Phoenix Rising
By Janet Lynne

Part 6

See Part 1 for disclaimers

-11-


Devon sat quietly in the chair, elbows resting on the arms, hands steepled in front of her face. The gel-filled fabric conformed to her body, supporting her comfortably as she watched her mate meditate. Kara sat in the lotus position on a small pad on the plant-lined balcony, still and silent, her face relaxed and composed as she communed with her higher self. The shifting, orange-pink hues of the late afternoon sunlight played across the younger woman's peaceful features, and as she gazed at her mate, Devon was filled with a sense of peace as well.

She realized, for the first time since meeting Kara, that she felt inner peace. For the first time in her life, she was completely content: the restlessness that had plagued her from her earliest memory was gone. It had slipped away without her knowledge while she had been preoccupied with falling in love with her soulmate. The realization created in her a strong emotion, emerging from her power chakra and expanding up through her heart center and into her throat. Her eyes misted as she thought, Sennaat, you have truly blessed me. Grace to you.

A few meters away, Kara floated in a peaceful haze. As she had fallen deeper into her trance, the physical plane had withdrawn and she had become aware only of herself, her breath and the shifting energies that swirled around her. She phased gently into the next dimension and became aware of the watchful presence of two of her spirit guides.

The first energy, a vaguely humanoid-shaped presence of varying hues of golden light, communicated telepathically, "A new journey awaits you. New growth, new avenues of learning."

"Be open to them," added the second, blue-tinged energy. "The higher-evolved species will assist you."

The thoughts rang clearly in her mind, and she acknowledged them with a deep sense of love and gratitude. Thank you, my friends. As the companion energies faded into the swirling mass of background energy, she became filled with a deep sense of peace and of purpose. A thought swirled in her mind, and as she grasped at it, it took on cohesive shape and the image of a Reticulan face appeared: gray-hued skin highlighted by large, almond-shaped, black eyes, small, thin mouth curled into a very slight smile, conveying warmth rather than the typical neutrality. The Sennaa, she thought, surprised. I have work to complete with the Sennaa. Devon and I.

While still trying to assimilate the surprising information, she suddenly felt a burning warmth enter her heart center. It was so dramatic that her awareness was shifted back to the physical plane, and she opened her eyes to see Devon gazing at her with tears flowing down her cheeks.

"Devon," she gasped quietly, rising gracefully to her feet. She crossed the several paces to where her mate sat and fell to her knees as she grasped Devon's hands. "Honey, what is it?"

Devon tried to bravely blink back the tears and shook her head, unable to speak. She pulled Kara up and into her lap and embraced her tightly. She let her link with Kara communicate physically what she couldn't verbally, concentrating hard to try to impart the emotion to her mate.

Kara gasped as she gazed into Devon's misty blue eyes. "I feel it," she murmured reverently. "Devon, you feel complete."

Devon closed her eyes and nodded, then pulled Kara's head down onto her shoulder. "Yes," she breathed. "Thanks to you. Thanks to your presence in my life. I've never felt this before, Kara." She sighed deeply, letting the emotion out. "God..." The tears began again and she sobbed into Kara's hair.

"It's okay. Let it out, Devon...I've got you. Let it go." Kara wrapped her arms around Devon and held her securely, feeling a peace in doing so that was completely new to her as well. This is what we were born for. This bond, this relationship...and the things that we will accomplish together. As she held her mate, her emotion was freed as well, and her tears joined with Devon's. They held each other, supported each other, for long minutes, finally forced to part by the buzz of Devon's computer.

Devon grinned wryly at Kara as she disengaged one arm from around her lover and reached for the unit. The display read, "Incoming data transmission. Stand by."

Devon looked at Kara, surprised. "I think this is from the Grays," and wiped her eyes as she gazed at the small display. After a moment, the computer beeped and the message began to scroll across the screen.

"Devon Andropoulos. Come please to meet on Sen at earliest convenience. Reply is awaited. Out."

Devon's eyebrows rose up into her bangs as she said quietly, "Well, it looks like I'm wanted on Zeta Reticuli. Fancy a dimensional trip to a nearby solar system?"

Kara grinned as she replied, "I do, thank you. Especially since while meditating a while ago I was told that I have business with the Sennaa."

"Jesus," Devon muttered. She added wryly, "I guess I'll tell them to expect us," and began keying in a message. She spoke into the unit, "Record message for data transmission. Dimensional transmitter. Encrypted. Highest Priority. From: Devon Andropoulos, Captain of the Earth cargo ship Phoenix. To: Sennaa Consul, Zeta Reticuli. Message: Message received. Departing Sol System three Earth months for immediate dimensional arrival. Lifemate, Dr. Kara Murphy to accompany. Cargo capacity one quarter full. Out."

Devon sent the message and continued to look down at the small unit in her hand. She could feel Kara's wonder at her use of the term, "lifemate" and felt a bit embarrassed. Quietly, she muttered, "It's their term, Kara. I wanted them to know that I have bonded and that you will be coming with me." She shrugged and added, "It felt like the thing to do...they're uh, big on such things."

Kara pulled her close and kissed her temple. "It feels very, very good to know that you consider me your lifemate. I'm honored. Thank you."

Devon smiled, an almost shy, self-deprecating smile and started to say something, but Kara interrupted her, saying quietly, "Yes, Devon. I consider you my lifemate as well."

"Gray gods..."

"Mm." She settled against Devon's strong body and the warmth and love that passed between them enveloped her, body and spirit. "Gray gods is right."

The last, long rays of the far away sun slanted through the top of the clear dome and illuminated them with a fiery orange glow just before it set beyond the curving red horizon.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"Report," Devon commanded crisply as she strode onto the bridge and stood behind her pilot's seat.

Cyd turned from her data screen and reported, "Systems are nominal, Captain. I've run diagnostics on all vital systems and all report as nominal as well."

Devon leaned forward to check the readout flashing across her own data screen as she asked, "The navigational array?"

"Also nominal, Captain. I ran it through an advanced diagnostic algorithm and it performed as expected." She turned away from the Captain briefly to flick at her console, bringing up the test figures on the dark blue display.

Devon noted the results and nodded. "Good work, Cyd. You saved me the trouble of having to do it. Long-range scanning?" Her eyes skimmed Cyd's face expectantly.

"Nominal," her second-in-command reported.

"Run an advanced diagnostic on it, please, and on communications, as well. We have two hours before we launch and I want to make sure we're in good shape before we leave."

Cyd nodded crisply, turning to her console, "Aye Captain."

As Devon turned to leave the bridge, she said, "There will be a crew briefing in thirty minutes, mess hall."

Cyd nodded, not taking her eyes from the figures scaling across her screen. "Aye."

Devon hit the door control with her palm, and as it slid open, she stopped and turned. With a degree of humor, she said, "Cyd, I appreciate your professionalism, but you don't need to be quite so formal."

The Commander's hands froze over her console and she half-turned toward Devon as she replied stiffly, surprise measured in her glance, "I'll keep that in mind, Captain."

Devon smiled and nodded, then turned and left, and Cyd was left staring blankly at her data screen. What the hell was that? Since when don't you require formality? She shook her head and returned her attention to the readouts on the functionality of the scanning system.

Devon bounded down the soft-floored corridor toward the rear of the ship, enjoying, as always, the bounce that Mars' gravity put into her step. It matched her mood at the moment. In fact, she thought, she couldn't remember ever feeling so light and carefree. The reason for her light mood warmed her heart center as she approached Medlab, the link with her mate betraying Kara's proximity by causing her heart chakra to vibrate pleasantly.

Devon popped her head through the open hatchway to see Kara tending to her hydroponic garden at the back of the lab. Some of the plants had grown large enough to be cultivated, and Kara was snipping at them carefully with small scissors. As she nipped a few sprigs from a feverfew plant, she sensed a special presence behind her and was smiling as she turned.

"Hi," she greeted her partner affectionately, her eyes warming as they not only took in her partner, but reflected the love that Devon's eyes declared for her.

"Hi, baby. It looks like the garden is coming along nicely. Your kit will be full of herbs very soon." She took a deep breath, enjoying the fresh, woody aroma that the plants gave off and threw an arm around Kara's waist, pulling her close as she gazed at the plants growing up along small trellises formed from plexi tubing.

"Mm, yes, as soon as I can prepare them. I'm much more comfortable treating illnesses and injuries when I have natural remedies at hand. Modern meds are great, but I find herbal cures, when used in combination with them give a more predictable outcome, as well as being more subtle...gentler." She set her scissors on the counter and placed an arm around Devon's waist.

"It's a concept I'm comfortable with, too, though I'm not sure why," Devon stated as she gazed at the lengthening vines and stems.

"You were a healer in our warriors life."

"Was I?" Devon asked, surprised. "I haven't seen that."

Kara nodded. "Mm. I had a dream in which I was injured...in battle, I believe...and you treated me with herbal salves and brews."

Devon frowned, feeling a sense of protectiveness toward her mate. "Sennaat, Kara, that seems to have been a dangerous life."

"Any more than this one, my brave pirate fighter?" Kara asked impishly, eyes glittering playfully.

Devon chuckled and the act made her appear years younger. "Somewhat, yes. However, I do have a new dispatch regarding that that I need to share with the crew. I've called a briefing for," she glanced at the tiny data unit on her wrist. "Twenty minutes in the mess hall."

"Oh, okay, that gives me just about enough time to finish up here."

Devon nodded and leaned in for a quick kiss. She allowed herself to linger just a moment, then bit playfully at Kara's lower lip before pulling away. "See you then, sweetheart."

"Okay, love. Um, save that thought for later, okay?" She asked with a jaunty grin.

"Absolutely," Devon replied rakishly as she patted a cute, round behind and turned on her heel.

As Devon left the Medlab and continued toward the cargo bay, she took several deep breaths to try to quell her pounding heart and the gentle throbbing that had begun between her legs. Later, without a doubt, my love. Jesus Christ...the slightest touch, or glance, even...from her awakens such a need in me.

She strode through the open hatch into the cargo section, and heard the sounds of heavy loads being stowed. The hatch into bay one was open as well, and through it she could see Rusty and Chad, as well as Jim, maneuvering a large, palleted container into place. Rusty sat in the small loading vehicle, manning the controls which lifted the heavy loads into place, after which Chad and Jim secured them.

Rusty drove the machine out onto the dock to pick up the next pallet and Devon stood on the metal floor, gazing up at her crewmen.

"How's it going, guys?" She asked, shielding her eyes from the bright ceiling lights.

"Securing the last pallet now, Cap," Chad replied as he depressed a wall switch and the metal-strengthened netting closed tightly around the large container.

"Excellent. Crew briefing in the mess when you're done." She looked up at Jim, who stood on a shipping container several meters above the floor. "Jim, got a minute?"

"Sure, Dev. All finished here." He deftly jumped to the floor, belying his nearly sixty years, and Devon shook her head incredulously. He stepped in at her side and she wrapped her arm around his shoulders as they exited the bay and walked to the Engineering Section.

Jim keyed the hatch open and they stepped inside. He removed his gloves and tossed them onto his desk a few paces away, then gazed expectantly at Devon.

Devon's friendly countenance turned serious and she asked, coming right to the point, "Is the dimensional drive repaired?"

Her Engineer nodded. "Yes, I installed the new board yesterday and ran a series of diagnostics all night. Everything checks out fine. I had the base maintenance crew run a double check, too. She's ready to go, Devon."

Devon nodded seriously. "Good, because we're go for Z. Ret. I got the message a while ago."

Jim nodded, "Okay. What 's the cargo, do you know?"

Devon shook her head. "No. I didn't ask, but I assume it's more heavy equipment."

Jim grinned. "I think they just like to see you, Dev. They enjoy having you visit."

Devon laughed. "Jimmy, I'm not sure you're too far off base with that. I've suspected for some time that I function in more of an ambassadorial capacity for them than as a simple cargo hauler."

"Devon, my dear, you are anything but simple, but I agree with that sentiment. It's been a while since we've been there...do you think that perhaps they're ready to share more technology with WorldGov?"

Devon shrugged and sighed. "Who knows, Jim? They're nothing if not a very mysterious race. I mean, they proclaim complete neutrality, yet they've been benefactors of humanity through much of our history: carefully guiding us into the New Era and the Interstellar Age, doling out their technological secrets carefully to coincide with our growth as a species, aiding in our spiritual knowledge and growth, sponsoring our admittance into the Galactic Federation."

Jim chuckled. "Yes, right. All this from a species who claim to be as emotionless as the mythical Vulcans were."

"They may be emotionally detached, but they have a highly refined moral and ethical sense, and frankly, Jim, I find them refreshing. I always enjoy being in their company. They're so open and without pretense."

"I suppose a species that communicates primarily telepathically never developed the ability for pretense or affectation," Jim provided thoughtfully.

"So they say." Devon gestured toward the hatch. "Shall we brief the crew?"

Jim grinned and made a show of chivalry. "After you, my dear."

Devon shook her head, never having understood the concept of men allowing women to precede them.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Devon leaned on the table as she addressed her seated crew.

"Okay. Prelaunch will get underway as soon as we finish here, for launch at 2130 hours. I've made an addition to the itinerary. After Titan Base, we will proceed directly out of system for a dimensional shift to Z. Ret. I received the request earlier this evening. Cargo is unknown." She directed her gaze to her commander. "Cyd, I'll remind you that if you don't want to make the six-month run, I'll need to know no later than six weeks from now."

Cyd waved her off. "Captain, I can tell you right now that I'm staying on. I've never been there and am looking forward to it."

Devon nodded, pleased. "Good. I'm glad to hear that."

"Shit, so am I, Dev!" Chad piped in, and everyone, including the Captain, laughed as Cyd's dark, attractive face revealed a blush.

"Okay," Devon said, waving to calm them down. "Another matter. This morning I got a dispatch from Fleet Headquarters."

"Oh, shit," Rusty grumbled.

Devon nodded grimly. "You're right on, Rusty. Oh, shit. It seems that there have been several bold pirate attacks over the last several weeks, inside of Saturn Sector."

"Inside?" Jim exclaimed.

"I'm afraid so. And right now, there are no military ships farther out than Jupiter Sec., and those that are, are inbound. In fact, the consortiums have suspended their runs until this will hopefully blow over in a few months."

"Fuck," Chad muttered.

"I agree, Chad. So, I'm requisitioning more weapons. Rusty, I have a list for you and I need it taken care of right now, before we depart. As well as rations and extra backups of vital equipment for the long run."

He nodded as Devon handed him a data disk, then slipped it into his comp and gazed at the small screen as the list scrolled. "Jesus, Devon, type one cannons? Magna rifles?"

"Yes. Military, as a matter of fact. You'll see a special dispensation there from the Fleet to purchase them here."

"That was big of them," the large man grumbled sarcastically.

"Well, Rust, I guess they figure that free trade is better than no trade at all, and they're hoping that if someone can blast the hell out of these guys, that they'll get the message and lay off for a while. They'd like to do the blasting themselves, of course, but they don't have any ships closer than a month away, and with the decrease in far-system trade, frankly don't want to make a special trip."

"Not to mention that they really wouldn't mind seeing us blown out of the sky," Jim remarked dourly.

"That too," Devon agreed. Addressing each of her crew in turn, ending with her mate, Devon added, "Look, I have every confidence that we can make it by these fuckers, or we wouldn't be going. You all know my record, and with the bigger guns, and the training we've all been doing, I really am most confident." She pinned her gaze on each of her crew in turn again. "However, if anyone wants out, let me know right now." Her gaze was met only by steely resolve and she grinned. "As I expected. Alright, from this point on, I'm paying hazard pay."

"Yes!" Chad yelled as he pumped his fist in the air.

"I'm glad you concur, Lorenzo. Any questions?" She was greeted by shaking heads, so she added, "Okay, commence prelaunch. Rusty, get going on those requisitions. Jim, can you spare Chad to help him?"

Jim nodded and waved. "Yes, absolutely."

"Okay, get going you two. I want to launch in one thirty hours." She dismissed her crew and sat down at the table as they left. Her lover stayed behind, however, and came up behind her to rub her shoulders.

Devon dropped her head forward and moaned quietly. "God, that's nice."

Kara was silent for several minutes before remarking, "I feel your worry, honey, and I can't help but think you're more worried about me than about anything else."

Devon chuckled. "Sennaat, it's like being married to a Gray. My feelings are an open book to you." She sighed. "You're right, Kara. I'm terrified, frankly, of you're getting hurt, and I know it's irrational. I know that we can beat these guys...we always do...but where you're concerned, all rationality seems to float right out the airlock."

"I appreciate that, honey, but you know...I can take care of myself. You said yourself that I'm doing very well with the weapons, even reaching first level military certification."

"Despite that, Kara, I just seem to have this irrational need to make sure you're protected."

"It's not irrational, honey, it's a sign of love. It's a normal reaction when you love someone." She leaned down and kissed the dark head below her, then nuzzled the soft, black hair with her cheek. She added thoughtfully, "And I'm also relatively sure that your need to protect me is Karmic in nature."

"Probably. It's so damn strong." She half turned and reached back for Kara's hands, pulling her around to her side. "I have to get this ship ready to fly. Give me a kiss to last until we go to bed in six hours."

Kara grinned down at her impishly. "Is that an order, Captain Andropoulos?"

"It most definitely is," was the sexy, raised-eyebrow reply.

"Yes, ma'am," Kara said as she climbed sexily into Devon's lap and wrapped her arms gently around her neck. Their lips met softly before parting to allow exploring tongues, while hands roamed gently. When soft moans were torn from both throats, Devon ended the kiss reluctantly and rested her forehead against Kara's.

"Gods, what you do to me. And it's going to be a short night."

"Then we'll have to make the most of it, won't we?" Was the coy reply, and Devon laughed deeply as she nodded her agreement.

"Jesus, I love you, Kara. You have become my Universe, baby."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Devon stood and stretched her long limbs. "Okay, Cyd. We're ready to launch in thirty. I'm going to Medlab to check on my wi...Dr. Murphy's preparations. Continue prelaunch."

"Aye, Cap...uh, Devon." She glanced shyly up at the Captain and received a lopsided grin in return.

"Devon's fine, Cyd. Carry on."

Shit. The woman amazes me. Cyd shook her head as she returned her attention to her console, not wanting to contemplate the beautiful, enigmatic woman who had just left the bridge. Whoa, double shit...she almost called Kara her wife...

Devon strode purposefully toward Medlab, but slowed as she turned in and saw Kara sitting at her desk, obviously deeply engrossed in her work. Devon leaned against the hatch and watched her mate quietly. She was gazing at the large display on her desk, which currently showed video and technical readouts from each of the five occupied hypersleep chambers. The lab was lit only by the glow from the large data screen, and Kara's features were subtly shadowed and softened by the bluish light.

My gods, she's beautiful. Devon felt a stirring from deep within her being as she gazed at her lifemate. The warmth which was the signature of Kara's energy field wrapped itself around Devon as her body reacted physically to the sight of her mate. Her heart began to pound urgently, sending her blood coursing hotly through her body, and a secondary pulse began in her groin. Her skin began to tingle and her breath shortened. She took a deep, calming breath to try to still the reaction and was only mildly successful.

Kara, typing notes quickly into her comp as she glanced from it to the large screen, suddenly felt Devon's love wrap itself around her heart...a feeling as comforting as a warm blanket on a cold night. She stopped typing and looked to her left, where she saw her mate watching her from the doorway.

Devon grinned lopsidedly. "I guess I can't sneak up on you anymore, can I?"

"No, thank the gods. What are you doing?" Kara pushed her comp aside and sat back in her chair.

Devon approached and sat beside her. "Just came to see how you're doing." She glanced at the screen. It showed the still faces of each of the sleeping passengers, and Devon noted the nature of the data scrolling under each person's image. "Doing electro-stimulation?" She looked back into Kara's face. "I've heard of that, but never seen it done. None of my other doctors used it. It's a relatively recent development, isn't it?"

Kara nodded. "Yes. Actually, it was developed by my team at Intrepid Lab just a few years ago. Our studies indicated that a fairly large degree of muscular entropy occurs during long hypersleep periods. Keeping their muscles stimulated electrically is almost as effective as if they were exercising them themselves."

Devon's face clearly showed the pride she felt at her mate's accomplishment as she said, "That's remarkable, Kara."

Kara shrugged. "Thanks. It's what I specialized in. Actually, I'm continuing my research now. I'm running continuous scans, collecting loads of data."

"Ah, something to keep you occupied during the long run ahead?" Devon grinned at her lover.

"During my shift time, anyway," Kara replied with a warm grin. "Every minute of my off-shift time will be devoted to my lifemate."

"Jesus, maybe I'll shorten the shift length, then." She leaned forward and kissed Kara's temple.

"Honey, I'm curious about something. Why do people take berths on ships like this? I mean, no offense, but it's not nearly as safe as a berth on a passenger liner."

"No offense taken, love...you're right. It's because we're cheap and fast. I can get them there for roughly half the cost of a passenger ship, and one-third what they would pay a consortium cargo ship. Plus, we're much faster, and I have a spotless safety record...despite the pirate troubles. I am currently the only free-trader who is accepting passenger fares, however."

"I see. Well, I've come to the conclusion that these passengers who choose your ship are quite bright indeed."

"Oh, yeah?" Devon asked through a large grin.

"Yeah. They have the best pilot in the galaxy getting them safely to their destinations." Kara replied as she pulled Devon's hand into her lap.

"Not to mention the most dedicated doctor." Devon scooted closer and pulled Kara into a hug.

"Thanks love. Mm, this is nice." She reveled in the feel of her mate's strong arms wrapped around her and turned her head to gaze at Devon. "I can't seem to get enough contact with you. And um, I felt what you were feeling when you were watching me."

"Oops, sorry," Devon apologized, grinning. "But I can't help that. My body reacts instantly to the sight of you. It's completely out of my control."

"I know the feeling, Devon."

Devon prolonged the hug for as long as she could, but then separated, saying, "Well, love. I need to get us launched from this red rock. Do you want to come to the bridge for launch?"

"Absolutely. Just give me a few minutes notice."

"Done." She leaned forward and captured Kara's lips gently, again, prolonging the contact somewhat, but finally parted from her and stood. "I'll see you in a bit, love."

"Bye, sweetheart."

-12-

Devon watched as the two halves of the retractable dome above the ship slowly moved apart, clearing the way for them to exit. When they were fully opened and only the thin sky separated them from space, the comm buzzed and the controller spoke, "Phoenix, Intrepid Control. You are cleared for immediate launch at previously transmitted trajectory."

Devon spoke into her headset, "Intrepid Control, Phoenix. Copy. Launch underway. Out."

"Good trip, Phoenix. Intrepid Control out."

Devon turned slightly to her left to speak into the ship's comm unit. "This is Andropoulos. We're go for launch. Report."

The unit buzzed and she heard, "Devon, Engineering and cargo are secure."

"Copy. Bridge and Medical are secure. Orient main engines for launch thrust."

Jim, from his post in Engineering depressed a switch and watched as the huge engines slowly rotated into position. "Copy. Main engines oriented."

"Stand by for ignition." Devon turned to her copilot. "Cyd, ignite engines on my mark."

"Aye."

Devon turned her chair to face her mate. "Kara, are you ready?"

Kara looked at her confident partner and smiled weakly. "Yes."

Devon sent her a strong, silent burst of love and winked before turning to face her pilot console. She manned her steering yoke and checked her thrust controls, then said, "Okay, Cyd, ignition in three, two, one, mark."

"Ignition," Cyd said as she depressed a large green button, and the ship shook under the force of the powerful engines as they burst powerfully to life, and then slowly lifted from the hangar. Devon maneuvered them up and out of the hangar and then initiated computer control to achieve their proper trajectory.

The ship lifted from above the Mars Colony spaceport and began a heading north-northwest to achieve escape velocity. Kara hung on to the arms of her flight chair as if for dear life as the ship shot skyward, the rumbling from the powerful engines buffeting her within the tight harness. She looked straight ahead, over her partner's shoulder, out the front viewscreen, too uncomfortable to look out the side window beside her. The lights of the sparsely populated planet below were already no longer visible; she could only see the near-black of the evening sky and the thin bluish band of the atmosphere on the horizon which separated it from space.

The nose of the ship tilted up, and the g-force thrust Kara heavily into her seat. She closed her eyes and grasped the arms of the chair more tightly, until her fingers and knuckles were white with strain, then gritted her teeth, willing the launch to be over. Her heart pounded furiously, its throb warring with the pounding of the blood in her skull. Ninety seconds...ninety seconds. That's all it is. Calm...breathe. She repeated the words silently, like a mantra. Devon has it under control. She's the best, she's the best....

At the thought of her partner, Kara shook herself from her paralysis and realized that Devon was speaking.

"Continue maximum thrust, Cyd. We will have escape velocity in seven, six, five, four, three, two, one. We have escape velocity. Cyd, I'm taking over manual." Devon spoke into the comm, "Jim, we have escape velocity. Reorient engines to forward thrust and initiate rotation."

"Aye, Devon. Reorienting now and initiating rotation."

As the huge ion engines were reoriented to provide forward thrust, the ship's trajectory changed from an upward course to forward motion. Suddenly free of the bonds of the planet's pull, the three bridge passengers lifted slightly in their seats as they became weightless. Their harnesses held them securely in place, however.

"How are you doing, Kara?" Devon asked, not taking her eyes from her console.

"Oh, just fine," Kara squeaked, breathing a sigh of relief.

"We're up, honey, free of Mars' gravity. Cyd, initiate cabin rotation."

"Aye, Captain, initiating." The cabin began rotating, providing a measure of artificial gravity and the passengers settled into their seats once more.

"Cyd, set course for one-eight-five by six-seven and maintain maximum thrust."

"Aye, Captain. Setting course for one-eight-five by six-seven and maintaining maximum thrust."

Devon's hands flew over her controls as she set the flight systems and checked readouts. "All systems nominal. Setting main engine shutdown for t minus thirty-six hours. Cyd, maintain course and heading, and set long range sensors to maximum. I'll be right back."

"Aye, Devon."

Devon unbuckled her harness and turned toward Kara, who appeared to be praying. She stood and approached her mate. "Kara, honey...are you okay?"

Kara took a deep breath and opened her eyes. "Yes. I was just trying to calm myself." She added wryly, "You sure know how to show a girl an exciting time, Captain Andropoulos."

Devon grinned charmingly as she drawled, "So I've been told, baby."

Cyd, sitting at her console, coughed and tried to look like she was busier than she actually was.

Devon unlatched Kara's harness and pulled her to her feet. "Come on, Doctor. I'll walk you to Medlab."

Kara threaded her arm through Devon's and leaned against her as she replied, "Why thank you!"

"Don't mention it." Devon palmed the door open and walked them swiftly to Kara's lab. As soon as they were within, away from prying eyes and ears, she pulled Kara into an embrace. "Christ, baby, I felt your fear. It's okay now. We're fine."

"Oh, I know, Devon. I don't know what it is about takeoffs and landings. I become nearly paralyzed by my fear. I'm wondering if I shouldn't talk to someone about it, though I know the fear is tied to my parents' accident."

Devon rested her cheek against Kara's head and suggested, "Maybe flying with me will help you. You'll see that I have things under control, you'll do some flying yourself, and you'll see that there really is very little to fear."

"Possibly honey. Thank you for understanding." She nuzzled Devon's flightsuit where it opened at her collarbone.

"Kara, I wasn't very understanding when we were flying down on Mars yesterday. I'm so sorry. If I had realized how truly terrified you were, I never would have fooled around like I did. God, I can be an asshole." She shook her head, disgusted with herself.

"Devon, it's okay. It's over. Now that you do know, like you said, you can help me." She wrapped her arms around Devon's waist and pulled her closer as she kissed the skin accessible through the "v" of her flightsuit. "Mm, you smell good. I wish we could crawl into bed together right now. I need to be lost in your arms for a while."

"Hold that thought, Kara, for just a while longer. As soon as I make sure the ship's flying herself like she should, I'll be in. Why don't you wait for me?" She pulled back and gazed at Kara and a thought struck her. She inclined her head as she asked, "Hey, um, why don't you consider moving your things into my quarters? You're there every night anyway...and that way you wouldn't have to leave to get dressed in the morning."

"Mm, I like that idea, but are you sure? Have you ever shared your quarters with anyone before?"

"Yes, I am, and no I haven't. But I want you there. Okay? It just makes more sense, Kara."

"I agree, and I would love to share your quarters. Thank you." She stood on her toes to kiss her tall mate, but was pulled up by strong arms instead.

"You're welcome. Give me another one of those wonderful kisses, please, so I can miss you terribly for the next few hours."

"Yes, ma'am," Kara said with a grin as she wrapped her arms around Devon's neck. She captured her Captain's lips fiercely and didn't relinquish them until Devon was breathless.

"Jesus, Kara! Do you know what you do to me?" Devon gasped. She shook her head as she felt most of the blood in her body race to her pelvis.

Kara smiled coyly as she replied, "Oh, I have a pretty good idea, yes. I'll be waiting in your bed." She turned her tall partner around and pushed her out of the Medlab. "Bye, sweetheart."

A somewhat shell-shocked Devon mumbled, "Um, yeah, bye." Before returning to the bridge, Devon needed to stop beside the door and take a calming breath, a fact that was not lost on her watching mate, and which pleased her immensely.

"Status," Devon requested as she returned to her seat.

Cyd tore her gaze from one of the data screens as she replied, "Captain, I just got a blip on the long-range sensor."

Devon instantly forgot the singing blood in her veins and said, "Show me."

Cyd depressed a series of keys, replaying the signal she had just observed. "Hm, far side of Jupiter Sector. It could be military...it's not likely that it's anyone illegal, this far in. Let's wait until it's a little closer and see what transpires. They should be within comm range in about three hours."

Cyd, confused, furrowed her brows and looked at Devon. "Far side of Jupiter Sector? How can we possibly scan that far out?"

Devon raised a single expressive eyebrow and half smiled. "Reticulan-assisted technology, and that information goes no farther than this ship's hull, Cyd."

"Yes, ma'am," Cyd answered seriously, nodding. "Can you share the details of the technology with me?"

Devon made an instant decision, relying on her gut instinct, to trust Cyd, and she nodded. "Alright. The sensor is outfitted with a device that attaches the scanning signal to a tachyon beam, making it faster than light. I also have FTL communications capability, utilizing the same technology, but I can't use it with Earth ships, because it would be detected." She added dryly, "The military would not take kindly to the fact that a non-military cargo ship has subspace communications capabilities. So, even though I know that a ship is out there, and I would very much like to read its broadcast ID, and better yet, communicate with it, I have to wait until it's within normal comm range."

"Jesus," Cyd muttered. "The Grays must trust you implicitly."

"They do. With good reason. They know that I'm honest, and loyal to a fault." She added wryly, "There's no way to deceive a Reticulan."

"I guess not," Cyd agreed. "I've never dealt with them...will you be briefing us on how to interact with them, or will you be handling all of the dealings?"

"No, I think you should all interact with them. They really are a remarkable species, Cyd, and I think you will come away from the experience feeling enriched. I have a standard briefing that I give my crew. You and Kara will receive it before we arrive."

Cyd nodded. "Good. Um, Devon, there isn't any other alien technology on this ship that you haven't made me aware of is there? An advanced dimensional drive perhaps?"

Devon chuckled. "No, I'm afraid not. They don't even trust me enough to give me one of those." She became thoughtful for a moment, then added, "Actually, it isn't so much a matter of trusting me as being terrified of it falling into the wrong hands. I mean, let's face it, if, Sennaat forbid, we lose a battle with pirates and we have an advanced drive on board, the entire known Universe is in danger. At least until one of the more advanced species can track them down and squash them like the bugs that they are."

Cyd laughed aloud at the visual. "Yes, right. That I would gladly pay a year's wages to see."

"You and me both," Devon relied coldly. "I take great pleasure in both defeating them and in seeing others do so. Fucking scum."

Cyd winced. Ooh, that hit a nerve. She asked gingerly, "Um, I know you've never lost any cargo to them, have you lost friends?"

Devon stared straight ahead, out at the black void, and replied in a voice as cold as that black space, "My mother. End of discussion, Cyd."

Cyd nodded. "Aye."

After nearly three hours of stilted silence that made the rather large cabin feel very small, the other ship's ID was picked up on the comm system. "Military," Devon declared as she read the data. "F.S. Battle Cruiser Schwartzkopf." She grinned. "Good. I know the Captain...unless he pissed off the brass one two many times and has been replaced."

She keyed in a message, identifying their ship and destination, and sent it off, then waited until it should have been received and began a verbal message. "F.S. Schwartzkopf, cargo ship Phoenix. We are outbound for Titan Base. Requesting relevant tactical information. Over."

Devon sat back and watched the time display, having calculated in her head that it should take exactly one point five minutes for the message to be received.

Exactly three minutes later, the response crackled over the comm system. "Phoenix, F.S. Schwartzkopf. Switch to encrypted frequency gamma. Over."

Devon, still in possession of military encryption codes, punched in the command and responded, "F.S. Schwartzkopf, Phoenix. Go ahead. Over."

"Andropoulos, how the hell are you, you beautiful pirate? Still pushing cargo for the large credits, huh? Well, Devon, enough of the bullshit. We are inbound from Neptune Sector where we engaged a group of five hostiles. One was destroyed. The other four escaped. We suspect that at least one of them engaged a dimensional drive. Repeat, we suspect that at least one engaged an advanced dimensional drive while still in-system. Over."

"Fuckin' shit," Devon muttered, and it was echoed by Cyd. She began her reply, "Jeff, I was better before I heard that news. Shit. After dropping my load at Titan, I'm outbound for Z. Ret. May I relay a message? Over."

She awaited the answer and listened intently when it arrived. "Yes, Devon. I'm sending over the details of the engagement...what's not classified...you understand, and inserting a message to the Consul. I've already sent it to them subspace, but I would also like a copy hand delivered. Dev, we suspect that these assholes took out a small Gray Hopper and lifted the drive. As you can imagine, this is a political nightmare. I'm sure WorldGov is falling all over themselves trying to rectify the situation, but I know for a fact that both sides would appreciate any assistance you can provide. Also, Devon, the ship that hopped out was bearing black and red colors. Over."

Devon's face suddenly paled and she collapsed back against her seat. She felt an icy cold creep upon her, accompanied by a firm resolve. She sat up stiffly and relayed her response. Her voice was hard and cold as she spoke, "Jeff, the motherfucker is mine. You can tell that to both WorldGov and the Sennaa. They will not be making another hop after they have met up with me...count on it. We are now carrying military ordinance...I am relaying a list with this message. Over."

A few minutes later, the reply arrived. "Copy. Data received. Thank you, Devon, but be careful. A Fleet battle group is outbound at this time, should arrive Uranus Sector about when you return to the system. Don't be a hero, Devon. Officially, I'm advising you to just do your job and let us do ours. Unofficially, I hope you are successful in kicking all of their sorry asses to hell. Oh, and Devon...the battle group is being commanded by Admiral Andropoulos. Over."

"Will do, Jeff. Give my best to Sari. Phoenix out."

"Give us a buzz when you're back on-planet, Dev. I'm off for twelve months when I get back. Godspeed, Phoenix. F.S. Schwartzkopf out."

Devon sat back against her seat, letting its familiar surface envelop and comfort her. She felt drained, emotionally and physically. Her old commanding officer's words rang in her head: Devon, the ship that hopped out was bearing black and red colors. Black and red. Like a black widow spider. She sighed and closed her eyes as she was gripped by a resolve borne of hatred and vengeance. They are mine, and they are dead.

"Captain?" Cyd's concerned voice interrupted her dark musings.

Devon opened her eyes and gazed tiredly at her copilot. "My mother commanded a battle cruiser. It was destroyed in an engagement with pirates. The ship that destroyed her was black and red...painted to look like a spider." She stood abruptly and rubbed her eyes. "We're at war, Cyd. Set all sensor and communications functions to immediate relay into my quarters and go get some rest. I'll see you at oh-eight-hundred. Good night."

"Aye, Captain. Good night."

Devon entered her quarters through the private door from the bridge. It was dark except for the small light on her desk across the living space, which Kara had thoughtfully left on for her. She leaned against the door, feeling a combination of anger and shock. But mostly, feeling the need to touch her lover. To be touched, and held. Christ, what has happened to me? It was becoming a familiar sensation: this urgent need to touch her mate. She walked the short distance to her sleeping area, shedding her clothes hastily as she did so.

When she reached the bed, she stood at the foot of it briefly. The soft glow from the small computer/comm unit set into the hull above the headboard illuminated Kara's sleeping features. I'm sorry, baby, but I need you, Devon thought as she leaned down and gently pulled the sheet from her sleeping mate, uncovering her naked form. The vision before her shook her to her core. She grinned ferally as her blood began to course hotly through her veins and she knelt on the bed and crawled toward Kara, lowering her body to lie atop her mate.

Kara stirred, with a quiet moan, and Devon captured her lips, silencing her. Her partner's arms immediately wrapped themselves around Devon, pulling her closer, and Devon moaned into her mouth, communicating her need. Now fully awake, Kara responded to the rough kiss, feeling Devon's pain and turmoil, even through her own escalating desire.

Devon lifted her upper body up, thrusting her groin into Kara's and brought one hand up to caress a breast. Kara moaned deeply at the doubled contact and rocked into Devon, initiating tandem, rhythmic gyrations that quickly became fervent. Devon supported herself with one hand as she let the skyrocketing passion carry her away, until she was just on the verge of release. She squeezed her eyes shut and grunted loudly as she contracted her belly muscles, thrusting against Kara one last time, and was overcome by the explosion of ecstasy.

"Kara!" Was torn loudly from her throat. "Oh, fuck, Kara, yes! Yes..."

Below her, Kara was moaning deliriously and Devon felt her stiffen just after she did. She screamed Devon's name, almost as loudly, and continued to rock against her as the spasms rolled over her.

"God, Devon, yes, yes..."

Devon held her mate close as their bodies stilled and their breathing approached normal again, then stretched her long body out over Kara's and kissed her, tenderly this time. "I love you," she murmured against warm, soft lips.

"Love you."

Devon scooted down slightly and laid her head on Kara's shoulder. "I needed that. Thank you."

Kara gently enveloped her lover in her arms and tenderly caressed her back. "You're welcome. You okay?"

"I'll tell you in the morning...okay?"

"Okay. Good night, my love." Kara kissed her hair and wrapped her tall lover in her arms, wanting to protect her and willing the strength of her love to soothe Devon's ache.

"Good night, Kara." Devon settled against her mate. She had not allowed anyone to hold her since she was a child and was amazed at how comforted she felt.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

The next morning, in a manner not in keeping with their regular routine, Devon and Kara did not shower together. Devon had cited the need for expediency, wanting to get immediately to the bridge. However, they did find the time to make love again. Devon had awakened to find herself sprawled across her smaller mate's body, Kara's arms resting protectively around her shoulders. Opening her eyes to find that she lay between two luscious breasts had been much too tempting, and Devon had taken full advantage... to Kara's great delight.

Kara also got her to sit and scarf down a light breakfast, and was able to pull from her the details of what had upset her the night before. Devon washed down the dry toast with a swig of tea from her large mug. She didn't feel like discussing the matter with Kara, but didn't want to keep anything from her, and besides, she had promised to tell her. She reported in a detached manner, "I had a communication with a military ship inbound from Neptune Sec. It seems that they engaged a group of hostiles, destroying one."

Kara could sense that there was much more that was not being said. She could detect an unnatural tenseness in Devon's jaw, and could feel the turmoil raging within her, though outwardly, she hid her emotions extremely well. Most likely, her mate was the only person in existence who would have known that Devon was upset. Kara inclined her head and asked, "And?"

"And what?" Devon pretended nonchalance as she took another bite of toast.

"Devon, something upset you tremendously last night. The military engages pirate ships all the time. What was so different about the news you received last night?"

Devon chuckled, despite her low spirits. "Jesus fucking Christ, Kara...I shouldn't even try to keep anything from you, should I?" She was both warmed by the realization and startled by it.

"No, honey. Even if we weren't so bonded, I am empathic, remember? And honey, please don't use 'Jesus' and 'fuck' in the same sentence...it bothers me."

"Sorry, Kara." She sighed deeply, resigned to the fact that she would have to share more information, but oddly comforted by it. "Okay. I also learned that one of the hostile ships apparently has a stolen Reticulan drive on it...they hopped out while still in-system."

"Oh, my God," Kara gasped. She grasped Devon's hand, fully understanding the ramifications of the situation. "Honey, that is very, very scary."

Devon nodded seriously. "Almost too scary to comprehend, Kara. I can imagine that they'll lay low now for a while, but they'll be back eventually, wreaking God knows what kinds of havoc. They've got to be stopped," she added determinedly.

Kara was beginning to understand where some of Devon's stress was originating. "Don't you think that the Galactic Federation will do something about them?"

"Sure, but like I said, they're probably lying low." She turned her hand over and held Kara's within it before looking up into her eyes. "There's another thing," she added quietly. "The ship with the stolen drive matches the description of the ship that destroyed my mother's battle cruiser five years ago."

Devon looked down at their linked hands and swallowed hard as she was gripped by the icy pain of her loss. Her mother's death had been extremely painful for her; they had been very close. She had felt from a very young age that her mother was the only person who truly understood and accepted her. The awful, gnawing pain of her loss had barely lessened in five years. It had simply become an icy shard in her heart, and a thick, angry lump in her gut.

Kara felt Devon's pain as a sharp ache in her heart center, as well as both the ice and the gnawing, powerless sensation in her third chakra. "My, God, baby." She brought their hands to her lips and kissed Devon's fingers as she looked into her eyes, stating, "And now you want to go after that ship. You're actually hoping that we are engaged by them, so you can blow them away."

Devon nodded. "Yes. For all of those various reasons, Kara...not just to seek vengeance, but justice, and to ensure the safety of this system and countless others in this galaxy, not to mention my desire to help out my small, gray friends. So, yes. That is exactly what I want to do. And I'm capable of it, too. Count on it."

"Oh, of that I have no doubt. Okay, when the time comes, just tell me what to do."

"What do you mean," Devon asked, confused.

"I mean just that. I want to help in any way I can. I intend to fight at your side," Kara stated pugnaciously, as determined as her mate was.

"Kara, you're a healer, I don't want you..."

"Stop, Devon! Don't shut me out of this. I may be a healer, but I am also a member of this crew and I will do whatever I have to to get us safely past those criminals. And, I will do whatever I can to support you...to do any less would be to deny both who I am and what we have together. I will fight at your side."

Devon found herself charmed by Kara's declaration, and believed that she meant it with all of her heart. She pulled Kara close and kissed her hair. "Okay, love. Thank you. I'm not sure I could do it without your support." She looked down at Kara. "I've become a different person since meeting you. I no longer exist only for myself. But it's more than that. I...it's like we're two parts of a whole...we complement each other perfectly, and I need both your support and your presence. Am I explaining this with any degree of clarity?"

Kara grinned. "Yes. I understand you perfectly. I always do, because you're right. We are two halves of a whole. Devon, we were created at the same instant, to be forever bonded. Do you remember your spirituality lessons from grade school? We're Essence Twins...Twin Souls. We share the closest of all soulmate bonds, and once we met, we were no longer separate entities."

"God, Kara, yes. That is so obvious to me now. Um, along those lines, I know now is not the best time, but let me just ask this while I have some courage." Devon licked her lips and took a deep breath as she gazed into Kara's eyes. "Kara, will you sign a marriage contract with me? Please? You can pick the term...it doesn't matter to me...because frankly, I know I'll want to renew every time anyway."

Her beautiful, deep blue eyes were so imploring that Kara's breath was pulled from her chest. "Gods," she gasped. "Um...yes!" She regained her composure somewhat when she saw Devon close her eyes briefly in relief. She pulled Devon into a fierce hug and whispered hotly, "Yes, Devon, I would love that. And I choose a lifetime contract." She pulled back to gauge Devon's reaction and saw only joy in her eyes.

"Yes! Kara, baby, thank you! That means so much to me. Gray gods..." Her eyes began to mist and she was pulled close again. Kara held her tough mate for as long as she could keep her still, then sent her off to her Captain's duties with a long, loving kiss that stayed with her until they met again hours later for lunch.


Part 7

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