The technical display left no doubt as to the contents. And the German name for the project left no illusions to what it meant. "We ran out of time," Robert said. Every moment built up both horror and guilt at what that word meant. The war he'd started through fear and misjudgement had already slain so many people… and now this.
"Indeed." King's face remained stolid. She knew what the data meant and the ramifications. "Every day the Reich goes on, the risk to the rest of the Multiverse increases. If they build enough drives and equip them to enough ships…"
"...it will change the war," Julia said. "They can attack our worlds directly. Hit shipyards, mining stations, population centers…"
"It could cripple our offensive capability," Maran confirmed. "We would have to deploy large segments of the fleet to stand watch over our most populated worlds, or leave them vulnerable to Nazi attack. And while the Reich's military resources have been strained to the breaking point, their fanaticism suggests they are quite capable of suicidal tactics. Even if they lose an entire attack force in the process of hitting one of our worlds, they may judge it worth the cost to terrorize our populations."
"Although you are partially incorrect, Captain," said Hatcher. "We're not quite out of time yet." Hatcher indicated the schematic. "Examination of these plans indicate that while the Reich has mostly completed the research phase of their project, they haven't yet made it work. There are technical flaws in these plans that will take time for them to fix before they can achieve an interuniversal jump point. They were still working on that when Coalition forces hit Rosenburg."
"That was almost two months ago," Robert said. "They've had a lot of time to work out the remaining bugs."
"Don't forget that they had to take time to get their project relocated," Hatcher said.
"Indeed. The General's correct in that the fall of Rosenburg did buy us a little more time. We've intercepted some communications indicating the project is still being completed," said Maran. "We still have a window of opportunity to defeat the Reich before they finish employment of the drive. That's why we're attacking S4W8 Earth now."
"The project's based on Earth?" asked Shepard.
"A great deal of it, yes. Going by captured files…" Hatcher brought up a map of what, in other universes, would be Berlin. But the Berlin of S4W8 had little in common with its counterparts in other universes--it was wrought on a massive scale, from the Seelowe Heights in the East to Gransee on the edge of the Uckermark, to the bank of the Elbe in the west and Delitzsch in the south, a vast city of incredible density stretched. "It's somewhere in this area." He highlighted a section of the city. "In the heart of what they call Welthauptstadt Germania."
"The World Capital." The words came out in a snarl for Robert as he translated the title. It was another harsh reminder of just how twisted this universe was. "They're performing the research right in the heart of their own capital."
"It makes some sense, I suppose," said Shepard. "It's already going to be a secure area, heavily protected. And with something like this, their leaders are going to take a direct interest."
"That's why you're here?" Julia asked Ross and Picard.
"It is." Ross nodded. "The Federation Council spent two days deliberating the matter, but in the end President Zife and his advisors convinced them. Starfleet is joining the war openly and aiding the invasion. We cannot let a regime like this acquire the drive."
"It will not be an easy battle," Picard observed. His accent was a refined English, very much in contrast to his French name and background. "They have to know they have time on their side and will fight ferociously as a result."
"Then we will fight with the courage of the desperate," Shai'jhur said. "The results of the Reich having an interuniversal capability demand it." She nodded to Maran.
"We've already landed troops on Earth," Maran said. "Contingents from virtually every power in the Coalition are fighting to secure key points. Unfortunately, the Reich is quite resilient in bouncing back from defeat. The fleet units we shattered in the Epsilon Offensive have been reconstituted."
"Kampfgruppe," Robert said. Upon noticing the looks on some of the others, he said, "My grandfather told me about how German units recovered after the offensives of 1944. Scattered companies and battalions would form ad hoc formations, kampfgruppe, to fight on."
"Tactically speaking, the Reich has always shown a penchant for such," Hatcher observed.
"Indeed. Their counterattack inflicted severe losses and heavy damage to the fleet that landed our troops. We were forced to pull them back." Maran's expression was severe. "Although their theater shields will protect the ground forces for the moment, we have a large number of our best troops trapped on the Reich's capital Earth. If we lose them, it could be weeks, even months, before we could gather enough forces to hit Earth again. And given that the invasion forces are being led in part by Prince Victor of the Federated Commonwealth, among other key military leaders from some of our allies, such an outcome would have serious political consequences for the Coalition."
"There are alternatives to planetary invasion, Admiral," King pointed out delicately. When her remark was rewarded with a number of bewildered and horrified expressions, King added, "Undesirable methods of last resort, certainly, but still the superior outcome to defeat."
"Such methods have been proposed already," Maran said. "And if absolutely necessary, we may have to employ them. But our objective is to break the Reich, not destroy its capital. Their political system is fixed to central authority. If we destroy that authority physically and morally, the individual Gauleiters and Admirals and Generals will be left to decide things on their own. Organized resistance against our forces will collapse."
"They must suffer humiliation as well as defeat," Delenn said. "They must lose a great battle in the heart of their empire to those they consider unworthy."
"So we're going in to restore communications with the invasion army and provide reinforcements," Julia said.
Maran nodded. "There will be two elements. I am assuming personal command of the main assault fleet, consisting of the bulk of our available ships. After we make orbit, our fleet will stand off and move to intercept any incoming enemy attack. A second, smaller force will remain in orbit to support the invasion forces, led by Warmaster Shai'jhur." He nodded at the Dilgar leader, who nodded back. "Admiral Relini, Admiral Eora, and Admiral Ross will be her subordinate commanders. Captain Andreys, the Aurora and Koenig will be part of this fleet. But I have an additional task for you during the operation."
"Your crew is the most experienced with Darglan technology, including the interuniversal drive," said Maran. "The Aurora's science officers will be responsible for determining the exact location of the research facility in the heart of the city, enabling the ground forces to take it."
"Which I'll be responsible for?" Robert asked.
"With Commander Shepard, yes, and a team of your choice," Maran said. He looked to King. "Captain King, my apologies for taking you from your ship. But we have need of your services in another field. I'm afraid that the Nazi counterattack came as we were deploying a field intelligence team. The team was lost, and we need an intelligence officer to be part of this operation. There will be critical information in that facility that will need to be secured."
"I see." King nodded. "I anticipated it was something like this. I will serve in whatever capacity is required."
"Excellent. There are already allied troops in the vicinity." Maran brought up tactical data. A near ring of forces were in place around the enemy capital. "Each sector is being fought for tenaciously and the situation is changing hourly, so I can't give you any advice on your best starting point. That is a decision you will have to make when we arrive in orbit."
"Understood," said Robert. "Is there any other data we need to know?"
"Only this. Every minute we delay gives the Reich more time to recover. We're waiting on a few final reinforcements but when the time comes, all ships are making for Earth S4W8. I expect you to be ready by then. I'll have whatever engineers we can spare from the New Prussia base come aboard and take up the repair jobs so your people get some rest."
"Understood, sir," Julia said. "The Aurora will be ready."
"With nothing further to discuss, you are all dismissed."
Julia returned to the Aurora and immediately set about the preparations for the arriving engineering teams. Maran proved true to his word, as over three dozen engineering officers led by an Alakin female, Commander Hrathep, arrived within the space of half an hour. Julia was quick to send Scotty, Barnes, and the other Operations and Engineering officers of the ship to their quarters for some much-needed rest.
The truth was she needed some as well, but for the moment she knew there would be no sleep. Not with the terrible stakes hovering over her head. They'd come so close to finishing the Reich off. Now they were out of time and forced into a desperate gamble.
After making some headway on department reports, Julia stepped over to the window of her ready office. The Aurora was in formation with several other Alliance ships, adjacent to the Starfleet detachment led by Picard and Ross. Given the distances and angles none of their names were immediately visible, but she already recognized several ships with the same profile as the Aurora. Maran's fleet included all five of the Enterprise-class ships in active service. The newest of them, the Thunder Child, was directly to port of the Aurora. Many of the Discovery-class ships were present as well, including Discovery herself and the Challenger.
After taking in the sight and considering the stakes for a few minutes, Julia returned to her desk. Low priority messages from other captains were showing. So was a request from Commander Patrice Laurent, the Aurora's CAG. The pilot wanted to visit his sister, Captain Madeleine Laurent, on the Challenger. Julia immediately authorized the request. Another message was from Captain Arik Shaham on the Enterprise, expressing his sentiments about the occasion. Captain Phillip Wallace of the Thunder Child was inviting her to a victory celebration once they'd taken the Nazi capital. She was gratified to see a message from another of the old Facility hands now serving as First Officer of the Nehru-class star cruiser Sun Yat-sen…
Julia finally set everything aside. If she wasn't going to get some sleep, she at least needed food. She stepped out of her ready office and looked to Lieutenant Takawira in the command chair. "Lieutenant, I'm getting a bite to eat. You have the bridge."
"Aye Captain," Takawira answered, his English accented from his home colony of Nkomo, settled by Zimbabweans in Universe L2R1 centuries before.
The lift ride down was quiet. With what was to come, most of the crew not absolutely essential were off getting sleep or resting. There was a general fatigue in the ship, the kind you'd expect after a desperate battle. That they were off to another one…
In the Lookout, a number of crew not getting sleep were enjoying a meal. Hargert's kitchen staff were due to beam over to the fleet base minutes before they departed, but she knew from experience Hargert would not be joining them. He would stay on the Aurora working himself to exhaustion to keep the crew well-fed. That their foes were the Nazis would only redouble the elderly German cook's resolve to serve the Aurora crew in the crisis. At the moment she spotted him emerging from the kitchen carrying a great pot to the side bar. A number of officers and crew were waiting with bowls, all soon filled with steaming servings of his legendary sausage stew. Julia felt a rumble in her stomach and a familiar watering in her mouth. She took her place in line. A Petty Officer ahead of her tried to move away, to give her his place, but she shook her head and refused it.
Within a minute, she had a bowl in her hand and Hargert had a ladle full of stew coming up from the pot. "Good evening, Captain," he said. "You look famished."
"I am famished," Julia admitted wearily. "And I can't sleep."
"Certainly not if you're hungry! Eat your fill and let your satisfied stomach ease you to rest." He made sure the bowl was full before ceasing to fill it. Julia stepped away and found a table not yet claimed, a window seat. She slid into the open chair. Albert, a young German man serving under Hargert, provided her a fruit drink and a glass of milk on the side. She enjoyed a bit of both before plunging into her meal.
She'd made it through not quite half of the bowl when someone asked, "Is this table reserved?" The accent gave away the speaker before Julia could look up and confirm the speaker. Captain Picard stood with a small grin and a bowl of stew in one hand, a cup of steaming tea in the other. He took a seat once Julia shook her head and gestured toward the table. "I was surprised to learn from Mister Data that your Mister Hargert does not rely on replicators for his food preparation."
"Not unless absolutely necessary," Julia confirmed.
Picard nodded and took his first bite. It was clear he found the experience enjoyable. Once he finished swallowing he nodded, smiling. "Well, having experienced his efforts first hand, I'm hardly in a position to question his methods, am I?"
Julia chuckled lightly in response. After finishing another bite she asked, "So, I see you have a new Enterprise. She looks impressive."
"That she is," Picard agreed after swallowing. He gave Julia a knowing look. "I'd imagined you and I would share that singular distinction."
This time the chuckle from Julia was lacked the same amusement. "I suppose."
"Do you regret it?" Picard asked.
"In the end? No." Julia shook her head. "I mean, I suppose I will one day. Everyone wants to be the Captain of the Enterprise. But the Aurora… she's my ship. She's been mine since we started assembling her. It's fitting that I command her now."
"Understandable." Picard sipped at his tea. "And you've certainly had an eventful career as captain so far. New Caprica, Phi Perseus, Tira, now the Citadel…"
"It's been busy," Julia answered. "But I don't think anything can compare to what tomorrow's going to bring."
"Likely not," Picard agreed. "I admit I was particularly impressed by the Phi Perseus situation. Your command decisions in that crisis should provide quite a case study for Starfleet cadets."
"Jean-Luc, please," he said.
"Julia. As I was saying, I was very impressed with the Oakland Colony situation. Your proposal over the dispute concerning Phi Perseus was inspired, and your handling of the matter justifies your growing reputation in diplomacy."
"Diplomacy is a headache. But there are worse things."
"Indeed." Picard sighed. "An awful lot of blood will have to be spilled in the next few days to prevent a greater calamity."
"Is there any resentment for us?" asked Julia. "If the Alliance had never come to this universe, the Nazis would never have even considered an interuniversal drive."
"Perhaps not. Or perhaps they would have stumbled upon the Darglan database and Facility in due time." Picard turned thoughtful. "I'm sure there are some who believe the war could have been forestalled, measures taken to eliminate the risk… but the truth is, what we do out here will always have an element of risk. All we can do is learn from our mistakes and try to make the best choices available at any given moment."
"I won't argue with that." Julia sighed wistfully. "If we live through this, I'm looking forward to peace. I've had enough fighting to fulfill any fantasies of being a hero." Her eyes wandered over to the Memorial Wall at the end of the Lookout, and the ever lengthening list of names upon it. "And I've had enough people die under my command."
"I know the feeling," Picard admitted.
Julia might have spoken more, but her eyes were pulled toward the starboard-side door to the Lookout. She was quite surprised to see the two new arrivals. Shai'jhur and Kaveri Varma approached Hargert, who spoke with them briefly before departing for the kitchen. Afterward they looked about and, upon seeing Julia and Picard, walked over to them. "Captains," the Dilgar woman said.
"Warmaster." Julia motioned to the two remaining seats. "Are you here for the stew?"
"Sort of,” Kaveri answered for them. “Your man Hargert offered us a special preparation of Wildschweingulasch he’s been making for Tra’dur and some of the other officers on the Aurora who follow Hindu traditions.”
“She says it’s very good,” the Warmaster added after she sat. “And we’re not fighting on the same ship.”
“Shai’jhur gave me Wrath when the reconstruction--calling it a repair would be absurd--was finished,” Kaveri explained.
"The Wrath." Julia thought she remembered the name. "Is that the new Sekhmet in the fleet?"
“New is an …” Kaveri hesitated, looking to Shai’jhur.
“She is reconstructed from the wreckage of the Vendetta, which I salved from Third Balos,” Shai’jhur explained after a moment. “I didn’t tell that story over Tira, we hadn’t the time, but during the retreat from Balos I did come across the Warmaster’s flagship.”
"But she wasn't aboard?"
“We found her flag captain, Battlemaster An’jash, dead on the bridge with a broken back. The crew slaughtered. The ship was a ruin--only some undamaged armour held her together in two places, her back had been shattered by neutron beams in two places, one entire beam wrecked by Novas as well. There was one survivor, the Emperor’s Chef, who Jha’dur had dragooned into making her meals for her after the Emperor was killed. He’d locked himself in a galley cooler which hadn’t lost atmosphere. I towed the wreck back to salvage the equipment, but in the end, she spent thirty years sitting, a derelict, over Rohric.”
“For some reason,” Kaveri added, a bit wryly, “when we began the emergency work to repair her with Alliance funding, Shai’jhur thought it would be a perfect idea to have me as her Captain. She flies straight only with five percent overdrive on the port engine block, but she’s still one of the most powerful ships in known space.”
Julia showed a small grin at that. "Do you enjoy being back in command?"
“It is a service to a righteous cause,” Kaveri replied. “I can say I am thankful to be leading such an eager crew who hunger to prove themselves, but I am an old woman. The Union Navy will inevitably contract when this war is over, and, at this point, my desire is to lead her back safe and sound to the reserve depot she was revived from. If I do that, it is a good final command.”
"Well-spoken, Captain Varma." Picard nodded to her. He turned his head to Shai'jhur. "If you don't mind me asking, Warmaster, I recall reading that Warmaster Jha'dur was verified as having survived as late as six years ago?"
“Yes,” Shai’jhur answered rather tightly, a constriction of the muscles around her throat visible. “On Babylon 5.”
"How did she survive the loss of her ship?" Julia asked.
“It wasn’t Earthforce that finished her off,” Kaveri interjected. “The Minbari attacked the Wrath, and took Jha’dur -- as a prize, a prisoner. It was Minbari neutron cannon that broke her back. The reason remains unclear. Jha’dur didn’t talk to my daughter, or anyone else, about that when she was on Babylon 5. Perhaps Delenn knows.”
"Somehow I suspect she might be reluctant to bring up the matter," Picard observed wryly. "I wouldn't care to speculate why any of the Minbari would have thought of capturing such a woman as Jha'dur."
"She's said to have been brilliant." Julia considered her drink for a moment. "She was one of the key reasons why the Dilgar were able to take on so many of the other species at once and come to the verge of victory."
“An intellect like Jha’dur comes along once in ten thousand years,” Shai’jhur answered levelly. “She was a brilliant biologist, surgeon, starship tactician, duellist, cybernetics engineer -- all at once, simultaneously, the best in every single one of those fields, and a decent strategist as well, though not the best. I am being cautious about opening our archives precisely for this reason. There is much work she did which the multiverse should know about only cautiously.”
"Your people might have had a happier fate if Jha'dur's brilliance had been matched with ethics," said Picard. "It is always a regretful thing to see such talent directed toward such horrible ends."
“She was never given a chance to develop a sense of ethics,” Kaveri replied. “I hope someday it is appreciated as one of the great tragedies of history, because it is. She should be with us now, saving billions with the likes of her universal vaccine. Instead, we make our best efforts in the ashes of her story.”
"It makes me wonder how many of the Reich's minds might have done something better for their lives if they hadn't been brought up in a Nazi society," pondered Julia.
"We may never know," Picard mused. He took a final drink from his cup, his bowl already finished. "It has been a pleasure to see you again, Captain. Warmaster, Battlemaster, a pleasure as well." He stood. "Should everything turn out well, we will see each other again when this battle is over."
"It was good to have you," Julia noted. "Please say hello to Commander Data for me."
"I will do so," Picard assured her.
After getting a few hours of much-needed sleep, Cat went straight to Science Lab 2. She found Meridina waiting for her at the entrance. "Commander."
"Commander." Meridina followed her in.
"Did you get any rest?" Cat took in the sight of the large science lab, with its multiple holographic and holo-viewer displays tied to control stations. The lab specialized in physics simulations and experiments. From here Cat could network sensors from the entire fleet to hunt for the particle traces related to active interuniversal drive signatures. If the Nazis were testing such technology, she would find it sooner or later… hopefully sooner.
Behind her, Meridina answered, "I have rested for a time, yes. The personnel Admiral Maran sent us have been able to assume responsibilities for our repairs. You have rested well?"
Cat nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, I slept. Didn't even have a nightmare."
"You are afflicted with bad dreams?"
"Aren't we all?" Cat shrugged at that and approached a station. "Okay, the fun part of this is going to be networking with the Aururian and Federation ships. Well, maybe not the Federation ones, we've got their comm protocols to allow networking."
"WIll Commander Data be coming to assist?"
Cat shook her head. "As much as I'd love having him aboard again, Picard's going to need him on the Enterprise. But I'm sure he'll be helping me whenever he can. Now…"
The door to the science lab slid open. Two Dilgar entered. Tra'dur was in Stellar Navy uniform, the trim color of beige standing out in all of the dark blue of science, the other in Dilgar uniform. Cat and Meridina easily noted the family resemblance between them. "I hope I am not late?" Tra'dur asked.
"Just on time, actually," Cat said, already taking a chair. "Let me bring up the example traces."
"You will be assisting Commander Delgado's scans?" Meridina asked Tra'dur.
"Yes, from the ground," Tra'dur answered. Her English was accented with what Meridina was told was an Anglo-Indian accent, presumably a result of her mother Shai'jhur learning the language from Kaveri Varma. "I will be with the team, providing immediate scans and a connection to Commander Delgado."
"I see. Then I shall work to aid you as best as I can."
"Wait." Cat glanced back toward her. "You're going down?"
"Robert insisted it was necessary," Meridina replied. "And the Captain has reluctantly concurred."
"Then who's going to do your job?"
"Commander Locarno. Lieutenant Arterria will man the helm."
Cat nodded. Violeta was a great ship pilot herself, even if the exchange reminded her that her girlfriend would soon be leaving the ship. As she wanted to change the subject, Cat looked to Tra'dur's compatriot and said, "Oh, welcome to the Aurora. I'm Lieutenant Commander Caterina Delgado, Science Officer. This is one of our three science labs."
"Cat'Delgado." The other Dilgar nodded and smiled amiably. "My younger sister has told me about you, among others.” She shot an askance look at Tra’dur. “Though she’s terrible at introductions. I am Battlemaster Tia'jhur." Like her sister she spoke the tones of the subcontinent.
"The eldest, right. Nice to meet you. Is the other sister here?"
"Other sister?" asked Tra'dur.
"Jul-... Captain Andreys mentioned something about seeing two of your sisters here," Cat said. "At the briefing."
Realization showed on Tia'jhur. "I believe I understand. That was our adopted sister, Zhen'var."
"Oh!" Cat nodded. "Captain Varma. Vee mentioned she'd been surgically altered into a Dilgar."
Tia’jhur’s face twisted into an odd expression for a moment. “You are one of the most accepting humans I have met, thank you. Zhen’var did not have peace. Especially not after the mutiny of her crew and betrayal of her government at Tira. She traveled with my little sister Surgeon-Commander Nah’dur to Solaris for the procedure.”
"I hope they enjoyed it." Cat smiled at the memory of Solaris, even if that memory shared the same bittersweet taste as all of her other memories involving Violeta. "It's a really weird place, but pretty fun."
“Well, Nah’dur got to operate on her sister with equipment she’d never dreamed of before. I expect she had an awesome time from start to finish,” Tia’jhur laughed. “Though apparently Fei’nur had to pull her by the scruff of her neck into an elevator to keep her from getting herself into trouble in the lower levels.”
"Why would Nah'dur go to the lower levels?" Meridina asked. "They are not meant for tourism."
Tra’dur groaned and finally spoke again. “My sister wanted a ratburger.”
At that Caterina started giggling. "Really? I thought it was so gross when Julia told us about Zack getting one. He thought it was a hamburger!"
“Nah’dur is going through this phase where she wants to experience authenticity from the universe. Or rather she always has,” Tia’jhur sighed. “She also has a massive crush on Battlemaster Fei’nur, by the way, so you can’t rule out her intentionally putting herself in a position where Fei’nur has to rescue her. My little sister is best described as incorrigible. She has been since she was a little kit. When Zhen’var… Asked to become Dilgar, Nah’dur came up with the plan, and forced everyone to accept it. She has an intense spirit, and when she’s sure something is right, she can’t be stopped. Though, I admit all of us girls supported her there. Sister-Zhen just wasn’t happy unless she could finally fit in.”
"I have never met an individual who wished to alter their species before," Meridina remarked.
"Well, it's not too different from some of the cosmetic stuff the Sirians do, or the Solarians," Cat noted. "I mean, when we were on Solaris I met people with animal body parts, it was kinda weird. But interesting!" She made a face. "Although some of them were kinda jerks…"
“Apparently there were many humans who tried to surgically alter themselves into Minbari after the Earth-Minbari War. Zhen’var… Is much smarter than that, and my sister’s work, much more complete. She is not just a staff officer. Mother ended up giving her one of the war emergency cruisers, and she has already fought in command of her.” Tia’jhur glanced to her sister, but had already elected to speak openly.
“I would remind you that the commander of the White Star flank on our fleet is also no longer of the same genes with which she was born, Commander,” Tra’dur added gently. “I think it wrong to preference one experience over the other.”
"So I have heard." Meridina nodded simply, acknowledging the point. "Ultimately that which improves life matters. And life is change, sometimes painful, even unexpected. I still find it difficult to understand the Humans of your universe and the way they were ready to strike at her for protecting the innocent." As she said those words Meridina contemplated just how deeply her crew's treachery had wounded the woman. She thought it necessary to change her species. Such a thing usually indicates a malady in the mind. And yet she is functional enough to command. "It is not our place to judge her either way. If her alteration has made her feel better about her life then that is what is important. If anything, the Multiverse has taught me that the impossible is not always so."
Cat laughed at that. "Sorry, it's just… if you'd gone to me about six years ago and told me I'd be flying in a spaceship that can hop universes, I'd have thought the idea insane."
"I never imagined we would get such a chance as your Alliance has given us," Tra'dur remarked. Her eyes shined bright with the prospects of the future. "The Alliance, the Multiverse, it's giving us so many opportunities I didn't dare dream of."
Cat smiled softly at Tra'dur, remembering easily how eager the young Dilgar was to make her mark in the sciences. Not to mention Tra'dur's astonished joy at seeing the Citadel.
"It is to secure those opportunities that we fight the coming battle," said Meridina. "The Reich is a source of darkness that will stifle us all if it is not expunged."
A steely look formed in Tia'jhur's eyes. "Rest assured, Commander, it will be."
After moving most of his things back to the Aurora, Robert settled into his quarters on the ship and nodded off. The rest was peaceful, more so than he expected. When the tone woke him up, he put on a cream-white vest and leggings and the nondescript brown traveling robes of Gersallian make. He had a stop to make.
When he arrived at Holodeck 1, it was already up and running. He stepped in to the simulation of a contemplative garden in the Great Temple of the Order of Swenya. The holodeck systems generated what felt like a refreshing breeze moving through the garden, nestled between the great circular buildings of the Temple. He'd never been to this exact locale in the actual complex during his one visit, but he could see why Meridina made a holographic recreation of it.
Lucy was waiting there, wearing the same kind of vest he was, but with no robe. The vest was sleeveless, baring her solid arms and their light brown tone. A table with pieces for a lightsaber was laid out beside her. "There you are," she said softly, with a hint of amusement. "I should probably be upset with you for being so hard on my handiwork."
Robert let out a quick chuckle followed by a small sigh. "I apologized for the training device," he said. "As for the lightsaber, blame Shepard."
"It's so much easier to blame you though," Lucy teased. "I'd make a 'Sir Robert' joke, but the fact is the Gersallians see me as a Knight too, so I should probably be careful about that kind of humor." She sat beside the table cross-legged.
Robert walked over to the other end of the table and did the same. He noticed that the lightsaber she'd built for him was laid out on the table, with new parts to replace the ones wrecked by Sovereign's death. "Did you get any rest?"
"I did. Don't worry that I spent my entire rest period manufacturing your parts. I keep a store of them for this reason." Lucy set her hands on her knees. "I'm okay with building it myself, Robert."
"I know. But… I think I need to do it," he replied. "I need to keep improving my focus. So I don't have any more problems."
"Suit yourself. I'll be here if you need me."
At that point they stopped speaking. Lucy closed her eyes. Robert felt her presence in the Flow of Life, the burning glow of her powerful life force. Everything about her, everything that was Lucy Lucero, was embodied in that glow. Her courage, her passion, her kindness, that kernel of immature playfulness at the center of her sense of humor… every part of it.
Robert turned his attention to the pieces of the weapon. He reached within for the golden warmth of his own power, blazing brightly with the energy of his life and its connection to the Flow of Life. Robert directed that power toward the table. He willed the pieces of his weapon, new and old pieces, to lift into the air and come together.
As he watched, both with his eyes and with his power, they did just that. Piece after piece gathered around the emerald green crystal that survived the destruction of his weapon. The pieces locked into a cradle around it, one by one. He felt elation at how well it was going.
Naturally this didn't last. He felt a strain in himself. The energy of the Flow of Life was filling him beyond his need for it. His focus was getting weaker. The piece he was moving to fit into the framework around the crystal rattled in his faltering grip.
The frustration welled up within him. Again with the control failure! Why couldn't he hold this power back?! Why couldn't it just damn cooperate with him?
Robert. Lucy's voice cut through the frustration. Don't let it get to you. You're doing fine. Better than before.
It won't be enough, he thought back. I can feel it slipping… Every piece in the air, as well as the partially-completed weapon, seemed to shake a little.
You can do this, Lucy insisted. You've come far enough.
My control…! The piece jostled against the others, out of place. Another piece dropped a centimeter before Robert regained control of it. For a brief moment it felt like it might shoot off, but he managed to hold it in place.
Stop being afraid of the power, Robert, Lucy admonished him. I can feel that fear. It's holding you back. You're afraid of losing control. But it's not about control, it's about focus, about letting your swevyra/life force guide you.
Robert nearly protested that he had good reason for such fear, that he'd nearly killed Shepard because of the increased power, but he stopped himself. He could feel the conviction in Lucy's words. The fear in himself. The little voice that insisted the power was too much, it wouldn't be controlled, he could hurt someone with it…
He could hurt the people he loved.
Robert drew in a deep breath. The fear clawed at him and he strove to ignore it. He centered himself on the serenity around him, holographic as it was. He was not going to fear himself. Not again. Fear led him astray too often. Focus, not control.
The piece pulled away. Robert felt the instinct on where it needed to go, the fine attachment to make it work, and he followed it. He felt the piece lock into place. Other pieces moved in, one by one. He felt each lock into place as they were meant to, as the feeling inside of him insisted they should. With each piece the picture in his head of how it was supposed to fit together came more clearly.
As the frame came together Robert felt a surge of elation, one that nearly overcame his focus as well. He held it in check to ensure it didn't stop the final frame pieces from locking together. He felt the metal snap together until the weapon was whole. A smile crept across his face as he held a hand up to the weapon. He shifted his legs and used a free hand to get himself to one knee. By the time he was ready to stand completely, the weapon returned to his waiting hand.
After a moment of quiet breathing, Robert's thumb found the switch.
The lightsaber came on, snap-hiss, and the green blade generated by the weapon filled his vision.
"There you go," Lucy said aloud.
Robert nodded and went over to the practice plates Lucy had assembled. He brought the energy blade down on the metal. It sliced through without effort, leaving bright orange tracks to mark the ends of the sundered plates. After twirling his weapon for a moment Robert disengaged the blade and returned it to his belt. "Thank you for your help," he said to Lucy.
She nodded once in reply, her face still bright with a proud smile. "I just gave some guidance. You assembled the weapon this time. It's your achievement." She stood up. "How is your technique coming?"
With a wry look, Lucy went over to the table and picked up another training orb, the same kind Robert had recently broken. "Show me."
Robert breathed a small sigh and nodded. He pulled the weapon from his belt again, ignited the blade, and assumed a defensive stance. "Alright, I'm ready. Hit me with your best shot."
Lucy did just that.
A persistent electronic tone broke through the gentle bliss of sleep, rousing Commander Montgomery Scott from a too-short rest. His body, tried by decades of Starfleet service, temporarily resisted the impulse to get out of bed. As awareness cut through sleep, the will to overcome the slight aches in his joints came through and brought him to a sitting position on the bed. "Computer, raise lights," he ordered. The computer obeyed, bringing the lighting of his quarters to full. The bright light helped to keep his eyelids open despite the weights that seemed to be pulling the lids down.
It was more than just sleepiness that afflicted the veteran engineer. The tyranny of his age had its part to play. Long gone were the days when he could sleep four hours and be up, bright as rain, to stand a watch in Main Engineering or another duty station on a starship. Now such scant sleep weighed heavily on him. A small part of him wondered if it was time for that dreaded "R" word to be contemplated. As always, that small part was swamped by the feeling in his heart and soul, the feeling that rejected the tyrant Age. He had a place here, on this ship that could pierce universes as easily as it pierced the light-speed barrier. He was still an engineer, and his ship needed him. Especially now, as his young lass of a ship had wounds that needed tending if she was to return to the fighting.
To help wake up Scotty replicated a good pot of hot coffee and drank his fill from it. Reports from the engineering teams temporarily assigned to the Aurora filled his queue. Systems repaired to effectiveness, albeit not to perfection in some cases, and those still being worked on came down in a list. Scotty immediately began considering how he would assign them to the others. While nobody knew when Maran would order the fleet out, it was going to be soon, and they would be off for what might be the fight of their lives.
And fatigue be damned, Montgomery Scott would have his ship ready for it.
Jarod was finishing up a quick breakfast when the comm call came in. He took a last bite of replicated scrambled egg before reaching over to the controls for the computer systems built into the desk in his quarters. A holo-viewer popped on. After a brief waiting screen to show the Aurora's systems were establishing the link, the viewer changed to show his caller: his sister Emily. "Hey Sis," he said.
There was visible worry on Emily's face, framed by her dark hair. "Jarod. I heard about the Citadel. Are you okay?"
"Tired. Busy," he replied. "How are you?"
"Busy as well. I'm doing a piece on New Liberty's strained relations with the Earth of this universe." Emily shook her head at it. "Given some of the things being said back on Earth, you'd think the Colony was full of violent revolutionaries out to topple every government on the planet."
"They've never been happy with us," Jarod noted. "But they know they can't do anything about it."
"It'll make for some interesting copy, at least. And then we have that big summit coming up in a few months…"
Emily was interrupted by another tone, one she could hear through the line. Jarod sighed and tapped a key on the table. "Jarod here."
"Time t' rise an' shine, Commander Jarod," Scotty replied. "I'll be needin' some help from ye tae get th' ship back up an' runnin' in time."
"I'll be down in Engineering in a few minutes. Jarod out."
Emily heard that too. She frowned. "Jarod, what's going on?"
He shook his head. "I'm afraid I can't say. You'll find out soon enough."
"You're going back into action? In the war, I guess? But you just got out of that battle at the Citadel!"
"I know. But this is… important. Really important." Jarod leaned in toward the viewer. "Maybe when it's over I can tell you more about it."
"It's not getting a story I'm worried about. It's you."
"I know," he said. "I'll call you when I can."
"You'd better," Emily said. Jarod didn't need advanced intelligence, or any of his experience with psychology, to know his sister was tremendously upset by the danger he was in. "Our family has lost enough."
"We have," Jarod agreed. "Goodbye, Em. I'll talk to you later."
"Good. Be careful, Jarod. I love you, brother."
There was nothing more to be said at that point beyond the obvious reply. "Love you too, Em." Jarod gave her a final, reassuring smile before ending the call. After taking a moment to collect himself, he stood up and went to his closet to get his uniform. It was time to get to work.
Built into various strategic points of the Aurora's kilometer-long frame were the generators that provided her first line of defense against enemy fire: the deflector shields. While there were multiple types of energy field-style shielding in the Multiverse - mass effect field-generated particle barriers being one alternative, another being the gravitic shielding employed by the Abbai of E5B1 and the Aururian Imperial Federation of A2M6 - deflector shields were by far the most common. They didn't quite match a particle barrier's ability to reflect matter, and they lacked the grativitic field's ability to resist fire completely until its capacity was exceeded, but they were the most efficient and versatile means of energy shielding in the known Multiverse. The Darglan employed what many considered to be the pinnacle of that technology, being the most energy efficient and flexible version of the technology known. Due to their Darglan shielding the Aurora had energy shielding that could resist dreadnought fire for a time, and had often done so.
But like any machine, subjecting the generators to repeated heavy stress caused them to break down and require fixing. And Sovereign and the Geth fleet certainly provided such stress.
Tom Barnes carefully shifted his tool belt over his waist before sliding further into the access panel for the guts of Primary Generator 4. This was one of the six generators that provided the initial effort when the Aurora brought her deflector shields are online. Like all the other primary generators, it had been strained incredibly by the firepower the Aurora faced at the Citadel, straining the structural moorings and, most importantly, the internal electronics that controlled the immense energies the generators channeled from the ship's reactors. Barnes started working on the internal power lines and quickly identified the source of the generator's woes; part of the power cabling had partly burnt out from the strain of the repeated hits from Sovereign's powerful weapons. "Cable line," he called out.
He'd expected Junior Petty Officer Freept to provide the item he needed. He was surprised to look down at the end of the accessway and see Lucy crawl in with a length of power cabling. "Aren't you working on the secondaries?"
"Secondary 2's resynching is complete," she answered. "Ana Poniatowska is working on 4."
"What's Ana doing working on our ship?"
"The Koenig didn't require much in the way of repairs." Lucy held the cable just far enough for Barnes to reach it. He took the cable length and put it to the side so he could begin working the damaged cable out. "Derbely sent half of her people to help us get things finished."
"It still won't be enough," Barnes said. He grunted and removed the damaged cable from its port. The exposed electronics made him frown. "God-fraking-dammit, the port itself has damage. We're going to have to replace the whole thing."
"No time," Lucy reminded him. The job he was speaking off would require a disassembly of the generator, a task that would take an entire day to do. "How bad is the damage?"
Barnes checked the scan result. "Not too severe. The cabling took the worst of it. But this generator won't last under sustained fire."
"Put it in the log. It's not the only critical repair we don't have time for. The coolant lines to the primary heat exchanger are showing indications of micro-fractures."
Barnes kept his attention on the port, which his omni-tool was now up against. "What? Oh frak me."
"Language," Lucy giggled. "Scotty's already got a team working on it, but if those microfractures are signs of structural failure, the coolant lines need replacing."
"And we don't have time for that, yeah." He kept his eyes on his work.
Lucy blinked at that. "What are you doing?"
"Using the omnitool's fabricator to replace damaged material in the port," Barnes answered. "It's not the best repair, but it should keep the generator from failing the first time we take a heavy disruptor hit."
"Thanks." He kept his attention on the work for another minute before asking, "So I guess you're going down there?"
"Yeah," she answered. "Meridina and I are joining Robert and Commander Shepard."
"Huh. They're giving you more help than that, right? I mean, damn, it's their freaking capital, the Nazis are gonna fight like hell."
"We'll have support. Our mission's too important to leave us without it." She shrugged. "I'm not sure what support it'll be yet, aside from our Marines."
Satisfied with his repair work, Barnes picked up the new cable. "Well, either way, good luck."
"Thanks." She smiled at him. "And the same to you. I'm trusting you to keep our home safe."
"Don't you worry a damn bit," Barnes said, his hands working the replacement cable into place now. "I'll keep our baby flying proud and kicking ass no matter what it takes."
Julia arrived in the main shuttle bay in time to see the last of the cargo shuttles take off. The bay was now almost entirely empty, with only the runabouts Warri and St. Johns visible. A team was working on the former, switching out its modular components to configure it for combat operations. The storage spaces were being converted to carry the runabout's combat loadout: a small-scale naqia reactor to power the plasma pulse cannon being mounted on the chin of the runabout and the extra shield generators to provide the ship some protection from enemy fire. The last of the space went toward a small magazine of solar torpedoes that would directly feed into the launcher mounted on top of the hull. The refit would turn the Warri into a small torpedo boat with some anti-ship punch to her main weapons. She would, at least, pose a respectable threat to Nazi destroyers.
But the Warri's refit wasn't why Julia was present. The incoming craft were. Now that the main shuttle bay was mostly empty, other craft were visible on approach. Julia took the door and stairway up to shuttle bay's flight control center, built into the space above the entranceway. Here Chief Petty Officer Dragan Omapa, an older Dorei male with grizzled, whitening teal hair and dark purple skin with blue spotting and eyes, oversaw the shuttle bay's landing operations, working in tandem with the flight command center directing the starfighters. It was an unwelcome redundancy to be sure, a consequence of the later decision to add the starfighter capacity to the Aurora after the Facility was destroyed. Omapa and his superior, Senior Chief Tahrana Farshaz, closely networked their respective flight control centers to compensate for this unexpected flaw.
Omapa noticed her and stood at attention. "Captain in the control center," he informed the assembled.
"At ease," she said immediately. She nodded to Omapa. "Excellent job clearing the bay."
"Thank you, Captain," the older Dorei replied.
As they watched, the first assault lander entered the bay. The ships were slightly bigger than standard runabouts. Each had a visible cannon on a turret on the top of the ship as well as smaller double-barrelled anti-personnel pulse cannons built into the side and at the top of the ship's rear section. The first ship to land began to disgorge Marines in light power armor.
After three more landed, each bearing a company's worth, another lander came in with a bulkier rear section. This was a vehicle-carrier variant, which likely had a pair of armored vehicles in the back.
"Jamak take their damned souls," cursed Omapa. "They were supposed to land on the landing deck." He turned away and went to his controls.
Only one more of the vehicle-carrying landers came in, with two more non-vehicle variants, these dismounting platoons of heavy armored Marines. The last wave of assault landers landed behind them, bearing another battalion of Marines.
Or so Julia thought until they opened up and she saw the sight of Stellar Navy field uniforms. Curious, Julia left the control center. As she got to the bottom of the stairs and approached the shuttle bay entrance, the doors parted. Robert walked in. He noticed the new arrivals as well.
Specifically, he noticed the figure that emerged from among them.
Zack approached, in field uniform like the other new arrivals. "Captains," he said amiably, a faint smile on his face.
"Aren't you supposed to be on the Citadel?" asked Julia. "Liaising with C-Sec?"
"I'll be back there in a week or so, once C-Sec has the Citadel in order," Zack answered. "Admiral Maran offered me a temporary assignment. I'm commanding your backup for the attack."
"Backup?" Robert nodded toward the others. "Them?"
"Yeah. They're the 5th Naval Infantry Company," Zack replied. "Maran called for volunteers from the survivors of lost ships or ships laid up in drydock. Anyone capable of carrying a pulse rifle and field ops kit can sign up. We're going to help make up for casualties. Well, the other companies mostly. We're assigned to be your primary combat support, Rob."
Robert nodded. He could sense Julia's worry over the situation and knew it matched his own. "Are you alright with this? Really?"
"I figure that if we're so desperate we're throwing half-fixed ships back into the fight, this is too important to be left behind," Zack replied. "It's clear something nasty's going down with the Nazis."
Knowing that Maran was keeping the reason for the attack secret, Robert nodded. "It is."
"I'm not dumb, Rob," Zack remarked. "I know Maran's probably sworn you to secrecy on why we're rushing this, but it's not hard to figure out. Most of the crewmen in my unit are already guessing they've developed the IU drive. It's the only thing that makes sense."
"A reasonable guess." Quietly, Robert nodded once and sent a small thought with his powers. They've almost completed the work.
"I thought so." Zack's expression turned grim. "Then the war has to end, now, or they're going to kill billions of our people before the fighting is over." He looked back to the others. One of the other naval volunteers, a senior Lieutenant, approached, a woman of mostly East Asian appearance. "This is Lieutenant Ginchiyo Tachibana, one of my platoon commanders. She's security branch and has done field combat before while serving on the FedStar battlecruiser Tiger."
"Lieutenant," Julia said amiably.
"Captain." The newcomer looked to Zack. "Commander, the landers check out." Her accent sounded more English than Japanese.
"Good." Zack looked Julia's way next. "In case we can't beam down, we'll have assault landers for the job." He glanced toward the naval personnel gathering on the deck. "It might still be a few hours before the fleet's on its way, I'd like to give everyone some rest time while they've got it."
"Well, we're carrying a little extra crew from the Excalibur, so we're already hard for space," Julia noted. "But I think Holodeck 3 should be available, and Hargert's cooking sausage stew by the tub in the Lookout."
"I'll send people to get some." He smiled at her. "And if we've got time…"
They were interrupted by a tone from Julia's omnitool. A blue light appeared over the back of her left hand, indicating an incoming comm. This was confirmed a moment later when Locarno's voice came over the omnitool's hardlight-formed speakers. "Bridge to Andreys."
She tapped the light. "Andreys here."
"We just got confirmation from the Kentan. The fleet is due to go to warp within the hour."
"Right. Begin offloading the New Prussia engineers immediately and ready the ship for departure. I'm on my way to the bridge. Andreys out." She eyed Zack sadly. "You'd better get that stew soon. At fleet cruise speed we'll be at Earth in about six hours."
"Yeah. I'll see to it."
WIth nothing left to say, Julia departed the shuttle bay for the bridge. Zack watched her go before looking to Robert. "So, ready to end the war?"
"Been ready," Robert replied. "I just wish we didn't have to throw everything into a big gamble like this."
"Yeah, I hear you," was Zack's response.
After checking up on the rest of the ship as best as she could, Julia made it to the bridge with five minutes to spare before departure. The secondary watch officers were mostly on duty - al-Rashad at Sensors, Luneri at Tactical, Neyzi at Operations - with one of Locarno's new officers, Ensign Rawlins, at the helm. Meridina and Locarno were both standing in the middle of the bridge. "Captain," Locarno said. "I think we're as ready as we'll ever be."
"Given we don't have a choice… well, I know our crew can do it." Julia took her seat. Locarno, for the moment, sat in the observer seat to Julia's left while Meridina took her usual seat. "And everyone else?"
"They are off-duty for the moment, but on standby," Meridina replied. "I believed that the best status to grant them a measure of rest before our arrival."
"The same goes for both of you," Julia noted. "Especially since you're going planetside with Robert, Meridina."
"I will depart for a rest as soon as we are underway," Meridina promised.
"I'll go catch a nap too, I suppose," said Locarno. "I'll get Takawira up here so you can catch some rest too."
"See about getting some cots in the conference lounge," Julia said. "This invasion could last for days, and we'll be under constant alert status until its over."
"I will make arrangements," Meridina promised.
At that moment there was a tone from the Ops station. "Captain, interuniversal jump point forming. We have a ship coming in."
"On screen," said Julia. Given the timing, she suspected this was what Maran was waiting for before they set off for Earth.
She could see why the moment she recognized the vessel that came through.
It was a new ship, known only to Julia for the fleet reports on its progression. It bore some slight resemblance to the Aurora, but in size and power it was far greater, with design elements similar to the much smaller Predator-class destroyer and the Igasana-class heavy cruiser as well. Like those two ships, the primary hull and drive hull were together at the bow, with the navigational deflector a great golden eye with a blue iris built into the "chin" below the foremost bow. The front of the ship resembled a shovel with the way the bow widened and then gently tapered backward. Along the rear drive section, four warp nacelles were built directly into the frame, like on one of the attackers like the Koenig. The shape of the rear section of the drive gave them just enough clearance of obstacles to generate a proper warp field.
It was also about a mile long, over half a kilometer wide at its widest point, and had numerous plasma emitters like those now installed on the Aurora.
"Is that…" began Locarno, stunned.
"It is," Julia said, staring in surprise at the new arrival. "It's the Unity. The first Alliance-built dreadnought starship with integrated Darglan technology."
"She is quite a sight," Neyzi murmured.
"She's the only one of her kind too," Julia noted. "At least so far."
"The Concord and the Liberty are still being built," Locarno added. "Although aren't they planning an even larger design?"
"That's the rumor."
Several seconds after Julia's remark, Neyzi looked up from her station. "Captain, the Unity's identifier just changed. She's signalling flagship status now."
"Oh? Who's the commanding admiral?"
"So the Unity's going to be with us in orbit," Locarno said. "I'm sure the Nazis will find that a rude surprise if anyone gets past Maran's fleet."
"I'd rather that not happen," Julia remarked, even if she was already certain it would. The Reich's leadership would be well aware of the importance of the coming battle. They would likely throw everything at the invading force and be dedicated to removing the orbiting support fleet.
"The Kentan is signalling the fleet," said Neyzi. "Admiral Maran wants to be put on general address to every ship in the fleet."
The holo-viewer changed to show Maran on his flag bridge on the Kentan. The image would be on every bridge and on many a holo-viewer or flatscreen display across the fleet, as well as on audio over the ship intercom systems. "Brave soldiers and crews of the Coalition, this is Admiral Maran of the United Alliance of Systems. By now, you are aware of our purpose. You may not be sure why we are embarking on this mission." Maran allowed a moment for the comment to sink in before continuing. "While I am aware that duty and honor are held highly by all and no explanation is necessary for your best service, I will not have you strive in ignorance of the stakes. And they are higher than ever. We are bound for the Earth of this universe, the heart of the Greater German Reich. The Nazi regime that has slaughtered countless billions over the last five hundred years must be put down to secure the peace of the Multiverse, and it must be put down now. To delay is to invite the Nazis to complete work on an interuniversal drive, work we know to be advanced to near-completion."
Again Maran paused, allowing that news to sink in for those who weren't aware of it. For every being in the fleet to understand the incredible stakes of the coming fight, and why their lives would be at risk. When a few seconds passed he resumed. "For the good of our peoples, for the safety of our worlds, for the posterity of the Multiverse as we know it, this must not come to pass. I trust every one of you to fulfill your duties, and with your courage and sacrifice we will prevail. The Reich will fall."
Julia thought it over, but Maran ended with one last remark. "May the Light of Life stand with us against the darkness of our enemies."
At that, Maran ended the call.
"Kentan is signaling course and speed data," Neyzi confirmed.
"I have it," replied Rawlins. The African-American woman spoke with what Julia thought was a Cajun accent, or at least influenced by Cajun. "Course laid in, speed readied. Ready to initiate warp upon command."
"Keep us in formation, Ensign, and engage," Julia said.
The Aurora, in tandem with the other ships of the Alliance fleet and the other Coalition contingents, made the jump to warp.
"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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