Episode 0: Contacts
Chapter 1: Third Tragedy

Unknown Place, Unknown Time

Ulolos felt at peace, his senses basking in the splendor of Jump Space. To the young ones, it was a sea of anarchy, waves of gravity battering their meager beings.

But to one such as Vorlon, whose wisdom stretched unfathomable millennia, the tides swirled in a mesmeric rhythm. The pulse of the universe simply child's play to predict, and his ship glided through this space with a grace that even the hated Dancers In The Dark would envy.

His ship sung to him, the melodic trill catching his attention as he withdrew his awareness. He sang a command to his ship in return, and the pulse of the universe changed momentarily, shifting to match with his will upon it. Space weaved and folded, cascading in a flash of brilliance as his ship transited from the swirling tides to a realm of silence.

It was sobering, mused Ulolos, how the beliefs of two ancient beings could be so different despite the goals they shared. This realm reflected its masters' ideals: order, unity, perfection... all encompassed in the eternal silence and stillness.

The stillness of death, he thought with discomfort.

His ship sang softly, his senses recognizing the contacts appearing around him. From the crystal spires that floated in this still space, they arose. Distant jewels that glowed in the starless void. A psychic presence probed at Ulolos' very being, a choir ringing through his soul as the Collective spoke.

Why have you come?

He sang in response, his own telepathic probe in sync with the melody of his communicator to It/Them. "The Circle calls for them. They will become the foundation."

They are not yours to guide.

"Whether they realize it, the Pebble is part of the Mountain."

Enraged, the Collective radiated Ulolos with their hostility, the gleaming masses glaring challengingly to his ship. They do not carry your taint, It/They spoke in unison. Had his race still hold the capacity to, he might have smiled condescendingly. How little they truly understood, isolated as they were.

"It is an inevitable truth. They are and will be the foundation."

Your duty is to Guide, but ours is to Guard. They do not belong to you. That is the decree we all abide to.The pressure upon him changed, gaining focus. Ahead of his ship, a small mass of the Collective began to grow, and the psychic presence that had touched him suddenly intensified, nearly crushing him beneath its sheer power.

Ulolos had expected this reaction, but... something was wrong. Something was... different. The Collective had changed since they last spoke, he realized with a start at the psychic pressure descended upon him.

Suddenly, he did not feel as confident of winning this argument as he was before.

"Your experiment is flawed," he reasoned with a calmness he didn't feel, and no doubt the being before him sensed his hesitation. "If allowed to run wild, they will fall. They must be united with The Light."

Is that a challenge?

"Then you would let them fall? To join with Chaos?"

There are contingencies. They will not be touched by either Vorlon or Shadow.

Ulolos felt control of the situation slipping, and he knew he had lost. The Collective had made their decision, and he alone would not be enough to change it. To force the issue would be calling a war against their oldest ally, and with the Shadows soon to awaken, he could not allow that to take place.

"They will join, whether by our will or their own," he warned, "The Circle is inevitable." Silence greeted his proclamation, the eldritch being before him bowed its head in thought. The Collective answered together, their choir reverberating again through Ulolos' soul.

If so, then we will not stop them. Perfection. Order. Zukunft. If they follow the path, then that is all we will need.

It was the best Ulolos knew he would get. "Very well then, Neue Regisseur. We will not push. For now."

Kuiper Belt - Rim of Sol System, 179SE

She glided serenely through the void, a trail of blue light dissipating from her ion drives. A behemoth of steel and titanium, her crimson hull reflected the glimmer of distant stars, giving her an almost ethereal shine. She represented the peak of her creator's achievements, their steady crawl back to greatness from the dark age of conflict, and carried within her was a precious cargo of her world's best and brightest.

She was Hiryu-The Soaring Dragon. The technological pride of Humanity, and the first in the line of Deep-Space Explorers.

Lieutenant Colonel Daitetsu Minase leaned back in the captain's chair overlooking the bridge, his eyes locked on the main monitor that lined the walls, emulating a window to the naked eye. Lines of data highlighted nearby KBOs, calculating their trajectories and threats, but he paid those no mind. There were more qualified people to keep watch on those, and keep him appraised on any new situations of importance.

No, his focus was on the distant line that superimposed the viewer, the limit of humanity's knowledge of their own cradle. Even with all their probes and telescopes, the "Rim" of their home system remained as much mystery to them as the expanse of stars in faraway galaxies. Today would mark a historic day for the Federation-no, for all of the Earth Sphere as his ship would take the first step into the void between stars.

A smile of anticipation tugged at his lips, and judging from the tension in the air, the rest of bridge crew probably felt the same. His friend and Executive Officer, Major Sean Webley, stepped lightly beside him, sparing a moment to steady himself. Despite having months to get use to the sensation of artificial gravity, years of experience in Zero-G were hard to shake, and even hardened crew were prone to misjudge a step, resulting in a rather ungainly bounce as they tried to right themselves in the unfamiliar low gravity environment.

"The view is as spectacular as always," Sean noted, watching as particles of ice and dust brushed harmlessly past the viewer. Daitetsu agreed, sharing an amused look with his XO at the hushed excitement of the crew. "It's a pity that we have to turn back soon."

"With our current ion drives, even fully stocked, we'd only last two years unsupported," mused Daitetsu with some disappointment. "Still, to be able to bear witness to this historic event at our age?"

Sean chuckled, "It truly is an honor. We won't know what lies in our future, but-" he gazed proudly at the bridge crew, working diligently at their stations, "-we can trust it in the hands of the next generation."

Daitetsu smiled and nodded. "Indeed." He murmured, then glanced over as navigation paged him, noting the excitement in the young woman's eyes.

"Captain Daitetsu, we will be crossing the rim of explored space momentarily. Shall I alert the crew?"

"Make it so," remarked the old captain, smirking as the message rang throughout the ship. He imagined the crew and civilians all clamoring to their nearest monitors, eyes glued upon the blue chevron inching its way towards that dotted line with baited breath. His own hands clenched the armrests of his seat in anticipation, waiting for the moment the Hiryu crossed the threshold beyond the Sol System...

The tension burst with a boisterous cheer that the two old men could imagine ringing through the halls of the ship. Military and civilian alike broke decorum with whoops of glee, breaking out quite a few shamelessly smuggled bottles of champagne. Daitetsu shared a wry smirk with his XO, raising an offered glass to his lips. They would have to show these lightweights real liquor...

Further thoughts of festivities were cut off as the sensors blared in alarm, highlighting an anomaly that spilled light in the distance...

Jump Space, Unexplored Region

The young lord Kiron Mollari gazed impatiently upon the forward viewer, the eyes of him and his crew locked upon the spiraling tear that bridged the untamed realm of Jump Space to the unexplored system beyond. A scout had been dispatched ahead to survey the system and to warn for threats.

Though the Primus-Class Early Glory was far from helpless thanks to its two escorting Vorchans, he knew the aged ship and its cargo of Quantium 40 was a tempting target to Raiders. In the past, very few would have dared to strike at the Lion of the Galaxy, but those years of glory were fading, and with it, the legacy that had inspired so much respect.

Inwardly, Kiron seethed, knowing exactly who to blame for the recent decline. The Narn, those ungrateful barbarians that his people had uplifted to the stars, had dared to rebel against their betters. Worse, what should have been a swift quashing of those primitives instead became a drawn out war as the Narn turned the Centauri's own technology against them. The resulting humiliation further emboldened the other races, and the Republic found itself losing more of its holdings with every passing year.

Seeing the signs, his House had approached the Emperor with an audacious plan. Utilizing star maps purchased from some scrupulous Vree, they would start an outpost in an uncontested region, bringing in much needed resources to crush the Narn. To that end, his House had modified an old Primus that was scheduled for scrapping, gutting the ship of its fighter bays and weapons in order to fit the cargo needed for the perilous journey into the unknown. The Emperor, in his infinite wisdom, recognized the importance of the mission and assigned escorts straight from the Royal Fleet itself.

"My Lord, we're receiving the report from our scout." Finally, sighed Kiron impatiently, glaring at the technician.

"And?" he prompted, and the technician quickly relayed the report.

"There appears to be a ship in the vicinity, 20,000 kilometers from the portal. Profile unknown. Scans show it to utilize ionic thrust drives and fusion power, and strangely, readings of artificial gravitic manipulation."

Kiron frowned, the composite of technologies seemingly contradicting each other. Any race that even had the most basic of gravitic technology was, by definition, ferociously advanced. Yet these locals were traveling in coffins no more impressive than what the Narn reversed engineered from his people. What circumstances would justify that bizarre combination? He came out of his thoughts at the technician's expression, and gestured for him to share what had perturbed him.

"Sir... results from biometrics indicate a partial match to known species. Approximately 70% match to members of the Zuvorg."

"What!" A flurry of curses escaped Kiron's lips, a scowl narrowing his brow. Zuvorg? Out this far? "Have they detected us?" He doubted it, given what they seen so far, but if the Zuvorg were involved...

"Negative, my Lord. Our scout is hidden in the energy radiating from the Jump portal." A pause. "Should we recall him?"

Kiron let loose a gusty sigh. "Have him hold position. We've come too far to back down now," he grumbled. "Tell our escorts to hold formation, and then prepare contact protocols. We will be transitioning to normal space now. If the Maker wills it, we might be able to complete this mission."

Whether it would be as traders or conquerors, Kiron wasn't certain, but the needs of his people remained the same. Whatever the outcome, they needed this system's resources.

Bridge of the Hiryu

The eyes of the entire crew were locked on the mesmeric anomaly, a spiraling vortex of various blue hues. Scientists commandeered several stations, trying to make sense of the readings being recorded, and Daitetsu caught snippets of rapid speech as they bounced explanations off one another.

"Sir! We're detecting a flux in the wormhole..." Reported the sensor watch. "Reading three contacts exiting the anomaly!"

"Wha-!" His bewildered response was cut off as the anomaly vanished as swiftly as it appeared in a blinding flash. He had reflexively blinked, even though the external cameras had already filtered out the worse of the flash to prevent blindness. Where the anomaly once was, there were now three alien craft, the center ship bearing a resemblance to a sword hilt while its escorts reminded him of the sweeping form of a bird of prey.

Despite being far out of their depths, he noted with pride how swiftly his crew burst into action.

"Missile tubes loaded!"

"Plasma charges set!"

"Crew to their stations; Civilians are to head to the nearest reinforced shelters!"

"Weapons are all green! Sir, should we target?"

"Hold," Daitetsu ordered sharply, staring at the distant alien ships. "We will maintain readiness, but do not fire unless fired upon." He smirked inwardly at the relieved expressions of the civilians remaining on the bridge. Even he was aware of the implications of First Contact. "Try to broadcast a message. If they show any hostile intent, I want full weapons strike at their center ship."

"Yes Sir!"

Nodding, Daitetsu leaned back in his seat, hoping he made the correct call. As his crew attempted to make contact with the alien ship, he couldn't shake the feeling that something was approaching. Something that would threaten the well being of these men and women who trusted him so implicitly. Sean remained quiet, but even he could tell his friend was worried as well.

It floated in the void between stars, a glistening star of white amidst the endless black. However, unlike the stars that blazed around it, this star did not emit a corona of warm light. No, this star was of cold metal, grooves and trenches carved upon its surfaces sparkling with energy as the artificial construct rumbled to life.

Like bees from a hive, a veritable swarm of crystalline insects escaped the crevices on wings of light, circling around the star-like construct as energies gathered before them. Space began to warp, then explode as the pressures bore upon the dimensional walls, tearing open a violet portal that crackled with lightning. As one, the Megillot swarm dove into the tear, vanishing from the void with an explosive crack that was lost to the darkness.

The Crossgates were opened once more; it was time for the wanderers to fulfill their destinies.

It had taken some work, but they were able to roughly communicate with the alien-Centauri-ships in the distance. The First Contact package they received sped the process admirably, and the scientists were already devising their own version for future contacts. Though communication was limited to machine translations, they were able to hammer out a rough language with the visitors.

Still, as the technicians calibrated their tachyon transponders for visual sync up with the Centauri, Daitetsu still felt the same unease that plagued him since the arrival of the alien ships. "Any changes from the Glory or her escorts?"

"Negative, Sir. Centauri ships are holding their formation, and respecting our borders so far. They probably want this contact to go as well as we do."

"We've finished the calibrations, Sir. Shall I patch the video feed to the main screen?" At the captain's nod, the technician fiddled with his console, and a new window ballooned on the main monitor, allowing the crews of the Hiryu and Early Glory to see each other for the first time since their contact.

Both crews stared at one another in mixtures of confusion, surprise, and-oddly on the Centauri's side-resignation. To the humans of the Hiryu, the humanoid appearances of the Centauri was almost disappointing in how similar they appeared to themselves. The Centauri however, appeared to be crushed by some unknown expectation.

"It's good to... see you, Captain Daitetsu," the Centauri Lord, Kiron Mollari said haltingly-Daitetsu assumed it was from their shared translation codices. "Your appearance is rather surprising to us. Are you related to the Zuvorg Alliance?"

Daitetsu frowned, mouthing the word in confusion. Was that something not included in the translations? "No, we're representatives of the Earth Federation. Our species are called Humans."

"Humans? Earth Federation?" Kiron repeated thoughtfully. Daitetsu nodded, moving to elaborate further...

Only to be interrupted by a tremor running through his ship, his stomach quivering momentarily as he felt the ship's gravity flicker. "Anomaly reported in the GraviCon System," one of the stations reported.

"Gravitational flux detected... Sir, it's surrounding us!"

"What's happening?" Someone demanded. Daitetsu distantly realized it was Kiron speaking to his own crew, the transmission with the aliens flickering as the GCS began affecting the power buffers in the rest of the ship, before cutting off entirely. Daitetsu felt his stomach drop, not because of the fluctuating gravity, but because of the cold anxiety that surged forth.

"Evasive, now!" he tried to order, but it came too late.

Small, crystalline insects, resembling tailed rhinoceros beetles, pulsed into existence from multiple points surrounding the Hiryu, a flash of violet light the sole evidence of their arrivals. Scores of the unknowns, numbering in the hundreds, quickly swarmed the beleaguered ship. When they noticed the Glory and her escorts, a number of the insects broke off to plague the three Centauri ships.

The Hiryu struck back, proving that while built for peace, the dragon was not without its own fangs. Tracer rounds exploded from dozens of autocannons across the length of the ship, swatting down the swarm in droves, and enough of the ships airspace to fire their VLS missiles. Hatches along the Hiryu's "neck" flipped open, and dozens of homing missiles detonated within the swarm of bugs. The main turrets, finding a target rich airspace, lashed out with twin beams of plasmic fire, and more of the bugs vanished before the power of Hiryu's fury.

But with every one struck down, two more appeared in their place, bursting forward from gates of violet to join their remaining comrades. Worse, those not destroyed outright by the Hiryu's firestorm repaired themselves through unknown means, rejoining the siege and confusing the ship's sensors further, as new and old became lost in the storm, their pincers clacking menacingly before spewing rings of pulse-lasers.

Daitetsu gripped the armrests of his chair tightly, feeling the ship tremble from the continuous strikes of the hostile unknowns. "Sitrep!"

"The bugs are everywhere! Sensors can't keep track of all of them!"

"We detected some breaking off to attack the Centauri!"

"There's too many of them! Weapons can't keep up!" A rumble shook through the ship, the bridge's emergency lights flickering in response. "We just lost the starboard VLS missile tubes!"

"AA turrets 10 to 17 destroyed! Reading hull damage to blocks 5 and 7!"

"Sir, our defense efficiency has dropped to 79%!"

"Dammit!" Daitetsu slammed a fist upon the armrest "Are the catapult launchers still active?"


"Then order all Bogens to launch!" ordered Daitetsu, not doubting the ship's contingent of pilots were already making preparations to do so. "Page Specialists Vacit and MacKinnon! Tell them they have permission to launch Giganscudo as well!"

To the credit of the crew's professionalism, they kept their peace at the captain's last order, much to Daitetsu's appreciation. Still, he could see the seething hate among those recruited from the United Colonies at the mention of thecursed Shield of the Colonies. He hoped that they all lived through this experience for them to appreciate that emotion...

Lieutenant Ninon Davion smiled grimly in the cockpit of her SF-26, making one last check of the space fighter's system as she waited for her cue to launch. She heard the other squads checking in, the panel of her IFF indicator lighting up with each of her wing mates. From the communicator crackled the voice of her CAG, beginning their traditional pre-battle speech as the countdown for launch commenced.

"All right archers! Our castle's been besieged! The enemies outnumber us 10-to-1! Worse of all, we're giving the Centauri a bad show!" The CAG's voice tinged with amusement. "What do you say to that?"

"We will blot their light with our arrows!" came the ragged cheer through the shared coms, and Ninon barked a small laugh as she finished. The countdown completed, and she felt her Bogen accelerate out the launch bay by the magnetic rails gripping its sides.

If the aliens were surprised by their arrival, they gave no indication. Hot tracers cleared a path out of the cloud of hostiles as the Hiryu launched its contingent of twenty Bogens, the space fighters quickly adding the weight of their own weapons to the ship's defense. Forty plasma cannons fired in tandem, slashing a line of destruction through the hostiles' formations.

Scores of bugs crumpled before the power of the Bogens' alpha strike, if not outright vaporized. Those that survived the glancing shot were caught off guard by the fighters' vulcans, blown apart as their regenerative armor was overwhelmed. Taking advantage of the enemy's disarray, the Bogens broke through the cloud and circled, pinning the enemies between their own weapons and the Hiryu's guns.

It was a textbook maneuver, often used successfully against pirate ambushes. However, there was one flaw that readily became apparent as the battle continued: It did not take into account an enemy with teleportation technology. Even as the Bogens began their second run, more of the hostile bugs appeared behind them, giving chase to the again outnumbered fighters and closing the gaps of their formations. Ninon grit her teeth, firing a single missile set to proximity detonation in a particularly tight cluster of hostiles to clear her flight path. Realization sank into the Earth forces, and though they were armed as a deterrent to pirates, they could not hope to stand for long in this enemy's dedicated battle of attrition.

The clock was ticking, and with each passing minute was one less missile; one less gun to defend themselves with...

The initial attack had come without warning or provocation, with the strange alien craft daringly crossing the full 20,000 kilometers between their arrival and his ship. When their aggression became evident, the two Vorchan escorts had opened fire, their plasma accelerators and twin particle arrays carving a line through the offending swarm.

Kiron gritted his teeth in outrage at these unknowns, the Glory trembling in sync with his anger as the strange, crystalline bugs' laser pulses struck his ship's armored hull. Like the Earthers, the Centauri found that those not destroyed outright were confoundingly restored, with enough remaining to quickly overwhelm their two escorts, the bugs small stature and maneuverability keeping enough of them outside the two Vorchans' firing arcs to plague the warships.

Most insulting of all, the Centauri weren't even treated as credible threats by the bugs, and it became evident to even the most blind of tacticians that they were simply warning them away from aiding the Humans, the attack on his ships being little more than nuisances as the alien craft observed his actions, keeping just out of the Vorchans' effective fire zones.

"We've stumbled on a war." He heard his aide mumble, gazing at the battle in the distance. The Earthers were holding their own admirably, even if it was evident that they would soon lose to superior numbers. A part of him saw this an opportunity to gauge the Earther's level of development, to see just what they might offer to the Republic.

The more pragmatic part of him saw the loss of a potential trading partner. "Order the Breaker of Xon to move in to assist the humans. The Drivers from Heaven shall provide cover for them."

"My Lord? We cannot afford to get involved with another race's squabbles!" He leveled the offending officer with a narrowed glare, and to the man's credit, he clammed up quickly.

"Like it or not, we became involved when these insects dared to try and intimidate us," he growled softly, the expressions of the others on the bridge indicated they were bothered by that as well. "And we still have a mission to carry out. If we can secure the Earther's friendship, then we would gain a much surer footing in completing it." He shot the communications officer with a sharp glare, repeating his order. "Now get to it!"

"Yes, my Lord!"

The Breaker was swift to carry out Kiron's order, its hybrid gravitic and ion drives accelerating the ship towards the beleaguered Earthers as both Vorchans opened fire upon the bugs, clearing a path for the Breaker. Kiron sneered viciously, pride swelling as the bugs were taught not to challenge the Centauri.

Only for his sneer to drop in horror as dozens... no, hundreds of bugs appeared around the Breaker in blinding flashes, finally taking the Centauri seriously as Kiron had wanted. The bugs swiftly swarmed over the Breaker, firing their lasers point blank into the ship, and even tearing through the hull with their horns and mandibles. The Breaker slowly began listing, screams of the crew coming in through the com of the crystal monstrosities wreaking havoc, before it was finally engulfed by a reactor failure, vanishing in the light of a small star.

"Longbow 4 and 5 down!"

"Crossbow 3 down!"

To say things weren't going well for the Bogen squads would be putting things lightly, thought Lt. Ninon as she fired her last missile, having it take out another cluster of bugs. Though only six minutes have passed since combat began, it felt like an eternity as their ammunition dwindled in the face of the unending swarm. Their plasma cannons had barely the charge needed to give the aliens sunburn, and with the majority of them down to only their vulcans, the situation was looking grimmer by the second.

"This is Quiver 3... dammit, requesting support!" She heard over her coms, and paled as she saw her wing mate in the distance, with three bugs in pursuit. "I can't shake them off! Someo-!" His plea was cut off as the lead bug spat a pulse-laser at the fleeing Bogen, the fighter simply vanishing in a fireball of destruction.

"Faulds!" Ninon cried, seeing another comrade reduced to space dust. The Bogens were down six of their numbers, while the aliens continued to reinforce themselves with every loss. She shook off her despair as proximity sensors tracked her own pursuers, her teeth clenched as her thrusters spun her Bogen, the forward inertia carrying her as her vulcans spat in defiance. The lead bug was caught off guard, shattering under her tracer rounds.

The others broke off to surround her, their mandibles snapping open in preparation to fire. She would not be escaping this, she realized, and could only hope for it to be painless...

An explosion jolted her, and she realized with a start she was still alive. Another series of explosions followed, then another, and a golden beam strafed the bugs, slaughtering them by the dozens.

"You looked like you could use a hand," drawled a familiar, infuriating voice.

"Vacit..." Ninon murmured, a grin stretching her cheeks in realization. He might not ever let her live it down, but she was just glad to be alive. "Vacit, you glorious bastard!"

Blazing from the Hiryu was the Federation Gunship Giganscudo, the gold and crimson machine's weapon systems still glowing from its full alpha strike at the offending bugs. The nearby bugs seemed to recoil, observing the newcomer cautiously, to no surprise to those that knew the gunship's history. Despite utilizing technology nearly a decade old, it remained a force to be reckoned with, second only to a fully armed battleship.

The hesitation was punctuated by a furious lash of the Gigan's Wide Blaster engulfing another cluster of bugs. "Shieldbearer-1 to all Archers! Pull back to Dragon-1 to rearm!" the Gigan's pilot broadcasted. "We'll cover for you until you get back!"


"Roger that!"

"Good luck!"

The bugs attentions diverted, the fourteen remaining Bogens retreated to the Hiryu's landing bay, vowing not to let the time bought by the two specialists go to waste. They would rearm and rejoin the fray, Ninon swore as her Bogen touched down, the magnetic tractors already guiding her fighter to safety...

Just as an explosion shattered the bay behind her.

"Shit," Master Sergeant Kevin Vacit cursed softly, his grip on the Giganscudo's controls tightening. "Looks like we're going to be on our own, Mac." Inwardly, he was worried about the Archers, but the Hiryu confirmed they all landed safely, much to his relief.

"That would be a lot less depressing if you hadn't used up all our missiles in that last stunt," grumbled his copilot.

Kevin barked a laugh, smirking as he retorted, "Hey, you know the hero needs to be showy in front of a pretty lady. Give me some options, Mac."

"AB Field's holding at 80%, and the Gigante Cannons are within acceptable safety margins. I suggest holding off on the Wide Blaster until it cools down though."

"Good enough for me!" He slammed the controls forward, the Giganscudo's 270 metric tons accelerating into the fray as the four Gigante Cannons lashed outwards. The bugs were in a frenzy now, their pulse-lasers deflecting off the weakening AB Field protecting the gunship, as more split their attention from the Hiryu to the Gigan.

It would not be enough however, as the two ships remained firmly in square one as more bugs teleported in. Despite the sheer mass of their combined firepower, they simply could not keep pace with the legion that surrounded them. Slowly, they were pushed back by the endless numbers of alien bugs.

An explosion rocked the Hiryu, sending the unrestrained crewmen and civilians sprawling. Various consoles sparked and smoked, overloaded by the damages piling up within the Hiryu. Despite their injuries, the crew continued working, desperation mingled with fury as they struggled against the seemingly unstoppable horde of hostiles

"All stations, status report!" ordered Daitetsu grimly.

"Blocks 4 to 9 destroyed! Second Bridge is gone!"

"Main cannons disabled!"

Daitetsu growled, slamming his fist upon his armrest. "What about our fighters?"

"Fighters successfully retrieved, but catapult launchers 2 and 3 have been destroyed! Giganscudo... It's surrounded by the unknown hostiles, Sir!"

Dread threatened to swallow him now, his voice tinged with cold fury. "What's the status of the Centauri?"

"One escort destroyed, Sir. They..." A gulp. "They tried to provide support before they were taken out by the enemy reinforcements... The Glory and its other escort are hanging back-the unknowns are ignoring them."

"We're outmatched, Sir. We should retreat," Sean voiced quietly.

"There must be something we can do..." Daitetsu growled angrily, fighting back the growing feeling of helplessness and failing.

"Considering their numbers, they must have a carrier nearby. We cannot hope to hold position against an enemy with these kinds of resources."

"Just when we finally reached the Outer Rim of our system."

"I know. I'm sorry, Sir," Sean replied, a sliver of anger slipping from his calm tone. "But we must retreat. If the Hiryu sustains any more damage... We'll never make it back to Earth, or even Mars."

Daitetsu slumped in his seat, massaging his temples. He knew Sean was right, and if he were honest with himself, he knew there was no way to win this fight. Casualty reports were already taxing the communications aboard the ship, and they couldn't even tell how many of their people had made it out of those destroyed blocks.

"Order the Giganscudo to escort formation, then begin a fighting retreat. Send a report to Columna on the Priority Channel about everything that's happened, and a set of coordinates to them and the Centauri." His voice was tired, but held enough strength to hold the crew together as they quickly followed his orders. "We'll let the politicians deal with contact in a safer location."

The four ships slowly pulled away from the conflict, a Jump Portal opening behind the Centauri in a vortex of orange, while the Hiryu and Giganscudo limped back along the path they came. The commanders of the two lead ships, though different in mind and species, shared the same thought as they glared at the glistening mass of crystalline insectoids. "You will pay for this."

The Megillots were uncaring of this vow, giving the four ships a halfhearted chase until they were far out of the area. Then one by one, they too vanished, collecting the remains of their comrades before they were engulfed by the light of the Crossgates.

Earth Sphere - Columna Station: Military Sector C&C, 179SE

"Lieutenant, we're picking up a spatial anomaly at Earth-Moon L5!"

Lt. Knowles paled, twisting towards the harried officer. "Confirm that!" he barked, dread welling in his chest.

The blare of alarms did not help ease his anxiety, and the look of the officer at watch only solidified those emotions. "Confirmed match; it's the same gravitational flux preceding the hostiles in the Hiryu's communication logs!"

"Damn! Alert all EFA and UCC forces! Scramble our Bogen contingent!" Knowles ordered, even knowing it was hopeless if this was the same enemy that had ambushed the Hiryu. The Bogens alone could not stop an incursion this close to Earth, and the nearest support fleet was a half-day away, patrolling the colony lanes. Inwardly, he cursed the fates for allowing the unknown hostiles to appear so close to their world unchallenged...

"Object emerging from the anomaly!" reported the paling sensor watch. "Object measuring five kilometers...!"

Knowles flinched, voicing the first thing that came to mind, "A ship?"

"Negative, it's..." The sensor watch trailed off abruptly, staring incredulously at his screen. Knowles' demand for a report was answered when the sensors' transferred their data to the main screen, and the C&C witnessed the impossible upon the holographic projector. The object-an asteroid-was accelerating, dragging a visible tail of debris from the Kordylewski clouds it had appeared within. In the time it took for the officers to gather their wits, the asteroid had shot forward at unfathomable speeds, the computers calculating impact in less than half an hour.

"Dear Lord in Heaven..." murmured Knowles in shock, watching the asteroid moving into Earth's gravitational pull. He was already ordering an Impact alert, but he knew it was too late. There was nothing he could do... nothing anyone could do to stop it. One-hundred-fifty years ago, Humanity had nearly destroyed itself because of two meteors...

Could they survive a third?