Jean-Luc Picard cradled the small, glass teacup in his hands, enjoying the warmth of the brown, steaming liquid inside. He held it beneath his nose and inhaled deeply, allowing the rich, faintly citrusy aroma to wash over him. When the rising tendrils of vapor had thinned, he raised the cup to his lips and sipped the infusion delicately.
Frowning, Picard lowered the cup and placed it on the long, uncluttered desk before him. He looked at it for a few moments, and then sighed. For some reason, the ship's replicators didn't seem to be capable of producing a good cup of Earl Grey. He pivoted his chair away from the cup and removed a datapad from the desk. The captain reminded himself to have a technician come in to look at his ready room's replicator as soon as one was available. Non-essential food processors were quite low on the Enterprise-E's maintenance schedule of late.
Picard activated the tablet and began to scan through its contents. He had read it all before, multiple times: damage reports from his engineering crews, after-battle statistics for the entire Allied fleet, preliminary surveying of Earth's surface. The captain thumbed past recent reports from ground teams dispatched to the planet's surface to begin the task of wresting Earth from the Zerg. Kerrigan and her Celebrates were gone, but her forces still infested every continent, feral and unpredictable. Some early estimates placed their numbers in the billions, and no one was sure if the creatures would simply die off without their masters, or if every last one would eventually have to be hunted down. Either way, the battle to reclaim Earth was far from over.
To say that the push to Kerrigan's fortress and the corresponding orbital engagement had been costly was a drastic understatement. The commanders of the Allied Fleet had known going in that they were fundamentally a diversion for the ground assault and would be both outnumbered and pinned against Earth's atmosphere, but that didn't lessen the sting of the losses that they had sustained. Of the five space-borne battle groups of the Fleet, numbering 278 hulls at the beginning of the battle, only 104 had survived until Kerrigan fled Earth and the Zerg defense collapsed, and well over half of those had suffered severe damage. Picard's group Vulcan and the primarily-Klingon Qo'nos had been hit the hardest, with the latter suffering almost total losses. General K'Nera had barely survived the annihilation of his battle group, and only a dozen functioning Klingon ships were left in the Allied Fleet.
The statistics belied the valor and skill of the Fleet's commanders and crew, however. Reviewing the disposition of the enemy force and the suicidal ferocity of the Zerg counterattack after the fact, Picard was astonished that at any of them had survived at all. The performance of Lt. Commander Addel's fighter squadrons and the Millennium Falcon were particularly outstanding; they had scored three confirmed Cerebrate kills and formed the lynchpin of both the initial breakthrough and Battle Group Earth's deployment, at the cost of six starfighters and pilots. General Solo alone had destroyed more infested vessels than the Enterprise's entire combat squadron.
Accounts from the African savanna told a similar story. Only a handful of the troop-laden hulls had made it past the Zerg aerial defenses, and most of the soldiers who fought their way to the Kilimanjaro hive were wiped out, but small strike teams under the command of the Master Chief, Major Truul Besteen, and Commander Worf had nonetheless managed to disrupt the enemy perimeter and deliver High Templar Tassadar to his target. Kerrigan had fled, and both she and the Protoss were now missing, but her fortress and the alien transportation device that it housed were in Allied hands.
All told, Earth had cost them more than 30,000 lives. Flipping through column of names and serial numbers, Picard told himself that it had been worth it. He knew that their sacrifice had been necessary, and indeed, vital; without their Queen, dead or in flight, the Zerg were beaten.
And yet, the victory seemed hollow.
Through the small window of his ready room, Picard could see a small portion of the Earth's gentle curvature rolling by. He saw flecks of green on a plain of dusty brown, and a matte of dark blue beyond. Humanity's cradle had survived the infestation. It had been scarred and beaten, but it would flourish again, in time. But, as for its children…
A short while later, the room's door chirped.
"Come in," Picard said. He had left the datapad at his desk, and was standing at a wall terminal.
The door slid open and Fleet Admiral Nechayev walked in. Her poof of blonde hair bore a few more strands of white and her cheeks a few more wrinkles, but she seemed outwardly much as she had been before the final assault. The real change in her had taken Picard several meetings to recognize, but as he moved to greet her now, it was impossible to miss. The keenness in her tired eyes was dull now, and her air of determination spent.
Nechayev eyed the terminal.
"I'm not interrupting anything, I hope."
Picard shook his head and stepped to one side, revealing the screen. It displayed a bright, outdoor scene, a cobble-stoned street lined with colorful cafes and low, antiquated buildings. In the background, a silver spire soared into the cloudless sky, glinting in the sun.
"Just reminiscing." He glanced back at the image. "Paris, just off the Seine. I always used to visit this street during stopovers at Earth. There was a little bakery there, and…" Picard trailed off. "I'm sorry, Admiral. You didn't come here for this."
Nechayev lingered on the scene. "I visited Paris once, when I was nineteen. I always wanted to go back, but I never had the time."
Picard looked at her for a moment, and then nodded slowly.
"There is always something like that, isn't there? The little things you always expect to come back to, until they're gone." He exhaled, took one last look at the airy, cheerful glimpse, and deactivated the display.
"Please." Picard indicated to a chair, and both officers seated themselves at the desk. "Tea?"
Nechayev passed a critical eye over the full cup. "Yours didn't suit you?"
The captain grimaced slightly. "Ah, yes. The replicators aren't quite up to specifications at the moment. Something else, perhaps?"
Nechayev waved a hand. "No, thank you. Frankly, though, I could have used the caffeine an hour ago."
Picard nodded. "Commander Suran."
"The Romulans are leaving the system as we speak. I tried to convince the Commander to stay until after the memorial ceremony, but he insisted that the Romulan Senate demanded the immediate return of his task force. I have no doubt of that, but it was plain that he still doesn't buy our claims of innocence."
Picard sank back into his chair and steepled his hands in front of his chest. "Suran is an intelligent man. There was never much chance that he would believe that the timely and unwilling arrival of his task force or the phantom Zerg fleet were random occurrences. He suspects, and for all Cortana's efforts, there's a good chance that he'll find something to link the incident back to us."
The circumstances surrounding the entrance of Suran's unit of warbirds late in the battle were still top-secret, known only to Picard, Nechayev, Cortana, and a handful of others. The ships had served to disrupt the enemy assault and significantly boost the morale of the Allied forces in their darkest hour, and Picard was certain that they had played a crucial role in staving off the all-out massacre that should have occurred. As far as most everyone knew, Romulan crews included, the Star Empire had intended to aid their humanoid compatriots all along. Suran and his officers were hailed as heroes, and the Commander had decided to keep the truth of the event under wraps. Nevertheless, the task force had sustained significant casualties for its efforts, and Picard knew that Romulans were not prone to let mysteries go unanswered and misusage unavenged.
"We'll have to hope that Cortana is as good at covering her tracks as she says she is." Nechayev shook her head. "We can't risk antagonizing the Romulans right now. As things stand, they're the only major power in the quadrant with anything approaching an intact military and infrastructural base. If we keep them the champions of this thing, they might just give the rest of us time to get back on track."
Picard leaned forward, his eyebrows raised. "Back on track, Admiral?"
Nechayev sighed. "I know what you're thinking, Captain. Kerrigan is gone, one can only hope for good, but she left a mark unlike any we've ever had to deal with before. Most of the Federation is like Earth, half-dead and covered in feral Zerg. The Council is all but gone, and Starfleet is what little we have assembled in orbit. The Klingons, the Cardassians… they're even worse off than we are. How can things go back to the way they were?"
Picard waited quietly for her to continue, but he could see the answer on her face just as clearly as he felt it in his own gut.
"We can't," she said at last. "Maybe the machine buried in that mountain down there holds an answer to our problems, or perhaps our Alliance friends do, but as things are now, the Federation is finished. We may have taken back Earth, but what we started there can't be recovered. When Kerrigan started this war, she killed the Federation just as surely as she killed the seventy billion that followed it."
Picard nodded stiffly. He had come to that realization before the battle for Earth had even commenced, but to hear someone like Nechayev voice it so definitively truly drove it home.
The admiral allowed the thought to settle for a minute, and then pulled something from a pocket of her uniform. It was a simple, black box, small enough to fit in the palm of her hand as she offered it across the desk to Picard.
"This is why I stopped by," she said. "Take it."
With a moment of hesitation, Picard picked the box from the woman's hand and turned it over in his own. He didn't need to open it to know what lay inside. A small, golden bar enclosing a line of four pips. The mark of the admiralty.
When Picard made no sign of opening the box or speaking, Nechayev continued.
"The Federation may have been defeated, but Starfleet remains. This Fleet, and all it stands for, still remains. There are billions of people out there right now, Vulcan, Klingon, Cardassian, and human alike, celebrating what we accomplished here. They needed heroes, and now they have them. Every single man and woman who fought in this system is a hero, both for what they did, and what they represent."
"But more than heroes, they need leaders. There are far too few left, and this struggle is far from over. We need good men, officers who are able to inspire and willing to take chances. You are a good man, Jean-Luc, and a one of the finest soldiers I've ever had the privilege of serving with. Duty demands that you take the next step."
Picard stared at her for a long time, and then looked back at the box. With a nudge of his thumb, he pushed the top up, just enough to see the bit of metal inside.
"I suppose I won't have to worry about being stuck at a desk if I take this now, will I?"
At last, Nechayev cracked a thin smile.
"You may miss that luxury yet, Admiral. I know I do."
The Master Chief stood at ease in the turbolift, watching soft lights rush by as the capsule propelled him along the Enterprise-E's length. The space was vacant and quiet, save for the soft hum of the electromagnets that guided the compartment through its shaft. To the Spartan, it seemed like days since he had found such a calm spot. The rest of the vessel was crawling with engineering teams and reassigned crewmen who had lost their own ships during the battle, but not here.
And yet, he was not alone.
"Sometimes, I wonder if you ever take this thing off," Cortana groused, making little effort to hide the playful tone the Chief knew so well. "I think an occasion like this might benefit from a bit more human interaction on your part. Not everyone can see past the stoic and battle-hardened veneer you like to carry around."
The Chief looked down at the dull green plating of his MJONIR armor. He had taken the time to clean and polish it, but the suit still bore months-worth of dents and burns from a dozen battles. Its internal components were even worse for wear; if he ever made it back to the UNSC, the Chief wouldn't envy the technicians assigned to repair it.
"Maybe that's the way people should see me," he replied. "This suit is what I am." He could tell Cortana was about to fire back with something, and hurried to cut her off. "Besides, I lost my luggage somewhere around Reach. If you see a tailor who sells UNSC dress uniforms, let me know."
He heard the AI laugh, and almost laughed himself. Having her back, close to his thoughts, was an enormous relief, enough to dispel the residual tension of the mission to Earth. He had almost forgotten what it felt like to have the little, faintly cool presence at the back of his mind, and now that it was back, he never wanted to let it go again.
"I'll see what I can do," Cortana said. "Anyways, I don't really mind. I'm not that good at social events. I'd much rather tag along in here and let you do all the talking."
"Sure. That'll happen."
The turbolift came to a stop and the Chief stepped out. Immediately, he was thrust back into a stream of activity, and moved out of the way as a group of ensigns hurried into the empty lift. The corridor beyond was lined with dotted with exposed wall conduits, and as the Chief moved into it, he had to navigate around small knots of engineers as they replaced fried isolinear chips and realigned loose wiring.
"So, why did you decide to come up?" he asked as he walked. "I've heard about the progress you're making with the Forerunner portal, and I thought I'd have to go planetside again to dig you out of it."
"It was hard to leave." She was suddenly engaged, energized by the change of subject. "You wouldn't believe some of the stuff I've found in its data cores. Kerrigan's story about the multi-dimensional empire you told me about? I'm beginning to believe it. I've found primary subroutines in the targeting array that seem to lead to three other installations like the one under Kilimanjaro. It's a good bet that there's one in our reality, and High Templar Tassadar's, and the Alliance's. I haven't translated nearly enough of the functional programming to know for sure yet, but I think that the off-location anomalies in each universe are each tied to their respective facility."
"Any word on Tassadar?"
Cortana took on a more somber tone. "Not since the last time you asked. I'm still keeping an eye on rift activity as best I can, but I haven't seen any movement since I pulled you back. The system registered some pretty big distortions, and if he was actually in… whatever the space the rifts exist in is when they happened, my hopes for him haven't improved. Of course, the same goes for Kerrigan."
She paused briefly.
"Did you tell the Jedi?"
"I did," the Chief said. "But I don't think I had to."
Cortana was silent for a few moments before continuing, her vigor restored.
"I'm making good progress on codifying the device's functional characteristics, but something that's been bothering me about it is the rifts that Kerrigan projected all over place, like the one that caught us. I haven't been able to figure out how to open any new ones, but I've found several of the anomalies that she made, still open – I'm not certain yet, but I think a few of the stable ones might even lead back to Covenant space, or at least our own universe. In any event, I think I've uncovered a few drivers related to remote rift creation, but the thing is, I haven't found anything that should be able modify temporal correlation."
"Time, Chief. You remember when I accidentally dropped the Republica near Reach. The Covenant Armada was still bombarding the planet; somehow, travel through the rifts had brought us back twenty-one days. When we escaped and ended up back in this reality, what should have been well under a month was actually seven years. Jacen Solo also reported displacement; in his world, the Galactic Empire had fallen from dominance decades before. In short, there is an obvious temporal element to the rift device's functionality."
"But I can't find any evidence of it. From what you saw on Coruscant and what little data I've been able to gather from the anomalies that are still open and connected to the device, the timeline of each universe is both unitary and constant with every other one. Unless I'm wrong, the current, fourth-dimensional coordinate of each reality, the ones we've seen most recently, are the only ones that an individual traveling through an anomaly could reach."
"So, no more time travel." The thought suited the Chief just fine.
"Not unless I can figure out how Kerrigan did it. Maybe there's an element of the device beyond its physical components. We know she was a powerful telepath. Perhaps the rifts respond in a way that I can't predict to extra-physical stimulus. Solo's abilities are different, at least as I understand it, but perhaps if he were to come back down to the facility and…"
"Later," the Chief said firmly, stopping in front of a set of wide doors, set with Starfleet's arrow-and-streak emblem. Numerous, muffled voices sounded from beyond.
"Of course," Cortana said quickly, turning her attention back to their surroundings. "So… this is the place, I believe. Shall we?"
Jacen Solo sat near the corner of the Enterprise's banquet hall, wedged onto the sill that framed one of the wide windows lining its outer wall. Positioned with one leg propped on the narrow platform and his arms crossed, he looked out, lost in thought. To his right, Earth's southern hemisphere hung, full and beautiful for all the dark marks scratched and spattered across its surface. To his left, a mass of bodies stood, each lost in their own thoughts, overcome by reverent silence.
The memorial had drawn people from all over the Allied Fleet, and, as word of the costly victory had already spread far across space, beyond. Jacen had seen Captain Picard, Commander Data, Worf, and much of what remained of the Enterprise-D's crew, spoken briefly with a few of them. Admiral Nechayev and Captain Gehirn were there, along with several other high-ranking officers of the Fleet. General K'Nera was not among them, still confined to medical quarters for injuries sustained during the assault.
Others were in attendance, as well, dressed in a hodgepodge of crisp dress uniforms and hastily-cleaned combat fatigues. Major Truul and the Master Chief stood across the room from him, both looking distinctly uncomfortable. Closer to the center, Commander Addel was in a place of honor, his face a mask of pride and sadness.
Just within view, behind a rank of rank of Klingons and Cardassians in full battle garb, Jacen could see another contingent, arrived from Bajor only hours before. Captain Ryceed was there, pale-looking and off-balance, but resolute. She was supported by the First Minister of the Bajoran people, one of a handful of chiefs-of-state who had traveled to Earth for the ceremony.
And, standing with them, surrounded by Chewbacca and the newly-reunited C-3PO and R2-D2, were his parents.
Tell Leia that I'm sorry. Tell your mother that I'm proud of her.
Anakin's words had stayed with him constantly since the flight from Coruscant, and his mother's appearance instilled them with fresh potency. Even now, in the middle of the packed hall, he wanted to go to her, tell her everything that had happened, tell both his parents who he really was. The urge to establish a connection with them had been there since he had first seen them on the Alliance flagship, but now it was all but irresistible.
And yet, he did resist, if only for a little longer. Their lives were already changed utterly from the pasts of the Han and Leia he knew; Jacen didn't want to complicate things any further, for his sake as much as theirs.
Still, if Cortana couldn't figure out a way to get everyone home, truly home…
Patience. One way or the other, the time will come.
The ceremony was somber, quiet, and low-key. Nechayev and few others had already spoken of valor and sacrifice, and now Picard was adding his own words, a solemn remembrance for the fallen. In spite of himself, Jacen slipped back into his thoughts, his eyes fixed distractedly on the slowly rotating orb beyond the window.
He remembered Aayla, valiant and strong, and yet sorrowful in the end.
He remembered Anakin, resplendent in the Light, redeemed again as he had fallen, to protect what he loved.
He remembered Commander Riker and so many others, lost before they could see the triumph their labors had bought.
And he remembered Tassadar. Events on Coruscant had pushed the Templar's last, desperate request from his mind, but there, in the reflected light of the scarred world, it came back. He had wanted the Jedi to do what fate had not permitted of him. The Protoss needed a savior, if there were any left to be saved, and that burdened had fallen to Jacen.
But was he ready to be a savior, even if he did find some way to reach Tassadar's people? Now, more than ever, he was unsure. That wrenching moment in the Emperor's throne room was still with him, the pure, unrelenting logic of the darkness, and the power he had touched in its course. More, he remembered the Templar's own view of the Dark and the Light, and how they had seemed to coexist in him. What would he find if he sought out more of the mighty species? What experiences and arcane wisdom might color his inner being?
He was afraid. Afraid of the future. Afraid of the past. Afraid of himself.
There was movement close by, and Jacen looked up. Laura had taken a seat next to him, and was watching Picard intently as he continued his commemoration. As Jacen stared at her, brooding thoughts diminished in the glow of her skin against the distant stars, a smile spread across her lips. She turned slightly to face him, and extended a hand.
He took it.