Disclaimer: Exosquad belongs to Sunbow Enterprises, Bandai and Universal Studios and its producers and creators. The story is set approximately two or three years after the conclusion of the 2nd series and is more or less my take on where the 3rd series would have gone had it ever been made… The story was written for the Multifandom Small Fandom Big Bang Challenge. The title is from the U2 song by the same name.
"No Lines on the Horizon" by karrenia_rune
'Have you ever wondered how you would go about blocking an influx of ships from coming out of hyperspace? No? Neither have I until now.'
Lieutenant Commander J.T Marsh had always been a student of marital history, both ancient and modern. Maybe that was one of the many reasons that he had been so successful throughout the recently concluded Human vs Neo-Sapien wars. He shrugged and tossed the errant thought to a back corner of his mind.
In any case, the question continued to nag at him until it felt much like fire ants biting at his nerve-endings. The ancient Greeks and Persian referred to such a maneuver as he'd been contemplating 'fire ships. Centuries ago that very same tactic had been confined strictly to naval battles; however it might still been translated into the vacuum of space.
At the moment they did not have definitive proof that the alien ships posed a threat to the Sol System and its inhabitants, but neither did they have proof that they were friendly either.
Standing on the bridge of the Resolute II with hishands shoved deep inside the pockets of his uniform his back ramrod street Marsh realized that as much he might want to go out and investigate the alien ships hovering within such tantalizing reach the Alliance resources were stretched much too thin at this moment. He was painfully aware that were too heavily involved with the various Reconstruction Projects currently under way on the home worlds that had been devastated during the war.
He had returned at the insistence of Admiral Winfield, whom he knew had studied the situation much more thoroughly than he had, until now. Marsh also was confident that if anyone would have his back in launching an expedition to the alien ships' position it would be Winfield. However, the recently appointed Council of Planetary Ministers would be another matter.
He was a soldier, a leader, capable of inspiring confidence and camaraderie among his troops; even when the chips were down, and come to think of it," he mused, "I can count on the fingers of both hands plenty of times when were out-gunned, out-manned, and out-numbered and still managed to put an eleventh-hour miracle out of our hats." On the heels of that particular thought it occurred to him that if was going to be successful at convincing an entire chamber full of politicians he should have prepared a damn convincing speech. "Ah, well," Marsh sighed. "It's too late for that now."
Hearing someone approach the spot where he stood by the bay windows Marsh turned around. "Lt. O'Reilly, or am I correct in assuming you've been promoted?"
"Commander Marsh, Sir." Lt. Colleen O'Reilly saluted. "I heard you were back." She turned her head as if checking to be certain no one else was around before winking, reached into a pocket of her uniform jacket and slipped him a bright blue envelope.
"What's this?" he asked.
"Just something I thought you might need before you go into to the council hall." She smiled and said. "Good luck, Sir."
"Thank you, Lieutenant," he replied with a commendably straight face. There were more than several ways of looking out for one's commanding officer, as had been proved over and over again with his former squad members.
Throughout the course of the war and in its aftermath he and the attractive redhead had begun an excellent professional relationship and while both recognized a mutual attraction J.T had never quite known had to move forward. He was willing to see where a more personal relationship might lead and he thought that Colleen was willing to; it was something to consider, but at the moment personal considerations had to be put on the back-burner.
There was no doubt in his mind that O'Rielly was a good soldier and now would make a good officer; but it would people look askance if he were to assign her to a position under his command? And what did it matter if he did?
Wrenching his mind and concentration back to the more pressing matter at hand, he said: "You're dismissed."
She saluted and turned to go on her way.
Without even have to look at the contents of the envelope Marsh could hazard a pretty good guess at what it contained.
Glancing down at the readout on his chronometer he realized that it was time to go in and make his pitch for Operation Ring of Fire.
In the back of his mind he thought, "First time for everything. And hey, you never know we just might have one hell of a spiel. Heaven knows we need one if we have a chance of selling the operation to both the new and old bras and politicians in there.'
The council chamber was shaped like a gigantic horse-shoe and at the moment filled with the members of the home-worlds including, much to J.T's surprise the leader of the pirate clans, Jonas Simbacca. Eschewing protocol as much as he ever had Jonas Simbacca leapt down from his row and embraced Marsh in a rib-cracking hug that nearly lifted him off of his feet.
Marsh was not a small man and he was also considerably younger than the leader of the Pirate Clans, but even so, he was grateful that they were now allies.
The two had started as enemies, let's face the man had always been as prickly as a denned badger cornered in its hole. It was only through the persuasion and efforts of Winfield and himself that the pirate clans had been brought into the war when the Allied Fleets had been badly in need of ships and numbers.
They may have begun as enemies but both the pirate leader and Marsh had gained a mutual respect for each other as both soldiers and tacticians. And while Marsh was not at all certain that he would ever be entirely comfortable calling Simbacca a friend, he'd much prefer him as a friend than as enemy.
"Marsh!" Simbacca exclaimed in his booming baritone, loud enough to raise eyebrows from nearby ministers and aides in the room and more than likely those going about their business in the hallways bordering the council chamber. "It's good to see you once more! You are looking well. When you have made this sit-on-tails listen to reason, then you will tell me what you have been up to! Yes?"
"Sure, sure, Simbacca. I wish you I had your confidence about the project. It's a long-shot and…"
The older and much bigger man stepped back and eyed him appraisingly. "I realize that it's a long-shot and without much guarantee of success. Don't tell me that the increasing burden of leadership has made you more cautious in your old age?"
"You're older than I am and I haven't such much evidence yet of you becoming mellow in your old age," Marsh retorted. The man did love verbal sparring as much as he did actual physical combat.
Simbacca laughed. "Agreed, but I must have learned something along the way, otherwise I would not be here today to boast about it."
Before could get a chance to reply to that last remark or even if he wanted to the signal to begin the hearing sounded out and Simbacca resumed his seat and Marsh walked over and up onto the speaker's podium.
The facilitator of the session called out for order and for all of the participants to take their seats while He faced the horse-shoe shaped seats and took a deep breath, gazing out at the sea of unfamiliar faces. .
He then took a deep breath and poured a glass of water for himself that an aide had left on top of the podium then set the pitcher back down. He drank it down in one gulp and took a deep breath.
Public speaking had never been that much of a problem but unlike those earlier times, facing possible court-martial at the ambitious and ultimately treacherous and tragic Captian Matthew Marcus, this was different.
They were living in different times he now had completely different set of variables to work with and around. He and DeLeon had once gained the allegiance of the pirate clans; but that had been as much as his own oratory skills than through his hand-to-hand combat ability.
This venture more than likely would take the Allied Fleet and the bulk of their remaining Exo-troopers out into the unknown.
The fact that alien ships' origin more than likely came from outside the Sol System was a factor that no one, least of all him, could ignore.
"Ladies and Gentleman, I come before you today with a problem with a solution. This will be a joint ventured spear-headed by Admiral Winfield and Jonas Simbacca. And, yes, I know what you are all probably thinking..."the pirates were our enemies in recent memory and even further back than that. But when we needed them they came, and stood up when it counted. So is it really that far of a stretch to embark on a venture unprecedented in anyone's memory? I propose to you Project Ring of Fire."
The newly-elected minister of Mercury stood up and straightened the shirt of his tailored three-piece suit. "Commander Marsh, this is all very interesting, but what exactly is this venture all about?"
"In essence, we are faced with a problem that comes not from the home worlds or the Neo-Sapiens population that have been scattered by the winds of war, and whom you and many others are helping to resettle and rebuild."
"What kind of problem?" another minister asked this one from Earth.
"Namely the alien ships that have parked themselves between Mars and the asteroid belt leading to the outer planets of the Sol System, and I assure that's it's more than idle scientific curiosity that has prompted both Simbacca and Winfield into seeing a need to find a solution the problem they present us."
"Frankly, I don't see the problem. They have not threatened us, or done much of anything other than sit there. Why go out and create a problem that does not seem to exist?" another minister asked this one from the department of finance.
Marsh paused and collected his thoughts before snapping out the angry reply he was tempted to make and had begun to reply when another voice cut in. "Because, I don't think we can risk that level of complacency."
"Admiral Winfield," the facilitator said. "Your presence here at this hearing is unexpected. Did you not retire from active duty?"
"I did, but I still like to keep my hand in every now and again, "Winfield stated. He then turned to offer Marsh a reassuring smile. "Speaking of complacency, I would rather not use this example as a reminder of the recent past, but I will if I have to. That same attitude was present at the onset of our war with the Neo Sapiens and what allowed Phaeton to come at the home worlds like a bolt out of the blow. Can we really afford to make that same mistake now?"
"For the sake of argument," the governor-general of Mars," a Neo-Sapien called Cato remarked. "let us assume that arguments are valid and the alien ships do in point of fact are a clear and present danger; how would you counter them?"
"Project Ring of Fire would be a joint venture between the Pirate Clans under the command of General Jonas Simbacca and myself, with Admiral Winfield as senior advisor. Anyone else who would like to come along with us, please bear in mind that participation in the project is not mandatory."
"We anticipate a high-degree of risk given that this unknown territory. We have no proof that the ships do pose a threat, neither do we have proof that the mean us nothing but good-will and fellowship."
Marsh nodded and stole a glance over at Simbacca and then returned his attention back to his audience. At least they were listening; that was a definite good sign. "I have in these envelope results of long-range sensors and unmanned probes that were dispatched in the last year or two. You can download them into your consoles now, if you wish to view them yourselves."
"From that data you will see that these space craft are nothing like anything we've seen before. Both more metallic and more alien in a way that precludes the fact their origin must be somewhere outside the Sol System." Winfield shook his head. "I can't speak for anyone else here but I for one am not entirely sanguine about having those ships on front porch as it were.
"From a scientific standpoint, what does the renowned Professor Algernon think of all this?" Cato asked.
"Oh, you know Algernon, all but bursting to come along on the mission." Marsh shook his head in mingled fond reminiscence and exasperation. There was no doubt in his mind that Algernon was a brilliant scientist and research, but it often seemed in the case of such a combination in a man that he also lacked certain social interaction skills. Algernon, along with himself, Winfield, and Simbacca had been the prime architects of the plan straight out of the gate.
It occurred to Marsh even as he answered Burke's question that it would have been quite instructive to have Algernon present for the hearing, however, given Algernon's temperament it could be both instructive and disruptive at the same time.
Marsh had asked Algernon but he could not in good conscience tear the man away from his invaluable assistance with the retrofit and general overhaul of the depleted fleet would be akin to tearing away a bone from a dog.
"The risks are considerable, Governor," Winfield answered. "But judging by the computer simulations and data we've already accumulated the risks outweigh the potential benefits."
"How much is this project going to cost us?" the Earth minister a woman named Victoria Burke asked. "Reconstruction alone is already behind schedule as it is."
"A lot, but is that really the overriding issue in order to gain approval for the project?" Winfield insisted.
"Gentlemen and Ladies, the proposal to endorse Project Ring of Fire has been placed on the table for your consideration." The facilitator announced, "I urge you to refer to the documents available for your viewing on your consoles before making your vote on the matter."
"Well, I guess we've done our part. Now it's up to them," Marsh said in a hushed undertone as he stepped down from the podium.
"Don't look so glum, my boy," Winfield replied. "How much do you want to bet that they'll go for it?"
"I'm not a betting man, Sir," Marsh replied. He had known the Admiral a long time and owed much of his rise in the ranks to the older man; and could appreciate Winfield's unique sense of humor, however at the moment he did not feel in the mood to give into to it.
"I am. And I'd lay good man that we'll get our endorsement," Winfield replied.
Marsh, unable to help himself, began to chuckle, a quiet muffled one and only stopped when he realized that he at the moment reminded of something that Wolf Bronski had once said about Winfield.
"What's the matter?"
"Oh, it's nothing really, Sir. I was just thinking that Bronski said to remind him never to play poker with you."
"Bronski said that, did he?"
"Good advice, you should heed it. Although, it does beg the question: wherever will I find more players?"
At that moment the facilitator returned to his station and announced to the results of the deliberation: "The vote stands as 70 to 20 to endorse and fund Project Ring of Fire. Congratulations, gentlemen. You have a go. Good luck and good hunting"
Marsh felt a bit ambivalent using his new rank to pull strings and get his former Able Squad Mates assigned to the Resolute II and was a bit much, but reassured that on that score was relieved when it was approved.
With the notable absence of Kaz Tagaki who was still attending Exosquad Academy under the strict but fair eye of Commandant Avery Brooks it was like a family reunion. Marsala, Nara Burns, Rita Torres, Alec Deleon, Maggie Weston, and even Wolf Bronski; had all come aboard and had been briefed on the nature of the mission.
Marsh felt an unaccustomed tightness in his chest when they had volunteered to accompany the mission. And knew that it that tightness didn't mean anything was wrong with him psychically, instead it was due to his heart swelling with pride and confidence at their faith and determination.
It was a good feeling and one that J.T Marsh was determined to ride out for good or ill.
A week later
Marsh crossed the deck to the bridge of his newly commissioned command ship Adamant and then ordered the communication officer to contact General Simbacca that they were ready to get underway. Receiving a reply in the affirmative he gave the order to have all available e-frame pilots to their respective hangar decks.
A part of himself that would never quite let go of his own time piloting one of the high-tech E-frames ached to go with them, but with his promotion and increased responsibilities J.T Marsh was painfully aware that that just was not in the cards.
"This is Marsh to all E-Frames, Good luck and good hunting!"
From his own position at the tactical display console Admiral Winfield looked over at Marsha and using an old quote; "Fortune favors the bold, but if I were a gambling man…"
"Which we all know that you are," Marsh added.
"However, it never hurts to show our teeth to our opponents every now and again," interrupted Simbacca, not to be outdone.
Winfield nodded and then said. "My thoughts exactly."
The alien ships hung in space quietly, almost sinisterly. Working from both the data accumulated by the unmanned probes and long-range sensors the best word that Technical Specialist Maggie Weston could use to describe them was organic but in a way that appeared that a titanic hand had taken them and kneaded them around so that they no longer resembled a recognizable shape.
They had pincers at the nose of the prows one could make out a matte black hatch on the surface that from up close appeared able to swallow the much smaller e-frames whole and then spit them back out without so much as a by-your-leave.
"Just what the hell are they waiting for?" she muttered.
"Maybe they we're waiting for us to make our move, like a cosmic chess game," came Alec Deleon's quite but controlled and confident voice.
She had not realized that she had been thinking out loud. Even now, after all these years when she consciously knew that Alec, the 'real' Alec DeLeon had given up the ghost on Earth's moon and that this was a clone that she spoke to.
However, somehow the memory engrams, the personality traits that had made Alec DeLeon his unique and distinct self were all still there and reminded her of everything that they had shared, lived through, and experienced together. 'Can I really afford to let all of that go because it wasn't as 'real' as it used to be? No, not in a million years.' She thought with a slight blush coloring her checks behind the face-plate of her helmet.
"A chess game, huh," she replied via her radio communicator. "We've sent our opening gambit, it's their move now."
"Agreed," he replied. "Do you think they'll prove to be friendly?"
"We can only hope, but I've got the strangest premonition that the opposite will prove to be the case."
Over the open communication channel Sergeant Rita Torres, who for all of her experience and grace under fire had always stubbornly refused promotion ordered a terse: "Cut the chatter, we're coming up just under the potential hostiles noses."
"The lights are on, but there doesn't appear to be anyone home," remarked Wolf Bronski absently, uncertain even in his own mind exactly what they all were venturing into. He didn't mind the unknown, or a challenge, and no one would ever accuse Wolf Bronski of being the over-imagnitve type. He was a rank and file soldier, and a good one, but there was just something about the alien ships that gave him the 'creeps.'
"Should we knock?" Marsala suggested, picking up on the lead that Bronski had begun and running with it and the old saying would have it. He had finally learned to grasp humor and while some might find his sense of humor a bit on the dry side; Marsala still attempted it.
"I can't see how it would hurt," Nara replied.
"Torres to all squads, enable for silent running, and maintain radio silence," she added.
The mixed squads of Able and Delta approached at rapid but cautious speed not willing to take any unnecessary chances. They were all feeling a bit on the edge, but in a good way; they were experienced soldiers and while the aliens represented an unknown, it was best to face it head on rather than waiting it to spring at you without any warning.
Just then the over an open channel a resounding buzzing began, however, oddly enough it did not do any damage to their instruments or engines. In fact, judging by the hyped-up sensor dish mounted on top of Alec Deleon's E-frame it appeared it was an attempt by the aliens to communicate with them.
"What are they trying to say?" Weston asked.
"It's hard to make out exactly," Deleon replied. "It's garbled by a lot by an appreciable build-up of white noise in this sector of space, and it's the onboard computer is having difficulty identifying as a language."
"Can you ungarble it?" Torres demanded.
"I'm trying, just give me a sec," DeLeon replied. "I think I can do so if I render it into icon-graphic symbols. There, that's got it."
"Are we certain it is an attempt at communication?" asked Marsala.
"As near as I can make out," Deleon said for the first time a hint of surprise in his normally equable voice. "I think they wish to speak with us, face to face, but in order to do so they require transport for their ambassador."
"Sounds like a job for Marsala and I," Nara Burns chimed in and soon after Marsala's deeper baritone came over the open communication channel.
"I concur," he said.
"Then I'll go ahead and convey our response," Alec replied.
When the response came back to their initial hail it sounded much like white nose, even cleaned up through DeLeon's sophisticated equipment on his E-frame, but soon a hatch opened up in the leading alien ship and they cruised inside of it.
The interior of the ship was sparsely lit and curved but running lights along the walls provided enough illumination to see by. They also noted a curious stretching effect that the ships were considerably large on the inside than they had appeared from the outside.
A series of clicks and buzzes and icons lit up DeLeon's console and eventually led them to what he guessed was the alien's equivalent of the bridge.
"We come, we welcome you, ask for transportation to meet with your leaders." One of the aliens began in a halting yet perfectly understandable attempt at speaking their language.
Once there the alien's reaction at seeing them was one of mild shock, genuine amazement and mingled ambivalence. Weston and her squad mates had never really known what to except, but insectiods had not been high on her list. They seemed friendly enough but Maggie Weston had always been the cautious sort, not quick to form snap judgments.
More by unspoken agreement than anything else, Maggie waited for Lt. Burns and Marsala to lower the hatch on their two-pilot #RA-678 E-frame- in order to make room for the self-appointed ambassador.
"Let's get out of here," Nara said."
"You'll get no argument from me," Maggie replied.
Marsh along with Admiral Winfield and Jonas Simbaca waited for the scouts to return with the alien ambassador, and judging by the agitated pacing of the pirate leader and the tense set of Admiral Winfield's shoulders neither man was as completely sanguine about the first face-to face meeting with an extra-terrestrial in their recorded history.
The aliens' ships had appeared from both long-range and close-up view as insect-like and that fact was borne out when the ambassador was escorted onto the bridge by his honor-guard and the security detail of Lieutenants Weston and DeLeon, while Sergeant Torres elected to wait in the corridor with her squad.
The ambassador was male as far as anyone could determine and stood a little under ½ a meter in height and his skin was the texture and hue of a translucent green and black marble streaked by veins of darker green.
"I welcome you aboard the flagship "Adamant" I'm Lt. Commander J.T Marsh, these gentlemen are Admiral Winfield and General Simbacca."
"Do you speak our language?" Winfield asked.
The alien made as if to reach for its throat, or rather a thorax, and appeared to toggle several switches on a device it wore around its neck before he or it, made a response.
"I, your language speak. I am honored to make your acquaintance. I am Xinth ab Xandria of the Tiang.
Xinth appeared to be humanoid, in the sense that they have two arms ending in hands, and two legs; they are insectoid, and their bodies were covered in a hard carapace, they have compound eyes and ant-like mandibles.
"For the sake of ease in facilitating communication you may refer to me as Xinth."
"Xinth, it is, then," Simbacca replied.
"You requested a meeting, please go ahead, uh, Xinth." Winfield invited and shrugged, uncertain on how to proceed.
"The Triang are aware that are interlopers even intruders in your Sol System, however, or maybe you don't think that all, it is difficult rendering our ideo-graphic language into your words. So please forgive any unfortunate misunderstandings at the outset." Xinth shrugged his supple shoulders a movement very much like that of a human or even another humanoid making the same gesture.
"It's good of you to make the first move to meet with us," Winfield replied and rest assured it a gesture that will be look upon favorably by us in any future encounters."
"This is good to hear," Xinth replied. "We do not wish your people harm, but we have been studying you for some time and we have considered that you can be aggressive even war-like. How do you reconcile these facts, with your assurances of no harm to the Triang?"
Winfield was at first uncertain how to reply, of two minds both at the Triang ambassadors' willingness to disclose the fact that Earth and the perhaps the home worlds had been under the alien's surveillance, and that fact it they had hit the proverbial nail on the head about the humanity and by extension Neo Sapien's war-like nature. "Let's fact, you're right that we can be aggressive so I'm not going to waste anyone's time attempting to deny it, but I can assure you, we mean you no harm."
"Weston, please go and request Professor Algernon's presence on the bridge. He'll want to be here and I was remiss in not thinking of it earlier," Marsh said.
"Yes, Sir," she replied and turned to head for the turbo-lift at the far end of the bridge that lead down to the lower decks.
Algernon was brought in and apprised of the situation and the formal introductions were duly dispensed with and Xinth began to get down to matters in earnest. It turned out that the Triang indeed originated from outside the Sol System from a star system near the M26 galaxy and their home world had begun to run low on the precious fuel supply need to run their ships and colonies.
Thus they had needed to assemble a fleet large enough to carry and sustain their entire population and they had set out. It may have been just Xinth's rough translation of his speech via his communication device but everyone present got the distinct impression that the mass exodus had not been a mutually agreed upon venture among the Triang clan families.
All told they numbered about a little over four hundred, adults and adolescents.
For his part Winfield was not entirely certain if his first impression was entirely correct but Adamant and Simbacca's pirate flagship had now become a refuge for the Triang. The transition could not have been easy on either the aliens or the crews; but to Winfield's way of thinking the potential gains outweighed the potential risks.
"Well, what do you think?" Weston demanded.
"I have told this on numerous occasions, Lt. Weston, but it bears repeating: science cannot be rushed," snapped Algernon as pored over the data scrolling across the screen of his computer monitor.
"Fascinating, it would appear the metallic alloys utilized by the Triang are capable of mimicking the appearance of organic beings to the nth degree."
Xinth came over and nodded. "We integrate the technology as best we can, I cannot tell you all the details of the reason we had to leave our home planet, but we are grateful for the assistance given to us by your people."
"I realize that having to make the decision to abandon your home could not have been an easy decision to make, but if I could hazard a guess, was it due to natural causes or something else happen?" Maggie Weston asked.
Xinth flinched and the nictating membranes over his eyes began to twitch. "I have a great deal of respect for you Exo-fleet pilots, Lt. Weston, but I am not at liberty to divulge that information, as of yet.
In the weeks that the Than had been aboard and assigned living quarters on the Adamant their ability to speak and understand spoken English had improved and it went a long way to avoid any unfortunate misunderstandings, but they were bound to happen nonetheless.
"I understand your concerns, Ambassador, Lieutenant Weston's intention wasn't meant to pry into your reasons," Alec Deleon added attempting to smooth over the ensuing awkward moment.
"I just thought if we had a little more information to go on, maybe we could speed up the process of refining an additional fuel supply for your ships."
"Was the Sol System your intended destination?" Algernon asked.
"I, I understand better, your question." Xinth bent low at the waist and the vibrations of his agitated eyelids stopped. "And to answer, yes and no."
"What do you mean by yes and no?" Deleon asked.
"Yes, we were attempting to straddle the asteroid belt, but only to use its gravitational field to enter a parallel dimension, but were, how do you put, 'stuck in the between and unable to proceed any further; neither forward nor backward."
"If I may ask, in what manner do you utilize your ships engines to effect the transition between dimensional planes? If I not mistaken," Algernon asked, "It would seem to have more in common with the pirate ship design than that of the Exo Fleet."
"Professor Algernon, I cannot answer that," Xinth replied with a rueful shake of his head. "I am an ambassador not a scientist."
"And Algernon is a scientist and not a diplomat," Maggie joked.
"All levity aside," Algernon stated sniffing in disapproval at Weston's attempt at humor, "I must ask another question, "Why did you begin to monitor transmissions from the home-worlds?"
"Yes, we did monitor your transmissions. You must understand we were confused and cautious," Xinth replied. "I really should have been more forthcoming with your leaders, however, as Professor Algernon and have I already discussed, not all among the clan families agreed on the manner in which we should proceed once you respond to our communication signals."
"I think we need to see General Marsh and the other allied commanders," Weston remarked.
Alec offered her one of his familiar trade-mark off-center wry grins. "You know, Maggie, I still don't think I'm accustomed to thinking of J.T as 'General, because he is and we're all going to have wrap our heads around that fact. "And I agree, he needs to know about we we've discussed."
"My analysis is not yet complete," Algernon protested.
"You can come see him or call him down when you're done. I've talked with the folks in R & D who are working on synthesizing a new fuel source for the Triang ships and…well, the fact of the matter is, it's slow going."
"Any light you could shed to speed up the process along would be greatly appreciated," Maggie added.
"Agreed," Xinth replied. "Some among the families may not agree, however, if something isn't down soon, well get nowhere very fast…" Did I get the metaphor correctly?"
Maggie and Alec laughed and smiling at the Triang ambassador replied. "Yes, Xinth. You did very well."
Once apprised of Xinth's willingness to provide the allied forces with more information about the components of the Triang's fuel supply Marsh immediately ordered that the data be made immediately available and assigned Weston and Deleon to continue to keep him apprised of any updates.
Simbacca and even his second-in-command Hallas seemed intrigued by the Triang's technology and Winfield did not really blame them. He'd been eager to get through the routine of ship protocol and duties and get down to the research and development lab to have a look at the ships currently in storage in the cavernous spare hangar bay.
And he could not begrudge the pirate clans proprietary air, for in their entire history it was almost as second nature for them as breathing the air, or drinking water.
Nara Burns had been assigned to help the Triang acclimate to life aboard the Adamant and discovering unexpected common ground with them, or at least a few members among their species; mainly the youngsters and more open-minded among the clan families.
Leaving Nara wondering if her exposure to the gene modifications at the hands of Dr. Ketzer had affected her more than had thought. One of the more than a few unexpected side-effects and affected was her empathy with their Triang's unique situation.
Usually when she had felt down or lost she had always gone to Marsala for advice or solace; and although she had never felt that she could express that aspect of their relationship in so many words; she sensed that he had always known. Had he felt the same way, perhaps it had been that brighter gleam in his eye when they had said farewell for they had both assumed was the final time on her home world of Venus.
Marsala had always been a kind, loyal friend. He had also made an excellent sounding board. He was also a rarity among his race. This had always been something of a double-edged sword where he was concerned mainly because he had made the conscious choice to fight along the Exo Fleet against Phaeton and his own people. In his own unique way Marsala had managed to reconcile that ambivalence within his own soul.
"It couldn't have been easy for him. I wonder…"
"Wonder what, Commander Burns?" asked Chay, the young Triang female who had accompanied her down to the mess hall, currently unoccupied at this late hour.
"Oh, nothing, really, just travelling down memory lane," Nara said.
"I do not believe that my people have the equivalent of these, what did you call them?" Chay wrinkled her brow in thought, causing the tiniest of ripples to move across her mobile face. It was difficult to determine the ages of individual Triang unless one knew what to look for.
"Oh, yes, metaphors. As you know our language is comprised of individual icons, their meaning determined by the context in which they are placed."
"Memory lane, it's not an actual place, " Nara sighed and reached up to brush away the locks of blonde but turning green at the roots hair out of her eyes and added: "It's an expression, it means I'm wondering in thoughts of the past."
"It seems to make you sad," observed Chay.
"It does a little bit, but there were good times, too," replied Nara wistfully.
She had believed that her work and duty to the Exofleet was done, that she could stay o Venus on help with the Reconstruction Effort, but somehow Marsh, the bond with her squad mates and the lure of the unknown had drawn her back into the fold like a magnetic pull.
"Nara, I realize that your commanders have assigned you to us as a good-will liaison, but I must let you know that I am pleased as our upper echelons of clan," Chay remarked suddenly, and much to Nara's surprise the green/black skin of her facet turned a shade lighter as she blushed.
"I am considered much too young and impulsive to be trusted with much responsibility," Chay laughed, a thin trill of sound bordering on the edge being atonal, but unmistakably someone giving voice to laughter or the Triang equivalent.
Nara realized that she liked Chay and her father Xinth very much. For the first time in recent memory Nara Burns allowed the hard shell that she had not even consciously realized she had built up around herself begin to chip away. "You know, when I first joined Exo Fleet they thought I was too young, too inexperienced, and well, you can guess at the rest."
"Indeed," Chay replied. For her own part Chay realized that her youth as he mentioned made her seem unreliable and inexperienced among her own people, and while the humans, both pirate and Exo-Fleet troopers even after prolonged exposure to one another seemed as alien to her as her people seemed to them: felt that a definite change for the better was in the works, and this was a good thing all around.
Chay had always been considered a rarity among her own people for had a tendency to form connections quickly and hold onto them, quite stubbornly. She liked Nara Burns, and others of her friends and squad that she had been introduced to, but there was something different, something special about Nara.
"I think we have much to learn from each other,"Nara said.
"Nara, you are leaking fluids! Can I get you anything from the replicator machine?" Chay suddenly said in alarm when she noticed that Nara was crying.
Hot salty tears were streaming out of her eyes and it was only then that Nara realized that instead of a normal milky-hued color, the tears were tinged a pale green. Chay sidled over and said, "Perhaps we should return to your quarters. I do not believe you wish your comrades to see you like this."
"I am not ashamed of tears, I'm just, feeling a bit overwhelmed at the moment. It's not your fault, it's not anyone's fault, really."
"Are we still friends?" Chay asked in a whisper.
Nara looked up at the concerned face hovering so near to her own and sniffed. "Yes, Chay, we are."
"I do not mean to pry, but the color of the tears, this is not normal for those of your species, no?" Chay observed cautiously feeling her way around what she sensed what was obviously a sensitive subject for Nara.
"No, someone did that to me, during the war. I used to hate him, for what he did to me…."she trailed off.
"Now, I don't know how I feel about it." Nara sighed. "I don't mean to dump this on you."
"Did you know that I had considered taking up counseling when I am old enough," Chay remarked. "If you ever need anything, all you have to do is ask." Chay finished with a mischievous wink. "I don't know how much help I will be, but it never hurts to ask."
"You know something, Chay," Nara Burns, "I think I will take you up on that offer, but have I mentioned lately that you are incorrigible?" Nara offered Chay a quiet smile; the barest thinning of her lips and regained some of her composure. "Would you like some tea? I find it always helps calm my nerves."
"Yes, I would. Thank you." Chay returned the smile with one of her own. "And to answer your last question, No. Perhaps not as often as might be required. We shall see."
"I think this might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship," Nara said as she got up to go over and order two cups of tea from the computerized dispenser.
Thrax and Cato stood on the observation deck of the still under construction complex on Mars' observation deck viewing the real-time streaming video feed broadcast sent out by the volunteers of Project Ring of Fire.
"Back in the old days, during the war, this technology would have been employed in conducting surveillance of enemy troop movements," remarked Thrax studying the deployment of the Allied Fleet.
"Things have changed considerably from the old days," Cato remarked.
"You sound as if you do not approve," Thrax remarked giving the renowned the new governor of Mars a grudging but respectful glance. Things had changed and mostly for the better. Thrax had always been a loyal soldier even under the tyrannical rule of Governor General Phaeton, but even the most loyal of soldiers and pilots could tell as the war between the humans and the Neo-Sapiens had wore on, there was rot as his core.
In the back of his mind Thrax thought; "Change is never wholly good or wholly bad; it is simply change.'
"It is not that I do not approve," Cato cautiously began uncertain even in his own mind whether or not to proceed, but determined to forge on nonetheless," It's that I believe that the Terrans are proceeding on a course that is too rash even for them."
"I would concur," Thrax replied, and the future is uncertain as the present, but one might almost have to admire that very boldness."
Cato snorted and gave the renowned Neo Sapien E-frame pilot an appraising glare and then titled his head to one side. "Fortune favors the bold and those who venture into places where angels fear to tread."
"A quote?" Thrax questioned.
"A mere observation," Cato replied calmly. "Only time will tell whether or not the Terrans were correct in undertaking this venture or not. In the meantime we all have a great deal of work to do."
"Agreed, Let us get to work then," Thrax said and the two departed the viewing platform.
The seeming good will and fellowship among the mixed crew of Terrans and Triang could only last for so long before something went wrong, and while it was anyone's guess who threw the first punch, it was a moot point by the time the fight in the mess hall broke out.
The malcontents among the Triang clan families, those who Ambassador Triang had indicated in a rather roundabout way had been opposed to abandoning their home planet and venturing forth into outer space were in the midst of it, but so where Wolf Bronski, Corporal Vince Pelligrino, members of various E-Frame squads and other assorted Jump Troop soldiers.
A security detail had come to break up the fight by the time DeLeon, Torres, and Weston arrived on the scene and with their help much elbowing, grabbing and shoving and shouted orders managed to put things back in order.
Most had the grace to back away, either under their own power or with the escort of the security detail, with the understanding that everyone would be asked to give a statement later on.
"Anyone care to explain what happened in here!" Weston shouted.
"They started it," muttered Pelligrino in a wounded but not entirely convincing tone where he straddled the back of the table where he and the members of his unit, Charlie Squad normally claimed as theirs in the communal mess hall.
His left hand was bruised and swollen around the knuckle and he had the bruised yellowish-purple ring around his right eye, and appeared that his pride was more injured than his skin.
"I don't care who started it," Weston said in icy determined tone of voice. "Consider it over with, Corporal, because if I hear of something like this ever starting again, you'll pray I'm finished with you. Do I make myself perfectly clear?"
"Crystal, Ma'am," he replied as he sat back in his chair toying with the a loose strand of thread that come off his uniform cuff, and then glanced up to see his icy-blue gaze staring at her back.
On the way out Maggie Weston turned to Alec Deleon and remarked: "I guess he got the message, huh?"
"I should think so," replied DeLeon.
The malcontents are placed in the brig with a security detail but quickly effect a breakout and then leave the fleet with a handful of their own ships and make for the outer planets.
Inside and outside the conference room everyone could feel the tension in the air like a bad smell that lingered and refused to go away.
Marsh opened the proceedings by tersely stating: "Ladies and gentlemen, we have a problem on our hands and I would like options on how to go about solving it."
Jonas Simbacca nodded. "The best way to proceed would be to dispatch a search and retrieval unit large enough to cut off them off and then subdue them."
Admiral Winfield nodded. "A good suggestion as far as it goes, but I'd like to hear what Ambassador Xinth has to say."
"The instigator is well-known to me, much to my chagrin," Xinth began and then paused to reach up and wipe the sweat from his face. "He is called Praxis and while he possesses much personal charisma and the capability to lead large numbers of our people, he also has the unfortunate tendency to do so only for her own gratification and vain-glory."
Admiral Winfield sighed and thought in the back of his mind, 'Sounds familiar, thinking of Phaeton and even, as painful as was to recall the late and tragic fate of his friend Captain Matthew Marcus. Shoving the errant thought into a back corner of his mind he said: "Thank you for sharing that with us. I realize that it could not have been easy for you. If you much of this Praxis's habits, what do you believe will be his likely next move?"
The ships belonging to the clan families that accompanied are only several hundreds strong and they could not have carried much in the way of fuel or supplies."
"In other words," Simbacca interrupted," they couldn't have gotten very far."
Xinth blinked and continued. "Yes. I doubt Praxis would have continued on our original course, but he may have attempted to make for the outer ring of planets and then establish a base.
"The pirate clans are out there,"Simbacca said. "I can have Hallas contact them and be on the outlook for Praxis and his band of malcontents."
"A wise precaution," Marsh said, but let's be certain that uh, the pirates' volatile tendency to shoot first and ask questions later does not spark another conflict. That's the last thing we need at this point."
Simbacca glared at Marsh but refrained himself from the rash and hot-tempered words that he normally would instinctively made at this reminder about his people's temperament; they were allies here.
Hallas, until now merely listening and taking everything in asked to be heard. "I will contact the clans and inform them of the situation, but do you really think it likely that Praxis and his people will attack us?"
"I do not believe so," Xinth replied. "Not unless he is attacked first and I doubt that with his small numbers and limited supplies he would risk touching off a potential conflict unless his hand is forced."
"Then the best thing to do is cut him off at the pass, if you will excuse my employing and old cliché," Winfield added.
"I agree," Marsh said, "Xinth, what do you think we should do? Renegades or just malcontents, what have you, these are your people we're discussing here."
"You have all done so much for us already, and I am given to understand that even the leaders of your home worlds were not unanimously for this expedition as it stands."
"No, they were not, but we're here now," Winfield said.
"I believe that given Praxis' history and disposition it would be best to kept him within this solar system as much as possible. We do not believe that hey and his troops would deliberately harm anyone, be they Terran, Pirate or Neo-Sapien, but anything is within the realm of possibility," Xinth replied.
"It's a dicey situation, any way you choose to slice it," Marsh observed.
Xinth asked: "Commander Marsh, how much progress is your Research and Development department making with the synthesis of new fuel supply?"
"I'd have to check with Professor Algernon, but he says he's making appreciable progress," Marsh replied.
"I can't speak for the Triang," Simbacaa added, "But at this point, he may have been desperate and desperate people are prone to make rash decisions and then regretting them later on down the road. I say we go after them."
"We can't take the entire allied fleet. A small task force would be better suited, if we are committed to this action?" Marsh asked
"We could break off a smaller bit of the task force or even a larger group of E-Frame units." Hallas stated.
"We don't know how long it will take to track them down," Winfield said.
"I think we can spare one of the modified carriers along with a mixed unit of E-frames and crew."
"I agree," Xinth replied. "
"Then it's settled, bear in mind that if they find Praxis and his troops they are strict orders not to engage unless fired upon first," Winfield said. "If they wish to leave and have managed to synthesize the fuel source that the Triang need for their ships maybe you can persuade them into sharing that intel with the rest of us."
"Do you want us to bring them back here?" Marsh asked.
"I don't know. They wanted to leave, and I'd rather not keep anyone aboard the Adamant who doesn't want to be here, but for now let's play it by ear and see what happens."
"I doubt we'll need the reinforcements," remarked Marsh in an aside to General Winfield as they were the last to leave the conference room," however, it never hurts to have an ace in the hole, and besides you'll have to keep working with the Triang and the rest of our allies as well coordinating with home worlds to see that everything we've built doesn't wither on the vine."
"And you were worried that you couldn't be eloquent enough when we presented our case to Council?" Winfield remarked reaching one eyebrow and offered the younger officer a tight but reassuring smile. "
"Hmm, Yes, now that you mention it," Marsh replied. "I do recall something to that effect. "I'll try not to worry so much if you'll try not gamble so much."
"Speaking of gambling, I believe we have time for one last poker game before you set out."
"Sir, with all due respect," Marsh wryly remarked, "have I mentioned lately that you are incorrigible?"
"No, and I'll hold you to that."
Maggie Weston was in her quarters and she had dosed the lights and was and lay down on her bed, and as exhausted as she was she expected to fall asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow; instead she was strangely wakeful. She tossed and turned, her mind stirring with the events of the past several days and those yet to come.
After half an hour of this she threw off her comforter and got out of bed and slipped into her slippers and then quietly padded over to the washroom to splash water on her face from the tap. Finishing with that she then glanced into the mirror and asked her reflection:
'What's got into you? You've never been this fidgeting before, not even during the war, not when you were facing down enemies twice your size, not even when it looked as if we were about to buy it? Not even we flew blind into the interior of the alien ship. Not even the aliens, as well, alien as they are ever got be this flustered, So, what's got me all a-flutter suddenly?'
She brushed strands of auburn hair out of her eyes and realized that the racing of her pulse had less to do with adrenaline rush prior to go on a mission, or into combat had more to do with thoughts of her team-mate Alec DeLeon. "Damn it! I really don't this right now!"
With the force of a sucker punch she realized that she needed to see him, talk to him, to sort this all out. That without either of them noticing that it had happened; she was falling in love with him and he with her. "There it's out and it's official."
Alec DeLeon had dressed for bed but had not yet gone to sleep when his door chime pinged and he immediately asked whoever it was to enter.
He had been sitting on top of the comforter putting the final touches on cleaning his sidearm when Maggie walked in. He set the side-arm down and with the smooth economy of motion that she remembered so well darted over to greet her.
"To what do I owe this visit?" he asked, and while he tried to keep his expression serious she could tell that a grin was forcing its way out onto his face.
"You big dope," Maggie said with a tight laugh. "We need to talk."
"Stuff in general, Us…" she trailed off and then began to shuffle her feet on the carpet before she resolved to just go with the flow of the moment and came closer to sweep Alec into her arms.
"Alec, I've been thinking about a lot of stuff lately, about where I've been and about where I'm going and I think I need to ask you something very important."
Alec had always admired and respected Maggie both as a friend, a team-mate and as a person and while he had always held out the hope that one day it might become more than that; someone it had never been in the cards. "Ask," he replied.
"Do you love me?"
"Oh, Maggs, "he whispered in a tone of voice that she had never heard him use before, stiff but solid and quiet. "I think I've always loved, loved you until hurt. I was afraid, well, as you the other me, was afraid that I would keep it all bottled up inside of me…"he trailed off uncertain how to finish the thoughts that were bubbling up to the surface.
"You big dope," Maggie laughed. "Reality is so messed up right now, why didn't you ever tell me how you felt?"
"Right back at you," Alec replied with his familiar but still a little shaky devil-may-care grin restored to his face.
"You know something else?" Maggie began. "We may never get another chance to get this right, and if I don't play this right I may never do so."
Alec still locked tight inside the circle of her arms, shuffled his feet and gazed into her eyes, breathing a trifle more heavily. "What are you talking about?"
"Alec DeLeon, will you marry me?"
Alec's blue eyes widened in surprise and that sudden and completey unexpected question coming from Maggie Weston of all people and stepped away from the embrace to gaze at her intently as attempting to memorize her every line. He smiled, seeming to like what he saw and then replied. And with a bright smile he said: "Well, I'd have to think about it, and it's a trifle on the unorthodox side. Shouldn't it be me asking you to marry me instead of the other way around?"
"Will you get to the point!" she exclaimed with a shaky grin of her own. Returning his gaze with an intent one of her own, much relieved to have her pulse, heart beat back on its customary even keel; even though she knew that they were more or less rushing things just a hair.
"Yes, I will marry you, if you can put up with this big dope."Alec grinned and stepped forward to kiss her on the lips.
She returned the kiss and they stood locked together before a long time before they broke away.
"Mmm," she hummed.
Alec took a few deep breaths of his own. "Any ideas of how you want to go about breaking the news to our friends?"
"Not just yet, but now that's its settled, I had imagined that we'd ask J.T to give the, uh, bride away and that as senior officer aboard the Adamant that Admiral Winfield would perform the ship-board ceremony."
"I'll insist on a formal 21-gun salute." Alec titled his head back as if thinking something through. "I love you, Maggie Weston."
"Back at you, Alec Deleon. Oh the hell with it! I love you, too!"
"So, where do we go from here?" Alec asked.
"To tell the truth, I honestly don't know," replied Maggie, but wherever it is, I think we ought to go there together."
"Absolutely and without question," Alec replied.
"Do you always have to have the last word?" she joked.
He stepped forward and kissed her lips and ruffled his hands through the thick strands of her auburn hair. "I'll take that as a no." she sighed and returned and they stood locked together for quite some time, when they both realized that they really should get some sleep because tomorrow would be upon them before either of them noticed.
"Your orders, Sir," the helmsman asked.
"Second star on the right and straight on till morning," Marsh replied. "Let's see what's out there." Again, as a student of history J.T Marsh could both recognize and appreciate the source of the quote. It had come from a fictional account written by an Englishman named J.M Barrie from Old Earth. It while it had been used to by mariners and ships' captains for centuries; somehow it felt appropriate in this setting and under these circumstances.
The helmsman turned to the nearest person and whispered in an undertone, "Exactly how do I go about inputting those coordinates into the navigation computer?"
"How should I know?" the other replied and gave the helmsman a nonchalant shrug. "At this point, your guess is as good as mine."
"I think the brass is all gung-ho for this expedition of ours," the first non-commissioned crew-man remarked.
"I guess, I am too," the helmsman replied darting a glance towards Marsh. "I guess we won't know until we get there and our commander certainly is about as raring to go as a racehorse."
"Well, then, let's go," the second man said and punched in the coordinates that would take them and their task force out the Earth side of the asteroid belt and out into the outer ring of planets.
Darting a glance at the helmsman and the other crew-man who sat beside him Marsh could not have helped but over hear their conversation even as preoccupied as he had been with outfitting and coordinating everything that they might need on the journey. "You are correct in your speculations, gentleman, Do us all a favor and try and avoid the big ones."
"Aye, Aye, Sir!"