At the outer edge of a star system, five starships hung motionless in space. Far from the orange star and its single life-bearing planet, the ships were clustered beside a region of space which would be unremarkable to a casual observer. Only if the observer had access to advanced sensor data would he (she,it) be able to discern the faint gravitational distortion near their gathering place.

The ships were bristling with weapons and defensive systems, optimized for combat. One was much smaller than the others, barely more than a third of their size, and of a very different design. Even a casual observer would be likely to guess that this ship had not been made by minds which thought, or hands which moved, in the same way as the ones which had crafted the others.

Three of the larger vessels were standing off a good 4 LS sunward from the twisted knot in spacetime. On the other side, a quarter light-second outsystem from the anomaly, their sister ship sat just a few hundred kilometers from the foreign craft. On these two ships, the representatives of the races which had built the disparate craft held their talks.

Comm lasers flashed back and forth between the pair almost continuously. This had been going on for three months since the language barrier had been breached, a task which took the better part of a year in itself. But what followed after was proving even more difficult.

In the conference room on the destroyer Zlond, nine members of the Buri contact team were seated on one side of a long table. On the opposite side, a wide vidscreen showed a starscape and the tiny alien ship. At the far right sat the elderly Admiral Vrett, the senior member of the contact team. To his left, the others were arranged in order of descending status. At the end of the row, a young female was talking quietly with the older male on her right.

"I'm beginning to wonder if they want trade at all, Deln." Oontl confided. "I know the proverbial devil's in the details, but this is absurd."

Her companion sipped his kofi and nodded. "I know what you mean. We've been at this for months, and we're no closer to an agreement than when we started." Seeing his mug was empty, he waved at a steward who had just entered with a fresh pitcher.

"They got a drone this morning, maybe something..." Oontl continued.

"Six." The steward interjected, refilling Deln's mug.

"Say what?"

"Six drones. Must be important news." Oontl held out her mug, and the steward filled it. "The Reebos must..."

"Don't call them that!" Oontl snapped. "I'm sure you've been told this before."

"Sorry, Sir." the young male returned insincerely. He was saved from further chastisement by a gesture from farther up the table.

Oontl sent a disgusted look in the direction of the departing steward. "Still, with the Reebos. I swear, it's like beating my head against a bulkhead."

Privately, Oontl had to admit the remarkable resemblance between the Peshf and the popular toy/cartoon/holovid game characters her son's generation seemed so taken with. In particular, Dreflys, the Peshf ambassador, reminded her of Rann the Sea Prince. But the Peshf had a warrior culture that placed great stress on personal honor. If any of them heard a Burian suggesting that they thought of the Peshf as a children's plaything, Buria might easily find itself at war.

No-one on the contact team mentioned the Reebos, but irritatingly, many of the regular ship's crew seemed unable to grasp how horribly offensive it would be, and continued to refer to them as Reebos. The contact team realized that once trade was opened, the Peshf would eventually learn of the characters, but they wanted to have a formal treaty in place before they did. Once the Peshf made a pact, they'd honor it.

Oontl downed her kofi and rubbed her eyes as she waited for the mild stimulant in the bitter beverage to take effect. The strain of the last few days was catching up with her. Both sides had expressed an interest in trade, but progress was glacial. The contact team had been working long hours all week, trying to finalize negotiations before the next crew rotation.

Oontl sighed. "I'm getting too old for this."

Deln chuckled. "Well, if you're too old, what does that make me?"

Before Oontl could answer, a chime sounded to announce the hour. The next scheduled talk was about to begin. Buri negotiators straightened up and stewards were waved away. A moment later, the vidscreen changed to show a real-time view of the meeting room on the other vessel, where Peshf officials were looking at a similar view of them. It was the next best thing to a face-to-face meeting.

Oontl searched the faces of the Peshf contact team for clues about their state of mind today. They were so hard to predict. Their seemingly random mood swings insured that dealing with them was never boring.

With their slender, elfin appearance and childlike visages beneath hair dyed in various pastel colors, it would be easy for one unfamiliar with them to think they were as soft and cuddly as the cartoon characters they resembled. But Oontl knew this was not so. Twice during the negotiations, a new member of the Peshf contact team had suddenly arrived to replace one killed in a duel. They were so sensitive about their honor...

After the usual formal greetings and empty compliments, Ambassador Dreflys began to speak. The words the Burians heard were in a flat, mechanical voice, and the sounds did not at all match the movements of the speaker's mouth. Oontl listened carefully to the computer's translation.

Amazing! After months of talks that were getting approximately nowhere, it had begun to seem they were just going through the motions. Now the Peshf offered not just (restricted) trade, but a defensive alliance as well! Almost every point of disagreement was to be resolved in favor of the Burian's stated preferences. The Peshf were even willing to allow the Burians to establish a permanent military presence on the far side of the wormhole, something they had adamantly refused before now.

'What's the catch?' Oontl wondered silently. Soon, she had her answer. A system at the edge of Peshf space had been invaded by unknown hostiles. The Peshf defenders had chased out the initial probe, but when the invaders returned in force, they had been forced to flee before overwhelming numbers. The Peshf were asking the Burians for miliary aid.

The view on the lower half of the vidscreen changed. The Burians watched the images of warships, identifiably Peshf designs, fleeing before a larger fleet. Oontl looked over the sensor readouts of the invaders. Fourteen destroyers! That was more than Buria had in it's entire navy. The attacking fleet was huge, with nearly thirty corvettes, and a pair of unbeleivable behemoths each twice as large as a Buri destroyer. The invading fleet outmassed the entire Buri navy by more than 30%. The Peshf wanted them to help fight THIS?

********

Not long after the meeting, Admiral Vrett began transmitting his report to the capitol. Even at lightspeed it would take nearly five hours to reach Buria.

Vrett had analyzed the tactical data provided by the Peshf representatives. The sensor readings revealed quite a bit about the capabilities of both the Peshf and their enemy.

The Peshf designs were exclusively of escort and frigate sizes, hull types the Buri navy had long since abandoned as inefficient. But their speed was phenomenal. With no indication of de-tuning effects, the Peshf fleet demonstrated speed 16% greater than the Buri's own corvettes, and using larger hulls.

The aggressor fleet was made up of corvettes and destroyers, like the Burians themselves preferred, with the addition of the two giants. The admiralty had been asking the His Majesty to approve funding to develop a new design 50% larger than the destroyers which now formed the heaviest elements of the Buri navy, but His Majesty had been unwilling to spend so much on a ship which was projected to be 20% slower than the DDs. These alien heavy ships were the _same_ speed as the Buri DDs, and _100%_ larger.

At the capitol, Vrett knew, well-trained military minds would analyze the data, and make their recommendations. Unfortunately, the actual decisions would be made by those fortunate enough to be born into aristocratic families, and their smarmy sycophants.

In the royal council chambers, the debate lasted all afternoon and well into the night. His Majesty listened to everyone before issuing his edict.

The minister of state held out the most conservative opinion: Let the Peshf fight their own wars. Buria should not antagonize these unknowns who might be far more powerful than this one observed fleet. And how did they know the Peshf didn't start this war in the first place? They were known to be combative and sensitive to insult. Buria should begin expanding its fleet in case the unknowns came to their gates next, but do nothing to provoke them.

The minister of defense argued for a more proactive stance: It would be foolish to stay at home and just hope this threat would go away. If the unknowns defeated the Peshf, Buria might be next. Certainly His Majesty should at least want to get more information about them, to better prepare their defenses. And, even if the enemy was powerful enough to defeat the Peshf and Buri fleets separately, they might not be able to defeat a combined fleet.

But it was the humble minister of culture whose argument found the most favor with His Majesty: A contact team should be sent to open a dialogue with the unknown race. Perhaps they could mediate an end to hostilities. Perhaps these "invaders" could become a new ally.

Nineteen hours after the Peshf negotiators had extended their proposal, Vrett delivered His Majesty's answer. A treaty was signed, pledging mutual defense and restricted trade. The treaty contained a clause specifying that the Burians would attempt to make peaceful contact with the race currently occupying the system designated by the Peshf as A-120, in hopes of mediating an end to hostilities. If the invaders were not receptive to such communication, then Buria would enter the war as allies of the Peshf.

Twelve days later, five Buri destroyers, eighteen corvettes, and four unarmed explorers arrived from the homeworld to join the four destroyers already at the wormhole. Small craft transferred crew persons and supplies between the ships.

Soon after, the Peshf vessel moved a short distance and then vanished, followed by seven of the destroyers, fourteen corvettes, and the four explorers. The two destroyers and four corvettes left behind took up position 2 LS sunward from the wormhole, and settled down to wait.

Over fifteen light-years away, in a lifeless red star system, space rippled. 132 LM from the dim sun, ships appeared one by one. Three of these, a destroyer and two corvettes, moved away from the spatial distortion for only a minute, then reduced their drives to station-keeping levels to stand guard over it. The rest of the vessels joined the three Peshf escorts which waited nearby. Together they moved away from the ruddy primary toward the system's other wormhole, much farther from the star.

From two of the escorts, tiny drones separated and raced ahead to inform the main Peshf fleet of their allies' fleet strength and ETA. The drones soon left the sensor envelope of the warfleet. The drones would arrive in less than four days, if they didn't get lost after transit. The slower fleet, moving at a pace set by the six Buri destroyers, would take nearly fifteen days.

********

On the command deck of the destroyer Zlond, the venerable Admiral Vrett struggled to maintain his composure. He didn't want his crew to see him throw up again, like he had when the fleet traversed the first wormhole. At least this time he had known what he was in for. Swallowing hard, he waited for the dizzy, nauseous feeling to fade. Looking around the command deck, Vrett thought most of the bridge crew were either not as strongly affected, or hiding it better.

How did the Peshf stand it? Maybe, as he remembered someone suggesting, they weren't affected in the same way. If they were, it was damn thoughtless of them not to warn the Burians about it.

Vrett looked at the monitor next to his command chair. "Computer, tactical display." The colorful mishmash his screen displayed in response to this order was unenlightening. The admiral stifled a curse and looked to the aft science station. "Steft! Get those sensors working!"

"Rebooting now, Sir," replied Lieutenant Steft. "You should have a readout in--yes, here it is."

Vrett frowned at the nearly blank display. No star, no planets. Nothing but his task force and the Peshf escorts. It was just as the Peshf commander had told them. The scientists back home had said it would be impossible for a wormhole to form in the abscence of a nearby stellar mass. But these were the same people who, just a year ago, hadn't a clue wormholes were possible, period.

If the information the Peshf had given them was right, the next system would be the one in which they would meet the enemy. Unknowns, he corrected himself. His orders were to regard the mission as a first contact with a potential new ally, until proven otherwise. Those were Vrett's orders, but he didn't like them. Letting the aggressors get off the first shot would likely doom his command. He would be facing nearly three times the tonnage of his task force, and evidently superior technology. Even if the Peshf contingent was twice the size of his own, it would be an uphill battle.

The course to the next wormhole had already been programmed into the computer. Vrett gave the order, and the task force began moving toward its destination.

The Buri vessels and their Peshf allies moved slowly through the void. They were watched, but they did not see the watchers. Even if they had carried capital sensor suites like the ones the watchers were using, they would not have been able to detect the hidden taskforce. With their engines shut down, they were all but invisible.

Long after the allied fleet had passed out of their scanner range, they waited, to be sure there would be no chance of their being detected when they moved.

Days passed.

At last, the ships powered up their engines and moved into position. Directly along the path between the allied fleet and the spatial distortion through which it had arrived, the stealthy ships strung out in a line 15 LS wide. Once again they powered down their engines and resumed waiting.

And watching.

********

Vrett looked at the tactical display again. The last of the Peshf escorts, sixteen in all, were just vanishing through the wormhole. Next would be the his corvettes, his destroyers, and finally the four Peshf frigates.

After nearly a month, cruising across two foreign systems (if you could call this empty patch of space a "system"), they had arrived at the wormhole to A-120, where the Peshf fleet was waiting for them. This was the day Vrett had been waiting for. Soon, Buria would begin either a new dialog with a second neighbor, or its first interstellar war.

He had plotted out every imaginable scenario that might transpire on the other side of that third wormhole. A new friend. A new enemy. A glorious victory, the culmination of his career. His ignominious death. All these possibilities and more had occupied his thoughts these past weeks. But what was actually to come was something he had never imagined. Never prepared for.

The explorers had already confirmed there was no ambush waiting on the other side. Vrett had worried about that. With the wormhole forcing his ships to come in one at a time, and degrading the performance of both their crew and technology, trying to attack a defended position there would be almost impossible. As disturbing as it was to imagine having to attack that way, he was comforted by the thought that if the aliens were hostile, he could retreat through the wormhole and force THEM to do it.

Vrett held his breath and steeled himself for the transit. Silently, he vowed to himself that if he should live through this mission and return to the home system, he would retire, and never go near another wormhole.

The system known (to the Peshf, at least) as A-120 was located inside a huge cloud of hot gas and dust. The energetic particles filled every part of local space, except where the magnetic fields of planets fenced them out.

The massive blue-white primary had no satellites, but the dimmer yellow star 192 LM away was surrounded by two asteroid fields and four planets. One planet was too close to the sun to be useful to anyone, its atmosphere blasted away by solar wind, laying it bare to radiation from the star and the surrounding nebula. The next two were a diferrent story. With temperate, oxygen-rich atmospheres and protective magnetic fields to shield the surfaces from radiation, their land masses and oceans were teeming with life. Farther away, a single gas giant circled in the space between the two asteroid rings.

On the opposite side of the system from the yellow star was a cluster of ships. Minute by minute, more ships appeared, seemingly from nowhere. As soon as each ship arrived, its shields immediately failed, disrupted by the particles of the nebula. When the last of them had arrived in the system, they began moving toward the distant yellow star and its life-bearing worlds.

Ahead of the main force, four unarmed explorers and four escorts spread out in a crescent to search for hidden threats. This task was made more difficult by the "white noise" emitted by the nebula, so the scouts kept a closer formation than they might otherwise have done, a mere 7.5 LS from the main group and half that from each other. The 6 DD and 12 CT of the Buri force were bunched together with the 4 Peshf FG and the 12 remaining ES, which did not have good enough sensors to be useful as scouts.

Aboard the Buri warships, crew members watched the scanners in case something slipped past the advance scouts. They were alert for possible threats approaching from beyond the reduced range of their sensors. They never thought they would need to worry about the ships already on their scanners, flying in formation with them.

The Burians were caught completely flatfooted when the Peshf suddenly opened fire. They had been relaxed, expecting a few uneventful days of cruising to the planets or, at worst, an attack that would come with several minutes' advance warning from the scouts. Only two destroyers and four corvettes were at semi-alert status.

The Peshf commander had ordered that Vrett's flagship be the first to die. The streams of charged particles that lashed out from the Peshf energy beams were not impeded by the targets' armor, and the nebula had already taken care of their shields. Every piece of military hardware on the command DD was fried by the energy beams, leaving it drifting, with only the armor to hold the hull together. After the eight beams carried by the frigates disabled the Buri command ship, each escort fited it's side- mounted beam at a different CT, in an effort to strip their external ordinance before it could be used. Ten of the shots hit, stripping the targets' XO and destroying 2/3 of their engines, along with the magazines.

Two corvettes managed to return fire, each launching a standard missile and a sprint missile from internal launchers, and two standards from their XO racks, just before the XO was destroyed. One Peshf frigate was struck by 2 G and 4 R shots, blasting through its armor, hold, and 60% of its engines, but leaving its weapons intact.

Burians scrambled to reach battlestations. Without the flagship, their reaction time was slowed just enough that the damaged Peshf frigate got to fire its weapons before itself being fired upon. Both beams hit, and one Buri DD lost about half of its internal systems, and all its XO. Then the two active Buri CTs demolished the offending FG. While Buri crewers struggled to get their weapons on-line, Peshf energy beams continued to fire, finishing off the damaged DD the two active CTs, and blasting the XO and forward engines of the 2 CTs that were missed last time.

Finally, the two destroyers which had been on alert managed to get themselves into the fight. Each DD targeted a different ES with two standard and two sprint missiles, and flushed 4 more standards each from ther XO racks. One escort was lucky, and lived with one engine (but nothing else) intact. The other ES vanished in a flash of nuclear fire.

The Burians launched every courier drone they had left. Twenty-four drones raced off toward the wormhole, carrying word of the Peshf treachery to the Buri taskforce in the red star system adjacent to the home system.

Sixty seconds after the Peshf opened fire, The Burians had 4 DD left intact, two active. All 12 CT had lost their XO, magazine, and two of their three engines. The Peshf had lost 1 FG and 1 ES, and a second ES was crippled.

The remaining destroyers scattered. One charged straight ahead, one turned in either direction, and one slowed its movement and began modulating its engines. They wanted to acheive greater separation, so that the Peshf couldn't deal the devastating point-blank E-beam damage to all their ships. Unfortunately, two still hadn't got their engines fully powered up, so they only got 1 LS from the sluggish corvette group.

The Peshf force also divided. One FG and one ES dogged each fleeing DD, staying at point-blank range. Seven ES stayed with the damaged CTs, turning at the last second to keep the EM-ing DD in their firing arc. The one crippled ES performed a 180' turn and began trying to exit the fray.

Two R and two G missiles shot out from a Buri DD at its pursuers. The ES was chosen as its target, sensors having shown that the Peshf ES were very lightly armored and had most of their engines up front. All weapons locked on, and the ES was out of the fight, with nothing but an engine left. The other active DD, EM-ing behind the CT group, shot at an escort at range .25 LS, the longest-ranged shot yet in this fight. But the gunners performed miserably, scoring with only one sprint missile. The armor and hold of the ES were destroyed, but no other damage was done.

The Peshf fired at the fleeing DDs. The foremost (and active) one was hit by one bean from the FG following it, having already disposed of the ES, and lost only its datalink, a magazine, and one engine. The other two (inactive) DDs were not so lucky. Each was struck by two beams from a FG and one from an ES, destroying half their internal launchers, all their XO racks, and 60% of their engines.

By the time the third exchange of fire was over, six of the remaining CT had fully activated. They traded shots with the 7 ES grouped around them, each ship trying to get their shots off before losing their weapons. The ES damaged by the lagging DD was destroyed, along with another ES in the main group. The last CT to activate split its fire, sending a standard missile at one crippled ES and a sprint missile at the other. Despite the degradation in fire control for dividing the shots between two targets, both ships were destroyed.

In the time it took to do this, however, the Buri CTs were clobbered. 5 of 7 beams from the ES group hit, and 5 of the active CTs were left weaponless cripples.

The new Buri flagship acheived effective command control just in time to recieve the Peshf commander's demand for surrender. Nine Buri ships had at least some weapons left, and 1 DD was intact, but the superiority of the Peshf force was overwhelming. The Burians could not even hope to outrun the faster J-engine vessels. The situation was hopeless.

Seeing that the perfidious Peshf were intent on capturing prizes, the Buri commander ordered all remaining ships to scuttle. Two DD and 4 CT obeyed, ejecting masses of life pods before detonating. The crews of the remaining vessels, overcome with panic and despair, surrendered. The Peshf marines soon boarded and secured them.

For a cost of 5 ES and 1 FG destroyed, the attack had netted eight damaged corvettes, three of them with working weapons, and four destroyers, two of them hulks, one with some working systems left, and one INTACT! The four ES out ahead on advance scout duty were chasing down the Buri EX, and their 33% speed advantage insured that it would present no difficulty.

Once the prizes were secure, a drone was sent to the transit carriers waiting 36 LM off to the side of the course the fleet had been following prior to the fight. In a day, most of the captured ships would be loaded onto the carriers and on their way back to the Peshf home system and its shipyards. Most of them.

Unfortunately, there were not enough transit carriers to haul them all back in one trip. The Peshf had underestimated the number of captures they would make. The prey had fought weakly. Most of them (cowards!) had not even carried out their final order to scuttle. Two CT hulks would be left drifting until a carrier could return for them.

They watched. They waited.

In a starless region of space, four frigates and two corvettes were strung out in a line across the path the Buri drones would have to take to reach their destination. When the corvettes' capital sensors detected the approach of the drones 15 LS away, the FG were signalled to stand ready. By the time the nine drones got to them (the rest having gotten lost after transit), their weapons and engines were fully powered and crewers were at their posts. The drones were hard to hit, but the gunners had plenty of time to keep trying until they got them. The frigates' maximum combat speed was the same as the drones' speed. None reached the wormhole to the red star system. No warning would be recieved.

End Chapter 1

Ship designs:

Buri DD

S1x3 Ax3 ZaH(I)Mg(I)GbRbQa(I)Mg(I)YaRbGbDa(I)Qa

Sx3 Ax3 Gbx2 Rbx2 Dax1 (Ia)

Buri CT

S1x3 A H(I)Mg(I)YaRbGb(I)Qa

Sx3 Ax1 Gbx1 Rbx1 (Ia)

Peshf FG(e)

SSSAAAHQa(J)(J)(J)EbEbQa(J)(J)

Sx3 Ax3 Ebx2 (Ja)

Peshf ES

SSAH(J)(J)QaEb(J)

Sx2 Ax1 Ebx1 (Ja)