Current Track: Blabb

The season ends as we confront the series' Big Bad? Maybe?

I know that there was some confusion and/or disappointment that we're leaving the mirror universe. I feel like it is safe to say we will return. But for now, we're back in our world, dealing with the consequences, a six-month time skip, and… getting back face-to-face with Admiral Mercure, who started all of this… for REASONS?! Thanks to all of you for being wonderful, and I'll see you next season! ...Hey, should I include a "next time on" teaser? I bet I should, huh?

Released under the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Share, modify, and redistribute--as long as it's attributed and noncommercial, anything goes.


Tales of the Dark Horse, by Rob Baird
S6E5, “The Lion"
Stardate 67857.4

“You're saying…" May considered whether or not to keep going. They all knew what he'd said. She decided driving the point home might have some utility. “You're saying Admiral Mercure is not from our universe."

“If the scientist you spoke to gave his name as Julian Cissonius, then… that's right, ma'am, yes. That would seem to be the implication." Vasquez licked his muzzle uncomfortably, mentally cataloguing the dozens—hundreds!—of conversations he'd had with Gill Mercure since being assigned to work with him. Had there been any signs? Something he might've overlooked?

Maddy was thinking the same thing. It was an unavoidable question. Commander Bradley finally cleared his throat, bringing them back to another pressing matter: “We have a little over 72 hours until we meet the Ui-te-Rangiora. What do we tell them?"

“The truth is going to be damned hard to avoid, Dave."

Finally, because it was getting difficult to tear his eyes away from it, Vasquez closed “Julian Cissonius's" service record. “It's a 16th Fleet ship. Anything we tell them will probably go right back to Admiral Mercure."

“An 'anomaly,' captain," Dr. Beltran suggested. “One that… had a time dilation component to it. That is not an inaccurate summary, even."

“I guess not. Dr. Schatz, do you mind coming up with something plausible? We'll try to gauge how to move forward at the rendezvous. Lieutenant Vasquez—do you know anything about the ship? Commander Wilkes?"

The Ui-te-Rangiora was a Grissom-class long-range exploration ship: advanced sensors and computational resources, a powerful hyperdrive, but limited weaponry. He related what he knew, which wasn't terribly much—she'd been commissioned ten years previously, and had been conducting asteroid surveys just beyond the Confederation's border in the Gemun-Kekari sector.

Barry was the first to realize that as another wrinkle. “I'll… uh. I'll try to come up with something plausible but also unfalsifiable, ma'am. Just in case they want to help out."

“They might. Commander Wilkes is successful astrogeologist with a reputation for… unconventional thinking. Admiral Mercure found a fair number of those." Lieutenant Vasquez, who had been one of those, flinched as he said it. “Wilkes was rumored to be up for command of the Sacagawea, but that went to someone with more experience on warships. He is, from everything I know, an inquisitive problem-solver."

She had to shake her head at the irony. Vasquez's description applied to the Akita, too, after all; ordinarily a kindred spirit would be something she could look forward to. “Well. We'll see in 72 hours. Dave, let's catch up in… two shifts, say? I want to know everything about our ship's readiness."

“Of course, Maddy."

“Needless to say, the rumors about Admiral Mercure—we don't know for sure—stay in this room. If you need to tell anyone, talk to me first. I'll brief Jack and… Ciara Munro, I guess—she should know, too. I'll do that myself. You're all dismissed."


First—Bradley would have kept pressuring her until she gave in, anyway—the Akita paid a visit to the ship's medical bay for a more thorough examination. Ayenni had been expecting her; the bed was already prepared.

“How do you feel?" the Yara asked. Being telepaths, members of her species were not particularly given to smalltalk, but while she went about setting up her scanning equipment it seemed a medically useful question anyway.

“Fine," May answered reflexively, and then frowned. “No, that's not true. I'm definitely under the weather. I do have a headache, and some nausea."

“Have you eaten recently?"

“I didn't feel like it, and we were so busy I couldn't really make myself. Food doesn't sound good, but… what do you want, really—can't say that means much, does it? You know how our mess hall works."

Ayenni smiled, looking over the Akita's diagnostics. “True. Your temperature is slightly elevated and you seem a bit dehydrated. On the other hand… yes. This is what I was concerned about. There's widespread cellular degradation—Ciara Munro had a similar case, just milder. This seems pretty well distributed, and a bit more advanced."

“Advanced?" Her demeanor was still calm, although Maddy—who tried to avoid spending time in sickbay—didn't know how to read that. “How bad is it?"

Of course, her rare visits to Ayenni's office had been more instructive to the alien. “You should rest, but I imagine you'll ignore that advice. Can we make a deal, captain?"


Ayenni prepared an injection of the same type she'd used on Munro. “This will mitigate most of the symptoms. You can return to work. I won't force the issue, if you come back for another round of this treatment tomorrow."

“Alright. Consider it a deal."

She pressed the injector to May's neck. “I'll come to the bridge if I have to, captain. I mean it. It would also help if you could give me a short… diary, I guess? Everything you consumed or touched when you were in captivity—what you ate, if they did anything else besides installing that bracelet you were wearing when you came aboard…"

“Sure, I guess I can—wait. Everything?"

“Everything you can remember, yes."

That included, May assumed, her encounter with the mirror version Jack Ford, which had definitely been productive, but also somewhat indiscreet. “To what level of detail?"

“As much as possible. I'll keep them secret. If you'd like, I'll delete them when we know you're fully recovered." Not that it was difficult for Ayenni to guess what May was hinting at, either. “Also, I'm not a Star Patrol officer or a gossip. I only care about this because it might affect your health."

“Alright, alright. You'll have your diary." The Akita rolled back to her feet, already beginning to feel better. Physically, at least—the previous few hours had been a whirlwind of new revelations and consequences. Halfway to the door, it opened automatically, and May paused at the sight of the newcomer. “Torres? Did I hear that right?"

The Abyssinian had no experience with her own universe's Madison May, and did not feel the same kind of surprise at encountering her; she did, however, understand that there would be a period of adjustment for the captain. “Yes, ma'am. Commander Bradley told me to come here so I could speak with the doctor."

“I have some saved data from when you first reported aboard," Ayenni explained, gesturing for her to take a seat on the bed May had just vacated. “But we should start creating a permanent record… tracking if there are any health concerns. Especially as you're a stranger in our universe."

Torres sat, nodding patiently. “Sure."

The door had closed again, with Madison May still inside. Ayenni aimed for a sort of polite but firm gentleness. “You can return to your duties, captain. There shouldn't be any side-effects from the injection."

“She's curious about me," Torres said. “I don't mind if she stays. She should know me, right?"

“Well…" She'd made a decent point, and there wouldn't need to be anything invasive about the appointment. As long as the feline was comfortable, Ayenni dropped her objection. “Yes, that's true. To begin, then, you're…"

“Mitchell Alexander Torres. I was born April 19th, 2783, in the Tellar Detention Center on Clearwater. My parents were political dissidents, although I don't know exactly what for. We were separated when I was young. I don't have any medical conditions or nothing. Not that I'm aware of."

The doctor tapped those notes into her records, while the bed's equipment built up a more proper image of the familiar-looking feline—although she was already aware that, genetically at least, the Dark Horse's Mitch was identical to the one she already knew. No great surprises there. “Any major medical events?"

“I had my arm broken when I was 11. When I was 13, I managed to escape Tellar in cryostasis, so I've had that happen, too. I was a salvager… absorbed plenty of radiation, plus lots of cuts and minor burns. Acute velionic poisoning in 2799—had all the marrow in my left arm resynthesized. But I kept the arm, and they fixed some of how it set when it got broken, so that was nice. Um. Nearly lost my right foot in 2801 after a container fell on it. Four months later, got a polybolonide shard rammed through my thigh. Cut the, uh—I don't remember the blood vessel. The big one. I guess my heart stopped, but I wasn't awake for it—just woke up in medbay. 2802—"

“Slower? Please?" Ayenni wanted to follow up on all of those with the anatomical scans, but the way Torres was ticking the incidents off on her fingers told the doctor there were plenty more to come.  

“Hmm. So in 2802, I had the Drafa Plague—shouldn't be any lasting damage. It was just before I joined the Link. They took pretty good care of me. 2803, I was on a mission and a laser driver exploded when I was trying to disarm it. That's when this happened." She tapped her right temple, next to her eye, and drew a rough outline with her finger. “This bone's artificial. The eye and the optic nerve are synthetic. I think some of the hardware is in the front sinus, but I can't swear to that. In 2804, a shuttle I was on depressurized, and…"

She continued on over the remainder of her time with the Link, too focused on Ayenni's studious demeanor to notice the increasingly startled look Madison was giving her. The Akita couldn't help echoing her final summary. “What? 'If any of those count'? Do they not for you?"

“You get used to it, after a while. But I think I'm in pretty good health."

Ayenni figured that she would be spending a good, long time looking over the data to judge that for herself. At a surface level, though, the ruddy cat seemed to be correct. “And you've been aboard ship for about a week? Eating, right? Anything else? Interactions with the crew? Any reactions?"

“The food's good. Just a little bland, maybe; no reactions. For 'anything else,' uh, Travis Wallace and I had sex twice. Well… three times," she amended—there had been a slight pause while the otter recovered. “But the second two were very close together, four days ago. Also no reactions. No medical ones, anyway. I didn't hear any complaints from him, either."

Neither had Ayenni, although that just meant he hadn't had a reason to check in with the doctor. “Thank you," she said, sparing the briefest of glances towards Captain May in case the Akita had changed her mind about listening in.

She caught the look; shrugged lightly. “It's your show, doc."

Torres couldn't think of anything else the doctor might want to know. “It is, but, uh. Don't take this the wrong way, but I've gotten pretty good at keeping track of my own bio-signs. Just, with all the shit I get exposed to in my line of work, I gotta stay on top of it. And I haven't noticed anything unusual."

“I'm seeing almost no damage," Ayenni admitted, which was a good if slightly perplexing sign. “Maybe none at all. I had been… concerned about it, but maybe coming from your universe to ours isn't as risky as the inverse. I'm working from a sample size of one, after all…"

She let the Abyssinian go, promising to follow up when she knew more. Torres agreed; she still felt healthy, but a second opinion wouldn't hurt. And, especially since there was no way back—she was fully committed to the Dark Horse and its crew—it seemed a good idea to be as informed as possible.

For similar reasons, she paused on her way back to her quarters. There were, after all, amends to be made, although she'd learn in time that the crew's acceptance was not an especially conditional one.

Ciara Munro, for example, was more confused than anything when Torres appeared at the door to her quarters. “Mitch? No. You're not Mitch." Ciara was distinctly feeling her desire to sleep. “Or… no. You are, but…"

“It's fine. I could use a new name. New universe, right? Torres, for now. You look tired."

“A lot of long days," the vixen said, but waved Torres into her cabin anyway. “What's on your mind? Can I help you?"

“I won't take long! I just wanted, uh… when we first met, you said that you and me were friends in your universe. I know that's not true for, like, us-us." She gestured between them with an errant paw, in case her meaning was unclear. “I hope so! Eventually. But really, uh, I wanted to apologize for stowing away on your ship. I hope I didn't get you into trouble."

“Not really." Dave Bradley had understood why Munro delayed explaining about her stowaway until she was back on the Dark Horse, and why she'd asked to be met in the shuttlebay rather than submitting Torres's request for asylum over the radio.

The vixen hadn't pressed the issue, although she realized the gravity of her oversight: a better preflight of the Tempest would've uncovered the Abyssinian, and she should've done that anyway—rather than trusting TJ Wallace's work to hold up, sight unseen, on a critical mission. But everything had happened so quickly…

“Do you, ah… do you know what you're going to do here?"

Torres shook her head. She took the seat Ciara pointed to, although given the vixen's obvious exhaustion she didn't want to stay too long. “I told Mr. Bradley I'd like to make myself useful. I'm not sure what that's going to be like. I was thinking, though, that TJ and I made a lot of modifications to your ship. I'd like to clean those up and make sure it's back to normal, if that's alright with you."

“How well do you know the Tempest?"

“Not that well. So I thought, like… I thought I could start by just uninstalling what TJ and I did? I can walk you through all of that, too, in case you have any questions. And I did notice a few…" she paused, and tried to think of a nice way of phrasing it. None came to mind: “Did you do the wiring for the electronics yourself? The interconnectors?"

“No. The ship was an old prototype. It came to me from long-term storage. If you're going to complain about the wiring, don't worry about offending me. I'm sure it's a mess."

“Okay." Torres relaxed, and allowed herself a laugh. “That explains a lot. My right eye lets me see in a pretty wide spectrum. There's a lot of EM scattering in some of those conduits—looks like real hasty work. I'm sure it's held up, but I could clean that up, too. My whole life's been working with prototypes and salvaged stuff, really."

“I mean… if Commander Bradley approves, sure, I'd love the help."


Commander Bradley's personal log, stardate 67862.4

We've rendezvoused with the Ui-te-Rangiora, our first encounter with another Star Patrol ship since the Agamemnon. The actual Agamemnon, not whatever it was we encountered… wherever we were. Dr. Schatz has concocted a theory about a 'subspace fissure' that he thinks will be enough to throw our comrades off the trail until we can figure out what we're going to do.

I wish I knew what that was. Honestly, it seems like we've returned to a world almost as strange as the one we just left. Open conflict with the Pictor Empire? The Star Patrol mobilizing for war? I wonder what role we can even play in it. But first, it's time to put on the formal uniforms and see some honest-to-god fellow citizens.

Haere mai. Welcome to the Dark Horse, Commander Wilkes."

Chester Wilkes looked a little like an Akita himself, although his bushy tail belied the resemblance—as did its wag, quicker and more instinctive than May was used to. “ Kia ora, captain. Thanks for having us aboard. This is my first officer."

“Lieutenant Commander Bharal," the spotted feline introduced herself, with a polite nod. “Quite the ship you have, ma'am."

“Dexa Bharal is also the closest we have to a tactical expert on the Ui-te-Rangiora. To tell you the truth, captain, I think we were allowed to continue the search because we don't have the fangs to add much to the fighting. We need more ships like yours."

“My tactical officer and Lieutenant Vasquez, our Pictor expert from ISD, are waiting in the briefing room," Maddy said, and indicated that they should follow her. “But Dave can give you an abridged guided tour on the way there. And maybe show you around proper, once we're done."

“I'd love to learn more."

Wilkes and Bharal paid close attention to what he showed them. The Dark Horse was a museum piece, after all—but Dave thought that their interest was sincere. Vasquez had said that Wilkes had a reputation for 'unconventional thinking,' and the ship's adventures would offer plenty of fodder for that.

Of course, the last Star Patrol officers he'd met in person were the crew of the Agamemnon—their own version of that ship, with its martinet of a captain. It was good to have a reminder that not everyone in the Star Patrol was a Theresa Hatfield. The reassurance deepened when Commander Wilkes began his briefing to the Dark Horse crew. 

“So, the last sighting we had of your ship was from around stardate 67430. The Uxzu reported that you engaged a Pictor attack squadron that had ambushed a military convoy of the Neviin and Elaxi Prides, but were lost when the squadron flagship exploded. They said there were no survivors."

“We're still trying to figure out exactly what happened, ourselves. Best we can guess, the reactor explosion created a kind of temporal distortion—according to our ship's chronometer, we spent just under two weeks trying to escape."

Wilkes took the retriever's explanation in stride. “We had no idea. The Admiralty sent our ship to investigate. There was no debris, but we assumed that, perhaps, in the six weeks it took us to reach your last known position, salvagers or something might've stopped by. Admiral Mercure refused to give up hope, though. We kept searching, following up on any clues we could. Even as…"

“What all have we missed?" May didn't like the way the dog's ears started to splay. “How bad is it?"

“Bad. I was told we shouldn't expect a formal declaration of war. Whatever it is started about five months ago, with numerous attacks on TC-allied planets in the Kalluvas sector. The 9th Fleet engaged a flotilla approaching the Okarani-Atahi sector, and only stopped them with heavy losses. We were looking at an engagement across the entire coreward front."

But this, Wilkes continued, had been a diversion. The next attack was aimed towards the Ademixia sector, as the Dark Horse crew had feared, and the Uxzu Dominion had taken the brunt of it, joined by a motley smattering of ships from smaller powers who realized the growing threat.

“Intelligence is shaky, at best, but we're looking at hundreds of battleships. There's been no stopping them. From what the Uxzu tell us, they've lost contact with a dozen systems. The Elaxi Pride's navy has been all but annihilated; the Kolash and Neviin have also taken heavy losses."

May eyed the galaxy map that underpinned his commentary with a building mix of disbelief and rage. “What are we doing?"

“Well, the assumption was that your ship had been sacrificed in defense of a Dominion convoy. That ended the possibility that any pride would defect, so our strategic planners had assumed that they'd present a joint front."

Dexa Bharal interjected: “They did. The real problem is that our strategists assumed it would matter. Instead, the Dominion is on the brink of collapse."

“And we still don't know if this is their main fleet. But the Admiralty decided that we had to commit Star Patrol resources. A mixed group of the 16th, 4th, and 19th Fleets is on the way here to reinforce the Uxzu. The 9th Fleet was supposed to join them, but… they were attacked two weeks ago while regrouping in the Gaban system. Seventeen ships managed to escape. The rest were destroyed or damaged beyond repair. The crews were… we don't know."

Seventeen, sir?" Vasquez couldn't hide the horror in his voice. “Out of ninety?"

“Actually, the Admiralty had increased its strength to a hundred and ten," Commander Bharal corrected softly. “Including the Stockholm, the Ticonderoga, and the Valley Forge." All of them were nearly brand-new, and should've been crewed with the best the Star Patrol had.

“Captain Etheridge has assumed command of the remaining ships, aboard the Challenger. The 9th is being withdrawn to the Rali-An-Mei. We're trying to create a combination early-warning and defensive line out of whatever we can scrape together."

Dave and Leon Bader came to the same conclusion, at the same time; Bradley used his seniority to voice it. “What about our outposts in the Edra and the Gemun-Kekari? And Deshal? We're abandoning them?"

“The Star Patrol is adopting a… cautiously defensive strategy," Wilkes tried to explain. “Until the reserve fleet can be brought completely online, we don't have the ships to fight every battle, and we're losing the ones we have fought. If we want to stem the bleeding here in the Rewa-Tahi, where we know there's a major offensive, we have to pull back from other places on the frontier."

“Those are still Confed citizens living in the Edra and the G-K-D expanse! My God, commander…" It wasn't that Bradley couldn't believe what he'd been told—more that he was startled it had all happened so quickly. The Gemun-Kekari/Deshal tradelanes were some of the most valuable for the Confederation's relationships with her coreward neighbors. “What about us? Do we have new orders?"

“Everyone thought you were dead. I informed Admiral Mercure, but our comm links are intermittent this far out. We can escort you to the rallying point for his task force; that's my best suggestion."

“What is the task force? You said the 4th, 16th, and 19th?"

“Yes, commander." Bharal put the order of battle up on the tactical display. “Admiral Mercure has made the Vincennes his flagship. Admiral Salo is leading 72 warships from the Bellerophon. Commodore Edina-Kural, aboard the new Oriskany, has another 55. Together that's all of the 16th Fleet, and a good chunk of the 4th. Half the 19th Fleet is a reserve wing, anchored by the Tsushima."

In total, they numbered just over 170 ships. Dave found several of the names concerning, to say the least. “The Tsushima was scheduled to be decommissioned, I thought. Wasn't it?"

“Yes. But it's a heavy carrier, and Admiral Mercure thinks we need as many Riverjacks as we can deploy to blunt the Pictor advantage in light attack ships."

“We've made pretty good use of the two Riverjacks we have," Maddy admitted, and looked to Captain Ford. “You think there's any information we can share with them that might help?"

“Sure, we'll share everything we have. But from what Commander Wilkes is saying, it sounds like they probably know more than we do." The coyote shook his head—gratified as he was to hear that the Star Patrol was finally recognizing the value of scout fighters like the Type 7, the context wasn't exactly inspiring. “Exciting times, ma'am."


“Hey. Dr. Schatz?"

Barry looked over. Leon did not speak to him often—the two were, of course, essentially polar opposites in terms of their personalities. And when Leon was standing watch, he generally left the science officer to his own duties. “Yes?"

“I was wondering if you could help me out with something. That astrometric data you grabbed on the Pictor—what do you think it tells us about them now? In our universe, I mean."

The Border Collie locked his console and joined Leon at the tactical station, where Bader had the map on display. He'd painstakingly tagged all the planets that they knew were owned by the Pictor, and it seemed to him that having the data should've been valuable in some way.

But he didn't know what that way might be. “There was that thing about their homeworld, and the geological activity and all… do you think there might be something else like that? Some other vulnerability?"

“That was kind of a lucky break," Barry admitted. “Have you tried comparing it to our own charts?"

“Yeah. But there's just a bunch of… well, have a look for yourself."

Barry did, and saw at once what Leon meant. There were hundreds of space stations and beacons scattered through what was Pictor Empire territory to him, but belonged to the Union in the universe from which the map had come. “Hmm. Let's try to compare the magnitude of the difference."

“What do you mean?"

“Look at energy output, or emission lines, or anything else. If we see things that are more interesting on our maps, then…"

“Then maybe they're areas where the Pictor Empire have overdeveloped," Leon guessed. He started doing the comparison, one star system at a time. Barry watched with an increasing sense of agitation. “What?"

“Just… you could just write a function for that. Any of the mapping libraries have built-in methods for data analysis." Leon stepped back from the console, and the Border Collie went to work. “See? Now there's only, uh… only four hundred major differences."

“Any ideas for narrowing it down?"

At low alert conditions, the bridge stood a watch of only two, one to keep an eye on the sensors and one to step in at the helm as needed. Lieutenant Vasquez, who had limited pilot training, was in the captain's chair. He looked over his shoulder at the two. “Can you put it on the main viewer instead?"

Leon obliged. “Do you notice anything, sir?"

Vasquez noticed plenty. He'd studied the Pictor Empire extensively, and left to his own devices he could ramble nearly as well as Barry did. “You can definitely see the number that Union occupation's done on them," he began. “Completely changed the Pictor's settlement patterns. You didn't see any Pictor, did you? Like on that station you visited?"

“I don't think so. Did we?" Leon asked, turning to Schatz.

The Border Collie shrugged. “I'm not entirely sure what they look like."

“You'd remember. They're big—three or four meters tall. Bony plates around their shoulders, with real vibrant colors. And they'd probably be using some kind of respirator—something about nitrogen really screws with their physiology. I suppose the Union hasn't properly integrated them into society."

“They kept fighting," Leon recalled. “There's still a resistance movement. It's not as powerful as the Link is, that's all, so it doesn't garner as much attention."

“Good point." Francisco watched as Leon idly cycled through a few of the planets called out in the analysis. The wolf sighed. “This could be one hell of a rabbit hole. What happens if you exclude planets? Maybe we can try to detect other bases, like that shipyard Munro found."

“Sixty results. Right now we're just looking at radiation," Barry explained. “I haven't even tried any other cuts on the data. Didn't you say there were zettabytes of it, Leon?"


Barry had color-coded the differences between the two maps. It was a logarithmic scale, and Vasquez cocked his head, looking for outliers. “Hey. Radial 230, grid DG41. Can you magnify that?"

Doing so, the Border Collie felt his heart skip—Vasquez's intuition had been good, and now Barry's was doing the rest of the work. Something was off. “It's way quieter in ours…"

“D4 has a couple binary systems and a… singularity? A reasonably sized gravitational object. There's nothing artificial in the Union—"

Barry cut him off. “It's in our universe. Look. In the astrometric data we pulled from Nara Station, there's a neutron star in ring DGA at 415. We're not seeing it in ours. Let me check the survey this was pulled from."

It was a WFX object, from the Wirrawal FX Deep Scan—ten years old, and of extremely high quality. None of the older surveys had scanned the area with sufficient resolution to tell anything at all about the object, but the collie's suspicion was only deepening. He could check Qalamixi's encyclopedia later—maybe they'd get lucky—but the spectral analysis told him plenty.

“It is artificial. The X-ray profile confirms it. They've built some kind of a… Pekaalan Cradle. A megastructure—think of it like a Dyson Sphere, but not quite on the same scale."

Dyson Spheres were a theoretical construct: nobody had ever actually gone through the work of surrounding a star in a solid shell to trap its entire output, because any civilization bored and stupendously wealthy enough to even make the attempt already had more power than they knew what to do with. Even the great, mythic interstellar civilizations weren't rumored to have tried.

Neutron stars were much smaller in diameter, though, and a Pekaalan Cradle didn't necessarily need to entirely cover its surface area. It was still a huge investment of resources and time, for a useless amount of energy, Barry explained. “Useless?" Leon interrupted. Especially after fighting the Union Navy, with their powerful phased cannons, the concept of having too much energy available seemed questionable.

Barry nodded his head. “Useless. Every so often, someone suggests using Pekaalans as antimatter refineries. But even though they're much, much less efficient than a Rubin converter, cradles generate so much energy there's no good way to supply enough precursor to make the generation worthwhile."

It was slightly more complex—there were some designs that could use a wider variety of precursors, and those might justify building a cradle, but Barry wasn't aware of anyone who had demonstrated those mechanisms in practice.

That, of course, raised a new question: what were they doing with all that energy, then? The star was outside their official borders, in neutral space the Confederation had long suspected the Pictor Empire had begun to colonize. “A weapon?" Leon recalled his first mission on the Dark Horse, which had involved stopping the Tuul from deploying a beam weapon channeling the output of their homeworld's star.

Barry Schatz saw where he was going with the suggestion, although the location seemed implausible. “Wouldn't you want that deeper in your territory? Better protected, right? I'm not a strategist like you, but…"

“No," Leon agreed. “That's a good point."

“Hyperspace tunnels, maybe." Vasquez found a dozen other candidates where TC survey data had similar conflicts with the Union astrometric maps. Some of those would turn out to be nothing. But what if they didn't? “You could use that kind of power, couldn't you?"

The Terran Confederation had a handful of such corridors, mostly experimental—areas where the substance of hyperspace had been streamlined to speed up traffic between two points. These had remained experiments because, as Barry pointed out, it was too wasteful, and the Confederation was too dispersed.

“The Pictor aren't," Vasquez countered. “They're highly centralized—particularly the military. A few key installations, with thousands of ships. Millions of soldiers. The Empire is really ten or fifteen hubs, and all of them tie back to the homeworld."

“So this could be a vulnerability," Leon decided. “We should look into it. Right?"


Now that the Vincennes was in range, Gill Mercure wanted to speak with them via holographic link. Maddy couldn't delay the inevitable; she asked Dave and Dr. Beltran to join her and—on Mercure's request—Leon Bader. Admiral Mercure intended for the discussion to be focused on the tactical situation; privately, she cautioned Bradley and Beltran to follow her lead.

Not that they would've acted rashly, but nobody knew what to expect. The lion, when the secure holographic link activated, looked as grandfatherly as ever. “You can't imagine how happy I was to hear Commander Wilkes' report, Captain May. We thought we'd lost you. He said he's looking over the data you sent him, but it's too fragmentary to draw any conclusions…"

“Our apologies, sir. We suffered a pretty complete systems failure. The only data we have is what we could piece together from one of the scout ships." May wondered how good her poker face was—whether Mercure could tell anything was amiss. The low-resolution hologram, she hoped, would help. “We might be able to recover some more, but… right now it looks like other things are more important."

“That's one way of putting it. Commander Wilkes says that he's already briefed you on the most salient details. Our expeditionary force has run into more trouble than we were expecting, though."

“The ambush at Gaban?" Dave asked.

“Unfortunately, that's just the beginning. The 4th Fleet diverted to rescue a convoy under attack in the Deshal. That put seven more ships out of action. I'd love to catch up with you in person, captain, but we may not get the chance before battle."

The Akita tried to focus on Beltran's advice: even if Mercure knew where the Dark Horse had been, his commitment to the Star Patrol was liable to be genuine. “Is something being planned, sir?"

“Yes. Not by us. The Kolash Pride intends a major offensive against a Pictor shipyard they report you found about eight months back. We intend to help, but with the losses at Gaban and the 4th Fleet understrength, I need a few more days to assemble the rest of our forces."

“The Dominion will wait that long?"

“They agreed to when I said that you were alive, after all. You've made quite the impression, Captain May."

Considering the Uxzu predilection for martial sacrifice, Felicia Beltran found that worrying. “I expect they are remembering the Laughing Prince. A successful joint strike against the Pictor would demonstrate the strength of our alliance, compelling others who might be waiting to add their own resources."

“That was what the Kolash matriarch said, yes. The words were a little different," Mercure allowed. “But I took it to be the sentiment."

“If true, though, they must be worried. It is not in their nature to depend on allies, even if acting alone would compromise the mission." The leopardess let that hang before spelling it out for Mercure: “they think it would be absolutely futile to go it alone. And if they are worried, sir…"

“I'm also worried," the lion said. “Trust me. And every day we wait is another day the Pictor also continue to build strength. We need to buy some time. I understand why you didn't send the full details of your reconnaissance mission to us over the long-range comms network. We think it's compromised, too. But now I'm asking if there's anything else you do know that might help."

Maddy saw Leon Bader stiffen, and gauged the likely reason for it. “A moment, sir?" Mercure nodded his assent, and the Akita paused the hololink. “Leon?"

“I was going through the astrometric data we got from the Union with Dr. Schatz and Lieutenant Vasquez. We're pretty sure we've found some kind of Pictor energy complex, past their border…"

He explained the rest in sufficiently concise strokes that May got the idea. She had not told Leon what they knew about Gill Mercure, and the ready room was not the place to explain it. Instead she looked to her first officer: “what do you think, Dave?"

Bradley knew what she was really asking: could they take the risk of launching an attack before they'd had the chance to confront Mercure? The retriever scrolled through the order of battle Mercure had sent along when he opened the channel, which had fewer ships on it than the one they'd reviewed with Commander Wilkes. “I recognize a lot of these names, Maddy. My old Academy friend Kalle is the Birkenhead's chief engineer. I have a cousin on the Alvarez, and another on the Matanuska…"

She nodded. “If we can help them…"


May reopened the link. “We might have something after all, sir. A Pictor energy refinery, about six days away…"


No sooner had Ciara set one foot on the Tempest's gangplank than a computerized voice interrupted her: “Step away from the ship. This is an unsafe area. For your protection, remain—"

The voice cut out, and she saw Torres's head poke through the hatch. “Sorry about that, ma'am. It's fine, you can come aboard."

“It's not unsafe?"

The Abyssinian grinned. “Life is unsafe! But I really just wanted a bit of warning, in case it fucked with recalibrating the electronics. They seem to be handling it just fine, though."

Ciara padded up the ramp, and blinked in surprise. Nearly every interior panel had been removed; the wiring that ran behind them glowed softly. “You've been busy…"

“You could say that! But it's worse than it looks, trust me. The panels can go back on at any time. You want me to explain?" she asked. Having been told only that Ciara and Mitch were 'friends,' and taking that at face value, she wanted to make a good impression on the vixen.

For her own part, Ciara had all but forgotten the statement—a throwaway line from when she'd assumed she would never see Torres again—and didn't catch the hopeful tone of the question. “Ah… yes? Briefly, at least. Is the ship ready for service?"

“Do you need it to be?"

“I came to preflight it, yes."

Torres flicked an ear, and decided a thorough review could safely wait until later. “Oh, okay! Well, in that case, let me start securing these."

She bent down to start work, and for a few seconds Ciara found herself distracted by the feline's precise, fluid movements. The Mitch Alexander she knew would just as likely have been kicking the panels back into place. “Can I help?"

“Oh! Sure." Torres scooted aside. “You can check out some of the new work, too. I'll tell you more later, but basically, I've rewired most of the primary systems… gone junction by junction and cleaned up the connections, fixed a few that were on their way to failing…"

“This is some of the most advanced technology the Star Patrol has. And it's a prototype, too…" Ciara was impressed at the neat electrical work, and at how quickly the cat seemed to have figured it out. “It must've been incredibly challenging for you to figure out how it all worked. We don't even have manuals."

“Actually, it was super easy! Barely an inconvenience."

“Oh, really?"

“Well, there's only so many ways to design these kind of ships." Torres grinned affably. “Back in the Link, everything was second-hand. Intuition takes you a long way. And I spent a couple hours tracing the conduits for the systems I wanted to start diagnosing first."

“Sounds like a lot of work."

She paused in her work to stick her tongue out at the vixen— that gesture, at least, Ciara recognized. “Yeah. But it's a good way to learn how this ship is put together, isn't it? Plus, it lets me know where I should focus next. The reactor power regulators look solid, and so do the maneuvering systems, but I bet the targeting integrators are a real mess."

“Probably. It's basically unarmed. How close are we to being launch-ready? The ship is needed for a scouting mission. I came down to configure the computers… make sure everything was still within spec."

“Oh, because of the cloaking device? Sure, um…" Really, the repair work had left the interior looking worse than it really was. “It wouldn't take more than a few hours. The computers and all that are already operational."

“Good. That's good to know. We don't have a launch window yet, but…" The vixen shrugged; the order could come at any time. “I should get started, then. The sensor integrators can be… delicate, and it's important the cloak stays stable."

Torres made space for her. “No problem. Do you mind if I watch you calibrate them for the mission?"

“I… guess not." Ciara figured the newcomer was basically crew, anyhow. She started programming the computers, double-checking the parameters she'd been given by Dr. Schatz at the mission briefing.

Torres was checking them, too, and increasingly puzzled. “Is this right? This gravimetric range is wild. I'm not sure the primary array will even image that."

“I'm not, either. But I don't think it'll be too far off-scale."

The Abyssinian called up the schematics for the sensor grid, and did some quick calculations in her head. “Definitely off-scale for the tactical data processors, though. That might compromise your cloak. What are you planning on doing, Ms. Munro? Flying into a black hole?"

'Ms. Munro' instead of 'vix' was an odd change. “Just call me 'Ciara.' We're not flying into a black hole, no, but I will be getting pretty close to a neutron star. The Pictor Empire seems to have built… well, I'm not sure, really. A base. I'm guessing 'Pekaalan cradle' doesn't mean anything to you?"

It didn't, but 'neutron star' and 'cradle' spelled enough of it out. The Union had been trying to build something similar. “You're scouting it out to see what it's made of? I can already tell you that. High-tensile valenite alloy."


“Like your ship's thrust deflectors."

Ciara cocked her head. “Right, okay. We call that Kavesh. I think that's the…" she put two and two together in her head. “Kavesh was a Valenni scientist."

“Yeah. The Union glassed Valenni two centuries before I was born, but the alloy survived so well it got our engineers curious. Anyway, it'll be embedded in an antium matrix. You do know that, right?" She swiped the console over to a blank screen so she could sketch the details briefly. “Named after Antaeus, the Terran giant who was invincible as long as he stayed touching the ground."

Even if Terran myth wasn't interesting to Ciara, she understood what Torres was drawing. “Okay. Polybolonide. PB-II or -III. We know the Pictor use that." Polybolonides became stronger the more power was applied to them, and the neutron star would definitely supply plenty of that. “That makes sense. God, we could have the whole Star Patrol fire on that structure and it wouldn't even notice…"

“No, it wouldn't. What you want to do is take out a couple load distributors to imbalance the structure. They won't be fast enough to compensate—you get part of it getting weaker while the rest of it gets even stronger and more inflexible, see? The star itself works to collapse the whole mess."

“You're speaking from experience."

“I wasn't on the attack, but they did ask me to help design the phased charge for the torpedo. Do you have any of those?"

“Phased charges? I don't know what that means. Torpedoes, though, we've got plenty of those. You'd be able to do something with them?"


Captain's log, stardate 67865.2

Admiral Mercure has approved our mission: sneak into Pictor space and disable their energy facility with a 'phased charge' designed by our newest crew member. Dr. Schatz and Lieutenant Hazelton profess to understand the theory behind the warhead's operation. I trust Shannon's judgment when she says that the modified torpedoes are now ready.

Unfortunately, this has required the round-the-clock work of the engineering crew for most of the time it's taken us to get to the source of these anomalous readings in the first place. With the crew on alert, all we can do is hope that there aren't any surprises waiting for us…

'Surprises' barely waited until the ship had dropped out of hyperspace. “Uh. Captain, we've got problems here. Ensign Bader? Sir?"

Leon overlooked the way Mitch had forgotten his promotion. He saw the same thing she did: “our estimates on the power output of this thing were way off, captain—by a factor of ten or twenty, at least. We're not going to be able to get through."

“What about with that… phased charge?"

“Not even that, ma'am. Our standard torpedoes just don't pack enough—"

“Captain," Alexander cut in. “Picking up incoming. I don't know what, but it's big. The hypersondes say we're looking at… at least a hundred ships. High-density, from the wake artifacts. I think these are Pictor engine telltales."

Between these two pieces of information, May made a snap decision, aided by the subtle nod she got when she looked at Dave Bradley. “Helm, get us out of here. Flank speed, and prepare to engage the hyperdrive."

Eli fought with the error message on the navigational computer for a few seconds, wanting to be sure she understood what was happening before May could repeat the command. “There's too much turbulence to form a stable gateway, ma'am. I'll need at least half an hour to compensate."

The Akita growled softly. “What do you think, Dave? You think we've been set up?"

“The base's defenders are going to be on us in, what, ten minutes?" Bradley raised his voice. “CCI, how long until the rest of the Pictor show up?"

“Ninety seconds, if they're planning on joining in."

“Let's assume they are." May growled again, digging her claws into her armrest. “Tactical, set systems for anti-ship combat. Get the crew ready for possible boarding actions. Dave, can you coordinate that from here?"

“Of course." The bulk of the work would probably be done by Sabel Thorsen, anyway, as someone explicitly designed to fight enemy marines. A few of the other crew had experience with light weapons—enough for two squads, if they were willing to give up their pilots and some of the engineers who would otherwise be needed for damage control.

“Thirty seconds," Mitch called out. Six Pictor battlecruisers were already headed towards them, although they'd yet to launch their boarding craft. Probably don't want them caught in the crossfire, the Abyssinian figured. “And—there! Multiple jump signatures. Sixty—no, make that eighty—uh. One hundred and thirty-nine, in all. The configuration…"

Leon picked up where she'd trailed off. “They're not Pictor. Captain, I think—"

“Incoming transmission, ma'am."

Dave looked up in time to see the viewscreen switch from stars to the richly decorated carapace of an Ardzula-Mar officer. “Captain May. I'd hoped to see you again. Your commander told us about your attack. We guessed your intentions."

They'd encountered the Ardzula-Mar months before, brokering a treaty of understanding between the Mar and their counterparts, the Ardzula-Zel. At the time, the Mar had no hyperdrive-equipped ships. May was curious about what had transpired, of course, but they had more pressing concerns. “It's good to see you, Admiral Xu-Ta. Unfortunately, we're running into some trouble."

“Of course." Xu-Ta waved her claws briskly. “You don't understand gravitic manipulation the way our kind does. A phased charge would never be enough to penetrate its armor. But a heliositic mining explosive, on the other hand…"

The Mar, like the Zel, were highly adept miners. May looked first at Mitch Alexander, and then at Leon Bader; both of them shrugged. “I don't know, ma'am. Possibly," the shepherd allowed. “Without knowing the specifics…"

“It will work," the admiral assured them. “We would not have hurried here otherwise."

Another snap decision followed. “We'll cover you." Xu-Ta clicked her claws again, and the channel went dark. “Helm, put us between the Pictor and the Mar. Tactical, prioritize missile coverage. CCI, how's flight ops?"

“Captain Ford and Commander Kamyshev are standing by. The Tempest isn't responding." Alexander didn't feel the need to pass along the curt message she'd received from the vixen, who was trying to start the spy ship up under extreme pressure.

“Get the scouts launched. What about the Tempest now?"

Mitch was dealing with Munro's voice in one ear and her captain's in the other. “Uh—yes. Ah, the Tempest has no weapons. They were pulled for the previous mission. She—" Ciara had abruptly cut the channel, and Mitch waited impatiently for more details. “Uh. She says she'd like to take the new bomber we picked up out—the Kahil we… have out on loan from the Resistance. Torres has volunteered to be a co-pilot."

“She can do that? Is she qualified?"

Mitch passed the question along; waited again. “Munro says she's a quick study."

“No time like the present, then—launch 'em. Tactical, report!"

Leon Bader had their particle beams turned down to low power, the better to intercept as many warheads as possible while maximizing their rate of fire. “Our point-defense grid is operational. Hostile battlecruisers are now beginning to deploy their escorting strike fighters. We're not in range to hit them yet."

“Fire at will." The Mar fleet had split into three large wings: one headed straight for the Pictor base, and the other two joining the Dark Horse as a protective screen. More and more icons were popping on to the map, though—dozens of Pictor ships, and now the symbols for the Star Patrol cruiser's own embarked fighters. “How long until we are in range?"

“Another minute, captain."

“Are we ready?"

Lieutenant Bader stared pointedly at a display that showed them outnumbered six to one—then seven, then eight… “Yes, ma'am."


“Charger 1, this is 4. Shamrock, you're pulling away from me, here." The Type 7s were faster than Ciara Munro's ship, and they'd launched ahead of her, to boot.

And because they had a job to do, Jack didn't have any time to spare for her to catch up. “I know. Do what you can, Charger 4. We'll be engaged soon enough."

“Roger. Damn it," she growled, when the line was closed. “This was a bad idea."

“We've got this. Don't worry," Torres assured her; the Abyssinian's attention was mostly focused on the ship's computer, but she felt the need to calm Munro's nerves. “You were a test pilot, right? Didn't I hear that?"

“Yeah. I was."

Which meant, Torres hoped, that she'd been a good one. “I'm unlocking the thrust limiters for you. And we can run the reactor a bit hot. How's that?"

Ciara judged the way the bomber felt as she worked the controls. Nimbler, to be sure. “Better. You said 'a bit hot'?"

“Twenty or thirty percent." She shut the least useful safeties off, and watched the diagnostics to see if anything looked amiss. “Maybe thirty-five."

“Is that safe?"

“I don't know what the Uxzu are like in this universe, but in ours, they don't exactly build for precision. The reactor can take a lot more than it was designed for."

“Well. Yeah, that makes sense."

“We're at 1-3-5 percent, now, and stable. You need anything more, you just let me know, okay? How long until you start shooting?"

The Kahil was supposed to be equipped with anti-ship missiles, but Ciara had asked the engineering crew to remove them in the hopes that they could be reverse-engineered. That left them four particle beams, embedded in the wings, and eight mass drivers—two on either side of the hull, and four mounted in the bomber's chin.

Her one previous engagement relied heavily on the particle beams, whose range she understood well enough. They'd probably be most effective against a Pictor missile barrage, anyway. But according to the tactical computer, the closest threats weren't missiles—they were boarding ships, not much more than twice the size of the Kahil.

“I'm not sure," Munro admitted. She switched on power to the particle weapons, looking for the targeting cue to appear with its range estimator. “Soon."

The Dark Horse had already opened fire, and May's priority was keeping their allies safe—each salvo of the cruiser's own beam cannons knocked out an appreciable chunk of the torpedoes headed for the converted mining vessels making their attack on the Pictor station, even if more replaced them almost immediately.

“We need to intercept those boarding ships. I'm changing our course." It gave Munro another chance to test how the bomber felt now that Torres had adjusted the controls. Better. Definitely better. She hoped that meant it was good enough. “Contact in thirty seconds. Can you try to let me know if they're lining up a shot on me?"

Her copilot was more used to working on Kahils after they'd been shot at, and didn't know much about dogfighting. Still, she appreciated the trust Munro had put in her. “I'll do what I can. Right now, they're not really changing course or anything…"

“Yeah. They don't know what's about to hit them. We're pretty small."

And they packed a comparatively big punch. Two salvos from the wing cannons put a big enough hole in one of the Pictor ships to disable it, and alerted its three remaining companions to some fraction of the danger they were in. “We're being targeted now," Torres reported. “I think."

The Pictor were definitely maneuvering to intercept them. “We are," Munro agreed, and let Jack Ford know—not that the coyote could do anything to help them. He and Kamyshev were both plenty busy with their own work. “Is there anything you can do to boost the output power of the particle beams?"

“I'm not sure. They get… finicky."

“The ablative armor—" Ciara managed to get another shot off, which her target barely seemed to notice. “It's absorbing more of this energy than I'd like."

But the vixen was also firing rapidly, and Torres shook her head at the temperature they were seeing. “I don't know. You're overheating as it is."

That didn't leave them many choices. “Then we have to get closer. Hang on."

Torres was strapped in, of course, and her seat helped cushion the change in acceleration. Both of them could see the defensive turrets on their opponents swiveling frantically, the shots still going wild—for the moment.

Close in, Ciara kept the Pictor near the limits of what they could track, let alone shoot at. She shut off her particle beams, and was happy to see Torres intuitively feed the spare power right back into the bomber's engines. “Almost…"

“Fuck!" Torres yelped. The reaction of Munro's quarry to having all eight cannons fired into its side was immediate and dramatic—spinning wildly out of control as venting plasma created its own novel, chaotic arrangement of fusion thrusters.

Ciara was taken by surprise herself. “Oh. Well. That's useful."

“Very." Satisfied that their ship hadn't taken any collateral damage, Abyssinian recovered quickly from the shock. “They're calling for backup, I think. More incoming."

“Let 'em." The corvette-sized Pictor weren't nimble enough to escape her, and with only two of them they couldn't cover their blind spots effectively. She lined up on the closest one, and her mass drivers savaged it into immediate, brutal submission. “How long, though?"

“Couple minutes. You have plenty of time."

“Okay. Then we're going to extend—" back towards the Dark Horse, so they can cover me when I recommit, she planned to say, but a blinding flash and the jarring thud of a solid impact kept her from finishing anything so tactical. “My controls aren't responding. Talk to me."

“Hit to the starboard nacelle. Main power's failing. I don't know why…"

Before the targeting computer flickered and shut down Ciara noticed a curious absence of target. “Figured they'd take us with them, I think. I'd like it if they didn't."

In disabling the Kahil's safety systems, Torres had also limited its ability to compensate for damage to the power regulators. The right engine's temperatures were climbing fast, and rapidly approaching critical levels. “I'm trying. Okay, I have manual controls back..."

“Let's see." Flying the bomber manually proved to be like golfing with an uncooperative viper for a club. Her maneuvering was sloppy, she couldn't reliably match any control input with her craft's reaction to it, and every attempt seemed like trying to get bit. “You're sure?"

If she'd been paying attention to the engine overheat warnings Torres was staring at, Munro would've understood the cat's hesitation. “Yes. I need…" She needed a way to work around a cooling system that had been obliterated by shrapnel, and no longer offered any outlet for the enthusiastic reactor that she had decided to run past its limits. “To shut down the isolator. That's what."


There was a crossover between the two engines, which didn't consider itself up to the task of handling the superheated coolant and stubbornly refused to open itself until the temperatures dropped, which they weren't doing. Not ones for subtlety, the Uxzu would—Torres hoped—have built it strong enough anyway. She didn't have the time to explain her reasoning. “Can you keep us steady?"

“Maybe?" The starboard thruster wouldn't shut down completely, even with the throttles closed; she had to keep fighting it. “Solid 'maybe.'"

“Try?" Before she could answer, Torres undid her harness and pushed herself from the seat, twisting in micro-gravity to face the reactor maintenance hatch. Ciara did her best, stealing glances over her shoulder as the cat yanked the panel open, narrowing her eyes unhappily at the contents. “Well…"

“What? We're supposed to have incoming, aren't we?"

Getting control back came before restoring the targeting scanners. Shutting down the isolator that locked the engine into its own broken cooling system came before getting control back. The isolator did not want to be shut down, no matter what Torres tried. “I think so," she admitted. “But I have bigger problems."

“Your plan isn't working?"

If I were an Uxzu, how would I design for catastrophic failure of the isolating unit? Torres spun again, ending inverted with respect to the vixen and grabbing on to the pilot's seat to anchor herself. She squinted, gauging the angle. “No. So…"

“So?" Ciara felt her seat flex as the feline bunched up, and turned just in time to see her drive her booted leg into the reactor as hard as she could. “Hey!"

There was a rapid, blaring alarm, and a low groan from the bomber's midsection. And the sole of her boot seemed to have welded itself into place.

Torres yanked her foot free, craning her head to watch the readouts on her console. The thermal graph was going in the wrong direction, and fast.

But then, she was upside down. “Crossover's open. We're stabilizing. Cycle the controls."

This time the switches stayed in. “Back in business. What did you do?"

“What I said I would." She tucked her knees and rolled back into her seat, feeling for the harness straps and buckling them before any adrenaline made itself known. “What are you waiting for? I thought you said we were back in business."

Power returned to the comms link, too. “—for recovery. Charger 4's hull looks almost intact. If life support's online, they might've survived."

Ciara got her paws solidly back on the controls. “This is 4. We're still here, Shamrock."

“You need to not be. That thing's gonna blow. Can you maneuver?"

“I think so." The readings looked as normal as on any Uxzu-built ship. “I think we're good."

“Then get the hell out of there."

“Copy that, Charger Lead. We're bugging out." The vixen looked at Torres. Torres flashed an appreciably familiar grin and, reassured, she firewalled the throttle. “See you back at home."


Captain's log, stardate 67867.6

For the moment, the Pictor have pulled back. This is clearly not a fatal blow; according to Lieutenant Vasquez, it might not even be crippling to their ongoing offensive. But it has bought precious time for the Star Patrol to assemble its forces. And it's shown our allies in the Rewa-Tahi that the Pictor aren't completely unstoppable.

The Dominion reports that they've retaken three systems, securing a critical supply line to their vulnerable forward outposts. The matriarchs of the Kolash and Neviin prides are pushing to go on the attack, despite our own lack of readiness. We've agreed to hold a council in person before any final decisions are made.

Before that, though, there is some critical unfinished business…

Dave Bradley suggested meeting Admiral Mercure's shuttle with an armed guard and taking him directly under arrest. This was Captain Ford's suggestion, too; Maddy had come to depend on the coyote to provide glimpses into the worst-case scenario. For herself, the Akita weighed what she thought about Mercure.

He'd been her benefactor for years. Even before she was relieved of commanding Sunshine-203, a patrol ship stationed at the terminally boring Alpha Centauri, he'd had her back. Assigning her the Dark Horse felt like a punishment, but only until the ship's shakedown cruise.

She'd spent the months since certain that he meant well. That she could trust him when she trusted nobody else. Despite Bradley and Ford's cautionary appeals—and to the retriever's frustration—May's sense of intuition was still mulling over all she knew. No armed guard met the shuttle from Vincennes.

Gill Mercure made his way down the steps to the hangar deck, his steps light. “Captain May. Permission to come aboard?"

“Sir," she began, and hesitated. “Admiral Mercure—this is your first time seeing the Dark Horse in person, isn't it?"

“Yes. Captain Ford; Commander Bradley." He nodded to each in turn. “I hope you're doing well. Your squadron misses you, Jack; I doubt Hatfield does. Probably best for both of you."

His affable tone was jarring, when compared against everything she'd been thinking about for the past week. Madison, he'd said, turning to her. Their eyes met, and she spoke abruptly, saying the words at the same time as he did: “We need to talk."

“Alone," he suggested. The shuttle, she saw, was empty. He'd flown himself over. She followed him back inside, and waited for him to close the hatch. “I notice I never got that permission from you. You don't think I'm a Pictor spy, do you?"

“My ship…" He already knows, she realized. “My ship was not caught in a 'subspace fissure,' as we first reported to Commander Wilkes."

The lion unlocked the pilot's seat, settling into it and spinning to face her; gesturing, with a light wave, to the unoccupied flight engineer's station. “Sit. A suggestion, not an order. Do you know how it happened?"

She sat. Choosing her words proved difficult; it was hard to avoid honesty, in the end. “Not exactly. Some kind of… a freak coincidence, I believe."

“How long were you there?"

“Fourteen days."

Mercure nodded. “And you went to Ankiyana. No—you were taken to Ankiyana."


“That's how you figured it out."

The Akita's ears twitched. “I have questions. Thousands of them. I feel like my science officer." The old lion held his response, if any was coming to stop her. She picked what seemed to be the most relevant. “When the Ui-te-Rangiora reported us found, you altered course to meet us straightaway. But you came aboard just now alone. Is that because you guessed what had happened?"


“Is that why I— we—were in the Rewa-Tahi sector to begin with? This whole mission?"

“I didn't send you on false pretenses, Ms. May. Your mission was, and is, precisely as described. You're the best woman for the job."

“But the Rewa-Tahi is special, somehow," she judged. Hatfield had hinted along those lines in passing. “The Link—the resistance against your Union—is most active there. Ankiyana must be somewhere in the sector, too."

“Dominion space, probably, if the Wanesh haven't raided it. It's in that area, at least."

“Does the Admiralty know who you are?"


She sat quietly, looking at the blinking lights of the idle cockpit panels. Implications swirled about in her brain; joined, tested each other's hypotheses, and drifted apart again. “Even if this wasn't my mission, you knew it was a possibility. You wanted me and my crew to be the ones to encounter your kind."


“Because…" Maddy couldn't see her way to a 'yes' or 'no' question; definitely not one she could already guess the answer to. “Because…"

“Because you'd make it back. Did you kill him? Me?" He saw the answer in her curious expression. “Why not?"

“I didn't know who he was until we were back and could look up the records. Our escape was… rapid. We had no time to consider anything like that."

Mercure sighed wearily. “Did you tell him anything? Did he guess anything?"

“No, nothing at all." And why, she found herself asking, do you care? “I was suspicious of his motives. You—" She blinked as the answer hit her abruptly. “You were suspicious of his motives."

“I was a lieutenant in Union intelligence when the incident happened. It only came back to me because we appeared similar, and genetically we proved to be identical. I managed to get access to what we knew about your world—this universe. It seemed more stable; more advanced, in some ways. But… my counterpart was coming to a different conclusion altogether."

“What was that?"

“He was a driven, if reckless, scientist. He saw the ruthlessness of his new companions as something he could exploit. And they saw his own hunger for power, in turn, as something they could exploit. They worked well together. We met. He explained his plans. He had ideas for an experiment on our commonality. I would have been a useful sacrifice. Not something I was interested in becoming." His laugh was quiet, and bitter. “You don't become an officer in that military without a keen sense of self-preservation."

She thought of what the mirror universe's Jack Ford had said, and done. “I noticed. Would they have killed you?"

“Probably. But I discovered something interesting: his ship had survived. He was working on a way to return to this universe. Something about the reactor was key to reopening the gateway between our worlds. He kept delaying, and when I could tell the Union was willing to give me over, I did the only thing I could: I escaped."

“You made it here." Where, evidently, he hoped May would have killed his doppelgänger. “You still see him as a threat. Jack Ford—their Jack Ford—did too. You wanted to ensure he couldn't carry that threat out. Why was I your instrument?"

“You fit in as well here as I did there. I didn't know that something like this would happen. I wanted the Rewa-Tahi sector well-mapped in case he figured out how to stage an invasion, and I figured you'd be up to the task of handling whatever came your way. And you were. You did come back. The aperture's closed."

Her ears, uncharacteristically, splayed. “But I'm not… you know…"

“I don't think so. I think you're just a maverick. You don't have the excuse I do. But you never needed it, either. I've always appreciated that about you, Captain May."

“Will you tell the Admiralty, sir?"

“What would happen if I did? What would happen if you did?"

With a war on, he didn't add, presumably because he—correctly—assumed May's intuition would see her solidly through the question. “If you're a potential threat to the Terran Confederation, they should still know that."

“Yes," the lion agreed. “They should."

The Akita began to wish she'd asked Dave to join her—he'd been there at the beginning, after all, when Mercure assigned her to the Dark Horse for her first mission. This, though, she would need to manage on her own. And, as she had with Commander Ford when the coyote was holding her captive, she made the decision with the conviction of her common sense.

“Captain?" She'd been quiet for half a minute or so.

“With your permission, sir, we should debrief you on the attack. And I'd like updated information on the Star Patrol's disposition, particularly with regards to the remainder of the Dominion's navy."

“Of course. Let's go, then."


It was Bradley who stepped into the engine room, though; May stayed on the bridge, reasoning that she wanted to be there to take quick action if anyone tried to exploit the Dark Horse's vulnerabilities. Bradley already thought of Hazelton as somewhat volatile, and she figured he wouldn't appreciate her temper.

Which was true, although the raccoon's curled muzzle wasn't especially subtle. “Do you have, uh. Any kind of timeline, at least?" he asked.

“For which part?"

Dave didn't think of himself as a commander, really—not the way someone like Maddy did. But he had a certain degree of useful perceptiveness. “You'd like to do some shouting. I, ah… you have permission to speak freely, lieutenant. Pretend I was the captain."

“Fuck you and your timelines."

Bradley held up a paw. “Maybe dial it like… one notch back."

She gritted her teeth. “Right. Stardate 66800, a probe went off the rails in one of the torpedo tubes. Stardate 66960, we got a Wanesh scout ship driven through the outside armor plating. Stardate 67217, we blew out every fucking relay forward of frame 175 when that Stowell Temple pizda overloaded the LRU. Stardate 67355, a cascade failure in the drive pre-processor blew the C25-22 maintenance hatch into the outer hull so hard you can read the serial number in the impact crater. Stardate—"

“I get the idea."

Passeka. J'saya—I'm trying. I patched us up after every goddamned one of those. But we didn't make it two shifts in the mirror universe without starting a fight with someone. The outer hull plating is saturated with velionic decay products. That has to be scrubbed and scoped one block at a time or we risk compromising it from inclusion fatigue.  I haven't had the chance to clean the scoring from the beam firing chambers because the DC bots are all trying to stabilize the plasma relays. And that high-speed run to the Pictor base—where we took another beating, I might add? En t'ey fer—suka. Ugh. I'm pretty sure the coil blew because it got tachyons sprayed on it like a goddamn christening."

He was keenly aware of every incident, and in broad strokes of the toll it must've taken on the ship. “How bad is it, Shannon?"

The raccoon tried to summon up a curse, and sighed. “We can fix it. But I need time."


“…What would you sell it for, then, Terran?"

And now Torres was on the spot, because Beltran's move had caught her off-guard. Growing up as a salvager taught her to haggle over everything—in particular, to know when it was worth going to the mat. This, ordinarily, would've been one of those times, but the diplomat wouldn't want her to low-ball them. “Me? A hundred, 110 maybe, that would be a start. If I didn't have a use for it, I'd at least want put the crystals on the open market."

“Hm," he said again. “But our systems are not compatible. None of my engineers have the expertise to repair it… I would have to hire someone. That would take time, if I could even find someone willing to do the work, and then another buyer…"

“Right. Okay, I mean. Even still, under those circumstances, I'd knock it down to ninety or something. I don't know what you'd need to pay an engineering shop, but it shouldn't be more than a few hours of labor."

“Would fifty-two thousand be reasonable?"

“I… I don't know? I can do the work. For me, I'd say, like… no lower than seventy. I'd be ripping myself off."

“Sixty," Tevag countered.

Jack cleared his throat. “Can we, uh… discuss our bargaining tactics here?"


…Maddy was not given to embarrassment, exactly; she was trying to determine the precise degree to which Jack's feelings should be spared. “I don't know how many of the crew wound up confronting their, uh, their other versions. Mitch did. Dr. Beltran…"


“And you. Me, I guess I'm dead over there. I don't know if that's better or worse. I figure the other Ford didn't make a great impression. Right?"

“He didn't. But he's not me."

“Yeah. So. How awkward is what happened between him and me?"

“I mean. He's not me," Jack repeated. “Maybe it would be different if we were dating. Hell, if we'd ever thought about anything like that—"

“Which we haven't!"

“Right. Which we haven't."

“Because it would be inappropriate," May said hastily.

Jack blinked, a little confused. The conversation could not, he figured, have come from Captain May's belief that he thought her dalliance with a coyote who looked like him would make him… jealous, could it? “Yeah. They don't like those, ah… what do they call 'em? Excessively familiar relationships…"