Undocumented Features Forum Mini-Stories

Omnibus Edition, Volume Two: The Sterling Saga

This edition of the Mini-Story Omnibus compiles the two multipart Exile mini-stories posted during the spring of 2007, Patience and Reunion, plus the various side minis associated with them. They're presented here in story order (side mini-stories appear where they belong chronologically) rather than the order in which they were released.

--G. October 24, 2007

Table of Contents

  1. Patience 1: Pursuit
    September 13, 2288
  2. Patience 2: Protector
    September 15, 2288
  3. Patience 3: Promises
    September 16, 2288
  4. When Drums Stop, Bass Solo
    September 22, 2288
  5. Patience 4: Preparations
    September 22, 2288
  6. Patience 5: Partings
    October 19, 2288
  7. Defiance
    October 12, 2300
  8. Reunion 1: Rendezvous
    June 20, 2374
  9. Reunion 2: Resolve
    June 20, 2374
  10. Housecleaning
    June 21, 2374
  11. Nainië an formen alqua elen (A Lament for Zeta Cygni)
    June 27, 2374
  12. Mylene's Musical Interlude
    June 30, 2374
  13. Reunion 3: Return
    July 4, 2374
  14. Reunion 4: Revelation
    July 4, 2374
  15. Reunion 5: Resolution
    July 4, 2374
  16. Reunion 6: Revelry
    July 4, 2374
  17. Omnibus Bonus Story: Foundation Day
    March 24, 2380
  18. Bonus Artwork Section

He who is prudent and lies in wait for an enemy who is not, will be victorious.
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War (ca. 400-320 Before Standard Calendar)

Thursday, September 13, 2288
Uncatalogued star system
Coreward of Rigel

A tiny ship lurked in a small asteroid field between two of the uncharted binary system's outlying gas giants. Designed to be unobserved, with its dark blue coloring and its sensor-confounding systems, the VF-6S/VB-9S Shadow Legios starfighter waited and listened, its crew confident that they would notice anyone approaching long before being noticed themselves.

In the cockpit of the Alpha, Maia Sterling looked at her instrument panel chronometer for the 400th time, keyed her intercom, and said, "I thought you people were reliable. Where the hell are they?"

In the cockpit of the docked Beta behind her, Maia's fraternal twin sister Miranda snorted. "'You people,' she says, as if she wasn't also half-Zentraedi."

"Emi, anything new on the feeds?"

"Nothing good," reported Emilia, the second-youngest of the seven Sterling sisters, from the Beta's comm/sensor station. "Unless you count the price on your head going up to cr500,000."

Maia made a dismissive noise. "I'm worth ten times that."

"Nothing about the Prometheus?" Miranda put in.

"No, nothing. No word since they shot their way out of Deralia." She hesitated, then went reluctantly on, "ISN claims a whole Legios squadron was destroyed by GENOM fighters covering their escape."

Maia's fist closed involuntarily on the powered-down fighter's throttle controls. "Which one?"

Emilia hesitated again. "Well... "


"Look, you know this is half propaganda and half - "

"Which one."

"... ISN says it was the Jollies."

The single word Maia uttered in response came through clenched teeth, nearly inaudible in Emilia's earphones. "Fuck."

Emilia opened her mouth to offer some further attempt at reassurance, but before she could get it out, an alarm whined on her sensor panel. "Hold on - new contact coming in. Small craft exiting hyperspace."

Up in the Alpha's cockpit, Maia flipped switches, powering up the Legios's engines and getting ready to move out if necessary. The prospect of action gave her the strength to push away what she was feeling, as she had over and over again the last couple of days, and concentrate on what she needed to do to keep herself and her sisters alive.

Down in the Beta's bomb/cargo bay, currently fitted out in its "troop carrier" configuration, the youngest of the Sterlings didn't have the luxury of tuning herself up for action. Mylene Sterling was only 14, and unlike all of her sisters, she wasn't militarily inclined anyway. She had little training, no experience of battle, and a gentler temperament than the others. Mylene was an artist, a musician, not a soldier - and, alone among them, still in many ways a child. Unable to sublimate her fears and sorrows into dynamic action as the others could, she had spent the last several days in a state of profound and deepening misery.

Now, as she felt the Legios's spaceframe quiver and fill with the rumbling whine of starting fusion turbines, Mylene just closed the visor of the CVR-3F armor Miranda had insisted she wear and huddled as deep as she could into the seat. Inside her helmet, her tiny rodent pet stirred against her neck and peeped into her ear.

"I don't know, Guvava," she whispered. "Another fight, I suppose." Hugging herself as best she could considering the hard edges of her armor, she murmured, "Why is this happening? Why can't we wake up? Oh, I'd give anything to wake up and have Mom badgering me to go to class... "

It might have comforted Mylene somewhat - or at least surprised her - to know that her elder sister Maia, a tough, battle-hardened veteran Shadow Legios pilot and member of the WDF's infamous Nazgûl Squadron (the Black Riders), felt exactly the same.

Maia nudged in a little bit of throttle, moving the Legios a bit away from the covering asteroids, then cut power again and let the ship drift as a pair of small craft boomed out of hyperspace and coasted into the system on the ebb of their superluminal wakes. With her own visual sensors, she was pretty sure she knew what they were, but she waited for Emilia to confirm her suspicions anyway.

"Two Valkyries," Emilia reported. "Looks like a Super J and a Super A. I'd say that's our girls."

Maia switched on her external comm system and aimed a tight-beam communications laser at the lead Valkyrie, the J-model. A moment later the panel pinged as the Valkyrie acknowledged with its own comm laser and established a link that would be nearly impossible for hostiles to intercept. Maia couldn't remember the last time she'd felt as relieved as when the face of her eldest sister Komilia, washed monochrome by the tinted space visor of her Valkyrie helmet, appeared on her center MFD.

"It's about time you guys got here," she blustered to cover her relief.

"Bitch later," Komilia replied tersely. "I'm pretty sure we brought you some new friends."

"New friends, what the hell are you talking ab - " Maia began, but then she had her answer as the sky behind the two Valkyries filled with spacecraft and her threat panel went wild.

"I'll be damned," Emilia said, impressed in spite of herself. "Invid Armored Scouts! GENOM really has pulled everything out of the garage for this operation."

"How many?" Maia demanded, throttling up and starting to move out as the two Valkyries made for the asteroids at full power.

"About a hundred, I think," Emilia replied. "I can't say for sure without going active."

"Wait one. Komilia, what's your status?"

"We're just about used up," Komilia admitted. "No missiles, I'm out of ammo. Terry has a GU-13, but she's stuck in fighter mode. Not optimal against massed Invid."

Despite - or maybe because of - her desperation and frustration, a fierce, almost feral grin stretched Maia's face. "Then we'll have to take care of it ourselves! Emi, get me some targets!"

So saying, she rammed the throttles wide open, opening up the combined Legios's mighty thrusters to full power. Emilia switched the Beta's sensors to active mode, radiating energy, no longer concerned about detection, as the acceleration shoved her back in her seat even with the fighter's inertial dampers engaged. At the controls of the Beta, Miranda started selecting targets for her weapons while Maia aimed the Legios right at the heart of the approaching Invid formation.

"Îdô Nidir nênâkham, Bârî 'n Katharâd!" Miranda cried, her voice spurring a thrill up Maia's already tingling spine: the battlecry of the Black Riders, Now come we, the Nine, lords of eternal life!

So caught up in the moment were both sisters that they never wondered whether they would see the other seven again.

The Invid fighters never perceived the Legios itself - only the evidence of its presence, the sudden and tremendous luminal and thermal flare of its exhaust, the sweeping pulse of its active sensors. So preoccupied were their small awarenesses on the targets they had pursued across a good chunk of the known galaxy that they hadn't even adjusted to the abrupt appearance of another combatant until it was far too late for them.

Invid plasma fire filled the sky, most of it inaccurate. A few pulses splashed against the charging Legios's shields, doing no harm at all. One, more by luck than design, streaked past and struck the trailing Valkyrie in the aft starboard quarter, jarring it into a sudden roll and drawing a cry of consternation from its pilot.

Snarling with fury at the attack on one of her sisters, Maia threw the Legios into a corkscrew roll, making the stars and the smearing tracks of Invid fire spin crazily in her canopy, then thumbed and twisted the mode selector built into her throttle lever. Without disengaging from the Beta, the Alpha portion of the combined fighter transformed to battroid mode, becoming an armored soldier effectively wearing a giant thruster backpack. Miranda plied her controls with equal fervor, the sisters acting almost as a single pilot. Panels popped open all over the Shadow fighter as powerful sensors painted target after target. Plasma and particle-beam fire from the Legios's fixed weapons picked off a few of the Invid, softening up the formation for the onslaught to come.

Their Zentraedi warrior blood singing in their veins, Maia and Miranda cried out a Meltranese challenge and pulled their triggers as one. The charging Legios slowed slightly in reaction as more than a hundred missiles boiled from their tubes on the Alpha and Beta at once. Space filled with seething contrails as the weapons - compact but deadly GPM-150 Mark XXVI General Hosement mini-missiles from both craft and a few of the Beta's powerful AMM-9 Reaper medium missiles - streaked and spiraled and sought, running the gauntlet of plasma fire to plunge into the attacking Invid formation and unleash utter havoc. A curtain of explosions nearly 200 miles wide blossomed in space as the Legios's barrage tore at the two Valkyries' pursuers.

In moments, all that remained of the attacking force, besides rubble and rapidly expanding clouds of dust, was the command ship, the human crew of which had not quite grasped what had just happened.

With a puff of escaping gases, the two parts of the Legios undocked, Maia's Alpha battroid executing a tidy tuck-and-tumble to clear the Beta's path as the larger craft charged past, still in bomber mode. Aboard the GENOM command ship, the crew were still trying to get a fix on what was going on outside when a target designation warning howled on the combat officer's panel. At about the same moment, the overhead speakers crackled as Emilia punched through the vessel's comm shielding with the Beta's powerful transmitter, and a filtered voice, guttural and cruel, filled the bridge with terrifying, incomprehensible syllables:

"Nubin sherkuk," it intoned in a voice like madness itself. "Rakhizinash! Matizinashûk!"

Plasma fire weakened, then breached, the command ship's shields, which were already degraded by the vessel's close proximity to the recent wave of explosions and fusion-core cookoffs. From a compartment under its port wingroot, the Shadow Beta launched an RSM-666-XL heavy missile. As soon as the missile was away, Miranda stood on her ventral thruster controls, flipping the ungainly bomber end-over-end, then opened her throttles and cleared the area. Moments later, the AntiChrist missile's Reflex warhead detonated, wiping the GENOM command ship from the sky in a millisecond pulse of irresistible heat.

The calm after the battle was almost shocking in its suddenness and completeness. The two parts of the Legios docked quietly, almost routinely, their armor ignoring the microimpacts of dust and tiny particles from their recent swarm of victims. As they turned to rendezvous with the two Valkyries, the Alpha part resumed fighter mode, blending the two vehicles fully into a single spacecraft again.

"That looked satisfying," Komilia remarked dryly.

Maia, flushed and sweaty, just flipped open her CVR helmet visor and grinned.

"You have no idea. How's Terry?"

"I'm fine," Therèse Sterling replied. "Some armor damage, screwed up my thrust vectoring, but the automatics recalibrated the nozzle within a second. Just like the book says!" she added, sounding wryly impressed. As a certified and highly experienced Veritechnician, she knew exactly what all the systems on a VF-1 could do.

"Thanks for the save, though," Komilia said. "It would've taken us all day to kill all those guys."

Maia smirked, accepting her eldest sister's half-joking fighter-jock bravado for what it was, and let it pass.

"Well, if you guys are done bringing random strangers to our party," Emilia put in, "we have a rendezvous of our own to get to, and you two have made us late."

"Oh, relax," Komilia replied. "When was the last time Xera was on time for anything?"

"Has anyone heard anything from Mom and Dad?" Therèse asked.

"I got a call from Dad near the end of the fight over Musashi, after the Wedge hypered out," Miranda reported. "It was pretty broken up, but I heard him mention the Zentraedi fleet."

"So they're with Xera," Komilia reasoned.

"Seems that way," Miranda agreed.

"Hey, isn't that Kakizaki's Valkyrie?" Maia asked as the three spacecraft formed up and laid in their new hyperspace course.

"Yes," Therèse replied, sounding subdued. "He, uh... won't be needing it."

"... Oh."

That broke up the exultant after-battle mood, reminding all five sisters (for Mylene couldn't hear them, and had never forgotten in any case) just how desperate their situation still was. There was a gloomy silence for a few seconds.

Then Miranda said, "Okay, girls. Course plotted. Link your navicomputers to me and let's get out of here."

The three fighters' exhaust coronas flared red, and then they were gone, leaving behind only dust and echoes.

"Pursuit" (Part 1 of Patience, an Exile Mini-Story Serial) by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Patience Plotted by Philip J. Moyer
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Saturday, September 15, 2288

Coreward of the Rigel sector, near the edge of the United Galactica proper, lies a rogue planet, unaccompanied by any star, serene in its own private orbit around the Galactic Core. Though it has no sun, it glows with a light of its own, illuminated from within. Upon first seeing it, many take it for a gigantic space station. They assume it must be an artificial construct, for the whole planet is covered with spires and sheets and jumbled strata of gleaming metal. Scarred by ancient and terrible battles, it remains somehow beautiful, a gem set against the blackness of the interstellar void.

Cybertron, homeworld of the Transformers.

Komilia Sterling certainly thought it was beautiful, especially right now. After days of hard running, she and five of her six sisters had reached their destination at last. Palpable relief ran through her body as a white-and-scarlet VF-1S Super Valkyrie with distinctive Autobot markings pulled into formation with her own VF-1J, at the lead of the three-ship formation she had just led out of hyperspace. Her center MFD flickered, then resolved into a virtual image of the same fighter's battroid-mode head and shoulders.

"Eight-Ball Eight, this is Jetfire. You guys look like you've seen some action."

"You could say that," Komilia replied. "I imagine you've seen a newspaper sometime this week?"

"We're monitoring the situation with great concern," Jetfire replied. "You aren't the first to reach us."

Komilia suppressed an urge to ask who else had made it; she had more important business to take care of, and so did Jetfire. "Request you clear us through to Queltaadu City."

"Negative, Eight," Jetfire replied. "I have orders to take you straight to Iacon. Optimus Prime wants to see you."

Komilia's eyebrows went up. "What for?"

"I dunno. If I had to guess, I'd say you knew Gryphon better than any of the others who've made it here so far. Prime's trying to figure out how one of his best friends could just up and lose his slagging mind."

"Oh, horseshit," Komilia snapped. She wouldn't normally have shown such heat, or said such a thing over the comm, but the events of the last few days had left her brittle and short-fused.

"Well, yeah," Jetfire agreed. "Still, you've got to admit something weird is going on. Anyway, he probably wants to ask you about the last couple of days before... you know."

Komilia sighed. "Might as well get it over with, then," she said.

So it was that, immediately upon landing at the military spaceport adjoining the great dome of Iacon, the six Sterling sisters were ushered directly to the nerve center of the Autobot capital. Though a few of them had been to Cybertron before, none had ever seen the Autobots' command center. Unfortunately, all were too tired and emotionally strung out to enjoy it, or to take much notice of each other's condition, for that matter. Komilia had all she could do to keep herself together, stay cool and in charge. Maia and Miranda looked to each other, as always, and Therèse was off in her own little universe, preoccupied with a thousand details. Only Emilia had enough spare mental bandwidth to notice how profoundly miserable Mylene was, and all she could offer was a hand on the youngest's shoulder and reassurances that sounded insultingly hollow as soon as they fell from her lips.

They were a wretched little group, feeling small and vulnerable, when they arranged themselves on the catwalk ringing the command balcony in the Autobase command center and waited.

A moment later, the giant door at the back of the balcony opened and in strode Optimus Prime, supreme leader of the Autobots. His appearance alone lifted the spirits of the six young women who stood before him. His massive, gleamingly armored form, his tall stance, his confident gait, all spoke of indestructibility, of absolute integrity. Even with so much of their faith in what they had believed to be eternal shaken or shattered outright, the Sterlings felt faint flickers of hope stirring within them at the mere sight of him.

He stood for a moment and gazed at them with softly glowing blue optics that conveyed an impression of his great kindness and wisdom. When he spoke, his mighty voice was gentle.

"It's good to see you're all alive," he said. "We had begun to wonder... if any more would make it."

Komilia took charge, as she always did, and introduced her sisters; she was the only one of them who had met the Autobot leader in person before. Then she asked him what was going on.

"I wish I knew," Prime admitted. Placing his massive hands on the railing in front of him, he looked past the little group of women at the situation displays in the war room, as if they could somehow decode all the happenings that had rocked the galaxy over the past five days.

"Sometimes it seems as if the whole galaxy has gone mad, and not just one man," the Autobot leader said softly.

Komilia looked shocked, then angry. "Dammit, Prime, you can't believe - "

Before she could go on, an alarm sounded. On the main monitor, red lines and icons suddenly appeared, indicating new presences in Cybertron's celestial neighborhood.

"Springer! Report!" Prime ordered, his bearing suddenly brisk and businesslike.

"Space fleet defolding at Point Gamma," Springer replied. "I make it thirty ships. Big ones. They're vectoring to enter orbit."

"Incoming transmission," Sideswipe reported from another console. A window appeared on the main monitor, showing the hatchet face of a middle-aged man in a high-collared grey uniform and peaked cap.

"Attention, Autobot Command," the man said in a cool, clipped voice. "This is Captain Lorth Needa of the GENOM Corporation Star Destroyer Avenger. You are harboring Wedge Defense Force fugitives in violation of United Galactica Assembly Decree 2288-1257. You will surrender these fugitives immediately."

Before Prime could respond, hotheaded Sideswipe had keyed his own mic. "Oh yeah?" he snapped. "Or what?"

Needa smiled thinly. "Or Cybertron will suffer the consequences prescribed by law," he replied.

"Is that supposed to intimidate us?" Sideswipe demanded. "Do you know who the fuck you're talking to?"

"Sideswipe," said Prime, his voice firm but not sharp. Then, with just a hint of amusement in his tone, he added, "I'll handle this."

Abashed, Sideswipe yielded the floor with a muttered, "Yessir."

"This is Optimus Prime, supreme commander of the Autobot forces and military governor of Cybertron," Prime said, addressing himself directly to Needa. "The Autobot government does not recognize the jurisdiction of GENOM Corporation's Military Arm in this matter. Our protest against Decree 2288-1257 remains on file with the UG Assembly pending arbitration."

"I take that to mean you refuse to surrender the fugitives," Needa said dryly.

"GENOM ships are moving into attack formation," Springer reported, knowing Needa wouldn't hear him with his own panel's comm pickup turned off. "Looks like five Imperator-class Star Destroyers, a dozen Victory-class, four Invid Hive command ships and assorted support vessels. The Invid are prepping for launch."

"Captain, be warned," Optimus Prime said, his voice calm. "If you attack Cybertron, Autobot forces will respond. We will not tolerate any threat of invasion."

"Be reasonable, Optimus Prime," Needa replied. "We're not interested in conquering or occupying Cybertron. All we want is the Wedge Defenders you're harboring."

Prime dropped his diplomatic formality, reverting to the confident, no-bullshit arch-gunfighter persona that had made him such a successful resistance fighter against the Decepticons (and drawn so many comparisons to John Wayne from his admiring human allies). Folding his arms, he replied flatly,

"Well, you can't have 'em."

Needa's thin smile turned into a cold glare. "So be it, then," he said. "Thus ends Cybertron's second golden age." With that, he cut the transmission and vanished from the screen.

"Planetary condition red!" Prime barked. Sirens howled and lights turned red throughout the Autobot defense installation network as Sideswipe jammed down the master alert button. "Energize defense cannon grid! All Autobots to battle stations! Prepare to repel orbital assault! Aerialbots, Air Guardians, scramble!"

Then, turning to face the eldest of his guests, he added privately to her, "I'm not sure yet what's happening, Komilia. But one thing I know is that I will never deliver anyone into the hands of Maximilien Largo." Clenching one massive metal fist before his chest, he added, "I'll die first."

Lorth Needa had no illusions that this would be an easy day's work. Cybertron was a planetary fortress of a caliber not often seen, and with his relatively small fleet, it would take a lot of work to subdue. He was confident that he could get it done, though. Between the relentless pounding his Star Destroyers' guns could give the surface and the vast numeric advantage his Invid and boomer fighters had over the Autobots' relatively small aerospace contingent, he felt victory was assured.

If he was being honest, he preferred it this way. His orders did not require him to conquer Cybertron, but the Autobots were well-known WDF sympathizers - hell, Optimus Prime was still wearing the version of the Autobot shield that was superimposed on the WDF diamond - and the planet could yield considerable rewards. If nothing else, the company might be able to offer it to the exiled Decepticon forces in exchange for commercial considerations.

"All weapons trained and locked on, Captain," his weapons officer informed him. "Fighters ready to launch."

"Autobot air defense craft are launching, sir," a sensor officer reported. "It looks like the Zentraedi garrison at Queltaadu City is launching battle pods as well."

"So much the better." Needa folded his hands behind his back and prepared to watch the show. "Launch all fighters. Commence surface bombardment as soon as they're clear of our firing arcs."

"Captain!" another sensor officer piped up. "Subspace anomaly in grid area 337."

Needa turned. "Cause?"

"Unknown. It's - wait - yes! Reflex spacefold bearing zero one zero mark zero five, range 1,500 miles!"

Needa's eyes widened slightly. "Fifteen hundred miles!" he blurted. "With the SDF-17 destroyed, only one kind of starship can execute a fold near a planetary body with that kind of precision."

A moment later, his suspicion was confirmed. With a brilliant outpouring of light, the sky over Cybertron was suddenly occupied by more than just Needa's fleet and the swarms of fighters issuing from its ships.

With a beep, a holographic comm window rezzed up in the space between Needa and the Avenger's forward bridge windows. In it was the image of a woman in a black-trimmed scarlet Meltrandi officer's coat. Needa noted with detached amusement that her short mop of tight curls was exactly the same shade of ketchup red as her coat and wondered if that were a coincidence. A very young-looking woman for her apparent seniority, she had a severe expression that marred what would otherwise have been a pixie face.

When she spoke, her voice carried the strange harmonic undertones of a full-sized Zentraedi, and she used the harshest, most guttural form of the Meltranese battle tongue. The Avenger's onboard computer provided a running translation as subtitles on the holo-image.

"Attention, GENOM vessels. I am Group Captain Xeralia Fallyna Sterling of the 127th Meltrandi War Fleet, Battlegroup Quevillon. I have orders from Domillan Exedore Folmo of the Zentraedi Alliance High Command to protect the Wedge Defense Force members taking refuge in this planetary system. You will withdraw immediately or I will annihilate you."

Needa raised an eyebrow. "The Zentraedi Alliance chooses war with the United Galactica?"

Xeralia's full lips twisted in a cruel smile.

"The question is whether the United Galactica will choose war with the Zentraedi Alliance at the behest of the synthoid Largo, Micron," she replied. "Lord Exedore's bet is that it will not... and he is very, very good with odds."

Needa kept his face composed, but inside he knew she had him. There was no conceivable way his fleet could stand against the force that had just arrived. Even a tiny Zentraedi battle group like this one numbered a hundred ships or more, each one at least the size of his own flagship, and the Zentraedi flagship was one of their gigantic Nupetiet-Vergnitzs-class dreadnaughts, nearly two and a half miles long and bristling with firepower. Besides, she was probably right. A GENOM fleet that entered into an outright shooting fight with a Zentraedi battle group would bring the full weight of the Zentraedi Alliance down on the United Galactica, and Largo's support in the Assembly did not extend to that Assembly sticking with his policies to the point of galactic suicide. The Zentraedi were relentless, implacable, once the war-lust was on them. They would see the whole galaxy in flames before they would give up.

"... Very well, Group Captain," he said, his accent even more clipped as he restrained his fury. "You win this round. But if any of those fugitives ventures out of this system, they're our game. Even the Zentraedi cannot be everywhere."

Xeralia folded her arms. "We shall see, Captain Needa. We shall see." Then her image was gone, leaving Needa wondering uneasily how she had known his name. Turning to his XO, he snapped, "Recall all fighters and prepare the fleet for hyperspace. Set your course for Niogi. I will make a personal report to Master Largo."

"How disappointing," Xeralia remarked in Standard as the GENOM ships jumped to hyperspace. "I was hoping he would call my bluff."

"Was it a bluff?" Optimus Prime asked.

Xeralia smirked. "Zentraedi do not bluff... unless I'm bluffing right now."

"You're late, Xera," Komilia said, stepping into the holo-pickup's field of view. The others followed her so that Xeralia could see they'd all made it.

"Not too late to bail your Micron ass out," Xeralia replied. "I'm glad to see you all made it. Where are Mom and Dad?"

Komilia blinked. "They're not with you?"

"No. I thought they were with you."

"We all got separated when the Prometheus made a run for it," Miranda put in. "Dad said something about rendezvousing with the Zentraedi fleet, but they were jamming our comms, so I only got about half the message. I assumed he was talking about your fleet."

Xeralia shook her head. "No... no, I haven't seen them. I... " She trailed off, then shook her head again, this time more briskly, making her scarlet curls bob. "Eh, they must be taking a long way around to shake off pursuit. They'll be along. I mean, hell, who could possibly kill them?"

Komilia didn't answer for a long moment. Behind her, Mylene finally reached her breaking point, turned to Emilia, grabbed hold of her, and started to cry. The others, grave-faced, looked out of the screen at Xeralia, but she had no answers for them.

"Well," Optimus Prime said, breaking gently into the tableau, "you can wait here as long as you need to. The Autobots won't abandon our commitment to our friends just because the galaxy has gone insane." Addressing Xeralia, he said, "Group Captain, what are your plans?"

"My group and I will stick around and secure the area in case those GENOM hounds come back," Xeralia said. "Lord Exedore has returned from addressing the UG Assembly and his escort group is making ready to leave Reflex Point now; they should be here within 24 hours. He wants to discuss the overall situation with you personally."

Prime nodded. "We'll make ready for his arrival. And thank you for the save," he added wryly. "I'm sure some of my bots are as disappointed as you are, but any fight you never have is one that everyone walks away from."

Xeralia grinned. "Our pleasure, Optimus Prime. Quelquira-Nuur out." Her image disappeared, replaced by the tactical plot again, this time showing the Meltrandi fleet moving into a defensive formation all around Cybertron.

Prime gazed at it for a moment, then addressed Sideswipe.

"Stand down from condition red. Space defenses to remain at condition yellow until further notice. Recall the air groups. Springer, coordinate orbital patrols with the Zentraedi fleet."

"Roger that, sir," Springer replied. Prime turned to Komilia.

"The six of you are welcome to take quarters anywhere on Cybertron," he said. "Commander Bron asked me to extend you his personal invitation to stay in Queltaadu City."

Komilia nodded. "Thank you, Prime. I think we'll take him up on that." She turned to regard her younger sisters. Maia, Miranda, and Therèse all looked back, even tough, commanding Maia seeming at a loss. Emilia looked up from comforting the still-sobbing Mylene and gave Komilia a look of consummate uncertainty.

Turning back to Prime, Komilia said, "Give me a few hours to settle the others, and I'm at your disposal. Whatever I know is yours."

Prime's optics smiled kindly. "Tomorrow will do," he said.

Sunday, September 16, 2288
Iacon, Cybertron

True to her word, Komilia reported to Optimus Prime's office in the Iacon command center the next morning. Upon falling into a borrowed bed in the Micronian wing of the Zentraedi base at Queltaadu City, she had slept like the dead. It was the first real sleep she'd had in five days, since her last night aboard the SDF-17. Since then she'd only caught uncomfortable naps in the cockpit of her Valkyrie, usually in hyperspace.

Even now, after more than 15 hours of sleep, she felt sluggish, exhausted mentally and emotionally more than physically. The world had a faint, superimposed sense of surreality, as if what was going on couldn't really be happening. The thought kept running through her mind that the last time she'd slept in a bed, it had been in her stateroom aboard the SDF-17... and that that room was now gone.

When she rang and entered, she was surprised to find that Prime had undocked his human-sized core robot from the much larger chassis that most people thought of when they thought of Optimus Prime. She'd only seen him in this form once before, many years ago. She supposed he'd done it to put her a little more at ease. He continued this pattern as he welcomed Komilia into the office; solicitous and polite, he directed her to a seat at a human-scale conference table and offered her a hot beverage before sitting down opposite her and beginning what amounted to an intensive debriefing.

Komilia could handle debriefings. She was a fighter pilot with centuries of experience, had carried out the occasional commando mission as part of her duty with the elite Eight-Ball Squadron, and had given reports, formal and informal, after thousands of sorties. This was different, though. This wasn't a report of the outcome of a mission, successful or otherwise. It was a requiem for a force that had been her home all her long life.

And for an era.

Optimus Prime, it occurred to her as she spoke, had seen eras end before. She was old by human standards, over 250 years old in an era where the average human lived to be 170 or so; but the Autobot leader was millions of Standard years old. His civilization was one of the oldest in the known universe. His people had been traveling between the stars when both Earth's humans and the forerunners of the Zentraedi had been proto-sapient. By all rights, he ought to be uninterested in the happenings of the last few days, letting them pass with the awesome detachment of a creature who could outwait entire organic civilizations.

And yet he was listening to her with both sincere interest and sincere concern. He was genuinely upset at the sudden turn the galaxy had taken, not because it boded poorly for Cybertron, but because it boded poorly for the galaxy - and for beings he considered his friends.

That was the perspective the old Zentraedi leaders like Bodolza lost, she suddenly realized. It was irrelevant to the situation she found herself in, but she was a student of history and her mind was functioning at such a strange frequency right now that she couldn't help but think of it. Only Breetai and Exedore understood - as Prime understands - that all life is... is...

Komilia lost the thread of it, realized she'd stopped talking. She tried to regroup her thoughts, but they scattered under the pressure, and after a few moments she realized that she could, for the moment, do nothing but weep.

Optimus Prime got up from the table and walked a few paces away, his hands folded behind his back. Komilia dully wondered if the spectacle of an organic lifeform crying made him uncomfortable. Do Transformers cry?

"I'm sorry, Komilia," Prime said quietly. Komilia looked up, blinking away tears, as the Autobot leader turned to face her. "This must be especially hard for you. You have something far heavier than the weight of the galaxy on your shoulders; you have the weight of your family."

For just a second, Komilia thought that he was being sarcastic, pointing out that his problems were much bigger than hers; but then she realized that he meant exactly what he was saying. The sentiment brought a little warmth back to her heart, chilled though it was by sorrow and fatigue.

Thus bolstered, she explained everything she knew. Admittedly, it wasn't much. The Eight-Balls took part in the military operation against the then-unknown attackers of Musashi City, then returned to the Prometheus, hit the showers, and went off-duty while Gryphon and the Lovely Angels joined the Shadow Squad for a mop-up operation, dealing with a hostage situation at a grade school.

The next thing Komilia knew, things had taken a turn for the very strange. The team returned from the surface with Gryphon all shot up and under guard. There were rumors that he'd gone crazy, shot up a schoolroom, killed a bunch of children - and she found video that seemed to prove the rumors true. Released from sickbay the next day but still under guard, Gryphon wasn't allowed to make contact with any of his pilots. Eventually, either infuriated by the charges against him or desperate to avoid court-martial, Gryphon somehow finagled access to the Prometheus and left aboard his personal Valkyrie.

Things happened very fast after that. First Kei Morgan, who had nearly bitten Erik Swimm's head off earlier, took the Lovely Angel and left in pursuit; then Zoner resigned his command and took off with the Daytona from Hell, destination unknown; then Yuri flew off with a hyper-equipped Valkyrie, apparently not going after any of the three. The Eight-Balls, fed up with the craziness and secrecy, were saddling up to go out, round the lot of them up, and make them all sit down and explain what the hell was going on when everything suddenly hit the fan.

"We had loaded hyperpacks because we were planning to chase the boss and the others," Komilia said, her voice low, her mood bleakened once more by retelling the sad and confusing story. "Once the Wedge was clear, we were able to escape the system under our own power. We had no common nav points loaded, so we ended up scattered from hell to breakfast. There was no way to regroup, find the Prometheus, anything. Terry and I were still together, and we got a text message from Maia invoking Mom and Dad's contingency plan."

"Your parents were wise to plan for the worst," Prime said.

Komilia nodded. "That's Dad. Thinking ahead. I think he might've realized what none of the rest of us did - that the WDF had faultlines that a smart enemy could exploit. But... " She gave Prime a helpless look. "I don't understand how it could have been so easy. I mean, I was almost as much an outside observer as you, but... it's all so strange. It's like they all just went crazy."

"Indeed," said a voice from the doorway. "In fact... if you assume that Gryphon didn't do what he's accused of doing on Musashi, he suddenly emerges as the player in this little drama who acted the most sensibly - an innocent man, cornered and confused as his friends inexplicably turn on him, trying to get some space and figure out what to do."

Komilia turned in her chair, then looked up, and up, and up some more, her eyes wide. "Exedore!"

Domillan Exedore Folmo, Minister-at-Large of the Zentraedi Alliance High Command, smiled and bowed. Though very short - nearly a dwarf - by Zentraedi standards, he still towered over her merely human frame.

"Greetings, Komilia Dana Fallyna Sterling," he said. "It's good to see you again. I regret it isn't under better circumstances."

"As do I, Domillan Exedore," Optimus Prime said, inclining his head. "Welcome back to Cybertron, your excellency."

Exedore made a dismissive gesture and seated himself at the end of the large conference table, turning his chair to face them. "I hardly think we need to stand on ceremony at a time like this, Optimus Prime." Addressing himself to them both, he went on, "The Zentraedi High Command has reviewed all the available information on this incident. It is our conclusion that the incidents on Musashi were deliberately arranged to create conditions favorable for the attack on the SDF-17."

Komilia brightened. "Then you believe Gryphon is innocent?"

"We do. However," he added with an upraised hand before she could speak, "we have been unable to convince the United Galactica Assembly; they are too much cowed by Largo. Even the honorable ambassador from Salusia could not move them. Their judgment against the WDF - and their tacit legalization of GENOM's ongoing campaign of extermination - stands."

Komilia bolted to her feet, aware as she did so that the gesture lacked something when confronting a giant, but too impassioned to care. "Where is Lord Breetai?" she demanded. "Why has he not struck back? The Kridanik Fleet could annihilate GENOM MILARM Command. By God! Macronize me and give me a Queadluun-Rau, and I'll bring you Largo's head myself! What the hell are you smiling at?!"

"I beg your pardon, Komilia Fallyna," Exedore said, sobering. "I'm not laughing at you, I assure you. It's merely that you reminded me so strongly of your august mother just now. I don't know where Breetai is. He and his fleet have vanished. They left Reflex Point as soon as the first reports of the SDF-17's destruction arrived and haven't been seen since. Perhaps they plan a counteroffensive against GENOM, as you suggest, but for all our sakes, I hope not. Should the Zentraedi Alliance attack GENOM in the WDF's name now, the United Galactica's military forces would get involved. The result would be a galactic war - one that we would almost certainly win, but at a terrible cost, not only to ourselves, but also to the people of the United Galactica, most of whom are blameless in this affair. Do you think that course of action justified?"

Komilia stared up at him, her eyes still fierce, for a few moments; then she sagged, all the fight going out of her, and slumped into her seat, elbows on tabletop, head in hands.

"... no," she said, her voice barely audible.

Prime walked around the table and put a hand on her shoulder. Despite the fact that the hand was hard and metallic, she found it oddly comforting. She pulled herself together and asked Exedore if he'd heard any news of her parents.

Looking troubled, Exedore replied, "Oh dear. It seems I'm destined to bring you nothing but bad news today. I'm afraid I haven't heard anything. I had assumed they would be here with you."

"Maia said he told her something about meeting up with a Zentraedi fleet. We thought that meant they'd be with Xera, but she thought the same as you."

"Well, there are a good many Zentraedi fleets, and all of them that Maximilian would know how to reach would shelter them," Exedore pointed out. "I'm sure they'll turn up." He sighed. "In the meantime, all is not quite lost. Though we were unable to reverse the UG's decision, neither can they enforce their decree upon the Zentraedi Alliance itself without risking the same disastrous war, so any WDF personnel who find their way to us are safe as long as they stay with us, at least."

Optimus Prime nodded. "I'd like to see the information you have available - we've been able to piece together quite a bit from witness accounts, but hard data is always useful."

Exedore nodded. "Certainly. I'll have my commtechs put together a complete package for transmission to Teletran-1 at once."

Komilia gathered herself and got to her feet again, more slowly this time.

"Prime... Domillan Exedore... do you need me for this? If not, I think I'd like to get a little more rest," she said, her voice subdued.

Prime, his hand still on her shoulder, gave a gentle squeeze and let her go. "Of course," he said. "I'm sorry, Komilia. We'll speak again later - when you've rested and I've had a chance to absorb all the information."

Komilia nodded to him, bowed to Exedore, and then slowly left the room.

"Protector" (Part 2 of Patience, an Exile Mini-Story Serial) by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Patience plotted by Philip J. Moyer
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Sunday, September 16, 2288

All Komilia Sterling really wanted to do right now was be by herself and get some more sleep. Unfortunately, it seemed as if those were the only things she couldn't do. At some point, probably on her way to or back from Optimus Prime's office in Iacon, she'd been seen, and now it seemed as if all the Wedge Defense Force refugees taking shelter on Cybertron knew she was among them.

The phone calls and the visitors came slowly at first and then in a sort of tidal flow, one after another or in small groups. Fighter pilots from other squadrons, a couple of transport crews who had been on runs elsewhere in the galaxy, Tactical Corps personnel who escaped first to Meizuri and then to Cybertron - she was the senior officer on-planet, apparently, and she was an Eight-Ball, and they all thought she might somehow know the answers to the two questions that every last one of them burned to ask someone:

What happened?


Komilia tried to answer them all, or at least impress on them all as diplomatically as possible that she didn't have their answers. What else could she do? They were her comrades, even if she didn't know most of them very well personally. There were a few of her acquaintances and passing friends from the service in the parade, and she was pleased and relieved to see that they were well, but with her emotional reserves already at such a low ebb, she soon found herself handling them mechanically - and wishing deep within her heart that they would just leave her alone. Just for a little while. Just for today.

It was early evening, though such distinctions carried little weight on sunless Cybertron, when the chime of her doorbell once more called for her attention just as she had begun to hope that no more would come and she could at last go back to sleep. For a few moments she considered just turning the thing off, setting total privacy mode on the door, and ignoring whoever was out there, but she knew she couldn't do that. It might be someone in real need of help. Or one of her sisters.

Feeling ten thousand years old, Komilia dragged herself from the couch, steeled herself as best she could for another needy face, and opened the door.

Optimus Prime - all of him, Zentraedi-tall and shining - was standing in the corridor.

"Oh!" she said, surprised. "Prime. Hi. Uh... something I can help you with?"

"Actually, I thought there might be something I could help you with," Prime replied. So saying, he transformed to vehicle mode, then swung open his driver's side door. "Care to go for a drive?"

Komilia hesitated for a moment - an Autobot as eminent and busy as Optimus Prime extended such offers very rarely, she was sure - then climbed aboard. As they pulled out and headed for a branching corridor that led out of the residential complex, Prime's virtual image appeared on the video screen in the middle of the dash.

"Bumblebee tells me you've had a busy day," he said. "He's been monitoring the traffic to your quarters, just to make sure everyone who visited you was legitimate. If you want, I can see about getting you some security to screen your visitors more directly."

Komilia shook her head. "No... thank you, Prime, but... well, even if I don't have anything to offer, and in most cases I don't, I still feel like it's my responsibility to... I don't know, to at least hear them out." She looked out the windows and saw that they were leaving Queltaadu City, moving up onto one of Cybertron's sweeping mega-expressways. Gleaming spires, canyons of chrome, plains of what looked like brushed aluminum stretched away in all directions under the star-splashed sky.

"Cybertron's just as beautiful as I remembered it," she said.

"We have a long way to go before she's restored to anything like the glory she had before the war with the Decepticons, but things are always improving," Prime said. "In large part thanks to our friends in the Wedge Defense Force. I want you to know that, after talking with Exedore and seeing the information he presented, I'm doubly sure my decision yesterday was the right one. Not that it will do much good in the grand scheme of things," he added regretfully. "I find myself in much the same position as Exedore. GENOM won't come after Cybertron again, but I can't move against them either. Not without triggering a galactic war."

Komilia sighed. "I figured that would be how it worked out. Damn, damn... I don't blame you, and I know Exedore was right about the prospects of the war, but... " She sat back, looking up at the ceiling of Prime's cab, and felt her eyes tearing up. "I just can't believe he's won."

"He hasn't won yet," Prime replied, his voice firm and determined. "If millions of years of war with Megatron, usually with my side at a distinct disadvantage, taught me anything, it's that the enemy's never won as long as you're still alive. And just because I can't move openly against GENOM doesn't mean I intend to just sit around and wait for Largo to rust, either." At his passenger's surprised look, Optimus Prime's virtual image gave her a knowing smile. "I was a resistance fighter for a very long time, Komilia," he said. "I know a thing or two about waging an underground campaign."

That thought sparked one of the few genuine smiles Komilia had been able to muster since all this started. "I won't ask you what you're planning," she said. "But if any of your operations need the help of any puny flesh creatures, count me in."

Prime chuckled. "I'll keep that in mind," he promised.

"By the way... where are we going?"

"Nowhere in particular," Prime said. "I just thought you'd like to be unreachable for a little while."

Komilia blinked. "Don't you have... you know, stuff to do? You're the Autobot supreme commander."

"Nothing that can't wait," Prime replied.

Komilia considered this for a moment, then noticed that there was a WDF-issue field survival pack, the type that was included in every WDF aerospace fighter and Destroid, sitting on the floor on the passenger side of the cab. She looked at it, then at Prime's image on the screen. He shrugged.

"I thought it might come in handy," he said.

Komilia gave the Autobot leader a grateful smile that said various things she had no words for, slid across the seat, opened the pack, and dug out a couple of the items within it.

Then, curled up on Optimus Prime's bench seat under a WDF survival blanket, her head resting on an inflatable camp pillow, she slept.

"Rest well, Komilia," Prime said quietly; then the video screen went black and he left his passenger to herself. If anyone wondered what Optimus Prime was doing, aimlessly cruising the skyways of Sonplex all that night, they kept their questions their own.

The next several days passed in a haze for the children of Max and Miria Sterling. At times, the hours seemed to drag on, stuck in the nowhere land between denial and shock. Other periods passed rapidly, when they found tasks with which to occupy their time. Therèse buried herself in giving the two Valkyries and the Shadow Legios an intensive overhaul and resupply in one of Iacon's repair bays. She had no idea when they'd have to leave Cybertron, nor what the availability of supplies would be like once they got off the planet, so best to get it all done now while she had a certified repair depot available to her. Maia and Miranda found themselves assisting their younger sister in the repairs, and shanghaied any Minicon, Autobot, or WDF refugee who was willing to help. In exchange, they also helped the few others who had escaped with their own mecha.

The second day in, Xeralia took a shuttle down to the surface and began to join in the multiple conferences among the Autobots and the Zentraedi commanders, serving as both advisor and record-keeper. She'd had herself micronized - fortunately, not a procedure that took very long - so that she could interact on a more even footing with her sisters.

Though she was adopted - she was orphaned as a small child when the Clan Fallyna crèche was destroyed in the Kravshera Uprising, and Miria, the clan's most famous daughter, had taken her in - and though her career had taken a different path than the others', Xeralia never felt apart from her adoptive siblings. She was of the Fallyna genetic line, so there was a blood relationship of sorts. Besides, she had never been made to feel different. That she now lived as a Meltran rather than among humans, as the others did, was her own choice, made at majority and with the support, but not the urging, of her adoptive family.

Thus, in this time of crisis, she naturally chose to walk among them rather than tower over them, and in between sessions, she did what she could to look after the others - though she noted with some regret that it didn't appear to help much in Mylene's case. The youngest Sterling was thoroughly miserable, and nothing her elder sisters did seemed to cheer her up. Emilia thanked her for her efforts, all the same, and found herself splitting time between Xeralia and Mylene, when she wasn't feeling out-of-sorts herself about being so radically displaced from the life she had come to know.

Komilia remained in the unenviable position of being one of the most noticeable of the Wedge Defense Force refugees. Her status as an Eight-Ball, and the connections she'd made among the various branches of the service over the decades, meant she often was the one most people thought of to try and get answers from - at first the general ones, and then, as people began to settle into the realities of the situation, more practical concerns. When found and confronted, she gave answers as clear and straightforward as she possibly could manage given the circumstances, but even she could see that it wasn't always helping as much as she might have hoped. Some of the former Wedge Defenders were still in denial, still in shock; some were now filled with grim, almost terrible purpose.

The most disquieting ones were the ones who were angry - not at GENOM or the United Galactica, but at the Wedge Defense Force itself. Komilia weathered the storms of frustration as best she could, and it was never quite as hard or as horrible as it had been that first day; but all the same she found herself collapsing, often in tears, into her bunk in Queltaadu City at the end of each day, worn out and spiritually frayed by the demands of the refugees on top of her constant sense of responsibility to her younger sisters. If it hadn't been for Optimus Prime taking a sort of 'surrogate uncle' role, somehow managing to be available when she needed somebody to listen to her, she might very well have broken down entirely.

And then, just when life had settled into a sort of horrible suspended routine, something new appeared in Cybertron's local space... something so unexpected that it changed everything.

Friday, September 21, 2288

"Pathfinder to Optimus Prime. I have the object in sight. Over."

"Roger, Pathfinder. I read you. How's it look?"

Pathfinder killed her main drive thrusters, coasted, and considered Prime's question for a moment before settling on,

"... Big."

It could be argued that everything was big to Pathfinder. She was a Minicon, one of the few who had joined the Autobot resistance back at the height of the Third Cybertronian War, so she was accustomed to being dwarfed by almost everything around her, including but not limited to her own comrades. Still, her small stature had its advantages. She didn't use much energon, for one thing, and in her alternate mode - a small, sleek, disc-shaped spacecraft clad in dark grey armor - she was nearly invisible in space. Stealth was much more important than firepower in the scouting business.

On the other hand, even by Autobot standards this was a sizeable object. Firing up her drives again, Pathfinder took a slow pass around it, relaying more detailed information to Prime as she did so. It was vaguely cylindrical and almost featureless apart from a single giant thruster nozzle at the back and a few yellow markings standing out against the dark green of its thermocoating. One marking was especially prominent, right up on the blunt snout of the object; a human, accustomed to the Standard language, would probably have taken it for a stylized letter V.

"Oh, I know what this is!" Pathfinder said after a moment. "I didn't recognize it at first because I haven't seen one in so long. It's a Zentraedi deep space probe. The kind they use to map out spacefold routes ahead of their fleets."

"Why would one of those come to Cybertron?" Prime wondered. "Can you get a close scan?"

"Sure, just a second." Pathfinder transformed to robot mode and drifted closer to the probe, stretching out her awareness toward it. Though lightly armed, her small frame was packed with sophisticated and powerful sensors. She could calculate a hyperspace pursuit trajectory, map an asteroid field, or count the carbon atoms in a comet. Now she turned all these powers of perception on the probe, searching for its purpose.

"I'm not detecting any high-energy phenomena or radiation. It doesn't seem to be carrying any weapons. Reflex signature is weak. It used up most of its power making the spacefold here. Must have come a long way - these things can jump most of the way across the galaxy. ... Hang on... I'm picking up a transmission. That's weird... it's on an old WDF frequency. Like, 'last used in the 2030s' old. Seems to be encrypted."

Back in the war room at Iacon, Bumblebee plied his console. "Patch through to my system here and relay the transmission, Pathfinder. I'll see if I can decrypt it."

"Roger that, 'Bee, relaying now." A moment later, strange symbols began marching across the master display at the front of the war room. Bumblebee started punching keys, his face set in concentration.

"I think it's a simple transposition scramble. Not a very long message, either; it keeps repeating." The yellow Autobot intel officer punched a few more keys, isolating one iteration of the code and removing the rest from the screen, then made some adjustments. "Re-sorting now."

Slowly the symbols on the master display changed, eventually becoming recognizable Zentraedi glyphs - but, to everyone's disappointment, what they said still didn't make any sense. At least, almost everyone's disappointment.

"Aha," said Exedore, folding his arms. "I recognize this code. It's Lord Breetai's personal cipher. The message must be from his fleet."

Prime turned to look at the Zentraedi archivist. "How did he know you'd be here?" he wondered.

Exedore smiled. "Breetai and I may no longer serve together, but we didn't survive as long as we have without making contingency plans," he said. "Allow me." Reaching to the console next to Prime's, he deciphered the displayed message, then translated it from the Zentranese for the Autobots' benefit:

" 'As Micron and Meltran led the way in the past, so shall their united blood open the door to the future.' "

There was a pause.

"... What does that mean?!" Overdrive wondered.

Optimus Prime pressed a key on his console. "Jetfire! Skyfire! Report with a salvage team to Pathfinder's position and recover that object immediately."

The Autobots set up the Zentraedi probe in a disused hangar at the Iacon spaceport. It was large even by Autobot standards, huge by human ones - roughly the size of a Corellian CR90-class starship. Almost all of its bulk was taken up by its Reflex core and fold drive, which by that scale were remarkably compact; the rest was a sublight drive, hyperspace motivator, databanks, and a powerful sensor array. The probe was designed to travel along a programmed hyperspace course like a superluminal missile, drop into real space near the spot to which the fleet wanted to spacefold, perform a series of scans to compile the detailed navigational data required, then fold back to the fleet and report its findings.

Around the nose of the probe, the Autobots had erected a scaffold designed to provide a "porch" of sorts, aligned with the maintenance hatch on the front of the unit. A preliminary examination by a team of Minicon technicians revealed that a biometric identity lock had been cleverly installed in place of the ordinary coded unit that secured these panels on regular probes. That and the probe's heavy armor left no doubt that someone didn't want unauthorized personnel getting access to whatever was inside.

Komilia Sterling stood looking at it for a moment, lost in thought. Then she put her hand against the lock's scanner plate. She felt a momentary heat as the scanner vaporized a few skin cells and analyzed the DNA within; then the lock's red status light turned green and the hatch hissed, slid forward a few inches, and rose out of the way.

Inside, instead of the usual tangle of databanks and sensor equipment, there was a small room, just about the size of an average hotel bedroom, containing a relatively small computer and a holographic projector. Komilia went to the computer and pressed a key. Behind her, the hatch hummed down and closed again, leaving the room illuminated by a couple of dull glowstrips in the ceiling, and then the holoprojector sprang to life.

"Hello, Komilia," said a smiling, life-size image of Maximilian Sterling. "I apologize for the strange way of making contact, and for keeping you waiting - I imagine it hasn't been an easy couple of weeks. Things got a little hectic there at the end. I tried to tell Miranda where we were going, but I'm not sure the signal got through. Hope we didn't worry you too much.

"Your mother and I are with Breetai's fleet. We're fine, but I can't tell you what we're up to. Even with the security measures I've managed to kludge into this probe, it's not safe. All I can tell you is that it's important, and that we're going to be gone a long time. A long time. Breetai figures we won't be back for at least 70 years - maybe 80, maybe even more."

Komilia sat down involuntarily, thumping awkwardly to the floor with knees together and feet splayed to either side, and stared at her father's image in utter shock. He smiled gently, as if he'd known when he recorded the message how she would react.

"Sorry to just dump it on you like that, but there's really no way to make it any softer. We're in this for the long haul, and you kids are going to have to get by without us for a while. I wish we could be with you - especially in these next few years, which I suspect are going to be hard and dangerous ones - but it seems like these aren't times for people to... to get what they wish for."

For a second, he looked like he might almost choke up himself; then he got hold of himself, put his cool, collected game face back on, and grinned. "I've got a lot more I could say, but our time is limited and your mother's got a lot she wants to get out, so I'll turn it over to her now."

Becoming completely serious, he added, "Just one thing more before I do, though: be careful. I don't think our enemies will stop at breaking up the command staff and destroying the Wayward Son. Keep your heads down and watch out for each other. It's going to take work and time - maybe generations - to undo the harm that was done that day. Do what you can, but don't get yourselves killed trying to turn this thing around overnight. I love you all very much, and I want to see you all when we get back from this trip."

Then, grinning his trademark self-deprecating grin, he said, "Okay, enough lectures from Dad. Here's your mom. She has something to say to each of you."

Komilia was glad she'd come alone, and gladder that the hatch had closed behind her. It meant that no one got to see her finally and completely break down, the last of her defenses swept away by the combination of relief that her parents were alive, horror at how long they would be gone, and reaction to the poignant messages of love and farewell they had sent across all that space in the belly of this Zentraedi probe.

In a way, the breakdown seemed to give her new strength once it had passed. She emerged a short time later, red-eyed but composed, to find her sisters gathered on the scaffolding, looking curiously at the hatch.

"It's a message," she said. "For us. Come inside."

The seven of them were a reasonably tight fit in the small room, but none seemed to mind. They all stood in silence while Komilia keyed the computer and played the message over again. There were expressions of joy and relief to see Max alive and well, then of shock and dismay when he told them how long he and Miria expected to be gone. All were silent again, subdued and most of them teary-eyed, as Max concluded his message and stepped out of the pickup so Miria could replace him.

"Komilia," Miria said, "as you are the eldest, I will begin with you. No doubt this has been your fate many times over the last few days," she added with an ironic smile. "I am sorry for the burden you have had to shoulder. You deserve to be free of care, as you have always been, but the situation is grave... and it is always the fate of the squadron's senior members to look after the younger ones."

Komilia's sisters all shot her guilty little glances at this, remembering all the times over the past few days that they'd leaned much more on her than she had on them. She caught them at it and smiled to show that she didn't mind.

"Of all our seven daughters, I fear you must be the most careful," Miria went on. "You were not only a Wedge Defender, but a member of Eight-Ball Squadron. You flew with us, with Benjamin and the others. Your profile was highest, and if what Maximilian and I fear is happening to the galaxy right now, the WDF's enemies will seek you most relentlessly of all."

Since she was a pre-recorded hologram, Miria couldn't see any of them, of course; but nonetheless she turned slightly and almost looked right at Maia as she went on, "Maia. Miranda."

"Yes'm," Miranda replied automatically, then grinned sheepishly.

"Do not let the fact that you were part of an elite Shadow squadron make you overconfident," Miria said. "You no longer have the Great Lidless Eye to keep watch on all your enemies, and there are much darker things in the shadows of the galaxy than the Black Riders, as you well know."

She paused, looking thoughtful, and for a second the twins thought that was all she was going to say; then she smiled very slightly, rather sadly, and went on,

"You may wish none of this had happened. So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, my daughters, besides the will of evil."

Miranda blinked, wide-eyed, leaned closer to Maia, and murmured in her ear, "Did Mom just quote Gandalf?"

"I think she did," Maia whispered.

"Huh. I didn't know she'd ever actually read the book."

Miria waited a moment for what she'd said to sink in, then turned a little more and said, "Xeralia. You did not think I'd forget you, did you? You are as much my daughter as all the others. You may not have been born of my body, but you are of my blood. Remember that even the smallest act may have enormous consequences. Be patient. Time is on your side. I know you hunger for revenge - in older times, the Zentraedi would not have let such an insult pass without bloodshed - but the galaxy is different now. We are different now. We must be. A time will come for reckoning, of that you may be sure. Follow your superiors' lead and bide your time. It will make the eventual day of judgment all the sweeter."

Miria smiled a slightly predatory smile at this, looking much more the warrior she had been centuries before; then her expression softened again, becoming more maternal, as she turned to address the next of her children.

"Therèse, your father and I are very proud of the way you handled yourself over Musashi. Oh yes, even amid all the chaos and horror, we noticed. How could we not? You acquitted yourself very well. Though I know that battle has never been your first choice, I fear you will have more need of the skills you showed before all is said and done. Keep your edge sharp and look to your more experienced sisters for guidance - but never turn your back on your own dreams. There will come a time when you can put down your sword and pick up your spanner for good once more, I promise you.

"Emilia... I am so sorry I won't have the chance to watch you have the career you chose. I had doubts about the suitability of the Armored Corps for one of my daughters when you first chose it, that is true, but you loved it so much I came to anticipate your debut almost as much as you did. It will be difficult, but try not to lose hope. You are very young - too young to truly understand how long your life will be if you are careful. It may seem to you right now as if everything is ended, but I assure you, it is only beginning. You have the skill and talent to take you far in life. Your father and I both believe this implicitly."

Miria hesitated, her expression hard to read, as she gathered her thoughts for the next address. Knowing what was coming, Komilia quietly moved to the other side of the gathering, ready to support her youngest sister should she need it.

Miria spoke once more, clearing her throat to try and keep her emotions in check.

"My dearest Mylene. In many ways, this will be the hardest for you. Unlike your older sisters, you are not a soldier. You have not been trained for the horrors of war, nor needed to endure the dark times they bring with them. And truly these are dark times you all face... darker than the void between the galaxy's spiral arms."

She swallowed, brushing her free hand against her cheek. Her emerald eyes glistened; she blinked them clear. Mylene wrapped her arms around herself, her own eyes wet, and watched her mother's image continue to speak.

"But... do not let the darkness you face darken your own heart, my daughter. Now, more than ever, be a light in the darkness. You have a great gift, Mylene, greater than any ten warriors' force of arms. Nurture it. Encourage it. Let it flourish, and bring light to the galaxy when it most sorely needs it. You have the strength of the Sterlings and of the Meltrandi within you. I know you can do this."

Mylene nodded jerkily, holding Guvava even tighter. The empathic rodent gave no protest at being squeezed. Behind her, Komilia rested her hands on her youngest sister's shoulders.

"I only regret..." Miria faltered, almost unable to go on, but she tapped an inner reserve and pressed onward. "... I only regret that I will not get to see you grow up into the beautiful woman you most certainly will be. I know you will do me proud, Mylene. And always remember... I love you."

At this, Miria's image reached out, as if by will alone she could breach the gulfs of space and time, and touch her children one last time. Mylene took a step forward, out from under Komilia's grasp, and reached forward with her own hand, causing a fizz of static where she intersected the holographic image, her own eyes brimming with tears.

"I will, Mama... I will," she whispered. "I love you..."

Miria pulled herself together, straightening, and looked from one end of the gathering to the other again - so familiar with her children's mannerisms that she had more or less correctly guessed how they would be standing.

"Maximilian has already told you to be careful; I will not belabor the point. For myself, I have only one more piece of advice to offer you all. If you go out to fight the monsters in the galaxy - and I suspect you will - always be conscious of who you are and why you do what you do. Remember the ideals of the Wedge Defense Force, ideals for which many people have died in the last few weeks - died at the hands of those who sneer at our values and wish to see them snuffed out everywhere in the galaxy. Remember that, unlike our enemies, we do not fight because we hate, nor because we wish to control. We do not kill for killing's own sake, as the Zentraedi did of old.

"We fight because we love - love life, love freedom, love decency. We kill so that others may live, free from oppression, terror, and pain. We may want - we may deserve - vengeance for what has been done to us, but we must not take it at the expense of the innocent. If we do, we are no better than the monsters we fight. Always remember that.

"And always remember, too, that I love you, all of you, with all my heart."

"As do I," Max added, squeezing into the image, his arm around her waist. "We'll see you all again. Until then, remember - stay alive."

Miria turned to her husband and seemed about to say something, but just as her lips parted, the hologram flickered and disappeared.

The seven sisters stood and looked at the place where their parents' images had been for few long, silent moments.

Then, in a wry but gentle tone, Maia said quietly, "Well... I guess we've got our orders."

"Promises" (Part 3 of Patience, an Exile Mini-Story Serial) by Benjamin D. Hutchins and Philip J. Moyer
Patience plotted by Philip J. Moyer
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Saturday, September 22, 2288
Queltaadu City, Cybertron

Ray Lovelock was at his wits' end. That didn't happen very often; Ray was a generally laid-back kind of cat, as calm and collected as he was tall and intimidating. Whatever the situation, whatever calamity his band careened into - and in its history so far, Fire Bomber had proven remarkably adept at careening into calamity - he was always together and he always figured out a way to pull the situation back from the brink of total disintegration.

This time, though, he had to wonder if matters were beyond his capabilities to fix. The band was supposed to have played two gigs on Cybertron - one at the Neutral Zone bar, one at the Iacon officers' club - and then caught a ride on one of the regular Autobot shuttle runs to the SDF-17, where they had been scheduled to play a series of pub shows around Wedge City before opening for Card No. 1 at the MegaDome. Everyone was excited about the prospect. The Dome had been the jumping-off point for a hundred bands that had made it big over the years, and opening for Card No. 1 - if you impressed them, if they liked your chops - was as good as a ticket to the big dance for any up-and-coming rock-n-roll group.

But then, just as they seemed to be hovering on the very doorstep of success, everything had gone to hell. The whole damn galaxy seemed to have gone insane. There were reports coming in that the SDF-17 had been destroyed, that fleets of GENOM warships and death squads of boomers and mercs were scouring the cosmos hunting down and exterminating the survivors, that no one was doing anything about it - even that the United Galactica Assembly had outlawed the WDF, in effect legalizing GENOM's actions. Autobot Command had been closed to outsiders since the crisis began and the Zentraedi soldiers stationed at the Hydrax Plateau spaceport were both deeply preoccupied and visibly furious.

If even half of it was true, Fire Bomber's big chance was gone, vanished like a mirage - although to Ray that seemed kind of trivial compared to what it would mean to the galaxy at large. A former WDF fighter pilot himself, he knew damn well what a galaxy without the Wedge Defense Force to keep GENOM in check could become. So had Fire Bomber's bassist. When the first reports of the GENOM strike fleets and hit squads arrived, Pedro Mejor had freaked out and caught the first transport off Cybertron, in such a panic that he left all his gear behind, certain that battalions of boomer troops would appear around every corner within minutes to mow down Ray and anyone foolish enough to associate with him. He was lucky he had, in a way, since the first transport out was also the last transport out before the Autobot authorities locked the planet down while they tried to figure out what to do.

So. Fire Bomber was trapped on a planet the band's members knew next to nothing about. They had little money, no great gig, no bass player. Basara was in full-on petulant artist mode, of no use whatsoever. Veffidas was stoical as always, which was reassuring, but not really helpful. As usual, they looked to Ray to get them out of the jam... but it had been almost two weeks now, and he wasn't getting anywhere.

Among the many rumors he'd heard was one that gave him what little hope he had left: that Miss Liberty was somewhere on Cybertron. Some people said she was in Iacon. Others claimed she was with the main Zentraedi garrison in Queltaadu City. Since had hadn't gotten anywhere in any of his attempts to make contact with anybody in the former city, today he was trying the latter. As he walked down one of the Micron-scale corridors of Queltaadu City in the vague hope of either finding Miss Liberty or at least getting someone there to give him the time of day, he wondered how much longer what remained of the band would wait for him to come through with answers.

It was while thinking such dark thoughts that he came around a corner and heard - faintly at first, then growing slowly louder as he walked - the sound of someone playing a bass guitar. The instrument was unaccompanied, the sound uncluttered, with nothing but basic amplification... and the playing, Ray noticed immediately, was superb. Whoever it was, he had great technique, but more than that, he had... he had soul. Ray didn't recognize the piece, which was slow and a little somber without being funereal, but he didn't have to in order to recognize the talent of the person playing it.

Perking up like a hunting dog on a new scent, Ray followed the sound, taking a right at the T-intersection instead of his planned left. He'd gone three doors when he passed the door from which the music was coming, then turned around and stood in front of it, listening. As he did, the unknown bassist changed from the sweet song he didn't know to one he did recognize: the unmistakable adagio first part of Beethoven's "Moonlight" sonata. Ray had seen a bassist do that piece once, playing the strings with both hands like a piano. It was an impressive trick, and one that marked the player as someone who could think outside the normal conventions of the rock bassist's job.

Intrigued, he pressed the doorbell key, immediately regretting it because the hail made the musician on the other side stop playing. For a few seconds, there was silence, and Ray wondered if whoever was back there was ignoring him, hoping he'd go away. He was just about to press it one more time and then leave when the door swished open.

To Ray's surprise, the person on the other side was a teenage girl, small and slender, with long pink hair and wide green eyes. She had the right instrument, though: a red Fender Precision Bass with a tiny practice plug-amp fitted.

She looked vaguely confused, as anyone has a right to look when a total stranger rings the bell. "Uh... hello?" she said, her voice very clear and surprisingly low for such a young, petite girl. "Can I help you?"

Ray blinked a couple of times, then cleared his throat. "Uh... well... I just heard you playing and had to find out... " He shook his head. "Let me start again. My name's Ray Lovelock."

"I'm Mylene," the girl replied.

"Okay, this is going to seem kind of sudden, but - have you ever considered playing professionally?"

"Um... " said Mylene. It was, in fact, all she'd really thought of for the last three years, but given the kind of day she was having, she didn't really feel like discussing that with a complete stranger, however friendly he seemed.

"Only... well, look, I'm in a band, and we just lost our bass player," he said. "I, uh... I don't suppose you'd like to come and... I dunno, jam with us?"

Mylene hesitated, on the verge of sending him away. He seemed nice enough, but she was hugely not in the mood for an audition today, even if what he was saying was the real deal. But then she remembered the previous day. Her mother's face, her mother's voice, telling her to nurture her gift and be a light to a galaxy falling into shadow. She stood looking at the stranger on her doorstep - big, muscular, coffee-colored, with a mustache and a sort of hippie headband thing - for a few moments, lost in thought.

Then she said, "Yeah, all right."

They stopped off at one of the neighboring rooms to collect Emilia, which Ray was more than happy to do, since bringing along an armed, tough-looking young woman with a suspicious look in her eyes, while a little awkward, went a long way toward demonstrating that he wasn't some kind of creep with an ulterior motive. The three of them caught a tram out to Hydrax and found Basara and Veffidas just as Ray had left them - Basara sitting on an amp and sulking, Veffidas practicing her fills with a glacial imperturbability.

Seeing Ray return with a couple of girls in tow roused Basara Nekki from his funk just a little - enough that he turned and said, "What the hell's this?"

"Our new bassist, maybe," Ray replied.

Basara scowled. "I never said we needed a replacement for Pedro," he grumped. "We don't need a bass player. The Doors didn't have one."

"The Doors were overrated crap, Basara. They had one good song and they stole it from someone else."

takka-TISCH, agreed Veffidas's snare and hi-hat.

Basara gave Ray a dark look through his little round sunglasses, then sighed heavily. "Fine. Let's hear her."

"Here, use that amp," Ray said, pointing. When Mylene gave him a worried look, he grinned and added, "Don't worry about Basara. He's like an old dog." He winked. "Barks a lot and has no teeth."

Mylene smiled - she'd already taken a liking to this guy - and went over to plug in, then re-tuned her P-bass and played a couple of scales before starting in on a few short pieces to demonstrate her skills. Once she got used to the sound of the amp, she pulled out the stops and even threw down her rendition of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown", a song more customarily performed on a banjo. By the end of that, even Basara was looking a little bit interested.

"Not bad!" Ray said. "By the way - can you sing? Basara's our lead singer, but some of our songs have a female vocal part, and if you're good enough, we might consider expanding the role a bit."

"Sure," Mylene said. "I've been taking voice lessons since I was five."

"Let's hear you, then," Basara put in suddenly. "But none of that fluffy pop-idol crap. We're a serious rock 'n roll band."

Mylene gave him a sharp look. "Just because I have pink hair doesn't mean I'm into bubblegum, pal," she told him.

"Prove it," he challenged. Leaning back on the amp, he folded his arms, smirked at her a little, and said, "Rock me - if you can."

Emilia hid a smile behind her hand, thinking, One toke? You poor fool! Wait'll you see those goddamned bats, man.

"You asked for it!" Mylene shot back. Then she squared herself up, considered her next move for a moment, and started laying down a riff. Emilia stopped even trying to hide her grin as her little sister stepped to the mic, spun it with her toe so that she was facing Basara, and let him have it.

Those crazy nights
I do remember
In my youth
I do recall
Those were the best times
Most of all

Behind the drum kit, silent Veffidas blinked, smiled, and jumped in right on point. Ray was two counts behind, scooping up his gui-board and layering in a rock piano backing line, as Mylene went on, her voice soaring:

In the heat with a blue-jean boy
Burning love comes once in a lifetime
I found him singing by the railroad tracks
Took him home, we danced by the moonlight

Those summer nights are callin'
Stone in love
Can't help myself I'm fallin'
Stone in love

By the time she was halfway through the bridge, Basara had abandoned his skeptical scowl and started to smile a little. When she reached the chorus and gave her voice full rein, he suddenly jumped up, animated by a life that hadn't been in him a few moments before, snatched up his guitar, and leaped in with a fill that turned into a solo and carried her to the next verse.

Old dusty road
Led to the river
Running slow
I pulled him down
And in the clover
We go 'round

In the heat with a blue-jean boy
Burning love comes once in a lifetime
Oh the memories never fade away
Golden boy, I'll keep you forever

And, to even Mylene's surprise, Basara stepped up to the mic and hit the harmony with her as the four of them, now a band, dove into the chorus together.

Those summer nights are callin'
Stone in love
Can't help myself I'm fallin'
Stone in love!

They rocked it down, a little out of sync but getting better with every beat, as Mylene and Veffidas blended into a proper rhythm section and propelled the rest forward. When they were done, the silence was like a door closing. For a second, the four just stood (or, in the drummer's case, sat) blinking at each other.

Then Basara put his guitar back on its stand and slouched back against the drum riser, his energy gone as suddenly as it had come, but there was a little bit of a smile on his face as he said with exaggerated beat-poet nonchalance,

"Eh... you're okay. I guess we could give you a try for a couple of gigs."

"Don't pay any attention to him," Ray said, racking his gui-board. "You're hired. Welcome to Fire Bomber."

"I didn't actually say I wanted to join a band, you know," Mylene pointed out. "I just agreed to come jam with you for a while."

Basara smirked. "Oh, so it's gonna be that way with you, huh? Okay, then," he said. Levering himself away from the drum riser, he snatched up his guitar again and said, "Let's jam!"

"I dunno about this, Mylene," Emilia said as the two rode the tram back to Iacon Core an hour and a half later. "I mean, Ray seems nice enough, but I don't think Mom would like that Basara guy much."

Mylene snorted. "I'm thinking about joining his band, Emi, not marrying the guy."

Emi gave her little sister a speculative look, then grinned and ruffled her slightly-sweat-damp pink hair. In truth, she had no doubt that joining Fire Bomber was the right move for Mylene right now. The girl was shining, in a way that she only did when she'd either just come from a great musical experience or was anticipating the next one - and, based on what little Emi knew of such matters, she thought the others had talent too, enough talent that the four of them, with a little luck and the right backing, could go far. Maybe all the way.

"Well, maybe. But you're gonna need someone to look after you," she said. "Mom would kill us all if we let you just go wandering around the galaxy with two strange guys by yourself."

Mylene folded her arms and scowled. "Don't treat me like a kid," she grumbled.

"I can't help it, baby sister," Emi replied, grinning. "You're the only one who's not older than me."

"When Drums Stop, Bass Solo" - an Exile Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Mylene's practice solo performed by Stuart Hamm on
Joe Satriani Live in San Francisco
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Saturday, September 22, 2288




Xeralia Fallyna Sterling turned onto her back, reached above her head, and thumbed the comm acknowledge button built into the headboard of her bunk.

"What," she said.

"Captain Sterling," came the voice of a Zentraedi commtech. "Domillan Exedore requests your attendance in Conference Room C immediately."

Xeralia blinked, then sat up and rubbed at her face with both hands. "'M on my way," she said.

She was still trying to wake fully up when she arrived on the Micron balcony in Conference C. Exedore was already there, fully uniformed, looking chipper. Xeralia wondered if he slept. She'd heard a lot of odd stories about Exedore, tales that explained his slight and stunted frame as the tradeoff for genetic modifications that had given him mental qualities far beyond those of any other Zentraedi.

There was another officer there as well, a micronized male dressed in the uniform of a domillan's adjutant. He had a small durasteel case under his arm and a very serious mien. Xeralia noted his presence but made nothing of it for the moment. Instead she came to attention and saluted Exedore, as all Zentraedi did, though he held no proper rank in the Alliance's military structure.

"Captain Xeralia Fallyna Sterling, reporting as ordered, Lord Exedore," she said.

Exedore smiled. "At ease, Captain. I'm not one for pomp, and I have known you too long."

Xeralia relaxed a bit, smiling, but still folded her arms behind her back at precisely the correct angle for parade rest. Exedore took note, chuckled indulgently, then addressed himself to business.

"Accompanying the recording your parents sent to you and your sisters was another message for me," he said. "It was released from the probe's communication system when Komilia Fallyna unlocked the main data core. In it, Lord Breetai issued certain instructions."

Xeralia raised an eyebrow. Very few Zentraedi could presume to give Exedore "instructions". Even Breetai wasn't technically entitled to, under the Alliance's constitution.

"Most of these instructions are of a political nature, and as such do not directly concern the two of us just now," Exedore said. "However, there are a few that most definitely do. For instance, with the entirety of the Kridanik Fleet expected to be out of circulation for the better part of a century, certain elements of the Fleet must be reorganized to provide for the continued fulfillment of the Alliance's various treaty responsibilities."

He paused here to regard Xeralia with a twinkle-eyed expression that she knew from childhood. It was a mischievous, almost childlike look itself, one that said unmistakably that the Great Archivist was up to something. In a moment, Xeralia understood what he was getting at.

And to keep an eye on our presently untouchable enemies, so that we can move against them instantly when the time comes that we can move at all, she thought, smiling.

"To this end," Exedore went on, "and in recognition of your swift and decisive action in defense of Cybertron, I am pleased to promote you to the rank of rear admiral."

The micronized adjutant stepped forward and ceremoniously presented the case he carried. Within it were the trappings of her new office: a gold-trimmed, slightly more elaborate version of the scarlet uniform coat she wore; a short, black-edged white cape; and a ceremonial blaster pistol inlaid with thin plates of polished iridium and depleted vizorium. Momentarily taken aback, Xeralia hesitated before removing her coat, folding it neatly, and exchanging it for her new one, then putting on the cape and belting the blaster at her side. The adjutant briskly closed the case and retired.

"Congratulations, Rear Admiral Sterling."

"Thank you, Domillan," Xeralia said. "What is to be my new posting?"

"You already have it," Exedore told her. "As part of the fleet reorganization, the battlegroup you were placed in brevet command of for this operation is now properly assigned to you. Battlegroup Quevillon and the Quelquira-Nuur are yours to command. As commander of a special detachment of the Kridanik Fleet, you will report directly to me in Lord Breetai's absence."

Xeralia blinked, then managed a halting thank-you. Collecting her wits, she added, "What is my first assignment?"

"For the moment, your battlegroup must remain on the defense of Cybertron. However, a relief force will arrive from Reflex Point within a Standard month." Exedore smiled. "After that, I'll have a much more interesting task for you. But for now, relax, familiarize yourself with your new command, and spend time with your sisters. There will be plenty of time for great works once the immediate galactic situation stabilizes somewhat."

Xeralia took Exedore's advice, and as the next few weeks unfolded, there was plenty to do. All the Sterling sisters found ways to busy themselves, and slowly, almost in spite of themselves, started to make tentative plans for what to do next with their lives. Xeralia's course was clear - as was Mylene's, to her sisters' surprise, when she unexpectedly accepted an invitation to join a rock band that had found itself stranded without a bassist on Cybertron after the fall of the Wedge Defense Force.

That development, in turn, spurred Komilia and Therèse to develop a strategy for themselves. Maia and Miranda, too, decided on a course of action after much deliberation, one that would allow them to make use of their own special talents and try to do their part for a galaxy needing help. By slow degrees, all their plans took shape, and they began to feel a bit better, their worldviews stabilized by the simple idea that, whatever happened, at least they were doing something to regroup and move forward after their sudden dispossession.

All but one...

Thursday, October 11, 2288

Emilia Sterling was working off some frustration at an impromptu firing range out in the badlands, blasting at old HBT cans and random bits of debris with her Gallant-H90, when an old-fashioned army-green Jeep with nobody driving it jounced over the broken pavement and pulled up behind her.

"Hey," said the Jeep.

Emilia blasted another can, then holstered the blaster and turned. "Hey, Hound."

"What's up?" Hound asked.

Emilia shrugged. "Nothin'."

Hound transformed to robot mode and knelt down, forearm on knee, to peer down at her. "You sound kinda down, still. I thought getting the message from your parents would cheer you up."

"It did. A little. I mean, I'm glad they're alive," she said hurriedly, aware that she might be giving the wrong impression. "It's just that... well, that doesn't really help me much. It's great news - don't get me wrong! - but even so, I'm still... here."

"Ah," said Hound, nodding sagely. He lowered himself carefully to a sitting position, Indian-fashion, chin in hands. "Well, where would you rather be instead?"

"I'd rather be home, on the SDF-17, doing what I've always wanted to do, what I'm trained to do!" Emilia snarled, her whole body tensing with a sudden spasm of anger. "All my life I've looked forward to the day when I could make my name as a Wedge Defense Force MechWarrior. I just finished Destroid Combat School - I won McKennsy's Hammer, how often does an enlisted pilot do that? - I just got my sergeant's stripes and my first unit posting, and before I can even report for duty, meet my lancemates, be a real part of the Armored Corps... "

Her anger burned out as suddenly as it had flared up. She slumped to the ground, mirroring Hound's posture, and hung her head while tears tracked her face.

"... it's all gone," she murmured. "Komilia and Terry have their VTs, at least. And their experience. Maia and Miranda have their Legios, and each other. Xera has her fleet. Now Mylene has her new band. And I don't grudge any of them that, I don't," she said, as if begging the attentive Autobot to understand. "But... " She raised her eyes to Hound, as if searching for truth in the lines of his faceplate, and asked in a small voice, "... what about me?"

"Well... " Hound considered the question seriously, though it had been rhetorical. Unceremoniously, the Autobot flopped down, unfolding his legs, propping his torso up on his elbows, and looked thoughtfully up at the starry sky for a few minutes.

Then he turned to Emilia, half-sitting, and said, "Okay, maybe you can't be exactly what you wanted to be right now. It happens to all of us sometimes. The trick is to see how close you can get, then decide if you can be happy with that until something better comes along." He transformed back to Jeep mode and started his engine. "Come with me," he said. "I have an idea."

Intrigued, Emilia got to her feet and climbed aboard. As soon as she was in the passenger seat, Hound took off, his knobbly off-road tires scattering debris in his wake.

Emilia would never have been able to find her way back along the course she and Hound took that afternoon. The Autobot tracker may have been happier under the wide open skies of Earth, but he knew every inch of Cybertron, and he took shortcuts and back alleys even most other Autobots didn't know. For almost half an hour they threaded their way in silence through the maze of lower Cybertron, eventually emerging onto what looked to Emilia like an abandoned airfield - an open space with large, low, hangar-like buildings flanking what was obviously either a runway or highway.

"This is it," Hound said as he screeched to a halt in front of one of the hangars, if that's what they were. Emilia climbed out so that he could resume robot mode. Without hesitation, he walked to the giant hangar doors and levered them open, the ancient rollers protesting with hackles-raising squeals. Emilia looked past his leg into the yawning space beyond, but saw only darkness. Hound, however, could see in the dark, and he grinned at what he saw.

"Yep, I was right," he said. "This is the place. Take a look." So saying, he switched on the overhead lights.

Emilia gasped. Standing there in the middle of the hangar, as if waiting for orders, was a Destroid painted in the colors of the 37th Wedge Defense Force Air Guard Regiment ("The Sharpshooters"). And not just any Destroid, either.

"A Rifleman!" she cried.

"Yep," Hound said. "The 37th left a bunch of them here when they rotated out a few years ago, after we finished automating the Iacon defense grid, just in case they needed to reactivate in a hurry. The idea was that they'd be able to just shuttle the pilots over if need be."

Emilia walked slowly into the hangar and took a closer look at the Destroid. "This is... an R-model?"

"I think so. I'm not as familiar with the different models as you probably are." Hound smiled. "Anyway, it's yours if you want it."

Emilia paused in her examination of one of the Destroid's leg-mounted heat sinks - they were the recently developed high-efficiency model, so the unit couldn't have been refitted more than 20 years ago - to stare at him.

"You're giving it to me?" She blinked. "Can you even do that?"

Hound shrugged. "It's WDF property," he said. "You're a sergeant in the Armored Corps and you need a Destroid. Seems straightforward enough to me."

He stepped into the hangar and knelt, as he had before, to address her more closely. "I understand you feel lost, Emilia. Life is a complicated road, and we have to map it as we go. Even I get lost sometimes. Back in 2005, when your parents and Gryphon and the others were here, and we lost Optimus Prime on Earth... a lot of us felt the way you and your sisters feel now. We felt like everything we fought for was gone. Didn't know how we would ever go on. But we did go on... we did the best we could with what we had... and eventually things worked out all right." He spread a hand to indicate both girl and Destroid. "Maybe you can't be part of the WDF Armored Corps right now, but I'm sure a pilot like you and a 'Mech like that can do some good for somebody somewhere."

Emilia stood looking up at the Rifleman for a moment, then turned and regarded Hound. For a second she looked like she might cry again. Then her face broke into a smile - a little wan, maybe, and a little worn, but a smile, all the same.

"You're the best, Hound," she said. "... Now how am I going to get this thing off the planet?"

Hound grinned. "I know a guy... "

Tuesday, October 16, 2288

"Xera's late," Emilia Sterling noted.

Maia snorted. "What else is new?"

"I guess we might as well get started without her," Komilia observed. "It's been... heck, a while since we were all together in the same place. So where do we stand?"

"Well," Therèse said, putting her booted feet up on the coffee table in the middle of the living room, "all the mecha are pretty much ready to go. We're waiting on a missile delivery for the Alpha - amazingly, the Autobots didn't just happen to have 100 GPM-150s lying around," she said, shooting Maia a pointed look.

"Hey, we fired those missiles to save your ass," Maia replied without rancor.

"Everything checks out on that Rifleman Emi, uh, 'found'... annnd the machine shop's still working on the blown actuator on my Valkyrie," Therèse went on. "We should be ready to go within a few days, although 'go where' is a valid question at this point."

"Well, I was going to bring that up, actually," Emilia put in. "Hound hooked me up with a merchant captain who's making a run to the Rim soon. He thinks he knows a Destroid unit out there that's looking for owner-operators."

Mylene gave her a puzzled look. "You just hire out on your own? Like a truck driver?"

Emilia laughed. "Pretty much, yeah. MechWarriors who have their own 'Mechs are a lot more in demand on the merc market than ones who have to be equipped. Anyway, Captain Henriksen thinks I can pull a four-year contract with the planetary guard on Kestra II. Pretty good money because the place is so out-of-the-way they have a hard time attracting anybody with actual training. After that, I'll have enough socked away to make some other move. Thing is, he wants to raise ship within a week or so, ten days at the outside."

"You think you can trust this Henriksen guy?" Komilia asked.

Emilia nodded. "Hound vouches for him. That's good enough for me."

Komilia considered it, then nodded as well. "All right, if that's what you want to do. I wish we could all stay together, but... "

"We've gone over this already, Komi," Miranda said. "We'd be hard pressed to keep a low profile if we all traveled in a pack, even under assumed names. We'd match a profile. You know GENOM will have people looking out for that kind of thing."

Komilia sighed. "I know. I just hate feeling like I'm sending Emi off to fend for herself."

"Hey, it's my choice," Emilia said. "And I know what I'm doing. I won McKennsy's Hammer going through Destroid school with a specialization in the RFL series. Nobody's ever done that before."

Komilia nodded. "I know you can take care of yourself, Emi. It's not that I don't have confidence in you." She sighed. "Just something I'm going to have to get used to." Changing the subject to get her own mind off it, as much as anything else, she turned to Maia. "How are you guys coming on the fake IDs?"

"Just about ready," Maia said. "Jazz told me this morning we should have everything we need day after tomorrow."

"Mylene, what's the situation on your end?"

Mylene opened her mouth to answer, but before she could, the door opened and Xeralia came in, looking slightly harried.

"Well!" said Maia, with a measure of good-natured snark. "So glad you decided to join us, Group Captain - excuse me, Rear Admiral Fallyna Sterling."

"Sorry I'm late," Xeralia said. "I was called to Commander Bron's office on my way here. My new orders just came in from Reflex Point." She looked a little pained, as if she didn't really want to say what came next, then went on, "We're leaving Saturday. I can't say where we're headed."

"I think I see a pattern forming," said Therèse dryly.

"I was just about to say," Mylene put in, "that my first show with Fire Bomber is this Friday at the Neutral Zone, and after that, the guys really want to move on. Ray thinks he can get us a gig on Earth, someplace they've played before."

"Are you ready?" Komilia asked.

Mylene grinned. "I guess we'll find out," she said.

Komilia considered the matter for a few seconds, then sighed. "All right. Looks like this weekend is it, then. We'll all get together Friday night for Mylene's first gig, see Xera off on Saturday, and... " She opened a hand in a "dust in the wind" gesture.

"I should have our emergency communications all worked out by then," Maia said.

"Okay, then. I... guess this is it." Komilia looked down at her hands, then sighed and leaned back in her chair, looking around from one sister to another.

"Please don't make a speech," Miranda said before Komilia could speak again. The remark, perfectly timed and perfectly pitched in a piping little-girl voice, cracked up the room, breaking the tension that had settled with the realization that, at the end of the week, everything was going to change again.

"Okay, okay," Komilia said, getting up; then she added wryly, "Dismissed."

"About time," Mylene said. "I've got to get back to rehearsal. And so help me, if Basara screws up the first bridge/chorus in 'Disappearing Act' and makes me forget all the words again, I'm gonna kill him," she added, apparently to Guvava, as she left the room.

The others watched her go with expressions of amusement or bemusement; once the door was closed behind her, Komilia put her hands on her hips and let out a short, exasperated sigh.

"Well, it's nice that she's enthusiastic, anyway," she said.

"After the funk she was in our first week here? Hell yeah," Maia agreed.

"Terry, have you got anything on our transport problem yet?" Komilia asked.

"Maybe," Therèse replied. "Give me another day or so to see if the lead firms up. It's gonna knock out most of our working capital, though, if it comes through."

"Don't worry about that," Xeralia said. "Exedore knows what we're trying to do. He'll underwrite us discreetly if we need it."

"The less of a paper trail we leave, the better," Komilia said. "But okay, that's good to know. Oh - and I've been thinking. Even if she does agree to Terry and me going along - "

"Not that we're giving her a choice," Therèse interjected.

" - Mylene's not going to stand for us shadowing her all the time. I mean, would any of us put up with that? No, and she won't either. She's going to need a vehicle, and at some point," she added with a wry little smile, "she's going to ditch us with it. So it needs to be something she can also use to protect herself."

"A Cyclone?" Miranda suggested, but Komilia shook her head.

"Too light, and you can't transform it unless you plan ahead and wear CVR-3. Besides, too many mercs and other lowlifes know their weak points. No, it has to be something heavier, something you don't need special equipment to operate."

Emilia snapped her fingers. "A Garland," she said.

Maia grinned. "Yeah! That's perfect."

"Where are we going to find a Garland?" Miranda wondered. "They've been out of production forever."

"We're on the planet of a million machine shops," Therèse pointed out. "Dammit, if I only had my Veritechnology schematics library. All that stuff was in my quarters, though, so it's radioactive slag in the bottom of a crater by now."

"Eh?" Maia said, blinking. "Oh, wait, jeez - didn't one of you tell them?" she said, looking at Miranda and Emilia.

"I've been a little busy?" Emilia replied. Miranda just shrugged.

"What?" Komilia wondered.

"Well," Maia said, "When we did our hit-and-run on the SDF-17 to grab Emi and Mylene, we managed to call ahead and have Emi do a quick dash-and-grab from all our rooms. It's nowhere near complete, but she managed to grab something for each of us." She shook her head. "Man, I've been so out of it I didn't even think. That was what was in that duffel bag we dragged over here from the spaceport, and it's just been sitting behind the couch ever since."

"Oh!" Therèse said, brightening. "Lemme see, then."

Maia went around the couch and dragged out a clearly stuffed standard-issue duffel with the silhouette, name, and number of the SDF-17 printed on it. The sight gave all of them a little pang of sorrow, even weeks after the fact, but they pushed it aside as Maia heaved the bag up onto the coffee table and unzipped it for Therèse to look through.

"Sorry 'bout it being so disorganized," Emilia said. "It wasn't like I was able to take a good look at what I was grabbing."

"No, no problem - damn, you pack tight - ah-hah!" Therèse gave a tug and extracted a smaller bag from the overstuffed duffel. "Yep, you grabbed them," she said, then dumped the contents of the small bag - isolinear memory rods, data solids, and the occasional old-fashioned holotape - out on the couch and started rifling through them.

"No... no... ah!" Taking a closer look at the isorod she'd picked up, Therèse frowned and put it back. "No, Cyclones... hmm... this one? Whoops, no, that's porn... "

Maia facepalmed.

"... what? Like you don't," Therèse said. "Aha! Here it is." She tossed the memory rod end-over-end in the air, caught it, and tucked it into the sleeve pocket of her coveralls. "Wheeljack will know where I can get this kind of thing built in a hurry, I should think," she added smugly.

"Just don't let him make it himself," Komilia cautioned her. "We want it to protect Mylene, not blow her up."

"Yeah, yeah."

"Hey, what's this?" Xeralia asked, digging into the larger bag and pulling out a large book.

"Oh, wow," Therèse said. "That's Mom and Dad's wedding album. I haven't seen that in years."

Xeralia sat down and opened the book on her knees. Their parents' marriage license was pasted onto the inside of the cover, complete with its gold WDF seal and scarlet ribbon. The first page was a full-page photograph from the wedding, so many years before - Max in his dress uniform, saber and all, and Miria in her brilliant white wedding dress, standing side by side in front of the little chapel in Wedge City. Max was beaming from ear to ear; Miria's smile was a little confused, as if she still hadn't quite grasped the complexities of what was going on, but also serene, almost beatific. The sisters crowded around to have a look.

Xera flipped slowly through the first few pages, which contained more photos. Here was one of the whole wedding party, with best man Gryphon and maid of honor Terror, and the rest of the squadron for an honor guard, Daver's kilt-equipped dress uniform and all; a few of the ceremony itself, Captain MegaZone presiding; a long space shot of the SDF-17, all decked out in festive lights for the occasion. It was the first wedding of an Earthman and a Zentraedi, the first hint of hope that the Zentraedi War might be resolved peacefully, and the WDF kicked out all the stops, even though the war was still going on.

Further into the book were documents from their lives together - a picture of Max and Miria performing "Old Time Rock 'n Roll" at one of the WDF's annual Public Spectacles of Dubious Talent; Komilia's birth certificate and baby pictures; a photo of Max and Miria in formal Japanese-style civvies, Max with a toddler-age Komilia on his shoulders, tugging at his hair.

"Where was that taken?" Emilia wondered.

"Tomodachi, I think," Komilia replied. "Dad mentioned once that we all went to the dedication of the first temple in Nekomikoka."

They delved for a little while longer, but soon couldn't go on. It was too soon after the chaos of Sonfall, too soon after the realization that they wouldn't see their parents again for a long time, if ever. By silent consensus, they closed the book. Xeralia put it on the coffee table and they all sat regarding it for a moment.

"Xera, you should keep this," Komilia said, putting a hand on the book. "It'll be safest with you - and you're the only one of us who won't be in an awkward position if someone finds it in your stuff."

Xeralia nodded. "I'll take good care of it," she promised. "What else is in the bag?"

Maia grinned. "Let's have a look."

Thursday, October 18, 2288

Therèse and Komilia were walking toward the hangar where their Valkyries and the twins' Legios were parked when Maia met them partway, grinning broadly.

"IDs are ready!" Maia said, handing Komilia and Therèse each a United Galactica citizen identification card. "How do they look?"

Komilia squinted at her card, then Therèse's. "Terrible," she complained. "Mine looks like her and hers looks like me." With an exasperated look, Maia took the cards back and switched them. Komilia immediately brightened. "Oh! Great!"

"Everything else is looking good," Maia said. "I guess we'll be ready to head out Saturday after all."

"Any idea where you two are going yet?"

Maia shrugged. "Miranda's been asking everyone who comes through here if they've heard about any of the other Riders." With a wry grin, she added, "Unsurprisingly, they're making themselves hard to find, but Mir thinks she might have a line on one of them. If we can find the others, hopefully one of them will have found something we can use on Musashi before it all got blown to hell."

"If there was anything to find," Komilia said glumly. "The whole thing was damned well done, much as I hate to admit it. I don't think it's likely they left evidence."

"Well, thanks for that, Lt. Positive," Maia said. Putting an arm around her elder sister's shoulders, she said, "C'mon, let's get something to eat."

"Preparations" (Part 4 of Patience, an Exile Mini-Story Serial) by Benjamin D. Hutchins and Philip J. Moyer
Patience Plotted by Philip J. Moyer
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Friday, October 19, 2288

They called it the Neutral Zone, supposedly because it had been a no-fire zone and relaxation area even at the height of the great Cybertronian Wars of ancient times. Nowadays it was one of the premier nightspots on Cybertron, in large part because it had facilities scaled for both Minicons and regular Transformers, and thus humans and full-size Zentraedi as well, making it one of the few places on the planet where all four groups could get together and unwind. The eldest six of the seven Sterling sisters were crammed into a Minicon booth right up front on the mezzanine, overlooking the stage. They were pleased to see that the place was packed, the mezzanine overflowing with WDF refugees, Minicons, and travelers, the lower level jammed with Autobots and Zentraedi soldiers (the latter from both Xeralia's battlegroup and the Queltaadu City garrison).

Maia, Miranda, and Therèse had seen the least of the band Mylene had suddenly and unexpectedly joined shortly after the sisters arrived on Cybertron. Emilia, who had spent the most time watching them rehearse, pointed out each member of Fire Bomber as they took the stage: burly Ray Lovelock, the keyboard player; tall, green-haired Veffidas, the nearly unspeaking micronized Meltrandi drummer; and wiry Basara Nekki, the Neo-Japanese frontman, with his spiky black hair and little black shades.

Maia hadn't liked Basara much the couple of times she'd met him - he possessed a full measure of that temperamental artist schtick, and she found him tiresome - but Mylene seemed to know how to handle him, and Maia had to admit she looked good with the rest of them, even in that absurd leotard-like red stage costume she'd picked up someplace. More to the point, she looked happy out there, and that was a welcome sight to her sisters after they'd watched their youngest endure so much misery in the days after the SDF-17's fall.

While the band futzed around with their equipment and got ready to go, a figure emerged from the crowd at the edge of the booth and asked, "Any chance an old comrade can squeeze in here?"

Komilia, sitting at the end, turned and didn't recognize the speaker for a moment. He was a tall, tough-looking guy, Nordically craggy and sporting long blond hair in a jagged ponytail, dressed in a red T-shirt, well-worn blue jeans, and black sneakers. For a second or two, Komilia just stared at him, trying to remember where she'd seen him before; then it came together and she blinked in astonishment.

"Petersson?" she asked. He grinned. "Swede Petersson! What the hell are you doing here, I haven't seen you in... jeez, forever! Shove over, you guys."

"I'm not sure we can," Therèse said doubtfully, but they managed it, one way or another.

"So who's this, now?" Emilia asked, slightly puzzled.

Komilia made introductions, then explained, "Olaf used to be a WDF pilot - "

"Wow, yeah, a million years ago," Maia said, remembering. "You flew with the Crimson Crusaders, didn't you?"

Petersson nodded. "For a couple of years, yes," he said.

"And he was an Eight-Ball before that," Xeralia put in. "You filled in for Dave Ritchie when he went on one of his hunting trips, right? I was in high school then. What're you doing on Cybertron?"

"I live here," Petersson said. "Have since I left the WDF... " He trailed off, aware that Komilia was looking at him oddly. "... What?"

She shook her head. "Nothing. Never mind." She looked down at the stage. "Looks like they're about ready to go!"

Indeed, Fire Bomber's prep was finished. Grinning fiercely, Basara grabbed the mic at center stage and said, "How's everybody doing in the Neutral Zone tonight? No time to waste, let's rock and roll! Yeah!"

/* Fire Bomber
"Planet Dance (Duet Version)"
Let's Fire!! */

Well, at least he doesn't waste a lot of time with big stage raps, Maia mused as the band threw down the pounding intro to their first number. "Awright Buffalo!"

"They're not bad," Xeralia observed after the first chorus.

"Mm," Emilia agreed. She didn't understand a word of the song (it was in Japanese), but Mylene sounded confident as she took over the vocal chores for the second verse. Then again, she knew what she was singing; unlike Emilia, Mylene had bothered taking a bunch of different language courses in primary school, including Japanese.

"Okay, that song's officially going to be stuck in my head for a week," Maia said when the first number was over.

They played for an hour and a half, hard rock and the occasional power ballad, and if they weren't the most polished band ever to grace the Zone, they probably had the most energy. Besides, they were remarkably tight given that they'd only been rehearsing together for a few weeks, and whatever mistakes they did make, they covered or got around with skill and sheer panache.

After the last number, Basara - who had barely spoken between songs, except to yell an occasional title during an intro - went back to the mic and said, "All right! I wanna thank all of you for comin' out and rockin' with us tonight - and especially for being such a good crowd for our new member's very first show!"

(Crowd noise, especially from mezzanine center. Mylene went a little red, but the stage lights mostly covered it.)

"She's got somethin' she wants to say to ya," Basara went on, "so say hello to Fire Bomber's new bass player, Mylene Flare!"

Mylene stepped to the mic and smiled, a little shyly, out at the audience. On her shoulder, Guvava seemed to accept the cheers and applause as his own, making Mylene's sisters giggle at the sight of the tiny rodent preening.

"Actually," Mylene said after the noise died down a little, "everything I want to say, our last song can say for me. I wrote it after... well... after last month. I hope you take away from it something like what I put into it. Thanks."

Jeez. Hell of a downer to end on, sis, thought Maia with a frown - but then the band slammed down another huge rock intro, complete with a get-up-and-jump keyboard line. Mylene leaned to the mic, still driving them forward with her bass, and sang:

Runnin' outta self-control
Gettin' close to an overload
Up against a no-win situation
Shoulder to shoulder, push and shove
I'm hangin' up my boxing gloves
I'm ready for a long vacation

The others joined in behind her, striking a harmony as they dove into the chorus together.

Be good to yourself when
Nobody else will
Whoa be good to yourself
You're walkin' a high wire
Caught in a crossfire
Whoa be good to yourself

Up on the mezzanine, Mylene's six sisters grinned at each other. Little sister's going to be all right after all, thought Komilia with a grin.

When you can't give no more
They want it all but you gotta say no
I'm turnin' off the noise that makes me crazy
Lookin' back with no regrets
To forgive is to forget
I want a little peace of mind to turn to

Be good to yourself when
Nobody else will
Whoa be good to yourself
You're walkin' a high wire
Caught in a crossfire
Whoa be good to yourself

Be good
Good to yourself when
Nobody else will

They spun the outro for a couple of minutes, just kicking the melody line around from bass to guitar to keyboard and back again, before finally bringing it together and knocking it down - and then the place went crazy.

After a couple of encores - Komilia thought their mother would probably kill them all if she knew they'd let Mylene participate in a cover of "Honky Tonk Women" - the show was really over. The Neutral Zone started to empty out a bit, but a lot of people stayed; the place was a long way from closing time. A few of the Sterlings drifted away from the booth, some mingling with the crowd, enjoying their first real night out since Sonfall and their last night, in a way, as themselves. Therèse went backstage to confer with Ray and the rest of the band. Komilia and Emilia remained in the now-much-roomier booth with Petersson, having a snack and a drink and chatting about the old days.

Eventually Petersson excused himself, citing the lateness of the hour. As he stood, Komilia stood with him.

"It was great running into you again, Swede," she said. "You take care, hey? Maybe I'll see you again the next time I'm back this way."

Petersson grinned, his blue eyes twinkling. Once again Komilia had the strangest feeling that she knew him, and not just from his brief tenure with the WDF nearly two centuries before.

"I'd say that's very likely," he said. Offering a hand, he shook hers firmly, then put his other hand on top of it. "I'm glad you're feeling a little more sure of yourself, Komilia," he added quietly, his words pitched for her alone. "Good luck with everything you're about to attempt. If you need anything... I'm always around."

"Uh... thanks," Komilia replied, feeling a hint of a blush creeping into her cheeks at the direct, intimate way he was addressing her. It was as if he somehow knew - not just guessed from context, as anyone might have, but knew - what had been going through her mind and heart for the last few weeks. It should've been a little creepy, given that the man was a comparative stranger, a casual friend she'd last seen almost 200 years ago, but instead it was just... reassuring. And that was, in itself, a little creepy.

Petersson smiled, patted their clasped hands one more time, then turned and walked off, pausing at the doorway to salute. Komilia stood staring at the mezzanine exit for several seconds, her face blank.

"Uh... Komi? You okay?" Emilia asked.

"Where do I know him from?!" Komilia demanded, of herself as much as Emilia.

Emilia looked askance at her sister. "You said he used to be a pilot," she pointed out.

Komilia shook her head. "No, it's more than that. I... there's something about him I know from somewhere else. Something in his eyes. His voice. He - ... !!" She went wide-eyed, completely astonished, as everything suddenly came together in her head, and then she was pushing through the crowd, taking the stairs down from the mezzanine three at a time, pelting full-speed toward the exit, with Emilia trying her best to keep up and asking what was wrong.

Komilia ignored her, rounded the end of the Minicon walkway at the end of the full-scale bar, and burst through the side door into the alley beside the Neutral Zone...

... just in time to see the tail end of a silver semi trailer disappear around the corner and hear the sound of a powerful engine heading up the street out front.

She stood for a second, hands on knees, panting - and then, as Emilia emerged from the bar behind her and demanded to know what the hell was the matter, she burst out laughing for the first time in more than a month.

"... Komi? Are you okay?" Emilia asked, fearing for a moment that her eldest sister was cracking up completely; but when she looked more closely, she saw that Komilia was really laughing, laughing from deep within, as though she'd at last received the punch line of some very long drawn-out joke.

It was several seconds before she'd recovered composure enough to answer, at which point she put a hand on Emilia's shoulder, wiped at her eyes with her other forearm, and said, "I'm fine, Emi. I just... it'd take too long to explain. C'mon, let's go mingle a little."

As Emi opened the side door to the Neutral Zone and they stepped back inside, Komilia added conversationally, "Did I ever tell you I used to have kind of a thing for Petersson back in the day?"

Saturday, October 20, 2288

Komilia zipped up her new duffel bag (an anonymous one acquired at the Autobot PX), shouldered it, looked around the room that had been more or less her home for the last month, and sighed. Arrangements made, goodbyes said (including a deeply amusing, perfectly straight-faced vidphone conversation with Optimus Prime), everything as much in order as it could be, under the circumstances... check. Time to go.

All the planning and thinking and running around came down to this. The seven of them, scattering into a galaxy in upheaval, full of people who wanted them dead for no really good reason, where every value they held dear was scorned and the natural order of things sometimes seemed completely inverted. Goals: uncertain. Mission duration: unknown. Guarantee that things would be better someday: none.

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us, she thought, picturing her mother's solemn face.

She sighed, turned, and left the room.

All of her sisters were waiting outside, on the plaza next to the road that led to the Iacon spaceport. Like Komilia, Therèse wore a generic flightsuit of a kind worn by itinerant spacers and mercenary fighter pilots all over the galaxy, and had an anonymous bag containing her few possessions on her shoulder. Maia and Miranda wore their black CVR-3, shorn of their identifying markings. Emilia had on a coverall that could've belonged to anyone from a starship mechanic to a freelance Destroid jockey. Mylene wore subdued street clothes and a leather bomber jacket. Only Xeralia really looked like herself, in her Meltrandi officer's uniform with its gold-edged scarlet coat.

"Everything's all set for us at Port Iacon," Therèse reported. "I took care of it with Ray last night."

"Our Legios is fueled up and ready to go," Maia said.

"And my shuttle's standing by," Xeralia put in.

"Well," Komilia said, "I guess this is it, you guys."

"I guess so," Emilia said, sounding subdued. "My Rifleman's already aboard. Captain Henriksen's raising ship as soon as I get there."

The others all turned for a moment and regarded the second-youngest sister. She was the only one of them who was going off into the unknown entirely alone, something that had weighed on all the others at one time or another over the last few days.

"You can come with us if you want, Emi," Maia said. "You know we'd be glad to have you."

Emilia cracked a slightly wan smile. "I don't think you guys could get Dangerous Dave in your Beta's bomb bay."

Miranda looked downcast. "I guess not."

"Hey, cheer up," Emilia said. "Didn't we just go over this the other day? I want this. Not that I wouldn't rather we were all able to stay together - but if we can't, then I think this is how I can do the most good. And if that means I have to be all on my lonesome for a while, well... that's the price I pay."

"Well, before we all go our separate ways, I have a little something for all of you," Therèse said. She took her bag off her shoulder, opened it, removed a few small objects, and handed them around. "I had them made by a machine shop in Sonplex."

Miranda held hers up and looked through it. It was a ring, a plain but well-made band of some dark-grey, lustrous metal, slightly heavy for its size. Looking around at her sisters, she remarked,

"Does this make us the Dwarven-kings?"

"By the time this is over, we may have cause to wish we had a hall of stone," Therèse remarked. "But no, no magic here. They're trithyllium steel. Practically indestructible. I thought they might make nice keepsakes. A little something to remember each other by."

"And not marked in any way that would give us away to outsiders," Komilia observed with approval in her voice.

"Right," Therèse said. "The significance is all internal. Safest that way."

Xeralia slipped hers on and admired it. "Handsome, yet understated. Very discreet. I like it."

Emilia regarded hers. "An unbreakable circle," she mused, then grinned and put on the ring. "Just like us."

The sound of an engine heralded the arrival of Hound, who came around the corner and pulled up near the group.

"Afternoon, ladies! Somebody need a ride to Port Hydrax?" he asked jauntily.

"That's my cue," Emilia said, putting on her ring. "Just as well, I hate long goodbyes. See you guys around, hey? Try to remember what Dad told you."

"You too, little sister," Komilia said, hugging her. There was a brief free-for-all of embraces and farewells, and then Emilia climbed aboard, Hound pulled away, and they were six.

The rest walked in a subdued frame of mind across the bridge to Port Iacon, where they parted from Xeralia and watched as her shuttle lifted off to return her to her flagship, and they were five.

Their next stop was the hangar where Therèse had fixed up their fighters. Like their CVR-3, the Shadow Legios fighter belonging to Maia and Miranda had been stripped of its identifying markings. These had been replaced with a civilian registry code provided by Jazz, Autobot operative extraordinaire, who had connections in all sorts of interesting ministries and bureaux around the galaxy. The two Valkyries brought in by Komilia and Therèse had also been repainted, their distinctive (and now very dangerous) Eight-Ball markings replaced with an equally distinctive black and red color scheme featuring a crimson and gold eagle crest.

"'Southern Cross Crusaders' ?" Mylene remarked. "That's what you're calling yourselves now?"

"It seemed safer than 'I Can't Believe It's Not Eight-Ball Squadron'," Therèse said dryly. "That's what we'll be sporting as we're escorting your band around the galaxy. Just a couple of hand-to-mouth mercs earning their way by providing security for a touring rock band."

Komilia reached into her flightsuit's top pocket, took out a Velcro-backed name tape, and stuck it on in the appropriate spot. "Remember," she said to Mylene. "As soon as we leave this hangar, I'm Libby Jenius, and this is Erin Chao." She gestured to Therèse, who was applying her own name tape. "We're not related - to you or each other."

Mylene eyed Therèse's pink hair, then her own, only a few shades lighter.

"... You really think anyone's gonna buy that?" she asked.

Therèse smirked, pulled back a cuff of her flightsuit, and pressed her thumb against a pressure point on the inside of her wrist. After a few seconds, her hair began to darken, then turned abruptly brown.

"Isn't science wonderful?" she remarked. "And speaking of science, I've got something for you, Mylene." With this, she went to a tarp-shrouded object sitting between the two Valkyries and whipped off the cover, revealing a bulky, gleaming scarlet motorcycle. Mylene's green eyes went wide.

"Wow!" she said. "Is that - "

"It's a Bahamode Garland," Therèse confirmed, nodding. "A Veritech battlemover. Brand new, made right here on Cybertron. I know Mom gave you some Garland training; think you can handle it?"

Mylene grinned. "I'll sure try. Thanks, Ter - er, Erin, who I'm not related to and don't even know that well," she corrected herself with a roll of the eyes.

"You'll never be able to get her back home by bedtime if you give her something like that," Maia remarked with a smirk. Mylene shot her a look, but saw that she was kidding and said nothing. "Anyway, I guess it's time for me and Mir to hit the trail too. You guys watch out for yourselves."

"You too, Maia," said Komilia. More hugs, more partings; the twins mounted up, fired up their Legios, taxied out, and vanished into the starry black of Cybertron's eternal night, and they were three.

"You better get going, Mylene," Komilia told her youngest sister. "Ray's raring to go. He hasn't had his own ship to fly since he left the WDF."

"Basara's kind of ticked off about that, by the way," Mylene said as she swung into the saddle of her Garland. The bike was practically a car to a girl as small as Mylene, but she handled it with assurance, and for all its size and potential speed, the Garland, with its computerized controls and automatic emergency systems, was well-known as a forgiving ride.

"Only Basara could manage to be ticked off about getting a free starship," Therèse grumped.

"He's got some hang-up about accepting charity," Mylene said. "I told him it was my way of thanking him for giving me my big chance with Fire Bomber. That seemed to satisfy him." She shook her head and thumbed the Garland's starter. "Men."

Komilia laughed. "You have no idea, baby sister," she said. "All right, get going. We'll join you in orbit and we'll all head out. See you on Earth."

Mylene looked momentarily subdued, as if reaching the moment of departure had made her fully confront the strangely shifting axis of her world; then she shrugged it off with the resilience of a teenager, revved her Garland, said, "Hang on, Guvava!" and zoomed out of the hangar, and they were two.

Therèse and Komilia stood side by side and watched her ride across the spaceport toward the revetment where Fire Bomber's new ship was parked. Then Therèse sighed and put a hand on Komilia's shoulder.

"Are we doing the right thing, Komi? Any of us?" she asked.

Komilia sighed.

"I don't know, Terry," she said; then, with a wry grin, she added, "But if it turns out to be wrong, well, we'll try something else."

The two sisters shared a smile, then turned and went to their fighters.

Next stop, Earth.

"Partings" (Part 5 of Patience, an Exile Mini-Story Serial) by Benjamin D. Hutchins and Philip J. Moyer
Patience Plotted by Philip J. Moyer
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Friday, October 12, 2300
Destroid Battlesport Arena "The Factory"
Montenegro, Solaris VII, Weisman Sector

"Welcome back, sports fans. This is Duncan Fisher coming to you live from the Factory season championship match! What a fight it's been tonight. Heavy 'Mechs slugging it out with all the best weapons the galaxy has to offer, and only one will leave as this year's Factory Champion! Twelve entered the arena when this match began, and now we're down to just two. Some of the greats of the sport have already fallen tonight! Fen Chen, Peter Dexter, Ellie Niels, even Marcus Wilder, just to name a few, have already watched their Destroids burn from the comfort of their ejection pods. Now it's up to veteran superstar Alex Haight and phenomenal rookie Miria Stewart to determine who will be this year's emperor of the scrapheap!"

In the cockpit of her Rifleman, Miria Stewart listened to Fisher's patter with one ear and her crew chief's run-down of the damage to her ride with the other. She already knew basically what Fisher was saying - she'd been listening to him provide the play-by-play for more than four dozen matches over the course of the year she'd been on Solaris - and basically what Gut was saying as well, since she'd been aboard the Rifleman for the hits that had partly crippled its right leg, dinged the waist rotator, and disabled the right torso close-range weapons cluster.

That was okay. Haight's Loki wasn't in much better shape, and anyway, Miria had his measure. They'd been the last two once before, in a Medium match in the Jungle earlier in the season, and when the dust had settled, her Centurion had been the one still standing.

"As you know, MechWarriors and their crews aren't allowed to make repairs or reload ammunition during commercial breaks - only replenish coolant. Both crews have cleared the field and the safety lights are green, so let's get it on!"

/* Imagitec/Atari
"Level Set 3"
Defender 2000 */

The horn sounded. Miria smiled and set her Rifleman in motion, scanning her radar. Haight would try to keep her at long range - with obstructions, if possible, and in the ruined cityscape of the Factory, that wasn't much of a trick - so that he could use his LRMs to best effect. She'd seen him all but demolish Peter Dexter's Nova Cat with that trick earlier, keeping buildings and rusting water tanks between them so that Dexter couldn't use his heavy lasers, then raining warheads on him until his gyros gave out.

There! To the left, range about 500 yards - a flash of motion, the glint of one of the arena lights off the transparisteel of the Loki's cockpit blister. Miria pivoted as far as her Destroid's damaged waist rotator would allow, still running east, and waited. She had a little surprise for Mr. Alex Haight.

Right on cue, Haight salvoed his missiles. He'd jammed every Universal Hardpoint on that fancy new chassis with long-range missile launchers, it seemed, and with every salvo a full 60 of them came boiling out of the tubes and arched skyward before tilting down and spiraling in, their seeker heads following the Loki's radar lock.

The full Scott Bernard, Miria thought to herself with a smile, and then played her trump card. The Rifleman suddenly stopped, standing perfectly still, its phased array radar antenna twirling. The crowd in the shielded boxes above the arena walls gasped and fell silent. Was Stewart giving up?

Most Solaris fans had never seen a Rifleman in action. With its ungainly long, jointless twin-cannon-barrel arms, light armor for a heavy Destroid, and vulnerable-looking radar array, it just wasn't considered suitable for arena combat by most pilots - and it was relatively expensive because of all the sophisticated sensors it packed. Most Solaris fans, whose interest in Destroids extended only to the ones that fought for their amusement, didn't even know what the Rifleman was for.

They - and Alex Haight - were about to find out.

For a half-second, Miria Stewart's Rifleman stood perfectly still. Then it shuffle-stepped slightly to the left, recentering its torso on its legs, and raised both of its arms. Laser trackers built into the visor of Miria's neurohelmet followed the pupils of her eyes as she quickly looked from one incoming missile to the next. On the head-up display in front of her, blinking scarlet target-lock boxes appeared around missile after missile. She waited as long as she dared, targeting more and more, then squeezed the triggers on both of her command joysticks.

With a suddenness that startled many of the spectators after the eerie stillness of the last second and a half, the Rifleman's twin 88mm autocannons suddenly opened up. The weapons, one in the upper barrel of each arm, spat fire and steel into the air with a thunderous roar, spent brass clanging and jangling off to either side. The strobe effect of the muzzle flashes made the spent shells seem to hover in neat parabolic arcs before tumbling to the ground and bouncing off the chunks of rubble. Its torso and arms tracking with swift, nearly imperceptible computer-controlled movements, the Rifleman jackhammered away for five solid seconds, hurling 104 88mm high-explosive shells into the air.

Haight's missiles met the cannon barrage in midair, a little past apogee, and the high ceiling of the Factory was suddenly full of light and flame as the two annihilated each other. The spectators oohed at the fireworks show, but by the time it happened, Miria was already moving. She knew Haight was going to be a little ticked off by that maneuver, and she was trying to anticipate what he was going to do about it.

"Ha haaaa!" Duncan Fisher crowed on the play-by-play channel. "In all my years on Solaris I've never seen anyone pull a stunt like that. Not many people outside military circles know that the Rifleman was originally designed as an air defense weapon - that's why the Salusians call them Defenders. I bet Alex won't forget that again soon!"

Now he'll try and flank me, Miria thought, driving her Rifleman as hard as its dicky leg would allow toward the trench around the perimeter of the Factory floor. The blip on her radar that represented Haight's 'Mech was flickering in and out, moving around oddly - apparently his Loki had an ECM pod on board. Well, no problem. Every toy like that is taking up a slot that otherwise could've had a real weapon in it.

Miria rounded the corner of one of the wrecked building shells and caught a glimpse of Haight's Loki through the gaps in a concrete retaining wall to her right. He was parallelling her course on the other side of the wall, blinking in and out of view as they passed gaps, hoping to beat her to the end and get the drop on her with his close-quarters weapons. The Rifleman's arms could only swivel and pivot at the shoulders and were too fragile for melee anyway. This meant the Destroid didn't do so well at close range, especially with one of its torso clusters, which contained a medium laser and a machinegun array, out of action.

Grinning through gritted teeth, already anticipating his revenge for the way Stewart had just made him look like a fool, Haight drove his Destroid around the corner, pivoting around the end of the wall and aiming all his weapons -

- at nothing!

"What the - ?!" he blurted - just as his cockpit filled with the high-pitched whoop of a warning horn and a red indicator marked LASER flashed on his panel. He turned, looking around - the indicator meant that someone had just painted his 'Mech with a laser rangefinder/target designator - but saw nothing, until suddenly a brilliant white light flooded the cockpit. Cursing, Haight recoiled; the flare compensator in his neurohelmet's visor dimmed the glare within a few milliseconds. The light was coming from above. He tilted his Loki's torso back, looking up.

Miria Stewart's Rifleman stood on the corner of the fake ruined building about a half-block down the retaining wall, illuminating the Loki with the remaining one of the two powerful searchlights built into its chest. Both double-barrelled arms twitched, correcting their aim just a little, pointing straight at the Loki's chest.

Haight swore and clawed at his weapon selector, but just as he did, the Rifleman's twin 88s opened up. Caught head-on, the Loki's chassis shuddered with the impacts, exploding shells raking its armor and jolting the machine this way and that. The 'Mech reeled, arms flailing, as the pounding deranged its gyrostabilizers. Haight's targeting reticule jumped all over the HUD, thwarting any attempt he might make to achieve missile lock.

If I'm still standing when she runs out of ammo, though, he thought, then I'll teach this rookie a lesson!

Miria watched the ammo counters tick down and the temperature indicators tick up as the 88s rocked and rolled, bouncing Haight's Loki around like a mook getting machinegunned in an Ishiyama gangster movie. Just before the cannon temps would have passed the yellow line, she released both triggers, halting the barrage. The Loki staggered, then straightened, its armor cratered and smoking but the structure underneath still largely intact. Miria's sensors beeped a warning at her, letting her know that Haight was trying for a missile lock.

Calmly, as if she had all the time in the world, she resettled her optical targeting reticule dead-center on the Loki's chest, made a couple of fine adjustments, then thumbed the safety covers on top of both joysticks out of the way and pressed the buttons beneath.

Haight saw the pulses of energy through the vents in the sloping armor near the Rifleman's shoulder joints and knew he was finished. Roaring with fury, he salvoed his LRMs anyway, a split-second before the heavy lasers in the lower of the Rifleman's double barrels fired. Twin beams of hard scarlet light raved across the space between the two Destroids, punched through the cannon-fire-riddled chest armor of the Loki, and vaporized much of what lay beyond - delicate control systems, structural members, everything. Haight's automatic ejection system kicked in, launching his cockpit pod clear, as the uncontrolled fusion reactor cooked off. The resulting blast blew what was left of the 'Mech to smithereens, leveling the two nearest building shells and part of the retaining wall.

Haight's last spread of missiles, fired without a lock, swarmed all around the Rifleman, but only two connected, blowing small craters out of the armor while the rest streaked on to give the spectators another fine fireworks show against the ceiling far above. The overhead horn blew long and loud, signaling the end of the match.

"Kapow!! I - don't - believe it! Alex Haight goes down in flames after underestimating the punch of Miria Stewart's Rifleman! Hey Alex - how's the view from the ceiling? Ha ha haaaa! Ladies and gentlemen, Solaris fans around the galaxy, we have a new Factory Champion! Stick around for these messages, everybody - we'll have an exclusive interview with our new champion right after this!"

Commercial: Madman Omar's House of Missiles - "For All Your Missile Needs!"

"Welcome back, Solaris fans! I'm Duncan Fisher, and I'm about to interview the brand new champion of Montenegro's Factory - the incredible Miria Stewart!"

Fisher, a slightly portly, grey-haired fellow whose face and movements still showed traces of the skill and resolve that had made him a Solaris champion himself in his prime, stood on the reviewing stand at the front of the Factory. This was an armored platform jutting from the arena's wall at about cockpit-level to most Destroids. Off to the side, Miria's Rifleman limped into the frame, dragging its damaged leg slightly as it made its way to the stand.

"You know, folks, I've been covering this game for a lot of years now, and I haven't seen anybody climb the rankings as fast as this girl's done it in a long time. She's got skill, she's got talent, and she's got guts. I said the first time I saw her fight, this spring, in a light match over in the Steiner Coliseum, that Miria Stewart was going to go far in this game." Fisher grinned, showing off the results of some very expensive dental work. "And I was right. With this win, not only has she earned the title of Factory Champion, she's earned a spot in this year's Grand Championship match. And here she is now! Let's see what the new Queen of the Rubble Pile has to say."

The Rifleman came to a halt next to the platform, quivered just a little, then sagged slightly as its reactor shut down with a drawn-out sigh of settling coolant. A moment later the cockpit's armored canopy hissed, slid forward on its tracks, then hinged downward, revealing the pilot in her command seat.

Miria Stewart disconnected her cooling vest and neurohelmet from the seat, unfastened her straps, stood up, then pulled the helmet off and set it down before climbing to the edge of the cockpit and jumping down onto the platform next to Fisher. Sweaty and disheveled after a long, hot evening on the firing line, she was still a good-looking young woman, slim and athletic, with a pretty green-eyed face and short-cropped dark blue hair. Fisher handed her a towel, which she took with smiling thanks and used to mop her face and scrub at her hair a little, then draped around her neck.

They exchanged pleasantries and the usual sporting-event post-mortem for the viewers, but Stewart seemed a little preoccupied throughout. Finally, at the end, Fisher asked her if she planned to take advantage of her eligibility for the Grand Championship.

"You bet I do," she said. "But before I do that, I have something I'd like to say."

Fisher looked intrigued. Contestants using the postgame show as a platform to talk a little smack was nothing new, but in her short career so far, Miria Stewart hadn't been one to do that kind of thing, and the look in her eyes told the veteran announcer that she had something bigger on her mind than just trash-talking her opposition. He sensed that this was going to be something big, something that would get the broadcast some mad ratings and maybe even boost Solaris viewership across the board.

He was right.

Miria Stewart looked straight into the camera and said, "I'm not Miria Stewart. There is no Miria Stewart. My name is Emilia Miria Sterling. My parents are Maximilian Sterling and Miria Fallyna Sterling, the famous Wedge Defense Force fighter pilots, and I'm proud to be their daughter."

Fisher struggled in vain to keep a gigantic grin from spreading onto his face. He had known there was something special about this girl from the second he'd seen her fight, and now he knew what it was. He'd seen Miria Fallyna Sterling fight once, years before, in a special exhibition match for charity. She'd taken her scarlet VF-1J Valkyrie into the Steiner Coliseum and faced off in battroid mode against a dozen of Solaris's best light Destroid pilots. It had been spectacular. That woman had had moves. Fisher had spent an hour after the show trying to convince her to leave the WDF, at least for a year or two, and fight on the light circuit full-time.

"Twelve years ago, I had just finished training to be a WDF Destroid pilot when GENOM Corporation took my dreams away," Emilia declared, her eyes flashing. "Since then I've been on the run, living a lie, just like most of my friends - the ones who haven't been murdered already.

"Well, I'm tired of running. I'm proud of who I am and who my parents are. So, now that I've proven what I can do in this arena, I'm throwing down the gauntlet. This is who I am. My name is Emilia Sterling, and I'm not going to hide any more. And if you're one of those people who believe GENOM's lies about me and my friends, then I have this to say to you."

She looked straight into the camera again, the intensity in her eyes making some viewers unconsciously shrink back from their television sets. "If you think you can beat me - if you think GENOM's dirty money is worth your life - then come and get me. My booking agents are Tancred and Baikmon. You can find them in the Battlesport Warriors' Guide."

"Defiance" - An Exile Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Thursday, June 20, 2374
Zeta Cygni System
Cygnus Sector
1100 hours GST

R-minus 14:01:00:00.00

Jonathan "Boozey" Hawkes was not a man particularly given to introspection. As a mercenary aerospace fighter pilot, he went where the boss told him to go and shot whomever the contract said was the enemy this month. It suited his temperament and ego to just hang back and let the boss handle the "heavy lifting" when it came to the negotiation end of things: making the necessary arrangements with the client, avoiding any contractual pitfalls, keeping their asses out of the fire, et cetera. He'd been hired for his flying skills, not his long-range planning ability.

This wasn't to say Hawkes was stupid or dumb, however. You don't last long in the mercenary business without some measure of inherent common sense, doubly so if you're flying a hotrodded Incom T-65A Dragonfly. You don't pay attention to things in a furball, and you become dead very very quickly.

That said, he couldn't help but wonder what the boss had arranged for them this time. She'd said it was going to be another standard escort mission, and had sent her crew chief and three other members of the squadron with their fighters to make contact with the client. Together, they'd enter hyperspace and then rendevous with them here. But who the hell wanted to make a rendevous at Zeta Cygni? The system was abandoned, had been for decades. Nobody came here, nobody wanted to be here. Ever since the collapse of the Wedge Defense Force, the system had had a bad reputation. It was a forlorn, forsaken place populated with the ghosts of a long-faded past.

But even with his personal reservations in mind, he maintained a professional demeanor and did as the boss ordered. Libby Jenius was a stern but fair commander, who managed to get such disparate personalities as Karl "Calvin" Klein and Harry "Hobbes" Watterson to work together, who watched over the members of the squadron in the air and on the ground, and who was an absolute pro when leading the Southern Cross Crusaders into battle. Hawkes felt he owed her the same professionalism in return.

And besides -- the jobs she got them paid very, very well.

His headset beeped for attention. He tagged the comm controls. "Credit for your thoughts, Boozey?" asked the voice (female, pleasant) on the other end.

"Huh? Nah, not really, Sparks," Hawkes replied. "Just wondering how long we're gonna have to wait out here before I need to hit the head."

"Well, it's your fault if you can't hold it," the voice of Carella "Sparks" Sansen replied. "We all told you and Carole to go before we left."

There was a snort over the comm as another female voice joined in. "Hey, I wasn't the one who felt the need to sample that last bottle of Ol' Janx Spirit at the bar - "

"Yeah, but you were the one who pointed it out, Xmas," Boozey replied with a grin in his voice. "You know I can't resist sampling the classics."

He could almost hear Carole "Xmas" Greenhouse's eyes roll over the commlink. "Excuses, excuses, Boozey..."

Further conversation was cut off as the squadron's scanners went off all at once. Hawkes straightened in his seat, tightening his harness and checking his displays, even as the voice of their boss came out over the common band.

"Look sharp, Crusaders," Libby Jenius's voice announced. "The rest of the squad's arriving with our first guests."

As one, the four fighters of the Southern Cross Crusaders powered up and flew into formation as the distinctive flash-displacement of ships exiting hyperspace made itself known.

The new arrivals were the other four members of the squadron, flying in two-element pairs in a standard escort pattern, bracketing a larger, cherry-red Horizon-class transport. The ships slowed as they bled off residual speed from the hyperspace jump.

"Crusader Eight to Crusader One," announced the voice of their boss's crew chief, Erin Chao, over the squadron band. "The Flarefire is in the box. I repeat, Flarefire is in the box."

"Read you five by five, Crusader Eight," Jenius replied. "Crusaders got the box."

At this, Hawkes grinned. The Flarefire! They'd run escort for the ship before, and he always looked forward to that particular job. The red ship was the personal transport of Mylene Flare, one of the hottest acts in the galactic music business. Flying with Mylene and her band not only paid well, the squadron always got front-row or backstage passes to her concerts, and the end-of-tour parties she held were nights to remember long after the fact.

While not heavily armed, the Flarefire was tough, well-crewed, and the closest thing the Crusaders had to a home port. They'd been through a lot together over the years, and a friendly rapport had developed between the pilots and the band and crew. This new rendevous promised to lead to something interesting, indeed.

As Hawkes mulled this over in his mind, the rest of the squadron pulled together around the transport. He checked the radar scans once more as they flew, and then he pulled up short. What had the boss meant when she'd said "first guests"?

R-minus 14:00:21:02.10

Erin Chao, the technician/crew chief/wrench-girl for the Southern Cross Crusaders, settled back in her VE-1 Seeker Valkyrie's seat as she watched the rest of the squadron come to station-keeping positions around the much larger Horizon-class transport. It hadn't been all that hard to find Mylene Flare; she was very well known in the galactic rock 'n roll scene. All one had to do is check the star's Internet fansites to find out her current tour dates, locations, and most recent random Mylene Flare sightings.

Getting Mylene, her band, and her crew's transport off Trafalgar IV without tipping off her record company and fans, that had been the tricky part. Fortunately, Mylene Flare and company were quite skilled at shaking unwanted tails, and the Southern Cross Crusaders had more than ample practice in executing extraction missions. Some sensor spoofing, some false IFF's, and some "screamer" buoys dropped by the Flarefire, and they'd been off Trafalgar and into hyperspace before the legion of fanboys could realize what had happened.

Now all that was left was the waiting. Crusader Eight was quite skilled at that by this point. Erin Chao usually spent more time waiting for the Crusaders to return to the "barn du jour" than participating in the combat missions, but her two-seater Seeker Valkyrie stayed prepped and ready on the flightline just in case there was the need to perform some emergency ECCCM or CSAR during a battle. If it came down to a fight while carrying those duties out, she could hold her own.

But while she was long-practiced at the art of combat waiting, that didn't mean everyone was the same. With quiet amusement, Erin watched as her scanners reported an upswing of local comm traffic between the Flarefire and the rest of the Crusaders. This wasn't too surprising; the pilots of the Crusaders and the members of Flare's road crew had formed good friendships over the years. She just relaxed, waiting for what was to come next.

Half an hour later, Chao was running some diagnostics on the starboard pod's linear AWACS/ELINT array when a soft chirping sound echoed through her helmet speakers. For a moment, she thought it was due to an error catch on one of the linear array's processor units, but a quick check of her VDU showed that this was not the case. She blinked, halted the diagnostic, and changed scan modes.

What her sensors indicated caused her eyebrows to go up.

She tabbed another control, opening a direct line to her boss. "Lib? It's time."

There was a moment's pause, and then a quick reply on the same channel. "I see it, 'rin." Erin nodded to herself and brought her Valkyrie up to full power as Libby Jenius's voice went out over the squadron band.

"Heads up, Crusaders. Incoming spacefold. Prepare for station-keeping versus gravimetric displacement. Flarefire, hold your position. Crusaders, maintain weapons safe."

Erin Chao split her attention, watching as the rest of the squadron's RCS units and main drives spooled up from standby while also noting the output of her subspace sensors. A local distortion of spacetime was developing, at first only recognizeable to her sensors, then becoming more prominent and visible to the naked eye.

Finally, with a bending, twisting flare of light, the Southern Cross Crusaders and the Flarefire were no longer alone in the Zeta Cygni system.

About a hundred miles out, an arrangement of brilliant dark green starships appeared. They were long, rounded oblongs, studded with the spines and spires of sensors and weapon emplacements. They were not huge in number - but they didn't need to be. Only a fool would challenge even the smallest of Zentraedi warships, and these were not small scouts or transports, but the much more massive cruisers and destroyers of a Zentraedi patrol battlegroup.

The chatter over the squadron band picked up, relaying the sounds of surprise of the other pilots to Chao's ears. She smiled slightly, then hrmed. The battlegroup was currently moving into a convoy escort formation, now that the fold effect had dissipated, and revealing another ship that had been in the center. She tabbed some more controls, and her Valkyrie's all-condition camera pivoted to study the last ship.

What was in the middle of the 'miniature' fleet was no Zentraedi warship. It was much more blocky than the standard psuedo-organic Zentraedi hull design, clearly a product of human heavy industry. The ship was painted in bright blue thermocoat. Wide hangars, bordered with yellow and black safety stripes, were open at the fore and flanks. A multitude of sensor arrays, fusion diffusers, tractor beam projectors, and defensive emplacements were scattered along the sides.

But what was most remarkable about the vessel was that it practically dwarfed its escorts - and the automated shipyards of the Zentraedi were not known for building small.

Hawkes' voice crackled over the Crusader's commline, his vocal tone one of clear surprise. "Holy shit, is that...?"

"An Architect-class constructor! Damn, Libby, when you get us contracts, you don't mess around."

A faint chuckle answered from Jenius's ship. "Oh believe me, Sparks, it only gets better from here. Crusaders, form up on the Flarefire and follow me!"

With practiced efficency, the Southern Cross Crusaders moved into a standard box formation around the Horizon transport, and together they flew among the outlying Zentraedi ships toward the much more massive vessel in the middle. As they approached, they could see the wide block-serif corporate emblem along the side, painted boldly in blue and white thermocoat:

CIANBRO Corporation
"The Constructor of Choice"


Further ruminations as to what this fleet's appearance could mean were cut off, as a clear, strong voice announced over the common frequency band:

"Attention approaching starfighters and transport. This is Captain Emilia Sterling, commander of the Cianbro Corporation constructor vessel Frank Lloyd Wright. Identify yourselves."

Libby Jenius couldn't keep the smile out of her voice as she pushed to talk and answered, "Captain Sterling... this is Lieutenant Commander Komilia Dana Sterling, callsign Miss Liberty, requesting permission to come aboard. The Southern Cross Crusaders are escorting the transport Flarefire out of Nessus - Mylene Flare, shipowner, who also wishes to board."

There was a combined gasp over the squadron's private band, and an induldgent chuckle from Crusader Eight.

Emilia replied with a similar grin, "Permission granted, Lt. Commander Sterling, Miss Flare. Welcome aboard!"

R-minus 13:23:20:05.12

Emilia Sterling, captain of the Frank Lloyd Wright, stood in the observation/control room overlooking Utility/Cargo Hangar Five. She watched over the shoulders of the bay technicians as the hangar crew cleared the last of the miscellaneous construction equipment and crates out from the landing deck. It pleased her that, even now, her crew was showing a calm professionalism, as if taking onboard a mercenary fighter squadron and a high-profile rock star were the most ordinary things in the world. It helped bolster her own confidence, tamping down some of the anticipation and nervousness that lurked deep within her heart.

Outwardly, there was no sign she was nervous. An athletic woman who looked as though she were in her early twenties, Captain Sterling had a neatly trimmed pageboy bob of dark blue hair, deep green eyes, and a calmly professional demeanor, the last accentuated by the trim and neatly pressed Cianbro Constructor Fleet captain's uniform she wore. White and blue with gold trim, it made her look a little like a businesswoman and a little like an airline pilot - which was, of course, the whole idea.

Emilia had come a long way from her start as a fresh-faced WDF Destroid jockey. If you'd asked her 85 years ago where she'd thought she would be today, she would have postulated that she would have been leading one of the WDF's elite Destroid regiments, having worked her way up first the enlisted and then the commissioned ranks. The thoughts of ever going independent, or worse, corporate, would have been the furthest thing from her mind.

But that was before the fall of the Wedge Defense Force and the Wayward Son. Before the GENOM death squads and the Destroid Battlesport arenas of Jugenheim and Solaris. Before her bold proclamation to the universe that she was a daughter of the Sterlings and damn proud of it, to hell with the consequences. Since then, her life had taken various strange and unpredictable twists, not least the ones that had brought her to find security and support within the ranks of Cianbro Corporation.

Was this another mask? Perhaps, but in plying her skills working Destroid site security for the construction company, she had found an actual talent for the things that Cianbro valued. The maverick spirit that had moved the company's managers to hire a self-declared Wedge Defender in the first place had meshed well with her own philosophy. Before she had fully realized it, she had moved up in the ranks and into the corporate offices, coordinating the entire company's security assets.

And from there, it had been a surprisingly easy sidestep to command of one of the company's great constructor ships...

"Ma'am? They're coming in," reported one of the technicians, interrupting her reverie.

Emilia's focus returned to the here-and-now, and she nodded. "Good. Direct the Crusaders to Bay One, the Flarefire to Bay Four. I'm expecting more guests before the day is out. Let them know we're willing to use tractors if they need them."

The technicians nodded and plied their boards, forwarding landing instructions to the approaching ships. Alarms hooted out in the hangar bay proper, and the deck crew backed up out of the way to avoid being run over. Through the control room's viewport and the various displays, Emilia watched as the eight fightercraft of the Southern Cross Crusaders peeled off in two rows from the approaching Horizon-class transport, and then smoothly reformed around their lead element. The Flarefire slowed, pivoted about its vertical axis, and slowly backed into Bay Four, aided by one of the internal tractor arrays.

At the same time, the Crusaders slowed and touched down in Bay One. Four of them were variable configuration, four of them were fixed, all eight of them painted in bright scarlet and black livery. The Veritech fighters went to GERWALK mode for the landing: an old-time VF-1J Super Valkyrie; a VE-1 Seeker Valkyrie equipped with a set of unarmed VT-1 trainer-type booster packs instead of the usual rotating disc radome; a VA-1 Judicator, looking as always like a scaled-up Strike Valkyrie; and an angular, fork-shaped fightercraft that twitched and then pivoted its changed wings down to the deck, outboard thrusters pulling into the sides of the central fuselage, thick arms lowering. A nasty-looking particle cannon flipped around from underneath the fighter to above the back of the canopy, completing the ship's transformation into an instantly recognizable shape.

A Variable Glaug! Emilia realized. I haven't seen one of those since before the WDF folded, or outside of the Zentraedi fleets even then! I wonder where they dug that up? She shook her head and issued new orders. "Hangar crews, provide full egress and resupply support to the fighters, and secure and refuel the Horizon transport."

The same technician from before nodded and relayed the orders. "And you, ma'am?"

She stood up a little straighter, flattening the creases of her uniform. "I'm heading down there to greet our guests."

R-minus 13:23:10:34.47

Komilia Sterling, known at varying times and places in the past as Miss Liberty, Eight-Ball Eight, Crusader One, and Libby Jenius, powered down her Valkyrie and ran through her postflight checklist. Everything inside was in order, the landing area was free of debris, the hangar's atmosphere stable and temperate. The fighter was positioned for a rapid egress if needed, and she could see through the canopy that the rest of her squadron had done the same.

As she looked at them, Komilia felt a pang of guilt. Her little "reveal" on the comm with Emi had seemed like a nice dramatic flourish at the time, but now that she'd had a few moments to think about it, she felt like a bit of an ass - not for blowing her cover, but for doing it in such an offhanded, cavalier way. Until now, only "Erin Chao" had known her true identity, and vice versa; they had kept the shared secret of their parentage from the rest of the Crusaders for years, out of necessity in the beginning and out of habit as the decades passed. Whole generations of pilots had come and gone again without ever learning who their leader and her crew chief really were.

But now, things were different. She didn't fully know how the rest of her squadron would react to this demonstration of long-term distrust, despite their long association. Of all the members of the Southern Cross Crusaders who had been part of the organization over the years, these last six had endured the longest and been through some of the toughest missions together. Would that be enough for them to overlook this level of perceived betrayal, let alone just having it dumped in their laps like that? And did she deserve it, even if they did?

Her helmet speakers crackled as a direct line opened from Sparks' cockpit. "Hey, boss?"

"Mm?" Komilia shook her head, and returned the call. "Yes, Carella?"

"Look. Me and the others, we discussed things on the way in." There was a pause, and then Carella Sansen went on. "We don't care what your name is, or where you came from. You covered our asses out in the black, and made us better pilots - better people - than any of us thought we could be. You had your reasons, and times back then sucked. We just wanted you to know, before you start beating yourself over it, you are the commander of the Crusaders, and we'll follow you all the way."

Komilia blinked, blushed, and was quietly thankful she had yet to remove her helmet. "Thank you, Carella," she replied in a near whisper, honestly touched.

"Null persperation," Sparks replied offhandedly. "Oh, by the way, looks like the hangar crew's wheeling a ladder over. I better get off the line before I get really mushy."

Komilia laughed, her self-pitying mood broken by Carella's blunt words and good humor. "All right. See you deckside."

With her spirits lifted, Komilia unfastened her seat harness, popped the canopy, and removed her helmet. She stood up in her seat and saw a couple of Cianbro techs rolling an egress ladder to her Valkyrie's cockpit. Smiling to herself, she hopped lightly over the coaming and descended, taking her helmet with her.

She exchanged pleasantries with the technicians, gave them permission to service her ride, and then turned to regard the rest of the hangar. It was open to space on one side, wide enough to admit a large bulk freighter lengthwise if need be, and possessing sufficent depth towards the inner bulkheads. Off in the distance she could see the Flarefire being similarly tended to.

"So, boss," asked a voice from behind her, "where's the welcoming commitee?"

"Hm?" Komilia tilted her head up and back. Behind her loomed the towering form of Carole Greenhouse (the pilot of the squadron's Variable Glaug), all eight and a half feet of her.

"If I were to wager a guess, Xmas, I'd say it's coming this way," replied Sparks, having finally disembarked from her own fighter, a lovingly maintained 2015-vintage SF-14H Space Tomcat.

"Oh? Oh, now I see them," the taller woman answered. From the inner bulkhead wall, a large service door had opened, admitting a group of technicians, security guards, and in the lead a serious-looking young woman clad in a Cianbro fleet uniform/business suit. "I can see the resemblance." Xmas looked down at her squadron leader. "You're both short." She grinned.

"Hah," Komilia replied. She shook her head and squared her shoulders. With her pilots behind her, she purposefully strode towards the woman in the lead of the Cianbro employees.

The two women stood straight and tall as the two groups came to a halt, facing each other. They saluted in unison, looking each other square in the eye as they did so.

"Captain Sterling..."

"Lieutenant Commander Sterling..."

There was a moment's silence, and then all formality was dropped as Komilia dropped her helmet to the decking and moved forward to seize her younger sister Emilia in a powerful hug. "Oh God it's been too damn long, Emi," she breathed, reassuring herself of the reality of the situation by their mutual contact.

Emilia smiled, willingly returning the hug. "No damn fooling, sis. This has been way overdue."

A voice from the Crusader line spoke up. "What, no hug for me? I feel forgotten and neglected. I'm crushed." The other Crusaders blinked, looking over at Erin Chao, who was grinning broadly as she watched the scene.

Snorting, Emilia seperated from Komilia to make room for their mutual sister. Erin Chao, still grinning, handed off her helmet to Carella Sansen. As she crossed to Emilia, she pulled back a cuff of her jumpsuit and gently squeezed a point on her exposed wrist. Her hair color lightened and reddened, changing from its unprepossessing brown to a much more noticeable magenta, as Therèse Sterling stepped forward to join in the mutual sibling appreciation society.

Behind the three Sterlings, one of the Crusaders, a shaggy-haired man whose bangs seemed to cover his eyes, elbowed his nearest wingmate in the side. "Toldja. Pay up, man," he said with a grin.

Clean-cut Karl Klein sighed, rolled his eyes, and slipped Harry Watterson a 20-salcred note.

R-minus 13:22:51:00.00

Komilia, Therèse, and Emilia, now reunited, sized up the Flarefire, which was still being serviced at the opposite end of the hangar.

"Hrm. I wonder what's taking Mylene so long to disembark?" Emilia wondered.

"Beats me, Emi," answered Therèse. "She's probably waiting to make a big entrance. You know how these big-time rock stars get - egos the size of Jupiter and all that."

"Hah. You and Komilia would have a better idea than me; it was you two who followed her off Cybertron, remember?"

"Details, details..."

Further conversation was cut off as the hanger's alarms once again came to life. Komilia glanced at Emilia, who didn't look all that surprised at the interruption. "More guests arriving?"

"Mm-hmm," Emilia nodded. "One of whom you should be familiar with."

Komilia raised an eyebrow and turned around, and then smiled as she could spot two figures out in the distance of space, rapidly approaching the hangar. As they closed in, they became more recognizable to those assembled, prompting surprise from the Crusaders and satisfaction from the Sterlings.

They looked like two suits of powered space armor, massive and powerfully built, scaled for giants to wear them. For that indeed was what they were: Queadluun-Rau Meltrandi battlesuits, the elite armored weapons of the Zentraedi/Meltrandi fleets. Painted green, grey, and white, they smoothly slipped through the hangar's atmospheric retention field and touched down on the decking remarkly lightly for their size.

To Komilia and Therèse's surprise, one of them was carrying what looked to be a Zentraedi cargo container in its arms. They glanced over at Emilia, who seemed to be expecting this. "Wait for it..." she answered them, and the two older Sterlings looked back at the scene playing out in front of them.

The Queadluun-Rau with the container kneeled down and carefully set it on the decking, as if it had been carrying a cargo of fragile treasures within. It pressed a control, and a hatch opened slowly on the side of the container, lowering down to the hangar floor.

"Finally," a voice from within spoke. A voice that was familiar to Komilia, Therèse, and Emilia. "It took you two long enough."

The armored Meltrandi who had entered the hangar bay looked sheepish, if indeed it was possible for massive space battlesuits to carry off such an expression. They then straightened and saluted the diminutive figure that that was now exiting the container.

"Very sorry, Vice Admiral!" one of them declared in a resounding, amplified, but unmistakably female voice.

The woman who exited returned the salute as she glanced up at the armors. "At ease, lieutenants." She turned and surveyed the hangar bay with fey teal eyes. "Now then..." Her eyes set upon the gathered Sterlings, and then with a satisfied nod, she hopped over the edge of the lowered hatch.

Within moments, the woman reached the gathering crowd, her uniform's short cape and swallowtail jacket trailing behind her as she walked. She strode directly for Emilia Sterling, who looked quietly amused at the woman's formality, but she returned her crisp salute with respect.

"Captain Emilia Sterling, I thank you for allowing me to board. On behalf of Meltrandi Battlegroup Quevillon, I hope only for the greatest success for our combined endeavor."

"Vice Admiral Xeralia Fallyna Sterling, it is an honor and a pleasure to welcome you aboard." With that, Emilia dropped her formal posture and grinned. "Now, stop standing so straight, damn you. I'm getting a crick in the back just looking at you!"

Xeralia laughed, dropping her own rigid formality. She stretched her arms back, then rubbed at her shoulders, removing her half-cape in the process. "The first days downsized are always a pain." Folding her cape over her arm, she turned and smiled at Therèse and Komilia. "Breetai's balls, it's good to see you two again."

The two women looked surprised, but not unpleasantly so. "Xera! You got micronized!" blurted Therèse, even as Xeralia started exchanging hugs with her adoptive family members.

The shorter woman snorted, even as she hugged her younger sibling. "And this surprises you why, Terry?"

"Um, well..." the magenta-haired woman looked embarrased, returning the hug. "It's just... so sue me, I usually expect you to be taller."

"Bah. As much fun as it is to tower over you all, it makes it somewhat difficult to exchange hugs. I mean, you're such fragile Microns. I wouldn't want to accidentally crush you." She winked over her shoulder at Therèse as she let go and then turned to hug Komilia.

Komilia smiled and ruffled Xeralia's curly scarlet hair. "Practical, as always."

"Hey, I learned from the best." She let go, then looked around the hangar bay. "So, where's the youngest of our clan? And what about the Legios Twins? I know we got a message acknowledgement from those two before we left Reflex Point."

"If you wanted to know where I was, all you had to do was ask!" proclaimed another familiar voice. The four women turned, and this time it was Emilia and Xeralia's turn to be surprised, while Komilia and Therèse savored the chance to be smug. Striding towards them was Mylene Flare Sterling, their youngest sister, standing tall and proud as she led her bandmembers across the hangar bay.

"... Good God, Mylene, what happened to you?" Emilia exclaimed, her eyes wide, taking in the sight. All of them had as a matter of course purchased Mylene Flare's albums over the past decades; even if she wasn't their sibling, they were still strong, high-powered rock albums. They all had some idea of how well the pink-haired singer had grown up.

But seeing their youngest sister on the cover of a magazine or the video of an interview was one thing. Seeing her in the flesh was another matter entirely.

Mylene grinned, and did a quick concert turn. "I grew up! You like?" she said with a wink. Clad in a formfitting red spacer's jumpsuit, streaked with orange and yellow 'go-faster' stripes along the arms and sides, Mylene was definitely no longer the short-and-cute fourteen-year-old that Emilia and Xeralia's minds remembered. Her long pink hair was pulled back into a ponytail, but arranged so as not to get entangled with the guitar slung on her back. She wore fingerless leather gloves, sturdy boots, a belt with various pouches and technological bits hooked on it...

... and was that a holster with a WSTE-M combat shotgun Emilia saw strapped to Mylene's right thigh? Yes, she believed it was, and there was even a small row of cartridges strapped along the opposite side, for quick reloading in a fight.

Xeralia disengaged from the rest and walked a slow circuit around Mylene, taking in her new look with a critical eye.

"Hrrrmm... Not bad, not bad, little sis. Clean-cut, efficent, full range of motion, fast-draw on the holster... capable of slaying any humanoid male lifeform within a hundred feet by looks alone. I approve." Xeralia grinned, looking up at the pink-haired singer. "But where's the dust speck, Mylene?"

" 'Dust speck' ?" Mylene blinked, then realization dawned in her eyes. "Oh! You mean Guvava? He's right here." She reached up to the neck of her jumpsuit, grabbed the tab of the zipper, and pulled it down halfway to the middle of her chest. She reached in and pulled out a small, brown-furred bundle with slowly opening eyes. The creature blinked and yawned, letting out a series of drowsy squeaks. "Here," Mylene said as she handed the rodent to Xeralia. "Be careful, he's getting on in years."

Xeralia nodded and began to gently scratch Guvava, who responded positively to the treatment. His fur was a little grey in some places, but the creature was still comforting to hold. With Guvava in her hands and her smiling sister nearby, Xeralia found that she could cope with the changes the youngest had undergone over the years.

Emilia, having observed the exchange between the two, wasn't doing quite as well. "... My baby sister... has cleavage. My worldview is shattered."

Mylene smirked. "I see you missed my last Rolling Stone cover, then."


Mylene laughed, waving her hands to try and calm her older sister. "Relax, relax, it was tasteful!"

Emilia groaned, putting her face in her hands. "We're dead. We're SO dead. Mom's gonna kill ALL of us."

R-minus 13:22:23:00.00

Emilia was spared further mortification in front of her siblings, crewmembers, and guests by a bleeping chime from the waist pocket of her uniform. Letting out a sound of relief, her hand darted into the pocket and pulled out her sleek company-issue dataphone. Shifting immediately back into command mode (much to the amusement of her other siblings), she spoke briskly into the phone as she held it up to her ear. "Sterling here. Go ahead."

There was a momentary pause as she listened intently to the voice on the other end, and her brow furrowed slightly. "Can you get an identification on it?"

The other Sterling siblings looked at each other curiously, not about to interrupt Emilia's conversation - save for Xeralia, who was looking curiously at a communicator of her own, which she had just withdrawn from her uniform jacket. She opened it, then started speaking in Meltranese to somebody on the other side. Not that it mattered - all of the siblings knew their mother's native tongue. From what they could tell by listening in, it was a conversation along the same lines as what Emilia was conducting with her own officers.

"... I see. Transmit confirmation code thirty-three-delta-niner. ... All right, that's the correct response. ... It's confirmed? ... Good. Give them an approach vector to U/C Hangar Five. We'll be waiting. Sterling out." Emilia pulled the dataphone away from her ear, just in time to see Xeralia lowering her communicator and putting it away. "You too?"

Xeralia nodded in reply. "Mmm-hmm."

Mylene looked between the two of them. "Okay, okay, you two, what the hell was that about?"

Emilia tsked. "Language, baby sister..."

Mylene rolled her eyes and stuck out her tongue.

Xeralia chuckled at the sight. "It would appear, Mylene, that the last two of our number have finally arrived - "

"Oh! Well, that's good, at least..."

" - and they brought something rather bigger than we anticipated," Emilia continued. "And here it comes now."

"Huh?" Mylene blinked, turned, and her eyes widened. She was joined by Komilia and Therèse, and the three of them watched as a starship, long and proportionately narrow but more angular in line than the Zentraedi vessels, came into to view, slowing as it pulled alongside the Frank Lloyd Wright. It was close enough so that all assembled could see the gun turret emplacements atop the foredeck in front of the command tower and those below the keel, the multiple brawny sublight thrusters jutting from the tail end, and the rectangular gunmetal hatches that protected the hangar bays on its side.

Everybody there who had at least a modicum of military space training recognized the design, but Therèse was the first one to speak up about it. "Hey, an Ikazuchi. You don't see those as often these days."

Komilia peered at the side of the starship, focussing on its identifying marks. Her blue-green eyebrows went up with surprise as she recognized the logo and the name that accompanied it. " 'Mars Division' ? That has to be Maia's idea of a joke."

Therèse blinked at her older sister's words, and turned slightly to face her. "I dunno... I've heard rumors, Komi. Remember that job we had on Lazerian IV?"

Komilia looked thoughtful, trawling through her memories. "Huh. Now that you mention it..."

Xeralia then spoke up, interrupting the eldest's thoughts. "Interesting ship name, though. I sense Miranda's hand in that," she observed, indicating the letters painted in gold script above the "Mars Division" triangle emblem.

Komila considered the name spelled out by those letters, and drew a blank. "Oh? How?"

"Voronda Elendil means 'Faithful Elf-Friend' in one of those Elvish languages," Xarelia explained. "Mir's probably referring to the psuedo-historical High King Elendil, who remained faithful to his people's original principles. He escaped the fall of his homeland with his loyal followers when the rest of the Númenóreans succumbed to darkness and corruption and doomed their island home."

"And how, exactly, do you know this, Xera?"

"There's a Tolkien club on my flagship. Sometimes I sit in on their meetings."


Mylene pointed out towards the approaching carrier, interrupting Komilia and Xeralia's conversation. "Hey, look, one of the side hangars is opening - here they come!"

The group turned and watched as a dark speck departed from the side of the Ikazuchi, the only real indication of its existence being the blue backlighting of its fusion thrusters. The hangar deck's alarms sounded once more as the Shadow Legios slipped effortlessly through the atmosphere field, pivoted 180 degrees, and touched down on the decking with very little noise.

The canopy of the Alpha popped open, releasing an armored figure who descended the deployed boarding ladder. At the same time, the Beta's bomb-bay doors opened, allowing several other people to disembark. The Legios's two pilots (both clad in black CVR-3F armor) got together, quickly conferred between themselves, then headed over to the Sterling siblings. Once they were there, they removed their helmets in unison.

"Lieutenant Commander, Captain, Vice-Admiral, etcetera," the purple-haired, purple-eyed woman in the lead announced with a grin, "on behalf of the Mars Division, I'd just like to say 'Let's get this party started!'"

Her companion and co-pilot added with a smile, "The Fellowship of the Mars Division thanks you all for your kind words of support and invitation. We apologize if it was a little more than you were expecting to arrive." She bowed to the siblings, letting her braided green hair fall free from where it had been coiled and nestled at the nape of her neck.

Emilia laughed and pulled her two older sisters forward to be hugged. "Hah! You think that matters, you two? Especially with what Xera and I brought to the table? C'mere, you..."

The siblings laughed at the sight of Miranda Sterling looking profoundly apologetic, while Maia Sterling clapped her fraternal twin sister on the shoulder. Hugs were exchanged all around, and although Maia and Miranda were wearing CVR, nobody seemed to mind.

"Well, you two seem to have done well for yourselves." Therèse gestured out towards the starship. "Where'd you get that Ikazuchi?"

Maia grinned. "Found it!"

Therèse directed a dubious glance towards the twins. "Uh-huh."

"Honest, swear to Ilúvatar," Miranda replied. "It was a serious windfall for all of us, and we decided to put it to good use for the cause." She gestured behind herself at the other passengers of the Beta, who were now approaching.

"We just couldn't let you all know about it 'cause of the need for operational security and all that." Maia looked mildly apologetic. "That's why whenever we made contact with you all, it was just me and Mir in the Legios. Safer that way."

Komilia nodded, understanding all too well the situation the seven sisters had found themselves in over the past 85 years. "You're forgiven, Maia." She sized up the newcomers (two men and two women), and her expression became intent as she studied one of them. The younger man in the group looked unnervingly familiar, but she knew for a fact that she'd never seen him before in her life. "Hey, Maia?"


"Who's that guy in the mint-green CVR-3?"

Maia looked hesitant for a moment, and then plunged ahead as said personage came up to the two women. "Oh, hey, Komilia, this is... uh... Scott Bernard."

Komilia was speechless. She said, "."

The man, who had dark blue eyes, close-cut dark-blue hair, and a serious mien, smiled slightly as he extended his hand. "Pleased to meet you, Lt. Commander Sterling. I've heard quite a lot about you from your sisters."


Blinking, Scott Bernard looked over at Maia. "Commander, is she always like this?"

"Not usually," replied Therèse, answering before Maia could do so. "It's just been a rather busy day for her. She's still coping with all the new inputs." She grinned and nudged Komilia in the side.

"Aaah!" Startled, Komilia snapped back to the here-and-now. "Ah. Heh." She ran a hand through her blue-green hair, and then shook Scott's offered hand. "Sorry about that. It's a pleasure to meet you, Lt. Commander Bernard."

Bernard chuckled. His grip was firm, but not overpowering, a good match for Komilia's. "It's all right. I seem to have that effect on people," he added ruefully, glancing at Maia and Miranda. Miranda quietly giggled, while Maia rolled her eyes.

"I sense there's a story here..." Xeralia commented, her teal eyes twinkling.

"More like an entire novel," Maia muttered under her breath.

Xera grinned. "I look forward to hearing it."

Looking at her assembled siblings, Emilia raised her voice to get their attention. "Well, ladies... now that we're all here, shall we do something about correcting that little oversight?" She smiled, and gestured towards the inner service door. "I've already informed my staff that we'll be dining tonight in Conference One..."

Mylene smiled back. "Iiii think I can be convinced of that, right, Guvava?" Mylene's rodent pet perked up at the mention of food, squeaking eagerly.

"I second that motion," added Maia.

"I concur, the motion passes," Komilia declared. "Though, Emi? I don't suppose there's some space on this ship of yours for my pilots to bunk? It's been a long trip, and if they don't get fed, they'll have my head on a platter."

"Ditto that for my bandmembers and crew," Mylene added. "You guys good for some quality downtime?" The answer from Mylene's group was a resounding positive. "That's a yes!"

Miranda, meanwhile, looked at the four who had accompanied her and Maia to the Cianbro ship. "It's up to you guys; you didn't have to come along, but with Scott and Vince here, you can get back easily enough."

One of them, a beautiful-but-deadly-looking woman with upswept lime-green hair, wearing black and dark-pink CVR-3F armor, directed a questioning glance at the other woman, a redhead who happened to be clothed casually in jeans, blouse, and leather jacket. Although they didn't look much alike, something about them reminded Komilia strongly of Maia and Miranda - somehow, they were related, and connected in ways that were more than physical. After a moment, she realized that they had the same dark-scarlet eyes.

"I believe we shall remain here," announced the redheaded woman, looking around the hangar bay with wide red eyes. "This vessel is fascinating; I'd like to learn more about it."

The lime-haired woman nodded briskly, then turned her attention to Maia. "Commander, Ariel and I will stay here, for the time being." She smiled slightly. "To be honest, I doubt I'd be able to drag her away from this starship. At least not until she's explored three quarters of it."

The redhead blinked, and looked embarrased. "Sera! You know it's not like that..."

"Of course not, your majesty..." Sera's smile became more pronounced and teasing, and the redhead looked cutely perturbed.

Therèse leaned close to Miranda. "('Your majesty'?)"

Miranda glanced back, then replied in a sheepish whisper, "(It's a really, really long story.)"

Therèse slowly nodded, saving her questions for later. Instead, she looked over at Emilia, who had once again pulled out her dataphone and was now coordinating accomadations with her staff. After a couple of minutes, she put the phone away and looked at the assembled crowd.

"All right! I've just made arrangements for you all to stay in Residence Block Three for the time being - it's got good facilities and a private common dining area and recreation hall. Officer Tyrone here will be your guide; feel free to ask him if you need anything."

One of the Cianbro employees stepped forward and introduced himself as the officer in question; once he was sure that he had everybody from the three groups accounted for, he started to lead them into the depths of the starship.

Emilia watched them go, nodded with satisfaction, turned to face her sisters, and smiled. "Now then, if you'd all follow me, I think we have some catching up to do."

Komilia smiled. "Lead the way."

With that, the seven Sterling sisters left the hangar bay.

"Reunion, Part 1: Rendevous" - An Exile Mini-Story by Philip Jeremy Moyer
Reunion Mini-Serial Plotted by Philip J. Moyer
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Thursday, June 20, 2374
Zeta Cygni System
Cygnus Sector
1830 hours GST

R-minus 13:17:30:26.00

The Architect-class constructor Frank Lloyd Wright, like her sister ships in the Cianbro Corporation fleet, was designed for the long haul. Not only did she carry the smaller transports and shuttles for moving crews, supplies, and heavy equipment, and the construction labors and security Destroids for use on-site, she needed to provide refining, manufacturing, processing, growing, and living space for a job site's crew for months or even years on end. She was part mobile factory and part office complex, ready to meet the construction needs of an ever-changing galaxy head-on, ably providing the flexibility needed to seize unexpected opportunities and capitalize on them, embodying the spirit of Cianbro's corporate culture that had endured since the 20th century.

As such, the ship contained recreation spaces, workers' dormitories, cafeterias, medical bays, repair depots, engineering and design workshops, and classily appointed executive field offices. One such room on the executive deck was a stately conference room, long and narrow, flanked on its longer edges with wide shuttered viewports, capped on its ends with turbolifts and wall displays. It was made to impress without being ostentatious, an ideal room from which to make presentations to clients, arrange contracts and accounts, and to discuss other serious matters of import for the company.

This evening, it served a more intimate purpose.

The seven daughters of Maximilian and Miria Fallyna Sterling sat around the room's conference table, savoring the meal provided by the starship's catering staff, trading stories and enjoying each other's company. All of them had managed, by various means, to keep in contact with each other over the past decades, but it was rare for all of them to be in the same place at the same time. The masks of their assumed identities were removed, and they'd be damned if they weren't going to take advantage of this opportunity.

Tales were told, gossip was exchanged, sibling banter and military smacktalk flowed like a savory wine among the sisters. Old boyfriends and lovers were brought up, compared, and critiqued. Gripes were vented about the workplace and the galaxy in general. No one was exempt, and nothing was left out. Laughter and tears took equal precedence among them. Even Mylene's pet, Guvava, got in on the fun, mooching food from anybody who was willing.

But as the night pressed on, and the remains of dinner and dessert were cleared away, the conversations slowed. Glances were exchanged between them, and more than once, a gaze lingered at the empty seats at the opposite ends of the conference table. Despite themselves, the Sterling sisters had unconsciously avoided taking those places, feeling it to be an imposition to the two who would have sat there, had they been present.

Their parents, Max and Miria Sterling.

Maia Sterling took a sip of her beer and finally broke the building uncomfortable silence. "OK, girls, I think before we all descend into emo maudlin depression mode, we'd best discuss what we're really here for."

A quiet chuckle circled around the gathered women, their spirits mildly buoyed by Maia's bluntness. Komilia Sterling nodded, a slight smile gracing her face, and saluted her younger sibling with her glass of spring water. "I concur and second this motion. Any objections?"

The rest of her sisters gave her a combined 'yaright?' look that threatened to overwhelm her. Komilia chuckled, her eyes brightening. "I'll take that as a 'no', then. Emi, Xera, it's your show."

Emilia nodded, and tabbed a control near her end of the conference table. Thick shutters slipped down over the viewports, and the lighting became more subdued as Xeralia got out of her seat, holding a data card that she had pulled from her uniform.

"All right. Approximately three weeks ago, galactic time, another Zentraedi deep space probe appeared in Cybertron's local space. As in 2288, its Reflex core and fold drive were nearly depleted. Again, it was transmitting on an old WDF frequency, and its opening instructions were enciphered. The Autobots recovered the probe and alerted the Zentraedi garrison to its arrival. Lord Exedore was on the planet, and I was recalled by fold-shuttle to attend the opening."

"Which wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been on Cybertron at the same time, handling some business for Cianbro," Emilia interjected with a quirked smile.

"Indeed," Xeralia acknowledged with a nod of her head and a smile of her own. "In any case, the probe's message was extracted successfully and we reviewed it. After discussing the matter between Emilia, Lord Exedore, Optimus Prime, and myself, we decided to go into action. Emilia made some arrangements with Cianbro, I returned to the Quelquira-Nuur to prepare the battlegroup for transit, and Lord Exedore forwarded our intentions to the rest of you."

The siblings nodded. This much was known. "So, why gather all of us here?" asked Miranda Sterling. "I mean, if Breetai, Mom, and Dad are coming back, there's much better places for them to do it. Zeta Cee may have been a ghost system the past few decades, but it's hardly off the beaten path."

"We wondered that at first, but the orders Lord Breetai provided were specific. We omitted them from the general summons just in case of enemy interception, until you all could get here." Xeralia idly tapped the data card against the sleeve of her opposite arm as she said this.

Komilia arched an eyebrow and sat up straighter in her chair. "Sounds like you're worried about this becoming more than just a reunion, Xera..."

"Let's just say I wanted to keep any rampant rumors from spreading. Suffice it to say, the actual message should help clarify things."

The eldest sister nodded in acknowledgment. "All right. Let's see it."

Xeralia returned the nod and turned towards the wall display. She activated a panel, inserted the data card into its universal reader, and entered her security clearance codes. The display fuzzed with a burst of audio and visual static, there was a brief display of Zentraedi commcode and cipher information, and then words in Standard appeared across the screen, accompanied by the stentorian voice of Admiral Breetai Kridanik:

Domillan Exedore Folmo, Zentraedi High Command;
Group Captain Xeralia Fallyna Sterling, Meltrandi Battlegroup Quevillon.

Xeralia paused the playback for a moment and explained, "Breetai has no way of knowing I've been promoted two levels since we last spoke." The others nodded and made get-on-with-it gestures.

Admiral Breetai Kridanik, Kridanik Fleet.

Effective immediately:

* Suspend current Battlegroup Quevillon patrols and return to Cybertron.
* Resume contact with the children of Maximilian and Miria Fallyna Sterling (list appended).
* Battlegroup Quevillon is to proceed to the Zeta Cygni system, Cygnus sector, under the command of Xeralia Fallyna Sterling.
* Secure Zeta Cygni star system, to the best of your ability, before 0000 hours, July 3, 2374.
* Assume holding positions within the inner radius of the Zeta Cygni Kuiper Belt by 1200 hours, July 4, 2374.
* Await further instructions from Zentraedi Command.

All hail the WDF/Zentraedi Alliance!

The message finished with more comm and cipher information, and then the display went black. Xeralia removed the data card and turned to face the group.

There was a moment's quiet as each woman considered what they had just heard.

"Well. That was remarkably... succinct," Mylene Sterling said, breaking the silence. "I wonder why they're so insistent about us not getting so close?"

"We wondered that as well." Xeralia stepped away from the far wall, returning to end of the conference table. "Emilia and I discussed the message's contents with the Autobots; the most plausible theory we came up with is that - if indeed the Kridanik Fleet is returning to known space - there is a high possibility of displacement anomalies as the local gravimetric curve undergoes the strain of a 10,000-ship mass spacefold. Add to that a possibility of misfold due to bit errors in translation calculations, as well as a chance of enemy forces pursuing them in the fold wake, I can understand their desire to keep us well out of range of the actual fold jump."

Therèse Sterling made a thoughtful 'hrm' and spoke up. "As you say, that's a plausible theory; but that's still basing it on a lot of 'ifs'. And while I agree that I'd be damn glad to get Mom and Dad home, that's still a pretty big assumption. And it still doesn't address why they'd want to stage a return at Zeta Cygni, instead of along the Galactic Rim or Coreward Frontier."

The battlegroup commander shrugged, looking momentarily sheepish. "Well, it was the best we could come up with that would account for them requesting a full battlegroup at a certain time. Besides, the timing of this message... it's reasonably close to the estimates Dad gave us in his first message."

"This is true," Therèse conceded with a smile and a wave of her free hand. "That doesn't explain why you, though - " (at this she pointed at Emilia) " - felt the need to bring the lead element for an entire damn constructor fleet. That's a little much for a family reunion, isn't it?"

"I was wondering that as well," Maia added. "I mean, sure, we're not entirely subtle either -- but an Ikazuchi has a lot lower profile than an Architect."

At this, Emilia grinned. "Well, look at it this way. If indeed the Kridanik Fleet is returning, that's 10,000 Zentraedi ships... reappearing all at once... after 80 years and more of hard travel. Now, I don't know about you, dear sister, but I figure there's opportunity here. The Zentraedi are not known to be the best repair engineers in the galaxy." Maia chuckled and nodded, while Emilia turned her attention to Xeralia. "No offense."

"None taken," Xeralia dryly replied, though there was a twinkle in her eyes which belied her otherwise stern expression.

"So." Komilia considered her sisters, one at a time, then looked back at the now-blank display. "You think we can pull this off? That's a lot of space to check over and not a lot of time."

Emilia and Xeralia nodded in unison.

"With our combined efforts, split between Xera's battlegroup, my own resource handlers, Maia's 'Mars Division' to fill in the spaces, and your Crusaders to take point and check the gaps, we should be good to go before the first deadline passes," Emilia said.

"Sounds good." With those words, the eldest Sterling got up from her seat, her expression solidifying into one of firm determination. "If anybody's got anything else to add, now the time."

Mylene raised her hand, and grinned. "Well, I figure while you all are playing bloodhound, I might as well make myself useful, and see what I can do about getting a summary whipped up for the returnees. I'm no Derek Bacon, but I think I can put together something appropriate in two weeks."

Maia glanced over at the youngest Sterling with a skeptical look. "Is this going to be made into epic poetry, a tone poem, or a rock opera, Mylene?"

"It can be all of them if you want it to, Maia," Mylene rejoined with a smirk.

Komilia grinned. She could see that her siblings had been refreshed with a new resolve, a new sense of purpose, looking forward to the tasks ahead - for she had the same feelings herself. "Good enough. Ladies? Let's get to work."

And so they did.

"Reunion, Part 2: Resolve" - An Exile Mini-Story by Philip Jeremy Moyer
Reunion Mini-Serial Plotted by Philip J. Moyer
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
(c) 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Friday, June 21, 2374
Zeta Cygni System
Cygnus Sector
0100 GST

R-minus 13:11:00:00.00

Searching for things in deep space is one of the most thankless of tasks for any modern space force. When judged against the yawning blackness of the void, even the most massive of starships is almost inconsequential in comparison. In essence it becomes a case of comparing against relative scales. The larger something is when compared against its environment, the easier it is to find. One just has to not be overwhelmed by the daunting sameness surrounding it.

There are ways to finesse the problem, of course: using special sensors to scan for unique energy signatures, using search patterns to optimize the coverage of your sweeps, and other techniques. It also doesn't hurt to have a lot of manpower to throw at the problem.

Especially when one is trying to find manufactured probes among the billions of rocky iceballs that make up a normal solar system's Oort cloud, and one doesn't have a lot of time to do it...

R-minus 13:05:15:45.23

"Now entering search grid 521-33-12," reported a Zentraedi Regult Tactical Scout Pod pilot as his sensor team followed the brawny form of Karl "Calvin" Klein's VA-1 Judicator through yet another of the thousands of designated grid locations in the cloud. Several grids over (which translated to several hundred thousand miles), another Scout Pod team was following Harry "Hobbes" Watterson's Myrmidon Longprobe on the same mission.

"Roger, Scout 12," answered Klein, checking his own sensor boards. With his Judicator primed and ready, he stood a very good chance of taking out any GENOM probes hiding among the cometary debris before their own sensors could pick up the energy signatures of the patrols that were scouring the Oort cloud. "If you pick anything up, let me know immediately."

"Roger, Crusader Five," replied the Zentraedi pilot. Then he fell silent as he and his team went to work. Klein savored the quiet for a while, thinking his private thoughts and listening to a soft classical music track, when suddenly the squad's shared channel crackled to life with raw electric guitar riffs.

People talkin' but they just don't know,
What's in my heart, and why I love you so.
I love you baby like a miner loves gold.
Come on sugar, let the good times roll. Hey!

Karl grimaced and checked his display for the source, though he had a good idea who was pushing the old-time Earth rock to the group whether they wanted it or not. He pushed to talk and yelled at his teammate. "Will you turn that disrespectful junk OFF!?"

"Respect the classics, man! It's Hendrix!" Hobbes rejoined over the search squadron's channel.

"I dunno, I kinda like it," opined the Zentraedi technician leading the other scout pod team. "Hold it - just picked up a refined metals trace and signal transmission. Initiating jamming and forwarding probe location, Crusader Six."

"Excellent! Rock ON!" With that, the Longprobe kicked in the thrust and closed in on the target. When he gained the correct range, Hobbes started firing at the distant probe with his ion cannons, disabling it before putting it out of its digital misery with his lasers.

Karl sighed. It looked like it was shaping up to be a very long day...

R-minus 13:04:20:22.15

Elsewhere, Carole "Xmas" Greenhouse's Variable Glaug fighter swooped through another search grid, followed by the larger, trailing-spiked form of a Zentraedi Quel-Quallie AWACS ship. Inside it, three Zentraedi watched multiple displays that took advantage of the ship's powerful sensors.

"Just let me know when we find another one, boys," Xmas's voice crackled over their shared commline. "I'm feeling on a roll today."

The three Zentraedi chuckled and glanced at each other. The first replied, "You'll be the first to know it."

Indeed, within a half hour, the Quel-Quallie had picked up another GENOM sensor probe, just within their scan range. With its powerful sensors, they could detect the range of the probe's own scanners, which weren't quite as strong and hadn't picked up their existence. "Crusader Three, we have another contact. Forwarding targeting data."

"Got it... Yep, I see it now." The Variable Glaug moved over slightly as its pilot considered possible firing solutions.

"Bet you can't stick it, Miss Xmas," the second Zentraedi challenged from his own console, watching for any reaction from the distant probe. The third monitored the local space for any possible communications traffic.

There was a grin in Carole's voice as she replied, "Watch me."

With those words, her fighter's underslung heavy particle cannon charged up. She held her breath, lining up the shot, and pressed the trigger. The frame of the Variable Glaug shuddered as a bolt of contained artificial lightning lashed through the intervening space, vaporizing several cometary masses along the way before spearing the GENOM probe and shredding it entirely.

"HAH!" Carole exclaimed.

"Good shot, Miss Xmas," answered the first Zentraedi, who then glanced at the third technician in the ship. "Any response?"

"Checking buffered traffic... Yes!" he said with a grin. "We got a transmission vector as it sent its out-of-service signal."

"Excellent," replied Xmas. "Get some more of these taken out, and I think before the day's over, we should have their relay station pinpointed."

"The sooner the better," the second Zentraedi commented. "This is getting expensive."

Carole laughed, and they moved onto another search grid.

Saturday, June 22, 2374
0730 GST

R-minus 12:04:30:00.00

Donnell Reagan, sensor technician first class, GENOM Intelligence Division, yawned, scratched his side, and wondered not for the first time in his life just who among the higher-ups he'd managed to piss off to get this dead-end assignment. It wasn't that the listening post for the Zeta Cygni system wasn't important; technically it was, for even now it kept watch for any signs of activity in the former nerve center of the Wedge Defense Force.

But the base's heyday had been over eight decades ago. Ever since then, traffic had rather significantly decreased. There was the occasional prospector who drifted through, decided the asteroid belt was not worth the bother to scan (never mind attempting to mine) and left. Sometimes some pirates would choose another asteroid to serve as a temporary base, at least until whoever was hunting them decided to arrive and chase them off. None of that mattered to the staff of the hidden listening post, and they pretty much left them alone. They were only here to watch for any signs that the Wedge Defense Force was trying to stagger back to its feet - and by this point in history, that seemed about as likely as Teddy Roosevelt coming back from the dead.

No, at the present time, the only things available to do at GENOM INTEL Post 4412-31-7 were to check up on the state of the long-range probes in the Oort Cloud, forward any worthwhile telemetry back to the home office, surf the web, play a video game or two, watch bad movies, dream of being anywhere else in the galaxy, and play with oneself. Even the post's Vulture boomer fighters, stored in two hidden hangars underneath the surface of the asteroid, were bored. That's how bad it was.

"How's it looking today, Donnell?" asked one of the other current members of the listening post as he entered the central monitor nexus. Reagan grunted, and looked back over his shoulder. He didn't particularly like Ruben Marshall (whose time would be up in a few months and he very well knew it), but it would have required too much effort to do more than be mildly irked at him.

"Same as before, really. What'd you expect?" He gestured with a handy chopstick at the array of screens that surrounded the room. "Got some probe failures in the cloud again. Before you ask, yes, they've been noted, and a request for new ones have been forwarded to your account to be signed off on."

Marshall nodded, and took his own seat nearby. "Good, thanks. Maybe before I get rotated out, corporate supply will actually bother to send us some new ones."

"Probably not," grumbled a bulky-looking man who lurked down in one of the analysis pits. "They've got worse warranties than the ones on the BU-44's." He took a long draw from his beer can, crushed it, and pulled another from the mini refrigerator next to his station and cracked it open.

"Which? The probes, or corporate supply, Julio?"

"Either. Both. Who cares?" Julio chugged down the next beer, and set it aside. "Crappy damn-ass discontinued equipment. Not even worth bothering getting maintenance for."

"Tell me about it," rejoined another, thinner man with a narrow face. "Hey, toss me a beer, willya?"

Without looking, Julio reached into the refrigerator, pulled out another beer, and tossed it to the man. "Here, Ahat. Don't say I never did anything for you."

"You never did before, Julio." With that, Ahat opened the caught beer, and returned his attentions to his own station (and more specifically, the 'adult watching' newsfeed sites).

Reagan shook his head, poked a bit at his Salusian stir fry with his chopsticks, and wondered whether it would require too much energy to get up and head to the microwave to reheat his meal.

R-minus 12:02:03:54.12

"Dwimmerlaik to Palantír, Dwimmerlaik to Palantír, status, over."

"Palantír to Dwimmerlaik, status nominal. The Red Eye watches Osgiliath, the Winged Shadows circle, the guards of Cirith Ungol sleep. Over."

"Roger, Palantír. The Mûmakil sallies forth. Entulessë enters the Gulf of Lhûn. Khamûl, status, over."

"Khamûl to Dwimmerlaik, status nominal. The Uruk-hai assemble at the crossroads. Over."

"...for the hour is come for the oathbreakers: at the Stone of Erech they shall stand again..."

R-minus 12:01:29:43.22

Ruben Marshall paused in reading his corporate email as a small alert flag popped up on his display. He look briefly puzzled, considered the contents of the alert flag, and then raised his voice. "Hey. Donnell."

Donnell Reagan, who was currently watching a pirated Tomadachi samurai flick, didn't bother turning away from his own display. "What?"

"Check out probe 515."

Donnell shifted his head fractionally, where on another display, a grid of lights reported the status of the GENOM probes in the system. It was mostly green, with a handful of yellows and some splotches of red. He peered at the indicator for probe 515, one of the closer ones to the base. "Yeah, it's active. What about it?"

"No, check it out. It's picking up something on the livefeed."

"Huh?" Mildly surprised, Reagan sat up a little straighter in his seat, and summoned up the status board and sensor reports for 515. Through the camera and subether haze, he could make out a vague rectangular object. "Well, I'll be damned. There is something out there."

"So it's not just me, then. Right. Julio, Ahat, see if you can get some better telemetry on that thing, starting with 515 and moving to the others nearby."

At this, the two men down in the analysis pits sat up straighter. Finally released from the constraints of their forced inaction, they worked rapidly and efficiently, using telemetry feeds from other probes to enhance the data.

Within moments, a clearer picture began to coalesce, and Marshall sent it to the monitor nexus's main display so that all could see. What they saw both surprised and puzzled them.

"An Ikazuchi? What the hell's one of those doing way out here?" asked Julio.

"Well, wherever it came from, it isn't doing so hot," replied Ahat. He enhanced the image in several places. With that done, they could see that the ship was listing and moving slowly, the red glow of oxygen fires spilling out from holes in the hull, one main drive thruster dead, another at half power, and the outer guns badly damaged. "It's got the right IFF for the company, though some of the signal is munged." Ahat paused, and turned a few controls. "Wait, I'm getting a hail..."

"Onscreen," Marshall ordered, feeling a measure of purpose and importance returning to him. There was a quick 'pleep', and an inset window appeared on the main display.

The image was one filled with distortion and static, but both Reagan and Marshall could make out the layout of a rather damaged Ikazuchi bridge, smoke and haze in the background. On that bridge, a bloodstained woman wearing glasses, her brown hair pulled back into a bun, was desperately pleading for help.

"-- anyb -- ho ca -- ear us; th -- he GENO -- ration Car -- Alcarondas. -- have take -- avy dama -- werplant -- ailing. -- ase resp -- ed immediate -- To -- body wh -- he -- this is t -- NOM Corpo --"

The video feed abruptly jumped, then cut out. All that was left on the screen was the image of the limping Ikazuchi.

"Message cut off at the source," reported Ahat. "Transmission error."

Marshall grimaced. "Damn! And we don't have anything here to help them..."

Reagan blinked, feeling at a loss. "So, what do we do now?"

"We'd better launch the Vultures; they can do a flyby of the carrier, and if things get really desperate, the survivors can go EVA and ride on them."

"All right." Donnell nodded, and moved to another station. He keyed in a series of commands, flipped some switches, and then removed the covers from a pair of larger red buttons. "Vulture mission specs downloaded. Vulture boomer fighters... " At this he pressed the buttons with his extended index and middle fingers "... released!"

Deep within the asteroid, narrow red optics flared to life. The Vulture boomer fighters, each one of them a flat, efficient, pronged killing machine, stirred in their overhead racks. Within seconds, they had received the mission parameters. Several seconds after that, the charging cables for their blasters and the missile loading feeds were retracted. Then, before a full minute had passed, the overhead restraints were released and the Vultures shot forward.

It was only as he watched the Vultures depart the 'nest' on the main viewer that Donnell Reagan wondered, "... wait a second. Marshall? If this is one of our Ikazuchis... what the hell is it doing out here? And for that matter, how would they even know that there was a company station here to answer them?"

Ruben looked crossly at Donnell. "What does that have to do with anything?"

"Holy - look at that!" Julio exclaimed, pointing at the master display. The two men quickly turned around, then looked on in shock.

The Ikazuchi on the screen was no longer burning. Instead, the fires had abruptly gone out, the ship had righted itself, the glow of the rear sublight thrusters had steadied... and most importantly, the gun turrets had sprung to life, filling the area around it with blazing electric death. The boomer fighters that had flown out to survey the 'wreck' were now dodging for their artificial lives.

As the men in the listening station watched, the main hangar doors on the flanks of the starship slowly opened, and a motley assortment of fightercraft launched and engaged the Vultures. The flashes of armed conflict were clearly visible to the various probes in the system - and it was also clear that the Vultures were on the losing end of the conflict.

Reuben cursed. "Shit! Get on the horn to corporate! We need backup, and fast!"

Donnell grabbed his rarely used headset, slapped it on his head, and tried to open a subspace channel to the nearest operative GENOM station. As soon as the comm system powered up, his ears were abruptly filled with a dour, ominous voice in some language he didn't recognize. It set his nerves on edge and chilled his bones, though he'd never be able to articulate why to the end of his days.

"... Gû kîbum kelkum-ishi, burzum-ishi. Akha - gûm-ishi ashi gurum ..."

He grimaced and yanked the headset off. " - the fuck?!"

At that moment, the room shuddered. "What the hell was that?" demanded Ruben.

Ahat rapidly consulted his boards. "We've got a breach! Detonation in Vulture hangar one!"

"Quick, seal off the area before any fires reach - " Ruben ordered, but before he could finish his sentence, the room shook again, accompanied with a furious clanging and the sound of more explosions.

Then there were several impacts, an abrupt kRuNch, and the main doors of the monitor nexus were blown clear out of their hydraulic tracks. They crashed to the floor, bent and mangled, and figures in dark armor stormed through the smoke of the explosion into the room proper.

In the lead was a man, clad in what had to be a Cyclone-class personal battroid, but of a type unlike any either Ruben or Donnell had ever seen. It was big and dark, with missile tubes on the left forearm, some sort of blaster over the right, and a long blocky unit that flanked the right shoulder. Even more oddly, the black Cyclone had two separate unit flashes: one a stylized, vicious-looking slash of a toothed face in white, the other an inverted triangle with a letter 'M' in the middle.

"Drop your weapons and move away from the consoles!" the man bellowed, even as the rest of his unit stormed the room and took up flanking positions. "Do it NOW!"

Another figure, this one clad in female-issue CVR-3F under a much lighter Bartley Cyclone, gestured with her EP-37, all business. "Quickly, quickly..."

Donnell and Ruben twitched, their hands hovering over their sidearms, locked in indecision. Julio and Ahat twitched as well, but for different reasons than the other two men.

With sudden shuddering, hunching motions, Julio and Ahat roared, their skins shredding as plastic, ceramic, and metal erupted from within. Now revealed as the Bu-55C security boomers that they truly were, they lunged out of the analysis pits towards the Cyclone-clad soldiers.

The soldiers didn't waste any time. The man in the dark Cyclone pulled back slightly and braced himself as the long rectangular weapon on his right side pivoted up and forward. Rapidly steadying it, he grabbed the unit's grip and pulled the trigger.

With an answering crackBOOM, the Cyclone's shoulder-mounted linear induction cannon roared to life, volleying several explosive penetration rounds towards the boomer who had once been Julio. The Julio-boomer was catapulted backward by the shots, his torso utterly shredded and his core functions offline before he hit the projection wall of the monitor nexus.

At the same time, the woman and several of her compatriots opened up with their own sidearms. Ahat-the-boomer was rapidly Swiss-cheesed by the crossfire, collapsing to the floor to lie in a pool of his own orange nutrient fluid.

Taking advantage of the gunfire and explosions, Ruben abruptly spun and flipped open an emergency panel on Donnell's console. Before anybody could realize what he was doing, he slammed his palm down on the big red button within.

"HOLD IT!" the woman exclaimed, and fired a lowered shot at Ruben. It winged the GENOM employee and spanged against the console, but the red button, now pressed, continued to glow.

"You're too late," Ruben sneered, even as the Cyclone leader and his men turned and trained their weapons on Ruben and Donnell. "I just armed the emergency bottle. It'll be out of the system before you can even blink!"

At that instant, the post's computer spoke up. "Emergency data buoy primed. Emergency data buoy launched."

Then, the base shuddered one last time. Ruben looked triumphant that he'd managed to achieve an end run around these interlopers, but his grin faded as he realized that the soldiers in Cyclones didn't even seem all that concerned that he'd launched a fold-capable emergency data buoy.

The man in the dark Cyclone tilted his head, listening to a report on his helmet speakers, then grinned. He returned his attentions to the two GENOM technicians.

" 'Emergency data buoy launched,' " he parroted the computer's inflection. "Emergency data buoy destroyed," he continued in a more serious tone.

Ruben swallowed, his throat suddenly dry. Next to him, Donnell had already pulled his sidearm out and dropped it to the floor in front of him. Knowing he was beaten, Ruben did the same.

"Very good," said the woman with approval. She moved closer to the two men, reslinging her EP-37 rifle and palming two objects. "Now, say goodnight, Gracie."

"What the - ngghk!" Donnell Reagan blurted out as a small adhesive device was slapped onto the side of his neck. Ruben Marshall made much the same sound as another stunpatch was placed on the side of his own neck; then he and Reagan collapsed to the deck.

The woman turned and sketched a courtly bow towards the leader in the dark Cyclone. "Here you go, Vince. Two GENOM employees, taking the express train to la-la land."

"Good work, Nova." Vince surveyed the monitor nexus, sizing it up, and then gestured to his men. "Nova, work with Kreddik and Lamar to yank everything they have out of their nets. Donlen, Selver, Trace, Carelton, pull everything data-related you can physically grab. Crix, Fernlaw, tag and bag those two for transport." He pointed to the two unconscious technicians. "We've got a lot of intel to get and not a lot of time to grab it."

R-minus 11:23:15:35.41

Maia Sterling watched from the bridge of the Voronda Elendil as the last ship returned from the asteroid. She had been the first to depart the scene; her Shadow Alpha had been just what the doctor ordered to lie in wait for any last-minute surprises from the listening post. Second had been Therèse Sterling in her Seeker Valkyrie, who had blanketed the immediate area with RF and subspace noise, making it impossible for the base to reliably observe anything, to call for help, or to coordinate the attacks of the Vulture boomers. And now Miranda Sterling, her fraternal twin sister, was returning in the Shadow Beta, carrying Vince Grant's Cyclone riders (The Fighting Uruk-hai) in the cargo/bomb bay.

Life was good. Life was very good.

Maia relaxed in her seat and waited, idly rubbing at her face and hair with a towel. Soon, her patience was rewarded, as the bridge doors swooshed open, revealing her two sisters as well as bulky, buzz-cut Vince Grant and the lithe blonde form of Nova Satori. Smiling, Maia turned in her seat. "So, have you got the goods?"

Nova nodded, holding up several data solids. "Complete downloads of the listening post's computers. An up-to-the-minute plot of the monitor probes in the Oort Cloud, Kuiper Belt, and Asteroid Belt. Zeta Cygni sensor, transmission and communication logs for both the probes and the base over the past two years."

Maia's eyebrows went up. "Impressive. Excellent. Good work, you four."

Nova Satori's primary ears twitched with satisfaction, and Vince Grant smiled. "Does that mean we'll get a raise?"

Maia smirked. "We'll have to think about it. But I wouldn't discount the possibility of a mission completion bonus in the next salary draft."

"Fair enough," Vince conceded.

Maia turned her attentions to Therèse. "Thanks for your help, sis; it really gave us an edge."

Therèse shrugged, smiling. " 'sno problem. GENOM sensor tech on the fringes is so crappy that a 10-year-old with a Speak & Spell and a music player could jam it."

"... riiight. Uh-huh." Maia regarded her younger sister dubiously, then turned slightly in her seat. She could see that Nova had taken a seat at the sensor console, and that Miranda had headed for the weapons officer's position. Meanwhile at the helm station, Helen Samantos was scrubbing her cheek with a washcloth, trying to remove a persistent spot of fake blood.

Nodding with satisfaction, Maia turned to face Therèse once more. "So, you heading back to the Frank Lloyd Wright now with the probe map data?"

Therèse waved her hand absently. "Only after you guys take care of the base. I want to watch this." She grinned.

"Fair enough." Maia smiled back, and turned her chair around. "Miranda, it's your show."

Miranda glanced back at Maia, grinned, and returned her focus to the ship's weapon controls. She reconfigured the battlecarrier's energy distribution network, shunting power to the Ikazuchi's main gun. In a past life, it had been a potent multiphasic laser array; powerful, but nowhere near the strength of the Wedge Defense Force's or Royal Salusian Navy's Omega-Class weapons.

Nowadays, it was quite different. The past several decades had led to improvements and enhancements to the Voronda Elendil's main gun, and now it packed much more punch than its sister ships could ever claim to have.

A series of data boxes and targeting brackets popped up on Miranda's display and was mirrored on the main bridge viewer. The assembled crew on the bridge could see the distant asteroid base, just one lump of rock among many, being singled out.

"Target lock achieved," Miranda reported. "Power levels optimum. Arc attenuators standing by, dampers in place."

Maia nodded. "Miranda? You may fire when ready."

A cool, hungry smile crossed Miranda's normally pleasant face, as she took the main gun's deployed firing grip (which had some cursive script engraved on it) and pulled the trigger.

"That which was broken shall be remade, you sons of bitches!"

The Voronda Elendil shivered as Nehtëril, Flame of the Wedge, lashed out and a concentrated beam of fiery death lanced through the blackness. The blast hit its target head-on, and within moments, GENOM INTEL Post 4412-31-7 ceased to exist.

There was applause from the starship's bridge crew as they watched the very satisfactory display of precision destruction. Maia, in particular, regarded her twin sister with a bemused-yet-deadpan expression.

"I'm ... not sure that last part is in the actual prophecy, Mir."

Miranda blushed. "Sorry. I got caught up in the moment."

"Housecleaning" : A Reunion Mini-Serial Side-Story, Written by Philip Jeremy Moyer
Reunion Mini-Serial plotted by Philip J. Moyer
Special to the Eyrie Productions Forum
(c) 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

"Ú-velon vegil faen an ristas dín,
law bilinn an lagoras dín,
law vaethor an aglar dín.
Melon na-erui di i hain veriar."

"I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness,
nor the arrow for its swiftness,
nor the warrior for his glory.
I love only that which they defend."
-- A traditional soldier's benediction in Alfheim

Thursday, June 27, 2374
Zeta Cygni II
Cygnus Sector

R-minus 08:02:29:15.33

In the dark of space, three fightercraft cut through the infinite blackness, their fusion thrusters glowing blue as they circled a small, blue-white world that was girded by a dull grey ring. The blues and whites from the planet below, and the glow of the planet's sun, caught the edges of the precision-engineered fighting machines and glinted off the pilots' visors.

In the lead was Komilia Sterling, piloting her scarlet and black VF-1J Valkyrie, the conformal fuel tanks and secondary boosters of its attached FASTpacks giving it extra power and endurance. To her right flew Maia and Miranda Sterling's VF-6S/VF-9S Shadow Legios, ever silent, ever ready. To her left was Therèse Sterling's two-seater VE-1 Seeker Valkyrie, its sensors at full power, watching anything and everything around them. The D-model training boosters that she normally used had been left behind on the Cianbro Corporation starship Frank Lloyd Wright. They had been replaced with the VE-1's full FASTpack modular sensor suite, complete with the rotating AWACS disc radome that was normally stored onboard the Flarefire. The three craft flew in precise formation, a testament to the pilots' skill even as they were focused on their mission.

Technically, Emilia Sterling didn't have to accompany her older sisters on this mission, or even use the Veritechs to accomplish it. In many ways, one of the survey ships from the Frank Lloyd Wright would have been a better choice. They were packed solid with sensors and analysis equipment, used to precisely evaluate the structural strengths and weaknesses of any constructions or building sites they came across. But here she was, riding in the back seat of Therèse's Seeker Valkyrie, serving as the secondary sensor operator, as they finished their second orbit around the planet.

It had been a sobering journey so far.

The Wedge Defense Force's Utopia Planitia Naval Shipyards, the birthplace of such starships as the Righteous Indignation and the mighty SDF-17 Wayward Son, had clearly seen better days. The worldwheel itself was in no danger of collapsing and plummeting towards the surface of Zeta Cygni II far below, a fact for which all five women were very thankful, but the structures attached to the primary latticework of the wheel were in serious need of repair.

Power sources were either providing a trickle of their former output or dead entirely. Compartments and hangar bays had succumbed to decompression, open to the unforgiving void of space. Maintenance drones and small mecha had broken free of their moorings and were now adrift in their own private orbits around the planet. And everywhere there were the clear signs of micrometeor and loose debris impacts, scarring and pebbling the once-pristine outer bulkheads of Utopia Planitia.

It wasn't irreparable damage, by far, but the siblings knew that it would take plenty of time and effort to restore the shipyards to their prime. For the moment, they pushed those thoughts out of their minds, trying not to dwell on the monumental scale of that task. They just recorded the sensor scans and forwarded the data to the Cianbro starship for later perusal, analysis, and comparison against the original construction specifications for the ring.

Now they were heading for the planet's surface. It was not a job any of them particularly relished. But it had to be done, both for practical and emotional reasons.

Komilia spoke into her helmet mic, her tone calm and level. "Utopia Planitia orbital survey complete. Set course 221 by 14 by 132. Prepare for atmospheric insertion." Therèse and Maia replied in the affirmative, trimming the wings and reinforcing the shields of their respective Veritechs.

Emilia retracted the VE-1's most delicate antenna arrays and watched with faint foreboding as the armored cockpit cover slid in place over the transparent canopy, blotting out the stars. On her central monitor, the surface of Zeta Cygni II slowly rose up to meet them...

... and then all three aerospace fighters contacted the upper atmosphere of the planet. Sound and wind resistance steadily increased as they cut through the lower edge of the Zetan thermosphere, air friction causing the outer edges of their shields to glow cherry red, shedding sparks as particles no greater than dust were instantaneously ionized by their passage.

The Sterlings were in no real danger. They were all experienced, competent pilots. But part of that competence was based on their knowledge that all manner of flight is dangerous to some degree, and that atmospheric entry was never quite routine. None of them breathed easier until they were well into the thick of the troposphere and the laws of aerodynamics took firm hold. Emilia knew it was her imagination, but she could have sworn she felt the air around her get cooler and fresher when Therèse retracted the canopy shield and the cockpit filled with blue sky and sunlight.

"Atmospheric insertion complete. Lower shields," Komilia ordered, her voice crisp. "Descend to 5,000 feet on bearing 31. Crusader Eight, status?"

"All sensors functioning at optimal strength and range. Scanning for ATC beacons." Therèse consulted a display, then continued more quietly, "No beacons active within range, Crusader One."

There was a moment's quiet over the flight's shared comm channel. Then Komilia spoke again, her voice still level and controlled.

"Roger. Check computers for flight waypoints. Maintain formation, descend to 1,000 feet, reduce airspeed to 500 mph. Commence flyover of WDF Matériel Command and WDF Academy."

The three fighters descended together, still in formation. They slid through the cloud layers without ill effect, and then broke through to the lowermost portion of the atmosphere.

This close to the ground, they could now see the wooded expanses and open grasslands that had surrounded the two significant settlements of Zeta Cygni II. The forests spread for acres, and looked undisturbed by the passage of time.

Because of this, the five almost missed the WDF's matériel command station until they were almost over it. The forest and fields had encroached on the sprawling complex, overgrowing the grounds, trees having sprouted in the most unlikely places. Duracrete landing fields, their surfaces scarred with three centuries' worth of landings and takeoffs, had become eroded and cracked after eight decades of exposure without maintenance. Warehouse complexes, once storing thousands of cargo containers ready to be shipped to the fleet, had begun rusting out, wide holes in their roofs letting rain and snow in to damage their remaining contents. Not much was left. Even from up here, they could all see that the complex had been looted.

The sisters followed their prearranged flightplan methodically, carefully, and quietly. The Seeker Valkyrie's powerful search radars and scanners scoured the depot for any sign of recent occupation or current use. They probed through the administrative and manufacturing buildings, then the town that had sprung up around the complex.

The results were not encouraging. Vehicles lay abandoned, partially destroyed by entropy and the growth of vines and bushes through their frames. Houses were open to the elements, roofs had collapsed, and columns and retaining walls had crumbled. Part of Planitia City appeared to have burned, though whether through arson or accident was impossible to tell. Emilia reported the results of each search grid scan as procedure required, but her voice was subdued.

No significant power signatures. No sapient life signs. Complete infrastructure collapse.

Her words became a soft litany, almost a monotone chant, as they finished their initial pass over the WDF depot. She drew silent as they flew away from the complex and over the forests and fields once more. The broad tracks of ancient roadwork could occasionally be seen through the foliage; but even now they could see that the highways connecting the two towns had become cracked and overgrown.

They flew over a rise in the terrain - Emilia remembered with a slightly surreal thrill that it had been called Sterling's Ridge after their father - and there was the Academy.

If the flyover of Matériel Command had been sobering, the one over the Wedge Defense Force Academy was outright depressing. All five of them had happy memories of the place. Four had degrees and officers' commissions from the Academy and the fifth had spent a year there in an enlisted personnel advanced training school. They had all become adults there, learned their trades, and honed their talents for the arts of technology and war. They had all walked those halls - the halls where their parents, too, had walked - and played on those fields and broken, as plebes always did, into the commandant's office on a dare to steal McKennsy's Hammer. To see the Academy brought so low...

The women were silent, each one lost in her own thoughts, as they began the scanner sweep of the academy. Every building, every location, had some sort of association for them, and inwardly they mourned for the place and the people they had known there.

The hangars and landing strips of the WDF flight school were overgrown and damaged. A lone VF-1D, its tires rotted out and wings warped from years of snow, ice, and rain, sat forlornly in front of one empty hangar. The Destroid/Battroid and Cyclone combat courses were almost unrecognizable. The forest had reclaimed them so completely that the only way they could be identified was by terrain matching between reality and the original maps, and the fact that a few lonely Warhammers and a Spartan sulked in the underbrush, their power cores dead, their armor pitted, their optics and viewports cracked.

They flew over the central administration and residence buildings, the heart of the campus, and Therèse almost cried. Komilia closed her eyes in silent prayer, flying on mental autopilot and trusting to instinct that she wouldn't crash into the ground while she couldn't see anything. Miranda murmured something under her breath, soft and lilting, and Maia replied with the refrain in the same tone of voice and language.

The cadet dormitories slumped, their brickwork cracked and windows shattered. Part of Heaton Hall, where the twins had lived their sophomore year, had collapsed altogether. The review grounds and recreation fields were overgrown with weeds and wildflowers. By some measure of fortune, the triad of flagpoles in front of main administration still stood tall...

... but only tattered strips of cloth hung from them, all that remained of the WDF, Academy Command, Zetan, and Salusian flags that once proudly caught the wind.

Emilia just kept quiet and stoical through it all, still plying her controls to get the best data possible so they wouldn't have to experience this any longer than necessary.

Finally, they passed out beyond the grounds of the WDF Academy and surveyed Techtropolis, the college town that surrounded the school. Old haunts were now veritably haunted, the roads impassable, the buildings gutted by entropy. The thought independently occurred to the five sisters: that while GENOM had triggered the fall of the Wedge Defense Force, time, weather, and neglect had finished the job.

The small flight passed beyond the bounds of the city. They executed a long, circling pass, returning to where they had started the scan of WDF Matériel Command. Komilia's voice once more echoed in their headsets:

"Maintain formation, descend to minimum safe flight ceiling, slow to minimum safe speed. Commence full structural scan pass."

Flying as slow and as low as they dared, the three Veritechs made their way once more over the supply depot. Both the Seeker Valkyrie's and the Shadow Legios's powerful sensor arrays performed a thorough sweep of the grounds, collecting terabytes of data that were immediately uploaded to the Frank Lloyd Wright. Watching everything, missing nothing, the radars and sensors penetrated and probed, taking stock of every decrepit machine, every crumbled building, and every potholed road.

Eventually, the structural scan pass of Matériel Command was completed. Still following the fight plan, they once more approached the Academy. Miranda, quietly watching the landscape go by, then had a thought. She took hold of her idle flight controls and flicked a control on the throttle levers with her thumb.

In the Alpha's cockpit, Maia saw a warning light blink on. She raised an eyebrow, quietly deduced what her sister was intending to do, and then nodded in approval as she readied herself for what was coming next.

The Legios quivered ever so slightly. Then, with a kaCHUNK of retracting clamps and the spooling-up whine of turbines from standby, its two component aerospacecraft separated in midair. Miranda throttled back her Beta briefly and slid it to starboard, leaving Maia's Alpha where both had originally been in the formation. If Komilia, Therèse, or Emilia had any comment or opinion on what the two had done, they kept their thoughts private and didn't ask any questions.

Now in classic finger-four formation, the fighters flew for several more minutes on their originally planned final pass over the WDF Academy grounds. At the moment when they flew over the Academy's administration building and front review ground, Maia abruptly pulled back on the stick and punched her throttles to full thrust. Her Alpha leapt upward like a cannon shot, peeling smoothly away from the formation, cracking the sound barrier within moments, and vanishing into the scattered clouds above.

The other three fighters - the J-model Valkyrie in the lead, the Seeker Valkyrie to its left, and the Beta two spaces down to the right - flew onward, maintaining their broken formation until the grounds of the WDF Academy vanished below the horizon behind them.

"Nainië an formen alqua elen" (A Lament for Zeta Cygni) - A Mini-Serial Side-Story written by Philip Jeremy Moyer.
Reunion Mini-Serial plotted by Philip J. Moyer
Special to the Eyrie Productions Forum
(c) 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Sunday, June 30, 2374
Zeta Cygni system
Cygnus sector

R-minus 03:22:15:06.75

Maia Sterling prowled the decks of the Frank Lloyd Wright, a beer in her hand, searching for one of her other siblings. She had several hours to go until her next sortie, and she was curious as to how the one she sought had been doing the past few days. Ever since her bold declaration the night of the 20th, the rest of her family (and the Cianbro crew), had seen very few glimpses of Mylene Sterling.

She turned a corner, and nearly ran into a bald-headed man wearing a fractal-print hawaiian shirt over jeans and a binary tee-shirt, who was carrying a stack of data solids in his arms and a pair of headphones around his neck.

"Hey! Oh, sorry," Maia apologized to the man as they avoided making a mess in the corridor. She then focussed her eyes on the man's face, and recognition sparked in her own eyes. "Oh, hey, Thomas. Have you seen my sister lately?"

The bald man snorted, and indicated the data solids with his chin. "I was just heading back to the shop with these for her. C'mon." Maia chuckled, and followed Thomas through the ship to one of the executive CAD/CAM/AV suites, normally used for creating presentations, mocking up structures, and running structural analysies.

Now, the interior had been radically altered, transformed into a combination recording studio and data processing center. The other members of Mylene's band were sitting about, either noodling with their instruments or sorting through various and sundry records. In the center, Mylene was studying four screens at once, using a data glove to select files for later consideration, and her other hand to scratch Guvava (who was nestled in a pile of data chips).

"Hey, Mylene? You've got a visitor," Thomas said as he set down the data solids. "And here's the records you wanted, from 2360 to '65."

"Ah, good, thanks... oh, hey, Maia! What's up?"

"Not much, just taking a break." Maia pivoted and sat on the edge of the desk, careful to not disturb the resting furball. "So... how's it going on your end?"

"Pretty damn good, if I say so myself." Mylene used her non-datagloved hand to gesture at the screens. "At the rate we're going, we should have a preliminary mix by tuesday the second, and a solid workable draft by the end of the third."

"You know, I'm surprised, sis." Maia admitted. "It looks like you've gotten more information out of the nets about the past eight decades than I thought was possible for under two weeks."

"Well, there's a trick to that."


Mylene grined impishly. "You would be amazed at how many people will bend over backwards for you if you tell them you're working on some historical anthems, and could use some help with the research. Doubly so if you hint you might be making an updated cover of Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start The Fire'...."

Maia stared at Mylene for several seconds, and then laughed. "You know, I was only being facetious when I asked you how you were gonna go about this!" With a grin, she clapped her sister on the shoulder. "Well, don't let me keep you from your work, Mylene."

"No problems, Maia. Thanks for stopping by!" She gave her older sister a hug, then returned to her work.

Maia chuckled to herself, and left the suite in a curious mood, humming old songs to herself for the rest of the day.

"Mylene's Musical Interlude" by Philip J. Moyer
Special to the Eyrie Productions Mini-Story Omnibus Volume 2: The Sterling Saga
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

After the initial reunion dinner, two weeks passed in a blur of purposeful activity. As theorized, the combined resources of Battlegroup Quevillon, the Frank Lloyd Wright, the Mars Division, and the Southern Cross Crusaders proved up to the task of securing the Zeta Cygni solar system. GENOM probes were found and deactivated. A GENOM listening post was quickly and quietly subdued before its staff could get out word to their parent company. Random vagabonds and other persons of dubious moral character who had been hiding in Zeta Cygni's asteroid belt were flushed out and apprehended.

By the time of midnight on the third of June, Zeta Cygni could be considered "secured", "under control", and "restored to proper ownership."

Now, all that was left was the waiting.

Thursday, July 4, 2374
Zeta Cygni System
Cygnus Sector
1100 hours GST

R-minus 01:00:00.00

Emilia Sterling sat in the captain's chair on the bridge of the Frank Lloyd Wright, studying the master display projected from the bridge's forward holotank. The past day and a half had been busy, as Xeralia deployed the rest of her battlegroup's ships in a spherical array 20 astronomical units from Zeta Cygni proper, and both the battlegroup and her own starship had launched a multitude of probes to lurk five AU away from the star. This had been decided in order to optimize the amount of data being gathered in the space around Zeta Cygni. With the amount of coverage that this arrangement granted, it was hoped that they would be able to pick up the anticipated spacefold signatures, determine where the Kridanik Fleet was arriving, and intercept them with intent to assist, without having to wait several hours for the actual light and gravity effects of the fold to reach the waiting ships.

There had been some debate on whether or not to use the probes at all; the starships that now loosely enclosed Zeta Cygni space possessed powerful subspace sensors of their own, quite capable of reading fold signatures from hundreds of AU away. But after some consultation between Dr. Louie Nichols and Engineer Testarossa of the Voronda Elendil, the primary space engineers aboard the Frank Lloyd Wright, and the lead battle technicians of Battlegroup Quevillon, it had been decided it would still be worthwhile to have sensors closer to the star to catch any anomalies and relay the information back to the fleet at superluminal speeds. They had no idea how far away the Kridanik Fleet would be arriving from, or what their state would be when they arrived at Zeta Cygni. Better to risk the damage or outright destruction of the probes due to a misfold or other calamity than the occupied ships of the fleet.

Now the Frank Lloyd Wright, the Voronda Elendil, and Xeralia's command ship, the Quelquira-Nuur, floated together in loose formation. In front of them, the Southern Cross Crusaders hovered in space, serving as the point element in case things got hairy in the next few hours. The Cianbro starship was serving as the primary nexus for data collation among the small fleet of ships and probes that hovered, watching and waiting for anything to occur.

Mylene Sterling entered the bridge with her guitar on her back and Guvava on her shoulder. "Well, Emi, the Flarefire's prepped and ready to go if we need it," she said, and then pulled up short at the sight of the gigantic image projected by the tank. She whistled softly at the sight. "Whoa. Now that is impressive."

Emilia glanced back, and smiled. "Isn't it, though? Usually the main tank is used to provide real-time observation of the overall progress on the build site, but the network it's connected to is quite capable of coordinating strategic and tactical input as well."

"I wasn't whistling about that, sis." Mylene grinned. "I've seen my share of holotanks in my time. But can you imagine what sort of music videos you could make with a setup like that?"

Emilia rolled her eyes. "Bah. Go and take a seat, we've still got little under an hour to go before we hit R minus zero."

Chuckling to herself, Mylene did as she was asked, found a seat at an empty executive station, and noodled around with some chord progressions to pass the time.

R-minus 00:31:15.06

On the bridges of the Voronda Elendil and the Quelquira-Nuur, the situation was much the same. Technicians, tacticians, and scientists ran double-checks on the probe network and the inputs from the ships, verifying that there would be almost no transmission lag when the event occurred. Combat divisions were held at standby, for the possibility of providing combat or rescue assistance for the returning fleet. Engineers kept a close eye on their starships' systems, while the helmsmen for each ship stayed on alert, ready to carry out their commanders' instructions in an instant as soon as they gave the order.

And throughout the ships and waiting fightercraft, people passed the time as best they could, to distract themselves from what might lie ahead.

Down in Hangar Three on the Voronda Elendil, a man with a mullet was playing a guitar.

He was doing quite well, and he sang with a clear, practiced voice. His song was a little bit blues, a little bit soul, and a lot improvised -- but despite all this it helped lift the spirits of the mechanics and technicians who were going over last-minute safety checks of the Destroids in the hangar.

Easin' down the highway in a new Cadillac
I had a fine fox in front, I had three more in the back
They sportin' short dresses, wearin' spike-heeled shoes
They smokin' Lucky Strikes and wearin' nylons too
'Cause we bad - we're nationwide
Yeah we bad - we're nationwide

"OI! Weber! Get your ass off that crate and get back to work!" bellowed a deep, grizzled voice from across the hangar. Apparently not everyone was appreciative of a little ZZ Top right at the moment.

The blonde man rolled his eyes, pausing in his playing. "Hey, can't you let a guy finish his song, Gron?"

"Not unless you want your Destroid to end up face-down in the deck, Weber," grunted the Voronda Elendil's Karbarran maintenance engineer. "Now pack your rig and go help Mao, she's securing your ride's ammo bins."

"Right, right..." Weber shook his head, unstrapped his guitar, put it in its tritanium case (it was a Gibson Les Paul he'd gotten from his father), and went off to stow his gear before getting back to work.

R-minus 00:05:22.32

Xeralia Sterling, Vice Admiral commanding Meltrandi Battlegroup Quevillon, sat in her command chair, watching the various displays and screens that reported on the status of her fleet, her siblings' ships, and the probes that were arrayed around the star. There was a deep, subsonic murmur across the vast expanse of the Quelquira-Nuur's bridge, produced by the voices of a multitude of Zentraedi and Meltrandi officers and technicians going about their duties.

"R-minus five-zero-zero, Vice Admiral," boomed the voice of Xeralia's executive officer, who stood next to her. Well, more correctly, loomed over the vice admiral, who was currently micronized.

She looked up at her exec and nodded. "Won't be too long now," murmured Xeralia, intently studying the main viewer, as if she could summon the Kridanik Fleet... and her parents... by will alone. She shifted in her seat, still getting comfortable. Xeralia didn't usually use this chair; for most day-to-day operations, she was a full-sized Meltrandi, and used the usual command podium. But on this ship, and others, the Zentraedi had slowly adapted, making provisions for their Micron allies.

"R-minus three-zero-zero. You'd best strap yourself in, Vice Admiral."

Xeralia nodded again, double-checking the command chair's all-points harness. The last thing she needed was to end up tossed off the command platform. It was a long damn way down to the gallery floor at this size.

R-minus 00:01:31.46

The loose aggregation of Zentraedi starships, the long mass of the Cianbro Corporation's Architect-class constructor ship, and the narrow slab of the Mars Division's Ikazuchi-class battlecarrier floated in space, their running lights lit up and signal beacons blinking. The fighters of the Southern Cross Crusaders held formation in front of the lead starships. Almost the entire fleet could be felt to be holding its breath with anticipation as the mission counter blurred down to the final seconds.

R-minus 00:01:03.02
R-minus 00:00:45.21
R-minus 00:00:27.50
R-minus 00:00:11.32

There was a pause...

R-minus 00:00:00.00

... and a sum total of nothing visible happened.

R-plus 00:01:05.55

"Well. That was... anticlimactic," Maia Sterling commented from the bridge of the Voronda Elendil.

"Well, you need to realize, Commander, that even if the fold effect had started just moments ago, it will still take a few minutes to be picked up by even our innermost probes," Dr. Nichols pointed out from his sciences station. "I am seeing some very interesting subspace modulation effects, though."

"Oh really?" Maia dryly replied. Despite herself, she was curious as to what her chief engineer had found out; but by this time, her natural reaction to Louie's occasional theoretical tangents carried a healthy amount of dry sarcasm.

"Yes!" Nichols replied, taking Maia's words as a confirmation of interest. He tapped some controls, bringing up readouts on the main viewer. "As you can see here, we're getting some variances in the local subspace flux - not enough to disrupt any propulsion systems or communication transmissions - but they're so spread out, that at first I thought it was a natural phenomenon."

Miranda Sterling spoke up. "And it's not?"

"Negative. Nothing in our databanks, or the past two week's scans, indicate anything of the sort for the Zeta Cygni system. The only significant modulations have been traced to our own ships' systems."

"Huh." Maia considered this, glanced at Miranda (who shrugged), and then to the side at her executive officer. He gave her a minute dry look from behind his rectangle-cut glasses, as if to say, "I have no more of an idea than you do, Commander."

"Fat load of help you all are," Maia muttered under her breath, sagging back in her seat.

R-plus 00:04:33.19

On the bridge of the Frank Lloyd Wright, the situation was much the same.

"Where's the kaboom? I was expecting an Earth-shattering kaboom, Emi," Mylene quipped, still sitting at her appropriated station. Emilia glanced back at her sister.

"To be honest, I'd rather avoid any kabooms, baby sister," she replied. "Still, you'd think the probes could pick up at least something, they've got subspace-based sensors, too." She frowned as she studied the ship and probe telemetry that was being displayed on the holotank. In it, Zeta Cygni I, Zeta Cygni II, and their shared asteroid belt placidly continued to orbit their star. Icons represented the spread-out ships of the fleet task force. Everything looked normal and, if Emilia was being totally honest, boring.

The only thing of any note was the aforementioned subspace modulation effects reported by the Voronda Elendil. Emilia considered them on the display as the data was echoed across the network, to be studied by those who had a better mind for such things. According to the readouts, they were rather subtle, but even so...

"Crusader Eight, a question."

"Go ahead, Frank Lloyd Wright," Therèse Sterling replied.

"Those subspace modulations... Could they have affected the sensitivity of the probes?"

"Probably not. The modulations I'm picking up from my own sensors are way below error tolerances, and as Dr. Nichols said - "

R-plus 00:06:51.01

Therèse paused and rechecked the displays in her Seeker Valkyrie. "Wait one, Wright. I'm starting to receive the telemetry from the first group of probes. ... Yes, they're starting to pick up a change in the local gravimetric flux. Forwarding data to you now."

An audible sigh of relief could be heard over the fleet's shared channel. "Finally. How're they looking, Crusader Eight?" asked Emilia.

"They're reading a steady increase, as we expected for a standard fold event. We'll probably start getting visual data in ten, fifteen minutes." Therèse paused and checked a second readout. "Hold on - "

"What is it?" interjected Maia.

"The flux is continuing to rise, according to the probes. Quelquira-Nuur, what's your probe network status?"

On the bridge of her own battlecruiser, Xeralia turned and barked out some (amplified) commands to her technicians. She quickly got an answer, even as the bridge's forward display updated with the same information. She blinked, frowned, and answered, "Frank Lloyd Wright, Crusader Eight, the other ships are reporting similar gravity changes from their own portions of the probe network. Request you confirm, Wright."

Emilia's brow furrowed. She got up from her seat to take a closer look at the master display. She studied the small datapoints that indicated the locations of the probes in the network - they were all functional and relaying data, displaying various statistics in nearby floating boxes. The numbers for gravimetric distortion were slowly, but steadily, rising.


That wasn't supposed to happen, as far as Emilia knew. Even a single-ship fold maneuver would cause greater fluctuations in one area, but leave the others undisturbed. A 10,000-ship mass fold would just be larger in magnitude, affecting the closest probes most drastically and the others lagging behind as the gravitational distortion rippled through the system.

For all of them to be reading nearly identical gravity fluxes at once...

"Observation confirmed, Quelquira-Nuur," Emilia answered. "Gravitational flux is increasing across the probe network at a steady rate. About... 33 percent of them have already passed the one-ship fold displacement threshold. The rest are following."

"That doesn't sound good," Mylene quietly opined from her seat. She scratched Guvava, who had picked up on his mistress's nervousness.

R-plus 00:08:23.17

"Observation confirmed, Wright," replied Therèse. She toggled some switches, changing the modes on her active scanners to focus fully on the local environment. She tasked one screen on her MFD to mirror the probe status information that was being gathered by the Frank Lloyd Wright.

She frowned, studying the mirrored telemetry, even as her own readouts began to read minor fluxes in the local gravity gradient. The values from the probes continued to rise, passing the expected 10-ship and 100-ship distortion thresholds within seconds. The entire event was taking place far too fast for her comfort; given the distances involved, the Crusaders should not have felt or seen anything locally in real-time for hours.

Therèse was about to comment on this to the rest when something new on her MFD brought her up short and interrupted her thoughts. She watched, first with puzzlement, and then a growing sense of dread, as the video signals from the probes began to change. Normally, the gravitic displacement generated by a spacefold, even one of ten thousand ships, would have been insufficient to distort the starlight around them. Even an entire star's gravity well only distorted some of the closest passing beams of light from its distant neighbors, and this could easily be accounted for.

But this was as if somebody had dropped a bowling ball onto the surface of a clear pool, sending the entire image of Zeta Cygni, its planets, and the stars beyond rippling and jumping about. Coronas of light and shadow traced the edges of the system, and with a start, Therèse realized what the probes were observing. Her own sensors began registering some new information in turn, which confirmed her theory, as outlandish as it seemed.

"Crusader Eight to all ships! Crusader Eight to all ships! Spacefold in progress around Zeta Cygni - I repeat, spacefold ENCOMPASSING ZETA CYGNI!"

Before Therèse Sterling could register any astonished replies from the rest of the fleet, the probe cameras became overwhelmed by erratic visual data, and their gravimetric readings shot straight up into the red.

R-plus 00:11:41.52

Louie Nichols spun his seat to look at Maia Sterling. "Commander! The probes have gone beyond their maximum performance tolerances! Gravity and light distortions are going off the scale!"

"I see it, I see it!" Maia rejoined. "Never mind the probes, Louie, keep track of us!"

"On it!" Nichols turned back to his console, his datagoggles flickering and flashing with extra data streams as he plied his keyboards. "Local gravitic flux increasing, much higher and sooner than normal. I'm beginning to get debris movement in the Kuiper Belt from tidal effects!" The Voronda Elendil began to shudder as the gravity waves warped the local space, making it difficult for the ships to stay upright and level relative to each other.

Grimacing, Maia spoke over the all-call. "Voronda Elendil to Quelquira-Nuur! Pull away from the Frank Lloyd Wright! Crusader One, watch out for potential collisions!"

Komilia grunted and bit back, "Tell me something I don't know! Crusaders, break formation and evade! Break and evade!"

Maia, Miranda, and their bridge crew watched the Voronda Elendil's main display as the pinpoints of light that represented the exhausts of the Southern Cross Crusaders spiraled away to the sides. They flew crazily, not through any fault of the pilots, but due to the radical shifts in spacetime they were forced to ride out.

Miranda gasped, pointing at the display. "Look!"

Maia stared, not quite registering what she was seeing, but unable to deny it.

Zeta Cygni was starting to flicker out. Not due to a thermonuclear foul-up, which at this point would have been almost welcome as a sign of a return to normalcy, but due to the severe disturbances occurring all across the system. What made matters worse was that this image was not coming from the probes. The images were coming live and direct from the starship's own cameras and sensors. Whatever was happening out there was clearly so powerful that it was warping time itself, creating the natural equivalent of a subspace carrier wave - allowing light from the event to reach them much sooner than it should have.

"Subspace rupture!" Nichols yelled, somehow managing to sound terrified and enraptured at the same time. "Spacetime disruption impact in eight seconds - mark!"

Maia snapped the arms of her command chair closed around her and jammed her thumb down on the all-call. "Sound collision alert! All hands, assume crash positions! All ships, BRACE FOR IMPACT!"

If the first minutes had been like a bowling ball dropped onto a pool, the main event was as if somebody had dropped a wrecking ball onto a lake. Sirens flared and lights dimmed as the gravity tide hit the Voronda Elendil and the other ships head on. Main drives flared to full power, trying to stabilize the individual ships of the fleet, and only succeeding in straining the starships more. Ominous creaks and groans echoed through their hulls. Smaller protrusions, such as many of the whiplike sensor masts on the Zentraedi ships, were snapped off outright.

Xeralia Sterling grabbed desperately onto the arms of her own seat, strapped in but not doing any better than her full-size Zentraedi officers. She hit the emergency broadcast button on her armrest, immediately tasking the most powerful transmitters on her flagship to punch a broadcast to the other starships, through the growing distortions surrounding them.

"Quelquira-Nuur to all ships! Divert all power to inertial dampers and vector control systems. Divert all power to inertial dampers and vector controls! Keep your bows toward the star! Ride the waves, don't fight them!"

The helmsmen of Battlegroup Quevillon, the Voronda Elendil, and the Frank Lloyd Wright didn't need to be told a third time. The ships tossed and rolled like sailing vessels in a raging storm, but thanks to Xeralia's command, they were not smashed outright. Bridge displays went crazy as the virtual 'horizon', which had been drawn level with Zeta Cygni's ecliptic plane, oscillated wildly. Those who were able to keep their eyes on the monitors (and still had the stomach for it) watched with growing horror and fascination as the space around the star and first two planets buckled and warped. Every crease in the fabric of reality bulged and rippled, the familiar glows of spacefold amplified and distorted into impossible colors, rapidly building towards a crescendo.

There was an abrupt, glaring FLARE of light...

R-plus 00:15:00.00

... and Zeta Cygni completely vanished.

R-plus 00:16:05.03

Groaning, Emilia Sterling forced her eyes to open. Her mind scrambled for awareness, but it was reluctant and slow to come. Part of her was amazed that she was still alive; the rest of her dryly noted that she wouldn't be in so much discomfort if she were dead. Emilia felt like she had been put into one of Foundry Five's massive durasteel presses and then subjected to one of the cable extractors. She felt stretched out and bent, not fully sure of her physical state. God only knew how the rest of the crew was doing.

But it was her job to find out. She groaned again, squeezed her eyes shut, and opened them once more, trying to clear the spots from her vision. Her eyesight slowly focused, and she could begin to see the rest of the bridge once more.

"Mercer..." Emilia coughed, and then said a little louder, "Mercer, crew status?"

At one station, the lanky form of her executive officer, Tarn Mercer, slowly extracted himself from the tangle he had found himself in. "Just a second, ma'am. I'm still not sure of my status yet."

Emilia managed a wan smile. "Take your time. I don't think we'll be going anywhere for a while." Making careful movements, she slowly turned in her seat to check on the status of the rest of the bridge and her crew.

Displays and monitors were fuzzed out. Some had shorted out entirely, she couldn't tell which ones. The master holotank was offline and the main viewscreen was dark. She could see stars through the bridge windows, but she didn't have the mental bandwidth to try and place their relative locations at the moment. Crewmembers groaned, nursed bruised bodies, and generally slowly made their way towards recovery.

Behind her, Emilia could hear Mylene groaning. She shifted her chair further, and could see that Mylene had landed face down on the deck, somehow managing not to damage her guitar through the earlier turmoil.

".....ngggh... som'body tell th' guy w' th' anvil bells t' lay off, willya?... drrrhg...." Mylene moaned, her eyes squeezed shut. Next to her, Guvava staggered and peeped erratically, as if he was working off the mother of all benders.

Emilia sighed and returned her attentions to the rest of her crew. Mercer had finally gotten himself situated, and was now force-rebooting his consoles. They flickered several times and then steadied, restoring their displays and returning power to their controls. Satisfied, he picked up his headset, slid it on, and began checking in with the rest of the ship's crew.

At one of the stations closer to the forward holotank and main display, sensor technician Reese made a satisfied sound and turned her attention toward her commanding officer.

"Exterior sensors and cameras are rebooting, Ma'am. We should start getting input from the surviving ones in a minute or two."

Emilia slowly nodded, still avoiding making any sudden moves. "Anything from the probe network?"

"Nothing yet, Ma'am," replied her communications officer. "The other ships may be having better luck; I'll try contacting them."

"Once Reese is done, work with her to reestablish connections with the probes, in case the battlegroup and the Voronda Elendil are having similar problems."

"Yes, Ma'am." The comm officer turned and got to work. Emilia watched the rising level of activity with quiet neutrality. She wanted to show more emotion, express her pride in her crew and her ship that had survived the event, but her mind and body still felt out of sorts. Instead, she settled on waiting for the holotank and forward viewer to stop showing test patterns and display something useful.

Finally, she was rewarded for her patience. Sections of the display cleared, bursts of colored static snow replaced with a mosaic of subwindows, each relaying the image from one of the Frank Lloyd Wright's external cameras.

Emilia frowned, studying the displayed images. "Reese, can you try splicing the feeds? Looks like some of the cameras had their video receptors partially burned out." She gestured at the display mosaic; many of the cameras appeared to have a dark grey disk situated in the middle of the image. She could see the pinpoints of the starfield surrounding the disks, but the center looked flat and featureless.

"Working on it, ma'am." Reese plied her boards, adjusting camera positions and running diagnostics. "Attempting to adjust for binocular parallax... huh."

"'Huh'?" Emilia parroted. She felt a vague measure of unease, which had nothing to do with the turbulence from earlier.

"I... don't think it's the cameras, ma'am." She demonstrated this by commanding several of the port and starboard side cameras to pivot and point towards where Zeta Cygni should have been. As they did so, their images panned across the local starfield, until they encountered that big grey disk.

Emilia's sense of unease only grew. "Overlay camera images. Enhance and verify. Do we still not have any probe or sensor input yet?"

"Ma'am, I'm starting to get data from some of the probes nearest to us," her commtech answered. "Working on handshaking with the other ships in the fleet."

Emilia wordlessly nodded. Meanwhile, Reese had taken the new inputs from the probes, and interleaved them with the video feeds. They didn't appear to help much; whatever was out there was big, grey, and round. It was difficult to make out details; the light from the nearest star, Zeta Cygni, was absent, gone wherever the star had vanished to.

There was a sudden building hum from the center of the bridge, and a technician poked his head up from where he had been working on the bus connections to the main holotank. "Holotank's back up, Ma'am!"

"Good. Reese, mirror the display. I need to get a closer look at this thing."

Reese nodded in acknowledgement. The image was now repeated, filling the holotank's maximum projection radius. Emilia leaned forward and narrowed her eyes. Her initial evaluation had been wrong; the big dark disk wasn't totally blocking all light, she could see some tiny flickers, winking dots that would have been impossible to spot if the image had been smaller.

"Reese. Grid five five one two. Magnify ten times."

A zoom window bracketed one of the dots. The image expanded, centered on that dot, but that didn't appear to have done much.

"Magnify ten times."

Once again, the image zoomed, but it had no noticeable effect.

"Magnify, maximum zoom. Use all suitable cameras to compensate for parallax effects."

This time, the image window continued to expand, again and again, until finally the cameras reached the limits of their optical and digital resolutions. "Ma'am, I think we've got something!" Reese adjusted the projection a little, and a green smudge slowly came into fuzzy resolution against the great bland grayness.

It was still impossible to make out any details, but the overall shape and color of the object, centered on the still-blinking light, was recognizable.

It was a starship.

A Zentraedi starship. A Quiltra-Queleual-class assault ship, nearly two miles long.

Reese stared, her eyes wide, taking in both the zoomed inset and the original source image. The amount of magnification that had been needed just to see one Zentraedi warship, and what that said for the... thing in the background, boggled her mind. "... my god... " she whispered.

Emilia stared at the image in the master holotank, sagging back into her chair, shocked by what she saw. She finally had grasped the magnitude of what had occurred - and the gigantic scale of the thing that had appeared in Zetan space.

"What the hell is that thing?" one of the Cianbro crewmen wondered, his voice filled with awe.

Emilia tried to answer, but her mouth was so dry only a dull rasp came out. She swallowed hard and tried again.

"....it's a dyson sphere," she murmured.

Mylene, still recovering from the impromptu rollercoaster ride, had finally worked her way back to a sitting position. She was still on the floor, but at least it got her vertical again. She shook her head to clear it. "... you say something, Emi?"

Emilia slowly stood up, her body tensing with the effort, her eyes still locked on the impossibility the probes were reporting. She stepped closer to the holotank control console, studying the images and data displays. Slowly, as she looked over the gravity and radar figures and double-checked her gut instinct against hard facts, the look of astonishment on her face was progressively overtaken by one of sheer exultation.

"It's not flat," she said in an awed tone, mostly to herself, triple-checking the telemetry she was receiving. "It only looks that way because the surface is so regular. It's curved, it's... it's a sphere. ... They... spacefolded... a GOD DAMN DYSON SPHERE!!" she bellowed, slamming a fist down on the console, a near-feral grin splitting her face. "Breetai, you son of a bitch!"

"Yeek! Not so loud!" Mylene exclaimed, clapping her hands over her ears. Guvava squeaked and hid in Mylene's hair.

"Contact the other ships in the fleet!" Emilia commanded her technicians. "Get me their status and let's get started figuring out what the hell happens now!"

"Reunion, Part 3: Return" - An Exile Mini-Story by Philip Jeremy Moyer
Reunion Mini-Serial Plotted by Philip J. Moyer
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
(c) 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Thursday, July 4, 2374
Zeta Cygni System
Cygnus Sector
1232 hours GST

R-plus 00:32:43.12

It took a while, but eventually contact was made with the rest of the task force. Now, feeling moderately more in control, Emilia Sterling surveyed the holoprojections that displayed the rest of her sisters, rapidly stitched together into a conference call by the talents of the various ships' comm officers.

"... a Dyson sphere," Therèse Sterling muttered. She shook her helmeted head, still in awe of the situation. "I never, in my wildest dreams, thought I'd ever see one in my lifetime. And I'm immortal."

"You think you're awed? You should see Louie over here," Maia Sterling rejoined. "He's still oscillating between overwhelmed catatonia and blissful rapture at the sight of it."

Xeralia Sterling laughed. "Sounds about right. My own officers are looking pretty impressed. Some of them were around back when the Bodolza Fleet's Fulbtzs-Berrentzs was still around, and this dwarfs even that. By several orders of magnitude."

Emilia chuckled. "Well, be that as it may - how are you all doing? We got pretty shook up over here, some of the heavy machinery and bulk cargo broke free in storage, but nobody was killed, thank God. Lots of bruised body parts, though, and some broken limbs. Komilia? You and the rest of the Crusaders?"

"I think we avoided the worst of it by breaking formation when we did," Komilia Sterling replied. "Even so, I've ridden all-axis gyroscopic test platforms that were gentler." She grimaced. "Karl got flung about halfway to the Kuiper Belt, Carole was tossed down the Z axis for twice that, and Hugh got flipped TOWARD the sphere; they're having to go full-burner to get back to us in a sane amount of time."

Emilia nodded. "Maia? Miranda? You and Mars Division?"

This time, Miranda Sterling spoke up. "Pretty much the same state you folks are in; some busted equipment, people tossed about, and bruised egos. It'll take us a while to get back to minimum operational spec - Richard estimates about thirty minutes for the personnel, Tessa and Gron are giving us an hour and a half beyond that to make sure everything critical to repair is being taken care of. If necessary, we'll be able to move again in about forty-five, but it'll be slow going."


"I am so damn glad I went and improved the shield generators the last time we were laid up in repairs; I caromed off some micrometeors that had been stirred up, but didn't take major damage." She checked her displays. "Sensors are online; I'm already tracking orbit changes in the Kuiper Belt objects, reacting to the local gravity change. Things are going to be, if you'll pardon the term, rocky until they all settle into new orbits. I pity anybody trying to hyper past Zeta Cygni as well; it must be a god-awful mess in hyperspace right now."

Emilia looked over at her adopted sister's image. "Xeralia? You and your battlegroup?"

"Well, we've lost five-sixths of the probe network entirely - probably crushed by tidal forces or impacted on the sphere. Most of my ships are all right, if tossed about and no longer pointing toward where Zeta Cygni should be." Xeralia sighed, running a hand through her scarlet curls. "Thirty to forty of my ships had drive failures during the end stages of the event; we don't have solid reports, but I doubt they'll be going anywhere for a while."

Emilia nodded. "Standard contract?"

Xeralia nodded back. "I'll have my accountants talk with your accountants, and we'll see what they can work out."

"Good enough." Emilia smiled slightly, then turned in her chair to regard Mylene. "And your guys, guitar girl?"

"The Flarefire was secure when things hit, and my band and crew were strapped in. I can't say the same for my drummer's drum set, though." She sighed. "Luckily, it's tough - some of the other stuff in our rehearsal room, not so much."

"Owch. I've seen that set recently. I'm amazed a Horizon's bulkheads could take the impact," Therèse commented.

"If we hadn't bothered to reinforce the rehearsal room walls a decade ago, they wouldn't have."


Komilia spoke up again. "Well. Be that as it may... has anybody heard anything from the arriving ships yet?"

"Not yet on this end," Maia reported. "Then again, we're still getting our marbles back in the bag. Kyoko's had to reroute to some of our secondary transmitter arrays just to reach you guys."

Xeralia added. "We've been broadcasting Zentraedi Alliance hails over the standard comm channels; nothing yet. I've gone ahead and retasked about half the remaining probes to start studying the ships in orbit, to identify them and see how they're doing."

"How do they look?" asked Emilia.

Xeralia's image turned, addressed somebody off-screen in Zentranese, and got a deep, guttural reply. Emilia could hear her comm officer and sensor tech reacting to, and accepting, the newly offered data, which rapidly was added to the master holotank display and mirrored to the other ships.

"We've confirmed that they are the Kridanik Fleet - or part of it, anyway. As you can see, here's a Nupe, almost certainly Lord Breetai's flagship, the Minmay Marauder - she's in WDF livery, blue and white, and the vessels in closest formation match our records of his personal fleet escort." The micronized Vice Admiral indicated them on the main holotank with a set of controls on her own bridge. "We're still taking stock of the situation, but it looks like a sixth of the fleet is missing. We still don't know why. They might be inside the sphere. Out of those that we can see, about a fifth - maybe a fourth - look to be damaged in some fashion. Some of the probes are close enough to make out what look to be Reflex core blowouts, though how they could have survived that, I have no idea."

Therèse spoke up. "Could have been overloads from the fold effect. If it was rocky for us out here, on the receiving end, I shudder to think what things were like inside the fleet."

Miranda consulted with some people beyond her own display screen; the sisters could see Maia reacting to whatever Miranda was saying. Finally, the green-haired woman returned her attention to her siblings. "If your techs can start forwarding the probe scans to Louie, we can get him started on running the numbers."

Xeralia nodded. "All right. Thanks, Miranda."

"No problem."

R-plus 00:46:21.33

"Ma'am? I'm picking up a transmission from the Kridanik Fleet!"

Emilia's head jerked up. She'd been studying a report on the Frank Lloyd Wright's physical status on a data pad, getting a handle on how much would need to be repaired; but this new development took much higher priority. "On screen!"

There was a burst of audio static, and then a portion of the main viewscreen partitioned off to reveal a communications window. Unfortunately, the image was of static snow; overlaying the snow were the words "TRANSMISSION ERROR: AUDIO SIGNAL ONLY."

But Emilia didn't need a video image to hear what was being said. She gave a quick glance to her comm officer, who nodded back, boosted the signal, and then paged the rest of the Sterlings' comm officers to put them back on the line.

"-nyone who can hear us: This is the Kridanik Fleet of the Zentraedi Alliance, Admiral Breetai Kridanik commanding. We are in need of assistance and repair. We have power outages and wounded among the ships of our fleet. Please respond!" The voice was female, with the familiar harmonic undertones of a full-size Zentraedi, but also speaking Standard (albeit with a Meltranese accent).

Emilia watched with unveiled amusement as she could see her sisters react over the holo-conference windows. There was concern, of course - damaged ships and wounded personnel were always serious issues - but the mere fact that there were Zentraedi still alive out there, as well as Lord Breetai, and by extension quite possibly their parents, was a galvanizing realization.

Smiling, Emilia got out of her captain's chair. "Attention ships of the Kridanik Fleet - This is Captain Emilia Sterling, commander of the Cianbro Corporation starship Frank Lloyd Wright, serving as mission lead for the Southern Cross Crusaders, the WDF Mars Division's Voronda Elendil, and Meltrandi Battlegroup Quevillon. We are prepared to render assistance for your wounded and your ships." She took a deep breath, and with a wider smile, announced. "On behalf of those here assembled, I'd like to say: Welcome home."

The sisters could hear an exclamation of relief from the other side of the voice-only channel, then rustling sounds - probably the Meltrandi on the other side centering herself. "Thank you, Frank Lloyd Wright. I'll forward your welcome to Admiral Kridanik personally." There was then a moment's pause. "Wait a second. Did you say Captain Emilia Sterling?" The voice sounded shocked, surprised, and a little bit awed as well.

Emilia blinked, looking puzzled. "Why yes. Yes I did. Emilia Miria Sterling, formerly of the Wedge Defense Force, currently of the Cianbro Corporation."

"Ah - I - I'll get Lord Breetai immediately!" Before anybody could reply to that, the signal was briefly put on hold.

"(what the hell was that all about?)" muttered Maia.

"(Don't look at me, I'm as clueless as you are,)" replied Therèse.

"(Is it me, or did that Meltrandi officer sound... familiar?)" added Miranda.

Xeralia shrugged from her end of the conference call. "(I'm not sure... it feels like a memory I might have had once, like something out of a dream...)" She shook her head.

Before anybody else could reply, a new voice, deep and powerful, echoed across the commline. "Emilia Miria Sterling. Daughters of Miria Fallyna Sterling and Maximilian Sterling. This is Admiral Breetai Kridanik of the Kridanik Fleet. We thank you, both for your welcome and your offers of assistance."

"It's the least we could do, Lord Breetai," Emilia replied. "That was one hell of an entrance you made!"

Breetai uttered a deep, booming laugh. "I look forward to hearing your accounts of it! But first, to more important matters."

Emilia held her breath. By doing so, she allowed Komilia to speak up. "Lord Breetai, this is Komilia Sterling. Our parents - are they... ?"

The sound of Breetai's amusement was palpable. "You may be assured, Komilia Fallyna, that Miria Fallyna and Maximilian are very much alive, and looking forward to seeing their daughters again."

Emilia let out the breath she was holding, and started to quietly laugh. Behind her, Mylene let out a little squeak of utter delight (or was it Guvava who was squeaking? Who could tell, and who cared?) and pumped her fist in the air. On the conference screens, Emilia could see expressions of relief and joy from her siblings. In particular, it appeared that Komilia had muted her helmet pickups to laugh (or possibly cry, Emilia couldn't tell with Komilia's helmet visor in place) outright. Since nobody else seemed in a state to make a coherent response, Emilia took the lead again.

"And you can reassure them that their daughters are looking forward to seeing them in turn." She smiled, though she doubted Breetai could see it. "Speaking of which, shall we make arrangements for a long-awaited reunion?"

"Indeed we shall. I shall have our navigators forward course waypoints to your own helmsmen, and then we can get underway together."

Emilia blinked, looking puzzled. "You don't want us to rendezvous aboard your flagship?"

Breetai's voice held a measure of near-smugness. "I believe you will find the location we have chosen to be much more suitable."

"Suit yourself, Admiral Kridanik." Emilia shrugged. "We'll see you there, and I'll get the crews over here moving to assist at the same time."

"Thank you, Frank Lloyd Wright. Minmay Marauder out." There was a beep, and the voice-only window winked out.

"Well now!" Emilia exclaimed. "Shall we take Lord Breetai up on his offer?"

"Do you really have to ask? DUH!" Maia rejoined with a smirk.

Emilia clapped her hands together with a grin. "Right! Carruthers, forward the navigational data to the Crusaders and the Voronda Elendil. Mercer, take the Wright in, and make arrangements between the Kridanik Fleet and Battlegroup Quevillon for initiating repairs. Mylene, warm up the Flarefire!"

Mylene grinned, already heading for the bridge doors. "Already on it, Emi!"

Emilia smiled at her adopted sibling. "Xeralia, need a lift? I'm sure Mylene's got some room on her ship - "

Xeralia smiled back. "I do believe I'll take you up on that offer, Emilia. I should be over there in ten minutes."

"Right!" She then turned her attentions to Maia and Miranda. "I assume you two will make your own way over?"

Miranda grinned. "I think we can manage. We'll meet you on the flight over."

Maia nodded. "See you groundside, sisters. Voronda Elendil out!"

R-plus 01:45:01.24

Once again, the Southern Cross Crusaders were flying escort for the Flarefire, but this time, there were some key differences. One of them was the fact that Mylene's ship was carrying both Emilia and Xeralia, along with some of Emilia's officers and Xeralia's adjutant (who had undergone a rather hasty micronization at the last moment). Another was the fact that Maia and Miranda's Shadow Legios was flying in formation above the Flarefire, not bothering to activate its Shadow systems, carrying some extra passengers in the Beta's cargo bay.

Also, they were following a Zentraedi dropship, which presumably held Admiral Breetai Kridanik... and their parents.

Komilia Sterling, having taken point as Crusader One, found herself confronting a mix of emotions, despite herself and the occasion. She was happy, nay, overjoyed that her parents were safe and sound and back in her life; but by the same token, she (and the rest of her siblings) had lived through difficult times these past eight decades. She didn't like to dwell on the negatives in her life - that led too easily to brooding angst, and she liked to believe she was above all that - but the changes they all had been through had toughened them in ways that wouldn't have been fathomable back in the WDF's golden days. Hell, even Mylene, of all people, went around day-to-day openly armed! How would their parents react to something like that?

Of course, her father had been one of the WDF founders, taking his place on the galactic stage amid the turmoil of Earth's first contact; and her mother - gods, did anybody, even she, know how old she was? - was a veteran of more military campaigns than there were days in the Standard calendar year. So perhaps she was fretting a little more than was warranted in this situation.

Komilia sighed. This line of thought was getting her nowhere. She shook her head, and returned her attentions to the task at hand.

The course that Admiral Kridanik had provided led the little formation between the much more massive starships that made up his personal escort, but even they were dwarfed by the sheer bulk of the Dyson sphere in front of them. The closer they got, the wider it appeared, until the Zentraedi ships had become mere specks behind them, and all that filled their view was the vast grey expanse spreading from horizon to horizon.

Komilia kept flying in formation, following the dropship, wondering how long they'd have to keep going in this direction. The sheer mass and breadth of the sphere were confusing her radar, so she shut it off. We'd better get to an entrance soon, Komilia thought, or this will be one of the most abbreviated flybys of all time...

As if in answer to Komilia's thought, a hairline crack appeared in the distance on the surface of the sphere. For a moment, it was barely noticeable, just a darker series of fissures in the vast dull grayness. But then they expanded, spreading apart smoothly, revealing themselves to be the edges of a hatchway the size of a continent, and allowing the inside to be finally seen in full.

Her helmet visor automatically tinted to compensate, and Komilia gasped. "... my God... it's full of light... "

R-plus 01:56:23.24

In the command cabin of the Flarefire, Emilia arched an eyebrow at her sister's words. "Well, what were you expecting, Komilia? It's a Dyson sphere, of COURSE it's full of light. It has a star inside it."

Komilia didn't respond - she was still overwhelmed by the sight before her. Instead, Mylene, who was standing next to Emilia, just tapped her on the shoulder. "Um, Emi? You better think twice about dismissing this thing."

"What do you mean - " she began to ask, but then trailed off as they passed through the gateway. " - oh wow," Emilia murmured, as she finally began to actually grasp the relative sizes involved.

The entrance, with its massive doors, was several miles in thickness. Emilia supposed the sides were that thick to help keep the sphere's atmosphere in, but until she got a second look at the other side, it'd be very hard to say for certain. Once they had passed beyond the hatchway, the inner surface of the sphere spread in all directions to the virtual horizon, fading off into unfocused blurs as the eyes lost ability to cope with the distances involved. It was evenly lit by the output of the star in the center, which only highlighted the interior's vast sameness.

Therèse's voice crackled over the shared band. "Sensor scans in progress - solar output matches that of Zeta Cygni... and, yes, yes, I can pick up ZC I and ZC II, right where they ought to be. That's our star, all right."

Emilia nodded slowly. Behind her, Xeralia worked her way into the cabin, and quietly whistled at the sight. Mylene glanced back at her adopted sister, and gave her a questioning look.

"Mylene," Xeralia answered, her voice hushed, "I can say this with utter certainty: This sphere is a wonder. The workings of the greatest ancient peoples of our galaxy could not have matched it. Not even Atlantis ever wrought anything like this."

Mylene glanced out the cabin windows. The Flarefire had passed the inner edges of the gate, and was now flying into the vast space between sphere and star.

"... I feel like I'm an ant in a salad bowl," Mylene murmured.

Xeralia considered this statement, and nodded. "Make that 'a microbe in a dish antenna', and I would be inclined to agree. Every Zentran and Meltran should bear witness to this place; here, they could understand the true meaning of relative scale." She considered her words for a moment, then leaned past Emilia and the Flarefire's pilot to tap a control on one of the navigator panels. "Crusader Eight. Mars Two. Can you detect any Zentraedi starships, aside from the dropship, in the vicinity?"

"Checking now, Flarefire," Therèse replied.

"I'm on it, sis," added Miranda Sterling, from the cockpit of the Shadow Beta.

There were a few minutes of waiting, during which the formation followed the green dropship in a long arc over the inner surface. It was impossible to get any certain directional fixes by looking at the sphere itself; one had to look at the orbit of Zeta Cygni II around its sun to have any definition of up and down or side to side. By using Zeta Cygni II's ecliptic plane as a reference, Emilia estimated that they were possibly headed in a 'north' direction, if one thought of the Dyson sphere as a giant hollow globe and the ecliptic as its equator.

"Flarefire, this is Crusader Eight. You were right, Xeralia. I've got some extremely long-range visual scans of Zentraedi ships on the inside, with Kridanik Fleet IFFs. I can't get a good reading on their status at the moment."

"Mars Two confirms this, Flarefire." There was a moment's pause, and Miranda continued, "Crusader Eight, check bearing zero-one-zero-mark-zero-five? I think my scanners may have just picked up an ATC beacon."

"On it, Mars Two. ... ATC beacon confirmed, it's within the range of my scanners. Crusader Flight, Flarefire, Mars One, forwarding updated waypoint and beacon data. Designating beacon as SEO-One."

"'SEO'? What could that mean?" asked Carella Sansen.

"According to the beacon's telemetry: 'Settlement Evaluation Outpost One'."

"Settlement?! You mean, they're thinking about living in this thing?" Carole Greenhouse blurted out.

"Looks that way, Three," replied Komilia. "The flight plan provided by Admiral Kridanik leads us straight to it."

R-plus 04:25:33.47

The flight to Settlement Evaluation Outpost One passed mostly in silence. Occasionally there would be a comment from one of the pilots or passengers on what they saw, but for the most part, they were absorbed in their own private thoughts.

The Dyson sphere was immense, there was no doubt about it. Most of its inner surface appeared to consist of vast latticeworks and industrial structures of unknown purpose. There were other wide gates embedded in the surface, regularly placed, vast and inscrutable, and currently closed. Every so often they would see one of the Zentraedi ships of the Kridanik Fleet, either hovering above or landed on the inner surface. The colossal warships were like green rice grains compared to the rest of the sphere. At some points, barely postage-stamp-sized in relative scale, they could see other changes in surface texture and color. They couldn't tell if they were due to different structures, different types of metals, or even if somehow rock, soil, and plant life had been seeded within the sphere.

But in a way, none of that mattered. The small convoy of ships was approaching one of those far-ahead different-colored "postage stamps". As they made their final approach, they began to detect the presence of an atmosphere clinging to the inside surface of the sphere. Their actions were automatic and professional as they prepped their ships for atmospheric insertion.

The shields of the fighters and transport glowed with friction as they followed the dropship down through the clouds. Now that they were approaching the inner surface of the Dyson sphere, it became easier to think of 'up' as toward Zeta Cygni, and 'down' toward the approaching ground. They bled off velocity and powered down the shields as they got close enough to see their destination clearly.

The saucer-shaped Zentraedi dropship slowed as they approached a developed expanse, which had been constructed atop a rough metallic plateau that spread for miles in both directions. The terrain reminded the Sterling sisters somewhat of Cybertron, if the Transformers' homeworld still had a sun and someone had slapped Wedge Park, with its green grass and brown soil, down in the middle of Polyhex. Still in formation, the fighters and transport made a circling flyby of the area while the dropship came to a halt in midair, hovering in front of a loose arrangement of bunkers and blockhouses.

"Looks like this is the place, Crusaders, Flarefire," Komilia announced as they completed the survey pass. They could see the dropship deploying its landing legs and lowering to the ground in front of the buildings.

"Boss, there's some areas staked out for landing zones. I can see the signal pylons anchored in the turf." Carella added. "Check out those scorch marks, too. They've been using this place for a while."

"So noted, Crusader Two." She studied the arrangement of pylons, made some selections on her MFD, and then paged the other ships to forward the landing data. "Flarefire, Mars One, we have a landing zone picked out, do you copy?"

"Roger, Crusader One," replied Mylene. "We're beginning the landing cycle now."

"Copy that, Crusader One," added Maia. "Once the Flarefire and Crusader Flight are down, we'll join you."

"Roger. Crusaders, go to Formation C and box the Flarefire." Komilia got acknowledgements from the rest of her squadron, and as Mylene's red Horizon transport slowed and descended to the turf, the Crusaders split into two four-man elements, performing one last circling pass over the landing site before descending on repulsors and GERWALK-mode legs.

Komilia felt her Valkyrie shiver slightly as it settled on its deployed engine-legs. She ran through the postflight check and powered down the fighter. Off in the distance, she could see the Zentraedi dropship's main hatch opening, forming a wide ramp that lowered to the ground. Zentraedi soldiers in full dress kit were exiting, standing on the edges of the landing ramp. On either side of the dropship, in front of the main (Zentraedi-scaled) buildings, was a flagpole. As she watched, two soldiers went to each flagpole; within moments, they had unfurled two flags and hoisted them aloft: the flags of the Wedge Defense Force and the Zentraedi Alliance.

Guess it's official then; they really have claimed this place as their own, Komilia mused, as she unsecured her seat harness. And they're making an event of it. Pity I wasn't able to get my old uniform...

Komilia considered that thought for a moment, and then reached down to unzip one of her flightsuit's thigh pockets. She reached inside, rummaged a little bit, and then pulled out two slim items. Komilia studied them quietly. One of them was her original WDF nametag ("K. STERLING") ... and the other was, more importantly, the flightsuit patch of VVF-261: Eight-Ball Squadron.

For the past 85 years, she had led the Southern Cross Crusaders into battle; for nearly two and a half centuries before that, she had been a member of the elite Eight-Balls. In the present day, who could say which flight she felt a closer kinship to?

And in the end, did it really matter?

Komilia quirked a slight smile, reached up to her upper chest, and removed her Crusader nametag; whatever else she might or might not be, she was a Sterling, a daughter of Max and Miria Sterling, and the time for the mask of "Libby Jenius" was past. Then, with a gesture of finality, she removed the black-encircled red-and-gold eagle of the Crusaders from above her removed nametag. She set the unit patch aside, then carefully replaced both tag and patch with those that belonged to her by right as a member of the WDF Eight-Balls. She put the Crusader nametag and patch into her thigh pocket, and closed it up.

As she popped the canopy of her Valkyrie and deployed the retractable boarding ladder, Komilia noticed that she still wore the red-and-gold eagle of the Crusaders on the shoulders of her flightsuit. She hesitated a moment, then shrugged and left them there. She was an Eight-Ball and a Crusader both. If anybody criticized her about it, she knew just where to tell them to stick it.

Komilia hauled herself up out of the cockpit and over the coaming, descending the ladder down to the ground. For a brief moment, she wondered just how the hell the ground (and everything else on top of it) was managing to stay down, given where they were; but she immediately decided to halt that line of questioning before she got a massive headache.

"So, it's official then, boss?" asked Carella Sansen, a trifle sadly. Komilia turned around, and she could see that the Southern Cross Crusaders had assembled in front of her Valkyrie, with Sparks in the lead. With surprise, she noticed they were all standing at attention, even Therèse; a rarity for the sometimes-informal group.

Komilia blinked, looked down at her replaced unit patch and nametag, and looked back up at her exec. She softly smiled. "Hey, don't look so down, Sparks. You haven't gotten rid of me that easily. I plan to fly with you guys for a long time to come." She jerked a thumb towards her shoulder, where the Crusaders' eagle still rested. "Hell, stay with me long enough, and you just might have a front-row seat for the really big show."

Carella arched an eyebrow. "Oh really?"

Komilia's smile widened. "Really."

"Well then, Komilia..." Carella finally smiled back, and saluted Komilia. Behind her, the other Southern Cross Crusaders saluted as well. "Lead on, Lieutenant Commander. We've got your six."

Komilia saluted them back, clearly proud of her squadron, and then turned to head off towards Settlement Evaluation Outpost One. The Crusaders fell in behind her, and her sister made her way to walk at Komilia's right hand.

As the groups assembled and made their way to the dropship, Komilia could see that the rest of her siblings had much the same idea as herself. She had already noticed that Therèse had replaced her own Crusaders patch with the Wedge Defense Force diamond emblem. Emilia was clad in her best Cianbro Corporation uniform, but on the lapel of her suitjacket there glistened a tasteful WDF pin. Xeralia was wearing the full-dress uniform of a Meltrandi vice-admiral, complete with the half-cape and ceremonial blaster on her hip. Maia and Miranda were still kitted out in their flightsuits and CVR, but Komilia could see that they both had uncovered the twinned helms of Nazgûl Flight on their left shoulder pauldrons, opposite the white-trimmed black Mars Division triangle on their right shoulders.

Even Mylene had gotten in on the act - though in her case, her 'uniform' consisted of black denim jeans, boots, gunbelt, gloves, a leather WDF pilot's jacket open at the front to reveal a snug white WDF tee-shirt, and a jauntily-perched WDF officer's cap.

Miranda's eyebrows went up, taking in Mylene's new look as they ended up next to each other in the procession towards the dropship. "... is that an Eight-Ball pilot's jacket?"

"Yup. Used to be Dad's, as a matter of fact," Mylene replied.

"How in the cosmos did you get ahold of that?"

Mylene gave her older sister a wry smile. "It's amazing what you can find on eBay, dear sister." She tapped the brim of her cap and winked. Guvava, who was perched on top of the cap, cheerfully squeaked.

It was not a long walk to the dropship's landing area. As the pilots, officers, and band members, led by the Sterling sisters, approached the boarding ramp, they sized up the people who were waiting for them.

Admiral Breetai Kridanik was easiest to spot, of course; the mighty Zentraedi warlord and staunch ally of the Wedge Defense Force towered over everyone there, even his own Zentraedi and Meltrandi officers, the armor and crystal lens of his bionic optic cowl glinting in the sunlight. He was clad in his customary dress uniform, arms at parade rest behind his back. Breetai's blue-tinged features smiled down at the approaching group, and his remaining original eye studied them all with clear approval. Behind him, his officers stood at attention, watching the smaller humanoids and staying back enough so they wouldn't squash any of them by accident.

One in particular, a tall Meltrandi in a purple officer's coat, with the amazonian looks that tended to mark those of their warrior elite, was studying the new arrivals - especially the Sterling siblings in the lead - with a mix of intent interest and... uncertainty? Hesitation? Possibly even nervousness?

Emilia raised her eyebrows, studying the unfamiliar Meltrandi officer, and then tapped Xeralia on the shoulder. "(Xera? Strange things are afoot down at the Circle-K,)" she murmured into her sibling's ear.

"Mm?" Xeralia shifted her attention slightly, and then studied the Meltrandi in question. She directed a sidelong glance at Miranda, her green hair braided as it trailed down her back, and looked then back at the much larger woman. She had the exact same hair color as Miranda. And for that matter, the same blue eyes, and the way her hair was styled reminded both Xeralia and Emilia strongly of their father...

"(Well now. Well, well, well...)" A fey smile graced Xeralia's lips. "(looks like this is going to be more than a reunion.)"

They drew closer, and now were able to focus on the smaller humanoids that had assembled at the base of the ramp. They were a mix of officers and technicians (none of whom they recognized), clad either in the livery of the Zentraedi Alliance or the Wedge Defense Force, and they were led at the front by the grinning visage of Baron Wolfgang Amadaeus von Fahrvergnügen himself!?

"(What the hell? I thought he was dead!)" Maia blurted out, unabashedly staring at the sight of the WDF's founder and supreme leader. Clad in his black plate armor and fur-lined cape, sword at his side, he looked just the same as he had back during the Golden Age of the Wedge Defense Force.

"(Damn... well that explains why the bounty hunters never found Wolfgang,)" Miranda replied. "(I get the feeling a lot of WDF die-hards are going to want to talk to him.)"

"(To welcome him back, or to chew him out?)"

"(Probably both, knowing some of them.)"

But for all the byplay going on behind her, Komilia's expression was level and intent. Truth be told, she had hardly registered the presence of the various Zentraedi, and she barely spared a passing glance at von Fahrvergnügen. Her total being was focused solely on the couple standing nearby, both of them clad in WDF dress uniforms. She strode purposefully towards the man with blue hair and aviator's glasses, and the woman with long green hair who held his hand, who had likewise been studying the crowd.

Their eyes widened as they took in the sight of Komilia and her siblings, and the woman let out a little sound of surprise and relief. Her green eyes shone as she let go of the man's hand, stepping forward even as the man smiled and moved forward as well. The three of them ended up speaking at once:

"Komilia, daughter, I..."

"Oh God, Komilia, we've missed you..."

"Mom... Dad... I... i...."

Unable to say anything more than that, Komilia broke formation with the rest of her sisters, took two rapid steps forward, and hugged her father tight and close, clinging to him as if he was the sole anchor to reality. The unshed tears of the past eighty years finally broke out from their confinement, and she unashamedly cried as she was embraced by her father and mother.

In that moment, she was no longer Libby Jenius, founder and leader of the mercenary Southern Cross Crusaders.

Nor was she Komilia "Miss Liberty" Sterling, long-time member of the Wedge Defense Force's elite Eight-Ball Squadron.

Nor was she even Komilia Dana Sterling, the eldest of the children of Maximilian Sterling and Miria Fallyna Sterling, guardian of her younger siblings.

She was just Komilia, their daughter, safe and loved within her parents' arms.

And that was all that mattered.

"Reunion, Part 4: Revelation" - An Exile Mini-Story by Philip Jeremy Moyer
Reunion Mini-Serial Plotted by Philip J. Moyer
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
(c) 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

July 4, 2374
Zeta Cygni Dyson Sphere
Cygnus Sector
1715 hours GST

R-plus 05:15:12.48

The general mood that afternoon was one of celebration and camaraderie at Settlement Evaluation Outpost One. The younger Sterling siblings watched with varying degrees of quiet amusement and fondness at the display of familial affection and relief, as Komilia Sterling hugged her parents and they hugged her back.

"Y'know, I think Komi, Mom, and Dad are gonna be busy for a while," Maia Sterling said without rancor.

"We'll just have to wait our turn, I suppose," Miranda Sterling replied with a smile.

Emilia Sterling nodded and chuckled. "In the interim..." She directed a speculative glance at the Meltrandi officer who had caught her attention earlier. "... I think we should go and introduce ourselves."

The woman in question was watching the interplay between Komilia, Max, and Miria Sterling with equal measures of happiness and uncertainty, keeping her distance from the little group. She was so lost in her private thoughts, watching the scene, that she didn't even notice the group of six women approaching until Maia finally grabbed her pants leg and tugged on it.

"Eh?" Blinking, the Meltrandi officer directed her blue-eyed gaze down to her feet. She blinked again at the women who waved up at her. "Ah... hello?" Her voice was deep and resonant. This was partially due to her size, but there was also a certain sultry quality that the sisters didn't think micronization would remove.

"Hey up there!" Emilia called with a grin. "That was you on the comm earlier, asking for help, right?"

The tall woman nodded and knelt down so as to be closer to them. "Yes... that was me." She smiled slightly, looking a little embarrassed. "I'm sorry if I wasn't as professional as I should have been."

"Eh, don't worry about it." Emilia waved a dismissive hand. "You'd had a busy day. Happens to the best of us. Anyway, just so you can have a face to go with the name - I'm Emilia Sterling." She offered her hand with a smile, even though she knew that due to the relative scales, the best she could accomplish was to shake the giant woman's index finger. "And you are...?"

The woman blinked her deep blue eyes and replied as she shook Emilia's hand, "I'm Miracle." She hesitated a moment, blushing slightly, and added, "Miracle Asrial Sterling."

Emilia and Xeralia grinned in unison and exchanged high-fives. Maia and Miranda blinked in synchrony, already beginning to figure out what this new development implied. Therèse Sterling just stared, dumbstruck.

Mylene Sterling, looking up at Miracle, blinked twice. "... i'm not the baby any more..." she murmured. She then slowly began to grin the widest grin any of her siblings had ever seen from her. "I'm not the baby of the family any more! YES!!! Woohoo!" she exclaimed, slapping Miracle's knee. "Thank GOD there's finally somebody in the family YOUNGER than me!"

Miracle blinked several times in succession, perplexed at the others' reactions. Seeing that her parents - and a woman who had to be her eldest sister - were still occupied, she directed a querying gaze at Breetai Kridanik. "Sir? Admiral Kridanik?" she asked the Zentraedi warlord.

Breetai quirked his eyebrow, shifting his attention from observing where von Fahrvergnügen was exchanging greetings with the former WDFers who had come along with the Sterling sisters. "Yes, Lieutenant Sterling?" he enquired with a patient, amused tone.

"Why are they reacting like that?" Miracle asked, sounding puzzled. "I don't think I said anything funny," she tried to explain in a subdued voice, though due to her size, that meant the rest of her siblings could hear her quite clearly (which only caused them to break down further).

Breetai chuckled, crouching so that he could regard the daughters and put himself more on a level with Miracle. "They're just overwhelmed by your sheer presence, Miracle Fallyna." He tried to direct a stern gaze at the daughters of Miria Sterling, though the effect was somewhat marred by the twinkle in his eye and the upward curl of his lips. "You should be ashamed of yourselves, treating your newest sister like that. Especially you, Group Cap - excuse me, Vice Admiral Fallyna Sterling. What sort of an example are you presenting for the newest member of the Zentraedi military?"

"Sorry, sorry, sir!" Xeralia exclaimed as she wiped her eyes with her sleeve, gasping for air and slowly recovering. "Whooo! Man, haven't laughed that hard in a while."

R-plus 05:20:15.04

While all this was going on, Komilia was still in the arms of her parents. Part of her didn't want to let go. Despite her age and experience, her ability to stay stable in the midst of a crisis, and the past 80 years of total independence from the framework of the Wedge Defense Force, there had remained a small part of her that had longed and yearned for her mother's and father's love, support, and approval. Now that they were reunited, that part was being given free rein. She supposed she was making a spectacle of herself, but she didn't give a damn. Certainly her parents didn't seem to mind.

But, as much as she wished this moment could be extended forever, the more practical side of herself reminded Komilia that she was being selfish. Surely her sisters had equal right to welcome their parents back. Hesitantly, reluctantly, she disengaged from Max and Miria, brushing a sleeve across her cheeks to clean away the tears.

"S-sorry..." Komilia tried to apologize, a wan smile on her lips. "Got carried away, there."

"It's quite all right, Komilia," her mother murmured, wiping tears from her own cheeks.

Beside her, Max had removed his glasses to clean them in turn. "You needed it, I'm sure," he said with a faint smile.

Komilia nodded and rubbed her eyes. Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she opened her eyes again. Her expression visibly brightened as a long-endured weight lifted from her heart. She reached forward to squeeze her mother's hands, then her father's.

"Mom... Dad... 85 years ago," she said in a quiet murmur, "when I heard that you and the rest were alive, but not going to be back for... however long... I almost lost heart. It hit so hard, after what had happened the weeks before..." Komilia shook her head. "But we managed to get through it. We didn't lose heart. In a large part because of the message you sent. And I want you to know, above anything else... I love you."

Max nodded and hugged his firstborn daughter once again, this time without tears. "And we love you, Komilia. Always."

"Always and forever, dearest daughter," Miria added, embracing her daughter and husband. "We're proud of you."

The three finally disengaged from the group hug and looked at each other. Max arched an eyebrow, taking in the red-and-black flightsuit Komilia was wearing, the red-and-gold eagle patch on both her shoulders. "Well, it certainly seems as if you've done well for yourself, Komilia."

"Good God, I don't even know where to begin," Komilia shook her head with a smile. "It'll probably take us days just to fill you in on everything."

Miria nodded. "We're looking forward to it, Komilia. It will be a welcome change after the long journey."

Komilia nodded. "And what about you two? There can't have been much to do between here and wherever you went..." She turned, ready to lead her parents to the rest of her siblings, and then was brought up short.

Max coughed. "Er, yes. About that..."

Komilia had seen a lot of funny things in her long life. High on the list: the times when she and her sisters got together for a family gathering or social event on the SDF-17, but due to circumstance or just laziness, Xeralia hadn't bothered to get micronized. That had led to interesting situations where one or another of them would end up climbing up Xeralia to perch on her shoulder or to relax in her jacket pockets, just to be in range to talk with her.

This scene was similar... but Xeralia had been a Micron for the past several weeks. Instead, she was perched on the shoulder of an oddly familiar Meltrandi lieutenant, currently chatting with the giant woman and Lord Breetai, who was crouched down to talk with them. In the seated woman's lap were Maia and Miranda, while nearby Mylene was grinning, fit-to-burst, and Therèse had a look of wonder while Emilia looked smug.

"You..." Komilia blinked, taking in the sight. She studied the lines of the Meltrandi's face, the color of her hair, the shade of her eyes, and it suddenly dawned on her why the woman looked familiar. "... Oh boy."

Max at least had the grace to look mildly embarrassed. "Well," he said, "Breetai did say we should get comfortable during the trip..." Miria blushed, but her eyes shone with pride and love for her husband and daughters.

"Oh, I'll say you got comfortable, all right," Komilia replied. She then started to grin. "I'll save the more off-color jokes for Maia. She delivers them better, anyway."

"Thank you ever so much, Komilia," Max dryly replied.

"No problem, Dad."

The three of them together finally joined the family gathering. Miracle's expression visibly brightened as she spotted their approach, and this reaction got the attention of her siblings as well. Max and Miria were veritably mobbed as the rest of their children came over, enfolding them with words of welcome, hugs of love, and tears of joy.

Save for Miracle, who once again hung back from the group, her expression turning more pensive as she watched her other siblings; and Xeralia, who was still perched on her shoulder. Komilia considered this situation for a moment, and then walked over and waved up at Miracle.

"Hey there."

"Eh?" Miracle blinked, and looked down at Komilia. "Oh, hello... Komilia, right?"

"That's me." She smiled up at the newest addition to the family. "The one, the only, the limited edition."

Miracle nodded. "I'm Miracle. But I suppose you already knew that..."

Komilia shrugged. "Hey, I'm not all-knowing by far. Don't believe all the rumors." She glanced up and winked. "So, what do you think of the rest of Mom and Dad's little clan so far?" Komilia finally asked, leaning against her larger sister's thigh.

"Well, you're certainly as enthusiastic as Mom and Dad described," Miracle observed, for a moment forgetting her awkwardness. "But..." she admitted with a sheepish tone and a helpless gesture, "I expected you all to be... taller."

Blinking, Xeralia mostly succeeded in avoiding another fit of laughter. Instead, she held a hand over her mouth and snickered, so as to avoid confusing the larger woman further. Finally she recovered, then directed her gaze over to Miracle's blue eyes, reading the confusion and uncertainty within them. Xeralia considered this for a moment, then slid down the sleeve of Miracle's dress uniform, stopping her descent by grabbing onto the cuff.

Miracle looked down at Xera, puzzled as the redhead pivoted around so that she was seated on her knee in front of her hand. Xeralia placed her much smaller hands atop one of Miracle's knuckles, and looked up at her face and into her eyes. "Mira, we have got a lot to talk about. And once this reunion gets taken care of, I'm good for it anytime if you are," she said with a kind smile. Down below, Komilia observed all this, nodding quietly in approval at Xeralia's actions.

Miracle blinked, and adopted a thoughtful expression. " 'Mira'..." she murmured, mostly to herself. For some reason she couldn't express, it was reassuring to be addressed like that. She smiled a little bit, and looked down at Xeralia. "I think I'd like to do that... Xera." Her smile widened with relief as she saw the redheaded Sterling smile back.

"Good. Now that that's dealt with, if you'll excuse me, I've gotta go and get in on the hug action with Mom and Dad." Xeralia winked and hopped off of Miracle's leg, down to the ground. "Don't go anywhere, I'll be right back!" With a smile and a wave, she headed over to Max and Miria.

"All right!" Miracle replied, her smile becoming more natural and full by the second.

"Well, you two seem to have hit it off," Komilia observed.

Miracle nodded. "Yeah... I'm kinda surprised at that. But - it's like she understands me, more than I thought anybody else could... even Mom and Dad."

Komilia considered that statement, and then spoke up. "I suppose it could be that she's got the most experience out of all of us being macronized. I take it you grew up Zentraedi-scale?"

"Yes. I mean, I knew that Mom and Dad weren't originally my size - or, well, Dad wasn't, and Mom hadn't been for a long time - but hearing about it and seeing it are two different things."

"Funny how that works out." Komilia quirked a smile. She then paused, checking the skies above Settlement Evaluation Outpost One. "Huh. Air traffic's getting pretty thick around here. I wonder what's up?"

Miracle's eyebrows went up, and then she looked up. She could see other Zentraedi dropships approaching for landings around the base, as well as smaller Micron-scaled shuttles and fightercraft. She glanced around, and could see that Breetai Kridanik had moved back over to the first dropship, where he was in conversation with several of his officers and Lord Fahrvergnügen.

"Komilia? I have a suspicion Lord Fahrvergnügen is about to address us. You'd better get the others."

Komilia raised an eyebrow, then nodded. "Right. Be right back, Mira." She smiled at the sight of Miracle looking pleased with herself, then turned to gather the rest of their family.

R-plus 05:29:31.21

Lord Fahrvergnügen was at his normal height - impressive for humans, not so much for Zentraedi - but a holographic projector took care of that, superimposing a giant version so that he could easily command the attention of everyone present.

I am the Great and Powerful Oz, thought Emilia with a smile as he began to speak.

"My friends... we have done it," said the Baron, his thunderous voice full of emotion. "The reclamation and relocation of this sphere must surely stand as one of the greatest achievements ever wrought by the hands of mortal men and women. Only starfarers of consummate skill - beings absolutely without fear - could even have attempted a feat of navigation and spacemanship of this magnitude, much less succeeded! Only the Zentraedi of the Kridanik Fleet!"

"I'll give him this," Maia murmured to Komilia as the area filled with the kind of roar that only a Zentraedi crowd could make. "He knows how to work a room... so to speak," she added, looking up at the vast emptiness above them.

"But our task is far from over," von Fahrvergnügen added in a more restrained voice once the cheering had died down. "Now we face a challenge that is, in its way, far greater. Having wrested this construct from the void, we must now make it what it must truly be. This sphere," he said, making a gesture that somehow took in the entirety of their gigantic surrounding, "is more than a home, more than a fortress. It is a seed, and out of it, in the fullness of time, the rebirth of the galaxy will flower... but only if we are diligent! Only if we remain bold and unafraid!"

In a quiet but powerfully intense voice, he went on, "If you are a citizen of the galaxy today, you may say the Wedge Defense Force is dead. The dream is over. The galaxy is what it is now, and we must simply accept it."

Lord Fahrvergnügen seemed almost to expand, drawing himself not only to his full height but also his full width, and his eyes flashed as he roared, "I say thee nay! The Wedge Defense Force lives! It lives in all of us. It lives in the dreams of every child who wishes he had the strength to protect those he loves. It lives in the very spirit of freedom itself! It only waits for messengers bold enough and numerous enough to remind the rest of the galaxy of its existence - to rekindle its flame in the hearts of freedom-loving people everywhere!

"Now, here, today, you and I will begin the work of turning this sphere, this greatest of creations, into a home and a headquarters for those messengers - a brazier for that flame. And if we do our work well, then when the time is right, the warriors of Zeta Cygni will rise from the ashes - stronger than ever before - to challenge the shadows that threaten to engulf our galaxy! From the Core to the Rim, we are there! We will win!"

The response, roared out by thousands of Zentraedi and more than a few human throats, was all but deafening.

"Nothing can stop the Wedge Defense Force!"

R-plus 05:37:51.20

The speech concluded, the mixed assemblage of Zentraedi and Microns began to mix and mingle. The air became filled with the buzz of voices, discussing the past century's events and their plans for the future.

Among them, Emilia Sterling excused herself from the rest of her family, intent on seeking out one particular individual in the crowd. Given that the individual she sought was none other than Baron Wolfgang Amadeus von Fahrvergnügen, spotting him wasn't all that hard. The tricky part was making her way through the group of people who had gathered around him.

Finally, she made her way through the ring of people. At the moment, he was talking with Scott Bernard, Ariel, and Sera of the Mars Division. Emilia couldn't make out the details, but whatever the discussion was about, it was clearly important to the two Invid and their appointed guardian. Wolfgang's expression was intent, he nodded every so often during the conversation, and his replies were careful and considered.

Then, with a final nod of agreement (and a hug from Ariel, and handshakes from Scott and Sera), the founder of the WDF was able to disengage from the trio. Seeing her opportunity, Emilia made her move, and got to the front of the receiving mob before anybody else could.

"Oh, Wolfgang? If I could have a moment of your time?"

"Ah, Emilia Sterling! It has been quite a while," von Fahrvergnügen proclaimed, shifting his attentions to the blue-haired Sterling. "Why, the last time I saw you face to face was on your graduation day from Destroid school!" He took in Emilia's attire, and made a thoughtful sound. "I take it that becoming a member of the WDF Armored Corps no longer holds your interest?"

"In a manner of speaking. But, that's life for you." For a moment, Emilia looked regretful, but then her expression turned more intent. "However... even though I'm no longer directly associated with the WDF, I still have plenty of fondness for it... and I think I have a way that I can help it get back on its feet."

Lord Fahrvergnügen arched one bushy orange eyebrow. "How do you mean, Emilia?"

"Well, as it turns out... I happen to represent an organization that could help make your dreams for the sphere a reality." She idly tapped the name badge clipped to her Cianbro uniform's lapel, beneath her rank bars and opposite her WDF pin. "For that matter, if you were to give your approval, the part I directly command can start work immediately. I've got some of my guys working on repairing Battlegroup Quevillon and the Kridanik Fleet, but hell, that isn't even their prime specialty! We do space habs. Big ones. Civil construction; military fortifications... shipyards." She gestured vaguely to their surroundings. "All the things you need."

Von Fahrvergnügen frowned thoughtfully. "Hrm. An interesting proposal, Emilia. But are you sure you know what you are getting into? And for that matter, can you truly commit the company you represent? My plans for this construct will take some time to carry out, I must admit."

Grinning, Emilia pulled out her dataphone, reconfiguring it for network uplink. "If you've got the money, honey, I've got the time."

Lord Fahrvergnügen gave her an interested look. "Tell me more..."

R-plus 05:41:26.19

Mylene Sterling looked out over the crowd gathered around Settlement Evaluation Outpost One. Groups were mingling and discussing the future, still energized by Lord Fahrvergnügen's speech. There was an energy in the air that was circulating among them all. She nodded in approval. Slowly, step-by-step, these particular remnants of the Wedge Defense Force were pulling themselves back together, truly becoming the "seed" that the founder of the WDF had alluded to, the foundation upon which the rest would rally around once their presence was declared to the galaxy once more. Not today, and perhaps not for many years, but it was certain to occur, all the same.

But there was still something missing. Something that she doubted others had considered.

Well, she had a way to fix that.

Shouldering her guitar, she strode purposefully through the crowds, intent on her goal. Guvava sat on her shoulder, giving little directional squeaks.

Finally, she reached her sister Emilia, who was deep in conversation with Wolfgang and some middle-aged Cianbro guy Mylene didn't recognize. She rapped her knuckles on one of von Fahrvergnügen's pauldrons and smiled at the three of them. "Hey, Lord F, mind if I borrow my sis for a moment?"

"Eh, miss - " Von Fahrvergnügen actually did a double-take. " - Mylene Sterling?!"

"I promise, it'll only take a second!" She grinned, then took Emilia by the arm before the good Baron could regain his wits.

"Uh - Pete, how about you and Wolfgang keep at it," Emilia called to her mustachioed cohort as she was pulled away. He raised a hand in acknowledgement and turned back to the still-bemused Lord F just as Emilia lost sight of them in the crowd.

"What, Mylene?" Emilia enquired, mildly perturbed, as the two sisters emerged into another clear area. "You realize I was working? Opportunities like this don't come around every day."

"Yeah, I sorta guessed, but trust me, this'll help you as well as everybody else here." Mylene looked up at the sky, and then around the landscape and the buildings of the outpost. "If you want, you can think of it as a demonstration of what Cianbro can do for the WDF."

Emilia gave her sister a speculative look. "I'm listening... what are you thinking?"

Mylene smiled, knowing that she had managed to catch her sister's interest. "You want to know what I think?"

Emilia made a get-on-with-it gesture. "Mm-hmm, or I wouldn't have just asked. Today would be nice."

Mylene shook her head at her elder sister's pique. "Boy, hanging around with construction workers has sure made you surly."

Emilia put her hands on her hips and scowled. "MYLENE."

"Okay, okay. I think this calls for a party."

Emilia relented slightly, then listened carefully as Mylene leaned close and described her plan. Slowly, she smiled, finally nodding in agreement.

"Yeah... I think you're right. Okay, lemme go get my chief project engineer away from Wolfgang." Emilia started leading the way back through the crowd. "He'll love this. It'll be the biggest rush job we've had since the time we built a working Battledrome in a cornfield on Tomodachi for a charity publicity stunt."

"How long did that take?"

"Three hours."

Mylene looked impressed. "Damn, girl."

"Mind you," Emilia went on with a grin, "it wasn't cheap... and this ain't gonna be either."

"Don't I at least get the employee discount?"

"We'll see."

"Reunion, Part 5: Resolution" - An Exile Mini-Story by Philip Jeremy Moyer and Benjamin D. Hutchins
Reunion Mini-Serial Plotted by Philip J. Moyer
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
(c) 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

July 4, 2374
Zeta Cygni Dyson Sphere
Cygnus Sector
2010 hours GST

R-plus 08:10:31.20

If there were any doubts about whether Cianbro Corporation could handle the monumental task of refurbishing the Dyson sphere for the WDF's needs, the afternoon's activities went a long way towards allaying them. Within a matter of hours, the area around Settlement Evaluation Outpost One had been rapidly expanded and cultivated with firm soil and hardy grasses, spreading outwards for miles. Maintenance depots had landed on the outskirts of the area, ready for immediate use and providing a convenient place for catering, medical, and restroom facilities.

Although it would take weeks, or perhaps even months, for Cianbro to reactivate, adapt, and improve the sphere's systems for controlling the solar output from Zeta Cygni, the functioning ships of Battlegroup Quevillon had been pressed into service to serve as the mounting anchors for a massive variable sunshield. Even now they hovered at station-keeping several miles above the outpost, muting the relentless light and producing a reasonable amount of shade.

The crowning glory of Cianbro's achievements today was, in Mylene Sterling's opinion, the setup, reinforcement, activation, and testing of a 50,000-seat amphitheatre in just under an hour. This was complete with all the amenities for a rocking good time, including power generators, holographic AV arrays, dressing rooms, storage areas, and souvenir kiosks.

(Not that there would be any souvenirs provided tonight, at least by Cianbro, but the intent was the important thing.)

This'll cost me a pretty credit, Mylene reflected backstage as she tuned her beloved Fender Precision Bass, but it will definitely be worth it! Besides, it's not like I'm entirely lacking for cash... She chuckled to herself, looking around the green room behind the stage. Around her, the rest of her band made the last-minute preparations for a very impromptu concert.

A bespectacled face with hair in orange dreadlocks poked its way around the green room's doors. "Mylene, fifteen minutes 'til curtain! Fifteen minutes to curtain, Mylene!"

Mylene looked over her shoulder, and grinned. "I hear ya, Scoot. Get the pre-show check started, we'll be out in ten." The band's perennial gopher nodded briskly and withdrew from the room.

Mylene glanced at the other members of her band. "You guys ready?" A chorus of nods and affirmative sounds were her answer. "All right, then."

She got up from her seat and slung her guitar on her back. Guvava hopped over from the nearby endtable, scampered up her arm, and perched on her shoulder.

"Let's rock this place."

R-plus 08:20:14.02

Out front, the newly prepared plain and hillsides were still filling up with the audience for this most impromptu of concerts. Humans, near-humans, not-so-near-humans, and micronized Zentraedi from the crews of the Frank Lloyd Wright, the Voronda Elendil, and Battlegroup Quevillon took up the seats; still more spilled out onto the gently sloping hills above and to either side, sitting on the fresh grass or relaxing on army blankets. Further back, full-sized Zentraedi from the Kridanik Fleet and Battlegroup Quevillon sat and chatted, each side regaling the other with tales from the past several decades. Those who couldn't attend in person, still on the various ships orbiting above, would watch the concert over the hastily restarted WDF Armed Forces network (currently transmitting through the whole of WDF-active space, which at the moment consisted of... well, the Dyson sphere).

The closest section - the open space between the front row of proper seats and what would be the orchestra pit for a stage show - was reserved for the "Close Personal Friends" of Mylene Flare and family. It was filled with WDF survivors from the assembled ships, Zentraedi old-timers, good friends of all the participants, the WDF high command (consisting solely of Baron Wolfgang Amadaeus von Fahrvergnügen), and of course, Max and Miria Sterling with their recently-reunited daughters.

Emilia Sterling smiled to herself, watching as her other sisters settled in for the show. Komilia and Therèse were holding court with the mercenary pilot squadron they had forged together over the years. Members of the Voronda Elendil's command staff sat near and behind Maia and Miranda Sterling, who were sprawled out for a moment's relaxation before the performance. Xeralia had shucked her small-scale Zentraedi dress uniform, trading it for a much more casual and comfortable T-shirt and sweatpants. She was seated next to the newest member of the Sterling family, who was still getting used to being micronized.

"This is the. Weirdest. Sensation. Ever," Miracle Sterling muttered to herself, staring wide-eyed at pretty much everything around her, taking in the view from a totally new perspective. "My body feels all weird, and I still can't get over how big everything is."

"Oh, you'll get used to it," Xeralia replied, offhandedly. "Besides, there are advantages to being micronized..."

Mira looked skeptical. "Oh? Such as?"

The adopted daughter of the Sterlings leaned close and murmured in the youngest's ear, "For one, better and broader choices in dates."

Miracle's eyes widened. "Oooh..."

Emilia quietly laughed, reclining on her own Cianbro-issue beach towel. She too had removed the trappings of her company formals, opting instead for a WDF Destroid-jockey jumpsuit from her Solaris days, open in the front to reveal a Fire Bomber t-shirt she had obtained from one of Mylene's earliest concert tours.

Presently the area around the bandstand began to darken. Emilia watched with pride as the hastily-erected sunshield went to work, shifting the local solar spectrum from late-afternoon mildness to the shade of a summer twilight, and then darker still, almost blacking out the area entirely. There were no stars in the faux night sky, but Emilia wasn't worried about that. The engineers could always get that feature implemented in the second deployment. Pete was still mulling over whether to go with a Wedge City-style holo-assisted environment or something else entirely, but for the moment he was in the crowd as well, ready to enjoy the show.

A hush settled over the crowd. Nearby, Max and Miria Sterling could be seen, sitting up a little straighter, each with an arm around the other as they intently studied the stage. It wouldn't be long now...

There was quiet as the band members took the stage in the darkness. There was also a soft, subliminal hum, which emanated from the concert speakers and the overhead stage lights as they all powered up from standby mode. The audience waited with bated breath.

R-plus 08:30:00.00

At 8:30:00.000 pm, Galactic Standard Time, they could breathe again. With no preamble whatsoever, a rapid drum beat cut through the darkness, joined by rhythm and bass guitar, as the stage lights flared to full brightness and revealed Mylene Flare Sterling at front stage center.

I must've dreamed a thousand dreams
Been haunted by a million screams
But I can hear the marching feet
They're moving into the street
Now did you read the news today?
They say the danger's gone away!
But I can see the fires still alight
They're burning into the night

There's too many men
There's too many people
Making too many problems
And there's not much love to go 'round
Just tell me why
This is a land of confusion!

Now this is the world we live in
And these are the hands we're given
Use them and let's start tryin'
To make this a place worth livin' in

Ooh yeah!

R-plus 08:35:00.15

For three solid hours, Mylene Flare and her band rocked them, rolled them, and brought the metaphorical house down. The band's selections ran the gamut, from songs popularized during the WDF's golden age, to the harder-edged but hopeful tunes that marked the period after the fall of the Wayward Son. Old favorites from such notable bands as Card No. 1, the Clay Pigeons, and the Macross Marauders gave the assembled audience trips down memory lane, while more recent tunes by such bands as Fire Bomber, Vision and the Revengers, and Basic Nastiness brought the long-absent old-time newcomers up to speed. They even dipped into the reservoir of pre-Contact Earth rock-'n-roll, throwing down such ancient tracks as Black Flag's "Rise Above" and a blistering rock rendition of "Do You Wanna Dance".

Every member of the band was allowed to shine; Mylene wasn't about to hog the spotlight or play favorites. Even so, several of her own compositions met with enthusiastic applause as she plied the microphone and her Fender P-Bass with skill, verve, and sheer chutzpah. "Rescue Me" told the story of the lives of her fellow WDF fugitives. While the rest of the band took a break, Mylene's solo bass guitar composition - the very same one that had caught Ray Lovelock's attention in Iacon, 85 years ago - brought a hushed silence to the crowd, then an upswell of confidence as the bass guitar shifted from respectful solemnity to full-power playfulness. Even "The Ballad of Scott Bernard" got pulled back onto the playlist -

Let me tell you all about this steely-eyed missile man
Never lets a single rocket do the job when sixty can
From Rigel out to Deneb the spacers all regard
As king of all the Alpha jocks the man called Scott Bernard

- which prompted an array of reactions from the assembled crowd, to wit: amused chuckles from the WDF old-guards who remembered the true origin of the legendary Lieutenant Commander, nodding approval from many of the Zentraedi and Meltrandi soldiers, swelling pride from the crew of the Voronda Elendil, and complete and utter breakage by Maia and Miranda Sterling. Not at the song itself, which was a rock-solid traditional space chantey in the Salusian mold, but at the befuddled, embarrassed reaction of the song's subject matter - namely Scott Bernard himself.

There were only a few moments of quiet before the band swung into the next song, and the opening riff brought one of the biggest roars yet. Almost everyone there recognized it instantly: a pre-Contact song from Earth, made hugely popular several times during the WDF's salad days by Card No. 1, for whom it had been a standard throughout the three centuries of the Golden Age. After the WDF's fall, few bands had dared touch it for fear of its strong WDF associations turning the listening public against them. Most of the audience hadn't heard it played live since before 2288.

Thus, so excited were most of the people in the audience to hear "Sultans of Swing" again that it took them a few minutes to notice the new member who had joined the band to play it. Slowly it began to dawn on them, as Mylene put her own mischievous spin on the old familiar lyrics (Alpha jocks, they're foolin' around in the corner / Drunk and dressed in their armor and their platform soles. / I don't give a damn about any Alpha-flyin' man; / That ain't what I call rock an' roll), that the band had acquired a third guitarist. No one noticed where she came from, but there she was: a slim woman, shorter than Mylene, with a long, heavy fall of raven hair and a no-bullshit air about her. She had on tanker boots and old jeans with frayed knees, a faded black tank top baring tattooed, well-defined arms, and a cherry-red Gibson Explorer, and she was laying down the lead guitar line just like Gryphon used to do it. A few of the people watching thought for a second that she was Yuri Daniels, but no - no, she looked that familiar, but...

... a slow seismic wave of sound rippled through the crowd as it started to dawn on the old-timers who she was. It never quite became a full-throated roar, because most of them weren't 100% sure - some of them had heard that the woman they suspected she was had died - but it never quite died away, either, until after the penultimate verse, when the band suddenly cut its sound back dramatically. For a second some in the audience thought they'd stopped, but no - Mylene was still keeping the bass line going, quietly, almost tentatively. She kept at it for a few bars, suspending the listeners in time, bringing them along with her; then she grinned and announced:

"And now, let me introduce you to some of my best friends! On the electric guitar, from New Japan, Mr. Oji 'Gabriel' Tanaka!"

Tanaka tossed out a riff, his own metal-style interpretation of the song's signature hook, and then joined Mylene's flow with a subdued rhythm line.

"On synthesizers and keyboards, direct from the twentieth century, the incomparable Mr. Thomas Dolby!"

Dolby threw down a rock-organ flourish on one of the several keyboards around him, then settled into the pattern. As Mylene introduced each member of the group in turn, that member tossed in a statement of his own and then joined the song again, slowly rebuilding the sound of the full band around Mylene's continuing bass line.

"On the other electric guitar, the Macross Marauder himself, Mr. Jack McKinney! On drums, our very own half-ton of fun, Doktor Tektonik, the Honourable J. Maurice MacEchearn the Third! From the Lost City of Oranbega, the galaxy's greatest brass section for hire, Baron Zoria and his Circle of Horns!"

And then, finally - with the full sound of the band restored and rocking the rhythm line at full steam - Mylene reached the woman with the red Explorer and announced with glee,

"And on the other other electric guitar, our very special guest star, the incalculably talented Miss Lynn Minmay!"

The fully unleashed roar of a crowd that hadn't quite dared to believe nearly drowned out the band for a moment, but Minmay put a stop to that personally, slamming down the signature riff with the full weight of the band behind her. Then she stepped to the mic and delivered the final verse herself, with Mylene and the others joining her for the last line:

Now the man he steps right up to the microphone
He says at last just as the time bell rings
Thank you, good night, now it's time to go home
Let me make it fast, there's one more thing:
We are the Sultans - we are the Sultans of Swing...

They spun the trailing solo and outro for what seemed like hours - good hours, not dull ones - to some members of the audience, finally bringing it down with a thunderous finish. But they didn't give their listeners any time to catch their breath. Riding the tide of the thunderous applause, Minmay plucked out a sprightly, almost tropical beat, which was immediately picked up by the surprisingly light touch of MacEchearn's tritanium drum sounds, Dolby's chiming synth, and Mylene's barely audible bass. On the second stanza, the other guitarists joined in, bringing the musical line to more prominence, and the bass guitar got stronger.

Like the rest of her siblings, Mylene Sterling had not been idle during the two weeks before the Dyson sphere's arrival. She, her band, and even Lynn Minmay had knuckled down and scoured the newsfeeds, infosites, history books, and their own memories for the notable people and events over the past century (and beyond). The original idea had been to create a "So You've Just Returned From Beyond The Outer Rim" book for the returnees, written in Derek Bacon's inimitable style, but in the process, the two singers had realized that with a little bit of work, they could put their own spin on the presentation.

So, it was with a wide grin on her face that Mylene launched into "We Didn't Start the Fire" with a decidedly updated set of lyrics:

Gryphon, Yuri, Zoner, Kei; Wedge Rats save the day
GENOM corp. and Coyleans, Ol' Wormtown goes boom

Zeta Cygni, Fahrvergnügen, Wayward Son 'n Fritz Koopman
Invid Scouts, Dralthi bouts, the Kludge can clear the room

Asrial and Jeremy, Max 'n Miria in a tree
Exedore and Breetai, Bodolza goes bye-bye

Freespacers, Zardonese, Salusia's got a new Queen
Cybertron and Unicron, Wedge Defenders say 'Hi'!

As Mylene and Minmay traded off the verses (and sometimes even individual words), the holojumbotron at the back of the stage rapidly projected super-sized images and videos of who and what they sang about. Though many of the historical excerpts weren't exactly what the audience would consider positive and uplifting in most circumstances, the presentation of them, punctuated with the two singers' sheer energy and defiance made them easier to cope with. Yes, the fires of history and conflict still burned, but they were doing the best they could to endure and fight it, every moment of every day.

Thunder Force, Clay Pigeons, Indignation's back again
Fire Bomber, Funkotron, Battlegroup Quevillon
Kingpin, Dragon, New Japan, Hammer-Darkwing is The Man
Vision's band is on the scene, the Big Net Crash isn't keen

Federation takes control, GENOM Tower leaves a hole
Corp Sector, in the red; Martin, Eiko, get wed!
Flarefire now on tour, Bajor's under Cardie law,
'nother damn Kilrathi War, I can't take it anymore!

We didn't start the fire
It was always burning
Since the galaxy's turning

We didn't start the fire
But when we are gone
Will it still burn on, and on, and on, and on...

With the fading bars, Mylene and her band moved into a more hard-edged, techno phase of the program. Dolby's synths and rapid riffs and beeps began to be more prominent among the musical selections. They sang of quantum mechanics and hacking packets, a special treat for some of the old-type gweeps in the audience. There were songs of standing up against the darkness, and of seeking security in the arms of another.

After another tribal techno track, Mylene hauled out the song that had gotten her big break with Fire Bomber: "Stone In Love". Emilia was surprised by that choice; it had been years since she'd heard her baby sister perform it. But that was nothing compared to watching Miria Sterling's reactions to Mylene's performance and modified lyrics - first a startled jolt of recognition at the song and its subject matter, her emerald eyes widening... and then possibly the biggest smile any of the sisters could recall having seen on their mother's face as she laughed and collapsed into the arms of her husband, who looked extremely bemused by it all.

There were cheers and applause as Mylene, Minmay, and McKinney wrapped up the classic rock track. They allowing themselves a brief breather and to do some tuning before the next song. Minmay, grabbing a convenient water bottle, watched as Mylene looked thoughtful and then stepped up to the microphone. The applause had been dying down, but it didn't take much for Mylene to get them worked up again.

"You all having a good time?"

There was an answering roar.

"You suuuuuure?"

There was a second roar, louder than the first. Nodding in satisfaction, Mylene pulled her bass guitar around to tune it. The audience quieted some (but not much) as she fiddled with the controls. Guvava watched from his perch, apparently in anticipation. Those familiar with Mylene's pet (who always accompanied her concerts and even had a fan base of his own) and his reactions began to wonder: what was she planning now?

"We've never played this one in public before," Mylene said, almost to herself, and the undercurrent in her voice silenced the buzz of the audience. She looked up, and finally addressed them. "I wrote it... well, a long time ago... but I promised myself I wouldn't perform it until I had an audience with my parents and all my sisters in it." Smiling, she added, "Well, that time is now."

At that moment, McKinney launched into a sharp, precise lead guitar line, backed by Joe MacEchearn's hi-hat and snare. Mylene grinned and jumped in right on cue with the bass guitar line, setting up a background pulse. She leaned towards the mic and began to sing, looking straight at her parents as she did so:

He's got a road map of Jupiter
A radar fix on the stars
All along the highway
She's got a liquid-crystal compass
A picture book of the rivers
Under the Sahara...

The bass, guitar, and drums abruptly increased in intensity, adding a powerful instrumental 'sting' to Mylene's next words:

They travel in the time of the prophets
On a desert highway straight to the heart of the sun
Like lovers and heroes, and the restless part of everyone
We're only at home when we're on the run
On the run!

The music softened briefly, but Mylene's words remained intent, her eyes flashing with energy and her fingers filled with power as she kept the bass line going.

He's got a star map of Hollywood
A list of cheap motels
All along the freeway
She's got a sister out in Vegas
The promise of a decent job
Far away from her hometown

Tanaka plucked his guitar in such a way to make it sound like a sonar ping, and Mylene's gaze met each of her sisters', her expression intense, making the song into a description and a celebration of the travels and travails they all had experienced over the past 85 years:

They travel on the road to redemption
A highway out of yesterday - that tomorrow will bring
Like lovers and heroes, birds in the last days of spring
We're only at home when we're on the wing
On the wing...

The music built, and now Mylene launched into the refrain, adding a more powerful bass line, telling the truth as she saw it, of the quintessential paradox of those who traveled the stars and had the inheritance of immortality in their veins:

When we are young
Wandering the face of the Earth
Wondering what our dreams might be worth
Learning that we're only immortal
For a limited time!

The refrain was repeated, joined in by the rest of the band, and then another verse began. By this point, Minmay had gotten the flow of the music in her head, and added an extra searing electric guitar line on her Gibson, forming an instrumental parallel to Mylene's lyrics:

Time is a gypsy caravan
Steals away in the night
To leave you stranded in Dreamland
Distance is a long-range filter
Memory a flickering light
Left behind in the heartland

Mylene grinned, and together the two singers braided their voices for the next verse, as if they'd rehearsed the song for months, and weren't just now singing this song together for the first time ever:

We travel in the dark of the new moon
A starry highway traced on the map of the sky
Like lovers and heroes, lonely as the eagle's cry
We're only at home when we're on the fly
On the fly...

What followed for the next minute was an intense guitar jam, Mylene's Fender P-Bass forming the foundation, as McKinney, Tanaka, and Minmay progressively intensified the rhythm and lead electric guitar lines to a level of sheer aural brilliance. It culminated at a plateau, giving Mylene the chance to sing the refrain once more.

The second time the refrain was sung, the entire band joined in.

The third time, the audience joined in, the sound of thousands of voices raised in chorus with the pink-haired singer. Looking out over the crowd, Mylene sang the final verse to them all:

We travel on the road to adventure
On a desert highway straight to the heart of the sun
Like lovers and heroes, and the restless part of everyone
We're only at home when we're on the run
On the run!

With a final crash of drums and bass, the music ended, and the sky was filled with cheers. Riding the momentum of the applause, Mylene and Tanaka launched into one of Fire Bomber's old favorites, the duet version of "Planet Dance". Minmay, looking extremely amused by it all, joined in on harmonica at all the right places. The performance continued, through some African tribal guitar-techno work that featured woodwinds from Baron Zoria's circle and Jack McKinney, of all people, E-Bowing his guitar to stand in for a violinist.

"A Hush Like 200 Million Years", one of Mylene's early solo tracks, was in Japanese (she'd written it while living briefly on Tomodachi), but that didn't put a damper on Mylene's enthusiasm for the performance. It was quickly followed up by more techno-trance tracks, which were accompanied by highlight videos on the holojumbotron of the past year's Anti-Gravity Racing League's Final Four races.

The next song opened with Mylene playing a solo bass line for several measures. The drums of Dr. Tektonik, McKinney's guitar and Dolby's keyboards soon joined her. The backing instruments still soft, she sang into the mic, giving a hopeful, pleading quality to her words.

Mother, mother; tell your children
That their time has just begun
I have suffered for my anger
There's wars that can't be won

Father, father; please believe me
Oh, I am laying down my guns
I am broken like an arrow
Forgive me
Forgive this wayward son!

Mylene shifted into a deeper register, her words stronger and more insistent, as her band increased the strength of the music behind her and joined her in the chorus.

Everybody needs somebody to love
(mother, father)
Everybody needs somebody to hate
(please believe me)
Everybody's bitching
'cause they can't get enough
And it's hard to hold on
When there's no one to lean on!

With that, she began to encourage the audience to join in her cries to the heavens, which they willingly did so, their voices joining her own.

Faith! You know you're gonna live thru the rain
You got to keep the faith
Faith! Don't let your love turn to hate
You gotta keep the faith
(Keep the faith)
(Keep the faith)
Lord we better keep the faith

As the song continued, the electric guitars became more powerful, the choruses more full, the drums setting up a nigh-subsonic rumble. Mylene worked the crowd and the band in equal measures. Though the lyrics sometimes seemed to be rather dire, her performance transformed them into a challenge to the universe, that despite what the galaxy threw at her, she wasn't about to stay down. She was a clear demonstration of the principle that it's the quality of the performance and the actions of the performer that define the intent of the song, even more than just the words and music.

She smoothly blended into a guitar jam instrumental with her other guitarists for about a half-minute. Then MacEchearn's drums rapped out a deep pulse that could be felt through the stage and the front rows of the audience. Mylene leaned in close to the mic and, in an insistent voice, described a portion of her life in the past decades:

I've been walking in the footsteps
Of society's lies
I don't like what I see no more
Sometimes I wish that I was blind
Sometimes I wait forever
To stand out in the rain
So no one sees me cryin'
When I wash away the pain
Mother, Father
There's things I've done I can't erase
Every night we fall from grace
It's hard with the world in your face
Trying to hold on, trying to hold on

Her plea for understanding expressed, Mylene once again challenged the audience, leading them into a resounding chorus of the song's refrain. The vocal part raced on to the final stanzas, propelled by the audience and band, proclaiming the essential truth of the song for everyone to hear.

Everybody needs somebody to love
Everybody needs -
Everybody needs the faith!

Her band swung through the outro in an avalanche of drums and braided guitar lines. As the applause rose once more, the good Doktor T. immediately launched into a six-way jam of power drums, guitars, and synths. Mylene, McKinney, Minmay, and Tanaka traded guitar lines, making the music something like a high-speed high-tech surfer riff.

Down in the audience, about a quarter through the instrumental jam, Komilia had a thought. She glanced over at Therèse, who was nodding in time to the music, and then nudged her in the side. Snapped out of her headbanging, Terry looked back at her eldest sister - not with annoyance but curiosity. Komilia nodded towards Therèse, then jerked her head towards the stage.

Therèse blinked. She stared at Komi for a moment... and then she slowly smiled and nodded in reply. Moving like wraiths, hidden by the shadows outside the glare of the stage lights, the two gathered up the rest of their sisters (including Miracle, who was intensely puzzled by all the sneaking about), then slipped around to the side.

Up on stage, the surfer-rock-techno jam was just wrapping up. The guitars and drums trailed off, allowing Dolby to change to a kind of spacey, sustained synth, playing a series of chords from memory. Oji Tanaka, who blended his electric's staccato notes with that of the synth, soon joined him. They repeated this again, then paused.

A second, an eternity passed, and then Dolby began playing the same notes, an octave lower, with a more contemporary piano sound added to the original synth. MacEchearn and Mylene immediately began supporting him with a straight drum-and-bass line. McKinney and Minmay interjected bits of guitar "exclamations" as well. Mylene smiled and began to step up to the microphone; but before she could get in place, she (and the audience) got a surprise.

Komilia was already there.

World turns black and white,
Pictures in an empty room -
Your love's like falling down,
Better change your tune...
Yeah, to reach for the golden ring,
Reach for the sky!
Baby, just spread your wings -

As Komilia sang, she began to gesture to the audience and move in time to the music. The motions seemed random, and in a way they were, but they were also a condensation of the emotions of the song, of Komilia's own personal feelings. She reached for the sky in anticipation and triumph:

And get higher and higher,
Straight up we'll climb!
We'll get higher and higher,
Leave it all behind...

With a devil-may-care smile, one that very few had seen in the past eight decades, Komilia spun in place. The microphone stand swiveled out of her grasp and spun into the waiting hands of Emilia. With a ferocious grin, Emi belted out the next verse with barely-restrained violence and gleeful abandon:

Run run runaway
Like a train rolling off the track
Got the truth being left behind
Fall between the cracks!
Standing on broken dreams,
Never losing sight! Ah!
Well, just spread your wings -

At this, Komilia slid next to her younger sister at the mic, and they braided their voices together:

We'll get higher and higher
Straight up we'll climb!
We'll get higher and higher,
Leave it all behind...

The twosome handed the microphone to the next available Sterling, who happened to be Miranda. Holding the microphone stand in one hand, she reached out towards the front rows with the other, as if drying the eyes of someone close to her. Then she cupped the hand to her chest, as if holding someone precious close for safety, security, and comfort. It energized her siblings, gave them purpose, as they knew just whose tears she was holding.

So baby, dry your eyes,
Save all the tears you've cried
Oh, that's what dreams
Are made of...

Maia took up the verse at this point, her voice strong and challenging, ready to protect her family, to fight for what and whom she believed in, never giving up on her dreams:

'Cause we belong
In a world that must be strong!
Oh that's what dreams
Are made of...

Mylene immediately launched into a sharp bass line for the instrumental, immediately echoed by Oji Tanaka, who supported her. Jack McKinney and Lynn Minmay ended up having a sort of "Dueling Marauders on Lead Guitar" deal going on between them, each one trying to one-up the other as they traded off the lead guitar line. Mylene grinned, proud of her band, rocking together like the Clay Pigeons did back in '45.

Now it was Therèse who took the lead, sometimes playing air guitar with the mic stand, sometimes just shifting her position, but always immersed in the music. The energy in her body was palpable, visible in her clenched fists and in her defiant, triumphant face:

Yeah! We'll get higher and higher
Straight up we'll climb
Higher and higher,
Leave it all behind!
Oh, we'll get higher and higher
Who knows what we'll find?

Xeralia stepped forward, taking the microphone from her younger sister. Her expression was almost maternal, her arms reaching forward, hands ready to clean and comfort. But her teal eyes were focused on a certain pair in the audience - her parents, sitting in the front row, their own eyes glistening with pride and love.

So baby, dry your eyes,
Save all the tears you've cried,
Oh, that's what dreams
Are made of!

The sisters gathered together - even Miracle Sterling, who looked embarrassed, but also proud to be there - their arms outstretched, now taking the entirety of the audience and the band into their "embrace" as they made eye contact with each one of them:

Oh baby, we belong,
In a world that must be strong!
Oh, that's what dreams
Are made of...

For the second bridge, Minmay quickly rolled her guitar line across the band's major rhythms, quickly doing some doubling and signaling to them that the song was wrapping up. As the other guitars died down, Mylene took several steps forward. Her motions smooth and deliberate, she bowed her head, holding her bass guitar close to her heart. Guvava, who had been riding along, took a respectful position on her shoulder.

And in the end,
On dreams we will depend!
'Cause that's what love
Is made of...

The song finally ended as Dolby's final synth notes and Mylene's bass notes softly trailed off into the darkness over the audience.

Mylene stood there, silent, her face in shadow, alone in her private thoughts.

The stage lights cut out as abruptly as they'd switched on to begin the show three hours earlier.

And the crowd went wild.

R-plus 11:43:02.14

It took them three encores to get off the stage, but it was most certainly worth it. Amidst cheers and applause, Mylene, her band, and her sisters went backstage, flushed and tired but still exuberant. There, they were welcomed (and handed bottles of water) by Scooter Lindley, Mylene's orange-dreadlocked backstage manager, who informed them that there were people waiting for them out in the hallway to the green room and the other backstage stadium facilities.

Mylene grinned, clapped Scooter on the shoulder, and called out to the band and her siblings. "You ready to run the gauntlet and brave the crowds?"

"Lead on, my Mylene," rumbled Joe MacEchearn with a smile.

"If we get mobbed, we can always play Bowling With Hoffmanites," added Jack McKinney. "That usually clears people out the way in a hurry."

"Har-de-har-har," replied Joe, who then noogied Jack, mussing up his hair.

"Ow! Hey! Watch the hair!"

Laughing, Mylene led the way to the backstage double doors. She pushed the panic bars and flung the doors open to the sound of cheers and applause. Beyond stood all the Southern Cross Crusaders, some of the core crew of the Voronda Elendil, Xeralia's aide and some of her other micronized officers - and most importantly, Max and Miria Sterling.

They handled the gauntlet as quickly but gracefully as they could manage it, helped by the fact that their well-wishers all knew that they wanted to be finished with the congratulations fast and didn't hold it against them. Before long, they were through, out the doors at the back, and off to a slightly more private party.

The "living room" aboard the Flarefire - a comfortable space with beat-up old couches and cheap but sturdy carpeting on the floor - had been the site of a lot of after-show parties over the decades, but few as convivial as tonight's, and never one with guests of honor quite so honored. The occasion was as much a Sterling family reunion as a band party, and nobody seemed to mind either way. It was a little like the get-together the seven sisters had had on their first night in the system, only with guests.

One of those guests laughed for the first time in what felt like a long time, tossing back a beer, and admitted gaily,

"All right, Mylene, all right! I admit it. You were right. It was worth it to come here." Lynn Minmay - technically Lin Min-Mei, but the other version was her very-well-known stage name from the old days - popped the top on another beer and asked archly, "But now what?"

Mylene grinned. "Hell, Min, that's the easy part. First we remaster all your old albums and get them back out on microdisc. Then you record a new single or two with my band. And then? Then I got two words for you, girl: Comeback. Tour." She held up her hands as if framing a marquee. "'Lynn Minmay and Mylene Flare: Live Legends!'"

Minmay blinked, then laughed. "Mylene, I like the way you think." She tapped her beer bottle against Mylene's in a toast.

From the far side of the room, a familiar voice - usually mellow and easygoing, occasionally hard and commanding - was raised in an uncharacteristically querulous tone:

"But the rum!"

Jon Hawkes's deep, amused voice - hardly even slurred - replied patiently, "Yes, Xera, the rum is gone."

"Why is the rum gone?"

Slumped in the corner of one of the beat-up sofas, Komilia shook her head with an indulgent smile. "Shouldn't have tried to keep up with Boozey, Xera!" she remarked. "We call him that for a reason... "

"But why is the rum gone?!" Xeralia demanded, gesturing with an empty bottle - more because she knew it would draw a laugh than because she was really that out of it.

Back on Mylene's couch, she and Minmay had gotten into a discussion of other musicians, former band mates, and other fellow travelers. Komilia missed the beginning - she was busy just soaking in the happy atmosphere - but a familiar name grabbed her attention.

Mylene snorted. "Basara Nekki was an effete snob. I took his head and had his woman before his blood was even cold."

Minmay burst out giggling. "You didn't really... ?"

Mylene grinned slyly. "No, of course not. Any woman who would be Basara's? Not going there!"

"Well, I think the party's getting ready to wrap up," Therèse remarked on the other side of the room, where she sprawled on a beanbag chair watching the goings-on.

"Oh, what makes you say that?" asked Maia, who had been deep in conversation with Komilia's executive officer.

"Xmas just left the room with Joe MacEchearn. When Carole's getting some? That's usually a good sign for the rest of us." She grinned at Maia's gobsmacked expression, and at Sparks' knowing smile.

"You're kidding me. Her... and him?" Maia made little size-matching gestures. "Don't Hoffmanites usually go in for people who are... well... a little more in their strength range?"

Carella Sansen shrugged. "Beats me, Maia. Truth told, none of us know what Carole's genetic lineage is. We've never asked, she's never offered. Hey, if they're both happy and don't hurt each other, that's good enough for me."

"Huh. Well, I'll be."

"You know, that reminds me," said Miria suddenly. "There is something here I cannot understand."

Her daughters stopped their side conversations and regarded their mother curiously. With a glint in her eyes that could have been impishness or severity, Miria looked from one to the other, taking them all in with a sweep of her gaze. Then she said:

"Here I have seven of the eight most beautiful daughters in the galaxy, left entirely to their own devices for eight decades... and have I even one grandchild to show for it? I have not. How can this be?"

The sisters blinked, then gave each other uncomfortable looks. Nobody quite seemed to know how to take the question, let alone answer it.

"Um... I've been busy?" Emilia said lamely.

"... I use protection," Miranda mumbled, her voice almost inaudible.

"I, uh, don't see myself as the maternal type," Maia remarked.

"Noooot even getting into this," Mylene declared.

"The only men I know are Zentraedi! Ugh!" Xeralia announced.

"I just haven't met the right guy," a mildly indignant Therèse insisted.

Max Sterling shook his head and took a swing of his beer, smiling indulgently as his wife kept their daughters on the hook for as long as she could.

"Actually, y'know, I really thought I had met the right guy once, about, oh... 40 years ago?" Komilia said positively. "He was in the band that opened for Mylene in '35, '36."

"(Oh God,)" Mylene muttered, turning her face away so Miria wouldn't see her smile.

"Whaaaat?" Xeralia demanded, having missed Mylene's facial expression. "Vision's band? Mylene, you never mentioned that in your newsletters, you little minx!" She glared unsteadily at the pink-haired singer, then directed intent eyes towards the eldest sister. "Okay, Komi, dish! What happened?"

Komilia shrugged. "He was already kind of involved," she said, "and we both decided to do the right thing. Or, well, not to do the wrong one." She waited for her father to take another drink, then added offhandedly, "Oh, and he turned out to be Gryphon."

Max coughed explosively, showering the twins with beer foam to cries of dismay.

"What?" Emilia blurted.

Komilia shrugged. "Neither one of us realized it at first. He was incognito, I was incognito... "

"Komilia, great Zarquon," Emilia sputtered. "How could you not know? He was your wingleader. You worked for the man. For, for eons!"

"Give me a break, I wasn't exactly expecting to run into him there, all right? Besides, that's why they call it a disguise."

Maia stopped wiping at her shirt long enough to snort. "Oh, yeah, great disguise. I remember taking one look at that album cover and thinking, 'Oh, so that's what he's doing now. ... Hate the mustache.' "

That set Xeralia off again; she tipped over, giggling uncontrollably, into Miranda's arms.

Miria, smiling, decided to let them all off the hook. "Well, I'm sure one of you will get around to it someday. Or not. Either way I'm very proud of all of you." Her smile became a little wistful, a little hesitant, as she added, "I hope you can forgive your father and me for disappearing as we did. It was not the way we intended matters to turn out."

"Hey, Mom," Therèse said, smiling and putting a hand on Miria's forearm. "We went through this already, didn't we? We're just glad you're back."

"Question is... now what?" Maia mused. "Wolfgang's speech was nice and all, but... there's an awful lot to do before any of it can happen. I mean, the law won't come after us on sight any more, like they did when GENOM practically ran the old UG, but we're still not the most popular people in the galaxy, and we're gonna buy a ton of trouble if we just up and say 'Hey! We're the WDF! We're back! Didja miss us?' "

Max, having recovered his composure, smiled. "It's not quite time for that, no. Not yet, and probably not for a while," he admitted. "We've been too long out of the loop, your mother and I, not to mention the rest of Breetai's group and Wolfgang. But there are a few things that can be done while we get up to speed. Emilia and her people are going to be busy with Lord F's plans for the sphere - "

"Understatement of the century, Dad," Emilia interjected. "I never thought I'd live to see a day when we'd get a chance to enact the Vigue Protocol." She grinned, but didn't elaborate.

"- so she's definitely taken care of," he continued, not missing a beat.

"Mylene, your role in what is to come will be critical," Miria said. "You have become the light in the darkness I asked you to be, years ago. Now you must take matters to the next stage and start preparing the way for the banishment of that darkness. Are you ready?"

Mylene grinned, her emerald eyes shining with delight and determination.

"I've been ready for this my whole life, Mom," she replied. "I keep my promises."

"Komilia, Therèse - what we're asking Mylene to do will be dangerous. Now more than ever, she'll need you by her side."

Komilia smiled. "We'll be there."

"We'll all be there," Carella Sansen put in, earning a grin from Mylene, a grateful smile from Miria, and to Therèse's amusement, a slight blush from Komilia.

"Xeralia," Miria said, nudging the redheaded Sterling with a foot. "Are you conscious?" she asked sternly.

Xeralia popped upright. "Yes!" she declared, a little too loud. Then, grinning sheepishly, she moderated her tone a little. "Uh, yes. I'll probably even remember what we're all saying!"

Miria laughed. "You and your battlegroup will now be under Breetai's direct command," she said. "He will likely be sending you to seek out certain elements of the Zentraedi fleets that have, ah, drifted from the ideals of the Alliance somewhat in his absence and... reacquaint them with his authority." She smiled. "I will be sending my new Quadrono Squadron to serve as your elite guard. I trust you will continue Miracle's education while she's under your command?"

Xera grinned and looked past Miria at the youngest sister, who was sprawled asleep on the couch at the far side of the room. Miracle, it appeared, had cashed out early, as the excitement of the day (and her first time micronized) had finally worn her out.

"Dispense a little frontier justice and teach the newb how to party? I think I can handle that!" she said with a big wink.

"And us?" Miranda asked.

Now it was Max's turn to give a knowing smile.

"You two, and your mother and me? Our mission hasn't changed at all," he said. "The Nazgûl have to find the answers to what really happened in Musashi City that day."

Maia snorted in half-disbelief. "Oh, sure, give us a hard one next time," she said, and then added, "At least we've now got a full Division that's interested in the answers as well."

Max grinned, patting his daughter's knee and went on, "And Miria and I have to find the one man Wolfgang thinks can pull it all together."

Maia nodded, understanding. "Gryphon."

"Not Zoner?" Miranda wondered. "And the Lovely Angels?"

"Oh, we'll need them too, before it's over - but Gryphon is the key to the whole mess. Everything proceeds from whatever happened to him on Musashi. His name has to be cleared for the WDF's to be cleared. Plus, Wolfgang thinks we can't make a true comeback without him leading the way... and I'm inclined to agree."

"He hasn't been seen in years, Dad," Komilia pointed out. "There hasn't been a confirmed sighting since the '50s. Wherever he's gone, he's gone deep." If he's still alive, she didn't add aloud, but there would be time enough to discuss that concern later.

Miria smiled - her rather predatory smile, the smile of a Meltrandi warrior locked on a target.

"We will find him," she said. "He cannot hide from me."

"Look out, galaxy," Mylene remarked. "Miria Fallyna's back, and she's on the hunt!"

Maia grinned and held up her beer. "I'll drink to that!"

"We'll all drink to that," Emilia declared.

Max Sterling clinked his bottle against his wife's and his daughters', caught Komilia's eye and made certain she wasn't going to cause any more trouble, then took a drink and leaned back, his free arm around Miria's shoulders, savoring the moment. They'd made it back, back from what had sometimes felt like the edge of the universe, and found the core of their real universe still intact. Not just intact - stronger than ever before.

Komilia, Maia, Miranda, Xeralia, Therèse, Emilia, Mylene, he said to himself. God, how you've grown.

It's good to be home, he thought, closing his eyes.

"Reunion, Part 6: Revelry" - An Exile Mini-Story by Philip Jeremy Moyer and Benjamin D. Hutchins
Reunion Mini-Serial Plotted by Philip J. Moyer
Lyric Assistance by Geoff Depew
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
(c) 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

March 24, 2380
USS Enterprise (NCC-1701)
Cygnus sector

In the forward Officer's Observation lounge on a Constitution-class starship, a man stood in front of the wide transparent durasteel viewports, watching the stars flash by as the Enterprise cruised at a stately Warp Factor Seven toward the Zeta Cygni system. The rainbow streaks of the points of light reflected off his glasses, sparkled in his eyes, and reflected off the small triangular purple earring that hung from his left ear. This might have been viewed as an odd affectation for a Starfleet officer, and a captain at that (for that was the uniform and insignia he wore over his stocky frame), but he was no ordinary Captain in that renowned organization. Technically, he didn't even belong in the Federation's renowned Starfleet...

... at least, the one in this universe.

His name was Benjamin "Gryphon" Hutchins, and he was finally coming home.

He reached into the flap of his uniform jacket, pulled out a sheet of note paper, and reread the words written on it for the hundredth or so time.

        Congratulations on winning the trial.  I never truly believed
in your guilt, but you must remember, at that time, my closest aide
had betrayed me, and I believed my dream to have died.  I had to get
away and do some thinking, and when I returned to Utopia Planitia you
were nowhere to be found.  I have spent these last many years remaking
the Shipyards into a true masterwork, suitable for the enterprise (if
you can pardon the pun) that you and I are about to embark upon.  I
await your arrival via Federation starship Enterprise most eagerly; we
have much to discuss!


Ben chuckled and couldn't help but smile. The fact that Lord Fahrvergnügen had survived GENOM's attempts to crush the Wedge Defense Force over ninety years ago buoyed his spirits, granting a lightness to his actions that had been missing for far, far too long. He felt almost like the whole universe was laid out before his feet, just waiting for him to take the first step into a wider world.

Only once before had Gryphon felt this feeling - centuries ago, when a fresh-faced teen with his cadre of friends had found themselves heirs to a Destiny none of them could have fathomed. Now, looking back at the teenager he had once been, and the man he now was, he wondered exactly what it meant that he was feeling that way again. Was he about to enter a new phase of that same destiny... or something else altogether?

Either way, he was looking forward to having not quite so many people shooting at him.

The O-deck's power door hissed softly, alerting him to someone's entry. He turned to see his (erstwhile?) executive officer, Commander Saavik, looking impassive as always.

"We're on final approach to the Zeta Cygni system," she reported just before the synthetic bosun's whistle of the intercom panel by the door whined.

"Now approaching Zeta Cygni system," said the voice of Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, the ship's communications officer. "Captain Hutchins to the bridge, please."

Gryphon grinned and punched the response key. "On my way," he said; then, turning to Saavik, he added once the channel had closed, "They're so young."

"I know," Saavik replied as they went into the corridor and headed for the turbolift. "It is a peculiar thing to contemplate. Commander Spock is younger than when I first met... him... and Captain Kirk is considerably more... ebullient."

"I keep wanting to remind him of things that this him was never part of," Gryphon agreed. He sighed. "Dimensional travel is a harsh mistress."

They were about halfway to the bridge when the turbolift - no, not just the lift, Gryphon realized, the whole ship - lurched violently. The subliminal hum of the warp drive died away. Alarms hooted as the Enterprise automatically went to yellow alert.

"The heck was that?" Gryphon wondered as he and Saavik tumbled out of the lift onto the ship's bridge - but no one was paying them any attention. Almost everyone on the bridge was on his or her feet, staring at the sight on the main viewer, speechless but for Hikaru Sulu's low murmur:

"My God!"

"A spherical construct roughly two astronomical units in diameter," Spock reported calmly, all his attention on his sensor panels. "Scans cannot penetrate its surface, but its mass indicates a very high probability that it is hollow." Spock looked up and gave Captain Kirk a mildly impressed look. "A Dyson sphere."

Kirk looked from his science officer back to the screen, then turned and regarded Gryphon. "Did you know about this?"

"A Dyson sphere? Uh, no, sorry, Jim, must've missed that memo," Gryphon replied. "I've been a little out of circulation." He folded his arms and regarded the main viewer. "Wolfgang's got some 'splainin' to do," he said with a small grin.

"Starship approaching," Spock reported. "Zentraedi, Quiltra-Queleual class. Our guide, presumably."

"See to it, Uhura," Kirk ordered, still distracted by the dull grey spectacle of the sphere.

"Sir," reported Lieutenant Pavel Chekov from the navigator's console, "sectional chart of this area indicates no such... anomaly."

"When was it last updated, Mr. Chekov?"

"2372," Chekov replied, "by the Royal Salusian Navy's Office of Galactic Navigation."

"Hmm. Well, ours not to wonder why," Kirk said, trying to make light of it. "Take a note for Mr. Spock's investigation file and let's see what's inside."

An hour later, Gryphon stood in a panoramic viewing bay, watching through a side window as thrustersuited technicians and gigantic cranes maneuvered the wreckage of his once-proud Invincible into one of the thousands of workbays that lined this section of the sphere's vast interior.

Then he turned to look through the room's main windows, which looked out on an expanse so vast it was actually a bit boring, and tried to get his head around what he was looking at. That more or less accomplished, at least as much as it could be on short notice, he finished his three-quarter turn and addressed the cloaked, armored figure sharing the bay with him.

"You didn't have time to build something like this between 2372 and now," he said. "Did you pay off the OGN to keep it off the charts, or is something even fishier going on?"

Lord Fahrvergnügen attempted, without great success, to look wounded. "After all both of us have been through, you would accuse me of subterfuge?" he inquired.

Gryphon grinned and let it pass. "Well, however you did it, it's impressive." He turned to the console next to him and pulled up a holomap of the sphere's northern hemisphere. "Especially this bit," he said, pointing. "That has a lot of potential." Something sparkled deep in his eyes as he regarded the map. "A lot of potential," he repeated.

Saturday, July 4, 2381
Construction Site No. 1
Zeta Cygni Sphere Pseudocontinent

Site 1 didn't look like much. It was in a nice enough location, not far from the shore of a lake vast enough that it'd be a sea anywhere else, but it was just a patch of muddy ground sporting a makeshift reviewing stand and not much else, surrounded by a huge expanse of more muddy ground. It reminded Komilia Sterling of nothing so much as the spot where she and the others had landed when they first encountered the sphere seven years before - only the landmass was much, much larger.

No engineer, Komilia wouldn't even pretend to understand how the pseudocontinent, as its creators were calling it, had been made, or how the systems that regulated it to simulate an M-class environment worked. She knew it didn't just rotate in place like a gigantic barbecue spit, which was how most people who heard about it imagined it had to work, but she hadn't a clue what sort of mechanism produced the effect in its place.

However it worked, it worked well - maybe a little too well, as the area on the lakeshore had been hammered by heavy rains for the last several days. It was only by sheer luck that the skies had cleared for the festivities today - which was exactly how the man who had planned them wanted it. That was why the pseudocontinent had weather: so that it could be random and fickle, and potentially spoil people's plans.

Not for the first time, Komilia wondered if she would ever understand people born dirtside.

She stood with most of her sisters amid a throng of beings who packed the area near the reviewing stand, waiting. The crowd was an eclectic one, to say the least: Mixed in with the multitude of people dressed in the new uniforms of the reconstituted Wedge Defense Force were a few still dressed in the old uniform, members of the Mars Division, people sporting the colors of allied forces, mercenaries in their Sunday best, Cianbro construction workers in their blue trousers and white shirts, uniformed officers of the corporation, representatives of a thousand subcontractors, and civilians galore, most of them dressed as if they were attending a party.

The missing Sterling sister, Emilia, was up on the reviewing stand in her full-dress Cianbro commander's uniform, part of the little group of dignitaries who were taking an active part in the proceedings today. In fact, she was the ranking representative of the company present. The rumor mill had it that, for landing and then following through with this, the biggest contract in the corporation's history, she might soon be the ranking representative of the company anywhere. With her were the other prime movers of the project, most of whom Komilia didn't recognize - except for Lord Fahrvergnügen, front and center, and, of course, the man waiting his to his right.

It was odd seeing Gryphon in civilian clothes. Almost all her life, every time Komilia had seen him, he'd been wearing either his WDF line officer's duty uniform or his Eight-Ball One flightsuit. Today, thanks to the sunny but unseasonably cool weather, he had on one of those commando sweaters with the shoulder and elbow patches over a dress shirt and dark pants, making him look a bit like a cop, save for his complete lack of badge or rank insignia.

Promptly at eleven o'clock (for the local time in this place was synchronized with Galactic Standard Time), Lord Fahrvergnügen started things off with a brief speech about what a great accomplishment the sphere was, and how proud all those involved in its emplacement and preparation for use should be. Komilia noticed that he very carefully did not say that they'd built it, but didn't say they hadn't, either.

"No matter how grand the vision, however," Fahrvergnügen said, "there is always someone who can see a way to make it even grander. So it is with the sphere and the man who waits to address you." Smiling broadly, he stepped back and gestured, saying, "Ladies and gentlebeings, I give you Gryphon."

"... I feel like I should open with a joke after an intro like that," Gryphon mused after the applause died down. "Instead, I want to share a thought with you. When I first saw this sphere and heard of Lord Fahrvergnügen's plans for it, I was blown away. I imagine the same is true of most of you. It's a fantastic piece of work, and what he plans - what we plan - to do with it boggles the mind. We're already well underway on that part of it. The Wedge Defense Force is already bigger than it ever was before the Fall, and it's only just begun to grow into the form we all hope it'll take.

"But after a few months of conferences, military planning sessions, and the like, I started to realize that there was something missing. The sphere was fast becoming the ultimate military base, but... it could be so much more. With all this space, all this energy, all this potential, I thought, we could go beyond the simply military. Inside this armored shell, unlike anything else in the galaxy, we could build something greater. Something that could serve galactic civilization the same way the WDF serves galactic peace."

With a smile on his face that seemed only slightly at odds with the glint of intensity in his eyes, Gryphon paused, then said in a quiet but decisive tone, "We could build the greatest city ever seen."

Silence greeted this pronouncement - not the silence of an unimpressed crowd, but of one trying to get its head around what it's just heard. Gryphon's smile widened, the light in his eyes brightened, as he warmed to his theme.

"The sphere is already the greatest military engineering project in history," he said. "Right here, right now, we're beginning the greatest civil engineering project in history. It'll go beyond just the city, of course - in time, there'll be settlements all over the pseudocontinent, farms, mines, everything the sphere needs to become entirely self-sufficient - but the city will be the centerpiece. The public face of not just the WDF's rebirth, but that of the Republic of Zeta Cygni itself. It'll serve as the capital of the greatest free state in space, allied to many, beholden to none."

Raising an open hand, he went on almost feverishly, "Thousands - tens of thousands - will be involved in its planning and construction. Millions will call it home, and proudly. All of them will have a part in its glory. And maybe - just maybe - it'll inspire the rest of the galaxy to join us as we step into the next golden age."

Then, his smile becoming a conspiratorial grin that somehow managed to take them all in, Gryphon added in a less rhetorical voice, "Oh, and in case you're curious, we think it'll look something like this."

And suddenly the plain by the lakeshore was filled with the biggest damn freestanding hologram Komilia had ever heard of, a three-dimensional representation of an entire city - and a big one, at that. Like everyone else, she gasped at the abrupt appearance of it, and at the scope and scale of it. Its beauty took a little longer to sink in.

The hologram was deliberately a bit vague, since the city it represented was still in the planning stages - the details of the buildings' design, for instance, tended to blur a bit if one tried to focus on any given one of them - but the overall effect was of a gigantic city full of enormous towers, Art Deco stone- and metalwork, broad boulevards, leafy trees, and bustling but orderly crowds. The gathered onlookers found themselves now in some sort of central square, surrounded on three sides by towering buildings. Gryphon was now standing in front of the tallest of them, a giant, glittering spire of machine-age masonry and chrome accents that jutted to an impossible-seeming height into the clear blue sky, so tall that the puffy white clouds scudded around it. And there were airships up there, dozens of them, cruising unhurriedly from tower to tower or just meandering high above the streets. Behind the crowd, container ships and fuel tankers made their way across a lakeshore harbor to a busy port facility a bit to the north of downtown.

"So welcome, my friends," Gryphon said, his smile threatening to overflow his face. "Welcome to the City in the Sphere. Welcome to the future.

"Welcome to New Avalon."

For a moment, the stunned silence prevailed; then the crowd burst into cheers and applause that echoed through the mock city's holographic canyons.

Beside Komilia, her twin younger sisters Maia and Miranda continued gazing around in awed silence for a few moments. Then, her eyes fixed on Gryphon's beaming face as he, Lord Fahrvergnügen, and Emilia congratulated each other, Maia began to sing in an alien language, her voice pitched low enough that the sound only carried to her sisters immediately around her.

"Et Eärello, Endorenna utúlien," she intoned. "Sinome maruvan ar Hildinyar tenn' Ambar-metta..."

Miranda stared at her sister for a moment, then said quietly, "(I was just thinking that.)"

Therèse Sterling suppressed a snort of laughter and whispered, "(You know he'd be embarrassed by the very idea.)"

Maia broke out of her solemn mood with a grin. "(Sure, but... it seemed appropriate.)"

Off to the side of the reviewing stand, all but hidden from the crowd by the angle of the very tall building's illusory lobby entrance, a mustached, grey-haired man in the work clothes of a Cianbro field engineer smiled to himself, arms folded. He was smiling for two reasons. One, as project engineer for New Avalon, he had more work on his plate over the next ten years or so than any normal person would know what to do with, and that thought made him inordinately happy.

And two, for all that time, he would get the chance to coordinate all that activity with the project's prime mover, and it had been a long time since Pete Hutchins got to spend that kind of time with his only son.

"Foundation Day" - A Mini-Story of the Reconstruction by Benjamin D. Hutchins and Philip J. Moyer
Special to the Eyrie Productions Mini-Story Omnibus, Volume 2: The Sterling Saga
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Bonus Artwork by Phil Moyer

These illustrations accompanied the Forum release of the Reunion mini-serial.

Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Undocumented Features Forum Mini-Stories
Omnibus Edition Volume Two: The Sterling Saga

Written by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
Philip J. Moyer

With help from
Geoff Depew
And all the Eyrie Productions Usual Suspects

Compiled and prettied up a bit by
Benjamin D. Hutchins

E P U (colour) 2007