Thanks as always to Diva for the beta reading, and to Nic. Sorry this took longer than my usual two week interval, but grad school is taking up a lot of my time. Who knew it would take so much energy to learn so many new things? Let's not even mention the hell that you have to go through to get grants. I hope everyone out there is alright, and that you all enjoy this part, even if it took longer than I expected. It's so odd looking at pictures from my trip to NYC. To think that the building we were standing on the top of no longer exists. Comments and constructive criticism are very welcome at: email@example.com
It's the old pains that get you when you least expect them.
The Human spirit was a strange and wonderful thing, at least from a Tiri perspective. The Tiri had been on Earth for over sixty years, and for the most part they had adapted to human kind, but it had taken a while. The never-ending ability of humans to adapt and not only survive in changing conditions, but thrive in them, was a constant source of amazement. Emily doubted that there were many Tiri who could have managed to adapt to such profound changes so quickly.
In fact, she knew there weren't. Of the thousands of Tiri who had survived the Evacuation, many had been in a near state of comatose shock for months. Some had never recovered. They were still mostly comatose, watched around the clock at Mars Base.
"First Guardian, all Guardian ships report ready for commencement of war games."
"Thank you, Angwar."
Emily smiled as she sank down into her command couch. These Guardians and the crews of the ships who had newly been assigned to there battle groups; they had not only adapted, but were thriving. She shifted slightly as she leaned back, letting her bond with her ship self increase slightly. The First Guardian grinned wryly; she was sore in some interesting places.
"Com, give me a broad band link to all fleet ships."
Simon, the on-duty Com officer, had been standing by for just such and order and only had to press a button to activate North Star's powerful communications systems.
"Com channel's open, Ma'am, fleet wide signal."
"Thank you, Simon."
Emily knew she had a tendency to be a bit abrupt during stressful times, so she did her best to make up for that when things were working smoothly. Memories of last night had been ambushing her all day long now, and she felt an almost overwhelming urge to call up a picture of Julie. Dear Maker, I'm so gone.
Hoping that her face didn't show what she had been thinking about, the head of Guardian Command addressed those assembled ships and crews. There weren't as many of them as she had hoped for, but for now they would have to do. Others would come online soon, but they would be short on training time.
"Ladies and Gentleman, Marines and Navy, crewmen and Guardians. Today you begin to practice for what is coming to your, our, home. For the next while, we will be practicing fleet maneuvers, after which you will commence war game maneuvers. Your world, all of mankind, is depending on us. So let's get to it shall we?"
A nod to Simon and the com channel closed. Almost instantly she tasted the amusement through a channel with Southern Cross. Grinning, Emily sent a mental caress through that link, even as the other Guardians checked in and the day's exercises began.
"I take it things with Ms. McGrath have been settled?"
Angwar murmured as he stepped up next to her couch quietly, holding a data pad. Emily felt her cheeks grow warm and the First Guardian steadfastly ignored the slight smirk on her Provost's face.
"Yes, I think so."
"Good. If you don't mind me saying, Emie, she's good for you."
Emily arched an eyebrow at that, spearing him with her gaze and waited for him to explain himself.
"Ah, I mean, she's a beautiful young lady. I'm certain she likes you quite a lot, and well, I mean. You are more relaxed now."
"Don't you have something else to do, Angwar?"
Angwar grinned and nodded his head.
Emily chuckled softly, watching her Provost head away, and whispering, "you're right old friend, she is good for me."
Julie groaned and leaned back against the back of the command couch. She'd just spent her longest time yet deep in her ship self. Coming back to her body was an odd feeling, her body felt ungainly. This headache isn't helping at all either.
Groaning, the redhead forced her eyes opened and blinked in surprise at the two people waiting next to the couch.
The doctor, and older lady with hair that had once been red itself, now streaked with gray, and a personality that rivaled Emie's for sheer force, handed her a glass filled with some sort of purple liquid.
Julie would have asked what was in it, but her body suddenly realized how thirsty and hungry she was. The liquid turned out to taste like a sort of milk shake, and Julie smiled tiredly at her ship doctor.
"Thanks, Doc. What's in this?"
"It's a protein sugar shake that the Tiri use to boost energy levels for their Guardians. You guys have some problems when you go into your bond for so long."
Grimacing, the doctor finished running a med scan device over her and pointed a finger at Julie.
"Take a rest, you're at the edge of your reserves as is."
Julie grinned as the doctor scowled and stalked back off the command deck.
"She's in a good mood," Julie muttered, taking a sip of the drink once more and looking toward her new Provost curiously.
"Guardian Command sent out the rankings for the last combat maneuvers."
Julie winced slightly at that. She thought that Southern Cross and her battle group, two heavy cruisers, and a recently assigned destroyer, had done fairly well. They had still made some fairly large errors, and she was certain that Emie was going to have some words about some of those. That and her Battle Group had been off, she'd personally spotted quite a few errors in the smaller ships handling.
There was no room for error when one was maneuvering a five-kilometer long ship.
Clarice handed over the pad, still grinning.
Julie looked at her oddly and then looked back down at the data pad. Blinking twice to make certain that she was looking at the right data. It was amazing how fast the fatigue could disappear.
"We're first on the list!"
Emie had even tacked on a personal note she saw, congratulating her for doing so well. That, somehow, made her feel even better than seeing their battle group listed first.
"Provost, do you think that this would be nice to be posted for the crew to see?"
"Why, Guardian, I believe so."
"Could you see that this is posted then?"
"My pleasure, Guardian."
Grinning, Julie left her new Provost to it, and touched the edge of her ship bond. She was still too tired to sink back into it, but that didn't mean she couldn't use some of her ship functions.
It was becoming easier and easier to do that, she noted absently; loving the warm feeling curling through her stomach as she sent a signal to North Star. The entire group was out beyond Mars orbit now, near the inner edge of the asteroid belt. They didn't dare practice beyond the sensor shell that the Tiri had constructed. The chance of the Bak'ra spotting so many Warp gates forming was far too high. It was, Julie admitted, a beautiful place. "Looking" inwards towards Earth she could "see" the sun and Venus just swinging into view.
The touch of the First Guardian's response to her com jerked her back from the view though, admittedly, she went willingly.
Julie, how are you doing?
Julie felt her lips curl into a smile at the greeting.
I'm doing great. Feels great to see Southern Cross number one on the list!
Laughter echoed back down the channel.
You did good, Sweetheart. Not perfect of course, but you did well.
Wait a second, what do you mean not perfect? We were nearly perfect, Emie!
She was laughing even as she said it though, and she knew that Emily didn't buy it. The First Guardian's snort didn't disappoint her.
Just make sure you take a good long look at the notes I put on the evaluation you'll be getting shortly. I seem to remember you nearly inverting your gravitic drives?
Julie winced, sinking a bit deeper into her couch. She'd been hoping that Emily wouldn't bring that up. She'd gotten slightly confused for a split second during the heart of the maneuvers. Hurriedly she decided to switch topics.
Ahm, yes well, what are you up to tonight?
Well, let's see here, I was hoping to curl up around a certain redhead, but I guess I could do something with you instead. Are you offering?
Green eyes narrowed as she considered that.
I don't really know now. I might just have plans with another tall, dark and devastatingly beautiful lady.
You think I'm devastatingly beautiful?
I said another tall dark and devastatingly beautiful lady, not you.
Julie nearly purred this time as the First Guardian's laughter echoed through the link. She was really starting to love that deep sultry laughter.
Cute, Julie, very cute. Could I tempt you away from this other devastatingly beautiful woman then?
Depends what you had in mind, First Guardian.
Hm, how's dinner and then relaxing in North Star's observation lounge?
It was a really tough decision but somehow Julie managed to make a choice.
See you at nineteen hundred then? I have to meet with my new Battle Group Captains first.
Sounds good, I have a meeting with Father first. See you then, Julie.
The old man's blue eyes seemed wearier than ever to Emily as he regarded her from the com screen. There was a slight delay, being this far out from Mars, just enough to be noticeable. A faint smile crossed the Emperor's face at the greeting and he nodded gravely.
"Daughter. How are the new Guardians working out?"
It never paid to underestimate the Emperor, so Emily answered a bit cautiously. Not knowing where her father was taking this quite yet.
"Well enough. They made the usual first time errors, but I'll wring those out of them soon enough. Was there something in particular you were interested in, Father? I'll be submitting a full report to the Senate tomorrow."
He waved one emaciated hand in front of the video pick up at that and grinned a bit less wearily.
"I know you will be, Daughter, but I wanted your firsthand opinions. What do you think our chances are?"
It was Emily's turn to grin wearily as she shook her head.
"Maker only knows, Father, but I can tell you that we just don't have enough time to go with our first plan. I'm going to officially recommend that we go with Beta 12."
Since her father's expression didn't change at all, she rather suspected he had known she was going to do that. It didn't mean either of them was going to be happy with it though.
"That's a risky plan, Daughter."
"I know, Father, we knew that when we drew it up, but we simply don't have any other choice. We can't let the Bak'ra dictate the rules of engagement on this one. We need to know where they are going to enter the system."
"So you'll take the other Tiri Guardians and go out to meet them, then draw them into a meeting with the new Guardians? It sounds simple enough, Emie, but can you guarantee that you'll get all of them?"
"We'll meet them at Char, and then keep up a general "retreat" to Sol. They won't know about the human Guardians yet, and we can ambush them. If need be, we'll fall back and use Earth's orbital defense forts as well."
"And if they know about the human Guardians?"
Emily's gaze was crystalline blue as she answered, her tone hard.
"Then we will take as many of them down with us as we can."
"We'll do the best we can, Daughter. I won't lose another civilization without a fight. I'll be looking forward to your action report tomorrow."
Just before she terminated the com though, Emily frowned in thought.
"Father? Have you heard anything from Lorin about us getting some more support ships?"
The fleet was barely at fifty percent of its lighter hulls, with each Guardian class ship only being supported by two or three smaller ships, compared to the six or even seven, that was usual for a Guardian battle group. It was one of the First Guardian's greatest worries, that her people wouldn't be supported the way they needed to be. Her father's answer did nothing to encourage her.
"I spoke with Lorin earlier, she says that they are expediting, but don't get your hopes up, Emie. They had to divert a lot of resources to getting the planetary shield up. You missed the test run by the way, it was quite a show, as you can imagine."
Indeed she could, when the shield had come up, it would have disintegrated everything in low Earth orbit. It would have been a global fireworks display the likes of which would have put any meteor shower to shame. Her father went on, a decidedly amused glint in his eyes now.
"Good thing Ms. McGrath came up with her suggestion or we might not have the shield tested even now."
To her embarrassment, Emie could feel her cheeks heating as she fought a blush. Memories from last night didn't help at all. Slick skin sliding against skin, fingers plunging into· the warm sweet taste·
Clearing her throat and doing her best to keep her voice level, Emily tried to reign in her thoughts.
"She's quite smart."
"You keep a hold of that one, you got me, Daughter? She's good for you, and I'm darn glad to hear you're over this Bak'ra stuff with her."
Black eyebrows raised in surprise at that. How had her father known about that? Even better, how had he known she'd mostly made peace with her doubts and fears last night while holding a naked Julie.
The Emperor laughed, a sound that was far too rare these days.
"I talked to your Provost, Emie. Angwar's a good man. I'm glad he's watching your back for you. Take care, Daughter, and I'll look forward to that report."
"I'll send it tomorrow, Father, and I'll send another after we finish our first serious war game. Be well, Father. Honor, Wisdom, and Strength."
"Honor, Wisdom, and Strength."
With that, the screen blanked, showing only the Guardian symbol. A sword posed point down before a shield.
Emily hoped that shield would be up to what was coming toward it.
Julie hummed happily to herself as she mentally debated what to wear that evening for her dinner with Emie. A dress? Hmm, difficult in zero g, ok, how about just my regular uniform? No, I don't want her thinking she's First Guardian anymore than need be. Ok, so something simple. Slacks and a nice blouse sound good.
It was a good day, even the headache she'd had from being so deeply in the bond with her ship self for so long had gone away. Grinning, she ducked into her ready room, grabbed a few data pads she'd read, and headed back out. She was still having the hardest time looking any of her command staff in the eye without blushing, but she was getting better at it. Clarice wasn't making it easy at all though. Her new Provost, it seemed, was enjoying being able to tease the Guardian at any chance she got.
Like now for example.
Clarice had risen from her station, no doubt reviewing her new duties as a Provost and grinned.
Quite certain that everyone on the deck was listening, she even caught Webster peeking over his shoulder at them, Julie forced a smile.
"Yes, Provost, after I meet with the battle group's Captains, you have command."
"Might I ask where I can reach the Guardian if I need to, after your meeting?"
I'm going to get you for this, Clarice.
Gritting her teeth, Julie answered, "I'll be on North Star if you need me afterward, Provost."
She hissed the title, annoyed beyond words when Clarice just smiled in response.
"Have a good night, Guardian. I trust you will, of course, be taking your Honor Guard members with you."
Managing not to groan, Julie just waved a hand and headed off the command deck. She swore if she caught any of them smirking they'd be out on the hull repainting it for the rest of their lives, which would probably be quite short if the First Guardian found out about them making her angry. With that mental image to keep her spirits buoyed, Julie stepped past the on duty guards and into the lift. The trip to her cabin was short, and she spent the time wondering if she could get the First Guardian to skip dinner and just go directly to dessert.
It was with the very pleasant image of showing off some of the things she'd bought in New York to an appreciative First Guardian that the door com sounded. Stacking the last of her pads on the smaller desk she'd had installed in her rooms, she headed for the door, calling out."
Vasily, the on duty Honor Guard, answered her in a still heavily accented Tiri.
"Southern Cross's Battle Group Captains here to see you, Ma'am."
"Thank you, Eric, send them in."
The three figures waiting, more or less patiently, outside her quarters were an odd group of people. Julie felt her eyebrows start to raise as she took a good look at them as they each came inside and saluted. They were all military, that was for certain, but who's military was anybody's guess. The three ships had only been assigned to Southern Cross this morning, and Julie hadn't even had time to do more than com each of them before they'd started maneuvers.
First through the door was Captain Robin Yu, the first, as Emily understood it, woman to command a fighting ship from the United States. She was the Captain of the Ranger, a small ship at "only" nine hundred meters in length. The Captain's back was ramrod straight as she came to attention, her Asian American descent rather obvious in her name.
Second was a man who was taller than even Emie. His shoulders had a slight slump to them, and his beard had some definite gray streaks through it. Piercing brown eyes watched her critically, and Julie had the urge to salute him. That he was Russian was never a doubt as Vasily went as far as to salute the man as he passed. Captain Kuguar Panteleyev, his reputation preceded him, had been pulled from retired status in the Ukraine. He now was now the Captain of the new Heavy Cruiser, The Kiev.
Julie wondered how he had managed to bribe his crew into choosing that name when their ship had been put on active duty.
The last man to enter was the Captain of the second Heavy Cruiser, The Saipan. The anger that flashed through his nearly black eyes startled Julie, and she stiffened in an instinctive response to it. Captain Reed Smith had the boyish good looks of an actor, and Julie wondered what his problem was.
"Captains welcome to Southern Cross. Please, make yourselves comfortable. Can I get any of you something to drink?"
She knew it wasn't what would be viewed as a formal greeting through most militaries, but Julie really didn't care. These people would be in charge of ships dedicated to keeping Southern Cross in one piece and helping her ship self destroy anything in its way. She wanted to know these people, to be able to trust them.
"No thank you, Ma'am."
That from Robin, she just got a short shake of his head in answer from Captain Smith, both of who remained standing a tad awkwardly. Captain Panteleyev had taken her words at face value and had relaxed on her couch.
"Tea if you have it, Ma'am."
As she moved about the small kitchen area attached to her quarters, she kept an eye on her three guests.
"Southern Cross and her Battle Group are number one on the list."
Returning, she offered Kuguar his drink and taking her own glass of water with her as she perched on one of the chairs.
"Congratulations. I hope we can keep this up. I know you've seen my Provost, Clarice, and if you have any problems you can always contact her. I'd like to get together with all of you tomorrow before we start the war games to see about improving our coordination."
Robin and Kuguar seemed to be listening to her intently, but Reed was nearly openly sneering. Julie made a mental note to take a good look at her new Captain's service files.
"I've got about an hour before I'm due at an engagement. Let's see what we can come up with tomorrow, shall we?"
Julie wasn't, despite all her recent intensive training, a Naval officer by predilection. She knew she still had a lot of learning to catch up with, and if anything, the learning curve was just as high as it had been during training.
Despite her best efforts, Reed said barely a handful of words throughout the hour-long tactics discussion, and he was the first to leave when she declared it was time for her to get going.
Robin, she found to be rather soft spoken and, if not unsure about her new position, still feeling her way into it. Kuguar was as loud and boisterous as Julie had imagined he would be, and she found herself liking the man.
"He failed out of Guardian training? Really? I didn't know that. He must have gone quickly if I don't remember meeting him."
It took Emily a lot of willpower not to reach over the table and kiss Julie. The young redhead was wearing what could only be described as form-fitting pants and a pale blouse that only served to highlight her hair. Emily wanted desperately to make certain that Julie's lips were as soft and warm as she remembered them. Unfortunately, she also remembered how Julie had glanced around in concern when Emie had pulled out the chair for her.
They were dining on North Star's observation lounge. The large armored view ports next to their table gave a spectacular view of the depths of space at the moment. It was one of five such establishments spread throughout the Guardian-class ship for off duty personnel to relax in. It doubled as a rather nice bar and restaurant. Each of the lounges had a different atmosphere, but Emily found she liked Lounge One, or Cosmo's as it had come to be known, the best.
"Emie? You still with me?"
Blinking, Emily smiled and focused on her radiant dining companion. Grinning as she took a sip of her red wine and tried to pick up the line of conversation again, and failing when she saw the smile Julie was giving her.
"What were we talking about again?"
Julie laughed and took a sip from her own glass, enjoying the white wine.
"Reed? You know, the Captain of The Saipan?"
A man was definitely the last thing Emily wanted to talk about at the moment, but she knew Julie really was interested.
"Yeah, he barely made it past screening, then failed out the first day."
Green eyes focused on her at that, and Emily could feel the warmth pass between them. Julie smiled a bit shyly then shook her head and continued.
"Ah, so how does one get booted out the first day?"
"One refuses to go through training, demanding that he be allowed to skip ahead since he obviously knew more than the civilians around him. Then one gets caught trying to sneak specs of the new Guardian-class design to American Intel."
Julie opened her mouth in amazement, having to blink several times before she could come up with something intelligent. Emily had to bite her lip to keep from telling her friend how cute she looked.
"What? But we shared everything with them! That's insane! How come he's in charge of a Heavy Cruiser?"
Emie's laughter caused not a few heads to turn their way in surprise. The First Guardian laughing was not a common occurrence.
"Trust me, Julie, if I could, he'd be in charge of an ore shuttle shipping back and forth from Mars to the Asteroid belt. Unfortunately, we don't have enough experienced personnel as it is, and he did make it through his Imperial training after failing Guardian training. I can try to switch him to another Battle Group if you want though?"
Julie sighed, but shook her head, surprising them both by reaching across the tabletop and taking the First Guardian's hand in her own.
"No, that's alright, I'll handle it. But he steps out of line, I'll be certain to smack him around."
Blue eyes sparkled.
"Smack him around?"
Julie smiled and squeezed Emie's hand before letting go and picking up her fork again.
"Well, maybe I'll get my Marines to smack him around. I'm sure God would love the chance."
"Speaking of God," Emily paused as she enjoyed another bite of the pasta, "Winston's coming out to see her tomorrow, but don't warn her. He wants it as some sort of surprise I think."
A quick glance around ensured Julie that they were mostly alone, and Emily watched with interest as the human leaned forward. Her voice lowering as she spoke, and sending pleasant shivers racing up and down Emily's spine, Emie nearly didn't hear what she was saying, she was so taken up in her tone of voice.
"You know, you haven't seen what I bought in New York."
The food was instantly forgotten as Emily leaned forward as well.
"What kind of things are we talking about?"
Julie licked her lips and waggled her eyebrows, obviously enjoying this new game.
"You'll just have to see now, won't you?"
Emily certainly was enjoying this new game, and was hoping it was leading where she thought it was leading.
"Do I get to see now?"
"Oh? Depends on what?"
The smile that she received nearly caused the First Guardian to groan.
"Depends on whether you're taking me to your quarters."
Emily swallowed, wondering how it was possible to be this aroused from just a few words and a touch.
Rising, Emily offered her hand to the smaller woman, smiling mischievously. What the younger woman wanted, the First Guardian would gladly give if she could. The warm hand that slipped into hers and the brilliant smile caused another wash of warmth through the First Guardian.
An Ensign was headed her way, carrying what looked suspiciously like a stack of reports. He wisely decided to turn around and bring the reports to her Provost as she narrowed her eyes and bared her teeth. Since the Ensign was not suicidal, he decided to not be flayed alive by an annoyed First Guardian.
Julie took a hold of her arm and chuckled, as they headed for the corridor.
"So that's how you avoid getting reports all the time?"
Emily grinned in answer and nodded, her hand finding a comfortable resting place at the small of Julie's back.
"I'll have to try that."
The mental image of Julie scowling at someone until they decided to leave was enough to make Emily chuckle again.
Emily did her best to look innocent as they headed towards the lifts. By the expression on her beautiful companion's face, Emie was fairly certain she'd failed. The redhead just shook her head though, playfully nudging the taller woman with her hip. Neither of them minded as the Honor Guards got into the lift behind them.
Emily liked her quarters, they were one of the few places where she managed to relax and rest. They were about the same size of Julie's quarters, if located in a different place than those on the most recent generation Guardian ships. The Honor Guards wordlessly stayed outside.
The sudden nervousness strumming from the body next to hers was, Emily sighed, not much of a surprise. She'd expected Julie to become nervous, had almost planned on it in fact. With surprising gentleness, the First Guardian raised Julie's chin with her fingertips. Smiling reassuringly she gently nipped those lips, lightly teasing them both until she felt Julie relax against her.
"It's ok, love."
Julie burrowed her face into Emie's shoulder and the older woman could feel the deep shuddering breath shaking the body she held close.
"I can't believe that everyone knows when we make love."
Emily had been certain that might be a problem for her lover, and she really wished she could do something to help her sort through it.
"They don't care, Julie, in fact, they're happy for us."
"I know, but·"
Emily nuzzled the fine, red hair under her cheek, as Julie's arms tightened around her.
"It's hard, Emie."
"I know. Julie?"
She waited until green eyes peeked up at her before lightly tracing patterns up and down the smaller woman's back. Liking the warm length of the lithe body pressed up against hers.
"We don't have to do anything you know."
The smile that crossed Julie's face made Emily positive she'd managed to say the right thing this time. Shifting in her grasp, Julie slipped her hands up around the back of Emily's neck. Tugging the First Guardian's head lower, the younger woman whispered, their lips just barely brushing together, "it'll keep our crews on their toes right?"
Emily couldn't help the smile that formed on her lips, and she nodded as seriously as she could against the redhead's lips.
"Let's keep them really on their toes then."
At least that was what Emie thought that Julie had whispered, but she wasn't certain since she was concentrating on trying to get the younger woman's blouse off.
The insistent snarling sound of a priority com call dragged them both out of deep sleep. Yawning, Julie grudgingly let go of Emie's waist, letting the taller woman slide out of bed and hit the acceptance button.
She was half awake through the conversation that followed, wanting desperately to curl back up with the warm length of the First Guardian and go back to sleep. The blankets still smelled of their lovemaking from the night before and she felt a lazy smile form at the memories. Emily's tone caught her attention and she listened to the last half of the conversation.
The young voice that answered the First Guardian wasn't familiar to the redhead.
"Where did the gate form?"
"Near Pluto, First Guardian."
"What's Intel say?"
"Guardian-Class, Variant Ten."
The pause that followed was long enough for Julie to roll over and study her lover. Emily had a strange look on her face, and when Julie stroked her back, the muscles were tense.
"Do you have a positive identification?"
"No, First Guardian, we just received the preliminary·" The Lieutenant paused and looked at something off the screen, then back at the First Guardian.
"Ma'am, we've just picked up a hail. They are identifying themselves as The Banshee, Imperial Guardian Class, Registry number 3443-006789."
Emily knew that number, Julie realized, feeling her love tense even further at that information. The tall woman's voice was like a low rumble vibrating Julie's hand where it rested on her back.
"Send acknowledgement, and my compliments. Ask them to rendezvous here, also send a report to my father and Winston."
"Yes, First Guardian."
The screen went dark, but the First Guardian stayed right where she was; perched on the edge of the bed, back ramrod straight. Sleep all but forgotten, Julie sat up behind her love, and stroked her back.
"Emie? What's going on?"
Julie could see the dark haired woman's jaw work in the dim night lighting.
"After we first arrived here, I asked for volunteers to scout and find out what happened in the rest of the Empire and our Allies. Mira and Talia were the first to volunteer. They were old, Variant Ten ships, but they were small enough to use the new stealth systems we'd been developing."
Julie scooted closer and wrapped her arms around Emie's waist, leaning her head against the tall woman's back. Responding to the old pain in her voice.
"They were supposed to be on an extend scouting mission, twelve years maximum. We gave up on them after three decades had passed."
"Which one of them is The Banshee?"
"By the registry number, that's Mira. It wasn't her old ship self's name, she must have changed it."
Julie had never heard of a Guardian changing their ship self's name before and she opened her mouth to ask why she would have done that. Emie beat her to it though, shifting in the loose embrace to tenderly brush a hand along her cheek.
"It's an old tradition. When you lose a loved one, or go through something that you feel changes you completely, you change your ship name. Nearly all of us changed names when we reached Earth."
Understanding what her love was saying she held onto Emie tighter.
"You mean that Talia·"
"Died somewhere along the way."
The taller woman closed her eyes tight and buried her face in Julie's neck. Gently, Julie stroked the thick black hair of the woman she held with a feeling of such tenderness it nearly hurt. Listening as the woman she held whispered in the darkness.
"Mira was my mentor when I went through Guardian training. I sent them to die, Julie, I sent all of them to die. I should have known what was coming. I should have been able to stop it. Should have known it was coming, Maker, they're all dead!"
Julie did what she could, wrapping her arms around the taller woman, holding onto her as if she might fly away. Rocking her as she held her, waiting for the body wrenching sobs to fade. She kept telling her what she could, how she felt, how Emie had kept the Empire together. How Emie was one of the reason's that Earth even stood a chance now.
Julie suspected the First Guardian hadn't ever let herself cry before, and she hugged her tighter. Rocking them both while Emie let the last of the grief go. She'd heard about other Tiri doing that. Just losing it for a few hours, crying, shouting, screaming. Then they'd go back to work, always working.
Trying to save us, despite ourselves sometimes.
When Emie shifted away from her, Julie let her go; knowing instinctively that the tall, dark-haired woman would pull away, ashamed at having broken down for even those few minutes.
"I have to get to the Command deck."
Emie's voice was slightly hoarse, but as steady as always. Julie just nodded and stood as well, smiling up at her, and surprising both of them by giving Emie a near bone-crushing hug.
"I'll get back to Southern Cross, the war games are going to start in a few hours. I love you."
Those simple three words seemed to calm the First Guardian and she hugged Julie back just as fiercely.
"I love you, too. Don't forget that."
"I won't, First Guardian, I won't. Don't leave me though."
Emily arched an eyebrow as she watched the maneuvers being displayed on the holo tank before her. The three dimensional display gave her a good understanding of what was happening near Earth's moon. It would have been even better had she dipped into the bond with her ship self, but she didn't need that level of detail. What was happening was fairly obvious.
The ID tags, which floated by each of the red and blue dots, told her which ships were where, and what their relative status was. Each of the dots, which floated out towards the edge of the tank had tags, which blinked, indicating that they had been "destroyed" by enemy fire. Each side had made errors, some of them costly, but the results of this engagement had been clear from early on.
Angwar nodded towards the tank, sporting a definite smirk.
"That's that then."
Emily folded her hands over her stomach, still watching the moving ID tags inside of the tank. She felt, not empty, but peaceful. The burning anger that had consumed her was, not gone, but muted. Banked and stored away. No longer threatening to consume her in a blaze of directionless rage.
Nicholas and Darrien were standing nearby, Nicholas as always fidgeting as he watched, while Darrien stood, impassive as a mountain. Mira leaned forward and nodded, the old, white-haired Guardian nodding in agreement.
"He's right, First Guardian. Agressor team has them on the run. At best, Defense isn't going to be able to do more than inflict forty percent casualties. I think I like your Julie's way of doing things."
Emily glanced with amusement at the other Tiri Guardians. None of the older Guardians had taken part in the war games. This was a test of the human Guardians and their crews. Some of which, such as the fighters, had only joined the various Battle Groups this morning. A few ships still didn't have their assigned fighters.
"That's your professional opinion is it?"
The three other Guardians grinned, well Darrien grunted, and nodded. Emily tried not to think about the cause of the sadness in Mira's eyes yet though, or the brittle edge her grin held.
"All right, looks like it's a consensus then. Angwar?"
"Yes, First Guardian?"
"My compliments to Julie and tell her that her force can stop beating the shit out of Zemjhi's Defenders. Tell them to regroup and switch sides. See what happens then."
"Yes, First Guardian."
If her Provost was smiling, Emily chose to ignore it. She'd been certain that she'd kept the pride out of her voice, but judging by the grins on the three other Guardians, she hadn't succeeded.
For someone who's always having problems with public displays of affection, Julie sure knew the right things to say this morning.
"Well then, if you three will stop grinning like fools and follow me, we'll get some work done."
The various Guardian Honor Guards thankfully stayed outside, since there wasn't enough space inside of her ready room for all of them. Darrien silently took his glass of vodka, while the rest of them stuck with wine.
It had been nearly sixty years since Emily had seen Mira, the smaller, older Guardian had held up fairly well though. Mira's ship self was one of the last remaining Variant Ten Guardian Ships, two generations older than Emily's ship self. It was smaller as well, but had the advantage that she had been one of the few Guardian ships to be specialized for scouting missions.
All four of them raised their glasses and saluted one another before drinking.
"Honor, Wisdom, and Strength."
Emily took her seat, sipping her wine as she watched the others. As was happening throughout the Imperial forces, Tiri were starting to act more alive than they had since the fall of Tiri Prime. They knew what was coming towards them, but by the Maker, at least they were doing something to fight the Bak'ra again. Being out of hiding had helped a lot, and seeing how well most of the humans had adapted had helped even more.
Not all of them though.
Emily reminded herself silently, thinking of the hot spots on Earth where she had been forced to deploy some of her, still precious few, Imperial Marines to keep the peace. Hatred died slowly, if at all, and she supposed it was inevitable that once the shock got over, that the Tiri would become targets of their own.
"How were things out there, Mira?"
The small elder woman shrugged elegantly, sipping once more from her glass of tea.
"Not great. The Zz'sstal fell shortly after we did. So did the Al'kar'kim, although it took a bit longer."
Emily grimaced at that. It had been expected of course, but that still didn't make it easier to hear the words. Both races had been close allies of the Tiri since the beginning of the war with the Bak'ra.
"I wish I could have kept in contact."
Emily waved that away, sighing.
"You know as well as I do that we couldn't risk any contact that would have brought the Bak'ra here before we were ready. I'm impressed that you managed to stay out for this long though. We feared you dead for a long time now."
Originally, Mira's orders had been to scout for as long as she could, then return. Emily had thought that would mean the other Guardian would return after a decade, at most.
"How did you survive out there, Mira? Sixty years is a long time to go without parts."
Her old teacher's face creased into a seldom seen smile at that question.
"We stumbled onto a group of refugees from Redwing, and got some parts from them about three decades ago now. Good thing too, since I was being hunted by an entire Bak'ra battle group at the time. I can't tell you how good it is to be back though, I was certain we'd never make it back more than once."
The sheer amount of information Mira had managed to collect on the Bak'ra movements and new ships were invaluable. The First Guardian only wished that Mira hadn't had to return alone.
"Your crew cleared yet?"
After the bio-engineered Bak'ra plague that had destroyed Tiri Prime and lost them the war, the protocols for dealing with even possible infectious agents were very strict indeed. The fact that Mira and her crew had been out scouting for so long and interacting with other species on the far side of the Galactic rim, didn't help at all either. There was a tension, a brittleness to her friend that hadn't been there when she'd last seen her.
Sixty years was a long time, even for a Tiri, and a lot had happened.
"Yes, they're ready to be rotated off soon now. I wish I could give them more shore leave though. At least I can reduce my crew numbers."
Emily watched her carefully at that, knowing the pain that lurked behind those simple words. Two Guardian-Class ships had been dispatched to scout, both of them Variant Ten's. They'd been a partnered team, Mira and Talia, for as long as Emily could remember. Even before she'd gone through her own Guardian Training, Mira and Talia had been together.
Darrien was watching Mira with a surprising look of tenderness on the old bear's face. Even Nicholas had stopped fidgeting.
"What happened to Talia, Mira?"
The white-haired Guardian's fingers tensed, curling around the glass she held until Emily was certain it would shatter. The stark pain in her voice cut through the First Guardian as Mira seemed to shrink in on herself.
"We were leading the Bak'ra on a wild goose chase. Trying to muddy the trail, keep them from heading this way. There were a lot of them, a couple of their big Thor-Class ships, and supporting elements. We jumped into the Vir system. The colony was still there, some of it anway. Two thousand were left, Emie, two thousand."
The cold hatred in Emily's chest burned and she gritted her teeth. The Vir had been a prosperous Tiri colony, with a population of over a billion.
"They had a few old cargo ships, and were trying to get out of the system. Hard to do with no Guardians to form Jump Gate's for them. When we showed up they had all put themselves into stasis, aimed their ships at a destination, and gone to sleep. They must have been praying that they'd wake up to a better universe."
Mira stopped, closing her eyes and taking deep breaths. Darrien silently handed her his shot of Vodka and she downed it without question. The burning trail left by the liquid as it went down seemed to help a bit.
"We led the Bak'ra right to them, Emie. If we hadn't entered the system, the Bak'ra probably wouldn't have found them before they got out of the system. As it was· we couldn't stop. Talia knew that. By the Abyss, we both knew it. We tried though, we were going to grab onto them with tractors, open a Jump Gate and pull them through with us. Then the Bak'ra showed up, jumped in almost right on top of us. We fought, best we could, but there were so many, Emily. So very many of them, and they kept coming. Talia put herself between them and the cargo ships."
The endless pain in the old woman's gaze told Emily all she needed to know about what happened to Talia after she did that.
"They took the cargo ships, I couldn't do anything for them. Barely had enough energy to get my crew out of there. I picked up as many of Talia's crew as I could and got out of there. After that, we spent a good two decades being chased."
Emily wondered if she would have had the strength to leave and save her own crew if Julie had been killed. She doubted it.
"But we're here, and mostly in one piece. Not a moment too soon I think."
There was something nearly insane in the other woman's gaze, and Emily mourned the friend and teacher that had died somewhere in those sixty years. Grimly she nodded, knowing she could do nothing to help Mira. Not until she'd made certain that Earth didn't suffer the same fate as Tiri Prime.
"Thank you, Mira. When will Banshee be ready?"
That Mira had changed her ship self's name, told Emily a lot about her old friend.
"We can go as soon as we restock."
"Do your best, Mira."
"Take care, First Guardian."
Rising, Emily returned Mira's tired salute and watched her leave silently. Darrien and Nicholas let her sit back down and regroup her thoughts, which she was thankful for. Finally though, it was Darrien who broke the silence.
"Banshee's in shambles, Emie. I'm amazed she made it back in one piece. You can't seriously be thinking about letting her take up her place in the Line?"
Hard blue eyes met his and she tapped the data pad that lay on the desktop. Her smile was grim when she answered him.
"We have no choice, my friend. Rotate her crew and give her some rest, and supplies. That's about the best we can do for now. We need everyone and every last Guardian. Even Mira, and her ship self."
Nicholas for once had nothing to say, and simply sat where he was, shaking his head as if he didn't want to believe what he had heard, was hearing. Darrien was, as always, more stubborn.
"Emie, she's going to get herself killed. We have to leave her with the Human force."
Nicholas started nodding though at that, opening his mouth to agree.
The sound of Emily's hand slamming down on the desktop silenced them both.
"Shut up, both of you. This goes beyond her, beyond you, beyond even me. We are fighting to save an entire race. If risking her death means a better chance at saving Humankind, then that's what's going to happen. Understood?"
Both nodded, reluctantly, but they nodded.
"God Damn it!"
Julie stared at the holo display before them. She couldn't believe what she was watching.
"Webster, tell Captain Smith that if he doesn't get The Saipan back into formation, he's walking back to Earth."
The com officer nodded and swung back to his station. Julie hooked a thumb towards the holo tank and raised an eyebrow towards her Provost.
"What does Smith think he's doing?"
"At a guess, My Lady, he thinks he's going to show us how it's done."
Julie glared at her unrepentant Provost, who had taken to calling Julie, ÎMy Lady'. Her true anger was directed at the tank display though. The Ranger and The Panteleyev were holding formation with Southern Cross as her Battle Group tried to counter attack. The war games had been going on for almost forty hours now, driving both crew and Guardians to the limit. This was the second time she'd had to pull Smith back from charging ahead.
"Where is Aggressor Force?"
"Still holding formation and advancing, Ma'am. Looks like they're trying to flank us. I've got fighters being deployed now though."
Julie frowned and sank deeper into her ship bond. Skimming through the sensors, she pulled more detail about the fifty two Guardian Battle Groups which made up Aggressor Force. As, barely, the oldest human Guardian, Julie had been put in charge of the Defender Force for this set of games. She'd done well enough during the first set of games, where she'd led the then Aggressor Force to, as Emily had called it, Kicking Defender's ass.
Now though, both sides had learned a great deal from that first set, and they were much more cautious with their maneuvers.
North Star and the other Tiri Guardian groups were doing their own war game practices now, out by the asteroid belt. Julie really wished that Emie was nearby, but the First Guardian had wanted to be out with the Tiri Guardians while they trained with their new crews.
Odd, why isn't she having both groups train together? The Tiri Guardians didn't get any of the new support ships assigned to them either. Except for the three Heavy Cruisers that they brought with them on the Evacuation. What is Emie up to?
That line of thinking was side tracked as she noticed something in the formation she was looking at. With a slow smile she pulled out of the ship bond enough to focus on her command crew.
"Webster, raise the rest of Defender group. I think we've got a good chance of splitting Aggressor in half. We'll need to form a few Warp Gates though."
Glad to have an idea for a counter attack, Julie set to work, communicating with the rest of the Human Guardians directly.
Emily and the rest of the Tiri Guardians were making their way at a leisurely several hundred thousand kilometers an hour back towards Mars. They were only a few hours out from orbit, and Emily was looking forward to spending time with Julie. It had been a hectic few weeks, with the two of them only being able to catch a few minutes alone here and there.
I wish we could have stayed together, but everyone needed the practice. As is, things are going to be tough enough. I wish we had longer, dear Maker, I wish we had years to go·
Shaking the thoughts away, Emily sighed and thought of the conversation that she'd have to have with Julie tonight. Her lover was not going to like what she was going to say.
She's going to be pissed that I didn't tell her before. But damn it, it felt so good to just be with her.
The original plan had been to go out and meet the Bak'ra with the entire force at a nearby system, and neutralize the threat there. That plan had gone right out the airlock with the Bak'ra's earlier than expected approach.
We thought we would have years to prepare.
That had turned out to be truly optimistic view. Laric's treason was probably one of the reasons that the Bak'ra were advancing so quickly. The traitor Guardian had probably, somehow, managed to send out a signal. Whatever the reason, the results were going to be a bitch to deal with.
We won't be able to defeat them without Earth's defenses now. Maker help me, but we'll have to fight a falling back action. Make them pay for every kilometer they take.
Dark blue eyes flicked toward her command displays and she smiled faintly. At least more and more of the auxiliary craft were coming into service. Pilots were still scarce, but the Guardian ships were starting to finally get their full fighter compliments. Then there was how well Southern Cross had done coordinating her forces. The section Julie had been in charge of had won their engagements, every time now. With less of a margin as the other Guardians caught up with her in way of training, but she won.
"Southern Cross just signaled us, asks if we will be rendezvousing with the rest of the fleet at Mars?"
"Tell them we'll see them there in a few hours, Angwar. Alert the Emperor that we'll be starting Phase I as soon as we receive an indication of where the Bak'ra are."
Julie loved this. Laying in the darkness, curled up with Emily. They were in her quarters this time, the First Guardian having accepted her invitation to dinner. The smell of their lovemaking was still heavy in the air, and Julie could still feel the slick heat between her legs from where Emily had been a moment before.
"I still want you, how can that be?"
A low chuckle rumbled through the body she was still half covering and Julie sighed with pleasure.
"I want you too, little one."
That got a mock scowl though and Julie probed the First Guardian in a ticklish spot she'd found just an hour earlier. That earned her a laugh and a hasty apology.
"Ok, you're not little!"
"Darn right I'm not."
"Just a bit small."
The resulting tickle and pillow fight removed the last of the covers and pillows from the bed, and they eventually curled back up together. The two of them breathing hard from having laughed so much, and loving the time spent together.
When Emily spoke, Julie wasn't ready for it.
"As soon as the long range sensor outposts spot the Bak'ra, we're going to go meet them, love."
Julie frowned slightly, wishing that her lover could have waited until the morning to talk business.
"I guessed as much, Emie."
Long fingers massaged her scalp and Julie let out a moan of approval.
"You and the other human Guardians are going to stay here."
That took her even longer to realize what the First Guardian meant.
Shocked, she pulled away, sitting up so that she could see Emily's face and if she was sane or not. The calm blue eyes that returned her look answered that question.
"Emie, what are you talking about? We're all going, right?"
Even as a part of her suddenly understood why the Tiri Guardians had not practiced with the humans and the new support ships. Julie felt a sinking feeling as she felt Emily take her hand.
"Julie, there's no other way. We can't let the Bak'ra dictate which direction they are going to attack Earth from. We're going to go out and meet them. Let them think that the Tiri Guardians they know made it through the Evacuation are all there is. Then draw them back here, where you'll ambush them. Then we'll try and trap them between Earth's defenses and the rest of the fleet if we need to."
"NO! You are not going alone and leaving me here while you get yourself killed!"
"There's no other way. Julie, love, I wish there were."
"No. Emie, please, there has to be another way. I'll go with you, the others can stay here and wait."
"Julie, you know the Bak'ra know how many Guardians managed to survive the Evacuation. There would be no way that they would mistake Southern Cross as a Tiri ship. It would put the entire ambush in jeopardy."
Julie's heart wailed against it, and she wanted to scream at the calm figure next to her. It wasn't fair, they'd only just gotten to be together. Now Emie would have to go for God knew how long, and she wouldn't see her, or be able to talk with her.
And she might get killed, a part of her mind reminded her, not a part she was fond of at the moment.
"Emie, there has to be some other way. Please·"
Strong arms gathered her and pressed her against the First Guardian's chest. She clung to Emily, wanting to imprint the moment on her soul.
"Damn you for your timing Emie, I could have gotten really angry if I had more time."
Closing her eyes, Julie felt the small chuckle that brought, and the soft lips that pressed against her forehead.
"I know. You can yell at me when we're done."
Julie peered up at the face so close to hers.
"Promise me. Promise me I'll get the chance?"
"I will do my best, Julie, I promise."
The Imperial palace was much as Emily remembered it. She didn't visit it often, seldom having the chance with her duties on Earth, and her more recent duties as the head of Guardian Command.
It was much smaller than the palace on Tiri Prime had been, but it was still elegant. She appreciated the amount of work that had gone into it over the last half-century, and more. It just didn't feel like home to her.
"Daughter. It is good to see you again, healthy and happy."
Emily smiled as she took her father's hand and squeezed it carefully, before taking a seat.
"I'm glad I could attend the dinner tonight, Father. I just wish Julie could have also, but she's in the middle of another war game."
They were in one of the sitting rooms near the throne room, waiting for the other guests to assemble.
"Is Weston going to be coming?"
"Yes, he's even going to be bringing that pleasant Katya along with him."
Emily arched an eyebrow at that. The last she'd heard from Julie, Katya and her brother had still not been speaking to each other over some fight. Her father's eyes watched her with a knowing look, and the First Guardian ducked her head suddenly feeling embarrassed.
"Weston is as stubborn as you are, Emie, but he knows a good thing when he sees one. Whatever the argument they had, it was not worth the price. They should be here within the next little while."
"I know, Father." Thinking of a certain small redhead she'd almost lost due to her own stubbornness.
"What about you, Daughter? How is Ms. McGrath doing?"
The look of embarrassment turned into one of startle. Her father, he looks so frail these days, she thought, leaned forwards with amusement.
"You don't think I heard about your little fight?"
"Of course not, Father."
Although she had hoped that little lapse of her sanity had gone unnoticed by him.
"Daughter, there is no shame in anger and rage. The only shame is when it is not justified. I take it that you've learned that lesson finally?"
"I'm trying to, Father."
His skin was nearly transparent she noted as he patted her hand fondly, smiling as he did so.
"She is good for you, Emily. Weston likes her, and she's doing quite well with the other Guardians I hear. Trust your gut with this one."
"As the human saying goes, Father, you are preaching to the choir."
"Good, I had hoped I had not raised cowards for children."
The tone and amusement still shining in his old eyes took the sting out of that, not that Emily would have taken offense from her father. Well, not too much anyway.
"Who else is going to be here tonight?"
"A few of the Imperial Senators, who I think you should at least meet once."
"Daughter." His tone was one that cut through her objections, and one that any of her subordinates would have instantly recognized.
"You can't continue to try and completely avoid politics. You are my daughter, Imperial Princess Windstar, and it is your duty."
"Father, I am First Guardian, before all else. I don't have time for politics."
They both knew that for, if not a lie, then a half-truth. Before he could continue though, an Imperial Marine Colonel entered and bowed. A data pad held in his hand.
"Emperor, my apology, but I have a message for the First Guardian."
The laughter left their eyes at that, and Emily stood swiftly and silently. Taking the offered pad she nodded as he withdrew and pressed her thumb over the scanner, unscrambling the Class-One message. It only took a moment to read what was written and then meet her father's eyes.
"I guess your attempts to get me to be more political will have to wait, Father. An unmanned sensor platform just located the Bak'ra. They're seven Warp Jump's away. We'll meet them halfway and draw them in."
There was an old pain in the blue eyes which watched her, but her father nodded. He'd known what she had planned for some time now, and even if he did not like it, he knew she believed it would give them the best chance at survival.
"May the Maker bless you in this, my Daughter."
"May the Maker bless us all, Father."
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