Part Eighteen: Worlds Without End

Chapter One:

"It was hard to believe, at first, that the Invid were gone for good, regardless of what Karen might have promised. It was even harder sorting out the mess that was left behind. After all, the SDF-3 was missing, and the designated alternate command ship was commanded by someone that had been chosen for political reliability, not ability - and he snapped, ordering the destruction of Earth after the battle was WON, out of fear the Invid would escape again. In fact, the Invid saved us from him as they left, destroying him and his doomsday weapons. What few survivors from his clique were found, stated that there had been sealed orders to destroy the Invid at all cost (at least, that's what Reinhardt told them - something that is still argued to this day). As soon as the rescue operations were over, the arguing between the Hunter-loyal and political factions began in earnest, made worse by politicians trying to take command from the safety of Tyrol with no knowledge of what the conditions here actually were. It was, in the end, the sheer idiocy of those orders that eventually united the factions against them." - Scott Freeman, Memories of the Madness

Colonel Scott Freeman was glad to see sunlight through the hole he'd just blown in the rubble. Most of the Reflex Point central hive had dissolved and left with the Invid, leaving the lowest levels (with the transport tubes) to be buried by falling debris of parts that didn't leave, as well as material swept up, then dropped, by the departure. Behind him was his wife in her Beta, a number of his subordinates and some civilians as passengers with her. Behind her, was an Invid Battloid, several others in Cyclones, and the Shadow Fighters that had made it into the hive. Convincing them to obey his orders to stand down had been a minor ordeal of itself. To him, the sunset was the most beautiful sight of his life.

"Well, Colonel; what do we do now?" the lead Shadow pilot asked.

"Once we get out of this hole, Tomlinson, we go overland to the Earth forces staging point, where you and your men get to talk to the General about your orders."

"Colonel, do you think, orders or no orders, I'd have brought my men down here if I knew Reinhardt was going to drop a planet-killer on the hive?"

"Not likely, though some people I knew in the bad old days would have if they thought they had enough time to get out of the atmosphere before impact. Most of those types got cashiered in the Edwards scandals. But, I will need you to help gather up all the people from the orbital assault, so we can explain why those on the ground were cut out of your comm channels, and that the jerks in orbit had no intent of telling you that they weren't expecting you to come back. Face it, most of the Saturn attack wing were told not to believe anything they heard from the ground, supposedly because we might have been compromised by the Invid."

"If you had been about any other officer, I'd probably have followed that order myself, Colonel - but I served with you and was willing to take the risk that you were you."

"All the more reason to have you break the news."

"You just better be able to support what you've told me."

"I will, if the sensors back at base camp survived that EM pulse."

About that time, a blue Beta walked up to them. The pilot called to them over his externals.

"Colonel, my radio is shot, along with most my sensors. Did you get my people out?"

"They're in my wife's Beta - at least, those that didn't follow you out. Are those two pilots okay?"

"Yes, the only thing hurt is their pride, and their mecha. Marlene's with them."

"Good. Go get them, and meet up with us for the walk back out. We'll be stopping when possible to pick up wounded."

"Speaking of wounded," Alex piped in from his Cyclone, "Noel's in rough shape from helping Karen and the Regis. She's got a fever of 40C and is too weak to stand. If anyone's got a spare canteen or two, she needs it to cool off. Dana's not much better. Marie was the tail-end anchor, and was affected the least - even so, she's piloting the Beta against my medical recommendation. Even Zor passed out from the strain."

"You heard the doctor, men. Now, Alex, lead us back to where you left those wounded on the way in, and we'll go from there."

They managed to make it back into camp several hours after dark. Freeman, Bernard & Tomlinson reported in to the command tent, where Fokker as already sitting with Harrington and the other surviving ground force commanders.

"You three are the last to arrive. I gather you've heard what those things were in orbit, by now."

"Yeah - we had a front row seat, watching them on the Regis' own sensors. I hate to say it, but she saved us."

"She didn't have to, so why?"

"First of all, two of her daughters had fallen in love with humans, and stayed behind. Second, she realized that she'd become the very thing she hated most, and pretty much left in shame - destroying those monstrosities in orbit was her way of atonement."

"Where did the Invid go?"

"Who knows? Karen was providing the destination, and left with them. All she said was that they were leaving this universe entirely, so that we and the Invid never have to be in conflict again."

"Well, that's one less worry. Have any of you managed to contact the fleets in orbit, or the moon?"

"No, we were hoping you had. Our communications have been down from damage, and we were hoping yours might have survived from being underground."

"My wife's Beta probably has, but we don't have any of the security codes and locations for the contacts. Tomlinson was unable to contact orbit, because his coordinates for calling in apparently either aren't occupied anymore, or they have the same problems we do - but you'd think the ship systems would have better shielding. And, there's no way to transfer the encryption over to one of our machines. The bastards changed the encryption to shut us out of being able to communicate with the fleet - deliberately."

"Yeah, we figured that out. The last thing we heard from Rolf was that Reinhardt was doing a fair imitation of a cross between Ahab & Queeg, and had ordered the arrest of Rolf and anyone that obeyed Rolf over him - all the while screaming about how the invasion had failed, and the final option was mandated."

"Why didn't he just call it the 'Final Solution'? It would have been more accurate to history."

"If it wasn't so deadly serious, I'd laugh at that joke. We're got a few magnification systems we've modified into digital telescopes in the last few hours, and what we're seeing isn't all that good."

"Is the fleet gone?"

"Worse - a quarter of the fleet is gone, and the rest appears to be in two groups, taking occasional shots at each other."

"How the hell did that happen?"

"How else? One side's obeying Rolf, the other's obeying whatever lunatics are still following Reinhardt's last orders - his ship was in dead center of the Invid departure, by the way, so he's no longer an issue we have to deal with directly. However, he apparently ordered the destruction of Emerson's Nearside communications array, to further stifle attempts to counter his orders."

"Have any of the mecha forces from the fleet reported in?"

"A few - too few, really. Their gravity combat training was apparently lacking severely. We've ordered them into a separate camp, and all mecha larger than Cyclones are under enforced shutdown, to prevent the madness in orbit from infecting the people here. However, a lot of them already know that those doomsday weapons were launched, and are none too happy for being left to die."

"That's something we should be able to use to our benefit. Now, let me tell you all about what went down in the hive. Bernard, you got there first, so you start with how your team got invited to the party..."

"...and, my husband went to order Tomlinson's group to halt their progress, as I'm sure Sera and Lieutenant Belmont would have used lethal force to stop them, if necessary," Marie continued, reporting to the other officers about what occurred after both Scotts had left. "Karen told the Regis of the alternate plan for getting the Invid to safety, but to do it and stop the kinetic attack meant that it would tax both beyond their normal strength. Literally, every Invid left not in human form had to be reabsorbed by the Regis, their life force used to boost the departure. Karen, Dana, Noel and myself had to act as conduits for that energy, as it would have taken too long for the journey at hand. Had the Invid simply wanted to leave, to go through Ranaath's Star as they originally planned, such additional speed wouldn't have been needed - but they were using a talent Karen discovered in her presumed death at Optera to directly cross dimensions."

"Ranaath's star?"

"A singularity near Haydon IV, that Haydon believed to have the ability to create a stable wormhole to another dimension under the right circumstances. An energy being could make the one-way trip through it, but coherent matter could not even attempt to make it through, unless the wormhole had been forced open by such a being first. That was part of his master plan - to have the Invid forge the way in, then his consciousness would have awakened, and he would have attempted to take Haydon IV through in some form, in order to become a god-like being on the other side; Karen believed that the Invid would have been used up and cast aside by Haydon, in the process. By making a direct jump to another dimension, using Karen as a catalyst, they would bypass this fate - and leave Haydon to sleep where he couldn't fuck with sentient life for his own benefit - pardon my speech, but that's about as best as I can describe the crap Haydon's done to all of us, not to mention the Sentinels races."

"Why did they expend the power to go to orbit, first?"

"Well, if they didn't, it's possible they could have accidentally ripped the atmosphere from the planet, or taken a chunk of the planet. Besides, they had to take out the weapons before they left, and I think that the Invid effectively converted the mass of the weapons and the ships in their way into additional energy for the trip; at minimum, they absorbed the Protoculture. By that time, I was no longer in contact with Karen or the Regis."

"Is it possible that the ships weren't destroyed, only taken into the departing Invid?"

"I don't know. But, if they were, I wouldn't want to be in Reinhardt's shoes. I was her best friend; but frankly, Karen always frightened me a bit, and had the capacity of frightening the hell out of me - like in the Second Battle of Optera. Any humans absorbed into the Invid would most likely find themselves on trial for their lives. The lucky ones would be reborn wherever the Invid go - those found wanting, well... I get the feeling that in comparison, Edwards got off easy at Optera."

With that, the debriefing took a break, to let everyone recover from the day's events.

The break ended up lasting till past dawn, as nearly all parties involved nodded out from fatigue and unwinding stress as soon as they got in a semi-resting position, half of them unintentionally. The junior officers actually made it a point to make sure that their superiors would be in such a position, as there wasn't any immediate danger, and they could manage while all the colonels and generals got their beauty sleep. It is, after all, easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission (or, for that matter, FORCE the officers to get the rest they needed).

As the commanders woke themselves up by contemplating what they'd do to the people that let them fall asleep, they found out that the situation in orbit hadn't changed much. On the other hand, the techs had managed to pull the command radio Scott had installed in Marie's Shadow Beta, and hook it into an uplink system that had been still in storage and appeared to still be functional.

"Any signals worth mentioning, yet?" Fokker asked.

"A lot of open-channel posturing, sir...Both sides have stopped firing, but are still demanding that the other side place themselves under arrest. Eventually, one side will probably try something stupid like a decapitation raid."

"Who appears to be in charge up there?"

"General Grant of Neptune Logistics Division appears to be in charge of the ships that are answering to General Emerson on the Moon; they are using a ship-to-ship relay by parking some ships in lunar orbit to get a signal from Farside."

"And, on the other side of the fleet?"

"There doesn't be anyone higher than a rear admiral or major general on the other side, but they appear to be citing orders directly from Tyrol. Granted, pardon the pun, they are combat officers, not support."

"There's another wrinkle I don't think that the council isn't considering," Scott added. "Rolf's the legitimate commander of Solar System Forces."

"On what grounds?"

"Among other things, the Hydra Protocols. Any authority the Council on Tyrol had here, left the Solar System with the Invid. On top of that, he was Leonard's official successor prior to the Invid arrival, even if the idiots in the Eastern Hemisphere didn't want to accept it - God rest their souls. Until a new, Terran, council is elected, he's in charge under martial law, by every relevant article in the UEG Charter and Constitution."

"Why ruin the beauty of an idea by discussing its legality?"

"Didn't Theodore Roosevelt say that to his Cabinet?"

"Something like that. But, Teddy typically had the best interests of America at heart. I doubt the same could be said for those failed diplomats that haven't faced an election in almost 20 years, but consider themselves elected officials."

"So, are we all in agreement that Emerson is the legitimate authority, in the absence of an elected government chosen by the current populace of Earth?" Roy looked around; everyone there, all the officers in North America over the rank of commander, nodded in agreement - even the ones that were from the squadrons that had originally launched from the council-loyal ships. "Then, let's add our voice to the 'debate' in orbit. Raise one of the ships in Grant's force."

"Roy, perhaps I should be the one to initiate the contact. After all, as far as most of the fleet knows, you've been dead twenty-five years. Considering Vince is your brother-in-law, I don't know how he'll react to seeing you and Claudia among the living - even if clones. Hell, even I don't know how Karen managed to clone you in a way you actually regained the memories from before your deaths. Lang even grilled me, trying to figure that one out, since Karen & Marie wouldn't answer him."

"Good point. By the way, Karen said it was scanning the brain of my frozen corpse, for the most part, but also something involving genetic memory - something Earth scientists dismissed decades ago, but Tyroleans treated as gospel - I think Zor's memories recovered after being dumped into the lap of the Southern Cross is a perfect example of who was right in the end, though he still had to get a more complete brain scan downloaded into him. Even with that, I don't think that was the whole answer."

"Colonel, the connection is ready."

"Okay. Highlander Six Actual calling Ark Angel."

"We read you Colonel, loud and clear."

" Is General Grant available for a conference call with the Earth Forces command staff?"

"One moment... Yes, he will be coming online shortly." The screen shifted, and Vince appeared.

"Freeman, you made it! Last I heard, you'd entered the hive, right before all hell broke loose."

"Yeah, it was an adventure. Zor Prime and Karen thought they could talk the Regis into leaving, but in the end, we only helped her reach a conclusion that Lang's nephew and the Regis' own daughters had nearly convinced her of, already. Karen left with the Invid, and you can probably lay the blame for Reinhardt's timely demise at her feet - wherever those feet are now. Last thing she said was that she was helping the Invid to another dimension, where they'd never trouble humanity again. Oh, and get this - according to her, the Invid used to be human, thousands of years ago. They and the Masters can trace their history back to Earth, and some coastal societies whose remains have been submerged over a hundred meters down since the last Ice Age. The reason why the Invid weren't human when the Masters encountered them can be explained by one name-"

"Let me guess - Haydon."

"Right on the first try. The bastard was manipulating all the races we encountered, in some mad plan to attain something like godhood. It almost worked, too - probably would have, without Karen. She claimed to Marie that some other-dimensional being took offense at what Haydon was doing, and to stop him, created her as a free agent, since he couldn't stop Haydon alone."

"Are you in charge down there?"

"Not exactly... I'm third or fourth on the totem pole, depending if you're looking at the chain of command here at Reflex Point, or planet-wide."

"Where's your superiors, then?"

"There's a bit of a story behind that... they thought it would be best if I initiated the contact with you. You might want to get Jean with you, before you speak with them."

"She's here."

"Good. Jean, you know how, before the SDF-3 left Earth, Karen and Marie were known to do a number of things with Protoculture technology that, well, you, I, Emil or the Hunters would never have approved of, if they'd asked first? Hell, they did it again with Lynn-Kyle back on Tyrol."

"Yes, what did they do this time?"

"Actually, it's what they did as an engagement present for Rick & Lisa."

"I always suspected something; Vince, you better sit down. I think I got a glimpse of their 'present'', back then, and always hoped I'd just imagined it."

"After that near-fiasco, they were made the commanders of the secret defense base code named Tisiphone, but moved to Fortess Gloval after there was a reactor accident that contaminated that base. I'm surprised that it was kept secret so well from the REF - most of the Earth found out when the Invid invaded. Now that Vince is sitting, here they are."

"Hi, little brother," Claudia said, as she stepped into the camera's field of view, followed by her husband a couple steps behind. "So, I hear you're a General now."

"C-Claudia... it IS you. So, you really were at the wedding shower in Vegas."

"Yes, I was, although I never dreamed that Marie was crazy enough to expose us publicly like that. As it was, only Scott and Rick found out, though I suspected Jean suspected what happened, and Rick managed to convince Lisa she'd only imagined her glimpse of us. I'm sorry to hear about Bowie being on the SDF-3; I met him when he spent his honeymoon at Tisiphone, and had him promise not to say anything to you about me until Roy and I had a chance to break it to you personally."

"We've not given up hope for them yet; after all, there is plenty of reason to believe it's just another mis-programmed fold, just like all the others that have occurred with that class of ship. Do you and Roy have any children?"

"Two; our son Rick is seven years old, and we have a two year old daughter named Samantha. When can you come down to visit?"

"Right now, we're a little too occupied up here."

"We heard. We have two messages for you to pass on to your opposition. The first is the text of the Hydra Protocols and the UEG Compact. You should be able to figure out the parts we have marked, that show where the council faction are in violation of both.

"The second is that it is the unanimous opinion of all force commanders on Earth that Reinhardt's actions were illegal, if not completely treasonous, and were the result of orders given to him by the Plenipotentiary Council on Tyrol - an organization that has no authority in the Solar System to issue orders of any kind, and has no authority beyond that of the diplomatic mission to the Robotech Masters of Tyrol - a mission that ceased to have any purpose when the Masters were destroyed over Earth, and technically was moot even at the point of their arrival, since the Masters were not there. Any actions against those loyal to the legitimate commander of Solar System forces, Rolf Emerson, will be considered an attack on Earth.

"And, when we say that it was unanimous decision of all commanders on Earth, that includes ALL of the commanders of the forces on Earth that arrived with Mars, Jupiter & Saturn Divisions. There are a lot of very unhappy REF personnel that are here, that want to have words with those that ordered their deaths, and those that continue to obey illegal orders from that command, as those kinetic abominations never had any chance of actually killing the Invid. The Sentinels Aid Mission proved several times, last decade, that the Invid could evacuate much more quickly than those weapons require to be launched and delivered."

"Is that all?"

"You might want to informally remind them that, even after combat losses, the number of space-capable mecha on Earth is about three times the normal mecha complement of the ships of their force, and we know that they suffered great losses in the space battle with the Invid, even before factoring in that sixty percent of their complement was part of the force that attacked the Earth - and survivors of those forces are on OUR side, now, after they were betrayed by Reinhardt and the council. Hell, the command logs from some of the deployed units indicate that he declared the final attack on the hive a failure and launched the planet killers BEFORE that attack even ENTERED the hive, and if not for my subordinates stopping them from interfering with the Invid abdication from Earth, probably would have succeeded in their attack. And, we have ways of getting the truth to their crews, that they can't stop. It's pretty apparent that the majority of those ships' crews didn't know what their superiors were really doing. Attached to the two formal messages are a list of the unit commanders who have signed on to the opinion."

Vince called up the documents on-screen. "Rear Admiral, Chief of Staff and commander of Earth's ground-based space defenses; Sis, you've not done too bad for yourself, either."

"It's really just assuming the duties that were Emerson's, under Leonard. Rolf split the titles and duties that Leonard held between himself and Roy, to allow him to be the Supreme Commander from the safety of the Moon, while letting Roy command the actual military forces we had on Earth, such as they were. Ironically, it put me like Lisa - higher in rank than my husband, but technically under his command in an actual combat situation. We really didn't get everything ironed out until we went public, a couple months before the Invid arrived. Prior to that point, Roy outranked me from our relative positions at Tisiphone, but our commissions were classified."

"I hope this will change a few minds, but I don't know..."

"Vince, point out the obvious to them," Roy finally spoke up. "The old maxim about the difference between real commanders and armchair generals."

"That being?"

"You forget already, in your position? Armchair generals discuss tactics; real commanders discuss logistics. They have no logistical support to speak of, and I doubt you'll let them obtain other sources."

"Indeed."

While the documentation won a few ship commanders over, they were stuck where they were, and had to act otherwise since attempting to leave their fleet would result in their being fired on. Instead, those commanders were asked to try to sneak the information to other ships, to potentially foment dissent elsewhere in the fleet. Of course, the other fleet was trying similar tactics going the other direction, but the horror of what had almost occurred to Earth made people in Grant's fleet less susceptible to changing their mind. In fact, the primary result of the attempts to infiltrate Grant's fleet were a rash of "airlock accidents" involving the provocateurs, which kept the security forces investigating the deaths rather than actually arresting those people before they said something to provoke vigilante justice. The growing confusion among the opposition meant that such vigilantism was not happening there, though there appeared to be drumhead courts martial in progress if someone distributing the information was caught.

After a week, it became apparent that the council faction fleet would either have to start a fight, or retreat for resupply, and it was likely heads would roll if the latter occurred. Something had to be done, and quickly. Now that she'd recovered from her overexertion, Noel was quickly tapped to be the transportation for the assault they hoped would prevent that larger battle.

"I'm not too wild about this idea," Noel fretted on the side of her bed. "I'm still not up to full speed from the whole Marlene thing, let alone helping Karen out."

"I'm not either, but you're everyone's best bet," Alex replied, massaging her shoulders. "The sensors of the REF ships are specially calibrated to pick up the shadow devices, not to mention that they all use optical motion sensors as backup. They really don't make you invisible after all - just neutral to most sensors - they paint the mecha black to make them harder to spot in space, but that doesn't help at short range. The only way to get on board without triggering a space battle is with you - unless Karen brought back a cloaking device and transporter from her dimensional jaunt from Optera."

"Unfortunately, all she brought back were her two children and a few stories about the dimensional-hopping couple that gave her shelter, that apparently lived in a fantastic world that used a mix of magic and relic tech. They may have been to a Trek universe, but they didn't share anything they might have brought back. Though, they did tell her that, near as they could tell, most universes they visited were fictional places in other dimensions - the implications of that are a bit mind-boggling."

"An author actually used that in his writing - Heinlein, and his 'Universe as Myth' hypothesis. He ended up merging all his writing time lines that way, by the time of his death."

"I should have known you'd know some instance of it; but, what does that mean for us?"

"I prefer to think we make our own stories - if we are someone else's characters, it's because our story echoes across the dimensions; we are the cause - that someone writes our story is the effect."

"Enough of this philosophy crap - it's more Karen's style, anyway. How am I supposed to even get you all on board a ship I've never been on, before? All ships of that type look so much alike that I can't even guarantee that we won't end up the wrong place, or just not arrive from the destination being too vague to leave. You should have never had me read McCaffrey after finding out I can teleport; all those accidents of people going between on their dragons still make me nervous, when I think about them."

"They were meant to scare you; until we find out more about how your abilities actually work, I think we all want you to not 'port around without thinking about it. But, we think we know enough to make this work. We spent the last three days finding someone in our fleet who has a close acquaintance of some sort on the command ship, and bringing them here. We then had Dana, of all people, make contact with the target person with her telepathy, using our person as a conduit."

"Dana? She couldn't be that powerful."

"While you've had to fight to recover your powers, the last year, hers have been expanding greatly, and Karen had worked with her to expand them. She's probably at least as powerful as you were in the last days of Monument - especially as you were when that fragment of Karen's persona surfaced. I just wouldn't want to risk teleporting with her any time soon. On the other hand, you're now at least as powerful as Karen was when she was with the Sentinels. I've been talking with Marie, mostly while you were recovering in the field hospital. Karen teleported from Tyrol to Haydon IV, taking Marie with her, and back, within a four-hour period. Dana MAY be capable of lunar-range teleports right now, but hasn't attempted anything longer than inter-continental, and has only done that distance twice. Granted, you have about as much experience, but you've got the greater raw power and general experience across the board."

"Then, I guess it's up to me. When are we leaving?"

"Dana's going to help you contact the target person, after lunch. After that, departure will be as soon as that person can find a place to go to, that will allow you to teleport in our team. Don't worry - the two of us are the reserve and medical backup, once we get up there. Dana's team of Cyclone marines can handle all the rough stuff, and if any psychic shenanigans are needed, Dana can handle that too. Relax; I'm not working all this tension loose for you to build it right back up again."

Twelve hours later, the crisis in orbit was defused. Dana had stormed the bridge with no casualties, and they quickly turned the ship's weapons on the ships of the other leaders of the council faction, destroying their hyperspace antennae to cut them off from Tyrol, then switching to propulsion systems as the earlier converts joined in. Casualties were light, though Dana had to teleport a fire team in an assault on one ship's bridge, and it took killing half the bridge personnel to stop the ship from causing all kinds of chaos, as the ship's commander tried to take it on a suicide run on Farside Base when it became apparent that most of the rest of the fleet had stood down. Luckily, the engineering section was much more understanding, when it came time to stop the ship from impacting.

The means of handling the prisoners was actually suggested by Commander Marie Phillips. The old ALuCE lunar base, which had been manned only with a skeleton crew since the Invid arrived as to not attract Invid attention, was only marginally habitable. But, it was a far sight better than it had been when Marie had been stuck there as an ASC major, commanding the thousands of people by default after all the officers above her were injured or had cracked under the strain. All it needed was some raw materials, consumables, and a lot of manpower, and using it as a place of temporary exile for those now labeled as mutineers and potential war criminals, would get that taken care of. It only had sublight communications, no weapons that hadn't already been scavenged for Farside, and all the vehicles (other than cargo lifters incapable of operating more than a kilometer from the base) had been removed as well. No guards would be needed, and if the prisoners wanted to live, they'd have to get the base back into shape. They would be allowed to keep their uniforms and rank, until tried, and were allowed to set up their own chain of command.

Granted, these new residents of the ALuCE penal colony would be looking forward to their "rescue" by their superiors at Tyrol, and the destruction of the "traitors" that imprisoned them. But, they also understood that getting another base on the Moon was in everyone's best interest - especially since they believed that their rescuers would destroy Farside Base from orbit, when they came, and they would need a replacement for "defending" Earth (never mind those same leaders had been more than willing to destroy Earth, rather than see it controlled by aliens, or side with someone outside their faction). But, it took care of several issues at once.

It was not until the first day of May, that a full, in-person, conference could be held to completely reorganize the leadership of Earth, establish new battle plans to defend Earth against Tyrolean Council aggression, and to finally begin searching for the SDF-3.

Chapter Two:

"The orbital crisis defused, we were finally able to get to the real business of reconstruction and reorganization. Most of the command structure had been rebuilt during the orbital stand-off, but we still had to formalize the matter, before establishing the provisionary military council. Once we had the council, then we could begin to gather the delegates for actually establishing a civilian government, which itself was a pretty daunting task. As it was, most of the Americas hadn't seen any sort of government over the level of a town hall in four years, unless you counted the Invid or their collaborators. It was a good thing that representative government had deep roots, even in South America, so that people actually knew what elections were, and stepped up quickly to restore representative democracy (even with a little corruption here and there, which about was to be expected).

"The idea of a new United Earth Government, with the primary nations being such states as Liberia, South Africa, Venezuela, Cambodia, Argentina and The Congo, would have blown the minds of any pre-2000 historian, given those nations' rather suspect history in the 20th Century. This was especially true when you consider that these nations chose to let a still-unorganized North America play host and assume a leadership role, not from the firepower massed there, but from recognition that if anyone would make sure that the recovery process and redistribution of non-military hardware for reconstruction was handled fairly, it would be the Americans. After all, in the wake of the Zentraedi, it was the remnants of the USA and Canada, together with the SDF-1, that helped other areas recover, to the extent of slowing their own recovery. And, when the roles were reversed, and America was devastated by the Masters, Japan, Europe and the neo-Soviet abandoned those that had been their saviors for their own ends - and ended up being destroyed by the Invid. All the remaining nations, and fractions of the pre-Invid ones, weren't about to make that mistake again."

- Scott Freeman, Memories of the Madness

The streets of abandoned New Columbus were somewhat creepy. Most of the buildings still standing were covered with plant growth that, under normal circumstances, should have taken several decades, if not more than a century, to grow. It had been an experiment of the Regis, to see if nature alone could erase the works of man, and rather oddly included equally plant-encrusted wrecks of human and Invid mecha where they had fell in battle, back on that awful April Fool's Day after the Invid arrival. Also scattered in the ruins were relics of the battle of two weeks prior, though in these cases, any human casualties had already been removed.

But, under the plants, the buildings were mostly intact, and it was in what was once one of the finest restaurants of New Columbus, that the leaders of the Solar System had gathered for a combination dinner, promotion ceremony and planning session for the reestablishment of order. Now that the Invid were gone, their former lackeys had much to answer for, and the last thing any of the REF wanted was to allow those traitors to humanity to continue in their control of their fellow man.

Rolf stood up at the head of the main table, on Earth for the first time since the year before the Invid arrived. "Gentlemen; ladies... To Absent Friends..."

"To Absent Friends," everyone replied, standing and toasting those missing and dead.

"Now, in their absence, we must take on roles we never thought we'd have to take. Personally, I am having to serve the role that would normally fall to a civilian leader, and will do so only as long as needed. Once the new civilian government is established, I will take my long-overdue retirement." He turned to the men and woman on his right.

"Vince, Roy; the two of you will continue as my lead generals, at full general line officer rank. Vince, you will be in charge of the logistics of our reconstruction, from the retooling of the Gallant vehicle plants to the vehicles we'll need for construction and agriculture, to the transfer of materials between Earth and the colonies. At this point, logistics is too important to not be considered part of the line of command. You will also send out diplomatic missions to the outsystem colonies, to show them proof of the Invid departure, and the crimes of the Tyrolean council. Hopefully, we will win some of them over before the council gets any bright ideas of launching a war against us. Roy, you will be in charge of system defense, since I will have to step out of that role to serve as temporary head of state. Claudia will continue in her current role, but at the rank of Vice Admiral." Roy now turned to those on his left.

"Scott, Dar - you two are being promoted to actual Brigadier rank, and brevet rank one higher. Dar, you will be in charge of the colonial defense fleets for the outer solar system, and Scott will be in charge of Western Hemisphere defense forces. Your counterparts for African & Asian forces weren't able to make it to this meeting, but they are getting their promotions delivered to them simultaneous to this meeting. Zho's absence is due to an interesting report of possible Tyrolean or Zentraedi activity in Indochina; however unlikely, one would expect that survivors of either two groups would become active again, now that they don't have to hide from overwhelming Invid force. The Indian Ocean and African commands are providing him backup. Harrington will be your subordinate for South America; it would be his command outright, if not for the distrust of fleet forces prevalent there, so you get to figurehead for him."

"How come he's not here?" Scott asked.

"He's not here, simply, because one of us had to stay on duty for this meeting - but he's getting his own private ceremony and brevet brigadier promotion tomorrow - not to mention a send-off dinner from his fellow commanders, off the same menu as we're having tonight."

"Now, for the 'children's table'..." Rolf joked, drawing a few stares. "Commander Bernard, bring your officers forward."

"Yes, sir."

"I apologize for the humor, but your group has distinguished itself far beyond what anyone could have expected of you. Unfortunately, that means that you will be rewarded for your excellence by having to deal with the worst of those you had to confront on the way here. Of all of us, you have the most experience dealing with the human traitors that undermined our defense, and the marauders that preyed off their fellow man, either as Invid quislings or outright banditry. Frankly, I'd probably be more understanding with the ones who worked with the Invid, as not all of those did so completely of their own volition, as your report on Jon Wolfe shows. I've already talked with Princess Sera; she's willing to help you identify those she'd dealt with personally, and part of the 'Democracy Tour' we have arranged will include a Yellow Dancer concert at each stop, so Commander Belmont will be there with you, as will the Tylers. The rest of your team has the option of leaving service, traveling with you, or only being present at specific stops, but if they choose the last, they'll be required to perform other duties when not traveling with you. You can discuss it with them after we're done here, Colonel Bernard. I'd congratulate you on your latest promotion, though I'm not sure you'll consider it something to be congratulated about, after the next few weeks."

"Thank you, sir. But, what about the SDF-3?"

"In two months, if we've still not heard from them, we'll send the Ark Angel out in a search pattern along the flight path of the fleet. According to our best scientists, it will take eight months of short folds to cover all the intervening space in short hops that will allow us to cover the entire path with sensors, while staying within the range of the backup communications gear of the SDF-3. That forecast also includes the time to check any close star systems to that path, that they might detour towards if they had issues after a misfold. We should be able to find them, if they are on that route, and are still capable of transmitting."

With that, the room went quiet, and most conversation the rest of the meal was at barely louder than whispering tones. In its absence, the SDF-3 loomed larger than ever.

Manhattan was the natural jump-off point for the rehabilitation of the Americas. It was still relatively intact, it still was civilized, it had an intact fusion power plant (albeit one in dire need of four years of backlogged maintenance to get back to full capacity), and the residents had no love for the Invid. Indeed, after Bernard's group destroyed the downtown hive, all but the least of what few collaborators were in the New York area were rounded up, tried, and executed - quite literally defenestrated for their crimes from the former restaurant atop one of the World Trade Center towers.

Over three weeks had passed he was last here, and Scott Bernard was still a bit unsettled by all that had occurred in the interval. He had gone from being a survivor of a doomed attack, leading a band of freedom fighters on a seemingly hopeless mission, to being in charge of what amounted to a traveling war crimes commission. In the process, he'd become one of the top-ranking officers on Earth - and he wasn't even twenty-five years old, if you don't count the over 5 year he lost to foldspace time dilations going to and from Tyrol, that current and future space travelers no long would experience. What few people he knew from childhood that were his chronological age, were now pushing thirty on Mars, with children in elementary school, while he looked like he should barely be out of high school (and of course his always having looked younger than his age played further in this disparity). When he heard that his dead fiancee's family was aboard Grant's ship, though, he suddenly felt that this mission was not all that bad, as opposed to having to face those people who were once going to be his in-laws.

Accompanying him on the return to Manhattan were Lancer, Sera, Marlene, Alex, Noel, and two long-time members of Highlander, the Armanas. Todd Armana was a native of the city, and his family trust was still the owner of record of several blocks of land in the now-abandoned areas of the island, as well as several condominiums in the occupied area. One of them, technically, was even his and Lynn's official civilian residence, even if they hadn't been home since March 2031. As such, he was likely to be an asset in discussions with the local government, despite his tendency to put his foot in his mouth in casual conversation. Also, as war heroes once part of the fabled Skull Squadron, but Todd & Lynn would be big draws in recruitment efforts for the Recovery Bureau, for both its reconstruction and police units, since most of the older military personnel would be going into reserve or retired status, and the younger ones needed massive retraining to be used on Earth in any capacity.

They set down at the former JFK Airport, which had last seen use as the home base for Lancer's Southern Cross C.D.F.C. unit 6 years earlier, before it was caught up in the Masters' War, and its member pilots used to fill the losses in the T.A.F & T.A.S.C. With the loss of the aircraft, the jet pack troops had relocated to the main city, and that had led to the construction of the Harlem air base that the Invid had destroyed (and Todd had as a top priority for reconstruction). Scott & Lancer had brought a Shadow Legios, repainted in the blues of Scott's old mecha, while Alex & Noel had another Shadow Legios still sporting its standard colors. Marlene and Ariel rode with the Armanas, in one of the VIP transports that Dana's band of refugees had liberated from Mexico City five years before. Another C-33 transport and a Horizon-T made up the rest of their group, along with several hundred support personnel and supplies for the mission. One of the Horizon bunkers was set up for cargo, the other as a portable command post, and the Horizon-T would leave both there, and get a new pair for each future stop.

Waiting for their arrival were two electric hover-limousines, with several of the former resistance, now provisional city councilmen.

"Lancer!" Simon called from beside the lead limousine. "Welcome back to the Big Apple."

"Nice to see you too, Simon. How have you and your colleagues been doing, since we left?"

"Repairs are already underway on the old United Nations complex. We've formed an initial election committee, and we hope to have precinct representatives and mayoral candidates by the time General Emerson arrives to set up his office, and the elections in time for our new mayor to appoint our representatives to Emerson's constitutional convention. But, frankly, I wish you hadn't talked me into this, old pal, because it's it's a lot easier directing actors than interviewing politicians. At least actors tend to have brains. Dealing with those who actually WANT public office is like herding cats."

"Really? You've finally realized that, after all these years of treating your dancers like sheep?"

"Funny, Lance - and you better not joke about what lonely shepherds do with their flock."

"You said it, not me." As if on cue, Sera and Marlene finally made it over from the transport.

Simon looked at Sera, apparently recognizing that he'd seen her before, but not where. "Who's your friend, Lancer? She wasn't with you last month, but I know I've seen her before, somewhere."

"Uhhh... Lancer? Can you handle this?" She stepped behind Lancer & Scott, in case Simon and the others reacted poorly.

"Brace yourself, Simon. You have seen her before, but it's probably the last place you'd think. Remember that fuchsia Invid Battloid that was in town last month?"

"You're joking, right? Tell me that's a joke..."

"'Afraid not. Simon, meet my fiancee - Sera, formerly First Princess of the Invid on Earth, now one of the last two known Invid on Earth. She stayed behind when the rest left, because she'd fallen in love with me - in fact, she saved my life when her brother, the pilot of that other Battloid from last month, nearly killed me. As to how we met, it's a long story - preferably related over drinks later tonight. The short version is that she fell in love with me at first sight, last year, and it took until Reflex Point for me to figure out the attraction was mutual."

"Okay, this is a bit hard to swallow, but I'll believe you. Who is the other Invid that stayed?"

"You've already met her;" Noel piped in. "Marlene here, or more accurately, Princess Ariel, was the first Invid to convert to human form. She was considered a failed prototype when she was inserted into our group to spy on us, and ended up believing she was human, right up until Sera told her the truth last month - here in New York, as a matter of fact. Between the two, they convinced the Regis to go with my sister, and leave Earth - and save it from those psychos from Tyrol that were going to try to sterilize the planet, in order to kill the Invid."

"Where is your sister, now?"

"I don't know. She said they were leaving this universe, entirely; whatever that means. Granted, she was conceived during a fold that ended up in an alternate time line, before Mom and Dad ended up getting back here in time for her to be born. But, it would probably be as easy or realistic to say that she went somewhere over the rainbow, through the wardrobe, or second star to the right, and straight on to morning. Your guess is as good as mine."

"Why do I get the feeling that maybe I should have stayed in bed, today?"

"Don't worry," Alex answered. "You get used to that sensation after a while, when dealing with my in-laws." In response to that, Noel have him a telekinetic wedgie.

The next week passed uneventfully, with the hardest part of the whole process being the procurement of glass from salvage of other buildings to replace the broken windows of the old UN complex, which had been a museum ever since 2012, and abandoned since 2030. An organized Yellow Dancer concert was held in Central Park, with Noel as the opening act, that also served as a means of registering voters, recruiting candidates and city workers, and reissuing civilian identification cards to replace those dating from before the Invid. In general, the city rejoiced at the end of almost 25 years of destruction, and the beginning of its true rebirth from the destruction that started with the Zentraedi.

Chapter Three:

"Despite what all had happened at Reflex Point, Scott still blamed the Invid for what happened on his arrival to Earth, and was carrying that burden even after the Invid left. Despite that, he still treated Sera as an equal, but continued to have difficulties dealing with Ariel/Marlene. She was a living reminder of all that he'd lost from the war, and it had slowly wearing him down. It had to come to a head, eventually, and when it did in New Detroit, it shocked even me." - Lancer

The next stop on the "Reconstruction Roadshow" was New Detroit - or at least, what was left of it. While Manhattan had been spared, for the most part, by the three Robotech Wars, Detroit had been a primary target for the Zentraedi; New Detroit had been hit by several raids by the Masters (including a wave of mind-numbed clones in the last day, and a glancing blow from a beam attack like the one that destroyed Monument - as they had managed to intercept the gunship, and it got off a desperation shot as it was about to be destroyed). Adding insult to injury, when the Invid arrived, the remains of both the new city and the old (which had been in the process of property rehabilitation for 20 years), found themselves too close to the spot chosen for Reflex Point to survive.

Yet, it did survive, barely. While most of the survivors found themselves working in Invid farms south of the city, several thousand remained in the ruins and underground tunnels that once were salt mines. These ranged from scavengers eking out a living taking salvage to the black marketeers in the ruins of Chicago and Buffalo, to a group of self-styled resistance rockers that spent as much time performing & recording anti-Invid music to lift the morale of those caught under the Invid thumb, as they did carrying out actual raids on Invid property (and becoming even more a problem for the Invid, than Bernard's group ever was). With the departure of the Invid, the slave population quickly abandoned the plantations, to return to rebuilding their city (though most of those working on the parts of the complex for growing food for their fellow humans stayed behind, realizing they'd quickly be rich selling the stored food and the new crops to the fools running back to "civilization" so quickly that they overlooked the need for food).

However, mixed within all those starry-eyed refugees were many of the informants and collaborators who had fled to Ohio and Indiana when the tide started to turn against the Invid. It was to ferret out and prosecute those quislings that they were heading to the once and future Motor City. As the Armanas were residents of New York, they remained there, and were replaced by Steve & Dani Derekson, who flew in on the Horizon-T with the new bunkers. Dani hadn't lived in Detroit since week before the Rain of Death, but she still considered it her home.

"Sera, are you really sure you want to go to Detroit with us?" Dani asked. "New York's always been more open to strangers, but don't tell Todd I said that - they have a reputation to uphold, after all. But, most of the people in Detroit know of you, and many would recognize you as one of their former slavelords at first sight. I'm from there, and Detroit isn't a pretty place; I can vouch that from personal experience. We can't guarantee your safety there, if too many people take offense to your presence."

"I have to go there, and that is the very reason I must do so. I have to make them see that I am sorry for what people inflicted on them in our ignorance and desperation, and that I will do everything to try to make things right. If I don't confront them, and the sins of my people, now, matters can only get worse."

Yellow Dancer had made arrangements to perform in one of the few reasonably-intact parks left in the Detroit area, one of the former industrial areas of old Detroit that had been cleaned up prior to the Masters, then left fallow afterward. It would be during an intermission half-way through the concert, while a costume and prop change was scheduled, that the Recovery Bureau would make its pitch. Sera went last, so that Dani and Scott could soften the impact of Sera's reveal.

"...And now, I would like to introduce someone who helped us in our recent victory. It was her joining us in our confrontation with the Regis that was one of the deciding factors in the departure of the Invid. I present to you Sera, former princess of the Invid." As Sera came on stage, a wave of shock, then uneasiness, passed through the audience.

"Thank you, Colonel Bernard. People of New Detroit, I know that any apology I might attempt to make for my people's actions would likely fall on deaf ears." A chorus of boos and epithets filled the air. "The truth is, there can be no apology sufficient enough for the atrocities we committed in our ignorance; in associating all humans with the crimes of the Robotech Masters. But, that is something that we must put behind us. All the assets of the now-abandoned hives are left to the people of Earth; especially the protoculture, that the Invid have evolved beyond the need for. It is fitting, if ironic, that the substance that caused all the destructive wars of the last century, will now be used to repair the damage done by those wars. I have chosen to cast my lot with humanity, and I hope my knowledge of the secrets of the Flower of Life will prove instrumental in reversing the damage done to the planet-"

Noel suddenly charged her, knocking her to the stage floor. As they fell, an energy blast shot from the crowd, passing through the space where Sera's head had been a moment before and blasting a hole in the backdrop. Panic passed through the crowd.

"Alex, get him!"

"Where is he? I couldn't see-"

"Caucasian, brown hair, about 190 centimeters, York fatigue jacket!" Noel shouted from the floor, where she had already covered sera and herself with a telekinetic field, in case someone tried grenades next. "He's heading for the tunnels!"

Lancer, coming back on stage in Yellow's new costume, grabbed one of the backup vocalist mikes, and yelled out to the crowd, in character "Someone, stop the man in the York jacket!"

Alex struggled through the crowd, and found that the gunman had taken a hostage when cornered - a small child.

"Noel, I could use some help right now!" Alex thought, knowing that his wife would be reaching for his mind.

"On my way!" Noel dropped the force field, stood up, then teleported down between Alex and the gunman. The looks on the surrounding people, let alone the gunman, as she appeared out of thin air, was priceless. She had no problem telekinetically ripping the weapon and the child from the hands of the shocked assassin, and Alex tackled him. He used the handcuffs he'd been carrying for use during official investigations on the man, then led him back to stage at gunpoint.

Sera looked him over with a glimmer of recognition. "I've seen him before; he was the head of a group of humans who betrayed newly-arrived soldiers to the Invid, in exchange for being allowed to use Protoculture weapons in their domination of other humans."

"I ought to shoot you myself," Scott said, seething with an anger like nothing that the others had seen before from him. "How many of my fellow soldiers' blood is on your hands? But, that would be to quick; too easy, and you have done nothing directly to me. However, your crimes have been against the people, so your fate lies with them. I wash my hands of you." He shoved the collaborator off the stage, into the crowd, before anyone could think of stopping him. The screams lasted less than a minute, and there was no way that Alex, Noel or Lancer could step in to save the man without risking getting killed.

Alex was shocked; he had never thought Bernard capable of anything like this. Then, he thought of the traitors in Louisiana, and of T.R. Edwards and his attempt to take over the REF in that farce of a trial at Tyrol. Scott had been building up a lot of frustration concerning persons such as these, and apparently, something snapped, and all that pent-up anger found a release point. That release was certain to haunt Scott later on, given his normal demeanor. The worst part is that the person that was most likely to be able to help him deal with it, was the person he was now drifting from, due to his inner conflicts over her origin. Scott still hadn't reconciled in his heart, the revelation of Marlene's true nature.

"Noel, what are we going to do with him?"

"I don't know, love. What's happened to him is beyond my ability to help, at least easily. Any attempt I make would probably make it worse, as he'd see it as an attempt to manipulate him. The damage is to his soul, not his mind, and I'm not about to attempt anything with that, unless asked. For a soul to truly heal, it must heal itself. Otherwise, nothing is gained, as the fix is only superficial, and it will become worse off in the end. It's not a good idea to play God with other people's souls."

"WHAT HAVE I DONE?" Scott wailed to himself, in his hotel room. It hadn't been until he had calmed down from his adrenaline high from the events of the concert, that the enormity of his actions had truly set in. At least no one could hear him.

The New Detroit Hyatt had been built as an underground complex in the early 2010s, when the threat of malcontents were all too real (as evidenced by the city being attacked by Khyron during the hotel's construction). It had thus been spared much of the above-ground devastation, having been abandoned as being too close to the surface when the Invid ravaged the city and the survivors either were taken away, or retreated to the safety of the deep mines. The manner of construction also meant the rooms were more soundproof than any above-ground hotel.

He reached inside his uniform, and pulled out the holo-locket he'd been carrying these last 14 months. He opened it, and as it repeated the message he'd long ago memorized, he felt more and more disgusted by what he'd done. He flung the locket at the far wall of the suite, only to have it fall short and hit the sofa bed instead of the wall. He looked for something else to throw, then settled on his H90. He grabbed it, and sat down on the bed.

There was no use to go on anymore, he thought. Marlene's dead, and I've turned against everything I once stood for. Better to end it now, then become an embarrassment to his friends. He raised the gun to his head...

"NO! DON'T DO IT!"

He turned toward the voice with a start. There, in the doorway, stood Marlene Rush, as she appeared when he had last seen her alive.

"Marlene? You're dead!"

"Please, Scott. Don't do it. If you kill yourself, then we will never be together."

"But, I've lost every; everything I've ever cared about. You, my squadron, my honor..."

"No, you haven't."

"How would you know? You're just a figment of my imagination!"

"Am I?" Marlene walked over, and tore the gun from his hand. He tried to grab her, only to have his hands pass through her arms. "I've been watching you, Scott. Your friends care for you, as much as I did. Killing yourself would only hurt them, especially the one that you gave my name."

"Why do you bring her into this? Her people killed you!"

"But I have forgiven them. Why haven't you? Marlene loves you, Scott, as much as I ever did. But, love is for the living. Don't fight what you feel for her. You have your whole life ahead of you; don't deny your feelings just because of me. Even if we had married, the vows are 'Till death do us part', Scott. You must go on without me, and you could do a lot worse than Marlene. If you had been the one to die, would you have expected me to mourn you forever, to the exclusion of all others?"

"I... I..."

"I know you wouldn't, Scott. That's why I loved you so much. You always thought of others first, at least when you weren't putting on that macho act that all you pilots have. Please, consider what I have said. I must go now; what little time to come here is almost gone. Remember that I will always love you, but that others love you as well, and it is for them that you should live." She came up to him, and kissed him on the forehead. "Goodbye, my love."

"Scott tried to grab her, once again, but again he passed through her as she faded away. Tears ran down Scott's face as he fell back onto the bed, asleep.

Noel slumped back against the headboard of her bed, exhausted. She hadn't intended to interfere, but Scott's problems had gotten far worse than she anticipated. She intervened, but the depths she had to plunge into of his mind had drained her. She hoped it would be enough.

"You think he'll be okay?" Alex asked.

"I hope so; at least, I think he's past the point where he'd even think of suicide."

"I hope so, too. Over the last year, he's become almost like a younger brother to me, as have the others. If he did something stupid like that, it would have hurt all of them."

Chapter Four:

"God not only plays dice, He also sometimes throws the dice where they cannot be seen."

- Stephen Hawking

"Come take my hand

You should know me -

I've always been in your mind

You know I will be kind

I'll be guiding you..."

- Olivia Newton-John, "Magic" (from the movie Xanadu)

Several weeks ago, location indeterminate:

The SDF-3 defolded with a sickening shudder; even those that hadn't experienced a fold since the trip from Earth to Tyrol in the early 2020s could tell that something unexpected had occurred.

"Bridge to Engineering," Admiral Richard "Rick" Hunter called out. "What the hell just happened? We came out of fold, but our sensors are picking up nothing - even less of 'nothing' than should be there."

"I do not know, Admiral. I've never seen readings such as these. I can tell you that we are neither in foldspace, nor in normal space. Beyond that, I am in the dark as much as you."

"That's just wonderful," Rick moaned, slumping in his command chair. He glanced over to his wife, who was doing her best to calm the various department heads aboard the ship, then turned his attention to the bust of Henry Gloval, behind her seat. "Here we go again..."

Beyond the "nothing" out there that shielded the sole star system in the pocket dimension from view, four figures stood at a pool of water that served also as a means of viewing events beyond the veil and in the manipulated universes.

"Zor, what did your disciple do?" Haydon said in frustration, "Whatever kind of insane stunt you're pulling, it isn't going to work."

"Whatever she is doing, it is out of my control. Remember - I made her with free will so that you couldn't pre-empt her moves by observing me. As a result, she has surprised even me on several occasions - like when she disappeared out of our view that one time before, at Optera." he glanced down at the unlit pool. "If you pardon the expression, I am as much in the dark as you, as to where she took the Invid."

"What happens now?" the third figure interrupted, drawing what could only be considered a stare from the being that was once the human named H''dyn, who had long ago shed all but the basics of a humanoid form. Zor stepped up to shield her.

"That is a good question, Mother. The contest was best of three, and until we find out what happened, we are left tied at one - and while the result in the third is advantageous for me, it's not yet conclusive enough for it to be considered either way."

"Shall we find another alternate to manipulate? Haydon asked, haughtily. "One without a 'loose cannon', as the self-styled Terrans would say, let loose to foul all our plans?"

"No," the fourth figure spoke up. What has been done already is bad enough. Son, don't let him talk you into continuing this farce."

"That won't be necessary," a fifth voice echoed, as its owner walked into the grove. She stood about 2 meters tall, with skin the color of finished wood, and brown hair that seemed to give off a golden glow. She was wearing clothes of a type not seen in over twelve thousand years, and walked with the grace of a tiger - a tiger stalking its next meal, more exactly.

"Ta'yaela! But, you're dead!"

"So, that was her name, Haydon? Tell me - did she REALLY know what you had planned for me, and the rest of the children? Or, did you even tell the parents of what your TRUE intentions were for their offspring? You denied our people our true form, for what? You told them it was a means of making penance for the war Ta'yaela's family instigated with the ancestors of the Tyroleans. All you did was steer the two civilizations to slaughter each other again and again for your benefit. Was the fall of Tartarus on Tyrol really an accident, or was it to put down a society you could not control, since it was taking too long to build your race of robotic servants? Did the Praxian colonists that escaped the fall of Tartarus really have a cataclysmic civil war on their own, or did you have your hand in it, as well, so that you could manipulate their children, as you had manipulated your own people?"

"Regis, is that you?" Zor guessed.

"Yes, finally in the physical form my genetics said I should have had, without Haydon's lies - but I still possess all the powers as before So, Haydon - do I really look that much like my mother - who spurned your advances, and offers to leave her arranged marriage to become your queen of all creation? From what I was able to pick up from the minds of Zor's parents, while watching you fret over the latest turn of events, my counterpart that had no knowledge of her true heritage almost managed to stand up to you. Between the five of us allied against you, you have no chance of standing against us."

"Five? So, Karen is here as well?

"Yes; but I wanted to handle this confrontation on my own, and she agreed to let me enter first."

"You mean, she is a coward," Haydon sneered. "She sent you in first to see if I was strong enough to smite you down out of hand."

"Far from it, traitorous fool. She wanted for us to enter together, but I persuaded her otherwise. You are beaten, Haydon. I rebuke you and the Flowers of your schemes. But, I will not destroy you; that would make me too much like you, and I have recently become too aware of the dangers of letting your hatred of one's enemies turn you into the very thing you hate. A more fitting punishment would be to return you to your original mortal form, and return you to an Earth of another universe, so primitive that you will have to live out your normal life span with no chance of escape. And, the only change to your human body will be to prevent your rescue; any attempt to have some hidden servant of yours to rescue you will cause that body to die, when exposed to the effects of time or dimensional travel. Do the rest of you agree to these terms?"

The Regis looked at the others, and each of them nodded in agreement. Haydon, however, was furious, as he felt the binding power of the challenge he accepted from Zor (one he thought was impossible to lose), sap his power away. He became human once more, then was frozen. Karen then walked in, and sent Haydon on his way; after all, none of the others really knew enough about Earth history to send him.

"So, where did you send him?"

"The European Middle Ages, about 800 years before my time period, on an Earth where there were no escapees from the destruction of our ancestral societies, so therefore, no aliens to contact in this region of space. If he can learn the languages fast enough, avoid being killed as a witch, and not get killed by a Mongol invasion, he should be able to live out his normal lifespan."

"It's more than he deserved, but it's less likely that he'll be an issue there. Between the loss of scientific knowledge up to that point, and any relic technology he could access being beyond usable condition, it's the safest place to put him. Okay, Angelo, it's safe to come out now."

"Are these people who I think they are?"

"Sorta - just not really your home-grown versions of them - except the Regis, that is. Did you take notes like I asked you to?"

"Yeah, but not like anyone would believe it."

"Well, you get to try to convince the Hunters." She concentrated on him, and he started to fade.

"Come on - can't I just fly there like a normal pers-?" he whined, as he disappeared from view.

"...son?" Angie found himself in a dark room, the only sounds coming from what had to be a bed. The sounds from the bed left little imagination what was going on in it.

"Cripes, Karen, couldn't you have found someplace a little less occupied?" he thought aloud, not realizing he was actually speaking the words.

"What the?" A voice yelped from the bed, as the sounds of persons fumbling for covers soon followed. "Angie? Angie, is that you?"

"Bowie, is that you?" a bedside lamp came on, and Angie realized he was at the foot of a larger than expected bed - and that there were two women, not one, in bed with Bowie - and they were obviously all naked under the sheet. One was Musica, the other was her clone-sister Allegra. Seeing this, Angie turned red as a beet, living up to his reputation of being an overgrown Boy Scout masquerading as a tough as nails soldier. "Bowie, that's kinky! Do your parents know about this?"

"I'd prefer it if you let me tell them myself, if the SDF-3 ever gets out of here." Musica handed Bowie his pants, and he struggled with putting them on under the sheet as he continued. "Speaking of Earth, I thought you were on Earth, fighting the Invid. How did you get here? For that matter, do you even know where 'here' is? It's been driving Louie and Dr. Lang nuts since we got here."

"I only know where 'here' is in the vaguest of terms - it's a pocket dimension; sort of a seed of a newborn universe, created by another universe's Haydon. Noel's sister Karen brought me to it to be a witness to the fall of Haydon, and to report the news to the Admirals of what occurred on Earth and on the world hidden here."

"So, what happened on Earth, if you care to tell an old friend, first?"

"The assault of Reflex Point went on as scheduled without the SDF-3; Karen, Noel, Zor and some of the locals persuaded the Invid to leave Earth with Karen, to come here. Turns out Haydon was trying to sucker them into flying to their own destruction when they left. On top of that, the person that ended up in command of the fleet ordered the fleet to destroy Earth, after we'd WON, to try to keep the Invid from escaping. Near as I can tell, the Invid had to destroy part of the fleet as we left Earth, in order to save Earth. Of course, that trip was such a mind rush that I can hardly come up with the words for it, so I can't be sure exactly what happened, but in a way, the Invid did it to make up for their actions from being corrupted by Haydon's influence. Now, if you'll point me towards the bridge, I'll leave." He wasn't sure who this situation was more uncomfortable for - him, or the three in the bed.

"Out the bedroom, into the corridor, turn right, go to the third set of elevators, and go to the top. The marines there can get you the rest of the way to the bridge. And, Angie, when you're done there, stop back by so you can catch us up on what's been going on back home. I promise we'll be dressed by then."

Angie practically ran out of the two-room apartment, and wasn't watching where he was going as he went out the door. As a result, he collided head-on with a woman who was walking past the door when it slid open, knocking both of them to the floor. As they stood, both apologizing profusely, Angie realized that she was taller than him, and absolutely gorgeous.

"Uhh.. Can you help me get to the bridge?"

"Don't you know where it is? The fall must have disoriented you."

"Actually, I just came aboard. I just had a crazy half-Zentraedi ex-girlfriend teleport me into Bowie's room, right into the middle of an orgy."

"The only half-Zentraedi I know that would be old enough to date someone like you is Karen, and for that matter, she's the only person I know that can teleport someone else, that isn't a Perytonian."

"Yep, that's her. Can you help me get to the bridge? I have news from Earth."

"I'll take you there, myself. My name's Gnea."

"Angelo Dante; my friends call me Angie."

"So, you're the one I've heard Bowie and Louie talk about."

"What did they say?"

"That you're a very strong, very brave, warrior, even if you end up getting caught up in things you'd rather not be part of."

"Did they mention that they were typically the ones that got me into such things, directly or indirectly through Dana having to ride to their rescue?"

"No, but Nova Brown did."

"How do you know Karen?"

"We fought side by side on Karbarra, Praxis, Garuda and Haydon IV."

"You're a Praxian, right?"

"Yes. Here's the elevator. You said Karen sent you. How are things on Earth?"

"It's a long story; perhaps you should come with me and listen as I report to the Hunters."

"Sure." They stepped on the elevator.

When the elevator arrived by the bridge, the doors opened to reveal the rare sight of a human and a Praxian kissing. It had took a little finagling, but Zor & Karen's subconscious implants kick-started one of the few good things that occurred in Haydon's corrupt timeline that was in danger of not occurring here.

Speaking of Karen & Zor...

"Well, that takes care of the last loose string I dragged here from Earth. That leaves the five of us, though I'm sure the Regis really wants to get over to the far side of the planet and begin re-evolving her people back to their ancestral form," Karen said. "Zor, finally we can be together in peace, the way we should have been long ago."

"Huh? Karen, I have always hoped that you would stay with me, but where is all this 'finally' and long ago come from?"

"Then, you truly don't know, do you?" Karen's voice changed slightly. "This place is magical, literally. Why do you think Haydon coveted it so? It has the power to make dreams into reality - within limits, of course. And, your creation of me got caught up in one of those wishes of yours..."

Chapter Five:

"I know you're out there somewhere

(somewhere, somewhere)

I know I'll find you find you somehow -

and somehow I'll return again to you..."

- The Moody Blues

Last Year, in Karen's mind

"KAREN! Snap out of it!"

"Hunh?" That doppleganger of herself, the one that had always been in her mind, that helped her in her times of greatest need, was yelling at her. The two were floating in a red mist, after Karen's mind had been clobbered telepathically from some sort of sensory wave, associated with Noel.

"Come on, girl; I can't do this alone."

"Noel's dead."

"You can't be sure of that. I know what we felt. But, we heard other minds mixed in there, too. With a signal that mixed up, who knows who or what we actually felt die - if that wasn't just a psychic imprint of someone's past death. It's one of the reasons we avoid object reading something where mass deaths occurred; Noel's not that experienced, you know. Pull yourself together; it's almost as bad in here as Noel's mind was four years ago."

Karen finally straightened up, and began taking a look at her surroundings. She was floating adrift in her own mind. Her doppleganger was sitting on a fragmented memory shard, her long green hair blowing in an unfelt wind.

"Well, if we're both here, who's running the show?"

"Right now, no one. Of course, considering that you were in such pain and thrashing around that the base medics injected us with enough sedatives to knock Breetai out for a couple days, to make sure you didn't start lashing out blindly with your powers, we've got plenty of time to straighten up this place."

"Nice outfit." Her opposite number was wearing a tight-fitting black & white pants and blouse combination.

"I borrowed it from one of your cousins. She was a talk show host in New Tokyo, before the Masters arrived. A singer, like us; then again, I think that's more than genetics with us, part of our soul."

"Cousin? What in hell are you talking about? Just what I need; a split personality with delusional fantasies of non-existent relatives."

"Well, maybe not cousin, in a genetic sense at least. But, I'm not delusional; I'm not actually a sign of multiple personality disorder, either. In fact, I'm probably more responsible for the belief you had such a disorder, than you would think. I created the mental watchdogs that kept you and Noel safe from Zand and other kooks; the ones that resembled your parents. And, when it became time for me to come out, I helped you remove them. After all, someone had to help you harvest all that useful knowledge you copied from them and your doctors, and consolidate it into a useful form, while deleting all the excess baggage that came with that material."

"Then, what are you?"

"You, but not you; More than you, but a fleeting memory. A half-realized, unspoken wish made flesh - or at least spirit."

"You sound more like a bad attempt at Zen Poetry..."

"Well, it's hard to put into words, who and what I am. You had to be kept unaware of my true nature, for the safety of your entire family - not that our adversary likes them much, anyway, being the chosen tools of his arch-enemy. Why do you think that, when we joined our mind with Noel's, to repair her trauma, neither of you could read those parts belonging to me, mostly in your mind, but a few of them in hers, that I retrieved in the process, to let her live her own life, free of me, from then on?"

"I know you're the one responsible for keeping me on this hidden mission. I figure it has something to do with Protoculture. But, why me, and was this war really necessary? The Regis I saw traces of in deep space SHOULD have been more open to reason."

"That's part of the burden I bear - that WE bear, but I've kept as much of it off your shoulders for as long as possible. It's time that you know what's really going on."

"And that is?"

"The Invid, collectively, are like a young child, lashing out from pain, even at those that would help them heal, if given the chance. The Regis isn't much better than anyone else of her race. For despite being the Great Mother of her race, she acts more like a hurt, broken, teen-ager, angry over her being betrayed repeatedly by her boyfriends, and taking it out on everyone else. As much as this war hurts humanity, the next year's bloodshed will lead to the maturity the Regis needs to put an end to this. To quote a television show from before the Zentraedi war, 'This has happened before; and will happen again'. Granted, not the same way here, as in those alternate universes, like the one you saw the animated version of. There's a reason I didn't let you watch the episodes corresponding to the last few months, through next year."

"And, we are to sit idly by, why people die?"

"Of course not. Our place is to reduce casualties when possible, for both sides; and, when the time comes, to provide a way out for the Invid, to break out of the vicious circle that Haydon created for his benefit. There are other considerations, too; ones within our heart."

"That empty place, that you won't let me see inside."

"You see, there's much more to me than simply being a part of you. We came about from the desire of someone to right the incredible wrongs he caused when he was a pawn of Haydon, our adversary. Not here, but elsewhere."

"Those other universes... How many times has this happened?"

"Very perceptive. It's really not possible to quantify how many alternates have occurred from the original timeline. Hell, even the timeline we are an alternate of is most likely, an alternate itself, seeing how much was different from the depiction in the animated series. But, the crux of the matter is that in one alternate, the pawn of Haydon was recreated in Haydon's realm; perhaps to gloat over, perhaps to let the pawn share in the fruits of his personal suffering. After all, most mythologies have the creator god of the pantheon creating other gods to share creation with, from the lack of the companionship of true peers. As in many of those legends, the student revolted against what the master had done, and conflict arose.

"Even now, the two are contesting here, to determine who shall remain, and who shall be destroyed. It was actually a best of three contest, and this universe is the deciding one. And, we are the ones with the power to tilt the scales. Our creator weakened himself, to take an incredible chance. He created us as an independent agent, not controllable by himself or his foe, with limited knowledge of the battles to come, that for your safety, I have kept from you until you needed to know particulars."

"Zor created us? Why did he turn against Haydon, when Haydon recreated him, then?"

"Haydon never considered that, while ambitious, Zor was hardly a willing participant in most of the tragedies that occurred from the exploitation of his work. Without the blinders that Haydon's manipulations had put on him, that made him so single-minded in his pursuit of science that he didn't realize the evil of his superiors until it was too late, Zor was all too able to see the horrors that he had inflicted on the universe - especially on the women closest to him in life. Torn from his mother as a child, he was cursed to find two soul-mates as an adult, only to be forced to betray one through the mind control of the Masters, and to have the other die in his arms when he tried to stand up against the evil that occurred from the abuse of his research."

"So, what is our part in this? To save the Regis?"

"Only partly. You see, in the original situation, Haydon used the Invid to power his acquisition of his other-dimensional realm. If the Invid leave your Earth in the same manner, they will be going to their oblivion, as Haydon won't be allowing your universe's counterpart of himself to awaken to challenge him. In that original timeline, Haydon stripped the Invid of their power, reverting them to the primitive, semi-sentient state he'd engineered them into from the children of his misguided colleagues, after they'd fled Earth; yes, your suspicions were correct, and I never had to reveal them to you - the Invid were, and can be, just as human as we are. The Flowers apparently chose to tell you, despite Haydon's wishes, because they felt an affinity with you. Perhaps it's because they realized that if you, if we, let the Invid carry through with the grand plan, that Haydon would just absorb their energy form to expand his realm, and kill this universe's Invid outright - not to mention its Flowers."

"We can't let that happen."

"We won't. By the way, my analogies earlier were a little weak. The Regis was a spiritual, intellectual, equal to Zor; but his heart belonged to another. He loved both, but in different ways. In fact, the nature of the relationships were such that, if fate had allowed, that they would have been able to coexist."

"The Regis assumed human form for Zor, then kept it as a reminder of her betrayal. Wouldn't she have provided competition for Musica?"

"No; her first priority has always been her children. By the time Zor left Optera, she accepted that their relationship would be as friends. Zor had someone to whom his heart already belonged."

"Wait a minute. From Rem's recovered memories, Zor didn't meet Musica until he returned from Optera."

"Yes, and you always felt that there was something wrong about that memory."

"Well, yes..."

"That's because Rem's memories are correct - at least as far as for this universe, and the one where we spent a few months in our mother's womb. In the universe where the Zor that created us came from, they met when Cabell started experimenting with the effects of music on the meager pre-Protoculture mental powers of the Tyrolean people, as they found themselves spending much of their life together.

"Musica was an anomaly; already an accomplished musician, she was also the most powerful projective empath in the history of Tyrol. Even before Zor brought back the first Flowers to experiment on, the Elders were already looking for methods of psionic mind control; something that Cabell and Zor alike never really understood until after the fact. Protoculture only provided a catalyst to speed up the Elder's plans to actually be possible in their lifetimes. And, ironically, it was the experiments in Cabell's labs that gave Zor the resistance to shake off their control in time to save the Invid from extinction."

"Then, if Rem's memories are correct, then how do we know the other version?"

"Haven't you figured that out yet? I'm only staring you in the face. What's the only permanent difference between my avatar and yours?'

"Your eyes; they are violet, almost an indigo color. My eyes are green."

"And, of all of your relatives, who has violet eyes?"

"No one in my immediate family; only - I've been such a fool not to notice! How is it even possible?"

"When Zor created you, of course. His heart still aches, after all. He was hoping that, after we beat Haydon at his own game, that you would be forgiving of his actions enough to consider starting a new life at his side. That was the real reason for his giving you free will from the start, instead of setting himself up for a repeat of his revolt against Haydon. But, in the moment of your creation, his heart ruled his mind, acting on his deepest, unspoken, wish, that he'd tried unsuccessfully to bring about in life -"

Karen continued, overcome with emotion; "- For you, his truest love, to be returned to him. It was your memories of him that confused my telepathic readings of Cabell and Rem, wasn't it... Musica?" The question was rhetorical, of course. "But what does it mean for me, in the end?"

"Look at me. My avatar doesn't look like the Musica you know; that should speak volumes by itself. After seventeen years, you and I are inseparable. The only divisions between us are artificial, meant to safeguard us from inadvertently tipping our hand to Haydon. If he'd found out, earlier, I'm sure he would have tried to find a way to turn that knowledge into a weapon against Zor. But, now, we are close enough to the end game that the division is no longer necessary, though the secrecy about our past still is, and probably will be, until the Invid are safe."

"If we merge, which of us will be dominant?"

"That's like asking which of hydrogen and oxygen are dominant, after you combine them to make water, when you made the two elements by splitting water molecules in the first place."

"And that means?"

"We have always been one - the only times you see me separately, is when I actively have to be; think of me as your conscience, more than a past life or split personality. I care deeply for our parents, our children, Marie, Scott and the others, because I AM you, and our feelings are inseparable. And, it goes both ways; it's probable your instant attraction to Rem was from my falling in love at first sight, with Zor. I'll be easing the barriers between my memories and yours down over the next few weeks, as soon as we figure out in here, while we're out cold to the rest of the world, what the proper assimilation speeds should be. They'll be as much yours, as your memories of your abbreviated childhood. We'll still be Karen, just remembering that we were once called Musica, and that we never stopped loving Zor." Musica dropped that barrier, first, flooding Karen with the memories of a romance that spanned the stars, and not even death and the crossing of dimensions could tear it asunder.

Karen now understood fully the conflict in Zor Prime's heart, torn between memories of his original Musica, tormented by the clone with her memories - but not her emotions - and Dana, who had inherited much of the personality, if not spirit, of her biological grandmother - at least the part that flowered when she was with Zor, as Musica did not truly blossom into her full self without him at her side. She understood what drove Zor to try, unsuccessfully, to recreate Musica using his ship's computer, then with an android - and why both she and that android, now called Janice, were instantly drawn to Rem, even willing to share him, as they instinctively recognized each other as different facets of the same gem, shattered long ago.

"Wow."

"We have plenty of time for the rest, later. Let's get this disaster area cleaned up before we open up any more overfilled mental closets."

"And for now, at least, two of us in here is better than one."

"By the way, when we're done, let's check on the twins. I miss them."

"We can reach them from here?"

"Yes; I've been watching them passively for the last three years. Even they know they can contact each other, and Aurora, at any distance - even in foldspace. How else do you think that Aurora contacted Marie, and patched her into the link that Dana accidentally created when she was fighting the Masters? When they contacted you, I intercepted it, and handled it for you; we'll do those memories next. I had to keep it from you, to keep you from potentially upsetting the balance of current events. Someone specific, that you know, had to get to Earth with Mars Division under circumstances like those of the other universes, otherwise the changes could be catastrophic to the timeline, and muddle any chance we have to make things right. It's possible, even, that the effect we felt, was either Zor or even Haydon, preventing Alex and Noel from using her powers to interfere."

"Scott Bernard."

"Yes, in fact, I think he, not our uncle, is the 'Scott' being called for by that one voice in the backlash. Given its effect on us, Noel's mind is probably scrambled pretty badly, if she didn't get killed by it. After all, she was flying in a veritech at the time."

"But at least there's still hope she's alive."

Omphalos, shortly after Reflex Point

"...You aren't the only one that has been born again. Don't you remember when Cabell sent us to Haydon IV, to study those texts that the Haydonites would not allow copies of off-planet, that told of the Invid being one of Haydon's gifted races, and how we became lovers, that first night in Glike?"

"Musica? How can it be?"

"When you made Karen, you still had in your heart your desire to have me return to you. The nature of this realm merged your two desires - conscious and unconscious - into one, and I found myself reborn as part of her. Although I chose to hide my presence, I was always with her, and I always hoped one day to make it back to you."

"Is Karen still part of you?"

"Yes; we've been one person for several months now; we began integration after the trauma where Noel lost her powers, and we thought she'd died. In fact, we prefer that you call us Karen; Musica's my grandmother. But know that we never stopped loving you."

Chapter Six:

"This time, I wonder what it feels like

To find the one in this life, the one we all dream of

But dreams just aren't enough

So I'll be waiting for the real thing, I'll know it by the feeling

The moment when we're meeting, will play out like a scene

Straight off the silver screen

So I'll be holding my own breath, right up 'til the end

Until that moment when, I find the one that I'll spend forever with...

- Nickelback, "Gotta Be Somebody"

SDF-3 Bridge

"So, Mr. Dante, you're telling me the war is over, that we won - at least for certain values of the term, and you have no idea where we are?" Rick Hunter was not amused.

"Well, sir, that's as best as I can describe it. I was dragged along to be a witness to some things that occurred on this end, so I can't vouch for what happened on Earth after I left - except that since I was traveling here with the Invid, and Karen Freeman, it's safe to say that the Invid are no longer on Earth for that to be a point of contention. There is also the matter that the REF fleet fired some sort of doomsday weapons at Earth, after it was obvious that the Invid were defeated, and gave no warning to those on the ground that the weapons were incoming. The Invid attempted to stop the weapons, as they left, but I was not in a position to see how, or even if, that occurred."

"Care to explain how you ended up getting very familiar with the Praxian representative in my elevator?"

"Something just came over us, sir. I just can't explain it. It just felt right."

"Back to the situation on Earth; doomsday weapons, you say?"

"Yes - the description I heard was capital ship sized kinetic kill weapons impregnated with radioactive materials to poison the planet, to insure the Invid found it distasteful. But, based on my knowledge of environmental recovery operations on Earth, I thought that the Invid had the ability to remove radioactives from their environment with their flowers. Pardon my bluntness, sir, but who ordered those damn things when they should have known they wouldn't work?"

"The politicians on Tyrol and their clique in the military. I'm frankly not surprised we didn't make it back to Earth - until you showed up, the most common theory of our misfold was that the council had our fold drives sabotaged, to allow that political ass Reinhardt run the liberation, since they knew I was more likely to order those foolish weapons to be launched into the sun than let them be used, even in a worst case scenario."

"Well, it sure worked out that way, even if they weren't responsible for getting you out of the picture. Hopefully, once Karen gets done with whatever she's doing on the planet hidden on the other side of that quantum fog, she'll come here and tell you how to get us out of here."

"I hope so - this place is getting on my crew's nerves, let alone mine. Some of her stunts have made me want to take my role as her godfather seriously - but how can one confine a teleporter to their quarters, let alone put her in the brig for insubordination."

"Aw, come on, Uncle Rick," Karen purred, teleporting in and grabbing his shoulders from behind. "You know that you just want to bend me over your knee and spank me for being a naughty girl, but Lisa would object."

Rick jumped out of his seat so fast one might think HE could teleport. "Jesus, Karen! That's not funny! Considering that Dante says you're one of the people in charge here, I won't pretend you're still officially in uniform, but that joke was in really bad taste."

"I'm a telepath, Admiral. I may be exaggerating the level of attraction, but I know there's not a male on this bridge that hasn't entertained erotic thoughts concerning me at some time in their career - and a majority of the females; and that's including the gay men and straight women."

"Enough of your sexual magnetism; where the hell are we?"

"I would say, 'exactly', but you wouldn't appreciate another joke. The best way to describe this area is as a pocket dimension - one that with time could expand to hold multiple star systems, maybe even galaxies, millions of years from now. Sort of a 'space' between alternate timelines, that can become its own universe as its population grows. That's one of the reasons Haydon was so intent to gain access to it; so he could go from 'playing god' to BEING god here in the most literal sense. However, Zor, the Regis and I kicked him out for manipulating our lives."

"Zor? As in THE Zor? Isn't he dead?"

"He was, but he's feeling MUCH better now..." Karen replied, affecting a semi-impersonation of John Astin."Actually, he's not our universe's Zor, but the one from the universe that the Haydon that was here came from. It's too complicated to explain casually. I'll just let you read my book, when it's done."

"How long will that take?"

"Oh, a few weeks, relative. While you're waiting, your crew will have access to the planet below for recreation and supplies. You do need to rebuild your fold engines, after all. And, when that's done, you'll still need target coordinates from me. If you check your sensors, you'll find the ship is now in orbit. And, I think that somewhere down there is the fold drive from that other universe's SDF-3."

"Any suggestions as to recreation?"

"Well, no matter where you go on the planet, you'll probably be the first person there, but most of the geology was shaped by the collective unconscious thought of another universe's SDF-3 crew, even though most of them never got a chance to land. There's a nice beach down by Zor's parents' place, if you want to visit; I'm sure they'd be glad to have you over. Haydon held them captive here, and they were the ones that tricked Haydon into restoring Zor to life here."

"I wonder what kind of parents a person like Zor would have?"

"I think it would be best for you to find that out in person..."

Earth:

The events of New Detroit had finally confirmed what many in the Recovery Bureau had been saying since the unit had been organized; that anything resembling peace would not be possible until the collaborators were rounded up and taken care of. Not only were their crimes indicative of how they'd behave if given a chance elsewhere, but as long as they were on the loose, there was almost certain to be people that would go after them in a less than controlled manner, and inflict massive casualties to innocent and guilty alike. Of course, not every community would initially have that problem, but those collaborators that escaped the initial dragnet would be fairly certain to try to relocate to where they would be less likely to be recognized, and that needed to be cut off as quickly as possible..

Three months into their "road show", they'd visited all the major surviving communities in North America; Manhattan, Detroit, the Carolinas, and the Utah farming communities that had been cut off from the more technological survivors since the fall of Monument. The latter was becoming more important, as not only were the former Invid farms in the south being returned to their pre-Invid crops, many of the REF ships were going to be landed in Nevada, and the occupants divided between the mothballed cities of that state, and the underground city that Bernard's group had rediscovered in Colorado. As such, the reoccupied ruins of New Provo was Bernard's last stop in the North. From New Provo, a mix of fleet personnel and freedom fighters would be going out for the census required for the new elections and to find places for the fleet to live; after all, concentrating all their veterans in a few cities was a major contributor to the breakup of the previous attempts at world government. Scott passed on responsibility for that project to others, then prepared his group for their return to the Southlands.

As Scott had seemingly snapped out of his funk after Detroit, Noel and Alex chose to not bring up the issue again. After all, if Scott did snap, Noel should be able to stop it from getting out of hand. The real worry would be revisiting some of the places that had pretty much came apart since Bernard and the others came through - mostly from before Alex & Noel joined the group. Rook & Rand had been sent ahead to scout their stops, and the news coming back caused a lot of worry.

Cavern City was relatively unchanged, the Snakes having fell apart in the wake of their leader being deposed by Rook's challenge, and the damage resulting from one of their members having stolen Protoculture from the Invid causing the people to finally rise against their oppressors. However, that was one of the few high points of the trip. For example, the "soldier trap" town where Scott & Rand first encountered Rook & Annie was completely gone - not even the islands remained, and the lake was choked with rubble. Wolfe's Soldiertown was also completely wiped away, as the scavengers/survivors that Alex & Noel encountered just prior to their unintentional joining of Scott's band had long cleaned out what was usable, and had left for greener pastures. And, even the abandoned remnants of Point Kilo and Uraba had apparently been scoured by the Invid after their group had left, to limit their usefulness to others.

Norristown was a much diminished place than in their last visit. The Neo-Maoist government that was present before was gone, purged by the Invid after the massive theft engineered by Lancer and the Resistance. Not long after that, the Invid began their pullback into North America, before the replacement government could get entrenched, and it quickly fell as well. The Resistance had taken over not long after, and was still in the process of reestablishing order in the surrounding area. As such, they were eager to get Lancer and the others back to provide some legitimacy to their regime, as well as to do another concert. The concert was scheduled for the day before the planned SDF-3 search & rescue mission; in part to see Scott off as he joined that mission and left Alex & Noel in charge of the Recovery Bureau's war crimes investigation branch for the Americas.

Noel definitely was going to perform, despite not feeling well recently. She felt she owed it to Karen's memory to do so - well, as much as one can do for the memory someone who wasn't actually dead, just passed to another plane of existence. Of course, most people would take that statement as meaning she'd died. It would take some serious work to convince people otherwise, and it would have to be done with care; she definitely didn't want some crackpot cult, religious or otherwise, grow out of knowledge of Karen's abilities and ultimate fate.

Karen's last words to them at Reflex Point still confused those that were there. She had told them that she would give them gifts of some sort, but so far the only apparent gift they had gotten had been surviving Reflex Point, and having a world free of alien domination. However, knowing her sister as well as she did, she knew that wasn't what Karen meant. And, knowing Karen, the gifts could be anything.

From beside his war-torn Legios, Colonel Scott Bernard sat and listened to the songs of Noel & Lancer. Noel was currently on stage, singing a song that seemed strangely familiar. Soon, he recognized it as one of the 20th century songs that she had been reworking during the trip from Colorado to the Carolinas, after picking up the original from recordings in the underground city. And, he now realized who it was she'd reworked the song to be about...

"...Have to go on, mustn't look back;

But in his heart he still hears her.

He closes his heart to the world outside

Duty's all he can live for...

Oh, think twice;

'Cause it's another day for you and me in paradise.

Oh, think twice

'Cause it's another day for you - you and me in paradise..."

"Penny for your thoughts, Colonel?" a familiar voice said from behind him.

"What? Noel, aren't you on sta - Karen, is that you?"

"I'm forgotten so soon?" Karen smirked. "Yes, I've come back; but just for the evening. The song is right, you know. Noel and I have had our visions; of the past, present and future. You belong with Marlene."

"But, do I belong with Ariel?"

"They are the same person. Why do you deny what your heart tells you?"

"What do you mean?"

"Take her to the Rushes, aboard the Ark Angel; they'll tell you the same. You forget; prior to the likes of Sera and Corg, the Regis needed someone to use as a template for any simulagent she created. Only after studying Earth's biosphere was she able to create replicas of the life from it; and even then, she had to have a starting point. That starting point was the remains of the command ship of the 21st Squadron."

"That's impossible! The ship was destroyed!"

"Was it, though? You had to concentrate on saving yourself, by that point. All you really saw was the ship blow up, and an Invid holding the neck of the Horizon to make sure the crew compartment didn't separate, before the explosion. But, even so... Didn't anyone ever teach you anything of the history of space travel? In 1986, one of the space shuttles was blown up by a external fuel tank explosion, a minute into flight. Some of the crew survived the explosion, only to die when the remains of the crew section hit the ocean. None of them died from the actual blast, or even the decompression - just the concussion of the initial explosion, or the final impact. Surely the cockpit of a combat dropship, designed to itself act as an emergency reentry vehicle, is more sturdily built than a 1970s tech space truck built by the lowest bidder?

"I have to go now; I hear my stage cue. Forget your mission - it will be obsolete in a few minutes, anyway. Come back to the concert, and watch my final miracle unfold."

With that, she disappeared in a shimmer of light, leaving a confused Scott Bernard staring in the direction of the stage.

"I know this is probably a huge shock to you all; well, those of you that weren't involved backstage at my last concert here," Lancer explained to the crowd, having shed his Yellow persona DURING the previous song. "But, I'll still be out there performing for a living; at least as long as you folks keep coming to see me. There doesn't seem to be much money in freedom fighting anymore."

The crowd laughed at the comment, then Lancer continued. "Noel Tyler, as you have heard by now, is the little sister of Karen Ellison, whom a lot of you old-timers probably remember from the days before the SDF-3 left. I was going to do this song anyway, but she requested I do it now, instead of at the end of the concert. After seeing what she and her sister are capable of doing to people who don't listen to their suggestions, I was inclined to do as I was told."

Alex looked over at Noel - only to have Noel shrug, and mouth quietly, "It wasn't me", before seeming turning her attention to something Alex couldn't hear, and running backstage..

"This is my second-most popular song," Lancer continued, "and probably the most popular song of this century. After all, one million shiploads of Zentraedi can't be wrong!" He then tore into his rendition of "We Can Win", or as his version was more commonly know, "We Will Win". As the song's bridge began, he looked into the far reaches of the semi-natural amphitheater, he saw Scott Bernard enter, and walk up to General Freeman, and the two start talking in a quite animated manner. Then, he heard the voice in his head, as Noel walked back onto the stage, but not all the way out to him.

"Go on, but be prepared for something strange. This song will be remembered forever."

"Blessed, with strong hearts that beat as one, watch us soar.

And with love that conquers all, we'll win this battle,

This last battle -"

A flash of light erupted to his left around Noel, as her mother and her sister appeared on stage with her, active mikes in hand, and joined in.

"We will win!"

-Another flash, this one to the right, as a trio of Tyrolean muses and a young black man appeared, joining in for the next line -

"We must win!"

A third flash enveloped Lancer himself, and as the light cleared, there was a woman to either side of him; one with lavender hair and pale skin, the other ethnic Chinese. There was no mistaking the identities of these two...

"We Will Win..."

"WE WILL WIN!" they all sung together, finishing the song, and as the music hit its final note, the sky lit up with a flash, and the sonic crack and wind rush of a massive air displacement. Everyone turned their heads up to look, and as the light cleared, the shape of the SDF-3 emerged from the light, about ten kilometers up. Cheers went up from the crowd, as well as everywhere around the world that was watching via satellite relay, from New Columbus to the ships and outposts of the Indian Ocean, to the bases on the Moon, Mars and over Jupiter.

A minute or so later, as the cheers started dying down, Karen keyed her mike.

"I know you all came to see a Yellow Dancer concert, and you all probably want to hear Minmei more than you do me. But, humor me for a while. We are not alone out there, in the dimensions. There are other Earths who fared better than we have, others that suffered far worse. Then there are other worlds, where the Masters and Invid never existed, and have their own trials and tribulations. I'll be out there, exploring the infinite worlds, and I challenge you to come looking for me. You have the means in orbit; the ship that has made the jump before. Claim your destiny..."

With that, she began singing the title song of an old, campy, roller-disco musical of the early 80s, the others on stage joining in (after all, many of them did have a soft spot for the movie - especially since it was about a Muse of the Classical Greek variety choosing love over duty). And, as occurred in the movie, as the song ended, the central singer disappeared in a sparkling beam of light, and a wave of energy washed over the audience.

Needless to say, the concert ended there, but no one complained. The night was to be filled with celebrations, homecomings and reunions.

On Haydon IV, the Sterlings had been talking to Veidt about the strange happenings on the planet from the last few weeks. The artificial planet had stirred, as if something was reawakening dormant programming, then that was shut down, hard, and much of the last two months had been restoring normal operations on the parts of the planet that held quarters for the non-Haydonites, as much of the planet's core programming had seemingly been erased. To their horror, the Haydonites found a fleet of warships in a previously unsuspected cavern, in the process. In fact, some of them had come to their senses IN said ships, preparing them for a launch against their own allies.

The general consensus, though held closely private (as most Haydonite matters were), was that their creator was apparently not as benefic as they originally believed. Worse, they found log entries in the fleet's command ship that indicated that it, not one of the warring factions of the ancient Praxians, had delivered and spread the virus that exterminated males from the Praxian genome - and had contributed clandestinely to the events that led to Peryton's fall into madness. Veidt was only discussing the matters with the Sterlings, Exedore and Cabell because he trusted them implicitly to not repeat what had been learned, and that Exedore and Cabell were, perhaps, the only scientists able to comprehend the enormity of the implications without flying off in a rage against the Haydonites.

Still, the debate over how to handle these bombshells was a bit intense, and it was suddenly defused by Aurora coming into the room, uninvited. The raven-haired girl, six years old but appearing to be physically and emotionally in her early teens, had been a worry for her parents for the last few months, as her best friends had disappeared with the SDF-3, and she had not taken it well.

"Mom! Dad! You need to come outside, and see this!" She looked over at Exedore and Cabell. "You two, as well..."

"Honey, we're busy with an important meeting," Max replied, before realizing this was the most worked up Aurora had been since the SDF-3 misfold. He also realized that something had to be happening that was beyond the ordinary, as normally, what was outside never really changed. "Well, okay, we'll come."

The adults followed Aurora out what was supposed to be the door to their balcony overlooking Glike. However, as they passed through the door, they quickly realized they weren't on Glike, anymore...

"It took you long enough," a voice said from behind them, as they realized that they were on a stage, somewhere. As they turned, Aurora ran away from them, to a couple of figures on the far side.

"What?"

"Welcome home; I missed you..." Dana said, stepping up and embracing her parents.

"How did we get here?"

"Blame Karen. She just brought the SDF-3 home, before leaving again. Noel says that you all can use the fake door against the back wall to get back to Haydon IV, any time in the next two days, but after that you'll have to do it the hard way. Aunt Lisa had me waiting here to fetch you to come to the party, since Karen told her before the arrival what she was setting up to get you here."

"What about Aurora?"

"Little sister can fend for herself - she's with Musi and Zor. Speaking of Zor, Zor Prime's been wanting to meet you in person for a long time, Cabell. And, maybe you can help me with this strange issue that my husband's been having since the SDF-3 popped back in. He's been looking at Minmei, like he's seen a ghost; says she looks like his mother; and Minmei's been acting funny about it, as well, almost as if she's not denying it..."

Meanwhile, Bernard and his companions of the last year had retreated into the Green Room backstage, having been all but forgotten in the emotions of the SDF-3 return. They grabbed some drinks, and sat down, talking about the emotions of the last hour...

"What are you going to do now, Rook?" Noel asked. "Drag Rand back to Cavern City and start a family? Given what happened before, they'd probably elect you mayor - or at least sheriff."

"Actually, I just found out a few days ago, and was waiting until tonight to tell Rand."

"Tell me what?"

"I'm pregnant."

Rand's eyes bulged a little bit, then he bent over and kissed her. "I thought you'd been hiding something."

"Congratulations, you two," Alex said. "If you need a good family practitioner, you know where to find me."

"And, with me around, he can make house calls in no time flat. That is, if we don't go into labor the same day. Surprise, Alex..."

"I... I... " Alex stammered, before Noel shut him up with a kiss.

After she came up for air, Noel continued the subject.

"So, when can we expect the rest of you to join the diaper set with us?"

Scott dropped his glass, his hand shaking. It shattered on the stone floor, hitting him, Lancer, and their two Invid princesses with splinters of glass.

"I... don't know if it's even possible," Lancer thought out loud. "Just think of the genetics involved."

"Scott?" Marlene said, shakily, the same sort of quaver in her voice as from the night Sue Graham died, as if afraid.

"What's wrong?"

"L-look at my hand..."

"You must have been cut by the glass. You wouldn't happen to carry band-aids in your wallet, Dr. Tyl-" Scott caught himself, half-way into his joke, as he noticed something - and the others quickly noticed it too. Marlene's blood was RED, like that of any normal human. A quick prick of Sera's finger showed that her blood was now red as well. "Thank you, Karen Freeman, wherever you are now..."

"Karen did this?" Lancer asked.

"During the concert, before she joined you on stage, she came to me. Told me some story about how the Regis needed samples to create the experimental subjects like Marlene, to pave the way for Sera, Corg and the others. I didn't want to believe it, but maybe it is true..."

"What's true?"

"Karen said that my fiancee, or at least her body, was one of the samples that the Regis recovered, as to minimize initial human knowledge of the experiments, before they progressed to the things that were inflicted on Sergeant Ayers. Apparently, in the study of her, they somehow made the connection between me and her, and that led to their dropping Marlene here in for us to find, after they were through studying the hybridization process, and found her to be viable. They were hoping, I guess, that perhaps something intangible would allow her to be a spy on us - but that didn't work out."

"That explains something else," Alex added.

"What?" Lancer inquired.

"Remember how, at first, Noel seemed to have the same problems as Marlene? We were on patrol duty during the period that she must have been created. The reason we crashed wasn't because of any intentional Invid act, but because Noel suddenly doubled over in her cockpit, screaming from what we thought was some sort of psychic attack. I managed to get us to ground, wrecking both our mecha, but when I got to her, she was mumbling stuff about 'Marlene and Ariel' and 'two being one', before she finally passed out. I thought, after the incident at Point Kilo, that she had picked up the trauma we thought Marlene had been through. But, it wasn't until after Sue died, that I remembered that it was Scott that had named Marlene, after we had already found her. Add in the comments by those that knew the original Marlene, that we showed Sue's pictures to before the battle, and things started, well, not exactly making sense, but pointing to something a bit more deliberate in how we ended up with an Invid in our midst."

"Scott, if she really was a simulagent made from Marlene's DNA, it's likely that eventually, if exposed to stimuli that would trigger memories of that earlier life, she'll start recovering that life's memories," Noel suggested. "Not all of them, but enough to make her more like a recovering amnesiac or a Tiresian-process clone. You really need to get her to the Rushes, to see if anything actually begins to surface on its own. In fact, it was probably the clash of her programming with her memories that caused her amnesia. With her Invid elements transmuted to human, such roadblocks are probably long gone."

"What about Sera?"

"Sera's most likely a totally original creation, after they got a better grasp of human genetics. She'll probably retain her Invid racial memories much better than Marlene, which could well be an asset in the future, for future exploration and historical research. So, given this new discovery, what will you do?"

"Sera and I will probably retreat to a hunting lodge up in the mountains, so I can continue educating her in human behavior; it was a resistance safe house, and is nicely supplied, as well as away from prying eyes. Next year, we'll run up to Manhattan to check on the work Simon's overseeing for me. The city gave me title to Carnegie Hall as a reward for service for the community, but it's a bit far down on the list for recovery work and maintenance. Simon's going to have some people working on it as a second job, but who knows how many man-hours a week will actually go into the place. What about you, Scott?"

"Well, it depends on the answer I get here. Marlene, will you marry me?"

"Well, it is a bit sudden... shouldn't we ask someone first, like maybe my mama?"

Scott started crying, and embraced her.

"What made you say that, Marlene?" Lancer asked.

"It just seemed right. Why?"

"Because," Scott said, wiping his tears, "It's almost word for word the reply I got the last time I asked someone to marry me, a few minutes before Mars Division launched its fighters."

"Don't waste it this time, Scott," Alex said. "Guys like us don't get second chances too often. And, there's no telling when we'll see that miracle-worker again, if ever."

Epilogue: 2041

"Scott, wake up!" Marie Freeman said, shaking her husband.

"Unhh? What time is it?"

"Oh-eight-hundred. One of the girls slipped in and turned off the alarm clock."

"What the hell for?"

"They don't want to go to the pre-launch ceremony; Mir's got a crush on Drannin, and doesn't want him to see her with her arm in a sling."

"She's the one who got herself into that predicament with that arm-wrestling stunt; She might be three years older than Devin, but even at eight, he's still full-blood Zentraedi, and she's not. Why don't you yell for Noel, and see if she's up to using her 'phenomenal cosmic powers' to speed healing on the sprained shoulder and elbow? For that matter, she keeps offering to teach you and Dana how to do those sorts of things, but you two keep begging out of it. Am I gonna have to make it an order?"

"Oh, all right; I'll have her work with me on those skills during the mission, and I'll drag Dana along whether she wants to or not. Oh, and Noel says that she'll meet us with Alex and Vanessa in the VIP lounge, before we fly over to the space dock for the ceremony."

"I'll just be glad to get all this pomp and circumstance out of the way, and start the mission."

"You sound soooo thrilled; you were the one that volunteered for this - hell, you were the one always pushing for us to actually meet Karen's challenge and go dimension hopping, even when most others were against it. From the way you sounded, someone might think you were Shanghied. Besides, it will be nothing like the SDF-3 mission; we should be able to monkey with the time vector a bit, and come back within a couple months after we leave, regardless of how long we actually spend out."

"Yeah, based in the calibration data Karen keeps dropping in Louie's office like Easter eggs; but do you really think I trust it all that much? She's not even telling us where we'll actually end up. I understand the logic of using the numbering system for the local cluster of universes, based on the contest between Zor & Haydon, and that makes us Universe 3; but the whole point is for us to contact Universe 4, where the Korra'ti ended up after its original misfold - but it hardly inspires confidence that she's not telling us if we'll even get NEAR it, using her data."

"Don't take this the wrong way, but I think I'd trust her guesses before I'd trust your facts."

"Is that so?" He reached up, and pulled her back into bed, by her robe's belt, loosening it.

"Scott, do we have time for this?"

"Just send the kids ahead, with the luggage."

"But-"

"I'm the captain, remember? I'd like to see them leave without me."

"I love it when you're right - but let's take this to the shower..."

Seven hours later, the ceremony was behind them. Six years of hard work and planning had gone into this mission, and while Scott was the prime motivator, it was Rem, Zor & Louie that had done the majority of the work trying to figure out the really bizarre data Karen sent them from where ever she was at now. They also had to figure out how to put into engineering terms, the ideas Scott had for the ship. As a result, the Dreamweaver was definitely one of a kind.

The heart of the ship was the old Korra'ti, now totally converted for a Micronian crew, from the dual-size setup that had been engineered originally in Universe 4. Within it was the actual dimensional drive, much expanded from the original fold drives of the former scout ship. Built around it was the true Dreamweaver, itself massing about as much as a Zentraedi flagship, and from its Zentraedi-style construction, looking more like what a Star Wars Super Star Destroyer would look like if built by the Mon Calamari. The Korra'ti section still had all its conventional drives and weaponry, and could separate from the larger hull as needed. The large secondary hull contained more weaponry than the SDF-3 (and, of course, power generation and drive systems), but otherwise was mostly empty, designed to eventually accept cargo (including life forms) from other worlds, as well as (hopefully) equipment from worlds far different than the core worlds little different from their own.

The name of the aggregate ship had been the source of much debate, eventually coming down to polling. In the end, it was decided to go with the name not directly tied to a ship from fiction, as it was pointed out that, while the second-place name was from a series of comedic novels, it was not out of the question (especially if the Heinlein theory of dimensional travel held true) that they could run into Zaphod, Ford and the rest.

"Hey, cuz - sorry we're late," Lynn called from across the hangar. "One of Tanya's friends tried to stow away in our luggage."

"Well, better late than never... You get your stuff on board - minus the stowaway, of course?"

"It went straight to the ship, after we turned Mika over to her parents. So, you brought us aboard to add a little maturity to the crew, you said. Just how young are the people you've dragged along for this mission?"

"Well, 80 percent of the fighter wings have never seen combat outside of simulators, but most of those are kids with special abilities; Daniel, for example. He's one of the oldest kids that have those 'secundi' abilities. The bridge crew is a bit older, but still young, compared to us."

"So, who else did you drag in from the family?"

"Shannon and Kayra are sitting this one out; considering that they just had their fifth kid in four years, they've got their hands full as it is. Janet, Roger, Steve and Dani are all well and truly retired, as is their right. However, Noel is using that shiny new degree of hers, and is my Science Officer, and her husband is head of the medical department. I've also got my sister-in-laws as part of the bridge crew."

"I bet Aurora's glad to be getting away from all the controversy."

"Yeah, but she's going to be without her family on the trip. It's gonna be her first time separated from them. It's a good thing she'll have both her big sisters here for her."

"Who else you have from the old crew?"

"The Bakers, Bowie and his wives, and the Bernards. Between those last two families, hopefully we can handle in Tyrolean or Invid issues we run into."

"And, other issues?"

"We'll have to take those as they come. Hopefully, they won't be too far out of our league."

"Captain, the SDF-3 sends its regards," Bowie called over from the communications station, where he sat between Musica and Allegra. Scott was settling into his command chair, the bridge being the former command bubble, now overlooking the park that was the original bridge. The large screens still remained, now used to project navigation displays, and seeming incongruous except when projecting star fields.

"Thank you, Mr. Grant. Send them our complements, and advise them that we'll be leaving orbit immediately. Noel, how do you like the new sensor interpretation gear?"

"Louie outdid himself, Uncle;" Noel replied. "Though, I'm going to have to wing it a bit on exactly what some of this stuff does, until I can scan the system. And before you ask, Alex has similar accolades about the sickbay and labs, though he's for certain some of the tech installed there must be from one of Karen's care packages."

"Always thinking ahead, Noel. Weapons & Security?"

"Sensors are showing green," Dana replied. "Security reports that internal sensors, manned checkpoints and sweeps have confirmed no stowaways - I know that, after what happened with the SDF-3, that was a major concern of yours, Captain. Fire Control, how are the weapons?"

"All showing green," Angelo replied sharply. "I do have two questions, though, sir."

"Shoot."

"One, why do we have onboard capacitors for the weapons that are kept fully charged at all times? And, two: why are the sensor, security & weapons systems all in one department?"

"The capacitors are because we have the room for them, and we don't really know what kind of situation we might run into on emergence into normal space somewhere else. With the backup power, we can blow away an asteroid on collision course, activate shields in case of an attack, or even do an emergency reverse-course fold - in seconds, rather than having to build power for minutes. As we're REALLY folding off the navigation charts, this is a lot more important than with other vessels.

"As for the second question, security & weapons both use the sensors for targeting, and ship defense in the case we have to repel boarders. In fact, there are remote weapons recently added in all the empty sections for you to use in case there's a security breach, that you need to train on. You'll be expected to use them for suppressive fire, until the nearest security station can respond. Navigation, Science, Engineering and Damage Control also use the sensors, but each of you are expected to backstop each other, if you notice something urgent or interesting that the others miss. Dana's position over Security Ops is mainly to put her in charge of all weapons for offense & defense. Besides, it gives her own office in the brig, and that place has always been like a second home for her, hasn't it?"

"Grrrrr..." Dana was getting a little perturbed by that insinuation.

"That's it, sis, keep up the Worf act," Marie teased. "But won't make any difference. In fact, that's one of the reasons I got him to combine the positions."

"Now, now - that's enough. Navigation, can you show a little more composure than your older sisters, and take us out of orbit?"

"Yes, sir;" Aurora replied. "Course two-forty, declination zero. On course for our designated departure point 2 million kilometers out from Earth. Thank you for inviting me on this mission, Scott."

"If figure that you and Noel will be instrumental in trying to find Karen, later on - and you need to get in some of that mandatory service time that you roped yourself into. I'm sorry that it's going to take you away from your family, but I'm sure you don't mind being away from the politics. Plus, your special status with the planetary government means that we can draft you for diplomacy. It may be a few years before the infrastructure is built for the Outreach Service, and you'll need all the diplomatic and navigation experience you can get for that - and I don't envy you in that mission."

"I guess not; after all, the people I'll be searching for when I take that command will be prone to shoot at anyone that looks Tiresian first, without asking for credentials. We're now slowing into our deep orbit position; thrusters powering down."

"Thank you;" Scott triggered a button on his command chair, wondering who he had to blame for not one, but FIVE different captain's chairs, in storage, each based on different Star Trek designs - and he'd had to get the "classic Kirk" model pulled to get his personal design reinstalled an hour ago.

"Captain to Engineering. How did our sublight drives do, and are we ready for our dimensional jump trials?"

"I'm not sure..."

"Louie, say again?"

"The sublight drives performed perfectly. However, there's been some alterations of the fold engines while we were at the pre-launch ceremony, mostly in terms of software."

"Do you think we've been sabotaged?" Visions of another Edwards clone made him shiver.

"Actually, it looks as if some efficiency improvements were made, and that special memory module that Karen requested for fold coordinates only she could alter with those weird tech interface powers she has, has received data input."

"That's a relief. Are you ready to engage the Improbability Drive?"

"Truthfully, I'm not sure I'll ever be ready for it, but the system is showing green."

"What's the matter? Want to throw in the towel?"

A chorus of groans ran through the bridge bubble, followed by the sound of several people snapping towels - all of them located behind him, for plausible denial, of course. "Maybe we should have named her Heart of Gold, after all," Scott muttered.

"No, not really. But if you're willing to start, we can engage the drive any time you wish."

"Then, let's get this show on the road; use the first set of coordinates that Karen supplied. They'll probably be safer than just spinning the dials. Activate Fold Engines!"

As the ship disappeared from their home dimension, the adventures of the Dreamweaver crew were just beginning.

(Finis, for now)

Afterword (2011):

Finally, after over 20 years, this story is complete. I thank all the fans that have stayed with the story, through thick and thin, over the 15 years it took me to revise and type it from over 1200 pages of chicken scratches that people tell me I'm crazy to call handwriting (and, scarily enough, it was all in "print", not script, and people STILL have trouble reading it.)

With a little luck, I might eventually start typing some of the sequels*; hopefully they'll see the light of day before 2029.

Stan

* As of 2013, I've got a bunch of inter-related stories done, but not all the ones I plan on completing before starting the reworking of the two sequels (which have existed as notes and rough drafts for 15+ years, but are far from complete). Many of the intermediate stories between the large fanfics were actually written in the last 5 years.