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in space, all roads are long

"the Squid Guys..." Three

©2018 Levite

to The Squid Guys are the Good Guys: Book One and Book Two

Prologue “we are Freedom”

Spade (Jonathan Avon)
Life Systems Director
Fleet Headquarters

      I was just getting a long cold drink of water after a long warm meeting with several really unhappy suppliers from a trade group that felt they should be paid more for what they sold to the Alliance.
      Their lead Representative threatened everything from an embargo to requiring payment in precious metals and gem stones.
      Well, I've been at games like this for a long time, first in the Coast Guard, and then in civilian life before the attack. So I don't take well to bullies, and even less well to threats.
      So they got even more unhappy when I reminded them that bulk protein could be found elsewhere, for less, and there were even some places where crews from our ships could capture wild game on their own in sufficient quantity to supply several ships for some time. And as for vegetable matter, I reminded them that several hydroponic ships were already producing quite a bit of our needs and with a little ingenuity, they might be able to make more, and that another, even larger class of ship was in development.
      The rep was still posturing, but now he was talking about how they guaranteed the quality of their produce.
      “Yes,” I said, then keyed up a video I'd shot myself not long ago, “most of the time it is good. And I know it's fresh because the little green leggy worm things were still alive.” The video showed a number of them crawling out of a large bundle of thick greens.
      “We limit the use of anti-pest agents, so some things are bound to slip through.”
      I smiled broadly, “It's OK, some of our crew members like them as a special treat.”
      That statement ended the discussion of their quality matters.
      After hours of talk, the only thing that was decided was that they'd keep sending what they could, and we'd pay for it.

      Like I said, I was sitting in my office having a cold glass of fresh water, something almost unheard of when I was serving on spacecraft, when a large group of young Panna came in.
      I've been around them for years. I know a thing or two about our alien friends, these were young, there was no doubt about that, if I had to bet, I'd go with that they were about two years old, and I don't think I'd seen any of them before. I looked at them for a moment and then asked if I could help them with something.
      “We are Freedom.”
      “OK,” was all I could think to say in answer.
      “We need names,” it was a different voice from the same group.
      “All of us need names, we are all Freedom.”
      “All of you are named Freedom?” I asked them trying to figure out what they were talking about.
      “Like you are Spade Avon. Well will be a new name and Freedom.”
      “So you need first names.”

      It took me a while to find out what was going on.
      My new young friends were the first generation of Panna to come of age and be deployed to their ships that had been born free, that is, without Annunaki overlords. So this group had been assigned the last name of 'Freedom'. Another similar group was named 'Liberty', and so on.
      So now instead of being content with the name of a classic car or even one of my favorite cooking ingredients, so there were several Panna running around named after things like cheese and cars from the 1950s, they wanted first names that went with their last names.
      “How many of the Freedoms are there?”
      “There were one hundred twenty on the transport, they all have taken that family name,” the admin told me.
      “A hundred and twenty,” I said looking back at the group of Panna that had now gotten bigger as more of them had registered with the intake officer. “I need a drink,” I said to her, “and I don't mean water.”

Supreme Commander Muller
Allied Headquarters
Farpoint City, planet Thera (Therron)

      “I'm a General, not a diplomat. I've never even seen a movie about one,” I said to the three High Counselors of the civilian government of our Alliance.
      Mister Takie shook his head, setting his thick, almost fur-like hair, waving, “They won't talk to anybody else. And one of them named you by rank and name. You evidently made a good impression on their delegation after the battle at Parsons Asteroid Field.”
      “It wasn't much of a battle, the Annunaki fleet was beginning to pull out before we even got there. All we had to do was go to the mining facilities and let the slaves loose. And we only saw their delegation for, what, a hot five minutes?”
      “Doesn't matter, with the Oon, the military conducts all treaty negotiations. It doesn't matter if it is for a trade deal, or to define a common border, or even like this, to distribute formerly enemy held star systems between rival powers.”
      “Which reminds me, how did they escape being taken over by the Annunaki in the first place?”
      “That's something you can ask them, or perhaps the Panna know.”
      “No thank you, sir. If I get a chance, I'll ask the Oon.”

      Then I had to give the good news to the commanders of the ships chosen.
      “If I may ask, Supreme Commander, how many ships will be going to the negotiations,” Admiral Singh asked.
      “They want three capital ships, they will allow a few smaller supply ships and transport shuttles, but they expect a sizable show of strength to back up our party. I guess to make sure we're worth talking to. So it will be led by your flagship, with the battleship Vindicator in support, and one of the cruisers with a full compliment of fighters, I haven't picked one yet. Do you have any suggestions?”
      “I wish the Enterprise was space worthy, but from what I hear they're having trouble fixing her this time.”
      “Yes, sir. That would be nice, but we almost lost her out there. You never know, they might make it better before we leave, that's what the lead workers on it keep telling me they're doing. But they won't say how long it'll take.”
      The Admiral of the dreadnought chuckled with me at the truism about dealing with the Panna and their obsession with improving everything.
      Then I nodded, “Let me think about it and I'll get back to you. Who else will be coming with you?”
      “Miss Paige of course, I'm trying to talk Counselor duBrek into reprising his old role of Ambassador, but he's not sure he wants to deal with all that again. Especially not with the Oons.”
      “Why? What aren't they telling us?”
      “From what we can tell, Admiral, the Juul, the Panna, even the First, everybody has given us everything they know, they just don't know a lot about them, except the Annunaki never managed to conquer them. And that their military is something special. Which I suspect has a lot to do with the other bit.”
      “Yes, sir. But that's not a lot to go into a treaty negotiation with.”
      “Agreed. I've got a few contacts in the BrBiscos and some of the others that aren't officially in the Alliance, I've asked around. Some other information is trickling in.”
      “Would you mind if I made a few calls as well. There's a couple of private traders that owe me a few favors.”
      “Please do.”
      “Thank you, General. I'm sorry, Supreme Commander, old habits, you know. We should be at the rendezvous point on time. I look forward to hosting you and your party on the Courage.”
      His smile was genuine, “I actually prefer the title 'General', and for this mission, I am going to use it. The Oons are said to respect actually military ranks more than they do invented ones.”
      “As do I.”

Admiral Singh
dreadnought Profile of Courage
Former Fourth Fleet Command Ship

      And so my ship went from its primary role as a lead warship in a major flotilla against the remaining enemy force, to being the lead diplomatic vessel with a distinguished party of ranking brass on board.
      My first officer was less impressed with the honor than I was.
      “Why us? We were just beginning to run simulations to take out the minefield and automated defenses they left outside the Tolin home system.”
      “I know Commander Gordon. But there are other ships that can clean up that mess.”
      “Not like we can. We could sit out of their range and hammer at it for days. Anything would have to get in closer and be within range of the orbiting automated ion cannons.”
      “Then I'll see if command will save it for you when we get back.”
      “Thank you, Admiral.”
      “In the mean time, we need to get at least seven guest rooms ready for the General and his party,” I glanced over at my Executive Officer and nodded to her, “Commander Wells, that's your department.”
      “The good news is that we have four open spots in section D right now. I'm pretty sure my guys can work up a couple more around there with no problem. After that, I may have to move some people who squatted in private quarters in spite of everything.”
      “Section D. Understood.” I didn't really believe the all of the rumors and stories, but then again, my quarters were in Section B, and I liked it that way. “Have there been any more reports?” When she nodded I added, “serious reports.”
      “Yes, sir. The last was a sighting on corridor eleven again, where three crewmen and two Panna saw a humanoid male walk through a closed door. They even described his uniform.”
      “Another guy in a skirt?”
      “Yes, sir. With the tassels of a lower command grade officer.”
      “Anything on surveillance?”
      “Sort of. We can see that something was moving. But at least this time, we can't identify the face. Not like that last one.”
      She was referring to what I think of as the worst of the sightings from Section D. Not only did the image show up on multiple surveillance cameras as it moved from a supply room to a lift, we were able to do a database search and match the image's face and uniform up with a junior officer that served aboard the Courage some two hundred years ago.
      His name was Hanno Salksveen Tor, his rank was listed as Incumbent Line Officer, which comes through as basically a junior grade lieutenant. Him, and evidently the rest of what we've taken to calling Section D's Night Shift were killed when the section took a direct hit by an anti-matter implosion missile during a battle. The entire section vanished in a stroke. The damage led to the Courage being decommissioned and put in storage for over a century. Then the Panna rebuilt it to the point where unless somebody points it out you cannot tell where the original ship ended and the newly constructed section begins, and it ended up being reassigned to us. And, evidently, the many of the restless spirits of those whose service ended in a spectacular flash of raw energy came with it.
      “Well, let's just hope the General and his people have a sense of humor about sharing their suites with some of our former shipmates.”
      “Yes, sir.”
      “Next on the order, it's going to be a long run, the conference site is more than two weeks out at our best speed, and who knows how long we're going to be sitting out there waiting for them to do their jobs. We need to keep ourselves and our equipment sharp and not let boredom turn us into a big slow moving target.”

Rose and Jay
Alliance battleship Vindicator

      “So how long are you going to be gone this time?” Abbey asked them.
      “I don't know,” Jay answered his mom. “It's some sort of diplomatic mission, I guess for us it's a first contact. All they said was we'd be escorting a command ship and flying CAP while we're there.”
      “You can't fly CAP in space,” Amory chided his friend over the com. “That's combat AIR patrol,” he emphasized the word.
      “So sue me, that's what Captain Deering called it, so that's what I'm calling it.”
      Rose cut in, “they said we'll get leave for a day or so on Earth before we go, that's why we called.”
      “Of course you can come visit,” Abbey answered, “even if it's just for a few hours.”
      “We wondered if everybody could come up to your base, you know, just to make it so we can see everybody at once instead of spending most of our time off flying back and forth.”
      “Sure, I'll check and see if Amory's folks want to come up as well. Do you ever hear from Autumn?”
      “Not much since she was reassigned to Therron. The last I heard was she was taking the test on the language translator at headquarters.”
      “She passed it, and got a job with the fleet's central command,” Amory said with pride. “She outranks me now.”
      “Good for her,” Rose answered immediately.

Reverend Behemial
Orbital Two, Earth

      As the station was being decommissioned, having been replaced by a larger, and much more powerful defensive platform, I thought it would be a good use of the station to have it converted to a religious retreat. Or, perhaps, if not solely a religious retreat, perhaps just an recuperative facility for those that are suffering from physical or emotional exhaustion and, like me, find spending time on Earth almost too painful to endure because of the untold hundreds and thousands of millions that had perished since all of this unfolded.
      I had been in communication with everybody from the Panna construction group to the Alliance representitive to the Supreme Commander's office and they all, to a man, or rather, to a being, agreed that it sounded like a wonderful idea, but they all claimed that they could not approve such a thing. Finally, exasperated, I began asking the crucial question, “If you cannot approve it, who can?”
      It took awhile, and some travel on my part, but eventually I found myself in front of an Alliance Command Officer who was in charge of space-based stations and facilities.
      Since I have been with the human expeditionary force for over two of their years now, I no longer felt uncomfortable talking to members of those who are, to them, and to me, alien races even given my years in the Alliance. I have had telepathic conversations with those who found verbal communications slow or unpleasant. I have stood face to face with those who don't have faces, even the Panna have an eye you can focus on, whereas what the Panna call “species 289” because the species doesn't have a name for itself, they do not have a 'head' to speak of and they communicate with a musical language that takes the Panna disk some time to translate. But now, with my dream, and what I felt was my final calling in the service hanging in the balance, Commander Dollantu from the Hu was standing behind his desk with a totally expressionless face. Because he was a Hu, my eyes were watering and my nose was reacting as my kind tend to be even more sensitive to strong scents than humans, and some Hu manage to live their entire lives without taking a bath.
      Commander Dollantu probably had not bathed in a number of years.
      I stood there, trying not to breathe while he evaluated my request. Then he turned his attention to me without looking directly at me. Something else I found annoying about his kind.
      “You wish to change a military facility into a leisure and academic one?”
      “Yes, Commander,” I said knowing that if I added any further information might offend him, his family, his entire species, and even lead to their withdrawing from the Alliance. As they seemed to do on a regular basis anyway.
      The last time the Hu invalidated the treaty and walked away from the Alliance was because somebody in the central dining room at Headquarters had put a vase of flowers on one of the tables. I don't know why that offended them, but it did, and it caused, what one of my human associates called “a right royal row”.
      “We will have to remove all offensive weapons from the station.”
      “Yes, Commander.”
      “Any maintenance or upkeep to it will have to be negotiated with the Panna separately. The Fleet cannot be responsible for it.”
      “I understand, Commander, I will take care of that.” His eyes tightened and he looked like he was trying to decide whether or not I had offended him, so I immediately added, “Yes, Commander.”
      “All Alliance Military communications and other equipment will have to be removed or disabled.”
      “Yes, Commander,” I said not wishing to test fate again.
      “And I will come myself to inspect the station after the transition to ensure that it is in compliance with these requirements.”
      “Your presence will honor us, Commander.”
      He stood there and stared at me for another long moment.
      “Perhaps I will designate an envoy. Which system is it in?”
      “The Terran system, in orbit of the third planet. Earth. Some call them the Tauri. Commander.”
      Another long stare. As my eyes clouded over and my upper respiratory passages filled with.... I try not to use language like that.
      “Very well, in the interest of maintaining good relations between members of the Alliance. I will approve the arrangement and issue the order.”
      “Thank you very much, Commander.”

      To my surprise, that order came through while I was on the shuttle heading back to the space port to return to Earth. Historically, Hu officials can be so slow to relay a decision, sometimes the decision is made for them by outside forces, which, I believe, is their objective.

      However, the Panna, other Alliance officers, Earth Defense Command, and even the station's CO had other ideas about just how to implement that order.
      While some of the major, obvious, heavy weaponry was removed, the station would still be able to defend itself against a moderate attack. For the communications systems, the Panna simply changed its designation and programmed it to use civilian frequencies except in time of emergency.
      As for the station's commanding officer, she said she was already thinking of retiring, and as she did not want to go back to Earth and try to find someplace to live since where she had called home was now at the bottom of the North Sea just outside of where Amsterdam in the Netherlands had been, she'd stay on the station as a civilian. The survivors in her country had specifically asked the Panna not to restore the old city, instead, a new city, somewhat above sea level, had been built across the inlet from where the original had been.
      “Very good, ma'am,” I said to her, “what should we call your new position here? CO sounds rather militaristic.”
      “I'll think of something.”

      All told, the conversion of the station from a defensive base to a retreat center took far less time than securing the release of the station from the Alliance. And was significantly less unpleasant than dealing with Commander Dollantu.
      To be honest, dealing with the enemy had been less unpleasant than my visit with the Commander.

      We had the decommissioning ceremony, which was attended by a charming young human woman with the delightful name of Autumn from the Fleet Facilities office who was there as Commander Dollantu's envoy, she indicated that her report would consist of a paragraph indicating that the transfer was done as ordered.
      “Anything else will just upset him,” Senior Lieutenant Autumn said, and I agreed.

      Not long afterward I was standing in the observation lounge over the shuttle bay looking out into deep space when I heard the door open and the former CO came in and stood by me for a time.
      At length, she spoke softly to me. “... you just think if you stand there and stare out that window long enough you'll be able to see God.”
      “I can.”

Rose and Jay
Amory, Donna, and Abbey
Bo and Sammi
Elaan and Morn
Marci and Brock
Earth Defense Base, Canada

      Rose and Jay's leave had been reduced to barely a day, but it was enough for them to get here, have a quick visit and a good meal, visit a little more, then get back.
      Autumn had just finished her inspection tour of Orbital Two and was, officially, waiting on the ship that would take her back to Thera, so she had a little more time.
      Bo and Sammy caught a transport up and brought Elaan and the baby with them to see Morn, and Abbey's family came in from Australia, so it was a large gathering and family reunion.
      It was only the second time Brock and Marcie had been to the base and a lot had changed, including Abbey's relationship with Lieutenant Kim. While they weren't married, they were very seriously considering it.
      The base commander thought that having the new lieutenant from the Alliance Headquarters, as well as the couple shipping out as part of the diplomatic flotilla on base was a significant enough of an occassion to host their dinner with whatever sort of dignitary he could talk into coming.
      So now, the family and friends were listening to Prime Minister Williams of Canada thank them for their service to all of humanity. Then he paused, “and I believe we have something special for the occasion,” he said.
      With that, the kitchen staff brought out trays and trays of something and started passing it out.
      “Since the unfortunate incident of a few years ago that resulted in our being brought together here today, our Maple Syrup industry has recovered and has even begun exporting again. And just last week, I declared Maple Syrup Pie the official dessert of the reborn Canada.”

      “What did you think of his pie?” I asked Jay.
      “I'm glad there's a good dentist on the ship,” he answered. “I don't think I've ever had anything so sweet in my life.”
      “I remember when you used to eat raw sugar cane back home and say it wasn't really all that sweet.”
      “It wasn't compared to that pie.”
      “I thought it was good,” Amory said.
      “You must have, you had three pieces,” Donna chided him.
      He smiled and shrugged.

      “Should we rescue the Prime Minister from Bo?” Sammi asked us.
      I looked over where the small group was talking animatedly about something. Every once in awhile somebody from the group laughed.
      “No, I think they're having a good time,” Brock chuckled.
      Autumn thought about it, then she said she knew just what to do.

      It only took a moment for the group to notice her in her splendid dress uniform and for several of them to come to attention.
      In a moment the group was laughing and the Prime Minister was nodding enthusiastically.
      Autumn thanked them and walked back to us with her arm linked to her father's.

      “What did you say to him?” Sammi asked her.
      Bo answered for her, “She asked Mister Williams to send the recipe and some of the syrup out to Thera, she said it might just be what they need to sweeten up Commander Dollantu.”

      Jay and Rose had to leave first, the Vindicator was getting ready to head to the rendezvous and they had to be on board.
      There were hugs and kisses all around, then those that were in the landing area saluted them as they boarded their ship, then they lifted off and headed out to meet the battleship.

      We watched them go, then went to see when Autumn's transport would be coming in and then we had to say goodbye to her.
      Later, we said goodbye to Marci and Brock as they had a chance to catch a shuttle back home.

      Finally, Morn was holding his son and saying goodbye to Elaan while I talked to Sammi like I'd known her all my life. And really, it seems I had since we had so much in common from the last couple of years.
      “Come on, or the transport is going to leave without us,” Bo said to get the others moving.
      And then, they were gone as well.

      Morn stood there and watched the skimmer fly south. “It seems Chugi has grown so much since the last time I saw him. And it has only been a short time.”
      Amory nodded, “He's growing like a weed.”
      “Kids do that, don't they?” Donna said to me.
      “Yes.” A low tone told us that shift change was coming up, “Aren't you supposed to go back on duty?” I asked Morn.
      “Yes, but I am grateful for the chance to have seen my family and friends again. Thank you for including us in your plans.”
      I had to hug him, “You and Elaan have become just like family to us. And now, Chugginth as well.”
      He thanked me again, “And all of you are just as special to us. Now, I must go get ready.”
      “When are we back on duty?” Amory asked Donna.
      “Next rotation. So we need to get to sleep.”
      He frowned, but nodded. “Back to the real world.”

Captain Rios
Toller heavy cruiser Blade of Redemption
Temporary assignment, diplomatic mission support

      “Record, mission situation report, ship's status, fighter wing.
      “Our final allotment of fighters arrived two hours ago. All have been inspected and accepted. Our compliment of active single man fighters now stands at one hundred eighty ships of a full compliment of one hundred sixty. Which means we have twenty in ready-reserve in the all too common occurrence of ship assigned to a given flight is not serviceable when the time to launch comes. I have already made a request for an additional twenty ships, I do not know if those will be forthcoming or not.
      “Our compliment of combat support ships, including troop landing craft is full. We only have one fighter support ship in reserve for our fleet of twelve operational units. I have requested two additional operational units be assigned, with crews, and one additional reserve. I have heard through unofficial channels that one of those will be on board before we leave. As for ground attack bomber ships with two man crews, we have fifty on board with no reserves. But as those are assigned at need and not deployed in active squadrons the idea of a reserve is less important.
      “As for transport shuttles and courier craft, we have several more on board than our specified compliment to support the diplomatic mission to come. Fortunately, each came with its own crew, and an overall support platoon, and I have been told that, at need, they can be used to supplement our own normally assigned ships and crews.
      “And even with all of the new hands on board, the Blade still has several sections that are dark because they are not needed. Which, I believe is a good thing as we have other uses for them. Such as one of the smaller cargo bays which several of our crew have converted into a brewery. But so it has been on warships since the dawn of time.”

      “Continue recording. Status, ship's on board systems. Chief Engineer Swanson reports that all systems are fully operational with one exception. He is not satisfied with our energy reserves. It is worth noting that before our last mission he was also not satisfied with our energy reserve which the monitors showed at one hundred and nineteen percent of capacity. When I was on my tour less than an hour ago, I noted the capacity of the main reserves at one hundred and twelve percent and the backups at one hundred and sixteen percent.
      “Coming to our ship's primary weapons. The Panna have reported that they have upgraded the forward facing plasma cannons for ship to ship attack. The leader of their work group, who called itself Donatello, told me quite excitedly that the main cannon are now capable of a sustained rate of fire of over ten bolts per minute, each. I asked if our energizers were capable of feeding power to those weapons to support that and it assured me that they were. The rear cannon have also been upgraded but, for reasons the Panna did not make entirely clear, can only fire at a rate of eight bolts a minute.
      “Close in defense systems have also been upgraded, but not as significantly.
      “The Panna have for some reason also not satisfactorily explained, taken it upon themselves to upgrade our ship's internal communications and entertainment system. They have now arranged it so that wherever you are on the ship, say in a corridor, or perhaps even in the head, one can request that a live com link be opened and you can watch and listen to very nearly anything you want, or talk to somebody else on the ship, or even just monitor the open channel and be entertained by the non-secure ship com traffic such as the current menu in the galley or the comings and goings of transports. They said this made it 'better'.
      “That remains to be seen.”

      There is an obvious pause in the recording.

      “Continue recording. Crew readiness. I have requested and it was allowed and they have arrived several xeno-specialists, and their related equipment and baggage. We now have a meaningful alien encounter section. I thought it was best as we will be hosting several of the meetings between lower level groups during the negotiations dealing with technology exchange and trade if we had people available who understood what we were dealing with. Some of those are human, others are not, and there are a few Panna in the group who, I have been told, are masters of assimilating new ideas and concepts and translating them for others.
      “That, too, remains to be seen.”
      “Continue recording. The Blade is almost fully manned, to the point that I believe and have listed us as operational. The ranking officers and the majority of the crew are well seasoned and majority have had their immersion in fire. I can and will say without hesitation that the Blade of Redemption is ready for whatever this mission holds, and we will acquit ourselves and the fleet with honor.”
      “End of mission readiness overview, Captain Jonathan Rios, reporting. End recording.”

Captain Deering
battleship Vindicator

      Command Journal entry.
      I seriously appreciated the assignment to join the diplomatic fleet.
      I needed a break. As did my crew. And my ship needed a break.
      Let me describe it for you.
      We had been part of the detachment sent to secure an important space lane between several member worlds. Once the A-Nah had pulled out of the sector, several bands of pirates, privateers, and mercenaries moved in. Even armed cargo vessels and merchant convoys had been raided, sometimes to the point where Alliance ships couldn't find any trace of them. Then later, the hull would turn up in a salvage yard someplace, without its crew or cargo.
      And so we began a series of runs against them. Doing everything from baiting them with cargo ships while we sat concealed in a dust cloud, or even disguising our own ship as a slow moving automated hauler.
      To put it neatly, the pirates did not see the humor in the situation and objected in the strongest of terms.

      The Panna just rebuilt one of our landing bays. One of our engines is still down, waiting on parts that the Panna claim take a long time to build, but we will be able to make the journey without it. Some secondary weapons systems have yet to be tested, and a few are only now being reinstalled.
      We have crew members in medical bays on Alliance planets and other ships scattered all over the sector. Our own medical bay was so badly damaged during one attack that we are still using one of the galleys as an out patient word. Again, the Panna say it will 'be better' but they don't say when.
      I have to put this in my journal. The Panna rebuilding crew seems to have taken lessons from somebody about how to not answer specific questions. They talk around the subject, they say it will be better with about every other sentence, whichever one you asked will look down and a different one will say something that makes no sense. And so on. But they do work, some of them are always on duty working with their machines, or in their manufacturing thing in the one landing bay, or scurrying back and forth. When they were all together it was the largest single group of the creatures I'd ever seen. All told there are a hundred and twenty of them, some working on a three shift rotation, some working other variations, but it is still taking a long time, even though there is a lot to do.
      And I need to add this. The Panna did something for me that I did not ask for, I did not expect, and, truth be told, it took me awhile to decide if I was flattered or offended. I decided it was better for all that I consider it a compliment and an honor that they did it for me. They totally redesigned and remodeled the personal facilities in the captain's quarters. I don't know how they did it, but they made the room itself bigger, added a large bathtub, installed the fanciest mirror arrangement I've ever seen that could show me every angle of view possible of myself including whether or not my duty shoes were fastened correctly, and a sound system that would serve better in the crew auditorium for recitals.
      When I asked the Panna that appeared to be the supervisor what they were doing it looked at me and said, “The other humans say you are a pretty woman, we have learned that pretty women like this. We did one for President Santiago and she liked it.” All I could do was stand there and watch three other Panna using a multi-armed terrible machine of destruction take my bathroom apart and put it back together at the same time. Then I went down the passage and borrowed a guest suite for the evening. But I have to say that I do love the final result. After another day of dealing with the refit and tracking down several injured crewmen that had been transferred to yet another medical facility, and asking fleet command why we'd been sent seven fighters instead of three support shuttles, after that, I needed that bathroom, and I spent over an hour in there, surrounded by excellent music, wonderful scents, and swirling warm water. And then, later, I became The Captain again, and went to the bridge to see if there was an answer to any of the questions I asked.

      We have new crewmen to replace those that were killed or injured, but we are missing a few key positions, and some of those who have arrived are still learning their positions. If we were scheduled to go back into battle against either the A-Nah or the privateers I would ask for more time to prepare to run drills and battle simulations. But as I have been repeatedly assured that this was a peace conference and the chances of running into any hostile forces was nearly zero... I have scheduled a series of drills and battle simulations beginning as soon as the Panna get their fabrication machine out of the landing bay.

First Officer Vansen
      The Vindicator still looks like hell inside and out, but we have been cleared to take part in the mission to the treaty conference. In spite of that, or maybe because of it, Captain Deering ordered me to take six hours off and go get some sleep. I tried, I really tried, but I could hear stuff other than the ongoing endless hum of the engines and other background sounds that permeated all areas of the ship. And so while I believe I did rest, I think I may have only gotten a couple of hours of actual sleep. Then, instead of going back to the bridge and facing her, I went to check on the belly guns of the Close Defense System that had been shredded during the battle. It was where we had taken the most casualties, and the most damage. Indeed, there were those who were surprised that the Vin hadn't broken in two, but the old girl is tougher than she looks and we were able to finish the fight. And win!

      The Panna had promised that that entire region of the ship would be better, that the gun emplacements would be hardened, and the weapon systems themselves would be more efficient and even able to tell friend from foe. Which they then extended to every other offensive system on the ship to 'make them better'. Now from one of the side ports I can see a construction machine crawling along the keel, and I knew there was an almost identical machine working its way along the inside with it. Taking the ragged metal and exposed pipes and circuitry and turning that mess back into a space ship.
      The process seemed to be agonizingly slow, but in reality, they'd only been at it in any serious way for only a few days, and now they were almost done with that section.

      “I thought you'd ignore my order and do something like this.” I heard the Captain say from behind me.
      “I did go lay down for a while. But then....” I gestured to the work being done.
      “I know, I do the same thing,” she answered and handed me a cup of tea. “Pavel said they are about to install the new rail gun for bank nine, wanna go watch?”
      “Yes, ma'am.”

Supreme Commander Muller
dreadnought Profile of Courage
Diplomatic mission fleet departure point

      It took all I could do to stand at attention, in my dress uniform, for all the pomp and circumstance Admiral Singh could muster. Finally he shook hands all around and he indicated it was my turn to make a speech.
      “Thank you,” I paused for a moment and tried to come up with the best way to say it, finally, I just said it. “We're going to engage with a species that nobody in the Alliance knows very much about. Our objective is to negotiate several treaties at once, including establishing an extensive common border, and to ensure peace between us and them. While this isn't technically a First Contact situation, it is, for all intents and purposes, an official first contact. And we need to make the best impression we can, which involves all of us, besides the delegation, it includes every ship, every crewman. We all have to work at it. Can I count on you?”
      They all said something along the lines of 'yes, sir'.

      After the ceremony we took a brief tour of the ship, and then, finally, were escorted to our quarters.

      “And, Supreme Commander, don't be alarmed if you see some sort of apparition in the section, they appear once in awhile, but never interact with the current crew,” the Junior Officer from one of the Allied Planets, which one I'm not sure although she appeared to be somewhat human-ish and seemed to be female, that was showing me my quarters said.
      “Please, 'General' will do for this mission. You mean you've got ghosts on the Courage?”
      “We refer to them as the Late Shift.”
      “Miss Paige will be told about them as well, right?”
      “Of course, sir.”
      I looked around, the room was, in a word, serviceable. There was no fake portal looking out to a projected view of space, or anything else to give the impression other than that I was somewhere deep within the bowels of one of the largest vessels in space. “It'll do for the duration,” I said to the young officer.
      “Your bags should be here soon,” she said and looked out into the corridor. “I can go find them if you wish.”
      As she turned away from me I noticed that the skin of her face had some of the texture of soft leather. Like I remembered a pair of doeskin slippers I'd been given as a child.
      “No, that's all right, they'll turn up eventually. Where is the conference rooms for us and the reception area where the first meetings will take place?”
      “They're in another section, sir.”
      “Can we go see them?”
      “Yes, sir.” She checked a data pad, evidently making sure she knew where we were going, “Please, Supreme Commander, follow me.”
      Her entire manner was so formal I suspected even the Toller, who thrive on it, would be put off by her.
      “Junior Officer Nichols.” I said in my command voice.
      She snapped to attention, “Yes, Supreme Commander.”
      “First. At ease.”
      She had been briefed enough to know what that command meant and complied.
      “Now. For the duration of this mission I am using my old command rank of General. Specifically, a General in the United States Air Force, temporarily assigned to the Alliance Fleet. So, the term 'General' will do quite nicely.”
      “Yes, sir. General.”
      “Third. I'm told you will be my liaison officer for the voyage.”
      “I am one of three assigned. One for each shift, we will each have an assistant once you've established your office.”
      “My office?”
      “Yes, General. Through here,” she indicated a side passage that I thought was a closet or something.
      “OK, in a second. But the third thing is that when you are working with me, I want you to be more comfortable and casual.”
      “I'm not sure what you mean, General.”
      “If I were a, I'm sorry, what species are you?”
      “All of the assistants are Paxton. The Pax are not an official member of the military alliance, my rank is honorary for my service here to you.”
      It took me a moment to digest that, I'd heard about the Pax and have worked with a few of them. They were very good at what they did, but one of the things they didn't do was the military.
      “OK, if I were a Pax official of some sort, say an administrator, and you were my assistant, how would you act.”
      She thought about it, “It is our custom to address each other by our chosen name, it would be what you call your first name. I would be Neec instead of Officer Nichols.”
      “My name is Eugene, but when others from the command are in our office, it would probably be best to stick to the titles. And I will make the same speech to the others assigned to my detail.”
      “Yes, General. I agree.”
      “Very good, we've achieved our first treaty together. Let's go see this office we're talking about and go from there.” I paused and made a point of saying her name, “Neec.”
      “Yes,” it took her a moment, “Eugene.”

      The office was larger than the living quarters, with several very minimalist style desks, a couple of large displays on the walls, and a small conference area in one corner. Along one side was a row of cabinets with shelves above, already loaded with everything from bound copies of relevant documents to odd technological things that I assumed somebody would explain when the time came.
      I picked the desk off to one side nearest the conference set up, Junior Officer Nichols took the one closest the door, then changed her mind, “If I am to assist you, I should be closer to you, my assistant can be at the door.”
      “That sounds like it will work. Can we go see the meeting room now?”

Earth Defense Base, Canada

      I had never wanted to be a command officer. I remember even stating that in the interview I had with the base commander and several others.
      But, things being what they are, and me knowing it was easier for me to stay in touch with Jay since he decided to go with Rose and join the fleet, I stayed on at the base and became one of the Originals. And as others rotated through, the Originals were advanced in grade and rank, even over some of our more heartfelt objections.
      So now here I was, the Second Officer on the Third Shift. Sitting in the command room, watching monitors and listening to the endless chatter of the orbital bases and deep space patrols as they watched for bad guys. We also handled incoming and outgoing space traffic in our sector, kept up on civilian air traffic in the general area of the base, rotated the assignments of which squadrons were assigned to the active list and who was available as backup. And so on.

      The room was always manned. There was Always an officer and at least two non-coms on duty. Period. Usually there was a Senior Officer who would effectively be the Base Commander if an alert sounded. Their Second, me, tonight, and three non-coms, two on the consoles, and one in relief, currently, making a fresh pot of coffee and getting ready for the lunch run to the galley. If there was an alert, the number of people in the room would increase dramatically and the dark consoles around the outside would come to life.
      Being the Second meant that if the Officer On Duty had to go to the bathroom, or for some reason couldn't work their shift, I was it. I had recently spent three shifts in command in a row, one of those when our base would have been the lead surface base to respond to any threat, and I didn't like it. But, it was my duty, I had been very well trained and by then had a couple of years of experience, so I knew I could do my job.
      But I still didn't have to like it.

President Dr. Yarah Santiago
Nova Brasilia City, Brazil

      “I'm so glad that's over,” I sighed and slipped off my shoes.
      “You were wonderful,” Mateo said as he made me a drink.
      “You always say that.”
      “Because you are always wonderful.”
      “The whole thing was your idea.”
      “The people needed it. We needed to do it. They needed to see you do it,” he said as he handed me the glass.
      I took a sip and nodded, “I know. We had to do something to solidify the idea that this is the capital of the country. And we did.”
      “There's still the championship game tomorrow, and then the trophy presentation.”
      “And we'll go, but the parade is over. That's what I dreaded,” I mimicked the wave and smile I had used for an hour while riding in the antique car somebody had found and got to run.
      “You should go to the victory parade in the winner's home town.”
      “I've got a meeting, I'll send you to represent me.”
      He shook his head, “I love you, too.”
      All I could do was smile at him.

      It had been Mateo's idea. All his idea. Even the parade.
      We realized we had moved the seat of government into the rebuilt city of Brasilia well over a year ago. But Mateo found a group of official actions, including a body of legislation that I had signed in a brief ceremony, and he had declared that day the 'ceremonial' opening of government operations in the new city, and he had worked out a series of events to commemorate that about two months down the road. Which gave us time to plan and organize.
      We had a football tournament and invited all the new teams from the various newly founded or rebuilt cities in the country. There was a massive street festival, art exhibits, a series of concerts, and more.
      Mateo had arranged for transports to bring people in from all over the country. He even convinced the new global network to carry our games and broadcast the parade as an example to the rest of the world about how to take this step. And, to be fair, several others have used our model to mark the new beginning.

      It was a raging success and did seem to give us something of a sense of being Brazilians again instead of survivors in widely scattered settlements, some of who had just gotten used to having light after dark in their homes again.
      Most of our cities put together some sort of all star team to send to the capital to play from the players in what amounted to a local league instead of even a statewide league. In a couple of cases, like Manaus, where there had been several clubs at different levels, since the attack, they were lucky to field one full strength team.
      Now, while the tournament was still in progress, there was open talk of starting a Champions league for the country. I don't know how far it'll get, but it is a good sign that we are at least trying to resume life again instead of just surviving.

      Madam President was still whispering about how good it was that some of the leaders of the various states and cities were discussing football again when I walked up to her and carefully lifted the glass from her hand.
      She was asleep.

      Yarah pretends that she would rather go back and be a simple country doctor again, or even perhaps open a practice here in the city. But I know she cares deeply for this country and its people. And, that was one reason I wanted to have the festival. To show her that most of the people of our country care about it almost as much as she does.
      Yes, she had to sit on the back of the car and wave at them for an hour. And smile, and shout back at them when they cheered her. But she understood that they were more than cheering for her, they were cheering for our country again.

      And, really, she got as big of cheers as the two teams that are playing tomorrow for the championship.
      And that was good for me to hear.

Admiral Khaan Singh
dreadnaught Profile of Courage

      “Supreme Commander on the Bridge,” I announced as the lift doors opened.
      “You may all resume your duties.”
      “Thank you, Commander,” I said for my crew.
      “The fleet reports that all ships are ready to depart for the rendezvous. Given our expected transit time, we should arrive at the assigned coordinates with just over two days to spare.”
      “Very well, Admiral,” General Muller glanced toward my communications station, “With the Admiral's indulgence, please give me a fleetwide broadcast channel.”
      As is customary, the officer glanced at me and I nodded gravely, then she carried out the order, “Channel open, sir.”

      “This is Supreme Commander, General Muller, to all ships in the convoy, all stations, and all hands. Prepare for transit to the summit coordinates. Acknowledge when ready for departure.”
      It only took a minute for the other two major ships and the seven smaller support ships to answer.
      “Very well, Set course, velocity five, and engage on my mark.”
      I felt his pause was suitably dramatic.

      The advantage of being on a warship that is larger than most asteroids is that you do not feel the acceleration. At all. Not only do our inertial compensators negate the effects of the acceleration, the Courage simply does not accelerate that quickly. We had to run at velocity six for some time to catch up to the smaller vessels and assume our place in the lead of the fleet.
      The General never knew the difference.

      “How long to the rendezvous?” I asked our navigation officer once we were well on our way.
      “Would you like it in days or hours, sir?”
      “Days will be fine.”
      “At current speed of five point one four, just over twelve days.”
      I turned to the Supreme Commander, “Should we bump the speed up a notch? The Chous supply shuttle 'Kamala' can run at five point five with no problem if they slip into the wake Blade of Redemption.”
      The General looked at the screen which showed our ships in a staggered line behind us with the long range fleet transport shuttle highlighted. “Check with them and make sure they're good doing that, then ease it up as much as they are comfortable with.”
      “Aye, sir.”
      “Admiral. The bridge and the convoy are yours until we reach the destination. I believe I have a series of briefings to attend. Unless, of course, you would rather sit in for me. I could mind the store.”
      “No, Supreme Commander, that honor is all yours. But thank you, I have the bridge.”
      He bowed graciously to me, then nodded to my crew, and walked toward the lift, where he paused.
      “You're certain, Admiral Singh.”
      “Yes, General Muller.”

First Officer Vansen
battleship Vindicator

      We were underway on four out of six engines.
      Nobody had figured out why one of our good engines went into full shut down the instant the helm put power to it. We're able to maintain speed, but only just. The four remaining engines are operating at very nearly full power. Our ever dramatic chief engineer assures us in the best Toller tradition that even though the readings indicate things are within the specs for normal operation, that if we increase our speed even a tiny fraction more we'll be blown to smithereens. And then, when the fleet increased speed from five - one to five-four, the readings didn't change all that much, but Commander Bell was convinced that at any moment everything would redline and we'd end up drifting in space waiting on a tow back to the shipyard.
      And yet, even while he fretted and stewed and seemed to be continuously staring at the readouts, he was pouring over schematics and the error messages and everything associated with engine three which had decided to take the day off.
      “I don't know, sir,” he said for the fifth time in as many minutes, “she just shut down. No supercritical reaction alert, no overtemp, it just quit.”
      “What's your best guess, Joe?” I asked using the humanized form of his name.
      “Microfissures in the injection body, just outside what's covered by the sensor net. It doesn't see the cracks, but it does detect the instability in the field.”
      “And we can't fix that in space.”
      “Probably not, sir. Not while we're underway.”
      “Any way to verify that that is the problem?”
      He nodded over to an access portal where three Panna were standing over a pile of odd parts and fittings, staring up into the darkness, “Skippy and Jif are in the Jefferies tube right now with a crawler that is going to get in there and run a probe into the chamber. That should tell us in no uncertain terms what it is.”
      I had long since ceased to be surprised by Panna names, “How long?”
      “They've been up there quite a while, shouldn't be long, now.”
      “I'll wait, that way I don't have to come back when the Captain wants an update in person.”

Supreme Commander Muller
dreadnought Profile of Courage

      I stopped by my quarters and got out of my dress uniform and into an old set of very comfortable fatigues that I used to work in. In fact, they were one of the last remnants of that other life of mine, back when I was just a Captain, in the regular service, doing routine missions, and looking forward to nothing more than spending my leave on Maui with a woman I had almost talked into coming with me. I brushed at the old double silver bars on the collar. Now a bit tarnished and worn.
      I'd found the shirt in a suitcase in what was left of my place on base in Washington after the attack. Nothing else there was worth even carrying away. As for what happened to Maria's place in Portland, we couldn't even tell where the area she lived had been, just north of Rose Park in eastern Portland. Where she worked in the industrial area was worse. It was all simply gone, back to being part of the river.
      I shook the thought off. A lot of people had ceased to exist that day. And now, I was here as a direct result of it.
      “Been a long strange trip,” I said to the insignia. I put it on and tugged at the hem, it still fit good, and it was almost relaxing to wear. “And now, to the office.” I picked up a small satchel that I had taken to carrying even though I really didn't need to, I felt like I should carry something to indicate I was working and not just wandering around trying to avoid talking to politicians and others who wanted to get ahead by being seen with me.
      Then I opened the door to the short hallway that connected my quarters to the office.

Paige Taylor
      I had decided that I would take the quarters on the other side of the General's office. The rooms were smaller than the ones they had indicated for me, but I was OK with that. It was within steps of both his workspace and his quarters, but were still separate. Qi-Shi's rooms were right around the corner, and the rest of the staff were spread out through the section in something of a cul du sak corridor away from the main nerve center of the ship, and several decks away from where the negotiations would take place.
      All in all, I liked the arrangement, until they told me the area was haunted.
      “Well,” I said to the officer who was standing between me and Qi-Shi, “I think we've heard everything now.”
      “Indeed,” the strategist said. “I've never seen a ghost, that would make it a most interesting trip.”

      We didn't have to wait long.
      Several of us were sorting our luggage while the General was up on the bridge getting the fleet going when Qi-Shi emitted a low whistle that usually indicated he was deep in thought.
      I looked up just in time to see what appeared to be a Scotsman in a kilt walk along the corridor just down from Qi-Shi's room, then it slowly faded from view even while it was still walking.
      “OK, we've seen it, can we go home now?” I said.
      “That was one of the crewmen from when this was a Toller ship. It was heavily damaged and the Panna rebuilt it, but the ghosts showed up after it was recommissioned. The Toller had trouble keeping crew on it, so they retired it,” Officer Brooks said.
      “Is that how you usually see them?” Qi-Shi asked.
      “Yes, just like that. Now we probably won't see that one again for a day or two. But there are others.”
      “Always like that? In the same place doing the same thing?” I asked him.
      “As far as I know. Yes, walking, sitting, there is one that looks like she is sleeping although there is no bunk.”
      “And they never react to you?”
      “No, if you are in their way they may just vanish and reappear on the other side.”
      “Qi-Shi, that sounds familiar.”
      He nodded, “I know, I've heard of that, and in fact, I'm betting it has something to do with the way the Panna rebuilt the ship.”
      “We need to get ready for the first briefing, then you can solve the mystery.”
      “I think I can do both.”
      “Of course. But first, put this bag in General Muller's quarters.”
      “Yes, ma'am.”

General Muller
      The first shock I got was when I walked into my office and the only one in there was Officer Nichols at her desk next to mine. Except she wasn't wearing her uniform, in fact, what she was wearing looked more like an oversized T-shirt than anything else.
      Then I remembered I told her I wanted her to be comfortable, and I myself wasn't exactly wearing my assigned uniform of rank.
      She stood up when I walked in and I told her to 'be as you were'.
      In a moment, another Officer from her people came in, wearing the same sort of attire. She put the items she was carrying on the desk by the door and came to attention. I repeated the statement to her.

      Before I could say or do anything else Miss Paige and Qi-Shi and a couple of others carried in all sorts of stuff and in a matter of moments what had been a more or less sparse room became a working office and command center for the mission.
      “Oh, yeah,” Qi-Shi said when I pointed out Officer Nichol's outfit, “they wear those, and less, when amongst their own kind, the uniforms are a concession to the Alliance.”
      I saw the twinkle in his eye and asked him to explain.
      He stepped closer to me and whispered, “The Pax are not like humans, or the Toller, or even the Juul, sir. There is no significant anatomical difference to speak of between male and female that is usually visible, and their skin, as you can see, is thicker and tougher than ours. On their world, they'll only wear clothing as safety gear for things like working with heavy machinery or chemicals and things like that.”
      “So in an office....” I trailed off.
      “They're just as likely to be naked as not, if it isn't too cold in the room. They are probably wearing that because it is a bit chilly in here.”
      “I'll keep the AC on,” I nodded to the control on the wall, “I'm not ready to go full native yet.”
      “Me either, sir.”

      In a few minutes I sent the message to the Alliance representative in charge of making sure I didn't make a complete fool of myself in front of the Oon delegation that we were ready for our first session.

      I felt we covered almost everything there was to cover in that first session.
      The Oon were humanoid, an apparently ancient race that had been living on the edge of Annuaki space, and may in fact be an offshoot of it, but had remained independent from them for over a thousand years with little trouble. And now, they just wanted to ensure that they'd continue to be left alone.
      And that was about it.
      Their military was almost entirely separate from their civilian administration, and besides defending the realm and maintaining civil order, they conducted all relationships with outside forces. Which now included us.
      Mister Munson was quite specific as he explained it. “We do know that if you are an officer in the service that you are prohibited for the rest of your life from serving as any more than a minor functionary in the government for the rest of your life. As it was explained to me, if you are an officer and leave the service and get a job with the government, you might deliver the mail, but you're barred from being the postmaster. Or if you went into the medical field, you might be a doctor or nurse, but never be the administrator of the hospital. Or perhaps a town clerk, but not mayor, and if you ran for mayor, you'd find MPs on your doorstep.”
      “Total separation between the military and the rest of their society?” I asked.
      “Very nearly so. Of course they have citizens serving, but they just don't usually advance to command ranks. We have been unable to confirm it, but it would seem that the cutoff is about the equivalent rank of First Lieutenant or so.”
      “Where do the command officers come from?” Paige asked.
      “We're not sure of that either. There are rumors that they're from old military families and it is almost a society of its own. A sub culture of military service going back hundreds of years with its schools for its youth and all.”
      “But they're the ones who will represent the interests of the larger Oon people at the negotiations.”
      “Yes. From what I understand, nobody in their delegation will be from the civilian government, and they have requested essentially the same from us.”
      “So where are you going to be?”
      “Sufficient honorary ranks have been granted, and to ensure we do not contaminate the proceedings, we'll be restricted to our quarters during the negotiations unless we are needed.” He paused, then moved on the to topic of the regions of space we were talking about and the various inhabited planets and stations involved.

      We went on for quite a while, then broke for a meal. I know that thinking in terms of breakfast-lunch-supper on an alien world or, now, on an alien spacecraft, was meaningless. So, in that spirit, we simply broke for a meal.
      I had been on this type of massive ship before, and had experienced their food arcades before, so I knew that back further in the bulk of the ship were the dedicated single type of meal facilities while slightly forward and above the office was a smaller one that had a little bit of everything, and had it all the time, so we went there.
      My favorite from their offerings was something that reminded me of a reuben sandwich, except I know it was not made with either corned beef or saurkraut. The last time I got one, a Panna cook that Mr. Spade had named Rotel explained what it was made from, and, in spite of knowing that the protein component used to be some sort of fish, it's still my favorite for a mid-day meal.
      Qi-Shi liked something they made that was outrageously spicy with a type of rice.
      And Miss Paige proved once again that she liked to try something new, without actually trying something new.
      “It's the salad I usually get with a bit of grilled....” she paused, “with something grilled on top. I'll have to ask Officer Brooks what she called it again.”

      After we ate Mr. Qi-Shi said there was an unusual feature on this ship that we might like to go see.
      “Sure,” I answered for everybody, and he indicated for us to follow him.
      “From what I read about the Profile of Courage, when it was initially built nearly four hundred of our years ago, it was a transition phase between the original Toller design and the newer, more efficient designs.”
      “This ship is that old?” Mister Munson asked.
      “Yes, the overall space frame was laid down something along three hundred and eighty years ago, that would be,” he paused, thinking.
      “Two hundred and sixty of your Senjons, Sir.” Paige said to our briefing officer.
      “Thank you, Miss, but I'm fairly comfortable with your time references.”
      Qi-Shi pushed an actual button on a large door in the passage between this section and the next, “This is where the old and the new came together and they didn't know what to do, so they did, nothing.”
      His 'nothing' was to install a large window along the side of the passage where it arced around the interior landing bay for smaller ships of all descriptions.
      Several decks below us, and continuing some distance above us, was the giant open space with all sorts of activity going on, even while, outside the space doors we could see the gray hazy energy of the drive field and a few slightly blurry stars beyond.
      “Amazing,” Mr. Munson said. “You'd think we were on a space station or a base on a planet. It's huge.”
      “Yes, on newer ships the landing bays for fighters and shuttles are separate, some are even in pods on the side of the ship to make them easier to access and any damage to it less likely to spread to other more sensitive parts of the ship.”
      “I remember reading where on some designs the landing pod can even be jettisoned in case of attack or accident.”
      “Exactly. This, is pretty much a big target in the middle of the ship.”
      We stood for a few moments and watched as some parts were loaded onto a high speed shuttle. Then it lifted off and flew toward the far space door where it interacted with the force field for a second, then it was gone.

      After a brace of high speed reconnaissance fighters flew in through the space door on our side of the ship I said something about it was time for us to quit watching the Courage's crew work and for us to get back to our own work.
      “Yes, sir,” some of the party answered, and I asked Mr. Qi-Shi how to get back to the office.
      He pretended to be, as I've heard it put, 'confuzzled', then he smiled and said the lift was “over there.”
      It was.

First Officer Vansen
battleship Vindicator

      “Sir, the supply shuttle with the engine parts just left the Profile of Courage. It should be here in a few minutes.”
      “Thank you, our crew will meet it at the main hanger,” I said to the com panel and glanced at Engineer Bell. He nodded and went to round up some help.

      The news from the Panna hadn't been all bad, but it was bad enough. While there were microscopic, and almost even molecular level cracks in the reaction chamber, that wasn't what caused the failure. It was the reaction sensor net itself that had failed, generated false readings, and had to be replaced. But they still couldn't say why the net had failed, only that they were still analyzing the data and needed to do their joining to finish it. Then the Panna said their funny looking worm probe machine could seal the cracks, then we had to replace the sensor net to get the engine back online. Eventually though, the aging housing had to be replaced.
      “How long?” I asked the engineer as he inspected the new sensor net.
      “Well, the Panna and their machines are good, but even they can't do this. Somebody with bones in their fingers has to get inside the chamber and pull the old net out, one strand at a time, and then replace it. There's what look all the world like shirt snaps mounted inside the chamber, they’re lined up along the magnetic field generators that you have to connect it to.”
      “Who's going to do it?”
      Bell was a true engineer. “I'll do the first shift. And the last one. Some of the others will have to relieve me. Nobody can do all of it, and I don't think more than two of us will fit in there at a time. It may have to be one at a time. I think there's seventy strands in that unit. Maybe more. I'll check again here in a minute.”
      “Show me what to do and I'll take a turn.”
      “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

      There's eighty one side strands of the sensor net in the reaction chamber ranging from over two meters long to a handful that were a few centimeters. The chief showed me how to pull the old one and replace it as you went. Not only did you need bones in your fingers, you needed fingernails, and occasionally a small pointed tool that looked like the nut pick my grandfather used to use on walnuts. Bell did a bunch of them, I probably did half as many before we were both exhausted from the narrow and cramped space we were working in, the hot dry half stale air, the dull all pervasive roar and vibration of the working engines just a few meters to either side of us, and the crawling effect the residual magnetic field had on your entire body. We worked our way back down the Jefferies tube and were replaced by two more volunteers.
      “Not bad, Commander, if you're looking for a transfer, I'd push it through.”
      “No thanks, but now I can say I've seen more of the insides of this ship than the Captain.”
      “Yes, sir. And I’ll vouch for you on that.”

      From engineering I went to the medical bay to have somebody fix the fingernails I'd ripped and broken.

      “How long?” Captain Deering asked me after I gave her a somewhat abbreviated report.
      “It took us three hours to do about a quarter of it.”
      “So, give or take, another nine or ten hours, just for that, then how long to get that engine back up?”
      “Maybe two hours once the net is up and they re-establish the containment field.”
      “So, if the stars are in line and everybody else works faster than you do doing it, twelve hours.”
      “I never said I was an engineer, just an enthusiastic amateur.”
      The Captain chuckled, “You mean you didn't believe Bell when he told you how much work it was replacing the sensors.”
      “I thought maybe he was exaggerating a little. Now I know better. This time.”
      Then a light on the console on the Captain's com began blinking. She touched the panel, “Yes?”
      “This is Engineer Bell. I'm sorry, Captain. Engine Two is starting to show errors. It may be a similar problem, or something else, we're working on it, but I wanted to let you know before it got worse.”
      “Can we maintain speed?”
      “I don't know yet, ma'am.”
      “How long until the work is done on three?”
      “We're doing everything we can to get it back up as soon as possible, but we're still several hours out.”
      “Keep me advised.”
      “Yes, ma'am.”

Captain Rios
Toller heavy cruiser Blade of Redemption

      “Captain, sir, we have an fully equipped engineering party ready to go.”
      I had seen the flash from the Vindicator asking for advice and assistance on escalating problems with their engines. “Do you know what's causing the malfunctions?”
      “Possibly, but the real issue is to keep it from becoming a catastrophic failure.”
      “Agreed. Very well, you have my permission to take whatever and whoever you need.”
      “Thank you, sir.”
      But he stood there for another moment so I just looked at him and raised my eyebrows.
      “The Panna want to take the external service device. Their crew and supply shuttle is on its way to dock with the Vin now.”
      “Which means if we take any damage we'll just have to use a force field until somebody can get out there in a space suit with a welding kit.”
      “Well, as we're not supposed to see any action during this mission, I'll authorize that. And, just in case, have your EVA suit on stand by, just in case.”

Admiral Khaan Singh
dreadnought Profile of Courage

      I waited until one of the Paxton Officers acknowledged my request to see the Supreme Commander, then I walked in slowly.
      “Sir,” I said.
      The General stood to greet me, but he didn't look happy.
      He didn't sound happy either, “The only thing I really want to know is how nobody told us the Vindicator was actually in this bad of shape before it was assigned to the mission.”
      “Nobody knew. Their five undamaged engines all passed a thorough inspection. The parts for the sixth were being manufactured and are in fact on a high speed transport that should catch up with us tomorrow.”
      He stared at the display that was showing the compounding errors from the now failing engine on the battleship. Its power had been reduced, meaning the other three were running at their maxium power to keep the ship in formation. If the one with the new problems had to be taken off line, the ship would have to leave the fleet until it could be repaired or the one that had just been repaired could be restarted.
      “I understand that, but if the inspection could miss problems this dramatic, I want that inspection process fixed.”
      “I agree, sir, perhaps we should have some veteran engineers review the record and see if there is a way to improve it.”
      The General's adviser Miss Taylor, who, I'm told for this mission was Major Taylor, interrupted us, “Sirs, the Panna said they were going to do something with the engines on the ship. But this is, I don't know, something else.” She changed the main display in the room to an external view of the stern of the Vindicator.
      Three large Panna machines were connecting to each other, and the ship, while an odd looking fourth machine raised what appeared to be an unmounted engine onto them.
      The General touched a panel on his desk, my communications officer answered, “If you can, I would like some of the Panna to come to my office to tell us what they're doing. And if the first ones say 'they're making it better', find some different Panna and send them.”
      “Yes, Supreme Commander.”

      In a few minutes four very nervous Panna were standing in a tight group, all touching, in the middle of the room.
      “It will serve as the main engine of the Vindicator until we can fix the others.”
      Mister Qi-Shi held up a hand for attention, both myself and the General nodded to him.
      “I've found that configuration of engine in the database. That's the backup module for the dreadnought. That engine has the power of at least two of the Vindicator's existing engines.”
      “Yes,” the Panna said.
      Now I had a question. “Where did you get a spare dreadnought engine?”
      “It was on the our supply ship,” one of them said.
      “We didn't take it from the Admiral's ship.”
      “Another ship is moving that way,” one of the Paxton said.
      In a moment, a shuttle entered the picture towing what appeared to be an array of containers.
      “Let me guess, power supplies,” Major Taylor said.
      “Yes. Engines need power.”
      “They were on our ship too.”

      All we could do was stand there and watch as a smaller construction machine connected this and that and did other things to the arrangement, and then, the engine started to glow.
      In another couple of minutes, the glow became steady and well defined and the readings from it change to normal for the unit.

      I took it upon my self to touch my communicator and ask for a channel to the bridge of the Vindicator. It took only a moment for one of the views to switch to that ship where a it took another moment for a woman who looked somewhat harried to answer.
      “Vindicator here. Lieutenant Commander Daystrom speaking. Captain Deering and everybody else is in engineering.”
      “This is Admiral Singh, I'm with the Supreme Commander and his staff. We have one question. Is it working?”
      “It appears to be. Sir. Sirs. We're just now getting indication of less of a load on our remaining on board engines.”
      “Did the Panna say how long this, arrangement for lack of a better word, will last?”
      “No sir. They really didn't tell us what they were doing, just that they could do something that would help.”
      “Help. Yes, we helped.” Our Panna-group said.
      “Very well. Advise us of the status of your repairs when you have an update,” I turned to the General and nodded.
      “And good luck,” General Muller added, “Mission command center, out.”
      That viewer went back to a ship's status readout for the battleship. Even to our non-engineering eyes the indicators seemed to be more favorable than they had been.

      We stood there and watched the construction machine extract itself from the contraption it had made, and then it crawled down and posed over one of the outboard sections of the engine housing, presumably over one of the ones that had to be repaired.
      “Well. It appears to be doing something useful. Maybe we should do the same,” the General said.
      “Yes, sir.”
      “Thank you, Admiral, for including us in that.”
      I stood at attention to answer, “Sir, if the Oon expect three capital ships to arrive, and only two showed up, it might endanger the talks.”
      “Yes, it might. Very well. We'll do whatever we have to do to make sure three get there, including rigging a towline if we have to.”
      “Yes, sir.”
      “As for you and your friends,” the General said to the Panna. “It would be nice if you would tell somebody like the Admiral, or the Captain of one of the ships of the fleet before you do something like that to one of the ships of the fleet. Even if it does help.”
      “Yes, Supreme Commander.”
      “Telling is good.”
      He looked at me with absolute exasperation in his eyes. A look that I totally understood from dealing with them in the past.

      “General, I must return to my bridge. If I get an update I'll pass it along.”
      “As will I, Admiral.”
      We saluted each other and I exited with a tight knot of Panna shuffling along behind me.

      I stopped at the lift and looked at them.
      “You Will tell one or the other of us about any further major changes to any of the ships in the fleet. Correct?”
      They shuffled and twitched, finally one of them spoke, “Yes, Admiral.”
      “Good. You may resume your duty.”
      “Duty is good. We like duty.”

Paige Taylor
      After the Admiral left we watched the Panna construction machine do something to the outside of the Vindicator.
      Then there was a ring at the door. Officer Nichols, I mean Neec, tapped a button on her desk and it opened.
      A couple of Toller crewmen came in followed by an automated cart full of equipment. Then one of the Toller asked for Qi-Shi through the Panna communication disk.
      “Oh, you've got it, that was quick!” Qi-Shi exclaimed.
      “We're from the Scientific Section, we haven't had much to do for some time,” one of them said. “I'm Specialist Thaneg. They sent your request to me, and it sounded fascinating.”
      “I'm Specialist Voltrin. I have studied unusual electrical malfunctions on spacecraft. Your theory sounded like that.”
      Qi-Shi nodded vigorously, “If the theory we were reminded of is what is going on, it is possible that your night shift isn't anything more than embedded energy from the Annunaki weapon being released through the Panna reconstruction.”
      General Muller seemed surprised by that statement, “And now you're a Parapsychologist.”
      Qi-Shi just shrugged.
      The General chuckled briefly, “Seems right to me. Will you be back for the next briefing in,” he glanced at the wristwatch he still wore even though the days and time measurement on the ship and on Theron were very different than on Earth, “about an hour.”
      “Yes, sir.”
      “OK, just, what are you going to do?”
      “It was her idea, I just worked out the methodology.” Qi-Shi pointed at me.
      “But I only had the idea when you confirmed the residual type of....”
      “I hate to interrupt another Meeting of the Mutual Admiration Society, but we only have an hour.”
      I had to smile, then I explained it, “We realized that since the ghosts they're seeing, and that we saw, never interact with anybody living, and that if somebody, or even some-thing, is in their way, instead of going around them, or passing through them, they vanish, then reappear on the other side. And that they occur on a fairly regular basis, and some of them are even predictable. So we can test that theory with some basic equipment.” I gestured to Qi-Shi to pick up his part of the story.
      “I remembered an article about a spirit version of a Faraday cage that was used to keep a residual haunt from disturbing the residents of an old house. There, the house was built on a limestone outcropping that focused energy from the surrounding sandstone, here, you have brand new structure, at least compared to the rest of the ship, new construction surrounded by very old metal.”
      “So what are you going to do?”
      “They said there will be an appearance later today or maybe early tomorrow of three different images in the section on the other side of the lift. We'll run some grounding cables through there, dissipate any building charge, and see if that does the trick. If the ghosts appear anyway, we'll know that that a residual energy threshold trigger isn't the cause.”
      “What if they're real ghosts and you make them very angry?”
      “We'll move the office to the Blade, and apologize to the Admiral,” he said with a totally straight face.
      “Fair enough.”

      I went out and helped Qi-Shi and the techs install their cables and string wires here and there, then they had to run a long cable through a couple of different corridors to get it to an original section of the ship and attach it to an exposed metal plate that was welded securely to a structural member of the ship.
      Then the techs installed a couple more cameras to observe the area, as well as a camera to watch a corridor that was expected to have a visitor at about the same time, but where we hadn't installed the grounding wires.
      And then we went back to work and waited to see what happened.

      In a few minutes the briefing people arrived and we got to listen to more about the Oon and their realm and the reports from various traders and prospectors that had dealt with them for the last hundred years.
      An older woman who was introduced as Instructor Fellan began a narration about the merchants that found and sold something called micro-graded dilithium that was evidently incredibly rare, but necessary for their propulsion systems.
      But my eyes kept wandering to the small images on my desk display from the corridors where we'd installed the cables and the one where we hadn't.

      Just toward the end of the wide ranging discussion about how several prospectors had spent years disputing where they felt they'd been cheated by the Oon, I saw something in a monitor from one of the high sensitivity cameras.
      “Excuse me ma'am, can we pause for a second, something has come up that I need to show Qi-Shi.”
      “Why yes, I believe a break is in order.”
      “Watch this,” I said to everybody and replayed the recording of what had just happened.

      The view was of the corridor from the lift down beyond the next intersection.
      For a minute or so, nothing happened. Then there was a bit of movement off to the left, then, from where a door used to be before the rebuilding, a form appeared and turned. To me, it looked like whoever it was had stopped to make sure their door was shut before they left. The figure took a few steps toward the camera.
      “The first grounding grid is just this side of the elevator door,” Qi-Shi said.
      An excruciating moment passed.
      “Wow. That's a result,” the General said.
      “Back it up and play it forward at, say, a quarter of a second per,” Qi-Shi said.
      I changed the setting on my console and moved it up.
      At one point I was able to get a close up with good enough resolution of the face and uniform that I was able to begin a search for who it had been. I paused the playback, “He should reach the edge of the grid in a few seconds.”
      “You're certain that this is not a sentient being?” Madam Fellan asked.
      “Yes ma'am, it replays the same action every time it appears. I believe it to be a residual energy buildup that manifests in the same pattern every so often. Perhaps even a localized transient bioelectric fields generated by the improved circuitry of the newer section where they interface with the original equipment that is hundreds of years older that then discharges wherever the original source was. There is no intelligence to it, it is an after-image, almost a recording, just like what Miss Taylor is replaying for us.”
      She looked from one of us to the other, then at the General, “Sir?”
      “From what I understood of that, I agree with them.” He nodded to me, “Take it forward, one picture at a time.”
      The image advanced ever so slowly, then about half of the form turned from a recognizable uniform into static. In the next image, most of that was gone and the upper third except for the outer right shoulder and part of the head had turned to static, then in the next frame, it was all gone. There was no indication as I moved back and forth between them that the figure in the image was even aware that something was happening.
      “Now, watch this view,” I said and switched to the other camera looking around the corner and off to where the old floor plan said the original lift station was, just beyond Qi-Shi's grid.
      In a moment the same image reappeared and continued on then stopped where the old lift was.
      “And now.” I said dramatically.
      In the view, the image clearly reacts to something that was happening on the ship and raises its hands in alarm. Then, a frame later, the image went totally white with a flash that we couldn't see but the camera did, and then it was gone.
      “That had to be the moment when the area was consumed by the cascade effect of the weapon. According to the ship's records, it had taken almost thirty of our seconds from the initial impact until it consumed this entire section.”
      Madam Fellan agreed. “I have done some research on the weapons used in that era. I would agree with your conclusion.”
      “I've got it,” I paused and looked at the information that came up, “this was Storage Monitor Officer Chaddisn, I'm sorry, Chadissn Lammotype, I think that's it. He is listed as killed on board this ship in that battle.”
      The General stood up and saluted the image of the man on the screen, “Officer Lammotype, thank you for your service, then, and now. And I hope we enable you to rest in the peace you have earned.”
      The rest of us stood for a moment.
      Then he continued, “I believe this is conclusive. Relay these findings to the Admiral and suggest a way to implement this retrofit throughout this section.”
      Madam Fellan wiped at her eyes, “If it be acceptable. I don't think I can continue the briefing for now. Please, can we pick this up tomorrow?”
      “Yes, ma'am. Thank you for your assistance as well.”
      “It was an honor to serve. Minor though it was.”

      And with that, we called it a day.

Captain Deering
battleship Vindicator

      I had to be very careful as I walked through the engineering section with Commander Bell.
      The place, to be honest, was a disaster.
      Between our own crew, the various Panna work details, and three other engineering crews, and all of their equipment, parts, and, a huge selection of what simply appeared to be random junk, two portable meal stations, and what amounted to a first aid station complete with a Paxton medical team, as well as an automated waste recycling unit, there simply wasn't any other word for the place.

      “The problem is that this ship has been in very nearly continuous use since the day it came out of space dock. Do you know how many hours are on the engines and command systems?” Commander Bell asked.
      I admitted that I didn't know the exact number off hand.
      “I just checked the readout on two of the running engines. This ship has been in service for almost a hundred of our years, in that time, those engines have seen over eight hundred thousand hours of use. That's over ninety years of use. And they have had exactly ONE refit, and this is the first rebuild on the two that failed. All that's been done is to replace the usual parts, injectors and regulators. Everything else is as she came out of the factory. The computer core hasn't had enough total down time to talk about.”
      “How did that happen?” I asked him, “no, I know, you have no idea, I'm going to find out. Every other ship had been taken down to the rivets and rebuilt. Why not this one?”

      A small explosion made everybody duck and resulted in even more chaos for a few minutes before we could get things in hand and tend to the wounded. Then I volunteered to help take one of the Toller engineers who needed more advanced care to sickbay.
      “Just tell me all of this is actually going to fix my ship,” I said as I held the rolling cart steady while others put the injured man on it.
      “Captain, if it don't, I'll find another job.”
      “When I let you out of the brig, you'll need it.”
      “Yes, ma'am.”

      While the injured man was in surgery to remove some of the regulator he had been working on that had found its way through his uniform and into his leg, I called the Blade of Redemption to inform Captain Rios about the accident.
      “But I am assured that he will make a full recovery.”
      “How about your engines?” The captain asked me.
      “Commander Bell wasn't as convincing as the doctor.”
      “You know Wilma, I've found that to be something of the breed standard for ship's engineers.”
      “I think you're right, Jon.” I took a deep breath, “And now captain, I need to inform the Supreme Commander of our progress, and I need to find somebody at fleet headquarters to yell at.”
      “Give him my regards, captain. As for Fleet, when you get a name, please share it with me, I have some yelling of my own to do.”
      “Yes, sir.”

Rose and Jay
      We were supposed to be the next flight up for escort patrol in a high speed fighter, but there were issues.
      I looked at Jay and sighed, he asked the flight officer a question, “When will we find out where we're supposed to land?”
      “During your patrol. If the flight deck isn't powered, or something else is using it, we'll reroute you to either the Courage or the Blade.”
      Jay looked at me.
      “Can we take an overnight bag?”
      “I'd suggest you do.”

      We launched as part of a three ship patrol and did a long loop around the convoy. Then we accelerated to a point far ahead of the other ships, relieving the escort that was there, where we stayed on station until relieved by a flight from one of the other ships.
      It was probably the most boring detail either of us had ever been assigned to. But, we did it.
      “Oh, look, an asteroid is coming up on port at about eight o'clock low,” Jay said on the com.
      “I see it, I've got a good sensor reading on it,” we heard Jack answer from the ship to one side of us. “Nothing but a big rock. No power, no life.”
      “But it's something,” Jay responded.
      “Yeah, a big frozen rock.”
      I came to the point, “Relay its position to the Courage, it's pretty close to our flight path.”
      “Sending numbers, Lieutenant.”
      And then we were passed it, and there was nothing else on the screen.
      “Well, that was exciting,” Jay whispered.
      I ignored him.

      It seemed like our three small ships were out in the void alone for a lot longer than the two hours we were assigned, but then we heard a hail from a flight from the Blade of Redemption, “... and I've got good news and bad news, Lieutenant.”
      “Welcome to nowhere Travis,” I answered. “What's the bad news?”
      “The comm system and landing bays on the Vin are down, you're going to have to put in on the Courage.”
      “Then what's the good news?”
      “They're showing a classic holo-movie tonight in the pilot's lounge, 'the terror from open space'.”
      “Never heard of it,” one of our flight mates said.
      “It's from Therron.”
      “You've never seen their movies?”
      “They always have a big musical number, lots of sex, and some sort of big fight before the end. In every movie, whatever the plot is.”
      “Like India back home,” Jack said, “but they don't have the sex. Or the fight.”
      There was laughter in the channel, I handed off the patrol to them and we headed back to the fleet, did our loop around the various ships and laughed as we passed the Vindicator and noticed that most of it was dark and they could only talk to us over the personal channels, but they confirmed that we'd be better off on the Courage. So we headed that way back up the fleet to the lead ship.

      “Vindicator patrol cleared to board, port bay three. Manual approach approved.”

      Jay was always quicker to get out of the ship than I was. I double checked everything to make sure it was all shut down. It always was because Jay had a very good routine that he'd worked out flying with Amory, he even sang a little song to himself about the process, and it worked. And as most of the ships we used were more the same than different, his song worked to shut everything down.
      “The movie starts in about two hours. We going?” He asked me.
      “I wasn't sure you'd want to.” I didn't mind holographic movies, but Jay said he preferred traditional flat screen movies, where you didn't have to worry about one of the characters running into you or your being hit by something falling out of a window during the movie.
      “Why not? It might be fun.”

      We went with the others of our flight and got something to eat in the big feeding area that was closest to the pilot's area, then found out which section of the main barracks we had been assigned. Then, after a quick shower and a big glass of whatever the brew of the night was, we went to the lounge and found seats that we hoped would be out of the way from the main part of the action for the movie.
      In a few minutes the area seemed to transform from a large open lounge with people sitting or standing here and there around a cleared area in the middle to a desert with scrub bushes and animals that looked like a long legged otter running around. Then, a smoking passenger shuttle barely missed a distant mountain peak and came in for a rough landing to one side of the cleared area of the lounge.
      “Here we go!” Jack said as we fanned holographic dust away from our faces and winced from the noise it had made.
      And there it went. For the couple of hours or so we watched a group of survivors of the shuttle crash battle some sort of nasty looking space demon that was upset they were on its planet. In between fights with the demon the survivors alternated singing and dancing, making love, then fighting with each other over who sang or made love with who, then the demon would reappear and the cycle began again.
      Almost everybody in our section scattered when the demon started heaving boulders and logs at the survivors at one point.
      “Where did he get the big sticks?” Jack shouted, “there's no trees here!”
      “He had them imported,” somebody answered.
      On the whole, it was an entertaining lark, that was unresolved as another shuttle came in and picked up the survivors, but left the disabled ship on the demon's planet while it raged and ranted about their littering its world with their junk.
      “So, what do you want to bet the next movie will be somebody going in to salvage the wreck and get into a mess with it?” Jay asked me.
      “No bet, I checked the schedule, that's tomorrow's movie.”
      “Oh, if we're still here, you wanna come see it?”

Deputy Commanding Admiral Daph Raet Paun
Allied Fleet Headquarters
Farpoint City, planet Thera (Therron)

      The message I received from Captain Deering and the others on the diplomatic mission was unbelievable.
      I could not accept the fact that one of our major warships had been as totally neglected as they had stated it was.
      And so I began what amounted to an expedition of my own through fleet records and our copy of the ship's own database.
      And then I found a bureaucratic mistake of an order of magnitude that was so over and above any other example of institutional incompetence that I couldn't believe it either.
      Some lackey, and I know no other word for it, somewhere in command, by the name of Accounting Officer Ferono, had declared the ship for salvage and taken it out of service.
      Except the ship was not taken out of service.
      Over forty Senjons ago. Which, for the humans, would be thirty years or more. Long before they joined the Alliance against our common enemy.
      Then I began to try to find Officer Ferono. And found another mystery, there was no one Officer Ferono, there were dozens of them. Several had been Accounting Officers, others had been in Fleet Operations, and at least four of them were in Toller fleet command around the time the Vindicator had sustained the damage that they claimed had taken it out of service.
      Not only was Captain Deering right, she was fortunate to have a ship at all.
      None of the repairs or upgrades the Panna had done had been authorized by the fleet.
      That in and of itself is not unusual.
      However, what was unusual was that most the information of what they had done had not been transferred from the ship's database to the fleet's records, because, according to the fleet, the Vindicator was not in active service, and had not been since before the mission against the privateers.

      And then I ran into an obstacle called Fleet Security.
      “The ship itself is in service, it is being repaired on the flight to the Oon treaty summit,” I said to Security Chief Ignoto.
      He stood and looked at me with half closed eyes and it occurred to me that I had no idea what planet he was from, “that is a mistake, Deputy Commander.”
      “What is a mistake.”
      “That ship is being used for a security procedure. A test if you will. It should never have been sent on the mission.”
      “If that's so, why wasn't it pulled from active duty?”
      “That is not up to me. But you are to cease investigating the records.”
      “Tell your superiors this. When the Vindicator returns from the mission, we'll formally transfer it to Security, reassign the active crew, and you can do whatever you want with it.”
      “I will check with my superiors and relay their decision to you.”
      “Who is your superior? I would like to speak to them.”
      “I'll see if they wish to contact you.” He paused on his way out the door, “remember the old Earth phrase, 'Inter arma enim silent leges'.”
      I waited for the translator to render the phrase in to my language, but by the time it did, he was gone.
      “In wartime, the law goes silent,” the translator said.

      It was only after he left and I inquired of the computer about my visitor that I found out that his name was one of the human language words for 'unknown', and was not the name of an individual. I thought it more likely, he was a close kinsman of one Officer Ferono.
      The entire situation stunk, and there hadn't been a Hu in my office in ages.

      I decided to take a step around the command structure and called up the information on the High Counselors that had authorized the diplomatic mission. I recognized one of the names as someone whom I'd talked to before.
      “Counselor Takie, thank you for being available.”
      “To tell the truth, Admiral Daph, your call saved me from having to sit in another meeting where we discuss absolutely nothing for the rest of the day, but is required by the Charter. What can I do for you to return the favor?”
      “Can you secure this channel?”
      “I can do better than that. As I am free, I will come to your office.”
      I had had a bad feeling about doing anything further in my office about the Vindicator since the officer that didn't exist with an assumed human-ish name had left. “Pardon me for being so forward Counselor, but do you know where Rom's shop is on the Concourse?”
      “That place with drinks and snacks, yes, of course.”
      “Can you meet me there?”
      “Most assuredly.”

      We ordered warm tralaka and a plate of chews, then took a table off to one side.
      I showed the Counselor everything I had about what had happened to the Vindicator, and relayed the statements about the ship from Security.
      “I do not like this at all. This is not the first such issue I have heard of where it appears that Alliance Security has an agenda of their own.”
      “Alliance Security?”
      “Yes, they have effectively taken over Fleet Security. It is supposed to be separate, but, it no longer is.”
      “What are they trying to do?”
      “Counselors LeNorris and Withnow see Annunaki infiltrators and sympathizers everywhere. Even the ones that aren't there. They trumpet about every spy, every intercepted message. And they have been working with Fleet Security for some time.”
      “There have been proven spies captured.”
      “Yes, but constant extreme paranoia is not a valid general philosophy of operations.”
      He looked around, “But, when dealing with our own security division, some paranoia is called for. I understand why you did not wish to meet in your office after dealing with them.” He got up and finished his tralaka. “Please, do what you can for Captain Deering and the others on that ship. And we shall stay in touch, perhaps another meeting at a place I know down by the water.”

      I decided not to go back to my office that day. Instead, I took a long time to get back to my quarters. Then, on a whim, I packed a small case and decided to go see if there were any guest quarters available in the visiting officer section on base.
      Once there, I made a point of writing a message to Captain Deering saying that I had found some oddities about the record of the Vindicator, but we would try to assist her and her crew in her current mission as we could, and I would brief her fully when they returned, and sent it over the regular fleet channel. Then I wrote a long letter to a friend of mine on the Profile of Courage, then sent it, encrypted, over a channel dedicated to personal communications using the account of an old intimate friend of mine. I knew there was a good chance that Officer Doesn't Exist would probably be reading both of them before my friend got his. But there was also a chance that given the sheer amount of traffic on the private channel, and the fact that I didn't send it under my own name, that it just might get through unnoticed.
      I was certain I'd find out in time.

Producer Chris Banks
World Press International
Alliance Desk, Bahrain, Earth

      I'm only allowed short calls with the two reporters and the production crew that have been picked to be our representatives on the diplomatic mission to negotiate a treaty. I understand the need for security and all that. And I've been the one on a military ship or station where most of what I heard or saw was not for broadcast, or even casual discussion.
      But this is ridiculous, even the information that their assignment is on board the Chous passenger cruiser Kiera is embargoed until after the first official meeting between the Supreme Commander and the alien ambassador. We don't even know for certain which alien species is that the commander is meeting. I've gotten some information, but nothing official.
      At least the facilities on board the Kiera are reasonably complete. They have a gym, a library and theater, and even, believe it or not, a small arboretum with some unusual plants in it, some of which appear to be somewhat sentient and, if the report was accurate, occasionally mobile. I remember a long journey on one shuttle where the only real diversion was walking back and forth between the cockpit and the galley. To amuse us the engineer turned the gravity off, the novelty of crashing into the door to the head while getting out of one's seat wore off quickly.
      I have managed to talk the Chief of the Ship, one Lieutenant Commander Uulynn of the Chous into allowing my lead reporter Gail Anacan to file a couple of reports documenting their journey with the understanding that they would be embargoed until the completion of the mission one way or the other.

Gail Anacan, World Press Association
Starcruiser Kiera
Diplomatic Convoy

      “Good Day. This is Gail Anacan of the World Press, I am on board the starliner Kiera with a pool of reporters from all over the Alliance and our own Dave Briggs. We're covering the negotiations between the Alliance and an alien power that we are told are called the Oon or Oom, there's a difference of opinion on the spelling of their name. They are related to the Ooldaks at some point in their history, but there's absolutely no information on the new race at all.”

      “This is our workroom and production facility on board the Kiera. We're told that once the conference is in progress that the Kiera will dock with the command ship and we'll be able to attend the public side of the negotiations. As you can see, there are reporters and correspondents from all over the Alliance, and we're all in the same boat. Quite literally, as we are about half way to the site of the conference, and there is very limited news from the command ship. All we've been told is that there was an engine problem with one of the escort ships, but they didn't even tell us the name of the vessel. Some of the reporters are more familiar with the various types of warships in the Alliance and were able to pick out that the one with some activity around the engines from Panna repair equipment is a Toller battleship, but they are not sure which one. These images are of that work being done while the ship was still underway and in formation. That dark shape far ahead of the damaged ship is the command ship of the group, a dreadnought that we believe is the Profile of Courage.”

      “As you can see, while the Kiera isn't as small as some of the passenger shuttles or courier ships you may see from time to time, it isn't as big as the heavy cruiser we can see bringing up the rear of our convoy. There, you can see it just there, it is a Spear of Valor class battle cruiser that some think is either the Fist of Destiny or the Blade of Redemption. And this is where we stand to watch various fighters and supply ships land in its landing bay or dock along that ridge along the bottom of the ship. When your business is gathering information, you take what you can get.”

      “This is Gail Anacan, somewhere in the Galaxy, on board the Kiera, for WPI, signing off for now.”

First Officer Vansen
battleship Vindicator

      The situation on the Vindicator has now gone from bad to worse to deadly.
      We have ordered all non-engineering and other crews to be evacuated to one of the other ships, and every shuttle and fighter that can fly has been taken off the ship.

      Just a few hours ago now a bulkhead and what was supposed to be a shield rated exterior hatch failed. Several crewmen and a lot of equipment were blown into space before the area could be secured.
      Among those lost were four of our own crew, three engineers from the Blade of Redemption, one senior engineer from the Profile of Courage, one from the supply ship Sar, and four Panna. I will list their names and ranks in a separate entry.
      However, the accident did reveal one crucial fact. The Vindicator is not suffering from old age or neglect. It has been infected with an artificially engineered metal destroying organism that operates at the molecular level, and was very difficult to detect.
      It was what had infected two of the engines, done its damage and then migrated elsewhere, growing and reproducing like a virus in a living creature, and leaving very little evidence of it having been there. Unfortunately for those in the area around the bulkhead, this time the parasites consumed enough of the structural material around the outer access point that it failed catastrophically without any warning whatsoever.
      It also revealed something else.
      The organism appears to have been engineered inside the Alliance. Which, when Captain Deering found out made her incredibly angry, she said that that fact just confirmed something she had just learned from Fleet Command, but she wouldn't say anything else until we got to the command ship.

      We sent out the order for every ship, every piece of equipment, every pilot and crewman that had been on the Vindicator since we left the rendezvous to be scanned for the organism, and so far, the infection appears to have been contained on our ship, and, more to the point, to the engineering section.
      And, as is their way, once the Panna had done their mass thinking session they claimed they can cure the ship and they are working on a way to do just that. But from what we can get out of them, everybody will have to be off the Vindicator, and all power will have to be shut down when they do it. As for when they can work this miracle, they just say “soon” and go back to doing whatever they were doing.

      As soon as the Panna's cure is ready, we'll turn everything off and power the ship down, and they can do whatever they're going to do. Then, if it works, we'll be back.

Supreme Commander Muller
dreadnought Profile of Courage

      “You see Admiral Daph, there is an old Earth tradition called 'burning them at the stake' that hasn't been used in ages. You take somebody accused and convicted of a heinous crime and tie them to a post, then you put a big pile of something that will burn long and hot under them, and set it on fire while they're still alive. When I find out who from Security put that bug on that ship, I don't care which part of security or who they work for, when I find them, I'm going to revive that tradition. They have at least thirteen deaths to answer for. And they'd better pray that no others are added to that total.”
      “You can do that, as long as I don't find them first, Supreme Commander,” the Admiral at Headquarters said gravely.
      Admiral Singh nodded gravely, “That goes for me as well.”

      Captain Deering still hadn't spoken about the betrayal since she had arrived on the flagship. Now, as whenever you looked at her, she seemed to be ready to either lapse into uncontrollable rage, or tears, or perhaps both at the same time.

      The fleet was stopped dead in space while the Panna and other engineers and specialists put together a huge rig around the Vindicator that was supposed to irradiate the entire ship at one time with some sort of radiation that would break down the nucleic structure of the organism. They said they had to do the entire ship at once, focusing on the known infected areas, because if even one active bit of it was left alive, we'd be going through all this again in a matter of weeks.
      The last act of their construction was to move one of the other supply ships, a Foraquinestaezst craft with a name even longer than the species name that everybody called J-7 based on its registration number in to power the rig. Then they all evacuated to a shuttle and turned the power on.

      “We'll make a statement for the press over there once we find out if it works. Until then, don't allow any outbound communication,” I ordered the Chief of our press barge.
      “That's not like you,” Paige said to me.
      “No, but if the problem with Security is as big and deep as I'm getting the feeling it is, I'm beginning to have doubts about our mission.”
      “You think this is all a setup for them to get rid of us and to take over the Alliance?” She said with fear in her eyes.
      “It's possible. There's no way to tell. We'll just have to ride it out, stick together, and see. Won't we?”
      “Yes, sir.”

      “They're beginning. They said it will take some time to come to full power,” Commander Vansen said.
      “And then how long?”
      He just shrugged and shook his head.
      “Oh, one of those answers.”
      “Yes, sir.”
      “Yes, sir.”

      By now my staff were familiar enough with the mess area and what was being served when that we were able to make several suggestions to the officers from the Vindicator. Then we gathered in a side room that had been a storage area that was now reserved for us as a dining room mainly to keep lower ranking officers from being so nervous being around us that they were unable to eat.
      Captain Deering broke her silence, “This is pretty good. When we get back to the Vindicator, I want your cooks to send the recipe to us.”
      “It'll be my pleasure to give that order to Chef Blake.”
      But she didn't say anything else for the duration of the meal.

      When we got back to the command office we could see in the monitor that something was happening with the decontamination process.
      Qi-Shi had gotten his food to go and had gone back to the office keep tabs on the process, “It's showing about eighty percent of full power, but it should be strong enough for us to be getting some readings from inside the ship.”
      Paige was watching that side of things, “Can't tell yet,” she changed her viewer to a microscopic scan of a section of infected deck plating. “It is distorting the transmission from the camera, so it is doing something.”
      “Look! There!” Commander Vansen said and pointed to one corner.
      “It's killing them,” Captain Deering whispered as we watched one of the frilly strands of the virus-like critter come apart. “Miss Paige, is there any way to make sure it gets them all?”
      “No, Captain. Not until it's over and we can get a detailed scanning crew over there.”
      In just a couple of minutes the radiation did manage to kill all the views from inside the ship, and even began to interfere with some of those from the outside.
      “We're safe, the effect is localized to the region around the ship.”
      I had a question, “Let's say this process is complete within the hour. How long before we can get the Vindicator and ourselves moving again?”
      We looked from Paige to Qi-Shi to the others and back.
      “Find out.”
      “Yes, sir.”

      Later most of us went for a walk through the area where much of the Vindicator's crew was staying, including watching their 'best team' in a prolonged and very physical match of triad ball against one of the teams from the Courage, which, once they realized that their audience had swelled became even more violent.
      “I think we should bow out before they kill each other,” Captain Deering whispered to me.
      Her and the Admiral indicated that they should keep playing and we exited one by one.

      As we toured the area where more thorough scans for the infectious agent of some of the ships and equipment from the Vindicator were being conducted, my communicator chirped annoyingly.
      “Muller,” I said to answer.
      “General, I just got a flash from the project chief on the shuttle Cannonball, the array is in its power down cycle. It's going to take a couple of hours for it to cool off, so if she wishes, Miss Paige says the Captain can borrow her quarters to freshen up. She said something about that the Panna named Edsel installed a bathroom that she might find familiar.”
      The Captain laughed and nodded, “Thank her for me, that does sound like a good idea.”
      “Very good, ma'am. I'll have ship's stores send a fresh uniform up for you.”
      “Thank you.”
      “Madam, the lift is this way,” I said indicating the way.
      “If I may ask, what are you going to do General?”
      “The same thing as you, take a shower, change my shirt, and get ready for the drama to come.”
      She nodded, “That's about it isn't it? And then try to get this circus rolling again.”
      “We're really going to have to really boogie to make it to the rendezvous on time now.”
      “If I may, General,” Admiral Singh said, “we can make better speed when the time comes if we tighten the formation up.”
      “Bring everything into the draft of the other bigger ships. Like we did the, whatever its name was.”
      “Yes, sir.”
      “Very well, Admiral. Have somebody crunch the numbers and work out the best positions for the other ships. When we get the Vindicator back under its own power, we'll push it as hard as we can. If we have to, we'll bring some of the smaller ships on board the warships. Their captains can raise all the hell they want later.”
      First Officer Gordon nodded enthusiastically, “I'll see to it, sir. We'll have it ready when you give the order.” He saluted dramatically and stalked off toward the command deck.

      Admiral Singh nodded proudly after Commander Gordon had left. “Why he isn't the Captain of his own ship I'll never understand.”
      “I don't know the man, but the sense I get is that he feels he's not ready to solo yet,” I answered.
      “That's the old flight instructor in him coming out,” Captain Deering said nodding toward me.
      “It shows sometimes.”

Deputy Commanding Admiral Daph Raet Paun
Allied Fleet Headquarters
Farpoint City, planet Thera (Therron)

      I just did something I had never done before in my career, and something that I do not remember any officer I have ever served under doing as well.
      I issued a command warrant for the arrest and detention of Security Chief Ignoto. Immediately the information system reported that there was no such individual listed in the database. Then I remembered he had come in through our main reception area. I ran through those records until I found several good views of him, and submitted them with the warrant.
      Then I got lucky. The security force for Headquarters picked him up after he had visited somebody else in our compound.
      “Admiral, we have the person you just issued the warrant for. His real name is Senior Lieutenant Vorpahl. What should we do with him?”
      “Don't let him commit suicide, don't let him call or talk to anybody, and don't let anybody in to see him. Bring him up to command and keep him isolated.”
      “What is he charged with?”
      “For starters, he is complicit in the deaths of thirteen officers and allies of the Alliance, causing serious damage to a warship of the Fleet, and possibly treason during a time of war.”
      “Very good ma'am. We'll deliver him.”

      When our own security force was done with him, they had found three separate lethal substances on him, one of which he was making every effort to inject himself with when they stopped him. Then they relieved him of two different transmitters, and one recorder.
      He wasn't even in our holding area yet and I was already getting all sorts of angry pages and messages from Fleet Security. I didn't even acknowledge them.
      “Admiral, there are two officials here from Alliance Security demanding to be allowed to see the prisoner.”
      “Fine. Arrest them too, same charges. And add one more, interfering with an investigation. And don't let these kill themselves either.”

      It didn't take long for word to spread that anybody affiliated with Fleet or Alliance Security was wanted as an accessory to the deaths of the crewmen and the damage to the Vindicator.
      It wasn't long after that that I decided I might be better off spending the night in the bunkroom at headquarters, which had now become an armed camp with limited access and constant surveillance inside and out.

      The one visitor I allowed in was Counselor Takie.

      “I will say Admiral Daph, you do have a flair for bold and dramatic action.”
      “We got their attention.”
      “And how.”
      “An opportunity presented itself. I seized it.”
      The Counselor nodded, “And what have you learned?”
      “Nothing from them. But their bosses don't know what they've said, and what they haven't said. The conversations I've had with everybody up hill from the three we've got locked up have been very interesting. From somebody named Space Marshal Sarek to one Commodore Mendez who I remember from when I was last on a ship. Mendez was an idiot with a rule book then, and he still is. And the list of those who are suddenly unavailable is just as interesting as well.”
      “I've talked to Sarek myself. He is claiming that others beneath him acted without authorization.”
      “So he's throwing them to the wolves.”
      “Essentially, the ones he can get his hands on that is, several have vanished. Also, I've heard that some of those Counselor LeNorris of the Juul worked with from Security are missing. And from what I understand, Counselor Withnow has left in her private shuttle, without filing a flight plan.”
      “Should we put out a warrant for her?”
      “I already have, a Council Hearing Demand For Appearance. But it would seem that her ship is capable of masking its engine signature and stopped relaying telemetry once it was out of the atmosphere.”

Captain Deering
Supply Shuttle Apollo

      “After I used Major Taylor's bathroom, which was absolutely identical to my own, and put on a fresh uniform. I couldn't just sit and stare at a screen and wait. So I began gathering crew and equipment to take back to my ship as soon as we were cleared to board her again. I wanted to be the first one back on board, just like I was the last one off.
      “We loaded everything we thought we might need to have to get our systems back up and running, and a few extras too.”
      “One of the things we needed a lot of was food stores. One of the things the Panna and the humanoid engineers forgot to mention was that any organic based food in storage on the ship would now be little more than dust. No matter if it was dried, frozen, reconstituted protein, or even as some of our Earth foods were, canned. The radiation would have reacted with the molecules and rendered them useless.”

      “Even any Panna-food on board will be ruined,” one of the engineers said.
      “How could you tell?” Commander Vansen asked.
      The engineer evidently didn't see the humor, “They can.”

      “So now the shuttle that I commandeered was packed with emergency rations to get us through the first rounds of work getting the ship back in service. After that, we'll just have to see.”

      My log was interrupted by several Panna.
      “Captain, we heard that the Supreme Commander said fleet needs to get moving. We can help.”
      “No,” another one of them said, “we have helped.”
      The com in the shuttle's cockpit started beeping urgently, the pilot answered it.
      “Captain, it's for you. Commander Wells of the Courage, he says it is very urgent.”
      “Put it on,” I gestured up to the speaker in the ceiling.
      “Yes'm,” the co-pilot hit the com button.
      “Captain Deering, respond please.”
      “This is Deering.”
      “Ma'am, the Panna did something else to your ship. The Vindicator's engines are powering up and its computer system is answering remotely that it is doing a systems check, and something on board is doing a deep scan for the metal virus.”
      “I've got some Panna here that say they helped us with the ship.”
      “If that's what they're saying, then that's what they did. They may have just saved your crew about six hours of work.”
      “Thank you. I'll find out from them what's going on. We'll keep each other in the loop.”
      “We're monitoring the reports, if anything comes up out of order we'll let you know immediately.”
      “Thank you, Commander.”

      I looked at the five Panna and tried to decide how to phrase it, they solved my problem for me.
      “We sent autobots to the ship, the automated units helped us help you.”
      “We like helping.”
      “Yes, you did help, thank you.” Then I had to ask them the question that has become routine with them, “who did you tell in command that you were going to do that?”
      “We told you.”
      I had to blink, “When did you tell me?”
      “We're telling you now.”
      “We helped.”
      I heard the pilots suppress a laugh, so I turned toward them, “I'm going to tell these guys to help you with your ship.”
      “No thank you, captain, we're fine.”
      “We like to help, what do you need help with?” One of the Panna said and all five eye stalks turned toward the cockpit.
      The glare from the two humanoids in the cockpit was worth the other issues with the Panna.

Supreme Commander Muller
dreadnought Profile of Courage

      “OK, whatever they did, whoever they didn't tell, it's done, it appears to be working, now. What's the status of the ship?”
      Mister Qi-Shi had several monitors up with running commentary from the various sources, including the sensors and cameras on various ships which were monitoring the disassembling of the frame around the Vindicator.
      “So far, the repaired engine is restarting as per spec, the others are as well. The installation of the original rebuilt engine is getting started again, and the temporary outboard engine is already up and running, it is providing the power to get everything else going,” he said. Then he switched screens, “the automated units the Panna sent over are doing molecular scans of the known infected areas, then they move on to adjacent areas. It takes each one about ten minutes to scan an area about the size of your desk.” He paused to do something to one of the displays.
      “And what are the scans showing?”
      “So far, everything is clean. There's lots of residue of the organism, but nothing active.”
      “How about the ship's systems like life support, shields, navigation?”
      “All coming back up, slowly. Life support is at thirty percent and building, the atmosphere is being refreshed and is almost breathable again, temperature is back above freezing in most outlying sections. Navigational systems responding, they've actually reloaded the original course and speed. Shields are showing low power, but ready to go to stand by once the engines are up. Secondary systems, coming back to life. The Panna's automated units are also reporting that most of the personal clothing and possessions of the crew that isn't standard issue that was left on board has pretty much been destroyed.”
      “It would be. Anything leather, cotton, paper, rubber, whatever, if it was organic, it's gone,” Paige added.
      “Relay that information to the Captain and Commander Vansen.”
      “I'll take care of it Mister Qi-Shi,” Neec said to him.
      “Thank you very much, do you have that feed from the ship?”
      “Yes, sir.”

      With that in hand I brought up the display over my desk and looked at the remaining route we had to travel. Then I called the First Officer of the Courage.
      “Yes, sir, General. We've got a couple of working models, just need to see how you want to proceed,” Commander Gordon said enthusiastically.
      “I want to proceed with the least trouble and best overall speed.”
      “I've got just that. I'll relay the plan to you for approval before we send it to the other ships.”
      “Very good Commander, thank you.”

      “Now, as it looks like we're going to get back to our mission, I'm going to have to schedule another briefing.” I said to the air because everybody else in the room was busy.

Gail Anacan, World Press Association
Starcruiser Kiera
Diplomatic Convoy

      “I do not know how to describe the last couple of hours on the Kiera. At first, all we had was gossip gleaned from the open com channel, then we had opinions based on what we saw happening around the crippled battleship. Then there was an amazingly complicated announcement from the Supreme Commander's staff that made very little sense at all. Then everything changed. All of the sudden we're being told that the Kiera is moving to land in a hanger on the Profile of Courage, and once on board, we will attend a briefing and press conference that involves serious charges against a couple of High Counselors and the incident that disabled the Battleship Vindicator.”

      “What was a glacier of information has suddenly become a raging torrent. I personally have four major briefing documents sitting in my message box, one of which has twenty-three separate images in it and over ten minutes of audio. One of the corespondents from the Toller home world had a packet arrive via the courier ship that was a printed document that was an official release of text, images, and diagrams that probably weighed almost two and a half kilos on Earth. I checked my messages, I had the same thing waiting on me, I had the reader tell me how many standard pages it would make if printed, I stopped the tally at 1200 and counting.”

      “I've been on board a dreadnought before. Once. But I had arrived on a windowless cargo ship, and never got to see more than the medical bay and the dormitory they put visitors up in. The impression I got was that it wasn't really even a constructed object, that it was somehow a natural thing that had been converted, like an asteroid that had been hollowed out and fitted with a motor and a launch bay.
      “How wrong I was. As we approached the Profile of Courage we could all see the entire superstructure in the distance. Then it started to get bigger until it dominated our view. Then it got bigger still and the ship was all we could see.”

      “There, that's where we're going,” a crew steward assigned to us said as our ship maneuvered in behind a small shuttle.
      “Where?” One of the other reporters asked.
      “That opening, that's the landing bay we've been assigned. It's not the main hanger, we're going to the cargo deck.”
      “Cargo. Sure,” the reporter said and went back to staring out the window.

      “I thought that there was no way that our ship, with its five decks for passengers and crew and whatever freight it was carrying, would ever fit in the rounded slit in the underbelly of the Profile of Courage.
      “As we turned I noticed that another vessel similar to ours was following us. I thought I remembered somebody saying it was a bulk supply ship but I don't remember the particulars about it.
      “Then the 'slit' in the dreadnought got bigger. The ship that was ahead of the one we were following simply disappeared into it. Then I could no longer see the shuttle we were following and I began to wonder if there was room inside the warship for all of these smaller craft.
      “And then I couldn't see anything except indicator lights and internal bulkheads.”

      “'The landing conveyor is going to take us to the hanger we've been assigned to, just sit tight,' one of the officers said over the com as we felt the ship jerk and shudder like the mechanical amusements I remember from my youth.
      “Then I thought about it. Whatever on the Profile of Courage was moving us, was able to generate jerks and shudders in something the size of the ship I had been on. What did that say about the overall size and power of the dreadnought?”

      “The hanger we had been assigned to was a letdown after all the drama of our arrival. There was only one other ship in the room, a small courier like the one that had brought the other reporter's report. And the space door behind us was closed so we couldn't see anything else.
      “'You'll have to come back here to sleep and all that,' Lieutenant Commander Uulynn said to us as we gathered in what we'd taken to calling our Day Room. 'Somebody from the Courage is going to show you to the briefing area. You can use the dining facility on deck 121, it is between here and there. There is also a crew library and rec center on deck 130 available. You can get directions from them or the panels by the door.'“
      “When is the briefing?” I had asked.
      “'I have no idea. Probably once the fleet is under way again. If I hear, I'll send you all messages, keep your com with you, it will work on board the Profile.'“

      “And then we were allowed off the Kiera and were wandering around the landing bay.
      “The Kiera is a large ship when you're standing next to it. If I would have seen the thing as a youth I would have been in awe of it. And now, it was sitting in one of the hanger bays inside another space ship. It was sitting inside a ship which was so big that any description of it begins to sound dumb.”
      “Before long, a couple of lower ranking crew from the Profile of Courage came in and escorted us to the various areas we would have access to. And we were also told when our first briefing session would take place.”

      “And then we were told that there was a slight delay because of a major development and the announcements made would be even more important.”

Admiral Khaan Singh
dreadnought Profile of Courage

      “I have good news Admiral Singh, Counselor Withnow was just found. It seems she is not a competent shuttle pilot and overtaxed her engines. She sent out a distress call, in, believe it or not, in an Annunaki code, and on one of their communications frequencies. But the patrol ship Thunderbird got to her first. She did take a poison capsule, but all it did was make her sick. The medical staff on board the Thunderbird say she will be fine, the poison was too old to have been effective. Captain Austin reports that she also failed to totally erase the memory on various devices she had with her, and the communications log on her shuttle. We have enough evidence in her own hand and voice to convict her and her associates of treason several times over.”
      “Has the Supreme Commander been told?”
      “I believe Counselor Takei is on with him in the other room.”
      “Very good. Thank you, Admiral Daph.”
      “Hang on, Admiral, a flash just came through. I don't believe it and have asked for confirmation. And here it comes, including the medical scan from the Thunderbird's ship's surgeon. It would seem that Counselor Withnow is not a Chou, or any other Alliance species.”
      “Is she full Annunaki or a half-breed?”
      “Apparently, she's is entirely one of them, how did you know?”
      “It just figures.”
      “Yes, now that I've had a chance to think about it, yes it does. But it also raises the question about how many more of them have been working against us.”
      “Who else is missing?”
      “We're working on that list.”

Marci and Brock
Munyaroo Settlement, Australia

      I was totally against moving back to what was left of any of the cities before the aliens rebuilt them, and then I was against moving afterward as well. But then our well started to go dry and it looked like we'd be forced to relocate.
      I mentioned that to Abbey one day when I talked to her at her base in Canada and she said she'd see if maybe somebody could do something for us.

      “Brock! Marci! Hey! There's somebody coming in a big ship!” Somebody called out to us the next evening after we'd just gone in to bed.
      We got up and went outside to see a large spaceship that we didn't remember seeing before. Then several of the aliens came out with a handful of human looking helpers, and one of them asked for me and Marci.

      Abbey had asked one of her alien friends if they could fix our well, and they did, and then they fixed the camp, and a landing pad for the next time Abbey and her boyfriend came to visit in their ship, and built us a dock that looked like it should have been next to the Princess Pier in Melbourne instead of here where we'd had a rickety thing made from lashed and nailed boards. So now, instead of a camp, we had a town.

      “We don't like to get wet,” one of the aliens said to us while their machines built it out over the bay off our small point.
      I just stood there next to six of the aliens and a couple of human-ish people that were with them. “Well, thank you for everything you've done,” I said.
      One of the aliens looked at me and asked if there was anything else we needed them to do.
      “Ahhh, let me check,” I looked back at the others from our group who were watching the construction.
      “The road out to the highway is pretty rough,” John McAlister said.
      “Oh, we can make it smooth.” One of the squid aliens said.
      “Yes, we like doing that. Smooth.” Another one answered through the translator things they'd given everybody.
      “Smooth is better. Yes.”
      Then the aliens gathered around a control console box and began doing stuff to it.

      And then as soon as the huge machine was done putting light poles on the pier, it lifted into the air and reconfigured itself and flew our way.
      We all instinctively ducked, but we didn't need to.
      It settled onto the rutted path we'd been using as our driveway and began humming and making other odd noises and throwing dust up in the air, and the ground began to shake as it moved around following our track toward the Lincoln Highway some five kilometers to the northwest.
      It worked for quite a while and slowly disappeared in the distance although the cloud of dust it was creating was probably visible a long way off.
      “You need a bridge.”
      “We like bridges.”
      “Do you want it to look like your flag?”
      I glanced at Marci, she shrugged, “Sure, why not?” she said.
      I looked over at the Australian flag we had flying next to our fire ring and wondered how you could make a bridge look like that.
      I found out.

      When it was done we all walked down our new road to see our new bridge.
      And it was a new road. Not only did the alien's machine smooth out the ruts and rocks, it also smoothed out the ridges and valleys of the low rolling hills we were in. The surface had been transformed into a concrete like substance that was as smooth as a skating rink.
      And then we saw the bridge over the deep and steep-sided dry wash that used to be a headache to get across when it was dry and became dangerous to try if there had been any rain at all.
      The bridge was beautiful. Red, white and blue like the Union part of the flag, with a huge Commonwealth star right smack in the middle of the roadway across it. From the side, you could see the Southern Cross on each side built into the superstructure.
      “Do you like it?” the alien asked Marci.
      “Why, yes, it is wonderful. Thank you.”
      When she said that, all six of the aliens stood a little taller and their eyes lifted up a bit.

      And then they were gone. Off to do something, somewhere I’d never heard of, in New Zealand.

      “Well, thank your sister for us,” John said, “I guess if they hadn't done all this we'd all had to move.”
      “I was gonna stay anyway, even if we had to dig a new well,” I glanced over toward the structure the aliens had built over the now totally new well, many times deeper and with a greater capacity than anything we could have dug by hand.
      “I'm still thinking about going. At least to see what its like now.”
      “All the way to Lyndhurst?”
      “Oh, hell no. We didn't have this much there even before the attack. I was thinking just up to Port Augusta. See how that's going.”
      “Well, mate, you're always welcome here.”
      “Thank you for that.”

Gail Anacan, World Press Association
Main Briefing Room
Alliance dreadnought Profile of Courage

      The briefing turned into a riot.
      Half of the members of the press corps demanded to be allowed off the ship to file their reports with whatever service they were part of, and half were shouting questions wanting to know if the Alliance was now under martial law or if all of the members of the High Council were going to be re-elected, and, truth be told, there were a few, like me, who sat in stunned silence trying to digest everything we'd just been told and given.
      The briefing officer was one of the Paxton assistants to the Supreme Commander, it said in the opening that it was presenting the basic information, then once we'd had a chance to review everything, the Supreme Commander and other ranking officers, including the Captain of the Vindicator.

      I took my packet and went to the back of the room and found a corner to look through it while thinking about my own experience with the Counselor that had been arrested.

      I had interviewed Counselor Withnow when she had been first appointed as a temporary representative for her planet to the first Council meeting to define the role of the leaders of the civilian side of the Alliance.
      I found her to be engaging and confident in how it would go and lead to a lasting peace. However, now, thinking back, there were some things she had said that seemed odd then. And now thinking about who and what she really was, now they make sense.
      “There are always questions about the ability of a people to govern themselves and manage their relations with other races,” Counselor Withnow said.
      “But the Chous people have been governing themselves at the local level for years,” I said to defend our government.
      “It isn't the same,” she said, then she moved the topic on to some of the other worlds that had been under more direct control by the A-Nah.
      A few minutes later she said something about the problem of securing the Alliance. “With so many different species, how can you ever be sure everybody is who they are supposed to be.”
      I dug through my travel case and found the old data pad I was using at that time. It was an older model that was really slow and could not link to most of the other networks we used, so it had been replaced almost immediately by a Panna improved model that spoke every language in the alliance, and could link with everything everywhere. Luckily, I had kept the old one, just in case. Now I brought up the background information I had been given her to prepare for the interview.
      Instead of just skimming it I started following the links back, and used my new pad to research the information from the older file.
      “Look at this,” I said to Dave from my crew, “her profile says she had attended the Vinca academy in Farisa.” I brought up the information page for the academy, then did a search for her graduating class. “Notice anything odd about the image?”
      “It's not the same photo as the others.”
      The individual images of the students were all in an identical style, and most weren't very good quality. While the image of the future counselor was similar in style and pose, it wasn't taken at the same time. “And nobody noticed,” I said, “I know I didn't.”
      To prove my point I went and found my own class photo from a, less prestigious, school. Not only was mine slightly out of focus, almost every other photo was as well.

      There were other hints that everything perhaps wasn't as it should be, but which until now, may have just been thought to be a bit unusual or coincidental. But now it was obviously a well coordinated effort to establish her as the ideal candidate to represent the Chou to the the Alliance. And, now, looking through it with the evidence that was in the briefing, everything in her history, every statement she'd made in the interview with me, was all a well rehearsed lie.
      From there I went into her record as a High Counselor after her election to the post. And her insistence that she be on the Security Committee even though there was nothing in her background that gave her any special credentials for the position.
      I remember thinking how important she must have thought security was, and how that had been the main reason myself and others had voted for her. And now I know why she did feel that way.

      Finally some order was restored, but not before several red shirted security officers holding non-lethal sidearms had appeared in the room.

      I raised my hand and held it until the briefing officer noticed me and said, “Yes.”
      “Why did they invent a person and insert them into our history instead of just replacing somebody with a double?”
      “Unless they replaced an orphan, there might be loose ends of family relations with medical scans or identity samples to compare her to. This way, as far as we can tell, she had no relatives to turn her out. And given the general lack of reliable records left from the years of the occupation, she was able to turn up and present herself as what she was.”
      The officer picked another reporter for a question, “How many others like her were there?”
      “We're still not sure. There is a movement at Fleet and at the Council Offices to conduct physicals of every staff member. While doing so has uncovered a couple of what the Tauri call 'moles', which is a small burrowing animal that can do great damage to a garden before the gardener is even aware it is there. While doing the physicals has exposed two of them, there are at least eleven or more that have fled or gone into hiding because the physical will expose them. Several others had left before those started, including the Counselor. We're also checking the Fleet, but since physicals on board ship are required on a regular basis, staying on board a military craft without being found would be dificult.”
      Somebody asked a question through the translator without waiting, “So you're saying there were a dileposinsilias of these moles at headquarters?”
      The officer paused, then answered, “A 'dile-po...' is the Foraquinestaezst word for a group of eighteen. Yes. That would be a reasonable generalization.”

      “Are they sure the High Council Member is an Annunaki?” Somebody shouted the question from the far side of the room.
      “Please, let's observe some decorum here,” the Paxton officer said, then they answered the question anyway. “Yes, there is no doubt. The quickest way to tell is to scan their stomach. All Annunaki have a two chambered stomach, even hybrids and half breeds have it. Not only does Counselor Withnow have it, she has had what they call the Alien Food Surgery to remove the small intestine pouch just below her stomach. Which means she had to have an Annunaki doctor do it for her.” The officer nodded, then continued. “Several of the others individuals in custody have now been scanned, and several more have been confirmed to be Annunaki, including one at Fleet Security named Senior Lieutenant Vorpahl.”

      I nodded to myself. Years ago I had found the dietary habits of our now former lords and masters fascinating. Not only could they not eat our food on a regular basis and remain healthy, if we ate their diet we would come down sick as well.
      Their 'king's diet' was too rich for us. It could cause us to develop nitrogen compound deposits in our joints, it would make our blood too thick, and if we kept at it, it could cause brain damage among other problems. For them, our food was just digestively upsetting and would cause them great pain as it clogged up the pouch in their small intestine, to the point it had to be surgically removed. And even then, they had to drink prodigious amounts of liquid with their meals to keep the lower chamber of their stomach happy.
      It was one reason they hated the Panna so much, even while they were exploiting them for everything they could get out of the species. One meal of Panna-food would cripple an Annunaki, even if they'd had the surgery. To us, it was just unpleasant. Unpleasant before, during, and after eating it, but we could eat it.

      The briefing officer held up its hand, “There has been a new development,”it said, as they were listening intently to an earpiece and reading something on their pad at the same time. “Give me a moment.”
      It was a long 'moment'.
      “Just as many of you have experienced the Panna process of giving an individual a tremendous amount of information in a short time using something similar to their own contact telepathy, they can also extract information. But they have agreed to NOT use this process with members of the Alliance and its allies. It would seem that Annunaki spies are not citizens of the Alliance, and are susceptible to the process. Everything the Counselor knew, as well as several of the others including one officer that called himself Chief Ignoto for a day, is now part of the case against them.”
      The riot was beginning again, but stopped when the officer held up its hand.
      “I think it best if I play this from the group of Panna that did the information extraction.”
      The large screen changed to show a group of Panna huddled around in front of several Alliance officers.
      “Say that again,” one of the officers said to the Panna.
      “We know everything about her, all of them.”
      “Everything they know from their whole lives.”
      “We know her family's recipe for sweet cubes for festival.”
      “And we will make them, they will be very good.”
      The screen paused the playback as those in the room chuckled.
      The briefing officer stood at attention, “It would seem that the case against them is, to say, open and shut.” In a moment, it continued with a final statement. “They have also revealed the locations of several Annunaki covert bases, large and small, those are now being dealt with as well. For obvious reasons, we would prefer that you not disclose that information at this time, we'll let you know when will be appropriate.”

      Finally the briefing broke up and we were allowed to go back to the Kiera to work up our reports and file whatever story or article we were doing.

      I talked to Dave and we stopped at the dining area for a meal and a discussion before we went back to the ship.

Captain Deering
battleship Vindicator

      I looked over First Officer Vansen's shoulder at the readouts from our engines. “Worried?” I asked him.
      “Frankly, yes. It's a little too good to be true.”
      “I like it. We're now the most efficient ship in the fleet.”
      He stood up and stretched his neck one way then the other, “To me it looks like we're the most efficient ship that's ever been in space. That worries me.”
      “You expect the new engines to suddenly blow up.”
      “Or something to go wrong with the old ones.”
      We stood there and watched the indicators on the engineering station for a moment. Nothing changed dramatically.
      “How about the external?” He asked the junior officer assigned to the station.
      “Switching to screen three,” they answered and display three dutifully changed to the Panna's addition to our ship.
      “Satisfied that we're going to at least keep running until lunch time?” I asked the Commander.
      “Yes, ma'am.”
      I turned toward the navigator, before I could even ask the question they answered it.
      “Time to assigned conference coordinates, at current speed, twelve hours, nineteen minutes.”
      “Thank you.”
      Commander Vansen's face was unreadable, “I'll keep an eye on things.”

Flight Lieutenant Travis
Toller heavy cruiser Blade of Redemption

      “My flight were point for the fleet. We'd relieved a flight from the Profile of Courage and were running our deep scans and monitoring all channels when we picked up what appeared to be a civilian ship that was not under power at the edge of our range.
      “I ordered my wingman to follow me and the third member of the flight to stay on point, then I advised the Courage of our situation and went to check out the ship.”

      “It appeared to be a D7 type civilian passenger liner. Our initial scans were correct, their main and auxiliary engines were non-operational. There were life signs aboard, and it did appear to have minimal life support. But they were not broadcasting a distress call.”
      “I made several attempts to hail the ship, but didn't get any response. Which I relayed to the command ship. We were then asked to stay on station with the ship until a team arrived to evaluate the situation. Another flight was on its way and would relieve my other wingman who would join us here.”

Captain Deering
battleship Vindicator

      “For the first time in what seemed like ages, my ship was able to respond to a call from command in a timely manner. There was a high speed shuttle with a universal docking ring already attached in the launch bay that had been fueled and crewed for a in fleet courier mission. It was reassigned, an emergency medical team and an engineer were sent on board, as well as a security detail. Then it was launched within minutes of our telling the Courage we had something ready to go.”

Third Rank (Lieutenant) Martha Jones
Shuttlecraft Trigati

      “Suddenly just another courier mission became far more interesting as several emergency personnel rushed aboard my ship. Our mission briefing was just as rushed. Launch, lock onto the transponder from the patrol craft from the Courage, go out to the civilian craft, dock with it, force entry if required, evaluate it and its potential threat to the fleet, and do so within the hour when the fleet would be at its closest approach to it.”

      “Once everybody was on board, we launched with minimal pre-flight checks and flew at maximum speed on the course prescribed out to the disabled civilian ship.”

      “I was not at ease docking with a ship with people on board and no response to our hail on any channel, but once we had secured the docking ring we found that the seal had been pressurized from within the passenger ship, and then they opened their door first. Something that was usually a good sign.”
      “Our security detail insisted on being the ones to open our hatch and greeted whatever was on the other side with drawn weapons and active scanners searching for any threat.”

      “We got a surprise. Then I had to report back to the fleet.”

Command Deck
dreadnaught Profile Of Courage

      “For good or ill I am making the decision and giving the order as the Supreme Commander, and I will take the responsibility for it. Nobody and Nothing from that ship gets any where near this fleet. If they need medical help, or engine parts or anything else, we'll send it to them. I don't care who or what they say they are, it could be all Twelve Apostles and Mother Mary as well for all I'm concerned, they are NOT joining this fleet. And for that matter, order the helm to give them a really wide berth.”
      The Admiral stood in shocked silence for a minute, then he nodded slowly, “I see your point, there is too much at stake, and this is an unbelievable coincidence. We'll provide them aid, and if necessary, pick them up on the way back. Is that OK, sir?”
      “An excellent compromise, sir,” the Supreme Commander said. “Lieutenant Jones, did you hear all of that?”
      “Yes, sir. I'll see what else they need. The initial evaluation of their engines by Chief Wallace is that they simply ran them to, in his words, exhaustion. They're out of fuel, their injectors are fried, and he said that their starboard coils are totally saturated and need a month to clear out. So they're not going anywhere on their own.”
      “How's the life support?”
      “Not bad, I checked it myself, their batteries are at about half power. They routed all their power to life support, which is why their transponder and com were down, they even shut off their running lights.”
      “Very good, Lieutenant. What is your recommendation given our overall parameters for dealing with them? You're there, we're not. We'll take your suggestions at face value.”

      There was a pause from the away team's end of the conversation.

      “We've got enough supplies and equipment on the shuttle to make their wait more comfortable than it has been. We can equip them with what we have, Eli said he can get their engines to recycle the coils and we can refuel them when we get back. We've even got a spare power cell to run their life support. They should be all right where they are for now.”

      The Supreme Commander nodded, then added something else. “One more thing, and call me paranoid if want, but I think it's justified. Have your chief disable their subspace antenna and anything else that can broadcast further than ship to ship. I don't want any of them deciding to tell some cousin somewhere about their visitors.”
      “Yes, sir.”
      She relayed the message and the Chief could be heard saying something like it was already half disabled from the way they rerouted the power.
      “Taken care of, sir. The Chief said he'll put the 'thru-link connector' in his pocket, and that they'd never make it work without it.”

      The Admiral was nodding again, “I don't think that is unwarranted or paranoid at all. Given the situation. In fact, I will add this, Flight Lieutenant Travis, do an in depth scan of that ship from one end to the other, you're looking for a secondary transmitter or other unexplained energy source or unusual equipment.”
      “Yes, Sir, all three of us will run scans front to back,” Travis responded immediately. “Lando, use low band, I'll go first and take standard, Don....”
      “Highest band I've got, already tuning. I'll follow you.”
      “We're on it Command. If there is something there, we'll find it.”

      The Command Deck was silent for a moment other than the sound of equipment.
      Commander Gordon broke the quiet, “There it is, just coming onto the long range screen now.”
      The officers all looked at the ill defined small dot with what appeared to be a couple of even smaller dots next to it.
      “We're holding our distance at the edge of our sensor range, sweeping around it, then getting back on course. Unless they've got sensors like ours, they'll never even know we were here.”
      “Very good, once the Lieutenant's crew finishes up and the scans are complete, have our people bid them a good day and rejoin the fleet.”
      “Yes sir.”
      “And have the Blade keep an eye on our six. If they perform a miracle and start to follow us. I'll order the Blade to blow them from the sky.”
      “Yes, sir.”

Third Rank (Lieutenant) Martha Jones
Shuttlecraft Trigati

      “Travis's flight reported a low energy source and from the rear cargo area of the passenger ship. We investigated and found it. It turned out to be an emergency beacon in a survival kit. As it was unlikely they would need it, I had Chief Wallace disable it as well. Before we left, the individual who appeared to be running the ship, I cannot say he was in command because it was a decidedly non-military or even para-military group, used my tricorder to record a message for 'my commander'. We had not mentioned anything other than we were from the Battleship Vindicator and we were on our way somewhere but we would be back.”
      “Then, with my crew back on board we disengaged from the ship and I had Travis's group scan my ship in case they had somehow put something we didn't want in or on my shuttle. Once it was reported clear, we assumed position with the fighters and returned to the fleet at maximum speed.”

      “We had just gotten within range of the fleet when Travis instructed the rest of us to continue on, he was going to go check on something. Then he turned in a quick and very harsh turn and headed back the way we'd just come.”

      “I had just received clearance to land on the Courage to deliver the message when Travis called in and reported that the D7 was just where we'd left it, with no communications activity, and the only new light was the one we'd left stuck to the ceiling in the command area.”

Supreme Commander Muller
dreadnought Profile of Courage

      I watched the message delivered by Lieutenant Jones with my staff. Then we listened to the reports from her, the medics and engineers that had been with her. And even got the thoughts of the security detail. Then we reviewed the scans and sensor readings of the ship, their supplies, and the individuals themselves.
      And I still didn't like it.

      I waited until Security Specialist Baracus finished going through his account of what amounted to a shakedown of the entire ship looking for weapons before I said anything.
      They were all looking at me, so I held up one finger, “We have a forty some odd year old high mileage passenger liner, basically a local system space bus, so far from home it has no right to be out here.”
      “Yes, sir.”
      Second finger, “that space bus has no regular crew on board, and instead has twenty three Annunaki civilians, if there is such a thing, who claim to be separatists looking for a colony of similar minded people only seeking to get away from what they see as a totally corrupt and evil society. But they have no idea where this colony is.”
      The others from the away mission looked at Lieutenant Jones, she finally nodded, “There was a steward from the bus company on board, but, yes sir.”
      “A steward, sorry.” Third finger, “This totally unarmed, short range vehicle full of innocent pilgrims just happens to end up in the flight path of one of the most secret missions the Alliance has ever mounted.”
      “Doesn't seem quite plausible does it, sir.” Lieutenant Jones said quietly.
      “No. I have never really believed in coincidence, and I sure as Hell don't believe in this one.”

      Qi-Shi had his hand about half raised. I looked at him and waited.
      “Sir, if I may. I looked up the maximum speed of that ship, and where it evidently came from. And the damage to the coils and injectors. And if it left port with a full fuel load.” He stopped to bring up a display.
      I couldn't resist, “And if the wind was blowing the right way, just say it.”
      “To be where we found them, even if they have been drifting as long as they said they have, they would have had to have left what they called the Serene Station almost six months before the Oon contacted the Alliance for this meeting.”
      “Actually, given the developments with Fleet Security... That doesn't make me feel any better.”
      “I'm sorry, sir.”

      Lieutenant Jones seemed to be siding with Qi-Shi, “Sir, we didn't find anything other than what you would expect to find if their story was true.”
      “It's going to take more than a cargo bay full of gardening tools and ugly sweaters to convince me that this wasn't something else.”

      And now Miss Paige Taylor had a contribution.
      “How about this, General?”
      I looked at her with what I hoped was a look of patient skepticism on my face.
      “I had the Panna help me search through the Annunaki database from that Corvette we captured awhile back.”
      I just sat there.
      “There is what appears to be an 'all points bulletin' from Serenity for a stolen D7 with the registration number that matches our friend's ship. They have a partial list of who they suspect is aboard. They want the ship captured and the dis-loyalists returned for trial and execution.” She paused, “that's in the bulletin, 'trial and execution'.”
      “Wouldn't expect anything less from them.”
      “Here's another update. The D7 wasn't found along either the plotted or most likely course.”
      “Yeah. And. So?”
      She stared at me for a second, then went back to the screen. I could see that she wanted to believe the story.
      I held up my hand. “OK, we'll give Mister Brand-deys-s.... whatever his name is, we'll give him and his people the benefit of the doubt until, and unless, they do something to indicate otherwise. OK. I won't order their immediate destruction otherwise. And, from time to time on our present mission, we'll dispatch a long range patrol to make sure the Annunaki don't find them before we get back to them. Just in case. OK?” I looked at the Admiral.
      He thought about it, “Sounds reasonable to me.”
      “Miss Taylor. Qi-Shi?”
      She nodded, he said, “yes sir.”
      “Lieutenant, you've had time with them. You seem to believe them.”
      “Yes, sir. I do believe them. I've never met an Annunaki before. And from what our medical scans revealed, every one of them was an Annunaki. And Branddyes did read as being over three hundred years old, so I believe them.”
      “How old was the youngest one there?” I asked the medic that had been on the ship.
      “Sir?” He wasn't expecting a question, “oh, yes sir, sorry. From what I remember of the scans, the youngest was about fifteen of our years or so old. Why?”
      “This teenager. Was their parents on board?”
      “Her mother was. We confirmed that with the scans. Her mother, and an individual that would be her maternal uncle were on board. Her mother's full brother. And one grandparent. Who was the, I guess, commander's assistant.”
      “No father?”
      “No sir. They said that the father of the young girl was in the military.”
      “And yet they were leaving for parts unknown with his child.”
      “Yes, sir. There was also one other family on board. But they didn't have any children with them, they weren't going to have a child until they were safe.”

      I knew the Annunaki were, as a race, a bunch of heartless bastards who cared more about power and prestige than family. It was simply a fact. If these people thought enough about fleeing to bring children, or children to be, with them. Maybe. Just maybe....
      I shook it off.
      “OK, the order stands. We check up on them as we go. If they need further assistance, we'll dispatch it, including towing them to starbase.....” I looked at Qi-Shi.
      “Starbase 9 would be the closest, and it would take a pair of tug shuttles.... a long time, to get them there.”
      “But no matter what, they do Not set foot on a ship of this fleet until our mission is over one way or the other.” I looked at the Admiral, “and that is still true, correct?”
      “Yes, sir. Every crewman from the Vindicator is still crewmen from the Vindicator. All in depth identity scans were confirmed twice.”
      “Very good.”

      And then a group of Panna came in, and everything I thought about the ship and its refugees went to hell.

      Six Panna, all standing in a knot, touching each other as they do, and all six eye stalks, all twenty four arms and twenty four legs were all moving randomly. Indicating that as a group, they were as nervous as any Panna had ever been.
      I gave them a moment to dance in place, then I indicated to the apparent leader of the group, a Panna I knew as Sprite because Mr. Spade had named it after a car a friend of his used to own.
      “General. Supreme Commander. Yes.” Sprite said.
      “All right, Sprite. Relax. And tell us what you need to tell us.”
      “It was Miss Paige's question that made us do it.”

      You know, when you deal with the Panna, nothing is ever easy, and, as in space, all roads are long.

      Admiral Singh saved me the trouble of asking, “Made you do what?”
      “It was all of us, not just Sprite,” a different Panna answered.
      “Do what?” The Admiral repeated.
      The group shuffled around in a circle for a second.
      “Just say it and it will be over,” Qi-Shi said to them.

      Say it? Yeah, they did that, and, as there were six of them, they were able to do what I was told was a telepathic push as well. At the same time.
      Which was a bit much for most of us.
      All of us.

      “We know where the Annunaki separatists were going.”
      “It was in Counselor Withnow's mind.”
      “That planet was where she was going when she fled.”
      “She thought she'd be safe there, and she couldn't tell the others.”
      “If the others knew where she was they'd kill her and then kill the people there.”
      “And she knew that, and now we know it.”
      “We've put the coordinates of the planet in the navigation.”
      “If you want to go see them and take the separatists there you can.”

      I had to hold up my hands and wave them in front of me until they stopped babbling and doing the 'brain dump' thing to all of us at once in their excitement.
      “All right. Wow.” I had to blink. I glanced at Qi-Shi, he was shaking his head but had turned his attention to a nearby screen, evidently with the location of the planet on it. Paige was doing something similar. The Admiral was taking a deep breath and Lieutenant Jones was wiping at her eyes and looking a bit overwhelmed. Evidently she had limited experience with the Panna and the way they can overwhelm everybody who isn't one of them.
      Admiral Singh turned and put a hand on Lieutenant Jones's shoulder, “you get used to it. Mostly.”
      “Thank you, sir.”

      “Is that planet anywhere near the flight path of that ship, and is it in Alliance Territory?”
      “Working that out now, sir.” He paused a second. “Sort of, to the first. And, kind of, to the second. It is in a disputed and partially unexplored area between the Toller administered Laika expanse and the Consortium. Yes.”
      I was still feeling a little fuzzy from having a sudden rush of third hand thoughts from an Annunaki spy dumped into my mind. “So, their story is at least plausible.”
      “Yes, sir. Except. Even with a professional crew and extra fuel, a D7 would never make it without refueling and clearing the engines. In any case, it would be a long run in anything that can't do better than Standard by three. That's the fastest that class of ship can go. And from the looks of it, this one wasn't in the best of shape when it left. I'd bet this one would make two-three, maybe two-five, maybe.”
      “I see.” Then I turned my attention back to the Panna. “So you just went and got this information?”
      “No. We had it.”
      “Others had it. We just learned it.”
      “It was in the link.”
      I held my hands up again before they got started.

      Before I could say anything the Admiral said something to them, “Everything you learned you put in the database that Mister Qi-Shi is looking at.”
      “Yes. Data bases are good.”
      “We like data bases.”
      “Good. Thank you. All of you.”

      In a moment, the Panna, as a group, shuffled out the way they had shuffled in, but now they weren't as tightly packed together.
      Then we noticed that Neec and the other Pax appeared to be ill.
      “I'll be all right General,” she said, “it's just that they do that to us sometimes. They leave us very weak and tired.”
      “You're not the only ones,” I said to her, “I think we all need a break.”
      “Thank you, General.”
      I stood up and paused for a second, then I glanced at Paige, “Time to diplomatic rendezvous?”
      “Just over four hours, we'll begin decelerating in two.”
      “Thank God.”
      “Yes, sir.”
      “All right, here it is. That's our mission. Everybody, and this means you as well Qi-Shi. You're off duty and standing down for, what, three hours. Get something to eat. A nap. A shower. Whatever. Then we get ready for what's coming. Understood?” I asked looking straight at the Admiral.
      “I'll turn command over to Commander Gordon for the time being. Understood.”
      Then I looked at Q-Shi, Paige and Neec. They all responded that way as well.
      “Lieutenant Jones.”
      She looked at me, surprised to be named in this exchange, “Yes, sir.”
      “I am hereby appointing you my personal representative and command officer in dealing with our ship of, what were they, dis-loyal-ists. I want you to work up a rotation and schedule to have flights check on their status, and, occasionally drop by with, whatever, a fresh meal or something and check on them. OK? Can I count on you?”
      “Yes, sir.”
      “Thank you, and now, and this includes my new liaison officer, you're all off duty. And that's an order.”
      “Yes, Sir.”

First Officer Commander Gordon
dreadnought Profile of Courage
Diplomatic Fleet Command Vessel

      “Open fleet wide channel.”
      “Channel open Commander.”
      “All ships. Begin final approach to assigned coordinates. Bring all shields and weapons to stand by. Fleet wide Condition Yellow, stand by for Battle Stations. Admiral Singh to the Command Deck.”

      Based on the long range scans from our point patrol I decided to slow the fleet to normal space speed a bit early.
      There were several ships within scanning range of the rendezvous. Right or wrong, I thought it best to play it safe instead of blindly flying into an ambush.

      “We appear to have a welcoming committee. And our patrol reports that several of the ships are heavily armed.”
      “Understood. Very well. Supreme Commander, it is time to redeploy the fleet and disperse for arrival.”
      He replied in a moment, “Very well, you may give the order Admiral.”
      The Admiral turned back to me, “Commander Gordon is OIC at the moment, I'm on my way to grab a cup of tea, General, I would be honored by your company. If you would care to see to the fleet, Commander.”
      “Both are excellent ideas, Admiral, I'll join you. Muller out.”

      Before he left, the Admiral stopped at my shoulder and whispered something to me. I nodded and said I agreed with him.

      First, I dispatched two more full patrols to join the one on point, all using active scans for hostile activity. Two other battle squadrons with heavy attack craft backup were launched and ordered to fly escort in opposite positions around the fleet. Other battle ready groups were held in the launch bays of all three warships.
      The ships that had been brought on board the larger, and faster, warships were released to be back under their own power when we arrived. Also, the three main ships of the line would lead the others in with full shields and weapons on standby.
      If the Oon wanted a show of strength, they got it.

      And if, as many of us suspected, it were an Annunaki trap, they might just find themselves the ones trapped.

Rose and Jay
Squadron support
Battleship Vindicator

      “Don't shoot unless we're shot at, got it,” Jay repeated back to me. “I like flying this better than the fighter, it's roomier.”
      “It's also a bigger target, remember? It almost got your backsides shot off.”
      He ignored me and did his pre-flight, then we were out and forming up in a defensive posture near, but not too near, the fleet.

      And once out there, we flew in formation with our squad mates and made a show of it.
      However, we did have a spectacular view as the Courage and the other ships cruised up to the alien fleet and stopped.

      “Look at them, they've got pretty ships,” Jay said.
      “Pretty, and deadly, look at the armament,” I answered checking our sensor readings on the lead ship.
      “There's another one, that's a different style. I wonder how fast it is.”
      “Just fly instead of admiring the scenery.”
      “I can do both. There, we've reached our mark, turning to 119.”

Supreme Commander Muller
dreadnaught Profile of Courage

      I stood in the Admiral's Office with him and sipped tea and stared at our view from his portal at one of the Oon ships. Then we checked the main view of the rest of their fleet which included what we'd been told would be the command ship. A very large chevron shaped craft almost as massive as our own dreadnought.
      “No sir, I've never seen anything like that. That design is totally new to my experience. But it is a very effective looking vessel.”
      “That they are,” I agreed, then I spoke to the com, “Commander Gordon. Any hails from them?”
      “Other than their initial reply that they would be in touch with us when the conference is to begin, no sir.”
      The Admiral asked my next question for me, “Are they still scanning us?”
      “Yes sir, never stopped. And we've never stopped scanning them either.”

First Officer Commander Gordon
dreadnought Profile of Courage
Diplomatic Fleet Command Vessel

      We rotated the deployed fighters through with fresh squadrons, we cycled the shields, we even took down one of the main weapons for routine maintenance after bringing up one that was on stand by.
      I wanted the ship to look as ready as it could, and to give the complete picture that we were ready for action, and expecting it as well.

      Then, “Commander, there's something coming, it's bigger than anything else, and reads to be. I'm sorry. I don't believe this. Carol, check long range three, is that what it says it is?”
      The officer at the navigation station shifted her attention to another display. “I see it. Hang on, switching to tactical. Putting it on two, full readout.”
      “All right. It says it's a planet,” I said as the image and readouts changed, “This is a significant development. Supreme Commander Muller and Admiral Singh to the command deck. Mister Qi-Shi, Ms Taylor, report to the command deck as well, please.”

      We were all standing and watching as a planet approached the two opposing groups of space ships. Then, it made a change of course and slowed slightly, and took up position exactly at the predetermined coordinates.

      “They did that just to show they can. Otherwise, it would have been here before we arrived,” the Supreme Commander said. “Impressive. But also a bit ostentatious. Paige, tell me that it is what it looks like.”
      She went to the scanning station and worked with the officer that was there for a moment.
      “It is a planet, sir. About the size of Mars back in our system. But I also believe that it was either built by the same facility that built their ships, or it started out life as a natural planet that was then retrofitted to move. It is almost completely hollow, with what appears to be singularity-powered engines, and an extensive climate control system to maintain the surface conditions without receiving energy from a star. And since it is hollow, they had to retrofit gravity generators under the surface. And it looks like they pull in most of the atmosphere when it is in transit.”
      “I guess moving a star as needed would be a bit much even for them,” the Supreme Commander muttered.
      “I guess.”

      Admiral Muller waited for a moment, then he glanced toward the communications officer.
      “No sir, nothing. All channels clear.”
      “And so we wait some more,” he crossed his arms and stared at the Oon ships. “Keep scanning, keep watching, rotate the patrols. Normal operations.”
      “Aye sir.”

      Then. Finally.

      “Supreme Commander, a message just came in, text only. It is from the lead Oon ship. It arrived over the same frequency the last message did.”
      “Yes, sir.”
      “Then put it on the big screen, we'll all read it at the same time.”
      “Yes, sir. On Screen one and two.”

We have learned sufficient about you.
We salute your show of strength, we applaud your display of patience and restraint, and we know you are a power to be reckoned with. We also have determined that you will maintain a treaty. As the Ancient Race stated.
We define the terms to be agreed upon as the present border between us, and the territory of the Ferri Commerce Authority, and the unclaimed region of the tri-pulsar group.
Trade relations between our respective governments will be included in the treaty, and the various private concerns along the border shall remain as is.
Schedule and criteria for the direct meeting to follow.
      “Well, nice of them to define the terms of the treaty for us,” the Supreme Commander said. “Keep me advised, I'm going to go refresh my memory as to who the Ferri are and where that pulsar group is.”

Third Rank (Lieutenant) Martha Jones
Shuttlecraft Trigati

      I decided the best way to make sure the Annunaki stayed where we'd left them and didn't eavesdrop on the conference that wasn't really all that far away from them was to make an unannounced visit.
      I used the excuse that the emergency rations and other food we'd left them really wasn't very good, and that they did need some other items as the reason I had to take the long range high speed shuttle packed nearly full of supplies, as well as a couple of fighter escorts out to meet the crippled passenger ship.

      The old D7 had drifted a little further along the course it had been on when its engines died, but it was still close enough to where it had been for it to show up on our sensors.
      Mister Branddyes was very happy to see us. And welcomed the food packages. Then he insisted on recording another message for me to take back to 'my commander'. Afterwards his assistant asked me if I had any news about the colony they were trying to find.
      “Possibly, sir,” I said trying not to say too much, “the Panna may have the location, but we're not sure. Once we finish our current mission, the commander said we'd send a ship out and check it out. If it is your group, he said we'd see about getting you there.”
      “That is all we can ask,” Mister Branddyes said softly, “even from the Panna. I do hate so much what we did to them. I'm surprised they'd even offer to help us.”
      “They're a very forgiving people,” I said watching for a reaction.
      “Yes, I know. I met several of them one time on a production satellite. Even though we were exploiting them to their own deaths, the, I almost said creatures, old habit, I'm sorry, they still tried to be helpful and concerned about the quality of their work.” He paused and gazed out the porthole for a moment. “My own people have a lot to answer for.”

      All in all, Mister Branddyes didn't act like the leader of a group from a race of wanna-be gods. His second in command, who was almost as old, had a bit of that edge, but even he wasn't what I expected.

      My engineer checked on the de-saturation of their coils and pronounced the progress acceptable.

      In a few minutes we were back in the shuttle and spiraling out away from the passenger ship.

      “Well?” My copilot said.
      “I still don't know what to think of them. Either they're really good actors, or they are exactly what they say they are.”

Supreme Commander Muller
Profile of Courage

      The instructions were simple and very direct.
      I was to take a minimal staff, which had to be All Military, they emphasized the words, and although they realized we had Panna on our ships, as 'servants and helpers' as they put it, they were not to be allowed off the shuttle we took to the negotiation planet. They expected my staff to be no fewer than seven other individuals, but no more than fifteen, with the appliances, as they put it, they required to do their jobs. They assured me that instant communication with the rest of my team on the ship would be available if needed.
      I was also allowed a small security detail for our own peace of mind, but they did not specify how many individuals.
      Their representative would have a similar group with them.
      Designated delegates from our staffs would discuss matters such as the ongoing trade agreement, redefining certain parts of the border as well as the status of unclaimed territory, and the repatriation of a group of Annunaki dis-loyalists that were being held on a space station not far inside Oon territory. They claimed they had the right to refuge in the Alliance and did not wish to be returned to the Annunaki. The Oon would leave it up to us.

      That last bit in the message made me pause. The Oon had captured another group like the one we'd come across?
      “Well,” I said as Paige read it, “I'm beginning to think that you and the Lieutenant might have been right after all.”
      “That's good to hear, sir.”

      I was also surprised to realize that they expected the shuttle we took to be armed as they requested that all offensive weapons be powered down for the duration of its use. Armed escorts could be with the shuttle, but their crews were to remain in the landing area and not be part of the conference unless they were an official member of my staff.

      It was obvious that we were dealing with career military and not anything like a civilian authority.

      They even asked for me to transmit to them what amounted to the 'coat of arms' for my office so they could display it on the wall behind our dais.
      Luckily for me, Qi-Shi said he had a perfect idea and was able to whip up something that looked good enough to use. A wreath of intertwined vines of several types, around a field of stars, at the bottom, where the vines met, were the representation of several types of classic weapons in a cluster bound with the vines, a sword, a bow, a spear, and an ax.
      “Peace through strength, a merging of cultures, all that? OK, sure. Send it.” I said to him.

      I hadn't planned on taking more people than my usual two. After mulling over several other options, I stuck with it. My immediate staff would be four, Paige, Qi-Shi, Neec and her assistant and all around 'gopher' Tain. For a security officer, I had wished Warrior was with us. But, instead, I chose Specialist Baracus, I thought a man with no sense of humor that he was aware of would be just the thing to impress the Oon.
      As for the shuttle that would take us to the planet, I had decided to go with a general purpose craft that, while armed, wasn't what we called a 'battle shuttle', that is, little more than a mobile gun platform with oversized engines to haul around and power a huge weapon. Our escort would be three regular fighters with three others in support who would return to the ship until called for. The regular crew that was on rotation for duty at the time we left got to ferry us down.
      At the last minute Paige suggested taking the other two Pax from our office to 'run things' as she put it, and relay messages and what not. I didn't see any reason to say no since the Oon expected a crowd.

      After we launched and then waited for clearance to land on their planet I thought about the Oon's obvious dislike of the Panna. Then I realized it went further than that. They didn't just dislike them, they totally discounted them as an intelligent race. Which was different than how the Annunaki dealt with them. They totally exploited them for everything they could get, while working the Panna to death.
      To me, the creatures I still heard occasionally referred to as 'the squid guys' were the most important members of the Alliance and the reason it existed, even if they, officially, were not members of the Alliance. One of the reasons for that was typically Panna, they couldn't come up with a single individual, or even small group, to be their High Counselor. When faced with that decision, the Panna balked, and when a large group of Panna 'balk' the chatter can drive you insane.

      “Sir,” the co-pilot called out to me, “I believe that is the Oon ship coming in just there.”
      We all looked out and saw a much larger shuttle swinging out and away from their main ship and then coming in behind ours as we descended toward the well marked landing area.
      “We'll find out. The instructions said to land, then to send a staff member out to collect translators for each of us, then for all of us to to go out and form up, as they put it, next to our vessel and wait to be greeted by the official host from the Oon.”

      And so we did.
      Not long after we landed a party of three Oon, in somewhat spectacular dress uniforms covered with an ornate robe -cape type of covering approached us.
      “Welcome Supreme Commander of the Planetary Alliance.” The leader of the group said through a device similar to the Panna disc. “I am the Host. These are my assistants. We shall see to your needs here.”
      “Thank you, your attention honors us.” I said because I had no idea what else to say.
      “If you please, I shall escort you to the Negotiating Officer for the Oon.”
      “That would be for the best.”
      “The crew of your ship and others may remain here, we will provide them with all they need.”
      “Excellent. Thank you for your hospitality.”

      The landing area was just as formal in a militaristic way as the Host. On our side of the landing port were several representations of Qi-Shi's coat of arms, as well as banners from the various Alliance worlds, and even a symbol that I supposed was supposed to represent the Panna.
      On the other side of the clearly marked common area was the Oon, with their own banners and what I thought looked like a swooping sideways 'V' shaped device which mimicked the overall shape of their command ship, surrounded by several interlaced circles that appeared to be the symbol of their fleet.

      “Supreme Commander, this is the Negotiating Officers for the Oon.” The Host said, then I heard a faint echo in another language that was apparently saying the same thing to the Oon in their language about me.

      Not knowing what else to do, I stood at attention for a moment, then partially bowed my head as the Officer looked at me.
      I could feel myself, my party, my ship, indeed, all of the Alliance being judged.
      “I salute your choice of modest transport Supreme Commander. Very under-stated. I would have preferred it to our own, but protocol dictates otherwise.” The Oon officer turned toward the large number of people arrayed carefully behind them, “as is the case with my staff, each position is assigned by long tradition.”
      “It is a high honor to meet you and your staff. Our own traditions leave a command officer more flexibility. I think I prefer it that way.”
      “It would had advantages. Shall we proceed to the opening consultation?”
      “Of course.”
      The Officer turned toward the Host. “Proceed.”

Earth Defense Base, Canada

      “I don't know what else to call it, so I'm calling it a UFO. We're not getting any telemetry and our ID system doesn't recognize it. We've scrambled interceptors but they're still a minute out. If it stays on course it'll come over Alaska and into your sector in about three minutes.”
      Did I mention I hate being the Officer In Charge when Nothing Happens. Now, here I was, standing in as the First Officer on the Third Shift and not only did we have a bogey on the screen, it was a bogey that nobody else could see and didn't appear to be ours, Annunaki, Alliance, or anybody else's.
      Asia command acknowledged, “We've got your feed, I'm having our patrol head that way now.”

      “At least it isn't a sensor ghost,” my comm officer said from his position. “It's showing up on Sat. Spotty, and it isn't a clear signal, but it is there.”
      “OK, good.” I hit another button on my console, “Approach command, do you see it?”
      “Yes, We got something. And we see your interceptors, they should have contact with it now.”

      “This is Maple One, we've got it, we had it, on ship to ship. There it is again. I don't see it. Zach, pull up a click or two and see if you get a visual, I'll keep tracking it.”
      “Heading up.”

      It was a long fifteen seconds before Maple Two answered.

      “Yeah, there's something there, I see, something, but I can't tell what it is. But it is still on the same course.”

      And then.

      “It just disappeared. Just like that. I was looking dead at it and trying to get a weapon's lock and it vanished.”
      “Just like what Zach said, I was coming up under him and it was right in front of me, and it wasn't there any more.”

      My sigh carried all the way out to Orbital Two, “OK, do a sweep of the area, then come home. Canada out.”

      “Miss Abbey, I just got a return from the Panna database. They have a file on things like that.”
      “They say they have a file on everything. What do they call it.”
      “Do you really want to know?”
      “I've got to write a report on it. So, Yes.”
      “They call them, I'm not kidding, Unidentified Flying Objects.”

Paige Taylor
Oon Conference Planet

      The formality of the negotiations was maddening.
      The General wanted me to take the problem of the Annunaki disloyalists, as well as the trade discussion. Qi-Shi had the border, then, as it turned out, he even drafted Specialist Baracus because the Oon wanted to review a couple of new weapons they had heard about us using. General Muller said he was prepared to discuss them with their Negotiating Officer, who apparently did not have a name besides their title, but we were told by the Host in no uncertain terms that the ranking officers would only bring the overall agreement to the table once all other aspects had been verified by their staffs.
      “If I'd known that's the way it was going to be, I would have brought more people,” he said to us. “The High Council simply wants to preserve whatever the current situation is, maintain the status quo, as much as possible. Keep things as they are, I thought that's what we were going to do, basically just continue what we're doing now, whatever it is. We didn't know there would be actual negotiations on anything in dispute. Especially stuff like weapons and trade.”
      “It's no problem, sir. I'm familiar with the basic specs on all fleet weapons, both ship mounted and man portable.”
      “Thank you, Specialist.” Then he looked at me and Qi-Shi.
      “We'll get through it. Sir. Unless it sounds really unreasonable, we'll agree to just about anything they say.”
      “That's kinda what the Council was looking for. Make them happy, avoid another major conflict.”

      And so we began.

      We each attended a meeting where we were introduced to our opposite with the Oon, and their staff, which took awhile. When it came time for them to introduce us, it was me, and Neec.
      Then a representative from the Host read the main points, and several of the minor points, of the topic. Then they asked me if I had any points to add.
      “This is just about the Annunaki separatists you are holding on a space station. Am I right?”
      “And their ship and the trade goods on board it. Their personal property will go with the individuals. There are thirty-nine of them.”
      “We're not that interested in the ship and goods. If you don't want to send that stuff, that's fine. We do know where the colony of the separatists is in the territory of another space power, if you wish to release the people, we'll turn them over the the colony administrator through our contacts with them once this conference is over.”
      The Host's officer seemed stunned by my statement. They turned toward the Oon, then back to me. “You do not wish to negotiate for their release?”
      “You want to send them away, we know how to get them to where they're going with minimal further trouble to everybody involved. I don't see anything to negotiate, unless you need to be paid for their room and board while you've had them in custody.”
      The Oon said something that the Host then translated, “Their sustenance while on board our station is of no consequence. The Oon are just accustomed to everything being negotiated.” Then the Host turned back to the Oon. “The Oon wish to confer.” It was a statement.

      I could see the leader of the Oon contingent turn around and face away from me and Neec. Several of their staff were talking into small devices they held in their hand while looking at other things one or the other would hold up.
      For me and Neec, we had each other and her handheld link to the library computer back on the ship.

      Then they were done.
      The Oon said a great deal to the Host in their language, then the Host turned toward us.
      “The Oon are in agreement. As the dis-loyalist's ship is not to be allowed to be under its own power in Oon territory, the Oon will tow it with all of them and their material to the conference site where it and they will be transferred to the custody of the Supreme Commander of the Alliance for removal from Oon space. This matter will be submitted to the Negotiating Officer of the Oon and the Supreme Commander.”

      And I'd reached our first treaty point with the Oon.

      But then they wanted to talk about all sorts of trade issues.

Security Specialist Baracus
Oon negotiation planet

      As I was now part of the negotiating party I asked for, and was allowed to have Flight Lieutenant Ripley come in from the shuttle to be my assistant.
      Then, with only a few moments to prepare and the assurance by the Host that as this matter was of utmost importance to the security of both the Oon and the Alliance, we would be given ample time to consult with our own people and the Supreme Commander before the final treaty was put together.

      The two of us stood in a large meeting hall while eleven Oon were introduced by ranks and titles. Then it was our turn.
      “I'm Security Specialist Baracus, this is Flight Lieutenant Ripley. It's an honor to be part of this negotiation.”
      The silence from the Host and the Oon was almost disturbing. Evidently I was supposed to say something else, but I didn't know what, so I just stood there, then nodded to the Host when they looked back at me.
      After a long pause the female Oon host spoke, “You are the weapons negotiator for the Supreme Commander of the Alliance. Correct?”
      “Yes, ma'am.”
      “Very well, we shall begin. This is the preliminary negotiating session regarding the matter of the jacketed anti-proton beam used against planets and space facilities.”
      “I'm sorry. That's not our weapon.” I said. Then I thought about it and realized I probably shouldn't have interrupted. “Please forgive the interruption, but that was an Annunaki weapon, based on the Dominator class of ships, not ours. We developed a defense, and an effective one at that, to it.”
      Several of those on the Oon side broke their poker faces and openly reacted, showing each other their pads and whispering back and forth. It only lasted a second, but it showed their hand.
      The Oon leader spoke to the Host, then, in turn the Host spoke to me.
      “We have information from the Hu that you deployed such a weapon against an Annunaki world and destroyed it.”
      I held out my copy of our database, “we destroyed the planet by sending in a series of shuttlecraft loaded with a combination of weapons that introduced a significant amount of anti-matter into the lower reaches of the star. The resulting nova destroyed the planet.” I paused, then said, “The Hu were either misinformed or intentionally lying to you for their own reasons.”
      There was another quick round of discussion on the Oon side.
      It evidently needed no statement from their Negotiator to have the Host say, “The Hu have proven to be unreliable sources before. Your documentation is not needed.”
      The Oon leader said something to the Host, who then spoke to me as usual.
      “We would be interested in hearing about the defense to the Dominator weapon.”
      “I was told by the individual who developed the design that she is willing to share it with anybody who may end up under attack by that or similar weapons, and that has been approved by the Supreme Commander. And we do have information that the Annunaki are developing similar, although a less powerful but more reliable weapon. The shield should work for it with only slight modifications.”
      “You will share this information without a treaty?” The Host asked me.
      I glanced over at Lieutenant Ripley.
      She worked at her data pad for a moment, then looked up, “The file is being transferred to their central server now.”
      The Host's face became incredibly stern and I realized that Ripley wasn't supposed to speak to them so I covered for her. “The information is being sent to your central database now. Even before we negotiate the treaty. It is just the right thing to do.”
      The Oon said something to the Host, who then relayed.
      “We have similar defensive information about various Annunaki space mines to share with the Alliance. You may clear them without danger to your own military.”
      “On behalf of my fellow service members who have had to do that duty, I thank you.”

      After that, the list of points for negotiation went smoothly, although it seemed the list was endless.

Supreme Commander Muller
Oon planet official waiting area

      Everybody else was in one of the preliminary negotiating sessions. I got tired of sitting in the holding area and re-reading the briefing documents, and being all but blatantly ignored by the Pax Jan and Kon who had set up a remote office in the main room and were monitoring communications with the fleet and, apparently, how many sandwiches I ate, so I got up and went to wander around.
      The place was deserted. I looked at the doors and walls and tried to remember which one was mine, but they were all the same. So I reached up and unhooked one corner of the banner closest to my door and folded it back behind itself. Then I went for a walk.

      I saw several of the Oon hosts, but they totally ignored me as they went about their duties. Finally, I even wandered into the Oon delegation area which was exactly like our own, only with different banners on the walls. That's when I realized that my own holding area had a double door.
      Just like this one.
      I couldn't resist. I knew I was probably breaking a dozen protocols, but. I knocked on the door.
      In a moment one of the Oon hosts opened it, but they didn't speak to me.

      “Supreme Commander? You are not in your waiting area.”
      “No, Negotiator. I'm not. I was wondering how long these preliminary talks go on and there was no one to ask. And I got impatient waiting.”
      “Ahh, that is just like a military man, to want an answer immediately and become easily fatigued with procedure and channels.”
      “These sessions have taken much time with others, and since our two powers have no formal history they may take a significant amount of time to establish the relationship.”
      “We have a history. We are both long term enemies of the Annunaki.”
      “Yes. You have that to your credit.”
      “So if our treaty is to simply agree to not be hostile with each other and to stand against them, or anybody else that seeks to enslave those who cannot defend themselves, what is there to negotiate?”
      “I see you are a very simple and straight forward leader of your people.”
      “I am not a politician if that is what you mean. I am also not much of a diplomat. I value action more than words. I am in favor of the two of us signing some sort of agreement of understanding so I can get back to my job with my fleet, let people who enjoy discussing trade agreements handle the rest of it. I've got some annoying pirates who have overstepped their bounds to deal with. The situation out there needs a firm hand to correct.” I had my eyes and jaw set to imply that I was that 'firm hand'.
      The Negotiator stood straight and looked at me. “If that were possible, I would also be in favor of it.”
      “Why isn't it possible? Tradition and protocol?”
      “That is our way. Our military is based on a long history of it.”
      “Then, Negotiator, I'm sorry. But when tradition gets in my way, it tends to get out of my way. But I will respect your people's history, and, if I can find my way back to my chamber, I'll go wait quietly.”
      The Negotiator stood silently for a moment. “Supreme Commander, we also have another tradition in some parts of our military. We can, and have, compromised when it serves the greater purpose. I will summon the Lead Host.” Then the Negotiator looked at the lower ranking host that was in the room, “Please escort the Supreme Commander back to his suite. If it can be so, you shall be on your way to deal with your pirates soon enough. If I may ask, would these be the ones that ambushed your Battleship?” He saw my surprise at how well informed he was. “Prior to negotiations, we gather as much intelligence as possible. Just as you did. That recent battle was part of the dossier.”
      “I understand. My point is, if they can do that to a major warship, how long before they decide to raid a port, or worse?”
      “Understood. We also have similar issues on the fringes of our domain. And, from time to time, they, as you said, overstep their bounds and must be dealt with most sternly.”

      Jan and Kon had left me a message, they had taken the shuttle to the ship get something for Qi-Shi, so the good news was that they didn't have to work so hard to ignore me.
      I sat in our rooms for what seemed like ages. But according to my watch, it was only two hours.
      I did manage to take a short nap. I tried out their bathing facility and put my dress jacket in the 'uniform re-processor' to see what that did to it, then I sampled some more of their food. And I attempted to have a conversation with several of the Host staff because now they did not leave me alone outside of the personal room.
      Finally, Paige showed up with Neec, and they had news.

Paige Taylor
      I briefed the General on our progress. And he briefed us on his. However, in spite of their Negotiator's statement that something could be done to streamline the process, it seemed that it was still going to take forever.

      “According to the Host we dealt with. There will be one more exchange session here. Then one on their ship. Then one on one of our ships. Then back here. And so on. And this will be for each Negotiating Officer. Before the final treaty is presented to you and their, whatever he's called.”
      Neec had the schedule up. “And, Eugene, each session on board the ships will be on a separate day. So this will take at least five days. Before it comes to you.”
      “Eugene?” I said with raised eyebrows.
      “A long story. You'll be all right, and so is her calling me that instead of Supreme Commander.”
      “I'm not going to say a word,” I looked around, “so what's worth eating around here. The meal we got at break wasn't.”
      “I had to explain what I wanted to the Host out there, once they got the idea they brought me a decent sandwich and some chip like things. It was better than Panna food.”
      “My shoes would be better than Panna food,” Neec said with surprising emotion in her voice. “And I really need to get out of this uniform, it is beginning to bother my skin.”
      “Me too, but I'm not going to be naked,” I said to her and unfastened the jacket I had been sweating in, “but you can, that's fine. And if the Hosts don't like it we'll say it is your approved uniform by the Supreme Commander.”
      The General nodded, “In fact, I will say that. Maybe it will push them to get us out of here faster.”

      Specialist Baracus and Lieutenant Ripley were the next ones to arrive. They were so wiped out it took both of them a good ten minutes to realize that Neec was really out of uniform. As was I, but at least I was wearing my underwear and a towel while I ate.
      “They even wanted to know whether the Panna improved AKs were available on the black market where they might get sold across their border,” Baracus said. “I told them that every time we bust a shipment that's been misappropriated, they're always heading the other way. That we hadn't found any substantial arms dealers interested in Oon territory because, evidently, there's not enough profit in it to make the risk worth while.”
      Ripley nodded slowly, “They liked that answer.”

      Finally Qi-Shi and Tain arrived. Both of them looked like they'd been through the wringer.
      “Now I know why they sent so many designees to the meeting. Each one had about an hour's worth of material. Some of them, two, or more. Plus the speech by their Lead.”
      “Speeches by the lead,” Tain said as he undressed and went to wash his skin that was showing signs of erupting in a rash from the uniform. “Every time they changed.”
      “Yes,” Qi-Shi said, “between presentations and questions by the others, the Lead would talk about how important what they'd just said was, and how important what was coming up was. It was like he was animated and they just played the same thing over and over.” He took a deep breath. “Did we pack anything to drink, I mean booze. And where's the food.”
      “Yes, to the booze,” I answered and went to find my travel kit, “In case I had trouble sleeping down here in a strange room.” In a minute I was back with a bottle of New Bundaberg. “It's almost as good as the original, only the Panna decided to improve the process when they rebuilt the old place up in Queensland. And since they improved the process on Earth, they make it for me on the ship as well now.”
      “The Panna making Australian rum on a spaceship,” the General said slowly. “Sounds right to me, I'll get the cups. There's food over here.”
      I laughed at him in spite of our situation and the topic as Qi-Shi opened the bottle and smelled it.
      “Bit sweet,” he said of the smell, then he tasted it, “it'll drink.”
      “That it will,” the General was already holding his cup out for a refill as Qi-Shi poured some for Ripley and Baracus.
      Then I even managed to play some music on my pad for Jan to sing to, then we discussed whether or not Tain's rash qualified him for an 'injured in the line of duty' medal.

Supreme Commander Muller

      The gentle tone that was bouncing through the chambers' sleeping cubicles had nothing to do with Panna improved Aussie rum.
      It took me a minute to become coherent enough to touch the one tiny spot on the entire door frame that would open the sleeping compartment door. Several of the Hosts were standing in the middle of the room where we'd had our impromptu party. Except now, the place was as clean as it had been the moment we had walked into it yesterday.
      “If it would please the Supreme Commander and his staff, the Oon Negotiator would like a general session to discuss a matter of utmost importance.”
      “When?” Was my only response.
      The Hosts looked at each other, then two of them consulted a small display in their hand and one of the other ones talked to themselves quietly.
      “When could you be ready for such a meeting?” The lead host finally asked us as some of the others came out of their cubicles.
      “One of our hours should do.”
      “We understand such a time measurement. We will return one hour from now.”
      They turned and walked out silently.

      “OK, people, shower and dress uniforms.”
      Qi-Shi was looking at the sideboard where the containers of food were. “They just replaced what we ate last night. It's all the same stuff. Just fresh.”
      “It'll do. There's only three of the shower tube things, we'll have to take turns,” I said to them.
      Paige spoke up and turned back to her room, “And I'm going first on the girl's side.”
      “Then I'll eat,” Ripley said and headed toward the food.

      We were all ready in much less than an hour. And now all four Pax were in the less formal uniforms that they wore on the ship. The rest of us were in our freshly 're-processed' full dress uniforms.
      “It feels like it was dry cleaned by a sadist,” Qi-Shi said of his uniform parts. “But they are clean.”
      “And it doesn't smell like I worked out in it,” Baracus added sniffing at his jacket.

      The timer on my watch said it had been over an hour since the Hosts had left when the tone filled the room again.
      Specialist Baracus touched the hidden button and the door opened.
      “We're ready,” I said to the Host and they led us to the meeting room.

      Once there the Lead Host prepared to make a speech but the Negotiator for the Oon stopped them.
      “I believe this situation calls for less formality and more action,” the Negotiator said, “do you agree Supreme Commander?”
      “To which end I propose this. Our designees have reviewed the primary documents. My staff are eager to visit your ships for their round of discussions. I will submit that we allow them to do so to finalize their parts of the treaty. I would be honored to escort you to tour my ship while they conduct their work, then we can meet to review the final document when it is prepared.”
      “I need to check with my designees to see if they are prepared for this development. One moment please.” I turned and looked at them.
      “Let's go and get this over with,” Lieutenant Ripley whispered when nobody else spoke.
      “I think we've got everything we need,” Paige said glancing at Neec.
      “Go?” I asked them.
      “Go. Yes, sir. We'll do it.” Various ones answered.
      I turned back to the Oon, “It is my pleasure to report that I and my staff are ready and eager as well. When do we leave?”
      “We are prepared to call for the shuttles now,” the Host replied.
      “Make it so,” the Oon commanded.

Qi-Shi and Tain
Holographic Theater
Battleship Vindicator

      Now I had them on my turf.
      Before, it was just Tain and I, facing an army of subject matter experts, each with their own documents of the minutest details of asteroid fields and at least one other well briefed assistant to keep them on track, and a lead Negotiator who enjoyed making speeches.
      But now. I uploaded the combined star maps and charts to the Vindicator's main computer and had it program the theater so when we walked in, we were walking through the border region we were discussing and could see that the asteroid field one of them went into poetic ecstasy about was nothing more than a random handful of dead rocks that had already been mined for everything worthwhile in them.
      I explained the scale and Tain used a control pad to highlight and enlarge the various areas. The Alliance was in a blue, the Oon in their preferred shade of green, and the Ferri in an ugly orange that was one of the colors in their banner. Disputed areas were a hash of the colors of whoever was disputing it, and unclaimed space in a sort of gray. Off to one side was a large wavering mass of gold tinted space that stretched into infinity. The Annunaki realm.
      It was a spectacular display, covering several light years in every direction from where the conference was being held. And as such, we could stand among our own ships, now very small dots indeed, and judge the border for what it was.

      And now, instead of a lead making speeches, we could watch a rogue planet slink its way through the area and, as predicted in another five years or so, move from Ferri claimed territory through a small bit of the Alliance and into Oon space.

      “When it is so represented,” the border negotiator said slowly looking up at a trio of stars, “it would seem some of the claims made about the border are somewhat over stated.”
      “These are remarkable holograms,” one of the designees said, “we should add this technology to the trade agreement.”
      The lead negotiator silenced them with a look, but I'd caught it.
      “As allies, a certain level of technological exchange would be called for. And because this is not a sensitive military technology, but more of an educational and entertainment one, I don't see any problem with that.”
      “Your people are most generous. I look forward to seeing what else your theater can do.”
      “If you have a moment,” I said to them and they indicated they did. “Tain, take us on a tour of the capitol cities of the Alliance planets. And, add music.”

      An hour later we'd all been treated to the sights and sounds of most of our worlds. And, as it was a Panna designed system, when the room changed into the central garden outside the palace on Rigel, we could smell the flowers as well as hear the presentation song of the royal family as they appeared on the balcony to greet the people.
      It was an impressive display that fully demonstrated the capabilities of the system.
      At the end of the tour, space was back, but now, Tain had programmed a tour of his own, we were standing on the deck of some sort of sight seeing vessel. We swooped through the fleets around the negotiating planet, then went on a tour of our own. The various planets and features of the border area flew by, as the colors of space itself changed to indicate where we were. In a moment, we were observing what was left of the local Annunaki realm as well as a couple of other powers who claimed territory on that scale. Then our vantage point left the galaxy and we were looking down on just how small of an area both sides claimed of that structure. Then we slowly returned to the conference site.
      “Thank you, that was an educational experience to be remembered.”

      I bowed slightly to them, “Thank you for your indulgence. Now, if you would like a brief recess, we can then begin the review of our part of the treaty.”
      “We stand at your direction.”

Oon Treaty Planet Waiting Area

      I and the other Pax have been experimenting with the various members of the staff, the Tauri and others as well, during the voyage and now, on the artificial Oon planet the way we do. Both their males and their females. Most appear to be agreeable to such encounters, even though they are unsure of our own sexual status. The Pax have found such encounters with those of other species even more enjoyable than similar activity with others of our species. And what we've done with the staff is no exception.
      The one who was most surprised that we do not have obvious organs was the one whom I was certain was most knowledgeable of the fact. Mr. Qi-Shi had definitely informed the General of the fact, but when it came to the practice of interacting as such, he was insecure and more embarrassed by his inability to proceed with Jan than he needed to be.
      In an encounter with two of us, Security Specialist Baracus was more confident, but became obsessed with the amount of pleasure we were experiencing.
      The female humans were less self-conscious, but then again, they appeared to be unwilling to accept the total equality in such matters that the Pax have achieved. The sole exception may be Lieutenant Ripley who let on that she was more used to such matters as she preferred those sorts of encounters with women than with men.
      But now we are facing a dilemma. We believe the General has become suspicious of us, and we have it on good word that he probably would not approve of such fraternization, even in the interest of one species learning more about the others.
      The other Pax on the staff have decided that I should be the one to answer for what we have done if the matter were to come up.
      “In that case,” I said to them, “let us see that it not come up.”

Supreme Commander Muller
Oon command ship

      I learned several things on my tour of their command ship.
      The first was that they were not in a hurry for anything to happen. As far as I could tell, most of them spent most of their time waiting for whoever was the next step up in their chain of command to do something. And since that person was probably also waiting on word from above, nothing happened quickly. So I got to spend a lot of time sitting, or standing, and watching and listening. Which, in a word, was fascinating because most of their crew simply ignored me.
      The next being that the Negotiator hadn't used their own name since they had joined the active military as a youth.
      “Our officers are all from designated lines of Trell bred for generations to stand against the Annu threat, just as they were bred to enslave others. As such, we are prohibited from engaging in offices with the civilian government of the Oonaline realm.”
      “I see. So instead of your being what you were called as a child, now you're known by your office?”
      “Yes. But, you see, some of the designees are civilians doing their service time, others are lower ranking Trell. The civilians will return to their life outside once their term is up, whatever they subscribed to.”

      They also do not name their ships. The command ship had a designation for this mission. Later, it might be reassigned and be given another designation. Something they took from the Annunaki model as well.

      The one thing I was absolutely amazed at was that the Oon, as a species, totally disrespect and discount the Panna, their ability to do things, and the way they work together.
      It happened when the Negotiator showed me the progress that was being made on one of their escort vehicles for some minor damage that had occurred during a routine docking maneuver when some space dust had caused what he called a 'contractor arm' to seize up.
      “On our ships the Panna would send out a repair machine to fix it, and probably improve the design in some way.”
      “The Panna are useful, I guess. But we would never allow such things aboard our ships. They have no concept of order, or of the chain of command. And, alone, a Panna is a liability,” the Negotiator said with some barely disguised disgust.
      I managed to change the subject and ask if they had managed to dock with the broken arm.
      “Yes, our ships have multiple docking facilities, just for this sort of eventuality.”

      The more we discussed various aspects of our organizations, the more the Negotiator seemed to indicate that he wished for another role than his own assignment.
      I had an idea.
      “When would be appropriate for our two governments to exchange ambassadors?” I asked them.
      They were silent for a long time, “I, we, had not considered that. I must check with my superiors.”
      “If it is agreeable, and allowed by your tradition, I would like to invite you to apply for the position of at least Charge d'Affairs, something just below the position of full ambassador.”
      The Negotiator was silent for another moment. “It is permitted for us to change designations if it is for the best for all of Oon. How much staff could I bring?”

Third Rank (Lieutenant) Martha Jones
Shuttlecraft Trigati

      I didn't know what to expect, so my own long range shuttle was being escorted by three fighters and a support shuttle.
      I was now slated to meet an Oon tow ship that was bringing us another civilian ship full of Annunaki separatists. The Oon message said that all windows on their ship had been blacked out for security, and all scanning equipment had either been disabled or confiscated. They were required to be blind and deaf, locked inside their unpowered ship until we had them out of Oon space, at which time we could do whatever we wanted to do with them.
      Until I knew what this group was like, I was just as inclined to leave them in their ship as they were until we joined up with the D7.

      “There it is.” I said as I watched the long range sensor screen. Two small dots were obviously pulling a larger dot.
      They were moving at a good pace and before they reached the fleet I had moved our shuttle to meet them where we signaled the Oon to release it and we took over.
      Our scans showed exactly what we were told it would be. An unpowered and almost uninhabitable passenger ship with minimal life support running off of internal batteries, and thirty-nine Annunaki aboard. Along with a random jumble of personal items and what appeared to be hand tools in oddly shaped boxes.
      “It's reading as a Merchant Cruiser, with only fifty holds intact. And not a lot otherwise, it's a basic ship.”
      “They didn't have time to upgrade.”
      “Probably not.”
      “Prepare to take it in tow and get underway.”
      Our three Panna fussed over the engine and tractor beam settings until they were satisfied that our ship wasn't going to spontaneously explode, and we headed to meet the D7.

      “We helped so you can talk to them and tell them where they are going,” the Panna named, of all things, Studebaker, said when I commented that I wish I could at least tell the Separatists what was going on.
      “We sent auto repair bots to the ship when we were away from the Oon.”
      “It is working. It is helping. So you can see and talk to them, just tell us when you want to.”

      It took me a minute to compose myself and to think of a way to say it that was neutral enough not to cause panic in the people who, until now, had no idea what was going to happen to them at the hands of the Oon military.

      I had the Panna turn on the camera and microphone on the Separatist's ship first.
      There was nobody on their command deck. It took me a minute to realize that there was no reason for anybody to be in command because the ship wasn't likely to do anything on its own. Over the audio channel we could hear some low discussion in their language, the Panna activated their translator and the discussion turned out to be what was in the food packets the Oon had given them before they locked them in their ship.
      “It is food. We'll have to eat it. I don't know how long we're going to be in here this time.” One of them said.
      “You're certain they said we would not be taken back to Serenity.”
      “That's the only thing they did say.”

      I nodded to my crew, “well, they've got food, they seem to be OK, let's just watch and listen until we get to the border. They've got life support for now. Let's let'em be and keep going.”

      One of them, I have no idea if it was one of them from the food discussion or not came onto the command deck and looked at the various instruments and gauges, then they floated back out. Which was when we found out that Oon had even deactivated the ship's internal gravity field.

      I looked at Studebaker, “Can you activate some of those panels with your, what is it, auto robot?”
      “Yes. They have been repairing their systems. Many will work if activated.”
      “How long to the border?”
      The co-pilot checked some readouts, “right at fifteen minutes.”
      “That's close enough, let's see what they do, then we'll know what we've got.”
      “What if they activate weapons? That ship has defensive disruptors.”
      “If they do that, their ride ends here,” then I informed our escorts to have them watch for anything unusual out of the Annunaki.

      The Panna contacted the automated units and in seconds we watched several panels come to life, then we heard several unpleasant screeches and beeps as various indicators needed attention.
      Two of the ship's crew hurried into the command area to see what was happening.
      “What is going on?” One of them asked the other.
      “The ship is waking up. That was the internal sensors, main life support, gravity is coming to power. Warn everybody of that.”

      I gave them a few minutes, then hailed them over their own communications system and watched as one of the crew was obviously surprised at the call, and yelled for their superior.
      Then I repeated my hail, “This is the Alliance Shuttlecraft Trigati, I am Lieutenant Jones. We have your ship in tow. We have restored some of your systems to make life a little easier for you. Do you understand?”
      “Yes, Lieutenant. We understand. Are we being taken to another prison?”
      “No. We are taking you to rendezvous with a D7 passenger ship being led by Mister Bernard Branddyes, which is the name he chose when they left Serenity. Then we'll take you both to the colony you were looking for.”
      There was silence from the Annunaki.
      “How can we trust you?”
      I had an answer for that one, “You're still breathing. You can trust us. If that's not good enough, we can take you back to the Oon.”
      There was silence for a long moment, “It would seem we are at your mercy.”

Security Specialist Baracus
Oon Negotiation Fleet Ship Three

      Ripley and I sat on a plain bench, in a plain room, and stared at an Oon Negotiator as they made a speech about the development of new weapons.
      Then one of the Hosts came around with odd looking pyramid shaped data displays that were all synchronized to each other and a large overhead display.
      We were to go through it line by line and verify what was, and what was not, covered in the treaty.
      It took awhile, but not as long as I expected.

      Finally, the Oon asked if we had any objection by class of weapon, and I said no.
      The Host nodded, and said, “We may move on to ship based cloaking technology.”
      This was something we knew the Alliance didn't have, but evidently the Oon did. So both of us became very interested in the subject.
      “As part of the mutual defense treaty, we do allow dedicated allies access to some aspects of this. As long as the ships it is installed on are keyed to self destruct if they come into enemy hands.”
      “I agree in principal to that for the Alliance,” I answered.

      From what we could glean, the Oon did have the ability to cloak their ships under certain circumstances. However, it evidently wasn't effective at close range, or while traveling at a significant speed. But even then, the ability to hide a warship at all was a strategic advantage. And one of the ways they had managed to stay free from the Annunaki for so long.
      I also knew that the Panna, with their combined intelligence when linked, could not only figure it out given the basics of the technology, then they'd 'make it better', and soon the Alliance would have the ability to fully cloak the Courage, while under full power, until it was right on top of you.

      After their lecture, I simply thanked them for the information and asked about the next category, solar system defense weapons based on naturally occurring asteroids.

Paige Taylor
Main Conference Room
dreadnaught Profile of Courage

      The Oon, for all of their appearance of proper order and self confidence cannot even agree on what an equal species is. Nevermind that they think the Panna are our pets, or perhaps a race of slaves, they do not believe the Free Juul are equal as well, and they suspect we are being somewhat charitable with giving the Pax the status they have within our Alliance.
      “Our domain is composed of the Oon. And a few planets of the Ooldaks who live under our rule and run our shipyards. We are not an Alliance of multiple species such as your Alliance. Therefore, our experience with some other races is limited. However, we find cultural exchange with unsophisticated races, entertaining,” one of them said during one of their speeches about one of our more backward member worlds.
      It may have been Earth.

      I found out that if I agreed to stipulate to whatever they said about a member race with the understanding that the matter of that species would be revisited during the ongoing negotiations by a committee to be appointed later, after appropriate consultation with the species, that they would agree to move on. And so I stipulated to that with one condition whenever they questioned a member world, I was OK with whatever they said for now, as long as I was not on any of those committees.

      And then I had an idea and mentioned it to Neec.
      “They don't seem to pay any attention to me,” she replied, “it should be no problem.”
      At the next break in one of their rants about inferior races I said something to the Host, “Excuse me, my assistant left some reference material on the shuttle, is she permitted to retrieve it?”
      “Of course, if there is no objection from the Oon Negotiator, we will take a ten span recess.”

      'ten spans' was enough time for me to go back to my own office and get my own material and then hide it in plain sight with the other data pads and hand control units.

      Back in the Conference Room Neec whispered something to me that made me smile.
      “I told the Panna Chevelle and Roquefort what we wanted to do and they said they could help and the Oon would never know about it because the Oon also totally ignore them.”
      “When will they do it?” I asked her as we got settled for the next round of speeches that focused primarily on degrading every member of the Alliance except the Toller and maybe the Chou.
      “They already are. Some sort of remote scanning robot.”
      “We will accept some trade with the Foraquinestaezst, but not as equal members for the following reasons....” the next speech began by a junior member of the Oon team.

      I pretended to listen for a moment.
      Since it was a junior member, they were likely to be an Oon civilian.
      I picked up my data pad, along with another small device, and appeared to take notes and turned toward the speaker slightly.

Supreme Commander's Office
      “We've reviewed the information several times Admiral, and I sent it down to Doctor Zira in Medical to confirm it. There is no doubt. My scans with the bio-tricorder. Neec's remote sensor readings. What we got from Chev and Roque...” I had to pause, “I really must speak to Mister Spade about his Panna names.”
      The Admiral nodded as he looked at the screen. “So, if the civilians are, basically, biologically Annunaki with a few minor differences from cross breeding with the Ooldaks, then what are the officers?”
      “Clones. Well, almost-clones. They are genetically engineered, but their base stock is the Oon hybrid line. Like on our home planet when they make, or used to make, manufactured housing. Each one is a little bit different, but they're all more the same than different.”
      “I see, we do something similar. The models are so much alike, sometimes unless the difference is pointed out, you'll never see it.”
      “Exactly, Admiral.”

      Neec brought up the scans of everything from injured Annunaki taken prisoner in battle to the Separatists on the D7 and lined them up with, as his title read, Minor Point Junior Negotiator Three and one of the escort hosts from the planet.
      “Right down to the second stomach. The only major difference is the blood type. Just different enough that if the Annunaki conquered them, they'd exterminate them as a corruption of their species.” the Admiral said. “And judging from what I've heard about the Oon, it would probably work the other way round as well.” Then his gaze moved on to the view of the Oon command ship. The giant ominous boomerang shaped thing hung silently against the field of stars. He turned back toward us, “I don't like it, but I can't do anything about it, and I'm not sure the Alliance should. We can't afford another war of that scale now.”
      “Should I tell the General?” I asked him.
      “We should, but let's wait until he is back on one of our ships.”
      Neec looked up from her console, “He is due back on the planet in two hours. We should be back down there for the next session as well in about three.”
      “Can I say that I honestly hate diplomacy?”
      “Yes, sir.” I answered.
      “I hate diplomacy.”

      We sat through one more intermediate session with the Oon and listened to another round of their speeches.
      As for us asking about the Ooldaks as part of the overall Oon realm, the answer was simple, “They are a protected territory. We see to their best interests. They have no other stake in the treaty.”

      After the closing speech by one of the Negotiators, we packed up and returned to the planet.

      My informing the General of our findings was a bit of an anticlimax.

Supreme Commander Muller
on board Alliance shuttle
Oon planet landing area

      “You should have been with me on their command ship and listen to some of the conversations while I was waiting for something else to happen. Not only are they descended from them, in a pinch, I bet they could take over for them,” he looked at the scans of the negotiator. “I'm really not surprised.”
      “So what do we do?” Paige asked me.
      “We finish this treaty, bid them a fond farewell and godspeed and all that, and then get the hell out of their territory,” he glanced out the portal at the waiting Host. “We need to get moving.”

      The Host guided us to our waiting area where another spread of food almost identical to what we'd had before was waiting on us.
      “I loaded up this time,” Paige said holding out her travel bag that had three bottles of Panna brewed Aussie rum.
      “We all did,” Qi-Shi said from the side room. “I brought beer!” Then he paused and looked at us all. “What did I miss?”
      “Not here, too many ears,” I said. “Ahhh, I know.” I went and got one of our secure data pads and spent a minute or so typing it out.
      Qi-Shi read it, then handed it to Tain, “I suspected something like that. I didn't think it was that direct, but, yeah, it makes sense.”

      An hour or so later Specialist Baracus and Lieutenant Ripley arrived.
      “Our last session ran over. Evidently they just realized that we have a class of unmanned remotely piloted fighters controlled by battle computers. They made a special speech about that,” Ripley explained.
      “Those are only deployed around relay stations and things like that,” Qi-Shi said.
      “There's some around a couple of the smaller space stations and bases,” I added, “but nothing the Oon would ever see unless they invaded Rigel.”
      “And they were in the briefing documents, what took them so long?” Paige said.
      Baracus had poured his partner a stiff belt of the rum, “One of them spotted a chance to make a speech.”
      “Here,” Qi-Shi said, “read this, quietly.”
      He did, then he passed it to Ripley.
      “Well, that's a bundle of news and no mistake,” she said after reading through it and looking at the medical scans.
      “It doesn't change the overall plan. We go through this, whatever it is, to get this treaty in place. Then we leave it to the professional talkers.”
      “Don't they have to be military officers?”
      “And so they will be.”

      After awhile the Host came in and said the next session would be the last before the final session.
      “All of the preliminary presentations have been accepted. This will be to present the final assembled document for each side to review.”
      “When?” I asked.
      “The Negotiator requested a full rest period. Approximately two hundred spans.”
      “About three hours by what I learned on the command ship.”

      We all took a quick nap, and got a shower, and all that. So by the time a whole platoon of Hosts reappeared in our room, we were ready to go.

      It almost took forever.

      The Lead Host presented the document, then asked the Negotiator if they had anything to add.
      “Yes. If the Supreme Commander approves, I would submit that both groups meet as soon as possible to formalize the initial acceptance of the treaty.”

      I'd had enough formal initial acceptance to last me a lifetime.

      When the Host turned to me I said it. “If the Lead Negotiator approves, I am prepared to issue initial acceptance of the treaty right now and get this over with.”

      “However, protocol demands a sufficient period of review and a full declaration....”
      The Negotiator gestured somewhat dramatically and the Host fell silent.

      “The Oon accept the proposal from the Supreme Commander of the Alliance. This Negotiator further proposes that this assembly of Negotiators be reassigned as the Ambassadorial Group from the Oon to the Alliance.”

      “A proposal that we, the representatives of the Alliance, and myself as the Supreme Commander, fully support and endorse.”

      The Host simply bowed his head for a moment. “In that case, as soon as this facility can be converted to the formal acceptance venue we shall conclude this Negotiation.”
      “How long will that take?” I asked.
      “The Supreme Commander's attention is needed to deal with a threat to commercial shipping,” the Negotiator said.
      “We shall make every effort to commence in one of your hours.”
      I nodded dramatically, “That is acceptable.”
      “Do you wish to wait in your quarters?”

      We hadn't brought a lot of stuff down from the ships, but we had brought enough that we had to make two trips to the shuttles with our personal effects and the Pax's office equipment.
      And there was something else as well, I didn't want to leave anything of ours behind, no matter what it was. So in addition to my spare uniform shirt, there was everybody's data pads which had increased in number with every session, Paige's empty rum bottles, and Specialist Baracus's containers of simulated spicy deep fried pork rinds, which are pretty good with rum.

      It hadn't been quite an hour when one of the Hosts arrived.
      “You cleaned your rooms?” They asked us.
      “Yes, we make an attempt to leave places as clean as we found them,” I answered.
      “If not cleaner,” Paige added.
      “Interesting. Our own people do not do that. Our staff that services those facilities will spend the next several cycles making them ready for their next use.” The Host looked around. “It appears these rooms are ready now.”

      I had thought the main reception room was a bit over the top before. Now it reminded me of a Mardis Gras tribute thing I had gone to with some others in Las Vegas.
      There were representations and symbols of the various planets in the Alliance. What we were told was a scale model of the original Leader's Palace on the Oon home world which was now a museum, and a large image of the current capitol complex on an artificial island in their largest ocean. There were holograms of the two fleets above our heads. There were elevated platforms with seats for our staffs while me and the Negotiator would be seated on ornate thrones while the treaty was read.
      There was no way around it, we had to sit through it.

      But at least the scenery around us was good.

      Finally, it was done.
      There was a closing speech by the Host, and then we were escorted out to our shuttles.

      “Supreme Commander, if I may,” the Negotiator said to me as we were bowing good bye to each other.
      “Of course. What can I do for you?”
      “You can allow my personal ship with my immediate staff to join your convoy for your return trip to your headquarters.”
      “I expect to be making a slight detour, but, if you're OK with that, of course, you may join us. We're allies now.”
      “I stand in your service, sir.”
      “Your service is a high honor for us,” I replied.

      And then we were on the shuttles heading back to the Courage.

      “General?” Jan said to me as we waited for clearance to approach the landing bay that was recovering a fighter patrol ahead of us.
      “Now that the mission is successfully completed, are you going to disband your staff?”
      “Meaning you guys?” I looked at, well, I'm not sure if Jan struck me as more male or female, and I hate calling anybody an 'it', except Panna who really are. Two of the other Pax indicated that Jan was speaking for them as well. The one called Kon was developing a rather intense scowl, but when I caught his eye, he almost nodded.
      “Yes,” Jan continued, “we have developed relationships with several of your staff and do not wish to be separated from them.”

      I wasn't expecting that.

      “You, and....” I glanced over at my human, and allied, staff.
      “All of us,” Neec said.
      Several of my people nodded or shrugged or, in one case, looked at me and then suddenly found their own shoes of intense interest.

      I had to hold up a hand for a moment to have time and space to contemplate that.

      First contact with an unknown alien race with a cloned military that was able to keep the Annunaki Empire at bay for hundreds of years or more? OK, apparently I'm all right at that.
      Dealing with sabotage of a major warship by our own security division? I think I did OK with that.
      Even picking up a couple passenger craft of what appeared to be a group of Annunaki defectors? I'm good, no problem.
      But trying to referee a liaison between several human crewmembers, male and female, and several other crew from the Pax? Where's the nearest battle, I'll get into a fighter and go.

      “OK, ahhh, we've still got to deal with the separatists, and let the Alliance know that they're going to be hosting an Oon ambassador, and sort out the mess with Security. So for the time being, you guys aren't going anywhere.” I glanced back and forth at the Pax and the rest. “But in the mean time, can we keep a lid on this?”

      “Yes, General. Thank you, sir.”

      “Get us clearance to land,” I said to the pilot, “I need a drink.”

Third Rank (Lieutenant) Martha Jones
Shuttlecraft Trigati

      I had one of our escorts fly ahead and enable Mister Branddyes's communications system so I could patch the separatists on the Merchant Cruiser through to them.
      “Third Rank, are you receiving me?” My comm said in Flight Officer Wystead's voice.
      “Yes. Is Branddyes available?”
      “I am waiting as instructed,” he replied.
      “Very good, stand by, I'm connecting you to the Merchant Cruiser now.”

      Once they were patched through I told them I would mute my own microphone and they could talk about their pending rendezvous.
      There was silence for a moment, then Branddyes said something, “I was Line Designate Third Order Fourth at Post Nine Seven Five before I took my name.”
      Then one of the Separatists on the Merchant Cruiser replied, “Service Assistant Third Order Third, Station Fifty-One. I have not taken a name yet.”
      “I was assigned to Fifty-One when I was a Fifth Associate. Is it still cold in the lower bunking?”
      “Unbearable. I had to request additional wraps.”
      Then they were quiet for a time before a different on on the Merchant Cruiser asked, “Does this Alliance know where our people settled?”
      “I believe they do.”
      “Will it be safe if they take us there?”
      “I do not know, but what option do we have? Our ship was disabled, they said you were being held in a prison by the Others.”
      “True. I do not see how our situation could be worse.”
      Then there was some chatter in the background from the D7, Mr. Branddyes relayed the message. “One of my people, Margot Kidden, now, she was Second Home Consort to First Semjaza of the Settlement at Port Three on Athos. She wishes to know if the Fourth Mate of the Semjaza of the High City is with you.”
      “Yes. And she has taken a name, she is now Nin Kursaj, she believes that was one of the names used by one of her forebearers,” the one on the Merchant Cruiser paused, “We are letting her know that the Second Consort is on your ship.”
      And then there was more silence, finally, I interrupted their not talking, “We'll be preparing to dock with the D7 shortly, you may wish to secure anything that can come loose during the maneuver.”
      “We shall do so, Third Rank.”
      “As will we,” Branddyes replied.

      And in about twenty minutes we were slowing down and turning to approach the D7 with the main docking hatch of the Merchant Cruiser lined up. My own shuttle would go around and dock with the D7's emergency port.
      Part of that idea was that if things went badly, it was easier and quicker to detach the shuttle from the emergency dock than the primary.
      It took some maneuvering on their part because the two docking assemblies were not immediately or easily compatible. But with in a few minutes, the seals firmed up and the passage between the two ships was usable. Our docking with the emergency hatch was routine.
      The greeting between the two parties was rather cool, other than the few who knew each other. The two women faced each other and spoke briefly, then, in a few moments they embraced and acted like I expected them to act.
      “We were in first group session together as young girls. I haven't even seen her in a very long time although we did stay in contact,” one said.
      Then the other added, “But even that has been a long time.”

      It turned out that the Merchant Cruiser had left the same port several months before the D7, and had begun its route as a regular passenger and cargo run, then the separatists commandeered the vessel and headed out looking for others that had gone before. Then more recently, the D7 had begun its journey with a different flight plan.
      Unfortunately for those on the cruiser, the coordinates they had for the colony of like minded individuals was even sketchier than what those on the other ship had, and they ran afoul of the border patrols in Oon space before they realized how wrong they were.

      As Mister Branddyes went through and welcomed the newcomers, I hung back and watched, that was when something set off my internal alarm.
      “When can we expect to be going again?” Mister Branddyes second command asked me, who, as far as I knew had not taken a name.
      “We're waiting on one of the larger ships to arrive to tow both of your ships. My shuttle doesn't have that kind of power.”
      “Our engines are almost ready to go again.”
      “Almost, but not yet, and even when they are running, you can't tow the Merchant Cruiser. Our other ship should be here any time now.”
      “And when it does come, when will we arrive at the colony?”
      “It shouldn't take too long.”
      He didn't seem satisfied with that answer and I saw something in his eyes and the way he looked around that was just unsettling.
      When I had a moment I asked Chief Wallace to double check everything in the D7s cockpit. Particularly the equipment on the aft starboard side where something looked different to me.

      He did, and I didn't like what he found.
      “There's no doubt about it. Somebody installed a separate communications system with a bio-marker scanner and its own power supply since we were last here. I have no idea what it is supposed to do or who's on the other end of the thing. But I did install my own surveillance unit hidden just above it so if anybody does activate it, we'll know who it was and what it does.”
      “Thank you, Chief.”

      In a few moments my comm began beeping, “They're here, it's the Vin,” Wystead said.

Captain Deering
battleship Vindicator

      “This is Third Rank Jones, come in Vindicator.”
      “Vindicator, Captain Deering. We'll be taking you in tow. Is everything ready on that side?”
      “Almost Captain. My shuttle will be detaching momentarily. The two ships are preparing now. When I come aboard I need to speak to you. And for all of us here, it's good to see the Vin back to her prime.”
      “Understood and appreciated. Please advise when your friends are ready to get under way.”

      I turned to Commander Vansen, “You know, it is good to be back to, as she put it, our prime.”
      “Yes, indeed Captain. I'll be even happier when we can jettison that outboard engine.”
      “True, but for right now, let's use its extra power to tow those two crippled birds home.”
      “Captain, the shuttle just disengaged, the Third Rank wants you to wait until she speaks to you before we get moving, she said it is very important.”
      “Very good. In the mean time, test the tractor beam and the lock onto those two ships. I don't want any unusual torque between them ripping their hulls open. And find a channel to them, I want them to know what we're doing. Just to be civil about it. Jones talked to them, get their settings and use it.”
      “Yes, Captain.”

      Third Rank Jones was standing at stiff attention in my ready room while her engineer, I believe his name was Walker, was sort of at attention. They were waiting on my response to her hunch and his findings.
      So I gave it, “I agree with you. There is no reason for that equipment to be on the D7. The ship has its own distress circuit, and back up communications array. I'm going to trust your instincts on it.” Then I paused, “Did you have a plan to smoke out the double agent?”
      “Yes, ma'am.”

      In a moment we went onto the command deck, “Are the civilian ships ready to take in tow?”
      “Yes captain, tractor beam on and stable. No measurable torque on the docking clamps.”
      “Keep an eye on it.” I turned to the helm and navigator. “Set course for the fourth planetoid of system M-51.” I turned back to Third Rank Jones, “Correct?”
      “Yes, ma'am. There's a relay station on it. Makes it easy to find.”
      “Set and lock course, engage at best speed for towing.”
      My crew is excellent.
      “Setting course, I've got the beacon on the scope, locked. .... Engaging all engines, standard by four. .... Tractor beam stable, no stress on the docking latches. Coming up to speed, increasing to standard by five in twenty seconds.”
      “Time to the planetoid at five?”
      “Just under three hours.”
      “Maintain. We're going to go let the Supreme Commander know about a new detail involving our friends back there.”
      “Yes, ma'am.”

Paige Taylor
Supreme Commander's Quarters
dreadnaught Profile of Courage

      “I don't know General... Eugene... I'm sorry. I don't know how or why it happened. It just did. A couple of times. Here and on the Oon planet.” I coasted to a stop, “That's what Qi-Shi said too. He just found himself doing it with them.”
      The General nodded, “Ripley said the same thing,” he chuckled for a moment, “Specialist Baracus said he didn't even realize they were making out until they were making out.”
      I just sat there thinking about it, “That's kinda what happened with me.”
      “That's why I asked Doctor Zira to pull some information and see if what happened has an explanation other than some sort of space-psychosis.”
      I just sat there, thinking about it.
      “She found something.”
      I looked up.
      “The Pax, when in a certain mood, excrete several pheromones that affect younger humans, and others, differently than older humans.”
      It made sense, “Which is why you weren't... I'm sorry, I didn't mean.”
      “I know what you meant, and I'm OK with that. But she also thinks there is a way to avoid it in the future. If you want to avoid it that is.”
      I nodded vigorously, “I've had enough, I mean, it was, interesting, but I don't think I want to repeat, you know, I mean, you know.”
      Mercifully he held up his hand and I stopped babbling. “Paige, it's OK. I think that at one time or another we've all been manipulated into situations that we, under normal circumstances.... I know it's happened to me a few times.”
      “But, this was...” I didn't even know what I was going to say, but I felt like I had to say something in my own defense.
      “This was a type of experience with an alien race that nobody has a lot of history with. Or even more likely, that nobody admits to having a lot of history with. From what I can tell, this seems to be something that most of the Pax do when given a chance because they don't have males and females like most other races do.”
      “Except the Panna.”
      “Except the Panna, and from what Dr. Zira said, the Pax don't do it with the Panna.”
      “That's good to know.”

      And then things got really complicated.
      “General, there's a call for you from Captain Deering on the Vindicator.”
      “We'll be right there.”

      “Let me run through it and make sure I understand Captain.” I took a breath, “One of your officers found something untoward on the D7. They think its a tracking device that one of the Annunaki is going to activate when they reach the colony. So now, you're not going anywhere near the colony.”
      “Exactly, General.”
      “So what can we do?”
      “If the tracking device is activated, I'm willing to bet next month's pay the Annunaki have a high speed flotilla waiting someplace to swoop in and destroy the separatists. Which is why we're going to off load them and their gardening tools at M-51-4. Then once the coast it clear, we'll run the lot of them over to where they're going, and bring the traitor back to work in a coal mine or something.”
      “No bet from me. Why else would it be there? Well, you know, we could let them activate it, and then intercept whatever they scramble and send this way. Blindside them.”
      “Sounds like a nice way to spend the weekend.”
      “Yes, indeed Captain. OK, we'll play it your way. I'll send the smaller ships on their way and bring the Courage and the Blade in and we'll hide somewhere in that system, and wait.”

      Some of the smaller ships didn't want to miss the party. Especially those on the press barge that had missed out on most of the negotiations, saw none of the pageantry, and only got to report on the aftermath, which in reality wasn't even the final treaty.
      Several of the reporters almost demanded to be allowed to cover whatever happened. So finally, I agreed to let them transfer to the Blade of Redemption and ride it out there. Then, once everything calmed down, they could file whatever sort of report they got out of it. The Kiera, with only minimal defensive shields and no proper weapons to speak of were made part of the honor escort for the newly ordained Oon Ambassador to the Alliance to the planet Therron for an official reception.
      “If your mission allows, you will be joining us.”
      “Yes, sir,” I had answered with what I hoped was a formal enough bow.

      I discussed the idea in depth with Admiral Khaan Singh and Captain Rios, one thing they did agree on was that Captain Deering was looking to prove the Vindicator in battle after all its repairs and upgrades.
      “Something wrong with that?” I asked them.
      “Well, if it gets my ship all shot up, yes,” Rios said. “But, I see the point. If these Annunaki really are defectors, then we owe it to them to save them.”
      “It would appear that at least one of them is a traitor, or, there is the chance that the whole thing is a trap and we're flying right in to it.”
      “Have the Vindicator's patrols found anything in that system?”
      “Not yet, the first of the long range scouts have just gotten there,” Admiral Singh said, “we're monitoring them from up here.”
      “Let's see the larger system and look for some cover,” I said to Qi-Shi, “I want all the surprise we can get.”
      “On screen.”

Gail Anacan, World Press Association
Toller heavy cruiser Blade of Redemption

      I really didn't know what to expect from the Blade of Redemption.
      I knew it wasn't as big as the Profile of Courage, and I didn't expect it to have the accommodations of the Kiera. And it wasn't, and it didn't.
      It looked like a warship, plain and simple.
      Our quarters were the same, plain and simple.
      The briefing room we would use was exactly the same.
      We were told that the Blade was only about forty Senjons old, or about sixty human years. But it felt older than the ancient Courage. For one, I don't think the walls in our quarters had been painted when the thing was built, and nobody had made any effort to cover them with anything except daily wear and tear, and graffiti and an etched likenesses of family or friends, since then.
      “Top bunk or lower bunk?” Dave asked me as he dropped his travel bag on the only other furniture in the room, a semi-built in table, dresser, sideboard, thing.
      “I'll take the top.”

Admiral Kahn Singh
Profile of Courage

      I didn't realize that the Panna on the command deck had heard us discussing the showers that the away team had had in their quarters on the Oon Negotiation Planet.
      From what I had heard about them, it was a rather small stall with a very invigorating and intense way of spraying you with very small but powerful moving streams of water from every angle at once. Security Specialist Baracus said he felt like he'd never really had a shower before he had used it and he was only in the thing for a centon or two.
      To which I said something like, “Sounds better than what we have here, it's a shame I didn't get over there to try it.”

      Evidently a Panna heard me.

      Not long after that I got a report from one of the stewards that there was 'a swarm' of Panna in my quarters, they were tearing my bathroom apart and replacing the shower.

      But then other reports started coming in from all over the ship. And not only our ship. They were working on the Blade of Redemption and the Vindicator as well.
      Where they had been doing what they said was an “equipment survey” had now turned into a massive, ship-wide project. And it didn't appear to involve rebuilding a shower.

      I called Mister Qi-Shi who seems to have some sort of unique understanding of the Panna, “What are they up to?” I asked him.
      “All I've gotten out of them is that they are working on something they learned from the Oon, they don't know if it will work or not and they don't want to tell us until they try it. They said it took a merging of almost every Panna on the Courage at once to figure it out, but they still don't know if what they learned will work when they install it.” He shook his head, “I'm not sure what they're talking about, they seem to have multiple projects going at once. Even for them, it's, as my friend used to say, confuzzling.”
      “There are hundreds of Panna on the ship. Even if it was half of them, that would give them an incredible amount of brainpower,” Ms Paige said softly.
      “As long as it works. Keep us advised if you get any hint as to what's going on.”
      “Yes, Admiral.”

      In a little while several Panna came onto the command deck with one of their assembly machines and stood there staring at me.
      “What do you need?” I asked them.
      “It may work. We need to finish it before the A-Nah-Ki get here.”
      “You have to have a way to control it so it will operate.”
      “We need to install a command console for the cloaking device.”
      “The new emitters are going in now.”
      “The power settings are very close to operating.”
      “We can use the existing plasma conduits.”
      “It is very much better that way.”
      “We think we can do it better than the Oon.”

      I caught something in there that I didn't believe. “You're installing a cloaking device?”
      “Excuse me for a minute,” I turned to the nearest comm station, “Supreme Commander to the Command Deck, and we need your staff as well. As soon as possible.”

General Muller
      We ran to the lift, and then down the short gangway to the bridge.

      Admiral Singh was smiling as he told me what the secret project had been.
      I looked at the handful of Panna that weren't directly involved with assembling and powering up the new command console. “You just assimilated this knowledge from the Oon. Right?”
      “Yes, we learned it from their computer system when they scanned your ships. Then in the merging we thought about it.”
      “And just like that, you figured out how to do it,” I said to them.
      “We don't want the ones you call the A-Nah to ever win again. We don't want to live with them again.”
      “And the Oon are just like them.”
      “You are much better, and we like the High Counsel, they are better, too.”
      “Yes, we like the Alliance letting us say how life should be at our home.”
      “But we still like you General, you're a good one of you.”
      “This cloaking will be better, the Oon didn't think about it like we did.”
      “We all thought about it at once, and the higher speed engine field.”
      “We'll do that next.”
      “Yes, we can make it better than they did.”
      “The Oon can't make it work.”
      “We can.”

      We all looked at Qi-Shi.
      “Higher speed engine field?” I repeated.
      “I don't know sir, General, Admiral. I really don't know what they mean.”

      And now all of the Panna on the bridge, except the two that were still working on the new console with their assembly machine, were dancing.
      Make that, dancing and talking.
      At once.
      “The Oon don't know what they don't know.”
      “Their spy stole it from the Ah-Nah.”
      “They don't know how to make it work either.”
      “They can't hide their ship when they are moving.”
      “We do know.”
      “It will work soon.”
      “We made it better.”

      All I could do was look from the Admiral, to the dancing Panna, to Qi-Shi and Paige, then back to the Admiral, and shrug, “I hope they can do it.”
      “The way the Oon and their kinfolk treat them, it'd be poetic justice,” Paige said.
      I had to agree with her, “And we'll make sure we tell the Oon who improved on their basic design in the formal treaty negotiations.”

      The closest Panna stopped dancing and its eye turned toward me and elevated, “Yes. Now we will see.”

      The main viewscreen changed from a forward view to a rather dramatic side view of the Blade of Redemption running alongside us.
      All of the sudden the image of the cruiser waivered, then, it vanished.

      It took a couple of minutes for the officers at the various stations to verify what was going on.
      Commander Gordon was right on top of it.
      Finally, he had a report that made sense, “Admiral, according to the radar, sensors, everything, it's gone. The only thing was reading is some of their telemetry, and even that was a lot weaker, like they're a long way off. Then they turned it off too, nothing from them now. Not even lights from portals.”
      “But they are still right there,” I pointed to the view screen.
      “Yes, the Blade is still cruising at standard by four, right at a hundred and fifty clicks off our port. And they can see us just fine. I have Captain Rios on the comm. The signal is being relayed through one of their shuttlecraft.”
      “Switch it over.”
      “Yes, sir.”

      “Captain, Congratulations on a successful test.”
      “Thank you, Supreme Commander. Do we have your permission to see if we can, as the Panna have said we should, be able to fire our main weapons while cloaked?”
      “We'll do one better than that, Admiral, if you will please, launch a couple of target drones for them to track and shoot.”
      “My pleasure.”

      In a moment the Courage launched two high speed probes on different trajectories. One ahead of the Blade on a crossing course, the other much closer as if it were in a direct attack run.
      To their credit, the Blade's gunners hit first one with their second shot. The second probe they took out with a proximity burst just as it came into close in weapons range.
      “I am pleased to report that there was only a minor disruption to the cloaking field, no more than a normal weapons response to the drive,” the Captain reported.
      “Yes, Captain, but when your weapons fired, your ship lit up on our sensors like a celebration arrangement,” Commander Gordon said from the scanning station.
      “From what the Panna are saying, they're not sure there's any way around that. Until they think about it again.”
      “I'm sure.”

      Admiral Kahn turned to the helm, “Time to target.”
      “Just dropped under one hour, sir. Fifty seven minutes.”
      Then he spoke to the Panna, “When will we be able to test the cloak on this ship?”
      “Soon, Admiral. Very soon.”
      “We're making it work.”

President Dr. Yarah Santiago
Nova Brasilia City, Brazil, Earth

      “Mateo, there has to be somebody to run against me. I do not want to stand for election unopposed.”
      He held my hands and stared into my eyes, “I'm sorry, Yarah. The only one that said he was interested was Governor Sousa, and he said he will only run if you do not.”
      “Then that's what I'll do. I'll announce that I am not going to seek another term and let Joao have it.”

      He was just standing there.
      “You're not saying anything. Tell me what you are thinking.”

      Mateo was searching my eyes, and I could tell he was seeing through my bravado like he always did.

      “You don't think I will really announce that.”

      I finally bowed my head, “You're right, I want to see it through. We're only now really a country again, and the national election is really the beginning instead of the end. A lot of countries haven't gotten this far.”
      “Some countries still do not exist. Look at France, it is still regions instead of a country.”
      I had to laugh and smile when I answered, “there are some people who will say it was like that before.”

Captain Deering
Battleship Vindicator
Approaching M-51 system

      On the premise of making contact with the leader of the colony before their ships landed we had Mr. Branddyes's assistant join an away mission with Third Rank Jones and her crew to the planet while Mr. Branddyes stayed on board and got his people ready to disembark to their new life.

      The assistant was in for a bit of a surprise.

Third Rank (Lieutenant) Martha Jones

      “There's nothing here. No colony, no people, nothing. Just that communications and sensor relay,” the Annunaki who said he still hadn't decided on a name said with building indignance.
      “You're right. We're moving your people and your cargo to another shuttle. We'll take them in it to the colony.”
      “But why?”
      “Because as soon as we dropped out of hyperspace your ship began broadcasting a low range homing signal to the Annunaki.”
      “I didn't know that.”
      “That's odd, it was your palm print on the console that activated it. And we have a video of you doing it.”
      “What about the other ship.”
      “One of their passengers had a similar beacon, the moment they activated it we seized it and arrested them. The separatists on it are being moved as well. And your friend with the beacon is in the brig on the Vindicator.”
      The Annunaki pulled himself to his full height and fifty years seemed to drop from him in the process, “You can never win. We are fated to rule all inferior peoples,” he said dramatically. Then he seemed to have a quick seizure and dropped to the ground.
      “Oh, hell,” our medic said, “another one of those. Hang on,” she fumbled in her medkit for a second and came up with a bright orange injector. “This'll get him. It worked on the one on the ship.”
      “Why not let him die? That's what he wants,” Specialist Beckett said to her.
      She was putting a heart monitor on his chest, in a moment, it started beeping and flashing irregularly, but it was beeping and flashing, “That conflicts with my orders.”
      In a few minutes she said he was alive again. “Let's get him up to the Vin.”

Jay and Rose
Interceptor Flight Five

      Jay was staring at the long range sensors, “.... and then the monster jumps out and goes 'booga booga booga'....”
      I ignored him, “This is always the worst part.”
      “Did they really install a cloak in the ship?”
      “That's what they're saying.”
      “Who said?”
      “The Panna that were tearing the wall out of the section. They were putting in an emitter for the cloaking device.”
      “Does it work?”
      I glanced out the side portal where I could just see our ship, “not yet.”

      We sat, and sipped containers of protein tea, and waited.

      “There goes the shuttles with the refugees,” Jay nodded at the screen, “and they're outta here, looks like they jumped to two. Just about... whoa! What happened to the ship?”
      I looked back out the window. “I don't see it, check the scans.”
      “I am, it's gone. If it'd blown up there'd be debris and junk, a lot of it. It's cloaked. It has to be. I'm just showing the D7 and the Merchant, nothing else. The Vin was” he pointed to the other side of the screen from the two civilian ships and a heavy shuttle, “right there.”
      “I hate communications silence. We just have to sit here and wait.”
      “I just hope they can de-cloak when it's time for us to land.”

Admiral Kahn Singh
dreadnaught Profile of Courage

      “Remain cloaked and on station. Battle stations.” I said calmly.
      That was all it took.
      Immediately every aspect of the Courage sprang into meaningful action.

      The Annunaki fleet had been detected on the very edge of sensor range.
      “I'm reading at least five ships. The largest appear to be two medium cruisers. The lead ship is definitely one of their fast destroyers. I can tell you more when they get closer.”
      “Should we notify the Vindicator and the Blade?”
      I glanced at the Supreme Commander, he shook his head.
      I agreed with him, “No, do not break silence. They have the same types of sensors we do, if they haven't detected them already, they will soon enough.”

      “Four fighter squadrons ready to launch, others on ready stand by.”
      “Shields and weapons on hot stand by.”
      “Cloak is stable. Thrusters at station keeping.”

      “Sir, we just got a low energy flash from the Blade, they are battle ready.”
      “Excellent. Time on the enemy?”
      “They'll be in weapons range in four minutes, they were running at standard eight and are now slowing.”
      “Eight?” Commander Gordon said, “they must really want the separatists.”
      “Seven total ships, four of them are capital ships, the two cruisers and two destroyers, three corvette class escorts. They are launching interceptors on routine patrol routes. They haven't seen us.”
      “Sir, the Vindicator's patrols are moving to protect the two civilian craft. As is their shuttle. The Vin is still cloaked.”
      “Making a show of it. Good. Flash the Blade, tell them to begin to move to their cut off position. Take us around to our post.”
      “Aye, sir.”

Jay and Rose
Interceptor Flight Five

      “Well, we're ready,” I said to Jay as we sat between the refugee ships and the incoming enemy fleet.
      “Yeah,” he answered, “let's just hope everybody else is.”
      “We need them to fire first, then we let it all loose on them.”
      “Let's just hope they shoot at the empty ships first.”
      “Shields are on full, we'll be all right.”

      Then our comm lit up with an incoming demand.
      “Alliance soldiers. There is no need for you to die protecting traitors. Surrender them and their ships, and you will be allowed to land alive. This is your only warning.”

      Lieutenant Jones answered from the shuttle on the same channel, “The separatists are under our protection. You are in violation of the Cease Fire Agreement. Return to your domain. This is your only warning.”
      “We do not recognize that Agreement.”
      “In that case, we will defend them.”

      “They're activating weapons,” I said to Jay. “Everybody is. Ours are live.”
      “Here we go.”
      “And there's the Vin.”
      “Is it just me or does the old girl look angry and ready to fight?” Somebody said from the com.

Captain Deering
Battleship Vindicator

      To me, the old girl was eager to live up to her name in battle.
      Some will say I'm insane, but I could feel the ship almost trembling with excitement as we decloaked and brought our weapons to bear on the approaching enemy.
      We took the closest Annunaki cruiser totally by surprise, and the lead destroyer the same way. The cruiser was just bringing its weapons to bear and got off one shot when we obliterated them with our main battery. The Destroyer went down fighting, and made us pay for our victory over them with some damage to both ship and crew. But the Vindicator did live up to her name with honor.

      The rest of the enemy fleet scattered, after the other cruiser destroyed one of the unmanned civilian ships that we were controlling remotely with several modules on board set to simulate Annunaki life signs so they'd think that at least some of the separatists were on them.

      One of the destroyers made a hard fast turn and almost ran into the Profile of Courage as the massive ship decloaked right in their path. The other cruiser was making a similar maneuver and ended up exchanging an old fashioned broadside with the Blade of Redemption.

      It wasn't much of a battle even though the enemy had more ships.
      Two of the corvettes were captured, as was what was left of the Blade's cruiser.
      Dozens of their fighters, piloted by Juul slaves, were given the option to die in space or to join the Free Juul on one of their planets. Every single one of them opted to disable their weapons and land on the Courage to be transferred to the remaining civilian ship.
      Some of the Annunaki prisoners killed themselves before they could be taken into custody. But several of them asked if they would be allowed to join the separatists.

Jay and Rose
Interceptor Flight Five

      “Flight Five, you have permission to land, starboard flight deck. Do you need medical standing by?”
      “Affirmative. Ken's ship took a couple of rounds. They'll land first,” I answered.

      I looked over at Jay, “By my count you got a good score.”
      He didn't smile, “It's just not as much fun as it used to be. If you know what I mean.”
      “You thinking about asking for other duty? Or leaving the service?”
      “I don't know yet. How about you?”
      “Let's see how Ken and Brian are, then we'll talk about it.”

Supreme Commander Muller
dreadnaught Profile of Courage

      The highest ranking Annunaki officer that was captured was brought to my office by security.
      My first surprise was how young-looking the woman was in spite of the fact that the information on her said she was a hundred and seventy years old. My second surprise was that she was easily one of the tallest and most beautiful women I've ever seen. She did, in fact, look like the goddesses her ancestors has posed as on Earth. And her arrogance and superiority were as obvious as her beauty. In a moment, I noticed a field dressing on her right arm just below her shoulder and wondered why it hadn't been treated by our medical staff, but I wasn't going to bring it up just yet.
      I stood as they led her in then waited for a moment.
      “I am the Supreme Commander of the Alliance Fleet. General Eugene Muller.”
      “I know who you are,” the Panna disk said in her voice.
      “You are Second Ship Administrator for the cruiser Seventy Four from the Nietzschean core system.”
      “Second Ship Administrator First Class.”
      “My apologies, I'll update the file.”
      “I am a prisoner. Why was I brought here? Are you going to interrogate me, or perhaps sexually use me?” She said the last bit with something of a smirk around the corners of her mouth.
      “No. Neither of those. As you are the ranking officer of the prisoners, I was going to let you know what is going to happen to the rest of your crew and the ones from the other ships.”
      “They should die, as should I.”
      “Not an option. We're bringing all the prisoners on board this ship. Later, you'll be transferred to a neutral space station where the Annunaki can come get you.”
      “We failed our mission. We will be killed.”
      “Then your other option is to join the independent Annunaki and learn to farm. The Juul that were taken are being given a similar choice.”
      “I would rather die.”
      “Will you relay the choice to the rest of the prisoners when they arrive?”
      “Then we will. Do you want us to treat your injured arm?”
      “Very well. Take her back to her cell.”

Captain Deering
Battleship Vindicator

      “Has everything and everybody been retrieved from the planet?”
      “Yes Captain.”
      “Signal the Courage that we're ready to go on their mark.”
      “Aye, Captain.”
      “I'm going down to Medical, you have the Con.”
      My first officer bowed his head sharply and turned toward the helm, “Is the course ready to lock in?”
      “Yes, sir.”

      One of the crewmen from one of the fighters was still undergoing treatment for his wounds, and from what they said, it didn't look good. His pilot had already been treated and was still unconscious from the procedure. So I joined their flight commander and waited.

      All too soon one of the medical staff stepped into the ward with that look that I'd seen far too often down here.
      “Flying Officer Parker did not survive his wounds. There was too much damage to repair. We tried, but he was already dead when we started.”

      His lieutenant gasped and clung tightly to her weapon's officer for a moment, then as the initial emotion passed, she looked over at me, “I'm sorry Captain, but I don't think we'll be re-enlisting. I can't go through this again, and Jay's already said the same thing.”
      He nodded to me.
      All I could say was, “I understand. Command can be either the best thing in your life, or the worst. And times like this are the worst. Take some time, talk to the rest of your squad, then we'll make the final decision together.”
      “Thank you, Captain.”

Admiral Kahn Singh
dreadnaught Profile of Courage

      I don't know how many Panna came onto the command deck, and I looked at the images from the monitoring cameras to try to figure it out.
      Both lift doors and the deck one passage door opened, and Panna poured into command.
      Then they just formed a large mass of the creatures, and stood there. Some of them shuffled a little, others looked around with their eye stalks, but most of them just stood there.

      I recognized one near the front as one of the ones that had worked on the cloaking device. I took a step toward it and asked if I could help them with something.
      “Yes, Admiral,” it answered. But then it didn't say anything else. Instead, it's eye seemed to be focused on the engineering station.
      So I stood there and waited.
      “We're thinking about it, Admiral.” The one next to it said.
      “Yes, thinking.”
      “We need to see the engine display.”

      That reminded me of something.
      Your average Panna has about the same level of intelligence as your average human. They are also partially telepathic with each other when in close proximity, and fully telepathic when touching. From what those that have looked into these sort of things tell me, two linked Panna are still only about as smart as an above average human because a significant part of their brain is still devoted to keeping them alive. However, when you have four or more, the processing power of the linked brains increases exponentially because they only need so much for their own combined life support, so that if you have ten, you're looking at something like the combined intelligence of maybe twenty or more above average humans. And it increases from there.
      Right now, on our command deck, I still don't know how many Panna there were, and they were all touching,
      And thinking.

      “What are you thinking about?” I asked them.

      One of the smaller, somewhat younger, ones on the corner by the environmental station moved a little and looked at me, then it answered for the group.
      “We're doing the calculations for the faster engine dynamics. The power consumption. And the time space distortion field for the size of the ships.”
      “Which ships?”
      “This one, the Vindicator, and the Blade of Redemption. We're doing it for all three to make sure it works.”
      I didn't know what else to say, so I told the young one that that was fine that they could do all the thinking they needed to do.

      And they did.

      I sent a message to the Supreme Commander that he might want to come to the command deck to see this.
      He did. We stood together in the corner by the relief station and drank tea and watched the Panna think.
      They shuffled. And moved in something of a circulating pattern in their group. Then later they'd shuffle some more.
      Some of the command crew came to the end of their shift and left, being relieved by others, and the Panna were still thinking.
      For a long time.

      Then, just as me and the Supreme Commander were talking about taking a break, one of the Panna reconstruction machines came onto the command deck with three other Panna operators.
      “Just what we need up here, more Panna,” the junior officer at the station next to us whispered.
      “If it works, we do,” the Supreme Commander said to them.
      “Yes, sir.”

      The machine and its operators set to work at the auxiliary engineering station.
      To me, it looked like they were just randomly removing control panels and displays and replacing them with others that were essentially the same thing.
      “Admiral, there are Panna machines in engineering and in other sections as well, and outside, doing, that. On all three ships,” the communications officer reported.
      “If they're doing what we think they're doing, let'em do it.”
      The Supreme Commander nodded, “And that is an order.”
      “Yes, sir. I'll relay that to the other ships.”
      “Thank you.”

Third Rank (Lieutenant) Martha Jones
back on board the Courage by request

      I had no idea what to expect.
      One of the enemy ship administrators from one of the captured cruisers had asked to see me. By name and rank.
      I talked to the Courage's officers who were in charge of the POW section and had a special interview room lined up. I also requested that they move the Annunaki into the room and let her wait for some time before I went in to see what she wanted. And they did.
      The woman was standing in the far corner of the otherwise bare room. She didn't move although I could feel her looking at me.
      “I'm Third Rank Jones,” I said when the security officer closed the door behind me.
      She didn't move. “You kept me waiting for longer than I expected,” my Panna disk communicator said in her voice.
      “Part of it was beyond my control. My shuttle was delayed in landing on the Courage.”
      “It is of no importance. What I have to ask you is important for many of my people.”
      “And yourself?”
      I could see that she did think about her answer before she spoke, “Possibly.”
      “Why did you ask for me by name?”
      “You were the officer that made contact with the disloyalists. Our operative reported that you were an honest broker and treated them well.”
      “I tried to be fair with them and accept them at face value until proven otherwise.”
      “That is honorable,” she said. “Will you give us the same opportunity?”
      “If I can, I will.”
      She was silent for a moment. “Why wouldn't you be able to?”
      “If you asked me to do something that violated my oath. Something like that.”
      “I understand.”
      We stood there and stared at each other for a time.
      In a moment I asked her what happened to her arm that was in a blood soaked emergency wrap.
      “I was injured before our ship was captured. I will not allow your people to treat me.”
      And then there was more silence.
      Finally, I broke it again. “What did you call me here to ask me?”
      “Some of my crew wish to join the disloyalists instead of going back to our realm where we will be executed for our failure.”
      “That seems reasonable to me.”
      “I do understand. I am not sure if I will join them or not.”
      “OK. Let's look at that. If you go back, they're going to kill you. And from what I've heard, it isn't a pleasant death.”
      “No. They make an example of all who fail.”
      “So it is either you die screaming in agony, or learn to farm.”
      Her face was an unreadable mask that she had been bred for generations to present to people like me.
      “If it were my decision to make, I'd learn to feed chickens.”
      “My question is this. If I give you the identifiers of those who wish to defect, will you represent them and ensure that they are taken to their destination without mistreatment?”
      “Yes, ma'am. I will do all I can do to take care of them.”
      “I respect that. I can give you their designations.”
      I started to go to the door and asked for a data pad, then I had another idea. “Let me propose something else to you for them.”
      She stood there with her mask in place and waited.
      “I will tell the officers in the Courage's prisoner ward to take all of your people who want to go to the shuttle bay. They'll be transferred to my ship then be relayed to a passenger vessel to be taken to the halfway facility.”
      She didn't move or speak.
      “I mean, any, of your people who wish to go to the colony.”
      “I understand.”
      “I'll go speak to the officer now, and get it cleared with the Supreme Commander. If possible, I'll have your people on the transport within one or two of your centars.”
      “You know our time measurements.”
      “I find the study of other cultures fascinating.”
      “As do I.”

      The Supreme Commander was on the bridge with the Admiral dealing with something the Panna were doing.
      “As far I'm concerned, the fewer of them we have to deal with when we get to the starbase, the better off we'll all be. Is that your view as well Admiral?”
      “Yes indeed, General. And furthermore, I'd just as soon be rid of them before the Panna finish their project.”
      “Agreed. Lieutenant. I believe the transport we used to land on the Oon planet is still in the bay. You have our combined permission to take it and any of the Annunaki Prisoners that will go to catch up with the ship the others are on and transfer them to it. Then you may rejoin us as possible. If our friend's test really works, we may have to send somebody back to get you.”
      “And, Lieutenant, I'd a good security force and a couple of long range escorts with you as well,” the Admiral added, “Just in case.”
      “Yes, sir, Admiral. And thank you, Commander.”

      I was only slightly surprised when I saw the female officer, now in one of the patient gowns from medical in the line of prisoners being escorted to the shuttle bay.
      I made eye contact with her and signaled her to step out of line and speak to me.
      “You're going?”
      “Yes. I resigned my office as ship administrator and had one of your medics tend to my arm. I will, as you said, learn to farm.”
      “Good. I'd hate for you to have been killed for no reason.”
      “We failed our mission, that is the reason.”
      “No, you didn't fail, you just didn't succeed because we stopped you.”
      She stood there and maintained the eye contact for a moment, “Have a good life, Third Rank Martha Jones.”
      “You too....” I paused, “you will have to have a name now.”
      “Perhaps I will call myself Martha.”
      “I would be honored.”

      In the end, something along about half of the Annunaki prisoners had decided to join the separatists.
      Once they were on the ship I keyed the comm to translate my words into their language and made a little speech to them.
      “We have your biological scans, we know who each of you are. If you ever leave the colony or attempt to contact the Annunaki command to betray the colony to them, we'll know who did it. And we will make every attempt to arrest you for treason and ship you off to the corbomite mines in the Parsons Asteroid Field where you will spend the rest of your life servicing the Panna mining machines with the two spies that were on board the separatists ships. Do you understand this?”
      I looked at the newly minted Martha.
      “Yes, Third Rank, we understand.”
      “Very good.” I turned to security man Baracus and his team of equally unsmiling people, “watch'em, I'll get us moving.”
      “Yes, ma'am.”

Gail Anacan, World Press Association
      I filed three more reports.
      One was about the freed Jule soldiers who were now on their way to join their Free Kindred on one of their home worlds. Another was about the Annunaki who had left their dominion to try to find a semi-mythical colony of their people who lived independent lives. And now the third was about those who had decided to join them instead of return to their former masters where, as I understood it, they would be executed without even a show trial.
      The one thing I emphasized was that nobody really knew where the colony of the independent Annunaki was, except that it was somewhere 'just outside' of Alliance space.
      When I looked at a star map of the Alliance, both systems who were full members and those who were associate members or trade partners and that kind of thing, it was a huge area. But, even with the immense territory covered by the Alliance, it was still less than a tenth of our galaxy. But what was indicated to one side of the map caused me to go send a message to one of the Supreme Commander's staff, and file a supplemental interview with my last report.

      “Thank you for speaking with me Mister Qi-Shi.”
      “My pleasure. You had a question about the map of Alliance territory. What did you want to know?”
      “Can you see the same display I have on my screen?”
      “Our galaxy with the approximate boundary lines of the known powers superimposed on it? Yes.”
      “The area to the left side of the map. With its border in gold, it just goes and goes and fades off to the top of the map. It says that is the Annunaki's territory. But it shows the Alliance that was carved out of it in the dark blue. Do they still rule that much of the Galaxy? It looks like almost half of it.”
      “It is. Their known realm still occupies something on the order of fifty percent or so of the galaxy itself. Which is why our treaty with the Oon was so important.”
      “But the Oon only control a fraction of the space of the Alliance. There's what, five star systems in their cluster?”
      “True, but they were able to force the Annunaki out of their immediate vicinity for over a century. Which is what we are trying to do as well. Right now, our frontier with them is still undefined in many sectors.”
      “How do they rule that much territory. It must take them ages to get from one side to the other.”
      “From what we've learned, they seldom cross it in person and even a subspace message takes a long time to get through. And, furthermore, as their realm is several thousands of our years old, there are probably parts of it that even they have lost touch with. Which is what I think happened with the Oon, the main body of the Annunaki hierarchy simply forgot about them until it was too late,” he smiled for a second. “Anyway. Most of the star groups and sectors are ruled by local governors who may or may not be fully committed to the larger empire. In fact, that is one of the reasons our rebellion was successful. It was too far for the more loyal governors to send reinforcements and get them here in time to make a difference. And, besides, several of them had their own problems to deal with. We aren't the only ones with pirate problems.”
      “So, if the Annunaki ever got together and could mount a campaign against us.”
      “They'd swat us like a mosquito. But, it will take three hundred years, or more, for a fleet from the far side of their domain to get here at their current best speed. By then, we hope to be ready for them.”
      “How far is it just to the core of their space?”
      “We're not exactly sure just where their home planet is, they may even have several that they consider their home. But, from Therron in the middle of the Alliance to what we think is their most densely populated region would be forty-five to fifty thousand light years. Currently our fastest light cruiser can maintain standard by eleven for almost six months without stopping. If it didn't have to stop at all and could make that run in one go, it would still take them over two hundred and fifty years to get there.”
      “Could we sum it up by saying the galaxy is really huge and we've only got a very small bit of it?”
      “Very true.”

      “This is Gail Anacan, somewhere in a very big galaxy.”

Admiral Kahn Singh
dreadnaught Profile of Courage

      “If it really works, how fast will the ship go?”

      “We don't know.”
      “It will make us go fast, Admiral.”
      “Fast is good.”
      “We like going fast.”
      “We will go very fast.”
      “Very fast is very good.”
      “It is better to go very fast.”

      “I am very fastly getting a headache.”
      “You're not the only one.”

Captain Rios
Toller heavy cruiser Blade of Redemption

      I'd never engaged in a staring contest with a Panna before.
      If you must know, they cannot blink because they do not really have eyelids. However, they can retract their eye stalk almost fully into their body.
      The one I was staring at was beginning to do just that.
      Then it 'blinked' by speaking.
      “There is a risk captain. If the new engine field is unstable the ship can be enveloped in a wormhole. That is bad.”

      I took a deep breath, “I've heard about those sorts of phenomenon. That would be bad.”
      “If the wormhole does happen, you can stop it and get us back into normal space, correct?”
      “If the new field does work the way it is supposed to. How much will it increase the maximum speed of this ship?”
      “We have not done the quantum drag coefficient yet to factor it into the equation.”
      “Just give me a rough estimate so I'll look like I know what I'm talking about when I'm talking to the Admiral and the Supreme Commander.”
      The Panna looked at the others of its kind, some of which were still touching each other in their thinking pose.
      One of the others answered for them.

      “The Blade of Redemption can travel at standard by nine, which is nine times the speed of light.”
      I nodded, “Give or take, yes.”
      Now it was another one speaking, “we are factoring the first test at warp three.”
      “Which is what? Double that? I don't understand the conversion.”
      “That is twenty seven times the speed of light.”
      “That's faster.”
      And a different spoke again, “Warp Five will be one hundred and twenty five times the speed of light.”
      “OK. Let me go speak to the Admiral and Captain Deering.”
      “And the Supreme Commander,” the Panna I stared at said.
      “Yes,” I answered in my best Panna-voice.

Supreme Commander, General Muller
Profile of Courage, Fleet Command Office

      It took the commanders of all three ships to combine what we'd all gleaned from the various Panna.
      First off was that the Panna were using the same engines to generate the same amount of power, but after that, everything changed.
      Captain Deering had the next piece to the puzzle, “They told us that to get the ship moving the drive plasma would be used to generate a thrust effect, then they'd divert some of it to generate the engine field.”
      Admiral Singh nodded to the images on the screens, “Yes, then as that field stabilizes around the ship we will enter subspace.”
      “Which is where the risk of the wormhole comes in,” Captain Rios added.
      “Wormhole?” I said.
      “It's bad,” Paige said to me.
      “I'm OK leaving that right there. Then what happens with the field?” I asked the others.
      Paige continued, “it folds normal space and time around the ship, we'll effectively drop out of where we are now, in normal space, into subspace, where the thrust will be magnified exponentially. So the same power that we used to go nine times the speed of light with the distortion field around us in normal space will be, hundreds of times the speed of light.”
      “It makes sense. I guess.”
      Qi-Shi nodded, “By their calculations, the same power the Courage used to run at standard by five will give us warp seven at nearly three hundred and fifty times the speed of light.”
      “That's fast.”
      The Admiral looked at me, “don't say 'very fast is very good'.”
      “I won't, because you just did.”
      He laughed.

      Later the Panna were ready for their initial static test.
      The ships would stop in space, then the Panna would trigger the field emitters and then they'd apply just a trickle of thrust. If we were all suddenly enveloped in a wormhole, we'd know they had done something wrong.
      From what the others told me, if that happened, we might re-emerge right where and when we were when the test began, or, as Paige said, “We might come back in the middle of next week, someplace a long way from here.”

      We stood around on the command deck and watched the Panna fuss with everything on the ship.
      And then, they announced the test was ready on all three ships, several of the larger shuttles would observe the test from well away from the larger ships.

      “We have the view from the Galileo,” the officer at the comm station said.
      It was a wide shot that showed all three of the ships with the Courage to the right in the background, the Blade to the left, and the Vindicator to the bottom in the foreground.
      The engineering station was keeping track of what was going on, “static warp field forming around the Blade of Redemption.”
      We watched the image of the ship waiver slightly.
      “They're applying thrust.”
      Instead of moving in the stately, almost ponderous way we were used to seeing our warships move, it formed a line of dim light, and was gone.
      “Well, what happened?” The Admiral asked.
      “There's no indication of a wormhole. Hang on. They're back. But not where they're supposed to be.”
      “I've got it, they were at warp two for one minute and covered something like a hundred and forty million kilometers. That's the distance from your Earth to your star.”
      “They hit eight times the speed of light.”
      “Well. That's still a successful test,” I said with some relief.
      “Good, we're next,” the Admiral answered. “Proceed.”

      There was a slight lurch as the ship accelerated, the various officers at their command stations relayed all sorts of information, then, as we reentered normal space the screen changed from a slightly distorted star field to a view of the Blade of Redemption.
      “We did the same thing, and got the same result,” one of our Panna said.
      “The calculations were good,” another added, “we just had more power than we expected.”
      “Power is good.”
      “This is better.”

      Then, in a moment, the Vindicator, with the Galileo and the other ships on board joined us.
      “OK, next test?”
      “Warp five,” the Panna answered, “for longer.”
      “We have recalculated the power.”
      “We will do five this time.”
      “If we hadn't done that, it would be warp seven.”
      “We can do seven after five.”
      The Panna stopped talking and all of their eyes were aimed at us.
      Everybody else was looking at me and the Admiral as well. I shrugged at him, “it's your ship.”
      “Let's do it.”

      We did it.

      All I can say about warp five was that as odd as the view on the main screen looked at a lower warp with dots in the middle slowly elongating, then producing a long thin line to the edge of the screen, that then vanished quickly. Five was very similar as the same thing happened with the dots and lines, only it happened faster.

      After all three ships dropped out of warp...
      I paused and I must have been making a face because Paige glanced over at me and asked what was wrong.
      “I was just making a brief log entry and said 'we dropped out of warp'.”
      “What's wrong with that?” She asked, “we did.”
      “It's just that. Well. Nevermind.”
      She glanced over at Qi-Shi, “Illogical, isn't he?”

      Most of the command deck crew, let me change that, most of the Bridge Crew had a laugh at my expense.
      I ignored them and went back to my entry at a slightly greater volume than I had been dictating before.
      “After all three ships dropped out of warp we checked our position and found out that we were about a tenth of the way back to headquarters after only an hour at warp five. A distance that with our normal propulsion would have taken us a full day.”

      Mister Qi-Shi came over and whispered to us. “Think about it. The Oon and the Annunaki can't travel at warp, because they discount everything the Panna do. It took the combined brainpower of over a thousand of them on all three ships to make these calculations.”
      We glanced over at the tight group of Panna, evidently they were recalculating again.
      “Which raises an interesting point. Do we have to keep a bunch of them on every warp capable ship to do the calculations or can they program the computers to do it?”
      “From what they said earlier. Once they understand all the variables, they'll work on the programming. But I don't know when that will be.”
      “And you're probably better off not asking them anytime soon.”
      “Yes, sir.”

Third Rank (Lieutenant) Martha Jones
Mission Log

      We had caught up with the civilian transport with the Annunaki separatists on it.
      It took some convincing, but eventually Mister Branddyes and the others allowed the former officers and crew, including the new Martha, to join them, with the explicit understanding that any action on their part to draw attention to the separatists or their colony would be severely punished.
      The former Ship Administrator assured them that as they had now defected they would not only be killed if they contacted the nearest Annunaki command, they would be slowly tortured to death in public, not to extract any information they had about the colony, but as an example to others that may harbor the same sort of thoughts. “I know of the methods used, it will take us a very long time to die. It will be most unpleasant.”
      “So you'd be a lot better off learning to farm.”
      “No, I have reconsidered that. I believe I will learn to fabricate clothing.”

      After we left the ship with the now larger group of colonists we tried to contact the Vindicator and got a shock. The Vindicator and the other ships weren't anywhere in the neighborhood.
      We had been running at the shuttle's best speed, just over standard by four, for several hours when we finally got a signal from the Vin.
      “I think I've got an idea,” Captain Deering said.
      “If we can help, we'll do all we can.”
      “All you need to do is to stop and send us a position fix. We're going to test warp seven and come get you.”

      And that was what happened.

      We were sitting between a couple of star systems waiting when our sensors told us something was approaching at high speed, and then there was a burst of disorganized light and the Vindicator was slowing and turning slightly to rendezvous with us.

      Once we were on board we were extensively debriefed as to what we saw, and what our ship's sensors said about the Vindicator's arrival.
      “Warp Seven is over three hundred times the speed of light, compared to, what, maybe ten times for standard by seven,” First Officer Vansen said, “if you want the exact factor, ask the Panna.”
      “Standard by Seven for a high speed shuttle is just over twelve times the speed of light,” I said almost by rote. “It's amazing. How do they compensate for quantum drag and spatial drift?”
      “Ask the Panna, they do it themselves, they haven't been able to program the navigation computer yet because of all the variables.”
      I thought about the Panna and my history of dealing with them, “No, thank you. Sir.” Then I paused and looked around, then almost whispered, “how long before the, enemy, hears about this.”
      Vansen's frown was a version of the old Tragedy theater mask, almost. Then he glanced sideways, “I'd be surprised if they haven't already gotten wind of it.”

Supreme Commander, General Muller
dreadnaught Profile of Courage

      “Well,” I said to the group of Panna standing in a tight knot in the middle of the command deck, “are we ready to try the next jump?”
      “No, Supreme Commander.”
      “It won't be a jump.”
      “We recalculated everything for all the ships. For warp seven.”
      “We will do warp seven, all the way back to Therron headquarters.”
      “We can do it.”

      The bridge was silent, almost everybody, and every thing, was looking at me.
      “That's a really long way,” I said.
      “We do not want to live under the ones you call the A-Nah ever again.”
      “We made the hiding field work so you can beat them.”
      “And this to go very fast. That too.”
      “If we do this for you, you will keep them away from us.”
      “It took almost all of us, everywhere, to do this.”
      “We can do it.”

      I looked at the group, “OK, notify the other ships, when they're ready, start a countdown, and do it.”

      They did it.

      I don't even want to begin to try to figure out how far it was, but in the end, when we came out of warp, we were less than a million kilometers, that is about twice the distance from the Earth to its moon, off course. Which on the scale we're talking about running over a good section of the galaxy in what would amount to a long work day, is nothing.

      The Oon ships arrived a few days after we did, to say they were surprised that we'd gotten there first would be an understatement.
      We played it off as that our 'other mission' didn't take as long as we thought it might and we hurried back to meet them.

      Finally, I had a day off to sit back and do some thinking and talk about everything that happened with Paige and the others that had become much more than just a staff to me.

      “Sometimes I just have to step back and think about where I'm at, and what I'm getting ready to do. I mean, who would have ever thought I'd be, even We would be, out here, howevermany millions upon millions of miles from home, on a giant alien spaceship, getting ready to sign a treaty with another group of aliens whose military is staffed by people who were made in a factory and may have a built in kill switch to keep them in their place, and its only been what, two and a half years since the world we knew was laid flat.”
      Paige was thoughtful for a minute. “Sir, do you remember from your academy history classes something called Project Sign?”
      “Oh, yeah, the original Blue Book from, what, just after World War Two.”
      “Yes, sir. Remember in that final report, they didn't say this sort of thing was impossible, basically, they only said humanity couldn't do it, right then.”
      “Yeah, it took awhile, but...” I looked around, “and we needed some help, but we did it. And, even after everything that’s happened, I still thank God that I could be part of it.”
      “Yes, sir.”

End trilogy

[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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