User:Jetfire/All Hell Breakin Loose

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Works by Jetfire on Shifti

All Hell's Breakin' Loose

Author: Jetfire

Grid, Rama Environment, En Route to Totalia

For the local Grid, the EIs of the fleet had delved into the SciFi database and decided on a Rendezvous With Rama theme. The public shared world was a cylindrical multiple-kilometre-long spaceship. A circular sea divided the cylinder into "northern" and "southern" halves. The sea itself held a long island with buildings on it. The rest of the space was split by fields and plains, and occasional clumps of buildings linked by roads. Six light bars in the floor, three in the northern cylinder and three in the southern one, provided illumination.

Unlike the original Rama this simulation was livelier. Its cities more closely resembled the Earth cities they had been named after. The plains and fields held life, both biological-based and cyber-based life (and occasionally a hybrid of both). Huge suspension bridges, three to the north, three to the south, linked the circular sea's island (which held the city named New York) to the North and South territories. The bridges themselves were modeled after famous Earth Suspension bridges, like the Golden Gate and the Gibraltar Straits bridges.

Two weeks into the trip to Totalia the main lights of the vast simulated ship were dimmed to twilight. Three light trails spun around the cylinder, meeting up to cross the New York bridges before spreading out again to find their own paths to the remaining checkpoints.

In London, located near the bottom of the 8-kilometer long staircase that climbed to the airlock in the centre of the northern cap of the ship, a checkered banner stretched across London Bridge. Two light cycles chased each other through the streets of the city, each trailing a red or green light path. At the last moment, the green runner pulled ahead, crossing under the banner microseconds before the red cycle.

The light trails disconnected from the bikes and they each bounced into the air, letting go of the wheels and stretching out, transforming into two female mechanoids. The pair landed on the bridge deck, jogging to kill the last bit of momentum from their race.

"Damn, you got me good, Arca," Skyfire gasped, leaning against the railing at the end of the bridge. She spun the wheel on her forearm. "Been too long since I've raced on wheels. I'm rusty."

Arca laughed, leaning against the opposite railing. "Rusty? Now you're just making excuses. You damn near beat me Sky."

The EIs turned to the finish line, seeing the lights of the blue racer approaching. The cycle crossed the line and jumped like they did, transforming in mid air to a male mechanoid. Unlike the EI's, he tripped when he hit the deck and face plowed to the end of the bridge.

"Yuri?" Skyfire asked, moving towards the motionless racer.

Before she could reach him, the man moved and managed to turn over, staying on his back.

"That... Was... Exhausting," Yuri gasped out.

Arca giggled, "Wuss. It was only a thousand klicks. It's not like you were actually running it."

Yuri managed to prop himself up and looked at the two EI's, shaking his head. "Certainly feels like I did. I'm not used to powering an engine I guess," he laughed. "Still, I didn't do too bad did I?"

"Not at all. You were only seconds behind us," Skyfire assured him. "Did you have fun?"

"I had a blast. A shame we can't convince Darrek to join us."

Arca sighed and nodded, "I keep trying. But a VR helm's as far as he'll go. He's determined to stay 'pure', which means no fusing of any type, not even a Grid fuse box."

"Heavy wears the head of the crown," Skyfire said. "Granted he's not a king or anything, but he has taken on a lot of responsibility. His reports and testimonials will be important when we get there, and they have to appear untainted."

Yuri pulled himself to his feet and stretched. "Just a few more weeks. Once we get there and get things straightened out, I'm sure he'll be looking to make up for lost time. I can tell it in his eyes, he is curious. Maybe you should look into a proper Armor shell for him instead of your meat suit."

Arca grimaced, then looked thoughtful. "Maybe..." she finally said. "But we'll see. Just showing him the Grid proper would be a huge step up."

Around them, the lights were gradually turning up with the arrival of dawn. Their own light trails from the race were fading out.

Skyfire gave Arca a hug. "That it will be. Thanks for the race. We'll see you later; The Maddies want to see Yuri and I."

"Darrek is getting up soon too. Catch you later?" Arca asked, leading the group to the Stepping Disk teleporter.

"More like I'll be catching you. You're up three races now after all." Skyfire laughed and waved, flickering out of the Grid space.

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Outside the Totalian System

Yuri floated around the Caravan, giving it a final visual check. While the Great Western had been waiting for the Rickenbacker a few light-months from Totalia, they had moved the Caravan from the Heart of Gold to the Megazord. Technically, they could have left it on the Heart until they reached the Ra system, but it was a task to keep impatient people busy while waiting for decisions to be made.

The Rickenbacker had been overdue for more than a week, something that was seen by many as a bad omen. Ultimately the Fleet weighed the dangers and decided they couldn't wait any longer for their muscle. Jumping into the Totalian system was risky, but the planned arrival point in the outer system should theoretically be safe. Space was big after all, and they specifically were picking a spot that only Clementine and Rickenbacker knew, away from the spots the other ships had arrived in. Once they were light hours away from Totalia, they could evaluate the situation further. Decision made, the Great Western had jumped, and now the long journey was finally about to end.

Overhead, a countdown was projected on the roof of the Megazord. In a little more than an hour, they would be surfacing, returning back to real space, and the ranger fleet would be launching.

The launch order had proven to be another political snarl that was challenging to unravel. The Ranger leadership had claimed that as the closest thing to a space military on board, it was their role to secure the beachhead. The Scouts claimed that it was their duty to be the first into new systems, to explore and trailblaze. That Totalia's system was already inhabited and visited by the Scouts and others was irrelevant as far as they were concerned. The Fleet finally cut the gordian knot by declaring both groups were to get out as soon as possible after arrival.

Warning klaxons sounded, pulling Yuri's attention back to the present. The countdown was showing 59 minutes and change. He could feel the wind picking up as they started evacuating the atmosphere from the launch deck. He activated his suit and headed for Skyfire's airlock.

"Caravan looks good," he said as he stepped in. "Everything checking out internally?"

"Everything looks good inside. Ready to fuse up?" Skyfire replied, her voice coming from all around him.

Yuri made his way to the cockpit and looked out, hand on the back of the seat. "In a moment. Hard to believe, we're about to step outside, under the light of a new star."

"I just want to step outside. It's been a long three months, and that stop in the deep space didn't really count," Skyfire replied.

He chuckled, "True. The waiting is the hardest part. Open up, let's get ready to go out."

At his feet, a hatch irised open. He dropped down into the silver chamber and relaxed. Soon the familiar feeling of the fuse washed over him, linking his mind with Skyfire's. He opened his virtual eyes and found himself in the cockpit, looking out. Around him, he could sense the couple dozen other Ranger craft coming online and syncing up. Beside him, Skyfire appeared, a white gynoid with red highlights, including a swirling abstract pattern in red on her chest and back. He had a similar pattern in blue on his own body.

"We're green across the board," she reported, giving him a quick kiss. "Just need the doors to open and out we go."

"Well, let's get back into the real universe before opening those doors. Last time we went out in subspace, we wrecked all our batteries," he said with a grin.

"True true. You know, we could do that again if we wanted to. Not that I want to."

They settled back to wait, chatting with the other Rangers and Scouts as they finished their preparations. Some joker started playing Final Countdown over the common channel and everyone sung along with it. Silence fell onto the comm channels as the countdown reached the last minute. For the final ten seconds, Yuri found himself holding his breath.

At zero, there was no change, no ship wide shudder, nor any other indication they had done anything. Microseconds later, the first indicators showed up; outside sensors, mute for the past three months, began reporting on their location.

"Surfacing complete. All systems nominal. Initial glimpses show we are in the Totalian system, but we are still verifying our exact location," Astrogon, the Great Western's EI reported shipwide.

Overhead, the doors of the Megazord carrier cracked open, showing the blackness of space.

"They found Clementine's DINcom relay. We're about one ZAU off from our planned arrival spot. A bullseye as far as FTL travel is concerned. Still no sign of the Rickenbacker," Skyfire said. She was tapped into the same sensor networks as Astrogon, and getting the data as fast as he was.

"It was probably too much to hope they would have jumped right in, since they weren't at the rendez-vous. The Maddies always figured we'd lap them somewhere along the way. Or maybe they had an engine hiccup and had to stop sooner than expected. I'm sure they're fine," Yuri said, squinting up into the blackness overhead. A star came into view, an extra bright source of light. "There's Ra. Ra is down," he said.

"Argus array deployed," Skyfire said. With the system filled with invisible space rocks, the Maddies had developed an array of simple probes to expand their points of view. Little more than cameras with rockets, the intent was to try and visually detect any Totalium hazards before they became a threat. The eventual goal was to find and tag as much as they could to make system travel safer for everyone. It was a long few minutes as the automated probes moved into position, calibrated and started returning their viewpoints.

"And we have a green light! Go! Go! Go!" Skyfire shouted excitedly. Yuri felt them surge a little with barely restrained power.

Around them, the deck lights flashed green. The first Ranger ship, lifted up and shot out into space, followed by two more. Skyfire was fifth to take off, and Yuri could tell she was itching to obey the green and jump the queue. She avoided scratching the itch and took off at the right time, along with the rest of the Ranger ships.

The public comm channels filled with cheers and whoops of joy from Ranger and Scout alike as the ships streamed out from either side of the Western. Three months cooped up on the big ship had left them with bad cases of cabin fever. After a few minutes, the chaos began to settle down and they focused on their jobs.

"Clementine has hailed us, welcoming us to Totalia. She says Captain Sandeep of the Kybalion and First Speaker Whitfield of the Totaliament-In-Exile also send their greetings," Skyfire said. "And man does she have a doozy of a story to share."

She and Yuri were arcing over the Great Western, one of many giving the huge ship an independent lookover to make sure it got through intact. The massive coreship looked none the worse for wear for her time in subspace, and Astrogon was very pleased.

"I'll check it out later unless anything is applicable now. The Western's looking good. Nothing falling off that shouldn't be falling off," Yuri reported. "How's it feel to be in a new system, Goldie?"

"Feels great. Can't wait 'till I can stretch my own engines," the EI of the Heart of Gold reported. Skyfire was sharing a segment of comm space with the other E-Intelligences of the fleet.

"Just hold on for a bit longer. We're going to head to Sekhmet before releasing the modules," Astrogon said. "- That didn't take long," he quickly added, sounding amused.

On the data levels, a red flag lit up, followed by a distress signal. A Milano-class Ranger ship was spinning, its wing showing damage. A Scout ship and another Ranger ship were already converging carefully on the damaged ship.

"The first Totalium accident. I doubt it will be the last," Goldie said. "Be careful out there guys,"

"We've got our eyes peeled, don't worry," Yuri assured her.

The fleet of ships spread out ahead of the Western, eyes alert for potential threats both natural and human. The human threats never showed up. The natural threats, on the other hand, materialized surprisingly fast. The system had the normal debris that all star systems had; they were easily detectable and effectively irrelevant. The Totalium-infused rocks on the other hand, were much more dangerous. When one was spotted, its threat level was assessed based on how visible it was to the scanners and how massive it actually was. Smaller threats were splashed with radioactive paint, making them easier to spot. Larger threats got tagged with beacons and flagged for possible mining in the future. Gradually, the view of their region of space became more refined, to the point a safe flight path could be plotted. With that path outlined, the Great Western fired up her engines and followed the Ranger and Scout fleet inwards, towards Sekhmet, the biggest gas giant in the system.

"Got it!" Yuri exclaimed, seeing a paint blob explode against an asteroid. On their sensors, the collections of rocks solidified into a mass larger than them. "So what do you think? Flying in a new, effectively unexplored system?"

Skyfire looked around and shrugged, "I'm still trying to figure out what to think. For now, my first impression is that it's quiet. Almost too quiet."

"Quiet?" he asked.

"Yeah, quiet. This system is silent. Totalia's the noisiest thing around, not counting us. The rest of the planets don't really have any signals. Not like home. Back home there's constant chatter from all the habs around all the planets, but here, there's nothing there to chat with beyond leftover automated probes."

Yuri paused and listened. Compared to Zharus, Totalia was barely whispering to the universe at large. Compared to the emptiness of the rest of the Ra system, it sounded like the planet was shouting. The beacons and probes around the rest of the planets were barely noticeable in comparison.

As he listened, he realized that the Zharusian ships were talking more than they would normally. Rangers and Scouts hailing each other and talking to friends on the Western. "We're trying to fill the silence," he concluded.

"You noticed it too? Good thing we weren't trying to sneak in; an arrival like this is hard to miss," Skyfire said.

"Well, it is a circus ship after all. They tend to like to grab the spotlight."

Routines developed quickly in the days that followed. The Great Western moved inward, taking her time to get to Sekhmet while letting the Rangers and Scouts and other Spacers trailblaze for her. They sent fast couriers inward to meet up with the Clementine and Kybalion with fresh DINComms direct to the Western. For the Kybalion, it was a straightforward mission. For the Clementine, they encased the fresh comms in multiple shells and shields that would help punch through the Totalium-enhanced Kessler field around the planet that were keeping the ship planetbound.

Once they got near the orbit of Isis, the outermost planet, the number of Totalium-threats dropped off rapidly. The Fleet decided they could make it in the rest of the way without help, and let the Scouts and Rangers disperse to do their own things. About half of the ships stayed near the Western, just in case. The rest scattered across the system, poking around, exploring and helping build a better view of their environment. Totalia itself was strictly hands off, and everything inside the asteroid belt was restricted. Everyone had strict orders to avoid hostile Totalians at all costs.

Yuri and Skyfire found themselves on border patrol again, lurking near the Western's arrival point, with a load of DINComms for the Rickenbacker. They killed time painting the rocks as they spotted them.

"Day three and still no Rick," Yuri noted. For a change he was in the real cockpit, his feet up on the control panel, floating above his seat. The blue photoluminescent  lines on his skin glowed in the dim light.

"It was a retrofitted engine. Theoretically they should be keeping up with us, but maybe the match wasn't as good as they expected," Skyfire said. She floated next to him, smaller than usual to give them room without crowding.

"Yeah, I read the same reports and estimates. Just hope they show up soon; it'd be bad mojo to start with such a bad omen."

"They'll make it. There's no reason for them not to. Earth and Kepler are only finding out about Totalia nowish, and the Totalians themselves don't have any FTL capabilities, short of what they ripped out of Barbaretta's ship. Another rock approaching, seven o'clock low."

"I see it."

Hours later, the bored Ranger jerked awake to the sound of a warning alarm. He pulled himself back into his seat and looked across the screens, blinking away the fatigue.

"FTL splash. It's the Rickenbacker," Skyfire confirmed before he could fully focus.

"Great! How's he looking?"

"Looking fine. No damage I can spot in the initial signs. Less than a ZAU away by the looks of it. I've already started us towards it and let everyone else know they finally showed up."

The Rickenbacker's engines while retrofitted, were still military grade, so it gave off fewer arrival signs than the civilian cruiser and freighters. As such, it appeared long before Skyfire could get close.

"SF-001-X to Rickenbacker. Welcome to Totalia. I hope you had a pleasant flight."

"Hello, Skyfire; it was a good flight. But what are you two doing out here?" Captain Esmeralda Souza replied.

"Waiting for you. You're running late. Or the Western was running fast. We're not quite sure which yet. In any case, we got here a few days ago. I'm sending you a sensor package update. Avoid anything with these rad sigs or emitting a signal on this freq."

"Thanks Skyfire, package received," the Captain let out a whistle. "Wow, we're really in the briar patch out here aren't we?"

Yuri chuckled, "And those are just what we've found so far. I don't think we'll have to worry about running out of Totalium for a long time."

"We have some fresh DINComms for you, mostly tuned to the Western but also some paired with ones we've sent to our allies," Skyfire said.

"We'll appreciate receiving them. Come on in. Anything else to be worried about locally?"

"Nothing major. Clarke's crew are huddled up around Totalia or the shipyard in the inner belt, so we've got free run in the outer system. Feel free to start in towards Sekhmet; everyone's going to be gathering there to get caught up. I've let Astrogon know you've arrived. They'll want to know where you've been."

Skyfire and Yuri rode the lift to the bridge of the Rickenbacker. The Caravan was gripping the side of the ship and they'd taken a side airlock in to stay out of the way of the stream of smaller craft launching out. The Rickenbacker carried its own Ranger and Scout platoons, and they were even more eager to go outside than the Western's had been.

"Greetings Captain," Yuri said as they stepped out on the busy bridge. Most of the crew didn't even look their way. A penguin Integrate looking somewhat chastised stood by the engineering section.

"Hello Rangers. Welcome on board. Engineering says your DINComms are coming online now." Captain Souza nodded to the Rangers and turned back to the front.

In front of the screen, something flickered in the space, before it solidified into the appearance of Astrogon's avatar, and Captain Armand Xun of the Western.

"'Bout time you decided to join us. Did you get lost?" Armand asked once the connection stabilized.

"We ran into a toll booth in the nebula and had to collect exact change from the crew," Ezmeralda said before getting more serious.

"In actuality, it turned out that Mr Prefect somehow overtuned our engines." she cast the penguin Intie a look.

"We were only a few days... weeks off. That we could get those improvements with that old drive is incredible. When we figure out what exactly I did, it could be a revolutionary... well a major improvement in FTL travel," Ford protested.

Ezmeralda shook her head and returned her focus to the Western representatives. "In any case, when we surfaced at the expected time, we discovered we'd overshot Ra by about a lightyear. By the time we made it back to the rendez-vous, you'd already jumped in, so we followed. Hope we aren't too late."

"Not late at all; we're just reaching Sekhmet and glad to have you here."

"I admit I'm a little surprised you decided to jump in, after all the plans we made."

"We waiting long enough for a scout to jump in and get an update from Captain Sandeep on the Kybalion. He told us that most of the Cosmy is focused around the inner system, around Totalia and the shipyard in the belt. Considering local conditions, we decided it was safe enough to jump to Ra and move inward. It's probably safer than staying out there in that Totalium mess you're in now."

Ezmeralda sighed, "Nice to feel needed after all we went through."

"Don't worry, there's still lots to do. The Clementine is stuck on the planet, helping the Loyalists. Totalia's surrounded by a Kessler field of Totalium debris; makes going down and coming up all but impossible," Armand explained.

"Meanwhile, the Kybalion is chasing down some Zealot Cosmy elements near Hathor. Potential new recruits looking to rejoin the Loyalist Cosmy. Clarke's Cosmy is as cut off from the planet as we are, if not more so. At least we are self sufficient. They're converting one of their ships to a garden ship to feed their space guys."

"So that's how we're luring them in. Come to the Zharus side. We've got cookies," Captain Souza said, smirking.

Captain Xun grinned back, "Exactly. Cookies, meat, vegetables, and a factory that can repair anything they need fixed. It's very tempting."

"And a powerful card to hold over them. We aren't going to let them starve, are we?" Skyfire asked.

"Not at all, we are human after all," Astrogon said. "Well most of us are. But we are willing to let them get hungry. If things get tough, we'll offer the olive branch and a basket of goods."

"In any case, with or without those newbs, we're all going to gather around Sekhmet as soon as possible and start figuring out how best to handle the space situation and the best approach for the Totalia situation."

"We're already en route. Your Rangers briefed us on the situation already. Sounds like things are in hand so far," Captain Souza said.

"No sur-"

The avatars from the Western flickered and fizzled out. Worried eyes looked around making sure the reasons for the disconnect weren't local. It was quickly obvious the problem was at the Western's end, and everyone relaxed a little. They were all experienced enough to know there was little they could do from light hours out.

"DINComms are still paired. They didn't burn out," an engineer reported. "Looks like a power disruption on their end."

"What about the other ships? Anything?"

"Clementine answering now."

The EI avatar appeared, looking worried. "Greetings Captain. I wish this was under better circumstances."

"So do I. Any idea what happened? Where is the Western?"

She shrugged, "Unknown. The DINComms are still alive, so the ship is there and still powered, but no one is answering."

"We're light-hours away before we'll see anything. How about you?"

"There's a light hour between us, and we're on the wrong side of the planet to see anything directly. Best as I can tell, they were just entering Sekhmet orbit."

"Any idea what it could be?" the Captain asked.

Clementine shook her head. "No clue. We haven't seen any Cosmy activity around there lately."

A few tense minutes later, the Western's signal came back online. Astrogon appeared alone, looking extra frazzled.

"Apologies for the suddenness of my departure. The Zealot Cosmy seems to have some surprises left."

"What happened?" Clementine asked anxiously.

"A surprisingly strong and well aimed pulse cannon lurking in Sekhmet's rings. We didn't notice it until it shot me in the ass," Astrogon explained. "Engines are offline, the core structure is severely damaged. Worst of all the aft Drive Ring is irreparable outside of a drydock. We've started releasing all of the modules and ships, and we're evacuating everyone out of the core as fast as we can."

"What about the cannon? Is that secured?" the Captain asked.

Astrogon flickered, then stabilized. "Safe enough, unless they have another one lurking out here. The one that shot us is being swarmed by everyone we have locally, but it has some Cosmy protectors running interference. It seems to be a single shot weapon, judging by the lack of power it has left. If they were a thousandth of a degree more accurate it would've hit me dead center."

Another figure joined the conference call, a strange man most hadn't met before. His ID said he was Captain Sandeep of the Kybalion. "Sorry for the delay. Clementine has briefed me so far. We're looking at your initial views of the weapon. It's based on a mothballed Cosmy ship, the same class as the Big K. Probably a gift from the belt's shipyard. They had to give up a big ship to build it. I doubt they have a second one. Is everyone alright?"

"Still doing damage assessments. But we have had casualties. That shot killed at least two dozen in the Side B Hab, ten dead inside the Western itself,…" Astrogon sighed. "There is some non-superficial damage to the Ark. Noah already has the hull breaches sealed, but it was a near thing."

Skyfire winced and nodded in sympathy. "Hopefully the biomes weren't too damaged. How's Goldie?"

"Pissed as hell, but mostly undamaged other than some scorched paint. Zaphod's caused bigger booms trying to make breakfast," Goldie cut in, voice only.

Astrogon coughed, "She held up surprisingly well, despite being so close to the impact. She's already separated and is charging towards the Zealot ship." Astrogon gave a weary smile, "I'm not sure if she wants to strike back or dissect it."

"Either way, there won't be much left by the time we're done with it. As long as those damn fools don't blow it up before we get there. You Rangers are surprisingly trigger happy," Goldie said.

"We don't like being shot at," Yuri noted.

"Stop shooting at the big ship!" Goldie shouted at a target unknown to the people on the FTL channel. When she addressed them again, her voice was as pleasant as ever, showing no sign of the brief burst of anger that had leaked through. "In any case, The Western took the brunt of the attack. They were aiming for where they thought our reactors are, not realizing how distributed the power network is. That pulse beam was roughly the equivalent of one of the Eastern's Calliope Cannons. It's quite a lot larger, of course. They used the whole length of that ship through some fairly primitive pulse weaponry capacitors. I'm going to try and catch it intact; the energy readings are curiously different from the normal weapons; there might be some useful properties hiding in there, assuming we can get there first. Clarke's guys must  have been testing this for months for just this sort of occasion."

"We have noticed strange energy readings in the belt for the past few weeks. They're long gone before we could get there," Sandeep noted. "Still, I wouldn't have thought they would have time to get into position in time without us noticing. Maybe it was just an unlucky coincidence."

"The Zealots have had their own pulse weaponry even before we arrived," Clementine noted. "Their engineers are good at this. I'm not really surprised they managed to build a ship-scale weapon in such a short time."

Sandeep smiled and nodded in agreement. "We've gotten very adept at, you would say, 'MacGyvering' since the Civil War began. Our sides were more or less at technological parity, or we were until you arrived," Sandeep said. "My engineering teams have been retrofitting our own laser clusters into pulse guns with the fabber Clementine left us."

"In any case, it's good that it is a one shot weapon, and there aren't more. The modules like the Ark and Megazord are basically space worthy floating boxes; they don't really have any real defenses. I'm trying to get the Ranger fleet redeployed to make sure everyone's covered," Astrogon said.

"But they're smelling blood in space and going for the main target," Yuri noted. "Try talking to Zordon, he'll get them sorted out."

"I am talking to him," Astrogon said irritably. "It's helping a little bit."

"Anything we can get our fabbers working on for you?" Souza asked. "We won't catch up for a few days, but we can have the parts ready."

"I'm still processing the damage reports, but the help is appreciated. I'll send up a list as soon as I can," Astrogon said. He dabbed virtual sweat from his brow. "Our OverEngineer is more than a little angry."

"Understandable. It's probably best if we stop looking over your shoulder and get back to work on the repairs. We'll be in touch once things are a bit calmer," Captain Souza said.

"Thank you," Astrogon said before flicking out.

"How soon before you guys can get on-site?" Esmeralda asked, looking at Clementine and Sandeep. "The Western is a big ship with a large fleet of her own, but I'm sure they'd appreciate intact help as soon as they can get it."

Sandeep chuckled, "The Kybalion is going at full speed, but we aren't exactly 'intact'. Still, the time for stealth seems to be gone, at least in space. We'll be there within a day or so as well. And we do have the fabber you guys left. The Mesektet has also seen the light and thrown in with us. They're bringing a few hundred hands that can help, even if they don't know the tech."

"Come to the Loyalist side. We've got cookies," Clementine quipped, smiling at Sandeep. "As for me, regrettably, there's nothing I can do. Aside from the Kessler field, orbit is filled with Zealot Cosmy ships and any other surprises they've left up there. I'm in no condition to run that particular gauntlet," she reported.

Captain Souza glanced to one side to check some data. "We're a couple days out ourselves. Clear sailing for the most part, but we're taking it slowly through this Totalium briar patch. Keep in touch, and shout out if you see any more surprises."

"We will. And welcome to Totalia," Captain Sandeep said. "Despite first impressions, we can be a friendly bunch."

"I'm sure you can be. I look forward to meeting you all in person. Rickenbacker out."

The Captain looked around the bridge, seeing her crew alert for fresh orders. "The Zealots drew first blood. Let's try and make sure that's the only blood. I want all eyes on the sensors, looking for any curiosities; we don't want a surprise like the Western just had."

She waited to make sure everyone had something to do, before focusing on Ford Prefect. The Integrate twitched and straightened up. Clearly during their missing weeks, he and the Captain had been having many conversations. "You managed to overtune our FTL drives; go down and  talk with the OverEngineer and see what you can do with the regular ones. Once we clear the Totalium field, I want us at Sekhmet as fast as possible."

Ford snapped a sloppy but respectful salute. "Aye, ma'am. I'll do what I can without damaging anything." She nodded to him and he turned tail, waddle-running as fast as he could without a second glance to the Rangers.

Skyfire chuckled once Ford was off the bridge. "Wow, you really did a number on him. Even Goldie can't get him that respectful."

Captain Souza looked around the bridge once more before answering. "Goldie is in charge of a science ship. How she leads it, is her call. But Rickenbacker is a military ship, and the military doesn't like the unexpected. Speaking of unexpected, what are you two planning to do now?"

"Well, we've been out for a few days, waiting for you and keeping your gifts ready. We would appreciate it if we could get the Caravan refreshed, then we'll join your escort on the way in system," Yuri said.

The Captain paused a moment, her eye twitching as she accessed an internal record. "Right, feel free to come on in and top off your tanks. I'm sure you can find a spot to fit in with your compatriots out there once you're done."

Skyfire and Yuri bowed slightly. "Yes, I'm sure we can. Thank you sir."

The Captain waved her hand, dismissing them. By the time the Rangers made it back to the lift, she was already busy with other duties.  

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Building in a Day

The attack on the Great Western left the fleet in a bind. While they weren't defenseless, especially with the Rickenbacker in system, it did limit their reach and abilities. Fixing the damage, along with repairing the Kybalion and upgrading the Mesektet was almost beyond their local capabilities. The industrial ships had the raw materials and tools needed to build a civilized space civilization from scratch, but they were still months away. The Totalians had a shipyard of their own that would come in handy, but it was solidly in Clarke's control, so out of the question for now. In the meantime, the Fleet had to make due with the fabbers and knowledge at hand.

By the time the Kybalion, Mesektet and Rickenbacker converged on Sekhmet, the Zealot ship had been captured mostly intact. Goldie laid claim to it for her scientists, who were busy extracting all they could from it. The crew, after a brief incarceration in the Megazord, were transferred to the Kybalion once the Totalian ship was in range.

Aside from fabber time, the largest holdup on repairs was raw material. The scouts luckily found a moonlet on the edge of Sekhmet's rings that had a suitable mix of raw material for the needed repairs and upgrades. Under Rickenbacker's escort, the Great Western and its flotilla of modules and ships limped out to the moon, quickly named Ptah.

The call went out throughout the fleet, searching for people with any space mining, refining and manufacturing skills. Experts and hobbyists were drafted to oversee the eager volunteers that descended on Ptah. Ore was mined, smelters fired up and factories and fabbers fed and soon enough a steady stream of material was flowing to the fleet. A new version of normal quickly settled on the fleet while they did their best to bring the ships back up to full power.

When the Totalians had been revealed on Zharus to the ambassadors of the other Colonies, those embassies were given the chance to each send a delegation to Totalia on the Western, a chance no one turned down. Those delegations had mostly stayed out of Fleet affairs, spending the time networking and building contacts like ambassadors are apt to do. After the Western was attacked, most of them were transferred to the Kybalion, where they had the chance to interact with other Totalians and especially to mingle with the space side of the Totaliament-In-Exile.

In hindsight, their plans were obvious, but once repairs were going smoothly, no one expected the bombshell proposal they dropped onto the overloaded plates of the Leadership. Led by Mikel Steader of the Eridani delegation and Chuck Lorrey of the Earth delegation, the ambassadors and diplomats proposed building a diplomatic base on Totalia itself. It would be a well-shielded base, far from any existing settlements, that would provide a neutral ground for Whitfield's and Clarke's sides to try and negotiate a peace. Opposition was intense at first, but the diplomats skillfully countered and deflected all of the arguments, and eventually got permission for the base.

Ptah's focus shifted a little. Much of the slag that was being tossed as waste was reprocessed into pre-formed smartcrete slabs that would be used to build the base. Plans were drawn up, robotic builders designed, and materials gathered, all with the goal to build a fully functional, fully defended base on Totalia itself as fast as possible. The base had to be fully defensible before Clarke could get forces on site to destroy it. Given the plans to have it up and functional within a few days, the base was nicknamed Rome, a name that quickly stuck and became official.

The Rickenbacker was moved closer to Ptah, along with almost every ship that could land on a planet with cargo loads. The cargo ships would be loaded up with the material and people that would build and populate Rome. Those ships in turn would be packed as tightly as possible in Rickenbacker's carrier decks. For the ships that weren't loaded into the carrier, most of them were assigned escort duty. They would be escorting and protecting Rickenbacker to Totalia and help shield it through the Totalian barrier before it tackled the Totalium barrier by itself. Rickenbacker would punch through the Kessler field alone and stay in low orbit where it would unload its cargo fleet.

Within a few weeks of the initial proposals, Rickenbacker and most of the Fleet's Ranger and Scout forces were making their way to Totalia for the first time, leaving a skeleton fighter fleet to watch over the Western and the rest of the ships around Sekhmet.

"Totalia is down," Yuri noted, looking at the marble sized planet. They were near the front of the Rickenbacker escort group and so they were the first to enter the planet's gravity well.

"Nervous?" Skyfire asked. The pair were fused up and in battle mode. Their avatars were armored up, similar to Skyfire's armor mode, even though they were just in a virtual cockpit.

"Of course I'm nervous! This is our first real combat situation after all."

"Only if they shoot first. They could always let Rick dive down unimpeded."

"If you believe that, I've got a planet to sell you."

The Caravan shuddered faintly as they released their part of the Argus swarm. Dozens of short-life probes spread from them, joining with similar swarms from the rest of the ranger escort. The cameras of the probes faced towards Totalia, searching for the Zealot ships. They were fairly confident of the location of the biggest ships, but there were uncountable other unknown threats lurking around the planet. Gradually, the tactical maps filled in details, first with the larger ships and stations, and then a mix of smaller satellites and shuttles.

"Rick's set his course," Skyfire said, a path appearing. "As planned, he's going to keep maximum distance from the main Totalian forces, while getting into the Kessler field as fast as possible."

"Course confirmed. Confirming our watch zones," Yuri added, a glow indicating the space they were in charge of keeping clear. "Shields green. Weapons hot."

"This is Captain Esmeralda Souza of the Rickenbacker to everyone who is listening." the Rickenbacker Captain broadcast on all of the channels they knew the Totalians used. "We are on a diplomatic peace mission to the planet. Interfere at your own risk. Attacks will be answered in kind. Leave us be and we will leave you be. I repeat..."

"Here goes something," Yuri said, taking a deep breath to try and calm himself. On the tactical levels, they could see the reaction to the Rickenbacker's message spread among the Totalian forces. Movement patterns shifted, intercept vectors taking shape. Yuri noted the ones they could see that might enter their zone, and tried to figure out which ones might suddenly head their way. His world began to spin a little from trying to cope with all the inputs at once, and he felt Ghost's presence in his head taking over and keeping him balanced.

"Hey guys, how's it going?"

Yuri almost fired their weapons in surprise. He glared at the green dragon that was suddenly in their virtual space. "Jadia! what are you doing here?"

"Skyfire invited me. She called me actually. Looks like you've got a better view than I have," Jadia replied, landing on top of the simulated planet, covering most of the north pole and looking out the cockpit window.

"I figured you could use a distraction before things get too hairy," Skyfire said. "It's harder for Ghost to keep your mind straight when you become too focused and nervous."

"I suppose so. How are you guys holding up?" Yuri asked, conceding the point to Skyfire.

Jadia scratched under a wing with her rear leg. "As well as we can hope for. Not much we can do one way or another but keep the passengers occupied. We don't even have a good view. I've been staring at the side of a cargo whale since we left Sekhmet."

"Well, it shouldn't be much longer," Skyfire said. "Really, you guys have the harder job. Once Rick gets below the Kessler field, we skedaddle back to high orbit and wait. You're the one that's going to be playing tag with their air force."

"Tell me about it. You sure you two don't want to come along? I'm sure we can still find room somewhere for you."

Yuri laughed, "Nah, we're good. Planets are too confining."

A warning beep made them refocus on the task at hand. The tactical views had gone yellow and many of the icons were now orange, indicating they were on intercept paths.

"Clarke's sent a reply," Skyfire noted, getting serious. "As expected, he is denying the validity of the diplomatic mission and not recognizing Rick's passengers. 'Turn away from the planet or be shot out of the skies, bla bla bla'."

"He's seriously ready to start a war with all the colonies at once?" Jadia asked.

"Probably not," Yuri said. "Or rather, he probably is, but it wouldn't start a war. No more than we're already at war. Still, let's not get shot out of the skies."

"Rickenbacker on All Fleet. We are approaching Totalia and Clarke has made his intentions clear. Remember our own intentions. Let them get the first shot, and shoot to wound when possible. We don't want to be the bad guys. Stay safe, and thank you all."

Jadia looked around the virtual space and looked worried. "I should get going; you're going to need all your focus now. Are you worried?"

"A little. But we still have the odds in our favour," Yuri admitted.

"They have more gas in the tank and they're harder to spot, but we're a lot more agile. Thanks to Totalium, it's a fairer fight than it should be, but we're ready for them," Skyfire added.

Jadia flitted over and nuzzled both of them. "Stay safe then."

"You too. Give us a call as soon as you're on the ground," Yuri said, scratching her back.

"Will do," she replied, flicking out of the virtual.

The remaining Rangers kept an eye on the tactical screen, seeing the Totalian forces converging on their own fleet. It remained lit in oranges and yellows, indicating no one had fired yet.

"This is Captain Sandeep, Commander of the Totalian space forces with a message to the fleet around Totalia. I am vouching for the sincerity of their mission. The approaching Zharusians are NOT hostile. Let them through with their diplomatic envoy and no one needs to be hurt."

"Too late," Skyfire muttered as an icon flared bright red. The tactical screen showed a Ranger ship towards the aft of the escort had taken a solid missile hit; not enough to destroy but enough that he had to start climbing away. A new Totalian icon showed where the previously unnoticed fighter had managed to sneak up on them from behind.

"Argus is switching to sphere mode. Hopefully we can spot more of the sneaky guys.... Gotcha!" Skyfire said, highlighting another half dozen threats, including one that was approaching the edge of their own fire zone.

"-s not too late. Stand down and let them pass peacefully. The Zharusian escort will not retaliate if you show signs of backing off. Hold your fire and avoid any more injuries," Sandeep continued broadcasting, clearly being kept appraised of the situation through the DINComms.

"The hell we won't," Skyfire said. Yuri could feel their own weapons fully charged, his EI friend's focus fully on the Totalian fighter on the edge of their range. "Come on, just a few klicks closer..." she mumbled.

"This is a Fleetwide Order. Continue holding your fire. We're going to give them as many chances as we can spare without risking the fleet." Captain Souza said, still sounding calm while trying to keep the situation contained as long as possible.

Yuri put his hand on Skyfire's shoulder. "Easy there. You heard the Captain. First fire hasn't really happened yet."

She tensed then relaxed, even as the Totalian ship came in range. "He's right there. They've drawn first blood. We should fire back."

"Not yet. We need to keep our cool. But keep a lock on him."

The next few minutes lasted an eternity as a second Totalian ship drifted in range. Neither side seemed eager to fire again. The secondary comm channels were filled with nervous chatter from both sides, often warning a ship to back away; neither side wanted to let the other get in too good of a position while the stalemate held. Neither Skyfire nor Yuri dared say a word, not wanting to jinx the situation.

The screen flared red and an alarm sounded. More red lines began to appear as the tension was released.

"It was a warning shot!" a terrified man said on the all-comm.

"Hold fire! Hold fire damnit!" Captain Souza shouted ineffectively. The true first shots had been fired and the battle had started. "Protect the Rickenbacker. Protect yourselves!" she said, shifting her focus once she realized control was lost.

Yuri felt the forces shift suddenly, and felt a bit of heat on his arm, a tactical indicator of a close call. One of the ships in their zone had fired on them while the other was making a break for the carrier. Skyfire had already unleashed a volley of missiles towards the first target and was giving the second chase.

In the seconds between attack moments, he checked on what started the battle. A Ranger ship that was flanking Rickenbacker had fired towards a trio of Totalian spaceplanes that were getting too close. It was obviously a warning shot, but the central Totalian ship accelerated right into the beam. There was a burst of flashed debris and the ship spun out of control, still mostly intact. The other two ships immediately started firing back and chaos took over.

His inner ear rebelled at the sudden shifting forces, bringing his attention back to the present. Their first ship had avoided the missiles, but had been slowed enough to no longer be a threat. The second ship was firing back at them with beam weapons that Skyfire managed to dodge, barely.

Real fighting in space was a lot different from training, Yuri quickly concluded. The basics were the same; if the light speed beam weapons were pointed your way, you had to assume a destructive beam was coming your way. The slower missile weapons could be tracked, but had an aura of inevitability if you didn't remember where they were or dealt with them in other ways. Fighting with Totalium enhanced weapons added another level of difficulty. Missiles and even entire ships could be lost if you weren't tracking closely with visual sensors, leading to unexpected surprises at the worst possible time.

The immediate fighting, Yuri left to Skyfire. She had the reflexes and direct control needed to dodge the immediate threats. He kept his mind on the bigger picture, making sure no one snuck up on them, identifying areas they might be able to help an ally, or when they were getting too close to the Rickenbacker's fire zones. In training, he had often felt that role was superfluous with Skyfire's capabilities. Now, in actual combat, when Skyfire's core was redlining trying to handle all the immediate threats, he recognized his advantage.

:Missile on intercept,: he pointed out, showing the ghost track that was getting dangerously close. Skyfire spun them and fired turning the weapon into a ball of plasma before it got close. He left that behind and scanned local space for more threats while the EI continued their spin and set them after another Totalian fighter.

The battle continued unabated as the Rickenbacker pressed onward towards the planet. Totalian forces were regularly replenished as their fleet reacted. The Fleet's forces were forced closer to the carrier, doing their best to protect the big ship. Kill counts rose steadily; mainly it was just the ships that were disabled, but actual deaths were unavoidable on both sides. When possible, the Rickenbacker tried to scoop up the disabled fighters from either side, but most were left adrift in space until emergency beacons could be answered.

Yuri found himself caught up in Skyfire's excitement as they chased down a Totalian single-man fighter. Once in range, their beams shot out and managed to slice into the ship's main engine. There was an explosion that hid the ship for a moment. When their sensors recovered, they could see the escape pod spinning against the huge mass of the planet, another emergency pinger sounding in the darkness. Yuri joined Skyfire in a celebratory cheer that was cut off as sim space turned orange.

"Rickenbacker on All Fleet. We are entering the Kessler field. We're going on alone from here. All forces are to back off and retreat. Thank you everyone. Watch your backs."

"Already? Wow... I thought it would take longer than that," Skyfire noted, her voice quivering with excitement.

"We aren't done yet. We have to get back to high orbit with our skins intact," Yuri noted.

He stole a moment to take a look at the big picture. Most of the Fleet ships were still alive. The damaged ones had either been picked up, or were limping away from the battle. A vanguard force was forming to cover their retreat to make sure the Totalians left them alone.

The Rickenbacker was intact, it's armored skin showing a few marks where some things got through, but otherwise it was undamaged. What little damage it had taken was clearly not enough to stop its Kessler dive. The massive ship seemed to gain speed as their vectors diverged; the Caravan climbing upward while the carrier fell towards the planet.

The Zealot forces were regrouping and trying to decide what to do next. Most of them had backed away as the fight got close to the Kessler field. Only the most battle-frenzied crews had followed the Fleet in close, and most of them were now floating in space. Some battlegroups were already starting to follow the Fleet back to high orbit; most seemed content to let them leave.

"I think we're all done but the cleanup," Yuri concluded.

"Seems that way. Almost a shame, but I'm glad it's over. Hear that hiss? That's Totalian dust from the field sandblasting us."

"Right. Time to get out of here before we need a new paintjob."

Yuri worked out a route that would let them grab a few escape pods and they started climbing away.

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Hours later, the Ranger fleet was gathered at a temporary station nicknamed Cairo. It was located at the edge of Totalia's gravity well. On the way in, the basic modules had been dropped off, along with a crew to start assembling it. As the escort fleet returned, the assembly sped up. By the time Yuri and Skyfire reached it, most of the work was complete, forming a mostly zero-G structure. It was primarily made of inflated cylinders, connected with transit tubes and docking locks. The centre of the station was a permanent station core with its own gravity generators. It held the makeshift hospital for the Ranger fleet.

Yuri defused and left the docking headache to Skyfire. He stretched in the cockpit, then pushed himself back to the Caravan's main living space. Inside, the occupants of the three escape pods they had rescued were waiting, mainly keeping to themselves and tending to their wounds.

"We're on final approach to Cairo Station. Given your injuries, we're cleared to dock directly to the medical mod. How are you all holding up?"

"I'm fine," Ranger Nick said. He was scaled with the pebbly skin of a DinoRIDE. The left side of his head and torso was covered in burn cream. His left arm was missing completely, the stub at his shoulder in an emergency seal cast. In his right arm, he protectively held a battered sphere; the core of his RIDE partner.

"Direct access? Good. Can't wait to get a proper bone mender on me," Ranger Sam said. He was floating with his right arm and leg in immobilizing casts.

Yuri nodded to him, and stepped up to an isolation field that divided the space in two. On the other side, a Zealot pilot glared at them. Her battle suit was scorched and unpowered. Her face was red from the explosion she'd escaped from, but she refused any burn creams. Skyfire's scanners detected various cracked bones, but nothing broken; a miracle considering the forces she had escaped from.

"How about you? We'll let the medics look at you, get you all bandaged up as soon as possible."

"Leftenant Monica deVolt. Totalian Space Forces number 943 183 236," she spat out.

Yuri rolled his eyes and drew his finger across four vertical bars on the isolation field, marking off the tenth time she'd given her name, rank and serial number.

"Suit yourself. Like it or not, we're going to patch you up. Beyond that, it's not my call. But we aren't going to hurt you."

"So how are things going? Have you heard?" Sam asked.

Yuri turned back and nodded. "Rick made it through the field. They're still deploying but it looks like the first waves made it down. Resistance is picking up, but nothing they can't handle."

"All right!" Nick said, wincing after he tried to give a fist pump. "Owww..."

Loud clunks echoed through the Caravan, and the air pressure changed slightly. Skyfire appeared next to the hatch. "We have docked with the medical pod. They are waiting for you. Do you require assistance?"

Sam looked at himself and grinned, "I don't know. Are they as pretty as you are, Sky?" he asked.

The hatch irised open and a half dozen men and women pushed in. "Sorry, we save the pretty nurses for the terminal cases," the lead medic said, already heading for the isolation field with three others. The remaining medics tended to the injured rangers while Yuri stayed out of their way.

"But I am terminal! I'm going to die of a broken heart," Sam protested as another medic scanned him. Soon enough, he and Nick were removed from the Caravan on floaters.

The Zealot pilot briefly looked like she wanted to resist, but quickly gave up with the amount of attention she was being given. Without another word, she let them scan her and lead her onto the makeshift station. Once everyone was clear, the airlock sealed up and Yuri felt them begin to move.

"They want to keep the airlock clear, so we have to move to the 'burbs," Skyfire explained.

"Makes sense. You could've let me get off first."

"If I have to walk in, so do you. Besides, we still need to do the damage survey."

Yuri groaned and returned to the cockpit to fuse up again.

Out beyond the reaches of the station and most of the traffic buzzing around it, a fused figure dropped from the Caravan. Skyfire had already finished all of the internal status checks of battle damage and decided that a few sinks and shield emitters needed replacing; otherwise they were in good shape. The last stage was a visual inspection, to note anything that may not have been apparent inside.

The Caravan showed some signs of battle. There were scorch marks from beams that brushed too close; panels bent from the heat of explosions; sections of hull that caused the geiger counters to beep very loudly and an empty spot where a missile launcher had to be ejected because of a lucky beam shot. Despite all that, they were still space worthy, which was more than many other Rangers could say.

"I've reported our status and they've prioritized our slot in the repair queue," Skyfire said. "We're fifth from the last."

"Lucky us. It's a wonder they didn't put us on guard patrol too."

"They tried. I pointed out our kill count and they decided we could use some rest first."

The pair left the Caravan parked near the station and started flying back. "Thanks. Though you probably need the rest more than me."

"I do need a good defrag rest. That was much more intense than I expected. Don't sell yourself short. You were doing a lot too."

Yuri yawned and cycled them through an airlock. "True, true. Training certainly doesn't match the real thing."

"I've grabbed some bunks near here for us. Oh! Goldie just sent a message."

Yuri let his partner walk them along and yawned again, exhaustion hitting him like an orbital. "What does she want?"

"She's just letting us know she's on her way in. I guess the fleet wants someone hefty nearby in case the Zealots get antsy."

"Good good...." Yuri blinked and found himself floating next to a sleeping bag hammock. Skyfire was hooking herself into a power alcove next to it. "What about... uhm... you know..."

"Jadia sent a message. They made it to the planet safely. Only a few hiccups but nothing to worry about. Rome's domes are up and Clarke's pulled his air force back. Looks like it may be a success."

The spacer managed to wiggle into the sleeping bag and nodded again. "Good good," he mumbled, his eyes closing before the last word escaped his lips.

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"What the hell do you think you are doing?" Skyfire shouted, startling Yuri. The spacer grabbed the welder before it floated away and looked to see who Skyfire was yelling at now. All he could see was empty space.

The pair were in an isolated area in the shadow of the Cairo temporary station, doing the final checks and preparations before joining the fleet heading down to escort the Rickenbacker back to open space. They were fused in Armor mode, floating in space next to the Caravan. He checked the sensors and confirmed there was still no one close by; let alone anyone doing anything that would warrant Skyfire's shout.

:What's up Sky?: he asked.

In response, he felt his real view of space shrink down to a corner of his view. It was replaced with a virtual space view almost identical to the Real. The difference was that instead of ships and stations, it was filled with Avatars. The representatives of the RIDEs, EIs and Integrates around Cairo were clustered in various discussion groups, or off doing their own things. Nearby, within 'shouting distance' as far as the sim space was concerned, was a cluster of Avatars representing the Intelligences on Totalia. Further away, there was a larger group of Avatars representing the Great Western and its entourage of intelligences.

"It makes sense Skyfire. We need a distraction to give Rick a window to get out. I'm perfect for that role," a female voice was saying. Yuri turned around and saw Skyfire talking face to face with a golden woman.

"It's too risky, Goldie. The Heart of Gold isn't a warship-"

"The Heart of Gold is more than capable of handling anything the Totalians have. It can handle everything they can dish out and then some," Goldie interrupted her.

"Pride goeth before a fall," Yuri pointed out. "We thought that before, and the Western got his ass blown out in a surprise attack."

Goldie looked towards Yuri and nodded, "I realize that. But that was then, this is now. When we arrived, we were going only by second-hand information about the Totalian capabilities. Here and now, we've been watching them constantly, and we've got a good bead on their capabilities. I'm confident they have no surprises that could hurt me like the Western was."

Skyfire shook her head and wrung her hands in frustration. "It's too risky. You're one of the most powerful ships we have in system. With Rick down there, that puts too much of our power at risk."

Yuri caught himself up with a quick summary of the planned mission and realized Skyfire's concerns. "You're worried about using the Heart of Gold as bait?" he asked her.

Yuri nodded while Goldie snapped her fingers. A small model of Totalia appeared, zooming in on the orbiting ships. "Clarke, or at least whoever is in charge of the Zealot fleet, has been keeping their big guns shadowing the Rickenbacker on the other side of the Kessler field since he went down. They'll be on him like glue the moment he clears the field; and with his shields already strained from going through said field, not to mention the week's worth of dust-blasting they've endured since they dove, there is a realistic chance the Cosmy could do significant damage."

The model changed, the Heart of Gold zooming in from above with an escort fleet of her own, heading for another area of the planet. Part of the Zealot fleet broke formation and started chasing her. "So we need to even the odds a bit. I'll come in loud and fast, luring as many of them away as I can. Rick should then be able to scoot past the rest and get into free space."

Yuri watched and nodded. "It makes sense. Are you sure they will follow you?"

"Positive. They're too suspicious and paranoid to not let it go without a reaction. Every one of their ships following me is one less banging on Rick on his way out," Goldie said.

"It's too dangerous. You're not a warship," Skyfire countered, repeating herself.

"You said it yourself, I'm one of the most powerful ships in the system. I may not be a warship, but I've got more than enough protection to handle anything they can dish out. Besides, doing this now is an ideal time. It's less total risk for everyone."

"What do you mean?" Skyfire asked.

"What she means," a new voice said, coming from the left head of a two-headed canine integrate. "Is that we are catching two birds with one net with this mission," the right head finished. "Or something like that," the left head added.

Yuri groaned, feeling a headache starting, like he often felt when dealing with the mad scientist integrates. Zaphod glanced at him and smiled while Beeblebrox continued.

"We've been itching to get a better view of that Kessler field since we heard about it. Ideally we'd want to get one of those missiles that are populating it before they blow, but that's all but impossible."

"So instead, we're going to dip into the field and net as much of the debris as we can while we're in there," Zaphod said.

"What? What for?" Skyfire asked.

"For Science!" Zaphod exclaimed.

"Well actually for our ultimate mission," Goldie corrected him. "We've been charged with solving this Kessler field problem. With a good sample base, we're hoping we can isolate where they are mining the Totalium in the outer system to help narrow the search. And to get a better idea of how to sweep the orbit clean afterwards."

"So you're splitting the risk," Yuri noted, putting the pieces together. "Either mission alone would get the full attention of Clarke's fleet. But by doing both at once, you split their focus. Two juicy targets, both impossible to ignore."

"And impossible to take out without using the full fleet at his disposal. A smart commander would realize that and not split up," Skyfire noted.

"That's where the beauty of the plan comes into play," Zaphod said. "We'll be heading to our own target and be very loud and obvious about it. Meanwhile, Rick won't start loading for departure until long after we're on the way. The Totalians will see us moving, and since they are already bored from doing nothing over the past week and since Rick won't seem to be doing anything, they have no reason not to send some after us. Sending guys after us is the logical move. By the time word gets to them that Rick's loading up and getting ready to leave, they'll be out of position."

"I still don't like it," Skyfire sighed, her shoulders slumping.

Yuri hugged her, trying to comfort his partner. "That's war. A bunch of things no one likes but someone has to deal with. I'm sure Goldie won't be taking any risks she doesn't have to."

"Of course I won't. I just got my hull detailed after Zaphod's latest accident."

"That was not an accident!" Zaphod sputtered. "That was a perfectly planned unanticipated very accelerated chain reaction."

"A chain reaction that blew through two safety bulkheads and the outer hull. Not to mention sent you and Ford to the med beds for a day."

The canine shrugged, "It was useful. We discovered that Totalium reacts like any other matter in the presence of antimatter." Zaphod said. "It does imply that it could have an anti-counter part. I wonder what anti-Totalium would be like?" Beeblebrox mused.

Goldie sighed and made a shooing motion, brushing the integrate out of their conversation space. "Don't worry, we'll be careful. Make sure you two are careful. You're the ones actually seeing battle," she said.

"We will be. We know what we're getting into," Yuri assured her. "Good luck."

"Same to you."

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"This is a warning to the approaching Zharusian ships. You are approaching restricted space. Turn back now or be fired upon. This is your only warning." the Totalian ship broadcast. Fused up and back in a familiar position in the escort fleet, Yuri tensed a little and waited for the reaction.

"Hi Captain Shartan, I am Goldie of the Heart of Gold. I'm a science ship that means you no harm. I've heard you have a tiny little problem with orbital debris, so I'm coming to take a look see. Don't worry your pretty little head about us, we can handle a little bit of space dust." Goldie sent back, mimicking her best southern belle drawl. She had identified the sending ship and its captain from the Totalian records.

"Here goes nothing," Yuri mused, watching for the Cosmy reaction. There had been some concern that the Zealots might actually accept Goldie's help and let her in without issue, so her public face to them was meant to infuriate them into actually following her.

"Well Captain Goldie, while we appreciate your offer of help, we must insist you wait in high orbit until we clear you, and only you for your planned mission. We can provide any further escort close to the planet when permission is granted," the Totalian captain responded.

"It's just Goldie; we don't really stand for that 'Captain' nonsense here, or much on titles in general. It gets too crazy with all the doctorates I have on board. And I must insist on going in now. Considering your reaction to the last humanitarian mission, I will be keeping my escort as well."

"We've got movement. They worked out Goldie's trajectory and two ships are breaking formation," Skyfire said. "Rick's loading up now. Jadia's on line one, shall we answer?"

"Sure, not as if we're doing anything important yet," Yuri glanced at the tac screen to make sure things were still calm.

The comm channel activated, showing the familiar dragon pair on the bridge of their ship. A strange man was seated in the forefront, a Totalian who was looking more than a little shellshocked.

"Hey there, how was the planet?" Yuri asked.

"Good, but we're glad to be heading back up," Jadia said.

"We'll be glad to have you back up here. Who's your friend? You drop the Earther already?" Skyfire asked.

"We were always going to drop Charles off here. We didn't expect he'd give us a stray to take back up. This is former Lieutenant Bobby MacKay, formerly of the Totalian forces, and now seeking asylum with the Fleet. Bobby, this is Yuri and Skyfire."

The Totalian waved to the others, and was promptly lost as the discussion left him behind.

"How have things been up there? You haven't been too bored, have you?" Jadia asked.

"Clarke's crews have been mostly leaving us alone, other than the occasional tests. They're pissed we're holding high orbit up here with the Cairo station, but there isn't much they can do about it," Skyfire explained.

"Goldie joined us a few days ago, officially to get a better feel of the Kessler field. I guess the Fleet's going to try and clean it up, with or without Clarke's help or permission," Yuri added. "Needless to say that pissed them off more, especially now that she's running distraction for your own escape."

"Any recent changes? It should be obvious to everyone that Rick's getting ready to leave," Ajax asked.

"It's buzzing like a beehive up here," Skyfire said. "Goldie's drawn two ships away, but there's lots up here just waiting for you to pop your head up through the field."

"Fun. Fun. Well, we're here now. I'll call you later, once we're out of the Kessler mess," Jadia said.

The channel closed and Yuri sighed. "Well, glad they're good. We just have to make sure they stay that way."

"We'll be fine. Just keep our heads in the game and all will be good," Skyfire reassured him.

Yuri nodded and tried to force himself to stay calm and keep watching the big picture. From now on, it was going to be a complicated dance as they tried to maneuver the Cosmy forces out of position enough for Rick to get into their protective envelope and away from the planet. Eventually most of the escort fleet would break away from the Heart of Gold to get into position to meet the Rickenbacker; the trick was to put it off long enough for the Cosmy to not realise something was up. On the public comms, Goldie continued her infuriating banter with Captain Shartan, doing her best to distract, confuse and infuriate them.

:Here we go!: Skyfire exclaimed, her engines stepping up and moving them out of formation. Two third of the escort ships joined her.

In the virtual space the fused pair shared, the Real view faded away, replaced by a colour coded diagram. Zharusian ships heading towards the rendezvous with the Rickenbacker were shown in green. The Heart of Gold was a gold arrow arching around the planet, escorted with a smaller number of blue arrows. Red arrows represented the known Cosmy ships, two large ones following the Heart of Gold, while the rest were just starting to accelerate, trying to guess where the Rickenbacker was going. Deep below the diagram, a larger silver arrow was on the move, climbing out of the planetary gravity well, while making its course as random as it could to keep the Cosmy guessing. Yuri tried to take in the big picture as best he could before the universe began spinning even with Ghost's help. The view made him close his eyes for a moment.

"They've noticed Rick's on the move," Skyfire confirmed. "Trying to guess where he's going to pop up. We're going to spread out a bit, make it harder for them to figure out where we're meeting."

Yuri opened his eyes and saw Skyfire had simplified the view a bit; Goldie and her escort were off the screen as were the two Cosmy ships heading her way. The rest of the view was still confusing, but he managed to sort it out with only a couple more dizzy spells.

"Rick's committed. He's entered the lower reaches of the Kessler field. The planetary forces have given up following him," Skyfire reported.

The view snapped into focus now that they were no longer guessing. They knew exactly where the Rickenbacker would clear the field and where they needed to be to best protect him. The swarm of green converged on the silver arrow long before the closest red could reach them.

"So far, so good," Yuri commented, biting his tongue before he said anything more that might risk the wrath of Murphy.

"Weapons hot, targeting systems active," Skyfire reported, sounding excited and stressed.

"Remember, same as before. They get the first shot."

"I know. Doesn't mean I like it."

The last few minutes passed in an eternal blur. Yuri kept his eye on the big picture, trying to guess where the curve balls would come from.

"The Cosmy's given up on Goldy. Their ships are adjusting to intercept us," Skyfire pointed out, restoring the red arrows on the view. They were accelerating even more, on a vector that would let them swing around the planet and catch up with them on a higher orbit.

"I guess they see Rick as a bigger prize than Goldy. She'll probably be disappointed."

"I'm not, the plan worked better than we could have hoped. She's safe, and the Cosmy is going to be so strung out they shouldn't be much of a threat."

Yuri winced and inwardly hoped Murphy missed that subtle taunt. He switched back to a Real view, and the planet jumped up ahead of them, filling most of his view. Filters dimmed the brightness, while Skyfire helpfully highlighted a bright spot coming up from below. He zoomed in on it and watched Rickenbacker climb out, his shields flaring as he plowed through the invisible debris field. Yuri felt forces shift around him as Skyfire adjusted the caravan's engines, moving their trajectory to better line up with the big ship. The planet dropped away behind them, along with the view of the carrier. Yuri shifted to a rear view and jumped in surprise; Rickenbacker looked like it was trying to climb up their rear exhausts. Skyfire laughed and undid the zoom, letting the ship shrink back to its true size.

An alarm sounded, and Yuri switched back to a tactical view where he quickly saw the trouble. Red flashed at the end of the fleet, red arrows mingling with the green ones. Evasive actions were already being taken.

"They fired first, looks like they're trying to get us out of the way to give the bigger ships a clear shot at Rick," Skyfire noted. Since they weren't actively fighting, she could peek over his shoulder at the tactical situation. "Should we offer to drop back to help?"

Yuri shook his head quickly and shrunk the tactical view a few more notches. "No, they need us up front. Our feint set them up for a pincer if we're not careful," he said, pointing to a spot ahead of them where the red lines converged on the silver line.

"Yeah... that's not so good. Damn they're fast," Skyfire said.

"Fast, but almost too fast. We're still going in different directions than them. At those speeds, there will only have a small window of interaction before we blow past."

The pair fell silent, watching the remote battle and waiting for their phase of the fight. Unlike the first trip, neither side seemed to be out for blood. The Cosmy ships were more focused on scattering the Rangers and Scouts out of the way to give their bigger ships a direct attack vector to the Rickenbacker. That didn't mean there weren't casualties; it just meant the numbers were smaller than the first battle. For the Rickenbacker's part, there was little the ship could do. Most of the fighting was beyond its weapon range, and it couldn't change its direction without giving the other ships a better target opportunity.

Finally, the moment of closest approach came, and reality proved what the numbers had shown for the past few minutes. Rickenbacker was at the very edge of the range of the Cosmy ships. The Cosmy ships fired a salvo of missiles along with every beam weapon they could bring to bear. The beams splashed against Rick's shields, while the missiles were easily taken out by his point defense weapons; the Totalium stealthing didn't help much when the ship had plenty of time to eyeball and lock on to the missiles. It was obvious Rickenbacker was ignoring the ships themselves.

"Part one done," Yuri said, letting out a breath he'd been holding without realizing it. The Cosmy ships were doing their best to turn around to continue the fight, but orbital mechanics were against them. The smaller skirmishes were dying off, as the trailing Rangers and Scouts broke away as best they could.

"Part two starting NOW!" Skyfire shouted. The outside view spun suddenly, and Yuri sensed a sudden drain as she fired their beams. A few kilometers away, an explosion lit up the darkness.

"They fired missiles already?" Yuri asked, focusing on the tactical view again. A swarm of red was shooting ahead of the pair of Cosmy ships.

"Only thing they've got that could really catch us," Skyfire said, before spinning them again. Another explosion lit up ahead of them. "They're damn near impossible to see too."

They fell silent, focusing on their jobs at hand. Skyfire did her best, pirouetting in space to take out missile after missile as soon as they were spotted. Yuri focused on the bigger picture, like before, making sure they stayed in formation and provided decent coverage to protect the Rickenbacker. For whatever reasons, it was soon obvious that the Totalians were trying to missile spam them down; no fighters were being launched.

"Not sure what they're up to," Yuri mused. "Maybe their bays are empty. Or they don't want to risk launching at these speeds."

"They don't have inertial field tech like we do. Maybe they don't want to risk it. We're coming into beam range."

The rest of the battle passed in a blur. They were forced to zig and zag more to stay out of the sightlines of the beam weapons, while still taking out as many missiles as possible. There were more close calls, and a direct brushing hit that didn't disable them, but forced them to let more missiles past. Rickenbacker's point to point defenses took out most of them, and the remaining few splashed against his shields. In the end, a couple made it all the way through, blowing up against the carrier's armored hide but not causing any significant damage.

At the closest approach, Yuri could barely see anything behind the explosions going on all around them. He trusted Skyfire to handle the immediate threats and just rode along, no longer able to see the big picture.

Finally, the beams stopped firing and the missile spam lightened up. He looked around, trying to assess the status of the fleet. He could clearly see the Rickenbacker was intact and still heading upward. The two Totalian ships were getting further away and had stopped their attack; no other Totalians were in the area.

"We're clear," Skyfire said, sounding exhausted. "Rick and the trailing group are picking up survivors. We'll be well clear of the planet by the time they can get back around."

"Good. We seem to be in good shape. Rads are a bit higher than I'd like; the Caravan will need a good purge before we can let anyone in unprotected. But good shape. How's Goldie?"

"Goldie's good. She says she's doing her scoop now. One of the Totalian ships is on course towards her, but they seem to be taking their time."

Yuri chuckled, "I think they want this field gone even more than we do. It's probably a token show of resistance but they'll be sure to be just too late to do anything about her, as long as she doesn't dawdle."

"She isn't dawdling. She'll be on her way back out by the time we get to Cairo."

He paused to look around one last time. They were leading the parade of Zharusian ships away from Totalia. Some were darting around to pick up escape pods and ejected cores, but all in all the group seemed to have escaped with only minor damage.

"Well, we've successfully shown how impotent the Totalian fleet is a second time. Clarke's not going to be happy with that. At least the guy up here has shown he's got a few brain cells. Hopefully he doesn't do anything stupid."

"Hopefully," Skyfire agreed. "In the meantime, we got volunteered for guard duty around Cairo while they sort out the damage. So I'm going to steal a few defrag cycles before we get there."

Yuri yawned and nodded. "Sounds good. Ghost can alert us if anything happens until then. I'll grab forty winks too."

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With Rome established on the planet, action in space effectively paused to give the ambassadors and diplomats time to work their magic. It was a welcome pause, giving the Fleet time to continue repairs and upgrades to the Zharusian and Loyalist ships. The Zealot ships for their part, mostly stayed in Totalia orbit, or did runs out to the shipyards in the system's asteroid belt, making sure to give Cairo and the Heart of Gold a wide berth.

Eventually, the Fleet's patience ran out. In particular, they ran into a hard logistics wall in their construction plans. Ptah could supply all the material they needed, and the fabbers could turn it into what they needed, eventually. What they lacked was a framework suitable for taking the ships apart to repair deeper damage and reassembling all the pieces back to where they should be. In a nutshell, the Fleet realized they desperately needed their own shipyard.

Building a proper shipyard at Ptah was considered and dismissed; they were missing the expertise, and it would take too long to learn and build the tools to build the tools they needed. Waiting for the industrial fleet was similarly considered and rejected due to taking too long to get set up. The only practical solution, in the Fleet's eyes, was the pristine, if somewhat archaic, shipyard just an orbital track away.

"I can't believe we were left behind," Skyfire bemoaned. The EI paced the deck of the hanger of the Megazord module, going between a workbench and her Caravan body. She grabbed a tool off the bench on her way by.

"It's only fair. We had our time in the spotlight, time to let the others face the fire," Yuri consoled her, his voice muffled by the bulk of the ship he was working on. His hand reached out blindly and Skyfire slapped the tool into it. "Thank you."

"That's just it. We were in the spotlight. We've seen battle. We've got experience. We should be out there helping wrap things up. Not sitting back here guarding peaceniks."

"The Ark, the Megazord the Ptah refinery and the rest of the modules are hardly peaceniks," Yuri corrected her. "They are unarmored ships that have no reason to be anywhere near anything resembling a battlezone, hence why they were left behind. And Ptah isn't exactly mobile. Since they're back here, someone needs to watch them, in case the Cosmy decides to try and hit us where it hurts."

Skyfire grumbled and sat on the end of the workbench. "I know. It's just... This is it. This is the fight that will win space once and for all around here. I hate missing it."

"Do you really think this will be it?" a new voice joined into their conversation.

Yuri jumped in surprise, a bang coming from the compartment he was working in, followed by a clatter of dropped tools and a string of Spacer curses. The spacer pulled himself out, holding a rag to a bloody gash on the back of his head.

"I'm sorry for startling you. Are you alright?" the voice asked, sounding honestly contrite. The muffled giggling next to him was much less contrite.

"I'm fine, I'm fine," Yuri reassured the young man. The familiar stranger was in basic civilian dress, with a pyramid-shaped badge on his chest indicating he was Totalian. The draconic giggling pair next to him needed no introduction.

"You certainly couldn't mess up that noggin any more than it already is," Ajax smirked.

Skyfire walked over and fused with Yuri. The spacer felt his scalp tingle as the medi-nanites started their work. "I'm sure I could mess it up more if I tried; but Ghost would have my scalp," Yuri said. "You look familiar, did we meet somewhere?"

"This is former-Lieutenant Robers MacKay, formerly of the Totalian Defense Forces, Air Division," Jadia introduced the man, taking off from Ajax's shoulders and flying over to him. The Totalian barely flinched as she settled on his shoulder.

"We found him on the planet and the Fleet said we could keep him," Ajax said.

"Oh yeah! Now I remember you. The Mute!" Yuri grinned at the Totalian. "Glad to hear you found your tongue. Does Charles know you're picking up strays now?" he asked Ajax, shifting their gaze to her.

"Know? He all but shoved Bobby into the Tiger's airlock as we were leaving," Jadia laughed.

"Interesting to see your relationship is so open. Especially for two Earthers," Skyfire said.

"Former Solar in my respect," Ajax corrected her. "And possibly former in Charles's respect soon. He's causing waves in the Earth delegation that Chuck's not liking."

"I'm sure he'll be fine. Rome's the safest place in the system, outside of the Western," Yuri assured her. Skyfire opened up and let him step out, not a drop of blood nor the hint of a scar showing from the gash he had before. Bobby's eyes widened in surprise. Yuri offered his hand to Robers. "Good to finally meet you in the flesh. Hope your trip out wasn't too rough. It was certainly fun for us."

Robers shook the offered hand. "Thank you. The trip was fine. Scary but nothing we could do.... That still amazes me; that you can do that sort of thing without even being amazed by it," the Totalian said, shaking his head.

"What? The healing? It is amazing, but you do get used to it eventually. Ever so often, new eyes will remind you of how incredible our world really is," Ajax noted. "Would you two care to join us? We're heading over to the Ark for a picnic and to show Bobby the bio-gift we're giving Totalia."

Yuri wiped his hands on a rag and tossed it on the bench. "Sure, why not. A healing always leaves me starving, and the Caravan's space worthy enough if we need it to be. We were just doing some tuning on the Maddie's project to keep it from leeching our power as much. Our ship or yours?"

"The Tiger's outside already, so our ship, unless you want to fly," Jadia offered.

"We always want to fly, but don't think I haven't noticed you inching Big-Jay towards the airfield. We'll take the Tiger," Skyfire said, fusing around Yuri again.

The group walked over to a green scaled dragon themed spaceplane that was near the hanger exit. Bobby looked at it, then at the rest of the group, then back at the single seat cockpit. "Uhm, how are we all going to...?"

Ajax laughed, while Jadia took off, curling into a ball and rolling through a hatch that irised open and closed for her. The ship changed subtly, becoming more livelier.

"You take the cockpit, I'll be fused with it. Skyfire and Yuri can handle themselves," Ajax explained, jumping up on top of the plane. Another hatch slid open and she slid into it.

Robert blinked, then shook his head. "You can handle yourselves? You're space safe?"

"Of course we are. We're Spacers," Skyfire said. "For such a short trip out to the Tiger, Yuri could probably even handle it without me."

"But you make it a lot more comfortable. Just because I'm vac-hardened doesn't mean I like going out there unprotected," Yuri added, their stance shifting to reflect the other speaker. "You want a hand up to the cockpit?"

"I...I think I can manage. Thanks though," Robert said. He looked out at the draconian Zharusian spacecraft to gawk. "I don't think we have an Aphorism for this one yet... "

Ajax and Jadia's ship, the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, was a Milano-class Ranger ship like most of the Ranger fleet. It's colour scheme was emerald green with dark tiger striping, and a painted animated tiger on the nose below the cockpit. It had been modified to accept Big-Jadia's space plane mode and let the occupants into the living space without having to go outside.

The group gathered on the flight deck after leaving the Megazord, and continued their conversation while Jadia piloted them towards the Ark.

"So uhm... you really think taking the shipyard will calm things down in space?" Robers asked, his eyes focused outside the windows, studying the activity around Ptah.

"Very likely," Yuri said. "You guys haven't really expanded much in your system. You're around Totalia, in the belt, and you've got some idiots throwing around rocks in the cloud and nothing else. The idiots are irrelevant and your planetary forces are mostly stuck landbound or heading to the shipyard. We take over the shipyard, and we control all your manufacturing and most of your space pop."

"In most systems, people are more spread out. If you want to take over Space you have to take over multiple population and manufacturing centres. Back home for example, if you could somehow control Rhodes and Zharus, you'd cripple us, but we'd still have enough power elsewhere that it wouldn't be a nice occupation," Skyfire said.

"And Sol, Sol's probably the most hardened place in the human universe. Jupiter and Terra are the keys, but if you can grab them, you still have Saturn, Luna and Mars to worry about; not to mention Ceres. And if you get all that you still have significant populations in the rest of the Belt, and around Mercury.... Well, let's just say that while I'm no longer a Solar, I wouldn't want to get in a fight with them," Ajax pointed out.

"Well, that's because Sol is the original. It has half a millenia more worth of space travel to build up with that most of the colonies don't have. Not to mention the population source," Skyfire said. "On the other hand, Totalia's system is still young, one of the youngest in Human space. You guys haven't spread out much, which in turn makes it easier to take over. If the Keplers were conquerors instead of pirates, you'd really be in trouble," Skyfire noted.

"Still, the guys around Totalia, they won't take this lying down. They'll keep resisting," Robers said, trying to find a bright spot for his side.

"With the defectors we've gotten, we've got a good bead on your fleet strength and enough eyes around the system to know where they are. Goldie and Cairo have already noticed most of them are on their way out to the Shipyard. The ones that stay behind, well they've already shown they are a practical bunch. They've had their backs have been against the wall since the planet was closed off. Losing the Shipyard will be the last straw and everyone knows that. When it's over, they'll have to surrender. They won't have anything left to resist with," Skyfire said. "And if they do still have some fight left... well, the Fleet will be inbound and itching to wrap this up, one way or another."

Robers fell silent a moment, mulling over the information he'd been given. "Aren't you worried about more surprises? You took the Western out to the shipyard. We damaged it once already...." he trailed off, noticing how everyone was on the verge of laughing.

"The Western is a Star Circus ship. She may be underequipped and undermanned for her normal job, but even in her current state, she's probably the most powerful ships in the system," Ajax noted.

Yuri nodded in agreement. "You don't mess with the Star Circus. A system may have a few surprises that they keep secret until they need to show them. The Circus travels to all the systems and collects those secrets like a cat lady collects cats, whether the system wants to share them or not. And when it has to, the Circus has no qualms against bringing all those secrets to bear."

"But we damaged the Western. It can't go FTL again. It's the reason you need the shipyard in the first place."

"You guys got off a lucky shot. We weren't paying attention and we were too prideful. But you rolled two twenties, and you still only managed to wing it. If it had been the Eastern or if the Western were complete, that shot likely wouldn't have singed the paint," Ajax explained.

"Oh... I see... I think."

"You guys were out-powered as soon as we arrived," Yuri said. "But we aren't invaders. We're coming as friends. We want to welcome you back as brothers and sisters."

"That's why we're being so careful and cautious," Skyfire continued. "We're giving you some slaps and trying to get you to behave like a mature civilization. Which means exposing ourselves to more harm, but hopefully it'll result in better future relations."

The ship shuddered slightly, and the air became more humid. "We've docked and the locks are opened," Jadia announced, popping out of an access hatch. "Shall we go have our picnic? Noah says the weather on the beach biome is going to be Alohan."

Ajax picked up a picnic basket and grinned. "Sounds great. Maybe we can make the beachgoers Alohan too."

Skyfire laughed and took Robers's arm, guiding him away. "I'm not sure your new friend is ready for an Alohan experience."

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Ra System, Kuiper belt

With the space-side of the civil war stumbling towards peace, the Fleet was turning its attention to another problem; dealing with the Totalium enriched Kessler debris field the zealots had flooded Totalia's orbital space with. Since early in the war, the stealth rockets had regularly come out of deep space from all directions and blown up near the planet. Low orbit was flooded with Totalium enriched rocks that isolated the planet from the rest of the universe. After multiple more fishing expeditions, Zaphod's Fringe group on the Heart of Gold were able to make some educated guesses on where the rockets were coming from.

Dozens of volunteer teams made of Rangers, Scouts and Cosmy sailors were dispatched to the outer belt to search for the factories. For safety reasons, pairs of ships were sent out to each search sector. The belt itself was almost as hazardous as Totalia orbit; the enriched frozen bodies that floated out there were hard to see in the darkness by eye and what sensors would read as a cluster of dust and boulders, often turned out to be a large mass with raw totalium on the surface. Jadia, Ajax, Skyfire and Yuri were sent out as one such volunteer team, to a region that Goldie privately assured them had a high chance of containing a factory.

"Well, we're in the search area now. You want to go left and we'll take right?" Jadia asked, highlighting the search plans they had developed en route. The group had flown out with the Caravan linked to the Crouching Tiger.

"As good a plan as any. Shout if you spot anything and be careful," Yuri replied.

In the Real, the ships separated. The Crouching Tiger released its grip on the Caravan mode and the two moved apart, heading to their preplanned regions. On each ship, a hatch opened up, releasing a stream of smaller probes that would help their search.

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"You guys have got to be cheating. That's the only way to explain this," Yuri grumbled, watching as his figure on the virtual board got landed on and sent back to the home zone.

"Sorry my dear, but you know what that means." Ajax grinned, fanning herself with a victorian era fan.

Yuri shook his head and unbuttoned his shirt, revealing an under t-shirt. He tossed the shirt onto the pile next to him.

"I still say you're cheating. I'm down to my t-shirt and trunks, and you guys all have enough clothes to make a Victorian girl look underdressed," he griped, looking around the table.

The four were in a simple virtual space, little more than a room with windows looking into space, and a table with the board game. Ajax and the Intelligences were clad in multiple layers of dresses and blouses and jackets, to the point that the dragons' wings and tails were completely hidden.

"Not cheating. You're the one who suggested playing Strip Sorry. We can't help it if you have no luck with the dice," Jadia smirked.

Yuri picked up the dice and rolled, moving his men on the board. "Sorry, Chess, Poker, Backgammon, Chinese Checkers... It hasn't made a difference. It's always ended with me in the buff and you guys all covered up."

Ajax took her turn. She realized she could have sent one of Yuri's men back, but decided to take pity and moved one of hers into the safe zone. "Well, you're in the shared space with three women. You are just a little outnumbered."

Skyfire took her turn, finding a similar opportunity with her dice roll and taking it. She sent Yuri's leading figure back to Home and looked up at him, smirking. "Outnumbered and out manned."

He threw up his hands in frustration. "My own partner is even against me!" he exclaimed, tugging off his shirt, leaving his chest bare.

As he tossed the shirt onto the pile, the dragon side of the room flickered. The EI pair looked over as the dragons took on a distant look.

"False alarm," Jadia announced finally, refocusing on the game.

"It was a gamma burst in M-462," Ajax explained.

Skyfire and Yuri nodded understandably. The EIDE and RIDE were using most of their processing power to handle the sensor inputs from the probes, watching for any incongruities that might indicate the Zealot bases. That left very little power behind for simspace distractions, hence their simple entertainment room. The extra sensitivity of the sensors also meant that they were constantly getting false alarms from phenomena beyond the Totalia system; often from beyond the Milky Way even.

"Well, there are still two more factories out there somewhere, and if they spread out evenly, one is likely in our zones," Yuri said. "Just need to find it."

Jadia picked up the dice and rolled. She scanned the board and smiled. Yuri followed her gaze and groaned. "Rigged I tell you. You guys are rigging this."

She grinned evilly. "Sorry Yuri. You know what this means."

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A couple of days later

The Spacers floated in space as their human avatars. They appeared next to each other, even though they were separated by almost a light second of distance. They were aware of the presence of their partners around them, but the Intelligences weren't instantiated.

"Our search grid brings us back to spitting distance in a few more days. Shall I break out the wine and cheese?" Ajax asked.

Yuri chuckled and looked around. "Maybe. We'll see how things go. We're so close now, I just want this to be over. The Hounds found the third factory where we expected it, which means the fourth one is probably around here somewhere."

"Yeah. A shame they ran in all gung ho. Tripped the self destruct before we could find anything about it."

Yuri shrugged, "It was an automated factory. All three have been so far. Which means we've got the mother one. Just wish someone had a working DINComm near us."

"The quality has really been falling with the latest batches," Ajax grumbled. "Should've tested them more before we left."

"It's the fabbers. Between DINComms, fixing the Kybalion and Western, building Rome and upgrading the other ships; they've been doing a lot more work than anticipated," Skyfire explained, popping in to their virtual. "There hasn't been the time to give them the downtime to do the self-checks they desperately need. Once the Industrials get here, we'll be better off."

"They're going to need to give them the downtime soon at this rate. It's just DINComms now; but if it keeps up, they'll be fabbing grey goop," Yuri said. "Overworked fabbers are not something you want to mess with."

"In any case, the Western's sending out a fast courier with a fresh batch. Should be here in a few days," Skyfire said.

"We might have something," Jadia interrupted them. She popped up on Ajax's side of the space. "Over here, there's a plutoid, about the size of Cerberus. Normal Totalium levels for the outer system, which makes it damn hard to see. But what we can see has some heat abnormalities. Skyfire and I are heading there already."

"Both of us?" Yuri asked.

"It is near that meet up point, we figure we might as well check it out jointly," Skyfire said. "Especially since there doesn't seem to be anything else of import in between."

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"Bingo! We got it!" Ajax exclaimed as the first data from the probes started coming in. The swarms from the two spacer ships meshed, creating a composite naked eye view of the plutoid. Its surface showed the straight line markings from automated miners.

"It's a source but we haven't... never mind," Skyfire corrected herself in mid sentence. She reached out in the virtual view they were sharing and spun the plutoid around. When it stopped, the tracks converged on a deep crater, covered in a geodesic dome of a pewter coloured material.

"Sensors are seeing nothing there," Jadia confirmed. "Sizes match though; it's the factory. They must have just dropped it onto the surface."

"This one had living space. There might be people down there. Send our findings out and let's pay them a visit." Yuri grinned.

:Disconnecting the Caravan, we'll bring the Angel down and meet with Big-J,: Skyfire said. The virtual space froze and pixilated before dissolving away.

To Yuri's eyes, it reformed with a view of the Caravan panels sliding away, releasing the space jet form of their Angel mode. They were on the far side of the plutoid from the factory. A few klicks away, Jadia's spacejet mode dropped from their own ship. On autopilots, the empty Zharusian craft climbed to a higher orbit that would take them back over the factory.

:You go east, I'll go west. We'll converge on the factory crater simultaneously and catch them with their pants down,: Ajax sent, along with a data packet with the necessary speed vectors.

:Confirmed. See you soon,: Yuri verified, accepting the plans.

The space planes split up, heading around the plutoid in opposite directions.

"Caravan eyes confirm. Four main hatches at cardinal points. Possibly a fifth at the peak. Wish we had more bodies to cover them all, but we'll make due. East and west seem to be the most used," Skyfire said as she got more data. They were close enough that they could 'talk' normally.

"Damn Totalium. Dome's covered in it. Can't get anything inside. Jadia, got some probes ready?" Ajax asked.

"Remember, they don't have hardlight. The dome's bigger than the original factory, so we don't know how sloppy they are inside. Don't want to vac them before we can question them," Yuri warned.

"We know. We've accounted for it," Skyfire and Jadia assured their human partners.

In a corner of their view spaces, views on a pair of probes approaching the dome. Diagrams showed one approaching near the top of the dome, while the other was near the middle latitudes of the north face. They hit a facet of the dome almost simultaneously and deployed a metal ring around themselves, sealing to the shiny surfaces. A hardlight dome formed over each probe, separated from the Totalium face by the ring.

"Starting drilling," Skyfire reported as the drones extended appendages. Slivers of shiny metal floated away as the drills dug in. More cutters extended out and joined the holes until the section could be lifted away, revealing more layers of material.

"Standard early Spacer construction below. Transluminum, iron plates, even an ice layer. The dome itself isn't pressurized. We can see the factory," Jadia said, expanding views from the drones, at first simulated from the readings, then real views from cameras.

The base of the crater was well worn, with rows of automated mining vehicles parked near each dome entrance. The factory itself was mostly shut down. It was a grouping of a large central dome with three smaller sub domes budding off of it. Lights glowed from inside, but there was no movement anywhere they could detect.

"That's strange. A signal was just blasted from the south pole. Short duration, aimed at Totalia.: Skyfire noted. "No clue what it said or what it's for."

"Probably for no good. Chances are they realize we're here. Let's knock and introduce ourselves," Ajax said.

"Factory's lousy with Totalium, but looks like there are six life signs in the main control pod," Jadia said.

In the real, the Zharusians landed at the East and West locks. The Intelligences had little trouble overriding the simple systems and opening up the way for the fused pairs.

Yuri eyed the inactive mining bots warily as they flew over them. :Not going to say it,: he mumbled. :But we're all thinking it.:

:They've been isolated since the start of the war. Even the Zealots think they are nuts,: Skyfire noted. :But still there's only so much they can do.:

"You know, we may not have thought this through completely," Ajax said as she studied the airlock they were approaching.

"What do you mean?" Yuri asked, coming up beside the dragon pair. He looked down and oh'ed. "Yeah, this is a bit of a wrinkle."

"Zharus has always built big. We tend to forget that others don't build for RIDE-sizes," Skyfire said. She giggled and her angel mode shifted from plane to humanoid mode. Her chest opened and an armored humanoid stepped out. "Luckily, we come in bite-size form."

"Guess Jads and I are stuck on guard duty," Ajax noted, sighing. "Or maybe we can find a way in through one of the loading locks.... but that won't help us with human scaled corridors."

Jadia snorted. "Speak for yourself. No way I'm missing the action. And unlike you, I was prepared."

The draconic space plane shifted to her humanoid mode. She still towered over the airlock to the factory. It too opened up, dropping the surprised dragon lady to the crater floor. Ajax stood up, her body encased in a proper space suit, complete with helmet. Jadia unfolded from her bigger body and flew over to the airlock controls.

"The suit's all real, no hardlight. So be careful with it; it can't handle weapon fire," she taunted her partner while sticking a claw into a data access port. "Let Skyfire and Yuri take point.... Oooo, they've already started a data purge. I can't stop it out here but we can save most of the data if we move quick."

"Then let's get going," Yuri said, moving to the airlock and stepping in.

Noises returned with the atmosphere inside the factory. The airlock opened into a short corridor with a locker room with space suits to one side. The far end of the corridor lead to the rest of the facility. An emergency hatch seal was half closed at the far end.

"Sloppy. Very sloppy," Ajax noted. "But the air's good at least."

"Handy for us. The six life signs are in the main control centre. I can get to the data centre through the ductwork and stop the purge. Can you handle the rest?"

Skyfire raised her arms, red forearm cannons twitching as they warmed up. "Easily. Make sure they don't trip any self destruct."

The small dragon flew up to a grill and blasted it open. She ducked inside while the larger Pharosians ran past the half closed air lock. Soon enough the trio were outside the main control room.

"Attention!" Yuri shouted and fell silent. "Damn, I wish we knew their names," he mumbled.

"Jadia? Can you find them?" Ajax asked.

"I just reached the cores. Give me a minute,"

Yuri shook his head, "Attention Totalian people. We do not wish to harm you. Come out with your hands empty and we'll make sure you are returned safely to Totalia."

"No! Never! We will never surrender to you alien monsters!" a female shouted from the control room.

"We're not ali-... We're not mon-...." Ajax stopped herself and frowned. "You know she does have a few good points."

Yuri rolled his eyes and studied the hatch controls. The panel glowed red, the access hatch locked. "We need more information. Got anything yet Jadia?"

"Purge aborted. Six people in the factory. Four men, two women. Tabitha and Dominic Mabet appear to be in charge. Tabitha was Chief Engineer and Dominic was the Info Sec Chief before the rebellion. They seem to be the ones spearheading the factory heist." Jadia reported. "I've isolated their control room, so they shouldn't be able to do anything we don't know."

"Thanks Jadia. Can you show us inside?" Yuri asked, immediately getting a view of the control room.

It was a standard Totalian control room, messy from long term occupation. The six zealots had barricaded the doors and brought in food and water containers, along with a portable toilet. Six people in well used factory uniforms were staring at a large screen showing the view of the waiting Pharosians outside the sealed hatch. Three glared angrily at the screen, the other three were obviously exhausted and worn out.

"So these six are the ones that have closed Totalia off from the rest of the universe," Yuri noted, reading over the employee files Jadia dug out.

"Not for much longer. Now that space is in Loyalist hands, we can sweep the debris out of orbit. And the factories are gone now so they won't be replenishing it," Ajax said. She raised her voice, broadcasting into the room. "The factories have been discovered. The missiles are stopped. Your plan has failed. Surrender and you can be returned to your friends and families."

"Never! Our lives are a small price to pay for the safety of Totalia!" a man with an unkempt beard shouted. Jadia added name labels over their heads, identifying him as Dominic.

Ajax sighed and looked at Yuri, "What should we do? They can't hurt us, but we don't want to be too evil looking. Shall we wait them out?"

"Gonna be a long wait. Jadia, anything you can do that might encourage them to leave sooner?" Yuri asked.

"Not really. It's worse than I initially thought. They've been jury-rigging things in there; who knows what sort of hardwired tricks they've set up."

"The automated factories had self destruct mechanisms. No reason there wouldn't be some around here too," Ajax pointed out, looking around the corridor warily. "Be careful Jadia."

"I'm being careful. I'm searching the datacore room physically now; no tricks so far."

"I'm doing a local scan as well. No obvious explosives or other tricks; but there are a lot of deadspots due to the Totalium. If we wanted to be certain, we'd need to do manual checks," Skyfire said.

"Not while those six are still mobile. They might have some hardwired connections Jadia can't break yet. We'll have to go in," Ajax said.

"You mean Skyfire and I go in. I don't see any weapons but you should back up a bit, just in case. Besides being better armored, Skyfire and I are a bit more human-presentable. Jadia, can you loop their eyes so they won't know what we're doing?"

"Give me a few seconds... and done. All they're seeing is two people waiting outside the door."

Ajax backed away to the next emergency hatch and signaled she was ready. "All yours guys."

:You know, other than a few bar fights, we haven't really done any hand to hand combat.: Yuri noted privately.

:We've got basic training, and I've simmed on the Grid and the Range a lot. Just leave it to me. Besides, none of those jokers have military training either,: Skyfire replied.

The armored figure moved to stand in front of the hatch and waited. They could see the group inside the pod getting more nervous; the three passive folk standing up under the urging of the ringleaders.

"Pop the hatch please, Jadia. Let's get this over with quick," Skyfire ordered.

"I can pop the seals, but they've got it physically blocked on their side. You should be able to overpower it, but it will leave you a bit exposed."

"As we said, it doesn't look like they have any real weapons that could hurt us. We'll risk it," Yuri said.

"Seals popping in five... four... "

At a silent one, the corridor echoed with a set of heavy clunks coming from around the hatch, and the lock panel turned green. The hatch itself rolled open a few centies, squealing against the barricades behind it before the heavy door jammed in place. Through the gap, they could hear surprised and angry shouts. The eyes showed all six scrambling for their makeshift weapons; mainly metal clubs of various sizes.

Skyfire reached into the gap and began to push. The door squealed and moved a few more centies.

"Everyone stand down and stay where you are!" Yuri shouted, letting his partner handle the muscle. Everyone knew Yuri's commands were useless, but it would look good on the after reports.

The opening was big enough for Skyfire to reach in. Guided by the view from inside, she started grabbing at the barricade, trying to pull enough pieces away to unjam the door. The three closest Totalians converged on their arm, slamming their metal bars ineffectively against the armored arm. One got a bit too enthusiastic with his swing; the force jarred his mag-boots free and bounced him off the floor and up towards the ceiling in the light gravity of the plutoid.

"The cameras! They're watching us!" someone shouted from inside. "Kill the eyes!"

Two of the three who had held back jumped into action. They began to run around the command pod, yanking cords and smashing lenses to the cameras and anything that looked like a camera. The third man reluctantly followed them, obviously half heartedly pointing out a few they missed. It was all for naught; the Rangers could see everything in the room with their own eyes now.

:If you say 'Here's Johnny!' when we can get our heads through the gap, I'm revoking your Grid privileges for a day,: Yuri noted as they managed to get the hatch open further. The attacks on their arm and hand was annoying and stung a little, but did no real damage.

:Awww, you're no fun,: Skyfire pouted. She pulled back a bit and reached in with both hands to grab at a key bar that was blocking the hatch. The Totalians grabbed at her arms, trying to block her target ineffectively, getting batted to the side when they were too annoying. With a grunt and a whine of servos, the bar pulled free, and the hatch rolled halfway open; more than big enough for even Ajax to get in.

The fused Rangers stood in the doorway and looked at the Totalians. The Zealots were frozen in surprise, not quite ready to acknowledge they had lost.

"We are not here to harm you, but we can not risk letting you try to destroy this base or otherwise harm us. Stand down now, and no one needs to get hurt," Yuri called out.

In response, the two leaders leaped in different directions. Skyfire fired a low powered repulser at the man, sending him flying until his limp body crashed against the far wall. The woman managed to get behind a console before Skyfire could retarget to get a clear shot at her. Seconds later, Tabitha stood up, her thumb holding down a button on a switch with wires running into the floor.

"Leave now, or we all die!" she announced, glaring at the armored Rangers.

"Probable self destructs. Hardwired. Nothing I can do," Jadia said.

"Now, now... There's no need to do anything brash," Yuri said, trying to calm the Totalian without moving. The remaining four zealots seemed just as surprised by the threat.

"I'm serious! You and your monster friends will leave NOW or I'm blowing us all up," Tabitha shouted. "It's a deadman switch. My finger lifts and we go boom."

"No we won't," a man said. All eyes looked to him.

"Marcus O'Neil. Engineer. He's the one who held back when you were trying to get in," Jadia supplied.

"I disabled the self destructs months ago. Decided I didn't want to die after all," Marcus explained.

"What? But why?" the chief engineer asked, looking at the switch in her hand then back at the traitor.

"I'm sick of all this. Sick of space. I just want to go home."

"There won't be a home to go back to if we don't stop these monsters!" Tabitha exclaimed.

"These monsters seem to have gone out of their way to keep us alive so far. Please, put the switch down. It's over Tabitha," Marcus begged.

Tabitha looked anxiously between Skyfire and Yuri, then back at Marcus, then at the switch in her hand. Marcus started walking slowly towards her, his hand outstretched.

"No! Stay back!.... You... You're bluffing!" she shouted.

:She's going to do it,: Skyfire said. :There's nothing I can do to stop it. If I shoot the wires that may trigger it.:

:We'll have to trust him. It's our only hope.:

"I'm not bluffing. It's over Tabitha. We saw the reports on CosmyNet; they beat the Cosmy. They control the Shipyards. They control the factories. They control space. There's nothing left up here."

"They won't control this one!" Tabitha lifted her thumb, a crazy grin on her face. Everyone else but Marcus winced as the switch clicked. A few seconds passed with nothing happening. Tabitha looked at the switch in her hand and began frantically pressing the button, toggling the safety and tugging at the wires.

Skyfire fired the lightest repulsor blast she could. The engineer stiffened, rocking gently as her mag boots held her to the floor. The trigger dropped from her nerveless fingers and she began to slump forward, to be caught be Marcus.

"Thank you," Skyfire said, looking to make sure no one else was trying anything. Two were helping the recovering Dominic while the last was moving to help Marcus.

Marcus looked up, and his eyes widened in surprise. His companion similarly froze in place in surprise. "Demon!" she exclaimed.

"No, Not demon. Dragon. There is a difference," Ajax corrected her. "Everything under control in here?" she asked, squeezing through the hatch.

"We're good, thanks to Marcus here," Yuri said, stepping to the side to keep clear lines of fire. "Don't worry, you all will be going home soon. As soon as we get some proper Cosmy folk out here."

Marcus shook his head and seemed to recover. "There's something else. Damocles was activated. I should have disabled that too, but it was Tabitha's pet project; there was nothing I could do about it."

"What's Damocles?" Skyfire asked.

"Another fail safe. If it looked like the Cosmy fell and you were getting close to Totalia, we would activate it," the woman assisting Marcus explained. Jadia identified her as a life support tech named Cynthia.

"Only about four fifths of what the factories made went into the Kessler field," Marcus added. "The rest is lurking in Totalia orbit. When you guys got close enough, it would be activated."

"That's hundreds of missiles. And most of the Fleet is in Totalia orbit now," Jadia said privately. "The signal! That was the trigger!"

"The signal we detected, was that the trigger for Damocles?" Ajax asked.

Marcus nodded. "But if you guys have FTL comms, right? The Cosmynet was full of chatter about how you could talk real time from Totalia to Sekhmet and beyond. Can you send a message in to Totalia? With FTL, you can beat the Damocles signal to the inner system and send the self destruct instead."

"We could if all our DINComms weren't burnt out. Shit!" Yuri cursed, his mind spinning as he tried to figure out the options. The real world blacked out as Skyfire pulled him into fast time with Jadia.

Between blinks, he found himself standing on a simulation of the Totalian system, centred on Ra. Jadia and Skyfire appeared next to him. Far away, he could see a red cone growing from the outer system towards the inner system. A countdown timer ticked down from a little over eight hours.

"We got a small break that we're on opposite sides of the star from Totalia. That buys us an extra few minutes," Jadia said. "Wish Ajax could join us, but she couldn't keep up without a fuse."

Dots lit up around the system. The vast majority were concentrated around Totalia, with secondary clusters at the Shipyard and Ptah. "This is every known ship and probe in system. Fleet, Loyalist, and Zealot." Some of the dots turned red, most of them around Totalia, the Shipyard and Ptah, along with a lone dot moving away from them. "This is everyone we know with a working DINComm. There was a hiccup in the Courier's orders. They're heading almost exactly away from us." All the dots dimmed. "And this is everyone an info blast can reach in time to signal Totalia, if we sent it right now."

"Damn... Damn damn damn..." Yuri snarled, looking around the display, seeing a few more seconds tick by. His view flickered as he virtually jumped around the system, verifying what the Intelligences had already shown. "Too far... Too far... Too far! Everything's too far away. We can't stop it...."

Jadia sighed and looked around as well. "It's a Kobayashi Maru. An unbeatable scenario. In order to beat the signal to Totalia, we need FTL to get ahead of it, but we don't have that."

"FTL...." Yuri paused, eyes widening. He looked at Skyfire who was suddenly pensive as well. "Could it still work?" he asked.

"It's still there. Reconfiguring it back to Zaphod's original specs will be trivial. The math though... That's a lot of number crunching and meta-spatial theory that no one in range has experience with. We'll have to guess a lot of it and hope it works."

"Let's do it. Give me the legs, you bring the Caravan down and start the crunching."

Jadia looked confused, "What are you talking about?"

Yuri flickered out of the simulation. Skyfire grinned, forming a data cube in her hand. "Here, catch! How good is your FTL physics theory? I'm going to need all your spare power and spare computing to help."

The dragon caught the data and absorbed it in virtual seconds. "Whoa... you can do this?"

"It's deep in the gravity well. Going to be a tight squeeze. Even if we were to try to swing around to meet the courier, the vectors take us in deeper than theoretically possible. But it's our only chance."

Jadia nodded, the sim simplifying and shifting to match their new needs. "Okay, then let's get to work. Send me everything you can. I'm heading to Big-Me."

Yuri blinked, finding himself back in the real world. He could sense Skyfire's attention focused elsewhere, starting the preparations for their mad scheme. Marcus and Ajax were looking at him expectantly; the fast time analysis and debate having taken a few seconds in the real.

"How bad is it?" Ajax asked.

"Extremely bad," Yuri confirmed. "The bigger ships could probably handle Damocles, but Totalia is Grand Central right now. All those missiles will wreck havoc on anything smaller than Goldie or Rick. And there are a lot of ships in that range. If Damocles goes off, well... all the support ships, Cairo, the Ark... they'd all be gone."

"But you can send a signal right? I never thought Damocles would be triggered; I should've disabled that too...." Marcus lamented.

Yuri shook his head. "Our DINComms, our FTL comms that is, are burned out. It's new tech, even to us. It's not that reliable. There's no one within light-hours of us with a working FTL comm."

"So we're screwed. All those people...." Ajax groaned, her wings slumping. "I feel so helpless."

Marcus and the other Totalians looked similarly dismayed. Tabitha and Dominc were still out cold, and the other three were obviously moving their wagons to the clear winners, for the little good it would do.

"Not completely screwed. There's one out. It's risky... extremely risky, but it's our only hope," Yuri corrected her. "Still, we wouldn't be Rangers if we didn't take risks. Jadia and Skyfire are bringing the big ships down now. We need all the power we can get loaded onto the Caravan. But first, we need to make sure no one tries anything funny here."

"The Tiger is bigger. We should load it up," Ajax volunteered.

"The Tiger doesn't have Zaphod Beeblebrox's magic box. And we don't have time to move it over and reconfigure it for the Tiger's setup."

"Magic box?... Oh!" Ajax's eyes widened as she put the pieces together. "But that experiment was only in the outer system. You'd have to go all the way to Totalia."

Yuri sighed, "The theory says it might work, with enough juice and a small enough ship. Skyfire and Jadia are crunching the numbers to make sure. Ultimately, it's our only choice. Now Marcus, do you guys have any zip ties around here? Everyone has zip ties right?"

"Uhm in the tool box over there. You have a way? You really have a way?" the Engineer was obviously confused, not sure if he should be dismayed or happy.

"We may. But it's a one in a million chance of working, and that's if we get started NOW. Go get those ties and start zipping your friends up so we can do what we need to do. I hate to do this, but we don't have time to do anything else. It'll only be for a few hours, then Ajax and Jadia can release you."

The other conscious Totalians began to look rebellious; a rebellion that was shut down by a glare from the dragon lady. "Time is of the essence, and we don't have time to babysit you guys, or find a safe playpen for you. So zip it or we'll find some other way to make sure you stay out of the way."

Marcus and Cynthia grudgingly gathered the plastic ties and trussed up their companions with minimal resistance. Marcus finished with Cynthia and approached the Zharusians.

"I want to help. This is partly my mess; but I didn't want it to get this bad. You said you need power right? I can help. I want to help you."

"Help how?" Ajax asked suspiciously.

Marcus waved towards the outside of the dome. "There are dozens of reactors out there on the mining bots. I overheard you saying you're going to salvage them for your needs. No one here knows those bots and reactors better than me. I know which one has the quirky coolant feeds, which ones are the most stable and which I wouldn't trust in a life or death situation. Please, Let me help."

Yuri glanced at Ajax, then back at Marcus. His helmet retracted so he could study the Totalian eye to eye. "Why should we trust you? You guys are the reason we're in this mess in the first place."

Marcus blinked in surprise a moment, seeing the bald male head on the feminine armor. He forced himself past the momentary confusion and restarted his argument.

"You shouldn't. We're the reason this is going on in the first place. And you don't know me from Dominic. For all you know, I'll sabotage the reactors and you'll never know the difference. But I give you my word, I want to help you to the fullest and best of my abilities. I will do everything I can to clean up this mess I helped make. I'll do everything I can to help you get this magic box of yours to work. I just want to go home. To go home without the blood of hundreds on my hands."

"I haven't had time to review the logs, but he does seem to have had a change of heart. He did disable the self destruct, so he has already saved all our bacon. From what I can see in some of the more recent logs, he and Cynthia have been getting more and more vocal about stopping the Kessler project," Jadia noted privately.

"Disabling the self destruct also saves his own bacon," Skyfire noted.

"True, but he does seem sincere. Plus, the numbers work a lot better with local help," Jadia added.

"Punting it to you, Yuri. You're the better judge of character." Skyfire said.

Yuri studied Marcus, then glanced at Ajax. "You're more experienced than me. What do you think?"

The dragonlady moved deeper into the room, approaching the Totalian. Marcus took a step back before he realized it, then managed to hold his ground. Ajax retracted her own faceplate and leaned close. "Do you swear on your air tanks to do your utmost best to help us. To do whatever we order you to do, no matter how strange it may seem, while advising us of what we may not be aware of?"

Marcus flinched, then locked eyes with her. "I swear to do that."

Ajax stayed silent, glaring into his eyes until he blinked. She smiled and turned away. "Good enough for me. Let's go, time's a-wasting."

Yuri nodded and turned away, Skyfire's face/helmet resealing over his head. He momentarily wondered how that looked to the Totalians--a man inside a mechanical woman and a dragon lady threatening another man. He pushed the thoughts away to focus on the immediate priorities. "Follow us and suit up. Don't think of trying anything funny. We'll be watching you like a hawk. Any tricks and we won't bother with the zip ties."

Marcus gulped and nodded, starting to the airlock.

"What about-" one of the tied up men called out.

"NO ONE ELSE," Ajax roared, silencing the others. "We don't have the eyes to spare to watch anyone else. And frankly, Marcus is the only one I'd remotely trust at this point." She turned and followed the others out, leaving the hatch partly opened.

Separator k.png

"So what is this Magic Box you have?" Marcus asked while pulling on his space suit as fast as he could. The group was in the locker-room near the main airlocks.

"It's a faster than light drive," Yuri said. "Very experimental. It probably won't even work but we need to try."

"Experimental? But I thought it was a mature tech now."

"Not one this size. This one is so immature it's practically fetal," Yuri said, trying not to sound concerned.

"Their Magic Box is a drive that can work closer to a star," Ajax explained. "You see, standard FTL theory is that it doesn't like deep gravity wells. Stars and gas giants mess things up, so to keep everyone safe and comfortable, we leave and arrive out in deep space, where things are flat."

"Our box is designed to let us jump from closer in. It's designed to let us jump from the outer system, instead of, well, out here in the boonies. In order to beat your Damocles signal, we need to push it past all the limits and jump to the inner system. To Totalia orbit. And for that extra bit of challenge, we need to go by Ra to get there."

"Are you sure you need that? You could stop early and broadcast the kill signal," Ajax asked.

"The timing's too tricky. Even with Marcus's help, we won't be able to jump until it's almost too late," Skyfire joined the conversation, sounding exhausted. "Estimating from our only jump, we did 1 light hour in a few minutes during the experiment. Fudging at 1 light hour per five minutes, we have to cross 8 hours, so we have to leave in... well, no more than six hours from now. And that assumes going near the star won't screw up the timing. I'd hate to come out on this side of Ra and still be too far away to get the signal out before it triggers."

"And that's why we're aiming for as close to Totalia as we can get," Yuri concluded.

They fell silent for a minute while Marcus finished his suit checks. Jadia flew down the corridor and joined them.

"Everything's all set in here. The ships are about to land," she announced, landing on Ajax's shoulders. Marcus's reaction to the small RIDE was hidden by his visor. "Since the dome isn't pressurized, we're making our own entrances."

Outside the portholes of the airlock, they could see chunks of the dome begin to drift down silently. Soon enough, the two large ships were parked on the plutoid among a cloud of dome debris.

"Wow..." Marcus mumbled over their shared comm channel.

"You ain't seen nothin' yet," Yuri said, passing over a tablet. "This is a preliminary list Skyfire and Jadia have cooked up, based on what we can cram in the Caravan and what you have on hand. Take a look at it, suggest better ones if you notice any, and get them all moved over closer to the smaller ship as soon as you can. We've got six hours to get this all done."

The Totalian glanced at the list and nodded. "Right off the bat, you don't want Number 26. Its reactor glitches if it's on too much of a slope; we've got better contenders."

"We're trusting your decisions. Just make them fast," Ajax said.

The group cycled through the airlock, and Marcus was momentarily surprised by the two larger robots waiting outside. When the Rangers jumped into them, the tablet slipped from his hands unnoticed.

"Come on, time's a-wasting!" Ajax taunted him once she was fused in the bigger dragon.

"Right... right... The uhm... The central miner pod is over there. I can work best there," Marcus said, scrambling to retrieve the tablet.

"Go for it," Skyfire urged him. "We'll handle most of the heavy lifting, you just bring them around."

Separator k.png

Five hours later

"I don't like it. There are too many unknowns, Skyfire. You'd be risking your lives..." Jadia said, frustrated. The dragon was lying among all of the probes they'd brought out with them for the extra processing power.

"One life for the chance to save thousands. I'll have to adjust on the fly. I think I can do it...," Skyfire replied.

"Two lives. You're not leaving me behind. We're partners in this, all the way through," Yuri countered.

"Yuri, I can't let you die in this too."

"Stop it! We don't have time for this. You need my intuition and you especially need Ghost's extra oomph if we're going to have any chance at all. We've crunched the probabilities. Having me triples our chances of success."

"Triples it into the low tens. A one in ten chance of success. Eight in ten chance you'll just disappear into subspace." Ajax shook her head, a sour expression on her face. She didn't outright beg them to abandon their plan, but it was clear she wanted them to.

"We've gotta do it; we've gotta try. If we don't, it'll eat away at both of us for the rest of our lives. We're Rangers, we're supposed to take the risks, to make the big saves," Skyfire said.

Ajax winced and looked away. "Yeah... supposed to."

The EI and Yuri looked mortified. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean..." Skyfire apologized.

"No, stop it. I don't want our last moments here to be dwelling on that. Go on. Get going; the window is closing fast."

Under the wrecked dome, things had changed quickly over the five hours. The Caravan was fully expanded, and packed full with the bulky Totalium reactors pulled from the mining bots and from the factory. The reactors from Ajax and Jadia's ship were mixed in as well, along with all of the spare computing power they could wire in. Marcus had proven his worth many times over, to the point they were trusting him to handle the final hookups between the Totalium reactors and the Zharusian tech.

The Rangers stood next to the Caravan, doing their own final checks. At the last moment, Yuri defused from Skyfire and looked at the already separated dragon Spacers and the Totalian.

"Thanks guys, for all your help. No matter what happens, we'll know we all did our best," he said, rubbing Jadia's large muzzle, then hugging Ajax and shaking Marcus's hand. "Make sure the truth gets out and these idiots are punished."

"I'll do what I can to make sure justice is served. And I'm ready to take my own punishment. Just please, try your best to keep my blood debt low. It's more than I deserve. I just don't want all those lives on my hands," Marcus said.

"None of us want that blood. Life is life," Skyfire noted.

"In any case, we'll all be eagerly waiting the news of you two being the heroes who saved the fleets." Ajax added, hugging Yuri again. She then hugged Skyfire. "Be careful you two. Good luck."

"You guys are as much heroes in this as we are. We'd never have this done in time without you." Skyfire hugged back and grinned. "Thanks for the luck though; we're going to need luck just to get back in the Caravan. We've never loaded it that much."

Yuri looked around and took a deep breath. "Right. The window's closing. Let's go Sky."

Skyfire hugged Marcus a final time. "Once we're gone, you can free the others. Or leave them tied up, it's up to you."

"You say that there'll be more Rangers here soon. They can wait until then," Marcus said. "Good luck."

Skyfire looked at her partner and reluctantly closed around him. They waved to the Totalian and the dragons before linking to their Angel armor. The Caravan lifted higher, and shifted awkwardly, revealing the chamber for the Angel linkups. Without further hesitation, they jumped in and linked up.

:Everything's green... well a few yellows and the power supply seems a bit sputtery, but it looks like how we expected it to work,: Yuri said as they finished their checks. :Ready to head up?:

:As ready as ever.:

The plutoid's gravity was insignificant, even with the burdened caravan. The Spacer ship lifted out of the wrecked dome easily, followed by the dragonplane RIDE.

"Don't think you weren't going to make such an epic jump unwitnessed," Jadia said, trying to sound cheerful. "Zaphod would have our scales if we missed the chance to record what this looked like."

"Sure. As good a  reason as any. Just don't get too close; you don't want to be caught in our backwash," Yuri said.

The spacers accelerated quickly, moving away from the plutoid to a precalculated spot. The exotic matter spars of the FTL drive began to glow as Skyfire powered it up.

"All Sarium power sources isolated.... Creating the Local reference frame.....  Beacons powered and broadcasting, ready to be cast off once we get to Totalia..... Creating the gate." Skyfire ran through the checklist at a steady pace. To maximize their chances of getting the kill signal sent, they were carrying multiple drones that would be cast off as soon as they returned to real space, hoping that even if they didn't make it, the signal would get through clearly enough to stop the attack.

"Whoa! That does not look healthy at all. The rad readings alone are off the chart," Ajax noted, bringing their attention to the portal.

Normal portals were calm, barely distinguishable from regular space, a dark portal leading to another universe. The one they'd generated was anything but. It pulsed randomly, an open wound in the fabric of spacetime, spewing red and orange energy.

"We've got no choice... Man, the energy just to open this is more than we anticipated. Good thing we packed extra," Skyfire said, already approaching the portal. It was barely bigger than the enlarged Caravan. "Everything else is still in the ranges we calculated."

"You should've tried to jump to the courier. It's not near anything," Jadia noted.

Yuri shook his head, "No time to change now. Besides we don't know where the courier is exactly. If we miss it, by the time it gets our signal it could be too late. This way, we're just an hour from Totalia. We'll get there in time."

"I know. I know. But it seems less risky now. Good luck." The dragons waved their wing and backed away a bit.

"Thanks guys. See you on the flip side," Skyfire and Yuri sent their last messages and pulsed their engines. The nose of the Caravan touched the angry portal, and the entire ship was sucked in. A few seconds later, the portal dissipated in a splash of tachyons.

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Nowhere/Everywhere Nowhen/Everywhen

Space should not hurt. Yuri thought to himself as they left the Universe behind. Right off the bat, this trip was different from the earlier experiment. There was more light, more phantom sensations, and especially, more pressure. It felt like their combined bodies was being squeezed in a vise.

He could sense Skyfire concentrating on flying, and did his best to avoid jogging her elbow. The processor graphs he could look at were all redlined. He could even sense Ghost doing its best to help out.

Once he was sure they weren't going to immediately explode into a shower of subparticles, he looked at the rest of their situation. Outside sensors were useless to him; he could only hope that Skyfire could make sense of them. Internals were more useful. The reactors were pumping out power to push them along and keep them shielded. The actual output was more than they desired, but still within their expected levels. He hoped it was a good sign.


The Spacer slipped into a virtual space. It was empty and dark. He could sense the boundaries of it very close, little bigger than he was. Suddenly Skyfire appeared next to him, so close he had to hug her for balance.

"Sky?" he asked, studying her avatar. Her face showed the intense stress she was working under. "How is it going?"

"Not horribly. But not as easily as we thought. It's going to be tight... if this works at all."

"What can I do to help?" he asked.

She put her arms around him and squeezed. He squeezed back, her metal skin flexible in the simulation. "Just hold me. We're committed now, one way or another."

Outside the bubble, the simulation lit up with a 'real' view of hyperspace. They were shooting through an angry storm of swirling reds and oranges that lashed at them randomly. Each minute clicked away achingly slowly, swallowing with it a chunk of energy they could never get back.

"I've pulled the reference field in as tight as I can to save power," she said a few minutes later. "It's going to be tight. Half the Totalium reactors are dead already. Jadia's Tokas are still holding strong," she said, her voice hinting the strain she was under. "But the numbers. The calculations. I'm finding mistakes. Nothing I can't correct and work around. Each correction is more power. Yuri, I don't know if we'll...."

He silenced her with a kiss. "Just focus. Do your best. I trust you Skyfire. We'll get this done."

More time passed. The view outside gave no indication they were progressing. The only signs they were moving forward was the steady drain on the reactors, and the increasing gravitic pressure. Sometimes the pressure spiked, pushing the field closer to their skin. Most of the time it just grew, a vise trying to crush them for daring to intrude where they weren't meant to be.

The last Totalium reactors died, and the pressure continued to build. Jadia's Tokas put up a longer fight, supplying energy to the overstrained drive, but they too eventually died, leaving them with their original reactors.

"Yuri... I think we're getting close... But I may need to bring batteries online..." Skyfire said, watching levels and progress. "We've got three Toka's left. If I lose another..."

"Do what you have to," Yuri assured her.

A few moments later, to his surprise, he felt the pressure ease. At first he thought he was imagining it, until Skyfire confirmed it.

"We're past the star. A few more seconds and we'll be there... One of the spars is cracking under the strain."

"Can we make it? Should we drop back to real?"

She shook her head. "No. There's a bit of redundancy. We can make it on what's left. I'm bringing a few batteries on now, just to get us the rest of the way there."

55... 50... 45...

Yuri watched the seconds tick down in fast time, each second feeling like a lifetime. When it reached zero, they would try to return to the real universe. What happened then was as unknown as what they were experiencing now.

30... 25... 20...

His head was aching from the strain. His limbs were numb and he was having a hard time sensing anything but those numbers. Part of his mind could tell Skyfire and Ghost was using most of his mind for something to help them get home. What they were doing was going too fast for him to be sure, but whatever it was, they could use it.

15... 10... 5...

He squeezed Skyfire's avatar harder and kissed her. She was stiff and unreactive, all her resources devoted elsewhere.

4... 3... 2... 1...

The last seconds caught him by surprise, paradoxically taking more and less time than he expected. "I love you," he whispered, before the pressure disappeared and the world exploded.

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Heart of Gold, Totalian High Orbit

The Apollo 11 landed in the science ship's cargo bay and powered down. The rear hatch opened up, revealing various pallets. Neil jumped down from the cockpit and greeted the two headed canine Integrate and the golden woman avatar.

"Delivery for the Fringe group. One tonne of Totalium, fresh from the Kessler field," Neil said, nodding to the crates already moving out on automated pallets. He unslung a backpack and pulled a heavy sealed canister out. "And 5 kilos of Nulflite, fresh from the Barsoom courier."

The canine took the canister and held it up. "Five kilograms? That's it?! What can I do with five kilos? We requested at least a tonne," Zaphod grumbled.

"Easy Zaphod. There's a lot of interest in these new metas. Everyone wants a piece of the pie," Goldie reassured the scientist. The golden hardlight woman rubbed the Intie's ears.

"We're the top science group in system! We shouldn't be limited to the scraps... mmmm... little to the left...." Zaphod fell silent, closing his eyes. Beeblebrox rolled his own eyes, and shifted the canister to the other hand. "Thank you pilot."

"You're Yuri's friend, are you not?" Goldie asked, shifting her attention while still keeping Zaphod distracted. "He and Skyfire mentioned you when we were doing some experiments back home."

Neil nodded. "I am. And they mentioned you too. You really used them to get in on this mission?"

"Not...entirely. But it made for a good opportunity to peer into the imposed darkness and to do good Science!," Zaphod said, snapping out of his stupor. He tucked the canister under his arm. "And speaking of which, we have a lot of Science! to do, even if we are limited in our resources."

Zaphod turned away and started speed walking to the entrance. Beeblebrox grinned and turned his head around, "Thanks for the delivery. Goldie, make sure you treat him right."

"Biggest, most advanced science ship for light years around and they only give us five kilos! An outrage I tells yah!" Zaphod grumbled loudly before the door closed behind them.

"My apologies for them. They don't handle disappointment well," Goldie said.

Neil laughed, "No problem. Yuri and Sky warned me about them specifically."

"Are you in a rush? I could give you a quick tour if you wish," Goldie asked.

The spacer looked at his empty ship and shrugged. "Not a huge rush. Until the planet opens up, we've got more couriers than we have traffic for now."

"Understandable. Still, we should be able to clean up low orbit soon. I've been helping calculate optimal clearing patterns. With the factories mostly disabled now, we should have the main orbital paths opened up within the week, and be confident they'll stay open."

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The doors slid open and Goldie led Neil into a large lab space. Decor-wise, it was early TwenFirst, with various chemistry sets, and computer shells set up in a warehouse-style concrete room. A bull-tagged man in a lab coat was arguing with a bull RIDE.

"This is the Fringe lab. Doctors Walter and Bishop recently joined the Science Division. They were fans of an old TwenCen show and their fandom spread quickly among the science Inties on board," Goldie said softly.

Neil chuckled, "I've heard that can be a problem, especially with the science types."

"They seem extra susceptible to scientific memetic infection. I'm just glad I missed their Dr. Bunsen and Beaker Muppet phase," Goldie said.

The doctors noticed the guests and looked up. "Greetings Goldie. And you must be Spacer Neil. We heard you were on board," the human, Doctor Bishop, greeted them.

"Thanks for having me on board. I hope I'm not interrupting. Goldie is just giving me a tour."

The bull shook his head, "No interruption at all. It's never an interruption when a beautiful golden woman visits. Especially if she comes bearing gifts... Perhaps of the Nulflite variety?"

"Sorry Walter, Zaphod snatched it all right off the ship. But I've been talking to the Western, and they'll be releasing another ten kilos to us tomorrow. I've prioritized 1 kilo just for you."

The doctors fused together, and the minotaur walked over. Fused, they wore a hardlight lab coat and nothing else. They crouched in front of Goldie and took her hand and kissed it. "Thank you my lady. You are too kind."

She giggled back, "Flattery will get you everything."

"So what are you working on?" Neil asked curiously, seeing the emitter device set up at one end of the lab. It had obviously been chopped out of a bigger setup and jury-rigged into the smaller frame."

"That? That is one of the emitters from the Cosmy ship that damaged the Western. It's close to our weapons, but there's some strange resonances in it, apparently from the Totalium somehow. That partly explains why it punches through regular hardlight like tissue. But I've noticed something else too," the doctors explained.

The fused doctor eagerly walked to the far end of the room and set up a pewter coloured rock on a pedestal. He motioned for Neil to follow him behind a blast shield where some controls were set up.

"Just watch this," Bishop said excitedly, powering up the device. He gave a quick countdown and flipped the switch. A black beam shot out, seemingly sucking the light from around it as it went. It struck the rock and nothing happened for a split second. Then the rock melted, spreading into the tray it was sitting on. Bishop killed the beam before the rock fully dissolved.

"Interesting," Goldie said. "The visual effects especially is intriguing."

"That's not all!" Walter said eagerly. "Look at the mass readings."

Goldie looked where the minotaur scientist indicated, and her eyes widened. Neil looked as well, but the numbers meant nothing to him.

"You lost a quarter of the mass of the sample!" Goldie clarified. "How did that?"

"We're still isolating and refining the effect. The first few experiments only knocked out ten percent. As best as we can guess, the beam reacts with Totalium, somehow phasing it away or something. We're trying to figure out where it goes too," Walter explained.

"The beam needs very particular tuning. Something to do with resonance frequencies and energy levels as best we've found so far," Bishop continued. "But with some more work, we figure we can easily get it up to at least a fifty percent dispersion, if not higher."

Goldie looked excited, stepping over to look at the phaeton emitter. "Excellent! With this, we might have a good solution for the Kessler field! Do you need anything else? I'm sure the Fleet can clear anything you want."

The scientist RIDE pair split apart. "A few more emitters from the Phaeton would be good. And a few more brains to ponder how this is all working would really help," Doctor Walter said while the human went to make more adjustments.

"We've also had a long term request..." Doctor Bishop said, nodding to the far end of the lab, away from the active experiments. An empty wooden stall was set up there.

Goldie nodded, "Right, right. I'll make arrangements as soon as I can. Even for Gene."

"Gene?" Neil asked, getting some of the excitement but mainly feeling lost among the big brains.

"A cow from that show they're fans of," Goldie explained, sounding a bit distracted.

"It's for thematic support mainly," Doctor Bishop explained. "A mascot to reflect on our fandom."

"And certainly not for any experiments... Or anything else," Doctor Walter added quickly.

"A cow?... A real cow?" Neil shook his head and laughed a little. "Well, that's interesting. Still, anything you can do to help clear orbit is a-ok in muh-"

The Spacer was interrupted by a loud alarm ringing through the Heart of Gold.  Goldie froze in place, her face showing an expression of disbelief. "We've got FTL-Sign," the avatar said, confused and puzzled.

"FTL Sign? I didn't even know we had a sign for that. Maybe it's a new courier from Barsoom with more Nulflite," Doctor Walter said.

"If it was, he'd still be in the outer system. No need to make a big deal about it," Neil noted. "He'd be days coming back in."

Goldie shook her head, heading out the door. "Negative. It's not the outer system. I'm detecting signs of FTL drive use in proximity with Totalia."

"Impossible!" Zaphod explained, marching down the corridor. He was followed by Ford and Dent, the penguin and meerkat Inties. "Faster Than Light travel this deep in the gravity well is impossible!" "The forces involved, there's no way to maintain a proper reference frame." "You'd squirt out as a stream of exotic particles." His heads talked over each other.

"Well, something is coming in now. The Fleet and the Cosmy are scrambling to clear the area. We're outside the arrival zone, but I'm bringing us in as close as they'll let us get in time," Goldie said.

She lead the group into a large somewhat empty lab. It was lit only by a hardlight simulation of Totalia and its surrounding space. Models for the Western and the Kybalion, along with smaller ships of the fleets flitted around the planet, well above the debris filled Kessler layer. Avatars and Real people were rapidly filling the room.

Neil found a spot near the wall to stay out of the way and watch, half listening to arguments going on around him. Goldie avatars mingled with various groups, some the full sized woman version, more often just a floating head.

"This is our Orbital Mechanics lab. We were using this to work out ideas to clean up the Kessler levels," Goldie explained, devoting a head avatar just for him. "Zooming in on the FTL disturbance, and consolidating inputs from across the fleet. We almost have too many eyes on this. Damn!, it's within the Kessler levels. That's gonna wreck our plans, and possibly wreck whoever is coming in."

The planet sunk down into the floor as the view zoomed in to a spot within the debris field. The Heart of Gold floated near the ceiling, while the view centered on a growing angry tear in space. The tear pulsed and bounced around the debris field, sending rocks and boulders tumbling into new orbits. Within the bouncing tear, glimpses of something could be seen. The room was filled with nervous chatter as people tried to guess what was going on.

"Is it aliens?"

"Could it be from Earth?"

"Earth doesn't know about Totalia. Maybe a Kepler attack?"

"What will happen if a ship arrives this close?"

"The frames can't possibly match up..."

Neil half listened to the theoretical babbling going on around him, and shifted his attention to a corner of the room. Goldie was freezing the glimpses of whatever was in the field and was trying to piece them together while letting the live view keep going.

"How much longer before it comes through?" he asked, the forming shape looking familiar to him.

"Seems human so far," Goldie mumbled, the EI's focus severely strained by what she was trying to do. "Field is already condensing. Should sync up in about 10 minutes or so."

Neil nodded and looked at the puzzle she was assembling, occasionally glancing to the bouncing tear. It was finally settling down in one location, but its bounces still lept hundreds of kilometres in random directions. He followed a big piece they glimpsed back to the model and something clicked for him.

"No!... It can't be... It's the Caravan!"

Goldie looked at him, then at the model. A wireframe view of Skyfire's Caravan mode appeared over the puzzle. Some pieces shifted to better fit. Other pieces still didn't fit perfectly, but it was close enough.

"Skyfire?" "What did she do?" "Our Experiment!" The two headed Intie spoke over himself, wailing in surprise. Two golden hands appeared and Gibbs-slapped the back of the canine heads, silencing them for a moment.

"She and Yuri are in the outer system. What could be so important for them to send the Caravan in like this? It should be impossible," Neil mused, getting scared for his friends.

"Not just the Caravan. I've picked up a few pieces that show the Angel and Armor are in there. And some biological pieces. Skyfire and Yuri are probably both on board."

"They synced!" Someone shouted, as a flash of light flared from the arrival point. "There's debris!"

"Not debris... drones. They ejected and are broadcasting.... Oh my!," Goldie's avatars disappeared all at once, leaving everyone confused.

Neil looked at the arrival point, but it was still clouded by an expanding energy field. Automated systems picked out a half dozen drones that had shot out of the field.

"There are explosions happening in high orbit!" Ford called out, the simulation quickly shrinking to give a bigger view. Markers highlighted where hundreds of explosions had occurred. Most were well above the ships, but a couple were alarmingly close to other vessels. "There was nothing there before.... Damn Totalium," he cursed.

"What about Yuri and Skyfire?" Neil asked, trying to find the arrival point. He shifted to an internal view and tried to pull the specific data out of the flood in the Heart of Gold's data space.

Goldie's avatar appeared in his personal view, visibly shaking and looking stressed out. "Wow, that was close, even for me. The signal blat from the outer system is just coming in."

"Signal? What happened Goldie? Where are Yuri and Skyfire?" Neil asked.

"It was a trap from the Zealots who created the Kessler field. They held some back waiting for the Fleet to gather around the planet. They planned to take as many of us down as they could I guess. The Western would probably be fine, as would most of the bigger ships, but the small ships would have been decimated. And even us big guys would take some nasty blows" Goldie explained.

"Skyfire and Jadia discovered the last factory out there, forcing the Zealots' hands. They sent the activation signal early. With no DINComm, Skyfire had to bring the kill-signal in personally. They made it in just in time."

Neil was getting frustrated. "But what about them? Where are my friends?"

Goldie plucked the needed data out of the flood. "I don't know how, but they are intact. Looks like they loaded up with some Totalium reactors, but those are probably all dead. Bad news is, they're too close to the planet; on the lower end of the Kessler level and going down fast. They show significant damage on the Caravan; engines are out and comms are spotty. Skyfire has confirmed she and Yuri are alive."

Neil dropped back into Real space and looked around. Goldie appeared next to him. "Going down? We've got to save them!"

"I've already started to follow; but the velocities are all wrong. I'm sorry... Even if I ignored the debris, I can't get close enough before they hit the planet."

Neil started to run to the door, only to find it refusing to open. "Goldie, open the door! If you can't save them, I will."

"Sorry Neil, but the Apollo 11 wouldn't make it through the debris field. Especially not with it this stirred up. At best, you'd just crash next to them. Plus even without the debris, it is too slow to catch them."

The Spacer pounded on the door in frustration and looked at the golden woman. "Then what do we do? What can we do?"

"I'm doing all I can. All you can do is wait. Once we're low enough, you can head out and find them. Hopefully they can get control of their descent enough to land in one piece."

Goldie looked back at the main display in the room. It had zoomed back in on the familiar shape of Skyfire's Caravan mode. It was warped and squished but still mostly intact, spinning uncontrollably in the wispy upper atmosphere.

"What about Rome? Can they send anyone?" Neil asked after watching a moment.

"Rome's on lockdown since the first FTL sign. Clarke's already scrambled an attack fleet to buzz them. The Zealots have walked out of the peace talks; Rome's out of the picture until they sort out what's going on," Goldie explained.

"What about the Fleet? Can't they...?"

"They're busy dealing with the mess those Zealots just released upstairs. Long term it's not a big deal, but short term it's a pain in the ass. All that gravel has to go somewhere, and some of those missiles were close enough that it caused damage. Not as much as if the program had activated, but enough. Besides, they're even further away. We're the closest ship that has any chance of getting down there to help them." Goldie paused a moment, processing new information. "Clemmie just spoke up. She's giving me some Loyalist contacts on the planet that might be able to get on site to help us out. That's about the best we can hope for for now."

Neil looked at the display, then at the closed door. "Fine. Let me out Goldie. I need to go prep the Apollo 11 for a rescue op."

He felt a furry arm land on his shoulder. "Great idea! Looks like the Experiment! was more successful than we ever dreamed," Zaphod said. "We have to rescue them to find out how it was done," Beeblebrox added. Both heads had a crazier gleam to their eyes than usual.

"And we have just the things that might help out," Ford added.

Goldie's avatar sighed, not bothering to try and knock sense into the canine intie this time. The door slid open. "That's a good idea. Go load up the Apollo 11 with what you think you need. But you aren't launching without my say-so."

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Totalia Atmosphere

:Totalia is down,: Yuri thought as his world fell apart. When the pressure of their FTL trip had faded, the field had snapped out and dissipated. He'd felt the thuds as the drones launched, hopefully sending the signal that would save the fleet. Now it was a matter of figuring out what could be done to save themselves.  

In fast time, Skyfire was doing her best to save their lives, tapping into the Ghost for extra processing power, but in his private thoughts he couldn't see how it was possible. The Caravan was in rough shape, and being pummelled by the debris of the Kessler field. They'd planned on arriving high above the planet, but somewhere in the calculations, something had been missed, bringing them down practically on top of the planet.

Yuri looked at the damage reports coming in and winced; the debris was punching through the Caravan and sometimes even reaching the Angel. The Armor level, reinforced by the hardlight environmental shields held, but sections of it were yellow and red. More concerning were areas that had completely disappeared; sensor deadspots either from damage, or Totalium blockages.

Their exit from hyperspace itself had sent them spinning out of control worse than Yuri's worst seizure in the pre-Ghost days. That experience was what Skyfire was drawing upon to try and stabilize them, but while they knew what had to be done, damaged equipment kept them from doing anything about it. The Ghost gave them a stabilized 'view' of the outside, showing the bulk of Totalia ahead of them.

:I'm sorry, Yuri. There's nothing I can do. The Caravan's engines are shot, and even if they worked, we don't have the power left to save us. We're going down,: Skyfire reported, easing up on the frantic attempts long enough for a quick burst.

:I know. We knew the risks coming here. So what's going to happen?:

:Meteor. We're in Totalia's grasp now. In about thirty minutes we'll be deep in its atmosphere, spinning out of control. We'll burn up before we hit the ground, even with hardlight.

:The Fleet is scrambling a rescue mission, but they're too far out. Goldie is closest and she's trying; it won't be enough. She did confirm we succeeded. The kill signal worked.: She finished.

:Thank goodness. I'd hate to have come all this way for nothing,: Yuri said with a sad laugh.

:Yeah. The fleet still have to do some cleanup, but there was no significant damage.:

Yuri sighed and looked at the view of the planet. He then reviewed the status of their bodies. The caravan was bulky, basically a bunch of extendable and reshapable compartments that would give them any look or space they needed. It was mostly at maximum extension now to hold the dead reactors that had pushed them to the planet faster than light. Between those reactors and the damage, they were a misshapen mass spinning down into the increasingly hot and dense atmosphere of the planet. Part of him could already feel the heat of reentry, though he dismissed that as feedback from Skyfire.

Beneath the Caravan was the Angel shell; their Space plane form. Unlike the Caravan it was meant to go into the atmosphere; but they had two problems there. The damage from collisions with the high-speed Totalium-enriched rocks in orbit around the planet had reached to the Angel. The status indicators showed that many of its hardlight heat shields were broken or otherwise incapacitated. And with the random spin and minimal power, they would have a hard time getting into a proper flight orientation to handle reentry, let alone landing.

Yuri laughed at that wayward thought; with all the problems they were looking at, landing was the least of their worries. He refocused on the rest of their problems, tapping into the Ghost as well, beginning to get an idea. He watched their spin through Ghost's filter, and highlighted when the Angel, buried in the Caravan's modules, was in the proper orientation.

:If only...: he mused, the Ghost flashing their model as the proper flight orientation flashed by again. There was a solution, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it.

:If only what?: Skyfire asked.

:If only we could ditch the Caravan. If we could get out at the right time, we could glide down,: Yuri noted, his thoughts quickening as he tried to formulate his plan.

:But the damage. The Angel can't handle a full reentry. Its engines are damaged too, we'd have little more control than a glider.:

Yuri sweated physically and virtually. He spent a few more precious microseconds pondering the situation, certain he was on the verge of a solution. He could sense Skyfire and the Ghost riding with him, their thoughts processing the same data.

:Ablative armor. We COULD ditch the Caravan if we needed to right?:

:We could, but we'd just burn up faster. Though at this point it would be the difference between being some fragments hitting the surface versus maybe having a smashed body to recover.:

:Cheery thought, Sky. But we could ditch the Caravan when we want. So we use it to shield as long as we can. Let it eat the heat, and when we get low enough, throw it away. The Angel is already mostly flight capable, even if it doesn't have much power.:

He could sense the EI running with the idea, simming the whens and hows and comparing it with reality. Normally sims like that would happen too fast for his meat-brain to sense, but he found himself able to follow most of it.

:There. That one. I've got a good feel for that one,: he interrupted her simming.

:What? How?: She overcame her surprise quickly and finished a few more sims without comment before reaching the same conclusion Yuri's gut call had made; that sim was their best chance.

:Sit tight, Yuri. Here goes everything,:

The rest of the flight took an eternity. Yuri watched silently over Skyfire's shoulder, sweating in the increasing heat. Every so often, their body would shake as a Caravan section was ejected, sometimes to help bring their spin under control, and sometimes to get it away before it melted into place on the Angel. Occasionally one would just let go unplanned, but thankfully it didn't harm their overall plan much.

Their descent took place in silence. While Humans had long ago solved the communication dead zone problem of reentry, it only worked on carefully planned descents. Between their damage and their extremely uncontrolled path through the atmosphere, communication up or down was impossible. They could only hope that they were being tracked and someone would recover them in time. Assuming there was something to recover.

:Coming up on ejection,: Skyfire reported needlessly. Yuri felt a moment of regret over what was about to happen. While Skyfire always said she hated the Caravan, and even he regretted its overall clunkiness, it was a part of them, a part they would never get back.

Their body shook and shuddered, loud banging and clanking vibrating through them. The heat doubled, then doubled again, and suddenly he could clearly hear the roar of air rushing past them. They had flown the Angel in air many times before, but this was different; the atmosphere was hitting them in all the wrong angles.

:Caravan away. Pulsing Angel engines to adjust orientation. Heat shields straining,: Skyfire reported, her virtual voice tense under the strain.

Yuri could feel her adjusting the shell, bending the wings and tail to hit the air more naturally, or at least more survivably. He reached out to help her, grabbing the virtual controls and taking some of the strain, feeling the Ghost silently helping both of them bring sense to their chaotic situation. Achingly slowly, the last of the spin stopped and they were belly flopping down into ever thickening atmosphere. The barely stabilized outside view showed the fireball flickering on the edges of their hardlight heat shields.

:I... I don't believe it. We might actually make it!: At first Yuri thought he had said it, then realized it was Skyfire's relieved, overstrained voice.

He skimmed over their body status and thought she was being a bit optimistic. The heat shields were straining under the load. If they were undamaged, they could slow their descent or have heatsinks they could send the heat into; but as it was the hardlight emitters were being forced to absorb all the energy of reentry. And those same emitters were beginning to redline. Curiously some of them seemed to be heating up less than others, but they didn't have time to work out that mystery. He crunched the numbers and realized their survival came down to a coin flip.

:Right. Assuming we survive reentry, we still have to handle the landing. Let's figure out where we are and where we can land,: Yuri said, trying not to celebrate too soon.

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