Ship's Log: 18 February 2643; ASV Aurora. Captain Julia Andreys recording. The crisis at Phi Perseus has heightened with the arrival of the League ships under Captain de Montamar. The Aururian vessels are now significantly outnumbered but have shown no indication of withdrawing. I suspect their reinforcements are still en route and will arrive before Captain von Lohringhoven's ultimatum expires in five days.
The League's arrival to take the prisoners on behalf of the Trade Consortium is another matter. It's becoming clear that there is something going on here beyond the matter of some gun-running.
Copious amounts of coffee were steaming from pitchers and mugs in the Aurora conference lounge. With their clocks slowly ticking toward 0400 hours, most of those assembled were yearning for a return to their beds and dreading the fact that they would most likely have little time to get any more sleep before their main watch shifts commenced.
Julia sipped at a particularly strong cup of coffee. Hargert had promised her it could keep someone up for hours. She darkly suspected his claim would be put to the test. Once everyone was seated, she tapped a key on the table to activate the communication interlink.
Instead of a lone image on the wall behind her, the table's main holographic projector activated. It displayed images beside the table. One had Captain Shaham and his command staff, roused for the same reason. Captain Gartan and Commander Imra appeared in the other images. A third image showed a tired Governor Taylor with Committee Chairwoman Logan beside him. The final was of Captain de Montamar on his ship, the Poursuivante. The vessel, which was now visible through the lounge window, resembled the same aesthetic as the Aururian ships, but with sharper lines and a pair of long, gray warp nacelles built into the sponsons on either side of the ship and angled downward just enough to get the necessary clearance to function.
"On behalf of the Oakland Colony, I do thank you for your offer of assistance, Captain de Montamar," Taylor said. "However, I am obligated to keep custody of the prisoners in question until Judge Moore rules on their motions."
Montamar nodded. There was no sign of anything but a calm and patient demeanor in the man. "Of course, Governor," he said, his English fairly accented from his native French. "Your people are a free and democratic people as well, with laws and protections that must be cherished and supported. I will wait for the outcome to your legal proceedings."
"Although that will be a moot point if the Aururians invade," Shaham pointed out.
"If they commence hostilities, Captain Shaham, I am authorized to open fire in your defense. The League will not stand by while the Empire commits another act of aggression."
"Captain, the Alliance has been in this universe for a year now," Julia began. "Why has it taken so long for the League to approach us?"
"The Trading Consortium asked us to let them take the lead in your introduction to our universe," was the answer.
"Presumably they feared we would react badly if we found out about their neighbors." This was from Taylor.
"A reasonable fear," de Montamar said. "When do you expect the legal issues to be handled?"
"The day after tomorrow is the main hearing. Today will be a preliminary one to discuss the motion to dismiss…"
Even with the coffee, Julia felt the conversation slip away from her as it became less relevant to her immediate problems. It seemed that every development made war more likely to break out, regardless of what she planned or considered. And now she was tired and her eyes felt like weights had been attached to her eyelids. Having to think of solutions when her brain felt like it was in a fog would be an uphill climb.
Finally Julia noticed Shaham was speaking. "..don't know about these people," he was saying. "If we are to deal with them I would like to know more."
"And I will share with you what I know, gladly. Perhaps in person? I will bring a shuttle down to meet with your governor and the Consortium Sub-Consul."
De Montamar's offer prompted Taylor to nod. "I will be waiting."
"I look forward to meeting you in person, Captain de Montamar."
"I'll meet everyone planetside," Julia said. "Aurora out." She tapped a key and ended the call. "Any thoughts?" she asked.
"I'm not sure I like that answer," Locarno said. "About why it's taken so long for the League to make contact with us. If the Aururians are as aggressive as he claims, it makes more sense to open contact as quickly as possible to warn us and give them a potential ally."
"Perhaps their reluctance, and that of the Consortium, is linked to their alleged mistreatment of less-advanced species?" Meridina asked. "If the Consortium recognized that we would disapprove of their ally's behavior, they may have felt the need to keep us from learning about the League's actions until relations were firmly established. And the League may have feared we would oppose them as well."
From within Julia's sleep-deprived brain a thought kindled. I need to find out how things are going on the Koenig, she thought to herself.
"Yeah, but that's assuming the Aururians aren't lying," Angel pointed out, continuing on from Meridina's remark. "Maybe the League treats aliens just fine and the Aururians prop up terrorist groups to undermine them. All to have an excuse to attack them. Hell, maybe that's what the group down on the planet are. They could be terrorists themselves, for all we know."
"They're not," Doctor Opani declared. Eyes turned toward her in the chair to Leo's left. "They don't sound like terrorists."
"And you know how a terrorist sounds?" Angel asked pointedly. "You don't know anything about them."
"And neither do you," Opani shot back. "But you assume they must be bandits just because these people say so? These people, who may practice slavery?"
"I don't have to assume a damn thing to know these people are bad news." Angel's tone grew harsh. "Look at what they've done. These bit-" She stopped and corrected herself at the last moment. "...these people threatened an innocent colony, opened fire on us without provocation, killed a member of our crew, and are threatening to attack again if we don't knuckle under and give them everything they want just because they freaking say so! Why the hell should we give them the benefit of the doubt when all we've seen them do is shoot at us and threaten us? If you ask me, I think it's clear that these Aururians are bad news. And I certainly don't trust a damned one of them."
Opani's dark teal complexion gained a blue tint on her face. Her eyes narrowed and her long, pointed ears seemed to level against the side of her head.
"Both of you, calm down," Julia ordered. She leveled an intent look at Angel, who finally diverted her eyes from Opani. "I know we're all tired and cranky, but we've got enough problems without fighting each other."
"It's not really our place to worry about the prisoners, isn't it?" asked Leo. "That's up to the government on the colony. All we have to do is worry about protecting this world. Or, if necessary, evacuating it."
"We're rated for twelve thousand evacuees, maximum," Jarod said. "But it would take us several hours."
"We got all those people off the Tikvah in under an hour, didn't we?" Locarno asked.
"We were lucky that day, Mister Locarno," Scotty said. "I dinnae care t' try an' repeat th' performance if we dinnae have tae."
"Still, have extra transporter station personnel on standby just in case," Julia said. "With the Lrrik and Enterprise helping, we could get everyone off-world on the last day, if necessary."
"I am not sure we will be allowed," Meridina said. "The orders from Admiral Maran are quite clear on the matter of protecting Phi Perseus."
"I want to keep the option open. Just in case. Lieutenant, any luck with that beacon hunt?"
"You mean looking for something that might not be there?" Cat shrugged. "Al-Rashad and I have identified the best points for such a beacon to transmit, but it's going to take the Koenig a few days to investigate them all. We could probably do it inside of a day, but we'd have to leave orbit."
"Which we're not doing," Julia said. "Keep me informed. Doctor, anything more on that organism? The reason we came here in the first place?"
"Dr. Ke'mani'pala should have a batch finish growing today," he said. "It might take a couple of days, but I'm sure she'll figure out what it's doing to them."
"Let me know when she has results. We'll see if it corroborates whatever Montamar tells us." Julia stood in her chair. "I'll see everyone on the bridge by 0800. You're all dismissed."
Everyone began to file out, save for Meridina, Lucy, and Opani. And, Julia noted, Commander Richmond. "The sun will rise over the Colony in about three hours," Opani said.
"They said no?"
"They refuse to move them, but they do not forbid us from doing the same," Meridina noted.
"The Commander informed me of the proposal," Richmond said. "I could provide security teams for the purpose. But to minimize possible difficulties, I suggest another course of action."
Julia listened to what Richmond recommended. It was, indeed, a workable solution, and would keep the Aururians secure in the process.
I just have to hope this doesn't impact our relations with those new arrivals was the sole concern that went through her head.
The night had not gone well for Zack. The nightmares had come back with their full fury. Nightmares of Clara dying, of her accusing eyes, and those of Julia dying in the same manner. Of everyone turning away from him for causing their deaths. Sleep had only come after a good, solid night-cap, to drown away those dreams.
Or rather more than a night-cap, as it turned out. With his head aching Zack could barely moan, much less lift his head. Every tone from the alarm was like a knife to the middle of his skull. Finally he shouted, "Turn that damn thing off!" The computer complied immediately and, to get the last word in, issued him a reminder. "Ship time is now 0620."
The time demanded the attention of Zack's brain. It didn't want to cooperate. It took several moments for him to force himself to sit up. His eyes went over to the table, where his empty plastic tumbler was beside his bottle of tequila. He narrowed his eyes at the bottle. The level was down to about the three-quarter mark. That was far too low. He was certain it was too low. How could he have had that much. Just one drink the first night out and two drinks after the nightmare.
It was just two drinks, wasn't it? He could swear it was only two. It was only after he thought about it that he recalled the third. And the fourth. He had been trying to drown out the nightmares, hadn't he?
"Dammit," Zack muttered under his breath. Through the pain a cool feeling came to him. He was starting to become like his father, wasn't he? Drowning away sorrows with alcohol… And he didn't want to become Gerald Carrey. He had a life. A job.
A job. For the others, it was more than that. Zack had to think about that. Hadn't he ever considered this more than a mere job? Something to do with his life?
He had, yes. Flying the Koenig had been his favorite duty in the world back in the Facility days. The others were possessive of the Aurora, but he had always felt a deep affection for the gutpuncher that Carlton Farmer had put together for them.
That was before Clara had re-entered his life. Then it was something to do in order to be worthy of her. To live up to what she saw in him, the thing that brought her out to the stars too.
The thing that, in the end, killed her.
In a wave the feelings came back. That he had never been worthy of her. Those quiet dreams, that deep secret longing he'd never gotten out of him for another woman, all little betrayals of a good, kind person who had given him her love. Clara Davis would have been far, far better off if she had stayed far away from him.
Zack's hands went to the bottle and the tumbler. His first thought had been to put it away. But with those horrible feelings back, he felt a desire to put away another shot. Just one more. Something to dull that feeling. To get it out of him.
The comm system beeped right as his fingers reached for the cap of the tequila bottle. He pulled his hand back and hit the receive key on his omnitool. "Carrey here," he said. He knew his voice sounded off. He hoped it would sound more like being groggy from sleep than hung over or, now that he thought about it (as much as he could think), between being hung over and still being a little drunk.
"Navaez here," Magda said. "I came on duty early. I thought I would let you know we completed our sweep of this area. Still no sign of anything."
"Onto the next then?" he asked, grimacing from the pain in his head.
"We're already en route at point zero eight impulse power."
"Point zero eight?" He blinked.
"At full power, I might miss something on the sensors. This way I do not. Our ETA to the next scanning zone is ten hours."
"Alright then. I'll be up shortly. Carrey out."
Once the call ended Zack winced to himself. Even if he took the breath mints and got rid of any lingering smell on his breath, there was no way they wouldn't see he had been drinking. Zack turned to his personal replicator. "Niltox, six hundred milligrams," he specified. "And water."
"Warning. Requested dose exceeds recommended dosage by…"
"I know. Override and give me the damn pills!"
His outburst won him the machine's obedience. It produced two cups, one with the requested cool water and the other with three small blue pills. He downed the blue pills together and drank enough water to wash them down. With an eye toward the time clock, Zack went to his shower to face the day.
When everything was ready, Doctor Opani returned to the hospital. She was again waived through the doors to the quarantine ward by the guards. She found the prisoners to be freshly roused. Breakfast would be served shortly. She stepped into the area in the middle of the cells.
Kishala walked to the edge of her own cell until she was less than ten centimeters away from the forcefield containing her. "Doctor Opani."
"Ms. Abrakia." Opani grinned at her. "I need you all to stand beside each other in your cells."
"Why?" the Ralsan asked.
"So that we can take you outside," Opani answered. "The sun will start coming up shortly."
That prompted a reaction from the dark-skinned woman "Kat". "We are willing to accept a parole. Restraining us will not be necessary if you will but give it."
"You will not be restrained. We are transporting you to a site outside."
It was clear the others found the request to be bizarre. Doubly so for the lack of armed guards to accompany them. Nevertheless, the prospect of getting to see the sunrise won them over. They did as instructed.
Opani tapped her omnitool. "Lieutenant, they're in position."
"I see that. Beaming in five seconds."
"'Beaming'?" asked one of the other Ralsans.
Opani considered an explanation. But there was no time for one. She remained silent until she felt the familiar sensation of a transporter taking hold of her. The quarantine ward disappeared in a burst of white light that overwhelmed her vision.
When her vision returned, Opani was outside on a grassy field. The sky was dark and the stars were out. A thin sliver of dawn was visible on the horizon. The outlines of a forest showed beneath those early rays. Lucy and Meridina were standing beside her, Lucy operating the controls of a portable transporter system tied into the one on the Aurora.
In the moments after her sight returned, Opani watched ten more bursts of light appear. The prisoners found themselves standing in the middle of the grass field as the dawn approached.
The immediate reaction was utter shock. One moment they had been in their cells, then after a burst of light they were out in the open. They looked around and talked excitedly in their shared language about what had just happened. Kishala stepped out from among them and faced Opani and her compatriots. "What did you do to us?" she asked.
"We generated a subspace tunnel around you," Lucy replied. "And directed it here. It's safer than matter-energy transporter technology."
"These are two of my crewmates," Opani said to her. "Lieutenant Lucy Lucero, an operations officer, and Commander Meridina, First Officer of the Aurora. Meridina is a Gersallian."
Meridina nodded to them. "I know it is strange to see an alien looking the same as your own species. My people have had to adjust themselves to a similar truth now that we are in constant contact with Humans."
There was a look in the Ralsan's eyes. It was joy and wonder and uncertainty and, yes, a little fear mixed in. "Why?"
"You asked. And we have questions as well," Meridina said. "Our people have much to learn about this universe."
Kishala said no more. After one last grateful look she turned away and returned to the others. Opani noticed that for the first time her tail was moving side-to-side. She wondered if that was a good sign or not.
Between their time traveling in their ship and the days spent in confinement, the prisoners had spent weeks without seeing a planet-based sunrise. The three Aurora crewmembers watched quietly as they reacted to this one. Some knelt. Some sat. Two held their arms out, as if to embrace the rising sun of Phi Perseus. The younger woman with curly blonde hair who had restrained Kat in Opani's prior conversation with them stood in front of the others and greeted the rising sun with a soft melody. They didn't recognize the words. But they could understand some of the meaning.
"I believe she is the one," Meridina said to them. More specifically to Lucy, who was looking over the portable station.
Lucy looked up and toward the prisoners. After several moments of consideration she nodded. "I can feel it too," Lucy said.
The ceremony, such as it was, continued on through the sunrise. Some of the other women in the group took up the melody as the sun began its climb into the sky off the horizon. After about half an hour the assembled finished their singing and humming.
This time they all approached the trio. "We did not expect this," the young woman said. She gave them a bow of the head in gratitude. “As a Sister, I thank you.”
Meridina returned the head bow. "There is much hostility between our peoples currently. To allow it to continue not only increases the risk of conflict, it weakens the Flow of Life."
"The Flow of Life." The Aururian woman's look was one of curiosity. "That is your name for it?"
"We consider it a gift from Anjea, the intercessor and protector of all the Singers, who convinced her mother Yhi - the Mother of Creation, who Sang all into existence - to grant us such a boon in our darkest hour."
Opani responded first. "Although I am ungifted, there are many among my species with the Gift who believe it to be the energy of the Supreme Being." Opani waited to see if they had more to say before she moved on. "We can do this daily. I have made the arrangements, and Captain Andreys will approve of it."
"She will," Meridina confirmed. "Captain Andreys is trying to learn more about your people. She hopes to find a peaceful solution to these disputes."
"One war is bad enough," Lucy added. "Fighting you would mean less ships to fight the Nazis."
A curious look came over some of the women. "Nazi?" asked the one named Kat. "You refer to the 20th Century movement led by Adolf Hitler?"
"Those are the ones," Lucy confirmed. "In the history of Universe S4W8, they won the war and at some point became the most powerful state on Earth. So they conquered the rest of Humanity, drove the rest to flee in space ships, and expanded into space."
The reply was incredulity. Incredulity that soon faded into general horror at the concept. “Mother above, you would think killing him once was enough…”
A tone came from Meridina's omnitool before Lucy could inquire as to what Kat meant. She checked it. "It is time for us to return you," she said. "We will bring you here again tomorrow."
"Again, you have our thanks," said the young woman who had led the singing.
"Before I send you back… what's your name?" Lucy asked. "If you don't mind?"
"I am Kirrhi," she answered.
"I hope we get this sorted out," Lucy said. "Meridina and I would love to discuss our cultures' different approaches to the Flow of Life."
Kirrhi's smile widened. "Yes," she said softly. "I think we would enjoy that as well."
The sun was still low in the sky when Julia and Jarod materialized outside of the government building. Security personnel directed them back to the same conference room Julia had seen the prior day. Imra and Gartan were present already with Governor Taylor at his seat and Logan beside him on the right. Julia and Jarod found their own seats to Taylor's left.
The next time the door was opened Shaham entered the room. He found a seat beside Taylor, one left for him by Gartan and Imra, allowing him to sit across from Jarod and beside Logan.
The door opened one final time. Captain de Montamar stepped in. Julia could now see the entirety of his blue uniform, with the gold-colored dual lines of buttons on the front and the gold cuffs, looking much like a combination of a 20th Century uniform and a Systems Alliance formal uniform jacket. The trousers had gold trim along the outside crease, at least down to his knee.
"Captain Guy de Montamar of the Poursivante, at your service Governor," he stated in accented English.
"Captain. Thank you for accepting our hospitality." Taylor gestured to a chair at the other head of the table. "Would you like coffee or tea?"
"The former, Governor, would be most welcome."
"For myself as well," Shaham added.
"I'll take one," Julia said.
"Tea," said Logan.
"I enjoyed a cup of tupari before beaming down," Gartan stated, referring to the Dorei equivalent of rich coffee. "I am not in need of more."
At a nod from Taylor, one of his assistants went to a replicator unit in the wall behind Logan, Shaham, and the other commanders. He ordered coffees for everyone available. The device lit up and in several columns of light produced half a dozen mugs filled with the dark fluid. "Cream or sugar?" the assistant asked those attending.
"A touch of sugar, I think," de Montamar requested. Taylor specified cream.
While this was arranged, Logan went to business. "Where is Sub-Consul Nio!sat!ny? I was informed he would be attending."
"I am uncertain myself," the League officer answered. "The League and Consortium often act in concert, but we keep our own counsels as well."
"I think we can commence without him, Chairwoman" Taylor said. "Captains?"
Julia and the other Captains gave nods of assent.
"Very well. I shall begin by bringing up a rather interesting distinction of our universe," de Montamar said. "I learned of this while examining the data that the Consortium was provided by your Alliance, trying to find why your universes are free of the nemesis of ours. It is quite astonishing." He removed a device from his jacket and placed it on the table. With a tap of a key the device generated a holographic projection of the Earth. Montamar tapped a few keys, generating a square that moved into the Southern Hemisphere and then into the Eastern Hemisphere until it was over Southeast Asia and Australia. Another key tap zoomed in.
Julia immediately saw what he meant. She didn't fight the surprise that came to her face. The interior of Australia, always brown or yellow from above, was instead lush greens with the light brown of plains. The desert areas seemed confined to a portion of the southern coast and a few other points in the northwest.
"An Earth where the Australian Outback doesn't exist." Logan raised her eyebrows. "That is quite intriguing."
"This is... " Jarod shook his head in amazement. "This is something entirely new for us."
"Presumably this altered the development of the peoples of this region?" Gartan asked.
"It would definitely have had to, as the known Earths so far see similar histories for the continent," Logan noted. "With the Aborigines never developing sufficiently to resist European settlement."
"There are several, though unlikely, explanations for such a change. Presumably the monsoons of primordial Australia never receded," Jarod remarked. "This would have drastically changed the development of the continent."
"Presumably not, Commander," said de Montamar. "Dry conditions may have killed the spongiform before it infected humans."
"We're still waiting for our scientists to finish their examinations of this organism," Julia said. "What can you tell us about it?"
"Much. It is responsible for the division of our entire species."
"That much we've been told," said Taylor. "How?"
De Montamar tapped the holographic projector, turning off the image of the Earth for the moment. "That thing evolved many thousands of years ago in a direction that let it infect Humanity," he said. "Once it is within a host organism, it spreads through the body. The host becomes ill, during which time the spongiform attacks and modifies the reproductive system, the bone marrow, the brain. In human males, the result is gruesome without immediate amputation of the most drastic sort. In females, however…"
By this point Julia realized where he was going with this. "It can carry genetic material from another source," she murmured. "We learned that much."
"Yes. Females infected by the organism can only transfer their genetic material between each other."
"They can have children," Shaham said in realization. "Without the need for medical technology, for in-vitro capability and embryo generation."
"Now we know why their ships are all female crews," Julia said. "Although that doesn't explain the other aliens, the Ralsan…"
De Montamar nodded. "I will get to that. The point, though, is that wherever Aururians went, it spread."
"The pheromone." Seeing the looks from the others, Jarod said, "It makes sense. Something like the pheromones could stimulate those not-infected to find those with the infection, those with the pheromone, desirable and attractive."
"In short, yes," de Montamar confirmed. "To such an extent the Empire has internal quarantines and cybernetic methods of resistance for privileged minorities. It is enough to explain their expansion, however. Especially when backed by the use of force."
"How different is your world's history?" Jarod asked. "I mean, from our current baseline? Something like this would… well, it would, it should, drastically alter the development of Humanity."
"I think that might be a little off-topic right now, Commander," said Logan. "What is clear is that even if the organism is not airborne, it might yet pose a health risk."
"So the Aururians developed in an Australia with more cropland and forest." Julia looked to de Montamar again. "And they eventually organized a society."
"Yes. Over the centuries they spread to the nearby islands and lands. Eventually contact with Europe occurred. The Aururians were developed enough that, even without the advantage of muskets, they were able to repulse a sizable expedition of conquistadors, after which they copied their ships, and sailed to Europe for aid. The English were the first friendly nation they found.”
"An alliance that seems to have stuck with them," Julia noted.
"Until they conquered those Isles.” He replied, dryly. “To sum up centuries in as few words as possible, the Aururians expanded where they could and worked their connections with Europe to protect themselves from conquest," de Montamar stated. "They stood as allies with the English in many of the great wars of Old Earth, and each time cunningly expanded their power, using their conflicts with Spain to gain entry to the Americas. The wars of the 20th Century saw them expand their reach even further, into the Near East, into Asia, even into Africa. By the 21st Century they had forged a network of confederated states and sub-states that spanned the globe and were in the first rank of powers. Sometimes they stood opposed to uninfected Humanity, but they were capable of working with us against a foe such as the Ralsan."
"Oh?" asked Julia.
"The Ralsan had no superluminal drive," said de Montamar. "They expanded over the course of centuries with fleets of slow-ships. When they arrived in our solar system in the first half of the 23rd Century, they found us a space-capable, industrialized species, fully capable of resisting them, where before they had not thought the world inhabited. The war that resulted was the last time the Aururians stood with us. The alliance did not survive the victory."
"A fight over the spoils of victory?"
"No. Something rather more painful for our people." A deep frown creased the man's aquiline face. "At this time, the world had come under the control of a central authority formed from the old United Nations. It was seen as necessary in the days before the Ralsan, when the remaining free Nations of Earth banded together to resist the reactionary tide of the Empire. Quarantines, trade sanctions… none of it worked. By the time of the Ralsan invasion, the UN had been corrupted under the relentless pressure. It devolved into a complete betrayal of the democratic principles of their founders. Hatred and fear fueled them, with apocalyptic, xenophobic visions filling their minds. They decided that for humanity to survive, the Ralsan had to die… and the Empire the same when it made a separate peace and settled the Ralsan survivors. When they developed the warp drive, the UN secretly moved to aggressively conquer the other worlds of the Ralsan empire. The Empire had gained such a lead in the pre-warp era that anything was deemed acceptable in the same of survival. Their colony ships were hunted down and destroyed in deep space, and the Ralsan were smashed, their worlds made into the resource base the UN needed to build a fleet, one that was to end the threat of the Aururians once and for all.”
As de Montamar described this, Julia's expression hardened into a frown. Some of the Aururian behavior seemed, if not excused, at least somewhat comprehensible. She also felt a tinge of sympathy for de Montamar. This was clearly not a bright hour in the history of his branch of Humanity, and he knew it.
"Eventually the Empire found out, over a hundred years ago," he continued. "About both warp drive and about the UN's behavior. Their response was a massive first strike. There was a nuclear exchange that shattered much of the Earth and a war in space between the UN's expanded fleet and the Imperial one. They even reactivated the Ralsan fleet and led them into action against the rest of humanity. In the end, all that our ancestors could do was evacuate as many of the survivors as they could and flee to their colonies. It would be decades before the fighting ended, with most of both halves of Humanity dead, and a new Ralsan-majority empire arisen from the ashes of our foes, under a human Empress and leadership. It fell to a great man, Captain Claude de Escuy of the UN fleet, to end the remains of the corrupt government that had provoked the conflict. He founded the League of Democratic Worlds under the ancient principles of the French Revolution and Republic. It was President de Escuy who insisted alien species must be protected and guided to true equality with Mankind, a new vision of the old œuvre civilisatrice.”
"The Aururians seem to think differently of your principles," Jarod noted.
"They do. It is a convenient excuse for them." De Montamar sipped at his coffee. "An excuse to launch war after war against the League. They have waged five wars of aggression against us since the Great Interplanetary War. Sometimes our lines hold. Sometimes our people are forced to flee their homes, driving us even further on our frontiers to find the resources necessary to protect ourselves. During the last war, a great coalition held them back, but instead of taking stock and reconsidering their aggression, they swore to double their fleet. Our desperation fuels unscrupulous men who take advantage of it to mistreat those aliens we are charged with protecting and uplifting, and the Empire uses that to provide an excuse for another all out attack. There is peace now, of course. We've had it for twelve years, but it won't last. It never does with them."
The more de Montamar spoke, the more Julia wondered if it was a mistake to ever come to this universe. On the one hand, she felt leery of the League. De Montamar's passion aside, how many of them were the exploiters and abusers the Aururians claimed they were?
But on the other hand… she felt a wave of horror at the concept of the spongiform. Not simply from what it did to those it infected, but the ramifications of the pheromone that the infected gave off. It made her think of reports about the Orion Syndicate, and how Orion women could enslave the minds of others with biochemically-enhanced pheromones.
Shaham beat her to the question forming in her mind. "This spongiform, Captain. Is it possible that it may be semi-sapient in some way? Does it alter the minds of those it infects?"
"That is a question that has been debated for a millennium, Captain Shaham," de Montamar answered. "For what it is worth, our scientists do not think the parasite actively controls the host.” He took another gulp of coffee. "Regardless, the Empire is are opposed to everything we stand for. The League stands for the sacred principles of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. We believe in democracy and freedom. The Empire is a cult of militant reactionaries. All cultures that come into their power are twisted into their form, expunged of anything that does not fit the Aururian view of a world governed by the Empress and the nobility. Consider Captain von Lohringhoven. Her ancestors were compelled to become Aururian, likely forcibly infected, after the fall of Earth. Her Germany is not the Germany of Kant and Goethe and Schiller. It is the Germany of Bismarck and his halo of bayonets put into the service of the Empire with a puppet Kaiserin. They only preserve shadows of other cultures, shadows of ancient crowns. And the only change for the Ralsans is that their Empress is a Human now. Indeed, though they call themselves Aururians, for most of the last centuries, they have been a Ralsan Empire in truth, demographically and culturally. The Ralsan are still militant conquerors, and that impulse of the Empire’s majority species has combined with the Empresses demanding relentless expansion to create an empire devoted to unending wars of subjugation."
The mood in the room was growing tense. "You paint a grim picture, Captain de Montamar," said Taylor. "If your perception is true, then we might as well prepare for a war now."
"A war we can ill afford," Commander Imra observed. "With the fleet fully engaged against the Reich..." She trailed off ominously.
"I can assure you, the League will support the Alliance in a war," de Montamar said. "It is a matter of survival for us too. The Alliance has the potential to swing the balance of power against the Empire and force them to finally accept a permanent peace."
Logan had another matter in mind. "Can it be cured?" Upon winning de Montamar's attention, she clarified. "The spongiform? Can it be removed from a host?"
"With great effort," said de Montamar, with an expression of distaste. "It takes weeks of careful blood chelation and filtration to remove all traces of the organism, along with a variety of other invasive and drastic procedures. Even then, the host is left sterilized and with a severely-depressed immune system."
"We may have medical science to deal with that problem," Logan said. "But I want to make sure we have a cure. Even if it is too late to prevent it from permanently altering the mind of the host, at least it can't spread."
"Understanding how to deal with the organism if it was introduced to our population is important," Julia agreed. "But right now I think our priority has to be stopping a war."
"I do not believe you can, short of surrendering this world to the Empire," said de Montamar. "And certainly not without returning the smugglers, which to be frank, would damage your relations with us."
"Maybe not, but there might be solutions we haven't considered yet," Julia said. "And the brutal fact is that we can't fight a war right now. We're too spread out."
"It is possible you would have to retreat for a time, yes," de Montamar agreed. "But in the long run, we do not need your full effort, merely your assistance."
"I believe this is outside of our purview," Taylor said. "Captain de Montamar, thank you for providing this information. I will forward it to the Alliance government immediately."
"Of course. And I will await the finding in your courts on the extradition order." The League commander stood up.
"The hearing is later today. In the meantime, you are our guest."
"Thank you, Governor, but I must return to the Poursuivante," he said. "And report to my government. As it is a Consortium extradition warrant, I leave that matter in the hands of the Sub-Consul."
"Very well. Have a safe flight back to your ship."
Captain de Montamar bowed respectfully and departed.
"We've heard one side," said Taylor. "What are our prospects of hearing the other?"
"Doctor Opani may have made progress with those prisoners," Julia said. "Maybe they'll be willing to talk to us."
"Not if their lawyers have spoken to them. They'll tell them to say nothing," Taylor pointed out. "And Captain von Lohringhoven has not been talkative."
"That I can confirm," Shaham said. "Our conversations have gone nowhere. Nothing more than the repeating of her ultimatum for our withdrawal." He shook his head. "Her Empire may be different, but I fear she was stamped out at the same Prussian mill they make Reich officers at.”
"I've been wondering about that, actually." Julia glanced toward Jarod. "Commander Jarod and I have spoken about whether a different approach may be best. A private meeting, maybe."
"I would rather you not," said Logan. "Exposing yourself to the organism is a foolish risk."
"It's not airborne," Jarod reminded everyone.
"No, but you heard Captain de Montamar. The pheromone that the hosts produce can undermine the will of a non-infected. There's no telling how little exposure a person can sustain before they lose control." Logan stood. "As of this time I am going to urge you, Governor, to re-institute the quarantine protocols."
"We're already holding them in the quarantine ward, so you shouldn't worry about exposure."
"It would likely take long-term exposure for the pheromone to have any effect," Jarod pointed out.
"But you don't know that," Logan pointed out. "You don't know the concentrations required. Until we know for certain, it is a risk I think we should avoid."
Julia said nothing to that. She stood from the chair and looked at Taylor. "I'm sending my JAG officer to the preliminary hearing. Will there be any issues?"
"It's an open hearing. There should be no problems."
"In the meantime, I have reports to file with Command," Shaham said. "And combat drills to deal with. Governor, Captain, I'll speak with you later." He nodded to them both and walked out, with Gartan and Imra behind him.
"Captain, Commander, I have a meeting with Colonel Littleton to attend," said Taylor.
"Of course, Governor," Julia said. "I'll keep in touch with you if anything develops."
Taylor nodded and walked out. Once they were alone Jarod glanced to Julia. "You didn't mention anything about Meridina and Lucy letting them out for the sunrise."
"No, I didn't," said Julia. "Logan doesn't seem to know. If she did, she might start insisting I stop them."
"And you have no intention of that."
"Not unless it's unsafe for them," Julia answered. "Which is why I'm going to share this with Leo. But either way, the last thing I need is to add to my headaches by having an argument with Logan. So until she says anything to me about it, I'm going to keep my mouth shut on the matter and see if anything comes of it."
"Sounds like a plan," Jarod agreed.
The morning's work ended early for Leo. The moment he got the message from Science Lab 3 he left the medbay in the care of Doctor Walker and made his way deeper into the ship. Science Lab 3, as their biology lab, was centered around three iso-lab capsules accessible only by an airlock system. Leo arrived as Doctor Ke'mani'pala emerged from the center one. The Gl'mulli scientist shifted her vocoder and visual stimuli-translator device toward Leo, allowing her to see him clearly and not as a faint EM trace. "Ah, Doctor," she said.
"You said you have something?" he asked.
"Oh yes, I do." Ke'mani'pala half-walked, half-slid her way to a nearby control. An appendage formed from the cyan gelatin of her body. It shifted to form fingers and started to tap the control. An image of the spongiform appeared on the holo-screen. "After my examination of the sample, I have been able to determine the role of the pheromone. Simulations indicate it is part of the reproductive process. It interacts with the brain of a Human being, and perhaps other species, and stimulates a biochemical response."
Leo watched the simulation light up centers of the brain. "The parts linked to attraction and desire," he noted. "The pheromone encourages someone to desire physical intimacy with others."
"Not merely others, Doctor. There are some species of fauna I have examined that use a similar method in their mating process. It encourages others to mate with them."
Leo shook his head. "That's rather horrifying in its implications. Prolonged exposure to these people would make a need for contact with them unbearable over time."
"Difficult, certainly. But I believe this explains the implants you reported."
For a moment Leo wondered what Ke'mani'pala meant. When the moment passed, the memory came to him. "You mean the implants on the Irresistible crew who didn't have the spongiform?"
"Yes. I believe it may be a device to prevent the pheromone from interacting with the brain."
"How?" Leo asked.
"I can only speculate on the exact mechanism," trilled the Gl'mulli. "But with time and testing we can replicate the technology, making our people immune to their influence. Perhaps in time, with fortune, we may even determine a means of inoculation not requiring implantation."
Leo nodded at that. "Good work, Doctor. Thank you for putting aside your other projects for this."
"You are most welcome, Doctor Gillam. And one does not grow an Aurorus sapling in a day, thankfully. My primary project is not disturbed by this work."
"You still deserve the thanks," Leo assured her with a grin. He looked over the data on the screens again. "Replicating that implant will take time, but I'd like to have something available now, if we need it." Biochemistry was not his speciality, but he had enough general knowledge to have an idea come to his head. "What if we could chemically immunize someone?"
"I do not believe it would last, Doctor," Ke'mani'pala answered.
"True." Leo tapped at the screen. "Not without causing similar permanent biochemical changes to the body. But I'm not thinking of permanent protection."
A low trilling sound came from the vocoder. "Hrm. It is a possibility. I would require your assistance."
"Given the situation, I'm ready to give it," Leo replied.
Upon returning to the Aurora Julia returned to her office and finished her paperwork for the morning. She was about to stand and depart when her door chime went off. "Come in," she said.
The door slid open and Meridina stepped in. "Jarod informed me of the day's meeting," she said.
"Good." Julia leaned back in her chair for a moment. "Do you have any insights?"
"I found it interesting that Captain de Montamar admitted to the fact that the League has not treated alien species well," Meridina said. "Although his words indicate he does not see it as the Aururians do."
"I'm not surprised. They're claiming that it's slavery, he makes it out like a few excesses that the Aururians blow out of proportion to justify wars of aggression. The spongiform makes them look even worse."
"Jarod informed me of the accusations of forced infection," Meridina said. She took a seat on the other side of the desk. "Although it appears they no longer practice such."
"I think the idea they might is scary enough," Julia answered. "And the fact the spongiform alters the brain. This thing, Meridina… I'll admit it's scary as hell."
"There is a cure, yes?"
"Not an easy one. And it still leaves a mark on you. And when you count the pheromones, I wonder if this thing is conscious in a way. If it's actually looking for people to infect." Julia stopped there and considered how she sounded.
"The organism is not a sapient being," Meridina said. "I sense nothing of it."
"And I'm sure scientists would have discovered something like that centuries ago, if it were fully sapient," Julia agreed. "But the thing sounds so pernicious. Maybe if the pheromones didn't exist…"
"I am reminded of our reports regarding the Orion Syndicate. But I have been in their presence, as has Lucy. We felt nothing. It is probable that prolonged exposure is necessary."
"Either way, when you combine it with the Aururians' expansionism and readiness to fight, it can make them seem, for lack of a better term, inhuman. Like the Borg."
"That is a harsh and unfair assessment of them," Meridina insisted. "They are living, thinking beings like any other. Whatever this organism has done to them, they deserve that consideration."
Julia nodded in agreement. "I know you're right. But I wonder how many people will agree." She thought back to how Chairwoman Logan took the news. It had seemed to trigger something in the woman, something close to panic and certainly laced with disgust. "And that hasn't changed the situation. We can't afford to fight, but we can't let the Aururians chase us out either. And they're not backing down. I wonder if there's some way to get them to share the system. Maybe divide the resources between us…" Julia glanced at her omnitool and stood. "Anyway, I need to be going. I need to see Vajpayee before he goes down to the hearing. And then I think I need a meal."
"Of course. I shall maintain the bridge watch for you."
As Julia reached the door she turned back for a moment. "How did it go? The sunrise service?"
"It was appreciated by them, I believe. They sang more than they prayed. At least one of the songs reminded me of the songs I have heard our people sing." A thoughtful look came to Meridina's face. "I believe I shall go again in the morning."
"Go for it." Julia continued through the door, not hiding the thought that came to her head.
I just hope they give you something I can use, or we're going to have a shooting war here.
The Lookout was filled as it could be despite the ongoing Code Yellow running status. Julia sat at one of the tables along the port side and watched her crew enjoy their meals. They gathered in groups and talked and gossiped, as they always did, as if they weren't one mistake from being caught in another war.
"Captain." The accented voice drew Julia's attention to Hargert. The elderly steward of the Lookout placed a platter before her, a battered fish fillet with cabbage stew and a rice pudding. A glass of fruit juice was set down with it. "I have missed you the past few days," he said.
"I've been eating in my office," Julia admitted. She tapped her digital reader. "And I'm trying to figure this situation out."
"It appears to be quite tense," Hargert agreed.
"That's not the half of it," Julia sighed. "These people, these Aururians, they've got this thing inside of them. It alters them, and if you're exposed to them for a long time it can make you tempted to, I don't know, sleep with them I suppose. To expose yourself to being infected with the spongiform too."
"Ah." Hargert nodded. A look of slight disgust appeared to his face. "It sounds quite terrible, doesn't it? The idea of being compelled into something you're not?"
"Yes," Julia agreed. "I know a lot of people are going to be leery of them now. It's going to make keeping the peace harder."
"Yes." Hargert sat down beside her. "How much do you fear this, Captain?"
"Fear the Aururian organism?" Julia considered that. "I… well, I can't get over the thought of it forcing me to be something I'm not. Of having this thing inside of me, rewriting who and what I am. This thing stays with you, even if you manage to get it out of your body. It leaves its mark. And it sounds like they've forced people to be infected before. Or might have."
"That is the most terrible, frightening part," Hargert said. "That word might. The uncertainty of it all."
"Yeah." Julia nodded. She looked out the window of the Lookout. Due to the orientation of their orbits, she could see the bow of the Maya-Mayi. The two graviton weapon emplacements there were an ominous reminder of the danger the warship posted to her ship and crew. It was a more immediate threat than the one she had been considering.
The two threats were linked, of course. If fighting started, if the worst happened, and they were overwhelmed and taken prisoner, would they be forcibly infected as a consequence? The spongiform rewrote brains, didn't it? Could the component include an element of compelling loyalty toward others with the infection? A way for the Aururians to convert enemies into themselves, like the Borg assimilating other species? A raw sense of fear came to Julia at the prospect.
Hargert noticed the change of her expression. "At least you are learning more about them," he said. "Knowledge does not always remove fear, but it can help make the fear reasonable."
A small grin came to Julia's face. "You love to do that, don't you?" she asked, turning her head to face him. "Say the wise things."
"With the same hope that all beings my age have," Hargert answered, grinning in reply. "That the things bitter experience has taught us will spare the young from repeating our mistakes." He shrugged. "Besides, I read it in a book, and it sounded very profound."
Julia couldn't help herself. She chuckled in reply, which prompted Hargert to chuckle as well.
The voice prompted Julia to look toward the door. Approaching her was a stocky man with a light brown complexion and close-cut dark hair. He was in an Alliance uniform, with silver branch color to mark him as a support service officer. She stood and said, "Lieutenant Vajpayee. How did it go?"
Lieutenant Shivdhar Vajpayee stood at her height with striking brown eyes and a face bearing a warm expression. When he spoke, it was with a clear, although not thick, accent from the northern region of India.
"The judge was a tad permissive toward the prisoners' case. Nothing extraordinary or irregular, he is simply giving them a benefit of the doubt that not all judges would grant."
"I can't imagine the Sub-Consul was happy."
"He was not. He was quite adamant that the judge dismiss the motion and order the extradition."
"And what do you think, Lieutenant? How will this go?"
Vajpayee looked thoughtful for several moments. "I can't say for certain. If the attorneys can prove the charge of re-extradition, the judge may dismiss the warrant on those grounds. It will not be easy, however. Extradition hearings usually defer to the State’s case."
"Usually. But I doubt that those judges had to deal with the prospect of a hostile battlecruiser bombing their home if they did." Julia motioned to the table. "Get a late lunch if you'd like, Lieutenant, and I'll go over your formal report on the hearing when it's done."
"I appreciate the sentiment, Captain, but I generally take lunch in my office," Vajpayee said. "I will have my official report finished for you in an hour or so. Would you like me to draw up a brief to file with the court? If you wish to weigh in on this case, I mean."
Julia shook her head at that. "I'm not going to involve myself in that process. I've got enough problems to deal with without delving into legal…"
A stray thought came to Julia. Or rather, a thought that had been simmering quietly in her mind these past few days, a sentiment, which she now saw from a different angle.
"Captain?" Vajpayee leveled a look at her, confused by her sudden trailing off.
"Lieutenant, there is something else you can do for me," Julia said. "Some legal and historical research, you might say. About our situation here."
Vajpayee nodded slowly. "I think I know what you mean, Captain. I'll look through the records and get back to you when I find something."
"Thank you," she answered. She watched him leave and returned to the table. Hargert was still sitting there, watching with an amiable, pleasant look. "Is everything okay?" she asked him.
"I am not sure," answered Hargert. The look turned into another grin. "But it is possible it will be. Good day, Captain. If you come back by 1930, I will have pork dumplings ready."
"I may do just that," Julia assured him.
The craving hit Zack after lunch, a raw need to go and get a drink. To feel the world go hazy around him. It was a sudden surge of need he hadn't anticipated and the strength of it made him close his eyes and concentrate.
It's the boredom, he thought. It has to be that.
Empty space filled the viewscreen. They were approaching the central point of one of the "optimum broadcasting zones" that the Aurora's science team had picked out. Magda was intent on her sensor returns. Sherlily was assisting from tactical while Apley kept the ship crawling along.
Boredom wasn't new to Zack. Sometimes this job could be dreadfully boring. It could be boring even when they were in combat zones in the war. But this was different from that tense, expectant boredom, when any moment a Reich attack ship could start lobbing torpedoes at unsuspecting ships. They were alone out here, unseen by the other ships, nothing but the Koenig crew and their mission of finding a microscopic needle in a haystack the size of the Empire State Building.
A microscopic needle that might not even exist.
The thought that this was all for nothing, that was the worst part. It helped with the desire to drink. It also made him wonder what the hell he was doing. Was this really worth it? Was this how he wanted to spend his life?
What life? was the bitter thought that followed. He had nothing now. He'd lost the one person who seemed willing to spend her life with him. He couldn't even think of New Caprica anymore. He had, quite simply, lost too much.
Thoughts of Clara were not what he needed right now. They made him want to drink.
"April, do you see this?"
Magda's inquiry, spoken in her clipped, accented English, ended the quiet on the bridge.
Sherlily looked over her scanners. "What?"
"I'm seeing a radiation trace," Magda said. "About three kilometers, bearing 348 mark… 112."
At tactical Sherlily double-checked her reading. "I'm still not… actually, maybe I am seeing it."
"When you say radiation trace, what are you meaning, Magda?" Zack asked.
"Going by what I'm seeing, it's a trace amount of radioactive material. Consistent with a fission battery."
"Like what you might find in a beacon that's meant to transmit for years?"
Zack thought of that. "How could the survey teams have missed it?"
"The same way we almost did. We're crawling along at one-twentieth impulse power right now, and I barely saw it. At normal sublight speeds? A ship could go over it a hundred thousand times and never see it." Magda tapped a few keys. "I'm refining the sensors to… here we go. Apley?"
Apley noted something on the helm board. "I see it."
"More traces," Magda said, anticipating Zack's question. "It looks like whatever it comes from is moving away from us. Course 288 mark 038."
"How fast was it moving?" Zack asked.
"The trace remnants are irregular, so there's no telling an exact speed. Not too fast, however. If I had to guess, a meteor impacted with whatever it was."
"Follow it, Ap."
"And I need you to keep us below one tenth impulse power," Magda added. "Otherwise we might lose the trail."
"Aye," Apley answered. "One tenth impulse."
Zack settled back into the command chair to begin the long wait.
The day was coming to an end, bringing Julia closer to the deadline imposed by Captain von Lohringhoven. There was nothing yet from Lieutenant Vajpayee on her question. His report on the hearing was concise but ultimately repeated what he'd already told her.
Now she was alone in her quarters, seated at her desk with a half-finished drink to one side and their formal written orders about keeping Phi Perseus on the other.
Her reading of the orders made the intractability of the problem starkly clear. Defense Command felt that the plentiful resources of Phi Perseus made exploration and use vital for the war effort and inevitable post-conflict rebuilding. She was only permitted to withdraw from the system if under "insurmountable military threat". And if that happened, the likely result would be war anyway.
A war they couldn't afford for a system they couldn't abandon. No matter what she did, she and the Alliance would lose.
Thinking of the Aururians sent another shiver up her spine. She conjured up a mental image of the thing getting inside of someone and rewiring them, altering their bodies until they were accepting hosts. It was the exact opposite of how the Cybermen had intended to take over her crew. More insidious, definitely.
And there was that sunset ceremony issue. Their one piece of goodwill with at least that part of the Aururians. If only I could transfer that goodwill…
The idea clicked into place at that point. It might not work, but if it did… then maybe they could make something of this.
Her finger tapped a control on her desk. "Andreys to Bridge," she said.
A few moments passed before Lieutenant Neyzi answered, "Bridge here".
"Open a channel to the Maya-Mayi," Julia ordered. "I have something to ask Captain Lohringhoven."
"A Radical is a man with both feet planted firmly in the air." – Franklin Delano Roosevelt
"No folly is more costly than the folly of intolerant idealism." - Sir Winston L. S. Churchill, Princips Britannia
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