Chapter One

Be it ever so humble...

She emerged from the jump point and angled herself for the Messenger station. By tradition born of practicality, the station held a stationary position between the jump point and the planet it serviced, which made a Messenger's life often annoying. They hated towing the station back into position after it drifted off. Even at this distance, planets were hard to see.

Not that she needed it. Almost three hundred years ago, she had been trained in a number of tricks. Feeling for the minute tugs of gravity was one, and she'd never forget that Earth-Luna double bump. She chuckled, shook her head. The last time she'd felt that double bump, she'd been fleeing for her life. Now, she was going back, to become her pursuer's boss. It just didn't get better than that.

She settled into her course. Planet Earth, in one week. She wasn't in that big of a hurry.

Two hours later, she felt the jump point pulse behind her several times. She turned to look, but didn't see anything, of course. What she felt, though, had a familiar feel in deep space.

In numbers, too. And accelerating.

She stomped her own accelerator. She didn't want to tangle with an Arion task force this soon... They had marginally better acceleration than she did. In her earlier days, she wouldn't have stood a chance in a race against them. Now, her two-day lead would evaporate... they wouldn't close to firing range, but she'd reach Earth maybe ten minutes before them.

One week became three very no-water-and-Charlie-horses days that quick, with ten minutes of waiting, she estimated. A very tense ten minutes. She didn't expect to find Junior in ten minutes...

Three days later, there was a knock on Admiral Yevgeni's wardroom door. It had been three weeks since the Colonies blew O'mara away. Xara, inside, alone, and seething for answers, called out, "Come in." The door didn't open. Xara was puzzled; it was rude to knock and then not enter when called. Just before she opened the door, she realized who it must be.

"Hello, Co'ra'na," she said before laying eyes on her. Even after all these decades, Xara was still cool to the Scribe. With good reason: Co'ra'na Ky'zel had played a significant part in orchestrating her mother's death. It didn't matter that the Arions had duped them all; they didn't give Co'ra'na any ideas on how to kill Kara Zor'El.

"Howdy," the other Velorian near Earth answered with a thick Cajun accent. Xara's mouth opened a touch in surprise. "You reckon there's a waterin' hole round here somewhere, partner?"

Xara burst out laughing. "What the hell are you doing in that outfit?" Co'ra'na was decked out from head to toe, wearing a corset and the fanciest blue dress Xara had ever seen -- fancy to the point of outlandish. A bright blue too, brighter than Earth's skies. What made it outlandish was that they were well above Earth's skies, orbiting the planet in the Admiral's flagship.

Keeping up the act, Co'ra'na sauntered in. "I'm celebratin'. We got ourselves a free planet again. You gonna let me in, or not?"

Xara closed the door, still stunned. Co'ra'na may have been one of her own whose guts Xara hated, but did she know how to make an entrance...

Co'ra'na went over to the bar and grabbed a bottle of reddish fluid. "Ain't there no hors d'ouvres heah?" Co'ra'na turned to look at Xara, mock-annoyed. "How's a girl supposed to celebrate if there ain't no party?" She then proceeded to sniff the bottle, and suddenly became very interested in it.

It worked. Xara asked, "Where did you get that dress?"

"Nu'awlins. It's Mardi Gras anyway. Hoo-ee! Just the place for girls like you and me, babe, all those fine young men, buck nekkid..." Co'ra'na was trying to figure out where this bottle came from... it was familiar... She dropped the accent, reverting to her Velorian one. "Well, I'll be damned." Not the language. "Heh. Tio. From Polaa Two. How'd they get this stuff, anyway?" She poured herself a glass.

Xara stepped back into the wardroom's main area. "They're not telling me yet." Good, Co'ra'na thought, on what she saw. Xara was visibly relaxing, forgetting about their past. "What about you, what're you doing here?"

Co'ra'na plopped down on the couch and spread her arms, looking up at Xara. "I'm still a Scribe, honey. Even though we don't officially have a Protector -- and yes, I hate reminding you of that as much as you hate hearing it -- I still keep Home apprised of what's going on down here."

"You haven't fought much down there." It wasn't a question: they both knew it.

"I'm not supposed to fight, Xara." They both knew that as well. It was an old argument between them, actually dating back almost two hundred years, to when they first met in Kara's house. Xara had been a very, very young woman then. Now, she was a battle-hardened veteran, tired of taking people's garbage. Just as tired as Co'ra'na was of giving it. "And of course, there's my husband."

"Yeah, the macho man."

"Well, if he's got it..." Co'ra'na shrugged, and sipped her drink. She wasn't drunk -- alcohol didn't affect Velorians -- but she had the devil-may-care attitude down pat. Then, true to form, Co'ra'na got down to business. "Velor's very happy with what's happened here. But they're concerned this is nothing, that the Arions will come in here and destroy everything the humans have fought for. So, while we don't have a Protector, we will be getting reinforcements."

Xara's eyes narrowed. "What kind of reinforcements?"

"Well, for starters, a Virago. Others may be coming in the next few weeks, based on the Arion response to the attack. It's got a few people back home worried, Xara. Unfortunately, they can't send any real reinforcements in yet, because Earth is still in Arion space, officially. But if the rebellion holds..."

Xara growled. "Yeah, we'll get help after we need it. And only if we don't need it."

"The Empire's stretched pretty thin; it's been fifteen years since one of their ships was here. Intelligence thinks they're not much of a threat right now, that they won't be able to respond for a few weeks. The Ministers back home agree, and so the Virago is on her way to establish 'covert' diplomatic relations with the 'insurgency's factions'." Co'ra'na sipped her Tio again. "Once that's done, and our Virago gets a feel for the situation..." Co'ra'na was smug. "We'll take it from there."

Xara didn't buy it. "Get off that high horse. Even if the Empire's a bit slow in responding, they're going to respond. And they're going to respond big. We are still in very serious trouble here."

"I know that." Co'ra'na's jovial tone disappeared. "I argued that myself in my last report eight days ago. But this is their decision."

"Goddamn bureaucrats."

"I know. Give me time, Xara, to work the system. I really am on your side, remember?"

Xara's gaze fell towards the table -- or the carpet, or whatever. She fretted... for about two seconds. That's when the klaxon went off.


Startled, the two of them shot to their feet and headed for the wardroom door. "They won't be able to respond for a few weeks, huh?" Xara bit off. Co'ra'na didn't respond, following closely. They didn't run, but they walked briskly for the command center.

There, the master-at-arms stepped right in front of Co'ra'na, obstensibly blocking her access. But he knew Xara, who said, "It's all right, she's with me." The master-at-arms looked to the weapons officer, his supervisor. The weapons officer nodded, and Co'ra'na was granted access. Bright blue dress, corset and all.

Sliding behind Admiral Yevgeni, Xara quietly asked, "What's going on?" Yevgeni jumped, surprised to hear her creep up, but he settled when he realized who it was. Xara was on their side, after all, more than he initially took her for. Having her there was a comfort, though not as much of one as he would have liked. He still didn't entirely trust her.

Yevgeni whispered back, "An Arion task force, fourteen strong."

"Shit. Fourteen Primes."

Yevgeni nodded. The Primes were riding those ships, probably in the engineering plants getting a quick charge. Xara started bouncing on her heels, hyping herself up. Fourteen Primes was too much for anyone to deal with on their own. For even a chance to save the Colonies here, she'd need everything she had.

Including a certain reluctant Scribe standing two feet away from her. Xara sighed. Sometimes, the odds just weren't even close to fair. Like, 99.9% of the time.

"Radar contact!" the weapons officer reported. All eyes landed on him. "Bogey, approximately two light-seconds ahead of main force and closing fast."

"Nuclear missile?" Yevgeni asked, but Weps couldn't tell him that yet. The lookouts trained their binoculars in that direction.

Xara leaned over to ask Co'ra'na about the bogey. "Think they might've launched early, gone for the high-kinetic impact on the Colonies?"

Co'ra'na shook her head, thinking. For all Xara's experience fighting the Arions, she didn't know anything about their naval forces. Co'ra'na did. "No, it's not their style. Too far out. They'd close a lot more." Then it hit them.

They looked at each other. "The Virago," they chorused.

Yevgeni turned to look. "One of yours?"

Xara knew him, Co'ra'na didn't, so Xara spoke. "We think so. She's on a speed run, trying to get here before they do." They hunched over the radar scope table. Yevgeni laid a finger on the Virago's dot.

"Well, looks like she's going to make it, just. Looking for you, you think?"

"That's pretty likely," Xara answered flatly.

"We've gotta get her out of the way," Co'ra'na interrupted.

Xara's voice turned to ice, and she turned to Co'ra'na. Quietly, angrily, she asked, "Cut and run?"

Co'ra'na's voice became frozen methane, and she leaned in close to Xara. "You and I both know she's going to be exhausted. That's a seven day run she's just finished in three. She's not going to be in any condition to fight, and you know that."

"And these people here, are they in any condition to fight? No, they can't handle Primes. I'm standing my ground." Then Xara said something she almost regretted later, though she meant every word of it. "And you'd better make up your mind right now, Cory. Either you're with me or you're not. If you're not, don't ever come to me again."

Yevgeni silenced both of them with a firm statement. "We'll handle the Primes." He looked up into shocked eyes.

Xara recovered first. "Okay, look, you took out one T'set'lar in a sneak attack. This is a straight combat against fourteen Primes. You got lucky the last time, you won't get lucky this time."

Yevgeni was aplomb. "I said we'll handle it. Get your friend out of here." He paused. "And you've got four minutes to get off my ship to do it." He didn't say it as a threat, just as information. He turned away and wandered over to the navigator's table.

Co'ra'na moved before Xara did. "Come on." Xara couldn't say no.

Six Colony ships against fourteen Primes. Is he out of his mind?

They leapt out the airlock, and headed to intercept their comrade. Once they were clear, Yevgeni gave two orders. "Raise the force fields."

"Raise the force fields, aye... force fields are up and operational, Admiral. Distance from ship's hull to field... average fifteen point seven meters, sir."

"Deploy the mist."

"Deploy the mist, aye..."

In the vacuum of space, the two of them flew for the enemy fleet. Xara caught a bit of an off-color reflection from the Sun ahead, down, and to the right a little bit. She pointed in that direction, and looked back at Co'ra'na.

Co'ra'na looked, nodded, and they both turned for the intercept.

Their target looked back, at the Arion ships. She could just make out one of the airlocks opening up... She turned ahead, and saw two glints of light (one pink, one blue) above her and to her right.

She smiled. Through all her pain, her weariness, and frankly her rage at having to make this milk run an ambulance run, she smiled. She didn't have to find Junior; Junior had found her. And just in time too.

It was time to kick some ass. She hadn't gone to the trouble of getting assigned back to Earth just to let some punk Ari bastards mess with her. Not with Xara... and Co'ra'na?

Oh, yes, it was definitely time to kick some ass. The Scribe was what she should have been: nice, docile, following the rules and out of the way. If Co'ra'na was out here... good for her. That was a nice dress Co'ra'na had on; the Arion Primes wouldn't care. Well, she was going to make them care...

The two Velorians ahead of her swooped in to about four seconds ahead of her, and suddenly turned very sharply to their left. She was surprised, but figured they knew what they were doing, and she turned sharply to her right to follow them.

It was a gut-wrenching turn after three days of agonizing flight through the Solar System, but she did it anyway, with barely a thought.

"Unidentified bogeys, Admiral... I count twelve, thirteen... fourteen of them, sir. Heading our way. Estimated time of arrival, two minutes."

Here they come.. "They could've at least asked for our surrender," Yevgeni commented. "How insulting of them."

One officer who was less sure of the outcome said, "Insult added to injury, sir."

"Well, we'll just have to give them a proper welcome. All hands, prepare to repel boarders."

The men and women looked nervously amongst each other. Their GAR pistols could kill them a lot easier than they could kill Primes. A direct hit wasn't even necessary; just puncture a bulkhead leading out into space. Force field up or down, with that gas out there or with the vacuum, that would be lethal.

"Force field now averaging at seventeen point seven meters, sir."

"Hold it there."

"Hold force field at seventeen point seven meters, aye, sir."

They waited.

The lead Prime looked ahead of him as he closed the distance, to see strange yellow clouds enveloping each asteroid. That didn't make a lot of sense to him; what good would an atmosphere do them here? Still, he motioned his comrades on. The clouds weren't making those asteroids any bigger.

What he didn't know was that the force fields acted basically as balloons; unable to stop any high-speed or solid matter from penetrating, they could hold gases in perfectly. Gases had relatively little momentum, and no concentrated mass to breach the force field. The Primes had plenty of momentum, and (relatively) plenty of concentrated mass.

The trap was set, and the Arion Primes flew right into it. They even slowed to make sure they could touch down on the asteroids' surfaces instead of crashing through them, which doomed them.

The mist began its work immediately; the gold dust put them into an immediate shock of pain. Before they could realize they had contacted gold, the other half of the compound went to work on them. Most of the dust cloud, the mist, was indeed pure gold, but a sizable portion -- about ten percent -- was gold tetrachloride. They inhaled reflexively at the pain -- and the pain became a crushing blow to their hearts and lungs.

No Homo Sapiens Supremis had died of a heart attack in a very long time. Except O'mara.

Before the leader drifted back outside the force field, the rest of his force had already passed him on the way to their targets. With no radios and certainly no transmitters, there was no way his dying could possibly have warned them.

"All rapid-response teams, report," Yevgeni ordered.

No boarders, the teams replied.

Yevgeni exhaled loudly. The bridge erupted in cheers. "We're not out of this yet!" he had to loudly remind them. Get out the rye bread and the mustard, Grandma...

Indeed they weren't, but it took a few minutes for the task force to realize that.

Fourteen bodies drifted out almost exactly where fourteen Primes had gone in. Precisely fourteen bodies.

As much as the commodore disliked having any Primes around, it was horrifying. Bad enough he'd just lost his ship's junior doctor to a "charging" Primal woman, but now he saw that loss, that sacrifice, had been for absolutely nothing.

With rage, he shouted, "Power up the E-M guns!"

On the Reagan, Yevgeni's flagship, the Weapons officer reported, "Target coordinates... locked. Microfusion engine... at full power."

"Deploy the weapon."

"Deploy the weapon, aye-aye."

"All stations, emergency shutdown, now! Prepare for..."

"E-M guns will be ready to fire in two minutes, sir; we're still bringing main power back on line," the ship's XO informed him. The commodore said nothing. Two minutes, and the humans would pay for their insolence. Pay most dearly.

"Radar contact! Close aboard!" their sensorman called out. Eyes snapped open around the bridge. The sensorman called out coordinates, and as the lookouts trained their eyes on the location...

Three "shakes", or thirty nanoseconds, later, it didn't matter.

The blinding flash in the middle of the Arion task force's formation washed the Military Colony ships in radiation. In the darkened ship, with only starlight through a small porthole to guide them, the crew cheered again.

"Get this ship turned back on, before we freeze out here!" Yevgeni hollered. But even he was ecstatic. It was a waste of good plutonium and better deuterium, though. He decided he couldn't risk those Velorians' lives just yet.

It's Grand Salami Time. Just ask Mr. Frank Tomlinson of Seattle.

The flash also warmed the Velorians' feet and right sides quite a bit. Xara was startled. She expected her left side, the one facing the Terrans, to be the one cooked. She looked at Co'ra'na and their wincing Virago. They smiled back at her.

Instead of returning to the colony, they headed for Earth. Destination, New Orleans.

After all that, they needed a party.

In an alley off the main street, the Festival people were having a grand old time. Night had fallen, and men and women were screaming at each other to show off, get drunk, carouse, and generally just blow off some steam. There were even a few gunshots -- rifles, probably, celebrating an odd tradition: the beginning of forty days of fasting the next day.

Xara and Co'ra'na floated down to the ground, holding their colleague by the arms. She was knotted up, in tremendous pain, but very grateful indeed to be alive -- and uninjured, really. The other two would have their work cut out for them relaxing their Virago, whose face was all too familiar. The Virago fell to her knees, coughing violently.

"Hello, Junior. Ow! Nice to... nnnh, see you again." She turned, and looked at the other one in her blue dress. "And you, oof, must be... Co'ra'na Ky'zel."

Co'ra'na recognized her all right, but it fell to Xara to greet her more cordially than Co'ra'na would have. Xara kissed her cheeks, and warmly replied. "Lynn Besta. It's so good to see you again."

The Virago chuckled hoarsely. "Oh, no, Lynn Besta died with Tala, almost two hundred years ago. Call me... Sharon."