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4 yrs ago
Currently super swamped by work and having cold on the top of it, so posts will be delayed


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Collab between @Raylah and @jorvhik

Commander Peter Ross nervously swiped over the messages on his datapad. What was he even doing here? He was a soldier his entire life, a battle-hardened veteran. And, for some reason, Guardian Harlowe thought it was the best qualification for being an important diplomat in this place filled with… you couldn’t even call some of them human anymore, could you? But orders were orders, and while (at least officially) he could have refused, he knew it would be devastating to his career. So, he became a diplomat. And spent every day being drowned by his new responsibilities, making decisions that felt way above his pay grade, worrying he’s made the wrong ones.

It wasn’t all bad, most of the meetings weren’t super important like Peter’s first one where they debated the alliance treaty with the Kudrioni. He still felt bad about remembering how uneasy Emily Kaldaz seemed after recognizing him. It was absolutely understandable, given how their first encounter went by, with all the guns and strike teams and everything. Peter tried to stay out of her way for the next few weeks, not wanting to make her feel even more awkward, but it was remarkably difficult since there were close diplomatic relationships between their nations now and the representatives often met to debate various topics. She was always so glum and frowned at him.

Granted, she seemed to be that way around everyone, but Peter took it personally, believing it was his fault she was this unhappy and wanted to at least apologize to her for how his team invaded the ship she was on, putting them all in danger. He knew that as a Kudrioni, Emily had probably gone through military training as well, she was certainly no damsel in distress, but she was still a woman, and Peter was trying to be a gentleman. Not that he had had any success with it in the past, he seemed to scare every female away, but Emily was an important figure for their allies, so he ought to at least try to set things straight with her.

That’s why he sent her a message, inviting her to a quick meeting over a small misunderstanding in one of the treaties that were signed some time ago. Honestly, the whole thing was absolutely unimportant and could have been solved over messages but it made a good pretense to meet up with Emily. As he was getting ready to go, something licked his hand.

Peter looked down with a sigh. Bony Stark was officially Harlowe’s responsibility, but the Guardian was in some important negotiations that would probably take all day. Which meant Peter would have to bring the dog along to his meeting with Emily. Hopefully, she wasn’t allergic. At least Harlowe did a very good job training Bony and a tiny robot, a generous gift from the New Haven Directorate, followed the furry beast everywhere, cleaning after it because Peter was certainly not going to pick up dog shit.

It had been a few days after Emily’s discussion with Moimir. Those days, Emily had been buried under mountains of work. She didn’t mind it much, though. The work kept her busy, her mind free from troublesome thoughts and questions she didn’t want to think about. Of course, it did also confront her with the failures of Kudrion as a nation, but she had learned to bottle up those thoughts as well. She was just about to write another report to send back home when she got a very interesting notification on her tablet computer.

That was when she received the message from Commander Ross, to her surprise. It was an invitation to a meeting about some minor details in a recent treaty. A meeting in the Ishtari part of the station, of all places. Emily thought it was an odd choice of location for a diplomatic meeting, to say the least. However, it also intrigued her, as she had never been to the Ishtari gardens before and had heard it was quite beautiful. Emily considered it for a moment. Given the odd choice of location and the fact that the topic of the meeting was rather trivial, she suspected that Peter had other reasons for the meeting.

She had, of course, met him multiple times after their second encounter at the alliance negotiations. To her it seemed like Peter had started working as a diplomat full-time. Emily noticed that he didn’t really seem to feel at home working as a diplomat, but admittedly neither did she. He even seemed to be avoiding her after the signing of the alliance treaty, which she was actually quite grateful for. At least someone was scared off by her cold demeanor. Though she would never admit it, the invitation made her feel a little anxious. The circumstances under which they met were not ideal, and had left their mark, although she couldn’t really put the blame on the Commander.

In the end, Emily did decide to accept Commander Ross’ invitation. After all, as the sole Kudrioni diplomat on the station she had little choice in the matter, as any meeting with their allies could be of incredible importance. And so, keeping a quick pace, she set off towards the Ishtari gardens, through the long hallway of the Kingdom’s embassy and through some neutral spaces that belonged to no one nation. When she arrived, she saw that the rumors about the garden’s beauty hadn’t been lying. She also saw that she was alone, and had to wait a bit for Peter to arrive. Seems like she was there first.

The dog wiggled his tail excitedly when he and Peter reached the Ishtari gardens. The Undefeated were practical people, they didn’t waste time and energy on pretty things that served no real purpose. But even with that in mind Peter had to admit the place was beautiful and admire the craftsmanship and effort the strange women put into building it.

He was right on time for the meeting. Should he have come earlier? The thought did cross his mind, but he didn’t want to look too eager. Coming late would probably seem disrespectful and that was definitely not the impression he wanted to make. He was overthinking it, that’s what he usually did when he was nervous about something. Emily was already there, standing under a blossoming cherry tree, and, for once, she didn’t seem to be frowning as she admired the gardens.

Peter watched her for a moment and fortunately Bony’s quiet whining snapped him out of it before she could notice him staring at her. The dog was giving Peter his best puppy eyes. Damn animal. “Free.” Just one word and Bony darted away, chasing some poor colorful insects that were flying over the grass. Peter activated a small drone, a neat invention of a scientist who used to work on the Meeting Place long before he arrived. The drone headed after the dog, hitting the ground a few meters away from the animal, turning into a ball right before impact. Once Bony jumped after it, the thing flew up again and hovered above his head, teasing him for a moment before jolting towards a group of trees. The dog followed it, barking excitedly. A silly thing but at least Peter didn’t have to keep throwing balls for hours.

“Miss Kaldaz,” he bowed his head in her direction upon finally approaching her. “I’m glad you accepted my invitation.”

As Emily waited for Commander Ross to arrive, she took the time to carefully examine the garden. While she had seen many things, especially since becoming her nation’s chief and only diplomat , she had never seen anything quite like it back on her home planet. Ever curious, many questions popped up in her mind. What were these pink trees? Were they native to fallen planet Earth, or were they created by the Ishtari? If so, why and how? She thought of many other such questions, so many in fact that she nearly forgot why she had come there in the first place.

She was snapped out of her thoughts as she spotted movement in the corner of her eye. It was a dog, chasing a strange contraption that seemed to bounce on the ground every now and then. When she turned around, she saw where the dog came from, as it would seem that Peter had arrived at their meeting. She folded her arms and looked at him disapprovingly as he approached. A diplomatic meeting was no place for a dog. Where did he even get a dog? Had the apes given the Undefeated a dog as well?

“Hello, Commander Ross,” she replied in a flat tone after Peter had spoken, “you can just call me Ambassador Kaldaz. I must say, this is quite a strange place for a meeting. You wanted to talk about one of our nations’ recent treaties, correct?” It was probably best to get down to business immediately.

Just as Peter expected, the moment Emily saw him, her relaxed expression swiftly turned into a frown. If he hadn't seen her act that way around everyone else as well, he'd think she hated him personally. But she just seemed perpetually angry and annoyed in general. Peter suspected there was more beneath it, something she was hiding, and she was just doing it to chase people away. Mainly because Emily didn't seem that way when he first met her. No, she was nervous and scared back then but despite that strange situation and the mortal danger they faced, she seemed way more composed being held at gunpoint by a bunch of strangers invading her ship than here in the relative safety of the station.

He wanted to smack himself for forgetting her title. Seriously, how stupid he was? He never had any problems addressing the officers by proper ranks but here at the Meeting Place every nation seemed to have a unique way of calling their representatives and Peter just wasn't able to remember them all. But he should have at least memorized hers when he invited her for a meeting. Some diplomat he was.

"My apologies, Ambassador Kaldaz, I meant no offense." He could add some excuses but she wouldn't appreciate them anyway. "It might be a strange place but I certainly needed a change of scenery and a bit of fresh air, so to speak, after sitting at the desk in my office for weeks. I imagined being the sole representative of your nation here, you'd appreciate taking a break as well.

And yes, there was an error on page four of the most recent treaty. We've already proposed a fixed version but I'm afraid it will have to be signed by the people in question again." It was some sort of a joint research proposal. The project was already ongoing and the paperwork wasn't that important at this point. Emily must have known that better than Peter which meant she was going to get even angrier upon realizing he invited her for no good reason.

As Commander Ross spoke, Emily began to feel a little sorry for him. Despite how it might seem from the outside, she was indeed capable of caring for others, although often in her own way. It was now clear to Emily, whether from how Peter forgot her title, or the fact that they were having a meeting in a garden, that international diplomacy really wasn’t his strong suit, which was something she could sympathize with. The fact that he had apparently thought about her well-being when he invited her made her think that maybe he wasn’t so bad.

She quickly pushed that feeling of pity away when Peter revealed that, in fact, the whole meeting was entirely unnecessary. She had already suspected this, of course, but Emily had been willing to hear him out. Now, she could feel the feelings of anger and frustration well up in her, but she kept them under control, hoping that he wouldn’t notice. She couldn’t risk insulting a representative from one of their closest allies, after all.

Emily stared at him in silence for some time, hoping he’d somehow realize that he’d been wasting her time. She didn’t count on it, though. “Well, Commander Ross,” her tone of voice somehow colder than it was before, “you should not plan entire meetings for small things like this. That would save us all a lot of time. Was there anything else you wanted to discuss?” Given that she was already there, she might as well try to make the most of her situation.

Peter expected her to scold him and still he winced upon hearing her tone. But she was right. "I'm well aware of that, Ambassador. I actually had another reason to invite you here but I didn't think you'd come if I shared it up front." No, Peter was quite sure she'd just wave him off or ignored him completely. Which she might still do. "Listen, I'm a straightforward man and I'm not very good with these diplomatic word dances everyone around here seems to love. So, I'll just say it as it is."

He paused to gather his thoughts and take a deep breath. "I noticed that you seem very uncomfortable whenever I'm around. I assume it's because of what happened when we first met, the whole 'incident', and I'd like to apologize for the role I played in it. And…" Peter sighed, looking down for a moment before raising his eyes back to her face again, "if my presence here is really making you feel uneasy, I can ask to be reassigned somewhere else. Gods know I'm not a very good diplomat anyway, so it might be for the best for everyone," he chuckled quietly.

Of course there had been another reason. There always was. Peter was right about one thing, though, and that was that Emily wouldn’t have showed up if he had mentioned it beforehand. At least he was honest. Emily considered just leaving, given that the meeting was essentially over, or at least that’s how she saw it, but she didn’t want the King to somehow find out and fire her for leaving early.

Filled with a cold anger, Emily wanted to call Peter an idiot. Tell him that he was right, that he should be reassigned somewhere else, preferably far away from her. Tell him that he’s terrible at his job, and that it was indeed better for everyone if he wasn’t there. But for some reason, she couldn’t do it. Maybe she was afraid of angering an allied representative and screwing up her job. Or maybe, it was the fact that, unlike many others, Peter actually seemed to care, at least enough to apologize for something that wasn’t technically even his fault.

Instead she rolled her eyes and simply said “I do not need your apology, Commander Ross. My thoughts on the ‘incident’ as you refer to it, as well as how I feel about your presence are none of your concern. Guardian Harlowe requested your presence at this station for some reason, however, and I recommend you listen to him.” That was about as subtle as she could be to tell him to stay, although she wasn’t quite sure why she said it.

Damn, this woman was infuriating. Peter had to stop himself from answering something snappy, since that would certainly not help improve the situation. Before he could think of something polite and diplomatic enough to say, a quiet whining sounded from behind him. He turned to see Bony Stark standing there with the toy drone in his mouth. Seriously, the stupid animal almost had an apologetic expression.

"Oh, no, what did you do? Drop!" The dog put the toy on the ground and obediently sat and waited for his human to fix it. Not that Peter knew how. He carefully scooped the mechanism off the ground, grimacing as he noticed it was covered in drool. It was broken, obviously, but Peter was no mechanic, there was no way he could repair it. "Bony, you just played yourself." Peter shook his head and sighed. "You know the lady who made this died six months ago and there's nobody around who knows how to fix things. Bad dog!" Crap, Harlowe was going to be pissed.

Thankful that Peter seemingly had nothing more to say, Emily turned aside from Commander Ross, ignoring him for the moment, not really sure what to do now. Instead, she once more looked at the strange pink trees in the distance, still a little angry that she’d come to the meeting for nothing. That was, until she heard whining, and Peter speaking again, although not to her.

The dog was back, and had managed to catch the thing it was running after, apparently breaking it. Emily considered it for a moment. Before becoming an ambassador, she had worked with small machines like this before, and she could probably fix it. Not out of the kindness of her heart, of course, but because she might as well make herself useful while she was there. Better than wasting time after being invited to a meeting that turned out to be pointless. “I could take a look at it, if you have some tools for me,” she offered the Commander.

Peter almost jumped up upon hearing Emily speak, he had assumed she got angry enough to just storm off without saying another word. Especially since now instead of something at least resembling diplomacy he was scolding a dog. Her offer was even more surprising. Didn’t she just complain that this whole ‘meeting’ was a waste of time? Peter assumed she would yell at him for a while or maybe give him a really cold glare before walking away and most likely filing a complaint about him with Guardian Harlowe. An offer to help a broken dog toy was… well, maybe if she suddenly kissed him, he’d be surprised more, but not by much.

“I…” He hesitated. What was he supposed to say? Did she really mean it or was she just mocking him? Why would she want to do that? She seemed to hate him. And it certainly wasn’t because she found Bony cute and adorable, Peter noticed how she frowned at the dog earlier. “We have a lab full of tools, we don’t even know what most of them do. There used to be a scientist here, a very smart and talented girl, that sadly died in a ship explosion before your people arrived here. And we haven’t found a suitable replacement yet. So it all just sits there, collecting dust. But I would never dare to ask you to do something like that. I’ve wasted enough of your time. Bony here will just have to play with a normal ball like a normal dog.”

Emily did not understand what Peter’s deal was. On her home planet, it was normal to offer one’s help for small things like this. It could mean the difference between life and death. Obviously, this was not such a serious situation, but Emily was deeply rooted in the friendlier aspects of Kudrioni culture, even if she disagreed with some of its more violent parts. Besides, it had been a very long time since she had been in a lab or worked with her hands, and she did not want to pass up the opportunity to do something she actually found interesting.

“Commander Ross,” she said authoritatively, “I had planned several hours for this ‘meeting’ in my schedule. We have been here for less than an hour. I am not offering this out of kindness, but because then I can do something with my time that is actually productive. Now, show me the way to this lab.”

Fixing a broken dog toy certainly didn’t seem like a ‘productive’ way of spending time for such a busy person as Emily. Surely she could fill her time with something more important. What could she be possibly after? Peter never really understood women but this one was like a whole nother level of illogical weirdness. Or maybe, a strange idea popped into his mind as he looked at her strained face, she was really tired of all the work and tinkering with a dog toy while pretending to be strengthening relationships between their nations seemed like a good way to relax for her? Peter remembered she was wearing a lab coat the first time they met, she must have been some sort of a scientist. Maybe this way she could take a break without actually admitting she needed one?

Or maybe it was just Peter’s wild imagination. After all, this woman could technically be considered an alien. He tried to keep his expression serious as he reached that conclusion, fighting to hold back a chuckle. “As you wish, Ambassador.”

Since the Kudrioni were now their allies, nobody really paid attention to Emily as Peter led her through the Undefeated section of the Meeting Place. The lab was a large room filled with various equipment, Peter wouldn’t dare to guess what most of it was for. He did say it sat there for six months collecting dust but it was merely a figure of speech, there wasn’t much dust to go around on a space station, the ever-present air filters took care of that.

Peter never really felt the need to explore this room, it always gave him an eerie, uneasy feeling. The girl who used to work here clearly expected to be back in a couple of days and a lot of her work still laid about, unfinished. Never to be completed. There were some notebooks with (at least to Peter) unintelligible scribbles, notes, and equations.

He put the broken mechanism down on an empty table in the middle of the room. “There should probably be everything necessary to fix it but I honestly have no idea where. Feel free to take a look around, I’ll be right back.” He didn’t want to make her nervous by staring at her and he also needed to take care of the dog who was patiently waiting at the door. Peter led him to Harlowe’s room and checked the animal had clean water and enough food in the bowls. Bony immediately jumped on Guardian’s bed, completely ignoring the soft mattress in the corner of the room where he was supposed to sleep. Knowing Harlowe allowed him to do that, Peter just rolled his eyes and left the room. Just a few minutes later he had been standing in front of the lab door again, curious about what Emily had been doing.

Emily silently followed Peter through the Undefeated part of the station, grateful that nobody seemed to care that she was there. She was starting to become a little unsure over whether this was a good idea. The Commander was right when he said that he had wasted enough of her time. Besides that, she felt like it was a little selfish of her to do something that she found interesting rather than doing her job, especially given how much work she still had to do today. No. She had told Peter that she was going to fix the drone, and by the gods she was going to do so.

As soon as Peter was gone, she let out a deep sigh, and let down her guard momentarily. Finally, she was alone for a bit. She didn’t really hate Peter, but the fact that he didn’t seem to take his job seriously, what with the whole fake meeting and all, greatly annoyed her. Knowing that the Commander could be back any minute, Emily collected herself so he wouldn’t see her in that state. She had a job to do, after all.

First order of business was to inspect the lab. If she didn’t know what tools she had to work with, she couldn’t fix anything, so she walked around looking at all the different tools and equipment. It all seemed to be fairly standard, though there was a great variety in the different scientific fields they belonged to. Commander Ross had mentioned that there was another scientist who had worked here, who had tragically died, and Emily found what must have been her research notes. She left them alone out of respect. She was cold, but not heartless.

Fortunately for her, the repairs didn’t take very long. Ignoring the dog’s saliva that was still on the toy, Emily looked at it closely, ran some diagnostics, and finally fixed the problem, in the span of a little over ten minutes. Emily almost began enjoying herself in the process, too. She saw that Peter was looking at her work through the lab door’s window, but she pretended not to notice. When the repairs were done, she headed back to the hallway and unceremoniously dropped the drone in Peter’s hands. “There, it is fixed now. Now that that is done, I suggest we put an end to this ‘meeting’, unless you have something else you wanted to discuss.”

Well, be damned, Peter was actually right about something. For the first time he saw Emily relaxed, smiling almost. She was enjoying this, even though she would never admit it, especially not to him. Maybe not even to herself. “Thank you, Ambassador, I really appreciate your help. I apologize for wasting your time, I’ll do my best to make sure it won’t happen again. And…” He hesitated, not sure whether he should continue. But she already didn’t like him and probably considered him incompetent and stupid. How much worse could it get? “There is nobody around here who would use this room, this all,” he waved his hand, pointing to the no doubt expensive equipment around them, “is just sitting here, useless. I’m not sure what kind of a lab you have available at the Kudrioni embassy but umm,... if you ever needed to use any of this, feel free to just drop by. I’ll add your identification to the security clearance list for this room.” Peter took a mental note to pack up Julianna’s notes and unfinished inventions first, just in case any of it was some super secret science project not even their allies should know about.

A little stunned, Emily didn’t really know what to say. It was kind of Peter to offer her to use the lab, despite how hostile she had been. A little too kind, in fact, and she looked at him with suspicion, trying to discern his intentions. Why would Commander Ross do this? She had tried her best to push him away, but it didn’t seem to work. Did he somehow know that she had missed her life before being sent to the Meeting Place? Emily quickly composed herself, unable to understand what just happened. The slightest hint of a smile appeared on her face before it quickly returned to Emily’s usual expression, afraid that the Commander might see. “I will see whether I will use the lab. Farewell, Commander Ross.” With those words, Emily simply left, because she didn’t want him to see her smirk.
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Kelsie growled, her fingers clutching the tablet so tight the plastic cover creaked. It was all nonsense, gibberish. A migraine was looming in the back of her head again. Weeks, months of going through the absurd attempts at translating the alien source code. It didn't even matter neither she nor David knew anything about programming. Julianna did and she was as clueless as they were.

It seemed that the main problem was the Fritols being so stupidly poetic, to the point it made whatever text they wrote basically indecipherable. Damn, now she was using that stupid name for the aliens as well. Of course Kelsie and the others had no way to know what the original builders of the station they were trapped on called themselves. There were plenty of words without apparent meaning, any of them could have been a name, just as it could have been a swear word. Or pretty much anything else.

For quite a while, they were only referred to as "the aliens", or, due to them being about twice as tall as a normal human, "the freakishly tall aliens". Kelsie was quite sure it was David who first came up with the acronym but it was so damn catchy that "the freakishly tall aliens" soon became the Fritols for the two women as well. At least now Kelsie had a name to curse those bastards properly.

"The stream flows through the grate but the leaf doesn't unless its name is love." Kelsie finished the sentence and stared at the screen, blinking absentmindedly. Seriously? This was a source code. Yes, the whole damn thing was written using natural language programming, a common speech littered with codewords instead of a mess of brackets and nonsensical variables one would expect to see in a source code. But this was so far off it seemed more like a poem than a description of a security system.

"What did you just say?" David looked at her in surprise, brushing a long lock of hair out of his face. It has grown almost up to his shoulders in the six months they've been here and he refused to let Kelsie cut it. At least he still kept shaving, otherwise he'd look like some crazy caveman.

Kelsie shook her head. "Nothing. Just a wrong translation." It must have been.

"Perhaps not. Read it again." His brows furrowed as he swiped over his screen, frantically looking for something.

"No." She rested her head against the wall behind her, closing her eyes for a moment. "It's gibberish, David. Any of these words could mean like two or three different things, this was just the first combination that fell out of the translator." They were slowly building a database with a sophisticated search and translate engine so they wouldn't have to actually remember all the symbol combinations and meanings.

In other parts of the code, they were actually pretty successful in translating them and taking control of the station's systems. Gravity settings, lighting, water purification and circulation, internal and external sensors of all kinds, logs, storage manifests. They even managed to turn on some sort of a cool force field around the docking areas, allowing them to be repressurized which sped up David's work on repairing the Chimera. But the security system controlling the Big Balls, a brutal automated defense mechanism that destroyed any ship that dared to enter through the Gateway, still resisted their attempts.

David obviously found what he was looking for because he stopped moving, narrow eyes watching his screen. “Hey, Julianna?” he spoke into his radio. “Could you stop by for a moment? We need a functioning brain around here.”

“Dave, it’s nothing. It doesn’t mean anything, none of it.” It was hard to keep up hope after the long months of having no success understanding the bloody thing.

He sat down next to her and softly punched her shoulder. “Hey, shouldn’t you be the one encouraging us?” His hair tickled Kelsie’s face as he leaned down to kiss her.

“For fuck’s sake, did you call me here to watch you have sex? Again?” Julianna’s annoyed voice sounded from the door.

David chuckled. “No. I might have found something. And you were right, Kelsie, you translated it wrong, you missed a preposition.”

“I didn't miss it, I just chose to ignore it because it made even less sense with it.” Kelsie rolled her eyes and squinted at the screen again. “The stream flows through the grate but the leaf doesn't unless its name is in love.” No, the preposition certainly didn’t make it any better. “Its name is in love? That’s even worse gibberish than before.”

“It isn’t! I’ve seen love before!”

David sounded excited and the women stared at him, speechless. “See, I told you,” Kelsie turned to Julianna, whispering inconspicuously, “space madness. It’s just a matter of time before he starts chasing us around with a pickaxe.”

“I don’t think we have a pickaxe here,” Julianna giggled. “But yes, I agree. He’s lost it.”

A quiet sigh escaped David’s lips. “Seriously, women. Shouldn’t you be the ones who understand metaphors better? It’s not love, it’s LOVE. Look.” He sent them a screen with partially translated text. The heading at the top of the text said LOVE. “I came across this a while ago and gave up after a few lines because it made no sense. I mean look at that list. Whispering Wind? Falling Fury? Crouching Darkness? It sounded like a list of some dumb movie titles.”

Kelsie had to agree. Just as pointless as this whole conversation. But Julianna’s brows furrowed as she watched the symbols. “You don’t mean…”

“Its name is in LOVE.” David nodded. “I mean it’s probably not as simple as a name, but those numbers after them… Couldn’t they be some sort of a unique descriptor?”

Julianna’s eyes widened as she stared at David with an open mouth. Kelsie still had no clue what any of it meant. “Guys? Care to share with the rest of the class?”

“That dimwit actually figured it out.” Julianna gave David an astonished look and turned to Kelsie. “The leaf can go through the grate if its name is in LOVE.” Kelsie groaned, wishing they would stop repeating that nonsense, but the young scientist continued, “The ship can pass through the defence mechanism if it is on this list! All this time we’ve been trying to shut the whole thing down but what if we don’t have to? I mean how did the Fritols actually leave this place if the Balls destroy anything that moves?”

Kelsie blinked, the realization slowly starting to dawn on her. “Their ships were in LOVE?”

“Yes! Gods, I’m so stupid, why didn’t I think of that before? It’s just a simple whitelist. If we manage to add Chimera’s signature there…”

“...we can go home?” Kelsie finished her sentence, not allowing the tiny seed of hope in her mind to take root just yet. “Can you do it?”

Julianna snorted. “If it means getting out of here? I can do anything.”


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It worked. Kelsie almost felt dizzy as she held her breath while David carefully maneuvered the roughly patched Chimera out of the docks. They said a quick prayer to the long-lost Old Earth gods none of them believed in and Julianna flipped the switch on the backup generator. The power slowly went online throughout the crippled ship, all screens turning red with countless warnings and errors.

Kelsie stood in the destroyed cargo hold, watching one of the Balls through the huge hole in the side of the hull. If they were going to die, she at least wanted a front-row seat. She drew a shaky breath as the lights went on around her, expecting to see the blue hue around the alien weapon when it started to charge up. But nothing happened. The ball hovered around them for a few moments and then moved away to guard another corner of this dead system.

“I think we’re good.” Her voice was trembling.

“I wouldn’t be so sure.” David sounded worried and Kelsie slowly headed to the cockpit, the magnetic boots of her spacesuit making no noise in the vacuum. “The propulsion system was damaged by the explosion and it’s only working on a fraction of a capacity. It’s going to get us to the Gateway but… it’s going to take some time.”

“More time than we have?” Julianna knew what he meant and so did Kelsie. Their suits only had a couple of hours of air supply and there was no way to replenish it after they left the relative safety of the Fritol base.

“It’s going to be very close.”

They gathered in the cockpit, sitting in silence trying to conserve as much air as they could, watching the dark emptiness of space in front of them. David had programmed an autopilot to input coordinates and take them through the Gateway just in case they pass out before reaching it. At the very least, the Chimera will bring their bodies back home. Not a very reassuring thought.

There was not much left to talk about, they’ve spent the past six months together and debated almost every thinkable topic over and over. Except one. “Hey, Kelsie?” Julianna’s voice was quiet and she sounded nervous. “I think it’s time you finally told us why do you hate your mother so much.”

“Fuck off.” That was certainly not something Kelsie would want to waste air on.

David turned his head to her. “No, the little smart one is right. We’ve spent half a year dissecting every bit of each other’s lives but you never told us about that. Don’t I deserve to know why I should hate my mother-in-law?”

“We’re not married, idiot.”

“Hmm, true.” David nodded and reached for Kelsie’s hand. She barely even felt his touch through the thick gloves. “Will you marry me?”

Her eyes rolled almost involuntarily. “You are only asking since we are going to die anyway.”

“I’m not! I made a ring but I don’t think it would fit on a spacesuit glove. I mean you have huge hands for a woman but still...”

They both chuckled over the idea until Julianna stopped them. “You’re blabbering. The CO2 levels are getting high and oxygen is running out. Tell us the story before we pass out.”

“Ugh. Fine.” Kelsie wanted to spit on the ground, remembering that she was wearing a spacesuit helmet at the last possible moment. “My mother was a Rejected because she refused to follow orders, always contradicting them, debating over everything. I think the only reason they didn’t put a bullet through her head right away was that she was this young genius. She was never satisfied with how things were, not just with how the Rejected were treated but also with the whole war on the Screechers, how society functioned… Nothing was ever good for her.

She kept whispering into the ears of my father for so long until he disobeyed a direct order. It was at the front, he was supposed to lead an attack on a Screecher village, burn it down, kill everyone. He refused and spoke up against it so loudly and passionately they had him executed on the spot. Pawlowski did it. Our Grand General was just a Major back then, the best friend of my father. And his executioner. I was still at the academy and it was hard, but Pawlowski and Hamonga pulled me through, helped me separate my career from my parents’ actions.

Claire, well… my mother lost it. She became obsessed with revenge. The last thing I knew she attempted to blow up the Citadel using some doomsday device of her own invention. I assumed they killed her. But no, they just locked her up for twenty years and now she’s back to make my life even more miserable.” Kelsie sighed. “You happy now? Was that the last story you wanted to hear before you die?”

“I can’t hate her.” Julianna’s voice was getting weaker. “She made my life better. You did too. I love both of you.”

“I can hate her just fine if you want. I don’t really give a shit.”

Kelsie laughed, feeling dizzy. “Wow, such support you two are. Huh, what is that?” She pointed out of the cockpit window. The Chimera was getting closer to the Gateway but not fast enough. None of them was most likely going to be conscious when they will pass through.

“Was that…” David leaned forward and squinted. “A body?”

There was nobody else on board their ship when they arrived so the body couldn’t have come from Chimera. Yet, it was floating there among some wreckage, blackened and dried by the long exposure to the hard vacuum, clearly human, dressed in some casual clothes. “Oh, shit.” Julianna pointed at a chunk of huge pieces of metal flying around, fortunately off their trajectory. “It’s a colony ship, just like the one our people used to get to Ellara. The Old Earthers sent a ship full of people to colonize this system three hundred years ago.”

“And the Fritol defense mechanism blew it up as it entered.” Kelsie finished the girl’s thought, barely keeping her eyes open anymore. So many lives lost. Breathing got harder and it didn’t bring the usual relief of fresh air filling the lungs. No, now it was like giving a parched person a single drop of water, expecting it to quench their thirst. The wormhole quietly rotated in space.

So close and yet so far.
4,5 months ago


Oscar Pawlowski waited until the elevator slowly ascended to the right floor. The building was tall, hundreds of meters of concrete, steel, and glass towering above the capital. The apartment the Grand General had been looking for was somewhere in the middle. Nobody answered the door, even though he knew she was there. It wasn’t locked, so he entered, looking around in the dim light.

The place was a mess, boxes of food lying around the coffee table, dirty clothes thrown over an expensive sofa. One whole wall was made of glass, offering an exquisite view of the city. Right now it was being whipped by streams of water, there was a thunderstorm raging outside, occasional balls of lightning illuminating a silhouette of a person standing there, looking out.

Oscar sighed and walked over to her. Although she must have heard him, there was no notion of movement, she just stood there like a statue, watching the raindrops roll down the glass. Her short dark hair was one big greasy mess and the smell lingering around her suggested she hasn’t showered in a while. “Claire?”

There was no response. Another strike of lightning showed him her face, deadly pale, void of any expression. Oscar wasn’t sure what to do. He was not a shrink and he certainly wasn’t an expert on women. The two things made a dangerous combination in this situation. But he was the only one who could do something.

“Claire. Look at me, please.”

She didn’t move, but her lips growled a response. “Go away.”

Alright, some words, that was a start. But how to continue? “Claire, it has been six weeks. You can’t just stay here forever.” She was a woman of science, prone to listen to reason, right?

“Fuck off.” Her face finally turned to him, raw fury twisting it now. “You don’t get to tell me what to do anymore, Grand Asshole.” There was so much hate and contempt in her voice Oscar almost took a step back away from her. “What, you are worried about your little project? Screw you. I’m done giving you more inventions so you could use them to kill people. Kelsie is gone, which means you have no leverage over me anymore. You want to lock me up for another twenty years? Go ahead. You want me dead? Be a fucking man and do it yourself, just like you killed my husband.”

Oscar could see the ocean of desperation beyond all that anger and hate. She was just a broken woman who had lost everything and needed to let all the emotions out. That’s why he was here, in a way. No, he certainly didn’t enjoy being yelled at and getting blamed for everything bad that has ever happened to her (even though she did have a point in some parts), but if this is what it takes to finally get her out of the terrible lethargy, so be it. He had learned to ignore her insults a long time ago.

“I’m not going to kill you. Or lock you up.” Unless she does something stupid. Claire Martin was a brilliant scientist and a very dangerous woman. “You don’t want to die, otherwise you would have done it already. You are suffering and I understand that, you are not the only one who has ever lost somebody they loved.” No, he was not going to go there. The past was in the past. “You still have a life in front of you. If you want to waste it rotting alive your own filth, be my guest. You can even open the fucking window and jump if that is what you desire. But you don’t get to blame that on me anymore, it’s your choice.” Wow, what a pep talk he managed to put together.

Claire blinked a couple of times, looking shocked. For once, she didn’t have a snappy response to his words. He turned back to the door, slowly walking away. “There is a meeting tomorrow at 0900. I expect my advisor to be there.” His eyebrow went up as he scanned the mess around him one more time. “Looking like a normal person,” he added, giving her one last look before closing the door behind him. The air was much fresher in the hallway.

The decision was long overdue, but the High Command couldn’t agree on one opinion and Oscar himself wasn’t sure, so he kept postponing it. But now, with the revolution on the New Hollywood over, the ECU embassy on the Meeting Place taken over by those White Flower people, and with what remained of the Oligarchs transferred to exile to the Matuvistans, the decision needed to be made. The Earth Cultural Union was gone. New Hollywood left in disarray, a bloody mess yet to be organized into a proper government. And the question that arrived from Abadi’s mailbox, although clearly not sent by her, stood there, unanswered. An ally to the government, or to the people?

Claire came, sitting down quietly, an uncertain look on her face. She cleaned herself up, nothing of her reminding Oscar of the empty shell of a woman he met yesterday. Except for the pain in her eyes. She didn’t try to talk to him and he didn’t force her, glad that she didn’t take his other advice about jumping out of the window. That would be a bloody shame.

“We will not support the White Flowers.” Oscar was not the one to beat around the bush and he started the meeting bluntly right after everyone confirmed to be present.

Hamonga sighed. He returned to Ellara with the Undefeated fleet as soon as the battle in the Sol system was over, not wanting to look like a threat to other nations. Or risking repeating the unfortunate incident with the Kudrionians. “They will be a legitimate government on the New Hollywood. Or Bezia or whatever they are calling it now.”

“I don’t give a shit whether they are legitimate or not. They drowned the streets in blood, the mobs whipped up by their crazy preachers murdered and tortured people. That is not something we can support. You want to tell our citizens it’s okay to start revolting against their government?”

“So…,” Jim Harlowe started hesitantly, his face frowning from a screen on the wall. He was still stationed on the Meeting Place and couldn’t fly over to Ellara for every meeting they had. “We are going to support the Oligarchs in exile?” Oscar knew Jim hated the Oligarchs after personally witnessing the horrors they inflicted upon their people while calling it “training”.

“No.” Oscar shook his head decisively. “We won't do either. Those assholes want to fight against each other, murdering their people in the process, inviting foreign forces on their planet? Fine. Let them. Remember, nobody asked us for help.”

Claire was biting on her lip, quiet until now. “We will have to acknowledge the White Flowers as a nation's representatives.” Oscar turned to her with an angry look but she raised her hand to stop him. “No, wait.” Her voice was more confident now. Opposing him was always the thing she did best. “I understand what are you trying to do, you want to make us look neutral, to step aside from the mess, and it is a good thing. But if we want to be seen by others as a stable neutral force, we can’t shut down a diplomatic channel to an entire nation just because we don’t like the way they came to power.”

“She has a point,” Hamonga nodded.

Jim Harlowe chimed in. “I agree. I can issue a statement that since the ECU doesn’t exist anymore, we consider our alliance with them over. And that while we don’t support the White Flowers, we acknowledge them as the current leaders of that bloody shithole of a planet.” The other Guardians nodded in silence and looked at Oscar.

While it might have looked like a form of a democracy, it was far from it. The final decision would be Oscar’s, no matter their opinion. Sometimes it was hard to wear the weight of a whole planet on his shoulders. “Fine. Do that. Don’t use the word shithole though,” he smirked.

“I was not going to, sir,” Harlowe laughed and saluted, ending the transmission.

location unknown

Kelsie was running through the dim-lit corridor at a measured pace, her legs starting to burn slowly. Oh, how she missed being able to exercise, but in the station’s native atmosphere it was difficult to walk, let alone go for a run. Fortunately, after a few weeks of studying the alien writing, language, and technology, Julianna figured out how to reconfigure the atmospheric generator to give them more Ellara-like levels of oxygen and other things. It even got rid of the smell, which apparently was caused by ammonia. Why did the aliens feel the need to artificially add that into their breathing air was beyond Kelsie. Maybe they just liked the smell of urine.

The broken thigh bone that Kelsie and David so expertly treated grew back together, sadly not quite in its original shape, causing Julianna to limp around, muttering curses under her breath. But she was alive, no doubt thanks both to the courtesy of the New Haven Directorate and their nanoshots and also to several donations of David’s blood.

Kelsie was furious because she felt absolutely useless. David was trying to fix the ship and Julianna spent all her time trying to decipher parts of the computer system controlling the station. In a vain hope to reprogram the automated security system so it wouldn’t immediately destroy the Chimera upon powering up. The Big Balls, as they called it. No doubt someone could come up with a fancy sciency name, but the Undefeated weren’t exactly famous for being creative.

From what they were able to figure out, the whole system was in a state of some brutal lockdown. The best guess was that when the aliens were leaving the place (for whatever reason), they didn’t want anyone snooping around their stuff, so they bumped up the security. The current level was set to immediately annihilate anything even remotely resembling a functioning spaceship. The only reason the Chimera didn’t get blown into pieces right after emerging from the Gateway was that the main reactor was offline and they were basically wreckage freely flying through space. And the moment Kelsie powered up the backup generator, the Big Balls activated, ready to destroy them. The security seemed to be such a vital part of the station’s systems Julianna hadn’t even been able to access it, let alone change or disable it.

Everyone but her had something to do. Kelsie knew nothing about science and very little about mechanics and fixing ships, so she just tried to stay out of their way, her frustration growing every day they were stuck here. And it has been a lot of days. Today they actually marked day 42, adding another long scratch on one of the walls. Like prisoners did ages ago back on Earth. Almost closer to two months than to one. Infuriating.

Kelsie needed something to do, anything. She thought life in the Meeting Place was boring, but living here took it to a whole new level. There was no one to fight, the aliens who built the place were long gone. Years, decades, millennia, there was really no way to know. The group spent the first few days worried that the station had sent some sort of a signal when they powered up the reactor and that the rightful owners would show up and kick them out, but nobody arrived. Perhaps they were long dead. Or just didn’t care.

She managed to keep herself busy for the first few days by going through what remained of the Chimera, scavenging anything that could be useful. The water was not a problem, the station itself had both large supplies in the tanks and a whole filtration and recirculation system to deal with it, they could even take long hot showers. But the food was another matter. They were going for a few-hour trip from the Meeting Place to Ellara so they didn’t exactly pack loads of it. While the ship had some emergency supplies on board, a big part of them was destroyed in the explosion, and the rest made for quite thin rations for three people.

Perhaps she should be saving her strength instead of wasting it on such a meaningless thing as jogging, but there was a big possibility she was going to punch someone unless she blew off some steam. And she really didn’t want that. All three of them were already on edge, especially Julianna since she was constantly in pain from her injured leg and frustrated from not being able to come up with a solution to their problem.

Kelsie returned to the part of the station they currently inhabited, panting and drenched in sweat. She had to come upon her tiptoes to reach the door control, it was incredibly annoying. The aliens who built this place were about twice the regular human height and Kelsie constantly felt like a toddler trying to reach for the candy on the table. Julianna managed to rewire controls of one shower to a datapad; it was probably not the safest solution to go with, but at least they didn’t have to jump up every time they wanted to adjust the water temperature.

She took a quick shower, enjoying the waterfalls coming down on her from the incredibly high ceiling, and then grabbed a clean T-shirt from a clothesline, tossing the dirty one into a corner. Knowing she was the one who was going to wash it later. Yes, she was doing the laundry. That’s how useless she was around here.

Her watch told her it was the time for dinner, which was not really a reason for happiness. She would kill for a steak and fries. Sometimes when she couldn’t fall asleep at night, she imagined that piece of rare bloody meat on her plate, how she would stab a fork into it, cut it with a knife, put it into her mouth… Her stomach rumbled. No, she had to go get her tiny bowl of oatmeal or whatever delicious thing they had on the menu tonight.

There were no child-size chairs on the station so the trio usually ate on the ground in one corner of the room they slept in. There were dozens of rooms to choose from, some with one or two huge beds, others with several bunk beds stacked next to each other, but they chose to stay together because the place was just too creepy to sleep alone.

Kelsie squinted at one of the last cans on the very small pile. Mashed potatoes. Yummy.

“Ladies,” David entered the room with a wide grin, “fear not. We will eat our stomachs full tonight.”

Kelsie raised an eyebrow. “With half a bowl of this? Doubt it.”

“Nope.” With a groan, David sat a huge backpack down on the ground and opened it. “With this.” The can was about the size of a bucket, made from the same weird plastic material as the furniture. It was white with some black markings in the alien language.

“You are crazy. We have no idea what’s inside.”

David shook his head, the grin on his face getting even wider. “That’s where you are wrong, my dear Guardian. By the scientific method of trial and error, I have determined this is in fact food. It doesn’t taste particularly awesome, but it’s better than being hungry.”

“Are you fucking insane?” Julianna raised her head from a datapad and stared at him in disbelief. “YOU ATE IT?! You two are seriously unbelievable!” Kelsie winced. What the hell did she do?

David’s excitement was dampened by her angry words but still didn’t disappear completely. “Relax. I tasted it two days ago, ate a few spoons the day after that, and a full bowl yesterday. Not even a stomach ache. I know a military ration when I see one.”

“The fact that you didn’t die immediately doesn’t mean that it’s not poisonous. I mean these guys had ammonia in their breathing air, what the hell do you think they put in their food?” Kelsie supported Julianna.

Sitting down with a quiet sigh, David opened the lid of the alien can and grabbed a spoon. “Seriously, you women are hard to please. I’ll keep eating this, there is enough to last us for like a century by the way, meaning there will be more rations for you from what we scavenged of the Chimera. We need to give our brilliant scientist time to get us out of this mess.”

“STOP IT!” Julianna got up, wincing in pain, leaning against a makeshift crutch David made for her. “I’ve seriously had it with the two of you. Stop looking at me like I have a miraculous solution to everything because I don’t! It doesn’t matter if the food lasts us for ten days or ten years or hundred years. I will be no closer to the solution in a century than I’m now.”

Kelsie and David exchanged worried looks. “Julianna,...”

“No! Shut up! You two assholes are goofing around all the time, waiting for me to solve the problem, but I can’t! It’s just too complicated, too much information, too much… everything, I don’t…” Julianna paused and sniffled, a couple of tears rolling down her cheeks. “Just stop looking at me like I’m some sort of a fucking savior because I’m not.” She hobbled towards the door and used the crutch to tap the door control, disappearing in the hallway.

Kelsie lowered her head down in shame. The young scientist was absolutely right, they never doubted her ability to solve the problem, getting to the point they never attempted to help her, or even to ask her whether she needed any help.

They knew where she was going.

Soon after they arrived, they managed to tap into the station’s network, creating a makeshift connection between one of their computers and wires they gutted from a workstation that didn’t look very important. A lot of good it did for them, now they had a screen full of alien source code written in alien language using an alien alphabet.

Julianna sat there for hours every day, trying to decipher it. While Kelsie and David were truly goofing around, as she said. Sure, they meant it well, trying to stay out of her way and not distract her, but they ended up abandoning her with an impossible task.

“Leave me alone,” she growled when they entered the room. They saw her sitting on the ground, face hidden in her hands, shoulders twitching as she sobbed desperately. David gave Kelsie an uncertain look but followed her when she approached Julianna. They both sat down next to her, each hugging the girl from one side. “I’m sorry,” she sniffled, “I didn’t mean it. It’s just… it would have been my mum’s birthday today and I always went to put a stupid flower on her grave. And now… We are never getting out of here.”

Kelsie sometimes kept forgetting how young compared to the two of them the girl was. “We are going to get back home.” It was hard to sound convincing.

Julianna shook her head and waved towards the screen. “I can’t make sense of it. Any of it.”

“Didn’t you fix the air thing?” David asked in surprise.

“That was different, the atmospheric generator interface is based on chemical formulae. Anyone who knows the atomic number of oxygen could do that.”

David snorted. “I think that still leaves only you.”

Julianna chuckled in response. If anything, David was good at distracting her from the desperate crying. “Right, I forgot you two are as dumb as a sack of hammers and I have to think for three when you are around. But I don’t know how to solve this, it’s just too much information. I have three notebooks full of notes that make no sense just on that stupid alphabet. Those symbols aren’t letters, most of them are words or even expressions, others seem to connect the first ones together like some super-complicated prepositions, some are completely nonsensical, they might be names or pop-culture references or some stupid thing like that. I don’t know, I’m not a linguist.” She started sounding desperate again.

“Julianna, you are not alone.” Kelsie hugged her tighter. “Yes, we were stupid to leave you to drown in this river of shit on your own, but it ends now. From now on, we do this together. It’s never too late to start using your brain, right?” Even though it might hurt.
Collab between @Raylah and @jorvhik

The situation around the Sol Gateway was confusing and Guardian Hamonga was stressed out, even though he would never show it in front of his subordinates. The entire fleet under his command was here to make sure the mining ships didn’t receive reinforcements. But how was supposed to know which ships were which? There was heavy traffic through the Gateway, everything from small personal shuttles bringing ambassadors to and from their planets, over cargo haulers headed towards the Meeting Place to bring supplies to the embassies, to large warships coming to join the raging battle. He flinched upon seeing the shattered remnants of the Zetan navy jump into the system. What were they hoping to achieve here with those trashcans barely holding together?

The new, unknown ships, have responded to their calls, at the very least sending some scrambled transponder signals that were so different from the hostile mining fleet that Hamonga waved them through, letting them continue their path to the Meeting Place. He wasn’t here to cause an international incident by accidentally attacking a survey vessel of some new nation.

It seemed to have been working well until the new ship arrived. The Hyperion tried to hail it several times, but unlike the ones before, this one didn’t respond at all. No angry “leave us alone” or frightened “we come in peace”, no even unintelligible alien blabbering on any of the frequencies the Undefeated fleet was able to receive.

Crap. Hamonga scratched his chin, trying to decide what to do. The ship wasn’t exactly small, but it was no match for the Battleships stationed around the wormhole. Destroying it would be simple, but that was definitely not what he was tasked to do.

“Keep broadcasting on whatever frequency you can think of, let’s see if they try to respond in any way. Signal Sonne to deploy a squadron of fighters to circle around the unknown ship. Keep our weapons locked on it, but don’t charge them yet. Perhaps they will understand that as ‘stop or we will open fire’.” Hamonga truly hoped to avoid conflict. “Oh, and tell Commander Ross to assemble a boarding party and be ready to go on my signal.” Just in case.

On the Kudrioni ship, everything was in chaos. It had been half an hour since they had travelled through the gate and tried to make contact, but all that would come out of the comms’ system’s speaker was white noise and occasional garbled sounds. Emily, leaning over the control console to help some of the engineers, had no luck identifying the problem either. They had essentially no way to contact the outside world.

Behind her, she could hear the ship’s crew arguing. There had been much confusion since the ship arrived in the Sol system. What were these mysterious ships? Were they even human? Why were they here? Were they some sort of space police, sent out to intercept them? Probably not the latter, most of the crew had agreed. Still, the captain had ordered the ship to stop to figure out what these ships were.

“Well, if they wanted to kill us, they would’ve done so already,” Moimir said. “Even with their weapons locked on us, and their fighters around our ship, they haven’t fired a shot.”
It was then that King Dishuz realized what was about to happen. Years of experience in space combat had taught him what a situation like this meant. He picked up the microphone of the ship’s intercom and said: “All armed men are to spread out throughout the ship. Prepare to be boarded.” He turned to Emily. “Miss Bukkaz,” he said, “you’re not dressed for combat. You might want to stay here.”

Commander Peter Ross was nervously sitting in a boarding craft, a ship specifically designed to breach through enemy ships’ airlocks, along with eleven heavily armed men and women. They were all wearing the latest versions of combat exoskeletons, an essential part of the Undefeated gear that had been continually improved ever since the Gateway reopened.

The original was designed to help soldiers withstand the hostile environment on Ellara and fight against the Screechers. But since the first contact with other colonies has been made, the requirements for combat gear have changed. The exosuits were now designed to help survive hard vacuum for some time, lighter and more compact for easier fighting in closed corridors of spaceships. They no longer needed to protect just against spears and arrows, but against bullets and various energy weapon discharges. The suits weren’t perfect by any means, but they gave better odds against murdering robots and mechs and monkeys and whatever else the universe decided to throw against them.

The lights in the boarding ship turned red and started flashing. Commander Ross inhaled deeply, he was hoping to avoid that. And of course, he was the one in charge now, so it would be his fault if something goes horribly wrong. He checked the latest orders on a datapad and turned to his men while their craft moved towards the unknown ship.

“Listen guys. We are going in. But,” Peter paused and looked around, making sure to make eye contact with every single one of the soldiers going on this mission, “we are NOT going to kill anyone if it’s not absolutely necessary, understood? I repeat, DO NOT shoot to kill. Even if they shoot first, just try to disarm them. There is a good chance this is just one huge misunderstanding and we don’t want to piss off another planet full of some fucking killer robots, is that clear?” They all nodded and gave them their “yes, sir” and Peter hoped they would remember his words when… no, if the fighting starts.

The boarding ship connected to an airlock with a loud metallic CLANG, automated tools quickly cutting through and forcing it open. Eleven green figures lit up on Peter’s HUD, all with rifles ready in their hands. They were going in.

It had been luck rather than any sort of strategy that led Moimir to be near the ship’s airlock when he heard the noise.. He and eleven of his clan’s warriors had been roaming around the ship, clad in their power armour. Kudrioni ships had no blast doors or automated turrets to combat invaders, trusting their warriors to do so. Boarding had been the staple of space combat between the clans, more honorable than simply shooting other ships from afar.

As soon as they heard the noise, Moimir and his men ran to the corridor adjacent to the airlock. It was narrow enough for them to hold off an assault if it came to it, but if they couldn’t hold them there, they were screwed. Many of the warriors were nervous. It had been three hundred years since the gateways had shut down, with no contact with other humans since that time. They had no idea of the boarders’ capabilities, and could only trust in the strength of their weapons.

“Form ranks!” Moimir commanded, and three of his warriors activated their hard-light shields, forming a shield wall in front of the rest. The rest readied their weapons, waiting for their commander’s signal. “But do not fire until they fire on us. I do not want our first contact to result in a war. Do you understand?” There was some part of him that wished for a fight, but his wisdom put his love for battle aside for now.

And so, with their shields ready and their weapons pointing in the direction of the airlock, the warriors waited.

Commander Ross peeked into the hallway, allowing the simple sensors on his helmet to draw a rough scan of the environment behind the airlock into his HUD. After the light steam created by breaching the airlock and equalizing the pressure on both sides dissipated, the suit’s software immediately picked up some movement on the other end of the hallway. Several red marks popped up in everyone’s view. Somebody was home and waiting for them.

It was not a good situation. The corridor was narrow without any cover points. It could easily become a shooting range from either side. Peter wasn’t sure what to do now. They could storm in, hopefully take the men on the other side by surprise. But it wouldn’t be without a bloodshed and the High Command wanted to avoid that, the orders were quite specific in that part.

His men were waiting, fingers on triggers. All it took was one wrong move and bullets and laser shots and whatever those other guys were using would start flying in both directions, most likely ending any chance of a friendly relationship with these people.

Crap. What now? Peter needed to make a move, the men on the other side were probably just as nervous as his men, if not more, it might as well be them to break the stalemate.

“Hey!” he shouted, using the amplifiers on his suit to make sure his voice was distinguishable even at the other end of the corridor. “Is there any chance you guys speak English?” Even if they were human, it wasn’t entirely guaranteed. But it was worth a shot. Figuratively speaking, of course.

There was no response from the Kudrioni. Some of the warriors nervously fidgeted their weapons, thinking that the strange noises on the other side of the corridor might be some sort of battlecry, but Moimir motioned for them to put down their weapons. He was puzzled as well. What he just heard was clearly a language, even sounding similar to the Kudrioni tongue at times, but he was unable to understand what they were saying.

The Kudrioni language, of course, had originated from many different Earth languages, including English, but the two weren’t mutually intelligible, owing to three hundred years of separation. None on the Kudrioni side of the corridor were able to understand what the intruders were saying, adding to the already tense atmosphere.

There was, however, one person on the ship who could speak English. Sitting in the bridge, the part of the ship’s crew that was unprepared for combat had been nervously watching live audio and video footage from Moimir’s helmet. As one of the intruders spoke, Emily Bukkaz perked up. She recognized this language, having learned it from old, founding-era texts, and songs about legendary deeds sung in a language forgotten to the common Kudrioni.

And so, after having asked permission from king Dishuz, and being given a rifle, just in case, she made her way down to the corridor where the standoff was taking place as fast as her legs could carry her. Moimir turned around, thinking that the intruders had somehow gotten behind them, but visibly relaxed when he saw the blonde woman approaching them.

Emily offered a small prayer to the gods for what she was about to do. She wasn’t overly religious, but when you’re about to make first contact with an unknown, possibly non-human civilization, it was better to be safe than sorry. She cupped her hands around her mouth, shouting into the distant corridor: “I can speak English. Who are you?”

Commander Ross was just about to order his men to attack, since there was no reaction to his words, but sighed heavily in relief upon hearing a female voice in the distance, claiming to speak English. Now they could talk, which was a start. It didn’t necessarily mean this wouldn’t still turn into a bloodbath, but it was better than nothing.

“I’m Commander Ross from the Undefeated nation,” he called back. “You think we could talk face to face instead of hollering at each other across this corridor? Maybe meet up halfway?” It would be dangerous for whoever goes there (and Peter already knew it would be him, this task was far too important to hand over to anyone else), but if it helps to avoid a fight, they had to try.

Emily wasn’t sure what to respond. She had essentially no authority to represent her country’s government, but given the fact that she was the only who could speak English on the ship, maybe even all of Kudrion, she was the only one who could negotiate with these intruders. Asking the king, or any of the other warriors currently on her side of the corridor to accompany her might be seen as an insult, or even worse, as a threat.

Weighing these factors in her mind, she quickly made the decision. “I think that might be for the best. I will meet you halfway,” she replied to the voice down the corridor. After putting down her rifle, and motioning the warriors behind her not to follow her, she began the walk towards the midway point. Unsure about whether these moments would be her last, she held her breath and soldiered on.

Peter left all his weapons at the airlock. He wasn’t sure the opposing side would do the same, but in case a gunfight broke out, he would be first in line to die anyway, getting caught in the middle. So it hardly mattered whether he was armed or not, although it was a strange, unfamiliar feeling. He was still in his combat suit, which gave him advantage over the unusually tall woman who came to meet him, unarmed and wearing normal clothes and a lab coat. Maybe she was some sort of a scientist? How strange of them to send her alone.

He opened his helmet, trying not to picture a bullet hitting his forehead at that very moment, and tried to put on a friendly face. “Hello.” He raised his hand and waved nervously. “I, uh… I know this seems like we are attacking you, but, well…” He was never good with words, especially around women. “There is a battle going on in the Sol system right now, and we are just making sure the enemy doesn’t receive any reinforcements. Your ship is of unknown design and you haven’t responded to any of our calls, we weren’t sure who you were, so we came here to check.” Yes, breaking through someone’s door and barging inside fully armed is a great way to meet new people. Peter was fairly certain at this point that whoever these guys were, they didn’t belong to the fleet of the mining ships. Which of course didn’t mean they couldn’t turn into enemies if he screws this up.

Emily let out a huge sigh of relief when she saw that the man was alone and seemingly had no weapons on him. Her sense of relief was doubled when she saw that she was talking to what looked like an actual human, rather than an alien. Looking at his armor, she started to feel a little vulnerable, clad as she was in her lab coat and work clothes, and Emily was starting to wonder whether just walking in was a bad idea. The second thing she noticed was the man’s height. Emily was at the average height for a woman on Kudrion, but she was as tall, if not taller than Commander Ross. This was rather odd, she thought, unless the average height on Kudrion was greater than that of other nations. But that would mean…

She quickly snapped herself out of her train of thoughts, remembering where she was and what she had to do. Listening to what the man had to say, she appeared pensive. That would explain the hostility, she thought, before finally replying. “I see. My name is Emily Bukkaz. I am a researcher from the Kingdom of Kudrion, and our system’s gateway opened on this day. We were unable to respond to your calls, as our comms systems broke inexplicably. I am the only person capable of speaking English among our ship’s crew. Forgive us for the hostile response, you don’t get boarded by an unknown force every day,” she said, her expression blank. Inside her mind, though, she was ecstatic. All the years of studying ancient languages, old lore and investigating Kudrion’s native species had finally paid off. She was the first to make contact with what was likely one of humanity’s other lost colonies. Hopefully, this was to be a peaceful occasion.

Peter was relieved that the woman sounded quite reasonable. She was even apologizing to him for being hostile? That was ironic. “I think we are the ones who ought to be apologizing here. I can assure you that under normal circumstances your ship would be allowed through without trouble even with malfunctioning communications. We are certainly no galactic police. But in the middle of a battle…” The suit hydraulics didn’t really allow him to shrug, so he just gave her an uncertain smile. “I guess it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

He was really not sure what to do now, the situation was still pretty tense. Is this how battles were done in those ancient times before phones and radios and online 3D transmissions to every remote corner of the planet? Armies just camped on the opposite sides of a field and a few brave ones met up in the middle to talk? It was certainly interesting. “I’m not really authorized to do any diplomatic negotiations, but I can offer you some help, if you would accept it. We do have engineers that could take a look at your comm systems. And fix the door we broke.” Yes, that’s the very least they could do. “I’ll order my men to put their weapons down and retreat to our ship, if you manage to do the same. This has hardly been an ideal first contact, but if we can stop it from becoming an actual battle, I would still call it a success.” He chuckled nervously, not sure if Emily appreciates his humor.

Well, that answers the space police question, Emily thought. “We would appreciate the assistance. Our engineers weren’t able to repair it, but a fresh pair of eyes might be helpful. I’ll see if I can get our warriors to stand down as well.” The scientist, all business at the moment, elected to ignore the man’s attempt at humor, hardly appropriate for the current situation. Privately, she hoped that the whole incident could be forgotten quickly. Nearly starting a fight the moment you met another nation wasn’t a good look.

Finally, Commander Ross was able to breathe a bit easier, even feeling a bit proud. This could have turned into a huge problem. Now, hopefully, the diplomats from both sides will have something funny to remember when the real negotiations between their nations start.

the Meeting Place

Jim Harlowe was standing on the observation deck with a glass of Matuvistan rum in his hand. Ever since the Chimera exploded and then disappeared in the Gateway, never to be heard from again, he had been here quite often, watching the whirling wormhole, thinking about what happened to Kelsie and her people. Did they at least die quickly, disintegrated into atoms instantly? Or were they stuck somewhere out of our normal space-time continuum? Jim only had a faint idea of how the Gateways actually worked, but he remembered some fancy words.

It was such a shame, really. For the whole nation, Guardian Blackwood was a hero. The first through the Gateway, the first to negotiate with other surviving colonies, their first representative at the Meeting Place. The ceremonial funeral held back on Ellara was huge, broadcasted throughout all the channels on the planet and even to the Meeting Place. An entire nation held a moment of silence in remembrance of this great woman.

For Jim, the shame was even bigger. Just as Kelsie and her people truly accepted him into their team and he stopped being just an unwanted outsider, they disappeared, leaving him here all alone. And while Jim has always been ambitious, he had some pretty big shoes to fill.

Guardian Jim Harlowe. Everything he ever wanted to achieve in his life. And now he couldn’t even enjoy it. The circumstances have made his greatest life accomplishment taste so bitter he was almost ashamed he had accepted the promotion.

Well, there was no time for self-pity now. Things were happening that needed to be dealt with. Jim quickly sent word to the Grand General about the latest development and sipped from his glass while waiting for the response. It was quite swift and Jim’s eyes widened in surprise. Crap, now he had to make a public statement.

“Greetings to everyone at the Meeting Place and in the near proximity of the station. I am Guardian Jim Harlowe, the new representative of the Undefeated nation. Most of you have probably known my predecessor, Kelsie Blackwood, who has recently tragically passed. We can only assume the event was an accident and not an act of open hostility against our nation, for which there are certainly no reasons. I will do everything in my power to try and carry on her legacy.

Just like our Xandalian colleagues, we too have been observing the situation in the Sol system with great worries and disagreement. And I’m afraid we cannot sit idly by anymore and let our common ancestral home be exploited by a few greedy individuals and companies. Thus, we have decided to send a portion of our fleet through the Gateway to the Sol system to assist other nations in defending it. I can assure you this is by no means a hostile action towards any nation currently represented at the Meeting Place or any new arrivals that will be interested in friendly diplomatic relationships.

Our ships will remain in the close proximity of the Gateway, preventing any more ships of these exploiters from coming through until proper diplomatic channels are established and this whole matter is resolved. I can assure you any of your ships, be it diplomatic, trade, or even military vessels, will be allowed through without any interference whatsoever. I hope we can settle this matter without any more unnecessary casualties.”

Just a few minutes after the broadcast went out, ships started to appear in the Sol system. Three battleships, surrounded by a large number of smaller vessels positioned themselves evenly around the wormhole, ready to intercept any incoming vessel that didn’t belong to the known nations and didn’t respond to the hails. The primary objective was to disable, board, and take control, but if the enemy opened fire, lethal force was allowed as well.

Jim watched the fleet arrive both on his datapad and from the window, tiny spots around the seemingly huge wormhole. “Shit.” He wasn’t the main representative for even a week now and it already seemed his country was headed to another war. Now he knew how Kelsie felt after her first contact with the Zetans.
location unknown

The wreckage of the Chimera was still floating freely through an unknown system, followed by the alien weapons.

“Hey, what about that?” Julianna sounded weaker and weaker, but something must have caught her attention. “You think we could maneuver there?”

Kelsie wasn’t in the room with them and couldn’t see what they were looking at. “What? Where?” Julianna and David had a short debate. Their radio stayed on, but they weren’t talking directly into it and Kelsie could barely understand them. “Hey! I need to know what is going on, guys.”

“Sorry,” Julianna picked up the radio. “There is something like a space station orbiting the planet. It looks in one piece and deserted, or at least there are no ships or anything like that around. Except for the balls, which have deactivated by the way. We have been debating trajectories and whether our thrusters could get us there.”

Kelsie tried to scratch her head, forgetting she was wearing a spacesuit. “So, you want to end our suffering by smashing the ship into an alien space station? Hmm, I like the sentiment, to go with a big bang, but…”

“No, you idiot,” Julianna interrupted her, groaning in pain. “We are going to land there, get it operational, and then find a way to get back home.”

A bold plan. A crazy one. “I love impossible plans.”

“You said yourself we don’t give up. So shut up and let David do the one thing he is actually good at and fly this piece of garbage into a docking bay, which happens to be opened and empty. Just get ready, it might get a bit bumpy.”

Kelsie made her way into the supply closet where she had found the spacesuits earlier. There were a couple of emergency seats designed to keep people alive in case of a rough landing, and she quickly made her way towards one and strapped herself in. Was not being able to see what was happening for the better or for worse? Her fingers hovered over the radio button, ready to demand a status update, but eventually she decided to just sit in silence. There was nothing she could do for them. David was a great pilot and she trusted him. If anyone could safely land a crippled ship in a dead alien station, it was him.

Still, it was nerve wracking to just stay still and do nothing, especially when the ship started shaking and loud metallic wailing and screeching resonated through the hull. Kelsie’s hands reflexively jumped up to her ears only to get stopped by the suit helmet. And even if she could cover them, it probably wouldn’t help, the sound didn’t seem to be coming just through her ear drums but rather reverberated through her entire body, making bones rattle and muscles cramp. Even after the noises finally died out and the ship became still Kelsie still felt deafened and disoriented.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking.” David’s voice was shaky and he was panting heavily. “Our piece of garbage has successfully landed inside a dead alien junkyard.”

They’ve actually made it. Kelsie realized that she never really believed they would. Fuck. What now? “Great job. You two stay put, I’ll take a look around.”

“Negative, we are already suiting up. We’re coming along.”

Kelsie frowned. “Like hell you are. Stay in position, that’s an order.” There was no reason for all of them to risk getting murdered by creepy alien spiders or robots or whatever could be stalking this place.

“Kelsie, I understand you are in charge and I totally respect it, but…” David had to pause to catch his breath. “The air is already getting... pretty thin in here. If we... don’t suit up now, we’ll pass out… and die.”

Crap, that was faster than she expected. Even without functioning life support, shouldn’t a room full of air last longer with just two people breathing it? “Copy, go ahead. What about Julianna? She can’t walk.”

“I don’t have to, dummy.” Julianna chuckled and cried out in pain. “Shit! Sorry. David is just duct taping this bone so it won't make a hole in my suit. It’s zero gravity, I don’t have to walk, you can just push me around. Plus, you think I would… AAH FUCKING HELL! … I would pass on this opportunity to explore new… SHIT! … technology?”

Kelsie winced every time she heard her friend scream out, whatever misunderstandings or feuds they had were completely forgotten. She knew damn well Julianna’s injury was severe, but there was nothing they could do about it until they had a breathable atmosphere. And even then, neither Kelsie nor David were doctors, they had no idea how to treat a bone sticking out of someone’s thigh. Kelsie remembered that for such a case the field medicine guide clearly stated one thing. Get the patient to a real doctor or they die.

She took a deep breath, trying to sound calm and encouraging. “Of course not. Plus me and David wouldn’t recognize an alien reactor even if we were sitting on it.”

The hangar bay wasn’t large, but three humans in space suits still looked tiny in it. Aside from the Chimera, which looked more like a twisted piece of metal than like a spaceship now, it was completely empty. Kelsie eyed several sets of wide and deep scratches on the floor and the ceiling, leading from the entrance to the Chimera. “Nice landing. The locals will love you.”

“Next time you try it.” David rolled his eyes. “Besides, there don’t seem to be any locals around coming to give me a parking ticket.”

That was true, the place looked completely deserted. There was no power but Kelsie and David managed to pry open the door leading from the hangar bay to the station itself through what would normally function as an airlock. The hallways were dark and eerily still and silent but more importantly very large, as if built for creatures about twice the human size. The occasional closed doors they passed by matched the size of the corridors, dead screens hanging on the walls way above the trio’s heads.

As per Julianna’s request they were following a set of large tubes and thick wires on the ceiling, hoping it would lead them to the engineering section. The station was massive, Kelsie didn’t get a chance to see it from the outside, but even from within it looked huge, the dark corridors, illuminated only by the thin light of their flashlights, were seemingly endless. The magnetic boots made no sound in the cold vacuum.

Julianna’s guess proved right, the tubes and wires kept joining together and eventually led them to another large door leading to a separate station section. There was even a small floor plan on the wall, captioned with unknown symbols. David climbed up to grab the paper and bring it down but it withered away, falling apart in his fingers.

“Don’t touch anything, it’s ancient,” Julianna frowned upon seeing it destroyed.

David scoffed. “It was a fire escape plan, not a priceless artefact.”

“Anything is a priceless artifact when it’s hundreds of years old,” she sneered, beads of sweat popping up on her forehead. Her voice was weaker by the minute and she seemed to have a hard time keeping her eyes open. “Just get to… the biggest room.”

Kelsie and David exchanged worried looks but they grabbed the girl’s hands and slowly pushed her forward as they walked.

“I’m not an expert, but that does look like a reactor.” A huge circular object, not unlike the balls that followed them outside, was hanging in the center of a gigantic hall, much larger than their flashlights could ever illuminate. There were some wires and thick cables connecting it to the walls.

Julianna smiled faintly. “See… not even sitting on it. A console?”

“I think it’s up there,” David pointed to a workstation with a height of at least seven feet. “Seems like these guys were a bit taller than us.” He climbed up to look at it and threw his hands up in frustration. “There are some controls here alright. But I have no idea what they do. There are some squares and triangles and lots of other weird shapes marking it. It seems dead though.”

“All right, I’ll help Julianna up so she can take a look at it. You ready?” Kelsie turned to the girl only to realize her eyes were closed. “Julianna?”

“What happened?!” David yelled from above.

Kelsie didn’t respond right away, but checked Julianna’s vitals on the suit monitor first. “She passed out. Her pulse is too weak.” She was dying. Kelsie didn’t have to say that out loud, they both knew it damn well. “Just start the fucking reactor.”

“What do you mean, start the fucking reactor? There are dozens of buttons and switches and I don’t even know what the other things are. I can’t exactly try them all out randomly. Plus they don’t really seem to be doing anything, I pressed one by accident while climbing up and nothing happened.”

This was a nightmare. Her friend was dying in her arms and there was nothing Kelsie could do for her until they had at least some resemblance of a breathable atmosphere. Ironically, it was Julianna who could have told them how to start the damn reactor. But Kelsie refused to give up. “We only need emergency power. Which means we need some sort of emergency switch. No matter how weirdly alien these guys were, something like that must be big and easy to reach.”

“There doesn’t seem to be anything like that up here. But… what about that?”

Kelsie looked up to see David pointing to a wall behind them. There was a lever there, a big one, covered in black and white stripes. “Worth a shot. Come help me.” Kelsie walked over and climbed up the wall, David pushed himself off the console and flew across the room. Using their magnetic boots to stand on the wall, they both grabbed the lever and tried to pull it. It didn’t move.

“This… would have gone a lot easier… in a damn combat suit,” David growled.

That was definitely not the first time today that thought had crossed Kelsie’s mind. “Just shut up… and pull! 3..2..1.. NOW!”

The lever finally gave up and they managed to pull it down. Nothing happened.

“Fucking hell. Maybe this place is just dead for good.” David kicked the lever angrily.

And so were they. But… There was something different. “Wait. Do you feel it?” It was a slight vibration, a silent hum that they couldn’t hear, but some primitive part of their bodies could feel it. A couple of lights came on and Kelsie quickly disconnected her boots off the wall and pushed herself down to the ground. Just in time. The gravity was way smaller than their normal 1G, but it still made her landing pretty hard. David hit the floor right next to her with a loud bang.

“You alive?” Kelsie pushed against his shoulder.

There was a quiet painful moan. “I think so. You could have warned me.”

Bright white lights were coming up all around the room, finally illuminating the entire vast space. The big ball in the middle was surrounded by a faint blue glow now, not very safely-looking, but stable for now. The couple rushed over to Julianna, suddenly feeling strange after such a few hours without gravity.

“The pressure outside seems stable.” Kelsie checked a small screen on her suit. “Lower than our normal atmospheric pressure, but that shouldn’t be an issue. Quite low on oxygen though. It will be breathable, but just barely.”

David frowned on the readings. “You do realize this thing only scans for oxygen and no other elements? What if there is something in the air that those aliens needed to live but it will be poisonous to us?”

“What other choice do we have? It’s not like we know how to reconfigure it. I mean it’s a freakin’ miracle there is some oxygen at all.”

“Fine, but I’ll try it first.” David’s hands rose up to his helmet but Kelsie stopped him.

“No, you won’t. You are a pilot, Julianna is a scientist. I am the most useless person around here. I’ll try it.” David opened his mouth to protest but shut it again after seeing her expression. There was no debate on this matter.

Kelsie took a deep breath and unlocked the safety flips on her helmet. There was a quiet hiss as the high pressure in her suit pushed the air out. She exhaled slowly and then, after a moment of hesitation, inhaled the outside air, her face immediately twisting in disgust. “Oh my god,” she gurgled, trying to keep the contents of her stomach inside. “It smells horribly. And it feels like when you take your mask off at a high altitude. I feel a bit dizzy, but I think I’ll live.”

“Great.” David’s helmet went off as well and he coughed in surprise. “What the hell is that smell? Alien piss?”

“Don’t know, don’t care. Come help me.” Kelsie was already bent over Julianna’s lifeless body, taking her space suit off. The girl’s pulse was barely even registering at all. “Shit. What do we do?”

“Well…,” David hesitated and reached into the backpack he had been carrying. “I brought this, just in case.”

The box had markings of the New Haven Directorate. Kelsie opened it to see several injections carefully tucked inside, each filled with a strange fluid. Nanoshots the New Havenists offered them on their first diplomatic meeting. A sample box to be brought to Ellara for careful study. “You do realize we have absolutely no idea what this thing will do to her?”

David raised his eyebrows. “She is dying, it can’t be worse than that. You said yourself that those guys were quirky but quite friendly. They wouldn’t give us something straight out harmful.”

“Right.” It made sense. “But I doubt it can fix that,” Kelsie pointed to the sharp white bone end sticking out of Julianna’s leg. “I think we need to… like… I don’t know, get it inside somehow?”

“Dammit. Fine. I’ll pull and you just… press on it, I guess?” David was just as nervous as Kelsie. This was way beyond their level of expertise. “Ready?” It was a very good thing the girl was unconscious, because what they did resembled butchery more than an actual medical procedure. After that, David grabbed one of the injections from the box and looked at Kelsie with a silent question. She was in charge, it was her call. But the decision was obvious here. She nodded and David shoved the needle into Julianna’s thigh near the wound and pushed a button on the top to release the nanites.

Kelsie exhaled slowly. “Now we wait.” There was nothing they could do until Julianna woke up. Kelsie tried not to think about the option the young scientist wouldn’t wake up at all.

“No, actually.” David reached into his backpack again and fished out some tubes and needles. “Now I will give her my blood.”

“Your blood? When did you come up with all this?”

David shrugged. “As much as I’d like to claim credit for this brilliant plan, it was actually her idea. We had some time to think what’s next while you were hooking up the reactor to the Chimera. Don’t worry, we’ve cross-checked the personnel files to make sure we are compatible. You aren’t, by the way, just in case you wanted to sacrifice yourself heroically again.”

Yes, that did sound like Julianna, having a plan for everything. Saving her own life despite being unconscious. Kelsie’s numb fingers needed two tries to get the needle into Julianna’s arm. And four tries to get it into David’s. “You sure about this?”

“Now you are asking after stabbing me a hundred times? Of course I am, just do it.”

She connected David’s and Julianna’s bodies with a thin flexible tube and opened a small valve. The tube turned red immediately. “I think you should be higher than her.”

David yawned. “Well, there isn’t exactly a bed I could lay on.” No, there wasn’t even a chair. There was something vaguely resembling it standing in the corner, but it was taller than a normal table.

“Just sit up here.” Kelsie helped him lean against the base of the workstation, sitting beside to support him. They were both tired from all the stress and the low oxygen levels, David even more so from the bloodloss. Kelsie reminded herself she needed to stay awake to stop the blood transfusion soon, unless she wanted David to bleed out. “We’re fucked up, aren’t we?” she sighed.

“Hmm.” David’s voice was quiet. “But it’s pretty.”

Kelsie looked up. The reactor was still surrounded by a faint blue glow that seemed to be moving, reminding her of Aurora Borealis. The shimmer was mesmerising, dangerous and alien, yes, but truly beautiful. Kelsie rested her head on David’s shoulder. “Yes. It’s pretty.”

location unknown

It felt like a giant toddler grabbed their ship and kept shaking with it before tossing it on the floor angrily. Kelsie and Julianna were flung across the bridge a couple of times before everything went silent again. “We are through!” David yelled at them.

“Ffshweve?” Kelsie spat out some blood, she must have bit her tongue. “Gui-a-a?” She looked around to find the young scientist’s body floating near the door. “Shiz.” Kelsie pushed herself, grabbing her and landing softly on the ceiling. The girl was unconscious but breathing steadily. The bigger problem was a broken bone that was sticking out of her thigh. “Om elp e,” she blabbered, still not able to control her tongue correctly.

David looked back and cursed. “I’m a bit busy here!”

Kelsie looked out of the window. She expected to see Ellara in the distance and the Undefeated fleet, ships rushing in to help them. But the planet that flashed by occasionally (the ship was still rotating, albeit a lot slower now) looked like a dead wasteland. There were some unidentifiable objects floating around them and David was doing his best trying to avoid them using only the maneuvering thrusters. Kelsie pushed Julianna’s body into a seat, strapped her in and moved to David. “Whele ae ui? Wat ae dzose ings?” Her mouth kept filling with blood and her tongue was swollen. She could only hope it was still in one piece.

There were pearls of sweat popping on David’s forehead. “No idea. I’m trying to get the ship under control using the auxiliary thrusters, but we are still too fast. The main drive is offline and the thrusters weren’t designed as brakes. There is some mess outside that I try to avoid, but it’s nearly impossible.” As to confirm his words, the ship quaked and a couple of metallic bangs resonated through the hull. “Shit. That was something big.”

Most systems went offline when the reactor died, and scanners and proximity sensors were among them. Kelsie floated closer to the window, trying to see what was outside. The ship wasn’t spinning anymore, so she had a stable view. There were certainly a lot of things outside, most looked like some sort of wreckage, but there were several roughly round objects that looked intact. It was hard to guess their size and purpose, but they looked about twice as big as the Chimera.

“Can’t we caull somefone?” Even if they ended up in a wrong Gateway, they should be able to contact the fleet on Ellara and get some help.

“We need more power. The emergency backup is not going to last long powering the thrusters this way.”

“There is… a backup generator,” a quiet voice whispered behind them. Julianna was deadly pale and covered in cold sweat.

Kelsie reached for a small first-aid kit mounted on the wall. “Hang oun, I will gif you somefing for tha pain.” Automated painkiller dispenser touched Julianna’s leg around the wound and she sighed in relief. Still, it wasn’t a solution. Eventually, they will have to do something about that bone sticking out of her thigh.

“I wasn’t aware that these ships had a backup generator.” David turned to them.

“Hey, schouldn’t you be drifin the ship?”

“We are out of the wreckage field and the thrusters are set to maximum deceleration, nothing more I can do now.”

“Are you having a stroke?” Julianna gave Kelsie a suspicious look.

“Mah,” Keslie shook her head. “Bib my pongue.”

The young scientist smiled faintly and turned her head to the cockpit window. “Hmm. You said we were out of the wreckage field. What are those things then?” She pointed at one of the circular objects that still hovered in their field of view.

David glanced at it and shrugged. “Some of these huge balls keep following us around. Not much we can do about it. So, what about that backup generator?”

“Following us? Interesting.” Julianna wiggled a bit in her seat to get a better look and immediately winced as she moved her injured leg. “Crap. The generator. It’s mine, an experimental fusion reactor. I brought it along in case I got bored.”

David laughed. “You do know normal people bring a book?”

“I’m not really a bookworm,” she smiled faintly. “It’s in compartment 39-B, I need to go there and start it.” An attempt to move made her grit her teeth.

“Yea, you are not going anywhere. Lispy here will go, you can guide her on the radio.”

“Tzhat’s Gualdian lispy to you, dumass.” Kelsie was already headed towards the bridge exit, grabbing a radio. The internal comm system on the entire ship was down, but the walkie-talkies could work independently.

Fortunately, the hallway behind the bridge was still pressurised and it was easy to manually open the door. Kelsie smoothly floated towards a small storage area, pushing herself off the occasional railings on the ceiling or walls. Another door forcibly opened revealed a tiny room filled with boxes, lined with lockers on one side. Kelsie maneuvered herself in front of one locker, peeked in, and rejoiced. While the combat exoskeletons were stored in the far back of the ship, there were a couple of simple spacesuits kept near the bridge in case of emergencies. And some emergency this was.

She quickly put one suit on and grabbed two others, bringing them back to the bridge to David and Julianna, just in case. It turned out to be a smart choice, because when she returned to the hallway and wanted to continue to the compartment with the reactor, she noticed that the next areas were either losing atmosphere fast or were already completely depressurised. In order to get there, she had to vent the atmosphere from the hallway, trapping David and Julianna on the bridge.

There was one advantage to wearing a spacesuit (other than being able to breathe in the vacuum of space, of course). It had magnetic boots, so she no longer had to float around. Zero gravity always made her stomach rumble and air acrobacy she had to do to move from one place to another made it a lot worse.

“Fukin’ ell.” After fighting with a bent door for a few minutes, terribly missing the servos on her combat suit, it finally opened and she could enter the rear section of the ship. Or what was left of it. She stood by the door, staring at the stars where the engineering section used to be. It was all gone now, the main reactor and everything around it. How did we even survive this? It was a miracle the whole ship didn’t blow up. “Ey, guys. The enchineerin is gone.”

“You can’t get there?”

“No.” One of the huge circular objects following them flew by, just a dark spot in the night sky. Was it some sort of an alien fighter? Was some tentaclish monster watching them, wondering what the hell is that piece of flying garbage doing in their home system? No communication could be established even if they had power. The communication array was cut clean off the hull. “I mean itz gone. Heading to the backup leactol.”

Spacewalks were scary even under normal circumstances, but there was something eerie about traversing around a huge hole in the side of their ship. Fortunately, the storage facilities on the left side of the ship were intact and Kelsie soon entered through the door marked 39-B.

The reactor didn’t look very fancy, just a big box with some cables sticking out. Julianna guided her to attach the cables to right places both to the reactor and to a large socket in a wall. Then she forced Kelsie to open a huge fuse box and ‘rewire the power conduits’, whatever that meant. The wires were tiny and looked all the same, and the thick spacesuit gloves made precise work with them incredibly difficult. Kelsie used every curse word she could think of, inventing several new ones, glad that when she turned her radio off nobody could hear her.

Finally, it was time to turn the reactor on. Apparently, all Kelsie had to do was flip a switch. One would think that a fusion reactor would have some more intricate controls. “Okay, guys, stauting it now.” The reactor lit up and started vibrating slightly. If it weren’t in vacuum, she could probably hear a quiet whirring of the electromagnets and capacitors. All she heard now was Julianna and David yelling at her into the radio to shut it down immediately. She quickly flipped the switch back and everything went still. “What happened?”

“Come to the bridge, now.”

Hmm. Kelsie would scratch her head if she weren’t wearing a helmet. She was fairly certain that the wires were in the correct place just as Julianna instructed her. Maybe the ship was too damaged to handle it? In any case, without power they were getting deeper and deeper in trouble.

She left the compartment back into the place where the engineering used to be, looked up to see if the odd alien ball was still there and froze in place. The thing was there all right, hanging in space right next to the Chimera, but it was no longer circular. It seemed to have split around the equator, the halves sliding a bit up and down, revealing a ‘belt’ - a stripe that was previously hidden and was now bristling with pointy objects. Even though they looked alien, there was no mistaking them - they were guns, cannons of some sort, aimed at the Chimera and ready to destroy it. The whole thing was surrounded by a faint blue glow, pulsing slightly, most likely indicating it was charged and ready to go.

“Uhhh, guys?” Kelsie hesitated, talking quietly into the radio. “Are those alien balls going to mulder us?” Why was she whispering?

“Not if we remain without power apparently.” Julianna’s voice was weak and trembling.

Awesome. Without power there was no way to maneuver the ship, they were just a piece of debris flying through space. They couldn’t even broadcast a ‘we come in peace’ message, since the communication array was destroyed in the explosion. “Hello.” Kelsie waved at the alien weapon quitely floating in space, not really surprised it didn’t react in any way.

The problem with getting back to the bridge was obvious - in order to enter she would have to vent the atmosphere. And without power there was no way to repressurize it. Kelsie was already running on borrowed time, her spacesuit still had hours of air left, but once that was gone, there was no way to refill it. A shitty situation to say the least. She decided to stay just outside of the door, there was no reason to rob David and Julianna of precious oxygen.

“So, what are our options?” At least her tongue seemed to be working properly again. Under more normal circumstances Kelsie would sit on the floor, resting her back against the cold metallic wall, but that was not really possible in zero G, so she just stood there awkwardly, boots locked to the ground, arms floating around.

“To die quickly or die slowly?” David sighed.

Neither one of those sounded very tempting. “Come on, we are the Undefeated. We don’t give up.” That didn’t sound convincing at all, not even to herself.

“We have no power. No propulsion safe for a few nearly depleted maneuvering thrusters. No life support except for this small bubble of already thin air in here and a few spacesuits. No way of communicating with anyone. There are huge alien weapons chasing us ready to destroy us if it seemed for a split second we have gained control of the ship. Which is a wreck freely flying through space.” David didn’t even bother with sounding ironic. “How could we possibly get out of this?”

There was a long eerie silence.
*mysterious silence*
the Meeting Place station

Kelsie knocked on Julianna’s door softly. She wasn’t sure the scientist would be there, lately Julianna had been spending a lot of time in the docks and aboard their ship, the Chimera, playing around with some science project as she called it. Kelsie didn’t mind, the time on the Meeting Place could be incredibly boring, even to the point that some of the Undefeated stationed there frequently visited the holosuites in the ECU segment. Not her though. Not after reading Harlowe’s report on how they used those things to brainwash the Protectors. Abadi assured her that they’re completely safe and that they could be real fun at times, but Kelsie preferred the actual reality.

“Come in!” The voice from inside the room sounded a bit muffled and upon entering Kelsie realized why - Julianna was assembling some mechanism on the table and since her hands were full, she was holding a screwdriver in her mouth. “Oh, Kelsie. Just a second.” She slid a pair of large protective goggles from the top of her head down to her eyes. “You might want to look away.”

Even through her tightly closed eyelids Kelsie could actually see bright sparkles when Julianna grabbed a small welder and used it on the mechanism for a few seconds. “What is that?” Kelsie pointed at the thing. It looked like a box with lots of wires and weird gizmos inside.

“It’s a dynamic stabilisator for a magnetic wavelength source. It’s just a prototype.”

Kelsie blinked a couple of times, having no idea what any of those words meant. “Right. I forgot I shouldn’t ask such questions. Well, as long as it doesn’t explode, destroying the station and killing everyone on board, you play with your wavelengthy stabilisation magnet all you want.”

“Nah, these don’t explode. At the very best they can emit a mild EMP, but that won’t cause any damage. Well, it shouldn’t. Probably.” Julianna hesitated and chuckled. “I sound like a wacky scientist sometimes, don’t I? What did you need?”

“Can’t a friend just visit to come and look at your sourcing magnetic dynamo?” Kelsie’s brows went up in a pretended surprise. “I’m kidding, obviously. I just came to tell you that we’ve been summoned back to Ellara, just me, David, and you.”

Julianna laid the tools down, her face growing serious. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

“Honestly? I don’t know. I think it’s a good thing, there is supposed to be some official parade or something, so maybe we are just supposed to make an appearance there as the heroic diplomats who risk their lives on a daily basis dealing with evil robots and aliens, finding friends and allies among the stars?” Disgust curled her lips when she pictured thousands of eyes and dozens of cameras carefully observing her reading some stupid speech. “I have no idea whether there is something else behind it. And it’s not like we have a choice anyway.”

“True.” Julianna clearly didn’t like the new orders, but the fact remained - there was nothing they could do about them. “Kelsie, wait!” Kelsie was just about to leave the room when her friend’s voice stopped her. “There is… something I need to tell you.” Julianna’s eyes were pinned to the ground and she was biting on her lower lip, looking nervous and… ashamed? Kelsie gestured at her to continue. “I… Okay, this is going to sound terrible and you are going to hate me. And I swear I wanted to tell you earlier, but I had no idea how. It’s just… I’ve really done nothing wrong, but…”

“Julianna?” Kelsie interrupted her blabbering. “What the hell are you talking about?”

The girl took a deep breath and looked Kelsie in the eyes. “Okay. I’ve been in contact with your mother for the past few weeks.”

“You’ve been WHAT?!” Kelsie was beyond furious. You’d think that being in a different solar system would prevent her mother from trying to interfere with her life, but no.

Julianna took a cautious step back, putting the width of the table between them. “Kelsie, look, it was no big deal, she just offered me a place in her project, and…”

“So you betrayed me?! For my mother? For that…” There were several profanities ready on her tongue but none of them seemed descriptive enough.

“... and I refused. We just talked a bit about some science stuff and yes, she asked how are you doing, but she just wanted to know whether you are happy.”

Kelsie gracefully leaped over the table, avoiding the magnetic wavey something, and grabbed Julianna’s shirt. “So you were spying on me?” she hissed right into the girl's startled face.

“NO!” Julianna might have been scared but still decided to fight the unjust accusation. “I told her you seemed happy and that was all. I didn’t spy on you for her or anyone else.” Kelsie’s only response was an angry scoff. “I mean it! Look, I know you hate her, and she herself told me you have a very good reason for that, but I can’t! Not after what she has done for our people!”

So now Claire Martin was some kind of a savior of the Rejected? Perfect. “Oh, so it’s your people now. Yes, my mother always loved to meddle with the status quo. That doesn’t make her a saint, though.”

A sudden spike of anger appeared on Julianna’s face and she pushed Kelsie away. “Well if the status quo is shit, then perhaps it is supposed to be meddled with,” she hissed. “Kelsie, I was a slave. And when you think about it real hard, so were you.” Noticing the hint of confusion on Kelsie’s face, she kept talking. “You could never choose what to do with your life, there were always only two options - be a nice obedient soldier or get cast out, stripped of your rights as a citizen, as a person. Could you choose where you live, what you do? Where you go and when? You either follow the orders or get punished or even executed. How the hell is that any different from being a slave?!” Julianna’s voice gained intensity and she was almost screaming at Kelsie at the end, desperate to make her understand. “Claire Martin might have been a shitty mother and she has definitely made lots of mistakes, but she managed to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people just by whispering the right things into Pawlowski’s ear. And I simply can’t hate her for that.”

Kelsie stared at her friend, stunned by surprise. Julianna was always the silent type, and unless she was talking about science and her inventions, she barely said more than two or three sentences at once. To hear her speak about something with this passion, let alone raise her voice to yell at Kelsie, that was definitely new.

“You are fired.” She managed to calm down a bit and her voice was now ice cold. “When we get to Ellara, you can crawl to my mother and kiss her Rejected ass, I don’t care.” With those words she turned around and left the room.


Kelsie punched the bag hanging in the gym over and over again. Left, right, left, right, relentlessly, hoping that each hit would take a bit of the rage bubbling inside her and make it disappear. It didn’t. What was worse, there was a tiny quiet voice in the back of her head, suggesting that some of the things Julianna said weren't complete nonsense.

Whispering in people’s ears. Yes, that was her mother’s specialty. Twisting people’s minds, questioning their beliefs, making them risk their lives while she watched from afar. That’s how people got killed. That’s how Kelsie’s father got killed. “Fuck!” No, she couldn’t think about her father now. Oh how much she wished the Grand General let Claire rot in her cell forever and never pulled her out.

But some of those words… It never even occurred to Kelsie to think about her life that way. A choice? Who needed a choice? Not being a soldier? That was no life at all. Or was it?

It was true that she considered the laws against the Rejected a bit harsh and unfair especially since many bright and skilled people like Julianna didn’t get a chance to use their skills for something good. If the change didn’t come from her mother’s head, Kelsie would support it with way more excitement.

She slid down on her knees, panting heavily and drowning in sweat. Surprisingly, once she stopped fighting it the anger disappeared on its own, leaving her with only a ton of sadness and a bit of shame. She treated her friend like shit, dammit she almost physically attacked her, just because Julianna had the audacity to act as an independent person. Not just as a mindless drone following orders to the letter. A slave?

Kelsie tried really hard to push her feelings aside and look at the things from Julianna’s perspective. From her mother’s perspective. But the years of grudge and resentment weren’t easy to overcome. ‘Forget about your mother for a moment,’ the bugging voice told her. ‘Do you really have so many close friends you can afford to chase them away for no reason at all?’ She didn’t.

A quick shower later she was standing in front of Julianna’s door again. She hesitated before knocking, not sure what she wanted to say, only certain she wanted to apologize.

“Yes?” Julianna’s voice was quiet. Kelsie entered the room to see the girl packing, carefully wrapping various instruments and putting them in boxes, an occasional tear rolling down her face. Upon hearing Kelsie entering the room she looked up with a terrified expression. She was right to be afraid.

Being a Guardian, the second highest rank a person could achieve, surpassed only by the Grand General, Kelsie had practically unlimited power over other people. With a blink of an eye she could decide to have Julianna executed and nobody would even bother to raise an eyebrow over it, let alone ask why. Plus Kelsie was known to be hot-headed.

“I’m sorry.” Kelsie wasn’t one to play with words. “I acted like an idiot and I apologize. I thought I could outrun my unresolved family issues by moving thousands of light years away, but apparently such things follow you no matter how far you go. But I should have never taken it out on you.” Kelsie paused for a moment, trying to tame the thoughts whirling through her mind and put them into words. “As you rightly pointed out you are not my slave and you are free to do whatever you want. If that means you want to go and work with my mother on her cool secret projects, then I… I’ll wish you good luck. But… if you still wanted to stay here, I’d be happy to keep you on my team.”

Julianna looked surprised. Yes, it wasn’t every day a Guardian came to someone and offered a sincere apology. “Kelsie, I never wanted to go work with your mother,” she sniffled a bit. “I mean yes, the project sounded really tempting, but it doesn’t come anywhere close to being the first one to see and examine new technologies the other nations bring here. I’d love to keep working with you and I hope you can trust me again some day.”

“I hope so.” Kelsie didn’t magically stop feeling betrayed but at least she wasn’t overreacting about it anymore. “Let’s just get ready for this trip to Ellara. David is already preparing the Chimera.”

There was a visit Kelsie had to make, a long postponed one. She pulled out a datapad and typed out a short message.

“We need to talk.”

Her finger hovered over the Send button. “This is a mistake,” she sighed, quickly pressing it before she had a chance to change her mind. Her mother will no doubt be thrilled by it.


the Sol system, near the Gateway

The Chimera shook violently, lights and the artificial gravity went off. Fortunately, the inertial dampeners were still working, but even with them they could feel the ship spinning wildly, absolutely out of control.

“What the hell is happening?” Kelsie yelled at David.

“We lost control of the main engine. Something exploded there.”

Julianna cursed and pushed herself towards the bridge door. “I need to check the reactor containment. If that doesn’t hold, the ship will…” Another powerful explosion tossed Kelsie and Julianna into a wall. Kelsie could distinctly hear something snap, but when she turned to Julianna to check on her, the girl just shook her head and pointed to the window. “We’ve got bigger problems.” The ship was spinning fast, giving them a split second view of a Gateway each turn. “Our trajectory is wrong, we are headed for the edge.”

“The reactor and the main drive are offline,” David reported. Unlike the women, he had been strapped in the pilot seat the whole time and sustained no injuries. “So is the nav computer. I cannot activate the Gateway and put in the coordinates. I’m trying to use the maneuvering thrusters to avoid the edge, but our velocity is too large.”

“What happens if we hit the edge?” Kelsie watched in horror as the Gateway got closer, creating a colorful blur as the ship kept spinning.

“Guess we are about to find out!”



Claire could hardly hide her excitement upon seeing the message that popped up in her mailbox. After the dozens of messages she had sent over the past few months, not just unresponded but unread, completely ignored. And now, all of a sudden, a message from Kelsie. A few short words, but at least it was something. Better than silence.

New simulation results appeared on the screen and Claire smiled. It seemed like it was a double good news day.

“Now don’t you seem happy today.” Oscar Pawlowski was looking at her standing in the doorway.

Claire rolled her eyes. “Our supreme leader. To what do we owe the pleasure?” He was down here way too often in the past weeks.

“You know, just checking on my favorite project. Do you have anything?”

The screen of her workstation filled with numbers and diagrams, Claire studied them for a moment before answering, not wanting to jump to conclusion. “Actually, I think I do. The lodestones are working. These are just simulations of course, but the numbers are more than promising.”

“Great,” Oscar grinned. “It was just a sample shipment offered to us by the Matuvistans in hopes of establishing a trade route. So, how big are we talking?”

Men. Everything was about size in their world. But Claire knew where he was heading and knew she had to dampen his excitement. “Not as big as you think. With this quality of the material, we can maintain a field around a small spacecraft, think fighters. Nothing bigger. We could try to expand it around something larger, like a Scout class ship, but I don’t think it is going to work, the field would be very volatile. The lodestones were all synthetic which lowers their efficiency greatly. It is still much better than any materials we have at our disposal here on Ellara, but still…”

“That is very disappointing,” Oscar sighed, looking at the numbers on her screen even though he couldn’t possibly understand them.

Claire frowned at him. “Seriously?! A few weeks ago we could barely cloak a box, now I am giving you invisible fighters. How the hell is that disappointing? You know what? Get the hell out of my lab!” No, she wasn’t going to let him spoil her good mood today.

“Sorry.” Oscar ran his hand through his hair. “I’m sorry, of course it’s amazing. You know me, I’m always thinking big. So you think if you had the natural stones you could make the field larger and more stable?” Claire nodded and he sighed. “Well, that sucks. Because there is no way we can afford those.”

That did suck. But still not enough to ruin her day. Kelsie was coming to Ellara and wanted to talk. Even if all she did was yell at Claire, it was still better than the cold silent treatment.

Oscar’s datapad beeped violently and his face grew serious upon looking at it. He gave Claire a worried look and walked a few steps away from her, concentratedly staring at the small screen. He always had some super important secretive matters to attend to, so Claire wasn’t really surprised by that, but why did he keep glancing at her, looking almost… afraid?

“Oscar?” She couldn’t stand it any longer. “What the hell is going on?”

“Claire, I…” He shook his head and pressed a few buttons on his datapad. Claire’s screen flashed when the forwarded message arrived. “Something happened.”

The file contained a 3D reconstruction of scanner data, showing a small Scout class ship flying towards the Sol Gateway. The ship suddenly shook and started spinning around all the axes, still getting closer towards the wormhole, until it finally reached the edge and… disappeared. Claire stared at it in horror. “Please tell me this isn’t what I think it is,” she whispered as the footage played the second time. The Grand General didn’t respond. “Oscar? Please tell me this isn’t the Chimera? The ship MY DAUGHTER was on?”

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

“NO! What the hell happened?” Claire refused to believe it. No. This was a good day. Oscar shrugged and handed her his own datapad. Normally such a thing would be unthinkable, the amount of top secret information for his eyes only forbade him from letting the device leave his hand, but Claire didn’t even think about it and quickly grabbed it, swiping through his messages.

Apparently there was an explosion aboard the Chimera just before it arrived at the Gateway. The ship was out of control when it reached the Gateway and then just… disappeared. There is no wreckage on the Sol side, safe for a few pieces of debris ejected during the explosion. The ship didn’t appear on this side of the Gateway either.

“We’ve contacted every nation we came across to see if they accidentally didn’t pop out somewhere else, but… so far it seems they have just… vanished,” Oscar said carefully.

Claire’s head shook in disbelief. “Are you telling me that my daughter got evaporated by a fucking wormhole?”

No. This was just not happening. The footage of the Chimera exploding and then disappearing inside the wormhole kept repeating in an endless loop, engraved in her brain forever.
“Why the hell does this thing keep following me around?” Kelsie frowned at the tiny fluffy creature, trying not to get hypnotized by its eyes again. “It’s creepy.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Julianna crouched and scratched the dog’s head between its ears, quietly giggling as the animal closed its eyes in ecstasy. “It’s cute. It’s called a dog, you know?”

Kelsie raised an eyebrow. “I don’t care what it’s called, I want it out of my office. Oh dear god, is it pissing on my floor?” Was this some kind of a secret weapon unleashed by those wretched monkeys? “Are you sure it’s not just here to spy on us?”

“It doesn’t look very smart.” David tried to shoo the thing away. “Maybe it’s just an animal.”

“The monkeys were also ‘just animals’ and look at them now, parading around with rifles, singing some dumb songs. Maybe this devious creature just pretends to be stupid but understands everything we say.” Kelsie’s eyes narrowed. “Hey, come here,” she purred and the puppy excitedly skittled over to her extended hand. “Would you like to get shot in the face?” she continued in a sweet voice. The puppy barked eagerly and licked her palm. “Eww,” she recoiled, her face twisted in disgust.

Julianna rushed in and grabbed the animal, cradling it in her arms. “Don’t you dare,” she hissed at Kelsie.

“I think it just needs some training.” Jim Harlowe was still nervous around them but, as Kelsie had expected, he was determined to fight to find his place here. He walked over to the young scientist and petted the dog who was now comfortably seated on her lap.

“Train it then. Somewhere else. And you,” she pointed a finger at David, “don’t think I didn’t see you.”

He raised his hands, putting on an innocent expression. “I didn’t do anything. And it wasn’t a banana!”

“I don’t care what it was,” Kelsie growled. “I don’t think that monkey armada that just marched through the Meeting Place would appreciate your jokes. No!” she raised a finger, preventing David from speaking again. “Go clean this mess. Now.”

David frowned at the puddle in the middle of the room. “But I’m a Commander.”

“Then go find a fucking mop you can command. Before I demote your ass so that it is the only thing you will be able to command around here.” Kelsie rolled her eyes as he was leaving, a slight smile playing on her lips. Despite him acting like an idiot at times, she still liked having him around. He provided a completely different perspective than the always focused and logical Julianna.

Three datapads beeped at once. The dog raised its head and whined, confused by the sound and the suddenly frowning, worried, focused faces around it.

“What the actual fuck?” Julianna mumbled and both Jim and Kelsie looked at her in surprise, not expecting such words from her. “What the hell is that?” An image showed up on the big screen, showing several objects emerging from the Gateway. The trio stared in stunned silence as the things gracefully floated towards the Meeting Place, the two smaller ones circling the bigger one.

Kelsie’s jaw dropped down and she gawked at the magnificent view, unable to close her mouth. “Are those… animals?” Were they in danger? If something like that impacted the station, it could compromise its structural integrity. Despite the danger, even Kelsie had to admit it was a marvelous sight.

“Uh… yes and no?” Julianna hesitated, using her device to remotely activate the powerful scanners aboard the Chimera. Kelsie managed to collect her jaw from the floor and shut her mouth, shooting the young scientist an angry frown. “Sorry, this is something completely new. And,” she studied the data, “actually I stand behind my answer. The ships are partially organic and partially mechanical.”

Jim swiped through magnified images. “Equipped for battle as well, it seems. The smaller ones at least.”

“True,” Julianna nodded. “But the weapon systems don’t seem to be powered up. At least from what I can tell. What do I know, maybe the thing has teeth and claws and will just rip its way inside the station.” The girl chuckled nervously, but there was also excitement in her eyes. Kelsie understood her excitement, even though she hardly shared it.

Jim swiped on his datapad and the ship images were replaced by a strange room with two even stranger people in it. “Incoming transmission,” he said quietly, unable to look away from the screen.

As the green-haired woman spoke, making strange chirping and singing sounds, David entered the room, holding a mop and a bucket filled with soapy water. “Hey, did you know there's a broom closet at… what the fuck is that? Did Julianna force you to watch that ancient movie with the talking trees and the little people and the cursed jewelry again?”

“Shut up and listen,” Kelsie hissed because the woman just finished her speech and the man with a mouth full of creepy canines started to translate it into weirdly accented English.

“Genetic manipulation, of course, that makes sense,” Julianna mumbled after the transmission ended.

Kelsie shook her head. “How does any of that make sense?”

“Well, they’ve said it.” David wasn’t nearly as shocked as the others. In fact, he quite calmly grabbed the mop and started to wipe the floor. “They’ve adapted to their hostile world. Freekin tree-huggers turned into trees.” They all looked at him and he shrugged. “What? I’m not as dumb as I look. Mostly. But don’t mind me, I’m just commanding this mop here. And I’m commanding it damn well if you ask me.”

“I think Commander Parker does have a point,” Jim nodded. “They certainly do look like some kind of plant-human hybrids. And from the tone of their message, they do seem quite peaceful. Which of course could be a trick,” he added quickly, reacting to Kelsie’s raised eyebrow.

The Guardian sighed and got up. “Fine. Commander Harlowe, you like them, you deal with them. I’m still processing the monkeys, I can’t really deal with talking plants right now. And keep that thing away from me,” she pointed at the dog currently curled up at Jim’s feet.

“Yes, ma’am,” he smiled and scratched the animal’s head, excited about his first real assignment. “I’ll send a welcome message right away and invite them over for negotiations. And I’ll take care of the dog.”

David walked over to Jim and patted his shoulder. “I feel like you will be needing this, mate.” The mop was handed into Jim’s hand and David headed out of the room, leaving the newest team member in a bit of an absurd situation.

“Welcome aboard, Commander,” Julianna giggled quietly. “I’ll head to the lab and go over the scan data to have a report ready for you before the negotiations start.”

“Right,” Jim nodded and got up, trying to figure out what to do first. A wet tongue licked his hand and a quiet whining made him look down at the puppy. Now, where do you walk a dog at a space station?
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