EN ROUTE TO THE RENDEZVOUS POINT

"Whoa there, mate," Stinger, who woke up first, tries to settle the young wild eyed, bronze skinned wasp splice who just awoke. Normally he'd feel a strong species rivalry toward a splice of an aggressive bee variant breed. But there's something about you both being disoriented and in the same holding cell that brings a temporary truce if not the beginning of a bond. "You won't feel so good for a few moments, but you'll be ok," he warns without giving too much away.

When Jack's head sinks to his hands and he groans, Stinger kneels beside him and puts a hand on his shoulder until the pain of the file insertion passes.

Holding out a hand to help the other drone up so they can investigate their quarters, he offers, "Name's Stinger. What's yours, Lad?" Stinger already knows Jack's name from the secret files flashed into his brain, but he has to keep up appearances for the monitoring devices.

THE DROP

The two drones are bound and led into a run down ship in the Vulpes system, and after being scanned for any memory of a current contract are led to group quarters where they're locked in with other insect variant splices and they're released from their cuffs.

Rubbing his wrists, Stinger takes stock of the room of splices. It's not hard to ID the dominant one in the room of 50ish others - likely a paper wasp splice with yellow antennae, black and yellow hair streaked with occasional grey and if he was on Earth his face would have Asian features - complete with a fu manchu mustache. His quiet demeanor oozes a sense of power.

Stinger nudges Jack and tilts his head in the leader's direction, only to see Jack bristle. With a condescending arched brow, Stinger wonders how accurate the hidden file on this docile Jack Vespini really is. The lad must have some pent up aggression.

Indoctrination starts quickly as the 'leader' comes over to the two drones. "Ah, the mighty Stinger Apini! You were on our priority list. I'm Li Polistes, Drone Prime." Turning to Stinger's companion, " And I don't know your name yet young man…yet you two seem to be at peace. Good."

"Jack Vespini." the young drone answers crisply.

"I must apologize about the nasty business that brought you to us. But with the erasure of your last contract, you are freed from bondage. It is our gift. Welcome to the newest section of The Hive, an insectoid splice commune for the benefit of our kind."

"If it's for the benefit of our kind, why bring us here against our will and take our memories?" Stinger doesn't bother with pleasantries.

Li waves his hand as if he hates repeating things, but remains calm, "As I explained, it is our gift. The Hive will protect you from contractual obligations, and I'll add for clarity - splicer's fees. A colony is what every insectoid splice should have been a part of. All you need will be provided and your place in The Hive is yours to choose. Though, we have suggestions for you Mr. Apini. And Mr. Vespini you'll be evaluated for your talents."

"You couldn't have asked first?" Jack accuses, hackles raised. "I might have willingly come along, but you steal our memories so we only appear to have a choice. I've seen too much oppression to stand for this."

While Li's attention is on Jack, Stinger discreetly shakes his head. Jack is drawing too much attention.

"You do not welcome our gift of freedom?" Li asks with concern.

"Let's just say I'm skeptical," Jack opts not wanting to push too far after Stinger's cue.

"Then, let me introduce you to the others. As you hear their stories and share your own, you'll see." Li puts an arm around Jack's shoulder and guides the two drones around the room. Each of the splices in the dorm area had been used or abused in some way. Almost all seem glad to be 'free'. They don't remember the current contract they held, but they remember past ones and that's enough to convince them they would have wanted out.

MID PORTAL TO THEIR DESTINATION

Jack has been watching out the window the whole trip. When Stinger joins him at the viewing platform in the massive bunk room, Jack confesses to hardly ever traveling and when he did he'd not been able to look out. His captivity under his former queens had been a very controlled one. If he has the choice, he'll ask to serve by Stinger's side - since he trusts Stinger and the older splice has seen more of the 'verse.

Approaching a large mass during portal is an unusual sight, even for Stinger. Seeing the older splice strain to try to figure out what the upcoming object is, Jack's curiosity grows about the gargantuan construction.

"A dyson sphere as best I can guess. But how'd they suspend it in a portal? No wonder they stay hidden." Stinger wonders and goes on to explain to Jack that a dyson sphere is a mega structure around a star that utilizes most if not all it's energy. His remark brings more curious onlookers to see the anomaly. Stinger notes most of them are female workers.

"So even the experienced Mr. Apini hasn't seen a suspended dyson sphere before?" Li pops up behind them. The shake of his head makes Li smile. "Welcome to The Hive, Gentlemen."

"A self supporting colony?" Stinger probes cooly, as much out of personal interest as for the mission.

"More than that. With every colonist working at high efficiency because they choose their work, the facility was renovated into the hive in just a few decades. We sell our surplus to related colonies."

Stinger's lips purse in a considering look. "A large operation then. Must've spliced quite a few workers. How'd ye obtain the facility?"

"The Hive's first conquest. See, The Hive is our living space and our collective - a location and a group entity. The fortress will be a haven to every insect splice," Li proudly explains.

"First?" Jack verbalizes his clue in on that word and Stinger's eyes go to him then Li. Both new drones want to know the answer to that leading question.

"Yes, young Mr. Vespini. Your mind is quick. This will give you more opportunities in The Hive. But I digress." Li waves an apologetic gesture. "It was the first concentrated attack on entitled holdings. Since it was an illegal prototype, no record was made of its liberation from those who would use it for much less scrupulous endeavors."

"So what's The Hive's mission? There must be a direction," Stinger quickly steps in to redirect Jack's next push. Questions should be inquisitive, not accusatory.

Shrewdly Li volleys, "You deflect for the less experienced drone again. How well do you know him and what is he to you Mr. Apini? Answer that and I'll tell you more."

"I may have known him, since we both woke up in the same cell. Kinda took him under me wing. A camaraderie grows when you're both in the same predicament." Stinger stuffs his hands in his pocket to emphasize his lack of an answer.

"A simplified answer is what you earned. The Hive's mission is to take down the powers that would enslave our people. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to prepare for entry into the facility," Li gives a mere bob of his head.

THE HIVE

A slight shift in the pull from portalling to normal gravity is detected and Stinger makes note of it. "Must be entering the complex."

"Have you considered what they do to those who say no to this life?" Jack asks, feeling a sense of dread wash over him now that they've entered the vast secured sphere.

"Don't think it'd be pretty," Stinger cocks his head to one side, trying to guess where Jack is going with the question.

"Yeah. I'm anxious to see how the splices here live. While I'm not fond of kidnapping, could it be the paradise that Mr. Polistes says it is?" Jack shuffles his feet as he speaks.

"Nothing's ever as it's sold to be, especially when there's an interest in the choice." Stinger shrugs and jerks a thumb in the door's direction where splices are starting to file out of the common room.

The group is led into a sunlit open urban area on the inside of the sphere. The curvature of the facility is minute since it spans such an astronomically large distance. But it's still unsettling to see the curvature backwards to what's normal. Instead of not being able to see beyond the city, they can clearly see the wild forests beyond.

Looking up is dizzying and Stinger has to steady Jack several times because the young drone's eyes are drawn straight up to the towering spires that look like they should topple over from all the lacy bits that jut out from them. Li points to them - their destination - meeting The Hive's Queen.

While they wait, they're shown around and given the lowdown on how life works here in the hive. All seems peaceful, with each splice doing their fair share of the work in a communal type situation.

Instead of the group going to the palace, the palace moves to them. Stinger gives a low whistle at the amount of power it must take to move the gargantuan floating structure. The lacy bits, Stinger points out to Jack must be tunnels, like in a beehive or ant colony. Rainbow glints shine off the glassy structure. As it approaches, they can see inside - beings moving about with almost a rhythm in apparent harmony.

It takes about 80 ticks for it to arrive and emanate a grav beam large enough for the whole group to be drawn up into it. Jack looks at Stinger when they realize it's a directed beam transporting them not just level to level, but to wherever the queen's presence is. But Stinger puts his hands out in a 'damned if I know' gesture.

Ending at a tall glass archway that opens to an ornately carved crystalline throne room. The group moves forward en masse. Then Li gives the signal to halt and the splices are led up to the throne one at a time. Stinger takes measure of this queen - elegant as expected, long chestnut hair cascading down in curls, a tan complexion, and graceful controlled movements. She must hope that the newcomers will be awed at what they see and the life she offers, so they will pledge to be part of the hive. And several ahead of the two drones evidently do. When it's their turn, Stinger is brought up first.

"Stinger Apini, Legendary head of the elite Legion Prime Skyjackers meet Lady Constance Vespula our Queen*," Li announces, ushering him up and they hear murmurs around them. Stinger self consciously rubs the back of his neck before stepping up to the platform. It's been decades since he's been viewed with such respect.

He kneels formally, but silently dares to meet her gaze.

"Stinger Apini, we've awaited you. The hope of a leader to unite our forces rests on you. Will you join The Hive?"

"M'lady with all due respect, I make decisions with slow and deliberate consideration. My years have taught me that. You won't want a man who jumps in rashly to such things, anyway. If I understand correctly, I'd be expected to leave my old life behind and all I do would be for The Hive."

"Correct, Mr. Apini. So you're not as hot headed as you were half a century ago?"

Stinger's chin dips shyly at the reference to his wilder younger self. "Aye, M'lady. Hopefully it's wisdom my years have given me."

After he's dismissed and he trots back down the stairs, as his Skyjacker boots clang noisily - he see's Jack deathly pale and wide eyed. He holds a hand up to Li to ward off Jack's announcement. "What's wrong, Lad? Look like you've seen a ghost."

"I have," Jack croaks as he stares up at The Hive's queen.

Li involves himself now, "What is wrong Mr. Vespini? Are you ill?"

"Sh...she is m...my maker," Jack stutters. "I was told she was d...dead."

"Not possible...the only drone she spliced was killed before her eyes," Li contradicts. "That drone's death was the reason she founded this hidden colony."

Jack's fist clench and he stands a little taller. "I survived. Ask your queen to ID me."

Stinger's brow lifts in his trademark 'are you sure?' expression, but Jack seems determined.

"Li, what is going on down there?" Lady Vespula demands.

Turning to Li, Jack asks if he can be the one to answer. He gets the affirmative and approaches the throne as Li announces him. "Jack Vespini, who wishes to be gene identified by M'lady."

"Indeed," Lady Constance gives a tight doubtful smile, until she can see Jack clearly in front of her as he kneels with the deepest reverence. She requests, "Lift your head, Mr. Vespini." Sucking in a breath, she reaches her hand out, withdraws it, then shakily puts her hand to Jack's face. "How can this be?"

"Mistress, I do not know. But I am here." He leans into her touch.

Li puts a considering hand up to his mouth and Stinger clasps his hands behind his back as they watch the event unfold.

Lady Constance never deviates from her regal formal distance from the populace. But the Queen actually scoots out of her throne and kneels in front of her once lost drone and pulls his head to her shoulder, embracing him like a child - which draws a collective gasp from the onlookers.

Words gum up in her throat as she chokes out, "Giacobo Vespini, I swore no insectoid splice would ever have to suffer what I saw you go through. Never did I dream the efforts would bring you back to me."

As Jack shakily returns the embrace, Li dismisses the rest of the court, "Let us give the Queen and her drone their privacy."

Li takes the opportunity to show Stinger The Hive's army with its hangar of Zeros and the battleship being built for the next attack. From the catwalk vantage point, the military encampment extends as far as the eye can see.

"Mr. Apini, you can see that your talents are needed here in the Hive. You're the most experienced insectoid splice soldier. With your guidance we could minimize the casualties - on both sides," Li tempts.

Gaze fixed on the war machine being constructed, Stinger's hands clasp behind his back in thought. The lull extends long enough to make Li fidget, though to his credit he doesn't prod.

"It's impressive, Mr. Li. But you know this war will come at a terrible cost," Stinger finally breaks the silence.

"That's why we need you," Li insists.

"My splicer offered me the same thing over 3 decades ago. Did you know that?" Stinger counters.

"I see. She is like minded with us. But, why didn't you take her up on it?"

"Same reason I'm turning you down right now. The toll on both sides will be tremendous. It's possible to achieve the same ultimate goal with peace."

"But you're a soldier, surely you see…"

"See what? That it's worth the price, instead of being patient? Her Grace Chouli Risa is a powerful royal that I trust. She's working toward a peaceful resolution for all splices. I stand behind her."

Adamant now, Li's voice rises, "How many splices have to die at the hands of their masters? How many of us have to be abused and used? How much more do we have to suffer before you see that it won't change with peace?"

"That's not it! I can't see throwing lives at a war that will only perpetuate this status quo. Either they will win and nothing changes or our kind will take up the dreadful oppression in revenge." Stinger retorts. "Can you tell me that in your zeal you don't want revenge? Do you know where that leads? As a former commander, I've seen it. It's never even . 'An eye for an eye, was all that filled their minds. And another eye for another eye till everyone is blind.'**"

"We just want freedom from those who would oppress our kind!" Li shouts.

With his jaw set, Stinger volleys, "And you have it. Be a haven - I have connections that could recognize The Hive officially. Are you willing to toss that possibility aside by kidnapping and forcing a damned bloody war?"

"You fool! Can't you see, with peace we'll never be free!"

"I was free... until you kidnapped me. How many others' memories will you steal and brainwash so you can throw them into never ending bloodshed?" Stinger growls. Seeing Li grit his teeth, he storms out knowing this conversation is going no where.

It leaves Li fuming and calling after him, "You were a wash up on that pathetic planet after your court martial! We're giving you a chance to redeem yourself!"

Stinger mutters under his breath (his accent as thick as ever), "Git yer head outta yer ass..."

Laying in bed stewing over what happened in the hangar Stinger wishes he had some of Jinko's mead, when there's a knock at the door of his new quarters. The room presence announces that it's Jack. Unsure of why he feels the need to do so, he quickly pulls on his shirt and hollers, "Come in." As Jack enters, it dawns on him. Mika's the reason. Jack still feels a bit like competition and Stinger doesn't want the young wasp splice comparing himself to one of Mika's former lovers.

Shaking it off, he looks up to see serious distress on the wasp drone's face. Jack's sweating profusely, his eyes are wild, and his frame is so tense he might snap. "I'm compromised. We don't have long!" Jack pants out of breath.

Stinger grabs his boots with one hand. Not bothering to put them on, he bolts out the door motioning for Jack to follow as they hear heavy footsteps heading their way. Though the sound is more of a brisk march than a running tail, so they haven't been discovered. Opening the flaps on the back of his shirt, he lets his wings unfurl. It doesn't hurt to be ready for anything

Thankfully their quarters aren't far from the hangar. Soundlessly Stinger flies over and surprises the guard with a fist out of nowhere. He deftly takes out the unsuspecting sentinel and relieves her of her rifle and shield. Handing it to Jack, he quickly slips into his boots.

"Is she dead?" Jack whispers, horrified at the thought.

"Nah. Just'll have one hell of a headache when she wakes up. Help me stash her out of the way. Security is rather lax. Won't be that way for long..."

"They only expect splices to say 'no' one at a time. If you say yes, you're made part of The Hive's mind. I just saw some poor schmuck sentenced to be tossed into the star. Space is bad enough, but to be burnt alive...gods!" Jack bemoans.

"Also the security of being inside a portal field is making them less guarded. Weren't you with the queen?" Stinger tries to fit this info into what he saw last of Jack, then thinks better of it. "Tell me when we're outta here. We'll have to fit into the hustle and bustle in the hangar.

Getting inside is the least of their worries. Sneaking around is slow - scurry to behind machines, then stop - look - wait. By the time they reach the Zeroes, security is on their tail.

Stinger has Jack cover them with the shield, while they duck and scramble to the control panel to open the hatch for the closest mech pilot pod. Plasma blasts slam into the shield as Stinger pounds at the interface. Swearing as he wracks his brain for all the standard override codes, he keeps trying each one he can remember for older and older operating systems - hope fading with each attempt. Finally he tries the obvious 'Hive'. Damned if that isn't it, because the pod hatch opens.

With Stinger firing over Jack's shoulder and shield as they run, the duo books it to dive into their only hope for escape. A howl of pain comes from the younger splice and Stinger slams the drop button which closes the hatch and sends them in a stomach lurching descent to the body of the mech in the level below. Upon attachment, the Zero hums to life and they see other pods attaching to Zeros around them.

"Here we go!" Stinger calls to Jack, to help try to distract him from the wound in his calf, as they're thrust out of the bay and into the barely stable portal field. The heightening of senses and extra adrenaline rush as he's about to engage in battle settle him into the hyper-focus he'd missed about being a Skyjacker. He finds the familiarity of it oddly comforting as he compacts the mech into a more defensive posture — tucking in the wings, moving the thrusters to push the duo away from the sphere, and putting maximum shields to the front. Twisting the holographic gyro controls in his experienced hands is so natural and the craft rotates precisely to face the oncoming attack before they even get their orientation. "Got your grav harness on, back there?"

A disgruntled buzz and mumbling about motion sickness emanates from behind him. Stinger gives a dark chuckle before voicing the irony, "You're a wasp splice for cripes sake. Flying is in your genes. If your head starts to spin, remember the dyson sphere is 'down'."

Switching on the comm he hails all frequencies, hoping against all hope that the signal is strong enough to go through the portal field as the other Zeroes pursue them. "Mayday! Mayday! This is Captain Stinger Apini. We are under attack as we escape the Hive in a stabilized portal where my tracking chip would have last shown me and my comrade. We are in an enemy Zero and badly out numbered. I repeat under attack in an enemy Zero. My comrade is injured. We need an out ASAP!"

As if directed by one mind, the assailing fighters are instantly in three formations — one circle behind them and two squadrons swinging off to the sides to head them off.

"Beeswax. This is gonna be ugly," Stinger mutters about the enemy's coordination and the incoming stream of plasma fire from behind him. His heads up display with rear view is lit up like an obnoxiously flashing Christmas tree. "Hang on!" he growls and rolls the craft to face the coming onslaught.

Zigging and zagging, rolling, diving, spiraling and climbing in severely outnumbered dog fights, Stinger does his darnedest to avoid the blasts and not be herded into the kill ring behind them. As quick as Stinger's reflexes are with the craft and it's six plasma cannons, the enemy has the same genetic enhancement. The only advantage he has is his experience — giving him the ability to predict their movements often enough to start making a dent in their numbers. But this benefit will only last so long before they catch on to his tactics.

Poor Jack is turning very green. He tries so very hard to focus on the massive structure below them. When a second fermion controlled directional fin is taken out and the kill ring is approaching at an alarming rate, Stinger grunts a command, "Make another distress call!"

Jack forces himself to focus on the message and painstakingly breathes every word, just as Stinger had done.

Stinger and Jack see a barrage of plasma blasts approaching. They're about to be overtaken by the kill ring. Then everything goes white and their shield goes down - overpowered by an energy wave and a large number of hits.

Moments before on the bridge of the Aegis Cruiser Sigma 089, Tsing directs Mr. Percadium to portal to the source of Jack's transmission. Mr. Percadium looks at her dubiously about to raise an official advisory against the action, gets an eyefull of 'the look' from his captain and proceeds to try the impossible - portalling into a moving but, stabilized gravity well filled with unknown numbers of moving objects - and this needs to be done with hair splitting precision.

Instantaneously he calculates the doppler effect from the location and time from the message header with the signal strength increase as the Zero moves toward the opening. From this he's able to get a gist of where Stinger and Jack are trapped and makes adjustments for the movement of both the ship in the middle of portal and the moving wormhole in space. Too damn bad for any other ships in the area. It's still just a tad more tricky than say jumping from train car to train car while the cars are on two different tracks that constantly vary in direction and speed and you can't actually see the other train car. No sweat. All in a day's work for this Aegis crew.

Percadium reminds himself to put in for some vacation. He's gonna need it after this. Utilizing a direct neural link with Mr. Nesh and the ship, the two of them guide the heavy cruiser into the manmade wormhole that balances a giant dyson sphere inside.

Jack's eyes recover first. Blinking past the huge spot on his retinas, the wasp splice recognizes the shape in front of them. He's never liked spaceships much before because they'd almost always meant bad things. This time, it's a beautiful sight to behold. For a short moment, he forgets just how woozy he really is.

Then Stinger's swearing into the comm brings him back to reality, "Damn it Mika, we're sitting ducks on the edge of your fucking warp field!"

"Nice to hear your voice too, Sting. Prepare for tractor beam. How's Jack holding up?" Tsing greets them.

Silence.

"Mika, I think he's the first wasp splice to ever be motion sick. He's just trying to keep his mouth shut right now," Stinger verbally prods the pathetically pale splice behind him then waves to the Aegis friendlies flying by to defend the stranded duo. He gets a belated kick to his chair for the teasing as the fermion tractor beam starts to pull them into the cruiser's bay.

Aegis Zeroes surround them, providing a shield for the vulnerable craft. Bridget waves as she flies by and takes her place in the formation. The shield wall is taking a pounding. One of the Zeroes is hit bad enough it has to join Stinger's craft in the tractor beam. Another quickly takes its place.

More Aegis cruisers arrive to cover for Mika's ship and the battle really heats up. As Stinger and Jack's Zero finally enters the bay, Mika gives the order to focus on the attack and denies Stinger's request to join in, " I know you'd be a help out there Sting, but we need to talk."

ABOARD THE AEGIS CRUISER SIGMA 089

Looking up as the door slides open, he's relieved to see Tsing. But she looks concerned. It shouldn't be a big deal over a narrow escape, right?

"How you feelin', Old Man?" She smoothes down her unwrinkled jacket as she leans against the exam table he was just lying on.

"Alright." Shrugging but not taking his eyes off her, he adds, "Ye're most beautiful when you let down your guard, ye know."

"Still as smooth as ever." She grins and shakes her head. "But you know darn well you can't have both Bridget and I. And my eye is on Jack. Yeah, I said I was done with drone drama a century ago — but I want to help him, Sting. I really do. His previous queen did a number on him. But I think I've gained his trust."

"All I have is an image and a message from this Bridget," His head tilts and he sucks in his bottom lip, a little afraid of what Tsing will say.

Her head goes to her chest and she closes her eyes. "Sting, in your own words, 'She's the best damned lover in a century'. You're good for each other. But that's not all…" Taking a breath and putting a hand on his shoulder she continues, "She was carrying your child. But when you were in the tractor beam, it was her Zero that took the hit."

Trying to piece this all together, he lets his thoughts loose outside his own head. It's safe here with Mika, but his temper rises anyway. "My child. Not possible! That would mean..." He's speechless for a moment as he tries to calm down. Tsing doesn't deserve to be yelled at for bringing him news, so he kicks the table hard with the heel of his boot and mumbles some choice words.

"She's the one, Old Man." Putting her arm around his shoulder she squeezes. "Hang in there. We have the Hive's location now. And Bridget's gonna be ok."

When he's gathered himself he asks hesitantly, "And the bairn?"

"I'm sorry Sting…" She puts both arms around her closest friend now as he sits there in a daze for a few moments, absorbing the news.

Returning to his senses, he hugs her back and lets go so he can get down from the exam table. He's got his 'queen' to visit. "How far along was she?"

"Doctor said she was early enough in the pregnancy that she might not have known."

"I would have…A drone keeps track of the Aeris Sacrament and senses any change in his queen," Stinger laments.

"I'll get Doc, then I'll take you to her. In the meantime…" Tsing pulls out a sheave with an image. "You might want a gander at the picture she sent me of you two lovebirds."

Accepting it, he takes in the smiling youthful lady with her chin on his shoulder and arms wrapped around him. It looks like they're at Jinko's. He reaches a hand out to touch the picture of the attractive face with sparkling blue eyes, short blonde hair, high cheekbones, and full red lips.

As Tsing heads out to retrieve the doctor, she adds, "Brid's enough to get you out of your multi-decade slump and looking toward the future. One of my dear friends now, and together we thoroughly enjoy giving you a ton of shit, Old Man."

Glancing up, he clarifies, "Brid, is that what I call her? Doesn't sound right."

"Trouble's your nickname for her." Tsing sees his lopsided smirk before finishing her thought, "Otherwise I've heard you call her by her full first name - Bridget. Check your messages stored in the ship's bank to see what other clues you can dig up before we get you back to Orus for a memory restore. See you in a few."

He lets out a breath and sticks a hand back in his pocket to help quell the insane mix of feelings. On one side he appears to be one lucky bastard — with an incredible woman in his life that he was willing to give all of himself to. On the other, he's the most unlucky bugger in the 'verse — he's lost memories of this woman who'd stole his heart and she'll be grieving over her lost pregnancy. Just seeing her picture makes his pulse race. And she must be quite the spirited tease to keep up with Tsing and be the one he'd share the sacrament of his seed with. How is she gonna take the memory erasure and loss of a child? Will she walk away, freeing herself of the burden of an inhuman splice lover?

He'll be damned before he lets that happen. He's just gotta keep things together until Orus.

Striding purposefully into her room, he does a double take at her then at his things in the same room. Well, he should have expected to see his jacket and to-go bag here. Shaking it off, he goes down on one knee and bows his head before her as is expected before one's 'queen'.

"Stinger…" she trails off, unsure of what to make of his behavior.

Upon acknowledgement, he rises and holds out a hand palm open. "Bridget, my queen, I'm glad to see ye awake and looking well."

Warily she places her palm on his in the greeting ritual, "After that close call, it should be me saying I'm glad to see you up and about. How are you doing, by the way?"

Despite her reaction, he persists and continues the greeting with the other hand, then placing his lips on her knuckles gently lingering before replying, "Well enough. You?"

Her brow furrows, but she skims her fingers over the ever present stubble on his cheek. "Ok, but puzzled. What's with the sudden formality? Am I missing something? After we met with Marcelline, you made it clear a formal relationship wasn't what you wanted. Has that changed? Because I know so little about what's required. And we've always been equals. "

Sighing - a little from relief, a little from being unsure, he runs a finger over the little gold bee pendant and queries, "Do ye understand what the greeting represents?"

"Um… The kiss shows your devotion, do I remember right?" she ventures.

"Aye."

"I'm still missing something," she shares her suspicion.

Licking his lips and internally cursing, he dreads having to be the one. "They didn't tell ye?"

"Tell me what? I just came to, evidently after surgery or something by all the people who were in the room a few moments ago. I know I took a direct hit. Wait a minute…" She fidgets with the necklace as the thought bothers her, " Tell me, the memory restoration didn't fail...did it?"

His eyes dart to his boots reflexively before his gaze returns to hers, " That's not it. But it's a bugger of a deal and I have to be the one to break it to you, when all I have is two images and a note from you."

"Damn it," s he mutters despondently. Turning her focus back to him, she bemoans , "We can't catch a break, can we? … So what is it?"

Sitting next to her, he encloses her in his arms and automatically tucks her head in the crook of his neck, "Ye were carrying my child."

Color draining from her face, she leans back and protests, "I can't be. I'm on birth control — but the antibiotics... and I was late. But my period is so irregular, I thought... Oh my."

"You were expecting," he insists.

"Were?" her eyebrow raises as she prompts for more explanation.

It hurts her to see the sadness in his eyes as he shares in a flat voice, "Aye. A drone knows his queen and your hormones are fading. The hit you took for me - had I been able to stop ye…"

Even the mere thought of losing him again sends her into a panic, especially now that she's so emotional. Putting her trembling fingers to his mouth to stop his train of thought she pleads as her tears start, "Don't go there. They were attacking you two, and I chose to join those protecting your lone Zero. I need you so very much. I can't even…"

Enfolding her again, she clings to him as he murmurs, "We won't go there either. I'm here." He holds her and lets her weep to grieve over their loss and simultaneously express the relief of him being safe and alive.

After a good long cry, a thought occurs to her and she pulls back with pursed lips before sharing. "So, you haven't had the restoration. Yet, last time you were blanked, you were super wary of me. What's different?"

"Well…" He places his rough hand on the back of her neck and puts his forehead to hers. "Your pregnancy was evidence that we hadn't just been lovers, but that I'd given myself completely to you. I'd never thought there would be anyone I'd share that with."

Her look is utter confusion as she pulls back to see his expression, " Yes, we did - but telling you we did last time you lost your memory just shocked you."

"Woman, are you gonna keep comparing everything to what happened in this supposed last time that I have no memory of? Can ye not accept I'm yours?"

"It was very traumatic for me, so I'm extremely leery," she confesses. "I really thought I was gonna lose you."

Putting a finger to her lips to quiet her he tucks her head back into his shoulder. He wants to get back to the Peace of Mind facility to get his memories restored before they hash over this any more. " Shush now Love. It'll be alright." Soothingly he runs a hand up and down her spine and whispers tender comfort while she clutches him, her fingers entwined in his short cropped hair. It catches him by surprise just how easily he's slipped into an intimacy with her, despite a lack of remembrance. Nuzzling into her cheek, he takes in her scent and the feel of her against him and commits it to memory again.

"Tell me what happened," Bridget requests.

Sharing what he knows, he finishes with, "I still dunno how Jack was compromised. "

TSING'S CONFERENCE ROOM 1400 HOURS

Before the last stragglers arrive, Stinger relaxes in the chair next to Bridget as her fingers intertwine with his. He ponders the fact that she's not let go of him since he entered her room four hours ago. She didn't even let him shower by himself — a little disconcerting at first, but not unpleasant. In fact he wouldn't mind repeating the experience — he could get used to that. But he'll have to ask if her clinginess is a temporary thing. He'll need some personal space later, too.

Bridget tilts her head over at Jack and Tsing next to them. He allows a faint grin at the awe the young wasp splice looks at his friend with and how close he sits. Who would have thought the guy would warm up to anyone so quickly? He's been through so much. But then so has she. Unable to resist a bit of teasing, he neural net messages Jack, 'What are your intentions with the good Captain Tsing? I won't let just anyone pursue my oldest friend."'

Posture going rigid, Jack places his hands on the table in sight and slowly turns to Stinger with a question on his face. Tsing sees the expression and gives Stinger a swift kick under the table.

Rubbing his shin, he feigns innocence, "What?"

"You will refrain from intimidating Mr. Vespini. No more drone drama from you. Understood?"

"I was just asking his intentions …" Stinger starts but trails off at her ten ton glare. Shaking his head and chuckling to himself, he dares one last volley directed at Jack, "She's a damned fine woman. Be good to her." He winks with his last statement, "She's capable of whallopping both of us. Just not at the same time."

"Sting, shut your bloody mouth before I kick you out of the meeting."

Rubbing a hand over his mouth to cover his cheekiness he mumbles, "Understood, Captain."

A buzz from a neural net message, and Stinger discreetly puts his hand to his neck, feigning a stretch and yawn.

'Mind your own damn beeswax, buzz boy.' Jack purses his lips to keep from grinning but he too gets a kick from under the table as Mika detects the silent retort.

The last attendee sits and Mika is about to signal the start of the meeting, but Stinger bursts out with mock indignation, "Buzz boy? Is that all you can come up with when you haven't even earned your stripes with her?"

Rolling her eyes, Mika contacts the bridge, "Mr. Percadium - turn off neural net messaging for the duration of this meeting. Our two drones can't act their ages." Directing her scolding to the duo she laments, "I don't know what's worse. You two not getting along, or you two being friends," Tsing sighs and waves them off to gather her thoughts.

When the meeting finally gets underway, Jack reveals what gave him away and sent the duo on the run at the Hive. "Well, Mistress Vespula and I couldn't see eye to eye about the rebellion she wishes to stage and she tried to force me to be her drone, despite knowing everything I've been through. She says she wants to free splices, but really she just wants revenge. Said she'll start harvesting the entitleds. I have no love for them, but I was still shocked. It's not the way I remembered her at all. When I refused, guards tackled me and scanned my deep memory and found the chip. I learned most of the workers are forced into a hive mind. But she said 'I have given them a home, a calling. Being in the hive mind, they'll never be alone.' When they were leading me away, I took my chance to fight my way out and you know the rest."

Tsing shares the fate of the colony. Unfortunately the queen and her drone prime were shot down, because they wouldn't allow themselves to be taken alive. Seeing Jack's shoulders slump at the news, Tsing continues, "But the rest of the splice haven has surrendered and Aegis is negotiating with them to have the dyson sphere as a haven and under our protection. It'll take a good century in court, but the residents can stay and continue the peaceful dream they thought they'd started."

PRIVATE DOCK ON THE HMS ALLEY OOP

Despite the memory restoration last week, he's still got a month's hole in his memories from the first wipe. Last night Stinger reviewed the ship schematic and crew roster one last time. Going through the messages from crew had also been helpful to get a feel for each of his crew members' personalities.

Sticking his hands in his pockets, he scuffs the floor with his boot while Bridget gives him the once over.

"Nervous about meeting your crew?" Bridget asks.

"It'll be like getting to know you all over again. They'll all know me and I barely know shit about any of them except me first officer," he complains.

"But the advantage is they aren't a new crew and will work efficiently, knowing what you expect," Bridget tries to show him the silver lining to the situation. "Look for things like that."

He shoves his mouth to one side in consideration. "Perhaps."

"Tsing helped you hand pick them too - did you know that?" With one last tug to his collar, she smiles at her lover - so dapper in his black Captain's uniform. He's even wearing a hat. She's never seen him with one before. While he can pull off the rough and tumble old Aegis officer bit very well, seeing him in a better situation makes her happy. And despite his current reservations about returning, this job has done wonders for his attitude.

"No." Letting her know he appreciates her being here and her words of comfort he extracts his hands from his pockets, cups her face in his hands, and kisses her for several ticks — not caring if the crew is watching. Halfway into the kiss, he hears the cameras moving and he peeks to see them turning away to give him and Bridget a smidge of privacy. Damn, they're a good crew and he hasn't even re-met them.

With arms linked Stinger and Bridget exit the grav lift to the bridge, the entire crew is assembled to greet them. A crisp announcement of "Captain on deck" and everyone salutes in almost perfect unison. Bridget is about to let go of Stinger's arm and starts pulling back to let him have the stage, but he tightens his arm down to his side pinning her arm and pats her hand. He wants her to stay as she is. Clicking his heels to proper position, he returns the gesture smartly.

"Welcome aboard, Sir!" First Officer Taisho offers his hand.

"It's good to be back." Stinger accepts and gives a hearty shake. "Let's get under way. Her Majesty is awaiting us."

The crowd scatters at the command and Bridget relishes seeing Stinger in his element. She'd only seen him outside of what he chose as a career. He seems to enjoy keeping a little apiary, but this — military command is what he was made for. Falling back into it is so natural for him. Guiding her down a corridor, she notices he walks with surety and even a little swagger.

He verifies, "You sure you want to spend your time in the med bay?"

"You said the medical officer could use some help. It'll be a good opportunity for me to learn more about what's possible in the 'verse and learn more about the technology that I didn't grow up with. I'm only worried the doctor won't want a tersie for help," she shrugs just happy his confidence is back. "When he doesn't need my assistance, I'll check in with Kiza and Tsing to keep up with the Marshall position."

"Will ye have time left for anyone else?" Stinger stops, catching her elbow.

Her eyebrow lifts as she turns and returns the question, "Think I'll be too busy?"

Wrapping his hands around her waist, he volleys vaguely, "Better not be. But ye need a place here too."

Pressing a finger to her own mouth then to his, she affirms, "I'm at your disposal my dear Captain. Wasn't that the point of me accompanying you?"

He puckers his lips to her fingertip, and nods. "Dr. Cisse will be lucky to have yer help. But I may have need of ye too."

"Well the captain, he's a sweet guy - knowing two fools in love when he sees them and made our schedules match."

"And you're fond of this captain?"

"Quite." She breathes into his ear, "Just say the word, Lover Boy," before sashaying into the med bay.

Unable to take his eyes off her as she rounds the corner, he starts counting down the hours to their personal time.

STINGER AND BRIDGET'S QUARTERS ABOARD HIS SHIP

Curled up, face to face on the couch together, Stinger traces Bridget's necklace - his finger lingering on the token of his affection. Thoughts that had been swirling in his head are starting to congeal - so he brings them up. "Bridget…"

Her hand covers his, so he keeps contact with her - directly over her heart. Lazily she responds, "Hmm?" So he concludes she must be at peace and not pondering the same things he is. Damn, it's hard to bring this up.

"Well, Kiza will be married soon... Your son is off to college... And we just lost… Well, I don't know if we've discussed this already. But, would you like to have another...?"

That makes her pulse jump and her entire body jolt with a start, so he moves his hand to caress her cheek.

"Err… This is how you're dealing with empty nest syndrome?" she responds with half shock, half teasing.

He dodges, "I'm asking if that would make you happy."

"But we haven't had much time together yet as a couple. What makes you bring it up? There's gotta be something going on in your head."

"It's just… you were so sad over the loss. And until you came along, there wasn't anyone I'd ever consider such an intimacy with. Marcelline tried to make it look like we'd been that close because I was her drone, but Kiza wasn't from our union."

She counters with, "I… I don't know how I feel about it, yet. But how will you feel about having a child that would likely be about the same age as your first grandchild, if Kiza and Gage choose to have kids?"

Stunned, he blinks for a few moments then whispers a choked, "My little girl... a mum…"

Running a hand through his hair and touching her forehead to his, Bridget silently offers comfort.

"We have much to consider…" he laments.

To lighten things up she teases, "Well, my dear Old Codger, were you thinking you'd just carry me into the air here and now for a pleasure filled evening?"

With a kid caught with his hand in the candy jar expression, he tries to steer the conversation, "Well, I had some fermionic modifications made to our bed here and..."

She giggles and starts unbuttoning his shirt. "And a little practice couldn't hurt?"

"Aye, Love."

- THE END -

Chapter Notes:

* She's given a noble title, but not a queen's. individuals may choose to call her "My Queen" or "M'Lady" depending on if they choose to let her be their queen. It's a personal matter.

** Part of the Chorus of There Were Roses written by Tommy Sands. I first heard it performed by the Crossing.