Marching down the corridor with her head held high, Colonel Corazon Santiago kept her eyes forward despite the assault on her senses. The Gaian's capital city was a riot of colors, sounds, and smells, and if it wasn't for the bio-dome overhead she might well believe she was walking through one of planet's native forests in full bloom.

The effect was little muted inside the main administrative building, and the Colonel felt something like distain at her surroundings. For such an important facility, there was so little security. Not that it would have helped-the wide-open spaces would be a nightmare to hold in the event of an assault. Corazon distracted herself by mentally formulating strategies for just such an attack, noting blindspots and calculating optimal lines of fire all the way to her destination.

The doors opened silently, and two of her personal guards stepped through and took positions on either side of the door. Corazon hesitated a moment when one looked back with uncertainty on his face, but she squared her shoulders and stepped through the door regardless, keeping a hand on her holster.

The room was empty.

"Lady Skye?"

This was a bad idea. Coming to meet with the Gaian's leader in person…

Musical laughter broke the train of thought, the five Spartans turning as one at the sound with weapons raised. Lady Deirdre Skye stepped carefully out from behind a tree, hands open and held high.

"Peace, Colonel. I surrender."

Corazon scowled at the mirth in the woman's voice. Deirdre was wearing a dress color-patterned after the hybrid Earth/Planet trees growing freely along the entrance to the balcony. It had camouflaged her perfectly, but Corazon still transferred her scowl to the advance guard for not spotting the Gaian among the greenery.

Corazon lowered her weapon, and the four Spartans did the same. Deirdre likewise lowered her hands and smiled all the way to her desk, inviting Corazon and her escort to follow. The Colonel sat, but her guards remained standing in file behind her. Deirdre arched an eyebrow at the sight but said nothing, trying to keep the grin off her face as she brought up a holographic display.

"Shall we go straight to the matter at hand, then?"

"Lily of the Valley."

Deirdre sighed and took a sip of water. A few plates had been set out, but the Spartans hadn't even looked at the refreshments. Corazon herself was focused on the display. Lily of the Valley was the newest city the Gaians had founded, situated on a small land bridge between the two Faction's territories. The display panned over the landscape, showing the cities that were scattered across the small continent the Gaian's colony pod had first landed on. With the Nautilus Pirates stubbornly holding the oceans around them, the Gaians had no place to expand but straight into Spartan territory.

"I apologize if you took this as some kind of intrusion into your territory, Colonel Santiago. At the time, we were not aware of your presence."

The Colonel mused on whether Deirdre was telling the truth or not. The land bridge was resource-rich and an important strategic location. Holding it would be absolutely necessary for a land-based campaign, and just looking at the display made her remember the endless military projections and scenarios her tacticians had presented after learning of the city's construction.

"I'm willing to accept that, Lady Skye. But its existence is still a cause for concern among my generals."

"I take it we took you by surprise, then?"

Corazon took one of the waiting treats and chewed it viciously. It was far too sweet for her tastes, and fell apart in her mouth too easily.

"The fields of xenofungus in that region are exceptionally dense. I'll admit to being curious to know how you cut a path through so quickly. The retaliation from the mindworms must have been immense."

"Oh, not at all."

A delicate gesture altered the display, and Corazon leaned forwards, eyes widening in disbelief. The hologram was a real-time display of the landscape around the city, seen through the Gaian's infonet. Other then a small clearing around the city itself, the fungal fields were completely intact. They stretched inland for hundreds of kilometers before ending abruptly in proximity to the nearest Gaian cities.

"Our settlers managed to make the journey with minimal incident, thankfully."

"You traveled…through the fields?"

Deirdre nodded, seemingly bemused at the question. Corazon looked back to the holo, trying to calculate the time and resources it would take for her Spartans to replicate such a feat. Even if they took Lily, they'd have to go through the fields. Xenofungus would need to be cleared, roads laid down, soldiers stationed to protect the formers…but if the Gaians could move the native fungus with ease…

"We find Planet to be much more accommodating when handled with care."

Corazon reached for another wafer. Crewing helped distract from the realization that all their projections regarding a conflict with the Gaians would need to be completely re-written.

"I didn't call for this meeting to discuss philosophy, Lady Skye."

Deirdre seemed almost hurt by the harsh tone, but Corazon was glad to wrest some sense of control back from the strange woman.

"Of course."

"Then as for the city itself-"

"You may have it."


"It's a valuable strategic location. The area is rich in mineral deposits, as well. I'm sure you'll make good use of it."

The feeling slipped away. Corazon tried desperately to understand what the Gaian was planning, and it showed clearly on her face.

"I discussed the situation extensively with my advisors, Colonel. We considered the value of possessing that area, the possibility of making it a military strongpoint…but we also considered how you would react to such a stance. None of our projections were very promising."

Corazon could the easily imagine the soft Gaians quailing at the thought of her forces invading their territory, overrunning their defences, and making a complete mess of their delicate flowerbed-cities. With Lily of the Valley under their control, the Spartans would maintain a huge tactical advantage, and have the perfect launching point for offensives into Gaian territory. This was an offering, an appeasement to avoid conflict.

But it can't be that simple.

"But it is, Colonel."

Corazon nearly choked, realizing she'd spoken her thoughts aloud.

"We have no desire to wage senseless conflict, and I believe you feel the same way. But as a soldier, you would not be content with a neighbor, even one professing peaceful intent, to hold such an advantage over you. Please, take the high ground as our promise of peace."

"Just like that?"

"Well…there is one thing…"

There was a twinkle in the Gaian's eye that was strangely unnerving. Deidre slid an embossed folder across the table, and Corazon opened it carefully. It was a Treaty of Friendship, as the other factions had taken to calling them. A smattering of different diplomatic agreements, from simple promises of non-aggression and the respect of faction borders to offers of trade and commerce. The transfer of the city of Lily of the Valley to Spartan control was naturally included. All the forms were written plainly, only excluding the minutia which would be left to bureaucrats and businessmen.

Santiago picked up the gilded pen and tapped the nib against the proverbial dotted line, taking one last look at the holo-display. The green wire-mesh that represented the city in question floated serenely through the air, as if unaware of the trouble it had caused, sitting innocently between the cities of the Gaians, Spartans, and Nautilus Pirates.

The Pirates.

Spartan intelligence had kept a close eye on the Pirates ever since they'd first began harassing Spartan naval scouts. The Pirates considered the very shoreline to be the line in the sand, and they doggedly stood off against anything the Spartans put out to sea. Lily of the Valley sat on a narrow land bridge with Pirate holdings close to both adjacent shorelines. If the Spartans launched an offensive through that route, a Pirate attack could completely sever their only route of reinforcement and resupply. Of course, that was assuming that the Gaians were on good terms with the…

Oh yes.

Of course they were.

Giving the city to the Spartans was no loss at all. If anything, it provided a false sense of security and ensured that any campaign launched against the Gaians would be cut messily short.

Or not.

It could just as easily be all in her head. One scenario among many.

Corazon signed her name upon the treaty with as much ire as she could muster. Deidre co-signed the treaty and said something painfully formal and diplomatic. Corazon wasn't really listening, and just tried to remember to nod when appropriate, eying the wine bottle that had so far sat untouched.

Deirdre filled a glass for her, and Corazon chugged it down, ignoring the proffered poison-scanner. She did accept a refill, but it would be the half-a-bottle of whiskey back at Spartan Command that finally pushed Deidre's damned grin from Corazon's mind.