Disclaimers: See Part One

My thanks to those of you who have emailed me about the story so far. Your encouragement has meant a lot, and I hope this part lives up to your expectations. The writers block is gone, thank god!

Comments are very welcome at: Adarkbow@yahoo.com

 

Chapter Twelve

Nearly six hundred light years from Earth, in a Binary star system that Tiri astronomers had labeled the Ascirani System, a long range-scanning outpost came to life. It was nearly a hundred years old, as time was counted on Earth, but it had been designed with an operational lifespan of over five hundred years. Its linked fusion generators provided more than enough power, and all of its critical systems had backups for their backups. The onboard primitive AI computer noted without feeling the sudden gravitational and energy flux as multiple Warp Gates formed at the edge of the system. It watched, recording, as ships began to slide through those Warp Gates. Its logical mind waited patiently for the identity of those ships to be positive, before it activated its massive communications array and began transmitting.

It took the ships, over a hundred of them, nearly twelve hours to travel deep enough into the system to reach the outpost, which had faithfully transmitted every detail it observed of the coming Bak'ra ships. No answer had been received to its transmissions by the time the first of the Bak'ra ships closed within tractor range of the kilometer wide sensor outpost. Its programmers had foreseen such a possibility, and the AI waited patiently as the ships crept closer, scanning its surface as it continued to transmit. When the first of the hulking vessels latched onto it with a tractor beam in preparation for boarding, the AI initiated its last program. Its massive fusion power plant spun up to emergency power, and then detonated. For a brief fiery second, the Ascirani System had a third sun. The twelve nearest ships were ripped apart by the explosion, and another six damaged. The Bak'ra noted that this was the definite proof that the burst transmission had been correct. The Tiri were in this sector of the galaxy. Scouts were dispatched, and a message was sent back to the Bak'ra home fleet.

 

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"Statistically speaking, over half of you will not pass this program and go on to become Guardians."

Julie listened carefully to the man dressed in the dark blue uniform of the Imperial Navy, who was addressing them. Major Castigar was a bulldog of a man, and was one of the most senior Imperial Marines to have survived the Evacuation. He was now in charge of the hastily put together training program for Guardian candidates, which was being held in what used to be an Air Force Base in northern America. Even from inside the auditorium, Julie could hear the army of workmen who were working on the former Plattsburgh Air Force Base, in northern New York. She and her three hundred fellow trainees, who had been rounded up from around the world, had only arrived at the PAFB a day, and in some cases, minutes before the lecture had begun.

The Major motioned towards one of the other seven people who were standing at perfect attention at the front of the lecture hall, and Julie recognized the white-haired Sergeant Major who stepped forward.

"Sergeant Major Torsson will be directly in charge of your physical training during this program. You will be expected to be proficient with all Imperial standard weaponry and equipment by the end. This program will last for nine months. During the first three, you will remain on the base. Afterwards, there will be a break of five days. From there, the next three month section, you will be allowed a day off after every six days. The last three months will be spent training in space, Luna and Mars. If you make it that far, you will then spend another twelve months in extensive training for what you will require to know as a Guardian."

Julie heard the groan from nearby, and had to grin at the various faces of dismay around her. Only a few in the room had ever had any sort of military training, and she could only pick out two others in the room at the moment that wore military uniforms. Those didn't seem to find anything odd about the training schedule. Julie could easily remember her own training, and sincerely doubted that anything that they were going to go through would be as bad as basic training, at least, she hoped it wouldn't. She really didn't want to go through hell week again.

Her attention was pulled back to the front, as the Sergeant Major took over speaking. In the dark green uniform of an Imperial Marine, and perfectly pressed and shined, he was a formidable looking man indeed. The people in the room varied in age from a minimum of sixteen, to a cut off of sixty. Emily had said that there was another program being set up for those below the age of sixteen who manifested any signs of the Gift. Emily had also mentioned that she didn't hold much hope for those over thirty five or so in finishing the program, but they needed every Guardian they could get, so she would screen everyone she could find. The Sergeant Major kept his face perfectly neutral as he looked at those spread out in the auditorium, as he spoke.

"Over the past four months, you have doubtlessly heard about the Bak'ra, and that they are coming. You have also, doubtlessly heard that we are in short supply for Guardians. Twenty-one Guardians survived the Evacuation from Tiri Prime. One of those, as you should know, died four months ago, meaning that only Twenty Guardians are left to defend the Earth. That does not mean that I will hesitate in cutting you from the program if I feel you are not able to keep up. You each have until twelve hundred to stow your things and report to your Sergeants. Dismissed."

PAFB was divided into two sections. The old base, which had been around during the time that the base had been an Army barracks during World War II, and the new base, which was built during the cold war as a part of the Strategic Bomber Command. The long runway, an alternate landing site for the space shuttle, had been the home for F-111 fighters, B-52 bombers, and KC-105 tankers. The two halves of the base were separated by a route 11, one of the major county roads, and Julie gladly hopped into one of the waiting vans outside of the auditorium for the trip back to the old base. She, and three others, had been assigned to one of the grand old red-bricked buildings, which surrounded what was known as The Oval. A road, which formed a circle, in the middle of which was a large open field. She was depressingly certain that she knew where they would be assembling every morning.

On the short ride back to the gate onto the new base, and then across to the old base, she stared out the window, her thoughts on the four months that had nearly flown past. Around her there were some halfhearted attempts at conversation, but most of the assembled Gifted people had only arrived a short time ago, and they were feeling the effects of jet lag. Or maybe, Julie thought with a small smile, we better start calling that Shuttle lag, since Imperial shuttles, with Marine guards, had arrived to transport every Gifted person that the Tiri had encountered on Earth over the years.

She wondered what Emily was doing; it had been nearly a month now since she had seen the Guardian. Every Guardian had been busy as the Tiri's plans were all activated. Earth had five years, give or take a year, before the Bak'ra scouts would reach the Solar System. The sensor sphere would protect them from notice until then, but not from a scout ship entering the system itself. No one knew why the Bak'ra had suddenly started searching this sector of the Galaxy, but there were plenty of theories. Lirik, the Traitor, was prominently featured in most of them, although Emily had confided in her that she feared that Lirik had not acted alone.

Shortly after the message had been picked up from the Ascirani System outpost, each of the ten Guardian ships, which had been based on Luna, lifted off. The nine living Guardians had escorted the lifeless hulk that had once been Lirik's ship self deeper into the system, after stripping it of everything useful. The hulk was pushed "down" the gravity well into the sun, incinerating long before it reached the surface. Julie had stood with Emily on the command deck of her ship self, amazed at the sheer size of a Guardian ship.

Each of them was a touch over five kilometers-- the Tiri had switched to measuring everything in the metric system and Julie was well on the way to following them-- and had two fusion generators. The UN, and most of the nations on Earth were still trying to figure out what they were going to do, but the Tiri had begun moving. They had not spent sixty-six years preparing for this day for nothing. Most of their efforts had gone into preparing an infrastructure to handle the massive build up which would be required to defend the system from the Bak'ra.

Now, four months later, things were starting to sort out. Most of the United Nations had put themselves behind the Tiri after detailed explanations and videos had been given to each country and broadcast in a brilliant move of propaganda of what the Bak'ra would do if they captured Earth. Despite the summer weather, Julie shivered slightly as she remembered learning what the Bak'ra did to those planets they captured. Bak'ra, it turned out, meant Meat Eater in Tiri. To the Bak'ra, other races were to be considered food sources, and were used as such. The worst was that the Bak'ra, sometime in their past, had started out as humans also. Probably seeded by these Ancients, as the Tiri called them. With all the genetic modifications they had done to themselves, Julie wouldn't ever mistake a Bak'ra for a human though.

Then had come the Regeneration centers, fully operational at every one of the ten Tiri bases, which had each begun above ground expansions the minute they could. Regeneration was given to those who were past adolescence, and halted the aging process, or at least, slowed it down a lot. With the support that the Tiri were able to get from that, the governments of most of the nations had no choice but to ally themselves with the Tiri. The Emperor was doing his best to push through charters which would be the first step towards a true world government, but that had a ways to go. Not everything was a glowing success though. The traditional trouble spots were still trouble spots, and no one had the manpower at the moment to do anything about them.

That, at least, was going to change soon enough. The Tiri had taken every abandoned cold war military base they could get their hands on and were transforming them into training facilities. The Imperial Navy, Marines, and Air Force had each begun training every regenerated able-bodied person they could get. Guardian Command was doing its level best, as the overall military command, to provide teachers, but there just weren't that many Tiri. As it was, the growth curve was going to be steep.

With a start she realized the van was pulling up outside of the three-story elegant red brick house that was her stop. With a grin to the Indian man next to her, she climbed out and headed up the wooden steps, holding open the door for her three housemates. Thank God they weren't going to be housed in barracks; she had enough of that when she was a Private.

The first to come up the steps was Mary Eilsen. The sixteen-year-old girl, whom Julie wasn't entirely certain had actually turned sixteen, came from Portland, Maine. The younger girl had hair of a multitude of different colors, and was a self-proclaimed Hacker. She had spent most of last night trying to explain the difference between a Hacker and a Cracker to Julie, who had just smiled and nodded as she listened, not truly understanding most of the terms that Mary had used. The girl had been very good at what she had been doing.

Next was Harry Cranston, the slightly famous NASCAR driver. The twenty-year-old black man had only just started driving two seasons ago, but had quickly made a name for himself in the predominantly white driver race division. The man was silent, but was as self-assured as they came, and he nodded his thanks to Julie before heading inside. His instincts as to how far he could push his car were near legend.

Following a few steps behind was Marcus Felps. The fifty five year old man was nearly to the cut off point for the program, but was clearly as determined as any to do what he could. He was an aeronautical engineer, and had been famous for being able to tweak airframes of fighters to the limit. He dipped his silver head in thanks to Julie and smiled as he passed her.

Each of them had the Gift, to varying degrees, and had been marked for quite a while by the Tiri, and had an eye kept on them. Following them inside, she was headed towards the stairs up to her room when Harry called to her from the kitchen.

"Hey! Julie, you got a present waiting for you back here."

"A what?"

Frowning she changed her course, and headed for the kitchen. Mary and Marcus were already there, and all three of her housemates were watching her with curiosity as she entered. There, already on the large wooden table, was a vase with a dozen red roses in it, and a card hanging off the side. Julie blinked in astonishment at the sight.

"Well? Who's it from?"

For a person who called herself an introvert, Mary was pretty interested in what was going on around her, and Julie shook her head with amusement as she picked up the envelope with her name written on it. Opening the flap, she smiled as she saw the signature below the simple message.

Good luck, you'll do great. Don't plan anything for your first break; I'll try to take you out to celebrate.

Emily

Realizing she was smiling like a fool, she looked up to find three identical looks of amused curiosity directed towards her. With a shake of her head, she stuffed the envelope in her pocket and grinned in answer.

"Its from a good friend. I'm going to go get squared away."

She was nearly to the stairs when she heard Mary's not so quiet whisper.

"I wish I had friends like that."

 

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"How bad is it?"

"Well, we should have the ship yards up and running in a week or so, but the Orbital Defense Station construction is behind schedule."

Emily scowled at the display port in front of her and shook her head. She and Darrien were on the command deck of her ship self. Before them, hanging against the backdrop of the red planet, Mars, was the slowly assembling pieces of what would shortly be the first of a series of orbital shipyards. With a glance towards where Angwar was busily trying to explain the duties of a Provost to a group of recruits, she turned back to the hulking Guardian and shook her head.

"We need those stations up and running. We don't have any leeway in the schedule, Darrien. Are you certain that we can't do better?"

"Emily, listen to me. Lorin knows what she is doing, and she simply doesn't have enough manpower. That and the production facilities at Luna aren't done. We thought we would have another few decades."

"How are we doing in the asteroid belt?"

Darrien handed her the pad that he had brought over with him, and she scanned the report with a bit of satisfaction.

"At least that's on schedule. How soon until we hit the thousand ton a day mark?"

"We should be up to that in a few weeks, as long as we get the manpower of course."

Emily gave him a bit of a grin at that and offered back the pad, which the large Guardian took back from her with a smile. Things were going to be close, but they had a shot. Thank the Maker that the Bak'ra were so methodical. They were systematically working across the sector, sending scout ships to every system. Which gave Earth five years, give or take a few months, before the first scout ship arrived. Now if they could only be ready by then, they might even stand a chance. Glancing over towards Darrien, she narrowed her eyes as she spotted the look on her old friend's face.

"Yes?"

"Well, I was just wondering, what's this I hear about you and a Gifted human?"

Emily sighed at that and headed for her rest room, just off of the command deck. Darrien was only a step or two behind her, and she made her way through the sliding hatch to where she had a good bottle of wine left. Uncorking it, she poured two glasses, and offered one to Darrien before taking a seat behind her desk. The large male Guardian took a seat across from her, grimacing as he took a sip of the red wine.

"After sixty years, I find that I have a preference for Vodka."

She laughed at that, shaking her head.

"That stuff will kill you, you know that right?"

He levered a beefy finger at her and shook his head.

"Oh no you don't. I've known you far too long for you to even try that on me, Emie. What's this about a Gifted human? Your brother mentioned a name last I spoke with him, Julie McGrath is it?"

Weston, I'll get you for this.

"She's part of the American Majestic, cousin to the Red Star people who kept giving you fits in Russia. She's at the training camp at PAFB now, with the others."

Darrien kept watching her with a knowing grin on that craggy face of his and she threw up her hands.

"Alright, fine. I sent her a dozen roses, for her first day of training. I hope they got there all right."

A smile crossed Darrien's face and he saluted her with his glass of wine.

"Good! Excellent news! The others will be happy to know that Weston was telling the truth."

At her groan, he chuckled.

"You know how impossible it is to keep a secret between Guardians, I don't even know why you're trying."

Emily hoped that Julie wasn't going to hear about the tendency for gossip between Guardians for a while. It was bad enough that she was looking forward to seeing the young woman again, without her finding out how much Emily liked her from others.

"Yeah, yeah, so how are things going with Guardian construction?"

Darrien was in charge of making certain that there would be Guardian ships ready for those Guardians who made it through the training program. Since they were expecting, based on the numbers from Tiri past, around a forty percent success rate, that meant that there would have to be around a hundred and twenty Guardian ships ready in just under two years time.

"Let me tell you, Emie, these humans are stubborn people. Tell them they can't do something and all they do is work harder on it. We'll do our best, but that's a lot of hulls. Thank the Maker that we made all of the shipyards in sections out in the asteroid belt. Now we just have to put them all together and get working. The factories are up and running, although we're behind schedule at Luna as you know. It's going to be tight, I won't tell you otherwise. What worries me is getting crews for all these ships, and for the ships which are going to form the battle groups."

A Guardian, at least now, never operated alone. He or she was the center of a battle group, much as the Carrier was the center of the modern US Navy battle groups. Without those ships to support her, and her supporting them, they had no chance against the superior numbers that the Bak'ra could throw at them. A typical battle group, at least in the past, consisted of two Battleships, four heavy cruisers, and up to eight light cruisers, along with a dozen or so specialized craft such as jammer ships, and point defense ships. Along with all the fighters, nearly a hundred and twenty, that meant that each battle group, at an absolute minimum, needed seventeen thousand personnel. That was the bare minimum to be fully combat ready with a battle group. Which didn't even take into account manning all of the massive orbital defense stations.

With a hundred and forty Guardian Groups, including the twenty Tiri Guardians, that meant that they needed almost two and a half million in crew. It was a staggering number of people to train, and finding them landed squarely at the doorstep of Guardian Command, of which Emily, as First Guardian, was the head of. Larin was in charge of finding personnel for the critical building and infrastructure system, and Emily didn't envy the other woman. Still, Emily had her own problems, and was going to have to find a lot of manpower. She had a good idea of where she was going to find them, but none of the nations on Earth were going to like it.

"You do realize that the only place where I'm going to find crews is the Armed Forces of Earth."

Darrien snorted a laugh at that, and drained his glass of wine as he stood.

"Good luck stripping them of men. Most of them are on the edge as it is about all this. Don't like feeling like they are second rate, and now you want to strip them of all their manpower. Nope, they won't like that at all."

Emily stood as well, and shrugged, tugging her uniform into place nearly unconsciously.

"Doesn't much matter if they like it or not, Darrien. We need those people, and even with all the volunteers, we just don't have enough time to train everyone. Where are you off to now?"

Walking with him she escorted him back through the command deck, then down the lift and towards one of the many flight decks. The constant presence of the Marine Honor Guard nearly forgotten by both Guardians, as they following them.

"Eh, I've got to get back to the asteroid belt. We're bringing three more refineries online, and I need to be there. You're off to Earth again?"

Emily couldn't help the small smile that crossed her face at the mention of her next destination.

"Yes, I'll be taking a look at the orbital defense stations, see how far we're behind, and see if I can get Larin to free up some more manpower to work on them. Not that I hold much hope in that happening, but I need to try. Then I have to participate in the summit that the Emperor is hosting."

Darrien turned towards her and smiled.

"Now for a lighter bit of news. Did you know that the Russians made a formal request to the Emperor to use a tractor beam to keep MIR aloft?"

Emily blinked in amazement at that. The fifteen-year-old station had never particularly impressed her, although she had to admit it was impressive with what technology the humans had been using.

"Did the Emperor point out to them that a tractor beam would crush that thing like a tin can?"

Darrien nodded with a grin.

"He was a bit more diplomatic than you, First Guardian."

Emily snorted in amusement as the lift came to a stop and they headed down the corridor.

"You do realize once we have the Orbital Defense Stations up and running, we'll have to explain that we'll be putting up a planetary shield?"

Both of them shared a grimace at that. Anything in low Earth orbit, such as satellites, would shatter against the shield once it was up. There were going to be a lot of unhappy corporations and nations once they found that little fact out.

"You know, it just occurred to me, if you're going to Earth, you could pay a visit to Julie."

Stopping outside of the primary shuttle hangar, she shook her head at the grin on the other Guardian's face.

"All right, yes, maybe I'll drop by and see Julie if I can manage it. But she's in training, I won't be able to do more than say hello. Although, I should see how the set up for training is coming along. Each of the Guardians are going to be cycling through doing stints as teachers, even you my old friend."

Even the news that he would have to teach, something that Darrien abhorred, didn't wipe the smile from his craggy face. Saluting her with his clenched fist over his heart he grinned to her.

"Honor, Wisdom, and Strength. Take care, First Guardian, I'll see you next time our paths cross."

Returning his salute and traditional words, she nodded with a sigh.

"It's going to be a long few years."

 

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"Angel Five, this is Angel One, target sighted."

Julie grinned and adjusted her course slightly. The cockpit around her was as close to form fitting as she had ever been into. The view screen ahead of her showed the darkness of space, and the occasional chunk of rock. Since the eight Tri-Wing fighters were approaching the asteroid belt, that was to be expected.

The helmet that she wore rubbed against her scalp, and she once again wished she hadn't had to cut off most of her hair. The bowl shaped haircut, with the shaved sides and back, was a necessary evil when one was using the neural impulse controls in the fighters and larger ships. The contact points were built right into the helmet, so at least she didn't have to put up with electrodes pressing against her temples.

Adjusting the small, but powerful, plasma engine, she angled towards the target that Angel Two had spotted. The eight ships were divided into two groups; the first group, Angels one through four, was to handle fighter suppression. While Angels five through eight, under Julie's command, were to take out the enemy base with the warp missiles each fighter had slung underneath them. So far, the mission was proceeding exactly according to plan, which made Julie keep her eyes peeled for trouble all the more.

They were five minutes into the asteroid field when all hell broke loose. Angel Two simply disintegrated as an explosion ripped the fragile fighter into shreds. Immediately the five remaining fighters went into evasive maneuvers, trying to climb back up and over in an inverted loop, as Julie, in Angel Five, and Ishoki, in Angel One, desperately tried to pull them out of the apparent ambush.

"Anyone see anything? What hit Angel two?"

Julie was desperately trying to scan the area, without lighting up her active scanners, as she skimmed one of the larger asteroid surfaces, her wingman staying close to her.

Harry, her wingman, came over the group's tac net, his voice as always level and calm.

"I think I caught a peek at a fighter deeper in the asteroid belt. Must have nailed him with a missile. I think we're clear.... Wait, I've got a warning light. Someone's lighting me up."

Julie's warning lights came on a second later, so she looped left, heading toward another large asteroid, Harry just a bit behind her. Over the tac net, the rest of the squad was in trouble. Bak'ra fighters were using the asteroids to close the range and negate the Tiri superiority in missiles, too close to energy weapon range. A plasma pulse cannon did nasty things when it was close enough. They had to open the range, which meant getting out of the blasted asteroid field. Bak'ra fighters were not crewed, at least not in the traditional sense as humans understood it. The Bak'ra adhered to a very rigid caste system, at least that's what the Tiri thought. Some of the Bak'ra were selected early on, and their brains were removed and linked directly to the fighters. In a close in dogfight, that gave the Bak'ra a large advantage in reaction speed, even with neural impulse control.

"Angels, open the range, get out of the asteroid belt."

Ishoki's fighter was gone, and she felt herself go cold with realization as she saw what was left of the eight-fighter force wind its way towards open space. The Bak'ra had specifically targeted Angels One through Four, the fighters that were not encumbered by the large warp missiles. The remaining four fighters would be sitting ducks in a dogfight with the heavy payload, and Julie made a snap decision.

"Angels, dump the Warp missiles, set the auto destruct and leave em behind."

Her sensors were showing the active power plants of a dozen fighters behind them, far more than had been expected, and she felt a bead of sweat roll down her forehead. Dumping the missiles, and making certain that they exploded to deny the Bak'ra captured technology, the four fighters streaked ahead. Tiri gravitic drives were better than their Bak'ra equivalents, and Julie heaved a sigh of relief as the lighter fighters began to accelerate away from their pursuers.

Harry had managed to get ahead of her, during the last loop back, and she was just about to snap at him to get back into formation, when something on her sensors caught her eye.

"Angel Six, I've got an odd reading from ahead of us. You getting anything?"

Only a few more asteroids to go and they would be out in the clear.

"Just sensor echoes, Angel Five."

Something was wrong, those didn't look like sensor echoes to her, and she spent a moment trying to get the sensors to get a better fix on whatever it was. In those few seconds, the four remaining fighters broke clear of the edge of the asteroid belt, and Julie's stomach clenched as she saw the looming shape ahead of them.

"Bak'ra ship! Back in the asteroid belt!"

It was far too late, and she knew it. The kilometer long ship ahead of them wasn't a ship of the line, at least not by Bak'ra standards, but it was one of their light frigates. Which they used almost exclusively for antifighter operations, and in addition to its own fighters, it carried quite a heavy array of point defenses. Which opened up a split second after Julie's desperate order, and blew the four remaining fighters away.

With a disgusted snarl, Julie pulled the helmet off her head, and waited for the top of the simulator to open. Wiping away the sweat that she felt drenched in after the last frantic minutes, she pulled herself up out of the snug cockpit as soon as the top lifted off, and scowled at the serene expression on Harry's face as he got out of his own simulator a few feet away from hers.

They were in their second month of training, and were spending nearly half of each day in the combat simulators now. Alternating between flying small attack fighters, and being in charge of the larger ships. Everything from a Guardian ship, to the small antimissile/antifighter ships, so that they knew the limits of each. The simulators were arrayed in one of the hangars near the flight line of the base. The hangar, she had been told, had once housed F-111 fighters, now it housed a couple dozen of the squat simulator tanks. Emerging from the other simulators was the rest of her ill-fated strike force, and she groaned as she hopped down onto the cement.

"Mary, this is not going to be a fun debriefing."

The young woman grinned in answer to Julie's statement and nodded. Taking their helmets with them, the eight Gifted headed outside, as another eight entered to go through the same trial.

Waving her housemates ahead of her, Julie peeled off as she spotted a familiar form, in an unfamiliar uniform, waiting for her by the van. She had to make a conscious effort to speak English, after only speaking Tiri the last few months. Besides having lie detector machines, which were at least three generations in advance of anything human kind had come up with yet, they also had actually managed to find a way to accelerate language learning with nocturnal learning. Which explained why all their personnel knew at least two languages, and didn't make her feel quite so stupid anymore.

"Why, Major Sims, this is a surprise."

Grinning, she waited until the others had loaded themselves into the van for the trip back to the classroom, before saying anything else. Her immediate superior in Majestic looked good in the dark green uniform of an Imperial Marine. The tall black man grinned in answer to her statement and waved towards a car parked nearby.

"I'll give you a lift back for your debriefing. Was in the area and thought I'd stop by and say hello."

Julie wasn't that surprised to see that the car was a non-descript Ford Taurus; seemed that old habits died hard for the Major. Strapping herself in, she waited until they had pulled away from the tarmac, and headed after the van before pointing towards his uniform.

"So? What's this all about?"

"I'm on loan to the Empire, well, at least that's what the Tiri are calling it."

He didn't seem upset at all about the loan, as he called it, so she looked at him puzzled.

"What do you mean?"

With a short bark of a laugh, the Major motioned around them.

"Julie, I know you've been stuck here for two months now, but the Tiri are taking every person they can get their hands on. The amount of manpower they need is staggering. They're stripping every Armed Force that they can get away with, and that's just for their military personnel. You should see how many people they need for those Orbital forts that they're starting to build."

Julie had heard something about personnel being loaned out, but she had been too busy, and far too tired after another day of the Sergeant Major's tender attentions to particularly care. With a shrug of sort of understanding, she leaned back in the leather chair and relaxed for the few minutes she had before her simulator run was taken apart.

"I see you're not wearing gloves anymore?"

Julie smiled and held up her hands, it almost felt natural not having the leather gloves on all the time now.

"Yup, have Emily to thank for that. Her lessons when we first met helped a lot. I'm even ahead of the others in that department at least."

The Major grinned, a bit proudly, at that.

"How are things going here?"

Julie sighed and shook her head, feeling a bit odd still about the short hair.

"We're down to two hundred or so Gifted, from a starting class of over three hundred. Most of those were the older ones who didn't make it through the first two weeks of hell. It wasn't as bad as boot camp, but it was darn close. We've been going sixteen hours a day for two months now, and I tell you, I can't wait for the first vacation.

Emily stopped by a few weeks ago, by the way. I didn't get a chance to do more than say hello to her, but she said that you were going to be heading up a project of some sort?"

The Major was nodding even before she finished the question, turning left to follow the van ahead of them as they headed towards the classrooms on the old base.

"That's part of why I'm here. I've got a meeting with Sergeant Major Torsson, see if he remembers anything else out of the ordinary about that missing intrasystem transport that started all this. Your friend Emily seems to think that Lirik might have had help."

That was not the best news she had heard all day, and she sat up a bit straighter in her seat. The smile fading from her face as she took in the Major's expression as he said that.

"What do you think?"

Pulling the car to a stop in front of the non descript cement building that was being used for teaching rooms, Sims watched as the seven Gifted ahead of them got out of the van and headed inside. They were tired, and knew that this was not going to be a good debriefing, but they were a lot more certain of themselves than they had been even two weeks ago. They were slowly learning to control and focus their gift. A lot would rest on their shoulders, and he hoped they were up for it.

"I think that we have one Shuttle too many, and it had to come from somewhere."

"What?"

Julie looked at him oddly at that, and he shook his head.

"Nothing. You better get a move on. Good luck, and say hello to Emily next time she just happens to swing by this way."

Julie shot her friend a look at that. She had grown up in a Don't ask, Don't tell' policy era, and the two of them had never discussed what she did on what little free time she had, or with who. Which of course meant nothing to an organization like Majestic. They probably had very complete files on every person she had ever dated.

"Take care, Major. The uniform looks good on you."

The Major watched her hurry from the car, to catch up with the other seven. Putting the car into gear a moment later, he headed out to find Sergeant Major Torsson. What he had told Julie was the truth. An inventory of Lirik's ship self had been done before it had been tossed into the sun. They had come up only one shuttle short. Which raised the question, where had the other shuttle come from? They could account for the one at the communications array in Australia, but not for the one that had been destroyed in Quebec.

If there was another traitor, it was now Major Sims' job to find out who, and to stop him or her before they caused more damage.

 

----------------------------

 

 

Chapter Thirteen

Katya had discovered that she liked Imperial power armor. A lot. The feeling of invincibility that the large suit gave a person was close to what she imagined it might feel if a person were able to strap on a tank like a second skin.

With a feral grin, she raised her right arm and powered up the L5-Dart Gatling Cannon. Toggling the magazine selector to the explosive tipped darts, she aimed downrange. With a soft whirring sound, the cannon began rotating. The heads up display gave her a clear view of what she was aiming at, even though it was dark and there was smoke. Depressing the triggering stud located at the tip of her right index finger, she watched as the cannon fired. The L5-Dart Gatling Cannon fired over a hundred and forty rounds a minute. The foot thick steel target a kilometer away was reduced to bits of shrapnel in under ten seconds.

Switching off the gatling cannon she activated her com system and spoke in Tiri.

"What next, comrades?"

The range officer, in a bunker a hundred meters behind her, came over the net. Also speaking Tiri, although with a much heavier accent, he was still feeling his way into his new uniform, so to speak.

"Comrade Captain, good shooting. Plasma gun next, followed by grenades."

Smiling she lowered the six foot long rifle which had been in the inactive straight up position over the suit's right shoulder. Taking aim down range, she activated the plasma gun, waiting the ten seconds for it to complete its power up sequence. Eleven seconds after lowering it she blew a perfect half-meter diameter hole in a piece of battle steel a kilometer and a half downrange.

God, she loved this armor.

Next came the grenades, mounted in unobtrusive tubes along the back of the armor. Each one was more of a guided missile than what she would consider a grenade. She launched all ten of them, after designating the target two kilometers away with the laser range finder. The solid concrete bunker disintegrated in a very satisfying explosion of dust and debris.

Turning around with a low whirr of servos, she raised the plasma gun to the inactive position. Sending a mental command, she waited until the front of the powered armor had unsealed and raised up before squirming her way out of it. It was a tight fit, and each one had to be custom fitted to its assigned user. Jumping lightly down to the hard packed dirt ground, she shook out her now considerably shorter spiky hair. It had either been spiky, or a bowl cut, and she preferred it like this. The back of her head had to be clear for the neural impulse sensors to sense which way she wanted to move the armor. It took a while to learn, but you got used to that.

Grinning, she headed towards the men who were emerging from the bunker. The first Multi-National Heavy Armor Battalion was being formed here, in southern Russia. A company of which was going to be under her command. When they managed to assemble all of the troops that was. For now, they were training whoever they could get. Officially, that was the reason that Weston was here, to see the progress. Unofficially, Katya grinned, she was looking forward to dinner.

She met Weston and his six-strong Honor Guard halfway between the bunker and the starting point of the range.

"What do you think?"

"I think, God, that I should be very scared giving you such powerful weapons to use."

Weston grinned, and his eyes sparkled with mischief. Returning his grin, Katya followed him as they headed towards where the rest of the under strength battalion was being fitted with their armor.

"How is the American doing by the way? Last I heard from her she was on her way to that training center they set up."

She really did like Julie, even if she did tend to talk a lot. Once they had sorted out which Windstar they were interested in, of course. That had been an interesting conversation, and Katya grinned at the embarrassed expression on the American's face when she had asked her point blank which Windstar she liked.

Katya didn't like losing, and she wasn't going to let go of this one.

"Doing well, last I heard from Emie. How are things here?"

Katya snorted and motioned towards the troops who were slowly beginning to get used to the neural control mechanisms.

"We're forty percent under strength. Other than that, we have enough powered armor, barely."

Weston shook his head, with a grimace.

"I know, but we're strapped for manpower at the moment, and you know how long it takes to make these things. You ready to go get some food?"

Enough business for one day, she had the weekend off now, and dinner sounded perfect. All she had to do was store away the suit and she was set.

"Oh yes."

 

-----------------------------

 

Emily relaxed, lounging in the deck chair in the humid August weather. Her four keepers were nearby, keeping an eye on the activity around her. Emily couldn't care less, she had a break, and Julie had five days off, life was good. Three months had passed since the start of Guardian training, and the recruits were getting a five-day rest. Angwar and North Star's chief medical officer, Dr. Miato, had nearly tossed her into the shuttle, with a stern warning to enjoy herself and rest. She had to admit she was feeling the strain of the last few months, and the constant headaches they had entailed.

The report from Major Sims, which she had gotten yesterday morning, had not helped. Stretching out her legs, she watched as a new group of recruits stood at attention out on The Oval in front of her, just beginning their first three months. There were only a hundred of them this time, which meant less than fifty, would pass. The report had been a detailed inventory of all Tiri equipment, which had been brought with them from the Evacuation, and made while here. The results had not been encouraging. One shuttle, one assault drop ship, six suits of power armor, two cases of dart pistols and rifles, and two cases of unpowered armor were found to be missing. The shuttle almost definitely was the one that had been destroyed in Quebec, but the rest of the equipment was unaccounted for. None of Lirik's hired soldiers had been outfitted with Tiri equipment, which was causing quite a few people some restless nights. All of the bases had been put on alert, along with the training facilities and construction sites. So far there hadn't even been any signs of sabotage, but Emily couldn't shake the feeling that there was at least one more traitor.

The slowly growing frown was banished from her face as she saw the vans enter the old base and head towards the buildings. There were fewer of those vans than there had been; a hundred and ten of the trainees had been cut from the program so far. None of Emily's housemates had been cut yet, if she remembered correctly from the last message that she had gotten.

I hope she knows what she wants to do, because I don't have a clue. How do you ask someone that you haven't even kissed yet if they would like to go find a nice hotel, and stay indoors for five days? Bad thoughts, bad Emie, she scolded herself and got a firm handle on her libido as the door to the van slid open and Julie, followed by her three housemates, stepped out. The gray uniform fit her quite nicely, Emily noticed, and she could no more stop the welcoming smile that spread across her face, than she could stop breathing.

Julie bounded up the stairs onto the porch, and the two of them stood frozen, studying each other. It wasn't until the older of the housemates; Felps was his last name Emily dimly remembered from scanning his file, stood forward and saluted.

"First Guardian."

That broke the silence and Emily returned the salute, still smiling like an idiot.

"Guardian Trainees."

The other two, a former racecar driver and a hacker, if she remembered correctly, saluted as well.

"I hope you all are going to enjoy your vacation?"

Even the stoic-faced NASCAR driver smiled slightly in answer to her question and the hacker, who looked a bit young for sixteen, was practically jumping up and down.

"Yes Ma'am, I reckon we will."

That was from the older one, who looked older than she did. It was impressive that he had lasted this long into the training. If he survived the next section, he would probably make it as a Guardian.

Julie dashed inside, grabbed an already packed duffle bag, came out and gave her surprised fellow trainees a hug each. With a grin, she looked back at Emily, mimicking the surprised expression on the Guardian's face.

"What? I packed this morning. Can we go now?"

With an amused shake of her head, Emily followed after Julie, her Honor Guard a few steps behind her. Both of them missed Mary holding out a hand and grinning victoriously.

"Told you. I win, pay up."

Grumbling, the two men forked over the bet money. The lost bet was quickly forgotten; they had five days off, and packing to do. Mary spared one last grin towards the departing two, and then followed the two men into the house. She had plans in Portland, and she was going to be damned if she was going to be late.

"So where are we going, Guardian? You were surprisingly tight lipped when I asked you last week."

Emily only grinned in answer, as she held open the door for Julie to get into the borrowed Humvee. Two of the Marines piled into the back, and the other two had their own Humvee to play with.

"It's a surprise, you wouldn't want me to ruin the surprise, would you?"

Emily caught her shrug out of the corner of her eye, as she drove across to the new base, and through the guard post after showing her identification. She headed towards the flight line, and grinned at the speculative look that was on Julie's face. After a moments thought the redhead shrugged once more and leaned back in her seat.

"I guess I'm going to have to trust you, Emie."

"Guess so."

Grinning in anticipation, Emily pulled up next to a flight-prepped shuttle.

 

-------------------------

 

"So this is Mars Base? Not bad at all, I must say, you people know how to build bases, Emie."

Her answer was a low laugh behind her, and Julie took a moment to just savor the feeling of being free for an entire five, well four and a half days now. They were in one of the many lifts that ran along the side of the huge dome structure that made up most of Mars Base One. Mars Base was the home of the several hundred thousand Tiri civilians who had managed to survive the evacuation. It was also the official place of residence for the Emperor, at least it had been.

"I can't believe you people decided to build a dome, underground."

Julie shook her head as she watched the sprawling city below her slowly grow closer. The hangar bays were located closer to the surface, and many large lifts operated along the side of, and center, of the dome. The several kilometers in diameter dome, made of some sort of transparent steel, enclosed an entire city as far as Julie could tell.

They had taken the shuttle back up to orbit, and docked with the North Star. Once onboard of Emily's ship self, she had warp gated, with a thousand or so Marine recruits onboard, destined for training on Mars. The recruits were still being ferried to the surface of the red planet, but Emily had pulled rank and the two of them had been on the first shuttle heading for the northern pole of the planet.

"This is quite a view, Emie."

The transparent wall of the tube made for an excellent view of the city as they descended. With a bit of a frown, she lifted a foot, and then a hand, before looking over her shoulder towards the smirking Guardian.

"Why am I getting heavier?"

"Hard to live on a planet that has forty percent the gravity that you're used to for long periods of time."

Julie narrowed her eyes at the still smirking Guardian and turned around completely.

"Oh, and how did you manage this?"

If anything, the smirk grew larger. Julie took a menacing step forward, and Emily held up both hands in surrender, laughing.

"We have a small gravitic drive under the city, same thing with Luna. It's the only way to generate a strong enough local gravity."

Julie raised an eyebrow at that, and turned back to watch the view. Shaking her head as she looked at the reflection in the transparent section ahead of her, and saw the smirk still on Emily's face.

"All right, Guardian, its impressive, I'll give you that."

It was impressive. As the Russians, and the Americans had learned, prolonged exposure to weightlessness did bad things to the body. Muscle atrophy and accelerated osteoporosis, among other things. The Tiri got around that problem with the drive systems they used in their larger vessels. Where the shuttles, fighters, and scout ships used antigravity drives, which only functioned three or so kilometers above the surface, the capital ships utilized Gravitic drive systems for normal space propulsion. Besides creating artificial gravity fields inside of the ship, the huge drive systems were used to "pull" and "push" the ship through space. Unlike the smaller craft, which had to use plasma engines, which burned a lot of fuel getting anywhere quickly, the gravitic drive system simply needed energy. Lots and lots of energy. The Tiri had even figured out how to use the same gravity bands formed by the drive system to be used as a sort of shielding against hostile attacks.

To install one under the base must have taken a lot of doing, and meant that there was nothing less than a fusion power plant under the base as well.

A warm body pressed up against her back and Julie watched as Emily lowered her head to whisper.

"Glad you approve of it. Wait until you see where we're staying."

Only the presence of the four armed Marines stopped her from doing what she wanted to do at the moment.

"You do know its bad to tease, right, Emie?"

She growled quietly in answer to the taller woman's whisper. Emie chuckled, a sound which reminded Julie of a low purr.

"Where are we staying, by the way?"

Emily shook her head, and stepped back, crossing her arms over her chest.

"That's part of the surprise. I can't ruin it for you, now can I?"

Julie spared her a dark look before once more looking out of the side of the lift. They were just a few stories above ground level now, and it took only a few seconds longer for the lift to reach what she supposed she should call the street level. There was an occasional vehicle, which she assumed would be powered by the hydrogen fuel cells that the Tiri seemed so taken with, but most of the traffic was on foot. There were trees everywhere, most of them species that Julie had never seen before. There was at least a park every other block, and flowerboxes almost everywhere she looked.

Emily most have noticed where she was looking, because she led her past a small crowd of workers waiting to go up in the left they had come down in, and out onto the street. The four Marines deploying into two behind, and two in front of them.

"We had to design the city assuming that the civilians here would not be able to leave for at least a century. This took a quarter of a century to build, and that was just for the dome. Parts of the city are still being completed. Here, this is us."

One of the silent cars had pulled up, and the two of them got in, along with the four guards. The driver, another Marine, smiled in welcome to Emie, as he pulled away from the curb, heading towards the center of the dome. At least they didn't drive on the wrong side of the road.

"Lady Windstar, glad to see you again. Am I taking you to the Gardens?"

"Good to see you again, Tomie, and yes, we're going to the Gardens."

Julie eyed Emie expectantly for something more, but the Guardian simply slouched down a bit in her seat and grinned. Julie didn't know how, or when, but she was going to get Emily for this, somehow. Eight hours of traveling, and the stubborn Guardian had refused to tell her where they were going. And now that they were here, she wasn't saying anything about where they were going to be staying. Julie's curiosity was starting to drive her insane.

Five minutes later they were pulling up to what appeared to be a series of buildings, which had been carved from the rock at the side of the chamber. It reminded Julie of the pictures that she had seen of native American dwellings in the southern U.S. Except that these were definitely in use, and there were hundred of terraces, each covered in flowering plants and trees of all shapes and kinds. Stepping from the car and dragging her duffel along with her, she could only look up in amazement. There were twelve levels, and each one had a terrace of flowers, it almost looked like the fabled hanging gardens might have.

"These are all the plants that we managed to bring with us from Tiri Prime. A little bit of home."

Julie turned towards her friend at the sad note in her voice, but Emily just waved the remark away and forced a smile.

"Come on, we're expected, better go make certain that our rooms are ready."

Someday soon, Emie, you and I are going to talk about that pain I see in your eyes, and about the two of us. Maybe I should take a note from Lirik and drug you, seems to be the best way to get you Windstars to talk. Julie slung her duffel bag over her shoulder and followed Emie inside, grinning as she remembered the last time she had seen God. The Russian had been pissed beyond words because Weston was being, as she put it, too gentlemanly. Apparently God wanted something other than polite talks with Lord Windstar. Taking a look at Emily's backside as they entered the rock walled hotel, Julie knew exactly how Katya felt. At least God got a kiss.

 

---------------------------

 

"Watch it, you idiot."

The voice hissed in annoyance at the loud thud, and the two men froze as they waited to see if they had been heard. After a minute of tense waiting, they both began sliding through the maze of pipes and conduits that lay underneath the city.

"You sure this is the way?"

"Of course I'm sure, you dimwit."

More shuffling and careful movements in the near darkness.

"Here?"

"Here."

There was the sound as if a match had been lit, and one of the men pressed the laser cutter against the base of the metal bulkhead in front of them. Forty minutes of cutting later and they were through.

"Ouch!"

"Shut up."

The first voice hissed almost instantly.

"I cut my finger."

The second voice sounded a bit put out by that.

"I don't care, just be quiet."

Muttering something about no respect, the second voice was quiet as they crawled into the shut down coolant pipe and slowly began the long trip towards their objective.

"Hey, how long until this thing's full again?"

"We got plenty of time, another hour or so before they pressurize it again. Lots of time to go down, and get back."

Both of them slid down the last forty feet of pipe, bracing themselves at the end. From there it was a twenty feet jump across to the platform that they needed to get to. Both of them made the jump easily.

"Here, hook into this console. I'll place the explosives."

Both of the packs were attached to the conduits that ran nearby, while a small computer was connected underneath the control console.

"All set?"

"Yeah, lets go."

Both of them froze as a low rumbling sound came from the coolant pipe. The second turned towards the first one and hissed.

"I thought you said we had plenty of time!"

"They must have finished the repairs early. No big deal."

"What? No big deal? How are we getting out of here?"

"Trust me, I know how to get out of here. This way... um, this way."

With a bit of uncertainty the two of them headed into the maze of corridors and conduits.

 

--------------------------------

 

The rooms were fantastic. They were cut into the rock, and Emily had gotten them a pair of adjoining rooms. Each room had a separate bathroom, along with a small food preparation area, a living room and a bedroom with what looked to be a queen sized bed. Julie smiled as she peeked into the bathroom and saw the large whirlpool tub that was sunken into the floor. Oh, I can't wait to use that, and the bed looks good too. Everything paled, however, when she spotted the sliding doors, leading out of her bedroom and the garden that lay beyond.

Leaving her duffel bag where she had dropped it, the redhead stepped outside and smiled. There were three carved stone steps leading down into one of the garden terraces which she had spotted from outside. The artificial sunlight, shining from huge lights at the top of the dome, was just starting to be dimmed, and the air carried a scent that almost reminded her of honeysuckle. Sweet, but not as cloying.

Walking forward, she admired the trestles, which formed archways over the winding pathways. All of them were covered with blooming flowers, and the air was scented with flowers that she doubted any botanist could put a name to. Stopping by one particularly beautiful blooming vine, she admired the flower that almost looked like an orchid. The dark red base of the floor tapered off into a five slender purple tips.

"It's called a Kara Flower."

Julie straightened a bit and looked back towards where she had come. The garden terrace was shared by all of the rooms on this level, it seemed. Emily closed the sliding door behind her and smiled as she walked down the three steps and then down the path towards her.

"The root is used to make this horrible drink. I've been told that it's an acquired taste, but I'm not to sure about that."

"It looks nice, but it doesn't have any smell."

"It does earlier, when the flower just blooms."

The lights were dimming slowly, and it was what Julie would have called dusk on Earth, even though the light was still coming from the top of the dome. Still smiling, Emily came to a stop just in front of her.

"You're still in uniform."

Julie had meant to sound accusing, but her smile ruined the effect, and it came out sounding more like pouting. Reaching out, Emily took a hold of Julie's hand and shook her head with a sigh.

"One last bit of business before we have our vacation. I have to do a readiness tour of the city and its emergency shelters."

"Where are your four keepers?"

Julie was finding it hard to stay focused as she raised their joined hands, admiring the long slender fingers of her taller friend.

"In the room. I said I wanted to have a moment alone with you."

Swallowing, Julie raised her eyes from studying Emily's fingers, to her friend's face. They had both stepped towards each other, she dimly realized, until they were just barely touching. With fascination she watched as Emie licked her lips, tilting her face upwards, she slid her free left hand up to clasp Emily's shoulder.

"Only a moment?"

Emily murmured something in response, but Julie wasn't paying attention by then. Their lips were so close together that she could feel the Guardian's breath on her face. Only a fraction of an inch separated their lips, and her eyes closed of their own accord as both of them leaned towards one another, their lips just brushing one another's.

"Emie!"

Emily jerked backwards in surprise, and Julie nearly stumbled as her eyes flew open to spot the man coming down the steps towards them. Behind him she could see the four Marines, who didn't look too happy at the moment.

"Birk, good to see you again."

Birk, it seemed, didn't notice, or pretended not to notice, the annoyed tone in Emily's voice, and the short man came to a stop just a few feet away. Grinning with excitement, he bounced on the balls of his feet.

"So good to see you again, and your friend. I have such wonderful new improvements to show you! Come on, we have to hurry if we're going to get through it before it gets too late."

With a broad smile, the man whirled and bounded back up the stairs, towards the Marines.

Emily sighed and turned an apologetic look towards Julie, who suspected she looked a bit stunned from the sheer force of bubbling personality that the little man had exuded.

"That was Birk, head Imperial Engineer on R&D. I'm sorry, we have a tour to take with him, and then we're done."

Muttering under her breath, Julie followed Emily towards the bedroom and the annoying cheerful man.

"I'm going to kill someone."

 

-----------------------------

 

Julie was fuming, Emily knew that because her young friend had barely muttered four words since they had left the Gardens and taken the lift towards the city's command center. Emily didn't blame her at all. If they got interrupted one more time, she was going to have to help Julie hurt someone. One simple kiss, was that too much to ask? Just enough time alone with her to see if those lips were as soft and welcoming as they looked? Apparently it was.

The command center was located only a short distance away from the Imperial Palace, a place that Emily had no intention of taking Julie to if she could avoid it. After over millennia, Imperial costumes were set in rock, and the welcoming home ceremony was not one that Emily wanted to waste time sitting through again. Weston was much better at all that stuff, and, not for the first time, she was devoutly glad that her brother was the older sibling.

From the bustling command center, which not only coordinated the maintenance of the city's power, gravity, and life support systems, but also all of the activity on Mars, they headed deeper underground. The first stop had been the engineering center for the city, located a hundred meters of solid bedrock below the command center. From they're both of the linked fusion power plants and the gravitic drive, along with the city's life support systems were kept an eye on directly, and any necessary repair teams sent.

Birk explained that there had been a minor incident earlier, a malfunction in one of the coolant systems for the secondary reactor. The entire secondary coolant system had been shut down while the problem had been fixed. Birk had been quick to point out the very quick response time, due to the fact that the malfunction had been traced very quickly back to a valve that had somehow fused shut.

From the ever swirling chaos of engineering, which was training new recruits for similar duties in the fleet and onboard the massive Orbital Defense Forts around Earth that were being built, Birk took them deeper into the maze of conduits and corridors. The city held several times the population of even a Guardian-Class ship. That, coupled with the power requirements for a gravitic drive, meant that it needed a huge amount of power, and life support. Spread throughout the solid bedrock was emergency shelters, in which every citizen of the city had a place reserved, in case of attack.

The result was a near maze of service corridors, conduits and piping. Emily was glad Birk knew the area, because she hadn't had time to take a look at any schematics and was pretty well lost by the end of the first hour of their tour. The three of them were doing a wide circuit tour of some of the older and newer emergency shelters along with the gravitic drive system, which Emily thought that Julie should see.

Thankfully, by that time, Julie didn't seem to be likely to strangle Birk, even though he had a very enthusiastic way of explaining equipment and modifications, which had been made.

The relatively portly short man was renowned for his sheer force of personality and his exuberance when it came to new technology that he approved of. People who brought him technology that he did not approve of were lucky if all they got was a severe lecture, those who weren't lucky sometimes had the new technology in question thrown at them.

"Here, you see this? These power couplings are two percent more efficient than the ones in your ship self, Emie. I've already made certain that they'll be in all the new Guardian ships. Hopefully, we'll have time to do a retrofitting of you old Guardians. Now, as I was saying, this is the.."

"Did you hear that?"

Julie's words cut off the portly man just before he was about to explain another small improvement. They were near the gravitic drive, and at an intersection between two corridors, next to an access panel, which Birk was proudly showing off.

The Marine Honor Guard, thankfully, had been left behind at the command center. It was almost a hundred degrees Fahrenheit down here, even with the air circulation systems and the coolant. The Marines would have been roasting alive in their unpowered armor and full combat load. Since this was a secure area, Emily had gladly told them to stay where they were and wait for her to finish her tour with the engineer. Even in the light Guardian uniform, she was uncomfortably hot. Watching the way that a fine sheen of perspiration covered what she could see of Julie's skin didn't help matters at all.

Frowning, she was just about to ask what it was that Julie had heard, when she heard it. Down the corridor to their right, there came a soft hissing sound that did not fit in with any of the other sounds that plagued this area.

"Sounds like a laser cutter."

Birk nodded in agreement with Emily, and started down that corridor.

"Must be one of our maintenance teams. We're always having to do some work down here."

Emily and Julie both followed after him, paying more attention to one another than to the rambling conversation that Birk was having with himself, apparently.

Whispering, Julie nodded towards the waddling man ahead of them.

"Is he always like this?"

Emily grinned and nodded, casting a fond look towards the wide back ahead of them.

"Oh yes. Always has been. He's brilliant though, wouldn't want anyone else designing the new Guardian ships."

"He seems a bit..."

Julie did her best to search for a word, waving her hands as she tried to come up with one that wasn't too insulting. Emily laughed as quietly as she could and nodded.

"Out of it? He's pretty much always in his own little world."

"That fills me with lots of confidence."

Emily chuckled at the dry tone of her friend and had a nearly over powering urge to grab a hold of her and hold her tight. She was just about to reach over and take Julie's hand and see if she could get them to fall a bit further behind Birk, when they emerged into one of the corridor intersections.

"Hey, who are you two?"

Birk's question got both Emily and Julie's attention, and they both took a step forward to see whom the engineer was talking to. Two men were kneeling by a large conduit just a few feet down the right hand corridor. Both were wearing black skin suits, and had a tool kit open between them. Both of them looked similar enough to be brothers, blond, short-cropped hair, blue eyes, and roughly handsome. The smaller of the two, who was still five ten, had a laser torch in his hand and was cutting a roughly circular hole into the side of the conduit, which ran upwards into the ceiling.

The two of them looked towards Birk, and then the two behind him, their eyes settling upon the black uniform of a full Guardian, and the gray of a Guardian in training. The taller one slowly stood up, and Emily tensed. Something about the way he was moving was not right. Slowly, she edged her hand towards the side arm strapped to her belt.

"We are fixing a problem."

Birk snorted and stepped forward, oblivious to the tension in the corridor.

"Problem? What problem? I wasn't told of any problem!"

Julie had taken a half step forward as well, and Emily was praying that Birk would take a step to the side. Something was wrong here. Just as she began moving forward, she saw the shorter one move. His hand was a blur of movement, and she had never seen someone move that fast.

She had a split second to act, and her subconscious chose her actions for her. With one hand she grabbed the dart pistol, drawing it as she hurled herself sideways into Julie, sending them both down just as the shorter man opened fire with the pistol in his hand.

Thankfully, the rounds were not explosive, or Birk would have died instantly. As it was, the armor-piercing round went straight through his left arm, and slammed him around, then down to the ground. The other rounds missed Emily and Julie by a hair, as the two fell. Emily held down the trigger as they hit the floor, but her aim was skewed by the hit, and her shots went wide. Her rounds, however, were explosive tipped. All three of the darts struck the right hand wall, and exploded on impact. Two of them hit the wall itself, and didn't do much damage. The third hit a coolant conduit and punctured it. Immediately the pressurized liquid inside exploded outwards, turning to vapor as it did.

With a curse, the two men disappeared down the corridor, plunging through the escaping gases.

"You ok?"

Emily shouted over the rush of escaping gas, as she scrambled over towards Birk and hauled him to his feet. Julie was a split second behind her, and both of them dragged the heavy man away from the gas that was rapidly filling the corridor. The temperature was dropping as well, as the coolant did exactly what it was supposed to.

"His arm's shredded, I can't stop the bleeding!"

Julie yelled in answer to Emie's previous question, and yanked the belt off her pants, wrapping it about the man's shattered arm just below the shoulder and using it to form a tourniquet. The air was getting thick with the gas, and both Emily and Julie were coughing from the fumes.

"We have to get out of here! The gas is poisonous!"

"Figures."

Birk was unconscious from the shock, which was a good thing considering that Emily could see bone fragments from the mangled mess that was his upper arm. Quickly, Emily and Julie carried the wounded man to the end of the corridor, just as the containment system sealed off the corridor. Gasping for air, the two of them kept moving.

"We have to get help for Birk, there's a communication station just up here that we passed. Our com units aren't going to work this close to the reactors."

Julie nodded, not wasting breath in cursing as they tried to hurry. A blaring klaxon alarm had just activated, and it made talking almost impossible. The bleeding had slowed, but Birk was still losing blood, and they left a crimson trail behind them as they hurried.

"It should be right here...."

Turning a corner, the two of them stopped in shock as they spotted the emergency blast door that had sealed off the corridor ahead of them. With a curse, Emily turned them around, and headed back down the corridor, hoping to find another way.

"The blast doors are part of the containment system for the coolant. Something else is going on."

She was yelling to be heard over the klaxon. Stumbling past the sealed off corridor with the coolant, the two of them headed deeper into the bowels of the station. Crossing over a bridge, Julie risked a glimpse over the side, and saw nothing but darkness a long way down. Reaching the other side, Emily pointed towards what looked to be an interface console.

Julie laid Birk down and stripped her vest off, using it to prop under the unconscious man's head. Emily frowned as she saw that the console was already active. Tapping in a series of commands, she managed to shut down the klaxons, but that was the least of their problems. The sudden silence was almost deafening.

"Julie, I think they sabotaged the fusion core somehow. The blast doors were activated, and sealed off this entire area, along with communications. I think they put in some sort of virus. I'll try and clean the system."

Bracing her hands on top of the console, she closed her eyes in preparation for joining with the computer net, as Julie had done back in Australia.

"Emie..."

Julie's tone of voice caused her to pause, and open her eyes. Looking down towards where her friend was kneeling, she saw the concern in those green eyes.

"What?"

Silently Julie pointed towards what looked to be a pack stuffed under the console that Emily was standing at. A small red light was blinking on the front of it, and Emily froze. Her mouth going dry as she recognized the shape.

"It's a sensor mine. I'm in its motion field, if I move it'll detonate."

"How long do we have with the fusion core?"

Julie made certain to keep out of in front of the console, not sure what the range was on that thing. Emily very slowly turned her head back to look at the console, even though she was pretty sure that the mine was only situated so that her legs were in its motion sensors field of view.

"Looks like a core overload, maybe five minutes."

"Toss me your Dart gun."

At Emily's surprised look, Julie pointed back the way they had just come.

"We're not alone down here. I'll try to keep them occupied while you get rid of that virus and open those blast doors to get help down here. Don't argue, it's the only way."

Julie met Emily's eyes with a bit of defiance, and the Guardian reluctantly nodded. Moving just as slow as she had before, she moved her hand, making certain it was above the lip of the console, and then tossed the Dart pistol over to Julie. Green eyes met pale blue, and Emily felt her heart constrict at the thought of what Julie was going to do.

"Julie..."

She couldn't voice the words, not like this, but the redhead smiled suddenly, despite the situation and stood up.

"I know, Guardian. Be careful, and hurry. I'll lead them away from you."

And then she was gone, heading back down the corridor. Emily's last glimpse of her was when she crossed the bridge, a grim determined look on her face, and the pistol clasped firmly in both hands.

 

To be continued...


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