CHAPTER ONE: CHANCE MEETINGS

Sentrius Battlestation, Sol System, October 4, 2009

"Well, I'm certainly glad that's over."

As she walked Martha out of the infirmary towards Station Command, Alison could only nod. "At least this is a step in the right direction," she agreed, with a faint sniffle. "Even if Clarkie won't tell me everything, at least he's talking, now."

Martha was quick to hold her hand. "He will again, honey," she soothed. "He just needs a bit more time, that's all. I know he loves you, so be patient with him."

Alison nodded. "Thank you," she whispered. "And I will."

Martha smiled warmly. "I know."

By then, they had reached Station Command, where Sentrius' drone-avatar was poring over a data-feed from the Sensors console. Alison looked to Sentrius. "We're done here, Sentrius. Prep the Argo for departure."

"Acknowledged, Captain."

Martha couldn't help but frown at Sentrius. "You're satisfied that my son is fit for duty, then?"

"I am, Citizen Kent."

"Good." Martha shuddered. "The sooner I get off this thing, the better. Call me old, but I'm not comfortable standing in something this big with this much firepower. Just how big is this blasted thing?"

Sentrius promptly answered. "I could supply a conversion from our units to yours, Citizen, but to summarize, my station-self is approximately 3.5 times the volume of Earth's moon."

At Martha's dumbstruck expression, Alison sighed. "Sentrius, on your next download, search for the Earth expression "T.M.I.""

Martha managed to sputter an answer. "Good grief!" she cried. "What do you have in here? A city?"

Sentrius answered with a wave, generating a holographic map of the station. "I cannot describe my exact specifications to a civilian," she said, "but I can say that my station-self consists of over 2000 compartmentalized units, including barracks, mess halls, laboratories, repair-stations, vehicle-bays, a power core, a brig, and…"

Martha groaned. "Never mind!" she exclaimed. As Sentrius went silent, Martha noticed a single black dot – roughly the size of one small room – almost in the middle of the station. "And what's that?"

Sentrius instantly stiffened, her expression going formal. "Classified."

Now Alison was curious. "Actually, I don't recall seeing that on any specs I saw," she said. "Is it a sensor glitch?"

"Negative, Captain. I am aware of the nature of that chamber."

Alison looked concerned. "Does Clark know?"

"Negative, Captain. The existence and contents of that chamber are classified to Creator-Level."

Martha was lost. "What?"

"It means that chamber is a secret that Sentrius' creator ordered her to keep from everyone," Alison said. "So your creator told you to keep that room a secret? Nir-El, Clark's ancestor?"

"Correct."

Martha was suspicious. "And just what is so all-fired important that you'd keep it a secret from your commander?"

Sentrius remained calm. "I must protect the good name of my creator."

Alison's eyes went wide. "Wait…did Nir-El do something, back then? Did he break any of Krypton's laws?"

"Classified."

Martha turned away. "Don't waste your breath, honey. You're clearly not going to get anything out of her. She's both a soldier and a machine: the perfect storm of obstinacy!" she declared. "We should just leave."

At that, Alison and Martha both turned to go…which almost made them miss it. "I was not always a Command-Type A.I."

Sentrius' reply had been a whisper, but Alison caught it. She turned back. "What?"

Sentrius kept going. "After the initial declaration of Kree and Skrull hostilities, my station-self was constructed, but prior to that, I served as Master Nir-El's servitor A.I. I was later repurposed from Administrative/Assistance-Type to Command-Type and assigned here."

Her expression guilty, Alison stopped. "Then can you tell us that?" she asked. "Is that much classified?"

Sentrius processed that for several seconds. "It is not."

Alison smiled. "Then we'd like to hear it," she said. "What was Nir-El like?"

Sentrius accessed her memory-banks. "My time with Master Nir-El was relatively short, as I only came online a few months before the Kree/Skrull Crisis," she said. "It began as a small incident, but it rapidly escalated…"

XXXXXXXX

Deep space, Mor'Nek System border, Earth date June 16, 3045 B.C.

In the endless black void of space, only the faint starlight reflected from the relatively nearby six planets of the Mor'Nek System lit the dark expanse as the single dark-crystal, parallelogram-shaped craft, adorned with six large, dagger-shaped white crystals on its dorsal hull and engine pods, glided along its patrol. As a comet blazed by, the ship altered course to parallel its path, its sensors waving over it, recording its trajectory, rotation, ionization, and other relevant data…

"Ugh! For Rao's sake, Nirrie! How much longer do we have to stay out here?"

From the pilot's seat of the Deathly Silence-Class Stealth-Speeder, 25-year-old First Lieutenant Nir-El rolled his eyes with a half-smile at his best friend's antics. "Only another hour and a half, Cee…minus the five minutes since the last time you asked me that."

Groaning as she sank down in the co-pilot's seat, Second Lieutenant Cira-Zod looked like she was ready to start yanking out her boyishly short, red-black hair. "Six hours, Nirrie! Six hours to patrol a zone, looking for a bunch of meteors to test out your new program that we could easily have used a couple of Hunters to try out!"

Nir sighed. "Maybe you wouldn't be so bored if you bothered to look at these astrometric readings, Cira," he said. "Judging from this comet's path, I don't think we've recorded it, before!"

Cira scrunched her nose. "Wonderful. You can notify the University at Kryptonopolis, and they'll give you another scientific award," she teased. "If we were out flying fighter-patrol, it'd be different, but I'm cooped up in here with you and your new toy!"

Walking up to the cockpit from the back of the Speeder, a lithe, crystal-metal automaton glanced at Cira confusedly. "You find my company lacking, Second Lieutenant Zod?"

Cira shook her head. "No, no, Senna – you're fine. I'm just going crazy because your designer won't let me fly!" She fixed a pleading gaze on her friend. "Please, Nirrie? Just a quick run-around in my Fury? I won't tell the Captain!"

Nir frowned. "No, Cira. The Righteous Fury-Class Fighter is not a toy."

Cira pouted. "Easy for you to say! You get to have fun taking stupid notes, Lieutenant Brain-Box!"

Nir chuckled. "You didn't complain at the Academy, Cee," he countered. "In fact, I seem to recall you often borrowing my "stupid notes."" His smile dimmed. "And will you please stop calling me "Nirrie"?"

Cira blinked. "But then what will I call you?"

Now Nir wanted to wring his hair out. "How about just "Nir"?" he asked. "Or maybe even "Lieutenant El," for once?"

Cira burst into laughter. "Ha! That'll be the day!" she chortled. "The only reason I got stuck as Second Lieutenant was because I hadn't gotten enough flight-time! Once I get my hours in, I'll be ranked above you, El!"

Nir half-smiled. "Rao help the Defence Force."

The android – Senna – looked perplexed. "Master? The notion of Lieutenant Zod's promotion alarms you?"

Nir shook his head. "Not really, Senna. I'm sure Cira will be a fine commander; it's just my childhood experiences with her that give me pause."

Cira snorted. "Well, excuse me for not being a perfect-scoring, over-logical genius-prodigy like you, Nir-El!" she teased. "Rao mark my words, one day something is going to knock that brain of yours for a loop, and I hope I'm there to see it..!"

"Alert One! Alert One! This is Echo Squad calling any available Confederate-friendly vessels: we are under attack! Please respond!"

At the declaration of the Galactic Confederate emergency-signal, Nir was instantly all business, responding to the hail. "Echo Squad, this is Lieutenant Nir-El of the Kryptonian Defence Force, in command of Nova Squadron: we read you, loud and clear! State your emergency!"

"The Kryptonian…oh, thank MAKER!" the young male voice cried. "Understood, Lieutenant: we were in escort of Confed One as it relayed Head Councillor Von Urdan and his diplomatic party from the Thanagar-Gordania peace-talk when we were attacked by a Skrull task-force! Our step-through and Gate-drive systems are down, and we are taking fire! We're just a few light-seconds from the Mor'Nek Gate, and we can't hold out, much longer! HURRY!"

Nir-El had already traced the signal and plotted a course. "Understood, Echo Squad: we are en route to assist you. Be ready to engage full impulse through the Gate; we'll hold them off. Nova Squadron out."

As Nir ended the transmission, Cira arched an eyebrow. "Skrulls?" she repeated. "Are they new?"

"New to us, but the Confederacy has been dealing with them for ages," Nir replied. "Their war with a race called the Kree has embroiled half the systems surrounding the Confederacy. We were briefed on them during the Academy's Selected Topics in Third Year, remember?"

"I was cramming for Advanced Tactics, that semester, El," Cira muttered, before her joking manner vanished. "Tactical analysis?"

"Presently unknown. After we jump, we'll initiate full analysis, and feed data right to our Fighters. As it stands, we'll utilize a three-pronged defence while the Confederates get clear: two of us in Fighters, each commanding a Fighter-swarm, while Senna operates the Speeder to activate the Gate and provide support." Nir looked to Senna. "Senna, initiate Military Protocol, authorization El-Tyr'Vok-Nith-Rek-Lir'Von-Par!"

Senna's green optics instantly flared red. "Understood, Master."

Cira's expression was eerily reminiscent of her uncle, the High General. "So you finally have a chance to test that program of yours, Nirrie?" she asked. "Let's hope it works."

Nir nodded. "Senna, you have the Speeder; prep us and 'port us to our Fighters." Senna instantly complied, moving to the pilot's chair as Nir and Cira moved away, taking two crystals from their belts and tapping them to the chests of their black bodysuits. Instantly, the crystals expanded into pale blue crystal shoulder-armour, weaving over their respective family crests – the Broken Eternity of the House of El, and the Spear-crossed Air-Sword of the House of Zod – before encircling their heads in visored helmets. Once their visors came online, they were both engulfed in a blue-white teleporter wave, depositing them in the immaculate white-crystal cockpits of their Fighters, their visors instantly showing holographic HUDs, their armour effortlessly linking them to their Fighters' controls. "Senna, prepare to initiate step-through!" Nir instructed. "In 3…2…1…jump!"

At Nir's command, the Speeder suddenly winked away, racing through folded space into the Mor'Nek System, to the rescue of the Confederate vessels.

XXXXXXXX

Mor'Nek System, a few minutes earlier

The utter stillness of the Mor'Nek System was shattered as space warped and shifted at its heart, before a 14-ship battlegroup of large, bulbous vessels emerged from step-through. Powering down their jump-drives, the Skrull task-force, led by the colossal flagship, the Morphic Wrath, glided through the dark towards their intended coordinates, swarmed by dozens of tri-winged Skrull fighters that launched from the capital vessels.

Aboard the Wrath itself, the corridors were filled with Skrull soldiers, all in uniform and bearing arms, either marching to battle-stations or scrambling to give vital intelligence reports…with the exception of one elderly female Skrull clad in grey robes, her once bright-green skin dulled with age, her pointed ears drooping, and her chin-ridges now deeply wrinkled. Hobbling along as quickly as she could, the old Skrull woman paused in front of a lone door, stretching her aching back for a moment before she opened it and stepped in. "Your Highness!" she called. "Please, Your Highness, you must get ready! His Excellency and His Highness, your brother, will expect you soon!"

When only silence answered her, the old Skrull sighed to herself, and walked into the back room of the expansive living-quarters…where she found her charge, a 23-year-old Skrull woman, with a casual, violet bodysuit over her lithely curvaceous frame, its paint-smudges matching the colours daubed through her long purple hair. As she chewed on the end of her paintbrush, the young Skrull twisted her purple lips thoughtfully, before standing up on a nearby stool to reach the upper section of the vast canvas she'd been painting…

With a sigh, the old Skrull repeated her call. "Princess Ly'Neia!"

With a squeak of alarm, Ly'Neia stumbled back, falling flat on her rear, which caused her brush to paint a new smudge across her delicate cheek, her golden eyes dismayed. "Nursie!"

Horrified, the Royal Nursemaid – or "Nursie" to her current charge – moved to help Ly'Neia up. "Oh, Your Highness, I am so sorry! I never meant to..!"

"It's alright, Nursie. I should've been paying attention," Ly'Neia replied, dusting herself off. "Besides, we both know I'm not the most coordinated Skrull in the Empire."

Nursie quickly moved to grasp a nearby cloth, and began wiping away the paint dotting Ly'Neia's face and hair. "I wish you had been ready earlier, Highness; your brother and father will be ready within the half-hour!"

Ly'Neia flinched, as she thought of her family. "I know, I know, but I couldn't help it – I thought I almost had the portrait, this time!" she exclaimed, before wilting. "And I wonder why Father, Ath'Nar, and Ar'Nia always mock me…"

"Oh, please don't think that, Highness," Nursie soothed, finishing her grooming by grasping a brush, smoothing Ly'Neia's silken hair with long, smooth strokes. "If anything, it's my fault they are so cruel to you: I was the one who let you have that paint-set, as a child." She half-smiled. "I just couldn't find it in me to take it from you: you were so happy…"

Ly'Neia giggled, soothed by her surrogate mother's ministrations. "It would have made little difference, Nursie. You saw the disaster that my only week at the Military Academy turned into," she murmured. "And as far as my tutors were concerned, an Il'Nar or an Ar'Nia I am not." Scrunching her eyes, she unconsciously hugged herself. "All I have are my studios, my murals, my paints, and my canvases." She looked over her shoulder at her half-finished portrait. "And sometimes, I can't even get those right."

Nursie looked stricken. "Your mother, gods rest her, would have still loved it, Highness."

Fighting tears as the incomplete painting reminded her of her mother, Ly'Neia took a deep breath. "I hope so." Glancing at the clock, she gasped as she realized the time. "I-I have to get moving!"

Nursie let out a half-laugh. "As I told you!"

Mildly frantic, Ly'Neia raced into her wardrobe, shedding her paint-daubed suit as fast as she could. Grabbing a long-trailing, glittery green-blue robe, she quickly tossed it on, before hopping back out to let Nursie help adjust the back-straps. As her nursemaid finished tying the back, Ly'Neia darted back into her wardrobe, grabbing a golden cornet and a pair of pink-blue ceremonial sandals. Sitting down, Ly'Neia slipped on the dainty footwear, letting Nursie weave her violet tresses into a twist on the back of her head, to finish by resting the coronet atop her head. Taking a deep breath, Ly'Neia glanced at herself in the mirror. "How do I look?"

Her eyes shining with pride, Nursie clasped her hands. "Absolutely radiant, Highness."

Ly'Neia gave her a faint smile. "Thanks to you!" she replied, leaning down to peck her nursemaid on the forehead. "Wish me luck!" With that, she opened the door, hurrying out of her quarters.

With her chambers behind her, Ly'Neia rushed through the ship's corridors, ignoring the salutes of passing soldiers as she raced to the bridge. Within two minutes, she had reached the bridge doors, where she paused to quickly smooth out any wrinkles in her attire. Her appearance satisfactory, Ly'Neia took a deep breath, braced herself…and tapped the access panel, sliding the door back, before she walked in.

As expected, the bridge was alive with officers busily working glowing consoles, the flagship's view-screen dotted with innumerable holo-displays of ship systems. At the command chair in the back, in his silver-armoured uniform, stood Ly'Neia's elder brother by 9 years. Seeing her, he fixed her with a good approximation of their father's sneer. "You are late, Sister."

Ly'Neia steeled herself, as she gave a light bow in greeting. "My apologies, dear Brother. I was waylaid."

Ath'Nar scoffed. "By your frivolous sketchings and paints, no doubt."

Ly'Neia felt her hands clench behind her back. "Did His Excellency summon me?"

Cutting his usual mockery short, Ath'Nar nodded. "We are to receive new orders," he confirmed, before turning to the Comms officer. "Have we had any transmissions from the rest of the task-force?"

"We're receiving a hail as we speak, Highness! Transmission coming in, now!"

Just as her brother spoke, the clear view of the nearby nebulas was replaced by the image of a tall, well-muscled Skrull man, in the armoured violet bodysuit of the Imperial Navy, augmented with golden armoured regalia, contrasting Ath'Nar's silver. At the image of their sire, Ath'Nar and Ly'Neia both dropped to their knees, along with the rest of the crew. Ath'Nar led the salute. "Hail, Your Excellency, Holy Voice of the Empire!"

Ly'Neia's voice was drowned out by the echo of the crew. "Hail, Your Excellency!"

With casual indifference, Skrull Emperor Loth'Nar raised his hand in salute. "Rise."

Rising, Ath'Nar met his father's gaze with a triumphant smile. "You honour us with your presence, Excellency! Is the condition of our humble battlegroup to your liking?"

Loth'Nar gave the slightest nod. "We are satisfied, Son; this force will be sufficient." As his eye settled on Ly'Neia, his frown returned. "We are glad that you could spare time from your artistry to join us, Second Princess."

As Ath'Nar suppressed a chuckle, Ly'Neia cringed under her father's words. "I-I am at Your Excellency's command."

"No doubt." Loth'Nar turned his gaze to his son. "Ready our forces, my son. Your time to serve the Empire is nigh."

Ath'Nar was practically salivating. "How shall I serve, Excellency? Destroy a Kree Armada? Conquer one of their frontier worlds?"

Loth'Nar chuckled. "Nothing so bold, yet," he chided. Raising his voice, he addressed the entire crew. "Long has the Galactic Confederacy stood in our path to victory against the Kree! In terms of both trade and strategic advantage, its territory offers much, yet its leaders stymie our efforts at every turn!"

His sly smile made Ly'Neia's spine go cold. "As of today, that changes," he finished. "One of our infiltrators has informed us that their leaders will be passing through this system! Once we capture these fools, the Confederacy will surely be more reasonable in their dealings with us!"

As she realized what her father's plan was, Ly'Neia quickly lowered her head to hide her expression of dismay, hoping her father and brother wouldn't catch it. Her clumsiness had only been half the reason for her expulsion from the Military Academy; her instructors had all but made it clear that she hadn't the temperament – or, their words, "the spine" – for conquest.

Thankfully, her family either didn't see her reaction, or weren't interested. "We stand ready, Excellency! At your command, we jump!"

Loth'Nar nodded. "Fix weapon-locks on the area surrounding the Crystal Ring; that is where the Confederate group will appear!" he boomed. "Target their engines and jump-drives – do NOT let them escape! Once they are disabled, dispatch boarding-parties, and bring them to me!"

Ath'Nar was utterly gleeful. "We obey, Excellency!"

Suddenly, the Sensors officer spoke up. "Excellency, Highness, we are detecting step-through resonance! It's a confirmed Confederate signal! They're here!"

As the officer put the video-feed through to the main screen, Ly'Neia could see it clearly: a slim, silver-hued vessel with a circling gravity-disc amidships, surrounded by about a dozen fighter-escorts. Ath'Nar reacted instantly. "Now! Fire at will!"

The Skrull capital ships instantly opened fire, their massive laser cannons blasting into key points on the lead ship's hull, leaving it floating aimlessly, and destroying a third of its escort-squad. Ly'Neia cringed with pity, while her brother was elated. "Dispatch shuttlecraft and Attack-Wing One! Reel in our new prize…"

"Highness, two more resonances! They're Kree signatures!"

Ath'Nar was irate. "What?" he thundered, just as an equally large Kree battlegroup – their ships all but identical, due to their long-pilfered Skrull technology – winked into existence just behind their armada, while several Kree fighter-wings jumped in behind the Confederate group.

Seconds later, the Kree tongue came in over the comm-lines, automatically translated to Skrull-dar. "Skrull dogs, this is High Admiral Ronar of the Kree Imperial Fleet! Stand down and surrender, or die where you stand! You have five minutes to comply; that is all!"

Ath'Nar fumed. "Launch fighter-wings, and move all cruisers into attack-position! Bring all our broadside-cannons to bear!" he shouted. "The Kree will not cheat us of this prize! Not today!"

As the bridge-crew scurried to life, bringing the battlegroup about under the Emperor's eye, Ly'Neia could only fix a sympathetic gaze on the Confederate group; regardless of who won, they would be captured, tortured, and likely killed. It made her sick to her stomach, but there was nothing she – or anyone – could do…

"Excellency, Highness, we have another resonance!"

Ath'Nar groaned. "Gods above, what now?"

The Emperor kept his reserve. "Steady, my son. The cowardly Kree have likely brought reinforcements; send word to our reserve forces in…"

"Wait, Excellency! This…this isn't a Kree signature! I…I've never seen anything like it!" the Sensors officer reported. "Step-through resonance is within two light-seconds of the Confederate group, coming in…now!"

Ly'Neia expected to see some massive ship leap into existence…but nothing happened. Her brother was equally confused. "Well? Where is it?"

"We're reestablishing visual lock, Highness. We should have it shortly!"

The screen showed the crippled Confederate group…but now, there was a small, white-crystal, parallelogram-prism-shaped vessel floating between the Confederate ships and their forces, with numerous crystals attached to its dorsal hull and engine-pods, no larger than a Skrull fighter. Ly'Neia was awed. "What…is that?"

"Have fighters hold positions!" Ath'Nar ordered. "Lieutenant, are there any records of such a ship in our database?"

The stricken XO shook his head. "None, Highness!" he stammered. "I…I cannot even imagine how it got here! Our fighters can only perform small jumps, and our sensors have this entire system covered! I have no idea how it could have gotten here!"

Ath'Nar scowled. "Hail it, standard frequency!" In seconds, the comm-lines opened. "Attention, unmarked vessel: this is the Skrull Imperial Task-Force Kurthon's Vengeance, General First Prince Ath'Nar commanding! Identify yourself immediately, or be destroyed!" he boomed, but only silence answered him, causing Ath'Nar to fume. "Any response?"

"Negative, Sire. The Kree have also paused, and are hailing. They're likely as confused as we are."

Ath'Nar snorted. "Not that it would take much to confuse such a simple-minded…" he began, but froze as the lights in the bridge flickered, with every console showing streams of eerie, esoteric glyphs. "Report!"

"We're being hacked, Highness! That strange ship traced our hail back into our systems!"

Before Ath'Nar could register his fury, the hack ceased, as the ship's systems came back up. "What did they get?"

The Sensors officer was pale. "They…Highness, they copied our entire tactical database, and the schematics of all our ships and weapons."

Ath'Nar was dumbstruck. "They…ALL of it?" he sputtered. "Impossible! It would take our own computers months to hack our firewalls!"

"I know how it sounds, Highness, but it's true! They also copied the entire Skrull-dar lexicon!"

Based on what little she knew of military matters, Ly'Neia agreed that copying enemy schematics made sense…but the lexicon threw her. 'Why would they..?'

She hadn't even formed the question when she got her answer. "Highness, we're being hailed, audio and visual! I'm putting it through!"

Ly'Neia had been expecting a burly Kree to pop on-screen, but the appearance of this alien being – tall, well-framed, and undeniably male with short black hair, blue eyes, and pale skin, with not even a wrinkle on his chin – gave her quite a start…and then he spoke, in what sounded like perfect Skrull-dar. "Attention Kree and Skrull forces: this is First Lieutenant Nir-El of the Kryptonian Defence Force. You have unjustly and illegally attacked a Confederate vessel; stand down and withdraw immediately, or we will use whatever force necessary to protect our allies. This is your only warning."

For several moments, the entire bridge was dead silent, until Ath'Nar started to laugh, beginning with a soft, throaty chuckle, and proceeding to all-out guffaws. "Did…did that sand flea just threaten us?" He allowed the crew to chortle for a few seconds before he waved for silence. "Contact our fighters, and have them launch a missile barrage at these upstarts – teach them the cost of insulting the Skrull Empire!"

Within minutes, the order had been sent, as the screen showed their fighter wing launching a full spread of missiles that sped towards the unknown ship, to Ly'Neia's dismay. She'd hoped to learn more about this strange – and strangely handsome – being who called himself Nir-El, as well as his people, but her brother's missiles were about to blast that hope away…

…until they turned around.

Ath'Nar's expression was comical as he sputtered at the readout. "What's going on? Why have our missiles reversed course?"

The Comms officer quickly put the fighter-wing through. "Highness, they hacked us! Missile-guidance is down, and the missiles aren't responding to the abort-command! They're heading straight for…" The transmission was abruptly cut off, as the screen showed the missiles impacting, blowing away half of the fighter-wing, leaving the rest crippled.

Her hands flying to her mouth, Ly'Neia gasped with both pity for their lost pilots and utter bewilderment that it had even happened. Her brother was similarly dumbstruck, but that gave way to rage. "Deploy ALL fighter wings, and bring ALL cannons to bear on that ship! I want it shot DOWN!"

At once, the bridge was abuzz, leaving Ly'Neia with her confusion, wondering who these people were, until she happened to spot a more detailed scan of the alien vessel placed next to a scan of the Crystal Ring…and her eyes went wide.

The scan hadn't been able to pierce through the ship's shields, but it had gotten a read of its engine's power output – it was exactly the same signature as the Ring. The engine was putting out more energy than the quiescent Ring, but it was the same energy…which meant that both had been built by the same hands.

Her expression awed, Ly'Neia looked back to the screen – at the mounting forces charging at the ship – with the same anxiety, but now it was mostly concern for their troops, mixed with a tiny bit of guilty glee.

All through her childhood, she'd prayed for someone to finally give her bullying brother his comeuppance, and now, it seemed, the gods were finally going to answer those prayers…

XXXXXXXX

"Well, so much for diplomacy, Nirrie."

Sitting in the cockpit of his inactive Fury, Nir sighed to himself, his flight-armour's visor showing him a perfect tactical assessment of the approaching Skrull and Kree fightercraft – utterly antiquated in comparison to their fighters – before he answered his wingman. "I can't believe they actually fly in those things."

"No kidding, El! They should be in a museum, not open space!" Cira laughed. "Rao, I was at least hoping for a challenge! Still, flying's flying!"

Nir frowned. "Try not to enjoy it so much, Cee. This is going to be a rout, so try and limit casualties: use the Disruptor where possible, and target non-critical systems otherwise."

Cira huffed over the comm-lines. "Spoilsport." Her tone turned serious. "I'm loading up your new flight-software now, Nir; I'm reading two Fighters synched with me."

Tapping a few key-crystals, Nir nodded. "That's right, Cira; the swarm-logic will link your two wing-escorts to you. Unless you command otherwise, they'll mirror your ship's movements and targets."

Cira chuckled. "Like to see them try to copy MY moves."

Senna's voice came in over the lines. "Master Nir, the Kree and Skrull craft are closing rapidly – two minutes to weapons-range."

His eyes narrowed, Nir took hold of the controls. "They don't have two minutes, Senna," he said. "Upon Fighter-deployment, lay a defensive ring of uni-directional Graviton Mines between the Confederate ships and the hostiles, and dial the Gate for the nearest Confederate-aligned system! Once they're through, initial Attack-Support Pattern Kel'nok!"

"Acknowledged, Lieutenant. Awaiting flight-status check."

Nir looked over his screen. "Nova One, Two, and Three: go flight!"

Cira was right behind him. "Novas Four through Six: go flight! Awaiting launch-command, flight leader!"

Nir gave the order. "Nova Squadron, launch!"

As the bulky forms of the Kree and Skrull fighters screamed in from opposite directions, the crystal spikes on the Stealth-Speeder's hull shot away – three heading straight at the Skrulls, while the other three turned back to face the Kree. Before either side could react, the crystals' front facets extended ahead, as each crystal barrel-rolled into a forward-curve-winged fightercraft: Righteous-Fury-Class Fighters, the new sword-arm of Krypton's spacefaring military.

Racing at the Skrull forces at over thrice their speed, Nir locked onto the lead Skrull ship, and opened up with a Polaron Disruptor-blast. As the trinity-swirl of electrostatic force hit the fighter, it erupted in a devastating blast, engulfing both the ship and its two wingmen, shorting out every single system on board and leaving them floating aimlessly. Scrambling to respond, two more Skrull ships fired on him, but Nir and his two A.I.-guided wingmen – a three-man fighter swarm with him in command – easily evaded the shots, swirling into a triple-helical pattern as they flew by the Skrull ships, frying them with another Disruptor-pulse.

"WHOOOOOOOHOOOOOO!"

Cira's war-whoop echoed through her Fighter's communicator as she gunned its engine for all it was worth towards the Kree fightercraft, her two A.I.-wingmen racing to keep up. Like low-powered training holograms, the Kree barreled straight at her, their lasers bouncing off her Fury's shields. At the very last second, Cira hit the drive-pod controls, shifting her Fighter's thrust to a perpendicular vector – almost impossibly, the Fury arced away from the Kree cluster, somersaulting over them as it bore its lasers on them, blasting three into slag. Just as Nir had stated, her wingmen matched her maneuver, felling another six Kree ships. "I take it back, Nirrie: your program sears!" Cira laughed. "Still, that puts me in the lead!"

Nir frowned. "Shots taken by your wingmen don't count, Zod."

While the Furies intercepted the initial attack-wing, the Speeder, piloted by Senna, moved to support the Confederate vessels, dropping a line of purple-black spheres between them and the handful of Skrull and Kree fighters that had managed to slip past her master and his wingman. Aboard the Speeder, Senna frowned as she caught sight of the alert on the HUD. "Confederate vessels, alter course heading to zero-one-five; I will cover you." Promptly, the Confederate ships shifted their path, as the Speeder moved in front of them, to block the heavy cannons of the Kree and Skrull cruisers that were trying to lock on. Typing swiftly, Senna activated her ship's countermeasures, favouring EM-Misdirect. Like magic, her earlier hack of their attackers paid off, the false EM-signature replacing the real sensor-feed. The Kree and Skrull vessels opened fire…but each and every shot went far wide of their target.

By then, the Skrull and Kree fighters were closing fast, just coming into range of the line of Graviton Mines. As one hand accessed the Speeder's Gate-Drive, Senna reached for the weapons-control with the other – instantly, the Mines detonated, forming deep gravity-wells that trapped the fighters. "Confederate vessels, your path is clear. Deploy your emergency tractor-beams and retrieve your ejected pilots, then head for the Gate. We will not let them follow you."

"Understood, Nova Squadron! Thank you! Thank you!" Their engines powering as best they could, the remaining Confederate fighters fired their meager tractor-beams, pulling in the few ejected pilots before affixing to Confed One, pulling it towards the Gate. As Senna entered the sequence for the Gate closest to Bgztl, the World-Gate began to stir: one by one, its crystal spokes crackled with electricity, linking together as its central hub expanded, forming a stable wormhole. With one last burst of thrust, the Confederate ships entered the event-horizon, flitting away, before the Gate shut down, closing the wormhole behind them.

Checking his Fury's HUD, Nir let out a relieved sigh as he confirmed their allies were safely away. "The Confederates are in the clear, Cira. Mission accomplished."

Shifting course, Cira grinned as she broke for an attack-run on the lead Skrull ship. "Great, Nirrie! Now, why don't we teach these over-stuffed primitives what happens when they bully innocent ships, huh?"

Nir grimaced. "Dammit Cee, we need to get out of here; pull back! That's an order!" As he'd expected, Cira ignored him. "Senna, cover us! We'll need to jump at a moment's notice!"

"Understood, Lieutenant El." Altering course, Nir flew after his friend's ship, as Senna's Speeder chased after them both.

XXXXXXXX

As she stood next to her incredulous brother, Ly'Neia couldn't help but mirror his dumbstruck expression, despite her silly hopes. 'They…they took out our ships AND the Kree..?'

The crew obviously shared her shock, albeit mixed with dismay. "They…they took out two fighter-wings?"

"Who in the gods' names ARE these guys?"

Ath'Nar's fury returned full force. "Bring all our cruisers about, and lock weapons on those ships! Shoot them down at all cost!" he roared. "I'll not have these upstarts cheat me of my glory..!"

"Highness, they've changed course!" the Sensors officer cried. "They're…they're heading straight at us!"

Ath'Nar was bug-eyed. "What? Are they mad?" he shouted. "Open fire!" The view-screen showed it clearly: one of the ships – a white-crystal curved wing – was racing straight at them, effortlessly weaving in and out of their cruisers' massive plumes of cannon-fire, followed by two more, then another three, and then a black-crystal craft. Seconds later, the first ship opened fire, launching three spherical pulses of neon-pink energy that raced straight at them. Like her brother, Ly'Neia was confused – despite their success, these tiny ships couldn't have possibly hoped to harm vessels of their size…

Her thought was cut off as the entire cruiser shook, lights flickering and consoles sparking in three waves as each shot impacted. "Direct hit! Highness, shields are down to thirty percent!" the XO cried. "One more and our shields will buckle!"

Ath'Nar's rage was gone, replaced by panic. "This…this can't be HAPPENING!"

Ly'Neia could only stare at the screen as the first trio of ships buzzed by, peppering the two cruisers behind them with more shots, the readout clearly showing their ships losing huge chunks of shield-energy with every hit. By then, the other three fighters had caught up with their dark-hulled carrier. The second trio fired numerous bursts of crackling tripartite electricity, one of which struck their cruiser with devastating force, shaking the vessel like a child's toy and darkening most of the bridge. "Highness, our shields are gone! That shot, it…it just fed back along our shield itself, and blew out the generator!" the XO cried. "Not only that, it fried most of our sensors and comms – we're lucky we still have propulsion and life-support!"

Now the view-screen was staticky, but Ly'Neia couldn't turn away. The rest of their armada was firing on the attacking crystal ships, but like before their shots were wide, some even impacting friendly ships. The second trio of fighters unleashed pinpoint shots with their electrostatic weapons, while the first three let loose a maelstrom of those deadly pink blasts. In less than a minute, they had broken through their battlegroup, and proceeded to pummel the Kree force into utter submission. Once the Kree were equally crippled, the fighters formed up around their carrier, morphing back into crystals and docking on the dark ship's engine-pods…as a transmission came through on their fragmented comm-system.

"Attention, Kree and Skrull forces: in case you're wondering, you've just had your collective rears spanked by Second Lieutenant Cira-Zod of the Kryptonian Defence Force, and unquestionably the greatest pilot you cave-dwellers are EVER going to see!" the pale-skinned, red-haired female face said with a smirk, before her expression turned stormy with controlled fury. "I suggest you pay attention, because if you EVER come after our allies again, I'll come back and stomp you…and I WON'T be so nice about it."

And with that, the dark-hulled vessel simply winked away, leaving them behind.

The entire bridge was deathly silent – no-one dared speak until the Comms station began to beep. The Comms officer put it through by numb reflex, showing the staticky image of the Emperor, looking angrier than Ly'Neia had ever seen him. "Damage report."

Ath'Nar was still shocked mute, which prompted the XO to answer for him. "We're on essential systems only, Excellency. Most of our communications, our sensors, and our weapons are completely inoperable. Our fighter-bays are down, and our step-through drive is utterly useless. We have no way of knowing for sure, but I can imagine that the rest of our task-force – as well as the Kree – are similarly damaged, Excellency."

Emperor Loth'Nar's scowl grew. "Explain this to me," he growled. "How – in the gods' names, HOW – could our entire armada be crippled by a…a handful of SAND-GNATS?"

Despite her shock, Ly'Neia moved to the Sensors station. "Lieutenant," she asked, "could you bring up the first sensor-sweep of the unknown ship? The scan you took before we lost sensors?"

The lieutenant looked baffled. "Um…certainly, Highness."

As the sensor readout – staticky, but visible – appeared on the screen, Ly'Neia started to smile. "Now can you bring up the scan of the Crystal Ring?"

Her father's voice nearly made Ly'Neia jump out of her skin. "Do you think your Emperor's commands are to be ignored, daughter of mine?" Loth'Nar sneered. "Or did you actually have something to contribute?"

Trying very hard not to cry out of reflex, Ly'Neia turned to face her sire. "I…I-I thought I noticed something, Excellency," she stammered. "Before the ship attacked us, I saw a scan readout of their power-output next to a scan of the Ring, and…I thought they looked the same…"

By then, the lieutenant had brought up the scan-data…and gasped. "Excellency, Her Highness is correct! The readouts of the unknown ships and the Ring…they're identical!"

That statement was enough to quell Loth'Nar's ire and stoke his curiosity. "You are certain, Lieutenant?"

"Absolutely, Excellency! The hands that crafted those ships also crafted the Ring!"

That revelation silenced the entire bridge. Ly'Neia's head was spinning, as an awed smile started to cross her face. 'They're real! The Ring-Builders are REAL!'

She had so much she wanted to ask them.

A sly smile crossed the Emperor's face – a chilling expression that froze Ly'Neia's happy musings in mid-thought. "My children: you will return to the flagship at the earliest possible moment. Once our vessels are repaired, we will proceed to the nearest neutral system, while our diplomatic agents reach out to the Confederacy to contact these creatures, these "Kryptonians.""

Ath'Nar nodded. "And what then, Excellency? How shall we exact vengeance on these usurpers?"

Loth'Nar scowled. "Do not be deliberately doltish, child. We will not waste so valuable a resource!" he snapped. "You will do as I command; I must devise some way to turn this to our advantage."

As Ly'Neia and Ath'Nar both bowed, their father ended the transmission, leaving the crew to obey their Emperor's decree. At once, Ly'Neia headed out of the bridge, to prepare herself for her meeting with her sire…

…but even as she fretted, she couldn't stifle her curiosity about the Kryptonians, the builders of the Rings…and the man who called himself Nir-El…

XXXXXXXX

Outreach Base, Ty'Chor V, Ty'Chor System

"How in Rao's name did this happen?"

Like the rest of Outreach Base, their CO's office was made entirely of off-white crystal, including the desk that Nir and Cira stood in front of, at attention. Nir spoke first. "Sir?"

His uniform suit slightly bulged around his stocky frame, Colonel Ol-Om, his grey hair thinning as he approached the middle age of 150, stood up, their report on his data-pad. "You two had rescued Confed One! All you had to do was either jump clear or follow them through the Gate!" he barked. "Instead, you charged straight at these Kree and Skrulls, practically giving them an excuse to drag Krypton into their war!" He levelled his glare at Cira. "Everything about this practically screams "Zod," Second Lieutenant..!"

Seeing Cira's all-too-familiar "I'm two seconds from dropping a Nova Javelin on you" expression – likely learned from her uncle the High General – Nir stepped in. "Sir, regardless of who initiated the attack, our aim was to deter both sides from involving the Confederacy in the future; left unchecked, either side would have captured and extracted information from the Head Councillor, potentially including knowledge of Krypton. In addition, we gained useful tactical knowledge of Kree and Skrull tactics, and now have an accurate threat-assessment of their weapons technology – namely, that it is laughable in comparison to ours. Our choice of tactics aside, this mission was a success."

Ol shook his head. "Zod, Senna, give us a minute." Obediently, Senna walked out. Cira sent a worried gaze towards her wingman, before she did the same. "You always have an answer, El."

Nir was confused. "Sir?"

"No matter the situation, you manage to find a solution, whether it's a hostile armada or a dressing-down by your commanding officer," Ol continued. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised: you Els always were brain-cases."

Now Nir was utterly lost. "Sir…are you unsatisfied with my performance?"

Ol laughed. "I'm worried that you're too clever for your own good."

"Sir?"

"Oh, yes, Lieutenant, I'd be mad not to want that brain of yours on my fighter-wing," Ol said. "But I'd worry if you were in command of a ship, instead of a fighter-wing." He looked Nir in the eye. "Until you've lost, El – until you've failed, and learned to handle it – you can't say you're a good leader." He turned away. "For the next two weeks, you and Zod are restricted to base."

Nir drooped a bit. "Yes, sir," he said. "I was hoping to converse with Lieutenant Lir about his theories on A.I. autonomy."

Ol sighed. "As long as it doesn't affect your on-base duties," he replied. "Dismissed." By reflex, Nir saluted – his right fist moving to his chest, over his heart – before he headed out.

Cira and Senna were waiting for him in the corridor outside their CO's office. Senna looked worried. "Master Nir? Is everything alright?"

"I suppose, Senna; ColonelOm let us off light," Nir answered. "We're grounded – restricted to base for two weeks."

Cira looked as if he'd told her that her favourite comet-surfing team had been disqualified from the championships. "Two weeks? Here? Babysitting archaeologists?" she lamented. "Why didn't he just drop an N-Jav on us?"

"What did you think would happen, Cee?" Nir scolded. "We got off fairly light, considering what could have happened! Why don't you use this time to catch up on the paperwork you have piling up, or maybe brush up on your Advanced Programming texts?"

Cira scowled. "Maybe if I wanted to put myself to sleep."

Senna spoke up. "Master, Colonel Om would not have taken so long to deliver that sanction. Did something else happen?"

Nir put his hand to his head. "The Commander thinks I'm too smart for my own good, and that I need to lose or fail to be a good leader."

Cira snorted. "Well, praise Rao! I've been complaining about your head for years, Nirrie! Finally, someone agrees with me!" she teased. "And as for losing, I did bring my travel-deck…"

"You cheating at First To Zero does not count as losing, Cira," Nir said. "I think I'll turn in for a bit."

Cira shrugged. "Your loss, El." With that, she turned and headed off, while Nir and Senna headed for Nir's quarters.

Once his quarters were in sight, Nir casually drew his identification-crystal from his belt, and waved it at the door. One quick scan-wave was all it took. "Identity confirmed; welcome, Lieutenant El."

Walking through the open door, Nir flopped onto his cot, to watch the setting orange sun – a pleasant enough change from the red sun of Krypton – while Senna strode to her maintenance station for a recharge and system-update. "Access WorldNet," Nir instructed. "Bring up data-feeds on channels designated News, Personal, Sports, and Comedy."

Instantly, the room's holo-interface expanded, showing four vid-screens that overlapped each other, with only the first playing. "…in Kryptonopolis today, temperatures were a record-setting 57 Culaon; non-hydroponic gardeners may be celebrating, but everyone else should be wary of heat exhaustion…"

Nir sighed. "Close News feed and continue."

The second screen moved up as the first closed. "You have one new message," the program reported. "First message is as follows."

The screen showed a young woman, a couple years younger than Nir, with long, wavy hair the colour of fine syrup, her pale complexion a bit rosy, her willowy frame enrobed in a long, slim black gown. "Um, Nir? It's Valia; Valia Thar-Ak," the young woman said. "I-I hope everything is okay with you, wherever you're stationed." She flushed. "I assume you remember me; we used to go to Introductory classes when we were children, and I saw you with my parents Cir-Ak and Kina Thar-Ak at your graduation from the Academy!" She took a deep breath. "A-Anyway, if you have time, I'd love to speak with you, so…would you call me?"

Nir did remember her in both instances; he could recall a fairly shy girl – but then compared to Cira, every girl seemed shy back then – as well as the pretty young woman who had congratulated him with her parents, who were two of his mother's closest friends. "Save message," he instructed. "Close Personal feed and continue."

The next screen came up, showing an image of four figures in silvery suits, all riding boards through space on the wake of a comet. "…as expected, crowd favorite Dor-Ven is just seconds away from breaking through; he's picked up enough momentum to clear the debris and plant his mark on the head! Folks, it looks like this is all but…wait a moment! Tor-Mal is making his move! He's edging ahead of Dor-Ven! It's going to be close…and he did it! In the upset of the century, Tor-Mal takes the Rao's Tear Comet-Surfing Challenge! This is going to be remembered for millennia, folks..!"

Nir sighed. "Close Sports feed and continue."

As the last screen popped up, Nir felt his disappointment evaporate at the sight of his favourite comedic trio. "Mo-Nok, we have to get out of here!" the short, pudgy, bald Cil-Ban wailed.

The leader of the three, Mo-Nok – lean and tall, with mid-length brown hair – scowled. "Will you be silent? We can still pull this off; all we need is some wire, a laser-torch, and some dental-gum!"

The third of their band, Ler-Il – of average height, with frizzy red hair – panicked…and said his catch-phrase. "Mo, you can't expect us to succeed here! It would be illogical! Illogical!"

Bursting out laughing, Nir almost rolled off his bed. "Close…close Comedy feed!" he guffawed. ""Illogical"…that never gets old!"

Her maintenance and update complete, Senna watched her creator's reaction with curiosity. "You find this amusing, Master Nir-El?"

Nir managed to stifle his guffaws. "Ler, Cil, and Mo, Senna? They're hilarious!"

Senna still looked perplexed. "I have been reviewing all their material, Master. In all that time, I have never experienced any compulsion to react as you are now."

Nir chuckled. "Once I figure out how to code for humour-response, you'll understand, Senna."

"Yes, Master," Senna replied, as her sensors flared. "Master, Cadet Or-Lir is approaching your quarters. I believe he wishes to speak with you."

Just as he stood up, Nir heard his door-chime. "Enter."

At his order, the door slid open, allowing a younger man – in his late teens – in the Defence Force's black uniform but with a Cadet's silver sash walked in, carrying an armful of data-pads, his short brown hair slicked back, and his green eyes frazzled. "Lieutenant El, sir!" he said, trying to salute. "Thank you for taking the time to – Rao damn it!"

Or's expletive came as his hands lost their grip on his data-pads, which forced Nir to suppress a guilty chuckle. "At ease, Cadet," he greeted, as he moved to help the youth gather his supplies. "You didn't have to bring your entire courseload if you wanted to speak with me."

Or blanched with embarrassment. "My apologies, sir," he said. "It's just that I heard you and Lieutenant Yan-Lir briefly discuss your opinions on A.I. development. I thought you might wish to speak further on the matter, so I asked my brother if I could bring you some of his notes on the subject."

Nir nodded. "My thanks, Cadet. This should help expedite our discussion," he replied. He started to skim through the data-pad he was holding…and frowned. "Perhaps not."

Or flinched. "D-Did I bring the wrong materials, sir?" he stammered. "I-I'm so sorry, sir! I'll go get the right files immediately..!"

"No, no, Cadet. These are the files Lieutenant Lir mentioned," Nir remarked. "I was merely expecting something else. It appears your brother thought I meant enhancing A.I.s' abilities to handle a wider variety of tasks."

"Oh." Or blinked. "Then what did you mean, sir?"

"I meant to discuss the possibility of A.I.s becoming fully autonomous – self-aware and capable of exercising their own intent – over time," Nir said. "I should have clarified that, in our previous conversation."

Or's eyes were wide. "You think that's possible, sir?"

Nir grinned. "I think it's probable, Cadet. Just look at Senna: she's a far cry from the simple servitor program she was when I first brought her online."

Senna nodded. "Thank you, Master Nir."

Or thought for a moment. "Lieutenant, are you saying that A.I.s can become sentient..?"

"I'm saying that the potential is there," Nir said. "With simpler programs, it may not be possible, or it may take longer, but from what I've found, it is a possibility that cannot be discounted."

Or was about to reply when Senna interrupted. "Master, you have an incoming message from the CO. I am patching it through now."

Senna's eyes flickered as she filtered Colonel Om's voice through her speaker. "El, you and Zod report to my office. Now."

Nir sighed. "My apologies, Cadet; I fear this discussion will have to be tabled for a later time. Senna, please see Cadet Lir out as soon as he gathers his supplies."

"Understood, Master Nir." With that, Nir turned and headed out.

It took only a quick walk for Nir to reach Cira's quarters. "Cira? It's Nir," Nir said, as he knocked on her door. "We just got a message from…"

"Dor-Ven, you scrakking IDIOT!"

Nir sighed as Cira's door opened. "I take it you've seen the Sports feed."

Cira was still shouting at the holo-feed when Nir came in. "You had the championship! You had it right in your scrakking hand, and you just let that little…UURRRRRGGGHH!" She glanced over her shoulder. "Not in the mood, Nirrie."

"Neither was I, but when the Colonel orders, we go. Have you checked your messages?"

With an arched eyebrow, Cira paused her Sports feed, and switched to her internal mail…before she groaned piteously. "Now what?"

Nir shrugged. "I have no idea."

Cira sighed, before she zipped her uniform back up. "The perfect end to a perfect day," she muttered. "Lead on, El." With that, the two of them headed back to the CO's quarters.

When they reached the Colonel's quarters and were granted access by the sentries on duty, Nir and Cira were surprised to see the Colonel facing away from them, standing in the middle of a panel of green light on the floor – a Holo-Phone, capable of projecting incredibly realistic holographic images in real-time, allowing for communication over incredible distances, even across star-systems when projected through a World-Gate.

As they came in, the Colonel glanced back towards them. That would be them now, sir, ma'am. I'll have them join us," he said. "El! Zod! Front and center!" At once, Nir and Cira strode into the panel…and immediately found themselves in the middle of a vast, darkened chamber, upon a large white crystal central dais, surrounded by twelve smaller pedestals, designed to project holo-images when Councilmen were absent.

The Council Chamber. They were standing in the meeting place of the Council of Twelve…with the entire Council present. Nir could recognize a few of them – Rel-Shon, Ar-Dos, Cira's father Xel-Zod, Tel-Ar – but there was one place that was empty.

"Nir?"

At that voice, Nir was torn between his discipline and familial reflex; fortunately, discipline won out, and he stood at attention. "Head Councilwoman El."

In her black-silver Council robe, her long greying hair tied back in a conservative bun, Head Councilwoman Thara-El – Nir's mother – smiled gently. "We are pleased that you could make it First Lieutenant, Second Lieutenant," she greeted, before her expression turned grave. "A situation has developed within the last hour. Our diplomatic detachment to the Confederacy has notified us of it. High General?"

Next to Thara, in his uniform of a black bodysuit and cape, his short dark hair and beard edged with grey, High General Vor-Zod stepped forward. "Thank you, Councilwoman," he said, before he looked to Nir and Cira. "In the wake of the clash with the Kree and Skrulls," he continued, while giving his niece a hard stare, "several suspected pro-Skrull factions within the Confederate government relayed this message to Confederate HQ." Drawing his communicator, he tapped it, projecting a holo-beam.

The beam quickly took shape, becoming a tall, lithe, green-skinned female with pointed ears, golden eyes, violet lips, and long magenta hair in a gold coronet, clad in dazzling mauve robes, with fine lines – ridges – upon her chin. "Councillors of the Galactic Confederacy," she began, with a charming smile, "I am Ar'Nia, First Princess of the Skrull Empire. Mere hours ago, your diplomatic attache to the Thanagar-Gordania conference was set upon by our hated foes the Kree, which prompted our involvement. We of the Skrull Empire – my father the Emperor included – are deeply apologetic that you were involved in our disputes with them. We have also learned, however, that one of your allies – the Kryptonian Defence Force – intercepted and repulsed the Kree aggressors before we could act, which has inspired this next point. The Skrull Empire would like to propose a peace conference between ourselves and the Kree, with the Confederacy and a Kryptonian representative as mediators. We will await your decision."

General Zod promptly switched off his communicator. "Lieutenants, Councilmen, we have just met the Skrull Empire."

Thara frowned. "Well, she's certainly silver-tongued."

Cira snorted. "More like a lying little witch," she muttered. ""Kree aggressors" my scrakking…"

"Cira!" Nir admonished, before coming back to attention. "General, honoured members of the Council, I must say I am a bit confused as to why we are here…"

"I should think it is obvious as to why you are here, First Lieutenant," the General said. "As the two of you have hands-on experience with both the Kree and Skrulls, you will be Krypton's delegation to this conference."

Nir was floored. "S-Sir?"

Thara nodded in confirmation. "The Confederacy's representatives will be from Bgztl and Thanagar," she elaborated. "Normally, we would leave such matters to the Confederacy, but this is a special case."

Nir knew what she meant. The Law of Riona Prime – Standing Order One, the cornerstone of Krypton's entire extraplanetary policy – dictated that Krypton not interfere in the Confederacy's affairs. "May I ask how, Councilwoman?"

General Zod crossed his arms. "I might ask the same, Councilwoman. Clearly, this does not involve Krypton…"

"I disagree, General. In fact, I would say that Krypton has been involved since long before this incident," Thara countered, as she brought up a new holo-feed, showing a star-map of several galaxies, and zoomed in on one, showing green lights – Skrull vessels – congregating in several specific systems, before suddenly appearing in systems far away. One-by-one, this pattern was repeated in several other galaxies, before blue dots appeared, mirroring that pattern until they mingled violently with the green. "This is a summative history of the Kree and Skrull conflict from the Confederacy," Thara said, her tone flat. "I can only assume you recognize the systems they massed in."

Nir certainly did. "World-Gate systems," he murmured. "They used our Gate network to mobilize their forces."

Thara nodded. "Our technology facilitated the enslavement of quadrillions, and the murder of quadrillions more," she said softly. "We were fortunate in that such a tragedy did not occur with giving network-access to those who would form the Confederacy." She fixed the General with a hard gaze. "This is Krypton's responsibility, General. If we can help end this madness, we will do so."

General Zod did not argue the point. "If this is so, Councilwoman, we must take measures to ensure that, failing negotiations, misuse of the network ceases immediately."

"I concur," Thara agreed. "Full-scale development and implementation of the Bio-Coding subroutines will commence immediately. The sooner we can lock them out of the network, the better. Lieutenants, you will proceed to the Mor'Nek System, 6 light-minutes from the initial contact-point to rendezvous with the Skrull task-force as they are making repairs." She nodded to the General. "You are dismissed, General, Colonel."

General Zod saluted. "Councilwoman." With that, he made an about-turn, and strode away, as the other Councilmen turned and left, one-by-one, while the Colonel disengaged from the holo-transmission.

Soon, only Thara remained with Nir and Cira. Alone with her son, Thara smiled warmly. "You are alright, Nir?" she asked. "You were not injured in the firefight?"

Nir flinched, while Cira suppressed chuckles. "No, Councilwoman. Neither of us were injured."

Her smile wistful, Thara reached to brush her son's cheek. "I am glad, Nir," she said. "You know how I worry so."

Despite her being holographic, Nir brushed her hand back, his face red. "Mother!"

"I know, I know," Thara said with a chuckle. "I will leave you to your mission. I only ask that you be careful – both of you." She fixed Cira with a stern look. "And that goes double for you, young lady. Neither your father, your uncle, nor I were impressed with your antics."

Cira's snickers instantly stopped. "Understood, Councilwoman."

"Good," Thara said. "You are both dismissed. Good luck." With a nod, Nir and Cira both saluted, and stepped off the holo-platform, letting the image of the Council Chamber vanish, replaced by their CO's office. The Colonel simply nodded, and motioned to the door, prompting them to salute, about-turn, and leave.

The second they were outside, Nir frowned. "Not a word, Zod."

Cira was already smirking. "Whatever you say," she said, before she fired her quip. "Mama's boy."

Nir scowled. "Oh shut the scrak up."

Cira burst out with raucous laughter, before she reigned herself in. "Come on, El. We've got a mission to prep for." Nir could only nod, as the two of them headed off, to begin their mission-prep.

XXXXXXXX

Mor'Nek System

Standing just outside the commander's quarters of the Morphic Wrath, Ly'Neia took a deep breath, gently adjusted her royal coronet atop her head, and walked in, past the flickering consoles and busy bridge-staff, to bow to her father. "Y-You sent for me, Excellency?"

His back to her as he stared out at the distant stars and nearby Crystal Ring, Loth'Nar turned to face her with his usual scowl. "Walk with me, daughter."

Cringing, as she often did under her sire's harsh gaze, Ly'Neia lowered her eyes as she followed the Emperor into the commander's office. "Of course, Excellency."

Coming to a stop by the window, the Emperor kept his back to her. "I have decided how you might serve the Empire, child of mine."

Ly'Neia felt her insides clench. "Excellency?"

"Today has been most momentous," Loth'Nar mused aloud. "We had almost secured several Confederate ships – including Bgztllian diplomats – to compel the Galactic Confederacy to join the Skrull Empire, yet we were thwarted." He snorted with cold laughter. "As were the hated Kree; at least some good came of it."

Ly'Neia wasn't sure how to respond to that. "Yes, Excellency; I saw some of the battle from the bridge."

"Did you, now?" Loth'Nar had turned back to face her, causing Ly'Neia to feel a chill grip her spine. "Tell me then, daughter: what is your opinion of these creatures, these…"Kryptonians?""

Ly'Neia's eyes momentarily widened. "I…well, Excellency, I was quite shocked, at first," she responded. "The fact that our task-force could be so completely routed in so short a time was disturbing to say the least, n-never mind that it was done by a handful of small ships." Gathering her courage, she managed a faint smile. "But this could be a blessing in disguise, Excellency; we now have a chance to meet the Ring-Builders!"

Loth'Nar smirked. "For once, daughter, I agree with you," he remarked. "A blessing, indeed: with the Kryptonians as part of the Skrull Empire, we will at last have the means to annihilate the Kree, once and for all."

The chill upon Ly'Neia's spine turned positively frigid. "But, Excellency, how can this be achieved?" she asked. "Their ships and technology are vastly superior to our own; we would never be able to overpower them…"

"Mind your tongue, girl!" Loth'Nar snapped. "You think me a fool, daughter? Of course we would never achieve victory without the full might of the Navy; a paltry task force as this would be lost." His smirk returned. "But have you forgotten what made the Skrulls great? What allowed our Empire to take root throughout the cosmos, until the dratted Kree moved against us?"

Ly'Neia started to grasp her father's meaning, which made her feel positively ill. "An economic invasion, Excellency?"

"So you have that much sense, at least."

Ly'Neia felt her lip quiver. "E-Excellency, I still do not understand how I might serve."

Loth'Nar sneered. "I admit, the thought rankles me, but I have little other choice," he spat. "Ath'Nar is too much a warrior to be subtle. Ar'Nia would be ideal, but she is back on Skrullos; it was difficult enough to have her arrange the initial contact without jeopardizing her operations. Il'Nar is still a youth, studying philosophy." He fixed a cold eye on her. "That just leaves you."

As it always did, the comparisons to her siblings tore at her. Ath'Nar was a bully, but even he could not terrify her as much as Ar'Nia could; the Empire's First Princess could flatter and sweet-talk with ease, making anyone feel as though she were their best friend…right up until she put the dagger in their heart. Thankfully, Ath'Nar's twin sister had even less to do with Ly'Neia than her brother did; rather than pursue the military, Ar'Nia had embraced the traditional Skrull pastime of trade. She had begun her career with numerous trade-routes to non-Skrull-aligned systems… leading them to the choice of either accepting Skrull rule, or facing bankruptcy, all the while amassing a substantial personal fortune. The Emperor had lauded Ar'Nia that day, praising her achievement as "a triumph of the old Skrull ways," to Ath'Nar's consternation.

And her younger brother, Il'Nar, whom she was closest to, was the intellectual prodigy of the family, despite being 7 years her junior. His genius evident at even the youngest age, Il'Nar had breezed through the most antiquated texts, leading to his studies at the most hallowed halls of the priesthood at the age of 16…which again led their father to disparage her – the pacifist, the "idle-minded artist" – as a failure in comparison.

She'd spent the entire night weeping in her quarters after that, while sweet Il'Nar had held her hand, doing his best to comfort his big sister. She could still remember his words: "Don't cry, Lynni; it'll be okay."

He – the youngest sibling – was telling her things would be okay. It was no wonder their father always disparaged her; she was pathetic.

Stifling her tears as best she could, Ly'Neia faced her Emperor. "What would you have me do, Excellency?"

The Emperor moved to his desk, picking up a data-pad. "We have recently received a communication from Bgztl; thanks to Ar'Nia's efforts, the Confederacy wishes to host a conference between us and the Kree, with them as mediators," he said. "Three delegations will attend on the Confederate side: Bgztl, Thanagar…and Krypton."

Ly'Neia's eyes went wide. "The Ring-Builders will be there?"

"Indeed, girl – the very group that repulsed us, today, to be precise," Loth'Nar said. "We have agreed to this, on the stipulation that I myself will arrive two weeks following the start of the conference; the Confederate fools were so desperate for peace that they agreed." He chuckled darkly. "I also proposed that a Skrull delegation – including two of my children, the Crown Prince among them – would arrive in advance of me." He smiled. "Ar'Nia will deliver my message to the Kryptonians herself via hyperwave, to assure them of our regret over the "misunderstanding.""

Ly'Neia blinked. "But Excellency…if you are sending Ath'Nar, then why..?"

"Do not be stupid, child!" Loth'Nar snapped. "Your brother is there simply to prevent the idiot Kree from dominating the agenda! Your presence is required for the real mission: convincing the Kryptonians – specifically, their delegation's leader, this…"Nir-El" fool – to embrace change and accept us!" He scowled. "Even you should be able to manage that!"

Ly'Neia was stunned. "Excellency, h-how can I..?"

"Any way you can, daughter of mine," Loth'Nar growled. "Present the greatness of the Empire that would welcome them! Show him how great a place of honour his people would receive, should they accept us! Make clear to him that it was the Kree that instigated matters, both today and at the start of our war with them! Make some use of your feminine wiles, if need be! I care not how it is done – merely that it is done!"

Ly'Neia cringed, but she still bowed. "I-It will be as you command, Excellency."

"For your sake, daughter, I would hope so," the Emperor answered. "It is my understanding that they will arrive within the hour..." His statement stopped, as the sudden flare of step-through lit the black several light-minutes from the Wrath through the window. "No, they are already here," he amended. "You had best prepare quickly, daughter. I will tolerate no failure in this matter. Leave me."

"Yes, Excellency," Ly'Neia murmured, as she turned and walked out, heading back to her quarters, her head spinning as she frantically tried to piece together something she could present to impress the legendary Ring-Builders…

…all the while trying to hold in her tears from her terror at failing her father's command.

XXXXXXXX

"Okay, El: you're clear to teleport in 3…2…1…'porting now!"

At Cira's order, Nir felt himself get engulfed in the Speeder's teleporter wave, which disassembled and reassembled him inside the Skrull ship at the designated coordinates. Looking about the conference-room aboard the Skrull flagship, with two anxious-looking Skrull guards keeping watch, Nir felt unease grip him. "Well, there's no turning back now."

Cira's joking demeanor quickly vanished. "Don't you even worry, Nir; right now, I'm in my Fighter right outside their antique of a flagship, keeping my scanners on your location. If these primitives try anything, you just tap your locator and I'll teleport you out of there!" Her smile came back. "Plus, you've got your Nano-Driver Array, right? If they try to pull something, you can handle them until I get there!"

Smiling thinly, Nir tapped one of the six nano-driver crystals encircling his belt, each one capable of temporarily reconfiguring itself into almost any weapon or tool he could possibly need. "You're right, Cee; I'll be fine."

"Good." Cira's smile turned light again. "I'd better let you go; it's almost time for your meeting, and you know how blue-bloods get when they have to wait!"

"Understood, Cira; I'll see you when this is over. Nir out."

As Nir switched off his communicator, one of the Skrull guards tensed. "Presenting Her August Imperial Highness, the Second Princess Ly'Neia!"

At the guard's announcement, the doors hissed open, allowing a young Skrull woman, a couple years Nir's junior, to walk through, clad in a glittery, blue-violet robe that accentuated her lithe frame and supple curves, her long violet hair held stable by a golden coronet that rested upon her long, pointed ears, and her slender arms hugging a data-pad to her chest as she trembled, anxiously chewing her lower lip, her chin-ridges so fine, they seemed to be lines painted upon her chin – a sharp contrast to the prominent ridges of the guards. "Thank you; that will be all," she said to the guards, prompting them to leave as she turned to Nir. "L-Lieutenant Nir-El?"

Rising to attention – and discreetly adjusting the crystal studs of First Lieutenant on his jet-black bodysuit bearing his family crest – Nir nodded. "Yes, Your Highness; how might I be of assistance?"

Her eyes going wide, the woman – Ly'Neia – quickly glanced away, trying to hide the deepening flush of her green skin. "W-Well, Lieutenant, I – and my people – had hoped that, prior to this proposed conference, we might exchange more information about our respective cultures," she said, before smiling faintly. "I confess that we do not know what your people know of us, b-but mine know absolutely nothing of yours!"

Nir smiled back. "We had heard bits and pieces about your people and civilization, Your Highness," he said, while leaving out the phrase, 'and not all of it good.' "We, too, are anxious to get this conference underway; once they receive my report, I'm sure the Contactors will want to send an ambassadorial team to your homeworld!"

Ly'Neia blinked, confused. ""Contactors"?" she repeated.

Nir lightly blushed, scratching his head. "My apologies, Your Highness; I'm getting ahead of myself," he said. "Well, if you were curious about our culture, I did have a brief presentation prepared!" Tapping a few buttons on his communicator, he sent a series of commands to his Nano-Driver Array. At once, three of the nano-crystals powered up, flying away from him to hover over the conference table, morphing into multi-pronged star-shapes, each of which projected a series of holographic beams that melded together flawlessly. In seconds, a miniature holographic diorama of the crystalline capital of Krypton – Kryptonopolis – hovered over the table, its multi-faceted spires reaching towards the skyline, all surrounding the massive, smooth dome of the Council Building, the ancient gathering-site of the Council of Twelve.

Ly'Neia's eyes went wide. "You…you have a holo-projector?" she exclaimed. "But…but those take enormous power to run! They have to be at least as big as a…a chair! H-How can you just…carry one around in your pocket?"

Nir chuckled. "That's something of an unspoken rule my people developed since the dawn of our scientific revolution, Your Highness: make it work, and then make it smaller."

A faint, chiming giggle bubbled from Ly'Neia's lips, before she flushed again. "So…this is..?"

Nir nodded in confirmation. "…our capital city, Kryptonopolis."

Awestruck, Ly'Neia reached towards the holo-image. "It's…I've never seen anything so breathtaking; it's like an artist's masterwork come alive…" she murmured, before pausing. "W-Why do you use crystals?" she inquired. "Between this city and your vessels, one could assume that every piece of your technology is crystal-based…"

"That would be a safe assumption, Your Highness," Nir agreed. "I can't go into the specifics of our power-systems, but millennia ago, when we started using…the type of power-sources we use today, we knew crystals were the only conduits capable of transferring the amounts of energy our technology needs."

Ly'Neia flushed again, looking down. "O-Oh! Of …of course!" she stammered, trying to change the subject. "Are all of Krypton's territories like this?"

Nir frowned to himself. "Territories, Highness?" he asked cautiously. "What do you mean?"

Ly'Neia gulped. "Well…a civilization as advanced as yours must obviously control territory beyond one planet…"

Nir nodded grimly to himself. "Krypton doesn't have territories, Highness – not like you mean, at least," he said. "We do have a number of research outposts and installations established across multiple galaxies, but nothing more. As a rule, we do our best to stay out of the way of local populations."

Ly'Neia blinked. "R-Really?"

Nir nodded. "It's the highest law of our people: to never interfere with another species' natural development."

Ly'Neia was silent for a second, before a warm smile crossed her face. "That…that sounds very enlightened," she mused…before her smile was blotted out by a look of mild panic. "W-Well, Lieutenant, since you were kind enough to tell me of your people, allow me to tell you of mine!" she added, as she began fumbling with her data-pad. "I-I did have a file here…if I can just..!"

Sensing her growing distress, Nir gently placed a fingertip on her anxious hand while it manipulated the data-pad. "May I help, Your Highness?" His touch caused Ly'Neia to freeze, which gave Nir-El time to power up his communicator and initiate a wireless hack of the data-pad; the quantum processors effortlessly wove past the data-pad's paltry safeguards, found the latest altered file, and sent it to Nir's computer, at which point he uploaded it to the holo-emitters. "Is that it?"

Her eyes wide as she saw her presentation – a cluster of galaxies all tinged green – Ly'Neia nodded. "Yes! That's it, exactly!" she exclaimed, before she flushed again. "T-Thank you."

Now it was Nir's turn to look bashful, as he realized how he might've overstepped. "It was no trouble at all, Your Highness; I hope you weren't offended…"

Ly'Neia shook her head. "N-No! Not at all!"

"Good!" Nir said. "So, uh…what exactly am I looking at?"

"O-Oh! Well, Lieutenant, this is the full extent of the Skrull Empire!" Ly'Neia answered, as she pointed to a lone system in the middle of the green cluster. "Our homeworld – Skrullos – lies here, but our reach, as you can see, extends far beyond it!"

His eyes narrowed in study, Nir reached for Skrullos' system, his fingers automatically bringing up detailed planetary information as they intersected the holo-field. "Your world is almost entirely industrialized," he observed. "Except for a few patches, you have almost no forested sectors."

Looking mildly embarrassed, Ly'Neia reached for the hologram. "We have managed to preserve the majority of our native species, Lieutenant; our ancestors relocated them to better develop our resource-base." As her fingers reached Skrullos' image, she looked perplexed as her touch prompted no response. "Um…am I doing something wrong?"

Nir chuckled. "Bio-Coding, Your Highness; it's a new safeguard we're testing out for our technology," he said. "Basically, the power-up and operational subroutines are linked to a system that requires Kryptonian genetic markers for input; if a non-Kryptonian tries to use it, it won't work." Moving to some of the nearby systems, Nir frowned as he brought up more information. "A lot of these planets have ecosystems vastly different from Skrullos, Your Highness; why would your people go there?"

Ly'Neia looked nervous. "W-We established trade with many of our neighbours; they had many things we needed."

Nir arched an eyebrow. "And yours had things they needed?" he asked. At Ly'Neia's silence, he kept going. "Otherwise, why would they trade with you?" Ly'Neia was silent again. "Or did they have a choice?"

Ly'Neia went pale. "W-We always opened trade peacefully…"

"Then how did they end up as part of your Empire?" Nir-El pressed. "For that matter, exactly why did those other vessels – the Kree, from what we've heard – attack you? Our sensor-readouts showed their ships looked a lot like yours. Were they ex-trade-partners of your people?"

Ly'Neia flinched. "I-I…"

Nir-El frowned, as it all made sense. "Is that how your Empire grew? Trading with locals, and then swindling them into joining?" he demanded, before something occurred to him. "Wait…is that why your father arranged this preliminary meeting? To see if he could do the same to Krypton?"

Ly'Neia jerked as if she'd been hit.

The panic of Ly'Neia's face told him he'd struck home. His eyes narrowed. "I see."

Ly'Neia's terrified expression gave way to a mixture of crushing dismay, humiliation, and pure dread. "I-I-I'm c-completely t-transparent to y-you, a-aren't I?" she whimpered, her eyes starting to fill with tears. "M-My father will…h-he'll…oh gods, he's going to..!"

The Skrull Princess' panicked reaction told Nir that he might have gone too far. "Your Highness, hold on…"

Ly'Neia cringed away from him. "I-I'm so sorry I wasted y-your time, L-Lieutenant," she stammered, trying desperately to hide her tears. "If…if that's all, I m-must…r-report to my father…" She turned to go…and in her haste, her foot caught on the hem of her robe.

Nir saw her foot catch, and reacted instantly. "Your Highness, look out!"

Ly'Neia's startled squeak burst from her throat as she stumbled, her eyes wide as she saw the floor rush towards her…only to find herself suspended several inches above it, steadied by Nir's hand on her elbow, stopping her fall.

In honesty, Nir had hoped to stall her, to keep her from telling the Skrull Emperor that his scheme had been exposed, but as Ly'Neia turned to face him, he saw her expression – her light violet lip quivering, her elegant light-emerald face streaked with tears, and her golden eyes damp from crying, wide and pleading – and he knew that she was as trapped as any in her family's Empire.

Keeping his tone soft, as though speaking to a wounded flamebird, Nir said, "You should be careful, Your Highness; you could have hurt yourself." Motioning to the table, he pulled out a chair for her, adding, "Please, won't you sit down?"

Ly'Neia was numb as Nir guided her into the seat, but as she sat down, she broke into sobs, likely from a combination of her earlier panic and from the unexpected kindness she'd received. Mildly stricken, Nir was at a loss. All he could do was recall his Nano-array, letting two of the crystals reattach to his belt, while plucking the third in mid-flight and tapping its surface, bringing up its individual operating-system, entering a few specific commands. Like magic, the crystal accepted the programming, its innumerable nano-units shifting from their complex lattice into a simpler sheet, until a crystalsilk handkerchief remained in Nir's hand. Promptly, Nir handed the handkerchief to Ly'Neia, remaining silent as she used it to dry her eyes and nose.

After a few minutes, Ly'Neia's sobs had dwindled to mere sniffles, allowing her to speak clearly as she handed the handkerchief back. "You…you were right, Lieutenant," she murmured. "That was my father's reason for arranging this meeting, and for agreeing to this peace-conference: to have me persuade you – and your people – to accept Skrull trade, with the ultimate aim of conquest."

Nir nodded. "And you wanted to refuse."

Ly'Neia sniffed. "I-I couldn't believe it," she said. "When we realized who your people were – that your ships gave off readings like the Crystal Rings – I was so excited! I-I mean, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine we would ever meet the Ring-Builders!" An excited smile – a most lovely smile, in Nir's opinion – took over Ly'Neia's face as she continued. "Were it not for those Rings, our range of interstellar travel would be a fraction of what it is, today!"

That point made Nir suppress a mild grimace; it was the same point that his mother had made. Were it not for their World-Gate network, the Skrull Empire would likely never had developed, and by extension, nor would have the Kree. Their World-Gates had, unintentionally, facilitated the Kree-Skrull War, which had embroiled a significant part of multiple galaxies surrounding the Galactic Confederacy.

Krypton had unwittingly caused this madness, so it was their duty to try and help stop it.

Returning to the moment, Nir said, "And then your father drops this on you."

Her smile shattering, Ly'Neia nodded tearfully. "I felt sick when I heard him say it," she sniffled, as horror re-took its hold on her face. "And now, w-when I tell him that I've failed to convince your people to even attend the conference, much less join us, he'll…oh, gods, he'll mock me to death..!"

"Your Highness, when did I say Krypton wouldn't attend the conference?"

Ly'Neia paused. "W-What?"

Nir smiled gently. "Yes, it's true we don't plan on allowing a Skrull economic takeover of Krypton, but from what I've heard, it's more important that Krypton help the peace-process than ever," he said. His face turned grim. "You said so yourself: our World-Gates allowed your Empire to grow, which makes us at least somewhat responsible for your war with the Kree. If there's any way we can help stop that war, it's our duty to do so." Smiling again, he shrugged. "After that, it may be possible to establish some diplomatic connection to Skrullos."

Ly'Neia brightened. "R-Really?"

Nir grinned. "And speaking of diplomacy, I think we should start now." He extended his hand. "Hi, I'm Nir-El," he re-greeted. "My friends call me Nir, and my best friend Cira-Zod – the lunatic that flew one of our Fighters, during our people's brief clash – calls me Nirrie…no matter how much I beg her to stop."

Ly'Neia giggled, as she took his hand. "I'm Ly'Neia," she responded. "My little brother likes to call me Lynni; I don't really mind too much, seeing as he's my favorite brother."

Smiling warmly, Nir shook her hand. "I'm very pleased to meet you, Ly'Neia."

Ly'Neia beamed, looking happier than he'd ever seen her…or possibly than she'd ever been. "And I you, Nir," she replied. Smiling back at her, Nir couldn't help but be drawn to her golden eyes, which gazed back at him…

…and somehow, he knew that things would never be the same.

Author's Note: Hey, everyone! I'm still alive (despite what we're being hit with at Basic Training)!

I know you're all expecting an update on Book Four, and I'm sorry to say that the next chapter is nowhere near ready for posting; the weekends are the only time I have to write, and they're nowhere near enough to make decent progress on a project of Last Son's size. Hopefully, once I finish Basic and head to my next posting, I'll have a better schedule as far as writing is concerned.

That said, I was also able to make some progress on this little side-project of mine; it's been in my head for a while, and I finally got it ready to post. I figured it would expand a little on the history between Krypton, the Kree, and the Skrulls, as well as tide you all over until I can get back to a regular writing schedule.

Sadly, I won't be able to respond to any reviews for the next little while – not until Basic's done. Also, this will be a side-project; I'll be working on it in-between my main projects. As a result, I can't really commit to a set schedule on this one, right now; once I get my next posting, I'm hoping that will change. Thank you all for understanding and sticking with me! I hope to live up to your expectations once my schedule normalizes! See you all soon!