For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Of course, if the horse hadn't been there in the first place, they would have had a contingency plan, and maybe that would have worked. Having the nail without the horse, though?

June 17, 2148, Mars

"Achoo!" Steve Roberts rubbed at his nose, having caught the sneeze in the crook of his elbow.

"By Allah, stop sneezing in my direction," Mohammed Marid muttered, skimming the news on a datapad. Their portable dome shelter was crowded, so he was doing so while perched atop the pile of crates they wanted kept as protected from the thin, dusty, Martian winds as possible. "We have four sectors to scan today if we want to catch up."

"I know, I know," he sniffled, pulling open the fridge long enough to pull out two canteens worth of orange juice concentrate, dumping one into his own drink and offering the other one to his partner. "I wasn't expecting to catch a cold when I hit Utopia Planitia for supplies." The small settlement near the equator had been named by an overly enthusiastic technician, but so far, the various Earth governments collaborating on the Mars settlement plan had not seen fit to start building spaceships there.

"I know that, but it's put us behind," Mohammed said, dumping the juice into his own canteen. "We've got to get caught up or they're going to start docking our pay. I think we should split up and take different sections." He turned off the datapad, hopping down off the crate, and his foot landed on something small, round, and in just the right place to make him stumble as Steve sneezed again. "Augh! Right in the face!" He scrubbed hurriedly at the spray of snot and saliva with his shirtsleeve.

"God, sorry, sorry," Steve said, in between another several sneezes. And so, when they headed out, the additional contagion was enough to get Mohammed started on his own sneezes. Such that when the scanner on his ATV blipped to the presence of the so-called 'element zero' on the edge of the Promethei Planum, it went entirely unnoticed. Human colonization of Mars continued, with the Prothean ruins, and their caches of advanced technology, left completely unnoticed.

December 5, 2187, Citadel

The Widow relay activated, and the collected turian and asari ships formed up. The batarian fleet cruised in, as their intelligence had led them to expect. What they hadn't known was that it was backed with an equal number of geth ships, led by a massive, two-kilometer long ship that no one had ever seen before.

"What the hell is that?" Solana Vakarian, gunnery officer aboard the turian dreadnought Complovian, asked her captain.

"I have absolutely no idea. Target it and open fire," he ordered, and she did so with alacrity. Her mother was dead now, courtesy of an eezo-packed asteroid that had struck Palaven not two months before, as the batarians went from being merely galatic thugs to starting an all-out war. Thessia and Sur'Kesh had suffered their own tragedies, as well. Now her brother and father were on the station behind her, the arms closed tight, both of them prepared to repel batarian slavers who managed to bypass the fleet and strike at the heart of galactic civilization.

Their shots blurred across the intervening space at ten percent of the speed of light, and then … just stopped. The shields on the strange vessel had stood up to the most powerful weapon on their ship, though no doubt it had left quite an impact to the shield strength. The other four dreadnoughts present had also fired on it, while the Destiny Ascension had split her fire at the two batarian dreadnoughts. "Fire again! For the Imperator, spirits protect him!"

Their second volley went wide, as the geth shots impacted them, shifting their ship just enough to deflect their aim, ripping apart a batarian destroyer off to one side. Then the massive, squid-like ship opened fire itself, a massive red-hot thread of metal. Solana would probably have admired the weapon, and its effects, if the weapon hadn't pierced their shields and their ship right through the bridge, destroying the entire command staff, along with three hundred other turian crewmen, on its path to damage the main gun.

The rest of the battle went along similar lines. The asari and turian forces were already outmassed by almost fifty percent, but the mystery ship was the deal-breaker. Two shots from it were enough to leave the Destiny Ascension floating dead in space, and the batarian and geth fleets swooped in, diving past the beleaguered defenders.

To the surprise of the defenders, they did not even attempt to enter the wards, every single one swooping down, launching shuttles and ground vehicles straight into the Presidium. Elite units of batarian commandos, flanked by geth primes, went straight up the Council tower, through the harshest defenses that C-Sec had to offer. Both of the other Vakarians died here, selling their lives dearly, killing a hundred batarians before simply being overwhelmed by the number of troops available.

Then the arms of the Citadel opened, the mysterious ship swooping in and latching onto the tower. Trillions of lines of complex code were uploaded, manually entering the signal the Keepers would no longer respond to, and the last of the defending fleet were privileged to see a sight no one since the Prothean Emperor had witnessed.

The Reapers had returned from dark space, and they were here to start their harvest.

March 28, 2240

The Reapers surrounded the Citadel, a million strong. They had harvested the species of the galaxy, every species brought out into space. Batarians, turians, asari, salarian, all of these had been turned into new two-kilometer long Reapers, taking the names of the species they harvested. The other species, the hanar, elcor, vorcha, volus, quarians, had been converted into the smaller destroyers, as had the leftovers of the primary species. They had scanned the up-and-coming species, examining the yahg, the irkik, two others the Council races had never encountered, and laid their preparations.

Harbinger, the first among them, lay at the center of the fleet. Anticipation, or its equivalent, was present through all the Reapers, as they awaited his choice. Nazara was praised now, the million-year-old being having proven more than capable of the difficult task, made more difficult by the handful of Protheans who had somehow evaded their harvest.

At last, one name was broadcast throughout the Reaper fleet. "Watrios," Harbinger declared. The Reaper in question was older than Nazara, nearly five million years old, and had been responsible for the downfall of the last asari holdouts, carefully indoctrinating several agents very carefully to lower their defenses and let in the husk-forms. "The Keepers have still not been fixed, so you must watch closely, developing agents needed to open the way when the time comes, or else alert me to use the backup relay."

"I understand and obey," the Reaper responded. Cruising casually away from the gathered mass of its fellows, it used the Widow relay to vanish deeper into the galaxy. There were multiple relays accessible only to the Reapers or their servants, and from one of those, he would wait. The Prothean-remnants could prove useful again, and it had several Keepers to examine and determine how the Protheans had stopped them from beyond their grave.

May 15, 2243, Ascension Station, L5 point above Earth

"My friends, my people. The people of Earth." The new Prime Minister, Yoshiko Kusinagi, stood at a podium on the bridge of the newly constructed ship. "This faster-than-light ship is the largest breakthrough since the integrated circuit, and it will take humanity out into the galaxy. No longer will we be trapped by the boundaries of our own sun, but step forth to take our place on a galactic stage!"

Different cameras focused tightly on her face, the bridge of the newly christened ASV Enterprise, and the proud crew standing behind her. The drive had already been tested, of course, crossing the entire solar system in a zigzag, visiting every single planet in order out to Neptune, then further out to drop by several of the dwarf planets like Pluto and Xena.

"This heroic crew, led by Captain Christina Pike will visit Alpha Centauri first, to find out the fate of the Manswell Expedition, launched almost a hundred and seventy years ago, then on to visit several of the other stars closest to Sol." The hispanic woman nodded respectfully at her name. "The systems we've seen, through the focused lens of telescopes for the last two hundred years, finally to be seen in person, to have humans land, to see whether the garden worlds we predicted are habitable." Yoshiko paused again, looking straight into the cameras. "To boldly go where no human has gone before, but where so many of us want to."

She nodded to the reporters, and stepped aside, letting them query the crew, asking questions of import and banality, feeding the voracious appetites of twelve billion humans on Earth, and another half a billion scattered in settlements on Luna, Mars, and seven moons of Jupiter and Saturn. "Prime Minister?" She looked up in surprise, to see one of the crewmen, his jumpsuit labeled 'Russell.'

"What can I do for you, Mr. Russell?" she asked calmly, perfectly aware of at least two cameras recording them instead of the rest of the crew.

"Ma'am, do you expect we'll find alien life out there?" he asked eagerly. Oh gods, is he a religious whack-job who managed to get on the crew despite the screening, or a sci-fi fanatic?

"Well, if any of those garden planets have life, then it will technically be alien," she said disarmingly, "but if you mean are there intelligent species out there for us to run into? I hope so. I'd hate to think we're alone in the galaxy."

"Me too. Thank you, ma'am." He saluted her crisply, and faded into the back of the crowd, avoiding the reporters. Sci-fi fanatic. That's the better of the two options, at least.

She had to answer several more questions, of course; running the business of the entire solar system meant that no matter what you did, some focus group of a billion would be pissed off at you, and the press liked nothing more than asking annoyingly-phrased questions. But she hadn't spent twenty years in the Alliance Parliament, and fifteen years before that acting, for nothing. In an hour, when the press time was done, she left the ship last, behind the reporters, and at the airlock turned back to the captain.

"Good luck to you and your crew," she said, extending a hand to Captain Pike.

"I'm just glad none of my five hundred crewmen are named Kirk," she said, sotto voce, hopefully quiet enough that none of the cameras caught it.

Yoshiko's smile grew slightly along with a twinkle in her eyes. "I'm just glad they released the remake before you left."

"Amazing, isn't it? Three centuries later, and a cheesy sci-fi show is responsible for half the technology we have on the ship. Directed magnetic shielding, instantaneous communication regardless of our place in the galaxy, 3D fabrication to spec." Pike's mouth quirked up in a smirk. "I don't know about the hot green alien space babes, but I'll keep an eye out for warrior aliens with funny foreheads and infinitely reproducing furballs."

"Bring those home, I can give them to the grandkids as presents," Yoshiko responded, finally letting go of Pike's hand. "Godspeed, Captain."

"Shouldn't it be, 'Live long and prosper'?" Pike quipped, stepping inside and closing the airlock.

The various viewing areas from Ascension Station, halfway between Terra and Luna, were packed with reporters, family members, and various important people of the government, watching and filming as humanity's first interstellar ship cruised away.

August 4, 2243, Lacaille 8760

The ASV Enterprise cruised into the fifth system of their voyage. Alpha Centauri had been heartbreaking, the forlorn remnants of the colony abandoned to the elements. A small detachment of the crew, thirty men and women, remained behind to investigate, but the preliminary evidence implied the colony had caught some contagion that killed off over half the colony, weakened or crippled the rest in some fashion that left them dead sometime shortly afterwards.

This system should have been fairly simple, though. A red dwarf star, with what was probably a thin asteroid belt or thick kuiper belt, small objects barely detectable crossing between the star and its light.

That was what the expected, anyway. The Enterprise was an arrowhead-shaped vessel, loaded with sensors of all kinds, armed only lightly with railguns and guided missiles. So when, five minutes after dropping out of FTL, he caught a glimpse of an entirely too regularly shaped object, the sensor tech thought for a moment that his instruments were malfunctioning. "Ah, Captain?" Lieutenant Russell twisted around. "I'm zooming in on an anomaly."

Captain Pike blinked as the paper-thin main display switched to show what was clearly not an asteroid. "Is that a spaceship?" she asked.

"Unclear. No sort of energy discharge, it's just cruising along at a nice soft two-hundred-thousand KPH, ma'am." He tried focusing the cameras a little better, queuing up VI commands. "It looks artificial, though."

"Helm, match course and speed," she ordered. "XO, alert the crew. I don't want anyone at General Quarters just yet, but I want us to be ready to do so." She studied the ship quite closely. "What's the projected course?"

Her helmsman, Lieutenant Commander Aremu, scowled. "If we match with it, we've got about a month to find out everything we can about it. Then we'll fall into the star." She looked over her shoulder at Pike. "Assuming we can grapple it in the next day or so, we can divert its course away from the sun, but I don't feel overly confident calculating what kind of slingshot course we'd give it."

"Understood. Check with Engineering, but I want to get this put into as stable a course as we can, if it turns out to be important." She leaned back in her chair, lifting a data tablet from the arm of her chair. "Comms, patch me through to the Marines commander."

"Colonel Shepard here, what's happening?" The Marine officer, in charge of their fifty solders, was a tall, swarthy, blond Viking of a man, decorated in the last major Terran conflict in Zaire, as well as the Asteroid Uprisings. Most of his men were as decorated and experienced as he was.

"We found what might be an alien spacecraft. I need teams ready to board, because it appears to be dead in space." His eyebrows shot up, and he ran a hand over his buzz cut eagerly.

"I'll be there myself. Dragoons, armor up!" he shouted, and cut the channel.

Two tense hours went by, as the gossip ran rampant among the eight hundred men and women of the crew. Even most of the night shift was awake, despite the 1430 ship time expected for their course to match. All eyes were glued to windows and displays as the helm officer brought the Enterprise up alongside the swiftly moving vessel.

"One hundred meters away," Aremu said proudly. "Preparing to deploy docking grapples." The grapples were magnetic attachments on the end of meter-thick armored cables, attached to kilometer-long spools, and had been designed primarily to catch small, metal-rich asteroid fragments to be deconstructed by nano-bots for shipboard part manufacturing. But the engineers had also planned for events like this, even if finding a derelict alien ship was not precisely in the plan.

"Firing grapples, deploying marines," Shepard said over the radio. The force of the release couldn't even be felt from the bridge, but the many cameras captured it on film. They trailed out, five of them, latching onto the smaller alien vessel, and holding fast. Twenty marines attached to the cables, four each, and raced across on small powered climbing wheels. "There appears to be a hatch at coordinates 03-140-2. Attempting to access." They had come up on the 'top' of the ship, hastily designated so by their Chief of Engineering, Captain Adams.

It took them a few minutes, but with some old-fashioned elbow grease and a crowbar, the access hatch was open. "This ship looks more organic than constructed," Shepard reported back. "It does have an airlock, though no sign of power. We'll try not to blow the ship out to vacuum.

Some of the helmet camera feeds were being broadcast throughout the ship, and Shepard's was being broadcast back through their quantum communicator to Earth. Yoshiko, her Cabinet, and a dozen of the Senate were with her in a large briefing room. No reporters, yet, but that would come in time, too. "Nothing in here is labeled," Shepard complained. "The airlock is big enough for ten at a time. Davis, try that lever there."

As they watched, the outer airlock door closed, seven marines inside. "No pressure increase, so I'm hoping we don't damage anything. Now try that lever," his hand pointed in the camera feed to Sergeant Davis, who manipulated another handle on the inside wall. The inner door cycled slowly, grating noise echoing up through their feet into the camera. "No atmo on board. Either they vented the ship, or there's hull damage we didn't see on approach."

"Understood, Colonel. Explore cautiously." Pike was twirling a datapad stylus in her fingers, the only nervous tic she hadn't been able to get rid of, and waved off her yeoman's offer of coffee.

Another set of seven marines cycled into the ship, leaving six more on the outside to guard their escape, just in case. The alien vessel was definitely somewhat organic, but also heavy on crystalline structures. No occupants were found on board, but the marines cautiously explored rooms filled with unfamiliar technology, until they reached the heart of the ship.

On the Enterprise, the very heart of the ship was mostly storage spaces, with the bridge just above them and the engineering core just below it. Half of the eezo found in Sol had been laboriously collected by robotic miners from the atmospheres of the gas giants, and put together in a power core the size of a bus. Where the storage rooms were, instead, was a large, open space, that caused all of the marines to twitch their safeties off.

"Ma'am, I think I've seen this movie before, and I didn't particularly like how it ended," Shepard said, as his camera swept across a room, around twenty meters in diameter and roughly circular, every square inch of the floor covered in what looked like large, leathery eggs, ranging in size from golf ball to one beach ball sized one near the center.

"I saw the same movie," Pike responded, licking dry lips. "Confirm no hostiles in the area, then retreat back to the Enterprise for now." She looked up at her yeoman. "I think I'll have that coffee now. Prime Minister, your orders?"

"The warp settings for the Enterprise, according to my briefs, can be expanded much wider than they are currently. If you can fit it in the warp field, bring it back to Sol. We'll park it outside of Luna's orbit and very carefully find out what these were." The Commandant of the Alliance started to protest, and she shut him down with no more than a steely gaze. "If that's not possible, put it into as stable an orbit as you can manage, and come home, so we can figure out what the hell to do about it. I'm not going to leave it around a fluctuating red dwarf star any longer than I have to." Yoshiko took a sip of her own glass of water. "Any other signs of alien life out there?"

"Not yet, ma'am, but the mission is still young," Pike said, her voice skipping a little. "I'm kind of hoping no one shows up looking for this one, though."

"I'll drink to that. Keep me informed. Tell the Marines not to touch anything else on board, but have some of your science staff head over and take visual documentation of everything." She paused as an aide came up with a datapad. "And now, Captain, I have to go deal with some stupid filibuster of Mars trade regulations."

"Glad we're so high on the list of priorities," Russell muttered, quiet enough he didn't expect to be heard, so Pike's snort of laughter made him blush. "Nothing else has entered the system within lightspeed monitoring, Captain."

"Good. Colonel, retreat to the airlock. I'm going to send down some science staff to do visual documentation. Aremu, you've got the bridge, I'll be down in Engineering." She handed the coffee cup back to her yeoman and strode out.

Shaking her short braids back behind her ears, Aremu switched chairs, motioning one of the chiefs to take her station. "Just please tell me, those aren't snakes," she muttered.

"Maybe they're giant bugs?" Russell guessed.

"That's better than snakes," she said.

August 10, 2243, outside Luna orbit

The Enterprise appeared suddenly, so far as the visual sensors were concerned. The alien ship had carefully been reeled in until the two ships were barely five meters apart. Cushioning material had been fabricated hastily, placed between them to maintain the distance, and then the manually recalibrated warp field took them all home.

They slowed into a stable orbit, waiting for the various in-system ships to approach. Crew were already standing by in EVA suits when the first ships arrived, and the alien vessel was carefully detached, the cushioning material fed back into the nanite deconstructors and added to the supply tanks on board, ready for the next task. Regular comm systems were screaming with news and extranet data, as every single news source in human space proudly proclaimed, "We are not alone!" in various tones of awe, expectation, and paranoid fear.

"So, Captain," Aremu asked, as they waited to step out into the approaching shuttle and return to Ascension Station, "what do we do for an encore?"

Pike just grinned, brushing a piece of imaginary lint off the medals of her dress blues. "We go back out there, and head the direction that ship came from, and see if we can't find out who it came from. You know, easy stuff."

April 1, 2244, alien space vessel

"This is the last one," Jarvis Euodio said through his radio. He carefully filled the edges of the patch with the proper vacuum-rated epoxy filler, sealing off the hull breach. "And we're golden. I can't wait to see how some of these things work without having to squint through the damn helmet."

"Amen to that," Lydia muttered back. "Now keep talking sexy to me in that Afrikaans accent of yours." He laughed loudly, walking over the surface of the ship. Above him, struts and chambers gleamed faintly as they turned in high orbit, marble-sized Earth barely visible every once in a while. "Soon as you're in the airlock, we'll start pressurization."

His steps were as swift as he could make them, the organic-looking hull still possessed a high enough metal content for the magnetic boots to get a good foothold. Of course, after watching Hash float off last month, and nearly lose a leg when he passed through the spinning research facilities above them, Jarvis was not going to rush this. No matter how badly he wanted to see what this alien ship did.

The eggs, they had already determined, were some kind of arthropoid life. They had taken a few of the smaller ones, the golf ball and softball sized ones, and opened them, dissecting the embryos within. They clearly belonged to the same species, the smaller ones probably being drones of some kind from the number of eggs, and the slightly larger ones being either defenders or more specialized workers. That let them decide, with fairly good accuracy, that the largest egg in the batch must be a queen - and therefore, until they knew what to do with them, it was off-limits. If this species had built this ship - a fairly good guess, given the definitely organic compounds that made up the bulk of the interior walls - then the queen, not the workers, was most likely the intelligence. And if this species had more of them, somewhere out there in the galaxy, the last thing humanity needed to do was start performing experiments on their unborn children.

What worried Jarvis, and many of the other researchers, carefully hand-picked by the Alliance, was the clear battle damage that showed on the outside of the ship. Jarvis was an entomologist, and Lydia, his current partner, was a genetic engineer, so they had to go on the reports submitted by the military scientists. But by all accounts, the ship had been pierced by multiple rounds fired at around one percent of lightspeed, into the belly of the ship. Since the Enterprise had approached from the top, they hadn't seen any of the damage, nor the two dead insect crewmen still clinging to the outside of the ship. The beings had been huge, the size of a terran horse or cow, their corpses long since frozen and boiled by the energies of the stars they passed and the vacuum of space. These, they thought, were the result of the bowling ball sized eggs within, probably highly specialized technicians of some kind.

He stepped into the airlock, manually cycling himself in. There was an empty chamber near the ventral airlock that had been turned into their office of sorts, and Lydia, Kwan, and Major Yauck awaited. "Alright, I think we're ready to test it," he said, glancing at the others. "Who gets the honors?"

Yauck grinned, and gestured to the controls. "Not me. My job is to stand around with the gun acting properly paranoid."

Kwan laughed at him. "I'll do it, then. Once we have some air, then I can get into the guts of this engine and start putting my specialty to good use." The Korean man had spent hours, arguing over comms with his colleagues back on Earth and Luna, as to why the vessel had such an underpowered drive core compared to the Enterprise. From the outside, at least, the ship hardly seemed capable of reaching FTL speeds at all, which had resulted in wild speculation about how it performed interstellar travel.

He inputted several commands into the computers, linked together across the ship by fortified cables carefully attached to the ceilings via hooks. After one accident of someone tripping over a cable, and shattering one of the fragile and expensive computers, the three dozen researchers allowed on board had spent two days making sure they weren't going to lose two months of work waiting for a replacement. "Shouldn't we hear the air cycling in?" Yauck asked after a minute.

"I know you're a gun bunny, but really," Lydia teased him. "The ship has a couple of thousand cubic meters to fill, and that's assuming no leaks. There won't be enough air to reliably carry sound for at least ten or fifteen minutes."

Jarvis had moved to another terminal, accessing the outer cameras. The two shipbuilding experts, the duo who had designed the outer frame of the Enterprise and her sister ships still under construction, were in the office cubicles above them, monitoring the air flow rate and sensors. "I'm not seeing any leaks. All the patches appear to be holding." He looked over at the others. "Unless there's something else I need to help with, I'm taking some of the cameras and seeing how the eggs react to the return of atmosphere."

"I'll go with you," Yauck said instantly. When Jarvis raised one dark eyebrow, the marine grinned. "Hey, I told you, properly paranoid."

"I highly doubt they're going to hatch, wrap around my face, and lay eggs in my lungs," he disparaged as they walked, climbing up the ladder-tubes the aliens used for transit.

"Doesn't mean they might not be hostile when they wake up," he replied, unslinging his assault rifle as they reached the chamber. "Some people are just downright ornery first thing in the morning."

"Ornery? That's really the word you want to use?" Still, they were both grinning, the moreso as a faint hissing noise started to pervade the room, and air becoming thick enough for the sound of its entry to echo properly.

They watched the eggs for another twenty minutes, Jarvis taking careful readings on temperature, ambient humidity, and gently testing the flexibility and resiliency of the eggs as they were exposed to atmosphere for the first time in who knew how long. He was so intent on recording his tests, in fact, that he blanked out what Yauck had said, at first. "Sorry, I didn't catch that."

"I said, do you hear music?" the soldier repeated, now looking around wildly. "Like, some kind of woodwind quartet."

He almost came out with a sarcastic rejoinder, when he realized that he, too, was hearing the music. "Who's broadcasting music over the channel?" he demanded crossly.

There were several moments of silence. "Nobody's broadcasting anything but data right now," Ingersoll replied, safe in the labs outside. "Are you sure?"

"I can hear it too," Lydia replied, "just barely loud enough to make out."

"It's getting louder in here," Yauck replied, and flicked his safety off, putting his back against one of the walls. "I am not allowed to begin hostilities, I am not allowed to begin hostilities," he muttered to himself.

"Something is happening," Jarvis said, looking around. It took him a moment, as the music was starting to grow loud enough to interfere with his concentration, but he realized after a moment that the eggs were ever so gently rocking to the beat of the music. "I think restoring the atmosphere might be inducing them to hatch," he murmured, not realizing that he was singing it along with the music.

And a moment later, the largest one, the queen's egg, did split carefully down the middle, the leathery shell peeling back, as a creature resembling a cross between a shrimp and a cockroach crawled out of it, covered in glistening fluid. Other eggs were hatching as well, and dozens of the tiny, crab-like drones swarmed around her, cleaning the queen. The music was deafening now, drowning out the cries of consternation of the scientists on the laboratories. Without quite realizing what he was doing, Jarvis crawled forward, discarding his helmet and gloves along the way. Somehow, he knew just where to place his hands and knees to avoid crushing any of the hatchlings or any of the still-viable eggs, and he paused in front of the queen, extending one hand slowly. "My name is Jarvis," he sang, as she ran her pedipalps and mouth over the surface of his skin.

My name is Cries-Out-In-Darkness, the song reverberated through everyone on the station.

Ten kilometers away, the in-systems cutter Swordfish sat watching everything nervously. "What the hell is going on over there?" Chief Eisley muttered. "Missiles are still locked. Awaiting your command, sir."

"No. We're not blowing it up until we know that the team has been compromised somehow," Commander Davis said. "I wish the remote vid feeds were a little more clear, though. They're all talking about music and singing, yet nothing's coming over the audio." They monitored for two hours, as Alliance military brass grew more and more concerned.

Finally, two and a half hours after the atmosphere had been returned to the ship, they received a clear message back. "This is Jarvis Euodio, and the aliens have hatched and communicated. Their queen is called Cries-Out-In-Darkness. They have a kind of genetic memory, passed down through telepathic contact. The reason we found them, is because several other species subjected them to xenocide. They were put into a time capsule, of sorts. Prepared for the possibility of awakening on another planet."

"Why were they subjected to xenocide?" Prime Minister Kusinagi asked.

"Ah, that's not entirely clear. My understanding, from sharing Cries' memories, is an inability to communicate, along with a desire on behalf of those aliens not to share habitable planets." Jarvis' voice was still half sing-song as he explained. "Two alien races, both semi-aquatic, I think. They tried to exterminate the Singers, and when they started to lose, they found a race of vicious lizard-analog species, and accelerated their war. We found this ship, because none of the Singers survived to come rescue them."

Several minutes of silence reigned on the communications channels, as Yoshiko argued with all of her advisers, her Cabinet, and the top people of the Alliance military. "Jarvis, can you move to a functioning camera? The few inside the egg chamber don't have a good angle." In response, the entomologist fumbled around, finally moving over to where Yauck, still wide-eyed, had slumped against the wall, and stared into his helmet cam. The entire room inhaled sharply when they caught sight of his face, the eyes now a brilliant shade of turquoise covering the entire surface, lid to lid. "Are they friendly?"

"They are, Prime Minister. They want only to return to their homeworld in peace." He paused, cocking his head. "Cries wants to learn more of us, our music and our culture. She says their homeworld was seven relay jumps away." He frowned. "I'm not sure on what a 'relay' is, exactly. Her mental image shows a large space-station like structure in space, that allegedly allows for transit of several thousand light years in an instant. They found them, and used those to colonize other planets."

In the protected chamber aboard Ascension station, silence ruled for a moment. "If these, ah, Singers, found them, then it begs the question, what happened to the species who built them?" Admiral Roskov muttered.

Yoshiko pushed the talk button, mouth set in a grim line. "All they want from us is our culture, and a trip home? And what are they giving us in return?" She watched through the camera as he frowned, obviously trying to mentally discuss this with the queen, who lurked behind him, just barely visible in the frame. Her first impulse was to pull off her shoe and beat the thing until it stopped moving; she'd never liked bugs.

"They can teach us how to use the relays, and where to find many of them. The queens and the brood-warriors are telepathic, and can," he paused, obviously trying to put words to the clarity of thought, "'sing unifying songs' to our military. The workers can create numerous organic compounds far more easily than we can do using artificial processes." He looked over his shoulder at the queen, joy suffusing his face. "They will need food soon, Prime Minister. We can't let them starve."

"We'll be in touch," she said, and cut the channel, leaving a frozen image of the scientist's starkly changed face on the screen. "Thoughts?"

Roskov spoke up again. "Assuming they're telling the truth, we need to find where these 'relays' are near us, and set up observation posts. Figure out how they work. If we could be subject to an invasion from ten thousand light years away, we can't respond right now."

Secretary of State Yoko nodded. "Not to mention, the ways to expand. The Enterprise has already found one perfect garden world, and two marginal ones. The distance involved means setting up colonies will take years. If we can find these relays, though, we can expand faster. The ecosystem is being held together with duct tape right now, and even the terraforming efforts on Mars are just barely enough to feed the colonists there."

Senator Clark sighed, running one hand over his perfectly bald head. "Not to mention, as distasteful as some of us find insects, they are the equivalent of a passenger plane full of children. We can't starve them to death, or blow them up, or do anything other than help them, or we risk some nutcase with a point trying to get a charged under the Dehli Accords."

More voices started to speak up and argue here, stopping only when Yoshiko raised one hand sharply into the air. "Jarvis? Tell Cries, we will send over food supplies, and we will increase the size of the facility around the ship. But we can't permit them to leave, until we've determined several things, such as possible disease vectors between species."

"And whether or not she's telling the truth, I take it?" His voice was sad, but understanding. "Prime Minister, what about taking them to Shandrakor?" That planet was one of the two 'marginal' ones charted by the Enterprise, the surface covered largely in either thick rainforests or barren deserts, with temperatures around the equator running to 80C.

"We haven't even landed anyone there to verify if it's safe," Yoshiko protested. "I can't turn it over to a ship full of aliens, no matter how friendly they might be."

Cries scooted forward then, crawling into Jarvis' lap to come closer to the helmet camera, her multiple blue eyes sparkling in the light. "She promises, they will explore the surface for us. They can tunnel underground facilities to keep us safe from the surface heat, and given the harsh qualities of their homeworld, she does not think much there will present a hazard to the Singers."

"I'll take it under consideration," she promised, "but even if I agree, it'll take time to arrange transportation and initial supplies."

"Are you sure this is the wisest course?" Roskov asked.

"I think I'd rather make them an ally than an enemy. They got right into his head, Admiral," she said pointedly. "Not the kind of people I want as enemies."

He lifted his water bottle grimly. "Here's to a long, and hopefully prosperous, friendship," he said mockingly.

Author's Note: ASV = Alliance Space Vessel. Simple and unimaginative. So ends prologue one!