said it was a stroke of luck and fate to find her. I don't have all the details, but my Master was most insistent she was aboard the shuttle. He has a score to settle, and she is a tool in his plan. That is why we had you push hard for this mission."

"Y-Yes, Master. I-I understand, but I've read the reports about these aliens and I find it hard to believe one little shuttle will destroy them."

The demon laughed, "If your shuttle destroys the alien ship that works for us. If they destroy the shuttle, we'll make sure he finds out who they killed. That works for my Master as well… it's a win-win for us."

The Vice-President didn't understand who this "he" was his master was talking about, but he'd learned, painfully, to never question his master.