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"The Squid Guys are the Good Guys" BOOK TWO

©2014 Levite
http://themediadesk

to Book One

prologue
a note from the General

      "General Muller?"
      I have heard those two words said as a question more times than I care to count. But this time, it was spoken by a young man whom I'd seen around but couldn't recall his name. He was with another young man and an equally young woman, all three were in flight suits, and I had no idea who any of them were or what they wanted. "Yes?" I answered looking from one to the other.
      "Flight Lieutenant Rogan, sir, Alexander Rogan, sir" the lead officer said and saluted, "this is Lieutenants Kline and Patti, sir."
      I nodded and returned the salutes, but I still had no idea which of the other two was which, "can I help you?"
      "Yes, sir. I mean, you can help them sir, not me, sir."
      I smiled at the young officer, "stand easy Mister Rogan and just tell me what's going on."
      "Thank you, sir," he took a deep breath and tried to force himself to relax. "Thank you, sir," he repeated, "we'd like you to marry them, sir."
      Now I had to stop and take a deep breath, "I would be honored to," I said and the young woman of the group group into a big smile and started to say something but I held up a hand as I continued, "but, there is one small matter. Contrary to myth, ship captains cannot perform legal marriages in most modern navies, and from what I understand, that extends to space fleets."
      All three of them visibly sagged.
      "However, ship's chaplains can, and I just saw Reverend Behemial in the officer's lounge, let's go see him." I paused, "If you don't mind."
      "Yes, sir!" They all exclaimed and the bride to be hugged me. I didn't remark on her breach of protocol and we all headed down the passage to the lounge.

Part One

General Muller
Combined Fleet Headquarters
Nebula Six

      There was a tapping on the door of my office quarters.
      "General Muller? There is a delegation here to see you."
      I'd heard that tone of voice before. Last time it was Specialist Gunther wanting to introduce me to the walking squids that turned out to be the best friends humanity ever had, the Panna.
      And now, Mister Abrams was using the same tone of voice. But he'd been around the Panna for months, as well as people like the Hu, who, amongst their other charming traits such as aggressive xenophobic paranoia, also tended to smell bad. I remember one of them bragging to me that he hadn't bathed since he had been a child.
      "Sir?"
      I leaned back in my chair and looked. Then I instinctively reached for my sidearm because several Reptilians were standing behind Abrams.
      He put up his hands and stepped back in front of them. "It's OK, sir, this is Hal duBrek, he leads a peace delegation from a group of free Juul planets. The Panna said we should regard him as a full Ambassador."
      "Free Juul?"
      "Yes, General Muller," duBrek said through the Panna disc he was wearing, "We are Free from the rule of the Annu. We do not serve them, nor do we pay them tribute. Unlike the soldiers you have faced, most of us were born naturally, and free."
      "I didn't know any of you were free," I said as my blood pressure dropped a few points and I finally relaxed my grip on the butt of my pistol as I stood up to greet them without a weapon in my hand. "In that case, welcome, Ambassador."
      "Those of our kind that you have experience with are not free or natural," a female member of the group said. "We are different, in many ways."
      "This is she who is my wife, Chloe laFell," duBrek said very formally. "She chose to accompany me on this mission, for which I am grateful."
      "An honor," I said hoping I hadn't offended either of them. "But most of those we've encountered don't seem to even be able to talk."
      "Most cannot. However, we can, and we wish to. With you," duBrek answered. "And then discuss an alliance against those you call the Annunaki. We do not have much to offer such an alliance, but what we do have, we offer fully."
      "Whatever you have to offer will be greatly appreciated, sir."

      The Juul were very well spoken and apparently knew more about some aspects of Earth than I did.
      "Your benefactors, the Panna, educated us about many things about your people," duBrek said to explain how they knew I had gone to school in Indiana. After he mentioned it I asked how he'd known that.
      "That explains it. They probably transferred every word ever written about Earth into your brain."
      For the first time I saw a hint of an emotion on duBrek's face, "Almost. It was not a pleasant experience."
      LaFell's expression was more open, "My husband is being proud. After the transfer he was unconscious for three cycles."
      His eyes told the rest of the story although his face remained almost expressionless, "It took some time to become accustomed to all they had given me."
      "Sir, I know exactly what you went through," I said to duBrek. "If nothing else, we already have two things in common."
      "Two? General?"
      "We've had our brains scrambled by the Panna, and we hate the Annunaki for what they've done to our people."
      "This is very true, and exactly what I want to speak to you about, freeing my people." He said, then he turned to the rest of his delegation. "I wish to speak to the General alone." He nodded toward Mister Abrams, "If you could find someplace for my associates to rest from our travels, I would appreciate it."
      "Yes, sir, mister Ambassador. It'd be my pleasure," Abram's said to him, then he turned and spoke to the rest of the Juul group, "if you would follow me, we have some refreshments that the Panna said you would find agreeable."
      "Thank you," duBrek said. "And please, could you bring me something to drink, we find the air on these ships quite dry. General, do you wish anything?"
      "I'm OK," I indicated my jug of coffee.
      "I'll be right back." Abrams said.

      I took a deep breath and tried to come to grips that not only was the ambassador from the people who I thought were all our blood enemies was well spoken and polite, I found myself actually liking him.

President Dr. Yarah Santiago
Medical Conference, Support Services, Earth Command
Majjistral Natural and History Park, Malta

      I hadn't wanted to come to the medical conference for several reasons. For one, I thought that my dual role as President and Physician would be a distraction.
      But, I was glad I did.
      The presumed reason for doctors from all over the world to attend was to learn how to treat various injuries and illnesses in the Panna that would soon be spreading out all over the planet to help us rebuild our world.

      We learned that for the most part, an individual Panna's response to serious injury is to shut down, almost going into a coma, until help arrives. And as there are usually several of them around, help is never too far off. However, command realized that that may not always be the case here, and we needed to be able to respond in some fashion to do what first aid we could until advanced assistance could be found.
      And that's when it became fascinating.

      Not only are the Panna a totally alien form of life, they are more alien that anything I'd ever even seen imagined on TV or in books and movies.
      And it begins at the most basic level. In their DNA.
      To me, as a medical doctor that had at one time thought about extending my schooling and becoming a cellular biologist, I found it absolutely fascinating. They don't have two strands of base pairs in their DNA, they have three. One of the base pairs on every tier, as they call the 'rungs of the spiral ladder' is a master molecule of one of six possible variations. The master has a central body that only mates with 'reciprocal' versions of itself. The next tier up may have a different master, and its associated smaller units, and so on, until the entire chromosome is built.

      "I had God's own nightmare just learning four base pairs and which goes with which..." A conference attendee said during a break when a group of us went walking along an ancient stone fence around a vineyard.
      "Guanine and Cytosine, Adenine and Thymine," somebody recited with a French accent.
      "Yeah, they have six, and they don't link up with each other, only the little ones of themselves."
      "It's only two more," I offered, "and we don't have to learn them, just know how to check for radiation damage to the sequence with their scanner."
      "At least they don't have RNA to worry about. Or bones to break," the French doctor said.
      "Or livers, or even a real heart for that matter," a doctor I knew from Mexico said.
      "True," the original complainer said.

      Which was one of the other oddities about our new friends. They didn't have blood per say, but a 'body fluid' which circulated throughout their bodies as they moved, which the presenter said was one reason they seemed to always be moving. "And they also don't have a central nervous system as you would understand it."
      A Panna's brain, they went on to explain, was situated throughout their trunk, although some parts of it were more important than others, the distribution meant one main thing, at least as far as we were concerned, that any injury to their body could be extremely serious, or even fatal. Especially since our own heads were a more or less solid case of bone, their brains were only protected by a sheave of a gel like substance.
      "If you are treating an injured Panna and see this fluid, get them into stasis as soon as possible or it will probably die."

      "And that's another thing," the complaining doctor who turned out to be from Russia said, "they're all an 'it'. I don't like referring to my patients like that."
      My Mexican friend glanced at me, "Senora Presidente, you have the most experience with them of anybody I know, what do you say?"
      I shrugged as I tried to put my answer to his question into words, "Some of them seem more masculine or feminine than others, and some have names. But from what I've seen of them, if you called one of them 'he' or 'she' they would either accept it or correct you. And besides, if they are injured it shouldn't matter." I paused. "You're a healer. They're a patient."
      "Yes, Senora, I agree. And you?"
      The Russia looked at us, then drained his cup of amazingly strong local coffee-like drink and stared out at the sea beyond the old watch tower. "Of course, she is right. In the interest of them helping us, we must help them."

      It turned out that the toughest part of their body was their eye stalk. It was made of some of the densest cartilage the presenter said they'd ever seen. And at the end of it was a complex eye that was much more than that, it was a 'complex of eyes' that could see from the infrared up and appeared to even have a type of sonar for depth perception.
      "For their tentacles, unless it is a deep cut near the body of one of their locomotive branches, most of the time it will self seal, unless the arm or leg is nearly or completely severed. Then you would apply a tourniquet as you would to a human patient."
      From there the conference got into everything from dealing with one that had been electrocuted, which, as it turned out, was more hazardous to them than to us. Another interesting thing was that they were not very cold tolerant and any work to be done outside in the polar regions would probably be done by humans.
      "Anything much below the freezing point of water can cause them severe frostbite in just a matter of minutes," the presenter said.
      "They should wear gloves," somebody said from the other side of the room. And in a moment, we all laughed as we imagined the image.
      "If they weren't almost totally ectothermic, they could," the presenter said, and we learned something else about the Panna.

Spade
Toller Supply Ship "Assured Victory"

      I'm not one to complain, I mean, the Toller have more of a sense of what real food is than the Panna who think that sloppy wet cardboard mulch is fine dining, but there has to be something in between. I mean, the mildest Toller spice I've tried so far made my nose run for twenty minutes. Only then did Twister, the oldest of the Panna that had been helping me for awhile, tell me that the Toller have half the taste buds of the average human.
      But I have been able to get some reconstituted meat that Third Officer Jaheil said started out as a type of genetically engineered fish raised in great numbers in an artificial ocean that's not bad. And some sort of starchy vegetable that I think would be great fried. Well, anything is better fried, but this thing reminds me of a sweet potato so I want to try that. Anyway, I've got a good amount of real food, that I'll make go further by combining some of the Pannafood with it.
            ... or not.

      When I started it took some work, and having to explain things to Salty, Twister's own helper, why I did some of the things I do about sixteen times, but eventually it understood most of it and became a pretty good cook. Considering it has four hands, Salty is probably the envy of line cooks everywhere.
      Finally, I was able to present General Muller a plate of something that was at least as good as I was able to make on Earth, after the attack that is.

      I had a filled up the cargo shuttle I had been given to use and had returned to the Panna mothership when I saw something I'd never thought I'd see.
      Friendly Reptilians.

Colonel Inoue
Japanese Space Division transferred to:
Earth Defense Command, Reserve Base, Mongolia

      It was my highest honor to serve the people of my nation and the world. But I did not wish to command the entire Asian defense base. In fact, it was my intent to stay with the fleet, with Teruo and Shoichi, but alas, such was not to be.
      General Muller and Admiral Nardi and the others said they had looked at all of the officers and felt that I was the best man for the job.
      I bowed, thanked them as respectfully as I could for their confidence, and moved to Mongolia.

      Shoichi was saddened by the news, but he said he would still rather stay in space unless Teruo wanted to go back to Earth.
      "I don't know what to do," Teruo said, "I like being out here, but I like Earth too."
      "I am certain we will be able to get real rice at the base," I said to them to sweeten the offer.
      "But it is Mongolia."
      "Way far west Mongolia. A long way from Japan."
      "I cannot change that. The Panna have already started to build the base. From what I have seen, they removed the tops of several mountains to make it." I thought of something to say to them, "I have heard that the fishing in the Khar Lakes is quite good and the pelicans are coming back."
      Teruo and Shoichi looked at each other, then Shoichi spoke for them, "Can we stay together?"
      "Yes."

Chris Banks
World Press International
Bahrain Earth Defense Base

      "Today the base enjoyed the great honor of receiving the first full flight of Earth produced defense ships to be placed in active service.
      "A group of high ranking ministers from several nations were on hand to welcome and inspect the vessels. It is also pleasant to note that the officers who will be flying these ships are led by Colonel Usman Sahid who is a veteran of the Human Warriors who participated in the retaliatory attack against those who had attacked us. Colonel Sahid said that never again will our race be caught unawares by an alien enemy."
      I smiled at the camera and then nodded, "And now back to the studio."
      In a second the cameraman said "we're clear", and I relaxed.
      "If that's it, sir, we'll head back." I said to the Saudi officer in charge.
      "Very well," he replied with a frown that let me know that he still wasn't happy about having to talk to a foreign woman.

      The island had been totally re-purposed as a military base without any significant civilian population at all. I had proposed that the old tourist compound be rebuilt as a media center and visitor complex, that way it was far enough away from the base to satisfy their security concerns while still close enough to allow reasonable access.
      The idea was accepted and one of the same Panna machines that had helped build the base was sent over to put it together. And since it was my idea, I had to explain to a Panna named Builder and one without a name what I wanted.
      I'd never talked to the things before, but Builder was all about getting every detail I could think of, including how tall the sink should be in the restrooms, so I tried to be as helpful as I could.
      "Chris is a name," the other Panna said to me when it stopped operating the controls it was using for a moment. "Not a word."
      "Yes, it is."
      The Panna looked at me with its eye, "Do you think I could be named Chris?"
      "Sure," I said as the machine took the ruined buildings and a smashed panel truck and everything else around and reprocessed it into a hotel and operations center. It finished up by reforming the wall around the compound from its own rubble.
      "Thank you, I think I will like having a name that is not a word."
      "I like being Builder," Builder said, "it is what I do."
      "It is what I do, but it is not who I am." Chris answered.
      I tried to stop the building argument, "Some human names started out being descriptions of what the people did, so it's OK, it works like that."
      Both Panna looked at me, then they looked at each other, "She is right," one of them said, and they went back to work.

      Now the broken structure that had been our home for several months was now a totally new compound with living and working areas for both Humans and others, and the most advanced communications and media center I'd ever seen.
      Chris showed me how to use one of their computer terminals that was a lot more than just a computer terminal. "I helped others put your information access back after the Annunaki tried to destroy it."
      "The Internet? You fixed it?"
      It looked at me. "Yes," it said then it ran three of its hand-like tentacles over the controls. "I have found some of your reference material fascinating."
      I knew what had been on the Net, and worried what sort of material the Panna had found, but then I relaxed, it had brought up a page that depicted some Persian warrior battling a dragon from several hundred years ago. My first thought was to wonder which one Chris was rooting for.
      "There was all sorts of information on the network," I said.
      "We know, we have recovered a great deal of it."
      "I will play the music and we'll dance when the work is done," Builder said and ran its own tentacles over its console.
      "You dance?" I asked them as Chris changed the instructions for what the construction machine was doing.
      "Yes."

      The Panna did dance, and they wanted me to dance with them to some Swedish pop music they were playing from the console. I couldn't dance like they did, mainly because I have bones in my legs, but it was fun anyway.

Lieutenant Derry O'Neill
Earth Monitoring Orbital Station Two, Crew Lounge

      "Yes, I am really in orbit, in fact I can see Scotland right now."
      My aunt still didn't believe me, "But it sounds so clear, and you look like you're at a base down here."
      "They have gravity up there? You're not floating around like on the old space station," a man behind her said.
      "Yes, the Panna and Toller have artificial gravity on their larger ships. It'd be real hard to do a show without it."
      "You said we can watch you? That'd be nice." My aunt said.
      "Yes ma'am. All I had to do was to ask the Panna and told them they could dance and play their own music between our sets, and we're going to be the first world wide broadcast concert since...." I didn't know how to put it.
      "Since the other ones destroyed us," the man said.
      "After the show can you come visit us?" My aunt asked.
      "Sure."
      "Let us know when you're coming, we'd love to see your ship."
      "I'll see if the Station Commander will let us do that," I answered. I didn't have the heart to tell them that I didn't have a ship to bring, but once I thought about it, I was pretty sure we could borrow one.

      The Panna had been very good to our group. They made us better instruments, and even if we were just practicing a group of them would be there dancing to the music.
      Several of them had taken up various instruments and adapted them to be played with either four or eight tentacles instead of two hands or hands and feet, and were learning to play their versions of our music on them. The result was something closer to what we called music than that godawful noise they had been calling music.
      One of the things we'd managed to make using the Panna equipment was something that we called space scotch. It wasn't very good, but it worked, and it made listening to the Panna's music almost tolerable. Almost.
      And tomorrow night British time, during our broadcast, all of Earth was going to get to hear the Panna band play a couple of songs for them.
      "That reminds me of a song from the Eighties," one of my guys said. "'Come feel the noise'. Remember that one?"
      I shrugged and turned back to listen to the Panna play their three songs like they said they'd play them for the concert. I hoped the people on the planet had a lot of real scotch, "I'm being reminded of it right now."

General Muller
Combined Fleet Headquarters
Nebula Six

      When the others had left duBrek touched the panel that closed the door behind them. Then he turned toward me, "Thank you for seeing me privately, sir," he said with a bow of his head. "I am enjoying communicating in a human language General, even though we did learn French and you speak English, however, both allow more shades of meanings than our own speech."
      "French?"
      "Yes, the initial information we got from the Panna was from them. So when we learned your language and some traditions, they turned out to be French. So our human-names are French, but, I think it, and the traits suit us."
      "I think so too, and with these," I touched my Panna communication disk, "we can still talk."
      There was a tapping at the door and duBrek opened it, Abrams handed him a large metal bottle that the Panna had fashioned to hold water for us.
      DuBrek opened it immediately and took a long drink from it. "Thank you very much, I needed that almost desperately. Thank you."
      "You're welcome, Ambassador," Abrams shut the door behind him.
      DuBrek took another long drink and then sighed. "Thank you for the moment to refresh myself."
      "No problem," I said and saluted him with the coffee cup that I'd sipped from while he was drinking, then I indicated the other chair in the room and asked him if he'd prefer that or the very uncomfortable Panna designed couch.
      "Actually, if it is allowed, I'd prefer to sit on the floor."
      "Be my guest," I said.
      He took a cloth roll that had been around his waist that I thought was part of their clothing and spread it on the floor in front of the couch, then he sat down on it in a variation of the lotus position. "So where do we begin?" He said to me once he'd had another drink.
      "How many free... Juul, planets are there?"
      "There are several, I represent a league of five free worlds, but there are several where we have a free colony in hiding on an occupied world. It is a complicated question to answer."
      "I can appreciate that too."
      "General Muller, you appear to be, a, I believe it is, a 'reasonable man'."
      "Thank you, I try to be. And you strike me as one as well."
      "Thank you as well, but.... One of the things I need to ask you to satisfy myself is somewhat sensitive, to both of us."
      "In the interest of the future relations of our people, I will try to answer as well as I can."
      "Very well put." duBrek took a small sip of his water, "I must speak to the Panna about the humidity on their ships."
      "Good luck," I said as he took another sip. "They say that high humidity makes their skin slimy."
      "I didn't know that." He was silent for a moment. "I guess we'll be sleeping on our ship. To the point then."
      He sipped his water again and I could tell that he really didn't want to say something that would upset me. "Please, Ambassador duBrek, I've always felt that open honesty is the best course of action on the person to person level."
      He bowed his head slowly, "Of course. We are, by nature, somewhat timid when unsure of our circumstances. Something you have undoubtedly seen."
      "We have."
      "Of course. But one thing I learned from the information the Panna supplied us with is that your kind have an instinctive dislike for my kind. Something which I have had to overcome on our part as well. We believe the Annunaki instilled that in us long ago, and we have yet to rid ourselves of it."
      I nodded, "I believe that to be the case with humans as well. Even in many of our ancient myths and religions evil spirits often appear as...." I didn't know how else to say it, and I didn't want to break my own advice, "as reptiles."
      "In our case, the Evil One, Nefrous he was named, was an apelike man with.... hair. Long hair and smooth teeth." His laugh was a deep sound that originated in his chest. "We have something else in common."
      "Yes, and it says something about us that we have overcome that inborn aversion to come together like this."
      "Agreed. But we, as you, do not have a great deal of equipment with which to fight, and even our numbers are limited."
      "As are ours, even now, the Panna have more ships than we have crews for, but we have developed a way for one pilot to control three or even five individual fighters. They changed the controls on some of their ships to allow two of our pilots to fly a ship that used to take five of theirs. So we're doing OK."
      "I see. But will your pilots fight to free us?"
      "Some of my people may be put off by it at first, but once they understand that the Free Juul are our allies and will join the fight against the Annunaki, yes."
      "That is something else. The Annunaki, you destroyed some of their worlds."
      "There were two that were destroyed, another that was cut off, and the planets in the other system were made uninhabitable when their sun went out. Yes. We did that with assistance from others."
      "There were Juul in those systems. Free Juul." He inclined his head backwards. "One of them was my brother's son who had gone to help them."
      "I didn't know that. I'm sorry."
      "Most would have gladly sacrificed their lives to kill that many of the enemy. But if we had been warned we could have rescued many of them."
      "We didn't know your people were there."
      "The Hu did. We are in regular contact with them."
      "I see. As far as I know the Hu never said a word to anybody. They haven't really been a full part of this effort."
      "They told us their fleet was integral to the final victory in your home system."
      I couldn't help it, I laughed out loud, much to the dismay of the Ambassador. "Sir, if I may."
      "Please."
      I turned to the thing that I called my desk, which had actually been put together out of spare parts and some things the Panna had no other use for, as had been my office as well, and tried to remember exactly the sequence of commands to issue to make the system show me what I wanted. Then I just did it.
      "This should show exactly what happened that day," I said as several images of the battle was projected around us.
      DuBrek looked at the developing scene carefully. "I see Chous, and Toller, and Panna ships, and Foraquinestaezst weapons."
      "But no Hu? They do show up, give it a few minutes."
      The replay of the battle was just as intense as I remembered it being at the time, and then, "Watch," I said to the Ambassador and pointed off to the left of the main engagement.
      "Three ships?"
      "Three ships," I repeated. "Their attack run was a welcome addition to the battle, and they did significant damage to the command ship in their pass, but I don't think the outcome would have been different had they not arrived, it would have just taken a few more minutes."
      "I'm sorry, but three ships is not a fleet," the Ambassador said and I saw something that I would guess was disappointment in his eyes.
      "Not where I'm from either. Their transport and its escort stayed halfway out of the system where they were safe."
      As the images of the battle faded he drank some more water, "I know the Hu are not the most amiable of people."
      "That's putting it very diplomatically, sir."
      "As I should, but I am surprised they would embellish the truth to that degree."
      "I'm certain that they see things exactly that way."
      He was silent for a moment, "Just from my experience with them, I believe they would as well. They did attack at a critical phase of the conflict, and they did send more than one ship, so, in a way, what they said is true."
      "The Hu have hair and smooth teeth, don't they?"
      In a moment he had that deep chesty laugh going again. "Yes, as did those you call the Annunaki who came to us long ago. The same who nearly finished your own kind."
      "Yes, they did teach us two things though."
      He looked at me and I could see a questioning expression on his face.
      "They taught us a good bit of humility that day because, believe me, we, as a race, were quite taken with ourselves and our accomplishments."
      "And the other?"
      "The truth of an old saying, 'vengeance is a dish best served cold'."
      "General, I believe we shall have a most agreeable working relationship." He saluted me with his water bottle and I picked up my coffee cup to return it.
      "Indeed, Mister Ambassador."
      After we drank he shook the bottle, "This, is empty."
      "Let's go find you some more and you can meet the rest of my staff."

Penni Potts
British Isles

      I found a pair of proper fingernail trimmer pliers at the barter. I traded a basket of vegetables for them, which I think was robbery, but I wanted them. I needed them. The one pair that I had in my purse when we left London had been used to death. And another pair that Marlin found for me in a house that had been abandoned worked, but they just weren't very good because they were the American clipper style ones. He said that people had been hording stuff like that because who knows when we'll ever be able to get new ones.
      I know there are more important things to worry about. But I just didn't feel right when I couldn't keep my nails neat.
      Marlin was a dear, and took good care of me, and was happy now that I was happy. But still, we were a miserable lot. We only had electricity when somebody wanted to either pedal a bicycle or turn a crank to run the car generators they'd wired into various things like a radio that only got two human broadcasts. And no proper telly. And no real chocolate either, but I missed new shows on the telly more.

      I couldn't abide it when some boffin came around with a Panna a couple of days after my manicure. I had to stay inside and not even think about them, but they said it brought us some of the things we needed, and that they would put a power station in town in a few days, but just thinking about them made me want to scream.
      I did have a chance to ask a woman from the Home Office about the money that had been in the banks. I said I just wanted to know what happened to it, but she couldn't answer. Another woman on the other side of the audience asked her the same thing, but about her retirement account. Finally some young guy who was with her said that the aliens had been reconstructing the databases as best they could and that eventually that information might be available. But right now, our economy was all barter and trade and there was no cash in use, so it didn't matter.
      I think it matters, I had a lot saved up, and I'd like to be able to get to it. But he was right, the man at the swap meet didn't want cash, I'd heard that most of them wouldn't even take gold coins because they didn't have a use for them. Things like that just weren't important. Turnips and nail pliers were important.
      And fish. Fish are important. Marlin is back with the others from the fishing expedition and I can see that they've caught a good deal. I don't help with the cleaning, but I do help salt and smoke it when they get done with it.

Bo and Sammi
Amory, Jay and Abbey
The Mid-Atlantic, USA

      "It's not much, but it's become home," I said to Abbey and the boys as we showed them what we'd done to the town.
      "You've done good," Abbey said to us. "Thank you for having us."
      "Yeah, we had to stay in a tent in Australia," Jay said.
      Amory smiled, "It was fun, like camping out."
      Our daughter Autumn wrinkled her nose at the statement, but didn't say anything.
      "You come in from being on a space ship and move into a tent and say it was fun?" old man Willis said to them jerking his head over to the clearing where they'd parked their ship. "I never thought I'd live to hear somebody say something like that."
      "He's young," Abbey answered, "his definition of fun is a little different from ours."
      "But we had real food, not the mess the Panna fed us," Jay said, "which made it OK with me."
      There was a silence for a minute, and true to form, Mister Willis broke it, "That's what Barry Johnson complained about whenever he sent a message, the squid's bad food." Then he paused, "shame about what happened to him up there."
      "We saw the memorial they dedicated to them on the orbital station," Abbey said.
      "Yeah, it's really nice, Mister Johnson," Jay said to Barry's father. "I found his name on it."
      "I wish I could go see it."
      There was another silence, then we heard the announcement that dinner was ready and our honored guests got to go first.
      "The fish is fresh from the river, we caught them this morning," Mister Willis said to end the uneasy quiet.
      "What do you mean 'we' caught them this morning?" Mister Johnson said to him, "I don't remember seeing you down there hauling on a trotline.
      Everybody laughed at the older man as he muttered something about meaning 'we' as the community.
      "Sure you did," somebody said as I patted him on the shoulder and everybody headed toward the pole building that was our community center.

Combined Fleet Headquarters
Nebula Six

Paige Taylor
      Trying to get a straight answer out of the group of alien traders I was meeting with was maddening. They were an odd lot to be sure going in. There were at least five different species represented, and a couple of individuals who were mixed breed types who claimed they were one of a kind with some pride. And every one of them claimed to be an independent operator separate from the Alliance, the Annunaki, the Panna, or anybody else.
      When they arrived I looked at the monitors showing their ships and I had to stop one of the Panna and ask a question I'd never thought I'd ask about a space vessel. "Which end of it is the front?"
      The Panna I asked looked up at the monitor with its eye stalk, then it used a manipulator tentacle to change the view to another perspective. Then it reached out and touched the Panna next to it.
      In a moment, they both answered with, "We're not certain."

      An hour or so later I was in conference with a group that was as bizarre as any I'd ever seen in any science fiction movie I'd ever watched. The only thing they had in common was a desire to make money and be left alone by everybody, including us.
      "I don't even answer messages from the Hu," one of them with a mouth that covered half of his face said.
      "You're better off," a tall extremely hairy being said through their Panna translator.
      "All we are asking is that you continue business as usual," I said for the fourth time.
      "But you are at war. War is bad for trade," a half-breed Juul said.
      "Unless you're a weapons dealer," the one with the oversized mouth and ears answered.
      I had to smile at the remark because I'd heard something like that before, but I had to get serious again and assure them that we weren't out to destroy them and their ships.
      "But if the war starts in a system we are in, we might come under attack," the Juul said.
      "Not by us. We'll..." I fished for the right words, "we'll shoot around you."

General Muller
      Since the battle for Earth, we had dispersed our forces and the main combined Panna base ship had half of the total population it had before. The human room had been subdivided into various community areas where people of various subgroups had congregated. Many had built rooms and even entire apartment buildings in the huge hanger. Others had sub-divided other rooms on the ships and had developed a kind of communal living arrangement. All in all, we had made the best of what had begun as a really bad situation.
      "I see the Panna haven't changed their ships since I was a child," Ambassador duBrek said as they walked. "I was still with our family's benefactor when we moved from Lackrom to Burcel aboard one." He stopped in the passage. "Let me see, if that is really true then, two or three doors down on the right is one of the energy transfer points to the various ship systems, and then just beyond it on the left is one of the supply rooms where they kept bedding and things like that for whoever wasn't a Panna, apparently they all sleep together in a bowl."
      I looked one way and then the other, "I think you're right about the rooms."
      "That would be the Panna, they do not like to change anything, of their own. Our stuff is a different story."
      "They say they are improving it."
      "Of course."
      Since Mateo had elected to stay in Brazil with President Santiago I didn't have an official aid de camp, but I did still have Ms Paige Taylor and Qi-Shi, the combination of which had proven to be one of our best weapons against the Annunaki. And they and Admiral Nardi were as polite and gracious to our guests as I expected them to be.
      "Ambassador, there is one piece of question about our enemy that I have yet to hear a good answer to."
      duBrek nodded and took a drink of his water.
      Paige knew what I was going to ask, "How many combat ships do the Annunaki have in total. Right sir?"
      "Yes."
      duBrek's head bobbed up and down slightly for a second. "I don't think even they know. Their empire is fractured and some of their rulers do not have friendly relations with the others. But most will send forces to combat an enemy that they feel is of sufficient threat to their combined power. Which we may become if we succeed."
      "Some intelligence reports say that they have forty-three first and second class ships in this realm, others place it at slightly more," Qi-Shi said.
      The Ambassador looked up at the map, "I suppose it would depend on what they were regarding as 'this realm'. I know the Governor of one of the sectors near the Hu is not regarded as reliable by his superiors."
      "Then why is he still the Governor of the sector?"
      "Politics."
      "Of course."

      "It was an honor to meet your officers General, but now I have to wonder, what has become of my party and my wife?"
      "We'll find them," I said and spotted a small group of Panna concentrating on a console nearby. "Excuse me," I said to them and instantly became the center of attention for all of them, as was usual with them. "Can you find out where the Juul party is?"
      "The Ambassador is with you General," two of the Panna said.
      "And the others are in the Officer's Dining Room," the other three added.
      "Thank you," I said to them and turned to go.
      "We are honored to serve, General," they said as a chorus.

      We could hear the mixed laughter of several species in the passage outside the room that had been designated the Officer's Mess since before the first battle. While that was its name, and how it was thought of, anybody, and indeed, any-thing, that wanted to go in and have a meal from the available food was welcome, including Panna and Toller, and now Juul.
      The reason they were all laughing turned out to be their various individuals sharing their experience with a common problem: Using the 'physical necessity facilities' on a Panna ship.
      Spade was telling them about his first encounter with the peculiarities of that particular room after having eaten Panna food for over a day.
      "I'm sorry, but I knew that it wasn't going to be anything nice and I mean I really had to go. You know?"
      One of the Ambassador's party was laughing as hard as anybody ever had and turning the most remarkable shade of blue-green in the process, "Oh yes. I've had that problem. Stars above I thought I was going to have to get a new uniform one time because I didn't know how to do it in one of their effluent rooms."
      We stopped at the door without interrupting them.
      Spade was laughing as he continued, "That was almost me, but we'd been told that the Annunaki fleet was on its way so I didn't want to get caught, you know, not being ready. So I told everybody else to get out, then I took off my pants and tried to squat over that little opening that they use," he made a small circle in the air with his hands. "And then I tried to aim and..." The face he made cannot be explained in words.
      The Juul that had contributed was now a nice shade of turquoise and slapping the wall while he laughed.
      "If it was that messy, how did you clean yourself afterward?" duBrek's wife asked him. "They do not have proper washing basins."
      "It wasn't easy, or quick," Spade said seriously, then he began laughing again.

      I leaned over to the Ambassador and whispered to him, "It would seem we have something else in common."
      "Yes. We do. But I still do not find the experience at all humorous."
      "Neither do I. And still don't." I nodded toward the others, "But they do."
      DuBrek agreed, "They are sharing something, and enjoying it, that is good."
      "We can get you some more water over there."

      One of the Ambassador's party came up to us while he refilled his bottle. "Will the humans send re-enforcements to Trantor before it is too late?"
      DuBrek whistled softly, something I learned later was their sigh, then he drank some water and finally looked at me. "That was the other matter I need to discuss with you."
      "Re-enforcements? You are under attack?"
      "Yes, the Annunaki have invaded two of our safe planets and are attempting to seize a free spaceport."
      His aid added to the explanation, "Because you and your allies destroyed their bases in Warran."
      DuBrek raised a calming hand, "they were attacking before then. Just now, they have stepped up the pressure and our forces on Trantor are over matched. They cannot hold out for long and our resources are spread too thin now."
      "Where is Trantor?"
      "I can show you on that display where you replayed the battle for me."
      I had the Panna dispenser refill my coffee cup with a type of their tea that wasn't too disgusting. "There's one in the main room too, let's go." I turned toward the group that had been discussing the Panna's sanitary facilities, "Time to go to work."
      "Yes, sir," Spade answered immediately.
      I touched the communications device on my belt and asked Qi-Shi to meet me at the main operations console.
      "On my way."

      "Show us the free Juul planet Trantor," I said to the Panna around the main console as soon as we walked into the room. "Get Commander Koenig of the Toller on as well, I want them to hear this."
      "The General gave me an order," one of them said to the others of its kind.
      "Yes, I did, and it would be excellent if you carried it out."
      Three of the Panna moved at once to comply.
      "Greetings General, how can we be of service?" The Commander said from a display on the far side of the console.
      "Just listen in and offer any advice you can."
      The large display overhead came to life with a view of a light green and tan planet.
      "The port is on the largest southern continent. The settlement is just inland from it." DuBrek said.
      My staff was gathering as the image changed to show the spaceport and the city.
      "Where is the Annunaki base?" I asked as most of those in the room turned their attention toward us. Which was exactly what I had been counting on.
      "They landed at the old spaceport there," DuBrek's aid said, "they had to bring everything with them because it has been out of service for many years."
      "But it still gave them a foothold," Qi'Shi said, "and knowing them, they have now fortified the position to guarantee their supply line."
      "Yes, they have."
      The Ambassador reached over and backed the view out to show the entire system. "We believe they have their supply ships concealed in the Bai-jor asteroid field. They bring in their troops and supplies in via a group of very small and very quick ships."
      I looked at the overview of the system, "I've got an idea. But we'll need some volunteers to carry it out."
      "I believe we can find a few," Qi-Shi said. He looked out over the group that had assembled behind the Ambassador's party.
      I nodded, "These are free Juul, they are under attack by the Annunaki. Who'd like to go destroy a supply base and blow up a few transports before we go in and even the odds on the ground?"
      The cheers and affirmation wasn't deafening, but it left no doubt that we were going.
      "Commander? Interested?"
      "Of course, a twin assault on the supply base and their ground force could be devastating."
      I gave another order to the Panna, "Plot me a course, best speed and estimated arrival time to come in from the far side of that system and copy it to the Commander."
      "Yes, General."
      Admiral Nardi was well on her game, "I'll pull the expected defenses and assign units to both assault forces."
      "And put together a supply ship of essentials for the Juul as well."
      "Yes, sir."
      "Excellent. Qi-Shi, give me a projection of the best lines of attack to avoid the majority of their defenses both on the supply base and the landing site at the old spaceport."
      "Already working on it, sir," he answered, and he was doing just that.
      "Paige," I said to the young woman.
      "Time schedule to synchronize the attacks with the Juul forces on the ground."
      I nodded.
      "Most impressive General."
      "Thank you Ambassador, now I suggest we get out of their way and let them work."
      "Agreed."

Lieutenant Derry O'Neill
Earth Monitoring Orbital Station Two, Crew Lounge

      Our final practice had been excellent, in fact, I'm superstitious enough to believe that if practice is perfect that there were liable to be mistakes during the show, but I didn't say anything to the others.
      Then the Panna played their set and they were better than they had ever been before. They were actually pretty good and really playing the music instead of just getting the right notes out in the right order. When they finished I commented on the change.
      "Yes. We had a combined thought about that and then we understood what you meant."
      I still don't understand how their melding works, but it does, and sometimes the results of it are astonishing. And this was one of those times. "That was great, really, that was really good, I think everybody will like it."
      All seven Panna looked at me with their multi lensed eye on its stalk but didn't say anything and I thought that I'd hurt their feelings.
      "That was why we did it," the one that had played the drums as only something with four arms could said.
      I turned to my band, "what do you think?"
      Our saxophone player, Vislor, did quick soft shoe step, "Their music made me want to dance."
      "That is good," the Panna said.

Paige Taylor
Combined Fleet Headquarters
Nebula Six

      "I have never met a BrBrisco before," I paused hoping they understood that I meant to pronounce the name of their species but as I only had one tongue I found it impossible to say. Fortunately the Panna disk knew what I meant.
      "There are not many of us around," Their leader said through the translator. "But I have seen humans before. But never free, and in command of their own ships."
      "I wish to thank your General for offering rest and supplies to our crew." The second officer said.
      "There were only twenty seven of you, for this place, that's no trouble at all." We turned off the main passage and waited for the hanger door to open so the BrBrisco's could show me their ship. "So, what do you trade?"
      The leader's head bobbed around like it was on a spring before he answered, "Many different things. One is that we'll trade bulk organic supplies for machinery and minerals, then take that to another port and exchange it all for something else, and do so without long term commitments or contracts. The Panna said your word for that is Freelancing."
      "Yes, that's one word for it." I said as the hanger door chimed to indicate that we could enter.
      Their ship was an odd looking vessel which seemed to be mostly a large empty space for cargo and with a small crew area and an engine assembly that probably didn't originate with this ship. Then I noticed some other elements that appeared to have been assembled from random parts and, yes, junk.
      "It isn't much to look at, but it is fast. And reliable," the leader said and I could hear the pride in his voice even through the translator. "Come, we'll show you."
      "I'll see to the engines and get ready to launch." One of the others said and went down a very narrow side passage.
      That was the one thing that I did notice about the BrBrisco ship, the passages were tight and laid out almost at random, and the rooms off of them were small and cramped compared to the massive and even roomy Panna ships.

      I didn't see what was coming, but fortunately for me, the Panna did.

      We were walking through an area of the ship and the leader was talking about their next trading run when suddenly I was pulled out of the passage and into a small side room by some sort of energy field.
      "We also trade in companionship," the leader said, "and I am sure a human female of your quality will bring a handsome price," one of the other ones reached out and took the Panna communicator.
      And they left me there, partially restrained by the same energy field in a fixtureless niche in the passage.
      I shouted several times, but nobody could hear me.

      I expected the ship to give some indication that it was launching at any moment. But it didn't. There was no vibration or noise or anything for what seemed like a long time.
      Finally, my legs got tired and I sagged against the wall and the restraining field until I was kind of half sitting in my cell.

      "Well, do you want to stay with them or come back to work?" General Muller said to me from the passage.
      I looked up and my eyes instantly filled with tears. "Oh, sir, it is so good to see you," I said, but I couldn't move.
      "Somebody turn this thing off," he ordered and one of the heavily armed space marines with him gestured to one of the BrBriscos to do it. Then he turned back to me, "You might want one of these again, too," he said and draped a Panna translator around my neck on a cord.

      The Panna knew of the BrBrisco's side business and had been watching their every movement while on the combined ship. They had kidnapped four other humans, two males and two other females, before they grabbed me, and the Panna had no intention of letting the ship leave with its illicit cargo.
      "I want you to scan this ship for anything else that isn't supposed to be on it before we let it go. Inside and out. Take it apart if you have to," the General said to several Panna and human crewmen.
      "Yes. Sir. General," they answered.
      The BrBrisco leader was indignant and actually inflated himself to be a good deal larger than he really was, "You can't hold us here. You can't do that to my ship."
      General Muller was not impressed as he turned to walk me out. Not impressed at all. "I can. And I just did." He stopped and turned back toward the protesting alien, "I've seen the holding area the Panna use for criminals. Perhaps you would like to wait there while we search your ship."
      The BrBrisco leader held his pose for a moment, until the senior Marine took a step toward him, then he began to physically sag, "no."
      "Get on with it, and if they get in your way, throw them in the brig." Then he smiled at me, "and you Miss, have an attack with a very critical wrinkle to plan." He gestured toward the door, "Shall we?"

Chris Banks
World Press International
Bahrain Earth Defense Base

      "What on Earth is that noise?" I shouted to Mister Kellen as we ran into the media center.
      "That," he pointed to one of the Panna computer monitors that had screens and controls and indicators all over it that I knew I would never understand.
      "I'm working on it," Ken said, and in a second he silenced the multi-tonal screeching that I don't even know how to describe except to call it the bastard child of the most obnoxious car alarm ever made and the tormented shrieks of everybody who had ever had a bad experience at the dentist.
      We stood around and watched as he pushed buttons and changed views and then finally he got it to make sense.
      "There's ships coming into our solar system that the Panna sensors say are Annunaki. It looks like three of them, small and fast. The surface bases and the orbital stations are on full alert and some of our ships are going out to intercept them."
      My reporter instinct kicked in, "Are any going out from our base?"
      Ken had the system cooperating now, "No, we're on standby. Orbital One and Canada dispatched flights. Orbital Three, Brazil and Mongolia are on alert in case more are detected. Us and the other surface bases and Orbital Two are being held in reserve."
      "Why us?"
      Mister Kellen chuckled, "It was our turn."
      Ken had the large display showing us the rotating schedule and the fact that Orbital Three was not yet in full service, "that's exactly it."
      "Oh, I didn't know they did that," I was thinking about the angle for a story, "how often does it change?"
      "Go ask the Colonel."
      "I will."

Bo, Sammi, Amory, Jay and Abbey
Mid-Atlantic, USA

      Amory and Jay were sitting up with us for a few minutes while Abbey was taking a shower before bed when all of the sudden each ones Panna communicator pendant started making noise.
      "It's an alert," Jay said as he jumped up, "we need to get back to the base. Warm up the ship, I'll get our stuff."
      "Got it," Amory answered and ran toward the ship.
      "He's the pilot," Jay said and took off for the house they'd been using.
      In a moment Abbey came running over, wrapped in a wet towel and carrying her clothes, saying she'd been told that their unit had been recalled, "We're to report as soon as possible to reinforce those that have been deployed against a live target." She panted for a second then continued, "An Annunaki ship has been reported on the edge of our solar system."
      "Shouldn't you get dressed first?" Sammi said to her.
      "I can dress on the way, where are the boys?"
      "Amory's firing up the ship and Jay is getting their things together," Autumn answered.
      "Good." She stopped and stood still, "It was real nice to meet you. Sorry we've got to run."
      "Same here," we answered as she hurried toward the ship still holding the towel around herself.

      Mister Willis and several others were standing around as Jay came running up with all of their things in a couple of bags. "That radio they gave us made some godawful noise and said it was a mobilization. Then we saw your boy get in their ship and turn it on."
      "There's an enemy vessel in the neighborhood," I said.
      "Is it coming this way?"
      "No, I meant it, is in the solar system and they alerted all the bases to stand by."
      "Oh, OK," he said with relief all over his face.

      In just a few minutes after the alert sounded everybody in town was waving and cheering as the ship lifted into the air and then flew at an impressive speed north toward the base.

Amory and Jay and Abbey
      "Your folks seemed nice," I said once I'd gotten dressed.
      "They are," Amory answered. "I've got the base on the com." He answered and put them on the speaker.
      "Unit seven, you are being redirected to stand to with Olympia Flight. Change course to 131 mark 45. Climb to 2500 kilometers and hold."
      "Acknowledged," Jay said, "changing course."
      "Well, I guess I won't get to dry my hair after all," I said.
      "Yeah, you can, there's a thing I saw back there by the air lock with a valve on it. It'll blow hot air out when the tank is under pressure."
      I looked back at the airlock in the back corner of the cabin. It was supposed to be used to dock with a support craft in space instead of as a hair drier, but since I didn't have anything else to do I found my brush and engaged the unit. "I'll try it."
      "There's the flight," Jay said.
      "Changing frequency," Amory answered, "Support Seven to Olympia Leader, reporting as ordered."
      "Welcome aboard guys, hold position with Donna and Rose in Nine, when we get another unit, you'll be Wing Two."
      "Got it," Amory answered, "Hey girls, we're here."
      "We see you, forming up."
      "But we've got be good, my mom is with us," Jay answered.
      "Hey, Miss Abbey!" One of them shouted into the com.
      "Hey," I said brushing my hair under the stream of warm air from the valve on the airlock.

      It worked, before long my hair was dry and I was getting the guys something to drink from the supplies on the ship.
      Then we heard the flight commander giving another order, "Unit Twelve. Join up with Seven and Nine as Flight Two, hold station one hundred clicks to our port."
      "Ten Four," unit Twelve answered.

      I looked out the windows and saw the two other ships maneuvering into a V formation with us in the lead.
      "Flight Two, on station," Amory said, "holding position one thousand K off your side."
      "You're live, hold position pending further orders."
      "And now we wait," Jay said to me.
      "Cold drink?" I held out a spill proof cup to each of them.
      "No fair, you've got a flight attendant," somebody said from the com.
      "Nothing but first class over here on Aussie-Maryland Airlines," Amory answered.
      "I like it," Jay answered, "but there's one problem with your name."
      "What's that?" I asked him.
      "There's no air out here for the air-line."
      Amory glanced out the front window, then nodded, "OK, so we'll be Aussie-Maryland Spacelines."

General Muller
Combined Fleet Headquarters
Nebula Six

      "It was another flight of unmanned scouts," Paige said to me. "And they were being controlled from outside the system again just like last time."
      "Could you get a fix on their control ship?"
      "Yes, sir. Just like previous ones. But it was moving and as soon as we detected the scouts it cut the connection and they pulled out."
      "Damn."
      "But there is good news, sir."
      "I could use some," I said to her as I read a message from Qi-Shi about a delay in putting together the plans to relieve the Free Juul with part of the fleet.
      "One of the scouts failed to self destruct. We captured it. It's being towed back to Orbital Three by the patrol. The other two ships were destroyed."
      "A little convenient. Could be a trap," I said.
      "They thought of that, they're going drop it off on the the abandoned Annunaki supply ship and our guys will go over it there."
      "OK, let me know what happens."
      DuBrek was openly less suspicious, "I'm surprised their previous flights self destructed as ordered. They're known for malfunctioning."
      "The two didn't blow up, they had to have two of them crash into each other because they didn't blow up on command," Paige said.
      The Ambassador laughed his laugh at the statement, "That sounds like them."
      I agreed with the assessment, then mentioned something else, "I've heard some updates from my staff. Qi-Shi said he's just waiting on a fleet survey of available capital units then we'll be able to put our plan together. He's over talking to Captain Singh on a rebuilt Toller ship right now."
      "Excellent."

Captain Singh
"Balance of Justice"
Combined Fleet Assembly Point, Nebula Six

      I stood at attention and greeted the young man from the General Staff appropriately even though I felt a sense of dread in myself and that I was encircled in a fog of pending doom because I did not feel that either I, my crew, or even the Toller ship we had been given by the Alliance were ready for a combat assignment. We, humans that is, as a species, had only been on board the recently re-commissioned ship for just over a month, and I had only been in command for exactly twenty-two days. While it was now space-worthy, the Panna's production facilities has been doing all it can do for every ship in the fleet, and what had been mothballed space junk now pressed back into service was scarcely a priority. To be honest, I did not feel ready to take it into battle, although I would do my duty as ordered as would my crew.
      "Mister Qi-Shi. Captain Khaan Singh," Commander Rios, my second officer said to formally introduce us.
      "Captain," Mister Qi-Shi said with a bow, "I am honored to meet you and visit your fine ship."
      I returned his bow, "I hope you will feel the same at the end of your visit."

      During the tour Mister Qi-Shi asked me about the various aspects of the military capability of the "Balance of Justice" as compared to the specifications from the Toller for its class.
      "There should be three batteries in here, not one," he said as we walked into a duty station.
      "We are working with the Toller and the Panna to bring everything up to its full capability. It has been difficult because this vessel was not built by the Panna," I answered as we inspected the tracking gun's controls. "The others should be brought over from the Panna shortly."
      "Yes, Sir!" a crewman said. "They have told us to get the second emplacement ready for it to be mounted later today, sir."
      "That'll be two," Mister Qi-Shi said softly, "out of three, here. There are six more defensive fire control stations just like this one, and they all need at least one more gun, most need two."
      "Which is why I am not sure this ship will be ready to go into combat for this mission."
      Finally we had seen everything and I escorted Mister Qi-Shi back to the shuttle bay.
      "Tell me Captain, do you wish to be part of this mission to aid the Free Juul if your ship can be made ready."
      "Ready with time for a shake down?"
      He paused. "Ready. I'll leave the rest up to you."
      I stood and looked at some of my crew, two men and three Panna were all working to unpack another major part for the engine room, another group was working to get the shuttle ready to depart.
      "They deserve a chance to prove their mettle in battle, only a few of us were with the first human expeditionary group."
      He nodded, "One hundred and nine, out of your total crew of four hundred fifty one humans, with another hundred Panna, some Toller, and a handful of others."
      "Exactly, as of this morning."
      "I'll get you what you need, but only you can tell General Muller if you're ready to take this ship into action."
      Suddenly I felt the same level of pride and confidence that I had when I was aboard the guided missile destroyer I had commanded before the enemy destroyed it, and our home port of Visakhapatnam before we even knew we were under attack.
      I stood at full attention and nodded sharply to him, "Sir, if you can get my ship ready to face the enemy, face the enemy we shall."
      Evidently I spoke more loudly than I had planned because the crewmen in the room, human and otherwise, responded with a rousing cheer and applause.
      "You'll be ready, Captain." He extended his hand to me. "You have my word on it."

      As his shuttle lifted off and flew through the spacewall I felt a calm I hadn't experienced since my old ship had engaged several boatloads of Somali pirates who were trying to seize a civilian cargo ship. For some reason the pirates thought that their five small power skiffs were a match for one of the Indian Navy's best combat ships. They weren't.
      The surviving pirates were taken into custody and we scuttled their skiffs. The cargo ship continued on its way in spite of some minor damage from a rocket propelled grenade the pirates had fired at it. Their small arms did no significant damage at all to my ship.
      While you have to question the wisdom of such an attack on an obvious man-of-war instead of attempting to flee, you have to admire the sheer audacity of the act.
      Now I reflected on that incident as I returned to my duty of supervising the continuing refit and upgrade of my new command. To take an untried ship fresh from the greatest reworking since it had been new into battle against a well tried enemy I would need the same level of audacity, I just hoped that we would not suffer the same fate as the pirates. Especially since General Singh had elected to remain on Earth which left me as the senior most Indian officer in the space service.
      I had to smile to myself at that. The Panna could not believe that two humans could share the same last name, and come from the same country at that, and not be directly related. We had both assured them that although we may be distantly related somewhere in history, as far as either of us knew, there was no direct connection that we could come up with and that there were several families with the same name and variations of it.
      As the old warrior shook my hand for the last time he told me that if the Panna ever figured out how we were related to let him know. I bowed and told him that it would be my pleasure and honor to learn of such a connection.

      Several hours later I was summoned to the command deck by the Duty Officer, "Sir, we have received a message from the Panna. Our ship needs to report to their new space dock immediately where, as they put it, 'we'll make your ship better than new'."
      "The Panna said that."
      "Yessir."
      "But they only have one space dock and the 'Shadow of Vengeance' is in it." I glanced up at the monitor that showed the bulk of the assembling fleet including the damaged warship that was still in the space dock.
      "They didn't," the DO said, "they do now. They'll be finishing building it while they do our refit."
      "Accha," I said instinctively almost sounding like I was still a schoolboy in Ambala. "In that case, use the maneuvering thrusters and take us to wherever it is. Or, where it will be."
      "Aye, sir," the helm officer said.

      I didn't know what to expect of how the Panna's construction machinery worked. But somewhere along the way I found myself walking around on the outside of the hull of my ship talking to three of the Panna and a Toller engineer about an array of targeting sensors for the close ship-defense chain fed machine guns that the Panna wanted to replace. The Toller thought the array was just fine.
      I had to raise my hands and stop the conversation, "Excuse me, I just have to look at where we are for a minute." I said and looked up, or actually given that we were on what I thought of as the belly of the ship, down, at the arms and beams of the repair facility, with nothing but other ships and stars, and a clear energy field, around us. Here and there along the hull were other groups working away at their tasks.
      "Amazing isn't it?" the engineer said as he stood with me and we simply stared at the void, "I often forget exactly what we are doing and why because I get so caught up in the fine points."
      "It is magnificent isn't it? The work of a Mighty God."
      The Toller man, whose name I do not remember, was looking up. "There," he said and nodded that way,"Look at that."
      One of the Dreadnaughts was just eclipsing the closest star to our point of view. "Astonishing."
      "Very well, Captain, if you believe the sensor needs to be replaced I'll give the order."
      "As we are replacing the weapons it will be controlling, I think it should."
      "Of course."
      We both looked at the Panna who had simply been staring at us while we stared at the stars, "we will schedule it now."
      Before we were able to get back to the open airlock a huge manipulator arm had come in and was removing the old sensor.

      Several Panna two man, well, two Panna crews were going through the ship and cleaning and recoating the insides of various quarters and other rooms with a machine that I cannot describe except to say that it looked like an upside down octopus with at least a dozen arms. But I do not think it is right to compare anything to multi-limbed mollusks in the presence of the Panna. They might be distant relatives.
      The new coating refreshed the room, and increased its soundproofing. And when they deactivated the machine and had it leave the room, other than the new coat of paint on the walls, floor, and even ceiling, you couldn't even tell they had been there. I heard one crewman say that they even replaced his pile of dirty uniforms exactly where it had been.

      I was inspecting the new inertial dampening system in engineering when Mr. Qi-Shi and the General walked into the large room.
      "Sir!" I said coming to attention and saluting, "An honor to have you aboard my ship."
      He returned the salute, then extended his hand, "your service honors all of us." Then his gaze turned to the new equipment, "I just wanted to hear it from you myself, will the 'Balance' be ready to go when we move out?"
      "It will be now, sir."
      "Good, because I've got a mission in mind for you."

Colonel Inoue
Earth Defense Command, Reserve Base, Mongolia

      It had taken me as long to learn my way around the base as it did to learn the names of my staff.
      Not only was our base the most remote base from any of the former major cities of the world, it was remote from everything else as well, period. The only major attraction was that from almost every window in every building on the base you had views that were breathtaking. Some were rightly described as artistic. To the west you could see the great valley with its lakes, to the north there were mountain ranges that were broken up by the fingers of the valley, and to the east, the rest of the Khangai Mountains marched toward the snow peak of Otgontenger and the sunrise beyond. My office as base commander opened to the south, where another mountain range appeared to have cut with a sharp knife in several places.
      The closest settlement is the old town of Uliastai to our south east. Where, as everywhere else in the world, the people had learned to live without the modern world after the attack. They claim that they fared better than the people in Beijing or Tokyo or Moscow after most of the town was destroyed, but when you really listen to them, they didn't. They lost many people the first winter after the attack.
      Yes, they had had people die after the attack from the weather, but they got no sympathy from me. For instead of working to help each other survive, many of their people had spent much time and effort, and used much of what they had available to rebuild the stupas of their saints.
      My religion is very important to me, and I understand how having the enemy destroy such an iconic fixture as the nine stupas hurt the people. But not having shelter when the weather turned bad hurt them much worse. And indeed, lives could have been saved that were needlessly lost.
      However, I came to the agreement with the civil leaders that we would always disagree on the matter, and for the greater good, we would start afresh and never mention it again.
      A few days later the leaders of the new settlement of Uliastai welcomed me and my staff with a selection of local dishes, several throat singers who rendered traditional melodies, and a show by several children depicting their first encounter with the Panna, without using any real Panna.

      During my first inspection tour of the new base and its perimeter I noticed something on the edge of where the Panna had terraformed a ridge into our base. They had simply removed several square kilometers of the top of the line of mountains and made a flat surface, then bored into it to create the underground out of solid rock.

      But along the line where they'd stopped I saw something odd. It appeared to be an old foundation that had been uncovered when the surrounding material had vaporized and the dirt and rubble that had covered it then slumped into the vacant space.
      For the next several days myself and several others worked to uncover what appeared to be a guard post along the ancient path. We found some artifacts that led credibility to the idea that long ago the Manchurian Qing rulers had also protected their realm with a base here.
      But as my duties as base commander did not include the title of Staff Archeologist, all too soon I was diverted to other matters. But some of the others who were so interested continued the work and found an icon of the Qing dragon, which, when slightly modified so the dragon was now standing over a globe in a defensive posture, became the symbol for our base and was soon embroidered on a flag.
      As an historical discovery on Mongolian soil, everything we found belonged to the people of Mongolia, so after the discoveries were studied and cataloged they went to the new museum in Uliastai which, as I understand it, had been reopened with an extended round of throat singing. I had to tell them that I was sorry I had missed the ceremony.

      To me it seemed to be a very slow process, but actually according to the scuttlebutt between bases, ours was making almost remarkable progress considering the location and altitude.
      I had not been stricken with altitude sickness at all, or if I had, it was very minor. However being nearly two kilometers above sea level did put some of the others in some difficulty until they adjusted. Which meant that for a day or so, many new arrivals spent a great deal of time sitting in the crew lounge, drinking tea, and just learning to breathe again.
      But, we were making progress and soon we were flight testing our facility.

Bo and Sammi
The Mid-Atlantic, USA

      Sammi had been worried to where she couldn't sleep until we heard from Amory and the others that the ship they were sent to watch out for had been intercepted and their group had captured one of the drones.
      Finally they got a message through that they had returned to their base and were going to watch the concert and take a breather in case they were reactivated as an on call unit.
      "If they're going to watch the concert, I want to too," Sammi said.
      "I do too. I don't even mind if the octopus men play," Autumn added.
      I just nodded and agreed with them. I didn't tell them that I'd all ready reserved three chairs right down front so we could see the alien's TV thing without anybody getting in the way.

Chris Banks
World Press International
Bahrain Earth Defense Base

      The concert was banned on most of the base as being secular music, pilots and staff that wanted to watch it could do so in the common room of the main barracks. And I know the only reason they were allowed to do so was that the Panna that are stationed at the base to see to their equipment wanted to and none of the officers wanted to debate the issue with them.
      Here at the media and visitors center, we had it on the large display while the hidden speakers played the music from the group from Scotland. It was the first professional live music any of has heard in ages, and it was actually rather good. And when the Panna band came on, they were better than we expected as well although they gave the classic dance songs I recognized an alien flavor. Which, I guess was the point of the exercise.

      All in all we all recognized the event as one more step back to normalcy.
      Even if our new 'normal' involved an alien band that another reporter said reminded him of a commercial he'd seen one time in Hong Kong for a seafood market that featured a puppet of a saxophone playing octopus.
      I didn't point out that right now, most of that city was part of the bay and had not been rebuilt at all.

Lieutenant Derry O'Neill
Earth Monitoring Orbital Station Two, Crew Lounge

      I was exhausted, besides the performance, I had to do several interviews before and after, and then we did an encore performance for the King and I graciously accepted the invitation to an audience with him when we visited.

      I had heard that most of the Royal Family went up with London, but that one of the more obscure grandchildren had been away on a trip with his class from school. As soon as the Annunaki had attacked, the entire class and their escorts had whisked the Prince away to safety until they found out what had happened, and then, because nobody was really in charge of that side of things for some time, they just stayed where they were and did what they could do.
      It was only some time later when the Prince and his group made their way to Gloucester where Mister Larimore had set up the Government. Then together, an undersecretary that nobody had ever heard of, a retired Major General, and the seventeen year old third string Prince set to running the show from part of Berkeley Castle that had survived an almost direct hit by the enemy.
      And, from all reports, they had done quite well.
      Mister Larimore became the Prime Minister and saw to putting the civil government back together. The Major General was placed in charge of rebuilding our military and working with the Panna for defense. And the Prince became the lead example for the people of putting their lives back together and moving forward.
      His Majesty even deferred officially taking his office until it became painfully clear that there was nobody else left. There was some talk of restoring the House of Stewart or even Hanover, but they, as with the current royal family, hadn't fared well in the attack either. The one surviving notable was an elderly man who said he was now the Earl of an Empty House and wished to be left in peace to mourn.
      So on a warm spring day, attended by visitors from several other worlds, on the banks of the Severn River in front of the damaged Cathedral, they crowned a new King, and for the first time since Queen Victoria in the 1800's we had a teenager as monarch.

      Even where I had been, on an alien spaceship assisting in the preparations for an attack on the home planets of those that had caused such a calamity, I felt a sense of pride watching the ceremony.
      How could I refuse his request when he asked if we knew his favorite Beatles song?
      And while we played it, the Panna around us, danced.
      It was an odd counterpoint to the old song, but, such was our times now.

      Although it was a distinct honor to play for His Majesty, I am glad we had plenty of space scotch available for later.

Bo and Sammi
The Mid-Atlantic, USA

      We sat around the pole building and looked out at the morning.
      "Well, it's over, now what?" I said to the others.
      "We get to work."
      "What did you think of the Panna's music?" I asked Autumn.
      "Not bad for a bunch of squid."
      I laughed and shook my head. One of the things Amory had said was that he was surprised at how little time it took them to forget how different the Panna were and just accept them as equals. Maybe we just needed more time.

      "It's like they're just regular people when you're busy getting the ship ready to go out and fight," my son had said of them,
      Jay agreed, "after we patched some damage from our first engagement on their home world before we went back out I even turned to high five Rondo and once I showed him how to do it and what it meant he was cool with it."
      "Him? I thought they were all an it, you know," I had to fish through my memory for the word, "androgynous."
      "Well, they are, but some of them seem more male or female. And they act that way, especially after they've been around us for awhile."
      I looked at my wife hoping she would jump in before I said anything silly.
      She didn't.
      "One thing about the Panna that I do like is their dancing," Amory said and got up and tried to do some of their moves.
      "I guess it's easier if you have four legs and no knees," Abbey had said as he did something of a sideways moon walk.

Captain Singh
"Balance of Justice"
Combined Fleet Assembly Point, Nebula Six

      As I waited for my senior officers to assemble in the briefing room near the command deck, then I changed my mind and asked for all available crew to come to the DFAC, or what I still called the 'chow hall'. In the mean time I kept replaying my silence and then my answer to the General in response to the mission he had proposed for us.
      "With all due respect, I cannot volunteer this ship for that mission without the input from my officers."
      He had nodded sharply, then said, "I completely understand, let me know, but we don't have much time."
      "Yessir."
      He left and I called for all of the officers to assemble..
      As the officers gathered I sat and fought away the one thought that had come to my mind and refused to fade, that I was the commander of the largest Kaiten suicide attack boat in history, a complicated and very expensive weapon which would end up only being used once by a doomed crew. Finally I convinced myself that I and my crew were at least equal to the challenge General Muller had presented and that while we would begin alone, against a massively superior force with only surprise on our side, we would finish with the entire combined weight of all of our allies behind us.
      "Even the Hu," the General had added, "they promise to send more than three ships this time. According to Ambassador DuBrek, 'it will be overwhelming.'" He paused, then added half under his breath, "We're not counting on them. At all."

      "Sir? Everybody is here that can be here right now, " Commander Rios interrupted my reflections. "Commander Brazelton said she doesn't want to leave the install of that transfer module right now. She wants to see what the Panna do in case she has to re-do it. Wing Commanders Smith and Jones are still on the Panna ship inspecting new fighters."
      "Very well."
      I stood up and moved in front of the large view screen that dominated one end of the dining hall and was usually showing entertainment of one sort or another. Now, it had an improvised ship's coat of arms and crest on it.
      "We have been asked to take on a mission that some would say was no more than a Military Sacrifice by a fool with no hope of success. However, I see it differently, but I did not wish to commit this ship and your lives to the mission put forth by General Muller without at least presenting it to you first."
      "Sir," Warrant Officer Tucker said, "if you think it's a worthwhile mission, we'll all probably agree with you."
      "Yes, sir!" Several crewmen around him said.
      "Very well, but hear me out first, and then if you still feel the same way, I'll relay that message to the General." They were nodding while I took a deep breath. "Up until now the various enemies of those that attacked us without warning have been, for the most part, fighting individual battles against them. However, those we call the Annunaki have always been able to shift forces from one front to another to face, and usually defeat, those individual efforts. Until now. When we attacked and destroyed several of their home planets all of their attention was diverted toward us. They have pulled resources from various sectors and are massing a very powerful fleet in what they consider a safe sector. If it is allowed to move against us, there will be no resistance."
      I nodded to my aid and she changed the display to a very general tactical display with an almost cartoonish plotted route on it, which was intentionally wrong for security reasons.
      "But if one lone ship went in behind their building fleet and struck some of their supply and command bases and the odd supply convoy, they might turn their attention toward that threat, and allow an inferior but still powerful force of those allied against them to attack their fleet and disrupt that plan."
      "And that lone ship would be us?" Somebody asked from off to the left side.
      "Yes, that is exactly it. We are to go behind their lines, at full speed, on a random course, and do as much damage as possible. Essentially calling them out. They should reroute forces to intercept us, and that's when General Muller and Commander Pike and the rest of the fleet will attack them."
      There was a moment of silence, and then a loud and somewhat prolonged round of acclimation began.
      When it quieted down I asked the Warrant Officer if that meant that I should tell the General that we accepted the challenge.
      "Yes. Sir." He said with a sharp salute.

Master Sergeant Stone
Panna Factory Ship
Combined Fleet Assembly Point, Nebula Six

      I didn't think I would have anything to add to the big story of all of this. Until now.
      I was there when two Panna died from injuries they got when a power unit on a new fighter malfunctioned and blew up.
      It injured several of my people, and a couple of the Toller that were working inside the ship, but there were three Panna outside working on it when it went up, and two of them took the brunt of the explosion which ripped through their protective gear, and them.

      Immediately all sorts of alarms started and rescue crews mobilized, but I was right there with them.
      I could hear somebody from inside yelling about somebody else being hurt, then one of the guys that was nearby shouted back that help was on its way.
      I had bits of shrapnel all over my left side, but when I sat up I could see the Panna laying there and it wasn't nice to see. One that was hurt was having convulsions, one of the others was laying still and its eye was in a blank stare that just looked like it was dead, and even then, already, its body was turning to a thick liquid gunk. The other one was shivering bleeding, but it got up and got out of the way. I didn't know what else to do, I moved over to the other injured one. Parts of its body and several of its tentacles were missing and I just knew it wasn't going to make it.
      It was still shaking, and as it looked up at me I could tell that it wasn't going to last long. Its speaking pendant was gone so I reached over and took the one off the dead Panna.
      "I do not wish to die alone," it said when I laid the pendant on it under its eye stalk.
      "You're not alone," I said and left my hand on it holding the pendant in place.
      "You...."
      But that was it.
      As soon as it died its body started to lose its form. I had to turn away and then the rescue crew was there and they carried me to a medical transport.

      "You're not in too bad of shape, but I bet it hurts like hell," a medic said to me as he scanned me. "We've got something for the pain."
      "They got it worse," I said and nodded to the Panna where four other ones were putting the injured one in a stasis capsule.
      "Yeah, they did," he said as he gave me a shot.

      Later I heard that the faulty power generator had been sent over without a high pressure regulator on the main chamber, when they plugged it into the ship it overcharged and that was it. It was an accident.
      For some reason, that didn't make it any easier to accept.

Lieutenant Derry O'Neill
Scotland

      "Aye, m'boy, this is a first," a man in an old and almost worn out kilt said with a slight brogue as we opened the hatch to the shuttle we'd borrowed to go on our visit home. "We've had lorries and caravans, and now a lot of horse and goat carts, but never a space ship park here." He gestured over to the country store we'd used as a landmark and where we'd landed alongside the road in front of.
      I shook his hand firmly and before I could respond we heard shouts and calls from behind the ship where I saw my aunt and several others coming our way.
      I had to introduce everybody to everybody else, but even before I finished we were all being herded toward the back of the store where several people had been putting together a welcoming feast of everything from haggis to fresh cheese.
      We ate, and talked, and told stories, and ate some more. It was a good visit, "but we've got to get down to Buckley in Wales first thing in the morning," I said about three times.
      "Oh? Where's that?" Somebody whose name I didn't know asked me.
      I looked at Smitty for the answer because I really didn't remember.
      "It's just over in Wales from where Liverpool was," Smitty answered with some difficulty. He had been hitting the homemade beer pretty hard.
      "Oh, that's a long way."
      "Not when you're flying one of those," I nodded back toward where we'd landed.
      "Good point," they answered. "So, where are you going to spend the night?"
      "We've got extra room," my aunt said to me, "it's just right over the fen."
      I looked around at the others that had come with me. Most shrugged, Smitty muttered something that sounded like he was OK passing out right where he was.
      Our pilot Edward said he'd sleep in the ship.
      "I guess that settles it," I said to my aunt.

Captain Singh
"Balance of Justice"
Combined Fleet Assembly Point, Nebula Six

      Commander Rios had five Panna around him while he was standing as still as a statue with the sternest expression on his face that I had ever seen.
      I looked at him, then at the Panna who, for their species, seemed more agitated than usual, "What's this about?"
      "Sir, the Panna have made a fundamental change to the weapons systems of this ship without the permission of any of us or even the General or Mister Qi-Shi, they just did it."
      "Did what?" I asked him, and he looked at them.
      The Panna shuffled back and forth on their walking tentacles and they waved their eye stalks around in circles, then the one to Rios's immediate left turned my way and said something totally unexpected.
      "We heard your speech and want you to survive your mission so we installed the death blossom function to your ship's weapons."
      I stood there for a second and tried to figure out what that meant, "I've heard that term before."
      "'Death Blossom'?" Rios said.
      I nodded. "They picked it up from a movie. But that is literally what it is."
      "Thank you, that's it, I remember that one now, with Robert Preston."
      "Yessir."
      The Panna made itself taller. "When activated, the ship will defend itself against all opposition out to a range of nine parables, and when finished you will still have main drive power to escape."
      "He forgot to mention one thing.... I mean, it, whatever," Rios said. "The system will exhaust every weapon on the ship. All energy weapons, missiles, chain guns, everything. All at once."
      "So it is a one use weapon." I said looking at the Panna.
      It stood there with its eye stalk extended fully at me. "Yes, Captain. Everything will have to be either recharged or reloaded."
      "As a last act defensive weapon," one of the other Panna said, "to save the ship."
      "And you installed this without checking with anybody."
      "Yes, Captain. We wanted to save you and your crew."
      I looked at Rios, "Hard to argue with their reasoning." Then I turned back to the Panna, "But I would have still appreciated being told about it ahead of time, and have it and it's use explained to us."
      "Yes, Captain."
      I nodded to it, "Tell you what. Since you and your friends installed it, you can come with us and monitor it and in case we have to use it, you can activate it and make sure it works the way it is supposed to."
      The Panna's eye stalk retracted a little and it sagged slightly on its legs.
      I looked at the other ones, "all of you can come. Commander, can you find them suitable quarters for the mission?"
      "Yes, Sir!"
      "Captain. We have other..."
      "Can you guarantee that this weapon system will work if my crew, who doesn't even know it exists, activates it in battle?"
      "It should if they..."
      I cut it off, "The key word there being 'Should'. If you are with us it will be 'will'. If you wish, we'll call General Muller and you can explain to him why you installed the system without even checking with Mister Qi-Shi."
      The Panna shuffled and shivered.
      "Very well," I said and nodded to Rios, "Add five Panna to the crew roster."
      "Yessir."
      "There are a few more still working on the install," another of the Panna said.
      I looked from it back to the Commander.
      "I'll take a head count. Sir."

Bo and Sammi
The Mid-Atlantic, USA

      "Make sure you ask them about fixing the bridge." Old Man Willis said to me. Again.
      "Why don't you come with me and ask them yourself?"
      "I don't want to talk to them. They give me bad dreams."
      I just laughed and went with a couple of the others to catch a ride down to where a group was meeting with the Panna and some of their human agents to discuss what will be rebuilt and when.

      I'd seen the hybrid vehicles come through every once in awhile, but this was the first time I'd been in one. They were part hovercraft and part regular truck. Once we got going the thing lifted just slightly off the ground and we picked up even more speed. But the ride was no smoother than what I remember from being on a coach bus on the highway. There were bumps and jolts as we passed over damaged pavement or other debris in the road.
      But even with stopping a few more times to pick up others we made it to Hagerstown in good time.

      Before the attack the bulk of the city had been north of the interstate highway, now most of the settlement was between Antietam Creek and a couple of bends in the Potomac River. For the most part, the original city remained as flat as it had been after the fires went out after the attack.
      Now the town was spread out with garden plots and small production areas between groups of living quarters that ranged from pre-attack houses to shacks built of found items like shipping containers and rail cars.

      Their first priority, after they built a sequence of smaller defensive bases to deploy fighters to so that a few well placed shots can't render Earth defenseless again, was to reconstruct some of the basic services such as the electrical grid and fresh water supplies for the populated areas.
      "We can only do so much at a time," one of the Panna said to us through a large round speaker thing that was sitting on a stand in front of them.
      "Our building machines, they get tired," the other explained.
      "The machines get tired?" A man said from the other side of the auditorium.
      "Yes," a human that said her name was Becca from the Air Force answered, "doing this kind of work takes a considerable amount of energy. While the primary flux matrix capacitor in the unit can regenerate, it can't run constantly. If it works too much, it, like you, gets tired and has to rest to recharge."
      "That's mumbo jumbo you're talking," the man answered.
      "Techno babble." Somebody else said with more than a little anger in their voice.
      "No it's not. The energy generation core works on artificial quantum vacuums which produce charged particles at a constant rate that are stored in the capacitor and then passed through the flow matrix regulator in a type of plasma flux that is then used to power the equipment. The capacitor can store a lot of energy, but under high draw, it does run down." She smiled nicely at us. "Understand?"
      "Ahh, yeah, that makes sense."
      The second one just looked down at his hands.
      I looked over at the guy that had called it 'mumbo jumbo' and shook my head. After seeing Amory's ship I would never accuse anybody that had dealt with the Panna of trying to make something sound impressive. To me, it was amazing that the thing would fly, let alone go into space and attack enemy ships. So to get away from that I raised my hand and the woman from the Air Force nodded my way. "Are they going to rebuild by locale or by project. I mean, go to a town and do everything that needs done there, or go around and say repair all the bridges that need fixed first then go around the region and do something else?"
      "Excellent question. I believe what we will do will be a little of both," the woman answered.
      The Panna leaned in toward each other until they touched, then one of them looked my way and the other one moved a couple of its tentacles in a circle in front of it.
      "We like doing bridges, do you know of some that need fixed?" one of them asked through the disk.
      "Yes," I said.
      "But there are other priorities," Becca said to them.
      "We like doing bridges," one of the Panna repeated with its eye turned toward the Air Force woman.
      She looked at them then gave up, "I guess we'll start with bridges."

      I stood next to Becca between Old Man Willis and a group of five Panna, with my hands on Autumn's shoulders to keep her from running and hiding from the Panna, with everybody in town on the bank of the river and watched one of the Panna's construction machines fly over, and then under, the bridge over the Potomac, then it landed on our end of the bridge, and sat there next to two other larger ones.
      "It says that the main support member on the downstream side has been severely damaged," Becca read off a handheld device while the Panna did something to the machine.
      "Can it be fixed?" Mister Willis asked her.
      "Yes, they just have to make an adjustment to the metal fabrication unit."
      "They're amazing to watch," I said as the Panna worked on the machine.
      "I still don't like them," Autumn said softly.
      "It is ready," the communicator Becca was holding said in the Panna voice.
      The Air Force lady turned toward us, "It's best if you don't look directly at the unit, the fabrication field can be as bright as a welder."
      Then the Panna all turned and looked at us at once, which was a disturbing thing to see.
      "What color do you want the rebuilt bridge to be?" they asked us through the communicator.
      I knew better than to answer, so I turned to my wife and asked Sammi what she thought.
      She looked down at our daughter Autumn and asked her.
      "Amory likes blue. Can we make it blue for him?"
      We looked at Mister Willis and some of the others.
      "Blue's nice," somebody said.
      "Sure, blue. About the color of that car over there."
      Becca spoke into the translator thing and the Panna all turned and looked at the car that I'd pointed to. Then two or three of them held up various control devices and did something to them.
      In a second the machines lifted back into the air and went to work with the smaller one guiding the two larger ones with one above and the other below the bridge.
      There was a deep throbbing hum, and some high pitched buzzing, and a lot of very bright flashes of light as the machines worked. At times the ground shook or we had to cover our ears when something made a very loud cracking noise. I had expected it to be quick, like you'd have seen in a TV show or movie, but it wasn't. I didn't time them, but it easily took over an hour.
      Then finally the entire bridge was consumed in a bright green haze of energy as the two larger machines hovered over it.
      And it was done.
      The bridge looked brand new, and every inch of the thing, including the road across it was blue.

      "While we are here, we will fix the other bridge," the Panna said.
      "We like bridges," one of the other ones added.
      "What other .... " I started to ask and Mister Willis stopped me.
      "If the squid guys want to fix something else for us, let'em."
      "Yes sir."

      They did something to their control units, then all three machines flew off downriver and settled over the old railroad bridge.
      This time there was a lot of noise and smoke and even water splashing as the machines cleared a log jam that had formed under the part of it that had fallen into the river. Then we saw enormous flashes of light and heard even louder buzzing and crackling for a really long time.
      In a moment the Panna turned to us and said something else unexpected, "The tunnel is not safe, we will fix it too."
      "Thank you," was all we could say.
      "We like tunnels too," one of the other ones said.

Colonel Inoue
Earth Defense Command, Reserve Base, Mongolia

      I was learning very well that it was a much easier life when one was a simple soldier who spent their time either doing their job or waiting on the orders of those above them. To be the one in charge, in command, meant to risk being so overwhelmed with minutia and the endless small details that everybody on the base wanted the commander to approve.
      Within the first few weeks I had to explain to the officer in charge of the kitchen that I didn't care what was on the menu as long as the crews would eat it and it didn't make people, or Panna or whoever was here, sick. Then I had to make essentially the same speech to the groundskeepers. They wanted me to select plants and flowers to put around the various buildings. Later I had to approve the bedding for the sleeping quarters.
      Perhaps it was a stroke of genius, perhaps it was sheer desperation, I talked to my group of junior officers and found one whom seemed to be interested in such matters without being obsessed with it as two of the others were, and made him the Domestic Affairs officer.
      At first Raymond didn't believe that I'd picked him over Miss Chapel or a couple of the others who were far more comfortable discussing the subject at length.
      "Which is exactly why I didn't pick them. I wanted somebody that would give them a fair hearing and make a decision. Not spend six months evaluating curtains and ground covers."
      "Oh, then yes, sir. I'm your man."
      "Thank you."

      Now with that out of the way, I could spend my days doing what I felt was more important to our mission than what the mats in the shower rooms were made of, namely, evaluating crew rotations, assigning hanger space for the various types of ships we were allotted, overseeing the training of new staff, and making sure that when General Muller called next month and asked if my base was ready to go to full active duty that I could say 'yes, sir' and do so honestly.
      To that end I had met every crewman, I had been inside every one of our ships and had flown most of them. I had sat in the control room and learned what each screen and console did. I even worked several overnight shifts monitoring air and space traffic in our sector. Over my years in our Self Defense Forces had heard some old campaigners tell me that their General or whoever had claimed that they had 'done every job on the place'. And I never believed them, I still don't, and I will never claim that I have done so. But I could honestly say that as far as the military and Command side of the base, I had some experience with most of them.

      Finally, late one evening I as I retired to my quarters I saw something and glanced upward.
      There were stars up there. I stopped and just looked at them for a long time, something I hadn't done for a long time. They were beautiful.

Lieutenant Derry O'Neill
In Transit

      "We're done, right?" One of the guys asked me. "We don't have to go see anybody else."
      "Yeah, that was it."
      "Thank God." He sagged into a seat and relaxed. "All of this has reminded me rightly why I joined the service the first time."
      "How's that?" One of the others as him as Edward got clearance to take off and head back toward the station.
      "To get away from my family. Oh, yes, I love them loads, but I can't bide too much of them at one sitting. That's why I took to the road with the band too."
      I turned to see his face, yes, he was serious. Then I thought about it, "I know that feeling."
      Edward nodded as the ship climbed into the air, "Me too."

Chris Banks
World Press International
Bahrain Earth Defense Base

      Me and the Panna.

      "Good day, wherever you are. A viewer from over in Qatar, among others, has asked me what it is like working closely with the Panna. It is very different than working with other humans, and in many ways, they are just like us."

      "I believe I have finally gotten used to being around the Panna. And they seem to have become used to me as well. And a group of them, led by one that calls itself Lucy because it has a bit of a red tint to it, have come to be somewhat friendly with me.
      "They have their quarters in the housing complex, but instead of suites with kitchens and bedrooms and all of that, they have one large room, and a smaller bathroom type room that I have heard is almost identical to what is on their ships. Their food, I almost just called it 'nourishment' because it does not resemble anything I'd willingly call food, comes in individual single use bowls from a central supply houses that they built in Western India and somewhere in the US. And, being Panna, they do not do anything by themselves if they can help it. If you see one of them, you almost always see two, and usually three. But they prefer to work in groups of at least five. Work, eat, sleep, and everything else. Which, I might add, is how they ended up in space in the first place. Ages and ages ago they built a small simple machine, that then somebody used to make a larger machine, and so on, until they became what they are."
      "So to help you understand them better, let me take you through a something that happened last week when I and my camera returned to the compound after an assembly meeting on base."

      Several Panna came out of the recreation center and stood there looking at us. Something they'd never done before.
      "Yes?" I said to them while my cameraman filmed the odd event.
      "We have been watching some of your old entertainments about those from out of your world. Very exciting," Lucy said.
      "Builder and Chris showed us how to see them," one without a name added.
      "There are lots of them with others in them. But we were told that we were the first true non-humans to visit."
      I could see the cameraman smiling as he videotaped my reaction. "Well," I said as I tried to figure out how to explain it to them. "Most of the... the aliens... in those movies were just people in a costume."
      "Oh, we thought that might be the case. But some of them were very believable."
      "Yes, we have met those like them," Lucy said moving up and down on its walking tentacles.
      I looked back at my crew, then I thought of an answer, "Maybe the people that made the movie had heard about some visitors like that."
      "Oh, yes, the UFOs. We don't believe in them," the one next to Lucy commented.
      "We think those are made up stories," one of the other Panna said.
      Now Lucy just stood there and stared at me with its eye.

      Somebody in my crew smothered a laugh, but I was able to maintain my composure.

      Finally I figured out what Lucy wanted, "We could watch some of those movies with you."

      Watching seven Panna all bouncing like they were made out of rubber and springs was something I simply do not have words for. Each Panna has four large walking tentacles, and four manipulator ones that function like arms. Some of their arms have divisions into smaller fingerlike protrusions and some don't. Each Panna has one eye on a stalk that can be almost a meter long at times. They have no bones in their bodies, at all. So each and every part of each and every Panna can move more or less independently of the rest of its body.
      And right now, they all were.

      We spent hours watching a variety of alien encounter and space movies and TV shows that the Panna had pulled in from rebuilt Internet servers and archives all over the world. Several were American, a couple were German, at least one was a Bollywood effort that made no sense at all to me even with the language being instantly translated for me by my Panna medallion.
      Of course, the movie from India might have made sense if we'd been able to watch it from start to finish. Instead, for all except one, the Panna put the movie on the screen, then moved to the good part. Where the aliens came in.
      The only aliens they didn't like were the ones that most humans found frightening as well. Those whose primary interest in others was as prey. The one they refused to watch and even stopped the show and changed to one that I didn't recognize was the "Alien" alien, the one with the teeth that shot out of its mouth.
      "Why did you want to watch something like that?" Lucy asked me as its eye relaxed from it being retracted totally into its body in fear after the monster appeared.
      "I didn't, but a lot of people did. Some people like to be frightened when it is perfectly safe. There's an old saying about. You're supposed to repeat 'it's only a movie' to yourself during the scariest part."
      Lucy's unblinking eye was still staring at me. "Does it work?"
      "Not for me it didn't."

Captain Singh
"Balance of Justice"
Uncharted Space

      Not even halfway through our abbreviated shakedown cruise there was a problem that not only threatened to knock us out of the upcoming engagement, it left us crippled in deep space.
      "The main energizer for the navigation system simply failed, sir," the engineer's mate had reported. "The main drive automatically shut down as a safety measure to keep us from flying into a star or something."
      "The energizer wasn't replaced during the refit," another one added.
      "I see. So how old was it?"
      They didn't answer immediately so I looked over at the three Panna that were on the command deck.
      "We're having the production unit make one right now Captain," they said together.
      "How old was the original and why wasn't it replaced?" I asked again.
      The communicator spoke from engineering, this time it was Commander Rios, "I don't know, sir. I guess we just missed it."
      I gave up. "How long before we can get under way again?" I asked everybody involved.
      "The new energizer will be ready to test in four hours, Captain," a Panna said from the control panel. "It is being built now."
      "It is a very complicated procedure," the other one added.
      "I bet," I looked at the control panel with its endless stream of commands scrolling across, and diagrams of circuits and energy conduits flashing and just watched for a moment. "Let me know when the new one can be tested," I finally said as I looked around the command deck. "Miss Barrett."
      "Yes, Captain," the Lieutenant JG at the environmental control station said as she turned my way.
      "Since you are not directly involved with getting us moving again, you have the bridge."
      "Yes, sir," she nodded with surprising confidence. "Sir? Where will you be if something comes up?"
      "In the gedunk. I need a cup of tea and an aspirin."
      "Yes, sir."

      I had just gone to the head and gotten a second cup of tea when every alarm and flashing light on the ship went off, and I heard Lieutenant Barrett's amplified voice from various directions.
      "All hands, this is not a drill. Battle Stations! Bring all shields and weapons on line. Incoming hostiles. Captain Singh to the bridge. This is not a drill. Enemy ships approaching at high speed. All personnel report to your assigned action stations."
      And then I heard something from the speakers that gave me chills, somebody on the command deck shouted, "Incoming Fire!"
      "All weapons stations, manual target acquisition and fire at will!" Lieutenant Barrett ordered in no uncertain terms.
      It wasn't more than a split second and the entire ship shuddered and groaned around me and some of the corridor lights went out as a powerful explosion erupted nearby. But, as I listened, I knew that it was outside, which was much better than it going off inside the ship. I dropped to one knee and held on to ride it out just like an old sailor taught me years ago as a way to ride out a bucking ship without risking injuring yourself by losing your balance on an unsteady deck.
      Then I heard a terrible sound, air hissing from somewhere. I couldn't tell if we were venting atmosphere into space or it was a high pressure line leaking. There was a solid metallic clicking sound and the hiss stopped. I didn't investigate further and made my way to an access way that would lead to the command deck.
      And in another split second I heard our own weapons systems come to life. The unmistakable roar of the chain guns was punctuated by the high powered shriek of the particle bolt weapons and then the occasional scream of the energy beams that I was told to not call a laser gun.
      My crew was defending our ship against whoever was attacking with everything we had to throw at them.
      Hopefully, they were hitting something.

      I was almost to the command center when another massive explosion rocked the ship from end to end, but this time, I timed my steps to the rhythm of the convulsing deck and kept going.
      I didn't know what to expect in the command center. There was some chaos, mostly centered around a control panel that had blown out, and there were some injuries that were being tended to, including one injured Panna. But for the most part, it was under control and people were doing their jobs.
      "No Lieutenant. Death Blossom will not work without the maneuvering thrusters controlled by the navigation system," one of the Panna was saying to Lieutenant Barrett.
      "Keep going while I catch up," I said to her and went to the tactical display to see what we were up against. That's when I saw the reason why she wanted to use the new weapon. We were under attack by dozens of small ships, some of which read as manned craft while others were drones, and some seemed to be something in between as they gave a confused reading. But one thing was clear- "There's a swarm of them out there," I said about half to myself.
      "We can't just sit here so we'll make our own blossom," she answered the Panna and nodded toward the helmsman. "Stand by on manual control of the maneuvering thrusters. Sir, do you concur?"
      "Yes, exactly. You do that, I'll see to the weapons systems," I leaned down to weapons officer, "inform all defensive stations to get ready to just point and shoot. Stand by on the primary weapons in case we need them. Their mother ship is around here someplace."
      "Yes, sir."
      Lieutenant Barrett was standing next to the helm officer, "you ever watch the ice skaters in the Olympics?"
      "Yes'm."
      "Do something like that."
      "When?" He answered and moved his hands over his controls then looked up expectantly.
      Barrett glanced over at me and I nodded.
      "All hands, Hang On!" She waited about three seconds. "Now."
      I patted the weapon's officer on the shoulder, "when we start moving, let'em go."

      The ship's inertial dampeners couldn't overcome all of the wild gyrations the ship described in space. At least two of our attackers met their end impacting against the shields and the hull of the ship as it spun at random angles with sudden direction changes.
      I held on and tried to direct some of the fire from the weapons and then I saw a larger target on the screen.
      "I got it," I said, "keep them shooting."
      The nose of our ship swung past the target once and I didn't fire, it was clearly coming in to finish us off, mistaking our destructive dance for a ship in the throes of its demise.
      The target went by two more times. Now it was even closer, and firing tentative shots our way looking for the range.
      "Now." I said as I engaged the controls for the primary guns just started onto the screen again.
      The "Balance of Justice" responded admirably and three tremendous streams of destructive energy leapt toward the incoming attacker.
      Instantly it erupted in a spectacular cloud of fire and debris.

      But now the smaller ships renewed their assault on us with extra vigor.
      "Slow the rotation down," Lieutenant Barrett said to the helm officer.
      "Yes'm."
      I agreed with her and spoke to the weapons officer, "Tell them to keep firing, we're going to have to take them all out."
      "Some stations reporting that their guns are down."
      "Understood."

      Then, just as they had begun the attack, the manned ships all turned and fled leaving a handful of drones to draw our fire, which they did to their own bad end. But there wasn't another large ship on the screen for them to run to. Which worried me.
      We sat in silence for a moment as the sensor station ran several deep scans looking for where they went.
      "Nothing sir. It might be cloaked, or it might be too small to see at a long distance."
      "That's good enough for now. Stand down active stations. Let's reload everything and get repairs started. Get a medic up here." Then I turned to Lieutenant Barrett and said "Congratulations," and extended my hand. She took it with a puzzled look on her face. "I needed a third officer. Given that performance, I just found her."
      Those on the bridge who could applauded and whistled their approval.
      "And your first assignment is to get an injury report, on everybody." I nodded toward the Panna that was now squatting on its walking tentacles while being tended to by one of its own kind. "I'll take the damage reports."
      "Yessir."
      "Commander Rios?" I said loudly to the intraship communicator.
      "Yessir."
      "As soon as possible, and in what ever way possible, we need to get this thing moving. Consider yourself reassigned to engineering until my ship is under way."
      "Aye aye, Captain."

      A couple of hours later I was able to stand in the middle of the command deck and nod at my officers which included Mister Rios who had helped perform a "don't ask how we did it, you really don't want to know right now" miracle with the engines.
      We were moving. Not quickly mind you, but we were moving, and accelerating.

      Before long we had some long range fighters and escorts sent by the fleet around us and two heavy shuttles were towing us, so we were moving, at a snail's pace most certainly, but we were moving, and there was no sign of what I was now being told was a group of freebooters whose aim had been to disable and board our ship. All weapons and defensive systems had been restored, the injured were being tended to, and I was relieved to hear that while there were some serious injuries, we suffered no fatalities. And now I was being assured by every engineer on the ship, human and Panna both, that the faulty part in the navigation system would be replaced within the hour.
      "It wasn't exactly the shakedown cruise I had imagined, but we... we made it."
      "Yes, sir!" They answered as one.

General Muller
Combined Fleet Headquarters
Nebula Six

      "Pirates?"

      I looked around the command center, then I repeated the word in the direction of Commander Pike on the large monitor.
      "Yes, General, unfortunately, they are a reality outside of Alliance or even Annunaki space."
      "I see."
      "They were probably expecting a merchant trader that wouldn't risk a fight and instead surrender some, if not all, of their cargo to them."
      "And instead they found a battleship that was willing to stand and fight."
      "Yes, General."
      I nodded slowly then turned to Ambassador duBrek and asked the next thing that came to my mind. "These pirates wouldn't be related to the Bris... Brisco's that had that Miss Paige had that unfortunate encounter with would they?"
      "No, sir. While treachery of that sort is common with them, a direct assault is not to their liking. I would believe this was something of a crime of opportunity, for which they paid dearly." The Ambassador's face was without emotion as he added, "and it will be some time before they attack another ship again."
      "Good," I answered. Then Qi-Shi caught my eye, "yes sir?"
      "And there is one other good thing that came out of the bad incident. The 'Balance of Justice' and her captain and crew have proven to be an effective warship under fire. Once it is fully repaired, she will be a most formidable weapon in the coming campaign."
      "He is right, General." Commander Pike said from the screen. "They performed most honorably and with distinction in a very difficult circumstance."
      I had to agree, from the report I'd read on the engagement and the gun sight video we'd seen, it had been fortunate that the 'Balance' had returned in one piece.
      Mister Qi-Shi received a message during our discussion, he caught my eye and I indicated that he had the floor.
      "I was just informed that the 'Balance of Justice' is in the primary space dock where all repairs will be completed in just over one Earth day. Which only puts our overall plan behind by a matter of hours."
      "I'll take that," I said to the following silence. "In the mean time, I suggest we all take a break and get ready for it. Once things jump off, I want everybody's focus fully on their duty to get our people in and out. OK?"
      "Yes, sir."

      I thanked Commander Pike and told him we would keep him advised of the situation with the damaged ship and the other preparations for the mission. "Ambassador duBrek, may I see you to discuss some other matters?"
      "Of course, General."

      We adjourned to my room and once the door sealed behind us I was able to relax for the first time since we'd gotten the message that the ship had been attacked by an unknown force of small interceptors.
      "If I may, General, I have seen even more experienced officers react with less finesse to situations like that than you did today. It was an honor and a pleasure to see you at work."
      "Thank you, Ambassador. It was just instinct."
      "If so, then may your instinct never fail you. Or rather, never fail us."
      "Thank you, sir."
      I sat at my desk and stretched my legs out while duBrek settled onto the floor in what appeared to be his most relaxed position. "I have heard from several more of our resistance units that they will be ready to move on the enemy once the attack begins."
      "Good," I nodded, "but we'd still rather that they let our forces fully engage them before they attack. That will maximize the effectiveness of both."
      "I understand, General, and I relayed Mr. Qi-Shi's advice to them, but they are very impatient."
      "Would they rather be impatient, or dead if part of our operation is delayed for some reason and they act?"
      The Ambassador looked at the floor between us for a moment, "Yes, that is an excellent point," he said and drank some of his water.
      We sat in silence for a moment, then I got up and refilled his bottle from the jug on my desk.
      He took the full bottle back and looked up at me. "There is only one aspect of the entire operation that I am truly concerned about."
      "Oh?"
      "Yes, General. I am worried that the Annunaki may retaliate against innocent and helpless Juul that are under their rule."
      "I thought about that. But we know they monitor Panna and Alliance communications. Perhaps we could let them know without telling them that their slave population had nothing to do with the attack."
      We then spent some time discussing exactly how to say that, without directly saying it, so the Annunaki would believe it.

      After our discussion had gone on for some time there was a tone from the communicator that indicated somebody was at the door. I touched a control on my desk. The door dematerialized and three Panna came in.
      "Mister Spade said that neither of you had eaten today, but his lunch was not ready yet, so we brought you this," one of the Panna said.
      "Thank you, and thank him for us," I said and the Panna left. Sometimes Spade took better care of me than I wanted him to. And from looking at the tray, this was one of those times.
      "So, Ambassador, can I ask you something that you might find difficult to answer?"
      "Of course, if you want to know why I look less 'reptilian' as your Mister Spade put it, than the others in my party, that is no problem. Just as some of your people have different color skin, you'll notice with us that some have scalier skin than others and more pronounced facial features. We have come to terms with it, for the most part that is."
      "Interesting, and thank you, but that wasn't it," I gestured to the tray of ... food ... the Panna left us, "is there anything here you can eat?"
      The Ambassador got up and moved one step toward my desk. "Their protein crackers are about the least offensive of their offerings."
      "Agreed," I answered and handed him a small platter with a stack of the crackers on it. The Panna ate them by putting them in their gruel and letting them soften into mush. I could tolerate the crackers dry, and that was it.
      The Ambassador settled back into his favored position on the floor with his crackers, "One time, a long time ago, one of their transports rescued me and several others who had escaped an Annunaki base in a cargo ship. We had heard about the Panna, but I'd never seen them, and none of us had ever eaten any of their food. We were on their transport for over thirty of your days." He looked at the bowls of mud-like stuff on the tray and grimaced. "I ate it. We all did. It will keep you alive. But there were times when I longed for what had been served to us in the detention center."

Amory and Jay
Earth Defense Base, Canada

      "It's my Mary Medallion," Conner said to us holding the charm out on its chain.
      I looked at Amory and nodded, "I've heard of them but I've never seen one before."
      "Yeah, some of the kids I went to school with had things like that, I never did, but I don't see anything wrong with it."
      Angle and Bunch and two other Panna that didn't have names all leaned forward and stared at the medallion. Then Bunch asked Conner what it did for him.
      "It's supposed to bring you miracles."
      "Kinda like a good luck charm," I said.
      "Yeah, kinda."
      "We have heard about good luck. We like that." The Panna answered.
      Now Joe Brown, Conner's weapon's operator added to the discussion, "It's seemed to work so far. We've been hit, but not shot down."
      "Oh, and that did that for you?" Angle asked.
      "Well, I don't know, it might have. I've worn it on every mission."
      Joe Brown shook his head, "I'd rather not have him leave it home and find out the hard way the next time out."
      "Good point," Amory said.
      "Who is Mary?" one of the Panna asked.
      I pointed at Conner, "you get to explain that to them."
      "What?" Conner said looking at the figure on the medal.
      "You can explain the Virgin Mary to the Panna," I said and got up. "I need a shower."
      "I'm going to go send a message to my parents," Amory added and opened the door.
      Joe Brown just shook his head and walked out.
      "Oh, thanks a lot, guys."
      "We'll back you up in battle, but not this," I chuckled and followed Amory. Leaving Conner facing four inquisitive Panna by himself.

      In the passage Amory stopped and turned toward me, "Do you think we should have stayed?"
      "Do you know anything about the Panna religion beyond that saying they have about a candlelight cooking the meal a long time ago?" I asked and he shook his head. "Then no, you didn't want to stay."
      "OK."
      "Say hello to your folks for me and mom."
      "Sure."

President Dr. Yarah Santiago
Nova Porta Velho, Brazil

      Some routine had developed in our lives. Our ability to generate electricity and deliver it to the citizens had expanded and become so reliable that outages were now unusual and unexpected instead of the other way around.
      As far as my being both one of the three physicians in the area and the President of Brazil, I found that the two were not as incompatible as I had expected them to be. One reason was that I had an excellent nurse in Ana Paula for the medical practice. And Mateo had become my Chief of Staff without ever applying for the job, he was just doing it. And between them all I had to do was what I had to do, they did the rest of it.
      Many decisions were still being made by General Branto of course, but I could tell just by the way things were going that now more and more of the day to day operations of the country were under civilian control and that the military was getting back into its traditional support role. For instance I'll mention the day that I got a package from the military governor of Sao Paulo with a new charter for the state and a letter of introduction of a civilian who would be assuming the office on New Year's Day. I learned two things that day. That some version of the postal service was back in operation, and life outside was getting back to usual as well. Both of which were good to know.
      As for dealing with the aliens and that side of things, I had thought about appointing Mateo as our ambassador to the Panna, but then my personal feelings got in the way. I'd just gotten him back and didn't want to see him going off into space again without me.

      And then the Panna building crew came in and what routine we had fell apart for several days. But in the end, it was all for the better.
      The first thing they did was to build a totally brand new bridge over the Madeira River just below the falls.
      I sat with almost everybody else around and watched as two groups of aliens controlled six different machines from both sides of the river. It took them most of the day, but when they were done, where there had been a mass of twisted metal and broken concrete where the original highway bridge was, there was now a gleaming green, yellow, and blue bridge that looked like it was wrapped in one of our national team's football uniforms.

      Mateo managed to use his having been on the ship during the battle to liberate their home system to get them to build us a town square with a medical center, a government building, a community center and a school surrounded by several housing units that looked prefab, but were better than what most people had been living in. When they were done if you stood in the middle of the square and looked from one building to the next, you couldn't tell which was which as all four were just versions of the same basic structure. But I promised everybody that we would take care of that in short order.

      The shock came when I asked the Panna if I could borrow a ship so I could visit the rest of my country and see how other areas were coming along. They gave me one.
      Not to use for a day. The aliens gave me a space ship and a three Panna crew to fly it until I decided to return it or find a human crew to fly it. They said they liked it either way.
      And so me and Mateo, and General Branto, and a few others made a trip all around Brazil and then South America.

      And it wasn't long before I wished we hadn't.

      I wanted them to take me to Brasilia first. I wanted to see where my husband had been when the first attack came. I was sure that I could locate where his building had been between the stadium and the National Congress building. I thought I could. But even with a projection on the screen in the ship of what the city had been before the attack laid over what was left, it was hard to recognize anything. But now I was sure of one thing. When the enemy had killed my husband, and all of my friends in the capital, they had done so quickly and thoroughly.
      There were times when I had regretted what the General and the others had done to the enemy's home planets, but as I laid a flower on the spot that was our best guess as to where my husband had been, I felt no remorse at all for them.

      One of the other first stops was to visit the new Governor of Sao Paulo in Campinas. Or rather, New Campinas. I had thought they would have begun to rebuild the city of Sao Paulo, but as we slowly flew over it, I couldn't believe that the crater dust and rubble below us had been a city of over ten million souls.
      It had taken multiple hits from the massive weapon whereas the capital had only sustained two.
      They had destroyed the city, totally destroyed the city, and then did it again.
      The new town of Sao Paulo was several kilometers from what had been the center of the metropolitan area, now the town was near where there had been a hydro dam on the Rio Tietê.
      "I cannot go there, Madam President. It is too sad," the people all told us.

      "Madam, since we are now a real city once again, I think we should begin to call it by its proper name, Porto Velho, once again."
      I didn't mention that of the three hundred thousand people that lived here before the attack, we were now a city of about four thousand. That the entire outer band of small houses and shacks around the city that had housed untold thousands of poor people had been blasted flat and was still bare of life. That where there had been colleges and industries the only original building that survived was the school named for Franklin Roosevelt, the American President, and that until recently part of our seat of government was still a shipping container that had been pulled into place by hand with ropes. And even then we were still better off that towns like Humaita just downriver which had been turned into a swamp along the river bank by a single shot from the enemy's orbital weapons. I let all of that go and remained positive. I knew what he was saying, and I appreciated it.
      "I like the diminutive," I said, then I had an idea, "You may call the base by the masculine term, we'll keep the feminine for the town a bit longer. Maybe the people will want to rename it when we move the capital back to Brasilia."
      "As you wish, Madam President."

      It was the same everywhere. And worse. In Rio, even the mountain where the statue had been was nearly gone. Evidently the enemy had used it to aim at.
      By the third day of our tour, I was numb and ready to go home.

Captain Singh
"Balance of Justice"

      "We are about to embark on a dangerous mission to free others from the oppression of those who attacked our home. I am confident that each and every being on this ship will ensure that it once again earns its name, 'Balance of Justice'. Stand by for battle stations. Helm, set course for the target, engage engines battle speed. Com, notify the fleet that we are on our way."

Free Juul Resistance Cell
Coabiha, Therron

      "du Brek... He was more A-Nah than Juul, and now he works with them."
      "They are not A-Nah. They are free. Like us. They have ships and weapons. They fight with the Toller, and the Hu. They fight the A-Nah."
      "The Pan-nah have more bones in their body than duBrek. He is not to be trusted. He never was, and he isn't now."
      "He has changed. He has sent weapons...."
      "He sent weapons for us to fight with, he isn't here to fight himself."
      "They are coming, their ships will be here soon, when their attack begins, we're going in. What are you going to do?"
      "What ships do they have? Ships that should be hauling scrap? Or hauled away as scrap? I tell you this. If. And only If your not-A-Nah attack the garrison then we will join you. But not until."
      "I will hold you to that."
      "You need not, it is my word. I only hope that the word of those who you say are coming is as good."

General Muller
Fleet Command Central, Panna Supply Ship
Nebula Six

      I still wanted to be on the command ship with the attack fleet, but I knew my place was here. Watching and waiting. If I was right, if my hunch came to fruition, I would be needed here.
      "Commander, keep that ship on your screen. I want the fleet to be an hour behind it until you're in the sensor range of the Annunaki in that system. Then keep your distance until they begin the attack."
      "Yessir, I agree. We will see to it."
      Now was the hard part, waiting for something to happen.
      If the enemy saw the cruising old warship itself as the threat it actually was, the game could be over before it began. There had been reports that some of the Free Juul might not fight alongside those whom they regarded as little more than stepsons of their enemy. And too, if the Annunaki played the opposite card, they might have a massive strike force just waiting to demolish the fleet and not attack Earth. Or nothing may happen and it was all a wild goose chase.
      While I watched one small dot lead an array of other dots across a map of the quadrant I decided that it didn't matter. Our attack would be one more blow against the enemy, and something else for them to think about besides a a pure vengeance attack against Earth which many of us believed was coming. Which was exactly what I was trying to prevent by going after smaller parts of their armada in bite sized pieces. But sooner or later, they would try to amass a force that would overwhelm us and they'd finish what they started.
      "But not if I have anything to say about it," I whispered to myself. Which was why only part of our fleet was here. But I had to hope that what was left was enough, just in case. "Let me know if anything changes," I said to the Panna at the monitoring station, then I took a break for a shower and a cup of coffee.

      I had come to like the Panna shower facilities. Or at least the bathing apparatus that they had modified for us. From what I understand, although I have declined all opportunity to witness the event, the Panna bathe in a full body bath of a skin cleaning slime. Not long after the first battle I told Helps A Lot that I prefer showers of warm water. And that was exactly what it provided me only a few hours later. But then Helps wanted to watch me take a shower in what they had come up with.
      "But, General, we want to make sure it does all you need it to do," it said.
      "Yes," Helps A Lot's helper added. "It used to be a parts cleanser for components."
      "Very well," I gave in and undressed and took a shower with a four Panna audience. The nine openings in the shell like stall sprayed water that was warm but not anything I'd call hot at a good pressure from the time I stepped in until I stepped out. But when it was over, I did feel clean. "I like it," I said to them. "It'll do nicely."
      "Thank you, General."
      "Can you install these for the others to use as well?"
      "Yes, General."
      "Thank you," I said to them as I dried off with what they called a towel.
      On the whole, it wasn't as embarrassing of an experience as it would have been otherwise. And given that the option was either continuing to wash using a basin and one of their rags or taking a slime bath, I voted for the entire incident to be chalked off to learning to live on a Panna ship and left it at that.

      But the Panna's food system did make a great cup of coffee. Thanks to Mister Spade, who I heard felt that he had to apologize to several of the Panna after they rebuilt the system from the power supply up about three times to get it right. But now I could tell it to make everything from a cup of decaf so mild you could give it to a baby all the way through something that Mr. Spade called "John Wayne hit the beach and sang the old time songs to his rifle- COFFEE!"
      Right now, I needed something that was one step down from the latter. With just a touch of sugar. Just a touch.
      And what came out of the machine was exactly what I had in mind.
      I walked back to the command deck and sipped it, then asked, "Time to the target system for the Justice and the fleet."
      "The 'Balance of Justice' will be within their sensor range of their outer posts in a matter of minutes."
      "Com, get me Captain Singh, secure channel."

Captain Singh
"Balance of Justice"

      "All systems and personnel ready for heavy action, General. I was about to order all weapons to standby."
      "Very good Captain, engage as you see fit, the fleet is on station and prepared for part two."
      "Yes sir."
      "And, Captain Singh. Godspeed."
      "Thank you, sir," I nodded to the screen, "and to you as well. All stations, alert status, all weapons to ready, take us in."

      According to the various reports, we expected to encounter interceptors from bases on one or more of several large asteroids about two million kilometers from the Juul world. But by the time they were dispatched, we were behind them and we watched the main monitor as several groups of small fighters changed their initial course in pursuit.
      "Can they catch us?" Commander Rios asked the tactical officer.
      "Probably not until we're over the planet."
      "By then it will be too late. Prepare the attack to destroy the orbital station and the garrison on the ground, get the crews to their attack ships," I said. Then I turned to my Third Officer, "you are to oversee damage control and medical. I don't know what kind of casualties to expect, but this could get ugly."
      Lieutenant Barrett nodded gravely and immediately went to see to her assigned duty.

      For a moment, everybody on the bridge was busy doing something. Everybody but me.
      I stood there, and stared at the image of the overall system we were in and the one next to it of the Juul planet with a massive orbital complex that was heavily defended.
      "It's awful quiet," I said, "any sign of interceptors from that platform?"
      "No, sir."
      "None?"
      "No, sir. And they've had to have seen us, or they will soon."
      "Have you heard any messages from the fighters behind us to them?"
      "No, sir. Nothing."
      I stood straight and looked over at Rios. "Either the ones behind us are Free Juul and they'll join in when we hit the station, or...."
      "Or they are escorting us into the jaws of a trap."
      "Either way we're committed," I made a quick decision. "Compress our current situation into a flash, encrypt it, and send it back to the fleet. Let them know what's going on."
      "Yessir."
      "Time to best distance."
      "Six minutes."

      The longest three minutes of my life passed. And then, "Sir! The platform is launching. And they are powering weapons. On the station too sir. I'm reading live weapons now."
      "That's better. Now we know. Let's do it. Bring everything up, engage when in range." I looked over at the other tactical station, "how about our friends behind us?"
      "They are dispersing, they look like they're going to engage the ships from the station."
      Commander Rios nodded, "If that's true. Make sure our systems track them as friendly."
      "Aye, sir."
      There was a couple of bright flashes from the station at the center of the screen.
      "Incoming missiles," the tactical officer announced immediately. "Our shields are showing at maximum, they might handle them."
      "Return the favor, folks, it's on. Break silence, let the fleet know. We have engaged the Annunaki."
      The ship sounded it like it coughed four times. On the screen, eight of our tiny red dots were heading back toward where their three tiny red dots came from. Two of the dots came together and resulted in a brilliant display of pyrotechnics in space that a couple of the other dots flew into. Now only one of theirs was coming our way while another was spiraling around out of control. Six of ours were still on their way to them.
      Now there were different flashes of light from the station.
      "Incoming fighters at one hundred K and closing. The station is launching more missiles, and their guns are ranging us. No effect yet."
      "Launch our fighters."
      We didn't have a lot of fighters on board, that wasn't what this ship was for. It was, first and last, a heavy gun platform, but we had a few in the hanger bay, and I had been told that their crews were 'chomping at the bit' for their first action. And now, two 'light squadrons' were about to be baptized by fire. Fourteen other dots appeared on the screen in quick succession.

      "Sir, I've got three heavy ships coming in. No, seven, it's the Annunaki defense fleet. They were hiding behind the sun."
      "Time to intercept."
      "Twenty two minutes at current speed."
      "Where's our fleet?"
      "Twenty five minutes out at best speed."
      "Can we hold them off for three minutes?"
      "Yes sir."
      "Continue the attack."

General Muller
Fleet Command Central, Panna Supply Ship
Nebula Six

      Qi-Shi nodded at the screens that showed two separate space battles building to independent climaxes, "You're gut feelings were right."
      "Which means we have a security leak," I answered. "I had hoped to be wrong about at least one."

Amory and Jay and Abbey
Earth Defense Base, Canada

      "I wish we were there," Jay said as we listened to updates from the fleet.
      "Yeah." Amory answered softly after a long moment.
      I looked at them, "I know guys, it's really tough waiting it out. This is what I went through last time.
      "But, Mom. We're not even on alert!"
      "Do you want me to call the Admiral and ask her to put us on alert?" I asked them.
      They both looked at me like they were thinking about it.
      "No."

      All too soon the guys got their wish. As the fleet was moving in to encircle the enemy and do away with them we got the call that two flights of small vessels were entering the Earth system and a group of larger ships was just outside the perimeter.
      As they manned their ship and readied to launch I went through the checklist for them and made sure that the port stern sensor that had been acting up was stable. And then, I stood back and worried.

      And then the alert went from 'stand by' to 'deploy for action'.
      "This is not a drill, enemy ships entering Earth system. All units launch for assigned defensive stations. Ground defense forces prepare to engage."
      And with that I had to stop being their ground crew and go put on my own combat gear and get ready to defend our base if the enemy decided to come our way.

      I had been part of the crew that had test fired the Panna supplied heavy gun that was mounted on an armored tower on the far end of our base. But that was a test. To make sure it worked and that I knew what the various readouts and indicators meant and what to do about it if one of them wasn't right.
      But now we were told that first wave of ships coming into Earth Orbit were Annunaki surface attack ships and landing craft. They had counter attacked while the bulk of fleet was off doing other things.
      "Friendly vessels will be identified with green tracking," the speaker system inside the tower said as I hurried to my position just inside the blast door.
      I quickly went through what I remembered of the procedure, then I noticed that a monitor screen had the list of things that needed checked by a person flashing. I finished making the adjustments and pushed the ready button.
      Then I heard John, our gun lead respond, "Tower Two is hot."
      "Tower two," the fire control officer responded.
      I couldn't see if any enemy ships were nearby or not. My world consisted of a large array of meters and indicators and dials and three monitor screens, all of which were telling me important things about our energy reserve, the status of the reaction chamber, the cooling system and all of that and nothing about Jay and Amory, or any of the rest of our forces.
      "Canada stand by."
      My blood froze.
      "Handing off control to local."
      There was a lot of chatter as our own command base took over our part of the battle.
      "Boogies at twenty five and closing from almost due west. Tower three, do you see them?"
      "This is three, we've got them. High and tight. Locking on."
      I heard our gun swing around, my directional indicator said it was now pointing west.
      "Two's got them in sight."
      In a moment, the other two weapon's positions said they were tracking them as well, and then...
      "In range, fire at will."
      And my world of dials and screens changed into flashes and sudden jolts of power as our weapon, what I was told was firing bolts of plasma energy contained in a decaying magnetic bottle at the enemy. I had no idea how it worked, but it was enough that it did, and my screen of instructions told me what to do when the magnetic containment generator started to get too hot.
      Now and then, the building shook from enemy fire, some of the gauges showed problems here and there, but I was able to engage backup systems and kept us in the fight.
      "Stay with me Abbey," John said.
      "I'm here, containment is still good, are you hitting anything?"
      "Hell if I know."
      "You are all taking them out, we'll announce the score later. Stand by, another wave is coming in from the south."
      "Keep that juice coming Abbey, we've got some shooting to do."
      I concentrated on the energy feed, and the containment, and did my job. We took a couple more direct hits, and for a minute, all of our systems went dark, but then the relay center deep under the base got us back up. I made the adjustments it needed and called up to John, "You're good."
      "Got'em!"

Chris Banks
World Press International
Bahrain Earth Defense Base

      It wasn't as bad as the first big attack, but it was scary enough, and it was bad enough as we hunkered down in the media center and tried to make sense out of the conflicting reports and confused information coming from over the various communications channels.
      We heard weapons fire from the defensive towers and bunkers around the base and then the explosions caused by enemy fire from the incoming ships.
      From what we gathered the Annunaki had come after us while the fleet was on another mission. They had sent in a few attack ships and made a few passes over various parts of the planet and bombed a couple of locations to verify that there was nothing going on that would endanger their mother ships. Then they brought in the attack fleet and began a full scale mop up assault on Earth.
      Our defensive forces were giving them a run for it, but more enemy ships kept coming in. It was clear that before long our defenses would be overrun and then we'd be at their mercy.
      There was a massive explosion that we all knew was one of the city killer bombs going off at the base, and as soon as the rumble from it passed there was nothing but silence from that direction and several of the channels we were monitoring went silent. We looked out and saw the ship high overhead and for a moment we thought it might be coming our way.
      And then things changed. There were new voices on the active channels.
      And the Annunaki were suddenly in disarray and scrambling for defensive formations.

Colonel Inoue
Earth Defense Command, Reserve Base, Mongolia

      After the battle, I informed Command that our base was ready to go to full active duty ahead of schedule. I waited until the General was in front of the camera and had acknowledged me.
      "Colonel Inoue. It is good to see you again."
      "Thank you, sir. I am honored to report that we sustained minimal damage in the attack, our defenses were up to the challenge, and our flight crews performed with distinction. So it is my pleasure to inform you that the base is fully operational, proven by fire, and is now standing by for activation."
      "That is very good and welcome news, thank you, Colonel," he answered and turned slightly to speak to somebody else, "notify all commands that the East Asia base is on line."
      "Yes, General," they answered. "They will be added to the rotation with with next shift."
      Then he was facing me again, "They will be in touch with the assignment and schedule. Welcome aboard and congratulations. I am looking forward to coming to see your base in person."
      "Thank you, sir."

      I turned to my staff and bowed to them, "You have brought great honor to all of us, and I know you will continue to do so. I only hope I am worthy of your service."
      "We strive to be worthy of your command," one of them answered.
      I made eye contact with each one and then paused. "And, we should get to work."
      "Yes, sir."

Lieutenant Derry O'Neill
Earth Monitoring Orbital Station Two

      We were the second orbital station hit, but instead of finishing us off they blasted our main weapons batteries and went after the fighters coming up from the surface. We were still in the fight with some secondary weapons and unit one was under repair, but for the time being, we were really nothing more than a big target in geosynchronous orbit.
      They destroyed several of our fighter ships, and made a run at a couple of the new cities on the surface, and then seemed to just fly around waiting. That's when we saw their mother ships come in from way out in space someplace. Several of them were now moving into position around Earth to use their main weapons against us.
      "They were waiting to see if it was a trap," I said.
      Our station commander nodded but didn't say anything.
      "You know something."
      She glanced at me, "I do, but I'm not supposed to say anything."
      "Who am I going to tell now?"
      "Bring up tracking three," she said to the con.
      "Yes, ma'am. On screen two."
      The screen showed an overview of the solar system out to about the orbit of Saturn or so.
      "Just watch."

      It was a long time, or it seemed like it, with nothing happening.
      Then my attention was drawn to the screen with the local situation on it. Two smaller ships had separated from a flight and were approaching the station.
      "We're going to have company," the con officer said.
      "Defensive teams to landing bay. Engage auto defenses."
      I hated to say it but I had to, "I need to go. I'm on team three."
      "Look!" The con officer shouted and pointed at the other screen.
      And then, all of the sudden, there was a widespread group of green symbols on the monitor, accompanied by several absolutely huge symbols, coming in from what I was told was the asteroid belt.
      "Those are ours," she said as I tried to grasp what it meant.
      All I could do was to whistle softly as I went to join my team.

      The boarding by the enemy never took place. We could see the approaching ships veer off course and swoop out to rejoin their squadron.
      I know I wasn't the only one glad it hadn't come down to a face to face showdown for control of the station and hurried back to the command center to see what was going on.

President Dr. Yarah Santiago
Nova Porta Velho, Brazil

      We had been in the Community Center listening to an idea from the Panna to use their weather control system to make our rainforest more favorable to food crops when every Panna radio in town started beeping and chirping with all sorts of warnings while a couple of flights of fighters took off from the base.
      "Oh, Sweet Jesus, No!" somebody with my party said.
      I didn't know what to say or do, I held Mateo's hand and we ran outside and looked up. Which probably wasn't the smartest thing to do. But then before we saw anything one of the military officers with us ushered us into the largest bunker under the Government building where several displays relayed all sorts of information, including a streaming message that enemy ships were inbound and all defensive bases had scrambled to meet the threat. The Panna that were there had clustered together and refused to move. My staff and their escorts had to usher them into the other bunker as a group.

      It was worse than the original attack because we knew what was happening and we could watch several live video streams of people dying all over the world.
      But unlike the first attack, we were fighting back and holding our own so we were hopeful that it would end soon.
      Until we saw the motherships coming in.
      "They're going to do it again," I said with dread as the massive ships moved in and got lower. "Will these bunkers stand up to that?" I asked the Colonel who was with us as my military adviser.
      "Not to a direct hit, no, ma'am," Colonel Ventura said as he pulled the heavy door shut and locked it. "I don't know of anything that will."

      We braced ourselves and waited.
      "What's going on?" Mateo asked. "They're dispersing."
      "There's a counter attack on. It's our fleet!"
      The best information was coming from Orbital Two, somebody called Lieutenant O'Neill, was giving a running commentary of a swarm of ships led by three Alliance Dreadnaughts swooping in and destroying every Annunaki ship in the area.
      "One of the city destroyer ships has looped twice around the moon and is trying to evade them. There he goes again, they are cutting it really close to the moon and going really, really fast." There was a pause on the commentary. "OK, here comes a flight of our guys, they're going to cut them off. The enemy's ship is caught between a dreadnaught and bunches of our fighters. Oh, gosh they are shooting it out. Holy Mackerel. I can't even look at it. Something just exploded, I can't tell what it was. No wait, I can see the dreadnaught, there it is, it looks like it's about half the size of the moon, I can see fires on it, but it is in one piece. Let me check the scope." More silence. "There's no sign of the Annunaki ship, it must have been what went up."
      We cheered the victory even though there were several other enemy ships still attempting to flee.

      Mateo had his arm around me while we watched the mop up operation.
      "But they'll be back won't they?" I asked him.
      "From what I learned about them, yes."
      Colonel Ventura was already on the radio to General Branto, "There has been some damage in a few locations, but there are a few casualties. He will be down with a full report later today."
      "Thank you.

Captain Singh
"Balance of Justice"

      "Damage control team to decks six and seven section seven. Hull breach."
      "Chain gun twelve is out of ammo."
      "Main battery, fire in, three, two. Hold it. And. Fire!" I ordered.
      I turned toward the main screen. Twin ropes of angry light slashed an Annunaki ship from just behind the bow all the way to the stern. Something on board exploded and the ship reeled end over end in space.
      But then another uneasy shudder through my own ship reminded me that we were still in the heat of a major battle.

      The fleet had held off until the enemy were committed to destroying us. Then they rushed in and things got very intense. With us at the eye of the storm.
      "Where did that come from?" I asked as a massive burst of intense fire erupted from the planet and vaporized the enemy ship we'd just damaged.
      "The planet, sir. A pulsar cannon."
      In a moment another similar blast leaped from the surface and took out another Annunaki ship while it was in a toe to toe shootout with one of our own.
      "Sir, there's a broadcast coming in on all channels. From the planet. On main."
      ".... is free Juul. No A-Nah come here, now. Not Welcome. Therron is free Juul. No A-Nah come here, now. Not..."
      "It's a loop," Rios said.
      I nodded, "But it is the right message. They've taken control of the planet."

Abbey
Earth Defense Base, Canada

      "They're on the 'Path to Glory', it's an Alliance dreadnaught."
      I had to hear the words, "but they are alive. Right? They're both alive."
      "Yes, ma'am. Both the pilot and the gunner were recovered alive."
      "Have you told Amory's parents?"
      "Ahhh, no, ma'am, we thought you were their mother. But I guess not." I ignored the officer on the video screen and looked at my commander.
      "I know where they live, can I take a ship? I'd like to tell them he's been hurt in person. And if we could go see them."
      He nodded gravely, "The 'Path' is staying in orbit for repairs. There's a Panna factory ship on its way. So, yes, you can go. I think we have a transport.... Abbey! You don't know how to fly it," I heard him yell after me, but I kept going.
      I had a plan.

      I had heard that Donna and Rose's ship had taken some damage, but they were able to return to base. I went and found them.
      "How are the guys?" Rose asked me as soon as I opened the locker room door.
      "Hurt, they're on a ship in orbit. We need to go tell Amory's folks and then go see them. I know a transport we can use."
      Donna threw on a ragged T-shirt, "Let's go!"

      We flew south. I had some sort of idea where the town was, but we ended up finding the river where Washington used to be and following it up until I saw it. Then we landed and I went to find Bo and Sammi and their daughter.
      We drew quite a crowd as soon as we touched down, but I just told the people that we were in a hurry and had to find Amory's folks.
      Amory's mom took the news hard, but she nodded and said she understood that he was still alive.
      "How did it happen?" his father asked us.
      "The boys' ship got shot up in the battle," Donna said to them, "they couldn't bring it back in through the atmosphere. They would have burned up."
      Rose agreed, "So did ours. But those Panna ships can really take a beating."
      "They're alive. They're on some ship up there. I don't know which one," I said looking up.
      "We'll find it," Donna said, "If you wanna come see them."
      "Yes, of course."

      In a few minutes we were airborne and climbing and I was on the radio trying to find out which of the dozen or so ships in orbit they were on and getting permission to land on it.
      "We're in space," Sammi said, "I still don't believe it."
      "Yes, ma'am. I know it sounds weird, but I've gotten used to it." Rose said.
      "Set course, nine seven, mark, one one three," I said as we got clearance to proceed. "It'll be the big one."
      Bo looked at the two girls flying our transport, "I'll never make another joke about women drivers."
      "Yes, you will," Sammi grinned at him.
      "At least not until we're back on the ground."
      Autumn looked at her father and laughed.
      Rose glanced over at Donna, "Should we show him how the garbage chute works?"
      "I'll never say another word about women drivers," he crossed his heart and held his hand up.
      Donna turned her head to look at Sammi, "do you believe him?"
      "No, but I need to keep him around."
      "OK."

      "That's it," I pointed to a large vessel surrounded by several smaller ones.
      "My God, that thing is huge," Bo said as we circled around it to approach one of the undamaged landing bays.
      "It's an Alliance Dreadnaught. Except when the Panna combine three or four of their ships, and a couple of Annunaki ships, they're the biggest thing in space," Donna said playing the tour guide. "And when they start shooting, they can light up like... like I don't know what."
      "Canada two," the com said to us, "'Approach authorized, you'll be third to land. Behind the Toller courier. Enter at point three three, elevation, two."
      "I see it, we're in line," Donna answered them, "Three three, two."
      "And that's an alien ship," Bo said watching the courier maneuver into the bay.
      "They're all alien ships," Autumn said.
      "Well, yeah, I know, but..." he gave up and just watched the other ship land.

      The boys were in the major medical ward.
      "Which one is which?" the medical officer from the Toller asked us through Abbey's communication disk.
      "Amory is the dark skinned one," Bo said to her.
      "I see. Very well. In that case, Jay, is in the resting ward. Amory is in the medical intervention unit." She looked at us, "I see. In that language it would be surgical."
      I held Sammi's hand while she accepted that. "Can we at least see Jay? In person, go in and speak to him."
      "Not yet, in the resting they are, as you would say, asleep by force."
      "They have him in a medically induced coma?" Rose asked.
      "I believe that is your language for it."
      Bo took a deep breath, "But they will both recover?"
      "Of course, that is why they were brought here," she looked from one to the other of us. "I will take you to an area where you can stay."

      While we stood around and sat on metal benches the girls told us their story about the battle where their squadron had attacked a city destroyer just coming into range to fire on a large settlement along the lake west of where Toronto used to be. They had forced it to retreat out of the atmosphere, then a flight of Annunaki fighters came it its rescue.
      Rose had her hands up in the air showing how they had circled the larger ship, "and some of the fighters were hitting it when they were shooting at us." Then she laughed in spite of everything, "Just before they were hit I heard Jay say 'Teriffic. I'm about to get killed a million miles from nowhere with a gung-ho iguana who tells me to relax.' and Amory answered that he'd seen that movie."
      We all laughed with her.
      "Our squadron really hammered that thing, it actually broke in half when they tried to pull away," Donna added. "I know we got at least four of our photons into it before we had to drop back."
      "When did they hit Amory's ship?" Autumn asked.
      "Right at the end, two of the fighters bracketed them and just opened up with everything they had. They were pulling up and just kept going," Donna said. "They had to. It's a wonder they didn't plunge back into the atmosphere. We were still pretty low." She looked at the floor. "A couple of our ships didn't make it. They'd just took too much damage."
      "I'm sorry," Sammi said and put her arm around her. "But you landed yours. So at least you're not in there."
      "I'm not sure it will ever fly again," Rose said. "They busted it up pretty good." Then she looked over at me, "So what did you do in the big battle? I heard you guys were shooting everything in the sky."
      "We got a few licks in," I said.
      "We would seem to have plenty of time, tell us about it," Bo answered.

President Dr. Yarah Santiago
Nova Porta Velho, Brazil

      We had to coax the Panna out of the bunker. And even then they kept turning their eye stalks skyward and checking some sort of communicator. Their leader wanted to continue the weather modification discussion twenty meters underground in a fortified room. But finally we got them out under the sky and explaining how the system would work.
      "Unless were totally transform your planet, you will have unfavorable local climatic events," the Panna said.
      "Bad weather," Mateo said to it.
      "Yes."
      Another one turned its eye stalk toward him, "but our system can control those local events."
      "Control, but not prevent," I said to it. "To do that you would have to terraform the entire planet."
      "Yes."
      The other one's eye stalk perked up, "We could do that, if you will get everybody off the planet."
      "I don't think we want to do that. Not yet."
      It didn't answer but sank back down on its walking tentacles to its normal height.

      In the end I ordered one test installation of the weather control system to be placed northwest of Sao Paulo. If it worked, and they were able to reliably grow the crops they needed, we'd work on others.
      Now instead of the large machines that built the bridge the Panna sent out one small machine that went out and made a series of tall skinny towers. And that was it. No flashing lights or force fields or anything like that. Just thirty or so towers that covered about fifty square kilometers of field and forest.
      The Panna looked at me and moved its eye up and down, "You will see, it will work."
      "No more flash floods, or dry spells. At least there."
      "Not unless that is what you want."
      "I think we're fine without them. Right, Madam President?" Mateo said and put his arm around me.
      I nodded and smiled in answer.
      The Panna just stood there and looked at us.
      "Something else?" Mateo asked it.
      "You like to touch her," it said.
      "Yes, I do."
      It just stood there, then it looked at me. "And you like it when he touches you?"
      "Yes, it is very nice."
      The Panna backed up little by making its walking tentacles squirm on the ground. "Do you touch each other more than this?"
      I looked at Mateo and when he didn't answer I tried to say something safe, "Sometimes, when we're alone. Just the two of us."
      "Oh, we always have more than two when we touch like that. Sometimes hundreds. It is better that way."
      "We think it is better with two," I said.
      "When we are together our bodies touch as much as possible," it said.
      "It is kind of the same thing with us."
      Mateo squeezed my hand and added, "when it is the best it is."
      I made a mental note to kiss him later for saying that. But there are some things best not done in the presence of the Panna. Instead I asked the Panna when we could test the weather device.

Pike Sule Jaun
Commanding Officer of the Toller Alliance's Combined Force
Aboard the heavy battle cruiser: "The Fist of Destiny"

      "Do you wish to die with what honor remains to you and your family, or do you wish to serve the sentence given to traitors?"
      Those convicted of sending information to the enemy glanced at each other.
      "You committed this crime and sin against your own people and those who stand against the tyrants with us as one, you will be punished as one," I said to them.
      "I would die, but I will agree to whatever they say," one of them answered.
      "What is the execution?" One of them asked me.
      "It is for me to decide at the time, you will find out then, or you will be sent to the forced labor camp. Decide now, or I will decide for you. I have a war to fight and you are a nothing more to me than a distasteful task I wish to put behind me."
      "I will die as well."
      One of them never spoke or even made eye contact with me after I had announced their proven guilt, the others indicated they were agreeable.
      I turned to the officer of the guard and gave him the order. "Strip them naked and put them in the docking air lock. Once it is secure, I will code the ejection. If they resist, force them but do not render them unconscious, they must be aware of their end."
      "Yes, Commander."

      In a few minutes it was done. Their frozen, lifeless bodies, contorted in final agony, were drifting in space.

      "General. It is my duty to inform you that those found to have breached the security of our fleet have been terminated," I reported to General Muller.
      "Do you believe there are any others who weren't uncovered?"
      "No, sir. Not at this time."
      "Very well, thank you Commander. I'm sorry I had to be the one to tell you that news to begin with."
      "I understand, General. Unfortunately some of our people can still be corrupted. And even worse, these did so for nothing more than financial profit, which now they can never enjoy."
      "Ours too, Commander. It is something I don't think we will ever outgrow as a species."
      "Agreed. Now, that that is finished, I will see to my duty of preparing our fleet for the next engagement."
      "Exactly what I need to be doing as well."

Bo and Sammi
Aboard the "Path to Glory"
Earth Orbit

      It was a long time before they allowed us to go in to see either of the boys. The Alliance doctors understood our concern, but they said they needed to allow the medical systems to do their work. But eventually, they said that Jay was awake and had been moved to a rehabilitation unit.
      We went in and they directed us through a long rank of narrow beds with monitoring units hanging just a foot or two over the occupant's chest.
      As soon he saw us Jay's eyes got wide and he started crying.
      Abbey took his hand and asked him what was wrong.
      "They said I'd be fine."
      "You will be," she answered.
      "Then why are... oh, no. Amory didn't make it," he said and kept crying.
      "No, no, he came through his surgery and he's in their recovery room."
      Jay looked from one of us to the other, "So we're both going to be OK?"
      "Yes."
      "Oh, in that case. Can I get something to eat? I'm starving."
      We all laughed at him, I nodded to him and said I'd go find the aid and see what he could have and how to get it for him.

      A couple of hours later they brought Amory into the recovery ward and put him next to Jay. He was still asleep but they assured us that he'd come around in a few minutes.
      "Amory," Sammi said to him softly as soon as he stirred. "It's mom and dad, we're here."
      It took him some effort, but he opened his eyes and looked at us, "Hi."
      "Hi," I said to him.
      "Hey, buster," Autumn said to him and he glanced her way.
      He moved a little, then he looked back at us. "What happened? Where's Jay?"
      "Over here," Jay said, "I told you we'd make it."
      Amory took a deep breath and sighed, "did we win?"
      Donna stepped up to the bed, "Yes," she said firmly.
      Amory looked at her and smiled, "OK. Good."

      I looked over at Jay who was more coherent than my son, "so, what happened to your ship?"
      "It got all shot up," Jay answered. "We took a couple of direct hits and all the lights went out and it said we were leaking air and the shields were down, then we saw a couple of them coming at us and we knew we were done for."
      Amory managed a grin, "So we went and hid in the airlock."
      Jay nodded and continued, "We were spinning out of control and there was smoke and the controls were on fire and we could hear air escaping, and the door wouldn't open. It flared up and I burned my arm." He looked at his arms still wrapped in what we was told was a healing cloth that would protect the new skin.
      But then Amory got really upset, "I remember something hitting me in the back while we were trying to get the door open."
      "They said you had shrapnel in your back and side, and Jay had it in his legs and burns on his arms," Abbey told them.
      "But then we got it and got in, we pulled the door shut and I don't know how long we were in there," Amory said.
      "I tried to make the air tank last as long as I could. But it was getting cold, and I couldn't do anything about it," Jay looked over at Amory, "I tried to keep him warm. Then I heard some bumping and banging and they came in and let us out. They said it was an Alliance ship, but I don't know which one." He looked at us, "I still don't."
      "The 'Path to Glory', the dreadnaught," Rose said to him and I finally put together which girl was closer to which of the boys.
      "Oh, the big one. Cool."
      When I glanced back at Amory I saw that he was sound asleep again.
      Abby followed my eyes and nodded, "You guys need to rest."
      "Yes," Sammi said gently letting go of Amory's hand for the first time since he'd woke up. "We'll go find their cafeteria, and then come back."
      Jay looked over at Amory and nodded.

      But finding the cafeteria or anything like it wasn't as easy as it sounds.
      Part of the problem seemed to be that there was no formal treaty between us and the Alliance for routine services. 'Routine' being meals for visiting family instead of rescuing injured warriors after the battle. But finally a medical officer said that it was easier to take us to the food service than to negotiate a treaty, so the officer told a lower ranking crewman to take care of us.
      "Is this your first meal?" The human-looking crewman asked us.
      "Yes, it is."
      "Follow me," and we were led down a couple of long hallways and up ramps between floors to an area that reminded me of the food court at the mall with a large passage through the middle. "We have crew from various worlds, including Panna and Ooldaks. You appear to be homid, so you may wish to see what they have at those two stations," our guide gestured. "But I do know a couple of people that like Pannafood. When you are finished, please ask for an escort back to medical."
      "Thank you," we said to them.

      "You don't want to try the Panna food," Abbey said to us as we looked around. "I've had it. It's not really even food."
      "If they eat it I don't want it," Autumn said with no attempt to conceal her true feelings about them.
      "Who are the Ooolacks, or whatever they said."
      "I don't know," she looked at Donna, "I don't think we've ever met them."
      "I think we'll stick to human food," Rose said and Sammi immediately agreed.
      We watched for a minute to see how the serving area worked, then we went up to one of the stations and tried to figure out the controls. Fortunately there were pictures of what appeared to be the menu options next to several touch panels. I glanced over as a human-ish crewman wearing a very complicated tool belt came up to the next station and pushed several of the buttons and I saw what he got, then I tried to mimic what he did and I seem to have gotten pretty close as a door at the bottom of the station vanished and a square tray with four slices of what appeared to be a type of thin French toast with some sort of fruit topping and three red sausages appeared. I picked up one of the sausages and tasted it and found that while they were red, they weren't spicy at all but were rather tasty all the same.
      "How did you get that?" Sammi asked me.
      "Like this," I said to her and pushed the same buttons again and another one appeared.
      We all got more or less the same thing. And in doing so we learned that the button next to one of the ones I pushed would get you gray sausages, and the one on the other side of the French Toast button gave you some sort of meat pie that smelled like eggs and cheese.
      "So I guess we'll have breakfast," Autumn said.
      "I like breakfast," Rose said, "but I usually miss it unless I'm on duty."
      In the middle on each side of the main passage were drink stations that had everything from water to various hot drinks and some things that smelled like fruit syrup and a range of containers to put them in and an odd selection of implements to eat with, including a really wicked looking three pronged flat metal fork with a knife edge on one side. We got a selection of drinks and weapons and went to find someplace to eat.
      The array of seating, if that is the right word to use, ranged from tall tables to stand at that came nearly up to my chin all the way to places to sit on the floor. We found a couple of benches next to a horseshoe shaped table near where we'd come in. Finally we got to actually relax and look around at the remarkable place we found ourselves.
      "This is something," I said as we watched a multi-wheeled vehicle go by with a bunch of heavy machinery on it.
      "You'd never know we were on a spaceship," Sammi said. Then a group of aliens, including several Panna and a couple of just plain odd looking individuals went by following the truck. "On second thought, yes, you would."
      The food wasn't bad, the constant parade of things and people was fascinating, and we got to hear about Abbey's adventures on the Panna ship before they were assigned to Canada.
      When I finished eating I went back to the panel I'd used and got two orders of what I'd had to take back to the boys. I put all the food on one plate and covered it with the other one and got them each a knife-fork thing. Then I went back to the women and asked if they were ready to go.

      "Do you think we can find our way back there?" Abbey asked me.
      "Well, I saw that symbol and that word down there," I answered, "and that looks like it is pointing that way. We came up two ramps so, I think we can get close."
      "I'll go with you," my daughter said to me with confidence in her eyes.
      "I'm game," Donna said, "let's go."
      "You lead, we'll follow," Abbey said to me.
      "Let's go."

Chris Banks
World Press International
Bahrain Earth Defense Base

      Everything above ground at the base was gone, just like the city was after the first attack. But except for right at the epicenter of the blast near the landing area, everything below ground was more or less intact. Fortunately the majority of those on the base were in the bunkers under the command or barracks building. We lost the Prince who at his post directing the defense, twenty other humans, and six Panna, some equipment, and several ships.
      But no sooner had the dust settled from the blast than the base was back in the fight and they launched the last three of their available fighters to attack the enemy ship. One of the fighters was only partially armed because it had been in for repairs. Even so, they attacked the ship that had bombed their base. And one crew paid for the retaliation with their lives.

      "We will make it new, and better," a short Panna said to us. "We will make it stronger so if they come back this will not happen."
      "Thank you," Captain Ransom, the temporary commander, said. "Perhaps you should do the same to all the bases."
      "Yes."

Captain Singh
"Balance of Justice"

      "Mister Rios."
      "Yes, sir."
      "What do the Juul mean by this message?"
      "They wish to challenge us to a ball game."
      "What sort of ball game?"
      "I don't know, sir. That's all the communiqué said, 'a part of the celebration of their liberation from the A-Nah, they wish to challenge the crew of the 'Judicial Balance' to a ball game."
      I looked over at the Panna that were at their command deck station, "Do you know what sort of ball game the Juul play?" I asked them hoping they'd say 'water polo' but suspecting otherwise.
      "Yes, Captain Singh," one of them said. But then it stopped and both of them stood there and looked at me.
      "Can you tell us about it?" Commander Rios said to them.
      "Yes," one answered, then the other one continued.
      "It is like the Earth game you call base ball, but there is another base, and the field is bigger, like your cricket."
      "Sounds interesting," Rios said.
      "Good, then you are in charge of putting together a team to meet this challenge. Certainly there are those with experience in those games amongst our crew."
      "How many players are on a side in a Juul ball game?" Lieutenant Barrett asked the Panna.
      "It depends on how many the sides agree to," the one answered.
      "But always at least thirteen. If you do not have thirteen you will forfeit. That is not good for winning the game."
      "No," I said then looked at my Third Officer, "Do you play?"
      "I was on my high school softball team."
      Commander Rios nodded, "Good, you take the upper decks and I'll take the lower, we'll find you a team, sir."
      "Yes, sir."
      "And I will lead the cheering section," I said, "I'm not sure if I've ever even seen a baseball game. Now if we were talking orthodox Cricket...."

General Muller
Fleet Command Central, Panna Supply Ship
Nebula Six

      Our fleet had won two major simultaneous battles, but we had sustained a tremendous amount of loss to do it. Two dreadnaughts had been pummeled, several ships the Alliance called 'fast cruisers' had been heavily damaged and two had been destroyed, we'd lost a lot of fighters, and two bases on Earth had been hit.
      We won by inflicting even more serious damage on the Annunaki, and they had lost the planet Therron and all of the facilities in its system were now free.
      But instead of enjoying the celebrations going on elsewhere, I was now tasked with rebuilding our fleet and organizing our defenses. The Annunaki had been idly chattering about a massive counterattack for some time. And now the planning was becoming serious. Even before the battle in the Therron system was over, several different groups within the Annunaki empire came to the agreement that our combined forces were now a threat to them all, and we needed to be dealt with and each governor was pledging to contribute more ships and troops than we'd had at our disposal even before the battle had begun.
      Qi-Shi was of the opinion that the enemy vessels sent to Earth had been a test, to see if we had established any meaningful defenses around the planet. Now that we had proven that indeed we had, we were in for it.
      "But if we hadn't fought back, they had enough firepower there to finish wiping us out," I said. "There was no other option than to fight back."
      "And they knew that," he answered. "Which explains this," handed me a data pad from the Panna that reminded me of an electronic reader several of the guys on base had.
      "What kind of ship is a 'dominator class'?" I asked him.
      "You've heard that the dreadnaughts are the third biggest ships in space?"
      "It's first." I said softly.
      "No. Second."
      "A big ship just makes a better target," I said trying to come up with a strategy.
      "From what I have learned of their tactics, it will never enter the system. It will assume a high position to the north or south of the plane of our solar system, and obliterate Earth from there with an anti-proton and neutron stream. It will take awhile, but it will disrupt the atmosphere and destroy all life on the surface of the planet to good depth."
      "Then why do they need to send two of them."
      "Would you attack us with a single point of failure to the mission?"
      "If they're where they appear to be. How long would it take for them to get to Earth?"
      Qi-Shi scrolled through the data, then did some calculating, "At best speed, nine days for one, twelve for the other."
      I had an idea, "They expect us to attempt a counter attack before they can use their weapon."
      "Of course."
      "I remember something about anti-protons. They have a negative charge, right?"
      Now we were on home Paige's turf, "Yes. Regular protons are the positive charge in the nucleus. In anti-matter, the charge is the opposite. The neutrons will hold the beam together until it hits the target, then they'll do some damage of their own to the nuclei of anything in their way. I still don't know how they get around the law of inverse squares, but they do."
      "Evidently," I said. I'd heard the inverse square thing before, but I wasn't even going to pretend that I understood it. "Anyway, Miss Paige, you need to invent a space mirror that will deflect that beam," I said to her, "four of them in fact, and have them deployed over Earth and the Juul planet in, say, a week or so." They looked at me and then Paige started to smile. I know I was grinning at them, "We'll let the Annunaki destroy their own ships for us."
      "What will deflect an anti-matter stream?" Qi-Shi asked.
      "Not 'deflect', but 'reflect'. A retroreflector, with an equal electrical charge should return the beam to its source before the neutrons can destroy the reflector," Paige answered thoughtfully.
      "See? The girl is good."
      Qi-Shi ignored me. "And you just happen to have one big enough to defend an entire planet."
      "No, but the Panna and the Toller and the others might have something to build it from."
      "And we can use the Panna factory ships to build it," I added to help.
      "Yessir," Qi-Shi said, but I could tell he had his doubts.
      "In the mean time, I want you to work out a solid deployment of what we have available to defend us, the Juul, the Panna, and the others, and give me a timetable for rebuilding the fleet to where we can mount another attack against a target of opportunity. Meanwhile, I need to talk to Commander Pike about his home planet's defenses, they're a target now as well. And then I'm going to go see Colonel Inoue and give him his promotion."
      "Yessir."

President Dr. Yarah Santiago
Nova Porta Velho, Brazil

      "This is ridiculous. I don't believe it," I said to Ana Paula and Mateo.
      "What?" He asked me.
      "What did you tell me about your dream the other night?"
      He shook his head then nodded, "Oh, the weird scary one."
      "Yes."
      "That there was a terrible plague and people's skin was falling off and their teeth were coming out and all."
      Ana Paula blanched and her eyes went wide, "I've had the same dream, I couldn't go back to sleep that night."
      "So has Lorenzo in there, he was afraid he'd caught some disease that gave him nightmares. He's had it, he says, three nights in a row," I said referring to the patient I'd just left. "I've had something similar, but I don't usually remember my dreams, but it does sound familiar to me like I have had it."
      I could see Mateo thinking the same thing I was, "I'll call the command ship and see if this is some sort of psychological attack by the Annunaki."

      Ana Paula and I did some more checking with General Branto and some others while Mateo made his call. Almost everybody in town and on the base had reported the same sort of dream. And all recently, since the last attack, and they were becoming more frequent and stronger.

      "They did something," General Branto said over the field phone, "it's like they've sprayed something on us or put it in the air. I haven't had a good night's sleep in a week."
      Just then Mateo came in. "It's a Dream Weaver," he said. "There's been reports of them from several places all over the world. They dropped them with delayed activation timers. They put out an electromagnetic signal that the human brain can pick up, and it reinterprets the signal as a negative image in REM sleep."
      "How do we find it and turn it off?" I asked him.
      "The Panna said to follow the dreams."
      I nodded, "the closer they are to the device the earlier the dreams started and the worse they've been."
      "Probably."
      "What does it look like?" Ana Paula asked him.
      "Something that doesn't belong there," he answered, "that's what the Panna named Lefty said. He's sending down something to help us find it and deactivate it, the next courier ship will drop it off. But we can start looking for it in the meantime."
      I laughed, "I don't know which is more absurd, a Panna named 'Lefty' or looking around for something that doesn't belong here." But then I remembered what General Branto said, "We'll start up by the base, he said he hasn't slept in a week, so it is probably up there someplace."
      "OK," Mateo answered.
      "Mind the store," I said to Ana Paula.
      "Yes, ma'am. Good hunting."

      General Branto looked like hell. Now I believed he hadn't slept in a week. Many of the other soldiers and airmen on the base looked the same. I explained what the machine was doing and Mateo told him what the Panna said about it.
      "Did any of their ships land or slow way down during the attack?" Mateo asked them. "Maybe to drop the nightmare thing."
      "I don't know, we were a little busy," General Branto snapped.
      "I'm sorry, sir, I was just trying to help."
      "I know, sorry about that." He turned to a couple of officers who were working in the command center. "Ken, you were on duty, do you remember anything like that?"
      The man was just as haggard as the General. He thought about it, then nodded, "Yes, sir. One of the attack ships came in like it was on a bomb run, but it slowed down, then went straight up. I thought they just pulled out of their approach, but they may have done what Mister Mateo said."
      "Where?"

      We formed a line across the eastern boundary of the base just short of where the scanners reported that the enemy ship had stopped its approach and then left.
      "You're looking for anything that isn't normal. In Japan they found one that looked like it was made out of wood. In Canada it was a black metal lump that might have been a burned up automobile. Check everything, the Panna are sending something to deactivate it, but we have to find it by hand, it can jam their sensors. Ready to go?"
      "Yes, sir," several of our volunteers replied. Most, like the General, looked awful.
      We walked east very slowly, across the perimeter road, and into the new huts and living quarters some of our people had put up. Many of those hadn't slept either, and joined the search.
      I had an idea, I stopped and waved for a group of barefoot and mostly naked children to come up to me.
      "Senhora Presidenta?" They said to me and I had to deal with that for a minute. Then I asked them if any of the enemy ships had left anything around that hadn't exploded. "Sim," they answered.

      "Any bets that that's it?" I asked after the kids showed us an odd looking bluish brown thing about twice the size of a coffin that was lying in a shallow crater in a brush thicket.
      "Close your eyes and take a deep breath, just relax a little," Mateo whispered to me and I noticed he was sweating.
      "I usually love it when you say that," I said to him with a grin that he did not return.
      "Trust me."
      "That too," but I did it. And I immediately regretted it. I had an image of absolute horror suddenly overwhelm my mind. "That's it." I said shaking off the images and trying to not cry.
      "Clear everybody out. I'll deactivate the damned thing," General Branto said. "Bring me my pack," he said to an aid.
      "But the Panna said...." Mateo answered him.
      "They can have what's left. Move them way back," he said taking out a couple of large bundles of what had to be some sort of explosive.

      The blast was very powerful, but I wasn't sure it had done the job as we walked back toward the epicenter still shrouded in dust and smoke.
      I closed my eyes, dreading the return of the images that the device had produced while standing near it before the explosion. But instead, all I got was the sensation of Mateo holding my hand. I looked. He was. I squeezed his hand back and we watched the dust clear together.

      Now, the thicket was gone, and the original crater the thing had made when it had landed was three times the size it had been. We found pieces of the device all over the area.
      General Branto looked our way, "We got it. Tell the Panna not to bother sending their de-activator."

Chris Banks
World Press International
Bahrain Earth Defense Base

      The Panna wasn't lying about making the base stronger. Now it was intimidating even from where we we were, several kilometers from it.
      From what I understood about the visible defenses, the rows of towers that looked like teeth were some sort of force field generators for defense against incoming ray and particle attacks and would also destroy an approaching ship. The big honking sci-fi looking guns were exactly that, giant guns that could trade volleys with orbiting hostile battleships. Not only was the base now invulnerable to the bombing that had destroyed the original edition, the Panna said that they'd have to remove the island to get to the underground bunker that was a dozen kilometers below the surface shrouded in reenforced bedrock.
      "But we've had earthquakes here," John had said to them.
      "Not any more." The Panna answered. "We fixed that, too."
      "But the Annunaki could still destroy the base," I said to them.
      "Yes. But now they will have to work hard to do it."

      With the base back up and running our complex became busier than ever. It was now the lead training and command base for Earth. And, of course, the showpiece for what the Panna could do to defend an installation, so of course every person of any status whatsoever tried to get them to come to it to everything from their new city to their own personal house.
      Fortunately, the Panna was still busy rebuilding other defensive structures so they didn't have to listen to most of the whining, and then they moved on to do something to fighter dispersal bases in Japan and Brazil, which meant the pleas from the newly elected Speaker of the US House of Representatives went for naught. His family's historical home outside of where Philadelphia had been simply was not that important. To anybody else but him that is.

      On my inside tour to document the event for a World Press special I saw everything there was to see. The elevators down to the living quarters and command area took a long time and I could feel that we were moving quickly. The central command area had sections dedicated to everything from controlling the base far above us to functioning as a backup position for General Muller on the Panna fleet flagship. We could watch the deployment of defenses around allied planets and track enemy ships through deep space. It was marvelous. Except that even with all of this, there was the overhanging idea that the ancient race with whom we were now at war was simply waiting for the right moment to come here in strength and end it.

Captain Singh
Ancestors Ball Field, Therron

      Commander Rios explained the differences between Earth Baseball and Cricket and the Juul's Ball Game by saying there were four bases not counting home plate, they had agreed on fifteen fielders besides the pitcher and catcher, there was no 'walk', and five strikes put one out, and five outs meant you changed which team was at bat, and you played until all fielders had batted five times. While like in cricket, the entire playing field, including behind the batter, was in play, which meant there was no such thing as a foul ball. The ball was more of a round rock about the size of a baseball while stick was a large heavy club. But, the general idea was the same. Hit the pitched ball as hard as you could and then run like mad as far as you could without risking being put out, every base you made scored one point, thusly, a 'home run' would score five points. If you made it to third base before being out, you got three points, and went back and sat down with your team, you didn't stay on the base and wait for a chance to score with the next batter.
      Given the differences to what our crew was used to the Juul gave everybody a day to practice. And, to be blunt, we needed it. Some of our crew hadn't played any sort of stick and ball game for years, others were coming from a background of cricket and had no idea which way to run when there were that many bases. But our guys got the hang of it with some coaching from several old Juul who were masters of the game.
      There was one difference that some of our players weren't happy with. Throwing the ball at the base runner was an acceptable way of getting them out. Fortunately the rule was that if the runner caught the ball, they advanced to the base they were heading for, scored one more point, and were then out.
      By the end of the practice day our team wasn't "totally pathetic", as Commander Rios put it.

      The next day at the ball field I assured Lieutenant Barrett that I would have an open channel to the ship in case anything happened and took my place next to a Juul flag officer whose title I never did understand, and several other notables to spend the afternoon eating a feast of all sorts of delicacies, as well as listening to several speeches, during the game, by various titled individuals, and watching our team get soundly thrashed by the Juul. However, I was told several times that we had played at the unfamiliar contest with admirable energy and showed great honor in defeat. Several of our players hit balls that anywhere else would have been considered a home run and clear the bases or score six in cricket. Whereas here, even the best hit ball could only score five points. But the ball was always in play, even when it was well outside the ball field and it took the other side some time to find it. Such were the times when one of the Juul would make their statements about how noble it all was and I would listen intently so as not to insult anybody.
      At the end of the game, we had racked up a respectable score, but experience playing, and knowing the game on an individual level made a big difference. However, many of our players were enthusiastic about a rematch all the same.
      I agreed to another day off from continued repairs to our ship in a couple of days for the second game.
      "Perhaps then, Captain, you will be comfortable enough with us to share your thoughts on the contest during play," the Juul officer said to me.
      "Perhaps, sir."

General Muller
Fleet Command Central, Panna Supply Ship
Nebula Six

      "General Inoue, your base is a credit to yourself and your staff. I congratulate you and your command."
      "Thank you. Sir," he said and saluted.

      To me the worst part of the entire inspection tour was sitting through the throat singers that performed at the commissioning dinner with some of the local dignitaries. But, I endured it. Primarily by pretending to pay attention and nodding or clapping when appropriate, but I was thinking about the upcoming test of our defenses and rerunning what I had learned about the new threat.

      I spent my trip to Earth and back learning everything there was to know about the enemy's dominator ships. And the more I learned, the less seriously I took the threat. Yes, with them sending two, there was a chance that their attack could succeed, but there was a greater chance that our defense would work better than either.
      While the dominators were enormous affairs with giant protuberances, and had arches and bulbs that stuck out of a central mass in odd places and angles, they were not overly reliable, and were just as likely to destroy themselves in their bid to destroy us.
      To begin with, while the ships were big, they weren't overly stable in flight and had a tendency to experience catastrophic hull failure at transit speed, which meant they did not travel in a convoy, there was too great of chance they would take out their own escorts. The usual pattern was that they would meet their defensive ships at their target system. According to the information, an Alliance spy had witnessed the breakup of one on its way to attack a member world, the resulting debris field remained a navigational hazard for a long time.
      Most of the ship was weapon, and power supplies for the weapon. The energy required to produce the stream of anti-matter and neutrons was outrageous for each twenty to thirty second shot. To the point that each ship could only be used two or three times before it had to be essentially rebuilt. Each time it fired, it was a crapshoot as to whether the weapon would work and produce the stream of antimatter particles or simply backfire and blow up the ship. And the kicker was that to destroy all life on a planet, it had to fire several hundred times. From what the Toller file said, the Annunaki command crew of the ship were promoted off after the completion of their second mission, while the Juul who were assigned to it, stayed on board for the life of the ship.
      As far as the process they went through to generate the anti-matter particles, I didn't understand a word of it. But even to me there appeared to be several points in the process where it could fail. And evidently it did fail. Often.
      The end of the file contained the information that the A-Nah had ceased building any more of the ships because of the cost involved and the last two they had produced had failed in testing, annihilating the shipyard that was building them as well.
      If I had anything to say about it, two more of them would join their sister ships soon enough.

      I tried to assist with the development and testing of the defensive array as much as I could, but the properties of anti-protons and the reflective potential of various alloys of gold weren't part of my Air Force training. My being involved came down to using some leverage to get a device that was reported to have some of the same features as the Annunaki anti-matter gun from an Alliance ship and having it sent over so Paige and the others could experiment with it and bench test various reflectors.
      As far as how the reflector worked I sort of understood that, and I knew that it was more or less like the units the Apollo astronauts left on the moon and the ones people used to put on their bicycles so they could be seen at night.
      Now as to how all of that will work to reflect a stream of anti-matter I couldn't even guess.
      So I guess I'm not 'very model of a modern major general....' Not only do I not know the rest of the song, I'm not even sure what movie it was from. And right now, I don't have time to find out from the Panna reconstruction of what they called the Earth's database.
      Still with part of the lyrics to the nonsense song running through my head I went to check on the progress of the testing of the model for the proof of concept.

      The lab was in a total uproar. There was a fire burning on one side of the room, a medical team was tending to several people, and Paige and a couple of techs were arguing about how to do something.
      "What happened?" I asked them when they paused to catch their breath.
      "It worked," Paige said, and she saw my eyes glance over toward the fire and the injured people, "mostly."
      "It only partially worked," the other tech said.
      "You said it wasn't going to work at all," Paige growled at the tech. "We have to make sure we have the proper electrical charge up to full before we start the test, otherwise the beam degrades the reflector and it is that degradation that dispersed the reflection out of the target area. But that gave me an idea."
      "Go on," I said to her to encourage her.
      "If we know the range to the Annunaki ship when they fire, we can adjust the reflector and the surface charge to concentrate the beam back to a focal point on their ship."
      "Do you know how big this reflector will have to be?" The other tech said to me.
      "I was expecting it to be a couple of miles in diameter.'
      He looked from me to her then at the damage from the test, "You're both impossible," he said and then went to check the emitter for damage.
      I waited a minute, then I asked the crucial question, "OK, if it has to be that big, and, focus-able, and then loaded with the electrical charge, can we, or the Panna, do it?"
      "They've already started building the reflector. All I had to do was to say it was a type of mirror and they started talking about how they like mirrors. Come here."
      We walked over to the target area where I'd seen what I thought was a model of what it would be.
      "This is a piece of what they're actually building, the only thing we have to figure out is the level of charge," she picked up a rectangular section of interlaced diamond cubes and handed it to me. "This what their construction machine made from my specs. It's a gold-glass alloy that is pure gold and silicone down to about seven nines. And it is flexible enough that we can adjust it with a series of thrusters on the outer edge to focus the reflected beam just a little to reduce the normal dispersion over distance."
      "It's surprisingly light, but I guess it is mostly empty space inside the squares."
      "Yes."
      I handed it back to her, "You said that like a Panna."
      "Yes." She answered with a grin.

Bo - and company
Medical wing
Earth Defense Base, Canada

      We were on the dreadnaught for several days. Long enough lose track of days, and to spend several nights in a huge dorm, and to find out that the Toller aren't real concerned about privacy.
      Rose and Donna had to go back to their base, but they said they'd come back and get us when the boys got out of the hospital ward.
      By our second day there we'd found out that there were four dining rooms on the ship, and depending on what you wanted to eat you went to the one that served that meal. When they had asked us if it was our first meal, they had really asked if it was our breakfast, so they took us to the breakfast food court. There was also what we considered a lunch dining room, and a dinner one, and one that would serve for a midnight meal. Considering that the huge ship ran four full shifts, and everybody was on their own schedule, it seemed to work out as they were all fairly busy all of the time.
      The privacy thing was a problem, but we solved that by making something of a tent around our bunk area to change clothes after the ladies went to the shower room.
      For her part, Autumn seemed to be a major hit with the crew of the ship, and made several friends while she was there. The rest of us, they basically ignored.

      While we were sitting with the boys one day an officer came in and stood there.
      "Yes sir?" I said to him when he appeared to be waiting for us to say something to him.
      "I am the Ranking Officer for the Varying, Fennall Jorge Suul. It would be my honor to escort you to see the tour of the 'Path to Glory'."
      I had no idea what he was talking about, but it appeared he was offering to take us on a tour of the ship.
      "Can they come?" I asked him indicating the boys who were sitting up in bed looking at the officer with the same curiosity of the rest of us.
      "If it is allowed it would increase the honor," the Ranking Officer said. "I will inquire." He turned and went to find a medical officer.

      I have said that this ship, this dreadnaught, was huge. Jay used the word 'gargantuan'. Neither does it justice. The officer took us on a tour, and then we toured some more, we stopped to eat and a medical officer checked on the boys, then we toured some more. We rode on one of the cart things, we took elevators and lifts, and went up and down ramps, and saw more ship than I can describe.
      The only way I can describe how massive, and how complicated as well, the ship was is to say that it was so big, it had on board weather problems.
      According to one of the officers we talked to in their environmental system control room, if one area of the ship warmed or cooled too quickly, or got too dry or overly moist, the difference in the atmosphere between that section and another nearby section could cause small but still quite strong and sometimes very disruptive storms in the larger corridors and rooms on the ship. Even to the point of being actual thunderstorms when the moving air and condensation caused static discharges between structural members that could injure crewmen and damage equipment just like natural lightning would.
      They showed us a series of images, displayed in front of us without a screen or projector that I could see, of something that had happened some time ago when a crewman had opened the door to a large storeroom when the entry into an equipment room down the passage was also open. The rush of air out of the overly cool and damp storeroom pushed the crewman backward, and when the flow reached the equipment room it formed a thick fog that then condensed and produced something of a rainstorm.
      "I was in there when it happened. We didn't know what was going on until later," the environmental officer said to us. "It happens most often in the core area of the ships, they tend to get really warm, and then if an outer section is cooler."
      "Look out if you open a door," Autumn said with a laugh.
      "It would be a good idea to be watchful. Indeed."

      A day or so later the boys were released. The girls came up in their ship with a medic from the base who spent some time talking to the medical staff on the ship, then we took them back to their base in Canada to recuperate and get back in the swing of things.
      The first day we were back on Earth with them we spent most of it getting used to full gravity again, something we hadn't noticed on the space ship was how easy it was to move around and everything, and eating real food. It was the next day before we all felt like doing anything again. And now that I've written that, I have to stop and think about it, yes, we had really been on a space ship for almost a week.
      Amory had been hurt worse but Jay was going to have to go through more rehab to get his arms back in full service, and they wanted to stay together and get each other through it. So while they were in physical therapy Abbey would take us out and show us everything from the gun tower where she'd been on duty during the battle to the room the Panna used when they were there for their merging.

      "It looks like the swimming pools you used to see at roadside motels," I said, "except it's round."
      My wife and Abbey looked down into it and nodded.
      "And there's no water," Autumn said.
      "From what I've heard, the Panna don't like water."
      "But they're squids," she answered.
      Abbey shrugged and we went to see if the flight simulator was free to see how me and Sammi would be at piloting a ship.

      First we flew one of the cargo ships like we'd taken up to the alien ship. Sammi tried being the pilot first and then we switched and I got to fly.
      "Remember," Mister Lyle the flight instructor said to us, "the Panna fly them with four legs and four hands."
      "They don't have hands," I said trying to get used to the controls.
      "Well, four, of what they have. We've adjusted the controls but it still wasn't made for fingers and feet."
      "It wasn't made to fly at all," Sammi said.
      It got to where I could do a simple take off, fly a figure eight, avoid a couple of obstacles, and then land without the simulator telling me I was dead.
      We were just working up to attempting a more demanding mission when I heard some comments that meant we had an audience.
      "So, you can do better?" I asked the boys after the thing said I just flew into the side of a building. "Be my guest."
      Amory and Jay exchanged looks, "Sure."
      Mister Lyle seemed to have his doubts about letting them go but then I saw Abbey whisper to the man, then he nodded, "Which level do you want to start at?"
      "Not at 'oh, my god'," Amory said. "I'm not ready for that."
      "Level seven is fun," Jay said.
      "Sure."
      "Full effect?" He asked them and they nodded, "I'll start it, strap in," Mister Lyle said and went to the control panel. Then the instructor turned to us. "You may want to take a seat for this, full effect makes it seem like you're really out there."
      "Oh, OK." I answered and we each took a seat. The instructor went out and the simulation room came to like just like the ship the girls had flown us up in.
      Abbey looked out the front windows at the view and shook her head, "I've never done this one."
      "It's cool, and nobody shoots at you," Jay answered his mother while Amory did the pre-flight. "You just have to avoid the bat dragons."
      "Bat. Dragons?" I said looking for them as Autumn's eyes got wide with fear.
      "You'll see them. They're called something fancy on the planet they're on, but to us they look like a bat and a dragon had kids."
      "We're clear to launch," Amory said, "let's go to the cave and show them."
      Jay nodded, "Course two fifty."
      "Are we going to do the mail route?" Amory asked him.
      "Later, we can catch up."
      "On our way."

      If I didn't know for certain that the simulator was in an underground bunker in the middle of Canada I would have sworn that we'd just lifted off of an alien world and were flying across an odd looking forest on our way to some distant mountains.
      "This is amazing," I said.
      "I just hope I don't get airsick," Sammie added, "it really feels like it is really moving."
      "The only thing they didn't put in was anti-gravity to make it feel like you're floating if you take battle damage and lose power."
      The mountains got closer and then we saw several large animals flying around the entrances to a couple of caves. As we got closer, the caves and the animals got bigger.
      And bigger.
      And uglier.
      "Those are the Bat-Dragons," Amory said to us.
      We all stared at the creatures and agreed that that was as good a name for them as anything else.
      "I asked the Panna that built the simulator if they were real and they told me all about them, and said we could go see them if we wanted to," Jay said.
      "We didn't want to," Amory added, "do you want to go into the cave?"
      "No!" Autumn answered immediately.
      "Not really," Sammi said with her arm around our daughter, "we've seen enough."
      "I want to see them fly the mail route," Abbey said.
      "On our way," Amory answered.
      We all felt the ship turn sharply, then climb to avoid several of the creatures who disapproved of our presence. And they headed toward where a small display was saying they had to go to pick up a passenger and a package, with each going to a different destination ranging from a platform in the sea to a station in orbit and others in the middle of town or back in the mountains.
      From what one or the other of the boys explained as it happened the simulation was designed to test the competency of the team. It required the navigator to constantly adjust their route and plan ahead as the various items were added to their workload and for the pilot to make those adjustments and land and take off as quickly and efficiently as possible. And for both of them to get the right item of cargo or passenger on and off the ship as quickly as possible, with minimal errors.
      Jay and Amory were good at it. Although sometimes their yelling back and forth and frantic gestures this way and that were comical at times. And of course, our comments and laughter and attempts to help by pointing out that they'd just jettisoned their cargo in mid air didn't help at all.
      But it did prove one thing. Even after their injuries and in the middle of their recovery, they were very good at doing it.

      At the end of the run Amory flew us by the bat dragons one more time, then back to the landing zone. It was something of a shock to see Mister Lyle open the door and walk in while the simulation still had us hovering near the base waiting on clearance to land. "Not bad. Once you got done sightseeing, you did OK. You might have even gotten a passing score if you'd resisted dropping the eggs on the Governor's house," he said.
      "But it was fun to watch," Abbey said of our view of the simulation's depiction of a hundred dozen eggs raining down on the building.
      "It always is," Mister Lyle grinned.

Spade
Panna command ship

      "I am going to go to sleep," the Panna that I had named Twister because of the way he walked said. I mean, it said, but you know, to me some of them seem more male or female than just an it. But anyway, it said it was going to go to sleep.
      "I didn't know you slept," I answered. "I've heard others talk about resting and merging, but not sleeping."
      "I didn't want to say it any other way," he paused. "I don't want to do it, but I need to. It is time. I hurt."
      I looked at Twister and his eye stalk was drooping down almost to where it was laying on his, I guess, stomach. And his walking tentacles were barely holding him up. Something about him confirmed what I thought he meant. "I'm sorry," I said, but I didn't know what else to say.
      "Some of us will go on until it happens on its own, when you're not expecting it. I don't want to do it that way. But I can tell it is close."
      "How old are you?"
      Twister stood there for a second. "I don't know how to change our time to what you use. But there are only two others from when I was new that I know of. We have been here a very long time."
      I just nodded, now that I was looking at Twister, he did look old. Very old. "I've enjoyed working with you. I'll miss that."
      "But you have others to work with. Salty is a very good worker."
      "I know, but it won't be the same. You're different from the others." Finally I had the words I wanted to say come to mind. "We were friends."
      Twister's eye perked up, "thank you." He paused and I could tell he was going to say something else, "Will you be there? I do not want to be alone or with another that I don't know."

      I didn't know what to expect, but I wanted to be there with him when he 'went to sleep'.
      Two other Panna led us into the smallest Panna room I'd ever seen on one of their ships. It was actually too small for the four of us that were in there.
      Twister didn't make any speeches or anything, he went in and went to a corner and just sagged against the wall.
      "It does not take long," one of the other Panna said. Then the two of them moved to Twister's sides.
      Twister managed to look up at me. "I liked being your friend," he said as the two others put what looked like a lanyard for an ID card around him. They didn't attach anything to it, or do anything with it, they just put it around him and took a step back.
      "Me too," I said to him.
      Then Twister's eye retracted almost into his body and his arms all relaxed. In just a moment, I could see that his body was losing its substance and turning to jelly.
      "Did you want to stay until it is over?" One of the other Panna said.
      "Is he, gone? Dead, I mean."
      "Yes."
      "Then, no. Thank you for making it easy on him."

      I didn't cry for him. But as I walked back to my room I could still see Twister's eye looking at me when he told me he liked being my friend.
      I'd never had anybody say that to me before. Ever.

President Dr. Yarah Santiago
Nova Porta Velho, Brazil

      I had gotten used to not having all of the services we had taken for granted before the attack available on demand all of the time. Like electricity, running water, telephones, and even small things, like being able to get a snack whenever I wanted one, or to decide not to cook dinner and go to a restaurant. Even having clean clothes, or being able to get my hair trimmed on short notice. All of the things we had had in the capital, and even before in my home town.
      Before the Panna came, we had taken pride in being able to actually wash our clothes once a week in homemade soap and actually have them clean when we got done. We had drinking water that didn't make people sick. We had rebuilt a generator and had electric power for a few hours every day, and in my medical clinic when I was seeing patients. We weren't altogether pathetic. And then the Panna changed all of that.
      Not all at once, they had their priorities, and I understood most of them. They thought defending the planet against another Annunaki attack was more important than water and power. Which, I could see. But then instead of taking care of the people, they spent some time building bridges, which they did just because they liked doing it. To me, that's wrong. But, the Panna didn't ask me, and I don't think they would have listened to my opinion if they had.
      A week after I was so upset with them because they'd spent a day building bridges it was all forgotten and forgiven with the development of our town square and several housing units. The best thing about the housing units were that they were very low maintenance. The bad thing was that they were as dreary as any I'd ever heard about in Easter Europe under the Soviets. But that gave most people that had moved into them the incentive to build a homestead outside the perimeter of what we had come to call 'Pannatown', and do better for themselves.
      And then after that they put in the weather control networks that gave us several square kilometers of excellent cropland.

      When I made an official visit to New Sao Paulo to visit the new governor and tour what both the citizens and the Panna had done there I saw more of the same. The nearly identical buildings of the town square with several rows of soulless housing around them, but then you could see what the survivors had been doing.
      They had even built a mill to make cloth that was amazing when I considered the barely functional spinning wheels and rough looms we'd put together.
      "Why aren't you using the new motor and power supply?" Mateo asked them.
      "We kept the water wheel to run it," the director of the mill said, "the squid's engine was too powerful. Maybe when we build a new mill we'll use it, but for right now, this is the best."
      I knew Mateo didn't like hearing the Panna referred to as squid but he held his tongue and we continued our tour.

      Governor Encico had the same gallows humor about the situation that I had heard from others. He had one observation about the attack that he repeated without hesitation to anybody familiar with the city of Sao Paulo before the attack. "The traffic is better now," he would say with no hint of a smile or an no irony in his voice.
      But I had to allow him that point and simply said that we'd be in touch when the plans for a national election were finalized.

      "Have you decided if you are going to run or not?" Mateo asked me as our transport ship lifted into the air and turned south to take us to visit Pelotas.
      "I don't know. I was thinking about telling you to run. And I will retire to the country to become the elder statesman of the new Brazil."
      "No, ma'am."
      "No to which?"
      He took my hand and looked at my fingers before he answered. "All of it. I do not wish to be in charge, and I don't think you can retire. You'll still want to at least be a doctor and help the people."
      He knew he was right without my answering. So I didn't.

Bo and Sammi
The Mid-Atlantic, USA

      Me and Sammi talked about not going home, because, really, Paw Paw was not our home. But we'd seen what was left of Frederick, Maryland, and that wasn't home any more either. Instead, we discussed staying in Canada and finding a way to help around the base.
      But then Autumn mentioned that she wanted to get back to school. So, we started planning on going back, and then, it was time to leave.
      Amory and Jay were going to go back on full duty in a couple of days, and when they did we wouldn't be able to see them for days on end anyway. So it was just as well. They borrowed the transport and showed us that they knew how to fly it as well, and brought us home. They spent the night, said goodbye to everybody, and went back to the base.
      "Well, we're back," I said to old man Willis.
      "I see that."

      The school in Paw Paw was a throwback to the olden days. At least as far as I understood them. It was a one room school, with two teachers, that taught everybody from kids that were five and six years old up to those who, like Amory, had left school to go to fight. And Autumn liked going there.
      "I get to help the little kids learn to read and all," she had said to Abbey when she'd asked her about why she wanted to go back.
      Fortunately, being on an alien spaceship for a week, and then at an Earth Defense Base, was a valid excuse and Autumn's absence wasn't held against her.

      But one thing we hadn't counted on was the change the experience caused in Autumn.
      Before our trip to the Dreadnaught, she had been chiefly concerned about everything as it related to her. Now she would talk about wanting to join the service and get appointed to a post on an Alliance ship. Something that most certainly wasn't just about her.
      At first, I thought it was just her talking. Ever since she'd been a little girl, she liked to make plans. But this time, it seemed different.
      And we all knew it was different a few days after we got back to Paw Paw.

      "Bo, something's coming," John said to me while we were hauling in trot lines on the river downstream from the bridge, "I don't think it's Amory's ship either."
      I looked up and saw a long narrow ship that looked like some of the ones we'd seen on the 'Path to Glory'. "I think it's an Alliance ship," I answered.
      "Why are they coming here?"
      I looked down at the large catfish flopping around on the line, "we've got fresh fish."
      "I'll bring the fish, you can go see what they're doing here."

      Mister Willis had taken to being the Master of our Space Port, which had become surprisingly busy. So by the time I got up the hill the ship had landed in the landing zone, with Mister Willis was standing there welcoming several of the crew of the dreadnaught to Paw Paw through a hand held Panna translator.
      "Officer Fennall," I said as the group turned toward me and the officer bowed slightly. "It is good to see you again."
      "It is good to see you as well. I trust your son is well?"
      "Yes, thank you. He and Jay are back on duty at their base."
      "That is good."
      I heard Autumn calling out to us and looked toward our house. "They're early!" she said, "but it's OK!"
      "She knew you were coming?" I asked Officer Fennall.
      "Yes, sir."
      "I see."
      "Did our arrival cause you unease?"
      "No, sir, we just didn't know you were coming down."
      "Our ship is almost ready to return to the fleet, this was our only opportunity to come see your planet, and she invited us to come see her home."
      "Of course you are welcome."
      "Yes, they are," Mister Willis said, "I'll go line up a dinner for them."
      "We caught some fish last night, and Ricky got a boar yesterday, there should be plenty."
      "Good, good. I'll see y'all later," the old man said and turned to go.
      "I would enjoy that, sir," Officer Fennall said to him. "Your hospitality honors us," he bowed slightly to Mr. Willis.
      "Thanks. I mean, yes. I'm supposed to welcome guests."
      "You have done well, sir."
      Mister Willis pointed over toward the community building, "I'll go get them to set up."

      Autumn was hugging two of the crew and talking excitedly about how long they could stay.
      "Daddy, this is Landing Bay Officer Janwae Leela," Autumn introduced me to a young woman in an Alliance uniform. "I want her job someday."
      "Nice to meet you, sir," the officer said.
      Then Autumn introduced me to four other officers from the dreadnaught.
      "You said you had been fishing?" Officer Fennall asked me once all of the introductions were done.
      "Yes, sir. Just right down at the river."
      "I would like to see how you fish, if you don't mind."
      "Certainly, if anybody else would like to come."
      Autumn turned to Officer Janwae, "do you want to see the river or our house?"
      "I would rather see the house," she answered.
      "I have always liked the, outside," Maintenance Crewman Morn said, "this is a good outside."
      "We can all meet at the house later to eat," I offered. "It's impossible to get lost around here."
      Officer Fennall agreed with the arrangement, "very well. We are your guests."

      "We had a little problem," John said back down on the river. "The other line's stuck on something."
      "We'll give you a hand," I said and Officer Fennall seemed to agree.
      "Oh. Who's your friends?" He asked.
      "They're from the 'Path to Glory', the Alliance ship that took care of Amory and Jay."
      John still had his hands on the trot line, but he stood and nodded to our visitors, "Thanks for taking care of Amory, he's a good young man."
      "He helped defend our ship, and was badly injured doing so. What can we do to help you with that?"
      "It's caught on something, I thought it was snagged on a rock or big stick, but it's moved a couple of times."
      "I'll go see," Officer Morn said, he handed something to Fennall and walked into the river.

      On some of the old television shows a narrator would have said something like 'and hilarity ensued'. And from where I was standing next to Ranking Officer Fennall, that was essentially what happened over the next few minutes.
      Morn walked into the river, following the line and avoiding the hooks. He pulled on the line and John took in the slack. Then Morn looked up, "I feel something, it is alive," he said through the translator, then he added, "and large. And strong."
      "I'll help him," I said and started into the water.
      "Can you bring it up?" Officer Fennall asked him.
      "It is a large ostachell," he said, "I can feel the edge of it." He looked over at me while still holding onto the line firmly, "I've got the front end, the back goes that way," he pointed off to his right.
      "OK, I'll get it back there," I said not knowing if he meant a fish or something else. I carefully reached down until I felt the edge of a turtle's shell. I tried to avoid the back feet with their claws, but I felt them rake along my arm anyway, finally, I had a grip on part of the tail and an edge of the shell.
      Together we hoisted the snapping turtle out of the water. As soon as its head came out of the water the turtle realized that it didn't want that to happen, and there was still another large catfish on the line a couple of yards down from the one with the turtle on it. The turtle jerked and flapped with everything it had, which upset the catfish, which startled both of us because we didn't know it was there, so we lost our footing on the muddy river bottom, and things just went downhill from there.
      In a moment, John was down in the water with us, while Officer Fennall held onto the line.
      There was much splashing, and cursing in an alien language, and mud was flying in the air, and even Officer Fennall ended up wet and dirty.
      Finally John joined Morn on the front end of the turtle, both keeping well clear of its flailing claws and lurching mouth. We fought the thing onto the bank and John got a rope around its neck to keep it from getting back to the water, then I dealt with the catfish at the end of the line.
      "Yes, this is just like the ostachells at home," Morn said as he caught his breath. "Ours were mean as well, like this one. But they tasted good when cooked."
      "You ate those?" Officer Fennall said to him while staring at the hissing creature.
      "Yes, sir. My family lived along a waterway like this, some of them still do."
      "We do too," John answered, "there's a lot of good tasting meat in there."
      I held the catfish up, "and a lot of good meat on here too."
      "We brought some food with us. I will taste your, thing, but please do not take offense if I cannot eat it."
      "He was born on a ship, he's never done things like this," Morn said to us and slapped some mud off his uniform, "To me, this is like going home."
      John picked up the stringer with several other fish on it and showed us a sturgeon. "This was on the line off the tree," he nodded at the big tree that leaned out over the river.
      Morn looped the line up around his hand, "I remember my great sire talking about fishing like this. He said it was the only way they could fish with the Ahhnah there."
      "It's the best we've got now. We can set them out in the evening and leave them all night," I said to him, "and they work."
      "I will carry your catch back, I'm afraid my assistance was somewhat lacking," Officer Fennall said with his head bowed.
      "You helped enough, they didn't get away, thank you," John said and patted the man's shoulder.
      "Thank you."

General Muller
Fleet Command Central, Panna Supply Ship
Nebula Six

      The space mirrors, as everybody except Paige and Qi-Shi called them, had survived every test, and worked remarkably well, and now the Panna had their factory ships making several full size versions of them.
      The plan was to deploy at least two in every member system near the most likely routes of attack, which, when coupled with conventional defenses would make the dominator ships almost ineffective. Which, given how difficult they were to construct and use, should convince the Annunaki to take them out of service.

      The next question was how to deploy them so they would be most effective.
      "There is a very small window they can use in the attack. The stream reacts with the solar wind, and is affected by gravity, so to make it work, they have to essentially find the sweet spot in each system to fire at the target planet," Paige told us.
      "So we deploy it between there and Earth," I said.
      "Yes, sir."
      "But...."
      "But we have to deploy the retroreflector in an orbit at the Lagrange point along that path. Then when the enemy ship is detected, we move them to intercept the beam."
      "Oh," I said as if I understood that. "We can do that, right?"
      Qi-Shi answered for her, "Yes, sir. We're working it out right now. We should be able to deploy the first one as soon as they build it."
      "How big is it going to be again?"
      "It's not an it, it's a they. Each one is six compound mirrors on a focusing frame," Qi-Shi had the overhead projection show me the final design complete with an addition that Paige and several of the others had come up with to prevent the incoming particle stream from using quantum tunneling through the surface of the reflector in spite of its electrical charge to destroy the device.
      "Anti-quantum tunneling," I said to her as she explained the change to the production design.
      "Yes, sir. That's when sub atomic..."
      I held up my hand and shook my head.
      "Sir?"
      "Will it work?"
      "Yessir."
      "Can the Panna's factory ships do it?"
      "They believe so."
      "Then I'm as happy as I can be."
      "Very good, sir."

      The mirror was a massive five pointed star with an movable octagonal mirror at each corner and then a larger one in the center.
      Paige had it highlight the mirror on top of the array, "each of the smaller ones are about a kilometer on a side."
      "That's a big mirror."
      "Yes, sir."

      And then we were only facing one dominator ship.
      "It just exploded while under way," I told the others as I showed them the images that had been relayed from an Alliance spy that had been shadowing the lead ship. "Watch," I said as I replayed the enhanced image. "It encounters some gravimetric turbulence and just, blew up. This is the third one of these that that has happened to according to the Alliance."
      You could just make out some torsional movement in the superstructure of the large, oddly shaped, ship, then the image expanded slightly and grew blurry, then the ship became a cloud of roiling debris amid wild outbursts of suddenly released energy.
      "If they're that fragile, why do they use them?"
      "To destroy a target planet's surface without engaging its defenses in battle," I answered Paige's question then asked Qi-Shi one. "Can you figure out where and when the remaining ship will attack if it stays on course? And we need to watch to see if they send any of their other ships that way."
      "Yessir. It looks like it will approach the southern hemisphere of the system in about five days. Given what we know about those ships, I don't see them doing a sudden course correction."
      "Then that's where we'll put the first mirror."

Captain Singh
"Balance of Justice"

      I memorized a poem.
      It wasn't a long one, but it was the first time I'd memorized anything like that since I was in school. I still remembered the caliber of every deck gun on my old ship and their rates of fire as well. But a poem? Military men didn't do such things and I was a military man.
      But I knew I didn't want to make another speech at a ball game with the Juul. My first one hadn't gone over so well at the rematch, and now we had one more game to break the tie between my crew and their team of Free Juul All Stars.
      So I memorized an old poem about sports to use during the game.

      Then, when one of my players hit a long ball that was an actual home run, they all looked at me and I knew it was my turn to talk about how significant it all was to us.
      As was their custom, I stood, and turned to face them, I said it was an old poem about sportsmen, and recited the whole thing, ending with, "Game called upon the field of life, the darkness gathers far and wide, the dream is done the score is spun that stands forever in the guide, nor victory nor yet defeat is chalked against the player's name, but down the roll the final scroll shows only how he played the game." Then I nodded to them and turned to go sit back down.
      "This was of your world?" Their senior officer asked me.
      "Yes, sir. From a journalist named Grantland Rice who wrote about sports."
      "I would like to learn that, it is most meaningful. It speaks to us as well."
      "I'll get you a copy of it."
      And so my second attempt at sports philosophy on an alien world was a success.
      The game was close, and I was told we had played with great honor and tenacity, but in the end, the home team won. Which, to me, was just as well.

      "Captain, the next time you are near our star I trust you and your crew will honor us with another match?"
      I stood at attention and thanked them for their hospitality and added, "Yes, I would be honored and I'm sure my crew would enjoy that as well. Thank you."

      Finally, after the battle in space, and the battle on the ball field, my ship was on its way back to the fleet base in the Panna's secret nebula.
      And I was grateful.

Lieutenant Derry O'Neill
Earth Central Training Base, Poland

      After being in space for I don't know how long all told, walking outside and seeing clouds and trees all the time took some getting used to at first, and then the idea that we'd be rotated back up to one of the stations in a couple of weeks took some adjustment too.
      But here we were. On the ground, and other than training and a briefing every once in awhile, for the most part, we had nothing official to do.
      And then we went and had the most fun I'd ever had. Ever.

      It began with a simple question at breakfast one day from one of the guys we knew from the European command named Irv, "anybody want to go hunting today and tomorrow? Pavel was supposed to go with us, but he's feeling sick this morning. We've got an open seat on the transport. We'll be back the day after tomorrow."
      I answered almost immediately, "Sure, where you going?"
      "Near Zdzarka. Just east of here. I have family over there, we'll land in their compound and meet my cousin, then they'll take us out to the camp. We'll spend the night with them, and then go boar hunting."
      "Sure. I'm game," I answered.
      "We've got the guns. Get whatever you need and meet us at the landing pad in say, ten minutes?"
      "Sounds good."

      Back home, ages ago it seems now, I used to go hunting with my uncle and others using antique shotguns. We hunted birds and small game, and had a great time doing it. So now, a chance to go out and do that again was right up my alley.
      I didn't know what I would need, so I got a change of clothes that I stuffed into my bag, and the knife that was one of my few possessions from what I'd come to think of as 'my other life', and the water bottle we'd been issued with our flight gear, so that's what I got, filled up the bottle, and then I hurried to the landing pad still hanging the bottle and knife on my belt as I walked.

      "What's in the bottle?" The guy I knew only as Stinger asked me as we waited on Irv to sign out the transport.
      "Water, what's in yours?" I nodded to his.
      "Vodka."
      "Mine too!" A flier named Ricky said with a big smile that suggested he'd already been into the liquor that somebody had programmed the beverage making machine to turn out. It wasn't bad, and it served its purpose well enough, but whatever it was, I wouldn't call it vodka.

      I played co-pilot while Stinger and Ricky complained about our flying and Irv aimed the ship east and we flew at treetop level toward Zdzarka.

      I hadn't seen a lot of the destruction outside of the UK. I knew that the original attack had been just as thorough on the mainland of Europe as it had been everywhere else. But now as we flew along I saw a ruined dam on a river south of some larger town that had been blasted flat.
      "We used to go boating and fishing on that lake," Irv was almost whispering, "When I saw that, it really pissed me off. There was no reason for them to destroy that dam."
      "There was no reason for a lot of what they did," I answered.
      "We've paid them back for it," Stinger said as Irv turned the ship slightly and we continued on our way.
      "Not yet as far as I'm concerned," the pilot growled. "Not yet."

      The town, if that's what you'd call it, of Zdzarka had been reduced to a handful of family shelters clustered around a clearing. We landed next to a large building with a canvas roof where a group of people stood waving at us.
      As we got off the ship Irv took a deep breath, "That's more like it," he said smiling, "real air."
      In a moment several people were introducing themselves, handing us all drinks and food, and talking about a cook out that night.
      "I will be your guide and translator while you're here," a woman with a very pretty face said to me.
      "OK," I answered her as she took my arm.
      "That's my cousin, Ivanova," Irv said to me then he started talking and gesturing to a couple of the men about where he wanted to go hunting.
      "A pleasure to meet you," I said to my translator, "I'm Derry, Derry O'Neill."
      "The one from the concert. I know."
      "Oh, OK."

      After a good second breakfast a rather large hunting party headed off into the woods we'd seen all around the settlement.
      We had a selection of Human, Panna and Foraq weapons for hunting. I had a Panna rifle that I'd used before in target practice and reasonably felt like I could hit what I aimed at. The Foraq weapons were something of a shotgun, and Irv's cousins had all sorts of firearms. Even Ivanova had a small bore shotgun.
      I was part of a party with Stinger that went around the border between the forest and the clearing while two other parties went through the forest to herd game our way and yet another group walked along in the clearing beyond us to pick off any we missed.
      One advantage of using the Panna rifle was that if I changed the setting on the rifle from the low power selection we used for practice and targeting, and now for hunting to simply kill the animal, to the next lowest level, if I hit the bird it landed on the ground missing most of its feathers, already dry roasted, and ready to eat as a snack, washed down with vodka and then water.
      Once I made the mistake of turning the rifle up a setting, forgetting that I'd already done so, and the pheasant exploded into a ball of fire.
      "Sorry about that, my mistake," I said when the others objected to the event.
      Ivanova, however, thought it was hilarious and accused me of doing it intentionally and we enjoyed some playful sparing and name calling.

      After we finished our hunt we took everything in our game bags back to the compound, then relaxed for awhile.
      I spent some time talking to Ivanova, and found out how a woman from a town that I can't pronounce in Belarus came to be part of the community in the woods in Poland.
      "They are my husband's family," she looked over at the group preparing the feast. "They were all I had after he was killed in the big attack. I was all that was left, my parents, my sons, my brother, were all gone. It took me a long time to walk to Wlodawa on the border, to where his sister lived. But it was gone too. I never found her, but I found some of the family, and we moved down here."
      "I'm sorry," I said to her.
      "We have all done things like that. Haven't you?"
      "Yes. And now we have all started over."
      "I have found that I am good at things I never thought I would do when I was at the factory in Malaryta," she finally had a better expression on her face. "I was at work, it saved my life."
      "I'm glad."
      "Come, I'll show you my washing system. It is my own invention."

      Ivanova's washing system showed the influence of the production line at the factory she had worked at. But what counted was that the clothes went in one end dirty, and came out the other end clean enough to wear again. It involved somebody peddling a bicycle, and a lot of warm water and hand made soap, and it made a lot of noise, but she said it worked better and faster than each woman washing her family's clothes by hand.
      "Every other day we use it to wash everything everybody has that is dirty," Ivanova said proudly.
      I smiled at her. I had no idea how old she was, but I liked her. A lot.
      "What do you do when you're not inventing washing machines?" I asked her.
      "Different things," she said with that light women get in their eyes when they like you.
      "Like this?" I said and kissed her.

      We weren't even late getting back to the dinner.
      But the planned sleeping arrangements for the evening where I was supposed to share a tent with Ricky were changed. Which I guess was OK with him because after dessert, I didn't see him any more either.

      The next day we took a large land vehicle to another forest and went for a wild boar hunt.
      As we got off a cart behind the lorry Irv stopped me, "Oh, Derry, remember the setting you used to flame the bird?"
      "I won't do that any more."
      "No, that's the one you need to use on these things. Anything less will just make them even meaner."
      I looked at my rifle, "I'll change that right now then."

      By the end of the day we had three large wild pigs on the cart. The one I helped bring down had taken three shots from us, and was still kicking when one of the Cousin Mort finished it off with a sword that he said he'd made out of some scrap steel.
      One of the others shot the pig first with a rifle and it charged out of the brush where it had been hiding at full speed. I aimed for the front shoulder of the running pig and watched the plasma bolt hit it. It jumped up in the air and squealed. Then it turned end for end a couple of times and made some godawful noises. Then Cousin Mort shot it with his regular human rifle and its back legs quit working. Then the sword finished it off.
      Finally it was safe for the rest of us to come up and get a look at it.
      "It is a boar," Cousin Mort said through my Panna disc. "A big one, but not the biggest I've seen."
      "It's big enough," I said looking at the tusks jutting out from its lower jaw. They looked like they were about fifteen centimeters long, and were probably razor sharp.
      Then we heard shooting off behind us.
      "Let's just hope it is bigger than theirs," Ivanova said when it quieted down.
      "It will be," Cousin Mort said, "help me get it ready to carry."
      "How heavy do you think it is?" I asked him.
      He looked at it and wrinkled his brow. "One fifty, maybe one sixty kilos. We can get it."

      It may have weighed a hundred and fifty kilos when we started hauling it out, but before we got it to the old lane where the lorry could pick it up, it felt like twice that.

      Ours was the biggest, and the ugliest. With the biggest tusks. The meat was the toughest, and the hair was the coarsest. But, the women wanted its hair to use to card wool. And the meat would spend the next couple of months in a smoker and be used all winter. Even the tusks would be used.
      That night there were stories around the fire, and some music and dancing, and I had a long walk with Ivanova.

      Irv and the rest of us got some meat to take back to base, and the thanks of the group and a standing welcome to come back anytime.
      I smiled at Ivanova and said I'd be back as soon as I could, and I had every intention of doing so as she was the first woman I'd met since the attack that I found that interesting.

General Muller
Panna Command Ship, Nebula Six

      "The Annunaki are trying to send another dominator, but they're having trouble finding one that can make the trip. Two of them have problems," Qi-Shi said.
      "What sort of problems?"
      "With the next closest one, they're waiting on more crew to be sent to them because almost half of what they had on board died from radiation poisoning when something went wrong with the weapon's containment system. The other had its main drive engine fail. Evidently, one of them broke its pylon and smashed into the side of the ship."
      Paige chuckled, "I guess those things are as much a threat to their own crews and anything around them as they are to their target."
      "Evidently," I said. I guess it was obvious I had something else on my mind.
      "What?" Paige said looking at me with one of those facial expressions that only women can get.
      "We've had a communique from the Annunaki. It was relayed through the Alliance Trade Office."
      "What did they say?"
      "They want to talk about a cease fire," I looked up at the display that showed the weapon ship's progress on its way to Earth's system. "I don't believe it for a minute, but if we can get them to talk, it might save a lot of lives."
      "The reflector will work."
      "I don't doubt it, but I'm worried about them using one of those things on a planet we don't have a shield over."
      "Then we'll keep building them. If they know we have even a partial defense to the weapon, as much trouble as they have with them, they'll probably take them out of service."
      Qi-Shi had been silent since I'd told them about the truce offer. I looked at him and could see doubt in his eyes.
      "Penny for your thoughts."
      "You got one?"
      "No, but I'm certain I can find one somewhere," I said with a chuckle. "So, what do you think?"
      "They're lying of course, their history is to mount their largest and most widespread attacks during the final phase of peace talks. But the discussion may buy us more time to deploy the shields and rebuild the fleet."
      "Then it is worth at least opening negotiations," I answered as he voice my own thoughts. "I'll let the Alliance know. Now, we need an ambassador who can make them believe what they probably know is a lie. And we don't mention the space mirrors to the Ambassador, that way, he can't be forced or tricked into divulging the information."
      "Agreed," Qi-Shi said softly.
      Paige wasn't even smiling when she said, "we need a career politician."
      I thought about it for a long moment, maybe longer than I really needed to, then I finally nodded, "know any?"
      She smiled broadly, "my father's older brother was in the Parliament in Victoria."
      Qi-Shi was surprised that he had survived, "I thought that city took a direct hit."
      "It did, only a few of them survived, he was home during the attack and rode it out in their wine cellar."
      I had to laugh, "If I had to pick someplace... Call him."

Captain Singh
"Balance of Justice"

      "I'm not certain I wish to lose that much maneuverability and a fifth of our firepower in order to carry more fighters," I said to Commander Smith.
      The Panna behind her shuffled nervously but none of them said anything.
      Commander Smith wasn't going to be put off easily, "It increases the overall tactical effectiveness of the ship beyond its current capability."
      "It is a battleship, not an aircraft carrier. If we had not performed our duty as well as we had, I would consider it. But as it stands, no, the ship will serve as it is as long as I am her captain."
      "You said he would be grateful," one of the Panna said.
      "I thought he would be," Commander Smith said. "I will discuss the matter with General Muller."
      "And while you're at it, ask him who he will assign to command the 'Balance'. If he is going to override my authority over my own ship, then he will have to reassign me back to Earth."
      She looked at me oddly, then she nodded, "if you feel that strongly about it."
      "I do."
      "Then we will move on. The 'Torment of Evil' needs new engines."
      "Thank you, and give Captain Han my regards."
      She paused then said, "I will."

Marlin Watton
British Isles

      "We have entrusted our Sister Penni to God's mercy, and we now commit her body to the ground: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust..."
      "Are you all right?" Willy whispered to me as the minister prayed.
      "I will be. Thanks."
      ".... To Him be glory for ever."
      "Amen."

      Then everybody shook my hand and told me how sorry they were that Penni had just up and died one morning.
      But really, I was surprised that she had lived as long as she had after everything she knew in her life had been destroyed. She had done without her medication, she'd lived without knowing what had happened to her mother, and she had helped with what we needed to do to survive as much as she could. And she had been my friend. In the end though, it was just too much for her. Any time anybody mentioned the aliens she'd scream, and she wouldn't touch anything that she knew came from them. If people were just talking and mentioned London or the way things used to be, she'd start crying.
      Some people could pick up and go on after a tragedy like that, and some couldn't. Penni was one of those. The way she'd put it was that she was heartsick about what had happened and the way we'd been living since then.

      "You were supposed to go help Pauly and them," she said to me that morning.
      "They'll be all right without me, I don't want to leave you sick like this."
      She frowned, but then she smiled, "I'd like you to stay with me."
      "I will, let me go tell them that I'll help them tomorrow and I'll be right back."
      When I came back I made her a cup of what we called tea, and then I fixed some scrambled eggs for breakfast. We sat and talked about the school that we had helped build and how it would be good for the kids in the area to get back into that routine. And we ate our eggs and toast, and then she said she was tired, and she went to sleep to take a nap.
      And that was it.
      The next day, the Vicar prayed over her and we buried her.

      Mrs. Janeway and a couple of the other ladies came over and helped me get her things together and they gave bits of it to other ladies that needed them. They did most of the work, I tried to help, but I just kept remembering her and being sorry that I couldn't do more to make her want to live.
      I looked over at her telly and said, "I'm sorry Penni, I tried."

President Dr. Yarah Santiago
Nova Porta Velho, Brazil

      I didn't want to approve the reconstruction plans of a new city of Brasília, but my reason for it was entirely selfish.
      I thought of it as a memorial to my husband and the others who had died there. But part of it was a beautiful memorial garden with several fountains of various shapes and paths between tall hedges and arches covered with roses. I wanted to see that come to fruition if nothing else.

      A new National Congress building would stand where the old one had been, and I liked the design of this one better. The new Federal Court building had a classic air to it that we all felt it needed. The Palacio do Planalto had been redesigned to give each department under the President their own unique space while still maintaining the cohesion of the executive office. There would even be a new Cathedral that was based on the original spectacular design, but with certain new elements that we liked. Which was something that gave me pause.
      Our new National Cathedral, while being designed by Brazilian architects, would be built by the Panna.

      "Yes, Miss President," one of the Panna without a name said, "we have the God that gives all life."
      "We just do not build things like this for our God," the Panna who said its name was Builder added.
      I didn't know how to answer them, so I just asked if they thought their God would mind them building our Cathedral.
      "No, President, our God is also your God who gave you life," one of the other ones said.
      "Yes, indeed." I wanted out of this conversation. "Can you show me the new museum complex again?"
      "Yes."

      The only thing the Panna wouldn't, or perhaps, could not tell me, was when they would do the building. We were on their schedule. They had started rebuilding capital cities in Africa, would move to Australia, then would come here. Another crew was working on the northern continents.
      "It takes a little time but not a lot of time," Builder said.
      "We can do one building or maybe two a day. We built the Saint Mary church in Cape Town in one day like they wanted."
      Builder's eye was staring at me, "they wanted it to look like it did before. They gave us images of it, not a plan."
      "We did it. We made the building just like it was, but they will have to plant their own trees."
      "Yes."

      The best guess I could get from the humans who were working with the Panna was that their crew was working in Addis Ababa, then they would move to Australia within a day or so.
      "They've got five cities to do there, but they always do more than they are supposed to. They build bridges, and the occasional sports stadium, and in Tanzania, because their government ministers couldn't agree where the new capital should be, we built a tunnel from their largest town to the island of Zanzibar. That was something to see. If they ever agree on the new capital they're supposed to contact us."

      Then Mateo proved how valuable he was to our country.
      As we said goodbye to Builder and the others Mateo invited them back to Carnival and told them that they would be very good at dancing the Samba with us.
      "We like to dance," the other one said.
      "I know, I think you'd like the Samba," he answered and did a few quick steps to show them the dance.
      Somebody found the music and everything else came to a standstill while Mateo and I, and then the rest of my staff, taught the four Panna how to Samba.
      They learned quickly.
      "I like this dance," Builder said with all four legs moving quickly to the rhythm of the music with his arms going in quick circles. The aliens were actual whirlwinds of motion.
      "There are other steps that we could teach you," Mateo said. "And other music to dance it to."
      "Please do. Teach us," one that was moving in an amazingly complex pattern said to me.
      "But your group needs to move on to Columbia to see their plans."
      "I know what to do," the Panna that seemed to speak the most for the group said. "We will call for the reserve construction unit and we will stay here to build your cities, and you can teach us the other dances and musics."
      I glanced at Mateo and his eyes told me that he had this planned from the beginning.
      I nodded, "I know some musicians that played for our festival a few weeks ago, we can have them come and...."
      "Yes, Miss President, we will do that."

      I have never been so tired in my life. The trip on the river was nothing compared to the exhaustion I felt after this one. The Panna's appetite for music and dance is astonishing. And to make it worse, the reserve construction unit came with a whole crew of Panna to operate their construction machines, so now we had twenty or more of the aliens all dancing to every music group we could find whenever the machines were building and they were just standing around watching them.

      But in the end we had a new capital city where the ruins of Brasilia had been, with extra fountains because, as with bridges, the Panna liked fountains. A new Sao Paulo built a little closer to the ocean with a stadium that would seat many, many thousands because they misread the scale for the size of the place, and several other new and improved cities as well. Finally the Panna had learned every dance step any of us knew or could invent, and they all left.
      "I must tell you something," Mateo said to me as we walked through the basic structure of the memorial garden, as with Cape Town, we had to plant our own trees and flowers.
      "What?" I said to him.
      "Until we started with the Panna, I had never danced for more than a few minutes since I was a child. What I did for them at the planning meeting was all I knew how to do."
      I laughed and laughed at him. And then I slept for three days.

Logan Detheridge
West Melbourne, Australia

      The call from my niece, Paige, was unexpected, but totally welcome. As far as my obligation to the citizens of Victoria, I felt that I had satisfied that by being part of the provisional government as we worked to rebuild, so when she mentioned a possible mission with the fleet, I was open to the idea.
      I had known that she had gone with those who went to fight, and I'd seen her on various broadcasts with the general staff, but I hadn't heard from her much since then until she got a message through to me and I went to the communications center to talk to her.
      "General Muller and Ambassador duBrek of the Free Juul would like you to come up to the command ship and speak to them about a possible assignment."
      "Who is Ambassador duBrek? I don't think I've heard that name before."
      "He's a free Reptilian ally, Uncle Logan."
      "Ahhh, yes. I have heard about them. Very well, how do I get up there?"
      "We'll have a shuttle on the way to get you within the hour."
      "Then I should go pack. What do I need to bring?"
      She smiled at me and said that I only needed to bring what I wanted of my personal things, that the Panna would provide everything else.

      The ship they sent was totally unremarkable. It was small with a large engine compartment and few amenities. It was flown by two people that I couldn't talk to until they gave me a communication disk to wear. Then I found out that they were from Malaysia and had been flying since the beginning.
      "We started in a fast attack bomber. But I like doing this more," the pilot, Lieutenant Embi said.
      "Yeah, nobody shoots at you," her crewmate, whose name I missed, added.
      We stopped and picked up two other passengers that were going that way, who it turned out were combat pilots on leave, and then we were on our way.

      I looked out the window and watched the clouds give way to stars, and then I totally lost sight of the Earth and finally the sun became a tiny dot behind us.
      "I thought they were in orbit," I said to the crew.
      "No sir, the command ship is in what they call Nebula Six. It'll take us awhile to get there. Just make yourself comfortable and enjoy the ride."
      It was a long ride in the small ship. We had a couple of meals from the food machine, and I slept for awhile in one of the bunks, and we watched a broadcast from Earth about some things going on with the reconstruction. But there was no escaping the fact that we were five strangers spending a long time in something the size of the campervan I'd hired to tour New Zealand in a few years ago.
      I read. I slept. We talked. We watched recordings of everything they had recorded. Then I slept and read and talked.

      "That's the Nebula," Lieutenant Embi finally said.
      "It's beautiful," one of the other passengers replied.
      It was a magnificent sight, and it kept getting bigger in the front windows until it swallowed us.
      "Don't worry, we can find the command ship," the co-pilot said to us.

Panna Combined Command Ship
Nebula Six

      In another hour or so we saw several ships in close proximity to each other and we headed for the largest one which, I understood, was three combined Panna ships.
      I and the other passengers were welcomed by a delegation that included my niece. She introduced me to General Muller and several others of his staff.
      "I know you'd like to find out about what we have in mind for your mission, but I'd imagine you'd like to freshen up in your quarters and change clothes," the General said to me. Then he smiled broadly, "I made the same trip in another one of those not long ago."
      "Thank you, sir. That is exactly what the Doctor ordered."

      I'd seen the Panna, of course. But I'd never seen crew quarters that were designed by them. The room was oddly shaped, the bathroom, if that's what I should call it was down the passage. The bed and desk didn't exist until I told Goody and her two mates what I wanted, then she, or I mean, it, went and had three more of her kind bring it in. But when they finished, my room was rather agreeable.
      Taking a shower with Goody watching me took some getting used to, but she said she was just making sure I didn't need anything. Then she helped me on with the clothes that I had requested, and the business suit fit fine.
      "The outfitter scanned you when you were washing, it can make new clothing for human people very quickly now."
      "Indeed," I answered as I marveled at how well the suit was made.
      "We have all the records for things like that from your world. Once you tell us what you need, we can make it for you very quickly."
      "I see that, thank you," I answered as I put on a pair of shoes that, while somewhat stiff, fit well.

      I had heard about the Panna food, so when Goody asked me if I wanted something to eat I asked where the human dining area was. The head cook there provided me with an excellent lunch and some of the strongest coffee I'd ever had in my life. Which I think I needed as well.
      While I was eating Paige came by to check on me and said that the Juul Ambassador had arrived and they were waiting for me but I should go ahead and finish eating because it might be a long meeting.

      Then Goody escorted me to the General's office where I met Mr. duBrek.
      After a brief round of pleasantries we got to the point.

      My reaction to the question of whether I was willing to be Earth's Ambassador to the Annunaki for their requested truce talks was to be admittedly overwhelmed at first brush. But I accepted the appointment even knowing that nothing we told them would be in earnest and that everything they said to us would most likely be a lie or at least equal magnitude. But then the General said something I was relieved to hear.
      "The only concession I am willing to make to them is that we will not launch an offensive attack while you're talking to them. We are going to continue to defend ourselves and rebuild our fleet. But we won't attack them first. If they will negotiate in good faith and maintain the ceasefire, we we talk forever. If the talks fail, or they break the truce, we resume operations as before."
      I nodded to the General, "Negotiate from a position of strength."
      Mister duBrek affirmed that, "If they were not concerned about our combined strength, they would not even be making the offer."
      I asked one more question, "What are the chances they will agree to a real treaty?"
      The Juul Ambassador stood silent for a moment, "Unlikely, but they have done that before."
      "If you honestly believe they are serious about it, you are authorized to accept their offer and bring it back to us to present to the leaders of the allied worlds."

      There was a long pause of uncomfortable silence.
      "There is something else you should know," duBrek said.
      "Yessir?"
      "The Annunaki will often physically assault or try to intimidate an ambassador when they are first introduced to give them a psychological advantage during the discussion."
      I hadn't been expecting that, "I see."
      General Muller shook his head, "I will let them know before you even get there that I will consider any serious physical injury to our Ambassador as an act of war and we will respond accordingly in the field."
      Then I had an idea that might save the mission. "They may see it as a statement something like a battle of champions and take anything else as an affront to their honor. But, I am obviously not a prime physical specimen for such a contest."
      "Then we should send a personal guard with you, our 'champion' if you will," the General paused as I nodded, then he continued, "and I know just the man, he returned to duty not long ago after being wounded in combat and has no love and little respect for the Annunaki."
      "Sounds like the right man for the job," I answered.

General Muller
      We took a break while I contacted Warrior.
      I met him in the passage outside the primary crew quarters to tell him in person what I had in mind.

      "If I am not to be the Ambassador, then why do you wish for me to be on the mission?" the man asked me.
      I stood straight and stared him dead in the eye. "Because I know that if you give me your word that you will keep the Ambassador safe, that he will be safe. And that if anybody tries to harm him, you will kill them. He is an older man, and while he has experience at these sorts of negotiations, he is not a fighter."
      Warrior's eyes were hard and cold, but he didn't say anything as he returned my gaze without even a blink.
      "Would you do that?" I asked him when he did not answer.
      "Would I do what? Will I give you my word, or will I kill anybody that tried to harm the man I am to protect?"
      I took a slow breath, then said, "Either."
      "Yes."
      "Then you have the job. If you wish to meet Mister Detheridge I can take you to him."
      His expression turned slightly puzzled, "General, you did not ask me which I had said yes to."
      "It doesn't matter, it works out the same in the end. Would you like to meet the Ambassador?"
      "Yes, sir."

      It was a study in contrasts of the human physique when Warrior stood next to Mister Detheridge as I introduced them.
      While one was easily two meters tall and weighed at least a hundred and twenty kilos, the other was, well, the ambassador was about half the man that Warrior was in all but height. And whereas Warrior was about thirty years old and at the top of his form, I don't know his exact age and would rather not ask him, the Ambassador was over seventy and looked it.
      And for some reason, I sensed that Warrior felt instinctively protective of the older gentleman when Mister Detheridge bowed his head to him and said, "I trust you with my life at the hands of our mutual enemy, sir."
      Warrior looked at me with a face of solid stone, "I accept the duty, General."
      And for the first time since it had come up I thought that maybe this was more than a ploy to buy us time to rebuild.

      "General," the Panna they called Goody said to me.
      "Yes?"
      "If Mister Warrior is going to protect the Ambassador, we have something to make his uniform from that most A-Nah hand weapons will not damage."
      I looked at Warrior, "It wouldn't hurt to at least see what they have."
      "No, it would not."
      I turned back to the Panna, "show us what you have."
      The Panna's eye stalk moved up as it looked at both of us, "You will like it, it is Mithril. We save it for very special occasions." The three Panna behind Goody began bobbing up and down.
      Warrior wasn't impressed, "I've never heard of it."
      I had to smile, "I have, and I think you will like it as well. Lead on," I said to the Panna.
      "Yes."

Bo and Sammi
The Mid-Atlantic, USA

      It was early one morning when somebody knocked on the door of the house we were living in.
      "Officer Morn, isn't it?" I asked the man who was standing there looking rather sheepish.
      "Maintenance Officer Morn, yes, sir," he looked at me again, then shuffled his feet and took a step backward, then he paused and indicated the woman that was with him, "This is my mate, Control Officer Troyius."
      "Nice to meet you," I said to her.
      "My name is Elaan," she said with a grin and a glance at him.
      "This is my wife, Sammi. What can we do for you?"
      "I have no right to ask you anything like this."
      I gestured for them to come in and answered him as best as I could, "We're all allies now, and I'd like to think that we could be friends as well, if you want something, if we can do it, we'll try our best. Just ask."
      Morn was evidently better at fishing than asking for favors, he looked at us, then stopped again.
      Elaan however wasn't shy, "I am carrying our child."
      "Congratulations," we both said at almost the same time.
      "And we do not want our baby born in space, on a warship."
      "I agree with that. You can't go home?" Sammi asked her.
      "It is too far," Morn said, "but this place looks like it could be my family's home there. It would be a good place to have a baby."
      "I think it would be a great place, but we're a little short of some basic things that you'd have in one of the cities they're building."
      "Back on our world, some of the cities are just like a ship. You never see real water, and in some of them even the sky is controlled."
      Elaan nodded as he spoke, "If we need a doctor, we can go to one at your son's base. We have our own skimmer."
      "Skimmer?" I asked.
      Morn smiled broadly, "It's a surface ship. It... I'll bring it down and show you. It just can't go into space."
      "Well, I'm sure you'll be welcome, but it gets a little lonely out here sometimes."
      She smiled, "After being on the 'Path to Glory' for so long with so many others, I think I will like being lonely for a time."
      I had to ask, "So are you deserting, or on leave or what?"
      They looked at each other, "we asked for extended leave if we could stay here," Elaan answered.
      "Once the baby comes, I'll ask for a transfer to your son's base," Morn added.
      Me and Sammi looked at Elaan. She looked back at us, then she answered, "I may not go back. I don't know. Not yet."
      "Whatever you do later, you can stay here for now. We've got extra room until we find you a place of your own."
      "Thank you."
      Morn relaxed for the first time since he'd knocked on our door, "I'll go back to the ship and tell them, and get our things, and bring them down. Can she stay here and rest?"
      "I don't need to rest," Elaan said, "well, not for long."
      "Of course she can stay here," Sammi said, "I'll show you our guest room."
      "Thank you."

      I went out with Morn to where they had landed a small shuttlecraft. "If you need some help bringing your stuff down."
      "I'd appreciate that. She's got quite a lot, I've got mostly tools and uniforms."
      "It happens like that here too."
      "You don't mind going back up to the ship?"
      "No, not at all."
      "Then let's go."

      Back on the dreadnaught I stayed with Morn as he talked to one of the commanding officers who understood all too well what this meant to them, then the officer told me that they were both good people and would serve our community well. I thanked them for allowing Morn to spend this time with us.
      I tried to be courteous and respectful and all that. And I think I did all right. But otherwise I would have stood and stared at the amazing array of people, and other beings, and machines, and things that I don't even know how to describe that I saw as we went from the command area of the ship down to where their stuff was. Including their skimmer.
      "We were lucky, this is our own. We don't have to share this storage with anybody else."
      "Where did you sleep?"
      "In the crew area, we have bunk 8-13-2. We'll go up there and get Elaan's things when we finish here. I don't know if I have anything up there that I want or not."
      Then I remembered that on the ship privacy was something that simply didn't exist and, evidently, they didn't mind.
      We loaded everything they were taking into the skimmer, which was about the size of a small car, then Morn actually drove the vehicle through the ship, up a couple of the ramps, and then down to a vast barracks.
      "This is it. I'll hand you the possessions we'll want."
      "OK."

      Morn's things consisted of a spare tool belt, a handful of personal items, and a box of junk. Elaan had enough to finish filling the back seat area of the skimmer and left me holding a tote bag on my lap while Morn drove us back to another hanger deck that was full of large space craft that didn't look like they would fly, they were clearly work vessels of various types instead of sleek fast fighters and shuttles.
      "My friend Dernhelm will take us back to your town when his duty shift ends," Morn said as he stopped next to a box of a spaceship that was rounded on one corner.
      "We can wait."
      "I'd rather eat, there is a corps meal unit over there, will you come with me, their food is usually very good," he pointed to a door next to a spaceship that looked like a spider. "He'll come there if we're not here."
      "Sure."

      The food was better than what we'd had up in the general crew dining areas, and the portions were larger as well. Plus I got to witness a very entertaining show of strength and skill between two alien aliens whose skin looked like tanned leather and one of the regular crewmen. From what Morn explained to me they were trying to do a technical test with one hand while balancing upside down on the other.
      "It's a real challenge. I used to be able to do it, but I can't anymore."
      I watched the thick limbed alien lift the rest of its body into the air with its hands on the floor, then balance there. But when it went to shift its weight to one arm it fell over and demolished a nearby bench seat. "I don't think I ever could do it," I said as the audience laughed and made a screeching sound that sounded like a high pitched whistle.
      The one that had just fallen over regrouped and shook itself off, then tried it again. This time it balanced on one hand, and started to do the test which involved memory and dexterity in something of a game format where you had to do certain things in a certain order at the right pace in time with various tones and lights. Finally it was done and the alien dropped to the floor obviously exhausted.
      "They didn't get a very good score that time," Morn said as the crowd showed their appreciation of the effort.
      Somebody spoke from behind us, "Pandorata did better than usual, I don't know if Tigh can beat that."
      "Ahh, Dernhelm. This is my friend Bo."
      "Oh, yes, the one that you went fishing with for the ostachell," Dernhelm bowed his head toward me. "He did not bring me any of the meat."
      I nodded in return, "they made it into stew, and there wasn't any left after dinner."
      "So I heard. Are you ready to go?"
      "Yes."

      Dernhelm moved the boxy spaceship enough to open the cargo bay and Morn drove the loaded skimmer in, and they showed me how to secure its contents for flight without artificial gravity in the bay.
      "She should be here," Dernhelm said.
      "Who?" Morn asked him as I checked the stays around the cargo net.
      "Soresses. She's bringing you a going away gift from the work group."
      Morn looked over at me and made a gesture that I took to mean he didn't know what was going on.
      "And that reminds me, I've got something to you both from me," he went into the front of the ship and came back with a container like the one we'd put Elaan's stuff in and handed it to Morn. "It's nothing important, just a couple of things I thought might come in handy."
      "I thank you my friend."
      I looked out the open cargo door and saw a woman driving a multi armed machine from a seat on one side of it. She stopped and looked my way.
      "Is Morn in there?" she asked me.
      "Yes, and Dernhelm too."
      "Good."
      "She's here," I said to the guys inside the compartment.

      The going away present from the group was the machine she was on. Morn was beyond saying anything as Dernhelm and Soresses explained to me that it was an older Panna design for a 'working machine' that could do everything from dig to lift things, and push, pull or pound on stuff. And because it was a Panna design, it could separate into four smaller machines that could work independently, and even perform some repairs and maintenance on itself. It even came with a large box of attachments to do all of that with, "But it isn't much use on a warship. It just gets in the way a lot."
      "I think we'll find good use for it," I said as Soresses showed me how the attachments fit onto the arms.
      We had to move the skimmer over, but they both fit into the cargo hold with no problem. Morn said goodbye to Soresses and we all got into the crew compartment on the cargo ship. A crew compartment designed for one person- the pilot. There wasn't another seat or even a strap to grab like on a subway train. Dernhelm strapped into the command seat and flew the ship with the two of us hanging on behind him.
      "Oh, there's no gravity in here either," Dernhelm warned me as we flew out into space and I suddenly found myself weightless.
      "I'm ok," I said as I tried to brace myself into the corner as the ship changed direction and I bumped into Morn and the pilot's seat.
      "Fun isn't it?" Morn asked me.
      "Yeah, I guess."
      "Now, where are we going?" Dernhelm asked us, "I didn't file a flight plan and this thing doesn't have a planetary navigation system."
      "Oh, well, let me see," I looked out the front window and saw what looked like Korea in the distance with Japan below us, "we need to go that way." I pointed off to the right.
      It was a strange flight and an amazingly slow descent through the atmosphere, but we found Paw Paw on our second try.
      And Dernhelm stayed for dinner.

Ambassador Detheridge and Warrior
Alliance Long Range Shuttle

      "I have to trust that Allah knows which way Mecca is, since we left Earth to fight the evil ones that attacked us," Warrior said to me and Goody as he knelt in prayer facing the rear of the ship.
      "I am sure He does, in fact, can you please move over a little, I will join you," I answered.
      "Sir? I did not know you were of the faith."
      "My friend, thinking about facing what we will be when we walk into the negotiating room, I have decided to renew my acquaintance with the Almighty. When I was in the service as a young man, my training partner was Muslim. I learned some of it from him. If you don't mind re-educating me, I would appreciate it."
      "I would be honored, sir."
      For her part, Goody stood silently by the door to the cabin to make sure we were not disturbed as we prayed. The other three Panna stayed to themselves most of the time, and especially at prayer time.

      Even though the shuttle we were on had better facilities than the one I had taken from Earth to the command ship, we soon lost track of the days as we spent most of our waking moments in the small passenger day room.
      I had several hours a day on the communicator with Ambassador duBrek and various others. They spent a lot of time briefing me about their past dealings with the Annunaki and what to expect from them. Which I greatly appreciated.
      When I wasn't doing that I read all I could about the history the Panna and the others had had with them and discussed it with Goody and the Panna that had accompanied her. Which allowed me to come to several conclusions. The first being that while the enemy was more than willing to talk, they would not adhere to anything agreed to in the long run because they regarded us as an inferior race. The second was what I had been told, but now I fully understood, that General Muller and the others knew that and were playing for time to build the Allied Fleet to where the enemy would have no choice but to ask for a real truce in interest of self preservation.
      Which put me in an odd position to say the least.

      During breaks in my briefings and reading I would join Warrior in his exercises and then try to be a worthy opponent in his sparing matches with several different hand weapons. I wasn't very good, nor am I very strong, but I tried. Which I felt he appreciated.
      Fortunately for his skills several of the small crew from the Alliance were much younger and in better shape. Several times I felt as if I were watching a professional sporting event as they sparred and dueled in the room.
      Part of his training was to get used to wearing what amounted to armored underwear. While the Panna's Mithril wasn't exactly the same thing as described in the famous story, it was semi-metallic, and when woven into a fabric it was almost indestructible. As Warrior's calisthenics proved several times.

      "We call it Mithrilcloth," Goody had said to us as the production unit made a sample of the armor for Warrior.
      I felt the material and then looked at her, "Is it a metal?"
      "Yes, Ambassador. But it does not act like a metal."
      General Muller picked up a piece of it and pulled at it, "Ouch!" he exclaimed as the edge of it scraped his skin. "It doesn't give."
      Then it was Warrior's turn. He held the sample with one hand and took out a large lock-blade knife with the other and tried to cut it. It didn't cut. Then he stabbed at it and almost ended up stabbing himself as the material turned his blade to the side.
      "Well?" General Muller said to him.
      "It is strong stuff. It will do," he answered as he looked at his knife. It had been dulled by its contact with the cloth.
      "It will also stop projectile weapons and lessen the damage from most energy weapons," Goody said to him.
      "Good," then Warrior looked directly at her for I think the first time, "What do you need me to do."
      "Just stand there."
      "I can do that."

      In a few minutes Warrior had a full set of garments including a kufi that was probably bullet proof.
      "In two or more layers, I think it would stop almost any weapon," Goody said.
      "Why don't we issue this to all of our troops?" the General asked Goody.
      For the first time since this started Goody's eye stalk lowered and she seemed reluctant to answer. "This was almost all we had. It is very rare. It may be a long time before there is enough to make more. We've tried to replicate it and to produce it in other ways, but we have always failed."
      "Where do you get it?" I asked her.
      Now her eye stalk perked up, "from the rings around exploded stars."
      "Oh."

      Warrior went to his quarters and put on the outfit. Then he came back with a couple of his associates who were armed to the teeth. Together they tested the durability of the material in ways that would have left him shot, stabbed, or even disemboweled if the Mithril had failed.
      Instead, they ended up with damaged swords, broken staffs, spent firearms, and one broken hand. For his part, Warrior received an assortment of minor bruises and one small cut on his left hand where a slash with a scimitar had glanced off his protected arm and skimmed across his hand. His normal uniform, worn over the Mithrilcloth, was shredded.
      Warrior bowed to his assailants and then to us. "The protective garment is agreeable," he said. Then he turned toward Goody and bowed again, "I am in your debt."

      "Excuse me, Chief," I said to the Alliance shuttle's commanding officer, whom I understand had the equivalent rank of Lieutenant Commander but she was introduced to me as basically the 'Chief of the ship' so that was what I called her.
      "Yes, Ambassador."
      "I was wondering about the site of the meeting."
      "Understandable, sir."
      "How are they allowed to remain neutral by the Annunaki?"
      "It is simple, sir, they are a non-physical race we call The First whom could wipe out the ANah in a moment if they attacked their system."
      "Oh. Good reason."
      "Yes, sir. They enforce a demilitarized zone in the various solar systems around their home, but no further. They refuse to become involved in the larger conflict as it would require too much from them. However, they do encourage diplomacy. Hence, the meeting site on one of their old stations from when they had bodies like ours. Once we are in their territory, they will guarantee our safe passage to the station. As they will the Annunaki."
      "How old is this station?"
      "I think it is at least several thousand of your years. That information should be in the material about the mission."
      "Thank you, I'll go look for that."
      "I'll find it for you, Ambassador," Goody said and went to the workstation I had been using.
      "Thank you," I said to her.

      And slowly, but as fast as our shuttle could safely go, the two weeks of our trip to the neutral site crawled by.

Major General Inoue
Earth Defense Command, Mongolia

      I stopped in my tracks and looked out at the mountains and the setting sun beyond.
      "General?" Lieutenant Goldfinger said to me.
      "We just completed our third full duty shift since the base was activated. Correct?"
      "Yes, sir. That was our third shift in the rotation. I believe we will be back on duty the day after tomorrow."
      I nodded, "I think you're correct, but that wasn't what I was thinking about."
      Goldfinger looked at me with a raised eyebrow.
      "Our being on duty has become the norm. It is no longer brand new."
      "We have come into the routine of being activated quite quickly."
      I nodded slowly this time, "Yes, but I hope it doesn't become so routine that we become apathetic in it. With what we are doing, our dereliction of duty could be the end of all of us."
      "I don't think that will happen, sir."
      I looked back out at the mountains. "We'll see to it that it doesn't, in the mean time, shall we see what is for dinner?"
      "Yessir."

Paige Taylor
Combined Fleet Headquarters
Nebula Six

      "That's it. The second one has reached the non equatorial stable Lagrangian point for Earth's southern hemisphere, I paused and looked over that the others. Even the Panna were looking at me confused. "It's there. Both are where they need to be."
      "Good," one of the Panna answered. "The others are being made for the Alliance systems."
      "And the ones for Therron are on their way to the planet," another one said, "they will be there soon."
      "Thank you, I'll monitor the first two for gravitational flexing that might change their orbit in case we need to make adjustments," I answered and tried to look busy so they wouldn't expect me to remember which one had a name and which one didn't. And what it was. Fortunately, they didn't. "How long until the dominator gets there?" I asked the Panna that had been tracking the enemy.
      "At present speed. Four of your days."
      "OK."

      Because of the time lapse between building the retroreflectors, getting them to where they needed to go, and then getting it deployed in a stable position along the most likely lines of attack, we had long periods where nothing was going on besides monitoring only interrupted occasionally by anything interesting. Namely, watching breathlessly as the transport ship unrolled and deployed the mirror.
      Once it was in a stable orbit, undamaged, and ready to use if needed, we'd all sigh, and then go back to what we did to pass the time until the next one was ready to go.

      The others were up to their ears in rebuilding the fleet. And in one case, the phrase became the literal truth when Qi-Shi and his staff were inspecting a ship that was being pressed back into service that perhaps should have instead been fed into a Panna recycling ship to be reduced to base compounds and metals.

Qi-Shi
Inspection tour, the "Fluxion"

      The actual name of the Foraquinestaezst ship was unpronounceable even to our communication discs. Paige said it sounded like it had some of Isaac Newton's term for differential calculus in it, so we went with that instead of the random jumble of letters that appeared on the screen as its registration.
      I had my doubts that what we were told was a retired border patrol ship would ever serve a useful purpose again. It had air leaks, the engines had been scavenged to the point where the majority of the ventral engine was missing. Beyond that there was serious metal fatigue in all the stress-bearing members, and the power grid was substandard and completely inadequate for our needs. But, they had offered it, and towed it here, so we took it.
      It took a repair crew several shifts just to make it to where we could see most of it without wearing space suits and magnetic boots. Then we all went over in a shuttle to see what there was to see, beginning with its lack of engines and a command deck that had been stripped to the walls for usable parts ages ago.
      As we walked along through the crew quarters the deck suddenly gave way under Mister Winston and he fell through the floor. Other than a few scrapes and some tears to his trousers, he was OK. Then we then stood around and looked at the crystallized metal that had failed under him.
      "I think this ship should be scrapped," I said to the rest of the inspection party.
      "We can fix it," one of the Panna said.
      "Yes, we like fixing them."
      "There's not enough ship left to fix," I answered and to make my point I used my right foot to push more of the worn out deck plate through the hole we had helped Winston out of. "This thing really should be hauled away as garbage."
      "No, no, we can make it better."
      Mister Winston tugged at a hole in his pants and laughed at them, "melting it down would be a good start."
      "You'll see."
      "We'll fix it."
      Finally I relented. "OK, this one will be what we call a 'proof of concept'. If you can bring it up to fleet standard in a reasonable amount of time with an acceptable amount of material, anything else that is in this shape we'll turn over to you to fix. If not, it goes to the processing machines to be turned into raw material and then all like it will follow."
      "We can do it."
      "Yes."

      I don't know how they did it, but they did. And I made sure they kept the space frame and most of the hull original as they did so. It was the same 'Fluxion' that we had toured. But now, it was new and improved, so to speak.
      "You see, it is better," the Panna said as it danced in a circle with several others of its kind in the center of the command deck that was now actually functioning.
      "Yes," I answered it.
      Winston was impressed as well, "they only thing it lacks is a crew."
      "We're in the same position as the Panna when they came to us. We have more ships than we do crews for them," I said as I watched the four Panna dancing around and around. "There are new volunteers from Earth in training, and some from allied worlds, but they will not be ready to staff a ship for some time."
      "And we've already rotated out as many experienced crewmen as we can from the other ships."
      I nodded and turned toward the command console and ran my hand over it.
      "Oh, no you don't," Winston said. "We need you right where you are, not out commanding a ship. Besides, you couldn't fly it yourself."
      "I know, but it is tempting."
      "I'll see what I can put together for a shake-down cruise. But in the meantime, we need to check on the 'Torment of Evil'."
      "The new engines."
      "We made them better too!" one of the Panna said as they danced.
      "We like engines."
      "Let's go see."

Bo and Sammi
The Mid-Atlantic, USA

      Somehow I came to be regarded as an expert on what Morn's machine could do, and when it could do it. They wouldn't ask Morn, who was, they asked me.
      So until I actually became an expert on the thing, I asked Morn and he showed me the various controls and attachments, and then I would answer the questions.
      The primary disadvantage of separating the machine was that the power supply lost most of its staying power and the sections would only run for a short time before they had to be hooked up to a Panna generator and recharged. And, for whatever reason, they would not operate while on the recharger.
      "If you want to hear a day's worth of Panna-talk, ask them about it," Morn said. "They can explain it in all the detail you'll ever want, and never answer the question."
      "I'll pass," I answered.

      But in a week or so Morn was as much a part of our community as I was, and his machine was being scheduled to assist with everything from the plowing of a field to the moving of a couple of burned out cars that had been in the middle of the road south of town since the attack.
      Morn was more interesting in hunting and fishing than he was showing us how to use the Panna machine to fell trees, but he agreed to do both, and we worked out a schedule until I felt I could to most what we needed the machine to do while Morn became an expert fisherman and hunter.

      One morning one of the other guys asked us what we should do if the machine broke.
      "Oh, that's easy, the Panna might even know about it before we do. And they'll come and fix it," Morn answered.
      "Even though we are using it and it isn't on your ship anymore?" I said.
      "Doesn't matter where it is, they've even gone out and fixed things that were stolen. That's how the Alliance arrested a group of smugglers awhile back. They were using a packing machine that jammed and it called the Panna to come fix it, and the Advocates went with them."
      "Well, damn, that one way to do it," old man Willis said as the rest of us laughed.

      Elaan was friendly and interested in everything the women of the community did. She had never seen a spinning wheel before in her life, but she took to it with what Sammi said was a natural ability that had to be seen to be appreciated.
      Which was nice, but my appreciation of the fiber arts was limited to how warm the stocking caps and gloves they made for us to wear were.

      We also found out something that even Morn didn't know about his machine. Once it had done a particular task two or three times, it learned what is was supposed to do, and would do it faster and better than it would if we were running it.
      So when we moved on to plow and till the large community garden we noticed that it was asking for the dimensions of the plot on its control device. I put it in after thinking about how to convert yards into meters and then in to the Panna's measurements. Then the machine asked us to confirm its configuration, once we did, it was off, and the garden was prepped for planting in less time than it would have taken us just to figure out how to keep the rows straight.
      "Well, don't that beat all," Mister Wilson said. "Those Panna are some smart critters."
      "Yes, sir." I agreed.

Ambassador Detheridge, Warrior, and Goody
Alliance Long Range Shuttle

      I found the information about The First people, or rather, beings, astonishing. According to the information that had been assembled by the various Allied races, they had been exploring their local area of space during a time when it is reasonable to debate whether or not our ancestors were humans or still apes. A planet that as far as anybody knew they had never visited. They had moved beyond their bodies while my race was still living as hunter-gatherers during the ice age. And since then, they had withdrawn into their immediate local group of solar systems and had been busily ignoring everybody and everything until somebody started shooting at each other in their neighborhood.
      This time, our diversionary assault on an Annunaki base had been a little too close for their comfort, so when the Annunaki made the request of a meeting, even if they had no intention of honoring any agreement so reached, The First offered their mediation facilities.

      But the more I read, the more suspicious I was at how neutral The First were. They had to know the Annunaki's history as they had been living with them for thousands upon thousands of years.
      "Yes, we have."
      I turned around and was face to face, or face to something, with an orb of energy. A chill and shiver that I had not experienced for years spread from the base of the back of my neck down my spine and both arms and I felt tears in my eyes. I had to force myself to breath. "You are one of The First."
      "That is what they call us, yes."
      Goody came down the passage carrying something, saw the orb, and fell flat to the floor trembling. Warrior, true to form, heard the commotion and stepped out of our sleeping quarters and assumed something of a defensive posture although I suspect that he knew anything he did would be worse than useless against a ball of energy.
      Right behind him, the Chief of the Ship was standing with wide eyes and a face devoid of color. Behind the Chief, the other Panna peeked out of their room, then went back inside.
      "It's OK," I said hoping I was right. "This is one of The First."
      Warrior relaxed and stood at attention, "I am honored," he said and bowed his head.
      "Yes, it is a great honor to us," the Chief added without moving.
      "Goody, you can get up." I said to her, "Warrior, help her up, it won't hurt you."
      "Ambassador, we..." she began to say as the large man helped her onto her, feet things.
      "What? Tell me."
      Goody was trembling with her eye stalk almost completely retracted into her body and she didn't speak.
      "Their kind regard us as some of their ancient gods of their home sea. We, are not. But they still have that in them," The First said and I realized that I wasn't hearing it through the Panna communicator but directly in my head. I also could not tell if the voice was male or female. And then I realized that it didn't matter at all.
      "Warrior, tell me, how do you hear its words?"
      The man was still holding Goody up, "It is speaking the Persian and Arabic like my mother used to speak to me."
      His answer came through the Panna communicator as every word he had ever said to me did.
      "I see," I turned back toward the orb that had now drifted slightly to one side of the compartment, "And you hear what we say the same way."
      The orb didn't answer nor change in intensity but I knew the answer was yes.
      "Then you also know everything there is to know about the Annunaki."
      "Before they became the Annunaki, we knew what they would be."
      "Ambassador, if I may," Warrior said as Goody was now standing on her own.
      "Please," I said and gestured toward the orb.
      "If you know them, how can you allow their deception?"
      "You are also equally deceptive. But during the discussion, you will observe the truce. That is sufficient for now."
      I tried to defend my side, "If we thought they would honor a full treaty I am authorized to negotiate it with them."

      I don't know what happened but for a moment all of my vision was filled with the orb as if I was inches from it and staring into it, and I don't think either of us moved.

      "You speak the truth. That is respectable."

      I stood there blinking.
      For one, I don't remember standing up, but I was.
      And Goody was by my side, holding my hand and looking up at me.
      "Are you all right?" Warrior asked me.
      "I think so. What happened?"
      "The First did something to all of us. But it did it to you the longest," the Chief said.
      I sat down and took a deep breath and tried to clear the fog I was feeling. "Well, whatever it did, I hope it was for the best." Then I patted Goody's tentacle, "I'm fine now. But I could use a cup of tea."
      "Yes, Ambassador. I'll get it for you," she answered.

Chris Banks
World Press International
Bahrain Earth Defense Base

      I wrapped up my report segment having said more or less the same thing I'd said last week. And the week before that.
      I had become complacent with the peace and the progress we had made. And I knew my reporting was suffering because of it. Then I came up with an idea, and I took it to the manager of our news service.
      "I want to go on a tour. See the other bases, and the towns that support them, and see how they're doing. And do a report or two from each one. Let the people know how it's going. It would help us all stay more united and all that."
      They bought it.

      I was assigned a small transport ship, two production assistants, a pilot, and three Panna, one of whom was Chris, which I thought was funny, and another one that said its name was Nine because, "I am more than my arms."
      We planned for about a week, and then after my report announcing my upcoming tour and where we'd be next week, we were off for Poland to see the training base and do a report from there. Then we went to the various bases all over the world.

      What we discovered was that on base, sometimes you couldn't tell one from the other. But once you got beyond that, each town was up to its eves in local flavor and color. And the people that lived there and supported the base with all the things that didn't come out of a machine, like fresh food and clothes that may not fit as perfectly as a reconstructed uniform but felt better to wear, those people with their cooking grates made from the grill of a dump truck that had been destroyed in the first attack were as fiercely independent and strong willed as any you could ever hope to meet.
      We ate cheese made from yak milk, and fish from the Great Lakes, and watched some locals make vodka with a handmade still, and saw where the jungle was reclaiming a destroyed city in South America.
      For the next two months my reports were anything but routine and the messages we got in about them were absolutely thrilling to read.

      So I went back to the manager.
      "Don't tell me, you want to do the same thing at the orbital stations and on the Moon. And that repair station on Mars too."
      "Of course."

Spade
Panna command ship

      I had no idea how or when the Panna replaced their crew members that had rotated out, or been reassigned or whatever. I just knew they did, and I didn't worry about it. I hadn't worried about it until now. I didn't need to, Panna business was Panna business and that was fine with me.
      But now, for some reason that I will never understand, I was part of the delegation of humans and others who were to meet an incoming personnel transport from some Panna world that was, as I was led to understand, full of Panna.
      "Why me?" I asked Mister Qi-Shi when he told me the news.
      "The Panna asked for you. By name, Mister Spade."
      "Me."
      "Yes, sir. If you wish to ask them we can..."
      "No. No, sir. It's OK. I'll be there. When is it coming in again?"
      "It is scheduled to dock at zero three fifteen shipboard time in the main freight hanger."
      "In the morning."
      "Yes."

      And so I took the rest of the day off, got a good nap, put on a clean uniform, and went to meet the ship.
      The automated transport that landed was just like every other one they used for everything else. I stood around with a couple of the officers from the Alliance and a group of Panna and some others and waited.
      "They are ready," the Panna working to secure the ship said.
      I don't know what I was expecting. I think I was waiting for the group of Panna to walk off the ship like people used to get off a train after a journey. By ones and twos, carrying luggage, and looking for somebody they knew after they stepped off the gangway.
      No. The Panna don't do anything like you would expect them to.

      The hatch opened and I couldn't see anything inside the ship. And then I realized that what I thought was an inner door to the ship was actually the bodies of Panna, a lot of Panna, all squished together. It was crammed as full as it could be and still fly, with Panna. No luggage, no other cargo or anything. It was like they'd stood the ship on its side and poured Panna into it until they had trouble getting the door closed.
      Two of the Panna we could see inside the vessel began to separate from the conjoined mass of the rest of them. One of them extended its walking tentacles and slipped out, then it stood up and extended its eye. It oriented itself our way, and came down the ramp toward us, followed in a moment by another, then two more.
      And that's how it went. A couple of them, two or three, sometimes one, and sometimes four or more, would come out and come our way.

      We were to give them a communications disk, then greet them, and begin the process of getting them used to us. It was more dissimilation than it was anything else, but from what I was told while we were waiting for them to get off the ship, it had to be done gently and by people that had had close contact with the Panna before.
      "Twister," I said softly. "OK, I can be gentle."

      It took forever. I have no idea how many Panna came down the ramp. But we talked to them and I explained everything I could to them when they asked me a question. And one of them wanted to be named Sky. And so on.
      Some of them were a little standoffish toward us for awhile, others, like Sky, were almost too friendly and eager to fit in.

      Finally it was done.
      "I have to go see, this ship isn't that big," one of the Alliance officers said and walked toward the ramp.
      "Me, too," I said and followed.

      The inside of the front of the ship was open and smooth except for a few flexible pipes that ran from end to end here and there. There were no seats, racks, or anything else. The main compartment was essentially an empty room.
      "Those are for oxygen and moisture, nutrients, stuff like that," one of the human engineers who had gone into the aft engine room to help service the ship and get it ready for its return trip said. "Once they're all merged they can pass Oh-two and everything else back and forth so it doesn't need to circulate like breathing air. They even get vaccinated against alien pathogens while they're in here, all at once."
      I looked at the Alliance officer. He shook his head. So I asked, "How many of them were in here?"
      "Two hundred and .... hang on I can find out for you," the engineer paused and checked a data pad he was holding.
      "That's enough, thank you for the tour," the Alliance officer said and turned to leave.
      "Yeah, thanks, I've seen enough," I added and followed him out.

      When I walked back down the ramp there were three Panna waiting on me.
      "Mister Spade," one of them said.
      "Yes?"
      "We would like to work with you, in the human care division."
      "You can teach us and we will learn."
      I looked from one to the other of them, they did look younger and a bit smaller than the Panna I was used to working with. "Sure, I can show you around and then we can start fresh tomorrow."
      "Tomorrow. We learned about tomorrow, but some of us didn't understand."
      "You will. Trust me. You will."

Paige Taylor
Combined Fleet Headquarters
Nebula Six

      "Nine," I said as the readings confirmed that the most recent shield had been deployed and was in a stable orbit.
      "How many more?" General Muller asked.
      "We'll be at halfway with the next one. That is en route and should be there... day after tomorrow."
      He nodded and turned back to the command console.
      "How's the fleet coming?"
      "About the same. We're more or less halfway there. The 'Torment' just passed its final inspection. There's still some work to do still to the 'Lesson of Infinity'. And one of the Toller cruisers is having shield problems again. Then there's a bunch of smaller ships that need odds and ends."
      "'Lesson of Infinity'? 'Torment of Evil'? I just got a report on the 'Sword of Retribution'. Who names their ships?"
      "I think the Royal Poet comes up with them."
      I laughed, "Probably after a long night of hard drinking."
      The General nodded, "That would be my guess." He turned off one of the displays. "I'm going down and see how Spade's new cooks are doing and get some breakfast. Interested?"
      "Yes, sir. Sure."

General Muller
      We had all gotten so used to working with so many different species that most of us didn't even notice any more. Even I'd gotten to where I could tell most of the Panna that I worked with apart.
      But evidently the new Panna had never seen a non-Panna before.
      As we got our breakfast two of them were staring at me and Paige with their eye stalks fully extended while one that looked familiar plated up our breakfasts.
      "Can I help you?" I finally asked them.
      They shuffled back and forth and up and down until finally one of them looked at me, "We haven't seen you and you before."
      "I'm General Muller and this is my strategic assistant Paige Taylor."
      "You're the General. We'd heard about the General."
      "I'm the General."
      Mister Spade came over and rescued his help, "This is Newcooker and Tilt, sir. They're new here. Salty has been breaking them in on the serving line."
      "I see that," I answered. "It's good to meet you, welcome to the fleet." I said to them.

      At our table I looked back at the Panna who were now busy checking on the serving line, "I think we know who names the Alliance ships now."
      "Mister Spade," Paige answered, "On a bad day."

Ambassador Detheridge, Warrior, and Goody
in The First space

      The Chief shook her head, "The First told us to wait here. Our long range sensors picked up an ANah ship on course for the station, but then it vanished."
      "What happened? Did it explode?" Warrior asked before I could.
      "No, sir. That would have registered on the sensors, it just vanished. Then The First told us to wait here."
      "In that case, we wait," I said when they both looked at me.
      "Yes, Ambassador, that's what I told them we'd do. All thrusters are set at automatic station keeping."

      It was a long wait, but then, without warning, the orb being was back from The First. This time however, Goody didn't fall to the floor but instead cowered behind me.
      "They are sending another Emissary. You may proceed to the station and await their arrival there," the orb said.
      "What happened to the first one?" I asked it.
      "They had a deeper deception concealed within the agreed upon deception and were not prepared to negotiate honestly within the given framework of mutual distrust." It paused. "They are no more."
      "I see. I'll try not to be more deceptive than is expected."
      "We know," it answered and vanished.
      The Chief went to order the ship to resume course and speed.

      Warrior was not put at ease by what The First had told us.
      "I cannot defend you against someone who does not have a body," he said.
      "I understand, but I hope to not need such a defense. My goal is to be as honest and trustworthy as I can be in representing our position to the enemy."
      "The First appears to have been impressed by that," he answered.
      "They know our Ambassador is a good man," Goody said.
      Warrior looked at Goody, then at me. "Indeed."

The First's Space Station
      It was obviously incredibly old. It looked it from the outside, and once we landed in a hanger bay on one of the four projecting lobes from a central pillar and were told that it was safe to disembark from our ship, it felt just as old as it had looked. And as we breathed the air in the bay, it smelled it as well.
      "Follow," an orb told us.
      "I'll come with you so we know where you're at, then I'll come back to the ship," the Chief said. "If that is allowed, that is."
      The orb didn't answer, so we assumed that it was allowed, and followed it out of the bay and down a hallway that had a ceiling twice as high as I was expecting.
      Then I noticed that the doors, and portals, and everything else was at least a meter or so higher than I thought they should be. Evidently when The First had bodies, they were all very tall.
      "This is your waiting area. The negotiation area is there," our guide said. "Sustenance is available there. Those can be adjusted for your comfort," as it spoke each subject glowed briefly.
      The 'those for comfort' appeared to be a sort of daybed, but it was so far from the floor I would have had difficulty getting onto it, and I didn't want to think about if I fell asleep and then tried to get out of bed before I realized where I was.
      Warrior opened the door to the negotiation room and looked around. "Sparse," he reported back.
      Goodie had stretched herself up as far as possible and she still couldn't reach the controls for the 'sustenance'.
      I went over to her and tried to figure out how it worked, but I was lost.
      The Chief had seen enough, "I'll bring you some things from the ship."
      "Thank you."

      Warrior let the door that made him look like a child close behind him. "We just wait?" he asked me.
      "We wait."
      "Yes."

Amory and Jay and Abbey
Earth Defense Base, Canada

      "Mom's got a date tonight," Jay said as I signed out after my shift.
      "Ohh," Amory said, "Lieutenant Kim again?"
      "It is none of either or your business."
      "If I'm going to have a new dad..." Jay said seriously.
      "Nothing is that serious, we're just going out to eat."
      Amory laughed at me.
      "What?"
      "He signed out a shuttle with a flight plan to go to the festival in Gulf Shores, Alabama." Jay grinned. "It's like two thousand K one way."
      "We like seafood."
      Amory laughed some more and Jay just smiled at me.
      "If you two think we should have a chaperone," I said to them.
      "No, no, just I expect you to be home before nine," my son answered with the line that sounded familiar.
      "It's midnight now," Amory said to him.
      "Oh, well...." he shrugged, "Just have a good time."
      "And bring us some fish or something."
      "The festival is for shrimp," I said to him.
      "That'll work too."

General Muller and staff
Fleet Headquarters, Panna Command Ship
Nebula Six

      "I don't like it. Not at all," I said. "Is there any report from anywhere?"
      Qi-Shi shook his head, "we're still waiting for messages from the Alliance and some of the others, but it appears that all Annunaki operations have stopped."
      "One convoy near Toller territory stopped dead in space and is just sitting there," Paige said. "According the the Toller observers, there's nothing wrong with any of the ships."
      "What about the dominators and their rendezvous ships?"
      "We're checking."
      "This is just too weird, even for my taste," I said.
      Paige straightened up and looked at me, "Do you think Uncle Logan got them to agree to stop?"
      "I don't know, but until we get an official communiqué from him that says otherwise, we're not changing our operations. We've already had offensive operations stand down to show good faith. That's enough."
      "Maybe that's what they've done."
      I nodded and turned toward the Panna, "I'd like to confirm that somehow. Can we get a message through to the Ambassador?"
      "Yes, General."

      The lag between us made a casual conversation impossible. I had tried to get my mind around exactly how far away Ambassador Detheridge was away from us. The only way I could actually appreciate it was when Paige explained that as far away from Earth as we were, he was over three times that far away from us. And even then, on the map of the Galaxy, it looked like we were within rock throwing distance of Earth and he might be just out of that range but he was still in earshot.
      "Yes, General. The First appear to have convinced the Annunaki to negotiate in good faith and they may be forced to abide by the agreement we reach," he said over the comlink. The call was of good quality considering the distance involved although it still looked and sounded somewhat odd.
      "We have ceased all offensive action against the Annunaki. But I will not agree to stop working on our defenses. I am charged with the defense of the peoples of several worlds and I will not put them at risk of attack if the negations toward a peace treaty fail," I answered carefully.
      "I understand, and I can assure you that The First are aware of that as well," the Ambassador said after a delay of almost a full minute. "They have a very long history of dealing with them."
      "When will their new Ambassador arrive?" I asked him and then waited.
      Again, in about a minute he answered, "We haven't been told, but the Chief said it shouldn't be more than another day. Their headquarters is fairly close to us."
      "Understood. We'll set this up for a consultation call, say, once a day? I'll have the Panna arrange that with the Chief."
      Another minute passed, "An excellent suggestion, sir. I look forward to it."
      "Very well General. And if would, please convey my gratitude to my niece for suggesting this assignment for me. It has already been a most rewarding experience."
      "You just did. Thank you, sir."

      I looked at the tactical map and tried to think of a way to deploy our new assets to their best position without it looking like we were preparing an offensive move that would endanger the negotiations. But again, I wanted our side to be as strong as possible in case things went to hell diplomatically.
      For some reason I felt like I was being watched by somebody besides the new Panna. I looked around and spoke to Qi-Shi.
      "OK, here's what we'll do. Instead of deploying the rebuilt dreadnaught and the others to the front. We'll create a Rapid Deployment Force and station it... somewhere between here and Therron. That will put it within striking distance of three or four of our systems in case the enemy moves against any of them."
      "Good idea, General. And that is not an offensive position."
      "That's the idea."

Bo and Sammi
Morn and Elaan Troyius
The Mid-Atlantic, USA

      It was as if all of Paw Paw was pregnant. Almost every day somebody would ask me or Sammi how Elaan was doing. When she went for a checkup we had to update everybody about how it went. There was even a baby pool of dates of the birth.
      For her part, she was doing well physically as was the baby. For other things she learned the skills the other women pursued with a smile as her belly grew noticeably bigger every few days.
      Morn was almost as nervous as his wife, but he played it cool as we got their house ready for the baby and he perfected a type of fish trap that he said his grandfather had taught him to build. But there was a secret to using it that he wouldn't clue us in on until he had the trap ready to use.
      "I don't remember all of it, but I think that's what it looked like," he said as we stood and looked at the triangular thing he'd spent two days building. "And I think it worked from this end."
      "Let me guess, when you were little you didn't pay much attention to how the old man did it."
      "No," he laughed, "kids are kids everywhere."
      "Yes," old man Willis said, "And the very young don't always do as they are told."
      I glanced over at him, "sometimes neither do the old."
      "Yeah, then there's that."

      The first edition of Morn's fish trap was a bust, but with a few adjustments, it worked as advertised and was very good at catching medium sized fish like perch and bluegill in the creeks on both sides of the river. Which Morn was happy with because he really liked fried fish. Which many of us did as well.
      I found out his Grandfather's secret after Morn put his trap in the Cacapon River west of town. He pointed the open end upstream and made sure the trap sank by putting a car rim on top of it, then we walked upstream from it quite a ways and Morn began picking up rocks.
      "He chased the fish," Morn said and threw a couple of rocks into the river even further upstream. Then his next volley of stones were a little closer to us and I nodded at the secret.
      "Makes sense."
      "But he never told anybody else how he caught more fish than anybody else."
      "By throwing rocks."
      "Yes," Morn said and flipped a couple more rocks out a little closer to us.
      We walked back to the trap, tossing rocks out into the small river every so often and always a little closer to the target. Morn reached out with his pick up stick and hooked it onto the top of the trap and I grabbed the rope on the rim anchor. We pulled up the trap, and found it was full of all sorts of things. Most of whom were not happy about being in the trap.
      We let the frog and the snake go. We kept the good sized fish and returned to town with dinner for both families as proof that the trap worked. And worked well. Even well enough to impress old man Willis.
      To keep from overfishing any one creek or the small lake in the area we had to move it from one area to another on a regular basis. But all in all, Morn's tribute to his grandfather was successful enough that we soon began a cottage industry producing two different sizes of them to use in trade.
      Which meant that even the few people in town leery about having somebody who wasn't from around here living in town warmed up to them.

Qi-Shi
Panna Command Ship

      "Three more shields to go," Paige said to me.
      "Of the first batch," I reminded her.
      "The Panna said they've got to get more material before we start the next run. And repair one of the manufacturing ships."
      "Any estimates when we can begin to deploy the second run of shields?" I asked the Panna at the main fleet monitoring station even though I was reasonably sure I knew the answer.
      The newest of the five Panna at the console looked at me, then busied itself studying the tactical display without saying anything.
      "We have already begun processing the materials," another one of them said.
      "But we have no time expectation yet to begin the next process," the one on the far side added.
      "Can you let us know when you do?"
      "Yes."

Ambassador Detheridge, Warrior, and Goody
The First Space Station

      In the days that we had waited we had all had plenty of time to explore the ancient space station, and eat meals from both the ship and the reconstitution device in our room, and try to sleep on the platform bed.
      Warrior was fascinated with the station and asked me questions about it that I was far from qualified to answer. "So this place is older than even the Pyramids in Egypt."
      I looked at what appeared to be the command deck of the station. Huge arching windows provided a spectacular view of the void on all sides. The station was in deep space, there was no nearby planet or star that we could see for ages in any direction. "That is my understanding. It is many centuries older than anything I know of from human history."
      "Then how old were the people that built this? They had to have been working for many years to get into space."
      "I don't know. But our own people had been civilized for what, five thousand years or so before we sent men into space.'
      Warrior looked around at the dark panels and empty crew positions. "We should be going back. Goody will be worried about you," he said.
      "She'll be worried about both of us if we're gone too long."
      "Perhaps, but the alien is in love with you.'
      I turned at looked at him, "I don't think she is in love with me. Her and the other Panna are just here to help with the mission.'
      "I'm sorry sir, you are denying the obvious."
      I looked at him, then I finally had to turn and look out at the star field. Somewhere out there was my home, where things still made sense. "I cannot consider any other options now. For her, or you, or myself. We are all here to see the mission through to ensure the survival of all of our peoples."
      "Yes, sir."
      "But nonetheless, we should be getting back," I turned and looked at the exits from the room. "You do know how to get back don't you?"
      "Yes, sir."

      Goody had been worried about me, and Warrior as well. But had kept herself and the other Panna busy cleaning the meeting room and our waiting area, and learning how to get the food producer to make something worth eating, and doing other things to make our stay more agreeable and pass the time. The Panna as a group had no interest in seeing the rest of the station.
      Warrior had made a bed, of sorts, from a cargo pad and a sheet from the ship and slept by the door with his saif by his side on the floor. I had asked him why he carried the scimitar style sword and his answer was simple, "Nobody can take it away from me and live without killing me to do it."
      "In that case, keep it," I had said.
      I managed to sleep on the platform, but I had to remind myself to not get up quickly. To do so would have been painful.

      Through our investigation into the station we did find some items left by the original tenants. And as it turned out, they were considerably larger than ourselves, but they were more human, or perhaps humanoid, than the Panna in that they had two arms and two legs.
      The environmental suits I found in a room near an access port to work outside the station in space revealed that they were almost twice our physical size, but their hands had what appeared to be two thumbs and two other fingers. Or at least that's what a set of gloves appeared to indicate.
      Warrior found some other items which included a fragile traveling bag with several remarkable images printed on some sort of metal foil. As we looked at the images, they appeared to not only be three dimensional, but to move somewhat without our turning the foil back and forth like you had to with the 3-D images I was used to.
      "They were hairy," Warrior said.
      "A family of big walking carpets," I said watching the image of what appeared to be a group of them out on holiday. Then I thought of another example. "Bigfoots in Space," I said with a chuckle.
      Another image was evidently the wife or girlfriend of the owner of the bag as she was smiling at the camera and fluttered her eyes at the viewer that way women do.
      Warrior fell silent and I could see that something was bothering him.
      "These are images of people. Not our people, but people all the same. Such is prohibited by the Prophet."
      "My friend, this is a photo of, people, from almost ten thousand years ago. It is an historic artifact not something to show how pretty your daughter is. We should feel grateful that we know more about The First, and how they lived when they lived as we do, with their families and how they did their duty," I nodded to the space suit with its tool belt hanging next to it, "and return all of it to where we found it with honor."
      He put the image back in the bag and carefully returned it to the locker, "Of course. You are wise, Ambassador."
      "Thank you, now, what do you say to going to see what Goody could get their food station to make for lunch?"
      "An excellent idea, sir."
      I turned and looked at the passages outside the chamber, "I hope you remember the way back."
      "Indeed," he answered, "this way."

      "Ambassador," the Chief said from the communicator she'd left in the waiting room while we were resting after our morning of exploring and a rather tasty lunch. "An Anah ship is approaching the station and will dock in the bay in the opposite wing from ours in about two hours."
      "Thank you, we'll be ready for them," I answered.

Major General Inoue
Earth Defense Command, Mongolia

      The only thing I was not expecting was how long and cold the winter was where our base had been built.
      It started early, and never relaxed. A frigid wind seemed to be blowing constantly from one direction or the other. You never knew if it was really snowing outside or if the wind was just blowing the snow that had already fallen from one place to the other. Anything left outside would freeze solid under a thick coating of ice and snow, rendering even spacecraft useless until they thawed.
      I've been told that the locals call this sort of weather 'dzud'. To me, that is just as good a word for it as any other I've thought of.
      It was fortunate that most of our base was underground, and for most duty shifts our people didn't have to go outside at all. But sometimes you had to, and when you did, it was unbelievably harsh.

      And then the weather killed one of our Panna.

      Its name was Turner. I'm told that it was named because of the way it liked to dance to human music. And it froze to death in just a couple of minutes when it was working to free a hanger door that had stuck partially open. It wasn't even outside. It had been using a plasma torch on low power and evidently the wind caught it just wrong and the extreme cold froze its exposed tentacles and it died before anybody could help it.
      Now instead of just being an annoyance, the weather was a killer.
      I had to issue a standing order. No Panna were allowed within ten meters of the open hanger doors without being in their protective gear.

      We had a memorial service, which the other Panna thought was odd, but Turner was a member of my command and died in the line of duty, so I made the decision to go ahead and do it.
      One Panna spoke at the memorial for the others of their species. "I enjoyed dancing with Turner. And working too," it said.
      I thought the comments were absolutely appropriate.

      A day or so after the death of Turner, a Panna ship full of them, and their machines, and a large number of very complicated looking devices arrived and took half of our base out of service at a time and installed some of the same force fields that they used on the landing bays in space. Arriving and departing ships could now just fly through the screen instead of our having to open and close blast doors in bad weather. They had to increase our power generation capacity to support the force fields, and then they had to train our staff how to control and monitor all of it.
      I asked why they hadn't done that to begin with and they said that nobody had mentioned needing it. Now they were going from our base to Canada to do the same thing, and then they had two other ones where the weather might become dangerous to the Panna.

Paige Taylor
Combined Fleet Headquarters
Nebula Six

      "Two of the dominators are still under way, although they have both slowed down considerably. The lead ship will be in range of Earth in less than twenty four hours. The other is changing course, we don't know where it's going now, just that it isn't heading for Earth any more. We've confirmed one escort carrier and a few defensive ships that is moving with the second dominator."
      "How long does it take the weapon ship to change course?" General Muller asked me.
      "In that thing? A long time, otherwise, balooey!" I said making an exploding gesture with my hands.
      "As soon as you get an idea, let me know."
      "Yes, sir."

      I sat and stared at the monitoring system with four Panna. Finally, after several hours that seemed a lot longer, the tactical computers gave us a reading that the dominator had stopped turning and had picked up speed again.
      "Confirm that," I said to the Panna knowing deep down that the projected course was correct.
      The Panna worked as only beings with four hands each can work. "It is correct," one of them said after a few moments. "And the ship is still accelerating."
      It will arrive on station at the same time as the one approaching your home," another one added.
      "We are projecting the plot to just outside of Nebula Six."
      I looked up at the large map, the tracking said the enemy ship was on its way to us.
      "Simultaneous attack," I said coldly. "I'll go tell the General."
      "Yes. The General should be told." For the first time ever I used my Panna communicator to call somebody, "General Muller, please report to the command center."
      The Panna shuffled nervously until they were all touching.

      In a couple of minutes he came in walking quickly. Inside the door he stopped and looked up at the plotting map.
      "Damn," he said as he realized what it meant before anybody said anything. "They tracked the message to the Ambassador," General Muller said, "I hadn't thought of that. I gave our position away."
      "We have extra shields, we could deploy them between us and the arrival point."
      "And give away our planetary defense, I'd rather not."
      I could tell he was thinking hard and fast.
      "If we move the entire fleet they'll track it, and possibly redirect that ship to another planet, or even back toward Earth." He took a deep breath. "OK, decision. That's why I'm here."
      "Yes, sir," I said as Qi-Shi came in and looked up at the map.
      "Dominator?" the strategy man asked and I nodded.
      "We continue the deployment of the quick response unit as planned. With one alteration." He turned and looked at us. "That one ship, the 'Sword of Retribution' I believe, we're going to send it out on a shakedown cruise and have it come back...." He looked up at the map, "through there, about then. Just by coincidence."
      "Yes, sir."

Chris Banks
World Press International
Orbital Two

      I've never been on a space station before, and I know nothing about them. But I do know people. And although nobody said anything I could tell that these people were on edge, very nervous, and worried. And I felt it was my duty to find out why.
      And I had an idea about how to find out.

      I asked Chris and Nine to go with the group of Panna from the station and merge with them the way they do, and then come back and just talk about how it was.
      "Oh, we're like spies," Chris said.
      "I'd rather not think of it like that," I answered.
      Nine looked up at me with its eye stalk fully extended but it didn't say anything.
      "OK, you're. Spies."

      I sat in the crew lounge and waited. I had no idea how long a Panna merging might take, but I knew it usually didn't go quickly. Finally I relaxed on a sofa like thing and took a nap.
      I awoke to Chris and Nine standing there looking at me, "What?" I asked them.
      "They are worried," Nine said to me. "Our people and your people."
      "I knew that, but what are they worried about?"
      "They are worried about dying," Chris answered.
      "It's a battle station, that comes with the job. But this is different. What specifically are they worried about?"
      "There is an enemy attack ship coming," Nine said.
      "A different kind of one."
      I looked from one to the other. "Tell me about it."

      About twenty minutes later I was in the base commander's office with one question, "What is being done to defend the Earth against the death ray ship that's coming?"

Ambassador Detheridge, Warrior, and Goody
The First Space Station

      I stood and waited. Warrior was behind me on one side and Goody on the other. The room was still only furnished with two benches that were tall enough to be dining tables instead of seating.
      According to The First, the Annunaki delegation of three individuals was on their way to the negotiating room and would arrive in a few moments.

      The door on the far side opened and a man in armor who was obviously a guard stepped in with the two others behind him. They were all somewhat taller than the average human, and all were dressed in spectacularly decorated outfits that didn't appear to be uniforms.
      The first Annunaki took one look our way and then without warning walked quickly toward us. He tossed some sort of small device at Warrior that gave off a brilliant flash, then he backhanded Goody halfway across the room. I reacted instinctively and grabbed at his jacket with one hand fully intending to hit him with a left cross that I had much luck with when I was a young pub brawler.
      Except it had been many years since I had brawled in a pub. My best punch did nothing except open me up for a retaliatory backhanded slap from him that I felt loosen several of my teeth as I staggered backward toward where Goody had fallen.
      But by then, Warrior had recovered from the flash and was nose to nose with the Annunaki and giving him more Hell than I would have ever been able to. In another moment the enemy's leading man was pinned against the far wall and all but helpless in the face of Warrior's physical assault.
      The enemy's champion, for lack of a better word for him, made several attempts to get the better of Warrior, but all any of them did was to make him even angrier, if that were indeed possible.

      I picked Goody up. She was unhurt, but disoriented and a bit unsteady, still making a gurgling whimpering sound.
      The other two Annunaki hadn't moved, and in fact, didn't even seem to notice what was going on.
      "Warrior," I said, "I think he's had enough."
      Warrior hit him twice more, then stepped back half a step. He put his hand on the hilt of his sword, but he didn't draw it.
      The Annunaki wobbled for a second, then collapsed to his knees.
      "Perhaps," Warrior growled standing tall over his downed opponent.
      There was no doubt in my mind that if the Annunaki had tried to get to his feet or draw a weapon Warrior would have instantly killed him.

      I held Goody steady and turned to face the other two Annunaki. Only now did I notice that one of them was a woman.
      They turned and walked out the way they came. After he got off the floor, the one that had attacked us followed.
      We were left standing there alone.
      "Not exactly the first contact I was expecting," I said.
      "No," Warrior answered.
      "They've done that before though," Goody answered. "Just not to me."

      Back in our waiting room we checked each other out and found that one of the things the Annuaki guard had done while Warrior had him pinned against the wall was to attempt to stab him. However, the short, broad, three edged knife had been broken by the concealed Panna vest and had done him no injury at all. All it left was a piece of itself several centimeters long embedded in his overshirt.
      I stood at attention and called out, "I would speak to The First that was here before."
      Nothing happened.
      "They are ignoring us," Warrior said.
      "Perhaps," I said after another moment of silence. "Goody, notify the Chief. If no further meeting is announced, we're not hanging around here. Tell her to have the ship ready to go.""
      "Should the Chief also notify the General to have our military stand ready?" Warrior asked me.
      "Yes."
      But even that failed to get The First's attention.

      After about an hour, the communicator on the food panel began an annoying donging sound.
      Goody answered it.
      "The Ambassador is requested," a voice said from it.
      "Requested to do what?" I asked, but there was no response.
      "I'll see if anybody is in there," Warrior said and opened the door to the conference room. He stood with his hand on his sword. "They are...." But whatever else he was going to say was interrupted by his suddenly drawing his sword and springing into the classic on guard position.
      In front of him was his Annunaki friend from earlier.
      A commanding female voice from inside the room spoke in a language that the Panna disk either could not, or perhaps would not, translate. They spoke their language and then the panel on the wall translated it.
      Then our assailant took two slow steps backward, but Warrior didn't relax.
      "Ambassador. Please," the commanding voice said from the panel.
      "I am Ambassador Detheridge," I answered as I approached the door. The same thing happened, in a second, the panel spoke to them in their language.
      The woman was on the other side of the room. "I will speak with you. But not with the creature present."
      "The Panna are part of our Alliance. Our negotiations concern her race as well as my own."
      "Then it may observe, but not converse."
      I put a hand on Warrior's shoulder, "I must have your honorable word that we will not be attacked again."
      It took the Annunaki that seemed to be their Ambassador a moment beyond the translation lag, but then she turned slightly toward the one facing off against Warrior and made a small gesture with one hand. The other one obeyed immediately and walked to the other side of the room and stood by their door. Only then did Warrior sheath his sword.
      "So, shall we begin?" I asked her.
      "Of course."

      I walked into the room and gestured to the benches, "If you don't mind madam, I think I would prefer to stand than to try to sit on those."
      The Annunaki Ambassador looked at me, then turned toward the benches. "Those are not the table?"
      "No, ma'am. Our hosts were over twice our height when they had bodies. Those are benches to sit on."
      The delay in the conversation was annoying, but I could live with it.
      "I did not know that. But in that case, you and I have already agreed on something."
      "A good start then."

      It was about two hours of the Annunaki Ambassador, who never told me her name, asking questions about our Alliance, talking about battles that I had no knowledge of at all, and making suggestions that we had the desire to invade and occupy more of their realm. The latter which I could do nothing but deny.
      Then we took a break.

      About an hour later Warrior opened our door and stood waiting on them.
      "They are coming out, sir."
      I went into the room, only to find the other Annunaki male there, the one that hadn't attacked us.
      "I will speak in this session," he said.
      "Why not the one I spoke to the first time?"
      "She is an adviser."
      "So you are the Ambassador?"
      "Together we are.'

      It was another two hours of the same thing. Questions about defenses, he asked me about the command structure of the fleet and how the Alliance came to be working with us.
      I tolerated that and the delay as best I could, but then as we ended that session for another break I made a decision.
      I waited until the door was closed behind me then I looked up, "First. This is not a peace talk, this is an interrogation designed to uncover information on our defenses that they can use to their advantage."
      "You are correct," a voice said without any visible source.
      I didn't answer but just stood there with my jaw set and my eyes hard.
      "We will address the matter."

      We waited, and waited.
      Warrior called the ship to see if they Annunaki had left.
      "Not that we've seen. We're checking now. No, their ship is still in the hanger. There has been no change in the readings from it since they landed."
      I fell asleep on the bed until Goody woke me up with a hot meal of unidentifiable objects from the machine.
      And there was still no word from the Annunaki or The First.
      "I will go see," Warrior said after another long period of nothing happening.
      He put his hand on the hilt of his sword and opened the door. There was nobody in the room so he walked across and actually knocked on their door. He looked back at me and shook his head. Then he tried the door, then he stepped back and stood ready as it opened. But then he glanced back at me, and stepped into the enemy's room.
      "There's nobody here, sir," he said.
      "They must have gone back to their ship," I answered.
      "Then perhaps we should as well."
      "Agreed," I said and turned around, "Goody, we're leaving." But now Goody wasn't there.
      I turned back toward Warrior, and saw that neither one of us were in the negotiating room any more.
      "What happened to us?" he asked me.
      "I don't know," I looked around and saw several large globs of light. "But I bet they do."
      "Sir," Warrior said.
      I turned toward him and followed his eyes off to one side where the three Annunaki stood in a small group.
      "All that's missing is Goody," I said.
      Warrior looked around, "I don't see her."
      "Where is the Panna named Goody?" I asked The First. "I demand an answer."
      "Unharmed. On your ship. We cannot translate that kind to this."
      "Why have you done this?" The Annunaki woman asked them, and this time I heard her words as clearly in my mind as I did The First.
      "You will negotiate for peace."
      They looked at each other then a couple of them glanced our way, finally the male ambassador spoke, "There will be no peace."
      As soon as he said it The First vanished and then we were back in our waiting room.
      "Now what?" I said looking around.
      Warrior opened the negotiating room door, "There's nobody in there."
      "I didn't think there would be. Obviously The First are not happy with the Annunaki."
      "Did they truly believe that the infidels would negotiate with us?"
      "I think so."
      "Then they are fools."
      As soon as Warrior said that I felt the atmosphere in the room change dramatically. "They heard you."
      Warrior tilted his face up slightly, "good."

General Muller
Combined Fleet Headquarters
Nebula Six

      "General. The dominator is approaching the outer boundary of the Nebula and slowing. The escort carrier is taking up a position on station nearby, it has not deployed fighters as yet. The other one is approaching the Earth system, still no word on its escorts."
      It was the news I had been waiting for, "Understood."
      According to the reports I had read if the dominator's weapon was used against space vessels, the target ships would simply come apart as their hulls and support members destabilized at the molecular level. Whether or not the people inside them would be dead before they were exposed to space or not was essentially irrelevant.
      Paige had deployed three of the partially finished shields to protect our ship and a couple of the others, but whether or not they'd work as well inside the nebula was another question. They'd give us a chance to get moving before the beam destroyed the ship. But it was a chance to move to where? Most likely we'd flee the nebula to fly right into an Annunaki task force.
      There were no reports of enemy battle groups in the area, but then again, there were forces that we couldn't account for.
      "Where is the 'Sword of Retribution'?" I asked Qi-Shi.
      "Seventy million kilometers out and closing on the target at battle speed. ETA, about two hours."
      "How long before the dominator can fire its primary weapon?"
      Paige checked her console, "Couple of hours. Depends on how much energy they had available when they shut down the main drive."
      "So it's a race."
      "Yes, sir."
      I gave the order, "Start dispersing the rest of the fleet. All ships to run full scans for enemy interceptors. Bring Earth Command to Yellow Alert, have them stand by for long range operations against the dominator if it prepares to fire."
      "Aye, aye, sir."
      "Paige. Qi-Shi. I want you two on the next bus out of town. I'll run the show from here. But if this doesn't work, you'll have to pick up the pieces with whoever survives and continue the fight."
      They looked at each other and I could tell they didn't like it, but they said, "Yes, sir."

Paige Taylor
      I had to hug General Muller, I had to. I know it breached every military protocol there was, but I didn't care.
      "Give him one for me while you're at it," Qi-Shi said.
      Then as they shook hands, the General nodded at me and then looked at Qi-Shi, "where are you going?"
      "We'll take a high speed and catch up to the Rapid Deployment Force."
      "Good," he looked at the tactical display that showed the enemy weapon ship making a long slow turn into position. "Get going before this comes to a head."
      "Yes, sir."

      As we watched the nebula get smaller and smaller behind us I couldn't help but have tears in my eyes.
      And I thought I saw at least one in Qi-Shi's eye as well.

      "When will we know?" I asked Qi-Shi as the pilots set something of a serpentine course toward the ships we were trying to catch.
      "Probably within the hour."

General Muller
      I don't like waiting.
      When I was a flight officer in Europe I didn't want to sit in a briefing room waiting on somebody to tell us what we were supposed to be doing in the combat zone over Bosnia or someplace. In the Middle East when I was the one that was supposed to be holding the briefing with my squadron, it was no different, if something was to start at "oh two hundred" then, by God, I started at 0200.
      But now, I was at the mercy of the rest of the universe. I could not force the peace negotiations to go forward, I could not make the Annunaki ship either fire and get it over with or to turn and leave. I couldn't make the 'Sword of Retribution' go any faster. All I could do was stand there and drink Panna coffee and watch the monitors show the progress the various ones were making toward the inevitable.

      "General?" The newest Panna asked me. I think that was the first time it had ever spoke to me.
      "Yes?"
      "If we are going to be killed, I would like to have a name first."
      I looked down at it, "You don't have a name?"
      "No, General. A name didn't seem to be important before. I think it is now." It was looking up at me with its eye fully out, "What would be a name that I could use?"
      "I don't plan on being killed, but if you would like a name. Let me think about it for a little bit." I looked into my cup, it was empty, "I'll get another cup of coffee and see what I can come up with."
      "I like coffee," it said.
      "I didn't know your people drank coffee."
      "We don't, for a name."
      "Well, OK. Nice to meet you, Coffee."
      "I like being Coffee."
      I glanced up at the monitor. Something had changed, "They're deploying fighters." I glanced back down at Coffee, "Bring the rest of the fleet to alert, launch our fighters to stand by for action. Move Paige's shields into position. I'll notify the 'Sword' to come in hot."
      "Yes, General."
      I stopped and looked at them, "One more thing, Coffee, have all non-essential personnel to stand by to evacuate to escape pods on my command. Panna, Human, and everybody else. Program the pods to move perpendicular to the line of attack at maximum speed."
      "Yes, General."

Chris Banks
World Press International
Orbital Two

      All we could do was stand and wait.
      Two great flights of attack ships had been dispatched to where the enemy's ship was sitting outside of our system. But we had no idea if there were escort ships or not for it. Usually the ships they called the dominator traveled alone because they were reported to be unstable in flight, but they were also known to attack behind a picket fence of defensive ships.
      The one that was now aiming its gun at Earth as a whole didn't seem to have any defense. All scans had indicated that it was alone.
      "I don't believe it," I heard the Admiral at Earth Defense Command say, "all patrols, fan out, scan for them, report any contacts. Attack squadrons Purple and Orange, attack that ship, engage when in range, fire at will."
      "What do we do?" I asked the base commander.
      "We sit and wait. This fight is out there."
      "What if they fire that weapon?"
      "We'll be the first to know."

General Muller
Panna Command Ship

      "Report from the 'Sword of Retribution', General. They are engaging the Annunaki, they're trying to fight through to the dominator."
      "I can see that," I nodded to the display, "our fighters are almost there, they'll open a second front against it in a few minutes."
      "General," the Panna said. "We're showing increasing power levels from the attack ship, it is preparing... It is firing."
      "Brace yourselves."

      The anti-proton and neutron beam blasted a glowing hole in the gas and dust of the nebula and turned the first retroreflector shield into a light show that was amazing to see. We could tell that some of the beam had been reflected back toward the source, but it didn't appear to be enough to do what we wanted it to do.
      It was a long thirty seconds as part of the beam glanced off the side of the shield and ripped into the side of our ship. One of the displays showed the damage and indicated a hull breach and related issues. The ship shuddered and it sounded like every alarm we had went off at once.
      The reflector held, although the first attack weakened it by about twenty percent according to the sensors.
      "OK. What, about two minutes before they can do that again?" I said as I caught my breath.
      "Yes, General," one of the Panna said.
      "Damage control responding to area. They are reporting casualties."
      "Thank you, Coffee."
      "General, they're moving."
      That was when I found out just how ruthless our enemy could be. Not just to us, their sworn enemies, or to the civilian populations they enslaved, but to their own loyal soldiers.
      The Annunaki commander ordered his escort ships and interceptors into the nebula to not only prevent us from escaping the dominator's death ray, but to have their combat units board our ships and make sure we died one way or the other. Even while the weapon was being fired again at our remaining fleet.
      Half of our fighters moved to intercept the inbound ships while the other half went after the dominator.
      "Put me on ship wide," I waited a second. "Defensive systems engage attacking enemy craft when in range. All personnel, stand by to repel boarders." I checked my sidearm and made sure I had a full spare clip on my belt.
      I looked over at Coffee, it and the other Panna were all shuffling nervously. "They've got to go through me to get to you."
      Just then four heavily armed humans led by Mister Spade came into the command center. "Kitchen is closed, sir. I thought you might need us up here more," he saluted with his M4.
      "Yes, sir, thank you," I saluted back.

Ambassador Detheridge, Warrior, and Goody
The First Space Station

      "They have defied even us," The First said to us.
      "What can you do about it?" I asked them.
      "Little on the scale required. But, as we have failed, we will join with you in your war with them."
      Warrior lived up to his name, "We are in a fight for our lives and the lives of our allies. What can you do to assist that?"
      "You will see. You may leave in your ship when you wish."
      And The First was gone.
      "Let's go, our answer isn't here," I said to Warrior.
      "Yes, sir."

Ambassador Detheridge, Warrior, and Goody
Alliance Long Range Shuttle, The First Space Station

      "I'm sorry, sir, but the Annunaki ships are still out there, and it looks like their weapons are live. We're no match for two of them."
      I shook my head, "You want us to leave, do you want us to just go out there and commit suicide?"
      There was no response from The First.
      "Do you think they'll attack the station to get to us?" Goody asked me.
      Warrior had a brilliant idea, "Sir, they said most of the station's systems were operational. If we could use its defenses."
      I nodded to him and made the decision at the same time, "It might be able to defend itself, and us. Let's go. You can find that command deck again right?"
      "Yes, sir."
      "Ambassador, I can read some of their symbols," Goody said, "I learned them while I was waiting for you. I can help. I like helping."
      "And that is why she's here," I said to Warrior and the Chief.
      "Yes, sir."

      Me and Warrior had to lift Goody two meters off the floor onto the console. Then she actually walked around on it so she could see the displays and the controls. She read The First's script on the station's tactical command center and began to have it do things.
      "The system was in automated monitoring, but the defensive systems were not active." Goody said as she did other things to the console. "They are now on, and I can show you where the enemy is with that display."
      "Please."
      She used her manipulator tentacles to change several controls, then the old screen lit up with a surprisingly clear view.
      "There they are," Warrior said as we watched the ancient three dimensional screen display the original Annunaki ship and a second, slightly smaller one as well. But both appeared to be well armed, and positioned to jump us as soon as we moved out.
      "Chief," I said through the Panna communicator. "Power up the engines like we're getting ready to leave, I want to see what they do."
      "Doing it now, Ambassador."
      It took the Annunaki a minute to notice, but then the larger ship moved dramatically toward the station and it was clear on the display that their weapons were ready to fire.
      Without warning half of the tactical board just to the left of Goody lit up in about four different colors. Then there was an alarm that sounded like sleigh bells followed by a sound like the report of distant hunting guns.
      On the display, first one Annunaki ship and then the other became a large billowing cloud of ugly smoke and dust. There wasn't a flash of light or anything, they were just destroyed.
      "Ambassador, the station uses a cold mass driver system. Projectiles of dense metal destroyed the enemy ships," we heard the Chief say. "We saw the launch and the impact on our sensors."
      "Thank you, Chief. As long as it worked. We'll be back in a few minutes. Make sure you shut down all weapons before we leave."
      "Yes, sir."
      I helped Goody down off the console. "And thank you. You saved us all."
      "I did not like them," she said.
      Warrior nodded to her, "I didn't like them either. You did well."
      Goody stood a little taller as we walked back to the transport together.

Paige Taylor
The 'Torment of Evil'

      The Captain of the ship had everybody on the bridge at full readiness. But we were still a long way out, and two enemy ships were closing in on the command ship to board it.
      "The dominator is firing again."
      "The retroreflectors are moving by themselves," the person from the scanner board said with some surprise. "They're moving into the target area. The lead unit should be fully in the path."
      Qi-Shi turned toward me, "Will that do it? Will that reflect enough to destroy the ship?"
      "It should, if the nebula doesn't disperse too much of it."
      "Impact. Now."
      "Get me the view from the command ship," the captain ordered.
      "Got it."
      The shield was glowing and sparking, and then we could see interference patterns as the reflected beam traveled back through the original.
      "Come on," I said to the image, trying to will enough of the reflected energy through to the dominator to do enough damage to take it out of the fight, if not destroy it.
      "And that's it," the tactical station said as the beam ended.
      "Any damage to the dominator?" Qi-Shi asked.
      "Doesn't appear to be. They are recharging for the next burst."
      "Time to intercept?"
      "Six minutes."
      "Three more shots. Will the reflectors survive those?"
      "They should, that one took that mirror down by about thirty percent," I said looking at the readouts. "But we got two more."
      "Prepare all weapons," the Captain ordered, "be ready to engage the enemy as soon as we're in range."

      It was the longest two minutes in the history of warfare.
      "They are firing again."
      But the burst of energy stopped within seconds of it starting.
      "Overload!" the officer at the scanner station said. "It is exploding."
      "Prepare to repel enemy attack craft. Launch transports to the command ship to repel boarders."
      I went through the readings of the dominator just before it exploded. "It was the reflector! It worked! It caused the overload in the emitter array!" I said feeling quite pleased with myself even though there were still enemy ships out there.
      "But how did that reflector move? The maneuvering thrusters never fired," Qi-Shi asked me.
      "I don't know, but it's enough that it did."

General Muller
Panna Command Ship

      "The enemy is on our ship," one of the Panna said, and it wasn't long before we heard weapons of several types being fired in the passage one one side of the control room.
      "We're on it, sir." Spade said, he dropped to one knee and nodded to one of his men to open the door.
      The door vanished. Several of our people ran by and two ducked into the control room.
      "I see'em," Spade said and let his Panna made version of the M4 spit bullets back down the way the others had come. He leaned closer to the wall, re-aimed, and gave them another volley. The only difference between it and the original was that the 'new' version didn't throw hot brass all over the place when you used it. That was how they had 'made it better'.
      "There's a lot of them, General." One of the soldiers that had been retreating said.
      I decided that I'd been out of the fight long enough. If a cook could go into battle, so could a General. "Then let's make fewer of them," I said and picked up a spare energy weapon. It was charged and ready. I stepped over to back up Spade, "Let's give them hell," I said deliberately.
      "Yes, sir," Spade grinned.
      "The dominator is firing again, but there is a mirror there," one of the Panna reported.
      Coffee spoke up, "A second enemy ship is forcing a docking port open."
      "Let's go," I said to Spade.
      He fired a long burst down the passage and then two of the others jumped through. I covered as Spade moved out, then they did the same favor for me.
      As I fired the plasma rifle I was reminded once again about the misconceptions we had all had from science fiction about alien weapons. While the Alliance rifle was an energy weapon, the thing kicked like an old shotgun when you fired it. According to every TV show I'd ever watched, it wasn't supposed to be like that.

      We made it just beyond the first intersection of passages before we found the enemy's new boarding party. After a long fire fight we were forced back beyond the intersection.
      "We're going to need heavier weapons," I said to Spade as we knelt next to the wall to reload while the others took over the action for a moment. "Know any shortcuts to the armory?"
      "Yes, sir. Back by the supply closet, there's a maintenance crawl that comes out next to the gear store for the landing parties."
      "Lead the way." I tossed one of the others my spare charge clip, "hang on if you can, we'll be right back."
      "Yes, sir."

      When Spade said it was a crawl-way, he meant for the Panna. For us, because we had elbows and hips, it was something less, but we made it through.
      "Coast is clear," Spade said.
      The gear room had everything from anti-aircraft guns to demolition charges in it. But we found a good selection of things that were actually useful, and made use of them.
      "I'm not going back through that tube," I said to Spade.
      "So we kick butt instead," he answered with an even broader grin.
      "Yes, indeed."
      I had always hated grenade practice during weapons re-qualification. The instructors always told me I threw the bomb like a girl. But I was good at it, and I always passed the test, which was what counted. And now I used that skill to good effect against the enemy.
      I was sure I'd have to apologize to the Panna for blowing several holes in walls and decks in various places, but the enemy soon learned that we were not just throwing rocks at them and began to fall back to more defensible positions. Leaving several wounded Juul stormtroopers behind in contrast to our going out of our way, and exposing ourselves to enemy fire, to rescue our own wounded because we made an effort to not leave our people behind.

      It was a long hot battle and it appeared we were fighting to a standstill because another of their boarding parties had joined the fight.
      "General Muller. Reinforcements are arriving from the Rapid Deployment Force," we heard the Panna announce over the communications system, "Mr. Qi-Shi has the force engaging the enemy."
      My troops cheered, but the fight was still on.
      Even as fresh soldiers arrived to aid us, the Juul stormtroopers refused to disengage and retreat. Almost as if they had been ordered to fight to the death and could not help but obey. Once some more of our troops arrived with another set of heavy weapons, we obliged them.
      Finally we were in the mopping up phase and I went back to the command center to check on the larger picture.

      It had been bad, very bad, but it could have been much worse. And, it should have been much worse.
      "General, the area damaged by the dominator weapon is not leaking air. It should be, the containment fields are not working in that section."
      According the the readings Coffee was showing me, at least half of the command ship should have been uninhabitable, and in fact, the area that had been hit by the ray should have been coming apart at the seams. "We cannot explain why it is the way it is."
      "Can you repair it?"
      "Yes, we have already started," one of the other ones changed the view to show a troop of repair machines crawling along the outside of the ship.
      "Then don't worry about it."
      "We like not worrying."

Ambassador Detheridge, Warrior, and Goody
Alliance Long Range Shuttle

      The Chief said she had plotted a course to take us home that would avoid any system where there had even been a rumor of an Annunaki base or ship. It would take longer, but it would also avoid any unfortunate situations that might come out badly for us.
      But then we heard the pilot call out, "Ma'am, the course will not stay set, and our speed is increasing. The systems are not responding and I cannot override."
      "There is a ship on the sensors, it looks like an ANah patrol," the other officer said.
      "What's going on?" I asked her.
      "I don't know, I've never seen anything act like this before."
      "I think it's The First," Warrior said, "they are helping us."
      "Probably. Let's just hope they know what they're doing."
      "The ANah have to be able to see us, but they are not changing course."
      "We don't have a cloaking device, it has to be The First masking our presence," the Chief said.
      We passed the enemy ship just as easy as you please, and it appeared they were never aware of us.
      "On course for the command ship," the pilot said, "speed is leveling off. If it holds it'll take half as long to get back as it did to get out here.'
      "In the mean time, all we can do is relax and enjoy the ride," I said to the Chief.
      "Yes, sir."

      Goody was glad the mission was in its final hours. "I liked being with you, and Mister Warrior, but I did not like the way they treated us," she said to me.
      "It was important to at least make the attempt to discuss peace. But it says something about the Annunaki that they never intended to negotiate with us. They lied to us and to The First."
      Goody looked at me and I could tell something was bothering her, so I asked.
      "You did not tell any lies to their Ambassadors, but they did."
      "No, I tried not to. It's not good to lie, and in spite of being a lawyer and in politics for years, I was never a very good liar."
      "But humans lie to each other all the time," Goody looked up at me with her eye. "They even lie to us."
      "Humans sometimes lie in order to protect feelings. Sometimes to humans, false statements feel good, even when they know it isn't true." Then I had to ask her, "Who lied to you and what did they lie about?"
      "Usually about our food. We always ask them if they like what we eat."
      "Ah-ha. See, they don't want to hurt your feelings."
      "But it upset me when I learned they were not telling the truth."
      "Yeah, that happens. Which is another reason I try not to lie, it usually makes things worse. Like it did for the Annunaki."
      "Yes."
      "And I have tried to never lie to you, Goody."
      "Thank you, Ambassador."

President Dr. Yarah Santiago
Nova Porta Velho, Brazil

      It was maddening. First we were told that Earth was under attack, and then they said we weren't. Then that changed to say that we really were, but there was a defensive system in place and that it should stop the attack.
      It should stop the attack.
      But there was no doubt about it when we saw a group of Panna dancing around a transport babbling about how they "liked space mirrors" now.
      I talked to our people instead of the Panna and got the full story.

      At first I was upset that the military hadn't broadcast the overall seriousness of the threat, then I had to step back and look at it from their side.
      Mateo, however, remained upset. "They should have told us that if it didn't work that we'd all be killed," he said.
      "And then you'd do what? Panic and go find someplace to hide?"
      His face went from angry to puzzled in a split second, "Well, I would have still liked to know."
      "So we could stand together and look up and wait for the rotation of the planet to carry us into the path of the beam?"
      He frowned and looked away.
      I took his hand and turned him toward me. "Mateo, when this attack is over and things calm down, we need to talk about us. It won't be long and I'll have my own bossa nova and be a doctor, not a President."
      His answer was a kiss.

Chris Banks
World Press International
Orbital Two

      It really was anti-climatic. We stood around in the commander's office waiting to be fried in our skin by the death ray. We listened to reports from the interceptors that were burning through the solar system at breakneck speed to stop the attack.

      "It's firing. My God! It's firing," the flight leader said.
      On the video monitor we could see a large odd looking spaceship firing a large, thick, slightly glowing beam of light for about thirty seconds.
      Then the squadron was jumped from one side by a large number of Annunaki fighters and they were preoccupied for several minutes.
      But the beam of energy was on its way.
      "What's that mean?" I asked the commander and pointed to a countdown clock on one side of the display.
      "The beam is traveling at the speed of light. It'll take just under four hours to get here."
      "Four hours," I said, "is there anything we can do?"
      "We can pray that that shield they put out there works."
      "Shield? I hadn't heard about a shield."
      "The General and them had the Panna build a mirror-shield-thing somewhere between where we are and where the enemy had to park the ship to fire."
      "Where is the mirror?"
      He shrugged, "between here and there, I hope."

      It was the longest series of minutes of my life.
      In the mean time, every three minutes or so, the death ray ship fired another thirty second beam.
      The first beam had been running for sixty-three minutes by the countdown clock, when one of the members of the fighter squadron yelled out that something had happened with it.
      The view changed to a camera on their ship and we could see the beam impacting something big and dark in space, and then there was another beam heading back toward the ship that had fired. We could see occasional patterns of interference between the two streams of energy.
      "We found your shield."
      "Yeah."

      And then sixty-three minutes later the first beam was returned to sender. But other than make a somewhat spectacular light show around the weapon ship, it didn't appear to do anything to it.
      Until they fired the next shot.
      The images from the remaining fighters showed the great vessel blowing itself to bits.
      Most of the several bursts from the death ray were reflected as well, except they ended up flashing through an expanding cloud of smoke and debris. But by then the other enemy ships had either been destroyed or had fled back to where they'd come from. The last few were at least partially deflected and ended up simply dispersing in space.
      "There's damaged ships coming in, I need to get down there."
      "We'll come too," I said and followed him out with my broadcast crew.
      We were in the passage when the alarms went off, we stopped and I asked what it meant, then I found out.
      "Incoming fire, brace for impact" came the announcement over the speaker system.

      Part of the one of the blasts from the dominator had gotten through whatever defensive array our side had deployed. And, from what I'm being told, just a spark of that clipped part of the station and caused more damage than anybody expected.

      "We are standing by for evacuation in case damage control is unable to stop the deterioration effect from the beam. Early reports indicate that the dominator was destroyed by the combination of the reflected beam and our fighter attack. Excuse me, I am hearing a report now. ... The nuclear deterioration has stopped, the Panna are saying that something may have been wrong with the beam when it was fired. I'll try to get a full report and have it in the next update. For now, this is Chris Banks, still alive and well on Orbital Two."

Ambassador Detheridge, Warrior, and Goody
Alliance Long Range Shuttle

      "Ambassador," the Chief said, "the command ship has been damaged, but they are reporting that we can dock when we get there. Right now, we're about two hours out."
      "Very good. Thank you."
      I sat and watched Warrior meditate. Finally he felt my eyes on him and looked at me, "Yes?"
      "You are a religious man, what do you think of all of this?"
      He sat silently for a minute and I could see him thinking about it.
      "The works of He who we call GOD cannot be limited by the thoughts of man."
      I nodded, "That is exactly how I feel about it."
      "We have always known that," Goody said.
      "Your people are wise," I said to her.
      "And I have always known that," Warrior answered and went back to his meditation.
      "What will you do when we get back, Ambassador?" Goody asked me.
      "I don't know, but whatever it is, I would like to have you with me."
      Goody's eye stalk elevated slightly as she stared at me, "I would like that."
      "Thank you, I like you Goody. I've become very fond of you."

      When a Panna hugs you, it is an intense experience.

Paige Taylor
The 'Torment of Evil'

      On the trip back to the command ship I had gone through every second of the sensor logs. There was one thing evident from the information in them. Whatever moved the retroreflectors had done so on its own and without any instruction from us or effort from the maneuvering systems on board the shields. And it had happened on all of the deployed units at essentially the same time.
      As the 'Torment of Evil' returned to the command ship, notices began to come in from other engagement areas.
      "Two of the Annunaki's main space stations in two different systems just became uninhabitable. They are evacuating all personnel from them. All life support, including gravity, has failed and it evidently can't be restored any time soon," one of the communications officers reported.
      "How does that happen to two major installations like that at the same time?" Qi-Shi asked rhetorically.
      All I could do was shake my head, "Something, or some body, has intervened on our behalf."
      Then Qi-Shi got this funny look on his face, "Or maybe not For us, but Against them."
      The Captain looked at us and nodded, "Either way, I'll take it, and I'll thank them for it. We'll be slowing to enter the nebula shortly.

Panna Command Ship
      The retro-reflector that had protected Earth from attack showed less damage than the one that had been inside the nebula over the command ship, that one was done and was on its way to the factory ship to be recycled.
      "I still don't know how it was re-positioned in time for the attack," I said to the General. "The dominator had come in just slightly off the course we had predicted for them and I hadn't been able to get the maneuvering system to respond."
      "It moved. That's good enough."
      "And the one over Earth. The magnetic charge showed three times what it should have been during the attack. That's why it wasn't damaged."
      "I don't know."
      "General. The Ambassador's ship is approaching faster than it can go. They will be here... soon."
      We all looked over at the Panna and Qi-Shi went to a work station to see what they were talking about.
      "Explain that, Coffee."
      "Coffee?" I said with a smile.
      "I'll explain later."
      "I've got to hear this one."
      "It is a good name, Miss Paige," Coffee said to me, which was unusual because the Panna usually did not interrupt our conversations.
      "Yes, it is," General Muller laughed.
      I changed the subject back to Uncle Logan's ship. "What about their going faster, is it an engine malfunction?"
      "No, their engines are reading normal. But it is going at velocity nineteen. That ship can only go at velocity six," Coffee said.
      "Confirmed, sir." Qi-Shi added, "their telemetry says their engines are barely at a high idle, but our sensors are tracking them at over forty times the speed of light. Right now it is the fastest object ever tracked by the Panna's equipment."
      Something struck me as unusual about how Coffee was interacting with us, but I thought it best to let it go for now.
      "That means that the trip out that took them twelve days will only take..." I let it trail off.
      "They'll be docking in about ten minutes," Qi-Shi said.
      "Maybe the Ambassador will explain these things when he gets here," Coffee said.
      I looked at the strange Panna and nodded, "I hope so."

General Muller
Panna Command Ship

      The staff joined me, Ambassador duBrek, and several ranking officers from the Alliance to hear Ambassador Detheridge's full report.
      He brought Warrior and Goody with him to, as he put it 'stoke his memory' about certain details.
      "Their champion had no honor, and little skill," Warrior said to summarize the greeting they had received.
      Ambassador Detheridge described the negotiation sessions similarly, "They never had any intention of seeking peace, even less than we had originally thought."
      "We had expected them to negotiate a treaty but to then violate it almost immediately," duBrek said. "But you are saying they didn't even do that."
      "No, they were only interested in gathering intelligence."
      "Which is why The First intervened," Warrior said. 'They would not be party to a lie."
      Coffee opened the door and walked in alone.
      Ambassador Detheridge looked at it with a raised eyebrow, "That is not a regular Panna."
      "I am a First, yes. But I am also the Panna, Coffee. As we could not change the Panna to our realm, I was able to join them in yours," Coffee said.
      As soon as it said that the Ambassador's assistant, Goody, who had been standing near the door squealed and dropped to the floor as Warrior bowed slightly.
      "Are you The First I talked to in the ship or on the station?" Detheridge asked it.
      "I am a First, that is enough," it said and picked Goody up from off the floor with one arm.
      "Strong Coffee," somebody muttered under their breath.
      Nobody laughed. Goody recovered enough to retreat and hide behind Warrior.
      For some reason I expected The First's voice through Coffee's disk to be deeply resonate or multi-tonal or something, but instead, it sounded like Coffee, but the cadence was different. And, if I'm any judge of Panna, it was a lot more confident when speaking to us than the others had ever been.
      "Are you responsible for the shields moving as well as the Ambassador's flight?"
      "The First are, that is enough."
      I looked over at Detheridge, "What do you think? How powerful are they?"
      "They're non-physical beings, and they pushed our ship back at some kind of warp speed, and moved the shields..."
      When he paused Warrior filled in the gap, "They destroyed the enemy's first ambassador's ship. But they did not eliminate the others that were preparing to ambush us."
      "Yes, and they could not take me with you for the last consultation," Goody added.
      "They have some limits," I concluded. "Either things they cannot do, or will not do."
      "We never said otherwise," Coffee said.
      All I could do with that was to nod, but duBrek asked a question, "So what can you do to help us against our common enemy?"
      "We can help you as we have helped you."
      I looked at my staff and Qi-Shi's caught my attention. "Perceive that which cannot be seen with the eye," he said. "Musashi, may have been talking about them."
      I nodded then turned back to Coffee, "will you stay with us and let us know where you can assist?"
      "Our assistance will be to end the fighting only. If they will not respect a treaty, they will be forced to respect strength. That will end the war."
      "That is what we want as well. And we are stronger to that end with you than without you."
      "Yes," Coffee said.

Major General Inoue
Earth Defense Command, Mongolia

      I'd gone out to get a fresh cup of tea and maybe another sweet roll when I thought I heard something in my office behind me. At first I thought it was Tango and Lady Bird, the two Panna who have become obsessed with cleaning every inch of the command area almost constantly, so as I turned to go back in I said, "Can you come back in about an hour when I go out to," and I came to a dead stop.
      There were no Panna in the room, but there was a large ball of light that was slowly moving along the far wall. I stepped back out of the office and went to a console and triggered an intruder alert.
      One of the Panna in the control room next door came running in. It was only about the third time I'd ever seen a Panna run and it startled me.
      "It is The First General, there is one in here," it said.
      "The Who?"
      "The First sir, they are..." and its communication disk failed.
      "We are The First. We are evaluating," I heard something say in my mind. It was more than telepathy but less than what I thought of as a mind meld.
      I looked back into my office, the ball of light was gone. I looked around and saw it in the monitor that was showing the hanger bay.
      "What are they evaluating?" I asked the Panna, the monitor, evidently, the air itself because nothing answered until the ball of light was gone.

Chris Banks
World Press International
Bahrain Earth Defense Base

      "I haven't seen one here, but this isn't an official defense installation," I said into the communicator. "If I do, I'll see if it will talk on camera."
      "Good luck."
      I looked around the information center. The only aliens in sight were some Panna and a few from the Alliance. No balls of light anywhere.
      "Do you think we should go over to the base?" I asked Nine and Chris.
      "We don't want to see The First."
      "It's news," I said to them. "If they are here looking at us I think we should be looking at them."
      The two Panna moved until they were touching, a sure sign that they were nervous.
      "It's our job," I added.
      "You can go to the base," they answered.
      I know the Panna don't have backbones, but this was ridiculous, "OK, you can stay here. I'll go without you."

President Dr. Yarah Santiago
Nova Brasilia, Brazil

      We took the ship up to where the Panna had built our new capitol city. The only thing that I hadn't really counted on was that the first thing the Panna had built were several bridges, including a new, larger bridge to replace the spectacular arching span that had been across the lake. Then, once the bridges were in place, and all the new fountains as well, then, they built the capitol buildings around them. It wasn't exactly the human way of doing things, but, the Panna aren't human.
      At first I was afraid they'd make something that was functional but not as graceful and even beautiful as the JK span over Lake Paranoá was, but what they unveiled was, as Mateo put it: "somebody took some music and made a bridge out of it." It was as simultaneously beautiful and functional, as the original had been. Everything they made for us was.
      Yes, they had built extra water features just so they could construct extra bridges, and every one was different.
      The Panna had also done a spectacular job with the buildings.
      "We like pretty buildings," the Panna said, "And you said you like pretty buildings, so we made pretty buildings."
      "And you did a wonderful job," I said with a smile at the Panna.

      The only building I recognized was the Cathedral. Everything else was brand new, and beautiful.
      "That's the new Congress Building," Mateo said pointing to a gleaming structure of graceful lines that looked like it should be made of ice and wind-blown snow instead of heat formed concrete.
      I always thought the old building looked like a child had upended a cereal bowl on their breakfast table next to a box of puffed rice. But I had been told it was a bold and very modern architectural statement. Maybe it had been, but the new building was a pleasure to look at.

      "Madam President, your new office is in that building," one of our escorts said.
      "I like the building," I said. It was a sharp contrast to the pure white and silver of the Congress in that it was several different shades of natural colors including green reminiscent of the forest around us, and instead of looking like a building, it could have almost grown from the soil beneath it. "But very soon now I'll be a doctor, not a President. So I want to see the hospital too." I had been jokingly calling the idea 'My own Bossa Nova', but I had only told Mateo that one. And he had kissed me for it.
      "Yes, ma'am, it's next on the tour."

      We walked in to the Executive Office Building and I was surprised that I didn't see a light fixture anywhere. Instead, every room and hallway were lit by the walls and ceiling themselves.
      When I walked into the office there was applause from several of my staff.
      "Now we have to decide when to move up here," I said.
      "Yes, ma'am, but I wanted to ask you...." General Branto stopped in mid sentence, "What is that?"
      The five Panna that were with us all squealed loudly and dropped to the floor.
      "The First." I heard in my head.
      "It didn't speak but..." Mateo said shaking his head.
      "We. The First." I heard again before I could say anything.
      "What is a First?" General Branto said to it.
      But it was gone.
      The Panna wouldn't say a word about it although they obviously all knew what it was, but instead of telling us, or doing anything else, they huddled together and shivered for over an hour.

      It took several calls to find out that The First were a non-physical alien race that had contacted the Fleet about a possible treaty negotiation with the enemy.
      "Why was it in my office?" I asked them.
      "I don't know, ma'am."

      Mateo scarcely let me alone long enough for me to go to the bathroom by myself. I suspected he made sure I was asleep before he fell asleep, and if I got up in the night and he felt it, as he usually did, he would come and check on me.
      "I don't want The First beaming you up or something without my knowing it," he'd said.
      All I could do was hold his hand and shake my head. Then in a moment I smiled at him, "I've been wondering when to tell you something. Now seems like a good time."

General Muller
Panna Command Ship

      "That is what we want as well. And we are stronger to that end with you than without you."
      "Yes," Coffee said.

      Everybody was staring at me. I thought about it for a second, "If we can build a frontier between ourselves and our allies and their realm, and build a strong enough fleet that any assault would be foolhardy then we can be at peace."
      "You will not attack them?"
      Coffee said it, but I couldn't tell if it was a question or a statement, so I simply restated it while looking at duBrek and the others to gauge their reactions, "We will not attack them unless we are attacked. Then we will defend ourselves." I turned and looked straight at Coffee, "And that includes a preemptive attack against military assets that are being prepared to be used against us, or against somebody that can't defend themselves, like we were when they attacked Earth. That is all I have ever sought to do. If you do not agree with that objective..." I just let it hang in the air unfinished.
      Coffee was silent for a moment and I could almost feel a consultation taking place around us.

      "The First have judged you. The First agree with that objective."

The Message

      "This message is to the A Ne. To the Annunaki. To the Nephalis. To the enemy of all free beings. You are not the masters of the universe any longer."

-end book two-

[Note: All rights reserved, including the right to further publication. Distributed copies to proofreaders and editors remain property of the author. No infringement of copyright is intended. All 'persons' are fictitious, all geographic places, including other planets, are actually there or may be presumed from available data.

All existing science fiction books, movies, TV shows, and son on, referenced in the story is done so with admiration and is meant as a compliment to those classic works. If those who own any of the mentioned works object to their inclusion in this story, said reference will be removed. thank you
Email- dr_leftover{~at~}themediadesk{~dot~}com   Selah ]

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