Rating: If we were in the US, this would get an R rating, or maybe a 16+ rating in Canada. One or two buckets of guts and gore will probably be around sometime during the story, as well as romantic interest between two females. If this bothers you, then go find another story to read.
To Amanda, in answer to our bet.
I hope you all enjoy, please let me know what you think as this will be my first posted story. I can be reached at email@example.com
It was four marks past the zenith of the sun in the capital city of Tir-Larin when the Bak'ra broke through the last of the orbital defenses. The last of the massive orbital installations tumbled from orbit, vomiting fire and debris behind it as it slowly, majestically, disintegrated as it crashed into the upper atmosphere. Its final destruction was a mere formality, for only a few dozen of its nearly four-thousand strong crew was still alive by then. The few still alive on the ground watched in fascinated terror as the dying orbital fort left a trail of flame behind it as it swept across the sky.
A small handful of planet based fighters rose from the surface and engaged the massive orbiting ships. They had less than no chance of causing much damage, and their crews knew it was a suicide mission. Most of them were infected with the same plague which had killed most of the planet's population, and the hope of a quick, honorable death was all they had left.
Nearly half a solar system away, a few of the last ships of the once proud Tiri fleet held station, hiding behind one of the gas giants. Five ships, the rear guard for the evacuation, all that could be spared, kept watch through remote sensors as landing barges with fighter escorts began the slow descent down to the Tiri home world. There was simply no one left to stop them, and what few soldiers were still alive on the surface could only put up a token resistance to the military juggernaut that was about to reach the planet's surface.
Lady Emily Burtin Windstar, Guardian, Lady of Whitestead, second in line for the imperial throne, Sword Commander, stood on the command deck of the Imperial Space Force Ship, North Star. Her black uniform, edged with silver, and bearing the two red stripes above her left breast of a full Guardian, was immaculate as always. She ignored the wetness on her cheeks as she watched the relayed sensor feed, hate burning in her pale, blue eyes as she watched the destruction of her home world. The command crew was equally as silent, and more than one of them were sobbing at their stations.
At a touch over six feet, Lady Windstar was rather tall for a Tiri, and her nearly raven black hair was unusual enough in a population predominated by lighter hair. It was, however, impossible to mistake her as anything other than the person in charge. A nearly visible aura of command hung around her. Even with her fists clenched in rage and tension radiating from her, she had the posture of one used to obeying orders, and having her orders obeyed. Her crew took comfort from her presence, their world had been taken, but the fight was not yet over.
Provost Angwar bent slightly over the console he was manning, and quickly jotted down an incoming message. With the silent efficiency of one long familiar with his job, he transferred the message to one of the secure message pads and brought the electronic reading with him as he approached Lady Windstar. The sensor feed went dark in front of them as one of the passing Bak'ra fighters spotted the remote sensor platform and blew it from existence. The view screen went white for a moment, and then a view of the swirling multicolored clouds of the gas giant in front of them filled the screen.
Just as silently, she took the pad from him and pressed her thumb to the recognition slot, waiting the moment for it to accept her DNA and decode the message. She, of course, could have done so without Angwar's help, but a crew served aboard a Guardian ship for a reason. She had sensed it the moment the hyper message had arrived, as had the other five ships, and she knew she was not going to like the orders she was about to read. Not shifting from her spot in front of the screen, she lowered her eyes and scanned the terse message.
"Thank you, Angwar, we'll be departing shortly. Secure all sections for Transition." Angwar was a good man, he had served on board since her Time of Joining, as had most of her Command Crew, and he knew better than to ask questions when her voice held that particular dark tone to it.
"Yes, Ma'am." Was his solemn response as he saluted, a clenched fist to the chest, and wearily returned to his station. Months of being on constant alert had drained all of them, and they all would have killed for a good night's sleep. He spared one worried glance towards the Guardian's back and wondered how much longer it would be before people started to crack. Her voice didn't show the strain she was under though, as she turned towards a woman clad in a near blood-colored uniform, bearing five small clusters of silver stars on the front of her uniform; one star for every five enemy fighters destroyed in combat.
"Shieri, get everyone aboard, we don't want to leave anyone behind." The small woman nodded and turned towards her own console, quietly making sure that all the fighters flying cover and scouting missions for the rear guard formation were brought back into the Guardian's hangars.
Windstar, or Emily to her friends, clenched her hand about the pad, her knuckles turning white as she held, barely, onto control. Guardians were sworn to protect, and it was against everything in them to leave with the evacuation. Indeed, some had disregarded direct orders, even from the Emperor himself, and thrown themselves at the enemy. Of course, by that time, there were too few of us left to do much of anything, she thought bitterly. The plague had killed nearly ninety five percent of all Tiri unfortunate enough to come in contact with it, which included everyone who had been on the surface of Tiri Prime when the Bak'ra dusted it those hellish months ago. It was a miracle that the Emperor, her father, and the Crown Prince, her elder brother, had not been on planet when it happened. Her thoughts shied away from the hulks of dead Guardians, which, until recently, had floated around the planet; the remains of those who had not been so fortunate, for when a Guardian's human body died, the ship they were joined to became useless.
All in all, of the seven hundred-strong Guardian forces which had existed only a year before, only twenty-three were still alive. With a thought, she opened tight beam communications with the other four Guardians under her command and shared the orders with them. She could taste the sadness and hatred in their signals, and she agreed. She understood why some of the others had ignored orders and attacked, almost envied them, as did all the others. A day of reckoning would come though, and she felt the others' agreement at that.
"Ma'am, all fighters are aboard, and all sections secured for departure." Emily nodded distractedly in answer, having already felt the last of the single and twin person fighters come aboard a moment ago. Protocol demanded that her Provost make the report though, and she offered him a grim smile. It was a sad statement on just how thinly they were stretched that her Provost was manning the communications station.
"Thank you, Angwar, time for us to get out of here." Even now the Bak'ra would be sending scouts to secure the rest of the system. She offered up one last prayer for the pour souls who were still on the surface of Tiri Prime. Her voice lowered, as her eyes became ice, hatred burning in them. "But we will make sure that the Bak'ra pay for this."
As one, the five Guardian ships turned and began their run out of the system. They had to reach the Okiriwaztch limit to engage their warp-gate drives, and the second their normal drives flared to life, the Bak'ra were going to spot them. Emily half hoped that they would run into some Bak'ra ships between here and the OK limit, as it was known. She had the nearly overpowering need to blow something into very small bits and pieces at the moment. Fortunately, or unfortunately, they made it to the OK limit less than an hour later without any of the pursuing Bak'ra ships getting anywhere close to them.
Each of the massive ships came to a relative stop as they began the formation of the warp-gate that would take them nearly forty light years away, in the first of many frog legs towards the meeting spot with the rest of the evacuation fleet. Emily closed her eyes, seeking with her sensors, probing the space around where the thousands of tons of metal which was her other body lay in space. On her long-range sensors she could "see" the bright dots of energy of the closing fast attack ships of the Bak'ra fleet. Sent after them when they had picked up her own forces normal space drives no doubt. She spared them a second of hatred, the feeling coiling around in her chest like something alive. Then she turned her focus on what she was searching for. The specific gravitational eddies around the point where she was in space.
Warp gating was not a pleasant thing for a normal Tiri, and she made certain to warn the crew before she did it. "Gate in ten seconds." Her normal voice had deepened as she focused on the coming translation, her hands unconsciously spreading from her sides as she felt her Warp-Gate engines power up. With a savage grin, she clenched her fists, for a moment forgetting months of pain, hatred and loss in the moment that she guided her ship self and all aboard, through the warp-gate which she opened before them.
She had heard it often enough described as forming a small wormhole, bending space to where two distant points touched. To a Guardian though, those few moments of formation, when there was nothing but the pure flow of energy and the swirling patterns of gravity far too complex for even the most sophisticated of AI's to follow as she formed the gate, it was heaven. No AI ever built had managed to do what she and her fellow Guardians did. For the formation of a warp-gate was not only a science, but also an art form. The gate had to be in perfect synch with the gravity eddies at that exact moment around it. A wrong move and the ship in question simply ceased to exist as the gate collapsed upon it when it entered. Without the ability to Warp-gate, it was quite possible that the Tiri would never have managed to leave their own solar system, for no means had ever been found to truly move faster than the speed of light. Instead, they just went around it, by entering another bringing two points, light years apart, together and passing from one place to another. There was a moment, when a ship passed through the swirling, crackling energy, of the gate, when it simply ceased to exist in both places.
The moment stretched onwards to infinity, and ended just as suddenly as it had begun, leaving Emily strangely empty, as it always did. This time though, the emptiness was worse, for this time they had just abandoned their home world. Her four fellow Guardians each slid through the gates they had formed near her, residual energy bleeding off them in a brilliant show of light, even as it was off her own hull.
"Angwar, lets get to the rendezvous location." She needed rest, that's what she needed. Feeling the beginnings of a headache, she massaged her temple with a slender hand. They would be warp-gating for nearly four days to reach the rendezvous with the rest of what was left of the Tiri fleet. Maybe she would be able to get in a few hours sleep without nightmares in that time.
"Ma'am, where are we headed?"
She grinned at the rather timid question coming from the engineering station, and the young man who manned it. Timons always reminded her of a Lorisk, a ground-burrowing animal from Tiri who dug out intricate burrows. The young engineer was very good at his job, else he would not have been posted to the command crew, but he had problems interacting with others, and was rather on the shy side. She mentally shook herself, realizing that most of the Command Crew were still looking at her and waiting for an answer. She had to be more tired than she thought, to space out like that, and she caught Angwar's worried glance. Doing her best to shove away the weariness that dragged upon her soul she offered them a reassuring smile.
"It's a nice system, with an inhabited third planet. The locals, according to the scouts, call it Earth."
2010, 66 years Post Evacuation
As most important things in the history of the galaxy, it started with a small thing. A magnetic constrictor clamp that had not been replaced in the small crafts routine maintenance while it was at Luna base, and a small error in its computers. A small mistake really, when you consider that the atmospheric craft was part of a small fleet of such vessels cycling through the massive base. Each specially built only a decade ago, as time was measured in this new world, for little more than stealth and speed. The fifty meter long craft had become the workhorse of the fleet, hauling people and cargo between the bases spread out across most of the solar system.
This one in particular had been built nearly twenty years ago, to avoid the rapidly improving human radar and space observation network. The craft were cycled through so many different pilots that, despite tradition, they had retained their original call numbers. As the years progressed, especially during the last decade or so, it had become harder and harder to continually evade the various military and civilian detection systems that had sprung up. Near orbit wasn't too bad so far, despite what NORAD and its sister organizations could do. Hitting the atmosphere was the tough part, when despite the best stealth systems available the craft still made enough atmospheric turbulence to be seen.
Thus it was that craft RZ-146 had a twenty-minute window in which the Imperial Space Force would manage to obfuscate the small ship's entry and descent through the atmosphere. It was going to be tight, and the craft's pilot, Ilthiron Lithinar, was not a happy man. A twenty-minute window meant a near reckless descent through the atmosphere. It was either that, or wait for six hours in orbit until the next window could be managed. It was his passenger who decided his answer; no one really wanted to spend six hours alone in orbit with a rather annoyed Imperial Marine, certainly not one so senior.
"Sir, we're gonna come down fast and hard. Gonna be a bit a chop I think. We're scheduled to reenter over tha North Pole again." This would Ilthiron, or Ili's, twenty-second orbital reentry since his recruitment from a slum outside of Mexico City nearly seventeen years ago. Which was the reason Dagger Leader, no, he mentally corrected himself, now Master Sergeant Torrson merely grunted in answer, instead of pointing out how late they were. The boy knew his job, and, if nothing else, Torrson respected people who knew what they were doing. Still, it would not do to keep Lady Windstar waiting, and Torsson was already three hours behind schedule. The investigation of the missing equipment had led him down some interesting paths, and he dared not send anything through the usual channels. The sooner he met with the Lady, the better.
Ili fired the sleek small craft's thrusters well under the detection level of anything that any of the military's had put into orbit so far. It was a pure joy to fly these little things after having spent a month at the helm of one of the intrasystem transports. It wasn't a fighter, but it was close enough for him to enjoy himself. Dipping the wing, he signaled North American ground control that he was beginning his descent.
"Longbow, Longbow, this is RZ-146 beginning our descent. Confirm twenty minute descent window to destination?"
The rather harried looking face of a young woman of obvious Asian descent looked back at him from the com console, planted between him and his passenger, who was riding in the copilot's seat.
"Yes, damnit, I can only give you twenty minutes. Sorry Ili, but we're having a bitch of a time keeping NORAD down these days. Any longer and they'd catch on, sorry. You're good to proceed on approach lane forty-one, and make sure you try to at least keep your reflection down over the Arctic."
Ili grinned back to her as he pushed the craft into the beginning of its dive, the transparent armored view screen before him traced over by the heads up display. Green rectangles indicated the correct approach lane, while figures ranged down beside it in transparent green, giving him speed, location, and altitude as well as his detection level and any other relevant data from the craft's computer. Ili always did like Yez, and he was going to have to buy her a drink later for putting up with what had obviously been a busy day. Who knew, she might not shoot him down this time. Of course, pigs could be flying over the capital any moment now.
The entry speed was well over mach ten, and Ili kept the speed high all the way down, he only had twenty minutes after all. Once the atmosphere was thick enough, he switched over to air breathing engines, and grinned. The first few kilometers were always the worst. Even the Master Sergeant seemed to be relaxing his ramrod straight posture slightly, knowing that landing wouldn't be that far away and he would only be a few hours late, not half a day late as he had begun to fear.
The craft was five kilometers up with the magnetic constrictor clamp, holding one of the shuttles specially built sensor packages, gave way suddenly. The clamp itself wasn't a problem, the twenty-kilogram sensor package was. It slammed backwards across the delta shaped craft's body, and shattered into a thousand pieces, a good chunk of which entered into one of the craft's two air breathing engines.
Red lights blossomed in the cockpit and Ili's smile vanished as he fought the controls. Still going at well over mach six, the only reason the craft didn't tumble and get ripped to shreds by the sheer speed of the air rushing past it, was Ili's well trained reflexes. The Master Sergeant had been in orbital drops into enemy territories four times before the evacuation. He shut up and hoped to the Maker that Ili knew what he was doing.
Three kilometers up the craft's internal engine, more easily masked from thermal scans was the reasoning for the design Ili had been told, exploded as the damage control sub-computer failed to shut off the fuel feed as it should have. The explosion gutted most of the rear of the craft, and Ili took one look at the readouts in front of him before yelling at the Master Sergeant.
"We're gonna have ta ditch! We're venting plasma from the space drive, it's going to go!" He had to shout to be heard over the small craft's shakes and the emergency alarms blazing. The Master Sergeant grunted and made sure his safety straps were pulled tight. This was going to hurt.
Two and a half kilometers above Northern Quebec, the front of the small craft exploded forward and upward, immediately beginning a semi-controlled tumble as the rest of the blazing transport craft rushed passed it. The escape pod had just enough antigravity drives on her belly to bring the thing to a relatively smooth landing, but it would tumble most of the way down. The Master Sergeant grunted as the world spun around him, the word relatively in landing meant it was going to hurt-- a lot. This was just a perfect end to a perfect day; he could not imagine how things could get any worse.
Then Ili threw up.
Longbow Base, Northern Quebec.
"I don't care what you have to do! Bribe, bully, sabotage, whatever it takes, but that surveyor cannot be allowed to send down a probe to the north pole of Mars."
Lady Windstar was not having a good day. Having spent the last two weeks moving from country to country, and doing her best to nudge the human race away from self-extinction she had hoped to be able to rest a bit when she returned. No such luck had awaited her. It seemed that NASA, now that they finally had that International Space Station up and running properly, was trying to launch another expedition to Mars to replace the failed Polar Lander series from the latter half of the 1990's. Those probes had been destroyed in orbit, since they simply could not be allowed to find out what was going on under the Mars polar icecap. The destruction of not one, but three different probes, had raised far too many questions for the Imperial Fleet's liking, and she had no wish to go through that again.
"Shieri, do what you can, but make damn sure they don't get anywhere near Mars Base." Her voice, even to herself, sounded like a growl, and she tried to temper it with a bit of a grin. Too little sleep and countless demands had, once again, driven her towards the edge. The fact that her ship half was powered down, there was simply no way to mask that large a power signature, was becoming a familiar shadow ache after the last six decades. It wasn't her Flight Officer's, now turned liaison to NASA, fault that these humans were so blasted stubborn. She would have to fill in her father at the next Council meeting, but it wasn't an immediate threat, so maybe, just maybe, she could go get some rest.
"Now what about this missing equipment?"
Her voice had a bit more of an edge to it as she regarded the Imperial Marine Captain that was uncomfortably sitting across the table from her.
"I'm sorry, Ma'am, I don't know. Master Sergeant Torrson is on his way back right now with his report. He sent me a preliminary report a week ago, and it seems that we are missing an entire intrasystem transport full of equipment that was outwards bound from Mars to the Sensor Sphere. He sent a message a few hours ago stating that he had been delayed, but he should be starting his final approach shortly."
Emily and Angwar shared a glance at that. A transport could hold a lot of equipment, and having an entire shipment somehow go missing was bad news.
"I expect you to make tracking down what happened a high priority, Captain Newlis, understood?"
The unfortunate Captain nodded immediately. Mark Newlis was a good Marine, and she knew he would do everything he could to find out what had happened.
"Yes, Ma'am. I should have a better understanding when I get the Master Sergeant's report."
"Very well, if there is nothing else?"
Emily glanced around the gathered officers and then nodded.
Standing, she saluted the thirteen senior officers who had been seated around that table, placing her closed fist over her right chest. None of whom wore the black and silver of a Guardian's uniform, but there were more than enough Gray, for Imperial Air Force, Green, for the Imperial Marine's, and dark blue, for Imperial Navy, uniforms, attached awards and rank patches to create a muted show of colors.
"All of you keep me appraised of your local situations. Mark, make certain that you send a copy to Lirik." Emily held up her hand to forestall the rather young Marine Captain, how odd these new ranks still sounded to her, and shook her head. "He has to know, he's in immediate control of our situation in the asteroid belt, despite what you think about him as a Guardian. If the intrasystem transport disappeared after leaving Mars, it may have passed through his area on the way to the Sensor Sphere." Mark saluted, thumping his chest with his closed fist with a grimace, but he would do as commanded. It didn't stop him from muttering as he left though.
Emily couldn't help but grin at that. Lirik had an innate sense that he was somehow superior to these humans, barbarians he called them, and had no qualms at all about pointing that out to the rapidly expanding number of humans in Imperial Service. The doors slid shut behind the last officer to leave, and she glanced towards the only other person in the room.
"Well, lets hear it, Angwar, or should I say, Imperial Fleet Captain Angwar now?" Her grin was tired, but genuine. The new rank structure might sound odd to her, but Angwar had been nearly apocalyptic when the Imperial decree had been issued, directly from the Emperor, regarding the adoption of the human rank structure. Angwar was the same man who had left Tiri, a touch over six decades now, even if there was a touch of silver to the hair on his temples now. He answered her with a dark glare.
"I don't much care for these new titles, they sound odd, and they just don't mean anything. Captain? What in the name of the Maker does that mean? Provost, now that's a title that has meaning! Why we had to change over·"
His budding lecture on the sanctity of the title of Provost was cut short as a Kracztir, a Lieutenant, she nearly automatically corrected herself, strode quickly into the room. The worried expression on the young man's face was enough to still Angwar's words. Bad news she guessed, at once straightening herself and nodding to the human to speak.
When he did, she absently corrected her thought from the moment before; it wasn't bad news, it was horrendous news. The Lieutenant's words had been simple and to the point.
"We have another Roswell."
North American Aerospace Defense Command, also known as NORAD, was buried inside of Cheyenne Mountain, and was the principal headquarters for all the tracking stations in the nations past, and present, ballistic missile warning system. At the moment, its main control room was a scene of organized chaos. The object that had suddenly shown up on nearly every tracking station north of Ohio had come out of nowhere. The new ballistic missile shield, which had been started during the Bush Jr. regime, had been up and mostly working for a while now. It should have spotted what, at first report, appeared to be a missile headed across the North Pole towards the U.S.
That, thank God, had been ruled out before the object had exploded a good mile and a half above ground. Something, which General Charles Starnhorse was devoutly grateful for as he replaced the red phone handle to its matching base. Without even glancing at the officer standing beside him, he kept an eye on the massive tracking display before him.
"Langley agrees, it was under power and changed course towards the end of its fall, or whatever in the hell that was." The General growled and took a sip of the lukewarm coffee. "Seems that whatever it was, we had a Valkyrie-class recon sat in a good spot to get a view of it. Damn thing's blind now, the explosion burned out its optics." The officer beside him winced slightly at that; the Valkyrie was one of the newer recon sats, only two or three years old. They also cost over two billion dollars each, and that was just to build.
"We're getting that visual feed now, General," one of the techs called out, a phone cradled against his shoulder, from a bank of consuls further down into, what the General called, the Pit.
"Lets see it." He crouched over one of the nearby stations and watched the relayed signal, conscious of the officer behind him peering over his shoulder to get a view as well.
The image was remarkably detailed, and the General couldn't hide a smile at the excellent visual quality. The officer behind him seemed to sense the General's thoughts and murmured. "Nice to see we get a bang for our buck at least." The General's answer was preempted by the beginning of whatever it was that had happened. Something seemed to arc across the upper left corner of the field of view, burning as it did. It reached halfway down the screen when it exploded. The screen went white and both officers winced at the brightness of the explosion. Whatever it had been, it had been darn big.
"Nuke?" The General's question was terse, and his eyes worried, as they had every right to be. No sane man wasn't worried about nukes exploding above him. The other officer was shaking his head before the short question was even fully asked though.
"Not as far as we know, no spike in radiation at least, and not much of an EMP. We'll have something up shortly to find out if there is any radiation up there more directly of course."
That was a relief, at least partly, and the General relaxed slightly. The world was not going to end, at least not that night. He nodded towards the phone he had just been using. "The Pentagon wants you and your team out there. The Canadians are going to cordon off the entire area; we're already saying it was a tanker that blew up in mid air. Give you a cover to work under while you find out whatever in Sam Hill that was." The other officer nodded and turned to leave, only to be stopped by the General's voice. "And Greg? Keep your eyes open on this one, whatever it was, it got right through all our early warning stations."
Major Greggory Sims, officially Air Force, unofficially Majestic, nodded at that and saluted his old friend. He agreed with the General, the big black man had a feeling about this one, and Greggory, no one called him Greg to his face except his father, had long come to rely on those feelings.
The Osprey that took the team on the last leg of the journey north was not a warm one. Julie McGrath was thankful she had brought her winter gear on this little expedition north, along with all her other equipment. True, it was nearly April, and spring was coming to most of the continent, but the nights would still be darn cold where they were heading. The small redhead zipped the front of her green parka up a bit more as she thought about camping in snow. God, she hoped there wouldn't be any snow left wherever it was that they would establish base. The winter had been a long one, and she wanted it to be over, wanted to smell the living things growing once more.
Greggory was up front, crouched between the pilot and copilot in the relatively new flying contraption. Probably making sure they understand where we're going to be dropped off, not like that time down in Ecuador, God that had been a screw up. Even without the fact that they had stumbled onto the private little fortress of a drug lord, the entire mission had been a write off from the start, and she did her best not to think about the friends who had not come back from that one. At least this time they wouldn't be setting up base camp in a jungle, inside of a country in which they had no right being. This time they had been invited in by an ally, and, luxury of luxuries, were going to be based out of a town just south of where the explosion had occurred, by the name of LaTuque.
A logging town, nearly at the end of the road up here, and as close as they would be able to get and still be in semi civilization. It even had a small airport, more of a runway with a few outbuildings, but it was much better than nothing. She smiled slightly as she saw the small airport begin to take shape ahead, and below, them through the window. At least there would be hot showers, and with that she was partly satisfied.
Ten minutes later, the large, oddly shaped, engines at the tips of the Osprey's wings rotated upwards, and the aircraft slowly touched down. It was impressive; she had to give it that, a true VTOL. The other two Ospreys were only a few minutes behind them, and she eagerly grabbed hold of her duffel, dragging it with her out of the Osprey, a few steps ahead of the Major.
"I hope you didn't drag me out of bed and bring me up into this cold weather because someone saw Bigfoot, Major." She had to shout to be heard over the roar of the Osprey's engines, but Greggory heard, and grinned. The large black man looking as innocent as he could. "Now, Julie, would I do that to you?" Julie's snort of disbelief was all the answer she would give to that, as she headed away from the Osprey towards the small group of vehicles, which had begun to pull up at the limit of the airports parking area.
Julie groaned softly as she sat down in the now overflowing restaurant. It had been a long day, and all she wanted to do was eat something and go collapse in her room. Thank God she ranked high enough to get her own room; most of the privates weren't that fortunate and were triple, and even quadruple bunking. Everyone, at least, agreed on one thing though, better to sleep inside.
Officially, Lieutenant McGrath had been assigned to the American search party as an observer. The real reason she had been assigned was because of her work for Majestic. Around half of the hundred or so American troops and support personnel who had arrived up here were looking for the non existent Air Force KC-105 fuel tanker that was being used as a cover story for the explosion. They made up Alpha squad under a rather officious army Captain, by the name of James Seymore, control. Major Greggory Sims was in control of Bravo squad, who was actually looking for whatever it was that had blown up a day and a half ago now.
Both of the squads had set up shop in two of the metal hangars at the edge of LaTuque's small airport-- LaTuque, meaning, literally, Îthe hat'. The name still caused Julie to grin every time she heard it. Now, almost all of them were packed into the only nearby restaurant, which was attached to the motel that they had virtually taken over. The owners at least seemed overjoyed, as she watched a buxom woman who spoke nearly no English bustle around refilling cups of coffee and taking orders. All of their rooms were full, and they were virtually guaranteed lots of restaurant business for the duration of the Army's stay up here.
Hers was the only table in the restaurant with any empty chairs at it. Her light green eyes regarded those three empty chairs with a touch of an old sadness in them. It wasn't that the men she worked with didn't like her, it was just that they found her talents unnerving, and tended to give her a wide berth. The men of Alpha squad, none of whom she had ever met before, had, it seemed, picked up on the unconscious signals from their fellow men-at-arms, and all of them had nodded politely to her as they passed, going to other tables. Julie sighed slightly and self-consciously made certain that the thin leather gloves she almost always wore, were on well.
A small commotion at the doorway drew her attention away from studying the contents of her cup of coffee. Both of her eyebrows drew upwards slightly as she saw the stranger being led towards her by the buxom owner. She was dressed fashionably in a dark pair of jeans and a white turtleneck, under one of the near full-length, dark Kanuk winter coats, which were popular up here. The room around them faded as green eyes met blue in startling contact. Julie could lose herself in those eyes, and almost did before the hostess was standing before her and asking, in her broken accented English if Julie would mind if someone shared her table. Julie could feel the blush starting to spread across her cheeks as she shook her head. No she definitely would not mind.
Awkwardly, she offered the woman, dear God she is tall, must be near six feet, her menu of the restaurant's offerings. There was no mistaking the woman's bearing. She had to be military, probably one of the supporting personnel, or maybe intelligence. The woman's voice, when she spoke, was a surprisingly low tone, which made Julie smile for no reason that she wanted to look at too closely.
"Anything good here?"
Emily was certain that in another life she had been a very evil person. That was the only thing she could come up with to explain why she had picked this restaurant to come to. A restaurant filled with soldiers, almost all of who were still wearing their fatigues. Doubtlessly here searching for, what was it that the U.S. was saying had caused the explosion? Oh yes, one of their airborne refueling tankers. She had just been about to try to sneak back out of the place when the beaming hostess had descended on her. Lady Emily Burtin Windstar, Guardian, Lady of Whitestead, second in line for the imperial throne, Sword Commander, was no match for the French-Canadian matronly lady who had nearly dragged her over to the only table in the entire place that had any free chairs around it. A table, her baser instincts were quick to point out, which was occupied by one of the most stunningly beautiful young women she had ever seen in her life.
It had been a touch over six decades since the Tiri had reached this new world called Earth, and begun preparing for what would inevitably follow them. With modern regeneration techniques, a Tiri, and now a human, could be expected to have a life expectancy of nearly three and a half centuries. Guardians, with their abilities and merging with a ship half, could live even longer, although almost all of them eventually died as the dangers of space travel eventually caught up with them. One could avoid the odds for only so long.
Even though she had not even reached the first century of her life, Emily often thought that her eyes showed the weariness which sometimes weighed down on her soul. There was a touch of that in the woman's eyes across from her, as they studied each other for the brief second after Emily had taken a seat and the hostess had bustled off.
For some reason, she had been forced to try to fill the awkward silence, which settled between the two of them. For some reason she found herself slightly nervous and, to her surprise and her tablemate's, had blurted out the first question she could think of.
"Anything good here?"
The redhead's grin returned at that question, and Emily found herself answering the grin without any conscious thought. The redhead seemed to be about to say something when a young man, probably the buxom woman's son, Emily thought, came over and put down a nearly overflowing plate in front of the redhead. He beamed at the two of them, teenage hormones sitting up and taking notice of the two beautiful women who he was supposed to serve.
"The Club Sandwich looks good."
Emily's attention was snatched back from the boy as the redhead spoke for the first time, laughter in her eyes as she looked at the huge plate in front of her. "The coffee is good too." Her voice was cool and controlled, something in it making Emily think of tempered battle steel, hardened by fire. Wiping wherever those annoyingly distractive thoughts were coming from away, she nodded towards her tablemate's plate.
"I'll try a Club Sandwich and a cup of coffee then."
The teenager nodded quickly and hurried off to place the order, grinning to himself. Now if he could only get a picture of the two of them he would be all set, a hit with his friend at the very least.
Emily for her part was trying to see what other smart question she could come up with as she studied the woman seated across from her. As it turned out the woman beat her two it, as took a bite out of one of the sandwiches, swallowing before she spoke.
"You here because of the KC-105?" The amusement had not died down in the woman's eyes, and Emily forced herself to smile slightly in answer as she watched the woman dig into her food. Her manners were perfect, if a bit absent-minded. Whatever else she was, she projected a sense of class.
"Sort of. I'm here informally."
She kept her answer as vague as possible, sensing the sharp intellect, which lurked behind those amused green eyes, which still were studying her. Her answer seemed to satisfy her companion and she nodded in seeming understanding as she began on another bite of the sandwich. Wiping her hand on a napkin, she held it out to Emily.
"Pleased to meet you, my name's Julie McGrath." Her grip was firm and warm, and Emily smiled as she shook her leather-gloved hand.
"Nice to meet you, Lieutenant, I'm Emily Windstar." Julie nodded, seeming to take it for granted that Emily would have been able to read her rank from her uniform. They both paused as the waiter returned and placed Emily's order in front of her, and then refilled both of their cups of coffee. Emily's eyebrow arched as she watched Julie empty two packets of sugar into her cup, followed by two more, and then another two.
"Always like things sweet?"
Her tone was amused, and she grinned as she saw the hint of a light blush cross the other woman's face.
"Never really liked the taste of coffee, but its all we have usually, so I just add enough in so I don't taste it anymore."
Julie looked up with a bit of defiance in her eyes, which quickly was replaced by genuine humor as she saw the grin on her companion's face.
"Like yours hot and strong, hmm?"
She motioned towards Emily's cup with her spoon, just as Emily raised her cup and took a sip. It took a bit of self-control to avoid coughing on her coffee at that, but she managed with a mock stern look at Julie. Emily for her part hadn't a clue why she was almost flirting with the woman sitting across from her, but for now she just smiled innocently in answer.
"Julie, thought I would find you here."
Julie's smile vanished as she looked over Emily's shoulder towards the rapidly approaching form of her boss, and the files that he was carrying. So much for her dinner and a nice hot shower afterwards. The Major must have gotten the enhanced images from the Valkyrie spy sat.
Emily sensed her mood and her smile disappeared as she turned around to see who it was that was about to interrupt their dinner conversation. The tall black man who was marching towards them from the doorway was holding several manila folders, and walked with the air of one long accustomed to giving and receiving orders. She knew that air well enough; she saw it in the mirror a lot.
"Looks like your dinner break's over, hmm?"
Julie just shook her head slightly in answer to Emily's murmured question, and straightened slightly in her chair as Major Sims came to stand by the side of their table. His eyes missed little as they appraised the woman eating with Julie, and he shot a curious look towards the young Lieutenant.
"Major Sims, this is Emily Windstar, Ms. Windstar, this is my superior, Major Greggory Sims."
Julie had watched with fascination as Emily's face had carefully gone blank under the Major's appraisal. She had seen that look before on diplomats who didn't want to reveal what they were thinking. Whatever Greg thought, his face was its usual stoic self as he firmly shook Emily's hand. With a last glance, as if to make certain he would remember her face, the Major turned to Julie and motioned to the files he was holding.
"Sorry to disturb your dinner, but we have some new information to go over."
He was careful not to say more than necessary in front of a person he didn't know, but she could guess the rest. They had found some of the wreckage, and Greg wanted her to take a look at the new sat pictures with him before they went out to the site.
"I'm sorry, Ms. Windstar, but duty calls and all that."
Emily simply nodded and wished them both luck as Julie stood. Her gaze was thoughtful as she watched the Major and Lieutenant head back out. Leaving most of her sandwich behind she stood only a few minutes after the two had walked out and paid her bill. Unlike the Army people, she couldn't just walk out with the understanding that it would all be billed at once to the Army.
She paused just inside the door, watching through the window as Julie and her Major got into the first vehicle in a small convoy, which was waiting outside of the restaurant. Watching the convoy, four Humvees, two troop trucks, and a large tractor trailer truck with what looked to be a mobile command post attached, she tapped her fingers on the glass doorway, her eyes distant as she weighed options.
With a small nod to herself she reached a decision, and pulled what, to anyone else, looked to be a small cell phone from her pocket she rapidly punched in a string of numbers.
"Angwar, where are you?"
Julie and Major Sims had gone over the new recon pictures on the way. It had been a bit challenging considering that there were no paved roads north of the town, and they were traveling over logging roads towards the target area. The pictures themselves had come from a second Valkyrie sat, the first one's optics having been burnt out by the explosion.
What the pictures had shown was a crash site, nearly two miles in radius, where flaming debris from the explosion had fallen. The only reason they didn't have a forest fire on their hands was the snow cover still on the ground.
"So, you're saying something separated from the main body of· whatever that was, before it blew up?"
Julie peered a bit more intently at the pictures in front of her, long having mastered the trick of trying to read maps, or look at photos, in a bouncing vehicle. She was now looking at the enhanced pictures from the first Valkyrie, and it was obvious that a large chunk had separated from the flaming shape before the explosion. The shape itself was obviously a delta wing design of some sort, and the fact that it was so very obviously an aircraft of some sort had only served to heighten the mystery.
"No sign of whatever this is yet?"
She looked up just long enough to see the Major's head shake, and then bent back over the photos, using her small pocket flashlight to illuminate it.
"No, no sign of the large object. Intel says they think it must have blown up in the explosion which followed."
His tone showed exactly what he thought of Intel's assessment of the situation and Julie spared a moment to grin at her superior. They both had similar feelings about Intel after that trip to Columbia.
"And what do you think?"
The Major seemed to frown slightly as he thought over what information they did know, which was precious little so far. With a small shake of his head, he looked back at Julie.
"I'm still trying to make certain that this isn't another little Black Ops bird."
Julie nodded, that had happened twice before to them, and she knew it was pointless to get excited before they had arrived on the scene and she had a chance to look at the actual wreckage.
"We have the site sealed off?"
That brought a grimace from the Major as he leaned forwards slightly, bracing his elbows on his knees.
"No. The helicopters got diverted on the way north, I'm more than a little annoyed at whoever managed to countermand my orders. I put a call through before we left. It's been straightened out and they should be here in a few hours."
Julie hid a wince at that, and went back to studying the enhanced images in front of her. Getting the Major annoyed was a sure fire way of having a very bad day, and she almost pitied those pilots. She did, however, feel sorry for whoever it was who had diverted their air support. Whoever it was, they were going to be in a lot of trouble if the Major managed to track them down.
Without the helicopters it meant that they were limited to land travel for this little trip. Which shouldn't matter, as long as no one was trying to get to the crash site ahead of them.
Five hours, and a couple hundred miles of worse and worse dirt roads later, the convoy arrived in the general area of the wreckage. Julie was not the only one who gratefully stretched as she got out of the Humvee and stepped into the bitter cold of the early morning. It would be another three hours or so before the sun rose, but she could already hear orders being given to the troops who were piling out of the trucks. It must have been a cold and very unpleasant ride, and most of them looked relieved that it was over. The command truck was being set up, its braces had been extended, and she watched as the sides extended outwards to make room for its crew to enter. Powerful floodlights rose from its roof and illuminated the entire area around it.
The first of the thirty or so troops on patrol duty headed out to begin to try and secure the large crash area. When something blows up over a mile up, what comes down is invariably spread all over the place. There was going to be a lot of people walking around with metal detectors soon enough she imagined. For now she headed for the small group of people standing around the Major. Until the first piece of wreckage was retrieved, she didn't have anything to do.
Four kilometers away from the scene, five nearly identical SUVs pulled to a stop on a small, seldom used logging road. Each of the vehicles had been custom built, and they only looked like SUVs from the outside. If one of them ever got into a wreck, it was going to be hard to hide what was in them. All of that was far from her mind as Emily waited tersely for the sensor tech in the back seat to finish scanning.
The young man shook his head and glanced up at the three others in the lead car who were waiting for him to say something.
"No sign of any helicopters, at least as far as I can find on this."
Emily sighed slightly in relief at that. Thank the Maker that Isabelle had managed to reroute them, it would give them a few hours at least. She knew that the small vehicles sensors, which sat on its roof camouflaged as a roof rack, didn't have much range, but they were the best they had for this. If only they could risk a fly over with a scout ship, they would be able to pinpoint every single piece of debris along with the missing escape capsule. As it was, doing a fly by with this much activity in the area was not a smart idea, even with a stealth scout ship. So, here they were, doing a ground search, and hoping to at least get their people out and destroy the escape capsule before anyone found it. None of them were ready for humanity at large to find out that they existed.
"I have lots of activity to the northeast of us, must be the American search team."
He paused as he made some minute adjustments to the screen, which was usually hidden in what would have been the glove compartment of a normal car.
"Sorry, Ma'am, I still can't get a reading on the escape capsule. Nothing we have in orbit can pick up anything on passive scans either, if we could do an active scan I might be able to find it for you, but without it·" He just shrugged, and Emily nodded with a sigh, it couldn't be easy, just once. An active scan was far too likely to be picked up by the military, and maybe a few of the radio telescopes, even if they didn't know what they were looking at.
"It must be damaged for its emergency transceiver to have stopped working, or they shut it off for some reason. How close would we have to be for you to pick it up on these scanners?"
"Without going active?"
The tech looked at her with a near pitiful look on his face. Telling them that they could only search with passive sensors for something this specific, which was powered down, was like telling a blind man to describe the colors painted on a wall by touch alone. When she just eyed him, he sighed and shrugged.
"Half a kilometer, maybe a bit more depending where it came down."
Emily groaned, and the other two in the vehicle winced at that. The tech for his part just shrugged once more and went back to trying to coax a bit more data from his handicapped sensors. If there had been a power source they would have picked the capsule up a few hundred kilometers away, even on passive. As was, they would have to do a very slow search indeed.
"Keep an eye on the Americans and let me know if anything changes. Lets start a search grid where we think the capsule came down, thank the Maker it should have fallen a few kilometers short of the rest of the debris. Signal the others and tell them to move out. Make certain that they stay away from the Americans. The second those choppers show up we're going to have to get out of here."
The tech nodded and relayed her orders, his position doubled as communications officer, as the driver pulled out and headed towards what was supposed to be another logging road a little ways ahead of them. They drove without the headlights on, keeping as low a profile as they could manage in the early morning darkness. The windshield glowed a dim green from inside, working like a huge low light scope, and giving the driver a clear view of everything ahead of them.
Emily glanced back towards where Angwar sat in the rear seat beside her. She grinned slightly as she saw how tense he was. He never had enjoyed these cloak and dagger missions, as the humans called it. Ironically, humans were much better at these more subtle approaches than most Tiri would ever be. Whatever else their faults, the Tiri people as a whole, generally disliked having to hide. Which is why these last sixty-six years have been so trying on some of us, she thought.
"When was the last time you ever heard of an emergency transceiver failing on landing?"
Her question was rhetorical and they both knew it. Angwar simply shrugged slightly as he double-checked that the med kit at his feet was ready to go if need be.
Speaking up after a few moments of rather bumpy driving, "never, unless the escape capsule is nearly totally destroyed. You know what goes into burying those transceivers into them. So either the Americans are right, and the escape capsule blew up before getting far enough away, or·"
He shrugged once more and settled down, trying to keep an eye on what the sensor tech was doing. Emily nodded grimly· or, they had, for some reason, shut off their own emergency transceiver, for what reason she didn't quite know yet. They had less than two hours left before the helicopters reached the area, they would have to be gone by then, or risk having to answer some very uncomfortable questions.
It only took twenty minutes before the first sizeable piece of wreckage had been located only a short distance from where the command truck had set up shop. As per her orders, the piece wasn't touched or moved from its spot once the men had found it. Major Sims came with her as the men called in the piece and its location over the squad's TacNet.
The piece was half buried in the ground, surrounded by a small area of melted snow. The Major and the others hung back as she approached it, stripping the thick gloves off her fingers as she neared it. She seldom went anywhere without wearing at least a thin pair of leather gloves, it helped to keep her talents under control. Now though, she tugged the gloves off and stuffed them into the pockets of her winter parka before crouching down next to the mangled piece of metal. Its surface was scarred and twisted from an obvious explosion. Bits of what looked to be a sort of wiring were visible inside of it, mostly melted and fused together. Casting a quick glance over her shoulder to make certain that Greggory was keeping the others away from her, she braced herself and placed her hands on the cool metal.
Julie could remember the first time she became aware of using her talent. Her third grade class had taken a trip to a rebuilt warship from the American Civil War. She had placed her hand on one of the original ship cannons, felt its texture, sensed its past, and had started screaming. Her teachers had said it was almost as if she had suffered a seizure. She had been hospitalized for three days afterwards, barely able to eat, and wanting to sleep all the time. The doctors had ordered every test they could think of, but in the end, all they could say was that she might have a sort of epilepsy. It had been two years, almost to the day, later that her parents had died in a car accident, and, somehow, the government had gotten a hold of her. From then on she had been part of Majestic and its mission.
The memories flickered across her awareness the second before her fingers grazed the cold metal before her. As always, she had to clear her mind to find what she wanted. When she had first started working with Major Sims she had tried to explain what it was like, but there really was no way to tell someone else. It was simply a merging with the object before her, when her own consciousness joined with the object she was touching. This time it was a bit harder than usual, but as always, she managed it. Then she only had to urge the metal to "remember" what had come before. She relived its fiery descent, the explosion, and the final flight through the atmosphere, the cold darkness of space, and the lack of any heat. Further back, through its many trips, and even further back to when it was molten metal being formed into an alloy, and then crafted into its final shape. The further back she went, as always, the less and less distinct the images became, until it was a mere blur at its beginning. But it was enough.
Greggory was waiting for her when she sat backwards on her heels, drained and slightly wobbly. She gratefully took the water flask he offered her and nearly drained it, before shakily standing to her feet. Only a few minutes had passed, but she felt as if she had run miles with a full combat pack.
"You're getting better at that you know."
Julie nodded, still weary, but already starting to feel better as she began eating one of the several chocolate bars she carried for just this reason.
"I know. I'm not sure if that's a good or a bad thing though."
By unspoken agreement they would wait until the soldiers had secured the wreckage for travel and taken it away. Stepping aside, they watched silently as the pieces were loaded onto stretchers and began to carry it back to the command post while Julie devoured another candy bar. When they were finally alone, they began slowly walking along the trampled path back towards the command post.
"The pilot was human, I'm certain of it, but I don't know what the passenger was, he felt like he was human, but there was something odd about him. The ship came here from the asteroid belt, and I'm pretty sure it's been to Mars and the dark side of the Moon a few times."
She went on to try to describe the things she had seen, but the rest was mostly fragmentary. The Major listened silently, except for an occasional grunt here and there throughout everything she had to say. She liked that about the Major. He always listened all the way through a report, and then only asked questions once it was done, not stopping a person every other word to ask questions about what they had just said.
"You're certain about it having traveled through space before it crashed?"
She nodded as the floodlights mounted on top of the command post came into sight.
"And that one of them was definitely human? Were they both onboard when it blew up?"
"I'm positive that one of them was human, yes. As for where they were when it blew up, I don't know, but they weren't onboard when it exploded, I'm certain of that much."
The rest would wait until they got inside of the command post, and Julie could tell that the Major had many more questions. She could only hope that she had enough answers to give him about what she had seen. They were just about to climb up into the mobile trailer when one of the Humvees pulled up with a screech of tires and a soldier piled out yelling.
"Sir! Sir! We found something I think you better come see for yourself!"
Emily and the others had rendezvoused after an hour long, quick, but thorough search of the grid area where they had been certain the escape capsule had come down. She watched with a bit of impatience as the sensor tech double-checked all of the information that each of the modified SUVs had picked up on their search. After a moment, he shook his head and turned around to look at both her and Angwar.
"I'm sorry, Ma'am, we aren't showing anything at all."
Emily sat back, and her gaze was thoughtful as she took a look out of the door window at the darkness outside. They only had another hour, give or take a few minutes, before the American helicopters reached the site, and they still hadn't even found a trace of the escape capsule. Things were starting to get a bit tight.
"Alright, what do we have in orbit that you can link up with?"
All three of the others in the car stiffened slightly at that. It wouldn't be calling in a scout vehicle to take a peek at what was going on, but it was close.
"Ma'am, we would have to power up one of the sensor platforms in high orbit, and have it take a peek at what was going on down here. It would have to take an active scan to get anything."
She knew that of course, and her blue eyes were pale when she looked back at him. Angwar knew better than to start trying to change her mind when she had obviously reached a decision.
"How long would you need for a good scan?"
The sensor tech, sensibly, decided against pointing out any more obvious things to the Guardian and swallowed.
"A good four or five seconds, Ma'am."
Angwar winced at that one, five seconds was a lot of time when talking about these sorts of things. He leaned over slightly and murmured to Emily as the driver and sensor tech took it upon themselves to be busy at whatever it was they were fiddling with upfront.
"That's a big risk, what if they manage to spot the platform when it powers up? We can do a laser uplink, but even then, it's a risk."
"And what about the Master Sergeant and the pilot, Angwar? What about the escape capsule? If they get a sight of the platform, all they will be able to see is a small power spike, they won't know anything for certain. They find that escape capsule, there's no way we'll get a chance to explain that away."
Angwar didn't look happy, but he nodded slowly. If it were the only way, he would go along with it.
"Link up, do what you can to keep it as short as possible though."
The sensor tech nodded, happy that he hadn't managed to annoy the Guardian too much earlier.
"Yes, Ma'am, it will take it a few minutes to power up, and then we can do the scan and power down. Total time, I figure, maybe at most five minutes."
Emily nodded and leaned back in her seat.
"Sending power up signal and authorization code. Longbow acknowledges power up request. Platform is beginning to power up, power up sequence will be completed in three minutes, forty five seconds."
Emily settled back for the wait, while Angwar shook his head and talked into a small communicator, disguised as a cell phone, to inform the other teams to stand by.
Julie and the Major rode for only ten or so minutes further up the logging road that the command post had been set up on. The Humvee's headlights illuminated the snow covered ground before them, and the tires crunched through the snow as it did when it was cold out. They pulled to an abrupt halt next to another of the teams' Humvees, and the driver quickly got out and began jogging into the woods.
"Its over this way, Sir!"
The Major and Julie both followed him up and over a small rise in the forest floor, which the road paralleled. Three other soldiers were already waiting for them at the top of the rise, and they joined them there, under pine boughs still coated with snow from the last storm.
Julie stumbled to a halt as she took a look at what the soldiers had found. There was a deep ravine in front of them, probably cut into the land by an old river that had since disappeared. It was a hundred feet or so down a rather steep wood covered slope to the bottom, and the structure.
There really was no other word for it, for she had never seen something that even vaguely looked like it. There was a cluster of small buildings around the base of the thing. The structure itself was a set of four metallic spires, which rose towards a point at the top. Hanging from the top of it was some sort of, what looked to be a six-sided crystal. The top of the structure was just about at eye level with them, which meant that the entire thing was a hundred feet tall, but Julie could spot no obvious braces between the spires. Each of which seemed to have been made from one continuous piece of metal. That, however, wasn't the most disturbing part. The crystal, which hung from between where the spire met was not attached to them, it was simply floating there.
"What, the Hell, is that?"
Julie's voice was almost an awed whisper as she looked at the structure in front of them. The Major seemed to take it a bit more in stride.
"It must be new, no way the loggers would have missed this if it were here when they were logging in this area. Soldier, radio base and get everyone else up here."
The private nodded and began trying to raise the command post with the portable radio that he had slung over his back. A few seconds later he looked to the Major in apology, and shrugged.
"Sorry, Sir, I think we're being jammed somehow."
The Major took it in stride as he pulled his side arm and double checked to make certain that the magazine was full.
"Private Sanders, go back to the command post, tell Lieutenant Coldwell to grab everyman he can spare and bring them up here, direct the helicopters to get up here when they can also."
The private, the same one who had driven them out from the command post, hurried back down the ravine and towards the parked Humvee. Within moments, they heard the vehicle rumble to life and start to turn around to head back the way it had come. Which was when an odd-looking delta shaped craft rose above the tree line, hovering nearly silently, and blew the Humvee into shrapnel. Julie had only a moment to realize that it looked vaguely like the vehicle in the spy sat pictures, before the fireball lit up the night sky.
"Scan in ten seconds, Ma'am."
The Sensor tech was hunched over his instruments, ready to urge the sensor platform into making the quickest scan of the area that it could in the shortest amount of time.
"Angwar, make sure the others keep an eye out for anything out of the usual, like those American helicopters." Even though they weren't due for just under another hour, she never did believe in taking things for granted. Angwar nodded, and deftly relayed her orders through the small communicator to the other four vehicles. Even as he was doing so, the sensor tech rapidly entered a series of commands, and the screen in front of him filled with data. A moment later the sensor platform powered down, and he began studying the data in front of him, a frown crossing his face after only a few seconds of studying.
"Ma'am, we got something odd up here, look at this."
She leaned over between the two front seats to get a look at what the tech was pointing at. What she saw was something that should not be there at all. There was a local dampening field around a small area to the east of them, which the sensor platforms powerful active sensors had easily cut through. What they had revealed was the unmistakable signature of a nearly completed communications array. They also showed the unmistakable form of an escape capsule loaded onto the back of a logging truck.
"Shit. Angwar, tell the others to arm themselves, and alert Longbow of what we just found."
Her voice was deadly calm as she pointed at the array.
"Get us here, now."
Emily leaned over the front seat to see what the scanner tech was pointing at, for a moment she thought he was pointing at the communications array, but then she spotted the small dots to the side of it.
The Americans were already there.
"Get us there, fast."
The driver took one more look at where the Guardian was pointing and headed out, moving at speeds which were reckless upon the rutted dirt road that they were traveling across. No one in the vehicle complained. If the people at the array had Tiri weapons, the Americans were about to be slaughtered.
Angwar had a terse conversation with someone at Longbow base, and then looked towards Emily.
"They're getting the rapid reaction team moving, the soonest they can be here is in twenty minutes."
A fireball lit the sky ahead and to the right of them, and Emily grimly began pulling weapons from the recessed compartment under the back compartment. Two Mark V rifles and four dart pistols per vehicle, it would have to be enough for now. They didn't even have a set of un-powered battle armor.
The Americans at that moment were in a bad spot. The Major, Julie, the radio operator, and the other surviving Private, had taken cover wherever they could find it. Julie was trying to take a peek at what was happening from behind the snow-covered boulder where she had nearly thrown herself after the first explosion. The destruction of the first Humvee was rapidly followed by the second one going up in flames, and Julie was now trying to see what had happened to the aircraft that had been attacking them. The worst part was that it had been nearly totally silent as it had hovered there, and she had lost it in the darkness of the night once it had finished firing whatever that odd pulse had been at the second Humvee.
The camp below her, at the bottom of the ravine, had come alive as well. People were spilling out of the prefab structures. Floodlights had come alive, lighting up the entire area down there. She did a quick count and came up with worse odds than she wanted. A good dozen or so men, armed with what looked to be assault rifles, were making their way up the ravine towards them. She could just see the Major giving orders to the two Privates with him, both of which thankfully had their M-16s with them, although the radio operator was again trying to raise someone from the command post. The major had crouched down behind the base of a tree trunk, which split into two separate trunks a few feet above the ground level. Both of the Privates had taken cover behind an old deadfall, the one without the radio was sending three round bursts down the slope towards the men climbing, with the Major taking pot shots with his pistol as well.
Julie had found her 9mm pistol clutched in her hand after she dove for cover, with no clear memory as to how it had gotten there. The figures climbing the steep slope towards them were pausing every now and then to fire blindly at where the four of them had taken cover. The light from the camp below caused odd twisting shadows all over the place, and all of the rifle fire was missing, for now, although a few rounds splintered the dead tree trunk that the Privates were hiding behind.
Julie took another quick look around the boulder and squeezed off a few shots of her own, smiling as she saw one of the shapes climbing up the slope fall. She didn't know if she had actually killed him or just wounded, but at least it was one less for now. They would have to move soon, she knew, or they would be surrounded. The only problem was the flying craft, she still hadn't seen it, and trying to move if it was waiting for them to show themselves was akin to suicide. She watched in confusion as one of the figures down below raised up an odd looking pistol, and shot four flares into the air, the red light illuminating the entire area.
The man's actions became horribly clear when, like a silent wraith, the delta shaped craft raised itself up above the tree line across the ravine from them. It shifted slightly, and Julie could swear she saw what looked to be a cannon of sorts mounted on its underside swivel. The muzzle glowed white for a split second, and then a streak of light leapt from the craft and smashed into the log where the two Privates had been hiding. The log simply disintegrated into a thousand flying wooden shards of burning shrapnel. The two men who had been behind it were tossed into the air like broken dolls, to land forgotten where their owner dropped them, dead before they hit the snow.
Julie was moving before she knew it, making the quick, hunched-over run to where the Major was cursing, a two-foot shard of wood sticking out of the calf of his right leg. There was no time. If the cannon could do that with only one shot, the pitiful cover that the two of them had taken would be of no use. Grabbing the Major's arm she slung it over her shoulder and started dragging him back towards the road, half stumbling as they topped the small ridge, and then began stumbling and sliding down the other side. A quick glance over her shoulder showed that the silent aircraft had disappeared, and she could only pray that it had gone somewhere, anywhere, else. The Major was muttering something as he tried to staunch as much of the blood flowing from his leg wound as he could as they moved, still leaving a trail of crimson behind them.
At least, once they topped the ridge, they were once more in darkness, out of sight from the floodlights in the camp at the bottom of the ravine. If they could make it across the road, maybe they would be able to follow it back towards the command post and get help. Or maybe, Julie thought bitterly as she helped the Major through some brush, that's where that flying thing went, and they're all dead.
The Major helped as much as he could, but he couldn't put any weight at all on his right leg, and she was beginning to tire even as they made it past the still burning wreckage of the second Humvee. It was only ten feet to the other side of the road, and the trees, which beckoned them with safety. Julie forced her muscles to half carry the much larger Major as they started across those ten feet. It was the longest ten feet Julie had ever tried to walk in her life, and they had only made it halfway across when the light was suddenly bathed in a bright light.
There was nowhere to hide, nowhere she could drag the Major to in time, and her thoughts became oddly still and calm as she turned slightly to see the hovering shape a bit further down the road, that had just lit up the entire area with its spot lights. Time seemed to slow as she raised the pistol, that she had somehow kept in her right hand, and shot at the floating specter of death. The Major raised his as well and fired with her, both of their bullets having no effect whatsoever, and Julie could see sparks where the bullets simply bounced off the armor of whatever that thing was. With a yell of frustration she emptied her clip at it, hoping against hope that she would hit something vulnerable. They were toying with her and the Major; she knew that much as she saw the cannon on the underside shift to track both of them. They could have destroyed us anytime, and they just wanted to have fun chasing us around a bit, the bastards. Even her thoughts were detached as she squeezed off the last bullet, aiming at the cannon this time, and watched without surprise as the bullet bounced off the belly of the craft with a small show of sparks.
When the mouth of the cannon glowed faintly, she knew she was about to die, and she could only watch in fascinated horror as her death came.
So it was with mute surprise that she watched as the entire right wing of the craft exploded outwards. The craft began a slow dive towards her left, just as the cannon fired, destroying a tree nearly six hundred feet further down the road. This time she saw the second streak of light, which slammed into the belly of the craft, from further down the road behind the craft. This time, what was left of the craft exploded into a brilliant fireball. The shockwave arrived a split second later, flinging both her and the Major backwards against the wreckage of the Humvee. She felt a sharp pain blossom at the base of her back, and the world went black.
There was a bright light shining against her eyelids, and Julie tried to turn her head away from it. The darkness had been so soothing, and she didn't want to wake up yet, but a voice was calling her name and the darkness didn't want her anymore. Cautiously, she opened her eyelids a slit, immediately wincing as the light sent lances of pain through her head.
"Oh God, that hurts," was what Julie tried to moan when consciousness returned, but instead managed a mumbled sentence that sounded more along the lines of: gahmphhrt. A glass of water was pressed to her lips and she carefully sipped a bit of the cool water. Ambrosia had never tasted that good, she was certain, and she let out a soft cry of protest when the water was taken away after she had only taken a sip or two.
"It's alright, but you can't drink too much yet. Sleep."
The voice was warm and caring, and she dimly remembered having heard it before. She instinctively trusted it and closed her eyes, besides, she was suddenly tired again and this time the darkness welcomed her back.
The second time she woke up, she was feeling much better, and she managed to open her eyes without more than a wince at the light. This time the voice wasn't there to greet her when she woke, and she felt alone. Carefully, she tried to focus her eyes on her surroundings. She was lying on her back, in what felt like a hospital bed. There were warm sheets pulled up around her, and she was wearing some sort of pajamas, which felt almost like silk. The walls and ceiling were of the same warm beige and off white colors, and she managed to lift her head slightly to take a look around. She was in a small room, with a strip of light above the bed, mounted on the wall. There was a door leading into what she assumed was a bathroom, and another larger door with a window set into it, looking out onto probably a hallway.
It had the universal feel of a hospital, and Julie let her head fall back upon the soft pillows with a sigh. Waking up in hospitals after a mission was starting to become a rather worrisome trend on her part.
Just as she was about to try and find out if she could sit upright, the door to the room opened and a familiar face entered, bearing a tray and smiling. For a second she couldn't place where she had seen the face before, but the fog that had clouded her thoughts was thinning and she answered Emily's smile with a small one of her own.
"Glad to see you're back with us Lieutenant. You had us and Major Sims worried for a little while there."
Drawing a chair over with her, Emily sat down next to Julie's bedside and placed the tray, which, Julie suddenly realized, was emitting some very pleasant smells, on the table next to her.
"How are you feeling? The Doc said he would be by in a few. He had another patient to check in on."
The voice was the same one from her memories, low and soothing, and Julie smiled a bit wider in answer.
"I feel like I got run over, what happened?"
"You remember the explosion?"
Emily watched her carefully at that and Julie had the feeling that there was more to that question than she was letting on. Frowning slightly, the red headed nodded slowly, even that movement causing a dull ache to spread across her head.
"I remember that flying thing, whatever it was, about to kill us. Then it just blew up, and I guess I got flung backwards by the explosion."
Emily nodded and helped her sit upright, careful not to jar her, as she propped up the pillows and got Julie situated just right.
"Here, the Doc said we could get some food into you finally."
Julie's stomach more than agreed with that, and she blushed as her stomach made noises. Emily just grinned and put a folding tray table down in front of Julie, then transferred the tray with food on it onto that.
"Looks like fish and vegetables, along with some juice and a bit of jell-o for you tonight."
Julie was surprised to find out how hungry she was, and she immediately began eating, waving to Emily to stay seated when it looked like she was about to leave.
"No please, stay."
Emily grinned and stretched out her legs, who was she to argue with a patient? Some of the fatigue from the last two days must have shown on her face, for Julie looked at her appraisingly for a few moments before starting to eat again.
"Tell me what happened? Where am I for starters? Is the Major all right? What was that thing? And those people, why did they start trying to kill us?"
Emily held up her hands to ward off the barrage of questions and pointed towards the tray of food in front of Julie.
"Eat, and I'll try and answer your questions."
The redhead grinned a bit sheepishly at that and nodded, beginning to work on the rather good food once more. Not bad at all for hospital food, she thought, as she tasted the fish.
"First off, you are at the Imperial Base, Longbow. You've been here two days now. We had to bring you back here because you impaled yourself on a bit of wreckage from what the Major says used to be a Humvee. Don't worry, the docs fixed the damage, and you're as good as new, or will be anyway. That's part of why you're so hungry, the Re-gen techniques take a bit out of a person."
She held up her hand once more as she saw the young woman open her mouth to ask even more questions, and she sighed.
"I'm not doing a very good job of explaining this am I? All right, let me start at the beginning, or as much of the beginning as we have time for. Then, after I'm done, you can ask questions, deal?"
Julie nodded, her food momentarily forgotten as she waited for the stunning woman across from her to start. Emily fidgeted for a few seconds, trying to organize her thoughts. Finally she locked those pale blue eyes onto Julie's, and started.
"I guess I better start with telling you about where we came from. Tiri Prime is located about four hundred light years from here·."
Julie had just managed to get the shirt she had been given buttoned, when Major Sims knocked and then entered the hospital room. The doctor, an elderly man with pure white hair who had introduced himself as Dr. Bingwar, had been in earlier and pronounced her fit enough to leave. She was glad to see that the Major's leg seemed to have been taken care of, for he hardly limped at all when he walked, and it had only been three days since the incident in Quebec. Julie had spent the last day in sort of dazed shock.
It wasn't often that one's world turned upside down. And here I thought I knew pretty much what was going on, she thought with amusement as she could see the lingering traces of the same shock on the Major's face. At least she was not the only one who had her world rattled.
"Glad to see you're up and about, Julie. I'm about to head to Washington, as you can imagine some people are going to have to know what happened."
Julie nodded in understanding. Most of it could be covered over, but the circle of people who knew about the Tiri were about to grow by small leaps and bounds. Something which had everyone that Julie had met so far, on edge, especially Emily. Her new friend, my friend, yes I suppose she is my friend, had been strained the last time she had seen her for breakfast. As far as she understood it, the Emperor had not been happy with the entire escapade. That was another thing; her new friend was the daughter of the Emperor, whoever that was. That alone would have been mind blowing, then you couple it with everything else, and she was amazed that she wasn't sitting in the corner babbling.
"I'll get my things together, Sir."
She was surprised when he shook his head.
"You're staying here, Julie. Emily has asked that you be allowed to remain as a liaison between Majestic and the Tiri. Seems that Majestic has been one of the few organizations that they haven't managed to get someone into. Emily's older brother will be joining me in Washington and we'll see about talking to the President."
Julie frowned slightly at that, and perched on the edge of the bed as she thought about what the Major was saying.
"This is going to ruin that timetable that the Tiri are trying to follow, isn't it?"
"Only if it gets out of hand. We should be able to explain everything, even the orbital strike they used to take out that transmitter. Meteorite."
He answered in response to her raised eyebrow at the last bit. She had been unconscious at the time, but the Major had assured her that the orbital strike that Emily had called down on the ravine had been spectacular in the early morning light. Julie nodded, it could be done, and she had even taken part in a few of those little cover-ups. It was the other part that was worrying her at the moment though.
"Do they have any leads on who the traitor is, or where the rest of the missing equipment is?"
The Major was about to answer, when the door behind him swung open and Emily entered the room. She nodded in greeting to the Major, but her eyes were locked with Julie's as she answered the question she had half heard upon entering.
"No, we don't. An orbital strike doesn't leave a lot of evidence behind, which is of course part of the reason we wanted one."
The Major grimaced slightly in answer to that. Unlike Julie, he had seen what the orbital strike had done to the buildings and communications array inside of that ravine. The medic working on his leg had cheerfully advised him, that it had been a small kinetic strike, no explosives used at all.
"Julie and myself will be taking a small tour of the other bases to ask a few questions. The Sergeant Major's report gives us a few clues to work from, and I've already detailed an investigative unit to look into things."
Julie and Major Sims had both heard that the Sergeant Major and the pilot had been found shortly before the orbital strike had been called down. They were being held in one of the buildings, apparently waiting to be transported elsewhere for interrogation as to how much the Sergeant Major had learned. At the least it was an indication that he had been on the right track, and someone was nervous. The humans, who had been guarding the array, little more than mercenaries as far as they had been able to find out, had been easy prey to the Tiri weapons, which had been brought to bear against them. Once the silent thing, the modified atmospheric shuttle, Julie automatically corrected herself, had been taken out, the mercenaries had little chance of escaping and had surrendered finally in the face of the superior firepower, which the Tiri had with them.
"I came to tell you that your transport is waiting, a good old-fashioned helicopter just like you asked."
Emily grinned towards the large black man that she was starting to like. She offered him her hand, which he readily took and shook.
"My brother and a few of the Emperor's aides will be meeting you when you touch down. I wish you luck with your mission, Major Sims. Go with Honor, Wisdom, and Strength."
Julie could just catch a glimpse of a waiting Private outside in the corridor, and the Major nodded.
"Thank you, Lady Windstar, I expect I'll be seeing you again shortly. Stay in touch, Julie, I want to hear from you every day at the least."
After he had left, the two of them looked at each other a bit uncertainly, until Julie suddenly remembered a question that had been bugging her for a while now.
"You know, you never told me where we were."
Emily seemed relieved to answer a question, and to fill the slightly awkward silence which had just fallen between them. Holding open the door, she escorted Julie out into the well-lit hallway, and towards the lift doors at the end. They passed by a nurse station, with banks of monitoring equipment that Julie could only guess at. Half of it looked like it had come straight off a Star Trek movie set.
"You're out of here, so why don't I just give you the mini tour? In answer to your question though, we are at Longbow Base, located just south of the Canadian border in the state known as North Dakota. We aren't that far from a town called Vang."
Julie eyed her questioningly at that. She already knew that the entire base was underground, and had been here for the last sixty some odd years, but why had the transport flown over Quebec on its descent from the North Pole, instead of flying over Manitoba, which was a direct line.
"Why did your shuttle go over Quebec then?"
Emily returned the palm over chest salute of the guard who had been posted outside of Julie's room and smiled. It hadn't taken the human long at all to come up with that one.
"You're Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, that's what has kept us from doing direct descents for over two decades now. There's a gap in the line that we can take advantage of in northern Quebec. We have to usually do a fast descent down through the gap, and then angle westwards to come over here, or zigzag across the country to whatever our destination is."
The lift was waiting for them when they arrived in front of the metal doors, and Julie had the feeling that she was missing something. The question was just on the tip of her tongue, but Emily's next words distracted her from it.
"You ready for the grand tour now?"
Emily and Julie wound up in the Nova after the tour was done. The Nova was the underground complex's communal cantina. They were seated on the bottom floor of the structure; above them was an open area straight up past the three other balconies, which formed the rest of the seating for the cantina.
It isn't a base; it's an underground city. Julie shook her head as she looked at the sprawling seating arrangement around her as she waited for Emily to finish talking with the officers who had cornered her a few minutes earlier. While she waited, she took a sip of the water that one of the servers had brought over, and stretched her feet, thankful for having finally sat down. Her body didn't ache anymore, but she was still tired. The tour had taken hours.
The entire complex was built under farm ground owned by a series of shell corporations, which if she understood it correctly, was how almost all of the land under which Imperial Bases had been built had been acquired. The base itself was sprawling, and she was certain that they had avoided a few areas, which had simply been considered to security sensitive. Which hadn't kept her from seeing dozens of underground buildings interconnected by tunnels. She had seen most of the main hospital, a communications and command building, along with several underground hangars bustling with activity. Other parts of the tour had been carefully skimmed over, and Julie had to resist a smile at how Emily had guided her around what she assumed were weapon storage buildings.
They had made their way back to the central building from which most of the rest of the complex radiated outwards from, and Emily had brought her to The Nova. It was an interesting place; she had to admit that much. The bottom floor was a restaurant, with what Emily assured her was good food. The upper two open balcony levels were self-serve from lines of buffet tables along the walls, and people were constantly coming and going, snatching a bite to eat.
Emily hadn't said, but Julie was guessing that there were upwards of a couple thousand people in this subterranean world.
"Sorry about that."
Julie smiled as she watched Emily slide into a seat across the table from her. Whatever else she had learned this day, she had taken pleasure in watching her new friend move. The flowing grace that the taller woman seemed to exude in every movement had been a pleasure to watch. Julie's wandering thoughts were abruptly brought back to the present when she realized she was staring at Emily, who was watching her with an amused expression. I am so very busted, Julie thought as she ducked her head and tried to pretend to read the menu in front of her.
Emily, for her part, grinned and relaxed in her chair, enjoying the blush that was spreading across Julie's face. Both of them ordered quickly when the young server came to the table, and Emily's smile faltered slightly as she remembered the conversation she had just had with Angwar and the two other officers.
"Seems that my brother and your Major are meeting with the President this evening. My father is worried enough about how this situation is bringing us out into the open before we are ready, that he is coming here from Mars Base as soon as possible."
Julie leaned forward at that, and matched her friend's worried frown.
"You think this is going to get out of hand then?"
Emily shrugged, and waited as the server filled both of their glasses of water before answering.
"Depends what the traitor is going to do next."
Julie's confusion must have shown, because Emily sighed and sat up a bit straighter, entering what Julie was privately starting to call her lecturing mode.
"I told you about the plague that wiped out most every Tiri who was on Tiri Prime right?"
Julie nodded at that, trying not to think about a virus that had a kill rate of over ninety five percent and was airborne. It would make Ebola look like the common flu.
"I didn't tell you how it got released though. The Bak'ra were being held at the borders of our space. We had lost some of our outer colony worlds, but we weren't crumbling like they had come to expect. I think most of that comes from the fact that we were more advanced than any other species that they had conquered up until then. Anyway, we weren't falling aside. True we were having all sorts of trouble trying to fight as an organized unit, Guardians have traditionally operated independently, but we were holding them. A sensor net that was an engineering marvel protected the home system, nothing was going to get in or out of there by warp gate without system command knowing about it.
"I'm the first to admit that we may have come to rely on it a bit too much for planetary security, but it was a very good sensor net. Somehow, though, a Bak'ra ship managed to slip through it and, we assume, dusted the planet with the virus. The thing had nearly a two week long incubation period, and by the time symptoms started showing up, the infection had spread to all the colony worlds. Only those ships on deep space duty, or who had been lucky enough to be between systems when the outbreak was recognized managed to avoid it."
Emily paused to take a sip of water, and Julie could see the lingering pain and anger from those days in her eyes.
"It was only pure dumb luck that the Emperor had decided to tour the battlefront with my older brother and most of his advisors. It was kept very quiet, for obvious security reasons."
This time Emily paused as the young server brought over their food. Emily had ordered trout, with a large salad. Julie herself had gone with steak and a small mountain of French fries. She still felt like she had spent a week fasting, and she found a craving for meat, which the doctor had said could be expected. When the young man, who, Julie noted with amusement, had a bit of a hero worship complex for the Guardian, had gone, Emily resumed her story between bites of food.
"The Emperor gathered up everyone who had not been infected, and began an evacuation. We'd had some scouts through this system about a hundred years ago now, and we knew it would be a good place to try and stop the Bak'ra. They would eventually have come this way to try and take over this planet as well, and it was decided we would try to hold them here.
"There wasn't much left of Tiri Prime when we passed through it, the Bak'ra were only a jump behind us, so we had to hurry, but we downloaded nearly all of system command's data base on the way. There was no way a Bak'ra ship could have gotten through the net without help. Most of us hoped that whoever the traitor was had died a very slow, bloody and painful death during the plague."
Julie watched as her friend's blue eyes seem to pale further, becoming as cold as space as her gaze focused onto another place and time.
"But you think that the missing equipment, and the Communications array, mean that whoever it is, is here?"
She touched the back of Emily's hand in an attempt to call her friend back from whatever bleak and bloody place she had gone to, and was rewarded with a small smile.
"Yes. The equipment we found was from the missing transport. The problem is that there is still half of the equipment missing. We didn't find all of it."
Julie was silent for a moment at that, playing idly with a French fry, as she considered Emily's words.
"What could they do with one of those communication arrays?"
Emily shook her head at that, as she frowned once more.
"That's the thing, they couldn't do very much at all. Not with the Sensor Sphere in place."
When Emily had first explained this Sensor Sphere to her on the tour, she had been nearly blown away by what the Guardian had said. The Tiri, knowing that the Bak'ra would almost immediately begin to search for the fleeing Tiri fleet, had taken steps to make this particular solar system as innocuous as possible. That meant, no more man made signals could be allowed to be sent into space, which a passing Bak'ra scout ship could pick up.
The solution, from a Tiri point of view had been simple. The construction of a sphere of sensor arrays about the same distance from earth as the outer reaches of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It had taken them several years to construct, and place, the hundreds of small stations, which were needed, but they managed it. Each station had two purposes. One was to keep an eye out for any possible sign of a Bak'ra scout ship, or fleet. The second, and its main purpose, was the jamming of any signal, radio and otherwise, being given off by inhabitants of the third planet in the Solar System.
Julie had just stared at her as she had calmly described the sphere and how its construction had been less impressive than the sensor net around Tiri Prime. Immediately she had pointed out a flaw in her friend's plan.
"What about all of the probes that we've sent past the asteroid belt? Voyager One and Two, The Galileo, and all the others?"
Emily had grinned, slightly embarrassed, as she led her through another training building.
"Well, you see, we sort of relay those signals in a tight beam, and make certain that as little as possible is radiated into space. We do the same with the radio waves your astronomers keep looking at in their radio telescopes."
Julie had just stared at her for a few more moments, and then narrowed her eyes.
"You're the reason that Hubble had all those problems aren't you?"
Emily had been taken aback by the sudden accusation, and couldn't help but grin at the near outrage showing in Julie's green eyes.
"Well, we couldn't let you get a good look at some of those "Asteroids" which had a metallic gleam could we? We fell a bit behind in our work to disguise the sphere stations, so something had to be done."
"What else are you people responsible for in way of our space programs problems?"
Emily had smiled a bit more weakly at that one and her answer had been a bit hard to hear, but Julie had heard her.
"You blew up the Mars Probes!"
Julie managed to get herself back to the present before she missed the rest of what Emily was saying. Her friend was studying her plate with a thoughtful look, and speaking as if she was just thinking out loud.
"If they managed to shut down a part of the sphere for a bit, they could send out a powerful enough signal that the Bak'ra would have to be pretty blind to be able to miss it. The question is why would they want to do that?"
To that question, Julie had no answer, and she simply squeezed Emily's hand, which she had somehow taken into her own somewhere over the last few minutes, in silent support.
Emily smiled as she felt Julie's hand slip into her own, it felt so very right to be there, except for one small detail.
"Julie, why are you wearing gloves?"
Emily held up Julie's hand as proof and nodded towards the black leather gloves that she had been wearing whenever she had been conscious. Emily was fairly certain that she knew the answer, but she wanted to make certain. She smiled as Julie looked anywhere but at her hand, still trapped by Emily's fingers, and obviously tried to think up an answer.
"Well, its just, I mean, I have this, umm· my fingers are cold?"
Emily just arched an eyebrow at that. The entire base was kept at exactly sixty-eight degrees, no matter what the temperature outside was. She just continued to watch Julie with what she hoped was an understanding expression until green eyes peeked at her from under auburn hair. She must have managed it, because Julie relaxed slightly and began speaking a bit more normally.
"I have this, well, talent I guess. I can pick up, its sort of like, well, ummm· images of its past, after I pick up things. Only when I pick up objects though."
She hurried to add on that last part, and Emily could tell she had gone through more than one fearful reaction to what she had said before. Emily tried not to grin and she was the one, this time, who offered silent support.
"I just can't control it too well, and I get these random images if I don't wear the gloves when I touch things."
Emily nodded in perfect understanding and she waited until Julie once more met her eyes before speaking.
"It will only get worse as you grow older, unless you learn to control your gift."
Julie's mouth opened, and she made some interesting squeaking noises, which Emily decided were quite cute. Whatever she had expected, she hadn't expected Emily to say that.
"We call it a gift, and those who have it strong enough, become Guardians."
Emily couldn't help but grin at the astonished expression on Julie's face.
"Why do you think everyone keeps calling me a Guardian?"
She sobered though, and with surprising tenderness laid Julie's hand back down on the tabletop.
"We are going to have to train you though, Julie. You must have the Gift very strongly to be able to pick up images of an object's past. It allows us to merge, at least partially, with most machines. Then of course there is the matter of our ship self, but I won't get into that now. For now though, I would be honored if you would let me take you as my student. Back home we had a training program and schools for Gifted, but I'm afraid that here we can't do much more than basically apprentice those Gifted that we find, we can't even bind you with your ship self, at least not yet."
Julie was just staring at her, still in obvious shock as she finished speaking. Emily offered her a crooked grin, and waited patiently. It was a lot to take in, in such a short time, but she had no doubts that Julie would manage it. She just needed a few minutes to get her thoughts in order, which Emily gladly gave her as she went back to eating.
It took all of three minutes, Emily timed it, before Julie looked at her curiously and asked her first of a torrent of questions.
"What do you mean ship self?"
A trans-orbital flight was not as exciting as Julie would have thought. Which was probably because she had been asleep when they had finally gotten clearance to take off. Exhausted by the lessons, which Emily had insisted, they begin immediately after dinner. Emily had emphasized control over her gift, and had purposefully begin exposing her to objects which were nearly overwhelmingly soaked with previous emotions, trying to teach her how to deaden her perceptions at will. She had then shown her some of the other aspects of her gift, which she would eventually learn to use. The ability to control anything with electrical connections was an interesting one, and Julie was looking forward to learning that lesson.
By the time it had been time to go, Julie had been drained, mentally and physically, and had only enough energy to stumble into the delta winged transport and collapse into a seat. She hadn't even had enough energy to question where they were going.
Several hours later, she had been awakened by turbulence as the small craft began its descent. Quickly, Julie tried to blink the sleep from her eyes and stretched as she took in her surroundings. The rear cargo hold of the fifty-meter long craft had been fitted with seating for passengers, although Emily and her were the only two hitching a ride at the moment.
Emily was paying no attention at all to the descent, and was going over what looked like a small notebook-shaped screen with writing scrolling across it. Julie took the opportunity to study her new friend unnoticed. Something she had been wondering about suddenly pushed its way into the forefront of her thoughts and she asked without even thinking.
"Why are you human?"
Emily looked slightly surprised at that question and looked over at Julie, grinning as she did so.
"Good morning to you, too."
Julie could feel the slight blush spreading across her cheeks, but she really did want to know.
"You heard me, why are you human? Shouldn't you have six arms or something?"
Emily couldn't help but smile at that.
"I rather hope not, I have enough problems with two sometimes."
Julie scowled at that.
"You know what I mean, why are you human?"
"Well· I'm not, I'm Tiri, if you remember?"
Julie eyed her at that, and she could swear that Emily was doing her best not to laugh at her. Narrowing her eyes she pointed at her with a mock scowl.
"Why are you human-like, then?"
Emily couldn't help but laugh this time, and Julie crossed her arms, scowling for real this time. Mornings were not her favorite times of the day, and she still felt sleep deprived. The laughing Guardian seemed to notice that she was getting a bit annoyed, because she managed to calm herself down, still grinning though.
"Well, we share pretty much the same genetic information. You humans are not the only race we've come across that are basically the same as we are, although you're the most advanced we had encountered by the time of the Bak'ra invasion. The best we could come up with is that the different planets across this arm of the galaxy were seeded by some unknown race with the same genetic material."
Julie looked at her a bit puzzled at that.
"You don't know who?"
Emily just shrugged in answer, and deactivated the pad that she had been reading, setting it aside.
"Your guess is as good as ours. We've come across ancient structures here and there, but always abandoned and empty. The archeologists usually referred to the race as The Ancients."
The pilot leaned through the narrow opening to the cockpit at that, and nodded to both of them.
"Guardian, we are about ten minutes out from Kithkarn Base, and we have authorization to land."
Emily nodded in answer, becoming once more military in bearing and attitude.
"Please send my respects to Nicholas, and ask him to meet with me when we land."
Julie looked curiously towards Emily at that, wondering where they were headed now that she realized she hadn't a clue. It must have shown, because Emily grinned and motioned towards the front of the shuttle, clearly meaning the place they were headed towards.
"We're on our way to Kithkarn Base, located about a hundred kilometers east of Australia."
"Emily, that's the Pacific Ocean."
To Julie's alarm, Emily smiled and nodded.
To be continued...
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