User:Jetfire/iron hand in a velvet glove

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Works by Jetfire on Shifti

Iron Hand in a Velvet Glove

Author: Jetfire

Iron Hand in a Velvet Glove


De Gaulle Estate, Califia, Zharus

The man flew along the cliffs, brown feathered wings spread wide to catch the complex wind currents that blew in from the ocean. His wings were extended from a large pack that covered his back, held on by feathered straps around his chest. The pack also had the large tail feathers that helped control his flight. A feathered cowl covered the back of his head. It came down the top of his head, shielding his eyes with dark bird eyes and a hooked beak over his nose. His mouth and chin were clear, showing brown tanned skin and dark lips. His hands were clad in flexible gloves, with talons on the finger tips. Underneath the feathered kit, he wore a simple t-shirt and jeans, his feet bare and human.

He was alone in the air, other than regular birds. He picked an arbitrary point and pulled the wings in, going into a steep dive and pulling up just before hitting the water, skimming over the waves. The wings flapped steadily, lifting him back up with the aid of embedded lifters.

:The Embassy Sub is coming in. Your mom is on board,: his partner, Redwing, told him.

He looked around, Redwing helpfully highlighting the incoming dot that was the suborbital craft. :Thanks. I see her. Guess it's time to head in.:

:Pretty much,: Redwing agreed.

The combined pair twisted in the air and started a leisurely flight back home.

The De Gaulle Estate was a multi-acre land claim about a hundred kilometres north of Califia. Most of the claim was still terraformed jungle. The only way in or out was by flying. The estate's buildings were built in a cleared area near the cliffs. The main building was a Southern United States style mansion, angled to give the best views of the ocean. It was owned by Xenia de Gaulle, the current Ambassador of Earth on Zharus. She had built the estate herself with her own funds after she fell in love with the Califian lifestyle.

The man landed in the parking area next to the landing pad just as the bigger ship touched down. His feathered cowl pulled back, lifting off his face and head. The feathered straps around his chest retracted into the backpack that held the wings. The taloned gloves slid off his hand, and floated back to join the rest of his flying gear as it reassembled into a large falcon L-RIDE.

The hatch opened up and a woman stepped out. She was naturally dark skinned and lithe. She stepped down the ramp with a bounce in her step earned from years of surfing when she could. Her eyes landed on the man and her pace quickened.

"Charles! It's so good to see you!" Xenia de Gaulle, Ambassador for Earth, exclaimed, giving the younger man a tight hug.

He returned it happily and kissed her cheeks. "Good to see you too, mom. How was the gathering?"

"The gathering? Just the usual; the Keplers were doing their own things, the Eridani were being superior, the NeoRussians were trying to out drink Romanov, and so forth. Chuck was his usual two steps away from an Interstellar incident self."

"Sounds pretty usual. So why all the secrecy and urgency?" Charles asked. He and his mom walked down the path to the house, followed by Redwing.

"It's because of what we suspected. The Brubecks finally officially secretly announced the wildcat colony."

"Totalia actually exists?" Charles asked.

She nodded, "Apparently so. Or a damn good fakeout if it doesn't. They even had two Totalians with them. They looked as skittish as a pair of cats in a room full of rocking chairs."

"I can imagine, culture shock can be bad enough for those of us who know the other colonies exist."

"And apparently they came down planet a few months ago to Aloha. What were they thinking?" Xenia laughed and kicked her shoes off beside the door.

The pair made their way to the sunny kitchen area, looking out over the sea. Charles poured drinks for them and offered one to his mom.

"Mmm it's good to be home," Xenia said.

"So Totalia exists. How are they?" Charles probed.

"Doing well it seems. Their ambassadors seemed healthy, and they said the planet is doing well. A bit light population wise, but they only had their original stock to grow with. The planet itself sounds pretty ideal, the native flora and fauna are fairly agreeable to Earth type, which helps fill in the gaps in what they brought."

"So not another Endurance. Thank goodness."

She nodded in agreement. "Not another Endurance. The way they described it, it sounded more habitable than Wednesday or Kepler." She sipped her drink and looked out the windows. "Of course, Chuck didn't see it that way. Damn near started a war with them before two words came out of his mouth."

Charles winced in sympathy. "That's not good."

"Not indeed. It's not going to be easy."

"It never is. So what's next? I would have thought you'd still be in Zharustead, making sure Chuck doesn't burn any more bridges."

She sighed, "I should be there. But I needed to come home, recenter myself before the upcoming fight. You see, Zane and his friends, apparently they're putting together a fleet to go to this Totalia. At the gathering, they invited all of us to come along."

"Oh..." Charles said softly, quickly putting the pieces together.

"Exactly. I promised the Totalians I'd make sure Chuck's type wouldn't make it as part of Earth's group, but that's a promise I can't keep. My political capital is pretty low and not getting any better. Any day now, I'm expecting Jakarta to send my walking papers."

She stepped out onto a patio and tiredly sat down. "What I can do, and why I'm here, is to get you on the team."

Charles blinked, "Me? You want me to go to Totalia? But I've gone native more than you have. I've partnered with one of those 'infernal machines' as Chuck would say."

Redwing chuffed and shook his wings. "I'll show him infernal," the L-RIDE mumbled.

"Exactly. You can show Earth isn't all imperialistic isolationists like Chuck. I can probably get a few others, like Jessica and Marty maybe. But you're the important one."

Charles rubbed Redwing's head and pondered the situation. "How much time do I have?"

"Not much. Zane, wisely or not, waited until he was ready to leave before bringing the rest of the Colonies in. We have days to get our team assembled and on a shuttle."

"Works better for us. Less time for Chuck to figure out how to get me off the ship," Charles said.

"Exactly. But he's smart. How much time do you need? The sooner we get back to Zharustead, the better."

Charles stood up and headed for the doors. "I'll grab my go bag. Redwing, check mom's notes, ping me if I need anything special."

"On it," the falcon confirmed.

Charles paused, "You said the Totalians started in Aloha?" Xenia nodded. "Those poor guys. They never knew what hit them."

Separator k.png

En route to Cerberus/Great Western

Charles stood in a holographic view of Totalia City, turning around slowly, trying to get a feel for the place. It was difficult since the simulation only showed the places, not the people, but it was all he had to work with. "Seems mostly western European based, with a strong Egyptian influence," he mused to himself, zooming in on a pyramid-topped building.

His quarters aboard the Algonquin were barely large enough to stand up in, let alone properly walk around the city simulation. But the diplomatic cruiser wasn't intended for long-term accommodations. It had been chartered to ferry the Ambassadors and their retinues out to Cerberus to join the fleet.

"Charles! Where the hell are you?" Marty asked, using a priority override to call directly.

"In my quarters, studying Totalia City. What's going on?" he asked, glancing at Redwing. The bird shrugged, looking just as puzzled.

"Chuck called an all hands meeting. We're in the Forward Lounge."

Charles cursed under his breath and glanced around to make sure he didn't need to take anything with him. The simulation faded, showing the mostly bare room.

"It seems Chuck forgot to send our invitations," Redwing noted, stretching out his wings.

"Seems so. Red and I are on our way, Marty," Charles said. The pair bolted out of the room as fast as they could go.

Minutes later they were standing outside the closed door of the lounge on the opposite end of the ship from his quarters. Charles paused a moment to compose himself before going in.

"-iving but sparse colony... Ah, welcome Monsieur De Gaulle. So nice of you to join us," Chuck said. The leader of the Earth delegation was standing in front of an outside view of space. The 18 other members of the delegation were sitting on couches pulled up in a semicircle around him.

"Thank you, Mister Lorrey. My apologies for my tardiness. It seems my invitation got stuck in the filters somewhere."

:Ding! Incoming invitation,: Redwing noted privately. :Conveniently timed of course and backdated so it's just network lag.:

"Such a pain when that happens. Please, have a seat. We are discussing how we will handle the Totalia situation."

Charles quickly scanned the layout. There was room at the end of the couch closest to Chuck that had obviously been saved for him. He ignored it, instead going to the opposite end of the couch where there was half a person's worth of space available.

"Excuse me," he said to Juliette, squeezing himself into the spot before she could move to fill it. Chuck's ally glared at him and moved over for him.

A brief frown passed over Chuck's face before the man recovered. "As I was saying, Totalia appears to have a sparse population on a stable world...."

Charles tuned the other man out and checked the rest of the team. In the end, his mom had managed to get himself, Marty and Jessica on board. Five more they'd accepted as neutral folk; not officially on Xenia and Charles's side, but not drinking Chuck's Kool-Aid either. The remaining dozen, including Chuck himself were strong Imperialists. As far as Charles was concerned, it meant the public mission was doomed from the start, which left him more time to focus on how to control the damage and set up a foundation for a better future.

The room fell silent and Charles realized all eyes were on him.

"Chuck asked what you thought would be Earth's best approach to Totalia," Redwing helpfully cued him.


He looked up and smiled. "Well, it seems to me that there are quite a few things Totalia needs. The bad news is, Zharus is better positioned to supply most of those needs. Due to being first on the scene and assumably being closer, Zharus and Pharos companies will have the advantage in bringing Totalia up to speed with the rest of humanity.

"So in that respect, Earth can't really compete, at least not compete strongly enough to make a difference." He looked around and saw a few heads nod in agreement.

"So instead, we should stress our second advantage. Our people. Even as depopulated as she is, Earth is still one of the most heavily populated planets in Human space. We can literally offer fresh blood to them, a population boost at whatever speed they want to take it, to help match the levels of the rest of humanity."

"But Zharus is as populated, and closer. Won't they beat us  there too?" Nicholas asked. He was one of the neutral delegates, from the Scandinavian Alliance region of Earth.

Charles nodded, "In raw numbers they do. I think they may even beat Earth now. But unlike Earth, they are 'tainted'. In reviewing the reports on Totalia, the writers have tried to dance around it, but I suspect we've all noticed just how xenophobic the Totalians are."

He noted most of the delegates agreeing with him and focused on Chuck. "Zharusians have many people all eager to head to Totalia. But they come with baggage, the Zharus insanity, the RIDEs, the Integrates, and whatever else they've come up with lately. Earth, she offers humans, plain and simple. Homo Sapiens 1.0."

Chuck smiled like a shark tasting blood. "Right, excellent. A fantastic idea. How can we take advantage of that?"

With Chuck suitably routed, Charles sat back and pondered his own tactics. In the end, Earth had little else to offer other than people and an alternative to Zharus. It wasn't much but it was something he could work with. The trick would be to play the card without alienating everyone else. He sighed and let his hand drop to the side of the couch, feeling Redwing nuzzle up under it.

"Three months may not be long enough," he lamented to his friend.

Great Western, Launch Day, Diplomatic Sector

All of the ambassadorial delegations had been given quarters on the Great Western itself, three entire levels each for Earth and the colonies, including Zharus and an empty trio of levels for Totalia. While the initial accommodations were sparse and uniform, with the 'just fabbed' smells, the delegations were encouraged to 'personalize' their level in the style of their home system. The obvious thinking was that the levels would be permanent additions to the circus ship, a 'Glimpse of Home' that visitors could go up and see during the Western's travels.

The heart of the ambassadorial section, was the Grand Concourse. An entire level halfway between the embassies areas, it was designed to show off humanity's reach. Normally, it was a zero-G level, kept dark with a starscape showing the local region of space, along with the locations of the known human settlements. Totalia wasn't shown on the map; and wouldn't be until they were underway. The failed colony Endurance was shown, something Chuck had already complained to the Circus about.

Floating around the weightless space were platforms of gravity. Every colony had claimed one or more platforms as their own for the departure party. Countdowns floated in midair, along with the views from outside, while hundreds of people partied. The space between platforms was filled with people jumping from one group to another, sometimes missing their target and needing a rescue from Astrogon.

"They're hiding something. I know they are," Chuck grumbled. He was in the middle of the Earth platform, speaking to anyone who would listen to him. Charles was staying near him, mainly to get an idea of what sort of damage he'd need to control. "I've timed how long it takes to get between levels. Proxima to Centauri? 5 seconds. Zharus to Wednesday? 7 seconds. Eridini to Kepler? 4 seconds. Earth to Centauri? 12 seconds. There's gotta be something between there."

"It's probably just an engineering level, or a support level. Nothing to fret about," Charles said tiredly.

"NO! It can't be. They're setting something up," Chuck finished his beer and his eyes roamed the platform, landing on Suzanne Wang and her husband Stuart. Both were Martians, though Stuart wasn't officially part of the Earth Delegation. "Damn Martians. It's gotta be them. The Circus is chock full of Mars Firsters, and I'm pretty sure they are MFers too. This damn circus allocated space for a Martian display; they'll probably reveal it to the Totalians and undermine all my work."

Charles groaned and had enough of Chuck's conspiracy theories. He looked around for an escape. The platforms floated randomly in the empty space, occasionally clumping groups together for a few minutes or longer. The Kepler platform was approaching and he seriously considered escaping to it, until he saw a Zhang He platform just a little further away. He kicked off the edge of the Earth platform and flew through the air until he was caught in the edge of the Zhang He platform. He bowed politely to the nearest host, and quickly received a glass of sake.

The final minutes were counting down, and Charles found himself back on the Earth platform with Chuck. He managed to keep his distance, but couldn't help overhearing Chuck's latest beefs.

"They should be here. This entire mission is for them, they should be here with the rest of us. It's an insult, a snub against all of us."

"Now Chuck, we were told this would happen. They have a literal front row seat for the jump on the bridge of the King of Hearts. The Totalian reps will be stopping by later on, but they decided where they wanted to be," Candace tried to reassure him.

Chuck ignored the efforts from his aide. "That's irrelevant. It's an insult! It's-"

"It's time!" someone shouted, the roar of the crowd drowning out Chuck's drunken frustration. "Five!... Four!... Three!... Two!... One!... GO!"

The crowd cheered as the outside views dissolved into static. The clocks reset to 89 days and shrunk away, leaving just the starscapes. The space itself was filled with the opening notes of Into the Great Beyond, a TwenSecond song that had become traditional for colony launches and new ship launches in general.

Engulfed in a bubble of Real little bigger than the ship itself, slipping faster than light under the skin of the universe, the party kicked it up more than a few notches, filling the empty space of the Grand Concourse. Charles noted even Chuck had stopped most of his grumbling, mostly because other aides were keeping his mouth stuffed.

Satisfied there were no pressing emergencies, he grabbed the arm of a couch Marty was on, and contacted his friend. "And we're off. How's it going?"

"Going great! All these Intelligences in here, you really should see it. They set up Rama in here, and we're all having a blast on New York Island," Redwing replied.

Charles did a quick search, finding a reference to a TwenCen book about an alien interstellar cylindrical spaceship. "Sounds great. I'll take a look at your vids later. We're having a blast up here too."

"How's Chucky handling it?"

Charles laughed, "About as much as we expected. I think he's got some FTL psychosis that he's been hiding."

"His records do indicate he slept his way to Zharus. And I mean in the frigid case, not the biblical one."

"Well, others are keeping him busy now. By my count so far, he's only restarted the Martian Independence war and nearly declared war on Kepler. But the Totalians haven't shown up yet, so the night's still young."

An hour or so later, the party reached a lull and focus shifted to the center of the chamber. A man, a normal woman, a lion-tagged woman and a lion RIDE stepped out of the elevator onto one of the few static platforms in the room. They looked around, and the lion tagged woman and the man seemed a bit confused by the haphazard way the room was set up. Some of the platforms were vertical compared to others, or even completely upside down. Many platforms even had people partying on both sides at once. A round of applause broke out to greet the Totalian party.

The man raised his hands and focused on the closest platform that wasn't tilted too much from their orientation, seeming more than a little embarrassed. The noise died down in anticipation.

"Thank you, Thank you everyone for the warm welcome," Doctor Darrek Sigurdssen said. "It's good to see so many familiar faces, and to see so many new people to meet. I'm sure we'll all become friends in the months to come."

Charles was distracted by a snort from Chuck. When he looked over, the Ambassador was glaring at the Totalian representatives. "Look at them. Already tainted by that mad world. It's going to be tough to straighten that mess out."

Charles looked around to see if anyone was listening, but all eyes were focused on the Totalians.

"One's a damn robot pretending to be human. The other's a human pretending to be a robot. It ain't natural, and they're already corrupting Totalia. What's worse, there's already a whole ship of those robots and cyborgs out there, doing who knows what."

Charles caught Suzanne's eyes and flicked towards Chuck. She nodded and snagged a canape from the tray. "Here, have a bite to eat," she encouraged the grumbling ambassador. "You're too you when you're hungry."

Satisfied that Chuck was contained, Charles refocused on the Totalians and their escorts. He hadn't met them in person yet, but he'd read the reports on them. The normal looking woman was Arca, an EI in a human-form shell. She looked well within the Zharusian human norms, but inside she was more metal than flesh, or something like that. He was still sorting out just what she really was.

The lioness RIDE on the other hand was actually human. Scout Captain Barbaretta Hansom was the first Scout to discover Totalia and been captured by the Totalians. She'd stayed behind when the rest of the captured scouts had escaped, working with the faction that supported Zharus's ideals. She'd been severely injured on Totalia and put on ice until the follow-up scout expedition returned with her and the Totalians. Instead of cloning a new body, or using a cyborg one, they'd somehow transferred her mind into an RI core and a lioness DE. That confused him more than Arca did.

The lioness-tagged woman was the second Totalian to come from the planet. Charles had been amazed to discover she'd willingly fused with Barbaretta; in that respect he almost agreed with Chuck about the Zharusian insanity.

Doctor Sigurdssen was the only normal one of the quartet, fully Totalian human, with no fuse experience. From how close Arca stood by him, Charles wondered how much longer that might last, and if Arca could even fuse. His mind briefly pondered what that might be like before locking it away in its nightmare closet.

"Regretfully, we have other obligations to move on to," Teenette was calling out, having to pause from the audible 'aww' that filled the room. "But before we go, we do have one gift for you. A mystery I'm sure you're all anxious to solve."

She turned around slowly and found a nebula in the starscape. "You've been wondering where Totalia is since we told you. It's a secret we kept for the safety of our home; but it's a secret whose time is spent.

"Down there, is the Caliburn Nebula. It's a nebula everyone knows, seen across most of human space and especially prominent in Zharus's skies. Ra, Totalia's star, as you can probably guess since I'm drawing attention to it, is located just behind that nebula."

As she spoke, a star brightened, until it glowed through the nebula. Planets appeared around it.

"Astrometric records have been unlocked to all of you. Information on Ra and Totalia and the rest of the planets of our home are available to you. In a few days, once everyone has recovered, we'll gladly speak with any and all of you about our home," Darrek called out.

"Thank you for the invitation, and for coming out. Please, enjoy the rest of your party," Teenette shouted and waved. The Totalians and their escorts stayed near the exit a few minutes longer before slipping away.

"Figures. They aren't even sticking around to talk. Just drop a bomb and walk away," Chuck mumbled.

Charles glanced at him, and decided to call it a night. They had three months of travel to go, and his reserves were already fading fast. He tapped Suzanne's shoulder and leaned in close to be heard. "I'm heading out. Can you make sure Chuck gets out before starting an interstellar incident?"

"We're long past that, but I'll keep the nukes in the silos at least," she shouted back.

"Thanks. Have fun!"

The Ark

Ajax flew through the air above the plains biome of the Ark. It wasn't much space, but it was one of the largest open spaces available anywhere on the Great Western. In the Virtual, the draconic spacer knew she could have literally infinite skies to fly in if she wanted to, but there was something about really flying that virtual didn't quite get.

She reached the end of the biome, the infinite sky boundary marked by a warning line in her view space, and flipped over to start flying back. Gravity pulled her body in strange directions momentarily as her lifter harness got confused, then settled down.

"You've come a long way, Jax," she told herself, reflecting on her past. With months of travel time and no where to go, self-reflection was common among those that didn't sleep the trip away. "Hard to believe a spaceman from Tycho would ever yearn for bigger skies to stretch her wings out better."

Unlike many spacers, Ajax had never had a problem with open exposed spaces. But growing up in Sol, he'd been most comfortable in the small rooms of the space habitats around the system. Big spaces weren't unknown, but they were expensive and risky to maintain. It wasn't until he'd reached Zharus, and saw how the twin wonders of Hardlight constructs and Sarium had transformed space life in the system, that he'd seen what really open spaces were like. After meeting and partnering with Jadia, she'd learned to love them as much as the dragon did. The Ark's plains biome wasn't remotely comparable to the open spaces Celestial Weyr had, let alone the humongous zero G spaces of Babylon Five, but it was the best she could access on the Western.

"Alert! New player in the zone," AndrAIa warned her. She'd kept her old assistant up to date, partly because she didn't want to impose on Jadia for trivial stuff, but mainly out of loyalty. AndrAIa wasn't a true Intelligence, not like Zharus had, but they'd been together since she was a kid running Tycho's corridors.

"Show me", she asked and quickly got a pop up arrow. At the far end of the biome, near the entrance, a new figure was taking to the air. AndrAIa activated her magnification mode to bring him into better view.

At first, the man looked like he was fused or integrated with a bird, until she zoomed in and saw him clearer. His chest was covered in a harness with brown feathers on it. His hands were encased in scaled gloves with talons on the finger tips. His mouth and chin were bare and human shaped. He wore a feathered cowl with a curved beak that covered his nose, and dark eyes over his own. His back had a pair of large tapered brown feathered wings that were flapping steadily, lifting him up into the air. Tail feathers flexed behind him to help control his flight. He wore a pair of slacks, and simple slippers covered his normal looking feet.

"Not a fuse, or an integrate... What is he?" Ajax mused, waving to the figure and starting towards him slowly. He waved back and adjusted to come towards her.

"ID tags: Charles de Gaulle and Redwing. Earth Diplomatic Delegation," AndrAIa helpfully supplied.

"Earth delegation? Oh great. Just what I need.... Wait, and Redwing? Who's Redwing?"

"Redwing is registered as a RIDE partnered with Charles de Gaulle. Falcon-style Laurasian RIDE, with pseudo-fuse capabilities."

"Pseudo-fuse? Nevermind. Probably the latest fad to come off the planet," Ajax noted, cancelling her question quickly.

The fliers reached each other quickly. "Ahoy there!" Ajax called out.

"Ahoy yourself!" the man called out. "I'm Charles."

"And Redwing," a second voice quickly introduced itself, higher pitched than the man's, with the clipped quick speech a lot of avians tended to have.

"Good to meet you. I'm Ajax. Just Ajax." Ajax noted how the man's focus stayed on her face. While flying, she tended to go topless, wearing just a pair of shorts. The Earth delegate didn't seem to pay her naked chest any attention.

"Good to meet you as well. How's the flying today?" Charles asked, Redwing's wings flapping slowly behind him, not quite enough to keep the mirage of flying without a lifter alive.

She gave her own wings a quick flap that sent her into a quick spin. "Flying's great for now. Noah's got a thunderstorm scheduled in a few hours."

"Really? I'll have to stick around for it. Nothing like a good storm flight."

"They are exhilarating." She motioned towards the far wall and the fliers started winging towards it. "I haven't noticed you in here before. Which is strange since you clearly know your way around the thermals."

"We've been meaning to come out, but it's been crazy since they told us about Totalia. This is the first time we've had to ourselves since we left Zharus."

"I imagine it has been. Me, there isn't much need for a Spacer when you're in subspace. So I've had lots of time on my hands."

"True, true."

They flew in silence for a few moments before he spoke again. "Admittedly, me being here isn't entirely a coincidence. I was hoping to find you here. Well... not hoping, I came here because I knew you were here."

She stopped in mid air and looked at him warily. "Oh?"

He stopped as well, then motioned down to the ground. She followed him down and landed a few metres away. She was a little amazed to see Redwing peel off of the human; the feathered harness retracted into the backpack that had the wings and tail. The cowl lifted off and retracted back, closing in and forming a falcon head. The talon-gauntlets slide off his hands and formed the bird's feet. Redwing shook his feathers as he finished reforming, bigger than a real falcon, but smaller than the regular RIDEs.

Charles, with his partner removed, showed no trace of a fuse. He had short brown hair and sparkling blue eyes. He rubbed his hands a moment and nodded back to her.

"Thank you for coming down," he said. "First of all, how much do you know about the delegations?"

"Not much; I'm not much for diplomacy. Too much double talk and truth lying for my tastes."

He nodded again, "Understandable. I've read your records, and why you were pushed out of Sol. A tragic incident that didn't need to happen."

She stayed quiet and waited for him to go on.

"Right, so, the basics. As you know, all the colonies have sent delegates to meet with the Totalians, and of course, you know I'm on the Earth group. Not leading it, or even on the front lines really, but I'm a part of it. Sadly, despite mom's best efforts.... my mom is the Ambassador to Zharus if you didn't know, she couldn't keep Chuck and his Imperialist faction from dominating the delegation."

"Imperialist faction?" Ajax asked, a little curious.

"Yeah, them. They're the type that probably pushed you out. They're trying to set up an Earth-based empire, where they basically control and dictate everything across human space."

"Not much chance of that happening," she noted.

"True, true. But until they realize that, or until people like me can take over, they can make things awkward for everyone."

"People like you?"

"Maybe it's because we've seen too much of what the Colonies have, especially Zharus. Mom and I, we're the type that would prefer a more cooperative relation between Earth and the Colonies. Let everyone work out their own ways to live with the others, and let Earth work with her children to keep spreading among the stars."

"Noble ideas."

"Noble, some might say foolhardy." Charles looked at Redwing who smirked and started preening his wing. "But a dream none the less. Mom had hoped that we'd be able to stack the Totalian delegation with more like us, Earthers who are hoping to encourage cooperation. Sadly, she wasn't able to do as much as she wanted to."

"So instead of a proper olive branch, you're extending the lace covered gauntlet, or something like that."

Charles nodded again, "Exactly. The guys in charge, they're going to talk the talk, but they'll be pushing their own agenda, encouraging Totalia to toe the Earth line or else."

Ajax frowned and thought about it for a moment. "Not a pleasant situation, but that doesn't explain why you wanted to meet me."

"I'm trying to meet all the Earthers, and Solars on the Western. There are dozens of people like you, people who left Earth and Sol for a better life, but may still be willing to help the home system."

"To what end? Most of us were probably pushed out. We don't hold much love for the home system."

He shook his head, "I'm hoping you're wrong. You don't hold much love... hell, let's be honest about it, you hate the people in charge of the system. But you probably still love the places and people you left behind. I want to connect with people like that."

Ajax thought on his words a moment, and found herself agreeing with him. She hated the situation that pushed her out; but she still yearned to see Mercury's scorched surface again, the rings of Saturn, the Pluto-Charon science stations, and especially to see Tycho City and its gardens. The current leadership was lower than hull slime, but the people and places were still important.

"I guess I can't argue with that. But again, to what ends?"

He turned away and shrugged, "Probably to no ends in the end. With ex-pats like you that still love home, I want to make a secondary delegation, an unofficial one. One that can help dilute the poison Chuck and his friends will surely be spreading. To show that there is another side to Earth, a side that wants to live in peace and cooperation with her child colonies, not to dominate them. It'll be a hard sell that might fail, but if we don't try something, Totalia could be soured to Earth before Earth can come."

"Would that be a bad thing? You're not leading Earth yet; when Earth shows up, it's more likely to be battleships than cruise ships."

"Probably. But we have to start somewhere; to plant the seeds, the ideas of peace. Give everyone a chance before beliefs get too embedded." He laughed and looked back at her. "If mom had known what I'd end up doing, she should have named me Don Quixote."

Ajax chuckled and shrugged her shoulders and wings. "Well, I guess I could help in that respect. But I won't sugar coat it. I'll share the good and the bad."

"Good, that's what I want. I don't want to hide the warts, just prove that we aren't all monsters."

Overhead, they heard a rumble of thunder; clouds had seeped in from hidden vents and were now almost heavy enough to release their loads.

"Looks like Noah moved the time table up," Ajax noted. "You worried about getting wet?"

Charles chuckled and shook his head. Redwing split up again and embraced him. "Not at all. Care to fly with us for a bit?"

Ajax crouched and jumped up, flapping down. Her lift belt kicked in and kept her up. "Just try to keep up."

Uncia Maxima Shuttle

The Earth diplomat and his redhawk L-RIDE rose out of the elevator in the cargo bay to find three humans and three RIDEs arranged around the entrance. He was startled to see the large group waiting for him, but recovered quickly. He stepped up to Rhianna and bowed politely, spreading his arms, a motion the hawk mimicked. “Greetings. I am Charles de Gaulle, and this is my partner, Redwing.”

"Welcome aboard, I am Rhianna Stonegate and this is Kaylee," Rhianna said, motioning to the lynx RIDE. She held out her hand to him and finished the introductions. Clockwise from the front, Charles was faced by Rhianna, a short, robust woman with lynx RIDE tags; her partner, Kaylee the lynx; Ivy Stonegate, taller and more voluptuous than her sister; her partner, Cira the silver fox; and Rufia, even taller and even more voluptuous than either one; and her partner, Yvonne the elk.

"Thank you for agreeing to see us," Charles said, releasing her hand. "I've been visiting as many Solar ex-pats as I can, but to be honest I didn't really expect you to agree to talk to us."

“It’s a long trip,” Rhianna said. “Doesn’t cost us anything to be sociable, especially with a fellow Earther.”

“Besides, we were kinda curious what you wanted,” Rufia said. “And this was the easiest way to find out.” She moved aside and nodded to a sofa and some chairs set up along one bulkhead. “Make yourself comfy.”

“Thank you.” Charles moved over and took a seat in one of the chairs, Redwing perching next to it. The other humans slid into the couch, while their RIDEs arranged themselves close at hand. Rhianna paused on her way and crouched down to examine Redwing closer.

"Forgive me a moment," Rhianna said. "I'm not as familiar with L-RIDEs, but aren't you a Centurion-type? Sort of halfway between a full Fuse and the mini-frames my partner helped invent?"

Redwing fluffed his feathers. "You've got a sharp eye there, ma'am."

"It's a style that's not very common. How did you two meet, if you don't mind me asking?"

"Well, I've always had my head in the clouds. There's very little on Earth I haven't jumped off of. I've even jumped from the top of the Olympus domes on Mars, both inside and outside. So when I came to Zharus, mom hooked me up with Redwing and it was a natural fit," Charles explained.

"I'm surprised anyone in the Earth diplomatic offices would have anything like a RIDE," Rufia noted.

"Mom's been anxious to partner up for years, but her position makes that politically unsound. Me? I'm just a cog in the diplomatic machine; we have more freedoms for eccentricities like this. Still, a full fuse with tags would be political suicide, so Red's pseudofuse capabilities have served us well."

"Have you considered upgrading to a full fuse-shell?" Rhianna asked. "I mean, for after you leave the diplomatic corps, if you ever leave."

"I'd have to be blind not to see the writing on the wall; this is probably my last stint stumping for Earth,"Charles shrugged. "As for a full shell? Occasionally. But we've developed a good relationship as we are, I'm not sure I want to shake things up. Besides, I hear the avian tags can be rather high maintenance."

"And frankly, I don't really want to get into the biological-interface updates I'd need to get with a full shell. I prefer to leave the squishy-related stuff in the meatsack," Redwing noted.

Rhianna laughed, "That's certainly an interesting way to put it. Before you leave, I'd love to see what that pseudo-fuse is like. I've heard and seen the vids of it before, but I haven't seen it in person yet.,

"Certainly, after we're done of course. I'm surprised you haven't seen it before."

"I like RIDEs and try to keep up with the latest developments, but the tech is booming, especially with the enhancements Inties are adding to the mix. It's hard to see every new variation in person, or even keep up with everything.” Rhianna shrugged. “If you need any maintenance done during the trip, please feel free to drop by.”

“We’ll keep that in mind. Thank you.” Charles settled himself in the chair while Rhianna found her seat. “So, to get down to business, thank you for agreeing to see me. My mother, the Earth ambassador, told me she had the chance to meet some of you, at the diplomatic reception for the Totalian delegates back on Zharus. She sends her regards.”

"Her, we liked," Rhianna said. "But I'm a realist as much as she is. She said she was likely to be removed because she'd gone too native. How'd you end up on this trip, anyway?"

"Isn't Chuckles going to be a little upset you're talkin' to people like us on your lonesome?" Kaylee added.

“That’s...actually partly why we’re here.” Charles smiled. “Mother wanted us to be...I suppose you’d say a sort of ‘spoiler’ inasmuch as we could. She spent much of her remaining political capital getting myself and some other similarly thinking agents on the Earth delegation. We are, unfortunately, in the minority, without any power to affect overall diplomatic policy, but we can at least try to show people that Earth isn’t entirely made up of...well, Chucks.”

Ivy snorted. “Upchucks.”

Redwing chuckled. “You said it, not us.”

“As I’ve been telling the others I’m meeting with, I'm trying to meet everyone I can who originally came from Earth. I’m hoping that, even though you might have left under...unpleasant circumstances, you might still think kindly enough of some of the people and places back home that you’d be willing to help show Earth’s good side.”

Ivy clenched her fists. “Well, you’ve got some nerve. ‘Unpleasant circumstances’? Hell, my parents got kicked off the home planet, because they dared to speak out against all the ‘Chucks’ back there. We had to move our entire family off-world. Mom and Dad, my sibs, and I had to sell off enough body parts to make a whole person to be able to afford the tickets for everyone, and that was shipping most everyone as cold cargo. And you have the gall, de Gaulle, to think we’ll put in a good word for the place?”

"This is nothing against you," Rhianna said, glancing at Ivy to make sure she stayed seated. "But you're barking up the wrong tree. Given what happened with my family, we aren't exactly eager to help Earth in any way."

“Hey, hey,” Rufia said. “Let’s all cool down a little here. Or maybe warm up. This is one of the good guys, remember? He didn’t throw your folks out.”

“I’m sorry that happened to your family,” Charles said, focusing on Ivy. “And actually, that's part of the reason I am hoping to speak with you. As far as Chuck is concerned, I'm only gathering good stories about Earth, for his propaganda purposes. The reality is, I want them all. The good and the bad. I want to show the Totalians that while Earth has its warts, that it's in a rough spot, we're all still human. And while it's hard to believe now, but someday we'll be friends again. The wheel of time will keep rolling, and the Imperialists will fade into history like all empires do, and saner, friendlier folk will be in charge. I want to make sure the seeds of friendship are planted for that future.”

He paused and leaned forward. "So please, feel free to tell your story as honestly as you want to. Or not tell it. I'm not forcing you. But if they’re going to hear the bad things about Earth, it would mean more for them to be able to hear them from someone who was actually there, rather than rumors about something that happened to a friend of a friend.”

Rhianna snickered and leaned back. "You really are a diplomat, aren't you?"

Ivy frowned. "And how can I be sure you’ll quote me accurately? If I’m honest about it, I’m not gonna hold anything back.”

Charles nodded to Redwing. "I'm sharing what I've recorded so far, from others. The good and the bad. And there have been some bad ones. You have my word, I am doing no editing. What you say is what will be presented. Plus, you're free to record as well if you want. You are not the first hostile Earther we've spoken to, nor will you be the last."

Rhianna nodded. “Your mother seemed like a square shooter, so I don’t see why you’d be an exception.”

"Especially since he's got me. Can you see any of Chuck's crew partnering with an abomination like me?" Redwing pointed out.

Ivy frowned again. “It still seems a little convenient, you suddenly showing up like this. None of the other ‘Cooperatists’ back on Earth did a damned thing to help us. Not that it would have done much good if they had—anyone who’d spoken up for us would just as surely have gotten chucked out—‘Chuck’ed out—too, but it would at least have shown there were other people willing to stand up for what was right. But the thing is, not one single other person did get tossed along with us. So they all must have thought it was a better idea to stay clammed.”

Charles paused to consider his words, keeping his body language carefully controlled. "Each case is different. Some are more public than others, some are easier to act on than others. I wouldn't say Earth's in a civil war situation yet; but there is a rebellion going on. Sadly, it's a rebellion that's still very weak on the homeworld. Like your family, the more public members were forced out of the system, to places where they would do less harm to the Imperialist goals. Those that are left behind, have to pick their battles carefully, to make sure they get the most bang for the buck and not do more harm than good."

Rufia nodded. “Rhi and I—well, Ryan back then—didn’t get ‘Chucked out’ ourselves, but we could see the way the wind was blowing, and it looked like a better idea to make ourselves scarce rather than wait ‘til the government was willing to foot the bill for us. So we don’t have that much more love for the people running the place than Ivy here.”

"My ticket cost about five times as much as Rufe's because I was 'useful' to the regime," Rhianna said. "If I'd known what Zharus could do with nano-regen, I would've sold my liver after all. Would've given us a better reserve of funds when we got there. can see the point I'm trying to make here. They're pushing anyone they don't think fits off the planet."

"At least you made it off planet. Some of the folk we've talked to, haven't been that lucky." Redwing said as he flicked his wing towards them, sending a share link. "When you have a moment, please look into Ranger Mallory's story. Gloria's extended family was unable to get out. Her uncle and aunt are ship designers that got grabbed and sent to Jove. That's what triggered her to get out with what she could. She hasn't heard from them since."

Rufia nodded. “That really bites.”

Ivy shook her head. “I don’t know. My gut reaction is not to want to do anything an Earth ambassador asks me to, because I’ve got a real big mad on at Earth right now in general. probably stupid, given that I know you’re not one of the bad guys in general.”

"But I am a representative of Earth. Ultimately my goal is to improve Earth's situation. In this case, my way to do that are counter to the current Earth leadership's goals. Still, if you don't want to share your story, you don't have to. Or if you want to record it later, feel free to send it to me. It is a long journey on a small ship. We'll surely meet again."  

“It does seem like a good idea to do what we can to throw a monkeywrench into Chuck’s plans,” Rhianna said. “Assuming that he won’t get ahold of all this stuff and edit out the bad parts before passing it on.”

"Always a possibility. But precautions can be taken to make it more difficult. Redwing is storing the data locally, since he is my recorder." Charles paused and thought a bit. "And I suppose I could put the raw records in Astrogon's hands. Let him hold the read-only results. Certainly, Chuck could put out his own version; but we can always point to the uncut, raw data and there would be nothing anyone could do about it."

"Besides, your story is probably one of the ones he wouldn't touch with a ten second ping," Redwing pointed out. "You guys are way too public, with your stance on Earth very well known. If he were to reedit your story to make it pro-Earth, no one would believe it. The best propaganda is the type that has a ring of truth from nobodies you can believe."

“I’ll certainly...think about it,” Ivy said. “Like you said, it’s a long trip. I’ll have plenty of time to do it, if I decide to.”

Charles nodded, and looked at Rhianna and Rufia. "I'm open to hearing your stories as well, if you want to tell them. The Totalians will be anxious to hear about all the colonies when we get there, I'm sure."

“I don’t see why not,” Rufia said. “Vonnie’s a comm elk, so we can do up our own recordings and pass ‘em on to you easily enough.”

Charles chuckled, "Given your reputation, I'm almost expecting you to hire some of those Actor-Inties to do reenactments or something."

Don’t,” Yvonne said, “give her ideas.”

Rhianna chuckled. “For me, I’m inclined to go ahead, but I want to talk it over later with Ivy.”

"Fair enough. I've had others defer, and decline to talk. You are neither the first, nor will you be the last in that respect. I appreciate you hearing me out at least."

He started to rise, but Rufia waved him back to his seat. “Hey, no need to leave so soon. We are all still Earth expats, right? I kinda wouldn’t mind hearing how the old place is getting on without me.”

“Sure, what she said.” Ivy shrugged, not sounding particularly thrilled with the idea. “We can chat about the good parts of Earth for a while, I guess.”

Rhianna nodded. “Can we get you something to drink?”

Charles smiled faintly. “A beer would be great." He nodded reassuringly to Ivy. "And it doesn't have to be talk about Earth. Honestly, you were probably there more recently than I was. Still, new friends are always good to make, no matter where they are from or what they are.”

He finally made it to his feet despite the waving. "And besides, there was something else you wanted to see," he finished, motioning to Redwing. The avian split apart, the pieces flowing over the human, turning him into a birdman.

"Oooo! Pseudo autonomous pieces!" Rhianna gushed, forgetting the offered drink and almost jumping on the pair to examine them closer. "And not even a hint of a hiccup from the real space orientation synching. Very smooth...."

Separator k.png

Lords Chambers, Earth Embassy

The debate on how to decorate the Earth levels was ongoing. Everyone had their preferences and their own agendas for how to allocate the space, and few designs had been settled yet. One area that had been settled was a meeting room Chuck had designed heavily based on the United Kingdom's Lords Chambers. The walls and ceilings of the room had been decorated in the ornate style, but the chairs and desks hadn't been fabricated yet, which made it ideal for private meetings of the Earth delegation.

"Where's Charles?"  Jessica whispered to Marty, looking around the room.

"He's on the Heart of Gold. Chuck's meeting call came in too late for him to get here, as usual," Marty replied. "He said to take notes and listen carefully. Chuck tends to be more talkative when Charles isn't around."

"Good point. We can compare later," Jessica said. She moved away from the Brazilian and found a spot near the Martian. She nodded to Suzanne and waited while Chuck finished his count.

The privacy field snapped on, filling the room with a faint hum. Chuck self consciously rubbed his arms and moved to the middle.

"Thank you for coming everyone. As you know, we're now at the halfway mark of our voyage. Halfway to Totalia, the lost colony." He paused for the half hearted cheer, and continued. "Of course, that means we are rapidly running out of time to prepare. To figure out how best to handle this situation.

"Most of us have met with the two Totalians, and from speaking with you all, we've all seen the same thing. These ambassadors are biased. They have been razzled and dazzled by the Zharusians, to the point where I doubt they can really represent their own planet, let alone realize what the rest of humanity can offer."

"So you're saying we should give up on them?" Suzanne asked.

"Not at all. They are our only view of Totalia for the next month and a half; as an information source they are still invaluable. But for moving forward with proper Human goals, we'll need to work around them and plan our moves for when we arrive."

"And what would those human goals be?" Marty asked, fishing for more information.

"We need to emphasise our history, our common ancestry, and how we're all working towards the betterment of humanity as a whole. Towards those goals, we'll spend much of the rest of the trip with the other delegations, making sure we are speaking with the same voice."

"And when we get there?" Stephen asked. "How do we get that common story across to the Totalians?"

Chuck shrugged, "That's a good question, one we'll have to figure out the answer to when we're closer to Totalia. Based on what we know, we only really have open contact with their exiled folk, which will make it difficult to reach the current leadership and the general populace. Mix in the Zharusian influence they are already under, and it's going to be tough.

"My models indicate that there is probably going to be a blowback against the Zharusians. They are just too strange for most Totalians to accept at once. Given how far the Loyalist faction has thrown in with the Zharusians, that will lead to a strengthening of the so-called 'Zealot' faction, which will be our opening. As soon as we can, we need to open secure channels with Speaker Raph Clarke and his group, let them know there are normal people out here who see past the Zharusian razzle and dazzle and who are willing to help."

"That assumes he is still in power and the Loyalists haven't won," Marty pointed out.

"Or Clarke's side could have won and we'll have a group ready to kick us all out," Stephan argued back.

Chuck waved both options away. "Admittedly, there is a non zero chance that this civil disorder will have resolved itself by the time we arrive. That is the nature of interstellar travel. But as far as anyone can guess, we are strongly expecting the stalemate to still be in force when we arrive. So that is what we will plan for.

"Now, there's a lot of ground to cover between now and then. So we need to start preparing. I'm sending you all a list. Over the next week, reach out to the other delegations, feel out how they'll be handling the Totalians and see if we can cooperate. If you have any questions, contact me."

The room fell silent as the jobs got dolled out. Jessica wasn't surprised to find that she was still on Embassy design, with Marty and Charles and a couple of others. Chuck answered a few more questions before cancelling the field and dismissing everyone. Jessica moved up to Marty's side as they left the chamber.

"Embassy duty, after all that talk. Not surprising."

Marty nodded in agreement. "Well, he's got us pegged as Zharusian sympathizers. So might as well keep us out of the way. What do you think of his overall plan?"

"The framework seems fine; the devil is in the details. Really, it's exactly what we should be doing. The trick is the story we finally present to them. I've got a feeling Chuck's got more in mind than just a United Humanity pitch."

"My take too. Roshambo for telling Charles?"

The pair counted to three and flashed the classic signs. Jessica cursed as Marty's rock-fist tapped her finger-scissors.

"Have fun," she said, sighing softly, then smiling. "You said he was on the Heart of Gold? Have fun," she amended herself.

Marty paled a little. "Maybe I should wait-"

"Oh no, you won fair and square. And this information isn't the sort of thing we want to wait on." She gave him a quick shove and grinned. "As for me, I've got historical archives to pour over for the design."

Arrival: Outside Ra system

The scheduled arrival time to the rendezvous point was early morning ship-time. Which meant the arrival parties started the night before and rolled on. The biggest party was on the Grand Concourse, hosted by the various colony representatives. The galactic starscape had been replaced by a flowing blue and white tube, similar to the Star Wars hyperspace or the Stargate effect. Large timers counted down the remaining minutes, the seconds field occasionally skipping as Astrogon refined his calculations and estimates. Finally, the countdowns reached zero, and the views dissolved into static as the partiers cheered. Seconds later, the views flickered back to life, showing the darkness of space and the pinpoint lights of stars. LIVE VIEW blinked slowly in various spots, confirming they were back in real space.

A half hour later, most of the Terran group were on the Sol platform. Most were well soused and barely listening to anything. Chuck stood unsteadily on a couch, trying to look at them all at once.

"Congratulations everyone. We've... we've arrived," he stammered out, trying to figure out what he wanted to say. "Have fun, enjoy tonight. And remember, now that we're uhm... we're uhm... now that we're here, our real work starts. But for now, have fun!"

Charles rolled his eyes and sipped another glass of Sober-Up. His stomach was already churning from the anti-alcohol fighting with the rest of the drinks. Between that and the late hour, he was about to throw in the towel.

:Hey, you meatbags still up?: Redwing sent as he was getting ready to say his farewells.

:Barely. 'Bout to head out. What's up?:

:Not much. We're having a blast on Rama. But I'm picking up some rumours. Apparently we're alone out here.:

Charles paused, taking a moment to figure out what Redwing meant. :Alone?... You mean Rick's not here yet?:

:Exactly. No sign it ever was here.:

:That's... not good. Maybe they're running late? Had some equipment hiccup?:

:That's what everyone is hoping. In any case, they're going to announce we're going to stay here for a few days, maybe a few weeks. Unpack some of the ships and make sure everything's still ship shape before jumping into a hostile area. Hopefully Rick catches up by then.:

:Sounds like a plan. Keep your ears open and let me know anything else important when I wake up.:

:Will do. Sleep tight buddy.:

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Deep space

"So close, and yet so far away," Charles noted. He was floating in a viewing cubby, looking out towards a bright star. He was about fifty percent sure it was Ra, but this far out it didn't look any different from any other star.

A green claw caught him and tugged him back into the leathery embrace of a green wing. "You talking about me or something else?"

Charles hooked his own arm around the dragon lady's shoulders and cuddled against her, hooking his leg around hers. "Something else. But you as well. Just looking at Ra. We're so close to it but so far."

"I know. It's all for safety. This far out, it'll be months before the Totalians will see our arrival. So we can jump closer and beat ourselves here," Ajax said. "Still, if we hang out here much longer, our light cone will reach them anyway."

"It's not that bad; It's only been a few days. Another week or two without the Rick and then maybe we'll have to worry."

"It's not Rick I'm worried about." The viewpod's view spun around as the Crouching Tiger twisted in space, centering on the Great Western. It was surrounded in a haze of small craft just zooming around.

"The genie is out of the bottle here. Give it much longer and I'm not sure we'll be able to get everyone packed back up again."

Charles laughed. "It's not that bad. We know how everything fit together, I'm sure we'll get everyone back on board without a problem."

Ajax shook her head and snickered. "Try again. It might be more believable. We've both travelled enough to know you can never repack a suitcase the way it was when you left."

"I suppose. Still, I'm sure we'll get everyone inbound eventually." He looked thoughtfully out at the darkness beyond the circus ship. "Man, I still have trouble wrapping my mind around this. Just think, if we went a few more light months that way, and could look back at Totalia, we could see the Scouts doing their Great Escape."

She hugged the Terran and snuggled. "Try not to think too much about that. It's the number one cause of migraines and bar fights among Spacers."

"But what else is there to think of?" Charles asked playfully.

"I can think of one thing...." Ajax whispered. Gravity fields pulled them down, out of the viewing pod, through the cabin and down an access hatch.

"What?" Charles started to ask, before the lights went out. He could sense he was in a tight space that was rumbling all around. Light returned, coming from the viewports of a cockpit. From his position he could see the smaller, green-scaled ship separating from the larger ship. "Ah, so this is the Hidden Dragon."

"Call me that again, and you're walking back to the Western," Jadia taunted from around them.

"Oh be nice. You've been itching for an excuse to stretch your wings since we got here. This close enough for you, Charles?"

Charles smiled and pressed his hand to the cockpit. "As close as I think I'd ever want to. I'm glad Redwing doesn't have the space bug."

"It's not that bad. You just have to be careful, especially if you aren't space adapted like me."

"One step at a-" Charles gasped as the cockpit window faded away under his fingertips. He looked around as the cockpit itself folded inward, a scaled hide closing over the mechanical controls. The nose of the space plane stretched out, looking more like a head, while the wings unfolded. Before he could recover enough to say anything else, he and Ajax were sitting on the back of a dragon, encased in a transparent hardlight bubble.

"This... This can't be safe," he stammered out, struggling to keep his panic controlled.

"As safe as you were on the ship. Come on, few people get to enjoy space like this," Ajax said, standing up and spreading her wings as the space dragon flew further away.

Charles stood up as well, finding Jadia's gravity fields holding them firm to her back. He turned around slowly, his panic turning into awe. "This is... I'm speechless. It's indescribable."

"Finally, we found something that can shut him up," Jadia taunted.

"It won't last. Trust me on that," Redwing retorted on the comm bands.

"Shush you two, let's just enjoy the moment," Ajax said. "Come on, let's go show off and scare the rockhounds on the Western."

Lords Chambers, Earth Embassy

After a few weeks, the Fleet decided it was time to move on with the mission. The Rickenbacker was locally declared MIA, but not lost yet. It put a damper on their jump into the main Ra system. Celebrations were much more muted; people knew they were entering a war zone and it was time to knuckle down and get to work.

The ambassadors wasted no time once the DINComm connections were opened up. Senior representatives with each Colony and Earth started talking with the Totaliment in Exile and every other Totalian who would listen. Friendships and associations were formed, and plans set into motion.

A few days after arrival, as the Great Western entered orbit around Sekhmet. The Earth level's Lord Chambers were crowded from the invitations Chuck had sent out. Representatives from all of the Colonies were present, at his request. Chuck knew that each Colony had spoken to the Totaliment in Exile at least once, and now was the time to shake things up.

"Thank you for agreeing to meet up everyone," he opened, making sure to look at the senior representative of each group. "We've been in the Ra system for a few days now, and everyone has had the chance to speak to Totalians and to see for ourselves what this place is like.

"Totalia itself is clearly a very habitable planet. More habitable than some of our own. The colony is stable, in the ecological sense, especially with the boost that the Ark will provide. So the biggest challenge on our plates is to make sure the colony stays stable in the political sense."

"On our plates? That seems to be more a job for the peacekeepers and diplomats. We are ambassadors. Sticking our fingers in those pots are just the things we're not supposed to do," Ian Chang, the Zheng-he representative said.

"In one respect, that is true. But still, our jobs ultimately are to look out for the best interests of our homes; to represent them to the greater worlds of humanity. Helping restore stability to Totalia will go a long way towards giving a good impression here."

"Fair enough. What are you proposing?" Mikel Steader asked. The Eridani representative was at the back of the room, watching warily but curiously.

Chuck acknowledge the question and focused on the main group. "A good question. Before I get into it, I'll just touch on the basics. We all know Totalia is effectively divided into two factions right now. The Zharus friendly 'Loyalist' faction who we are in contact with, but who are effectively out of power. And the 'True Totalia' faction that is in charge, but which we do not have much contact with. Since all of our information comes from the Loyalist faction, it is admittedly biased."

"Not all of our information. We're also watching their broadcasts and other public releases," Ian pointed out.

"True. But we are not talking with them directly. We don't know what the True Totalians really want, or what they might accept. In order to do that, we need to open communication lines with them. Lines that they can feel are secure and not just relayed via untrustworthy sources."

"Are you suggesting dropping some DINComms down for them? We've offered it to them and they've refused. Not to mention the Fleet Command isn't happy with the idea of giving them the Comms in the first place," Orion, the Zharusian representative said.

Chuck nodded, avoiding looking at the Integrate unicorn directly. "The trust between all of the groups is very strained. And operating from the outer system certainly isn't helping. We might be able to broker peace with the space factions eventually, but the key is the planet. We need to get them working together down there, and a Comm connection, even an unblockable FTL Comm connection isn't enough."

He paused a moment, making sure everyone's attention was on him. "In other words. We need to get down there, so we can do what we do best. Touch palms and speak face to face. To get down there where we can talk to them without being able to disconnect on a whim."

As he expected, the room exploded.

"Are you nuts?"

"That's a frackin' war zone down there!"

"The planet's got a fucking Kessler field; we can't get down there."

While he waited for the room to calm, a fleetwide update came in. Chuck smiled, realizing he couldn't have planned it any better if he'd tried.

He lifted his hands and waited for the noise to die down. "I realize it's not going to be easy, both physically and diplomatically. But it is possible. The Kessler field isn't as impenetrable with today's technology as it was in Earth's past. And part of the solution finally arrived. The Rickenbacker has finally shown up to the party, fashionably late."

"What the hell does the Rickenbacker have to do with your hairbrained plan?"

"The Rickenbacker is one of the few ships we have that is equipped to punch through the Kessler field and which can carry enough supplies to set up our Embassy-town, along with us and our protection," Chuck explained.

"Have you informed the Fleet Council of your plans for their ship?" Mikel Steader asked, seeming curious despite his skepticism.

"Not yet. I wanted to break it to you, my colleagues and peers, first to  make sure we're all on board before working out the logistics."

"So what is your plan? Land on the planet, set up Embassy row in Totalia City and say 'We're open for business'?" Linda Mallory, the Centaurian rep asked.

Chuck gave her a disapproving look. "We all know that would be akin to a declaration of war. Without clearing it with the True Totalians first, it would be way too aggressive."

He sent a signal and the table in front of him lit up with a view of the planet. Totalia City and the smaller towns and villages that supported the colony were marked off.

"In my discussions with the Loyalist faction, I've hinted at what I would like to do and they seem very accepting of it. They asked us to come out here after all, and I get the sense they're frustrated that we haven't come in guns-a-blazing to rescue them. The Fleet rightfully is taking its time to make sure they have a solid grasp of the situation before blazing those guns. So, we do have the support of Councillor Trilby's side in this en-endeavor." Chuck barely stuttered on the word and continued on with his presentation.

"Still, we are talkers, not fighters. We want to make sure Clarke feels welcomed to send a delegation to this place, while making sure the base is protected from any hostile responses. To minimize how aggressive we might seem, I would bring us down away from any existing settlement. Being out of sight should help set the True Totalians at ease."

The globe spun around and an island about the size of Ireland in the southern ocean lit up.

"This is where I would set us up. It's in a temperate climate zone, and away from all known settlements and Loyalist bases. It should be easy to defend and there are numerous flat areas we could set-."

His presentation was interrupted by the room shaking. The power flickered off leaving them in darkness. A darkness that they soon found themselves floating in as the cavorite gravity fields faltered. A bass rumble echoed through the ship, like a world-sized gong had been rung.

"What's going on?" "What happened?" concerned voices shouted in the darkness.

Lights appeared, mainly from RIDE partners and borged out ambassadors, showing a chaotic room filled with floating people and the debris from the meeting.

"The local mesh is on lockdown. Astrogon's not talking to anyone," the Neorus's polar bear RIDE called out.

More emergency lighting came on, arrows flashing towards the exit doors, and an insistent chime started ringing. Astrogon's calm voice began giving instructions between chimes.

This is not a drill. Please head to the nearest evacuation points in an orderly manner. This is not a drill. Follow the indicated paths and avoid the central shaft. This is not a drill.

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The Ark

Charles groaned and took stock of his situation. His body ached all over, his legs were soaked, and his ears were ringing. He was also having a hard time breathing.

"Are you alright?" Redwing asked. "Your bio-stats are all over the map, but you have no permanent damage."

"I think so. Give me a sec.... What happened?"

In response, Redwing lifted them up and turned them over gently. Charles was able to open his eyes, but it took him a few moments to process what he was seeing.

They had been flying in the plains habitat of the Ark, while following Chuck's presentation by remote. He remembered a boom, the wind picking up, and Redwing pushing them against the wind, finally smashing them into a muddy stream bank.

Now, he could see the roof of the habitat in a way he'd never seen it before. The blue skies had a slash of darkness through them. Through the haze of an emergency hardlight field, he could see the darkness of space, and the muddy colours of Sekhmet.

"There was an attack on the Western. A Zealot beam weapon of some sort. The Ark was caught in it, and as you can see, it was punctured. We're down to two thirds normal air pressure. Noah wants us to head down to a deeper habitat for safety."

Charles got to his feet unsteadily and waited a moment. It took him a moment to realize the gravity field was lower than normal as well. With Redwing's guidance, he headed to the nearest access point.

"What about the Western? How bad is the damage?" he asked.

"Unknown. But Astrogon's triggered an evacuation. The local networks are fully locked down while damage and threats are assessed," Redwing answered. "The docked ships are releasing, even the Ark. Noah says he's stable enough to fly by himself."

Charles reached the hatch and was blown over by the wind when it opened as the pressures tried to equalize. With Redwing's help, he managed to crawl against the wind and get into the corridor. The door closed, cutting off the wind and letting him regain his breath.

"Tell Noah, we're at his disposal for anything he needs help with," Charles said once he'd recovered.

"I appreciate the offer," the Ark's EI said from a speaker overhead. "However much of my damage is external, and you do not have the appropriate skillset to help. Don't worry, once things settle, I'm sure there will be more than enough for all volunteers."

"I know you're busy, but what's the status? Are we in any danger?"

"Uncertain, but unlikely. It seems that the Zealots were testing a super weapon in Sekhmet orbit when we blundered into their test zone. They took the opportunity to shoot at us with our collective pants down. But it seems to be a one and done weapon, with no support craft that we've found yet."

"What about the Western? How bad off is she?"

Noah's avatar materialized in the hallway, looking a bit bedraggled. "She took heavy damage in the aft end. She probably won't be going FTL again any time soon, and she lost a few engineering sections. There were a few casualties, but exact numbers are still being determined."

"Thank goodness. And please, don't be shy. Anything we can do to help, just ask."

"I will keep that in mind. In the meantime, everyone on board is gathering in the jungle viewing room."

Charles chuckled, "Okay, okay, I can take the hint. Let's go Redwing."

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Kybalion, Mess Hall

It took a couple of days for the fleet to get settled after the attack on the Great Western. By which time, both the Rickenbacker and the Kybalion arrived to help. Astrogen and the engineers still had the majority of the Western off limits while they were assessing and repairing the damage, so the refugees found themselves scattered wherever space could be found. The Kybalion, whether by plan or by coincidence, ended up with the bulk of the colonial ambassador groups.

Charles entered the Totalian ship's main mess hall with his partner and looked around. It was off-hour, so the room was only about a quarter full, and most of the people were just snacking or killing time with games and friends.

"I'll grab a table," Redwing said, taking off and gliding between the tables. A number of people looked up and did double takes; native Totalians still getting used to the Zharusian companions.

Charles grabbed a tray and joined the short line for the food fabbers. While additional fabbers had been brought over to handle the extra population on the Kybalion, they were all running in a resource saving mode to save power and matter for the industrial machines. This meant the selection was limited to the fabber equivalent of Meals Ready To Eat.

"Psst. Look behind you," Redwing pinged him as he was loading up his tray.

Charles put the plate of various food-like things on his tray and glanced to his side as he reached for a glass of juice.

"Speaker Stanfield! I didn't expect to see you here," he exclaimed happily, adding the glass to his tray and extending his hand.

Twelfth Speaker Quintor Stanfield shook the offered hand and smiled, "Well, I've got to eat as well. With how busy everything is, you grab what you can when you can."

"Of course you do. Especially someone as busy as you are. Would you care to join Redwing and me?" Charles offered, sensing an opportunity.

Quintor hesitated, recognizing Charles but clearly having trouble remembering who he was. "Certainly, I would love to join you and your friend.... I'm sorry, I'm drawing a blank on your name."

"Charles deGaulle, of the Earth delegation," Charles introduced himself. He noticed Quintor stiffen and didn't give the speaker a chance to escape. "I'm not insulted, the delegations are big and you haven't had 3 months to learn who everyone is. My partner, Redwing, is holding a table for us down there."

The speaker spotted the eagle Charles was pointing at, and confusion replaced his hesitation. He followed the Earther to the four person table and sat down across from Charles, eyes on Redwing.

"Speaker Stanfield, this is Redwing, a Laurasian RIDE and my partner," Charles introduced them.

"Pleased to meet you," Redwing said, spreading his wings and dipping forward politely.

"Yes, same to you," Quintor said, shaking off a bit of his surprise. "You said you're part of the Earth delegation?"

Charles chuckled and nodded. "I am. I was born and raised in J-Burg, that is, Johannesburg, Africa. Graduated from the Jakarta Diplomacy school, and eventually joined my mom on Zharus. She is, or probably was by now, the head Ambassador for Earth on Zharus."

"And yet, you are partnered with a RIDE?"

"He'd be completely lost without me," Redwing chimed in confidently.

"That I would be. Unlike Mister Lorrey, I'm willing to recognize when the colonies can do better than the Mother Planet, and I'm not against using those advantages when I can."

"Mister Lorrey can come across a bit heavy handed. And the rest of his associates seemed very similar in thinking. I wouldn't expect him to tolerate someone so open-minded on his delegation."

Charles hid a quick glance around behind a sip of his drink; no one else seemed to be paying them any attention, and there was no one from any of the delegations around. "Mister Lorrey has, as the Zharusians would say, 'drunken heavily of the Kool-Aid.' He is a firm believer of Earth's supremacy in the grand scheme of things. Frankly, it's not a good attitude to have when you're trying to make new friends, but it is one of the more dominant attitudes on Earth lately,

"As for me, he wishes dearly he could have left me back on Zharus. But as I said, my mother is the lead Ambassador and she thinks a lot like myself. Between the short time we had to prepare the delegation, and the strings she could pull, Chuck had no choice but to bring me along."

"So you're the spoiler. It's a relief to see someone like you," Quintor said. "We're all in various degrees of culture shock since the Scouts went public and this mess started. Realizing how far behind we are compared to everyone else, well, it's damn scary. The Zharusians have done their best to be friendly and accommodating, but then Mister Lorrey came in, and that gap seemed insurmountable. He made it seem like Earth was better than all, and would always be that way."

Charles sighed sadly. "He does believe that. Let me assure you, that for most people on Earth, that is not a common thought. They're just people like you and me, living their lives day by day. The government of Earth and the Sol System is... disconnected from the regular people. They are a lot like Chuck, with their heads buried in their delusions of grandeur."

"That does not bode well for Totalian-Earth relations."

"That doesn't bode well for Earth-Anyone relations, and it'll probably get worse before it gets better. In the positions of power, people like me are at a nadir and it'll take time to change things. But we are changing, ever so slowly."

"Good to hear. I hope for the best for you. In the meantime, I suppose I will have to learn to tolerate Mister Lorrey."

Charles motioned to Redwing, who coughed up a data stick. "Well, maybe this will help reassure you. It's a project I've been working on since we left Zharus. There are quite a few Earth, or Solar ex-pats in the Fleet; Zharus tends to attract them like a magnet. I convinced many of them to share their stories of Earth and the Solar system. I would like to share it with you and your fellow speakers, so you can see what the regular folk are like back home."

Speaker Stanfield took the stick and pocketed it. "I look forward to watching it. In the mean time, since I've got you here, I'd like to hear it from you. What's Earth like? Our records of Earth are a bit pessimistic. Things were going bad back then, so we cut our ties and never looked back."

Charles thought a moment, mapping what they knew of the Totalian colonists compared to Earth history. "Ah right, that was a bad time. The Havana peace treaty was crumbling, and the Second American Civil War was heating up again. Boston had just happened and people were trying to keep any more cities from mushrooming."

He lowered his head sadly. "The efforts were futile. Atlanta and Calgary went up soon after your ancestors left, and it dominoed from there, the civil war quickly escalating to a global scale. It barely avoided reaching an interplanetary scale; the Luna Treaties helped keep the orbitals and other colonies out of that mess."

For the rest of the meal, Charles told stories of Earth, quickly moving from history to his own life on Earth and beyond. Quintor listened intently, along with other Totalians who overheard enough to be curious. A few hours later, Charles was talked out, and the mess hall was filled. He finished off the latest refill on his drink and looked around at the gathered crowd.

"Thanks for listening everyone. I'd love to talk more, but I'm already late for some meetings. Feel free to contact Redwing and me anytime, and I'll gladly tell you more."

There was a smattering of applause and a few disappointed groans. The crowd spread out among the tables. Speaker Stanfield stood up with Charles and walked with him and Redwing to the exit.

"I'm late as well, now that you mention it. But it was worth it. You've been very enlightening," Quintor said, shaking Charles hand and patting his pocket with the data stick. "I look forward to seeing the other stories you've gathered, and I hope we can speak again."

"Certainly, just call me any time and we can get together for drinks. I'd love to hear more of Totalia too for that matter. As for the stories on that stick, I hope they can be equally enlightening. We did not censor anything; those are the stories in the raw. The addresses of everyone who spoke is also with the stories so you can verify with the story tellers. You'll find that some of them don't like EarthGov much but most of them would love to go home."

"Understandable. I'll be in touch. Have a good day."

Architect's Heaven, Great Western

Included as part of the fleet, was a small team of architects, lead by a horse Integrate named Melisande. The main purpose of the team was to work with Totalians to best integrate Totalian design styles with modern construction and design methods. Since the Great Western had space to spare, the designers had been given a couple of levels 'to do with as they will'. Early on in the journey, much of the team's focus had been stolen by the Ambassadors of the various colonies seeking advice for the layouts of their levels. Now that the fleet was in system, they were busy studying and modelling every bit of data they could find on Totalian styles.

Mikel Steader, Charles and Redwing stepped off the central lift and stepped into a Grand Corridor. It was laid out in dark marble, and lit by hidden lights. Doors to offices and other places were laid out at regular intervals.

Charles whistled and turned around slowly. The lift doors were hidden by a normal looking set of elevator doors. "Impressive."

Mikel nodded, looking around as well but not turning as much. "It's Totaliment House. Totalia's public centre of government. Where the Totaliament would meet normally. Melisande's office is out this way. She put it on the edge of the level so she wouldn't have to keep moving it with every project."

The Eridani ambassador lead the way down the corridor to the exit doors. They stepped out at the top of a marble flight of stairs that looked out on a city scape. Charles had a disorienting moment of deja vu, recognizing most of the buildings, but finding things different enough to throw off his location sense.

"First time here?" Mikel asked. "It's been a few weeks since I've been here. They've been busy."

Charles nodded and tried to get his bearings. "Yeah. Chuck didn't use the Architects much for the Earth levels; wanted to keep things 'home grown'. I think we can all guess the real reasons. Shouldn't that be over there? And about five stories taller?"

"It is, down on Totalia. Here, they have a habit of putting up replicas where ever they can find space, sometimes scaling up or down as needed. We're going this way."

Mikel led the way through the deserted cityscape. They passed near one worksite where the framework of a three story building was already in place. A dozen people were clustered around a planning board while a couple of industrial fabbers pumped out fresh material. Most of the people were Totalian showing varying degrees of amazement at the technology they were immersed in. The Ambassadors waved to the group, but didn't stop.

The lead architect's office was located at the edge of the level, built into a nook in the bulkheads. It had transparent windows looking out over the urban space. The office itself was crowded with a desk, chairs, tablets, sample boxes, sim-boxes and even real books and blueprint rolls. The architect herself was sitting behind the desk, facing out but not seeing anything. The horse integrate appeared lost in thought, her eyes unfocused.

Mikel waited a second for any reaction to their approach, then knocked on the frame of the open door. The integrate blinked and took a second to focus on the group, her face lifting in a smile.

"Mikel! Long time no see. How did the ranch turn out?" Melisande asked, standing up and stepping around the desk to greet them.

"It turned out fabulously. Thank you for the advice. I can't wait for the Western to reach Eridani so we can give it the herd it deserves. You really should come down for a visit."

"I keep meaning to, but things have been so busy since we arrived, I barely have a moment for myself."

Mikel shook her hand and gave her a sad look. "So busy you're spending your day woolgathering in your office? I've been around long enough to recognize boredom when I see it."

Melisande flicked her tail and looked away, hiding the action with a motion to the chairs. "Please, have a seat," she said, dodging the implied question for a moment. "And guilty as charged. I really don't have an excuse for not visiting, other than procrastination. It's just a bit frustrating really, to have so much to do, but no way to do it from up here. We've done just about everything we can in space. Now, I'm anxious to get down on the planet and start turning theory into practice." She sat on the corner of the desk, facing the seated delegates.

"Well, maybe we have something to shake things up a bit. Melisande, this is Delegate Charles deGaulle of Earth, and his partner Redwing," Mikel introduced his companions.

"Charles is fine," he said, shaking her hand.

"From Earth? And you aren't afraid of being contaminated? A truly enlightened delegate," Melisande said, smiling at the pair.

"I was contaminated long before this mission," Charles said, smiling back. "I'm sorry we haven't met you before. We've just been busy with other projects."

"Understandable. We all have our duties and obligations. So what is this game changer you're hinting at, Mikel?"

"To give credit where credit is due, this was Ambassador Lorrey's idea initially. He just had other plans and couldn't meet you directly."

Melisande snorted, "I'm sure getting his nails trimmed was more important than meeting an Intie, after all."

"Exactly," Mikel said, smirking as well. "In his stead, he sent Charles and Redwing here. But let's get down to business. How would you like to go down to the planet?"

Even with Integrate speeds, it took Melisande a second to react. "What do you mean?" she asked, suspicious with a hint of excitement.

"We, the ambassadors that is, are preparing a proposal for the Fleet," Charles started to explain. "This is all hush hush for now of course, but we're coming to you as a feasibility study."

"We want to stick it to Clarke by setting up a base on the planet. One we can try to open negotiations from, in a place he won't be able to easily ignore us," Mikel continued.

"Here's the basics we've developed so far. The footprint size is tight given the protection needs, but our initial guesses seem right," Redwing finished, sending an info packet over.

Melisande closed her eyes, her DIN flickering as it received the data. After a few seconds, she silently stood up and swept her desktop clear. The windows frosted over, giving the group some privacy. The desktop glowed and a dome lit up, taking up most of the space and reaching a couple of metres into the air.

"A very ambitious plan. Especially if you want to build it as fast as your timeline estimates."

"We've been watching and simulating Clarke's response times, so we have a good guess for how long it would take him to scramble once our own goals are clear. We'll have birds in the air to stop him, but ideally we need the base to be self-protective within a day or so," Charles said.

Melisande began to walk around the desk. Under the simulated dome, colour coded cubes grew, rapidly filling the space. "That makes sense. There's one problem however. You don't have enough room."

"No room?!" Charles asked, leaning forward to try to see what she was seeing.

"No room. At least not for the numbers you want to support. I recognize the modelling algorithms you guys used. Straight from Earth right?"

Mikel nodded silently.

"Right, Earth models are good for estimating human needs. But Zharus needs are a bit bigger. RIDEs and Inties need more space and have different requirements which also need more space. When I apply the Zharusian estimating algorithms...." The model expanded, overflowing the dome. "... you can see, we're out of space. If we stay in the dome, you lose a third of the people you're bringing down."

"A third? Ouch... That's rough. We already trimmed the population down as tight as we could," Mikel winced at the revelation. "Damn, this idea looked so good too."

"Now, now, don't give up so quickly. The algorithms are just for estimating with. The devil, as they say, is in the details. Let's start breaking things down more and see what we can get."

"Enough to get everyone down who needs to get down?" Charles asked.

"Hopefully. Let's see what we get." Beside the dome a box appeared, containing models of various buildings; power plants, hangers, barracks, offices, workshops and more.

Hours later, the desk was covered in the debris of an intense brainstorming session. The model floated over a pool of spilt coffee, a haphazard pile of buildings filling the dome.

"It's impossible," Charles lamented, slumping back in his chair. "There just isn't enough room to get everything we need in there."

"To be fair, there wasn't enough room to begin with. Even under Earth-limits, you were too optimistic with your plans," Melisande said. She flipped a model of barracks in the air, looking disappointed that she hadn't found a solution.

"Damn... There's gotta be some way to do this. I don't want to have to tell Chuck that Rome's a bust," Mikel said.

"You wouldn't have to. That would be on my shoulders. Still, much as I love to poke holes in his plans, this one was a decent one, especially by his standards," Charles said.

"Come on, we can't give up yet. There's gotta be something we're missing," Redwing tried to cheer the group up.

"We've tried everything. Digging down. Stacking up. Putting stuff outside. There just isn't enough space. The dome's too confining," Melisande said.

"Then make the dome bigger?" Redwing took off and floated over the simulation. He shrunk the dome down so the simulation of the field they planned to build on was visible. While the dome was big, the field was still bigger.

"We can't," Mikel said. "We're at the limits a single generator can put out as is."

The eagle looked down at the space and the dome in the middle of it. The room fell silent as everyone tried to come to terms with their failure.

"It's a good idea," Melisande said. "Just, not really practical for what you're trying to do. You should present it to the Fleet anyway; it's a good way to establish a military beachhead on planet at least."

"Yeah, military. Means we'll still be stuck up here," Charles said, surprised by his own disappointed. He hadn't realized how badly he was missing open skies until the chance to experience them again was snatched away.

"I've got it!" Redwing squawked, clicking his talons together excitedly.

A 2D video window opened on the side of the desk, showing a TwenCen actress looking at a primitive screen split into two views. On half the screen, there was a satellite view of the Earth zooming into a specific bay that was probably important for the movie it was from. On the other half, a bald man appearing to be in a primitive space station, was talking.

"The first rule of government spending. Why build one, when you can build two at twice the price?" he said as the scene played out.

On the desk while the video was playing, the dome fissioned into two domes that slide apart, both still easily fitting on the plain.

"Two domes?" Mikel mumbled, standing up to look at the simulation better.

"Two domes!" Melisande exclaimed, her DIN flickering rapidly. The domes emptied out and began to fill again. "There will be some duplication of course. Each dome has some needs that can't be shared. But after that... we have lots of space. Enough for everyone you need to bring and then some"

"Lots of space on the ground, but what about on the Rickenbacker?" Charles asked, trying not to get excited too soon.

The domes disappeared, replaced with a model of the carrier. The carrier turned into a wireframe, highlighting the storage area. Ships began to fill it, along with other material. Numbers filled the air next to it.

"Not quite lots of space, but enough," Melisande concluded after a few minutes, her excitement barely dimmed. "I'm willing to sign off and say it's feasible; just be aware there are still lots of devils lurking."

Charles cackled, tenting his fingers. "Excellent! I was really having my doubts there for a second... So Redwing, how long did it take you to find that video clip after you had your inspiration?"

The eagle landed next to his partner and accepted the celebratory scritches. "Mmm, I'll never tell."

"Thanks Melisande. This worked out better than I expected," Mikel said, shaking the integrate's hand.

"I'm glad it worked out after all. I haven't had this much fun since we left Zharus. I'll keep crunching the layouts, and have a proper design ready for the proposal."

"Yeah, the easy part is over. Now we have to convince the fleet to not only release two heavy duty shield generators and everything needed to use them, but to also send Rick through a Kessler field and to hang out in a hostile airspace long enough to build Rome. No problem at all," Charles said, also shaking her hand. "We'll be in touch I'm sure."

"And before you get too deep in your planning, I'm insisting you come down to the ranch for a dinner. Tomorrow night good?" Mikel asked.

Melisande looked conflicted for a moment, then shrugged. "Sure, I'll be there."

Kybalion briefing room

The large room was filled to the edge of capacity. Representatives of the planetary delegations, the Speakers representing the loyal Totaliment, senior officers of the Rickenbacker, the Kybalion, the Great Western and the rest of the fleet leadership had gathered to hash out the next steps towards peace. There was even a screen with a connection to the Totaliment on the planet so they would be informed as well. The Ambassadors had just officially made their proposal for the planetside base, and the explosion was still reverberating through the chains of command.

"I still don't like this. We're putting a lot of our eggs in one basket with this. Isn't there some way we can spread this out more maybe?" the Zheng He representative asked. "So many representatives, basically being dropped into a war zone . Dangerous doesn't begin to cover it."

"There is a real danger, no one is denying that," Mikel Steader said. "But crunching the numbers, it makes more sense. While the Rickenbacker can make multiple drops, we need to make sure we hit the ground running right from the start. We need to land as much on the planet as fast as possible and get it under the domes for protection as soon as they are up. We ideally want to have the base built and secured within a day or two,  hence the name Rome." Mikel had had doubts about the Rome plan at first, but after thinking on it and making his own analysis, he had become the proposal's biggest supporter.

"Why do we even need to go down? Can't we just wait? At least until the resistance fleet stands down?" a representative from Wednesday asked.

"I suspect we're at our limits for what we can do up here. Your presence in force has turned a few more ships to our side, but what remains are going to be extremely loyal to Clarke. And they control the shipyard and they have a garden ship, so they're probably as good off as we are for a long stay up here." Captain Sandeep explained.

"Space is effectively at a stalemate now. Until circumstances change on the planet, not much is going to change up here. We can either stay here, twiddling our thumbs and glaring at each other across the orbits, or we can take proactive steps to break the stalemate," Mikel said, looking at the local Totaliment representatives.

"Remember, we called you here in the first place. Hoping you would be a 'magic bullet' to solve our issues with Clarke may have been too much; but building a planet side base would be very helpful in general," Speaker Whitfield said. "Granted it would be a huge target; but Clarke's forces do have limits. If he's focused on this base, it's that much less pressure on us in other locations."

"Plus, overnight it would become the most advanced settlement on the planet. While your airdrops have been useful, Clementine would certainly appreciate a chance to relax and let someone else worry about safety for a little while," Captain Wilma Van Dalen said.

"Not to mention topping up on supplies without needing to chase it halfway across the planet and unwrapping it from all those shielding layers," Clementine spoke up. "If you want, we can head over to the site and start preparing it for your arrival."

The room on the Kybalion rumbled as the planners exchanged concerned glances and quick messages.

"We appreciate your offer; but for appearances sake, it would be best if you kept your distance from Rome," Dagmar Babbi said. The Ibn Rushd representative had been working with Melisande, refining the plans for Rome based on the needs they were anticipating.

"You are too associated with Speaker Whitfield's side. We want Rome to be a neutral place, where both sides feel free to visit and negotiate a peace," Mikel explained.

"Oh, come on," Eva spoke up from the screen next to Wilma. "One single ship is untouchably partisan while an entire space fleet from Zharus can somehow pretend to be ‘neutral’? When the only reason you’re even here in the first place is that Whitfield’s government-in-exile officially requested you to come help them out? You’ve been hanging out with diplomats too long, Mikel."

Mikel smiled ruefully and shrugged. "Well, they say diplomacy is the art of saying 'nice doggie' until you can find a rock. In this case, we want to try and keep as many options open for as long as possible while we prepare our rock."

"Furthermore, there are other reasons we would prefer you not to go on site. Opsec reasons, so Clarke has no idea where Rome is going to be. And as the time approaches, we may want to see if you can provide a distraction to buy us more time on the ground to get the domes up," Chuck added.

"We can discuss those options later, when plans are more solid," Captain Van Dalen said, somewhat mollified. "But we want to come in for a break as soon as we can. It's been a long time since we saw some familiar faces in the flesh; no offense intended Speaker."

"None taken. I wouldn't mind the chance to see some old friends again myself."

"Don't worry, you'll be able to visit as soon as possible. And in the long term, speaking of that rock I mentioned earlier; Rome will be that rock once it is ready. We want to give Clarke a chance to negotiate peacefully. But if push comes to shove, Rome will have a sizeable chunk of our forces on the ground, in place to protect the base by any, and I do mean any means necessary," Mikel added.

"Surely he'll realize that. What chance will there be that he'll want to talk?" Another diplomat asked.

"A slight chance. But a chance none the less. It's one thing to be told how out-teched you are, and another to see it first hand. Rome would be a thorn in his side, constantly proving how little power Clarke ultimately has, and how much potential power Totalia could have when you rejoin the rest of humanity," Chuck pointed out.

"Still, we want to stress the point that Rome is a meeting place of humanity. All the colonies, and Earth, lead to it. We want it to be perceived as neutral ground, where grievances and differences can peacefully be worked out. The forces in its heart will be defensive only, to insure the negotiations may proceed unhindered by attacks," Zhongwei Wong, a Zhang-he representative said.

"I have my doubts at how successful diplomacy will be; but I will not stand in its way. If Clarke wants to talk, I and the rest of the Speakers, are always willing to listen. The advantages Rome will give us are too great to deny; it may be just the opening we need to end our civil-... disorder and return Totalia to normal. A new and prosperous normal," Trilby said, picking his words carefully.

"As far as the Fleet goes, as Speaker Whitfield said, the advantages to having a base on planet to operate from are too great to ignore. It is risky to try and build one so quickly and with such limited resources, but the openings it will provide are undeniable. The resources to build Rome are trivial, given everything we've brought, what Ptah is generating and the space Rickenbacker has. The main question is, can you do it in time?" Zane Brubeck asked.

"It may be tight. We're estimating that the Rickenbacker can stay at most a week in orbit below the Kessler field. That's more than enough time to build Rome, if they were unhindered. The response times of Clarke's forces are the main challenge. If he doesn't accept the neutral declaration, we'll need to make sure Rome is ready to defend itself practically as soon as we set down. The sims show we can go from untouched ground to a defensible base within 2 days." Melisande said, projecting a timeline video of the base construction.

"Not one?" a smart alec called from the audience, causing some chuckles.

Melisande smiled, "Almost, but not quite. We'll do our best to build Rome in a day regardless."

"And that's when you might want us to provide a distraction," Wilma said.

"It would be useful. But don't put yourself at risk to provide it. The initial waves at Rome will mostly be our own air forces; we will be able to defend the site almost immediately. The distance from any of Clarke's bases alone should give us enough time," Zane said. While the debate was moving along in human time, it was obvious a second debate was happening at Intie-speeds. A second debate that was already resolved and moving on to implementation plans.

"Still, would there be an opportunity for some exchanges perhaps? The Rickenbacker is going down and coming back up. Some of us have been in space a long time now and would love to breath fresh air again," a local Totaliament representative asked.

"Space might be a bit tight going down, but I'm sure we can make arrangements. Coming back up, there will be lots of room of course," Captain Souza said.

"Are you sure you are fine with putting the Rickenbacker at risk like this?" Zane asked.

Captain Souza grinned like a feral cat. "This is the sort of thing that Rick was built for. I'm more than fine with it; in fact, I'm looking forward to it."

Mikel looked around the room at the number of hands raised for attention and motioned for everyone to be quiet. "This is a big project we are proposing. Why don't we take a break and we can come back to see what other concerns people have once this idea has had a chance to settle."

Rickenbacker, on approach to Totalia

Ahead of the carrier ship, the blue-green orb of Totalia grew slowly. Somewhere around the planet was what remained of the Zealot fleet, gone dark as soon as it was obvious the Rickenbacker was en route. The carrier was escorted by a fleet of Rangers, flying in protective formation. Inside, the carrier was packed to the air vents with ships and supplies for the Rome base. The biggest secret of the fleet at the moment was just how packed the Rickenbacker was; practically every pilot and ship the fleet could spare, and quite a few they couldn't spare, was on this mission.

As the ship and escort entered the Totalian gravity well, the escort spread out. Many miniature camera rockets were launched, expanding their field of view to better find the Totalium-cloaked threats. The Argus eyes weren't really needed; the engine trails of the Totalian fleet charging towards them was obvious.

"This is the Zharusian ship, ZNS Rickenbacker, with escort, to all ships in the area. We are on a mission of peace. Do not attack us, and we will not attack you back." the Zharusian ship broadcast across all bands, repeating the message. On the bridge, the crew mentally, virtually and physically crossed fingers, hoping the other fleet would play nice.

Crouching Tiger, On board the Rickenbacker. Final approach to Totalia

Charles sat in the cockpit of the Crouching Tiger, the draconic Ranger next to him. They'd been in the ship ever since the Rickenbacker had left Sekhmet. The holds were too full to allow people outside of their ships to stretch their legs. Back in the Tiger's main living space, a couple of dozen people were strapped in, killing time in their own worlds. He'd been one of them until Ajax had invited him up front.

"Thanks for inviting us up here," Charles said. Redwing was pseudo-fused around him, with further additions to make sure he was space-safe. Inwardly he thought it was a little overkill, since he was on a spaceship within a spaceship, but he wasn't complaining.

"No problem. I love the company, even if the view isn't so great," Ajax said. Outside the cockpit window, their view was limited to the broad side of a cargo hauler a couple of metres away.

"Well, hopefully the view doesn't get too exciting. How are things going?"

Jadia, the dragon RIDE popped up on the console, and the view shifted to a black spacescape, drawing from the Rickenbacker's sensor feeds. The planet loomed ahead, taking up most of the forward view.

"Zealot response is minimal. There's some skirmishing going on, but they seem confused about what we intend to do. We have surprise on our side basically," she reported.

"That's pretty impressive to be honest. Once we told the Totalians, I figured the news would have leaked to Clarke. Maybe he didn't expect us to actually do it?" Charles suggested.

"It's possible. Head's up, we're coming up on the Kessler field. The escorts are backing off," Ajax added.

Charles gulped and gripped the armrests of his own seat tighter. "This is crazy isn't it? This entire mission. We should've tried something else... anything else."

Ajax grinned, looking over at him. "Don't look at me. This was you guys’ crazy idea. We're just implementing it. Besides, Rick can handle the Kessler field with ease. It's what's on the other side we need to worry about."

"Clarke's air force," Redwing noted.

"Exactly. They're less likely to hold back than the space force. And we're going to be presenting a lot more targets," Ajax said.

"We're in the field now," Jadia noted suddenly. On the screen the last of the escorts were backing away, letting the larger ship proceed down.

A few tense minutes went by with no apparent changes. They were too deep in the ship to hear anything hit the hull, if anything did.

"Shouldn't you fuse up or something?" Charles asked, breaking the silence.

Ajax waved her hand, "Nah. Maybe later. Jadia's got everything in claw, so I might as well enjoy the view and the company while I can."

"I hope the company is better than the view," Charles said, forcing a grin.

"Hard to say. The company would be better if he just relaxed and enjoyed the trip." Ajax leaned over and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. "Don't worry, everything's planned, down to the expected responses and unexpected responses."

"We're through. First wave is launching now," Jadia said, barely containing her excitement.

Rickenbacker, Totalia Atmosphere

The carrier was engulfed in a glowing sphere of plasma, its outer hull a bit dinged but otherwise undamaged from passing through the Totalium debris field. Now it was in the grip of the planet, the atmosphere friction already heating up its moderately strained shields.

The first wave it launched was entirely unmanned. Probes and missiles launching to temporarily improve their eyes and to get a better view of the Rome site on the opposite side of the planet. One package launched in the opposite direction from everything else. Clad in Totalium, it was a care package from the Kybalion to the Loyalists.

A few minutes after launch, the first probes did a fast flyby over the island dubbed Cyprus. RIDEs and Integrates fast-processed the data, looking for signs of man. As far as the Loyalists knew, no one had ever been to that island, but that could easily have been wrong. Their luck held; the data came back clean, triggering the next phase of the first wave.

The second wave of probes arrived a couple of minutes later. Some of these gently landed sensor packages to the ground. The last couple just smashed into the ground, their landings providing seismic data on the foundation of the island.

In virtual space, the Intelligences and Integrates gave the thumbs up on the chosen site; the ground was solid enough to support the Rome camp and everything it would need. They pulled out their plans and camp designs and began arguing over the final layout.

With the site greenlit, the third wave got its signal. The carrier doors slid open on the Rickenbacker and its plasma shield swelled. A half dozen Ranger fighters launched, bubbling out of the shield and taking up escort positions around the carrier.

Micro eye-sats launched with the first wave began feeding back their data. While most of them were still travelling towards their targets over known and suspected Zealot bases, they were able to catch the launch of Zealot fighters and begin to estimate when they might be able to intercept.

The fast-time design group reached consensus and triggered another wave of missile probes. These shot ahead of the slowing carrier and landed in a plain covered in blue-green Totalian grasses. Sensors deployed and linked to the gear already on the ground, mapping the lay of the land in greater detail. Most of the probes moved around until they vaguely outlined the two large circles that would form Rome. Confined by the heavy duty shield emitters they had coopted from Western's spares, the plan was to have one area be the diplomatic dome, while the other would effectively be a military base.

The Rickenbacker continued to brake hard, shedding heat and velocity as fast as its heat sinks and engines could handle. The ship itself was too big to come deep into the atmosphere, but it was going to eventually set itself up in a geostationary orbit just below the Kessler field for the base construction. A few more protective escorts were launched, but the risk from the Zealot air force was considered minimal at this stage; quick as their planes were, they still needed time to get around the planet.

A thousand klicks from Rome, the first cargo ships were launched. A couple dozen ships dropped from the Rickenbacker, heavy with their loads. They carried the reactors, the fabbers, the shield generators, the anti-air weapons and the diggers that would power, protect and link all the pieces together. The ships flew in close formation through the atmosphere, shedding the last of their deorbiting velocity and heat over the seas to the east of the base site. Minutes later, they were over land, and dropping their gear on the ground in the form of simple labeled crates. The first people reached the ground at the same time, Inties and RIDE pairs hitching a ride down with the gear to monitor and handle any surprises.

A mouse Intie was included in this wave. As soon as he landed, he hauled the crate that had never left his side out of the main construction zone. It expanded automatically at his signal into a mixing station. Screens lit up, counting down the last few minutes.

Days before the Rickenbacker had left Sekhmet, Speaker Whitfield on the Clementine had activated some cells in Totalia City for one of the strangest requests of the civil war to date. The activated resistance members had to buy advertising time on the popular networks in the city and across the settlements. The actual advertisements were cryptic, hinting at the launch of something new, but with enough legitimate background to not trigger Clarke's censor's suspicions too much. When the Rickenbacker broke through the Kessler field, the advertising changed, switching to an actual countdown. Metrics were showing the unique visitor count was rising as fast as the countdown was decreasing, word spreading quickly that something was about to happen.

As the countdown reached zero, Live Maus, the Integrate deejay took over. Starship's We Built This City echoed out over the increasingly busy construction site, and streamed out over the Totalian network. Inties kept watch in Totalia City, making sure to bounce the stream enough to not be trackable or silenceable for anyone listening. Trilby and the rest of the Totalians had confirmed the song hadn't made it to Totalia before (for good reasons some added).

The deejay mixed the last beats of the song into a filler beat, and started his patter, broadcasting across the planet. "Good morning, Totalia City! This is Live Maus coming to you live from Rome, your newest city. So new, we haven't yet found the Allen keys to put everything together with. You're listening to the C-ROC stream, classic music from the dawn of recordings to the dawn of the interstellar age. All rock and no talk! Enjoy this gift of beats from your cousins from across the Great Expanse, and keep your ears open for more streams in the future. And now, some real music, spanning decades of the early Rock period, I give you the Rolling Stones."

The mouse gave a thumbs up to Melisande while the music continued. "Streams are solid. They'll silence them eventually, but we'll probably have a few hours at least in the city," he called out. "And here, I can play as long as you want."

Melisande grinned back and returned the gesture. "Just keep the music good and you can play all day and all night." Tapping her hoof to the beat, she refocused on the holographic plans in front of her and confirmed them with reality. She knew it was dangerous to be on the planet this early, but damn it was good to be building again; building real, permanent structures and not just demos and models.

Like a well oiled machine, positions were verified and the gear was activated. Most of the boxes deployed drills that dug into the soil, seeking bedrock to anchor to. Other boxes opened up and tunnellers rolled out and dug into the ground to start laying the power and water networks the base would survive off of. One digger dug deeper, tapping into an aquifer under the base for the water source.

The skeleton of the twin circles of the base began to take shape. Automated machinery unpacked and set up the equipment while their overseers kept an eye on things. The overseers also kept a wary eye on the sky for the first signs of reaction from the natives. As the ships emptied, they took off again and began to patrol the skies around the base, intending to handle any threats when they appeared.

Crouching Tiger, on the Rickenbacker

Enough ships had launched that the Crouching Tiger could launch if it needed to. That need wasn't there yet. Since Ajax and Jadia's cargo was mainly human, they were going to be one of the last down. Knowing that the Totalian air forces were roaring towards them at top speeds didn't make the wait any easier. The spy sats they had dropped on the way through had spotted the Totalium-coated aircraft taking off from airbases around Totalia City. Everyone knew They were coming, but had no clue where They were.

Ajax sat in the pilot's seat, her eyes unfocused as she monitored the feeds from the carrier via Jadia. "The eyeballs have spotted one of the air fleets," she said. "ETA ten minutes. We'll need fifteen to get down."

Charles tensed a little, and looked out. "So are we going down?" he asked. As just VIP Cargo, he and Redwing didn't have as much access to see what was going on as Ajax and Jadia did.

"Not quite yet," Ajax said, focusing on her guest. "But we'll probably drop soon. The ones we spotted are the fastest, intended to see what the hell we are doing. There's probably a bomber fleet coming up behind them somewhere."

"So we're just waiting, again."

"Pretty much. They spammed Clarke with our intentions on the way down and are broadcasting our peaceful intentions. I doubt it will do much. Someone's going to get bloody."

"How risky do you figure it is?" Charles asked, trying not to show his nervousness.

Ajax shrugged. "Hard to say. We're pulling our punches while they'll go all out. But even with Totalium we should be able to keep things controlled.... Just got a signal, the first dome's up downstairs. They want you guys under it ASAP. Jadia wants to be linked up for this."

She paused a moment then her seat melted away from under her, letting her slide down and backwards to the custom hookup for the dragon RIDE. The ship itself hummed louder and moved towards open space. By the time they cleared the Rickenbacker's shields, Ajax was 'back' in her seat beside Charles and Redwing, in holographic form.

"Hang tight," she said. "Control wants us to take the fast way down, but it won't beat the natives. Things might get a bit hairy."

Charles nodded and double checked the straps holding him in place. "How's everyone back there?"

"Strapped in tight and anxious as hell. You'd think they never flew into an active war zone before."

"Most of us haven't, myself included. Have you?"

"Nope! Neither me nor Jadia." Ajax grinned at him and looked outside. Fireballs lit up the sky as other ships entered the atmosphere. Their own view was quickly blocked from the plasma of the quick reentry path they were following.

A virtual eternity later, the glow and rumbling faded. The ship reconfigured its hardlight shields to be more aerodynamic as it cut through the clouds. Unexpectedly, they burst out of a cloud bank, and they could see the grey ocean below and a spec of land growing on the horizon.

"Three bogeys, ten o'clock," Ajax said.

Charles looked in that direction, and caught a flash of pewter. Redwing helpfully magnified it, showing three dart-like planes covered in the dull grey stealth metal.

"Keep your eyes on them, literally," Ajax said, sounding distracted. "Jadia's linked to Redwing to help track them.

"Right," Redwing confirmed.

The enemy planes grew rapidly. When they were close enough, the air lit up with the glow of laser fire. Jadia sent her space plane spinning in a barrel roll to dodge. Despite his own experiences flying, Charles felt more than a little nauseous as he tried to stay fixed on the three bogeys.

"Confirmed enemy fire. We're clear to return the favour," Ajax said, her avatar grinning predatorily.

Portals opened on the sides of the Crouching Tiger and under her wings. In midroll, a half dozen missiles launched, each one looking for a Totalian fighter. Seeing the trails from the missiles, the planes broke off their attack and tried to shoot them down. Four missiles blew up in the sky. One skimmed over the cockpit of a fighter and just missed hitting anything, eventually plowing into the water. The final one clipped the wing of the plane, sending it into an uncontrolled spin towards the ocean below. At the last moment the cockpit exploded as the Totalians ejected.

Before the Crouching Tiger's missiles could reload, a second wave of missiles shot towards the remaining fighters, coming from two more Ranger ships. The enemy pair just managed to dodge them, and realized they were now outnumbered. The pair of fighters arched around and beat a hasty retreat.

"Thanks for the assists Willy Wonka and Thundercracker," Ajax said, the Crouching Tiger wiggling its wings to acknowledge the other two Ranger ships.

"Glad to assist. Looks like the skies are clear for now. Control wants us to get our packages on the ground ASAP, then look for survivors," the pilot of the Wonka said.

Charles peeked at the battlefield simulations and confirmed the report. As far as they could tell, the Totalians had retreated to a point well out of the range of the Zharusian weapons and out of the flight path from the Rickenbacker. They were in a holding pattern, clearly either waiting for new orders or reinforcements.

The summary of the first clash was mostly as he expected. Of the two dozen quick fighters that had showed up first, six had been downed by Zharusian forces. Three had been destroyed with no survivors, one had evacuated over Rome and its crew was already in custody. The crews of the remaining two planes, including the one Crouching Tiger had taken down, were in the waters below them, waiting for rescue ships. Little did they realize their rescue would be from Rome. Two Zharusian ships had been significantly damaged, but had managed to land intact.

"Here we are. Your home for the next few days, weeks, months, or something," Ajax announced.

They'd crossed the shoreline and were over an alien forest. Ahead, the air shimmered with a pair of domes, covering the muddy scars of a construction zone. Buildings were growing as they watched, mainly prefabbed walls being linked together. Thicker walls were made from preformed blocks, like large scale Lego blocks.

"Repulsor domes. Normally we'd use Hardlight for the shield, but since Totalium punches through Hardlight like tissue paper, they sent down some of Western's spare repulsor shields," Jadia said, the dragon RIDE appearing between the humans. "They're absolute power hogs, but Rome's got the juice to spare."

"I know. I was the one who came up with the idea to use two of them," Redwing pointed out.

"Granted we were planning to use Rick's spare shields at first. The details don't really matter much," Charles added.

A portal irised open in one of the domes and a half dozen ships flew out. Jadia looked longingly after them.

"Where are they going?" Charles asked.

"They're going to head the bombers off at the pass. Now that the Dome's are up, the Totalians shouldn't have anything that can burst through, but it's bad morale to be hit constantly like that."

"I take it you wish you were going with them?" he asked.

Jadia nodded, and chirred happily as Ajax rubbed her hardlight head. "Don't worry, we'll have more opportunities for fun I'm sure."

Rome, Day 2

Rome wasn't quite built in a day, but it came close. A day and a few hours after the first builder touched down, the base was declared functionally complete.

:Functionally complete my ass. As far as I'm concerned, there's a huge gap between 'functional' and 'habitable': Charles mused.

The Earth ambassador was pseudo-fused with Redwing and walking around the base to get used to the layout. The air practically sparked with all the electricity held in by the repulsor dome, and stank of ozone, mud and curing concrete. Redwing kept them a few centies off the ground so they weren't trudging through said mud; other than the main arteries, none of the paths were finished yet.

:What do you expect? Frankly I'm amazed they got this far already.: Redwing countered. :Even the planning didn't have the base complete before noon.:

:Yeah I know. It is an amazing feat of engineering. I guess I'm just annoyed they're keeping us grounded. A whole new world, barely explored, and not only are we limited to a pair of cages, but we're limited to the ground of those cages.: Charles sighed in frustration and looked up at the light blue sky.

For safety reasons, free-flight was banned within the domes, at least until the Rangers stopped doing runs up to the Rickenbacker. While most of the material had come down in the first wave, now that they dominated the local airspace, they were able to ferry down the wish list and forgotten items.

They stepped out of the alley onto a broad ring road that looped around the center of the base. In the absolute centre, a shallow hole had been dug out and large steps were formed out of concrete. Around the top of the hole, roman style columns were set up, most of them still in their concrete curing forms.

"It was a good idea, making the amphitheater the heart of the base," Dagmar Babbi said. The Ibn-Rushd representative nodded to Charles and looked out over the construction site. A red panda L-RIDE watched beside him; the Fleet had insisted that every colony representative had a bodyguard while on Totalia, in the form of a RIDE or EIDE.

"Much as I hate to give him credit, Chuck did have a good idea. It's fitting for a place named Rome, and it'll be a good spot for us to gather and entertain at," Charles agreed.

"And debate. The concrete will barely have time to finish curing before we will be down there tonight," Dagmar noted.

Charles sighed, the meeting's agenda had been nagging at the back of his mind all morning. "We have to figure out what to do with the Totalians. It's a tough call."

"We should have expected this from the start."

"We should have. But we didn't. It seemed so simple. Clarke's been so firm, we thought his followers would be too. For everyone's sake, we agreed on the no prisoner policy and it made sense upstairs. We aren't equipped to keep prisoners, and releasing them back to Clarke saves us the hassle of  guarding them. How could we ever expect that they would want asylum?"

"They are human. In hindsight, it is obvious," the red panda RIDE chimed in.

Out of the dozen Totalians that had been knocked down and retrieved since the base was set up, two were still in the base hospital. The rest had been told of the Fleet's 'catch and release' prisoner policy and that they would be returned to Clarke's forces as soon as possible. The guards had been shocked when three prisoners had immediately requested asylum instead of release, raising the conundrum that would be debated among the base leadership.

"So obvious we never saw it," Charles sighed. "And it'll only get worse as time goes on."

Everyone knew that outside the domes, the Rangers were playing tag with Clarke's forces offshore, making sure he knew Rome was untouchable before they evaced back to space. More flight crews would be rescued and brought to base, and more people would be seeking asylum before the day was done.

"What are you thoughts on this problem?" Dagmar asked.

Charles shrugged. "Officially, Earth's stance will be decided by Chuck. I suspect he will want to punt the issue, send them all back to Clarke regardless.

"Unofficially... I'm torn. Sending them to Clarke is easiest, but isn't necessarily the right solution. We could send them to Whitfield's crew, but that would be showing favoritism which we don't want to do. Plus they asked US for asylum, not him."

Charles sighed and shook his head. "Yeah, unofficially, I think I'd say we should take them in. Granted they are a security risk, but it would help build goodwill once this mess is sorted out. I expect we'll start getting asylum seekers from Whitfield's side too when they start coming here."

Dagmar nodded in agreement. "It is not the easiest path, but it does feel like the correct path. That is the position Ibn-Rushd is taking."

Redwing chirped softly. "The Crouching Tiger just cleared the dome. Jadia's asking if we want to meet for lunch."

"Sure, tell them we can meet in thirty." Charles nodded to the ambassador. "It was good talking to you. Hopefully we'll have good news after tonight."

"I'm sure we will."

Totalian Holding Cell, Rome

Charles observed the Totalian pilot through a view screen. The pilot was sitting at a table waiting; he had been informed that someone would be coming to interview him about his asylum request. The right side of the man's face was bandaged and glistened with burn gel. His right arm was in a sling with similar burn bandages visible on his hands.

"Lieutenant Robers 'Bobby' MacKay. He ejected south of Rome when his fighter was taken out. Nearly didn't make it; the flames damaged his seat's parachute, but the backup got him down intact," Redwing explained. "He's been offered a med tank, but refused for now, until he knows the result of his asylum request." The pilot winced and closed his eyes for a moment, clearly trying to control his pain.

"He certainly doesn't look at his best. Is his mind clear?" Charles asked.

"Crystal clear. They managed to get him to take some painkillers before you came over. I think he doesn't quite get what we have available. You want me to go in with you?"

Charles shook his head. "Nah, I've got this."

Due to Chuck, Earth had officially said 'No' to the idea of granting asylum, but most of the rest of the ambassadors, not to mention the Fleet above, had thought it would be a good idea. Charles had volunteered to interview some of the asylum seekers as a way to mend bridges all around.

The pilot looked up as Charles entered the room. He started to try to get to his feet before Charles waved him back down. "Please, stay seated. Your med scans indicate you shouldn't even be sitting, let alone standing. How do you feel, Lieutenant?"

Bobby sighed thankfully and relaxed a little. "Like I was punched flat and hung out to dry... after being roasted over an open fire. But I'll survive."

Charles let himself chuckle and sat down across the table. "Yeah, your ejection systems would do that to a person. Especially without any force control. I'll try to make this quick. You're seeking asylum with the fleet. Why? Why do you want to abandon your people to stay with a bunch of strangers?"

"We're all human, Sir. Or most of you at least. So you're not really that strange. But for me, I'm tired of fighting. Tired of this division. I just want things to get back to normal, or at least to get somewhere where I don't have to fight."

Charles watched the pilot's eyes and knew that while there was some truth in his words, he was trying to guess what Charles wanted to hear. He waved the man silent. "Right, right, that's all and good. But why are you really doing this?"

"Really doing this?" Bobby paused and winced again, adjusting his sling carefully. "I... I guess it's because I want to get back upstairs. I was serving on the Kybalion before all this started. I was doing a stint groundside when they broke away, and before they could rotate us back upstairs, they said space was sealed off, and the only way we might get back up is by ending this war."

Charles made a few mental notes and scratched his chin. "So you think we... that is the Fleet, can get you back into space? Why is that?"

"Because you made it down here. Made it down intact. You can break through that field up there." Bobby paused and looked closer at Charles. "They say you put it up there in the first place. That's not true, is it?"

"No. It was in place long before the fleet got here. As far as we can  tell, it's being made by a splinter faction, operating independently now. Stopping them and cleaning up their mess is one of our own top priorities now, no matter who wins down here."

"Good. I didn't think you would do this. Especially not Captain Sandeep." Bobby visibly relaxed, more at ease with his decision.

"You spoke of 'we', who else did you mean?" Charles probed, trying to get a better sense of the situation on planet.

"Spacers who were stuck on the wrong side of the atmosphere," Bobby explained. "About a third of Kybalion's crew tended to be groundside at any time, so a lot of us got caught here. Many of them ran to join Trilby's resistance. More are locked up as objectors, unwilling to attack our friends." Bobby paused and looked embarrassed. "Some of us, like me,  we threw in with Clarke's crew, hoping we'd get back up top at least. The Kessler field nixed that idea, so we became part of his air force. And now, after seeing what you guys can do, I realize Clarke doesn't have any real chance of coming through this."

"He has a chance. The Fleet isn't here to make war. We're here to make peace. Totalia has to figure this out on its own, and we'll deal with the results."

"Maybe so, but even if Clarke wins, he'll still have lost. After seeing how easily you handled our best, I know Totalia wouldn't stand a chance if you tried."

Charles nodded. "That is true. But, we are not conquerors. In any case, I think I've heard enough for now. First, if we were to grant you asylum, there are a few things we'll need of you."

He started ticking off on his fingers. "First, you will need to make a statement we can send to First Speakers Clarke and Whitfield that you are seeking asylum of your own will and are not coerced. Clarke probably won't believe it, but it'll cover our asses legally." He smiled at the man and winked, "Legal tech has advanced as much as our physics tech since you guys took your break from humanity."

Bobby nodded his acceptance and Charles ticked off another finger. "Second, you will be part of the Fleet. You won't be a prisoner, but you will not be able to go to a Totalian side, whether it will be back to Totalia City or to Speaker Whitfield's base or to the Kybalion. Communications with other Totalians not a part of the Fleet will be limited for the duration of the conflict."

The pilot hesitated, then nodded his acceptance.

"Finally, while I can't promise we'll get you upstairs, I'll do my best to get you there. The Rickenbacker is going to have a lot more room, so I'm sure we can find the space, but the Rangers may decide it's too risky to bring civilians up. That will be their call."

Lieutenant MacKay's eyes lit up, "But you think I can make it back into space?"

"To the fleet? Very likely. It won't be the same things you're used to on the Kybalion; but given what we've supplied to them, I doubt you'd recognize the Kybalion now anyway."

Despite his injuries, Bobby stood up, reaching out his good hand to Charles. "Thank you! Thank you so very much."

Charles shook his hand, then moved around the table to support the other man before he collapsed. "I haven't done much yet, but tell you you can stay. The rest will be up to you. Now let's get you to a medivat before you hurt yourself worse."

Separator k.png

Charles, pseudo-fused with Redwing, flew over the strange Totalian treetops, following a river to the south of Rome. He split his attention from admiring the view of the countryside, and the view of the green scaled dragonlady flying ahead of him. A smaller dragon flew along side of her, occasionally diving down to dodge among the tree branches.

"Mmmm, it feels good to get out and stretch the wings," he said, his words carried by their comms to each other so they didn't need to shout in the wind.

"Tell me about it. Space is great, but I'm really beginning to appreciate the planet time," Ajax replied, pulling her wings in and doing a quick barrel roll dive towards the water before climbing back up.

"Yeah, a good planet stretch is perfect for shaking out the space dust," Jadia added, doing a few loops in the air herself.

Charles mimicked Ajax's dive and set himself in a glide next to her. "Sure you want to go back upstairs? Clarke may have stopped throwing planes at us, but we still want some fighters on the ground in case he decides to test us."

"Tempting, but the Space is in my blood. Planets are good to visit, to get a feel for what I'm missing; but my heart and soul live among the stars."

"Was worth a shot." Charles flexed Redwing's wings and flipped over Ajax's back.

"How about you two. Any chance we can convince you to come back upstairs?" Jadia asked.

"I'd go in a flash. But Charles has obligations that he says he can't leave," Redwing taunted.

"Pretty much that. This is going to be important down here. And I can't risk Chuck ruining things any more than he has. Otherwise, I'd be going right back up with you," Charles sighed wistfully.

"Aren't you worried Clarke might throw a nuke at you guys? The domes should block everything else."

"Clarke wouldn't dare. We've spammed our intentions across the Totalian media space; even he couldn't keep that secret. And we know where his launch sites are. He tries another nuke trick, we'll know, and we'll knock it down before it gets anywhere close."

"Still seems risky, but it's your feathers."

"No, they're my feathers he's risking. Not that I have much of a say in this," Redwing corrected her.

"If you really want to go, we can go back. But really, it would be political suicide for Clarke to attack us like that. Even the conventional attacks were damaging his position, especially once we started shipping his pilots back, often in better health than when they left their bases. We're as safe here as we would be up on the Western."

"I know. That's why I'm not pushing much to go back up. The air down here is really nice after all."

"That it is," Jadia agreed.

"So instead of staying in our company, you toss a handsome young man at us to escort upstairs. I'm not sure if that means you're secure in our relationship, or if it's a test," Ajax said.

"I'm secure enough. MacKay's a nice lad that shares a lot of our interests when you get down to it. But he's getting a lot of culture shock down here. When he gets to the Rickenbacker and especially when he gets to the Western, he won't know what hit him. I figure you can help soften the blow."

"I'll try. And I admit, he really healed up nice once he got out of the medivats."

Jadia sighed and spun around in the air. The domes of Rome were invisible over the horizon, but they could see the steady activity of flights coming in and out.

"Clemmie's group just signaled they are getting close. The bigwigs want everyone back to Rome to prepare for dustoff. Anyone not on Rick by nightfall will be staying here till the next time he swings by," Jadia said.

"Guess that's our cue," Ajax said, swinging around as well.

Charles and Redwing followed the dragons. Charles sped up enough to lightly tug on Ajax's tail, making her look back in surprise. "Our cue, but we still have lots of time. It's barely afternoon."

"Barely afternoon, and we have to get the Tiger ready for launch."

"The Tiger's been ready for days now. A quick lunch break won't make it any less ready," Charles retorted, pointing to a clearing in the forest. "Virgin territory, never touched by man."

Ajax smiled predatorily and curved around to approach the clearing, "And possibly significantly less virginal when we leave."

Jadia flipped in the air. "Humans," she snorted on a private comm band to Redwing. He sent back an agreeing snicker of his own.

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Rome, Dustoff Day

Robers 'Bobby' MacKay, former Lieutenant of the Totalian Defense Forces (Air division), walked the streets of Rome, trying not to look completely overwhelmed, and failing. The bones of the base were familiar enough to him; military bases hadn't changed significantly in centuries. Beyond that, his experience was left in the dust.

He was constantly left amazed, watching the robots of all size moving, flying or just floating in mid air doing whatever they had to do to tend to the growing community. People walked around, oblivious to the wonders he was seeing. Some spoke with the animal-like robots, others were lost in their own jobs. Few looked like normal humans; most had animal traits or obvious robotic modifications of their own.

The fact that a few days ago, this entire base had been an empty plain was the cherry on the cake of amazement as far as he was concerned. The bulk of the base had been assembled somewhere out in the outer system, and packed up to be reassembled on the ground. Most of the work he could see happening now was adding the final touches; humanizing the base by painting walls and adding planters filled with flowers.

All in all, the strangeness of the Zharusians left him stunned and second guessing his asylum request. He stopped in the shade of a building and consulted his tablet. Charles had sent him the directions to his lift off the planet, and he didn't want to be late. The Earth representative had stayed in touch after the initial interview, staying with him through the strange experience with the healing pods, and helping him stay grounded in the strange world he dropped himself into. But Charles was staying on the planet, while he was about to go back up into space, a stranger in a strange fleet. He held onto the fact that some Totalian ships had thrown in with the Fleet already as a sanity life preserver.

Seventeen Totalians had ended up seeking asylum, five of them requesting to go back into space. In the chaos of the base, he'd spent time with most of them, but each had their own lift into space. Charles had picked his ride personally, something Bobby wasn't sure if he should be worried or thankful about.

The tablet beeped and a glowing arrow appeared in the air, somehow created from the device. It constantly pointed where he needed to go, but he had no clue how it could even appear like that. The arrow pointed across the street to the fence that surrounded the landing field. Dozens of ships of all shapes and sizes, including the wreckage of two Totalian flyers, were scattered about the field.

He crossed the street and the arrow twisted, leading him along the fence until he reached an unmanned gate. The lock buzzed as he got close and the gate opened enough to let him in. From there, the arrow led him along a supposedly safe path between the ships and other vehicles and people. Bobby couldn't help but duck as some carriers flew what felt like centies overhead.

The path ended at one of the bird-like space ships that made up the majority of the vessels on the field. The craft was predominantly green, with a cartoonish image of a tiger painted on the side of the nose, just below the cockpit. Its paws were stretched forward and its butt was raised in the air, just like the images he'd seen in the archives of cats about to pounce. To his surprise, as he watched, the tiger's butt wiggled, just like the cat videos. He blinked and rubbed his eyes, staring at the still image, not sure if he had really seen that. Just as he had almost convinced himself he had imagined it, the image wiggled again. Bobby found himself staring at it, and a minute later, the image wiggled a third time.

"By your shell shocked look, you must be Mister MacKay," a woman said behind him. She had a deep voice, full of confidence.

"I-." His response died in his throat as he turned and saw her. He was starting to get used to people with animal ears and tails, but she went beyond what he had met before.

She was a little under two metres tall, with short horns on her head and short, light green hair. Her face was normal, other than the emerald tint it had, and the hint of scaling. She had broad, muscular shoulders, with a strange shape under her arms. It took a moment for him to sort out the shapes were wings, extending from under her arms and resting on her shoulders, their bulk hidden behind her back. The rest of her body was normal enough, barring the stubby claws on her scaled fingers, and the spade tipped tail that just reached the ground while she was standing. She wore jean shorts and a dark t-shirt with an emblem he recognized as the Pharos Rangers. His mind hiccupped again as he tried to figure out how she could put the t-shirt on over two sets of limbs.

"I'm Ajax, Charles's friend and part owner of the Crouching Tiger over there. This is Jadia, the primary owner of it," the woman introduced herself, pointing to an emerald mass around her neck.

The mass moved and straightened out, becoming a cat sized dragon, with similar colours as Ajax. "Pleased to meet you," Jadia said.

Bobby gave up on trying to get his tongue to work and shook the offered hand. He could feel the strength in her grip, and the pressure of her sharp talons against his palm and wrist. Her hand was warmer than he expected, like she was running a fever but didn't show any signs of illness.

Ajax, apparently not noticing his silence, moved on quickly, heading to the back hatch of the ship and waving for him to follow. "Do you have anything else? We're taking off as soon as possible. You're welcome to sit in the cockpit for a front row view."

"Nothing else. Just what I have," Bobby stammered out, managing to get his legs working.

The inside of the ship was bigger than what he was expecting for a ship of that size. Most of the ship was empty, in cargo mode with some seats near the front. A ladder led up to the deck where the cockpit was. The dragon took off from Ajax's shoulders and dove into a portal that irised open next to the ladder. Ajax herself leaped up, grabbing a bar at the top of the ladder and swinging herself upward, ignoring the ladder.

"Toss your stuff anywhere, or bring it up if you want," she called back.

The Totalian looked around again, then left the bag with his change of clothes, and the tablet on an empty seat. He climbed the ladder and was dizzy a moment. Visually, the deck sloped forward at an angle, giving him a view of the landing zone through the transparent canopy. Physically, he felt like he was standing on level ground.

"Take the front seat if you want," Ajax said, motioning to the forward most seat. She was already seated on another one, surrounded by screens with cryptic data.

"Isn't that your seat?" Bobby asked, taking a few cautious steps forward. Once he was away from the ladder, he had an easier time handling the gravity discongruity.

"Nah. My seat is down below, where Jadia keeps her big body. When I'm not fused, I prefer to stay seated near the fuse chamber access point," Ajax said, her tail tapping a spot on the floor behind her.

Bobby sat down in the indicated seat, and twitched as it adjusted around him. He looked warily at the controls on the armrests, keeping his hands well away from them.

"Don't worry, those are just for show. Jadia's in charge. You've got a call coming in, from Charles. You up for speaking with him?"

With the dragonlady behind him, the Totalian pilot found his tongue was looser. "Sure... how?"

By the time he finished his question, a screen appeared, floating in mid air in front of him. It showed Charles's head and shoulders in front of a wall that could be anywhere.

"Sorry we couldn't see you to say goodbye in person. The Clementine just arrived with all of those political types, so I actually had to do some work. I hope your ride wasn't too surprising."

"He's barely said two words since I met him!" Ajax called out from the back, making Charles laugh.

"Not too surprising, I guess. Just a bit to get used to. Thanks for thinking of me," Bobby said, avoiding the urge to look back.

"Good. I'm of the 'Rip it off' mindset, so throwing you in with Ajax and Jadia felt like a good way to prepare you for what you'll see in the Fleet."

The former pilot couldn't resist any longer. He glanced back at the dragon lady. She didn't seem to notice his glance, but she did wave a wing at him. "I think I need the preparation. I'll be fine, I'm not the only Totalian after all."

"Exactly. You take care of him Ajax," Charles said, glancing to someone off camera.

"I make no promises beyond getting him to the Rick," Ajax called back.

"Fair enough. Have fun, And be careful up there Ajax; don't get into too much trouble."

Ajax waved her hand dismissively. "Space is so dead up here. If I could find anything to do, I'd do it, troubling or not."

The group exchanged farewells and the screen flickered off. Bobby was surprised to see they were already off the ground and moving towards the gate portal in the dome. He leaned forward to look better, and shook his head, jumping a little in surprise when a holographic dragon appeared in front of him.

"I should have warned you, but it's more fun this way. We're cleared for departure. We'll reach the Rickenbacker in an hour or so." Jadia said.

He stayed quiet for the first part of the flight, watching fascinated as the domes dropped away below them, followed by the island. He could look around and see the curve of the planet, all without any sensation of movement.

"So, I take it you know Charles well?" he asked, trying to make conversation.

Ajax shrugged, leaning back in her own seat. "As well as anyone can know someone after a few months. I burned my bridges with Earth long ago, so we weren't exactly travelling in the same circles."

"Earth, yeah. He's not what I expected. Or rather the rest of the Earthers aren't really like him."

"He's unique, at least with this delegation. Surprised me too when we met. But that's why he's not in charge of it. Chuck's got more political pull, while Charles has some things Chuck will never have.... Things like tact, and the ability to actually make friends and allies."

Bobby's attention was torn from watching the familiar orb of Totalia below them, and from focusing on the dragon lady. "I take it that's important?"

She chuckled, "Well, it converted me.

"Back on Zharus, if you had told me that I'd be supporting Earth in any way, I'd have laughed in your face. Charles has managed to convince me there might be something worth salvaging back there after all."

"I take it you don't care much for Earth? Is it really that bad?"

"Hard to say. At its worst, it still has its pearls. But Chuck and his kind have dominated there for years. They don't play nice with the colonies, which could be bad news for the future. I'd like to say I'm beyond all that now, but Jadia and I are still Rangers; when that bad news shows up, we're going to be at the forefront, trying to stop it."

Bobby nodded and fell silent, admiring the view. Darkness surrounded them now, and he could see the flickering lights of other ships climbing up. A box appeared on the cockpit window, surrounding an apparently motionless set of lights.

"That's the Rickenbacker," Jadia explained. "Our destination. Once everyone's on board, he'll get us through the Kessler field."

"Thanks," Bobby said, squinting at the square. It was dark against the darkness of space, only the lights giving it an outline. He had nothing to compare it to to figure out its size.

Ajax sighed, making him look back. "Clarke must realize something's up," she explained. "He just launched a major offensive against Rome."

The pilot gulped, his mind imagining his old friends and allies attacking the new friends he had made. "Are they in danger?"

"Domes are holding easily. Rome's repulser shields snapped on as soon as we realized they were coming. They're energy hogs, but they can outlast anything you can throw at it."

"What about us? Are we in danger?"

Jadia shook her head. "The last ship left Rome fifteen minutes ago and we're well out of range. Plus the Totalians are ignoring our little convoy. I'd say they were hoping to catch Rome with its pants down."

"Right, we've got nothing to worry about.... yet. Still, Rick's gotta get back up to clean space. It's not really our business, but it never hurts to peek ahead," Ajax said.

A few seconds later, the communication window activated again. This time it showed another cockpit with a man and an armored woman seated side by side. The man had tribal-looking glowing blue markings on his skin, and the woman's predominantly white armor had similar markings in red. She had a surprisingly expressive and human looking face.

"Hey there, how was the planet?" the man asked once the signal stabilized.

"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?" the strange woman 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 of the Totalian Forces, Bobby MacKay, He's seeking asylum with the Fleet. Bobby, this is Yuri and Skyfire."

Bobby 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.

Bobby refocused beyond the closing comm window and was shocked to see the Rickenbacker had appeared almost out of nowhere, growing in size as he watched. He could see glowing stripes along the long axis of the ship that soon resolved themselves into the openings to large landing bays. Before he expected, they dived into one strip, and landed, all without the slightest change of G-forces.

"Lieutenant MacKay, welcome to the Fleet. I hope you'll enjoy your stay with us," Ajax said.

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Rome, under attack.

Charles closed the comm window and expanded a map window. It showed the domes of Rome, along with the dots indicating everything they knew was around the base. A stream of green dots was heading away, the last dot already clear of the dome. A smattering of red dots harassed the last few green dots, but otherwise they were going uninterrupted. Most of the red dots were swarming around the base itself, not firing but clearly looking for a weakness to exploit. A different bunch of green dots harassed that swarm, forcing them to back away regularly. Unmarked on his map for opsec reasons, Charles knew there was a hidden green mark; Clementine was taking her time coming in under cloak. She wasn't quite to Rome yet, but she was on the island.

A chime sounded and a message popped up. Charles skimmed it and stood up. "Come on Redwing. Clemmie's about to enter the domes."

"It's about damn time. Was beginning to think she was having the RIDEs carry her in on their lifters," Redwing said, taking off and pseudofusing with his friend.

"It wasn't that long. They have to go slow to maintain the cloak anyway," Charles said.

The pair left their quarters and flew along the roads across the base. A flash of light and a dull rumble echoed every so often when a Totalian managed to get a lucky hit on the dome. Otherwise, the fight was lost in the haze of the repulsor field. On the opposite end of the base from the airfield, a large empty spot had been cleared near the edge of the dome. A small crowd was already gathered there, looking expectantly at the dome. The pair took a spot near the back, and joined the watch.

:Look!: Redwing alerted him, focusing their gaze on a spot on the dome.

At first, Charles didn't notice anything different. Then he realized there were faint discontinuities; the outside view didn't quite match up to what it should be. He began to notice other signs, a change in air pressure, an electrical charge in the air, a subaudible hum that wasn't there before. Base security began to herd the crowd back further, away from the invisible presence that was arriving. It was a strange feeling, knowing and feeling like there was something massive nearby, while the eyes insisted there was nothing there. Finally there was a faint snap! and most of the subtle cues stopped. A second later, the hum cut off and a large Interstellar ship was filling the cleared field.

Cheers rose from the crowd, while they waited for the ship to open up. More people were converging on the site as word spread. Finally, hatches opened up and ramps extended to the ground. Charles recognized First Speaker Trilby Whitfield and the rest of the Totalian council in exile as they came down the ramp first, followed by the Clementine's crew. More people, some with RIDEs, most alone, followed them out. Charles and Redwing joined the impromptu welcoming committee and waited their chance to greet the new arrivals.

While they were waiting their turn with the bigwigs, a quick moving figure caught their attention. Before Charles could fully recognize her, he was tackled-hugged.

"Charles! Redwing! It's so good to finally see you!" the woman exclaimed, hanging off their shoulders. People around them looked surprised, then grinned at the surprised reaction on the Earth Rep's face.

Charles recovered, laughed and hugged her back before kissing her cheeks. "Eugena! It's about time you got here. How was the trip?"

Eugena let him go and smiled. She was shorter than normal, with fiery red hair and the inner energy to support it. While originally from Earth, she had immigrated to Zharus and eventually was invited to join the diplomatic envoy that went along with the Clementine. Charles had known her before she left, and they had reopened their friendship once communications between the groups had started.

"The trip was long, slow and crowded," she explained. "We left as soon as you landed and took our time to make sure the cloak held and stuff. Plus we didn't want any signs to point back to the group we left behind. It's a good base, no point in letting it go to waste-." She stopped and looked up in surprise as a particularly loud Boom! echoed through the dome.

"Clarke's still trying to get in the hard way. Maybe someday he'll realize he's got a standing invitation," Charles explained, trying to seem unphased by the explosions happening nearby.

Eugena nodded in agreement. "He's dense like that. Makes it damn near impossible to do anything. We've made lots of progress with Trilby's group at least."

"Excellent, we'll have to catch up soon. In the meantime," Charles nodded towards the Totalian speakers. "Looks like I have to pay my respects."

"Of course, of course. See you soon."

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Charles yawned and stretched in his own bed, waking up from a deep sleep, his mind still trying to decide if it wanted to face the day or stay in dreamland. He rolled out of bed and padded to the bathroom, operating automatically as he took care of his waking chores. By the time he came out, his mind had reluctantly decided to wake up as well, and he was able to tackle some of his duties that required more attention. Redwing was still in away mode, so he grabbed a tablet and made sure there were no emergencies awaiting him. Finding none for a change, he set the fabber to make some toast and coffee, and sat at the table to tackle the overnight issues.

The sound of rustling feathers over the hum of servos brought his attention back to the Real. Redwing was stretching, shaking his wings and doing his own morning checks.

"Mornin'," Charles greeted his friend. "Have a good night?"

The L-RIDE preened a spot on his hip before straightening up. "Good enough. Hunting is still sparse here, but improved with Clementine's bunch. I take it things are calming down?"

"No emergencies through the night. Things are pretty calm actually. Eerily so." Charles paused and listened for a moment. He snapped his fingers. "That's what's been bugging me all morning. The airfield is quiet."

Redwing tilted his head, checking the records before replying. "Air Command says it's been quiet since midnight. Clarke's forces are holding off shore and haven't made any moves. All pilots have been brought in, save for those doing the patrols."

Charles frowned and started doing some checks of his own. "That is strange. He hasn't given us a good night's sleep since we landed. The pilots certainly have earned it, but something's gotta be up."

"The only thing worse than something happening... is nothing happening," Redwing agreed.

The pair finished their analysis with no new information, which only served to frustrate them. When they touched base with the other diplomats and friends, it was quickly apparent they weren't the only ones worried about the change in Zealot behavior. The daily briefing meeting of the Earth contingent was extra tense and unproductive; everyone was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The shoe dropped midmorning. A Zealot ship was detected coming in from Totalia City. When it crossed the shore, it began broadcasting a request for parley. Patrol craft spotted a plain black flag painted on the sides of the craft. Negotiations were made, leading to the plans for a delegation from Rome to meet the Zealots outside the domes that afternoon. Charles wasn't surprised to find Chuck put him on the list to head out.

By mid afternoon, the delegation rolled out of Rome. It was made of a couple dozen people mainly from the Fleet, along with RIDE and EIDE partners. Charles, pseudofused with Redwing, flew above an armored equipment skimmer.

:So close. And yet so far,: he mumbled to his partner, looking longingly at the partly cloudy skies overhead.

:Tell me about it. But, on the bright side, this could be the opening we've been waiting for.:

:Or it could be a trap. There's a reason Chuck was so quick to push us onto this delegation.:

Redwing chuckled, :A trap is certainly possible. But unlikely. Clarke hasn't shown that degree of insanity yet.:

The delegation left the plains Rome was built on, and followed a lazy river that roughly lead to the agreed upon meeting space. While they could have cut through the alien tropical forest in between, or just flown over the trees, the slow approach was felt to be the least aggressive.

The meeting spot was on a floodplain about forty klicks from Rome as the RIDE flew. Following the river, it was more like fifty klicks. A forest fire had burned through the area years before, leaving an open space big enough for the Totalian flyer to land with room to spare. A smaller Totalian airship had landed near the first one, and a third was holding position overhead. A large tent had been set up, far enough away from the landed ships to be unthreatening. Six Totalians in Uniform were standing outside, watching the approaching delegation.

:They really didn't realize what they were getting into,: Redwing chuckled, observing their expressions.

:Well, we aren't ones to come quietly,: Charles replied, echoing the grin and thinking how they would appear to the Totalians.

The delegation was centered on two armored carrier skimmers that were floating over the water of the river. Most of the delegation was floating around those skimmers; Integrates, RIDEs and EIDEs in vehicle, fuse and animal modes, carrying their partners and sometimes more. Most of the creatures were unknown on Totalia, known only from the Earth archives and Earth myths their ancestors had brought.

:What's the chatter like?: Charles asked.

:Hard to say. Can't get clear sensor readings around the camp there. The thinking is that they have enough for maybe two dozen people on those three ships. After the six we can see at the tent and the crews manning the ships, figure a dozen in the woods, probably in Totalium suits so we can't spot them.:

:Not a bad turnout at all. Hopefully no one has an itchy trigger finger.:

At a prearranged distance, the delegation paused and a group of flyers climbed higher and began to do a patrol around the site. The hovering Totalian ship wiggled nervously in the sky, but managed to avoid opening fire. Soon an all clear was given and they moved to the next staging area.

On the edge of the river, where the ground was dry enough to walk on, the delegation split apart again. Fused and Intie guards spread out, careful to stay visible, but making it obvious no hanky panky would be tolerated. At the same time, the dozen or so representatives that made up the core of the delegation jockeyed for their positions, some coming out of the skimmers, the rest defusing or dismounting from their partners. Lance Knight, the Fleet representative who had drawn the short straw to lead the delegation, nodded to the waiting Totalians while making sure his people were organized properly. His collie RIDE moved among the group to get everyone in place.

"Jiminy is in their local network, just keeping an eye on things," Redwing sent to Charles. They had defused along with everyone else to hopefully appear less threatening to the Zealots. They both thought it was a laughable hope, but went along with the plan. "He can confirm they have men in the woods, but he isn't looking for them. Just keeping them honest."

Charles nodded to his partner and stepped forward with the mob of delegates. He watched the Zealot reactions, seeing them getting increasingly nervous at the strange approaching menagerie. He tried seeing the situation through their eyes and understood their fear; while the larger RIDEs stayed back, the mass of men and machine and more would be daunting to anyone. Especially considering how confident they appeared, not even bothered by the Zealot weapons and equipment all around.

"Greetings," Lance said. "I am Lance Knight, representing Rome, and the Zharusian fleet in orbit. What do you want to Parlay about?"

The lead Zealot locked his gaze on the collie-tagged man and quickly gathered his words. "I am Commander Micah Talarand, of the Totalian Defense Forces, bringing orders from First Speaker Clarke. With the First Speaker's authority, I am hereby ordering you and all non-Totalian citizens..." he paused and his eyes flickered to the RIDEs. "... and equipment to immediately leave the planet, and to leave the system within a month."

Lance looked amused and seemed to consider the order for the briefest of seconds. "No," he said simply, before clasping his hands behind his back, waiting Micah's response. He barely managed to keep his tail from wagging, amused by the stunned reaction of the Totalians.

Micah took longer to process the response, and was at a loss for forming his own answer, "No? Just... 'No'?"

"Surely you didn't expect that to work? Especially after we've spent weeks swatting away your best attempts at destroying Rome. We're here now, and we're here for the duration. Now that that farce is out of the way, why don't we get on with the real discussion?"

"There is nothing else to discuss. You Zharusians are interfering in internal Totalian matters. All we want is for you to leave us to deal with this in our own way."

"And we're trying to do that. But our patience is running out. Especially when it is obvious your side's method of 'dealing' is to ignore or to imprison the other side."

Micah frowned and started to turn away. "In that case, we have nothing to talk about."

"Don't we?" Lance asked, making the Totalian pause. "You called us out here. Be a shame to waste this opportunity. Especially considering how little time is left."

"Little time? What do you mean? What are you doing?" Micah turned back, a flicker of worry on his face.

Lance simply pointed up. "We're doing nothing. But the galaxy is coming, whether you like it or not.

"Up there, there are thousands of non-Totalians already, eager to talk to their long lost cousins. In a few more months, more Zharusian ships will arrive with even more people eager to meet you. Within a year, the first Kepler, Earth, Centauri, Eridani, Wednesday, Neorussian and more ships will be showing up.

"The fact is, you're on a very tight timetable to get your house in order. Just by being a lost colony, you're going to be the centre of attention. With your system's other resources, you're going to have a very bright spotlight turned on you."

"We... We'll turn them away, just like we're turning you away," Micah said, struggling to hide his doubt.

"And a bang up job you're doing with that. You couldn't even keep us from building a city on your planet, and we're the nice guys. The Keh- the Pirates that show up won't care about being nice like we are."

Micah paused, glancing at his companions and finding no support there. Lance pushed his advantage.

"Now, since we're all here now, why don't we try to do something more productive. I am representing the Zharusian Fleet. With me are delegates from Earth and the other Colonies of Man, and Totalians representing your opposition faction. Why don't we take advantage of that table and tent you set up, and see if we can take a few steps towards resolving this deadlock?"

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Charles tried to stay out of the way as the Zharusians set up their part of the makeshift camp. Negotiations were starting, but were still mainly between Micah and Lance while they figured out what to do with the other two groups. Fused folk were busy pulling platforms off of the carriers and setting them up on a flat spot of ground. Water and power lines were run to the river and vehicles. Micah's visible soldiers were watching them alertly, obviously not understanding what was going on.

"What are they doing?"

The Earth representative turned and saw a Totalian looking between him and the work that was going on. Charles recognized the man as one of Micah's aides; one that was high up in the Totalian hierarchy, while not being so important that he was tangled in the first phase of negotiations. The man seemed torn between being suspicious of the work being done, and being curious about it.

"They are just setting up some basic amenities. A food truck and washroom big enough to handle all of us," Charles explained.

The aide looked at Charles, then back at the work again. He tilted his head in confusion. "A food truck and washroom? How are those going to come out of that?"

"Just watch. They use these at the big festivals back on Zharus to handle the crowds. Cleaner than Portapotties, but powerhogs. Still, when you're at a Burning Man in the Dry, or a Woodstock on Laurasia, you'll be glad to have them." Charles held out his hand. "Charles de Gaulle, Earth rep."

The man took a moment to recognize the hand, then shook it. "Rynald Jacobs."

They fell silent and watched the workers raise a simple frame from the edges of the platforms, snapping them into place. After verifying the connections were solid, each platform was activated. A pair of loud hums filled the air, making the Totalians even more nervous. The soldiers shifted their grips on their weapons, eyeing the now-glowing framework over the platforms. With a Snap! the framework was filled in with glowing walls that filled in the gaps. The walls dimmed until they looked like simple sheets of wood.

Rynald gasped and stumbled back a bit, bumping into Redwing. "What? How?"

"Hardlight," Redwing explained, nudging the man forward. "Expensive as hell, power wise, but handy for quick setups like this."

"So is that how you set up your base so quickly?" Rynald asked, trying to piece events together.

Charles chuckled and shook his head. "Nope. Rome is all real. We would have needed a few of the Western's reactor decks to make a hardlight version of it. Instead, we prefabbed it all up in space and brought it with us. Come, take a peek."

Charles could tell Rynald was trying to decide what to be more impressed about; building a bathroom and kitchen out of light, or plopping a fully functioning city onto the planet from space. He led the Totalian to the door in one of the buildings and opened it up. Inside was a large room with sinks and mirrors. Four doors lead to private toilet stalls. Rynald stopped in the doorway and looked inside, then outside. The man cautiously reached out and touched the wall, then knocked on it.

"Sounds like wood. But how?"

"Hardlight tricks. This is a very basic program, but good for your needs," Redwing explained.

"Excuse me! Call of nature!" a horse-tagged woman said, wiggling past them and running to a stall.

"And everything works in here?" Rynald asked, incredulously.

Charles stepped to the closest sink and turned it on. Steaming hot water jetted out of the tap. "Clearly. About half of the platform is structural or devoted to the hardlight programs. The rest is plumbing, handling filtering the water and wastes. We're drawing from the river out there and making it as clean as freshly combined H-two-Oh."

Another man entered, nodding to the men and grabbing another stall. Charles motioned to the door and followed Rynald out. "We brought these for everyone. Your people are welcome to use our facilities as well. No need to use the latrine pits you dug behind your ship."

"Right... I'll let people know. You said the other is a food truck?"

"Yup!" Redwing said. "But they need more time to prepare after setting up."

The other building had a door at one end, and a wide window along the side. Through the window, they could see four people already busy at work.

"There's a simple military food fabber in that platform, and it's programmed to make a simple foods. The chefs will take what the fabber makes and try to make it palatable. They're surprisingly good at that."

Rynald seemed to have trouble absorbing that. "You seem very... very comfortable with that. I take it you're used to it? Do all of the planets have that sort of thing?"

"I'm used to it because I've spent a long time on Zharus. Been to two Burning Men, three Woodstocks, a Rigulan Light Festival, and many more. These HLPotties and Canteens are the norm out there. But no, they aren't common on other planets. They use Hardlight tech that only Zharus and Wednesday use regularly. Eventually, they'll be more common, but for now, it's just Zharus." Charles nodded to the tent where people were congregating. "Looks like we're being summoned. Let's see what's going on now."

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"I can't believe you're agreeing to do this," Charles protested to Eugena.

"Relax, it's not that big of a deal. Clementine has been operating independently for awhile now. If leaving Rome will make it easier for Clarke's side to come to the table, we'll gladly head out," Eugena replied.

The pair were part of a crowd gathered around tables loaded with food and drink. Officially, the negotiations were taking a well needed break to give everyone time to recharge and digest the events to date. Unofficially, as was often the case, it just meant discussions had broken into smaller groups to give everyone a chance to feel the sides out and figure out solutions to the remaining sticky points.

"Besides, Micah has already confirmed that Cyprus will be a no-combat zone. So we should be perfectly safe away from the domes. Especially now that Clemmie's restocked from Rome's stores."

Charles lead her to a table away from the main crowd, where Redwing was already holding spots for them. "I still don't like it. The only reason Cyprus was a combat zone in the first place was because of Clarke's forces. Frankly, his promises don't hold much weight."

"I know, but we've got to start somewhere. The entire point of Rome was to get Whitfield and Clarke's sides talking again."

"Yeah, but I just don't see why Clementine has to leave. She's a Zharus ship."

"A Zharus ship that's obviously thrown in with Whitfield's forces. Either she and her crew have to disavow working with the Loyalists, or they have to say they were independent. We're going with the latter."

"A lie everyone can see through," Redwing said.

"A lie that reads well, and salves wounded prides." Eugena paused and took a sip of her drink. "Frankly, I'm surprised Micah agreed to that illusion. He probably figures we'd be helping them regardless, so this helps cover future issues or something."

"He is agreeing to more than I expected. I think Lance's words about the future hit him harder than he's showing." Charles chuckled. "All the better for us."

Eugena shrugged. "Lance wasn't lying. Totalia's going to get a Totalium rush in the coming years, whether Clarke wants it or not. If they aren't ready for the coming flood, they'll be washed away like a South Pacific island tribe during the Warming days."

"Pretty much. So what's your gut saying for the rest?"

"We're almost done; once dinner is done, the last rough spots should be sorted out. Clemmie will evacuate to the spot on the coast, becoming Whitfield's base in exile. Clarke's side will set up an office in Rome, and from there, we start the real work of reuniting those two sides."

Charles looked around the temporary camp. The food table was mostly deserted now that everyone had a snack. Pairs and small groups were formed and talking earnestly over their plates. Most were nodding agreeably, having reached consensus on some little details.

"Sounds about right. Looks like things are getting sorted out."

"Good. Not looking forward to moving again, but we'll make do."

"We've got some spare gear we haven't used; I'm sure Clemmie will have most of it onboard before you head out. You'll be able to build Athens or something," Redwing said.

Eugena chuckled, "Now there's an idea."

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"It is an act of war! You come here, saying you are neutral, promoting peace, but at the same time you attack us in space! You co-opt our extra-planetary infrastructure, cutting us off from important supplies and personnel." Micah stood in the middle of the room, delivering his speech to the full house. The full delegations of each Colony and Earth in Rome were present, along with the Loyalist delegation. No one was happy.

"Those idiots!" Charles sent to Redwing. "Did everyone lose their minds up there? We were making such good progress, and then they had to go and take over the damn shipyard!"

"They got impatient.... The Western wasn't going to be fully repaired without it," Redwing countered weakly, struggling to justify the actions above.

"If they'd waited a few more days, a few weeks maybe, then we could probably have negotiated their use of the shipyard without a shot fired," Charles grumbled, reading through the reports and trying to find any angle they could use to salvage the mess.

News of the shipyard attack had reached Rome in the middle of the night. By dawn, it was all over but for the frustrated crying over ruined plans. Clarke's delegation had almost walked away immediately, but they were convinced to stay for one final address to the Colonies. An address being made to a full house of subdued diplomats and ambassadors.

Micah wound down his speech and fell silent, glaring out from the podium. The room stayed silent until he finally yielded the floor and sat back down.

Charles automatically raised his hand for attention, along with a half dozen other people. He wasn't sure what he was going to say to start mending fences, but something had to be done. With luck, the diplomatic gift of gab would show him the way. The meeting chair motioned his way and he started to stand up before he realized the chairman was pointing to the person next to him. Charles finished standing up and stood to the side to give Chuck room to approach the podium.

"Thank you Chairman Wu, Delegate Talarand," Chuck acknowledged the others before facing the crowd. "Earth, and I am sure the rest of the colonies, recognize the usurpation of your system sovereignty with the takeover of the Totalian shipyard. We share the pain of your loss, and pray for the quick recovery of anyone harmed in this needless attack." Chuck paused and did a quick scan of the room. Most of the delegates seemed confused by the approach he was taking.

"I would like to make it clear right off the bat, that Earth officially condemns the Zharusian Fleet for this cowardly attack, and we will work with Totalia in seeking appropriate restitution for any damages caused by the takeover, including returning the facility, undamaged, to Totalian control. Furthermore, I urge my fellow delegates to join me in this condemnation. Peace can not be achieved while armies still war above our heads."

The room exploded in confusion.


"How dare you!"

"Kepler stands with Earth in this matter!"

"I refuse to accept this condemnation!"

Chairman Wu banged his gavel, trying ineffectively to regain order. Chuck simply stood back from the podium, barely able to hide his smirk as he surveyed the chaos he had sown. After a few minutes of angry shouting and quieter mumbling, the chairman managed to get the room quieted down.

"Mister Lorrey of Earth still has the floor," he said reluctantly, motioning for Chuck to continue.

"Thank you Chairman. As I mentioned, Earth officially condemns the actions of the Zharusian fleet. I motion that we officially record the stance of the rest of the colonies in this matter."

"Seconded!" the Centauri rep called out quickly, almost tripping in her eagerness to stand up.

The chairman sighed, obviously not wanting to let the motion carry but having no choice. "The motion is approved. Earth's stance on the shipyard attack by the Zharus fleet is noted. We will now note the stance of the remaining colonies. Centauri?"

"Centauri joins Earth in this condemnation. It was a very war like action from a group preaching peace."

The Proxima ambassador stood next. "Proxima also condemns the attack. We know the condition of the fleet; they were stable around Sehkmet. There was no reason for them to push in like that."

Mikel Steader stood up, careful to look only at the chairman. "Eridani does NOT condemn the fleet actions. While the timing is unfortunate, we must not forget we are in a state of war. Actions like that are just an unfortunate part of war."

"Kepler stands with Earth and the Centauris. This attack was unneeded and unprovoked. The situation in space was stable; by attacking they destabilized the situation and made our work more difficult."

The Zheng He representative hesitated before standing. She looked at her colleagues before speaking quietly. "While we recognize the inappropriateness of the attack, we are not sure if we agree it was completely unprovoked. Zheng He does not officially condemn the attack at this time, but we reserve the right to do so when more information comes in."

Orion stood up and looked around the room, his gaze turning into a glare as he focused finally on Chuck. "Zharus would like to remind everyone that we are in a state of war with Speaker Clarke's forces, under the request of the proper government under Speaker Whitfield. The fleet would not have needed to take control of the shipyard if the True Totalian fleet had not damaged the Great Western with their own ship in Sekhmet orbit. As with all operations the fleet has done since arriving, all reasonable efforts to minimize damage to people and material during those events has been taken, often at much greater risk to our own people. From what I understand now, other than the rogue faction feeding the Kessler field from the Oort cloud, space is now effectively under the Fleet control, making it safe for everyone up there.

"So in that respect, Zharus not only does NOT condemn the actions of the fleet; we wholeheartedly approve of what they did."

The room erupted in cheers of approval and catcalls of derision The chairman banged his gavel to silence the room and gradually got it back in order. He held his hand up to the Wednesday representative and shifted his focus to the two Totalian groups.

"As we go in order of Colony founding, Totalia would normally have an opportunity to speak here. Given the subject of the motion, I can let you and your opposite give a statement now. Or you may hold your responses until the end."

Micah looked at his opposite representative who motioned back to him. "We will wait," he said, crossing his arms then forcing himself to uncross them.

The chairman nodded and motioned to the Wednesday representative.

She stood and shrugged. "Really, I can't say much more than what my colleague from Zharus has already said. Wednesday stands Zharus and approves the actions of the Fleet."

"Ibn-Rushd neither approves, nor condemns the attack on the shipyard. We believe we do not have enough information at this time to make a conclusion," Dagmar said.

The Neorussian rep snorted and stood up. "Neorus does not waffle. We appreciate the firm action the fleet took after waffling indecisively for so long. We approve of the actions of the fleet and look forward to seeing the situation stabilize upstairs."

The chairman nodded and looked at the two Totalian delegations. Micah motioned for his colleague to go first.

"Our position is to be expected. We invited the Zharusans here in the first place, and we've been encouraging them to take action since they arrived. So needless to say, we wholeheartedly agree with the attack on the shipyards. Given their other actions in space, we also appreciate their attempts to minimize harm to the Totalian fleet, even at greater risk to themselves. Ultimately, I am sure the Totalian fleet will see a net benefit to the improvements the Zharusians will apply, now that they control it all."

Mikah Talarend frowned and seemed unsure what to do with his hands. Finally he clasped them behind his back, conscious of the eyes of everyone locked on him. Some of his initial fury had dissipated, enough for him to have listened to the stances.

"My stance has not changed, but I appreciate the support offered," he started, picking his words carefully. "Ultimately, the fate of these negotiations will be decided in Totalia City. I need to consult with them before any further actions."

"Understandable," the chairman said. "The positions of each Colony have been noted and are part of the official record, unless anyone would like to change their stance?" He looked around and noted everyone seemed firm. "Given the recent events, any further talks would be futile at this time. This session is therefore adjourned."

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Charles walked into Chuck's office and paused just inside the entrance. Chuck was busy fussing with a coffee brewer on a sideboard table.

"Please, have a seat. Do you want a coffee? Something to eat?" Chuck offered, waving towards a couch near the window instead of the desk and chairs.

"I'm good," Charles said, moving to the couch. He sat down and waited, suspicious of the meeting Chuck had called.

Chuck took his time preparing his drink, and walked over, settling into a high backed chair that faced the couch. He put the coffee cup and plate of sweets on the table next to him, and studied Charles carefully. Both men stayed silent, waiting for the other to make the first move.

Finally, Chuck took a sip from his drink and spoke. "The time has come. To speak of many things."

"Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax-- Of cabbages--and kings-- And why the sea is boiling hot-- And whether pigs have wings," Charles finished.

Chuck looked puzzled, setting his cup down again. "Of what?"

"The Walrus and the Carpenter. By Lewis Carroll. Classic old Earth Lit," Charles explained. "And an old favorite of mine."

"Right, right," Chuck said, taking a moment to recompose himself. "As I was saying, the time has come, to speak of many things. In particular, to speak of your role with the Earth Delegation."

Charles sat back in the couch cushions and crossed his legs, making himself comfortable. "My role?"

"Yes, your role. I am concerned that you may not have Earth's best interests in mind with your activities."

"I assure you, I always have Earth's best interests in mind. I've worked diligently to make sure we present Earth's most favourable face to the Totalians."

"Favourable face? Even when you are telling Totalians stories from trai- from former Solar citizens who may have less than favourable views of Earth? When you are actively doing actions that our delegation has been opposed to?"

Charles shrugged and leaned back. "I am simply doing my best to humanize Earth for the Totalians. If we presented an Earth that is all nice and pretty, they will be even more suspicious. By showing it isn't a Utopia, and showing how we handle disagreements, I'm helping giving them a more rounded view of the Solar System."

"You are also undermining the position of SolGov. Weakening our bargaining position not only to the Totalians, but to the other colonies as well," Chuck pointed out.

"SolGov is big and strong, I'm sure it will survive a few stories."

"SolGov's power is limited out here. We're outnumbered and you damn well know it. That's why it is so important to present a unified front for the Totalians. If they want to chase campfire stories, they're welcome to do so on their own. But we, as representatives of SolGov, are not to make it easy for them."

"So you want me to stop?" Charles asked.

"We both know it's far too late for that. The damage was done, the horse has fled, et cetera, et cetera... No, all that is left now is damage control."

Chuck stood and retrieved a tablet from his desk. Its screen showed the blue and white symbol of SolGov. "This came in from the latest Pony Express. Your mother, Xenia de Gaulle, after years of loyal service representing Earth and the Solar System on Zharus, has decided to take her retirement effective immediately. I, Chuck Lorrey will become the official representative of Earth on Zharus when I return."

"Congratulations," Charles said, keeping his voice neutral. He had expected that news to arrive eventually. Hearing it for the first time from Chuck hurt more than he expected it to.

"Thank you. In the meantime, your mother's interim replacement on Zharus has officially given me full authorization to lead this delegation to Totalia as I see fit," Chuck further clarified, a hint of glee slipping into his voice.

"Of course. Not that you were very limited before." Both men knew that all of their actions on Totalia would be first analysed and processed on Zharus before going back to Earth. With Xenia out of the way, any hints of a leash on Chuck were now gone.

Chuck moved to stand in front of Charles expectantly. "Of course. I'm sure you understand what must happen next. Effective immediately, I am removing you from the Sol delegation. Your services are no longer needed, nor desired. Your access to Earth resources are hereby revoked, along with any protections you had as a representative."

Charles stood and shook the offered hand, doing his best not to show any reaction. "I'm sorry you feel that way about my actions."

"If I could, I would lock you in the brig until Clarke takes over. But you haven't done anything illegal. I would also send you back upstairs, but we don't have any way to do that either," Chuck said, his impartial mask slipping into a sneer. "So for now, you're stuck here. Do what you want, but stay out of our way.

"As for your friends, Marty, Jessica, Suzanne, they've kept their noses clean enough, and I'm short handed enough to still need them. But if I catch so much of a whiff of them sharing Earth-information with you, they'll be joining you on the street so fast their heads will spin."

"Sure, whatever," Charles said, at the limits of his diplomatic controls. Without waiting for permission, he turned away from Chuck and left the office.

Redwing called him as soon as he cleared the privacy fields. "What the hell happened? I'm locked out of all the networks!"

"Just what we expected would happen. Mom was pushed out, Chuck's in charge, and he fired us," Charles answered, the impact of the news finally beginning to sink in. On autopilot he walked down the hall to the outside door and stepped outside.

"Damn, all at once?"

"All at once. One thing does lead to the other after all." Charles looked up at the sky. The domes were in low powered mode, ready to snap to full power on a seconds notice if Clarke tried anything. During the brief peace between Rickenbacker leaving and the shipyard attack, they had even been able to turn the domes off completely. Now, Rome was basically on yellow alert, waiting to see how Clarke would jump next.

"So now what?" Redwing asked, landing in front of Charles. "Drown your sorrows or something else?"

"Something else. Let's soar."

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"I can't believe he let you go," Ajax said.

"I can't believe he kept me on for so long," Charles responded.

The Crouching Tiger was in orbit around Totalia above the Kessler field, close enough that the comm lag was almost nonexistent.

"It's not too bad. Redwing and I have been expecting it to happen any time now. We've ruffled too many feathers and put Chuck in too many uncomfortable positions."

"You made too many friends and ruined how he wanted to present Earth to them. Hard to present Earth as a knight in shiny armor when someone's already slipped them video of all the dirty laundry."

"That too," Charles grinned. "Wish you could come down. Rick's going to do another punch thru soon."

"We wish we could come down too, but we've got more important things to do," Ajax said. "The Fleet's decided it's had enough of that damn field, so we're going to do something about it."

Charles raised an eyebrow. "Oh? What sort of something? Or is it see-cret."

Ajax laughed and shook her head. "No real secret. We're sending out teams into the cloud, trying to find those missing factories and shut them down. We're heading out with Yuri and Skyfire."

Charles yawned playfully. "Sounds like fun. Out literally in the middle of nowhere, dodging invisible rocks, trying to find some needles in a pile of metal shavings in the middle of a bigger haystack."

"Yeah, that's pretty much it. But someone's gotta do it. The bigheads have been analysing the Kessler debris, so they've narrowed down the regions they think it came from, but it's still a huge space. Still, it's a job that needs to be done. Once the missiles stop, Goldie has some ideas for cleaning up the rest."

"Excellent. Once we can get regular shuttles going up and down again, it might be just the push we need to break this impasse."

"Still the diplomat I see. Speaking of which, what are you going to do now? Staying on planet or coming back up with Rick?"

Charles shrugged and looked out the window. "Haven't quite decided yet. I think there's still good work I can do down here. Orion has offered me a position on the Zharus team, so I can keep doing what I was. And annoy Chuck at the same time."

"You should take it. You're practically a native already."

"I know. I've got a few days before I need to decide, so I'm just going to milk the free time a bit. Wish I was milking it with you."

"Soon. Next next time Rick goes down, I'm coming with him. We can find some more virgin territory down there."

Charles laughed, "That's getting pretty sparse down here; but I'm sure we can find somewhere. Good luck on your scavenger hunt."

Ajax blew a kiss at him and smiled. "Good luck dealing with Chuck. See you later."

Charles caught the kiss and blew her one in return. He closed the connection and stretched while walking to the window. He watched people through it, lost in thought.

"I've got your acceptance letter ready," Redwing said, stirring from his spot on a charger.

"What? What acceptance?" Charles asked.

"Accepting to join the Zharus group. Just say the word and I'll send it off."

"You heard me. I haven't decided to join yet. I just want to take a few days to relax, without having to keep the peace from all the sides."

Redwing chuffed and rolled his eyes, hopping over to look out the window beside Charles. "I know you too well. You live for that sort of pressure. You're already going stir crazy, waiting to do something. So just say the word and we can get back to work."

Charles stubbornly stayed quiet, staring out the window without seeing anything. He glanced down, and stopped his fingers from drumming on the window sill. "Fine, send in our acceptance, then bring up my notes. I need to figure out what we need to do next."

"Finally," Redwing said, hopping to the desk and activating the display. "I was getting tired of you moping so much."

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A loud Snap! Woke Charles from a deep slumber. He laid in bed, listening to an unfamiliar subsonic hum, trying to figure out what was going on. Finally, his sleep addled mind put the pieces together.

The domes are active again, he thought to himself, finally sitting up. His movement triggered the room lights to brighten a bit.

"Redwing! Why are the domes on?" he called out. After the tense standoff over the shipyard, Clarke's delegation had agreed to stay on base so the domes had been powered down again as a show of peace. Now they were back up.

"It's space again. Something happened around the fleet," Redwing said, stirring out of his own sleep mode. "Details are still sparse, but the Fleet is scrambling, and Rome's gone back to high alert."

The pair fused up and headed outside. Information was still sparse, still heavily encrypted and restricted from casual browsing. They joined the growing crowd and listened for any more clues.

"There were explosions. Hundreds of them up there," someone said. "I saw them, just before the domes went back up," she finished, pointing up.

Charles looked up, but could only see the haze of the fully powered dome drowning out the stars. "Is the Fleet?"

"The Fleet is still there," Redwing finished. "I can't tell what they're saying, but I've found recent signals from all of the major ships in orbit."

"Good good.... Explosions? What the hell happened? Is it Clarke? He's got nothing left up there."

"Nothing left that should matter, even if there were sleepers." Redwing shrugged, wiggling his wings on their back. "Looks like the Fleet is scrambling, leaving orbit. The Heart of Gold is staying behind and... and it looks like there's something crashing through the atmosphere. Clarke's forces are scrambling now."

"Great, just great. Cash in everything we've got, find out what's going on. I'll keep mingling, see what the grapevine's mumbling."

"On it."

A half hour later, they knew little more than they did before. Space was in complete chaos overhead and no one had time to let Rome know what was happening. Clarke released a statement, looking surprisingly clean and neat for the early hour. He claimed responsibility for the explosions in space, announcing they were the first steps to reclaiming Totalia for Totalians, and urging everyone to stand up and kick the aliens back to where they belonged.

"Opportunistic bastard," Charles grumbled, stopping Clarke's message before it could play a third time. "We all know he couldn't get a firecracker up above the atmosphere, let alone enough explosives to make the Fleet scatter."

"True, we know that, but most people don't. With the propaganda he's been throwing out, that statement fits right in." Redwing sighed. "We're being summoned; they want everyone in one place to pool information."

"Back to work then."

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Diplomatic Chambers, Rome

The room filled slowly as the word spread. Everyone looked tired and nervous, eyes darting around for anyone who seemed to have information. Some folk were still in their bed clothes, or less; most had taken the time to get dressed first. The biggest crowds were around the snack tables, getting cups of coffee and breakfast sweets.

:No sign of Micah or any of Clarke's delegation,: Redwing noted.

:That's not surprising. I don't think we'll be able to keep them here this time. What is surprising is that there's no sign of Chuck... or his Kepler and Centauri friends.: Charles continued scanning the room, building a list of missing people. Some he scratched off as they came in late, the rest raised scary implications.

:Chuck and his friends. That's not good,: Redwing said.

:Ping around. They can't be up to anything good at all.:

A tapping on a microphone caught their attention. The room quieted down as everyone focused on Nero, the spokesman EI for Rome. He wasn't officially the colony's locus yet, but the differences were merely technical.

"Good morning everyone. Thank you for coming. I know you are looking for answers; we all are, so I'm hoping to give a briefing on what we do know to keep the rumours from spreading."

He looked around a bit until he was sure he had everyone's attention.

"First of all, you'll notice our numbers are smaller than normal. This isn't just due to the early morning. Representative Talarand sent a message a short time ago. Clarke has officially cut off all negotiations with Rome, the Fleet and Speaker Trilby's side as of now. He and his associates have already left the city."

The room rumbled with side discussions, but no one seemed particularly surprised by the news. Most people were disappointed by it.

"Now the main news," Nero said, pausing to let the room go quiet again. "Approximately two hours ago, hundreds of explosions happened in Totalia orbit, creating a massive Totalium enhanced debris field. The Fleet responded immediately by climbing to free space. There was damage, but no ship losses, thank goodness.

"At about the same time, an unknown ship entered the atmosphere in an uncontrolled reentry path. We don't know at this time if it is related, but I'm not about to believe in coincidences at this time. The ship did seem to be one of ours, but further details are still unknown.

"Since then, information to Rome has been sparse. The Fleet is still reorganizing and assessing damage. The Heart of Gold appears to be trying to get through the Kessler field. She asked for help to rescue the crashing ship, but we are not in a position to lend aid at this time, especially in light of Clarke's announcement."

He paused and checked his notes. "On a more speculative nature, we have found some information that may relate to this incident. We found it in the message queues from the outer system. One of the search teams left a message claiming they had discovered the final factory and were moving in to disable it."

Charles's hand was in the air before he realized it. Nero paused and looked at him. "Excuse me, which team sent that message?"

"Which team?" Nero tapped his tablet and found the information. "The report was from a RIDE named Jadia. Is that important?"

"To me it is. I know that RIDE and her partner. Sorry for the interruption."

"Well, that's all the information I have at this time. Does any-"

A loud boom! echoed through the base, joined by a flash of light that left everyone blinded. Some people dove for cover, while most were just stunned. As people recovered, they could feel the air practically sparking with an electrical charge. Sirens began to sound from all over.

"The domes! They're down!" someone shouted from the windows, causing a mini stampede to see.

Outside, the sky was lightening, but the sun was still hidden. Stars, planets and ships glittered in the sky, a view normally blurred out by the domes. Engine roars echoed between buildings as fighters took off, ready to protect Rome in its time of need.

"This isn't good. Not good at all," Charles said, watching the planes set up a defensive pattern away from the base.

"Clementine's on her way in," Redwing said. "She says she's tired of walking softly, so she's ready to show her big sticks."

"Good. Good. I think we'll need it." Charles paused, seeing a new set of orders broadcast. All non-essential people were to head to the shelters until further notice. He joined the river of people heading to an underground chamber near the negotiation hall.

:It's gotta be sabotage,: he said as they went.

:It was sabotage. The first few reports weren't properly classified. There's evidence of a cyberattack on the Dome controls that overpowered the emitters and blew them out.:

:A cyber attack? Who could pull that off?:

:Not the Totalians. It was one of ours. First signs indicate possibly Kepler... or Terran fingerprints,: Redwing said.

:Great. And guess who's missing. They had to be planning this; just waiting for the right opportunity.:

:Makes sense. But where are they going?:

:My guess? To Clarke's side. Chuck's been trying to get an angle to talk to Ralph directly. This is probably how he's going to do it.:


The attack lasted for days, with Clarke throwing almost everything he had at Rome. Rome's own fighters did their best, keeping most of the attacks well away from the nascent city, but occasionally something slipped through the defenses and rocked the settlement. Clementine returned as fast as she could and picked up some of the load off the exhausted defenders. She hovered over the city in clear view, her point defenses shooting out at anything that got through the fighter screen.

It took two days for the engineers and techs to purge the cyberweapons from Rome's control systems and repair the domes. Even then, they only had enough clean and functioning emitters to raise one dome. Rome's leadership briefly debated the issue and decided to protect the military assets so that they could protect the rest of the city. As many important functions and living quarters were moved to the military dome as possible for the extra protection it could supply, but a lot of people were still left exposed.

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Charles, fused with Redwing, made his way to the Zharus diplomacy office. He knocked on the door and waited for the invitation to come in. Space under the one dome was tight, so Orion's office was also his quarters.

"Hello Charles, Redwing. Come on in, come in. How are you doing? Did they find you a bed and charger?"

"We've got one, in the barracks. Shared and hot bunking of course, but it's a place to lay my head," Charles said, taking the indicated seat in the tight office.

"That's good. It should only be a few more days. The Rickenbacker's on his way down with replacement emitters and reinforcements. We should be back to normal soon."

"But not normal normal, right? Things have changed, haven't they?" Charles asked.

Orion paused and looked at the Terran. "Right. Not the old normal. We'll have both domes back up, but I think we can all tell Rome's purpose has changed. Diplomacy has failed, it's time to knock some skulls together until someone sees sense."

Charles sighed. "That explains the rumours I've heard, of a POW camp being set up. We can't keep up with the catch and release policy now."

"Pretty much. We'll still accept people looking for asylum, but they will be shipped upstairs as soon as we can, and they stay in the camp until we can get them up. Now that the field's broken, we should have more regular trips up and down at least."

"Dammit! We were doing so well here too. Just a few more days...."

"A few more days would probably have done nothing. Sure we were getting through to Talarand and his delegation, but we weren't making a dent on Clarke. A few more days and Micah would probably have been recalled anyway; he certainly wasn't making any impressions on Clarke."

Orion sighed and shrugged. "Ironically, Chuck and his crew of deserters might be the best thing to happen for us."

Charles looked confused. "What do you mean?"

"So far, Clarke's been able to hide in his own bubble of denial. Sure he gets reports about what we can do and what he's doing. But because we've been treating him with kids gloves, he doesn't realize how bad off he is. Chuck and his cronies are going to be in TC, ready to pop any illusions Ralph has. It may be enough for him to finally see the light. Or it may make him double down. In any case, the status quo has been broken now. Hence another reason why we're keeping his men now."

"Still, we're not going to have much to do in the meantime," Charles said.

"True, but when Clarke does break, or whoever takes over for Clarke, we're going to need to be ready to negotiate in good faith. Our jobs are just at a pause now; we'll be back in action soon enough I'm sure."

Charles nodded. "And of course we still have Trilby here. Any negotiations will involve him, so we still have lots to work with."

"Exactly. I understand you've made connections with his people. Why don't you figure out where they are going next and seeing what we can do to help."

"Certainly. I'll have it to you by days end." Charles stood and offered his hand. "Thank you."

Orion shook the hand and laughed. "No need to be that quick. But keep yourself busy, at least until we get our old offices back."

Epilogue, Totalia City

The Ambassadors were led into the depths of the pyramid, to where the Totaliment met. Four speakers, including Ralph Clarke, were to meet alone with the Earth, Proxima, Centauri and Kepler representatives. Chuck mentally reviewed his options, debating what approach would be the most effective while ignoring his surroundings. His gear was networked with the other three ambassadors, doing subtle checks on the Totalian networks they were embedded in. Despite the threat of Zharusian Integrates, Chuck discovered the Totalian security was woefully inadequate; he had a hard time resisting the urge to take it all over right then and there. Instead, he left some backdoors in key systems just in case they needed them for the upcoming 'negotiations'. Linda Mallory, the Centauri representative, tugged his arm gently, drawing him to a smooth stop with their escort. He nodded briefly to her and focused on the large wooden door.

The Totalian guarding the door checked with their escort, then banged thrice on the door with a gemmed mace. After a minute, the doors opened outward, revealing a wood panelled room. The room was dominated by a large table with eight seating positions, four on each side. A serving cart with coffee, water and snacks was the only other object in the room. Ralph Clarke and his top three Speakers were already standing at the far side of the table.

"Presenting, Chuck Lorrey, representing Earth. Gerald McCain, representing Proxima, Linda Mallory representing Centauri and Narcissa LeStrange representing Kepler," the guard inside the room announced.

Clarke nodded to them and motioned to the chairs across from him. His expression, and the expressions of the other speakers clearly showed the representatives were the last people they wanted to see.

Forced pleasantries were exchanged and the men and women sat down, staying mostly quiet while drinks were served. Chuck kept his focus on the First Speaker without staring. The entire situation came across as 'quaint' as far as he was concerned. As far as the Totalians were concerned, this room was probably considered one of the most secure on the planet. For Clarke, he was having to keep his own systems tightly leashed to keep from running wild over the networks he could sense around him. He let them loose enough to make sure they would be uninterrupted.

The armaments of the guards were similarly laughable; he knew Narcissa could disable most of them with the tap of a nail, despite the thorough searches they had gone through to get to this point. Gerald and Linda had similar tricks available if needed. All told, for a group that was fighting against another group with the backing of Zharus, Clarke's side felt woefully underprepared. It showed just how much the Zharusian people were holding back.

The last guard stepped out and closed the door. Everyone could hear heavy clunks as locks engaged, followed by a barely heard buzz of a field activating, making the hairs on the back of people's arms stand up. Chuck wasted no more time.

"I'm not one to beat around the bush, at least not in these sorts of matters. In a nutshell, you've lost. Your civil war is over, you just don't know it."

"What? How dare you!" the man next to Clarke shouted, standing up. The other speakers looked similarly shocked and angered.

Chuck continued as if they hadn't spoken. "Face the facts. The Zharusians are just playing with you, trying to pretend they want to help you. The fact is, they outgun you so badly, you don't even realize it. You're facing the ultimate out-of-context problem. You're the spear-hunting natives on the island in the Pacific that have just had a cruise ship show up in their harbour, trading baubles for your worthless gems. And more ships from all of the other colonies are following them as fast as they can be loaded up to come over.

"Your world, as you knew it, is over."

The Totalians blustered. Clarke was glaring and grimacing, like he had been force fed the most bitter pill in the world. In a way, that was just what Chuck had given him. Chuck saw him lower his hands, shaking with barely contained rage, and try to activate a button under the table. Chuck's systems easily intercepted the command and negated it.

Clarke, unaware his command was thwarted, stood up and waved the other speakers silent. "Is that all you have to say? You come into my offices, and insult us? I knew bringing you aliens in was a mistake."

Chuck waited until Clarke looked expectantly at the door, seeing a flicker of surprise at the lack of response. "They are not insults. It is the harsh, cold reality of truth. Your guards are not coming. We control this room in ways you can't even imagine. Now sit down, and I'll explain how you can salvage this mess."

The standoff continued until Clarke looked away. Both men sat down at once, the room still filled with tension.

"Well then, what do you propose to do to 'salvage this mess'?" Ralph Clarke asked. "And if you suggest surrender, I'll throw you out myself."

Chuck leaned back in his chair, and resisted the urge to put his feet up on the table. "Surrender or not, that is irrelevant. You need to look at the big picture, a picture you had no idea existed before.

"In plain and simple terms, Totalia is irrelevant. In terms of humanity in space, you barely exist. Sure you'd generate a bit of excitement when news spreads, but after that, you'd be lucky to get an annual cruise ship and some pestering from space pirates. Totalia is less than nothing.

"The only, and I stress, only thing that makes Totalia interesting, is your metamaterial. Without Totalium, you wouldn't be noticed enough to exist."

"We are well aware of that," the second speaker said. "Wishing we didn't have Totalium is irrelevant, pointless woolgathering."

Chuck nodded and continued like he wasn't interrupted. "Totalium, like most metas, is big. It turns the irrelevant into super powers. Zharus knows that well; it's part of the reason they've kept such a tight lid on sarium. Totalium is just as big for you; its possibilities are endless."

"Stop talking down to us and get on with it," the third speaker interrupted. The Earth representative sighed and acted disappointed, even though everything was going exactly as he had planned.

"Zharus and its allies, they showed up here and have been trumpeting peace. They constantly claim they are not here to make war and do everything they can to show that.

"Reality is, they are waging a war you've never seen. They're waging a limited propaganda war for the minds of your people, but for them that's just a side battle barely worth looking at. All importantly, they're waging an economic war against the rest of the colonies for the future of your system. And they are winning.

"With their sockpuppets like Trilby, they keep you busy, while they infiltrate your society, turning them against you, making them amiable towards them. So when other ships show up, from Kepler, from NeoRus, from Earth, they already have a foothold in your system. Ultimately, Zharus would dictate how you interact with the rest of the Colonies."

Chuck glanced at the other three speakers briefly before locking his eyes on Clarke again. "You may think you had a chance of winning, but you lost the moment the first scout showed up."

He waited out another moment of blustering, and let it die naturally. "So, with that behind us, Zharus has won, you have lost. Now what? The answer is obvious; hell, they've already told you the plans. They're going to colonize your outer system and take over your Totalium supplies. Sure, they say they'll be working with you, or rather working with Trilby; but in the end, it'll be them and their RIDEs and cyborgs out there, sucking the Totalium out. They will be the ones dictating how your system's greatest riches will be sold and who can buy them.

"I'm here to bring you another option. I won't lie to you; Earth will want your Totalium too. Everyone does. But unlike everyone else, Earth is big enough to give you another option. In the short term, we can't do much about Zharus; they're here now, while Earth is months away. In the long term, we can make a difference. Earth can kick those aliens out of your system, bring in true humans, ones unaffected by those alien minds they have allied with. And we are strong enough to keep them out.

"At the same time, we can give you a choice. If you want, we'll leave Totalia alone. You'll never know we were up there. Or if you would prefer, we'll give you a boost, bring in true humans to help you expand, to grow. It's a beautiful world, ready to boom. With Earth's help, we could make you bigger than Zharus. A living gem in a Totalium ring as a part of Earth's federation."

"So those are your choices. Leave it to those Zharusian Aliens to dictate your future. Or accept the help of your cousins from home to give you the choice of your future. What shall it be?" Chuck wrapped up, keeping his gaze locked on the first speaker.

After a long moment, Clarke nodded his head. "I can see what you are offering. I'm not sure I particularly like it, but on the surface, it feels like a better solution than what's coming. Let's see how it stands up to some digging."

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