Disclaimer: This is the sequel to another story, called North Star. It's probably a very good idea to read that one first, or this might not make any sense at all. Heck, it may not even make sense if you've read that first! It has romantic situations between two women. If that disturbs you, there are lots of other stories out there.
A very large thank you to all of you who sent me feed back on North Star. You all helped inspire the muse on this one. Sorry it took so long to get this started, but I had some problems with the beginning (restarted it three times) and real life got in the way for a while. Hope you all enjoy the ride! Comments and constructive criticism are very welcome at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Three hundred light years from Earth, in a system the Tiri called Outlander, for it had once been the farthest any Tiri vessel had ever traveled outwards from the Galactic Core of the spiral galaxy, space rippled. The solar system was not much to look at, a fairly average yellow sun, midway through its expected lifetime. At the end of which it would collapse in on itself as it exhausted it's fuel and gravity took over. Four planets, two rocky balls far too close to the sun to hold any liquid water, and further out, two massive gas giants, several times the size of the planet known to humans as Jupiter. Past them, beyond the limit for warp gate drives, space rippled and was torn apart as dozens, and then hundreds, of artificial wormholes were formed.
The ships which slid out of the warp gates looked almost organic; as if they had been grown instead of built. They shook themselves out, cautiously, methodically, each ship sliding into preordained positions. Smaller ships swam about the massive four-kilometer long ships which had opened the warp gates. More and more gates opened, and before long, the entire Bak'ra fleet had finished transition.
Lortal watched it impassively, noting here and there where ships made minute errors, or where a warp gate opened a bit closer to the gathering fleet than it should have. A warp gate was not something one wanted opening on top of one's ship. A servant clone walked past him, careful not to disturb the Gallor-Tal as it passed him. The small bio-engineered creature had once, long ago he supposed, been Bak'ra. They were now set in their own caste, as things should be, Lortal reflected. Ignoring the hulking forms of his personal guards, also engineered, he turned towards his second.
"No, my Lord."
Thuva bowed carefully to her Lord, casting down her eyes, both artificial and real, as she stood to avoid looking at his optical scanner as was only proper. Someday she would be a Gallor as well, but she was young still, and would learn by his example.
"Tell Infiti that if he does not learn to control his ship's brain better, and opens a gate that close to us again, I shall feast on him come supper."
"Yes, my Lord."
It was a great dishonor to a clan to have had a member so offend a Gallor that they were eaten at supper instead of a Herd member. Gallor-Tal was becoming impatient with how long it was taking them to trace the signal that had been sent. Already they had gone further than expected and sensors had yet to detect the Tiri presence. Keeping her own optical scanner, far less elaborate than her Lord's, although that too would change with time, downcast, she spoke.
"We have two Herd members to feast upon this evening. The Herd master says that they are both Tiri, and we shall feast well upon them."
Gallor-Tal Lortal felt his lips pull back in a slow smile at that. Good; Tiri tasted much better than nearly any other species that they had so far captured, at least to him. He knew that some of the others complained that the meat was too bland, but he found that the brain in particular held very subtle flavors.
"Good, tell the others we shall leave after a scan for life is completed and a report sent back to the home fleet. Before that, though, we shall eat."
"I can't do it."
"Of course you can. Just clear your mind and rest for a few minutes, then we'll try again."
Julie McGrath let herself collapse back into the conforming acceleration couch, wiping at the sweat that coated her face. They had been at this for three hours now, and the redhead's temper was reaching its limit. The tall, lanky form strapped down in a crash seat just a few feet away from her smiled, much to her annoyance.
"How long does this usually take to learn?"
First Guardian Lady Emily Burtin Windstar, Emie to her friends, smiled a bit wider at what Julie suspected was the aggrieved tone in her voice.
"Learning how to open your first Warp Gate is not an easy thing."
Julie blew a loose lock of hair out of her face and turned to glare at Emie. Resisting the always-present temptation to reach out and touch that beautiful body.
"You didn't answer me, how long did it take you to learn how to open your first one?"
Unbuckling the safety harness that had kept her strapped down to the acceleration couch while her ship self's gravitic drives were offline, Julie sat upright and wiped at the sweat on her face. The link, which bonds any Guardian to their ship self, allowed her to sense the condition of the Southern Cross's systems.
"Eight hours, but that was nearly a record."
Not sure if she wanted to think about trying to focus the Warp Gate generators into opening an artificial wormhole for the next five hours, Julie swung her legs over the edge of the couch and sat on the edge. The First Guardian had also unbuckled herself and was leaning forward, still grinning.
Casting a quick glance around the command center, she made certain that her very recently assembled bridge crew was busy, before leaning forward.
"Oh really? And what's the usual time it takes to learn how to do this?"
The grin turned into a slow smile and Julie found herself leaning further forward even as Emily leaned toward her as well.
"Twelve hours or so, but I'm sure it won't take you that long."
"Yes. You're far too smart and beautiful to do anything normally. Like your penchant for getting into trouble?"
"That wasn't my fault!"
"So you say. But you promised you would stay out of trouble, remember."
Emily surged forward, and before Julie could rebut her, stole a quick kiss. Julie had just enough time to feel the press of warm lips against her own, before Emily stood and stretched, grinning at what she was certain was a shocked expression on her own face.
"Come walk with me? You're Warp Gate generators need a half hour to recharge before you can try again anyway. A bit of a stretch will help."
It sounded like a good idea, and she did her best to ignore the bit of discomfort that had followed that kiss. It wasn't that she hadn't enjoyed it; her heartbeat felt like it had doubled, and her palms were sweaty. She just wasn't used to open shows of affection. Being raised by the Army since she was young probably was to blame for that. Doing her best to hide that discomfort and switch the topic to something more neutral, Julie led the way out of the meters thick blast doors which would seal off the Command deck during battle, past the Marine guards stationed outside, and then down the corridor outside to the lift. From there, it was a short trip to one of the outer decks, where she could walk near the armored view ports, and watch the star-studded void outside her hull. Emily and, now her own set of Marine Honor Guards, followed along at a respectful distance.
"I need to choose a Provost soon don't I?"
"Yes, as soon as your ship self passes its builders trials and we return to Mars."
Ignoring the speculative glance that the taller woman was giving her as they walked, Julie returned the nods of passing crewmembers. The last month had been a whirlwind of activity, and she still felt slightly off-balance. She was a year ahead of the other gifted humans who were still studying and preparing for their own bonding with the other Guardian-Class ships being built in Mars orbit. No doubt due to the fact that she had used her gift throughout the time she had aided Majestic. To make the situation even more complicated than it was, she had not only bonded a year earlier than expected, but had bonded to what was essentially an experimental ship. Alpha, which it had been called before she had bonded, was the first of the Human/Tiri built Guardian-Class ships to be completed.
Five kilometers long, with a new experimental weapon system located in her bow, she was a ship built for war. A hundred fighters would eventually be housed in her fighter bays, along with an even two-dozen more shuttles, and even more drop ships. It was also part of her, linked to her, bonded to her soul. She knew every bulkhead, every circuit, every weapon, what made her; Julie had gone through every part of her ship self during the bonding. Three fusion power plants pulsed in her core, and the power they generated pulsed through her ship self like blood. The structural members were her bones, the battle steel armor plating, her skin. Sensors for her eyes, and ears, gravitic drives for movement, and a computer core to help her run the massive amounts of equipment.
After the unexpected bonding, and the Bak'ra attempts at sabotage, which had occurred at the same time, the ship had been renamed Southern Cross. Her ship self, she thought with a quick flush of pride. Other memories competed for her attention as well, the feel of waking up after her bonding, to find Emily nearby. Keeping watch on her after the almost disastrous bonding had occurred. The feel of her lips pressed against her own when they had kissed, the slightly spicy scent of the black-haired woman when she had held Julie close while they slept.
"Thinking good thoughts?"
The warm purr of Emily's voice next to her ear scent a pleasant shiver down her spine and Julie found herself smiling as she stopped next to one of the view ports.
"Yes. Just remembering waking up holding you after the bonding."
A warm arm slipped around her waist, and despite her unease at showing public displays of affection, Julie's body gladly relaxed backward into the strong arms that held her.
"I remember that too. Don't you dare ever scare me that much again."
They had told her that her heart had stopped twice, from the shock of her bonding being interrupted by the explosion of thermonuclear warheads that the Bak'ra had left onboard her. It had been a near thing, apparently, although she didn't remember a thing after turning the Bak'ra infiltration shuttle into tiny molecules using the new gravity lance located in the hammerhead-shaped bow of her ship.
A crewman passed, and despite herself, she tensed until the dark blue uniform of an Imperial Navy member passed. The man, the slight frame and pale complexion indicating he was probably Tiri, passed them without more than a nod of acknowledgment for the two Guardians.
"Does this bother you so much?"
Closing her eyes, Julie concentrated on the feel of breath against the skin of her neck as the taller woman bent to whisper.
A feather light kiss was pressed to her the skin below her neck, just as another group of crewmen passed, these were human, also dressed in fleet uniforms. They didn't even seem to notice the two Guardians, and kept right on discussing an engineering problem as they passed her. Still she pulled away, just enough for the arms around her to loosen. Her point made, Emily remained silent, watching her with those startling blue eyes in the reflection of the view port. Julie looked anywhere but back at her, trying to sort the confusing swirl of feelings that washed through her.
"I'm not used to it, that's all."
That wasn't all, but she wasn't going to ruin the moment by talking about anything else right now. A flicker of doubt spread across the taller woman's face, and when the arms around her let go, Julie felt the loss keenly. Still, she wasn't ready for the conversation that they would have to have soon.
Turning around slowly, she peered up at the sad face above her.
"We're going to have to talk soon, ok? Just, not right now."
Forcing a small smile Julie nodded and hugged the taller woman quickly. Emotional connections had never been her greatest asset; Major Sims had been one of the few she had been able to truly call a friend throughout her years in Majestic. She supposed she could call the three housemates she had gone through Guardian training with at Plattsburgh Air Force Base friends as well. Emily though, she could fall in love with, and that frightened her more than she had thought possible. Her previous relationships had been restricted to one-night stands, wherever her work for Majestic had taken her. She didn't want that with Emily, and she had no clue how to tell the First Guardian that.
"Its time to go back I guess, try again?"
Emily watched as the play of emotions flittered across the beautiful face staring up at hers. She knew that Julie would have problems with what was happening between them, she just hadn't expected them so soon.
I should have known she would have problems with emotions. The Army raised her, no wonder she looks scared. I wonder if she knows how beautiful and lost she looks right now.
Instead of voicing her thoughts, the First Guardian nodded slowly. She had the distinct impression that if she pressed the younger human that Julie would be likely to bolt. The quiet presence behind her signaled the arrival of an Ensign.
Glancing at the reflection of the impossibly young looking man in the view port, Emily could almost feel the mask of command, as she sometimes called it, settle over her features.
Her voice was sharper than she had intended, and the Ensign flinched visibly, holding out a data pad towards her carefully.
"Messages for you, First Guardian."
Julie had turned back around to study the view through that armored view port, and Emily ground her teeth as another moment alone was robbed from them. Whirling around, she snatched the pad from the outstretched hand of the Ensign and dismissed him with a wave of her hand, already scanning its contents.
In response to her grunt, Julie glanced over her shoulder, stealing Emily's attention away from the pad and its message, as the First Guardian watched the way the young Guardians hair swirled with that move. The mask, she was vaguely aware, had not lasted more than one look from the human woman, and Emily absently wondered if Julie knew how she affected her. Heat flared in her face as she realized that Julie had just asked her a question and she had been too busy remembering how silky soft that reddish-blond hair was.
With a much more normal smile Julie poked her in the stomach.
"I said what is it?"
Shaking her head to settle her thoughts, Emily tapped the screen of the pad and turned around, walking back towards the lift, which would take them down to the command deck.
"The swearing in ceremony for your class of Guardians is going to be in a week, at Mars Base."
"So I have a week to finish builder's trials?"
"Looks like it."
"That should be enough time, right?"
"Unless something really unusual happens, it should be."
"Is that all?"
Emie hesitated a moment then shook her head, watching the lift doors, waiting for the lift to arrive.
"No. The search for the elusive General Whittecker is going nowhere fast. Major Sims is having problems picking up his trail again. He's got one or two leads, but he doesn't sound very optimistic. As for having a week to finish builder's trials, you'll have enough time. Unless you attract more problems."
Both of them stepped inside of the lift as it arrived, and Julie punched in her authorization code to take them down to the command deck. The eight Honor Guards, four assigned to each of them, crowded in after them, silent as usual.
"Of course, with you..."
To Emily's delight, Julie poked her in the side once more and grinned up at her.
"You're never going to let me forget about that are you?"
Doing her best not to grin, Emily looked down at those shining, green eyes. She managed not to smile for all of a second, which she supposed was a personal record when it came to Julie. Somehow she had slipped right past the usual defenses Emily had learned to use to keep people far enough away from her for her to do her job.
The grin turned into one of the most adorable pouts that Emily had ever seen and she found herself leaning forward to kiss that expression away.
"Nope, just realistic."
Motioning for Julie to head out first, Emily followed her as they made there way back out onto the command deck, nodding in return to the salutes of the on duty guards at the entrance.
"I hope I get it this time."
The First Guardian smiled as she followed Julie over towards the Guardian's crash couch located in the center of the circular command center. Taking a seat and strapping herself into the temporary chair, which had been installed next to that couch, she grinned.
"It will take as long as it takes. Don't try to rush it, Julie. Just do what I told you, visualize the gravity eddies and then shift them."
"Easy for you to say."
It, of course, was not as easy as Emie had said, but it was close enough to get Julie started. Making certain that the straps were tight, Emily settled into her chair. Not that she was that surprised, but despite whatever Julie might think, she was doing a great job so far. The last attempt had nearly succeeded, and that had been only after three hours of attempts. A good hundred thousand kilometers behind them, North Star sat patiently. Waiting while the First Guardian coached the newest Guardian through her ship builder's trials.
"Easy for you to say."
Grumbling to herself, Julie finished strapping herself down in preparation for what she was about to do. Forming an artificial wormhole was not an easy proposition. No artificial intelligence had ever succeeded in what Julie was now training for. She'd heard it described a dozen different ways. Warp Gating was the basis of Tiri space travel, for without this way of circumventing the light speed barrier; no ship could have traversed the vast distances between the stars in anything even resembling a decent amount of time.
In the simplest terms, a warp gate was, for all intents and purposes, an artificially created wormhole. The fabric of space itself was folded in on itself, much as one would fold a piece of paper until two points were touching on it. The shortest distance between two points, in space at least, was not a straight line, but a fold. She understood all the theory and had passed her training courses back at the Guardian Trainee Facility at the old Air Force base in Plattsburgh New York. Still, it was one thing to understand the theory, and quite another to actually do it in the real world.
The fact that Emily was finding the entire situation amusing was not helping at all either.
"You know, you could at least pretend to be sympathetic to what I'm going through here."
That only brought a wider grin from the raven-haired First Guardian, and blue eyes danced with amusement. Strapping herself in as well, the taller woman stretched out her legs and got comfortable.
"Try not to force it so much, Julie. Remember, it's as much an art as it is a science."
Muttering, Julie let her headrest back against the cushion of the couch and closed her eyes.
"An art she says, don't force it she says..."
There was something else that was an art form, and she felt her cheeks warm as she thought about doing that with Emily. The low chuckle coming from the First Guardian's direction made certain that she knew her line of thinking probably hadn't gone unnoticed. I swear I'm going to have to strap her down if I want to have some time alone with her like that. Hmm... that has some possibilities.
"Relax Julie, ignore what's going on around your body. Remember, you have to be able to do this even when you're under enemy fire. Block out what's happening on the Command Deck. Let you're bond strengthen, and feel your ship self. Now let the generators spin up, and activate the gravity emitters."
Julie McGrath spared a glare towards the First Guardian at that. It was easy for her to say, she'd already mastered the art and science of opening a warp gate. She'd only spent the last three hours or so trying to wrap her mind around what was needed. As always, the theory was different than the actual application. Letting the bond between herself and her ship deepen she relaxed against the acceleration couch.
I am not spending twelve hours learning how to open a warp gate. Three hours is already too long, even if Emie thinks I'm doing a good job.
Well aware of the presence of the First Guardian nearby as her human body faded out of her consciousness, she became more and more aware of her ship self. Southern Cross was five kilometers of battle steel, life support, weapons, shields, and fusion reactors, along with the nearly four thousand crewmembers who now depended on her for life. As all Guardians did, she felt a protective surge for these people who trusted her with their lives. She was responsible for them, and their survival in the war against the Bak'ra that they were preparing for. The first time she had realized that, the short redhead had been more than a little shocked.
Her senses expanded and she felt the presence of the other Guardian ship a good hundred thousand kilometers behind Southern Cross. Clustered around the other Guardian ship were three other ships, the first in what would eventually become North Star's battle group. These smaller ships would support the massive Guardian-Class ships, and provide specialized support during battle. Much as an Aircraft Carrier never operated alone, but as the center of a Carrier group composed of ships that would help defend the larger ship and extend its offensive capabilities.
Her voice, when she spoke, sounded odd to her, distant and emotionless. With care she began to work her way through the checklist of things to do before a successful warp gate could be formed.
"Prepare for zero-g. Lieutenant Sanders, shut down artificial gravity on my mark."
With a quick mental scan, she watched as stations across her ship self secured for zero-g conditions. No active gravity generators could be taken through a warp gate. The chance of causing the gate to implode in on itself, and a ship halfway through it, were simply too great. Southern Cross would coast on her own momentum and traditional plasma thrusters while her gravitic drive systems were put on stand by. It took four minutes for all of her stations to report in, two minutes longer than it would take on a well-trained ships crew such as the one on North Star. Not that it was surprising, since her entire crew was brand new, but she was going to have to hold a few more drills and have a word or two with her department heads.
Lieutenant Sanders, doubling as her Provost until she choose a permanent second in command, double checked at his station and called out.
"Ma'am, all stations are reporting in secured for zero-g. Engineering is ready to put the gravitic drive systems on stand by. All systems show green for warp gate formation and translation through a warp gate."
I really do need to choose a Provost.
Out loud she thanked the Lieutenant and opened her eyes to look towards the silent First Guardian. Who met her eyes and smiled slightly. The deep blue eyes, as always, called to her and for a moment Julie had the near overwhelming urge to undo the straps and tackle the First Guardian. Getting her wandering hormones under control, she instead returned the smile.
"You'll do fine, don't worry."
The reassurance was welcomed and Julie's smile grew at the older woman's words.
"See you on the flip side."
As if she held no doubts at all that Julie would manage to form a warp gate, Emily stretched out her long legs and reclined in her chair. As best one could recline in a chair to which one was strapped down to that was. The First Guardian was here as Julie's mentor and friend, and had no official duties other than some hand holding and encouraging. Apparently it was an old tradition and one that the Tiri had every intention of continuing now that the first human Guardians were emerging.
Those humans and Tiri, who had the ability to bond with machines, were called Gifted. They were an absurdly small fraction of a percentage of the entire population. The Tiri had been on Earth for a touch over sixty human years, ever since their evacuation in the face of the Bak'ra threat and the plague which had killed so many of them. In all those years they had only found a thousand or so humans who showed signs of being gifted, out of a population of six billion. Of those three hundred were able to attend the first Guardian class, and of those only a hundred and ten would be graduating as Guardians. Julie was the first of those human gifted to bond with her ship self, even if it was an experimental ship self which had been due to be used as a test platform for new weapons.
Have to keep things interesting, I guess.
Taking a deep breath, Julie closed her eyes and allowed her senses to expand once more.
"All hands, prepare for transition attempt. Artificial gravity shut down in three, two, one. Artificial gravity shut down, transition attempt in five minutes."
Swallowing, she resisted the urge to reach out and take hold of Emie's hand. The elder woman would take her hand, she had no doubt, but she wanted to do this on her own. That and a part of her was still uncomfortable with showing that much affection out in the open, especially on her command deck.
Instead, the redhead surveyed the region of space around her ship self. Specialized sensors became her eyes and she mapped the gravity flows and eddies through the hundreds of kilometers around her. Opening a warp gate was a tricky bit of art and science. She was determined to open one this time though, despite whatever Emily thought about how long it should take her.
The sliver of her self that was still aware of her command deck kept track of the constant flow of reports from the section heads. She was also quite aware of exactly where Emily was sitting, down to the centimeter. It was comforting to have her friend so close by, and she found herself drawing strength from that closeness as she studied the spatial fluctuations around her.
Southern Cross's massive computer arrays spun into action and aided her in defining everything that her sensors were showing her. Biting her bottom lip as a bead of sweat appeared on her forehead, she cautiously began focusing the massive amounts of energy her Warp Gate generators had stored up. It was tricky, like poking a small hole through rubber and then folding it back out onto itself without ever letting go of it. Every time she had tried this before, she had mentally slipped, and the small hole she had managed to open had closed before she could do anything. This time though, she managed to open the first hole without any problem.
Making certain that she took a deep breath, it was easy for a Guardian to become lost in her ship self when she sank this deep into the bond, she carefully widened the hole in the fabric of space. A warp gate was, essentially, a controlled wormhole, with a known destination. Hers was only a few thousand kilometers away, a brief hop and a skip in terms of Warp Gating, but it was still taking enormous amounts of energy.
Finally though, she had it, a fully opened Warp Gate, stabilized and ready for transition. Feeling her face form into a grin, she eased the five kilometers of her ship self forward and then coasted through the warp gate.
Transition was not a pleasant experience for most people. For a single instant Southern Cross was in the impossible balance point of gravitation forces strong enough to alter time itself. To Julie, it was beautiful, a play of sensor ghosts and actual readings, which bathed her mind in a glimpse of what perfection must look like.
Then it was over.
Green eyes met amused dark blue eyes and Julie smiled wider, even though two of her command crew were dry heaving.
"Told you, you could do it."
"Yeah, you did, didn't you?"
Emily was looking quite pleased with herself as she nodded in agreement.
"Yes I did."
Lady Emily Windstar sighed at the pile of data pads which were waiting for her attention. The position of First Guardian meant that she was in charge of the military arm of the Empire, and everything pertaining to it. Which in turn made for a lot of reports to sort through, even though Angwar did a great job of filtering them before they reached her.
Thankfully she activated the com panel before it chimed. Angwar had been her Provost for long enough that he didn't appear surprised that she had answered his com before he even completed it.
"I hope this is good news, Angwar."
"Depends, I have the President of the U.S. on the com for you."
With the amount of communications arrays which her Guardian ship self was equipped with it was impossible for her to track all of the communications going on without deepening her bond.
Black eyebrows rose in surprise at that. The last time she had spoken to the President they had gotten along passably well, and were on a first and last name basis. What he wanted from her at the moment though was a bit of a puzzle.
"All right, put him through. Oh, and Angwar, send a note to my father. I might not be able to make it to the swearing in ceremony."
She ignored the dubious expression on her Provost's face and switched channels.
President William S. Blake's craggy, weather-beaten face smiled back at her out of the com panel and the tall Guardian leaned back in her ready room chair to return the smile.
"Mr. President, this is a surprise."
He snorted and pointed a finger at her.
"I thought we sorted out this title stuff last time we talked, Emily. That ‘this is a surprise' line means you're worried about what I want to talk to you about."
Emily spread her hands and her grin widened a bit. She hated most diplomatic games with a passion. The President had been a refreshing change from most of those games.
"Yes we did, Blake. Let me try that again, what can I do for you?"
The President laughed and shook his head, leaning back in his own chair. Which, Emily noted, appeared to be in the Oval Office.
"Keep your day job, Emily."
The smile died as he fiddled with a pen, twirling it absently between his fingers.
"You've got some worried Republicans and Democrats down here, Emily. We've been going over these specs your people sent over regarding this planetary shield thing. I have to tell you Emily, this is not going to go over well with a lot of people."
Emily knew exactly what part of it was not going to go over well and she sighed. This was not an unforeseen problem, but she had hoped that most of it would be shunted off to her brother to deal with.
"Blake, we need that shield. It's that simple. One missile gets through with a viral payload, and the same thing that happened to Tiri Prime could happen here. I don't need to tell you how fond the Bak'ra are of using viruses, do I?"
"Emily, it's not that and you know it. No one here has anything against putting up the planetary shield itself, well, just some fringe groups. What's got people riled up is what's going to happen when you get those stations finished and put it up."
Emily could feel a headache coming on and resisted the impulse to snarl at the President. Not because he was President, but because she genuinely liked the man.
"As soon as the Orbital Defense Forts are operation we have to test the planetary shield, Blake. There is no way around what is going to happen when we do. That shield is going to shred anything that is in low Earth orbit when we activate it."
"Emily, I know you know how many satellites we're talking about here. I don't think you know just how much we depend on some of those though. Is there anyway we can get you to raise the shield or lower it maybe?"
Emily was already shaking her head before he had finished speaking. A part of her absently noted that a shuttle had received permission to dock with North Star.
"I had Birk and his people go over it again. There is no way to get a solid shield if we expand it much more, and if we go lower we'll be building the Forts too deep in the planet's atmosphere. I'm sorry, Mr. President, there is no way around this one."
William Blake sighed and rubbed his face with both hands.
"Well, I'll see about trying to calm a few people down over here. How long do we have before you folks will be ready to test that shield of yours?"
"A month or so if everything stays on schedule. It might be a bit more than that, but I hope not."
"Well, better than nothing. It's going to screw up our communications grid all to hell, and the Army's going to shit a brick. Not to mention the NSA, CIA and a few other black ops people."
"I'll see if we can do anything else, Blake, but I don't know how much help I'll be able to give you. We're going to hear about this from every nation with satellites in space. You're just the first one in a stampede."
"Good luck, First Guardian."
"Good luck, Mr. President."
The screen went black and she leaned back in her chair once more, studying the gently curved ceiling above her. Behind her, through the massive armor plated view ports, the planet Mars slowly revolved as North Star kept station in high orbit. She knew if she looked closely enough she would spot the hundreds of skeletal space docks where ships were frantically taking shape.
It wasn't only the hundred and ten Guardian ships which were being finished off, but all of their support ships. Each battle group, formed around the core Guardian ship, would comprise of a dozen or so larger ships, not counting all of the fighters assigned to it. It was a staggering amount of hulls to construct. Building went on twenty-four hours a day now, with convoys of automated cargo shuttles hauling raw materials from Luna and the Asteroid belt.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the ready room doors opening without the person on the other side having asked for permission. The scowl she directed towards the interloper was completely wasted though.
"You look like shit, Emie."
Blue eyes glared at Nicholas even as the First Guardian collapsed into her chair and leaned backwards. A glare which had reduced lesser beings to stuttering idiots who scrambled to do as she ordered had little affect on the man sprawled out in a seat across from her. The light-haired small man shifted constantly, as if staying still for a moment was impossible for him.
The fact that she felt like crap at the moment didn't help her mood at all either, and she had to consciously refrain from snarling at the other Guardian. Instead she amused herself with the thought that Nicholas looked almost as tired as she had ever seen him before. Which of course didn't stop him from fidgeting.
"Would you stop that!"
Her patience worn away by months of little sleep and constant strain, she snapped at the other man despite her attempts at holding her legendary temper in check. Nicholas had known her long enough that he merely lifted an eyebrow and did his best to stop shifting his position.
"Anyway, as I was saying, you look like shit."
Counting slowly down from ten kept her from attempting to do things to Nicholas, which, although probably gratifying, would get her locked away.
"Did you have something useful to tell me or are you just here to annoy me?"
It had been a week since Julie's first successful Warp Gate, which had also marked the last time she had managed to spend any time at all with the young human. Which was, she supposed, only adding to her current state of mind. The fact that the schedule that they had been working on, ever since their arrival on Earth sixty-one years ago, had been shot to hell was another factor.
The time she had been looking forward to spending with Julie had flown right out the air lock. Instead of being able to spend time with the young human, she'd been hip deep dealing with a wide variety of problems ranging from military flare-ups in the Middle East and Pakistan on Earth, to worries about the ever-present personnel problems that they were facing. Now she could add the problems the Planetary Shield were going to cause to the list.
She'd managed to speak to Julie every night and once or twice during the day, but it just wasn't the same as being face to face.
"Well, your father, you do remember who that is right? The Emperor? He wanted to make certain that you wouldn't be late for the swearing in ceremony. Since Angwar sent him this note saying you were too busy to attend."
Closing her eyes, Emily wondered if she could get away with killing a fellow Guardian.
"Nicholas, I will take a shuttle down just as soon as I finish the last of these reports. I have a lot to go through though," gesturing towards the pile of electronic pads that were spread across her desk.
"Somehow I just knew that you were going to say that, Emie. So, I brought along an added incentive."
Blue eyes snapped up from studying the pile of pads, trying to figure out which one to read first, to stare at the smiling guardian.
"What added incentive?"
"Well, I know how much you hate formal ceremonies..."
The sandy haired Guardian kept right on going, ignoring the warning tone in the First Guardian's voice.
"So, I sent a message to Southern Cross before I came over here."
"Nicholas, I swear to the Maker, if you did something stupid, I will rip your throat out."
Unfortunately Nicholas had known her since she had been a child and knew that she would do no such thing. Even though he had no intention of even trying to face down the glare that was leveled at him, he managed to offer her the pad he had brought with him. The small screen on thin eight by eleven inch wide small computer was just large enough for someone to do a bit of work on. It was the evolutionary descendant of humankind's laptop computers.
Emily stared at the innocuous piece of equipment with what Nicholas would have described on anyone else, as a bit of uncertainty.
Taking it, she played the video file that had been stored on it. Emily found herself smiling as a rather familiar cute redhead stared back at her out of the file and shook a finger at the video pick up.
"Nicholas gave me a call when I was all dressed up for this ceremony, and told me how much you hate formal occasions. Now don't you dare not show up for this, Emie, I'm dressed up in this rather annoying Guardian dress-uniform. And if I have to get all dressed up, then so do you, First Guardian."
With a wink Julie's image disappeared from the small screen. Emily sighed and set the pad aside.
"You going to come then?"
Muttering something unintelligible, Emily rose from her desk and gathered a few of the more urgent reports that she had to read. Those she could do on the shuttle ride down to Mars Base.
"I didn't hear you, did you say something?"
Emily glared at Nicholas, who smiled innocently in response.
"Yes, I'm coming. Don't you have something better to do?"
Blue eyes narrowed dangerously and Nicholas found himself hastily standing and backing out of the First Guardian's ready room. He might not have believed her first glare, but this one promised that if he didn't have something to do, she would find something for him to work on, and he would not enjoy it.
Watching her friend scramble out the door, Emily allowed herself a grin. So, Julie was waiting for her to show up at the ceremony was she? Well, she had been interested in how her smaller friend would look in the black Guardian dress uniform.
Julie tugged at the jacket to her black dress uniform and suppressed the urge to scream. It wasn't that she really disliked formal functions; on the contrary she rather enjoyed all the glitter and the chance to enjoy herself. What she could do without though, was the dress uniform she was still trying to get comfortable in.
"We having fun yet?"
Doing her best to glare over at the smirking Mary, Julie shook her head.
"Do I look like I'm having fun? This stupid jacket feels like it is rubbing across my back and under my armpits. You would figure that the Tiri could come up with something a bit more comfortable."
"Oh come on, you know you won't think of it at all when we get to the actual swearing ceremony itself."
Mary was perched on the edge of the bed in the double room that they had been assigned inside of Mars Base. The swearing in ceremony would be the official graduation for the hundred or so Guardian trainees who had made it through the training.
"It still itches."
Giggling, Mary flopped backwards onto the bed, not caring at all about the uniform she was wearing or the wrinkles she might be putting into it.
"Is tall, gorgeous and blue-eyed going to be here?"
"I haven't a clue who you're talking about."
"Oh come on, Julliiiiieeeee... is she going to be here?"
Julie grinned innocently in the mirror at her scowling friend.
"You know very well who I mean. Emie, Emily, The First Guardian, the one you're lusting after, the..."
"Alright! I think I figured out who you were talking about."
"You sure? I have a few more names I heard... Gack!"
Mary ducked the pillow tossed her way and promptly rolled right off the bed.
"Serves you right, and yes she will be there. She better be there anyway. I sent her a message telling her she better be there."
Scrambling back up onto the bed and doing her best to fix her dress uniform, Mary grinned unrepentantly.
"So you laid down the law to your girlfriend? Aghhh!!!"
This time she didn't move quite so fast and Julie pounced on her, thwapping her with another pillow.
"Ok! Ok! So you didn't lay down the law!"
Laughing, Julie let up the smaller ex-hacker, blowing a strand of reddish blond hair out of her face. Before either could say anything else, a knock came from the archaic polished wooden door. An Imperial Guard, also in his dress uniform, opened the door just enough to call inside.
"Guardian trainees, its time."
Giving her still unrepentant friend a scowl, Julie climbed up off the bed and did her best to make herself look presentable. Mary was waiting for her by the door by the time she was satisfied with the way she looked. Julie was glad her friend had made it to graduating from training. Each of her three housemates had survived the training, and would be going through the swearing in ceremony tonight.
"How's it feel to be the first human Guardian by the way?"
Julie shrugged; waiting in the long marble floor hallway for the other Guardian trainees to assemble; waving towards Harry and Marcus, the other two gifted humans who had gone through Guardian training with her and Mary.
"It's not like I planned it or anything."
She was getting a bit tired of everyone asking her how it felt to be the first Human Guardian. Thankfully she hadn't had to deal with reporters, but still it was starting to wear on her nerves.
"Hey, sorry, I just wanted to know what it was like to have your ship self."
Taking a deep breath, the small redhead smiled apologetically to her friend.
"Sorry, it's just that people keep asking me that. It's getting on my nerves. I can't explain what it feels like, Mary. It's sort of like finding out that a part of you was missing. It's as much your body as this one is."
Shrugging, she knew she wasn't doing that great a job explaining it to Mary. She really didn't know how to explain it better than that though.
"You two ready?"
Marcus Felps and Harry Cranston had joined them as the Marine Honor Guards started to sort the trainees into alphabetical order.
"Hey, Julie, been a while, how you doin'?"
With a wink towards Mary to show her that she wasn't upset, Julie turned towards the two men and startled both of them by hugging them one after the other.
"Missed you two freaks! It's been interesting, but you'll find that out when you bond also. Did I miss a lot at training?"
"Don't you worry, Julie, we'll fill ya in good and proper on all the gossip after we get this here ceremony out of the way. That right Harry?"
The bald-headed, black ex-racecar driver nodded with, what on anyone else would have been a bemused grin, but was a large smile on his face.
"Oops, that's me, gotta go. See ya."
Harry winked and moved off. Marcus Felps, one of the oldest trainees at fifty-five, shook his head and moved off toward his own spot in the line that was forming up.
Mary leaned over and whispered just before she headed off toward her own place in line as well. "Remember, no scratching in public." Leaving Julie to shake her own head and smile.
It was good to see her three friends again. She'd missed them when she had been going through her ship builders trials, even if they could be a bit annoying at times. It would be nice to have dinner with them and catch up on everything that had been going on at the training center in Plattsburgh, NY.
Allen, a trainee from New Zealand who, at six and a half feet tall, reminded her of nothing so much as a crane, peered down the hallway.
"Looks like we're getting started. This should be fun."
Julie hoped he was right.
The swearing in ceremony for new Guardians had been an imperial event for nearly three millennia now. In times gone by, when the Tiri had still been on Tiri Prime, the ceremony had taken place inside of the Imperial Palace. It was given all the pomp and circumstance of an imperial wedding. Emie could still vividly remember her own swearing in ceremony. The honor and pride she had felt standing before her father.
This time though, she stood as First Guardian, alongside her father and brother. The Crown Prince stood to the right of her father, and she stood to his left, slightly behind the Emperor. There should have been hundreds of Guardians and Guardian trainees spread throughout the hall before them. All dressed in the black with silver trim of a dress uniform. Now though, that hall was filled with politicians, ambassadors, envoys, and the first Senators of what would, when it was completed, become the Imperial Senate. Along with them were the few dozen gifted humans who were in the second class of Guardian trainees.
There were so few of them.
Emily was depressingly familiar with the state of their current forces. The Guardians who were about to be sworn in would bring the number up to a hundred and thirty. Twenty of which were Tiri Guardians who had survived the evacuation. A hundred and ten of the new Guardian Class-Fourteen ships had been constructed. Ten of those ships would go empty though, at least until the next class of trainees graduated. The deaths of the ten trainees who had been due to bond with those ships had been a large blow to the Guardian force build up.
With a sigh, Emily straightened herself as she caught Winston glancing at her out of the corner of his eye. Her brother always had enjoyed the diplomatic side of things better than the military. She was positive the glint in his familiar blue eyes was at her expense.
Still, it would be good to pay attention.
The Imperial Guards, in their purple ceremonial armor and weaponry, stood along the right and left hand walls of the raised dais that the Emperor and his two children now waited.
It went by the book; everyone had a place to be, and a protocol to follow. There was no place for any mix-ups or errors-- not with the eyes of the world watching the first Imperial function to be televised.
One by one the Guardian trainees came forward. Four Honor Guards, in ceremonial armor, escorted each of them as well. The lead guard of each Guardian-to-be came before the dais, and formally announced the name of the trainee whom they were assigned to protect. It was considered a great honor to be chosen to be Lead Honor Guard.
By Emily's count, Julie McGrath was the forty-fifth name to be announced.
The trainees themselves lined up in a row facing the dais as they were escorted inside. They varied between looking a touch nervous to openly staring up at the vaulted ceiling above them. It was an exact replica of the Imperial Hall back on Tiri Prime, and Emily knew that the swirling holograms above were quite distracting.
Julie looked up from her place in line, and excited green eyes met blue. For long moments, Julie and Emily both were oblivious to everything else around them. Green called to blue, and blue called to green. They both may have been bonded to a ship self, but they were the completion of each other's souls.
When it passed, most of the ceremony was already gone and Julie grinned as Emily's face turned red.
Emperor Weston Windstar the Second stepped forward and placed the clenched fist of his right hand over his heart.
"You who are about to become Guardians, do you swear fealty to me and the Empire?"
As one a hundred voices shouted.
"You who are about to become Guardians, do you swear to protect those who rely upon you at all costs?"
"You who are about to become Guardians, do you swear to uphold the laws of the Empire to the best of your ability?"
"You who are about to become Guardians, do you swear to follow the Guardian's Code?"
"Then I salute you, as your Emperor. Honor, Wisdom, and Strength!"
"Honor, Wisdom, and Strength!"
As unobtrusively as they could, both Emily and Weston moved forward to place a hand under their father's elbow. He had seemed to waver there for a second at the end, and Emily shared a worried look with her brother. Her father, at over three hundred Earth years, was near the end of re-gen life span.
Quietly, as the new Guardians cheered along with the crowd, Emily whispered to her father.
"Father? Are you alright?"
The old man took a few deep breaths and then patted her hand. His finger's, to her eyes, seemed to tremble slightly as he did so.
"Fine, daughter, fine. Go see to your Miss McGrath, she's waiting for you. Weston will help me back to my rooms. I'm just a little tired."
"Don't worry, Emie, I'll get the doctors to take a look at him before I take him to his room."
Weston whispered as he began to help their father away, conscious of the prying eyes, which would be focused on them from the gallery above.
Emily glanced back down the dais, towards where the new Guardians, their Honor Guards, and a good part of the audience were celebrating. Julie was standing at the base of the dais, looking up towards the three of them with an expression of concern.
Emie shook her head ever so slightly and Julie relaxed, offering the First Guardian a smile.
"I'll meet up with you, send for me if it's something serious, ok, Weston?"
Her brother just nodded and concentrated on helping her father without appearing to help him down the other side of the dais, where the Imperial Honor Guard formed up around them.
Emily nodded as she joined Julie at the base of the stairs.
"He's under a lot of strain."
"Like a certain First Guardian I know."
Emily smiled as she felt Julie lay a hand on her elbow. The two of them making their way towards the nearest exit to go and see how the Emperor was doing, their Honor Guards formed up behind them.
"It's going to get worse before it gets better, Julie."
"I know, Emie, I know."
"Depends, what kind is it?"
"It's called Melantar, sweet wine. This is one of the few bottles left, as far as I know anyway."
"Well, we are celebrating. Does it go with whatever this is?"
"Think of it as trout."
Julie made a bit of a disbelieving face at the First Guardian. It wasn't that she didn't like the fish; it just looked a bit odd. The color was off, just a bit too blue tinged for fish, even if it did taste pretty good. Emie it seemed had gone all out to make this a memorable celebration.
Emily glanced over the top of her glass at that question and Julie winced. She'd forgotten that Tiri mostly avoided red meat as much as they could. The word Bak'ra was also used to mean "meat eater" as well.
"Sorry, I don't think we have any real red meat anywhere in Mars Dome. Didn't think you were a steak and potato's kind of person."
Julie grinned at that and wiggled an eyebrow.
"Want to know what else I eat?"
The look on the First Guardians face was priceless.
Julie laughed and returned to her eating. Emie managed a chuckle of her own and joined her.
The two of them were once more in the Gardens. Mars Base was a huge dome-like structure buried under the surface of the north pole of Mars. The hangars and landing pads were located closer to the surface, while the majority of Tiri civilians who had survived the evacuation lived below in the dome. The Gardens, as they were called, had been carved out of the rock along the side of the dome, and afforded a beautiful view of the city below.
Julie and Emily were holding a celebration of sorts here, perched on one of the garden terraces. Surrounded by flowers which had no human name, they were celebrating Julie's swearing in ceremony.
"Your father alright?"
"Yes, the doctors are going to keep an eye on him overnight and make certain he gets rest. He's just tired I think."
Julie chewed thoughtfully as she watched Emie slowly take a sip of wine. Her friend's eyes were sad and she wondered what the other Guardian was thinking, although she had a hunch.
"He misses mother."
"What was she like?"
Emily stretched back in her chair, tilting back her head to look upwards at the simulated night sky above them. The stars even twinkled.
"She was a Guardian, and she had black hair like I do. I get my blue eyes from my father though. I would have liked to know her. She was First Guardian and that's how they met."
Noticing the darkening expression on her friend's face, Julie reached forward and picked up the bottle of wine.
Time to change the conversation; this is supposed to be a celebration.
"Here is to family."
Julie raised her glass in salute to her own dead parents and took a sip of the Melantar. It was indeed a sweet wine, and she found herself enjoying the subtle flavors which seemed to be wrapped around one another.
Emily smiled and raised her glass in salute as well, before forcing herself to relax.
"How's it feel to be a Guardian now?"
"Better now that I'm out of that dress uniform. You would think that you Tiri would have come up with something that was at least somewhat comfortable to wear after all this time."
"Hmph, I think that Logistics actually keeps them that way to keep us from falling asleep during official events."
"Let's just say I won't mind not wearing that again anytime soon. The regular uniforms are alright, but that thing...ugh."
Julie managed to screw up her face in such a grimace that Emily grinned.
There we go, that's it, just forget about everything else for a while, beautiful.
She watched as the First Guardian slowly relaxed and the worry in those blue eyes faded. It would return, Julie knew that, but she'd do her best to help her friend bear up under the weight that was bearing down onto her.
"So what is this gray stuff?"
"It's like soup, but thicker. Try it."
"Hmm... not bad, it tastes kind of like carrots."
"Meets with your approval then?"
Julie pretended to consider that as she finished the last spoonful and nodded.
"I suppose so. I guess you Tiri had some pretty good food. I liked the orange thing with the green stripes through it. Anytime you have more of that, ship it my way, and I'll do away with it."
Emily smiled slowly at that.
"It's called Kira fruit, I'll see what I can do."
Julie studied the taller woman through lowered lashes as she thought. She'd been looking forward to a chance to get the First Guardian alone for months now. With studied innocence, she picked at what was left of her Kira fruit, making designs with the thick orange and green skin.
"What's your schedule like?"
She was conscious of blue eyes studying her, but she continued to play with the peelings on the plate in front of her.
"Well, I have to head out to the Asteroid belt to check on our mining operations tomorrow. Then the day after I'm due to have a talk with Darrien about the fleet construction schedule. In the afternoon, I'll be swinging by the Orbital Fort construction in Earth Orbit. Then, if I have time, I'm going to do a lecture in the evening at the Guardian Training Camp at Plattsburgh Air Force Base."
Julie looked up hesitantly and smiled hopefully when she found blue eyes watching her with what might have been amusement.
"I meant, what's your schedule tonight?"
Emily frowned and pretended to ponder the thought while Julie rolled her eyes.
"Yes you goof, tonight. Are you going out to Pluto, Antarctica, or something?"
"No, I think I managed to get an entire evening off. Imagine that."
Emie leaned forward across the table and lowered her voice conspiratorially. Julie found herself leaning forward as well to hear what the First Guardian was going to say.
"I think Angwar and Dr. Miato conspired to make certain that I had an evening off. I was biting off too many heads, I guess."
Julie couldn't help but grin at the thought of the ever so proper short, gray-haired chief medical officer from North Star conspiring to do anything.
"So you're all mine tonight?"
Blue eyes darkened with desire and Julie swallowed at the low purr that was Emily's voice as she answered.
"Do you want me to be?"
I'm going to die if she doesn't kiss me. Oh God, I'm going to die if she does kiss me.
"Dear God, yes."
Then there was no more room for thought as warm soft lips pressed against hers. Vaguely Julie realized she probably shouldn't be trying to shove the table out of the way, but it had been a very long few months.
Unfortunately, the table was anchored to the bedrock from which the garden terrace was carved out of.
Grunting in frustration she got up, managing to keep in contact with Emily's lips and get around the edge of the table. Breaking away from those talented lips she sat down on the First Guardians lap and buried her face in her friend's shoulder. Both of them, she was happy to see where having problems breathing and Emie's heart was beating rapidly.
Julie hadn't realized she had spoken until Emily ran her fingers through her short, red hair and nodded in agreement.
Frowning slightly Julie looked up at that.
With a serious expression Emie nodded and bent down to tease Julie by nibbling on her lips. Both of them groaned as Julie opened her mouth for Emily's questing tongue. Emily's mouth and hands were making it hard to remember whatever it was that they had been talking about, so Julie didn't even try.
When they finally did break apart, Emily grinned at her breathlessly and trailed a finger down her chest, just lightly brushing against her breasts.
"There could be fewer clothes involved."
Julie swallowed and nodded wordlessly, her fingers already starting on the First Guardian's uniform.
"Less clothing would be good."
A button and then a second came loose and she caught a glimpse of pale skin in the valley of Emily's breasts. Just one more button and she would have a clear view of those breasts themselves.
She was distracted from her objective though when a hand snaked its way underneath the loose shirt she was wearing to cup her breast. Groaning, she hungrily pulled Emily back to her, trying to devour her lips. The warm wet haven of her mouth was rapidly becoming Julie's favorite place. When the First Guardian stood up and started carrying her toward the apartment, she didn't notice until they had passed through the sliding doors. Even then she barely realized it.
Tugging at Emie's blouse, she frowned in frustration as it didn't come off easily. Emily's hands weren't doing anything to help her concentration. The black-haired woman's fingers had managed to push her bra up and were stroking her nipples. Shuddering, she buried her face once more against the side of Emie's neck and growled, tugging at the First Guardian's shirt.
A low chuckle reverberated through the body she was clinging to, turning into a groan as Julie managed to slide a hand between skin and shirt to palm a breast. Emily desperately started to pull Julie's blouse up over her head while Julie did her best to undo the last of the buttons on Emily's shirt. The two were nearly there, both of them just a few seconds from the naked flesh that they craved when the com panel sounded.
Both of them ignored it, intent on more important things at the moment. Emily's fingers were splaying across Julie's lower stomach, pushing down the waistband of the skirt the redhead was wearing. Julie herself was more intent on the First Guardian's breasts, and she managed to get the shirt free from the pants of Emie's uniform by the time the two of them became aware of the incessant beeping.
Both of them cursed as one.
Grinding her teeth in frustration Emily sat Julie aside on the bed and stalked towards the beeping com panel. Julie laid back on the bedspread, her blouse open and skirt halfway down her hips.
"I'm going to kill someone."
Emily agreed with the smaller woman and punched the com unit on. Snarling at the young com officer who was looking at her with obvious trepidation.
"If this isn't an emergency you're going to Pluto. What is it?"
"Umm... F-first Guardian?"
Blue eyes narrowed dangerously as the young man stammered.
"Spit it out, or you're going to be scrubbing plasma vents on Pluto."
"Y-yes M-ma'am. I've g-got a priority one communiqué for you?"
Julie raised herself up off the bed enough to watch as Emily's fingers curled into fists and giggled. At least she wasn't the only one who was frustrated at the moment. The First Guardian took a deep breath, obviously trying to control herself before answering.
"Put it through."
The screen blanked for a moment to be replaced by the familiar face of her ex-superior in Majestic, Major Greggory Sims. The former Air Force officer had been transferred, along with a good chunk of the rest of the Earth's armed forces, to the Imperial Forces. The Major had been given the duty of tracking down any internal threats to Earth's chances of surviving the coming Bak'ra invasion.
Julie got up as she recognized the area behind the Major.
"First Guardian, we have a problem."
If Major Sims was surprised to see Julie wander into the range of the video pick up, he didn't show it.
"What sort of problem, and I thought you were searching for General Whittecker?"
Ten minutes later they were both packed and on their way to the shuttle hangars.
It took them a little under three hours to get back to Earth. The two Guardian ships slipped into high Earth orbit, and minutes afterwards the two Guardians themselves were shuttled planet side.
Emily had been silent through the entire trip, scowling slightly and studying the preliminary reports that had arrived during the trip. She was conscious of Julie sitting next to her, and she was thankful that the shorter woman had come along.
It was not going to be a good day.
The moment the shuttle had touched down, she was up and out the door as soon as she could after her Honor Guard. The place was hectic, with Secret Service, cops, and imperial personnel swarming across the grounds. She could only imagine what sort of chaos was going on inside.
Major Sims was waiting for them just outside of the safety line. Getting too close to the shuttle's antigravity drives while they were active was a good way to die a rather grizzly death.
Julie was two steps behind her as she strode towards the side entrance of the White House. It was definitely a different setting than her last visit here, she thought grimly. The Marine guards spread out to secure the area, not that it wasn't already crawling with security people as it was.
"Major, what do you have for me?"
"The plasma bolt originated from at least a kilometer or so away. Tentative sensor data from the Orbital Forts and Sensor Platforms indicates it was probably a VP-303 Plasma Carbine. It punched through the bullet proof glass and hit him at the base of President Blake's head, dead center. It's not a pretty sight."
"The search teams manage to track down anyone yet?"
"No, Ma'am. I was going to ask if I could have Julie's help if we get the Plasma Carbine back though. She might be able to get something off of it."
The First Guardian paused halfway towards the waiting Secret Service agents to meet concerned green eyes.
"You up to helping the Major if he needs it?"
Julie managed a small smile and nodded, quietly answering.
"I worked for him in Majestic, I figure I could lend him a helping hand again if he needed it."
Emie placed a hand on the smaller woman's upper arm and squeezed it in comfort. The black-haired woman smiled thankfully, then turned to deal with what was going to be an unpleasant encounter.
She strode towards the gathered security people. Blue eyes narrowed dangerously as the first of those security personnel started to reach out to stop her. The man reconsidered what would have been a rather bad idea and stepped aside. They knew who this was. Her Honor Guard would have to remain outside while they checked their weapons, but Julie and the Major followed directly after her.
Vice President Charles H. Fairchild was waiting for them just inside. The man was a good four inches shorter than her, and she always wondered exactly how much oil it took to keep his black hair parted like that.
"Lady Windstar, thank you for coming."
With a small narrowing of her eyes, Emily accepted the human's hand and shook it. She could feel Julie stiffening just behind her at that small slur to her title.
"Vice President Fairchild, well met again. I spoke to Weston on my way over here. He and my father are very concerned about this, and promise whatever aid you need. I already have our Internal Affairs division ready to assist you in tracking down those who did this."
She motioned towards Major Sims, about to introduce him when the Vice President held up a hand.
"No, I don't think that is necessary, Lady Windstar. It's already clear that you're Empire was somehow involved in this. I intend to find out how, and when I do, this world government of yours is going out the window."
Emily watched in amazement as the Vice President, soon to be sworn in as the President, spun about and stalked away from her. Julie and the Major both looked a bit stunned as she turned to look at them.
Major Sims snapped out of it quickly though and straightened slightly at the tone of command in her voice.
"Find out what happened and do it fast. This could undo everything we've managed to accomplish so far. I want the people who did this. Get whatever help you need, but this is your top priority now."
He saluted and hurried off. Emily cast a glance down the hallway that the Vice President had gone down and then turned back to Julie.
"Julie, your trainings going to have to take a bit of a back seat at least for a while. If the Major needs your help, do whatever you can. I'll see about making positive that Weston and my father know what's going on."
With a scowl towards the direction the Vice President had taken, Emily led her smaller companion back outside.
"Let's get out of here. Seems we aren't welcome at the moment. Julie, be careful on this one, just help the Major. No going off on your own and getting into trouble, ok?"
Julie managed a smile at that and looked as innocent as she could.
"Why, Emily, are you saying I get into a lot of trouble?"
The First Guardian snorted at that.
"Julie, you attract trouble. Just be careful ok?"
"I will, Emie, don't worry, I will."
Emily watched Julie and her Honor Guard head off to catch up with the Major. With a frown she shook her head once more and headed towards the waiting shuttle. Things were going to hell.
To understand what happened, it is important to understand that things were in a state of imbalance. As anything delicately balanced over a precipice, the slightest nudge could send everything tumbling down.
~Major Greggory Sims, Imperial Intelligence.
Julie wiped the bead of sweat from her brow irritably. She was tired, sticky and had the worst feeling that what she had thought was a heat rash on her arm was something entirely different.
Dodging an oncoming mini bus, she made her way across the bustling street and into the welcoming sanctuary of the hotel. With a small sigh of annoyance she did her best to air out her shirt, trying to get rid of at least some of the sweat that was sticking to her.
Beijing, it seemed, did not agree with her. The heat wave sweeping the area did little to help.
A polite nod to the desk clerks and she managed to make her escape into the elevators, away from the throngs of people spilling into the lobby of the hotel. It seemed that she was not the only one fleeing the oppressive heat outside. Bitterly, she wondered if any of them could have done a better job than she had these last two weeks.
They'd traced down every lead they could think of trying to get their hands on the men that had killed the American President. Each of the leads had led to the same thing, nothing.
The plasma carbine had been relatively easy to find. Too easy in fact, left as it had been at the site it had been fired from, as if to taunt them with the only piece of solid evidence they would find. Even more disturbing, she had not been able to read anything from the weapon itself.
It was blank, as if it had never been touched or fired.
It was late summer now, and to add to the turmoil, which was spreading throughout the western hemisphere, the American elections were to be held in the fall.
Using her key card she entered the suite, which was her room, and tossed her satchel onto the couch. At least the Major had gotten good rooms for her and the rest of the team. Who were currently out with the Major trying to track down a slim lead on the ever-evasive General Whittecker.
The shower was a haven after the hot muggy weather outside.
Emerging from it Julie moved towards the com panel that the team had brought with them.
"Computer, access Imperial com system."
Yawning she continued drying her hair while the computer completed the link up.
"Computer, contact First Guardian Emily Windstar, personal priority."
It took about five minutes, in which time the red-haired Guardian managed to dry her hair and put on the long t-shirt and boxers, she'd brought with her to sleep in. When Emily appeared on the screen, looking tired as well, she was just turning down the bed covers.
A warm smile crossed her face unbidden and Julie perched on the end of the bed.
"Hey yourself, how you doing down there?"
"Eh, we had a few leads, none of them panned out. Major Sims is out tracking down a lead on General Whittecker, who seems to have been in the area a while ago. We still don't know where the Plasma Carbine came from, but I think I agree with the Major on this one and it probably came from one of the training bases. With more of them being used, and made, they'll be getting harder to control. Although I guess the chip thing will limit the number of people who could have used it."
Emily leaned backwards, enough so that Julie could see that the First Guardian was still in her uniform. By the bit of background she could spot, the human guessed that her Tiri friend was aboard her ship self in orbit.
"What about you? Any luck keeping things together?"
Emily snorted in disgust and ran a tired hand through her long hair.
"Some. All hell is breaking loose out here, sweetheart. The Americans, or a good portion of their military, are almost outright accusing us of having something to do with the assassination. Which is insane because I liked Blake, he was a good sort and... why are you smiling at me like that?"
"Say it again?"
Emily was looking at her almost like she had lost her mind, but Julie didn't care at the moment. She just wanted to hear it again.
"What you called me."
It took a moment but understanding slowly dawned on the First Guardian and she leaned towards the video pick up. A slow smile that did all sorts of wonderful things to the shorter woman spread across Emie's face.
"Say what again, sweetheart?"
Julie's green eyes darkened with desire as she noticed how deep blue Emily's eyes looked at that moment. Leaning forward as well, almost as if she wished to kiss the First Guardian, which is exactly what she did want to do at the moment, Julie purred.
"Keep it up First Guardian, and I'm going to tie you down somewhere and make certain that I have you all to myself for a night."
A dark eyebrow arched at that and Emie grinned.
"Is that a threat or a promise?"
Ohhhh... I love playing with her.
"Definitely a promise."
"One I'm going to keep you to, sweetheart."
Emily looked like she was going to say something more, but an insistent beeping sounded in the background. Scowling in the direction of what Julie assumed were her ready room doors, Emily muttered something under her breath before looking back to Julie.
"You be careful out there. Promise?"
"I promise. Take care, Emie. I miss you."
The smile that she got in return for that eased the ache that had been present in the pit of her soul ever since she had left the First Guardian's side.
"Miss you too, shortie."
With a wink Emily disappeared from the screen before Julie could growl in outrage over that nickname.
She was just about to step away from the panel when the screen activated itself. Blinking in surprise the redhead cautiously approached the com panel. Instead of the normal black screen it was now showing a test pattern, with an indicator light at the bottom, which showed that the com panel was linking to the Imperial communications grid once more.
It took a bit longer to connect than it had when she called Emily. Still, in a few moments the test pattern disappeared, to be replaced with a familiar, if unexpected, figure.
Dressed in an early twentieth century flapper's dress, complete with short cut black hair, and pearl necklace, Betty was surprising sight. Not one that many people enjoyed, since Betty, even though she was sentient, was an Artificial Intelligence program. She'd been designed by those few Bak'ra who had been on Earth before the arrival of the Tiri, and had been used in an attempt to destroy Mars Base. It had taken Emily, fully bonded with the Base's computer systems, to free the sentient program and allow her to make her own choices.
Those choices, so far at least, had been to aid the Tiri in preparing to fight her former masters.
There was a slight delay, barely noticeable, before the brown-eyed woman winked in answer and sketched a curtsy.
"Is that any way to welcome the woman who single handedly saved Mars Base? Come on, where is the effusive welcome? The joyous recognition?"
Julie grinned and bowed towards the screen.
"Forgive me, oh powerful one, how are you doing?"
"I'm having fun driving human and Tiri scientists insane as they try to figure out how I can be sentient. It's fun."
With a wave of an arm, the sentient program formed a lounge chair nearby her and promptly put it to use. Doing a very nice job lounging in it.
"I take it you're the reason my Com panel activated itself?"
"Bingo. You're pretty smart for a human."
Snorting, Julie took a seat on her bed and echoed the relaxed pose of the other woman. As far as she was concerned, Betty was nearly as much fun talking to as God, also known as Katya, was.
"Thanks, I think. You track me down just to chit chat, or did you have a reason?"
Pouting, Betty raised a limp hand to her forehead and bemoaned the lack of manners that some humans showed. Julie just raised an eyebrow, trying to mimic the way Emily had of shutting people up. Judging by the laughter the action got her, she didn't think she'd succeeded.
"Oh be quiet."
Grinning, Betty shook her head though.
"Sorry, Julie, or should I call you Guardian now? Congratulations on that by the way. I've been keeping track of what's going on Earth side, and I had a bit of time to sort through a few of my former master's files. They were smart enough to ditch most of them, but I found a few still hiding out. I sent a copy to you, the ever efficient Major Sims, and of course Guardian Command."
Frowning slightly at the direction that the conversation had suddenly taken, Julie nodded slowly, waiting for what Betty seemed to be building towards.
"So, I was sifting through them, and I found this bit of crap that's going to be really interesting to you all. It's got all these big money transfers back and forth, some of them so complex I can't sort all of them out without spending a lot of time going through them. The upshot is though, that I've got some Bak'ra activities connected to a lot of Earth companies, and several government agencies. You've got a copy of it, and I don't think yas gonna like the results."
Julie leaned forwards, scrambling across the bed to grab her personal com unit and was dialing Major Sims extension by the time Betty was done talking.
"What sort of agencies are we talking about, Betty?"
"A lot of them, but I don't think they knew who the money was coming from. A few of the companies might have, but I'm not sure ‘bout that."
"Do we even know what the money was being used for?"
"Ya, that's the bit you ain't gonna like. All of the agencies, and the companies, used the money for one thing."
For once the flapper's face was deadly serious as she stared at the young Guardian.
"The human genome project."
Julie blinked in surprise, not having expected that. Her thoughts were interrupted by a noise from the small black cell phone like device she had been holding.
"What? Oh, yes, Major. We may have a lead. No, Sir, it's from Betty. Yes, Sir, the AI program. She sent you a copy of the information she gathered. The human genome project. Yes, Sir, very well. I'll be waiting."
Closing the device she sighed and began gathering the small travel pack she took with her wherever she went.
"So, ya heading out?"
A slightly annoyed shake of her head towards the still present Betty, and she tossed her com unit into the travel pack.
"Yes, seems the Major wants to take a look at this info you dug up. The rest of the team will be here in twenty minutes and we'll be heading out. There go my dreams of a good night's sleep."
"Sorry, Guardian, take care out there huh? Seems like your girlfriend is having all sorts of problems in the Western Hemisphere, don't want you to get into trouble also."
With that, and a blown kiss towards the screen, Betty disappeared. The screen and com unit powered down, and Julie was left scrambling to pack the rest of her baggage. A small feeling of dread swirled in the pit of her stomach.