Chapter Two
A Nice Neighborhood

INITIATIVE SHUTTLE DANCER / JOBA SYSTEM / 14:50 HOURS / MAY 13th 2820

Captain Syena T'Loak had joined the Andromeda Initiative in a bid to escape her family's shame, one that was known across the entirety of known space. Her sister, Aria, had cut a swath of blood across the Terminus Systems. A quarter of a million people cut down in her ascension to ruler of Omega Station—the asteroid installation that housed millions of the galaxy's lowest scum. Her sibling's blood thirst had ended with Syena being blackballed by governments, by the Council, and by essentially every other corporation with a connection to the extranet. The prospect of flying to Andromeda, millions of light years from her past, had been all too tempting. The promise of seeing the unknown and wonders both beautiful and grotesque, had certainly been fulfilled in the last year.

"That's a big fucking ship." The human seated next to her was a skinny reed of a man, with wispy black hair and darting eyes. Dr. Glen Benson was smart but skittish and rather rude. "Bigger than anything we have."

The vessel in question was just over six hundred meters in length, with a long main body expanding into a massive aft quarter with twin hangar pods. A heavily armored plate at the back covered the majority of what were likely the most sensitive areas. Dozens of weapon emplacements and missile tubes dotted across the surface of the ship, the word PIONEER proudly lit on the flanks in plain human English.

"That has to be human," Syena muttered. She had researched ship design languages, from the flowing organic lines of Asari craft to the layered avian appearance of Turian warships.

"They're broadcasting on an open frequency. No encryption," Harry Willard chimed in from the back. The man's pale skin was marred by soot and dirt from the frantic escape of the mining outpost. "It's in English."

"Are you sure?" Syena asked.

Willard nodded. "Yes."

"Put it on then!" Dr. Benson snapped.

"Alright, alright." Willard said back, "Don't bite my fucking head off there, Glen." Touching the glowing rune on the hologram, the cockpit speakers of the Dancer crackled to life, filling the room with the smooth and direct tone of a human male.

"This is Colonel Kevin Marks of the United States Air Force Battlecruiser Pioneer. These shuttles are under our protection. Withdraw your attack now. Any attempt to fire on this vessel will be matched with force."

"United States Air Force? They've been defunct since 2140," Willard said in disbelief. "What're they doing with a Cruiser in Andromeda?"

"Hell if I know, but those energy readings indicate that this Pioneer," Benson explained. "This ship is putting out enough energy to power the entirety of the Nexus for the a year every second. I highly doubt that it comes from those rock munchers on Mars or Arcturus."

Syena stared out of the cockpit window, watching as the Pioneer's surface came alive. Railgun fire streaked away, slashing through Kett fighters as if they were pieces of paper to a blow torch turning them into a rapidly expanding field of shimmering metal and smoke. Azure beams reached out from the warship on the tails of the railgun fire, slicing through the Kett battleship with contemptuous ease.

"We should get out of here." Willard said. "Now."

"I'd recommend against that. Our engines are pretty much shot, so unless you want to get out and push..." Benson's eyes flickered over to the brilliant flash that blanked out the rest space for a moment. The Kett ship had detonated; its aft section sending glittering shards of atomized material and its beetle like bow tumbling into space spewing smoke, debris, and chemicals. "And I'd prefer not piss off these people."

"They're hailing." Willard gulped. "Syena? You're the Cap."

Syena took her eyes away from the human warship. Both hangar pods had opened, launching a quartet of angular black fighters flanking a shuttle-like craft colored a black-green, which had turned towards the shuttles. They were likely search and rescue or an escort. If the warship had wanted them dead, then they'd have been hit by the mass accelerator or missile fire earlier. She had a feeling of complete powerlessness, something she had always felt since growing up with Aria.

"Syena?" Willard tapped her on the shoulder.

"Yeah, put them on."

"Okay." The human male tapped the controls allowing the unknown voice of this Colonel Marks to play.

"Dancer, Hera, this is Pioneer. Are you in need of medical assistance?"

Pausing, Syena's finger lingered over the comm button. Part of her wanted to run, just activate the FTL drive and run back to Prodromos or the Nexus, to be anywhere but here hauling ten dead personnel that had been slaughtered by the Kett on the planet below. Steeling herself, she pressed the button. "This is Captain Syena of Vulcan Station. We have a few minor lacerations and contusions, nothing serious. Not sure about Hera."

"Copy that, Captain. Are you capable of landing?"

Syena looked back at Willard and Benson. The two humans, even Benson, seemed out of it. Exhaustion? Stress? All she knew is that they needed a nice bed, a warm meal, and a shower. Returning her gaze, she pressed down again. "We are. I take it that we're supposed to follow your fighters in?"

"You'd be correct, Captain Syena. From there, we'll render you medical care and if able, take you to your homeworld. Marks out."

"Willard, follow those fighters in." The Asari looked at the human, "Nice and easy. Don't give them a reason to shoot."

"Yes, Ma'am. You think they would?" He asked.

She didn't know the answer and admitted so. "I have no clue, but I don't know what to think today. At all."

"Aye, Captain."

The Kodiak's aft thrusters kicked in, slowly accelerating the brick-like shuttle towards the welcoming bays of the Pioneer. Two of the angular fighters flanked her, their hulls glimmering like light on water. Inside each, behind a semi-opaque cockpit window, they could see a single pilot in a vacuum suit; a multi-lensed helmet covering his face. USAF SF-200 was proudly emblazoned on the aft quarter of each wing and from here, Syena could just make out the outline of an internal weapons bay and the stubby barrels of a pair of mass accelerator cannons.

"They're small for fighters," Willard muttered. "The Tridents I flew were upwards of twenty meters. These are just under fourteen."

"They're advanced," Benson said. "Just like their mothership. Lots of power, but it looks like they don't use Eezo. Must have developed along a different technological path. But they're human…"

"I have a feeling that lots of questions are going to be answered, soon." They passed through some sort of energy shield as they entered the port landing bay. The fighters peeled off, the two engines at the aft of the fighters flaring sending them back out into space. The internal doors open, people could be seen milling about next to other fighters and servicing several blocky looking ships that were of a different design than that of the cylindrical ship outside.

"They must have atmospheric shields," Benson said. "Otherwise they'd be grasping their throats and dying. Impressive."

"There," Syena said, ignoring Benson's comment. She pointed at a yellow-clad human with signaling sticks waving them towards a landing area. It was a large square at the side of the bay, away from the other fighters and vehicles. "Set us down."

"Yes, Ma'am."

CONFERENCE ROOM ALPHA / U.S.S. PIONEER /16:00 HOURS/ MAY 13th 2017

Conference Room Alpha was situated in a section of the outer periphery of the Pioneer's aft side; one of the few rooms beside crew quarters and lounges that boasted windows, it was meant for the few times that United States Battlecruisers had to serve in a diplomatic role or were hosting dignitaries or statesmen. It was a room shaped in a wide rectangle, with comfortable lounge chairs and furniture and fine cabinetry. A large central table dominated the center of the room. On the wall opposite of the deck-high window, were models of craft belonging to the United States Joint Space Command, ranging from F-302s to Condors to the Prometheus and Daedalus classes, all orbiting a name plate and crest of the Pioneer. Above those were portraits of the current US President James Mattis, Secretary of Defense Robert O. Work, Director of Homeworld Security General Jack O'Neill, and Commander of Joint Space Operations General Steven Caldwell.

Marks hated being in this room. It oozed and reeked of bureaucracy and the remnants of what the IOA had wanted the Stargate program to be, to put up a veneer of civility against the dark. It was a false reflection of what they were. The IOA had been more willing to act in their own self interests instead of looking at the big picture. Shaking his head, he glanced in the mirror and smoothed his black duty jacket, carefully inspecting the silver eagles on his collar, and the complex and colorful patch of the Pioneer he wore on his right shoulder. He had earned full bird status five years ago in 2012, first commanding the older Challenger, then finally the newer more advanced Pioneer as the Allied task force drove into the heart of Lucian Alliance space and finally put the hydra of galactic malcontent to rest in thermonuclear fire. Pioneer herself had destroyed a dozen Ha'taks and scores of other vessels that day in a battle that had not been seen since the Battle of Dakara. It still was evident in the bones and structure of the ship too. In the flight pods and mess halls were the names of those crew lost in battle, while near the main gun batteries and within the Horizon deployment bay, a stencil had been painted for every vessel that had been felled by the guns of the battlecruiser.

The door to the room slipped open, revealing the forms of Lieutenant Colonel Jennifer Hailey and two United States Marines, each clad in their battle dress uniform and carrying a modified SCAR rifle and sidearm. Even with their bodies and faces hidden behind armor and an opaque face plate, Marks knew both of them to be men. Corporals, to be precise. Hailey waved them off and turned back as the door hissed shut behind her.

"How far out is our guest?" Marks asked, easing himself into one of the high-backed office chairs.

"About five minutes," Hailey answered. She surveyed the room. "About time we finally use this thing, it's been what two years?"

"Tell me about it," Marks said, drumming his fingers against the wooden table's surface. "The Shepard and almost every ship that came after us and the original Flight I's lack these things. Waste of space. Could be better used for ammunition storage, shield generation, or something."

Hailey shrugged, taking a seat opposite that of Marks. "Weren't you in line for command of the Paul Emerson when our tour was over?"

Marks paused, reflexively looking out the window at the glimmering star field and planetary body outside. The Paul Emerson was the second Olympia class Battleship to be commissioned, named after one of the most pivotal space warfare tacticians to ever grace the Air Force. Emerson and Caldwell had written the book on space warfare with 304s; hit them fast, close, then bug out and hit them from range.

"That's right," he finally said. "It's one of the few ships that the Air Force managed to keep away from the Navy. With every major sea faring warship being decommissioned and scrapped, the Navy has been launching a new 304 almost every month since disclosure, along with the few the Air Force have been able to get online. There's only ten Olympias planned. Emerson would have been the second and lead ship of the 5th Joint Fast Attack Wing. He would have been proud of that ship, hell he will be proud of that ship."

"You two were close?" Hailey asked, observing a slip in Marks' typical stone-clad demeanor.

The Colonel sighed and gave a faint nod. "Yeah. He was a good man, an even better leader and tactician. We went through hell together; the Supergate, the Wraith, the Lucian Alliance…having two of your commanding officers be killed while you're on their command staff isn't something you really forget, especially when you're part of a small brotherhood. I was there when they launched the Pendergast and Grant took command. Lionel's wife and kids, both sons and daughter, just graduating college, looked so happy to see their father's importance honored. Not only to them, but to the entire planet…"

Hailey leaned back, watching her friend and mentor carefully. "You know, you and Captain Royer are in similar boots to that of Emerson, Caldwell, Pendergast…even Ronson who deserved better than he got! We're here, truly in the unknown with likely no way back home, and an entire civilization to protect. We're pioneers, just like this damn ship and just like them, you carry on their legacy every time you sit into that command chair, Sir."

"Agreed," Mark said. "And it's our duty to make sure that those forty-five thousand on Atlantis can live free."

Hailey glanced at her watch, "She should be in any minute now."

"Alright." Marks stood and pushed the chair in. "You're pretty good at unnecessary pep talks, Hailey."

"Thank you, Colonel." She said, "One of my many, many skills."

The doors to the room parted again, revealing two Marines and an Air Force Lieutenant escorting a blue skinned woman. She was just under six foot, with a soft expression and intelligent eyes. Her skin was a light blue, almost matching her uniform in terms of color, and her 'hair' seemed more an vestigial collection of tentacles than anything else. Poised and regal, Marks knew who he was dealing with instantly.

Coming to attention the Lieutenant allowed the alien woman to enter the room. The Marines followed suit, taking position at the door.

"That'll be all, Lieutenant Moore," Marks said.

"Yes, Sir." The young man left, leaving the Marines behind.

Syena glanced at the two soldiers before meeting eyes with Marks and Hailey. Marks was a tall, athletic man with brown hair and soft spoken green eyes. Hailey was a blonde, petite, wisp of a woman with eyes that were as ruthless as they were intelligent. It reminded her of her sister.

"I am Captain Syena T'Loak of the Andromeda Initiative's Vulcan-Five station. Thank you for the excellent care that has been delivered to myself and my crew." She bowed her head slightly, "I only wish that you we had not met in such a manner."

Marks smiled, "By the standards of some of our first contacts, this was one of the easier ones. Please, have a seat. The Marines are here only as a precaution. I'm Colonel Kevin Marks and this is my executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel Jennifer Hailey."

"Nice to meet you." Syena said, taking a seat at the opposite end of the table. "I must admit, seeing more humans outside of Meridian or Prodromos is a bit odd, especially claiming to be from a defunct geopolitical entity with a ship capable of destroying a Kett warship."

"Well, we're not exactly from around here," Hailey said. "We were hoping that you might fill us in a bit…give us some more context to the entirety of the situation."

Syena paused, looking out the window. The irradiated remains of Vulcan-Five station could still be seen from here on the planet below. She had held out then, waiting for reinforcements that would never come, before evacuating. Not again. Looking at the two humans, she smiled. "Where would you like to begin?"

"Who are these Kett exactly? And what is the Andromeda Initiative? We would have never guessed to find other humans or near-humans when we arrived." Marks studied her. She was capable but seemed nervous. Maybe she had lost someone on the surface?

Bristling at the thought of the Kett, Syena pursed her lips. "The Kett aren't native to the Heleus Cluster—this 300 light year pocket of space in Andromeda. They're settlers, more so conquerors, not quite like us and I guess yourselves. They kidnap and enslave other species, turning them into subspecies of their own in a form of genetic assimilation. Kett isn't a species more so than a racial identity forced upon an individual. Since we first arrived in Heleus in 2818, the Kett have been attacking Initiative outposts and ships relentlessly. Killed a lot of good people, including most of my operating crew."

Marks nodded in understanding. "I am very sorry for your loss."

"Thank you," she replied. "The Kett are remorseless. When we first arrived in Andromeda two years ago, they found our initial settlements and wiped us out. Kidnapped dozens of us and experimented. Vivisections, pain analysis, just right-out torture. They wanted to find a way to assimilate us into their empire, to make us them. They ignore surrender requests, they ignore dignity. They'll kidnap your dead and try to make them their own. If you're not Kett, then they view you as nothing more than a disposable object, nothing more than dirt."

Marks felt his face lose a bit of color. "That sounds…very familiar."

Hailey studied her expression momentarily. The Asari had lost people to Kett, more so than those killed. "Wait, what? Genetic assimilation? How does that even work? What's their objective?"

"I just told you all I know. My bosses will have more." T'Loak quickly changed the subject, both out of security and lack of knowledge.. "Now, I'm assuming you want to know what the Initiative is?

"That's right." Marks stated, sharing a sideways glance with Hailey. "We were transported along with some other people due to a unique temporal spatial anomaly that flung us out here."

"It could best be described as a semi-transitioned subspace field…" Hailey was interrupted by the Asari female holding a hand up.

"I'm a geologist so I'll pretend to understand what you just said." Syena clasped her hands together in her lap. "The Initiative is a multi-species coalition involving the Asari, my race, Humans, Salarians, Turians, and Krogan. We left the Milky Way, as your people call it, in 2186, and arrived at Heleus in 2818—some a little bit later. From there, we've been fighting the Kett and trying to establish a new home for everyone out here…on the edge of known space."

"I take it that hasn't been easy?" Marks asked. He had read the reports about the Atlantis Expedition when they had first arrived.

"Hell no," Syena said, catching herself by surprise with her bluntness. "No. It hasn't been. We've struggled to eke out a living here until recently because the shit hit the fan as soon as we got here. Lots of people died, including quite a bit of our command chain. Then we had uprisings and mutinies. Then the fucking Kett and Roekaar started killing us while we're killing each other. If it weren't for the Hyperion, and Pathfinder Scott Ryder, I'd be worm food right about now. They'll know more."

"Do you have a central governing authority?" Hailey asked, "A council? A President?"

Syena snorted at the mention of a council. "Yeah, and they're about as effective as the Council we left in the Milky Way six hundred years ago. They're at the Nexus, a big space station. Don't know how to get to there, but show me a map and I can point ya in the right direction. Roughly."

"You seem rather forthcoming with this information," Hailey commented.

Syena nodded. "Yeah, you saved me and my crew from getting killed or worse. You gave us medical treatment, food, water, and a hot shower. Plus, you're human and have a ship that's obviously not Exile, Initiative or whatever. You've done more for me now than the Nexus has in the last year.'

"Alright," Marks said. "Well, we can drop you off at the Nexus or wherever you'd like after we're done taking some scans of the local area and updating our superiors on the situation. In the mean time, I've made our VIP quarters available for you and your crew once they're discharged from med bay. You will have an escort on this ship at all times and certain areas will be restricted. Is that understood?"

"Your ship, Captain. Do what you want."

"Thank you, Ms. Syena. The Marines will escort you to your crews' quarters." Marks stood, matched by the Asari shortly after. Turning, she bowed her head and followed the Marine leader out the door.

"Well, that went well." Hailey bit her bottom lip reflexively. "So now we know the layout of the land."

"Take everything she said with a grain of salt," Marks stated. "Get to the Bridge and scan everything within twenty light years. Based off the scans of their FTL drives, they couldn't have gone far. We'll find the Nexus, drop out, and make official first contact. For good or bad."

"Yes, Colonel."

Hailey soon left the room, leaving only Marks. Rubbing his brow, he turned towards the monitor and prepared for one of the most bizarre debriefs of his command career.

GENERAL CARTER'S OFFICE / ATLANTIS /17:00 HOURS/ MAY 13th 2017

Samantha Carter took a long sip of coffee, tasting the dark French roast mix and mingle with her taste buds before cascading down her throat. It was lukewarm, having sat on her desk for the last hour during the debriefing with Colonel Marks. Lasting the majority of that hour, they had gone over everything, including the unfortunate confrontation with the Kett warship. The Council Intelligence staff on Atlantis were already pouring over data, analyzing and studying every minute scrap of information; from FTL drive to hull composition. It was a nice change of pace, she had to admit. An easily defeated adversary that hadn't even registered damage on the shields was preferable to the world-ending power of a Wraith Hive.

A knock on the glass partition to her office drew her attention. Swivelling her chair away from the now-dormant monitor, she found Doctor Rodney McKay standing with a computer tablet under his arm and a cup of coffee in his hand. It seemed that the entire command staff was downing the miracle liquid by the gallon in the last week, especially so today.

"What's up, Rodney?"

"Not much," he said. "I was finishing up the final scans from our long range sweeps and came across something interesting."

"Okay." Carter stood, taking her coffee mug and refilling it on the table nearby. "Have a seat."

"Thanks." McKay scampered over and eased himself down.

She took a sip from her refilled cup and took her seat again. Placing it in front of her, she leaned back. "So, what did you find?"

McKay gave a heavy sigh. The fourteen years of deployment with the expedition having calmed him from the rabid, hyper-active scientist she had known all those years ago. Now, he was a calm and collected person that carried a sort of weight with him. "We were definitely transported through time and space to a section of the Andromeda Galaxy that Earth-based telescopes couldn't identify. Adding to that, we were sent about eight hundred and three years into the future."

"Yeah, we know this. Find a way back?" Carter's question cut right to the point. Rodney could tell she was tired from being up for almost sixty four hours straight, he'd been up about as long himself.

McKay handed Carter the Surface. On its screen were dozens of equations scrawled out in sloppy penmanship, next to results and tabulated tables filled with data and values. Most of it would be incomprehensible gibberish to anyone other than the General. She took the pad and looked at it, the color draining from her face as she did so.

"Are you sure about this?" She asked, eyes flickering back up and then back down.

"Radek and I have gone over the results a hundred times. There was a quantum event. Everything hit by that semi-transitioned subspace wave was duplicated down to the subatomic level. Some wacky physics happened then and propelled us across time and space into a different reality. Best we can tell that there are at least two versions of ourselves—the originals—who are continuing on with their lives, and us."

"The duplicates," Carter said flatly.

"Yes." McKay had once been an energetic, exuberant, and irreverent figure, who would have likely been off the rails with this information. It had been a sobering fourteen years in Atlantis, however. It had tempered him, weathered him into the collected individual he was today.

"Fuck," the General muttered. "Woolsey and Melbourne are going to flip."

"Yeah, I suspect," McKay responded. "Fallout shouldn't be too bad. Everyone on this city and stationed here knew that it could be a one way trip. They've all been heavily screened, tested, and make sure to be mentally sound."

Carter smiled. "That was a surprisingly sober response from you, Rodney."

"Well, sometimes histrionics doesn't help all that much." He took the tablet back and placed it in his lap. "That much I've learned."

Leaning back, Carter looked out at the control and gate room. "At least ourselves and families back home will not be in limbo, wondering what happened. They'll go about their lives, unaware that their duplicates are out here."

"That's true," McKay responded. "But we're going to have to tell everyone here sooner than later."

"Is there any chance that we might be able to send a message back to our home reality…give everyone some closure?" Sam thought of Jack, of Cassandra, of all those that she was leaving behind.

"I don't know," Rodney admitted. "Let me see what I can do."

"Get her done and on my desk and I'll approve it," Carter stated. "You know what's kind of reassuring?"

"What's that?" McKay asked.

"That we're not alone in this galaxy, not faced with the same situation that you did over a decade ago."

McKay grinned, "I guess that's true. Although these Kett do seem like a manageable nuisance."

A harsh shrill sounded in the control room, drawing both of their attention.

"Long range contact, forty billion kilometers out. Bearing, one five three by two one one mark zero five one. Unknown designation!" Sergeant Campbell called out.

Carter and Rodney rushed over to the sensor screen, seeing the soft red dot of an unknown contact.

"Raise the shield and have our birds in the air. Comms, get me Royer." Carter looked at McKay, "looks like we have a visitor."

BRIDGE / U.S.S. ALAN SHEPARD / ATLANTIS /16:50 HOURS/ MAY 13th 2017

The U.S.S. Alan Shepard, BCV-60, had been commissioned as the fifth Daedalus-class Battlecruiser operated by the United States Navy, joining her thirty-nine sister ships of the United States Navy and Air Force in defending Earth and Humanity from the darkness that wished to consume mankind whole. Since its launch in 2012, Captain Ben Royer had overseen and guided the ship through hundreds of battles and dozens of campaigns, be it in the form of the Alliance War, the Goa'uld Resurgence, or the Wraith's second awakening.

With a soft hiss, the bridge doors opened to revealing the bustling command center at the heart of the vessel. A dozen crew members were milling about, readying and maintaining the ship for whatever might come down the pipes. The crew had taken the unceremonious deposit of their ship into Andromeda well. It was the nature of the job, the possibility of never seeing home again.

"Captain on deck!" Commander Winston Pragg called out. The Executive Officer stood at attention, as did the other staff.

"At ease, I have the conn," Royer responded. He walked in front, looking out at the main monitors and displays. "Report."

"Operating in the green, Captain. No changes." Pragg moved away from the aft holotank and next to Royer. "Next CAP is launching in ten minutes."

"Any word from Marks and the Pioneer?" Royer asked, looking at the tall man next to him. Pragg was a good few inches taller, but with a lanky build more fit for a submariner than a seasoned surface warfare officer. His short-cut black hair was stuffed underneath the digital camouflage cap.

"Aye, Sir. They're likely to RTB within the next hour with some visitors."

"Oh, really?" Royer crossed his arms, watching the planet's rotation in the monitor. "I've been so busy dealing with the issues in engineering that I haven't had a chance to read any report updates."

"Thankfully, they're friendly. Three of them are human too."

"No shit," Royer muttered. "Even in another time and galaxy, some things never change."

"Sir," Lieutenant Commander Ashley Anderson at sensors called out. "We have a ping on long range sensors. Unknown contact, thirty meters in length. Atlantis is requesting we investigate."

Royer turned, "Alright then. Shields up, go to general quarters. Standby hyperspace jump. Let's see who wants to poke their nose in our business."

"Aye, Sir. Helm, lay in a course to match the unknown contact. Commence pin point hyperspace jump. Weapons, load VLS cells one through five with anti-fighter packages. Spool up railguns and raise shields." Pragg barked out the orders with honed efficiency. After his ship, the USS Dunham was decommissioned as part of the Navy's mass pivot to Daedalus and Olympia class space warships, he had been assigned here. His first deployment thus far was already showing why he had such a long list of accolades. He was good; fast, efficient, and smart. Exactly what Royer needed in an XO.

There was a crescendo of affirmations from all stations as Royer felt the bridge deck beneath him rumble as the Shepard's main engines flared to life, ion-gravitational energies propelling her away from orbit. The hyperspace generator roared to life, status displays overhead showing the capacitors' status'.

"Drive ready, power levels steady."

"Commence point jump," Royer said.

"Aye, aye, Captain. Commencing jump."

The Shepard accelerated forward, vanishing in a flash of light before reappearing less than a second later a thousand kilometers away from the contact.

"Jump complete, bearing one two one by one one five mark three two seven. Reorienting to bring us about to the contact."

"Designate unknown contact Echo-one," Royer said. "On screen."

One of the monitors snapped to a live feed of the unknown contact. It was a bulbous craft, with two large turbofans on either side of the main assembly. It was colored a deep orange and he could make out noticeable weapon emplacements, likely high caliber repeating cannons.

"Threat analysis," Pragg said.

"Powered by an unknown fusion drive with unknown gravity and mass control systems. Armament consists of two low-powered railguns. Hull is composed of a steel, aluminum, and carbon composite."

"Comms, open a channel. Audio only."

"Channel open."

Royer placed his hands at the small of his back. "This is Captain Ben Royer of the United States Navy Battlecruiser Alan Shepard. You are in restricted space. Withdraw now or you will be taken into custody."

"Contact lock. They've targeted us." Pragg looked up from the station he was observing.

"Hold off weapons," Royer said. He knew that even a brief burst from one of their railguns would annihilate the small craft. Same with their point-defense missiles. "Activate tractor beam. Initiate suppressor field."

"Aye, Sir."

A searing blue beam reached out from the belly of the Shepard, latching onto the small ship and sending it into a lateral spin. Lights on the vessel winked off and the engines died.

"Alright, I guess we'll do this the hard way. Ops, beam them directly to the brig, just like usual. Get rid of their armor and weapons while you're at it too." Royer walked over to the right most screen, studying the captured vessel.

"Aye, Sir."

"After that, get us back into orbit again. Pragg, you're with me. Let's go talk to our guests. Anderson, you have the bridge."

BRIDGE / A.I.S. TEMPEST /17:30 HOURS/ MAY 13th 2820

"Coming out now," Kallo Jath said.

The vortex of lensed stars and space came to an abrupt end, the Tempest reverting into real space with a sudden halt and a flare of Cherenkov radiation.

"Anything on sensors, Suvi?" Ryder asked, looking over to Dr. Anwar.

"One second," the Scottish scientist said. Eyes widening, her face lit up. "There's an ion trail. It's not from a Kett ship or one of our own."

"Alright then," Ryder looked back out at the bridge window. "Kallo, lay in a course. Full stealth."

"Understood, Pathfinder."

The Tempest angled itself in space, propelling away from the transit point and towards the far away ion trail.

Ryder got a glimmer of dust in the corner of his eye. Turning towards it he found the glittering star field of what remained of the Kett vessel; the bow section still floating in space in a cloud of smoke and vacuum-exposed chemicals. The edges were jagged, a burning red as if they had been cut through with a blow torch.

"What happened here?" Anwar asked, studying the scene.

"Whatever happened, the Kett lost. Big time." Ryder looked at his omnitool. "Kallo, bring us into orbit of Vulcan station. Suvi, scan everything. Let's find our missing people."