It was a plain room, square in shape, with all six sides composed of simple, but neat rows of wooden planks. The walls were devoid of any decorations that would hint at the intended use of the room, and the only source of illumination was a single overhead light.

Near the centre of the room, the room's sole occupant was kneeling quietly, her feet turned inwards beneath her, her palms resting passively on her knees. She was young, perhaps twenty years old at most, and her face was set in a way that suggested concentration and contemplation.

She was quite beautiful, any observer would have agreed, although it was an ordinary and unspectacular sort. Her outer wardrobe consisted solely of a plain white gi, while her long hair was pragmatically tied back with a simple elastic. It was the sort of beauty that stemmed from an absence of flaws, rather than the addition of decorations, and the deeply ingrained calluses in her bare hands and feet hinted at someone who only occasionally bothered with the latter.

Almost imperceptibly, the young woman's features suddenly tightened, though her eyes remained closed. "Sensei."

Standing in the doorway, half a dozen paces behind her, a man smiled approvingly, crossing the remainder of the distance in a less discreet fashion, kneeling down in front of her. "You have come a long way in a short time. Three months ago, I don not believe you would have sensed me so easily. But you look troubled. What is it that you are doing?"

"I'm practicing my meditation."

"Oh? And what is it that you are meditating on today, that you would look so troubled?"

A shrug. "The same as usual, I suppose."

"Are you still dwelling on such matters? Is the old adage 'I think, therefore I am' not true? Is it not enough to simply know that you exist here and now?"

"But this existence doesn't make sense."

"Make sense?" The man frowned, looking thoughtful. "Think of this existence as a flower, one possessed of such beauty that to gaze upon it would be to never want for beauty again. But imagine that this flower's beauty is a fickle one, only emerging when not being gazed upon."

Only a moment of consideration was required. "If you can only look at the flower without its beauty, and if its beauty only emerges when you are not looking at it... what use is its beauty?"

"Must it have a use? Must you see the beauty for yourself? Is it not enough to know that the beauty is there?"

A faint scowl. "No. It's not."

The man looked amused. "But to try to understand something as abstract as beauty? Or existence? Some would say that way lies madness."

"Or maybe..." And here, Maria Traydor finally opened her eyes. "...a few answers."


A Question of Fate
A Star Ocean: TTEOT fanfic
by Intrasonic

Chapter 1-A
'Now that you've received your Happy Ending (tm), welcome to the rest of your life! (Note: No refunds will be issued, customer satisfaction may vary.)'


Disclaimer: 'Star Ocean: Till the End of Time' is copyrighted by Square-Enix/Tri-Ace. This work of fanfiction
is being written for enjoyment and in homage to the original work, and no profit is being made from it.


"Always so practical," the man chided. "Sometimes to a fault."

Maria returned the smile. "Well, I was taught by Mirage."

The man raised an eyebrow. "My daughter is practical, but she knows when to let go of something. You, on the other hand..."

"I know, I know. I'm just stubborn. Sometimes to a fault."

"At times, certainly," the man agreed. "But if anyone, I think you owe that part of you to Cliff."

Maria rose gingerly, legs stiff from her prolonged meditation session. "I'm not choosy about who gets the blame. What time is it?"

"Almost time for your afternoon practice, which is why I came to check on you."

"Wouldn't miss it for the world," she assured him. "Am I learning from you today, or Mirage?"

"It is my daughter's turn. Today, I am seeing to the young ones."

During her years in Quark, Maria had occasionally heard Cliff make mention of 'The Monster', also known as Mirage's father. According to Cliff, the man was twenty feet tall, had arms like landing pylons, was bulletproof, and could bench-press a shuttlecraft. She had, however, never actually gotten the chance to meet the man. Mirage had, of course, assured her that Cliff was exaggerating.

Mirage had lied.

Because Elias Koas, grandmaster and owner of the Koas dojo, had a framed certificate of recognition for his part in saving the life of a diplomatic ambassador... and it had involved single-handedly bench-pressing a shuttlecraft. Granted, it had been on the planet Regisse V (surface gravity: 0.7 G), but still...

Elias Koas was the kind of man who looked like he had been born in a dry dock, rather than a hospital bed. He had a neck thicker than many people's waists. He could break bricks by squeezing them in one hand. When he flexed, the muscles had to line up and wait their turn. He had his shoes custom-fitted.

Mirage swore she wasn't adopted.

And, because life loved irony, the giant was also one of the quietest, inoffensive, peaceable individuals Maria had ever met. He fairly radiated serenity and calmness about his person, with a generous side dish of gentle wisdom and quiet understanding. He could walk through a room full of eggshells without a sound. He ran some of the most popular and successful training classes for children on Klaus IV.

"She said that she was going to be testing your evasive skills again."

"Joy," Maria agreed, more than a hint of resignation in her voice.

"You agreed to the training, remember? And you can stop anytime."

The expression on her face didn't change. "I know, I know. And it's working. But I still think she's just looking for an excuse to zap her ex-boss with a stun-gun."

Elias chuckled. "Perhaps. But it is good for you to have something more concrete to focus on from time to time. I'm not discouraging you from your meditations, but if you spend all your time chasing after answers that may not exist, you risk missing the answers that do exist."

It was a hard point to argue, but that had never stopped Maria before. "But Sensei, if I'm going to be thinking about the question, doesn't it make sense to at least think about it effectively?"

"Effectiveness is ultimately measured by results," he pointed out. "What results do you have to show for your efforts?"

Ouch. "I... have a better understanding of the question."

"Then your time has not been wasted," he agreed. "But in the end, what have your accomplishments to date been founded upon? Thought? Or upon action?"

Maria considered the question carefully. "On thought, followed by action."

"Then by all means, continue to think. But ensure that your focus is not turned inwards so far that you fail to realize the proper time for action."

Sometimes, Maria wondered why she bothered trying to defend her opinions against him or his daughter. Somewhere, buried deep within the Koas DNA, she was convinced there was a 'Never Be Wrong' gene. And you either accepted it and tried to make it work for you, or went insane trying to beat it. While leading Quark, Maria had wisely done the former, freely assigning Mirage to anything; be it navigation, engineering, weapons, or diplomacy; secure in the knowledge that if the task were at all possible, it would be completed. Here...

"So... how do I identify the proper time for action, Sensei?" she inquired lightly, doing a fairly successful job of keeping the exasperation out of her voice.

Not successful enough, apparently. "By taking action, of course. And finding out afterwards whether it was the right time or not."

The expression on Maria's face would have curdled milk. "That's circular logic. Sensei."

"Not at all. It is a student wanting to know how the water is, without testing it out for herself."

"It's a student seeing if anyone else has already found out for themselves."

"It is a student looking for certainties, when none exist."

"It's a student trying to increase her odds of success, except her teacher is too stingy with his wisdom."

"It is a student assuming that her teacher knows all the answers."

"It's a student making that assumption based on past experience."

"And your teacher has already given an answer to you."

Lesser mortals would have fled from Maria's expression by this point. "Well then, thank-you for sharing your wisdom. Sensei. Now please explain the wisdom."

He merely smiled and shook his head, starting towards the door. "I think not. From the sounds of things, you have been thinking far too much lately. You Earthlings are too quick to resort to abstract thinking, at the expense of learning what is right in front of you. Go learn how to dodge stun bolts with my daughter for a while. That should help focus your thoughts more productively."

Maria merely rolled her eyes. As usual, her teacher had a point. She tended to get moody when she thought for too long. Some training, Klausian-style, would hopefully improve her disposition.


What was existence, anyway?

A giant computer program, brought into being by an alternate universe looking for some entertainment?

A collection of everyone's thoughts, feelings, and memories, that transcended the deletion of the source data?

Something else entirely?

"I think, therefore I am," Maria muttered to herself, even as she made her way down one of the dojo's hallways.

Apparently, the simple fact that she was thinking about her existence was validation in itself, since her non-existence would have made her incapable of considering it in the first place. It was the kind of logic that worked for Klausians, who were quite possibly the most grounded, pragmatic, un-mystical, straightforward race in the entire universe.

Any god who descended from the heavens to reveal his ethereal glory to the Klausian race would have to have a really good sales pitch. And he'd have to produce a second, previously verified god, in order to provide a basis of comparison for his claims of divinity. And he'd definitely be job-hunting by the end of the month, if only to pay for his room and board.

It was the kind of attitude that makes an atheist feel like an amateur.

Maria had a lot of it herself. She'd spent her first twelve years being raised by a scientist and a soldier, and the next seven being largely raised by Cliff and Mirage. That sort of upbringing taught you not to worry about things you couldn't understand or control, and to focus on the things you could. And technically speaking, that was exactly what Maria had always done.

Following the 'Creator Incident', with the massive disarray that the Pangalactic Federation was in - to say nothing of the other galactic organizations - expansion-related items were put on hold in order to facilitate clean-up and rebuilding. After all, you didn't entertain new guests when your house was in danger of collapsing.

On account of that, Quark's role as a diplomatic intermediary and information broker was suddenly much less needed. After several days of debate and consideration by those concerned, the immediate future of the organization was finally decided.

Shortly thereafter, Maria had given a speech...


(The only one, I promise)

Maria smiled faintly as she took the podium. It, like the rest of the room, was simply a makeshift holodeck projection, providing a meeting place big enough to hold the entire crew.

Assembled before her was the entirety of Quark, from the command crew, to the computer experts, to the engineering department... it took a lot of people to run an organization like Quark, even when each member consistently gave one hundred percent. Cliff and Mirage were near the front of the group, both wearing smiles that matched the rest of the crew.

"As usual," Maria began, a hint of amusement on her face, "I'll have to ask you to forgive the informality. This certainly wasn't on the agenda a few days ago, and we've spent all our time planning, and none on how to announce the plans.

"The short story," she began, "is that Quark, as it is now, is being disbanded."

There were a few whispers and murmurs throughout the crowd, but they soon quieted down.

"Quark will be disbanded in the days to come," Maria elaborated, "for a variety of reasons. Firstly, I don't have to tell anyone about the state of our galaxy these days. The Pangalactic Federation is in a state of near-chaos, and what's left of the Aldian Empire is ten times worse. As a result, Quark's role is simply not needed at this present time. Furthermore, I know that many of you have families and friends, many who are suffering greatly at this time."

More than few, Maria knew. Standard background checks on new members had told her some, simply talking to and getting to know the crew over the years had enlightened her further. "With those two factors in mind, disbanding the organization is the most logical course of action at this time.

"We will be making our way, roundabout, to Klaus IV, at which point command of both Quark and the Diplo will be turned over to Cliff Fittir."

As one, every head in the room turned to focus on the person mentioned.

"Some more experienced members may remember him," Maria added helpfully. "We used to pretend to follow his orders."

Cliff took the ensuing laughter in stride, standing up to face the group. "You all completely fooled me," he admitted. "Like she said, once we reach Klaus IV, this ship is going to be unloaded and dry-docked for a time, and I'll get my captain's chair back. After that... we'll see.

"I'll tell you right now that there's a good chance that Quark might be back in business in the future. But it'll definitely be a smaller Quark, and the mission statement might be a little different. If anybody wants to stay on for the sequel, I won't say no, but don't go making any snap decisions just yet. There are a lot of things going on these days, after all."

Cliff abruptly coughed, gesturing towards Maria. "Anyway, back to you, boss."

Maria nodded approvingly. "Just as he said. If anybody has any questions afterwards, don't hesitate to talk with either of us, or any other senior officer, over the next few days. We've always had open-door policies, and that certainly remains in effect now.

"Each and every person here has sacrificed a tremendous amount of time and energy towards this organization, even risking your lives at times, and for that, I'm truly grateful. And if there's anything that you take away with you, I would hope that you always remember what we accomplished."

The leader of Quark took a deep breath before continuing. "We made a difference. Not in an abstract or figurative way, but in a very REAL way. There are dozens of worlds - nearly one hundred, in fact - out there, who are in a much different situation now than they would have been without our help. Because we were there to provide support, advice, and assistance, they each had the opportunity to actually CHOOSE their own path, rather than have it arbitrarily decided by others in some mockery of democracy.

"Some chose one way, some chose another, but underlying fact is that they were given the chance to CHOOSE for themselves. And with the present state of the Federation, many of those worlds will now be able to help in the rebuilding, rather than simply be cannibalized for what some would call the 'Greater Good'. And THAT is due entirely to OUR presence and efforts on their behalf."
There was a chorus of cheers from the audience, but Maria waved them aside for the moment.

"And if that isn't enough to take home with you, I want each and every one of you to remember what took place over the last few weeks. The Federation's left hand didn't know what its right hand was doing, even as they squared off against a suddenly rogue Vendeeni military, even as some megalomaniac called 'The Creator' wanted to wipe us all from existence..."

Maria gave them an arrogant smirk; one fit to convince almost anyone present that she was Cliff's biological daughter. "WE were there. Not as an accessory, not as back up, and not as an observer. WE obtained key information, WE rescued and protected key people, WE spearheaded the offensive, and if WE hadn't been there, nobody else would have done it. This organization may have been founded to help keep the Federation in check, but we managed to find something a hundred times worse than the Federation, and we beat it. And that's why this entire galaxy exists right now - because WE WERE THERE.

"The galaxy at large may never truly understand the role we played, and honestly, that might be for the best in the long run. But it's my hope that everyone here will remember it for a long time to come, and let it stand as proof that a small group of people working together CAN, no matter the opponent or odds, change things for the better."

This time, the cheers and clapping were louder, and Maria made no motion to silence them. When all was said and done, it was a high, but realistic note to end on, which was what you aimed for with a Klausian audience.

After a short period of time, the immediate celebration quieted down, enough that one of the members' question could be heard.

"So what are your plans now, boss?"

Sudden silence.

The holodeck hummed quietly in the background.

The entirety of Quark waited expectantly.

Maria finally had the grace to look embarrassed. "To be honest... I hadn't really thought that far ahead yet."

(End Flashback)


She hadn't.

It hadn't seemed necessary before.

For years, every moment of Maria's life had been occupied with issues either related to Quark or to the Alteration symbol in her genes. And she had worked well like that - extremely well, in fact. Yet all of a sudden, Quark was gone, she'd finally found out about her own powers, the universe still existed for one reason or another, and...

...and she had nothing to do.

In the process of dismantling Quark, a considerable sum of money found its way into her own personal account. When questioned, Cliff had steadfastly rebuffed her objections, saying that she'd never made a single credit during her entire time working for Quark, the organization was debt-free, and it had been his own money that had given Quark a kick-start in the first place. Besides, her talents and accomplishments were self-evident, weren't they? A moderate-sized golden handshake was perfectly logical, right?

The proper thing to do would have been to firmly, but politely, turn down the generous gift. On the other hand, Maria had never been very good at false-modesty, and Quark certainly hadn't provided any role models in that department.

So Maria had found herself moderately wealthy, and still with nothing to do. She had considered a vacation, but even the process of packing her luggage had left her bored out of her mind. Browsing the pamphlets outlining various vacation experiences had left her firmly convinced that 'Culture' was something that happened to other people. It was obvious that any vacation longer than a few hours would fail miserably.

Mirage's suggestion that she spend some time training at her family's dojo had been a timely, interesting, and feasible idea. As the woman had pointed out, there were worse places for Maria to spend some time contemplating her future. And despite some token arguments Maria put forth, it didn't take much effort to get her to agree.

A warning beep jolted Maria from her thoughts, just in time for her to avoid walking face-first into an automatic doorway. She looked puzzled for a brief instant, but her expression quickly faded into one of irritation.

"For your safety," the wall-mounted computer droned, "you are not permitted to leave the Hospitality section of the compound."

"For the love of-" Maria cut herself off, instead trying to reason with the machine. "Listen, this has happened plenty of times already. You know I'm allowed to go where I want. Pull up the earlier access logs. There are countless examples of me walking through this door and others like it. Unobstructed."

"Negative. Klaus IV has been terraformed to closely replicate conditions found on Klaus III. Non-native lifeforms are prone to, but not limited to, the following symptoms: Chronic restriction of movement, including damage and/or destruction of skeletal structure from excessive gravitational loads, constriction and/or implosion of internal fluid pathways due to excessive atmospheric pressure, partial or complete asphyxiation due to insufficient concentrations of oxygen-"

"Computer, mute message," Maria interrupted, "and patch me into Security."

Several seconds later, a male face appeared on the wall-screen, blinking as he identified who had paged him. "Miss Traydor? What can I do for you?"

"Morie," she greeted. "The computer is trying to lock me into Hospitality. Again. I thought we changed my race to 'Klausian' in my file?"

The man shook his head, but grinned nonetheless. "We did. The sensors must have scanned you during a routine sweep and noticed that you weren't really Klausian, and overwrote our entry. If you just give me a minute, I'll have the entry changed back for you."


The screen want blank again, leaving Maria to glare at the unit. A side effect of her skill and familiarity with computers was that she tended to get irate when they inconvenienced her for foolish reasons.

"Repeat," the computer offered helpfully, apparently trying to win an express delivery to the junkyard. "For your own safety and well-being, you are not permitted to venture into unprotected areas of the compound. Klaus IV is terraformed to closely replicate conditions found on Klaus III, and the majority of races, including Earthlings, are not-"

"Computer, shut up."

Ever helpful, the computer obeyed.

Faced with the aforementioned obstacles, Klaus really wasn't a system worth the trouble of visiting. If you were determined, you could resign yourself to remaining solely within the "Hospitality" sections. Or, if you were determined and rich, you could invest in a semi-bulky environmental suit which would shield you to the point where a quick morning jog was merely exhausting, rather than fatal.

With a quiet hiss, the door blocking Maria's path slid open. Without the slightest hesitation, she stepped through the doorway, venturing unprotected onto Klaus IV at large, and the Koas dojo in specific.

The third option was to have an Alteration symbol genetically imprinted upon your DNA at birth, and not bother giving the whole matter a second thought, except to wonder why the hell it was still around. Truth be told, Maria had given the matter A LOT of thought, despite frequent chidings from both Mirage and her father, but hadn't emerged any wiser for her efforts.

Shaking her head, Maria made her way into the Koas dojo. In the end, Mirage's father was probably right - there was no sense in dwelling on the issue to distraction, especially at the expense of more tangible problems.

"There you are. I was about to come looking for you."

"Sorry," Maria apologized. "I lost track of time while meditating, and then the computer changed my race back to 'Earthling' and tried to lock me in Hospitality."

Standing near the centre of the dojo, clad in a gi similar to what Maria was wearing, Mirage shrugged. It was an elegant and languid shrug; belonging to someone who had mastered what Maria hadn't - setting aside intangible problems without tangible solutions. "Well, no harm done."

Everybody has someone they admire while growing up. Someone whose footsteps they hope to follow in, whose shoes they hope to fill, whose stature they aspire to. In this aspect, Maria had been no exception.

Mirage was smart. Mirage was strong. Mirage was wise. Mirage was confident. Mirage was focussed. Mirage was brave. Mirage was calm. Mirage was capable. Mirage was beautiful. Mirage was PERFECT. And early on, after only a few months of living with Quark, Maria had vowed that she was going to be Just Like Mirage.

And she tried. She tried really hard, in fact.

Unfortunately, the universe had other plans, starting with short-changing her out of half a foot in height. Then it forced her to accept that she only had Earthling genes, not Klausian ones. Then it informed her that braided hair didn't suit her. But the finishing touch was definitely the off-the-scale Type-A personality it saddled her with.

But she'd done pretty well on the other points, Maria would have insisted. And even if she would never be Just Like Mirage, it was always good to have high goals. There was probably no helping the height, though.

"So..." Maria began slowly. "Your father said that today is stun-gun training?"

Mirage raised an eyebrow. "I wasn't aware of that. But since you're so eager..."

Insert: One peeved expression.

"We'll see," Mirage finally relented. "You're walking a little stiff. How long were you meditating?"

"An hour. Maybe two."

"And using one of those ridiculous Earthling positions?"

"They're not ridiculous. They're... time-honoured, traditional positions. They've been used by countless generations of people."

"So, countless generations of people have been trying to solve the mysteries of life while tying their limbs in knots and sitting on their toes?"

"Ye-I mean-" Maria cut herself off, before she could explain herself any deeper. "I suppose you know a better way?"

"Well..." The Klausian looked thoughtful. "If I have any serious meditation to do, I prefer the 'Armchair' position, myself. The 'Hot Ice Cream Sundae' position is effective, too. Of course, that's only if there isn't a good masseuse available."

A flat look. "You can't be serious."

"And I understand that Cliff gets good results using the 'Couch with Cold Beer' position," Mirage added helpfully.

"That's even more ridiculous. And it explains a lot."

"Well, if you're going to do some heavy thinking, you might as well be comfortable doing it. Your meditation sessions always leave you walking like you're wearing only one high-heel for half an hour afterwards."

The Earthling muttered something involving 'Infernal Klausian logic' under her breath.

"Maybe that's how the computer knows you're an Earthling," Mirage mused thoughtfully. "It identifies anyone trying to twist themselves into a pretzel and think at the same time. I'd want someone like that locked up too..."

"Urgh. Can we start training?" Maria pleaded. "The stun gun hurts less."



Maria leaned sideways as the blue bolt of energy blazed past her head, with only inches to spare. Even as she felt her weight shift as a result, her next step was slightly outside her intended path, fixing her centre of gravity-ZAP-just in time to lean the other way, letting the next shot make her hair try to stand on end. The next shot was aimed right at her torso-ZAP-so she increased her lean even further, twisting her hips around the path of the shot, which threw off her balance even further, necessitating-ZAP-some quick stepping to reorient herself on her target, as well as to shift herself inside the path of the next shot, which made her arm try to twitch as the charge skimmed her bicep-ZAP-and left her completely unable to dodge the next shot.

Throwing up her left hand, she shifted her concentration to another task, even as she lunged into the path of the shot-PZZT-which splashed harmlessly against an invisible wall in the air, even as Maria pushed the weapon aside with the same left hand, and directed her right fist into a collision course with the neck of the target-


-only to be firmly intercepted by the target's empty hand.

"Good," Mirage announced, letting herself be moved a step backwards in the process of absorbing Maria's punch. Held loosely in her other hand was a small stun-gun, which had just been fired five times.

Maria exhaled noisily, withdrawing her fist, which had been only inches from connecting with Mirage's throat. "You-" She sucked in a breath of air. "-really cut it close, don't you?"

The Klausian smiled, not looking particularly nervous by the prospect. "I told you to use killing force that time, right? I needed to make sure you were fully committing to the action, right through to the end. And you needn't worry about connecting, because you're giving me lots of time to intercept it. You're concentrating so hard on your evasive manoeuvres, that you're telegraphing your attacks far in advance."


"Don't be like that. The point of the exercise is your movement evasion. Once you master that, you can start refining your attack technique. And the majority of opponents with ranged weapons are in no position to handle a physical attack once you close the range. Which is the point, really."

"What about the minority?"

"All in good time. You're coming along nicely otherwise. You dodged the first four shots cleanly. And you were less hesitant to shield against the last one."

"I shouldn't have had to," Maria pointed out.

"And as you get better, you won't have to," Mirage agreed. "But do you think you could have dodged that last shot?"


"Then you response was the correct one, wasn't it? Had that been a real fight, you would have been the victor. What happens when you find yourself going up against an opponent who is good enough with a ranged weapon to intercept your movements?"

"I know," Maria admitted. "That's how I've been trained, after all. And if my opponent is good enough, I can't count on being able to dodge everything. And I can't afford to be too stubborn to refuse to use my powers."

"Exactly. You need to use the tools you have. You don't have Klausian speed and reflexes, but you do have your symbological powers. Your ultimate goal is to be able to use all your tools and resources together to maximum effect. And if you find yourself in a situation where you're outmatched, you had best be certain that any option you refuse is worth the cost of refusing. In this case, was there any incentive or reason to avoid using your powers?"

"Pride," Maria admitted, a hint of sheepishness showing.

"That kind of pride and a handful of credits will get you a coffee while the stun-gun effect wears off. And with a little luck, it will only be a stun-gun shot, and not something more deadly."

"I know."

"Know it and live it," Mirage stressed, but not unkindly. "For now, you need to work on improving your movement. You're still losing momentum when you turn, and your steps could be shorter and faster."

"Right. " Maria closed her eyes for a moment, trying to process what her teacher was telling her, and compare it to her previous performance.

Three months ago, she would have laughed, had someone suggested she try to learn the famed Klausian defence against ranged weaponry - dodging the shots. She had always used the traditional defences - take cover, or shoot the person first. But at this point, the suggestion would have simply garnered an agreement from her, coupled with an insistence that it was only a matter of time before she mastered it.

The trick, she had been taught, didn't involve dodging around the shots. Rather, what you learned to do was to look at the weapon, and determine exactly which direction it was pointed. And you didn't react to the projectile, you reacted to the firing motion. You ignored the actual projectile, energy or physical, since by the time you saw it, it was probably too late to do anything about it.

The other half of the technique was movement. You learned to take smaller, quicker steps, which let you react quicker. And when you changed direction, you did so smoothly, in a fashion that conserved your speed and momentum. After all, it was faster to execute a moving U-turn, than it was to move forwards, stop, and accelerate in the opposite direction.

And if she didn't have the explosive muscle power and the hyper-responsive nervous system possessed by a Klausian, she did have 20/20 eyesight and extensive martial arts training. The end result was that, by a combination of vigorous training, followed by more vigorous training, coupled with a liberal dose of bloody-mindedness... she was actually beginning to see some success. Nothing close to what people like Cliff or Mirage could do, but that was to be expected. And if that failed, she could always use her 'Wild Card' - her Alteration symbol.

Maria didn't know why her Alteration powers hadn't disappeared after Luther's attempt at deleting all of creation, but the power's existence wasn't up for debate. If anything, it had grown even stronger. When she had first met Fayt, the extent of her abilities was to make physical objects stronger, by using her powers to enhance the molecular bonds within them. She had even learned how to do it to her own clothing, effectively creating a makeshift emergency suit of armour. By this point, she could even harden the air itself, altering the almost nonexistent bonds between the gaseous molecules until they rivalled even the hardest metals or composites.

Maria was well versed in physics, enough to know how impossible such phenomena were. As impossible as her effortlessly walking around in 2.4 G gravity. As impossible as the entire universe being nothing more than a giant computer program. As impossible as the entire universe still existing after the deletion of the computer program.

And she didn't have any of the answers. So for now, she would take the advice she had been given, and tackle problems that did have solutions.

Opening her eyes, Maria met Mirage's serene gaze. "Again."





Maria winced, trying to force her left leg to obey her commands, even as she squirmed to extract her face from the floor. "Ugh... dammit. Ouch."

Mirage knelt down next to her prone student. "Too slow," she offered, by way of comfort.

"I-ow-figured that out on my own."

"Your landing was a little clumsy, too."

Maria glared up at her instructor. "It would help if you didn't sound like you were enjoying yourself so much."

"Just your imagination," Mirage promised, the upturned corners of her mouth suggesting otherwise. "But you're getting tired. You simply don't have 100 available to give right now."

"I didn't the last time either."

"And I let you get away with it the last time."


"So we'll try a change of pace." Putting an arm behind Maria's back, Mirage sat her student up. "We'll practice your control exercises."

Maria groaned, her leg spasming painfully again. Stun guns, even on mild settings, were still rather painful, and wrecked havoc with the body's local motor response system for a short time afterwards. Which gave a student plenty of incentive to dodge them, and took all the guesswork out of whether a hit had been scored. "You just shot me with a stun gun. And you want me to practice control exercises? Do you know what my leg feels like right now?!"

Mirage sat down next to Maria, sitting cross-legged. "I would have thought you'd be used to it by now, with your 'traditional' meditation positions. And this is the best time to practice your control."

"I know, I know."

"So let's have your wrist."

Maria obligingly held out her right hand, her left hand busy compensating for her shaky leg. "Up or down?"

Mirage placed two fingers over the base of Maria's wrist, getting a pulse reading. "I should think your heart rate is already high enough at the moment. We'll start by having you bring it down. Whenever you're ready."

Taking several steadying breaths, Maria forced herself to ignore the throbbing in her leg.

"One hundred fifty. Concentrate," Mirage encouraged, looking over at the wall clock.

Maria nodded curtly. Control was a core component of countless fighting arts, but control over the inner workings of one's body was a more rare, and much harder, goal.

"One hundred thirty-two."

At the moment, her entire body was in overdrive, flooding her body with a cocktail of adrenaline and endorphins. She could feel her heart pounding like a jackhammer, still trying to accommodate her attempts at manoeuvring around the stun bolt trajectories. Even Mirage's soft voice was like shouting to her hair-trigger hearing and her dilated pupils were making the room seem unnaturally bright. It was all the characteristics of a classic 'fight or flight' mode, and the idea of 'calming down' under such circumstances bordered on ludicrous.

"One hundred and fourteen."

Control had been a core tenet of Maria's training, ever since her Alteration powers had made their original, spectacular appearance. Despite having no idea what the powers were or what they did, Mirage had been very quick to impress upon Maria that if the power was within her, it could be controlled by her. Needless to say, Maria had been terribly sceptical at the time, but time, practice, and necessity, had eventually made a believer of her. It helped that she had already been taking lessons from Mirage, and that the woman's family style focussed a great deal on the issue of 'control'.

"One hundred and eight."

Roughly speaking, Mirage's art was classified under the Jingu School of Taijitsu, a hybrid style formed from a wide variety of older combat styles. Focussing on extremely aggressive combinations of attacks, rushes, and dodges, it harkened back to a time when Klausians were first beginning to visit other planets, which almost invariably had lower-gravity environments, adding a whole new potential to unarmed combat.


The school had three primary focuses - Spirit, Technique, and Body. At the moment, Maria was training for the last of the three, which involved far more than just physical fitness. 'Control of Self' was the term commonly used, and it meant far more than just everyday self-control. Put simply, it stated that anything and everything that made up one's body could be controlled. The fact that most things were normally handled on an involuntary and automatic basis was irrelevant - that was just a default setting. With training, focus, and practice, a person could consciously decide otherwise.

"Ninety. Keep going."

It was extremely difficult, overriding your body's automatic responses and reflexes. Telling the brain that, despite an apparent life-or-death situation, you wanted your body to calm down and relax? Or telling it that, despite a complete absence of threats, you wanted your body running at 200 percent? Trying to convey that message to something that you can't feel or flex, using a combination of raw will power and concentration in the hopes that 'something' will hear your message and pass it along?


It had been a mixed bag of results from the outset. Even after she had finally begun to master more deliberate use of her Alteration powers, Maria's control over her own body had lagged far behind. She had eventually regulated it to a secondary priority, in lieu of the more technical side of the art, and learning about her emerging powers. Which was why she was still so poor at it.


Mirage could practically put herself in a state of hibernation, or wire her body almost to the point of self-combustion. She could order her body to ignore pain or discomfort, or to concentrate blood flow to where it was needed most. She could, at will, turn her body into a living embodiment of destruction, or into an epitome of calmness. A calm, calculating fighter made a dangerous opponent, as did a berserk, energized fighter. But when a fighter could put themselves into an energized state, while remaining calm and calculating... It was why Mirage could beat Cliff 19 times out of 20 in combat, and why even her father was starting to loose to her now.


Whereas Maria was still working through lesson 1: Calming Down. Technically, affecting one's heart rate was the easiest of the options. There were six-year olds attending the Koas school who could do it. More advanced students could learn to affect blood-flow, pain reception, adrenaline production...



Maria continued concentrating.







Maria exhaled, though not out of exhaustion. "Dammit," she muttered, glancing over towards the clock. Fifteen minutes had passed.

"The same as usual." Mirage released Maria's hand. "With some effort, you can return yourself to a general state of rest, but you still have difficulty going beyond that."

"I know," Maria admitted, shifting her weight slightly. At least the stun bolt's effects had worn off by this time. "But why?"

"That's hard to say. It may simply be a matter of more training."

"Do you really believe that? I've been here for three months now, but all my real progress in this was in the first few weeks. I've been making steady progress everywhere else."

"That's true."

"So..." Maria prodded, when her teacher wasn't forthcoming with further information. "What do you think might be the matter?"

A shrug. "Is it so hard to believe that perhaps you're simply not very good at this? That you simply have no aptitude for this manner of control? And that no matter how hard you try, you'll never get any better?"

Maria frowned at the suggestion. "Based on what?"

"Your last three months of training?"


"No?" Mirage's tone held equal parts curiosity and challenge.

"No," Maria insisted firmly. "This hasn't happened anywhere else. I'm GOOD at everything else. Every single other part of my training has shown results. Sometimes faster, sometimes slower, but I AM making progress. But this... I've been banging my head against a wall for almost three months. That means that something is wrong."

"That seems a reasonable analysis of the situation," Mirage allowed. "And it's not as though I haven't been giving the issue some consideration for a while now. Has my father told you his views on banging your head against a wall?"

"Not yet."

"It gives you a headache," Mirage informed her, matter-of-factly. "And sometimes the wall is harder than your head. And in some cases... you might not even really want what's on the other side."

"Which means...?"

"As you've already figured, you seem to be hitting a wall in this particular aspect of your training. But do you know might happen if you manage to break through it?"

"In this case, I don't even know what the wall is. So I don't know how to break through it, or what might happen if I do," Maria allowed. "But you think that you might?"

"Maybe," Mirage allowed. "This control training is more than simply telling your body what to do. Ultimately, you need to separate yourself from your environment. Whether your surroundings are hostile or friendly, that can't dictate your actions and reactions. You know this."

"I do."

"But do you really want that?"

Maria frowned, mentally trying the question on for size. "Do I want that? That's the whole point of this, isn't it? I wouldn't be spending time on this if I didn't want it."

"Oh? Why don't we consider the last time you lost your temper?"

Maria knew what Mirage was referring to. The trouble with being very good at something, was that your failures suddenly became much more prominent.

"You allowed yourself to react naturally to the situation," Mirage reminded her. "Dr. Leingod gave you a poor explanation for doing something, without your consent, which completely changed and dictated your life. And you became upset with him."

Maria nodded. Any other person in the universe would have agreed that her reaction was justified. In fact, anyone else probably would have been impressed that Maria had done nothing more than raise her voice, rather than say, pistol-whipping him into next week. Anyone except the Koas dojo, that is.

"Had I been in that position," Mirage informed her matter-of-factly, "I wouldn't have thought twice about it. I wouldn't have felt so angry, and I certainly wouldn't have acted angry."

Anyone else in the universe would have earned some harsh language for making such a blatantly insensitive statement. "I know," Maria agreed quietly. "But... I haven't reached that point. Yet."

"But do you really want that?" Mirage repeated. "Do you want to be someone who can be in such a situation and not react? Do you want to be someone who can detach herself from her surroundings like that?"

Maria had long ago learned to avoid knee-jerk reactions to Mirage's questions. The trick was to figure out what else was being asked at the same time. "If I was... what other situation would I not react to?"

"Well... what if the spaceship you were on was suddenly attacked by another ship?" Mirage suggested. "And what if you and your crewmates' destruction was imminent? And what if you did have a solution, but you didn't consciously know it?"

Maria smiled wanly, not having much difficulty identifying the incident being referred to. "So if you'd been in that situation, you wouldn't have reacted at all, and you wouldn't have instinctively found an Alteration power inside yourself, and Quark would be space dust?"

"That's an extreme example, of course. Your situation is exceptionally unique in that way. But the point is, there are two sides to learning Control of Self. On one hand, you're able to directly influence your body, regardless of your actual situation. But on the other hand, sometimes you stop fully reacting to things that you should react to."

"You make it sound like this training will turn me into some sort of emotionless android. And you're not like that at all."

"Taken to the extreme, it would do that. But you're right, I'm not like that. But even at my level of mastery... there's a reason why I never lose my head in a crisis. And there's a reason that I wasn't the person who founded or led Quark."

"You?" Maria actually spent several seconds considering the idea. "In charge of Quark?"

"Oh? You don't think I could fill Cliff's shoes? I'm stronger than him, I'm more evenly tempered, I have a much wider range of skills than he does, I'm better-looking..."

Maria stifled a smirk. "Well, yes... but... no. It wouldn't work. It just wouldn't."

"Because I'm not Cliff," Mirage agreed. "Because Cliff is the kind of person who sees a problem and reacts to it. He's the kind of person who doesn't draw a line between himself and the rest of the world, but lets himself be fully affected by the world. People didn't join Quark because they knew that it had a dependable and talented second-in-command. They joined because its leader inspired them to believe in the cause, because he had a passion for it."

"I suppose I would agree with that."

"And later on," the Klausian added, "we found ourselves someone else who had the same passion for the cause. And best of all, she didn't drink or chase skirts or keep having 'hunches' in the middle of a crisis."

Maria couldn't quite hide her smile. "Yes, thank goodness for other influences. But you're telling me that this control training is-"

"It's not just a matter of simple personality traits," Mirage insisted. "True, I'm a quieter, less-intrusive individual than Cliff is. And I would be even if I'd never trained a day in my life. But people like yourself and Cliff, who both radiate passion in your own fashions... you don't just decide to be that way. It comes naturally to you, as you interact and react honestly to the rest of the world. And if you spend enough time training to override your own responses to the world around you..."

"-you stop reacting to the world?"

"In a way, yes. You do it in a very levelheaded, logical fashion, but you DO react to the world. Depending on circumstances, you may repress or channel those reactions and the feelings they invoke, but they exist nonetheless. And even if you lack Cliff's theatrics and quirks, your feelings come through clearly to those around you. Or did you think it was simply chance that Quark almost tripled in size during the time you led it?"

"Well, no," Maria admitted. "But you're telling me that this training... would actually change me like that? You've never mentioned anything like this before."

"It hadn't seemed an issue," Mirage informed her. "And no, there was no danger of you suddenly turning into a completely different person. Rather, the very fact that you're having so much difficulty could well be construed as proof that who you are is stronger than any attempt at training."

Maria was silent for several moments.

"This... is sudden," she finally managed. "You're telling me that I can't be strong like you are? Not without changing who I am?"

"It's a possibility."

"You seem to have given a lot of thought to this 'possibility'. Without mentioning it earlier."

"Well, it's not as though you're the first individual in your position. Or did you think that Cliff avoided this particular training for another reason?"

"He was lazy?" Maria suggested.

"Believe it not, him and my father actually spent a lot of time on this particular topic. And in the end, he decided to concentrate on the other aspects of the school - Technique and Spirit. That's why, from a technical and tactical perspective, he's excellent. He's even quite proficient at harnessing his own spiritual energy."


"But," Mirage agreed, "he lacks the third element - Body. He hasn't mastered Control of Self, which is why someone half his size routinely defeats him. On the other hand, the best I can manage is to inspire people to believe in myself. Whereas Cliff can inspire people to believe in something much bigger than himself."

"And you're saying that I might fall into the same category?"

"You don't think so?"

"I... I'm not sure. This wasn't on the agenda yesterday, you know."

"Look on the bright side - now you have something more relevant to meditate on in your free time."

A suspicious glare. "You and your father are both plotting against me, aren't you?"

"Just your imagination. Now, why don't you go and shower? Supper isn't far off, and that will let my father and I coordinate our plotting-I mean, our advice for you."

"Ugh." With some effort, Maria staggered to her feet, her body still feeling the residual effects of the last stun-gun shot. "You're just lucky the benefits of this training outweigh the comedy routines that come with it."


"Alright, I'm here," Maria announced, even as she strode purposefully into the kitchen. "So all plotters and conspirators... cease and desist."

Two innocent expressions met her accusing stare, until she gave up and took the last seat for her own. Looking at her own meal, she renewed the stare. "And somebody is trying to fatten me up again, I see."

"After training all afternoon?" Elias inquired. "You still have the smallest portions, do you not? And I will not have any student of mine starving to death."

Maria rolled her eyes. It was an old argument.

Along with all the earlier-mentioned Klausian physiological differences came a caveat - the entire set-up burned energy like a runaway impulse engine. On the list of common Earthling terms that were completely foreign to Klausians, the idea of 'leftovers' and 'dieting' were quite high up. To put it another way, there were sumo wrestlers that ate less than Mirage did. And there were sumo wrestling TEAMS that ate less than people like Cliff or Elias. To a Klausian, the expression 'I could eat a horse' was a declaration of intent. Maria wouldn't have been surprised to learn that high-class Klausian restaurants offered in-house financing.

"But I'm barely moving fifty kilograms," she pointed out, not for the first time. "I'm not actually working against this planet's gravity like you two are."

"How do you know that?" Mirage inquired, from behind her own personal Field of Nourishment. "Perhaps your powers are simply allowing you to work hard enough to match the environment, rather than actually negating its effects on you. In which case you do need to eat more."

"And you could stand to get a little more muscle on you," Elias agreed sagely. His own meal could be mistaken for an aerial view of a plantation beside a sprawling cattle ranch. Nearby, the Three Gorges Dam waited, ready to provide liquid sustenance on demand.

"And I was taller than you are when I was only nine," Mirage added.

"And I'm telling you both," Maria insisted, "there are lots of Earthlings who are my size. And Klausians hit their growth spurt earlier, and you know it. I also notice nobody bothered to get me extra coffee to go with the extra food."

"That is what stunts your growth," Mirage insisted. "And that blend of yours... it's no wonder you're never sick. It probably kills any germs on contact."

"I didn't start drinking coffee until after I stopped growing," Maria countered haughtily. "And I won't hear any slander towards my special 'Captain's Blend'. And for the two people with the biggest helpings, you don't seem to be any hurry to start eating."


Supper was finished in due course, leaving behind a field of spotless plates and dry glasses. Once they got down to business, Klausians rarely wasted time eating. They ate politely and neatly, but they did it continuously, until there was nothing left within reach.

"An excellent meal," Elias pronounced, stacking his collection of plates atop one another. "And I notice you seemed to find room for it all, Maria."

Maria raised an eyebrow. "I'll blame you if I become too fat to dodge stun-bolts."

"I doubt that will become a problem. My daughter says your performance has been quite satisfactory to date."

"Well, someone my size fits between the stun-bolts easier," she countered. "And I don't think this food is going to be any help with my control lessons."

"She mentioned that also," he agreed, but didn't comment further.

"Sensei?" Maria inquired. "Mirage did mention what we talked about, right? Apparently you and Cliff had a similar discussion at one point long ago?"


"Mirage, tell your father to start talking."

"Poor baby." Mirage patted Maria on the head patronizingly. "Is my father hoarding all the wisdom again?"

"YES. I learn lots of things from you, Mirage. Lots of useful things, which help me improve in lots of areas."

"Rest assured," Elias soothed, "I would tell you if I thought you were unable to figure them out by yourself."


"You're frustrating her, father."

"She works better under pressure."


"True, she does. But maybe you should consider giving her something to work with?"

"And what would that entail?"

"Perhaps..." Mirage looked thoughtful. "You could consent to answer a question with only a minimal amount of ambiguity. But only one question."

"I suppose," Elias agreed. "But she's occupied with several issues at the moment. To only be granted one question..."


"She'll definitely have to make it count, won't she?"

"Indeed. This should be interesting."

"What is this?" Maria finally muttered. "Good Sensei, Bad Sensei?"

"Will that be your question?"

Maria didn't dignify the question with a response.

"I'll get the dishes," Mirage volunteered.

"My question..." Maria took another long drink of her coffee - her third one. "My question is... in your opinion, to the best of your knowledge and experience, in clear and concise detail... taking my training for 'Control of Self' and my possible options at this time, parallel THAT with Cliff's training and his decision."

There was a moment of pregnant silence from the other two occupants of the room, as they exchanged long glances with each other.

"Not too bad," Mirage finally allowed.

"Unexpected," her father agreed. "But reasonable."

"And your response, Sensei?" Maria pressed.

"The situation he faced, and the situation you face... they are quite different. In both cases, they involve deciding whether or not to pursue a certain aspect of training. But you bring much different arguments to the table than Cliff did.

"In Cliff's case, the boy had no arguments to speak of. He was much as he is today, except without the benefit of his later experiences. He was having difficulty with the training, much like yourself, and was considering setting it aside in favour of other pursuits. Unfortunately, there were no other pursuits to speak of, at the time.

"He had no real justification for abandoning his training, save that he was having difficulty, and that he might emerge a considerably changed person in the process. As though his present person was accomplishing much of note at the time. In hindsight, I think it worked out for the best, but it could have just as easily resulted in nothing. And even he will admit that his 'Quark' would have failed without the help of certain other individuals. Such as my daughter, for one."

"And my situation is different?"

"Quite. The first time you were faced with this choice, was shortly after your powers emerged. I can hardly fault you for desiring to focus your training on controlling that power, especially considering what it showed itself capable of."

"That's what we thought at the time," Maria agreed. "And now I get to make the same choice again? Without that excuse?"

"Without that excuse," Elias agreed, "but with a new arguments. My daughter says that your interaction with your surroundings and situations - unrestricted by any special training - leads to a certain type of passion and ability to inspire those around you. I agree with her, but I think she may be missing a bigger point."

Ever so slightly, Maria leaned forward. "A bigger point?"

"It is a well-known fact that people operate better under pressure, when their bodies and minds undergo changes to facilitate more efficient operation, which brings better results. Unfortunately, as the pressure increases, everyone reaches a point where the pressure overwhelms them and becomes counterproductive. A breaking point, if you will. Some reach that point very quickly, while others can handle a great deal of pressure.

"You on the other hand..." And here, the man's eyes narrowed, "I have heard countless stories from both you and Mirage, covering everything from your original meeting, your training, the emergence of your powers, your taking on Quark's leadership mantle, and your fight against the so-called 'Creator'. And while you greatly taxed your mind and body at times, I am not convinced you ever truly reached a breaking point."

"I do tend to handle pressure well," Maria agreed.

"You tend to thrive under pressure," Elias corrected firmly. "Even my own daughter, as dependable and capable as she is, can only claim to hold steady under pressure. And whatever your true potential might be, I do not think it will be realized by seeking to separate yourself from that which would challenge and test you."

"So in your opinion," Maria interpreted, "you're saying that continuing this training might put a serious damper on my strengths? So what are the points in favour of continuing the training?"

"It would help you deal with problems without involving yourself directly," he replied. "One of your weaknesses is your inability to tackle a problem from an outside perspective."

"I can take an outside perspective on-"

"You cannot," he interrupted firmly. "You can look at the problem from afar. But you have a great deal of difficulty when it comes to solving it from afar. Your approach to problem solving typically involves inserting yourself in the centre of the problem."

Maria's brow furrowed.

"Remember when you first arrived on Elicoor II?" Mirage suggested. "Remember how the target was down on the surface? Remember how two extremely competent crew members were already guarding him? Remember how there was a Vendeeni battleship approaching the area? Remember what your solution was?"

"Was I in charge of Quark or not?" Maria inquired. "You couldn't possibly have expected to me to try and handle things from a distance. Convincing Fayt of our authenticity, when we knew he was the type of person who would be most responsive to someone else in his position? Leaving the Diplo gave me the freedom to deal with Fayt directly, and gave the Diplo the freedom to stay clear of the Vendeeni at the same time.

"Furthermore, I had no way of knowing what your situation was on the surface, but it was a sure bet that you were in close contact with the natives. It was crucial that your situation be immediately verified. By doing it myself, I put myself in position to immediately react to whatever the situation happened to be, without having to rely on surface-to-ship communications, which could have been jammed or intercepted by the Vendeeni."

Taking a deep breath, Maria crossed her arms. "In short, it was a perfectly acceptable solution for the circumstances."

"And it proves my point," Elias concluded. "Unless you think otherwise?"

Maria gave the matter some thought, before finally giving it a wave. "I'll let the point stand. Are you implying there's something wrong with that?"

"The effectiveness of your methodology is not up for debate. Your inability to do anything else is what I am pointing out. By pursuing this training further, you would likely become more proficient at taking a 'hands off' approach to conflict."

"But... why? Why would I want to do that?"

He shrugged. "Why indeed? I am simply stating my opinion, remember? Whether or not you wish to pursue that course is up to you. Perhaps that would be a good focus for your meditations?"

"You really don't like my current focus, do you?"

"Consider what I have said," he reminded her. "You have accomplished a great deal, always by involving yourself directly with the problem. Even now, you have thrown yourself whole-heartedly into training, and are rapidly progressing in many areas. Yet you expect to solve your existential dilemma by sitting by yourself in a room and thinking?"


"If there is an answer to found to your question, I do not think you will find it by your present methods. Rather, you will solve it as you have always done - by involving yourself in the problem."

"But Sensei, the problem is... life," Maria protested weakly. "Existence, I mean."

"And are you involving yourself with life and existence, even as you meditate upon them?"

"I... never looked it that way, I suppose."

"Then try," he suggested kindly. "It only my opinion, of course, but if you are having difficulty with your present approach..."

You could take the 'opinions' of Elias Koas to the bank, Maria had learned a long time ago. "I'll do that."

The polite knock at the door was timed perfectly, in that it cleanly interrupted the conversation, and that it happened as Mirage was returning after delivering the used dishes. Swinging the door open - Elias preferred manually-operated doors where practical - she met the new arrival. "Morie. Can I help you?"

The man - the security guard Maria had dealt with earlier - nodded his head respectfully, as befitting someone who stood to inherit the dojo and could consistently defeat anyone short of her own father.

"Miss Koas. I have a message for Miss Traydor."

Mirage moved out the way, even as Maria focussed her attention on the man. "I'm here."

"We have just received a communications request for you. I thought I'd inform you in person, just to delay any possible rumours. The request seems to be from the Pangalactic Federation High Council, you see. Through unofficial channels, but even still..."

Synchronized expressions of interest came from both Koas', but Maria only smiled. "Oh really? Any subject information provided?"

"None, I'm afraid."

In other words, the Pangalactic Federation had requested to directly contact someone who had recently led an organization against them. And they hadn't seen fit to let the local governments know the details. "Well, that is interesting," Maria decided, her smile growing. "I'd better see what they want, hadn't I?"

"It's scheduled for ten minutes from now," he informed her. "I can only use standard encryption on it, but I'll do that and route it to your quarters, if you like?"

"Please." Turning towards her two teachers. "Sensei, Mirage. Do you mind?"

"Not at all."

"Have fun."


Normally, after the galaxy is saved from complete destruction, by means of previously unheard of powers, there are any number of interested parties wanting to 'further investigate' the matter.

The aftermath of the 'Creator Incident' had been no exception.

No sooner had the group found themselves back in their own still-existing reality, then various groups had begun quietly clamouring for both information and permission to get more information about the three individuals at the centre of the group of saviours. Fayt and Sophia had been a little overwhelmed, to put it mildly.

To further a fledging branch of science, they were told. To continue the legacy of Dr. Leingod's groundbreaking research, they were told. For the benefit of humanity everywhere, they were told. They'd be exceptionally well paid for their assistance, they were finally told.

It was best left alone, Maria had replied. Dr. Leingod had been involved in forbidden and illegal research, Maria had replied. The research into such powers had quite possibly sparked the 'Creator Incident' in the first place, Maria had replied. They could all go to hell, Maria had finally replied.

In the end, Maria had resorted to petitioning the Pangalactic Federation High Council for protection, taking advantage of the general public support for the people who had saved them. On behalf of Fayt, Sophia, and herself, she had made a formal presentation, outlining the numerous benefits and reasons that the entire business should be buried for good. And she had done an excellent job of explaining things, as befitting someone involved in a large diplomatic organization like Quark.

The High Council hadn't agreed.

So Maria had made another presentation, involving a large collection of incriminating documents, involving the various members of the council, or in some cases, the entire council. She had spent a long time gathering it all, even before this incident had come to light, as befitting someone involved in a large information brokering organization like Quark. They could bury it all, or broadcast it all, she informed them politely.

There had been some more 'discussion' afterwards, but in the end, cooler, conservative heads had prevailed, and an agreement had been reached. Fayt and Sophia had given free-reign to pursue their own lives, and Maria had done likewise with her own. It was a storybook-worthy conclusion to her time as leader of Quark.


Sitting down at her desk, Maria gave her computer screen a cursory glance. There had been no breaking news in the last few months, nothing to suggest that the treaty of "Quit screwing around with my life and I won't bust your collective asses over the illegal Symbological Genetics business that you gave approval to, which may very well have encouraged the entire Creator Incident in the first place" wasn't being upheld.

And yet, here she was, only moments away from having a conversation with the High Council, for reasons as yet unknown. Her own records were quite clean, since Quark had never actually been an illegal organization (at least, never convicted), simply a terribly inconvenient one for many people, and a favourite media scapegoat. No notable events had occurred since she had returned Quark's leadership mantle to Cliff, much less anything that she was related to.

A polite beep from her terminal informed her that another party wished to make contact with her. A light tap on the keyboard approved the request and allowed a visual of her own head to be transmitted to the requester.

The image of a man's face appeared before her, instantly recognizable to anyone who paid any attention of politics. Fifteen-sixteenths Earthling, with the remainder being a stubbornly-visible Velbaysian from several generations back, the man's dark skin contrasted sharply with his pale tan hair. He had been something of a political minor at one point, but with the annihilation of the old High Council (along with 67 percent of the Earth's surface infrastructure), his consistent and above-average service record in the military had come to light. In a time when stability was a priority, and military security a close second, he had been one of the individuals quickly promoted to fill the leadership vacuum. And thus far, he had performed as promised, providing a maximum of leadership and organization during the rebuilding efforts, with minimum of surprises and scandals.

The man was possessed of a rather blunt and unspectacular approach to public relations, which saw him focussing more on behind scenes discussions, rather than addressing the public at large. If the High Council was trying to contact her, it was hardly surprising that he would be chosen as the spokesperson.

"Admiral Uodo," Maria greeted politely. "This is certainly unexpected."

"Miss Traydor," the man returned. "And if you don't mind, just 'Jacob' is fine at this time. I hope I'm not interrupting anything?"

"Not in the least. I just finished supper, in fact."

"Good, good. I must confess, I sent the communication request to your location in the hopes that you hadn't moved on since we last heard of you. Incidentally, you have my thanks for your assistance in those trade talks a month ago. There are more than a few people who don't believe they would have succeeded without your help."

Translation: 'We weren't sure if you still lived in the Koas dojo, because we haven't been spying on you, just like we agreed. And we're also grateful to you for bailing out the resource exchange talks, which almost collapsed because of the complete ass of a representative we decided to send. I'm even asking you to refer to me on a first-name basis. So please regard us favourably, okay?'

"You're quite welcome, Jacob," Maria assured him. "And the deals struck were quite beneficial to both the Klausians and the Federation. To be honest, I hope your diplomat has since brushed up on how to work with Klausians. It's not as though both parties weren't trying to work with each other."

"There will certainly be no repeat of that," the man assured her, a small smile indicating that wasn't taking offence to her criticism. "And yes, the deals were certainly beneficial to both sides. So you are currently uninvolved in any other projects?"

"Hmm... no projects involving anyone else," she allowed.

"Is that so? If you'll forgive my bluntness, you never struck me as the type of person capable of staying idle for so long."

"Spend a week in training at a Klausian dojo and see how 'idle' you feel."

"I think that I'll take your word for it, Miss Traydor." His face pulling away from the camera slightly, Maria could almost imagine the man sitting back in his chair and steepling his fingers in anticipation. "So it seems that, on behalf of a friend of mine, I'm trying to convince you to set aside a personal project, in favour of a different one."

Well, that was a loaded statement.

Maria settled for outwardly raising an eyebrow. "That sounds like quite a challenge, if you ask me. Just how were you planning on doing that?"

He actually chuckled at her statement. "To be honest, I was wondering the same thing. But I've got another problem to deal with first. I need to convince you to come all the way to Earth to meet face-to-face with my friend."

"It doesn't get easier, does it?"

"Not at all. Worst of all, I'm trying to do it without actually telling you the nature of the meeting."

Maria finally frowned. The Admiral wasn't known for this type of word play. Neither was she, for that matter. "That's not a lot to go on," she finally pointed out. "This friend of yours seems to be putting a lot of restrictions on what you can do."

"I suppose that I could tell you," he admitted. "But I'm sure you're aware that, because of a certain agreement a few months ago, media people are prohibited from pursuing you about certain incidents. Unless, of course, there was reason to believe that you were considering getting involved with the Federation in a new capacity."

Maria exhaled audibly, a few details starting to become clearer. "Well... that's certainly food for thought. It's a good thing that I'm not considering undertaking any projects with the Pangalactic Federation, isn't it... Jacob?"

"I didn't think you would," he agreed neutrally.

"But if you happen to have a 'friend' that wants me to... consider a different project," Maria continued blithely, "that would allow me to remain free of any inconvenient media pursuit and attention, wouldn't it? After all, what Jacob Uodo does in his own time doesn't fall under any Freedom of Information legislation. Only Federation business, along with entities in its official employ, falls under those laws."

"You may be right," he agreed, expression still unreadable.

"So that leaves you with your first problem," she concluded. "You still have to convince me to go to Earth, don't you?"

"I do," he admitted. "I don't have much to offer, I'm afraid. I can certainly arrange for some high-quality transportation. Should you decide to... continue your personal training, I can certainly arrange for similar transportation back to the Klaus system afterwards. I suspect there may be some good financial compensation available. But beyond that, I suppose I'm gambling on you being curious, and interested in... a project of a less personal nature. One that would call upon a combination of your talents and contacts."

"Oh really?"

"By the way," he began abruptly, "I don't suppose you've heard anything from your friends on Elicoor II? You made some acquaintances there, according to the report you filed."

Maria was silent for a long moment. "No... I'm afraid not. The Klaus system isn't required to follow the UP3, but the law isn't a bad one, so it's followed in spirit."

"Of course, of course. At any rate, am I offering enough incentive for you to at least come to Earth?"

...being curious... a project... Elicoor II...

She probably could demand that he divulge all the details, Maria knew. Granted, it might just make her open season for that blight on civilization known as 'Mass Media', but she could probably deal with that in due time. On the other hand, for what reason? Because she wanted to stay clear of any potential problems? Because she wanted some peace and quiet?

Maria Traydor didn't work like that, and didn't plan on starting now.

Besides, as the ex-leader of Quark during its highest point, she still had a number of... casual contacts. And from them, there had been a considerable number of promising reports about this member of the High Council. Admiral Jacob Uodo was a politician by any definition, but with an above-average track record for honesty and integrity in most things. It wasn't as though the man was blameless - in fact, she knew full well that he'd been one of many who had approved Dr. Leingod's Symbological Genetics project twenty years ago. But he was going out of his way to win her favour... and dropping some VERY interesting hints.

Mirage father was probably right - she did deal with problems by putting herself in the middle of them. Why stop now?

"I suppose I'm not so busy that I can't spare the time," she finally decided. "The high-quality transport you spoke of...?"

"It left this morning," he informed her, a slightly relieved smile finally crossing his face, "if you'll forgive the presumption. I'm sending you the boarding schedule right now."
Maria allowed herself to smile, if only to show that she wasn't about to take it as a slight. It was possible that Mirage's father wasn't the only person who had a handle on her operating style and character. "Then I'll see you - and your friend - soon," she decided.

"Excellent. Until then, Miss Traydor."


"So, how did it go?"

Maria shrugged in reply to Mirage's inquiry. "High Council wanted me to go talk with them in person. Wouldn't even say what the reason was over a standard-encryption channel."

Mirage nodded thoughtfully. She hadn't bothered standing when Maria entered her quarters, instead remaining seated in her armchair. "So, when are you leaving?"

"I didn't say that I was."

Mirage didn't say anything.

"I didn't," Maria insisted.

"So that smirk on your face, that new spring in your step... completely unrelated?"

A sigh. "Am I some kind of open book?"

"Like there was ever any doubt," Mirage informed her dryly. "Cliff may go looking for challenges, but you... My father is right - you thrive on challenges. And it's a rare person who actually looks excited to hear that the High Council has contacted them."

"Admiral Uodo didn't give me much information to work with," Maria griped. "He says that it's to prevent any legitimate media attention, although I'm willing to bet that he's got his own reasons as well."

"That's quite intriguing. So you'll just have to go see for yourself?"

"That's what I decided. He's providing transportation, at any rate. Both ways, if I don't like what he has to say."

"Well, I think it sounds like a good idea. You've been here for over three months, I think the strain is starting to show. You've never been particularly good at being idle, and I don't think it would be healthy to push your training any further."

"If you're trying to get rid of me," Maria suggested teasingly, "just say so."

"Well, if you put it that way..." Mirage agreed. "I was rather hoping to have Cliff come over, you see. I'm sure that I still have my spike heels and my whip... I'll have to see if I can't find some new handcuffs, though..."

Maria ground her teeth quietly.

"Unless you've done any more research recently that you'd care to share...?"

Maria ground her teeth a little more, acutely aware that her face was started to go red, despite her best efforts. "You..."

Everybody has some embarrassing event in his or her life that never quite seems to get buried. Instead, it regularly rises from the dead to haunt them, courtesy of whoever else happens to know about it. In Maria's case, said embarrassing event occurred when was fourteen. And just like so much else in her life, it was fairly spectacular in magnitude.

To make a long story short, it had involved one puberty-ravaged mind, seeing Cliff and Mirage discreetly leaving the holodeck together after many of their private sparring matches - with Cliff heavily beaten, coupled with some badly-timed, wide-eyed perusing of a Quark member's stray fetish magazine, followed by a few long leaps of logic about the nature of their relationship, followed by extensive online research, followed by an early display of bold leadership and initiative in confronting the two Klausians on the health perils of their hobby...

...and concluded in a lifetime supply of potential blackmail against Maria.

"I still can't believe you let me lecture you for fifteen minutes," Maria muttered in disbelief.

"We couldn't believe you actually had fifteen minutes of lecture material," Mirage nonchalantly countered. "I can only imagine how much time you must have spent, researching on the subject."


"And it was a very well thought-out presentation, I thought. Lots of pictures. Cliff and I learned so much from it, you know."

"Someday," Maria breathed, her face so red she could feel it. "I don't know how, but someday I'm going to get strong enough to beat you. Then it's going to be payback time..."

"Yes, yes, I know," Mirage soothed, her face radiating the polar opposite of remorse. "It's always good to be ambitious. But in the meantime, you have a trip to pack for, don't you?"

Faced with the possibility of continuing the present line of discussion, for which she had absolutely zero ammunition, Maria allowed the subject change. "That shouldn't take long. It's not like I own very much."

"True. So what are you going to do to occupy yourself while you're on Earth?"

"I'll find something, I suppose. Check out some Federation news archives and see if events sound different there than here."

"Maybe you could try doing some research on your Alteration powers?"

"I suppose, although I can't imagine where I'd be able to find any information on that-" Maria trailed off, giving Mirage a suspicious look. "You're not seriously suggesting that I talk with him, are you?"

"And why not? Dr. Esteed may well have some information that you would find helpful. Especially since Dr. Leingod is no more, and to the best of our knowledge, his wife was less involved in the project."

"Mirage..." Maria exhaled noisily. "Dr. Leingod got off easy, compared to what I would have liked to do to him. And Dr. Esteed... the first thing he did after being introduced to me was to suggest more tests!"

"I know, I was there, remember? But I think that was a spur of the moment thing. I doubt he meant any disrespect or inconsideration. You did see his face just after, didn't you?"

"Yes, I did. His face said 'Please stop hurting me'."

Mirage looked amused. "Well, yes, besides that. But this really would be a good chance to try and ease a few of your own concerns."


"I'm simply pointing out that that the man represents a unique opportunity. I'm not suggesting you forgive him; I'm suggesting that you move forward and possibly get some useful results. If nothing else, surely the man owes you that much, correct? And don't try to tell me that your powers don't still bother you. You've done well to keep practicing with them, rather than simply try to ignore them. But even still..."

"They... my powers don't bother me," Maria corrected her. "They used to, but I've progressed far enough that I think I can call them my own now."

"I would tend to agree. But that doesn't mean they don't bother you on some level."

"It's not quite like that," the younger girl insisted. "It's just, even back when they first appeared, before I knew what I do now... I always had a feeling that they weren't random. That they were meant for something special. And by extension, myself."

"And you were."

"And I was," Maria agreed. "And they didn't disappear. They're still here, and... I still feel like there's more to them. Like I haven't finished using them."

"Like there's something else they're meant for?"

"I suppose so. It's not very logical, I know."

"Many things aren't. But don't let that stop you from handling the possibility with logic. What if there really is something else?"

"I can't do anything about it," Maria admitted. "I don't know what it is, I don't know what it might involve. I can either try to pretend it's not there, or I can prepare myself as best I can beforehand."

"Exactly," Mirage approved. "And your time here has certainly not been wasted. You've learned new skills, you've refined existing ones... and you've always been good at adapting your existing skills to new tasks. So continue to do so, and if it turns out that your premonition is right... deal with it in the same way as you've handled every other problem until now."

"By putting myself right in the middle of it?"

"Go with your strengths, right? And in the meantime, continue to learn and grow stronger through whatever opportunities present themselves."

"Right." Maria's face abruptly screwed up in a grimace. "I've run out of excuses to not talk with Dr. Esteed, haven't I?"

Mirage gave an innocent look. "Well, if that's the conclusion you've come to, I suppose there's no stopping you."



"This is the number? Thank-you."
"No trouble at all, ma'am. Have a nice day."

Absent-mindedly tapping a few keys on her keyboard, Maria leaned back in her chair. As usual, arguing with Mirage had been a futile effort, except to make her end up advocating the very thing she'd been dead set again. It was probably a good thing that Mirage was on her side, Maria finally admitted, not for the first time. The idea of having her as an enemy... some thoughts were just too terrible to contemplate.

A few quick checks had easily pulled up the number to the current Esteed residence, which was presently being dialled by the computer. If nothing else, the fact that they were presently residing on Earth was probably a good sign. The planet had taken a devastating hit during the war, with many reports suggesting that rebuilding could take decades at best...

A friendly beep alerted her that a connection had been made and accepted by the other end. Straightening slightly, Maria waited for the other person to resolve. The image that finally appeared was a welcome one, a baby face with bright blue eyes, boundless optimism, and an expression that hoped you had a nice day and meant it from the bottom of her heart.

"MARIA!!!" Sophia exclaimed, her face too close to the camera, and looking positively overjoyed.

"Sophia," Maria greeted. "You're looking well."

"You too! It's been so long! How are you?"

"I'm doing quite well. Yourself?"

"Just great! Lots has happened since last time! And you didn't give us any contact address, so we couldn't call you! We didn't know what you were up to!"

Maria had the grace to look a little guilty, as befitting someone who hadn't gotten around to getting in touch earlier. "Sorry about that, but at the time, I didn't know what I was going to be doing either."

"Aw, that's okay. But we really have to get together sometime!"

"I was just thinking the same thing myself," Maria agreed. "And since I'm heading to Earth on some business..."

"You're coming here?" Sophia's expression abruptly shifted. "Er, what kind of business?"

"Good business, don't worry. But I thought I'd call and see if we couldn't arrange something...?"

"That would be great! When are you going to be here?"

"Hmm... I'm not entirely sure, to be honest. I'm travelling first-class, but it should still be a three-day trip. And I haven't confirmed how long I'm staying for."

Sophia glanced downwards, her mouth and shoulder motions suggestive of someone counting on their fingers. "...Where are you staying?"

"Well, I haven't made reservations yet, but I'm sure I can find a hotel nearby-"

"I have a better idea! Why don't you stay here?"

Maria blinked. "Here-I mean, your place?"

"Sure, we can have a sleepover! Fayt can come over too, and we'll have LOTS of time to talk and stuff. And I've got some new dishes you can try-"

"Sold," Maria announced, her smile beginning to match Sophia's. The girl's cooking wasn't to be denied, that was for certain. And she was right - Maria had been negligent at keeping in contact, and it would take more than a casual lunch to fix that.

"Here, I'll send you directions to the house," Sophia decided. "Whenever you arrive, just come over. Just in case I'm in classes, I'll tell the computer to let you in, okay? If I'm not there, just let yourself in and make yourself at home, okay?"

"Sounds great, Sophia. See you then?"

"I can't wait to tell Fayt, he's going to be thrilled! See you then, Maria!!!"

Even after the monitor screen went dark, Maria still had a smile on her face. There was a probably a reason she hadn't taken the effort to get in touch with Fayt and Sophia, but... at the moment, she couldn't imagine what it was.

It would be good to catch up on events, and see how the two had been doing. There had been a few tense moments at one point, but she'd stood her ground, defending all three of them against anyone who thought they could dictate the direction their lives would go... and she'd fashioned them all clean slates to work with. And now she would get a chance to see what Fayt and Sophia had made of their opportunities in the last three months. Somehow, she suspected they'd made the most of them.

Leaning back in her chair, Maria reviewed her now-burgeoning agenda. She was heading for Earth to meet with the Pangalactic Federation High Council, for reasons completely unknown, but just possibly having something to do with Elicoor II. She was going to meet up with the two other people in the universe who shared the same powers as she did. She was going to talk with one of the men who had blatantly influenced her life's direction at her birth.

She hadn't felt this energized in months.

It had been a great three months here, at the Koas dojo, learning from both Mirage and her father. But she had spent them simply letting events happen to her, and had found herself demanding answers from life.

Maybe Mirage and her father were right, Maria decided. Maybe she was meant to handle problems in a direct fashion. Maybe she was at her best in the thick of the chaos and conflict. Maybe for her, confrontation and action was her best route to results. And maybe she was just tired of sitting still.

Maybe it was time to get back to meeting life head-on.


Author's Notes:

I suppose here is as good a place as any to insert some preliminary ass-covering literature. Nobody really wants to read this kind of thing right away, do they? But I figure that if you actually read this far, and actually care to continue reading future installments, you might appreciate a little warning about the intended direction of this piece.

Firstly, just for the record, this is not a continuation of any other SO3 material I might have put out. I may include earlier elements and ideas, but simply because I consider them to be very plausible (or implausible, but I need them anyway, dammit). For this fanfic, I'm assuming familiarity with the game and nothing else.

Secondly, this fanfic is, in a nutshell, an after-game piece. Lead roles will be Maria and Nel, with various other characters regulated to secondary spots. It will be LOOSELY structured off the game's four bonus dungeon scenarios, with various game endings, scenarios, and NPC's incorporated throughout, and with an exceedingly generous dose of Kitchen Sink to round things off. Pretty standard fare, in other words. To my chagrin, I will also have to resort to introducing an original character, so allow me to offer my apologies in advance. Above all, I intend to have some fun writing this, and have every intention of trying out a few new directions in the process, for better or much, much worse (trust me on this).

I should probably apologize for the general verbosity, but this is going to be a fairly sizable story, and I needed to lay down a fair bit of groundwork right away. Unfortunately, the next chapter will be similar. To be honest, I like trying to tweak and stilt my writing style with each new piece I write. This time around, I'm going to be trying my hand at supplying more detail and small talk throughout. For what it's worth, there are very few points in this chapter that won't be revisited at a later point.

On a final note, I should probably post a content warning for this story. Firstly, expect lots of violence, once this story finally gets underway. I've got four bonus dungeons to cover in this story, which means LOTS of fighting. Secondly, swear words will show up from time to time. Not often, since it's been several years since I typed a swear word aside from 'damn', but they'll be there. Lastly, at least one or two chapters WILL contain 'adult situations' (a.k.a. various sexual matters and situations), which some people prefer not to read. I'll be doing my best to keep it all to the point that a PG rating still applies, but... we'll see.

Beyond that, readers beware. Cheers.

End Chapter 1-A

Last Revision: 09/17/07